Monday, July 31, 2006

Are you proud of me?

The contents of our shopping trolley this week:

  • apples
  • kiwifruit
  • mandarins
  • tomatoes
  • feta
  • capsicum
  • carrots
  • lettuce
  • fish
  • roast beef
  • multivitamin tablets (like we're going to need them after that lot!)
  • blank DVDs
  • washing powder

And that is ALL.* (So how come it still came to 75 freaking dollars?)

* But lest you start respecting me, I should probably admit that this week's fresh produce frenzy was only possible because last week's trolley contained nachos, doughnuts, chocolate, cream, sugar, butter, chocolate chip biscuits, and chips.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

More gold from Geekman

Me: "How do I look?"

Geekman: "Pretty."

Me: "You weren't even looking!"

Geekman: "I've seen you before. I remember what you look like."

The cupcakes were disappointing, though

Our university had a big anniversary today and celebrated with huge amounts of free food.

It was an excellent opportunity to observe large numbers of ravenous, aggressive graduate students in their natural environment.

Many of the departments were also open to the public to try and prove why they deserve more funding demonstrate the products of their research or to give talks. The funniest thing was that you could tell how (un)interested the organisers had thought the public would be in each demonstration by the amount of free food being offered to go along with it. At two extremes, the virtual reality theatre had no food, while the solo violin recital offered wine and cheese.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Why I love my husband (Reason #4879)

Geekman: "I thought today we could go to the mall and hang out like teenage mall-rats. First we'll go around all the clothes shops and try on clothes. Then when we get tired we'll find a cafe and have coffee and cake. After that we can hunt down pretty sparkly things for you, until we get tired and have to return to base camp for more cake."

Clarification: I don't actually like shopping, at least of the sort where I have to buy some item of clothing and it's all stressful because of nothing fitting properly and nasty salespeople. But I'm happy to window shop. And I have an excellent relationship with cake.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Overheard outside the gym

"I forgot my towel. I'm going home and back to bed."

"You can hire towels at the front desk."

"I don't have any money. I'm going home to bed."

"I have an extra towel. You can borrow it."

"I'm going HOME to BED."

Thesis griping

Only once you've already painstakingly collected hundreds of seemingly unrelated pieces of information for yourself, do you know enough about it to be able to find the places where other people have already done that work for you.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

See StyleyGeek be a bitch!

Here is a paraphrase of the emails I have been exchanging with a woman I met at the hostel in Brisbane:

Dear StyleyGeek,

I have an idea for a paper that borders on both your field and mine. The idea is [...] Would you like to collaborate with me?

Crazy Girl.

Dear Crazy Girl,

This sounds like an interesting idea. It is really more in [subdiscipline of linguistics X] than my own area, but I might still be able to help out. The only problem is, I don't know how different it really is from what has been done before. I'll have a hunt in the literature and get back to you in a couple of days.


Dear StyleyGeek,

I attach an entire draft of the first half of the paper. Please write the missing sections.

Crazy Girl.

Dear Crazy Girl,

It's a pity you did so much work already. I just found that this has not only already been done, but it is a huge sub-field of [branch of linguistics X] that I didn't know anything about. It was obviously a good idea, though -- otherwise so much wouldn't have already come of it.

All the best,

Dear StyleyGeek,

Told ya it would never work. [Uh, when???] But it's okay. I have a new idea that is a bit similar but different enough that we could get it published still. Here's a new draft.

See ya,
Crazy Girl.

Dear Crazy Girl,

Since your new idea is still in [sub-field I just found out about] and there is such a huge body of literature there, I don't think I can commit myself to collaborating on this with you. To make sure that your idea was original and relevant, and in order to write my own part of the paper, I would need to do a huge amount of background reading and research in an area that, as I said, is not my own branch of linguistics.

I can't really afford to spend so much time and effort on a project that is not related to anything I do. I recommend you find someone in [X field] who is willing to collaborate with you.


Dear StyleyGeek,

You do not need to be ashamed of your ignorance. [<- direct quote!] I know more than enough in [X field] myself, since I used to do X [non-academically]. Did you forget this? It is still worthwhile to me to have you collaborate with me, since I was kicked out of my grad school program [<- big warning sign] and don't have access to any of the online journals or databases.

Here is a new draft. Please fill in the missing sections. I think Chinese is probably relevant to this because [insert hugely misguided notions about Chinese and language in general].

Crazy Girl.

Dear Crazy Girl,

I hadn't forgotten that you used to do X, but I was not aware you were up-to-date in the modern developments of the theory of X. Otherwise I would have expected you to have known that your first idea had already been published on.

I still don't want to work on this project, for the reasons outlined in my last mail. But if you actually have a reference to a journal article you don't have access to, I am happy to send it to you.

By the way, your idea about Chinese won't work because [...]

All the best,

Dear StyleyGeek,

You are making me very unhappy. I thought I could seduce you back to our project by mentioning Chinese, but obviously you don't appreciate true scholarship. I was right about Chinese, by the way, because [more misguided ideas that hinge on the "spelling" of Mandarin words (in English transcription!)].

Also, I don't know anything about the theory of X, but I think we can write this paper from my field's perspective and publish in my field's journals, and then it doesn't matter if we get the theoretical details about X right or not.

I thought you were just starting out in research, but obviously you know everything better than everyone else and have no need of publications to prove it.

Crazy Girl.

Dear Crazy Girl,

There is no need to be sarcastic. If you look at the situation from my perspective, I think you will understand why I don't want to co-author your article. It may not matter to you whether you get the details about theory of X right or not, because your colleagues will judge you on the parts of your paper that relate to your field and they won't know about theory of X.

I, on the other hand, have plenty of colleagues who know far more than I do about theory of X, and would judge me on how the paper relates to this. I would not want them to think badly of me for publishing something outside my area without having done proper research on it. At the same time, I cannot afford to spend months learning about theory of X, as it is not part of the area of linguistics that my thesis is on, nor an area that I ever plan to work in.



If you were willing to do your best work, you would not be ashamed to have your name associated with it.

Crazy Girl.

Crazy Girl,

That is precisely right. I am NOT willing to do my best work.


Dear StyleyGeek,

I am very angry with you. You are not cut out for research or an academic career. You do not have the passion for publications that I have. [She actually said 'passion for publications', not 'passion for research' or anything else!] You are a failure and will always be a failure.

Crazy Girl.

Now I know I should leave it at that. But I'm REALLY enjoying trading insults with her, now that she has opened up the floor. So I mailed back this morning to say:

Dear Crazy Girl,

I would be embarrassed to be associated with any project of yours. You are insane.

All the best for the future,

I've never been deliberately rude to anyone before that I can remember. I've always been the 'nice girl'. But it seems like I had it in me all along. Who knew?

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

It lives!

I've set up a website for the Carnival of Gradual Progress. Go take a look. And then come back and offer to redesign the template for me :)

I can't decide

If reading the general Wikipedia entry on your research methodology gives you new insights into how to do your dissertation, is that proof of the greatness of Wikipedia or that your background knowledge of your own subject is fundamentally lacking?

(I have a suspicion that it's the latter.)

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

The hazardous life of a theoretical physicist

"What happened to your head?"

"Which one?"

"??? The one at the top of your neck. It has a big red mark on it."

"I was thinking."

"Thinking so hard it damaged your scalp?"

"Thinking so hard I had to put my head down on the desk. It must have got bruised by a piece of paper."

If you don't misinterpret this poster, who will?

These posters are up all around our university. And I just don't get it. "If you don't... what?"

"If you don't avoid walking alone, who will?"


For one thing, there are almost too many negatives in that sentence for me to interpret it. Secondly, the implications I think it is trying to make are hardly true, are they? "If you walk alone on campus, then everyone else will too?" And if that were really the case, wouldn't that be a good thing? Lots of people walking around campus = a safer environment, right?

Or maybe I'm entirely mistaken in my interpretation. There is actually a whole series of these posters with pictures of people in dangerous looking situations, and each one has the slogan: "If you don't, who will?" Maybe the correct inference is, "If you don't get mugged, who will? Take one for the team!" Or "If you don't mug someone, who will? Do your part for a less secure campus!"

Or does this slogan make sense to everyone else but me?

Edited to add: And isn't it kind of spooky how well this poster fits in with my blog colour scheme? (But if it doesn't, what will?)

Monday, July 24, 2006

My department can be bitchy after all

The scene: People leaving the room at the end of afternoon tea.

Staff member 1: "Well, back to pretending to work."

Staff member 2: "Watch it. You haven't got tenure yet."

Staff member 1, with a pointed look at #2: "One of these days the university is going to shake itself like a dog, and all the fleas are gonna fall off and die."

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Vote for a name!

It's time to make a decision.

Should the new carnival be called:

  • The Carnival of GRADual Progress
  • The Carnival of Permanent head Damage
  • The Carnival of Procrastination to a higher Degree

Votes in the comments, please.

Once a name is chosen, I'll set up a webpage to put the details on (how to submit posts, where and when each carnival will be held, etc), and start hunting down posts for the first carnival. I'll host the first one or two myself here, and then if it seems to be working, I'll be looking for volunteers to host the later ones. I don't think we'll be able to run it more than once a month, at least at first, and I'd suggest the 1st of the month, since the Teaching Carnival is on the 15th, and spacing them like that means we'll have a carnival to look forward to almost every second week.

Any other suggestions are extremely welcome.

Don't you wish your night was this eventful?

5 am. An electronic fake bell shrills me out of sleep. And peals again. And again.

I wander sleepily into the sitting room, thinking it might be the smoke alarm. But no, the doorbell is ringing, and from there I can hear that every other doorbell in the apartment complex is also ringing. Someone is pressing all the buttons at once.

Geekman mumbles, "Ignore it. It's drunken louts."

But I can't. It might be someone who has been attacked and escaped from her attacker and barely made it to our apartment and is now desperate for someone to let her in before her attacker finds her again. (I have an overactive imagination).

Geekman says, "If you let them in, they'll just start banging on someone's door, which will be even louder."

I go out onto the balcony and look down. There are two guys so drunk they are struggling to stay on their feet, laughing while they push random doorbell buttons. One of them has a mobile phone. If they need help, they are hiding it well. Plus, with that phone, they can always call the police.

I go back to bed.

5:30. The doorbell is still ringing and sleep is not a happening thing for me. I am about to call the police. I go back to the sitting room to see if I can disconnect the bell from up here. No such luck. But miraculously, it stops.

I go back to bed.

5:38. Clatter clatter! Ping! Ping! Crunch! Crunch! Bang! Someone is climbing up the balconies at the back of the building. I look out the bedroom window, see nothing. But I can hear drunken male laughter, which suggests it is the same two guys, rather than a not-very-subtle burglar.

They must have reached the door they were after, because BANG BANG BANG! BANG BANG BANG! BANG BANG BANG! Non stop. For ten minutes.

Then: Clatter, clatter, ping, ping, crunch, crunch -- ARGH! Thump!

Somebody fell off the balcony. (Or was pushed.)

And here I discover how callous and uncaring a person I am deep down. I smile at the silence and go back to sleep.


This morning I did go out to see if anyone was lying dead in the back garden. And they weren't. But I still feel a little guilty for valuing my sleep over the life and health of a noisy loutish drunken yobbo who was trying to break into someone's apartm-- Wait. No I don't.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

I like people who give me food

For reasons that will be apparent at the end of this post, I am feeling the need the need to blog about one of my favourite people in our department. One of my supervisors describes her as "the Miss Marple of linguistics". She turned 80 a few months back, but refuses to relinquish her office, still coming into the department a few days a week, even though it is nearly a one-hour drive to get here from her farm (where, besides the usual flora and fauna, she also raises injured and abandoned wombats). She has just gone off for a few weeks to do fieldwork in the outback.

And she regularly brings in lemons from her tree and eggs from her chooks for all the graduate students in the department. Three of which eggs (laid yesterday) I am enjoying right this minute. (And there's another 18 in my fridge. She has a lot of chickens.)

Yay for Miss Marple!

Always willing to help

The scene: about an hour ago. I am still in bed, trying to snuggle up to the cup of coffee Geekman just brought me. (I am not awake enough to have assessed its proper function yet.)

"Sorry to have woken you up."

"It's okay. I'll have to get up soon anyway to go see how the internet has been doing all night without me."

"I could bring you the laptop if you like."

"But then I'd never have any reason to get up and I'd get fat and slow."

"I suppose if you have to hunt and gather your computer regularly it keeps you lean and sleek."

"Except that I don't have to go very far. It doesn't exactly run away from me."

"I could pull it around on a string if you like."

Friday, July 21, 2006

Drool... slurp...

There's a roast dinner happening on the lawn outside, and it's all I can do to stop myself drooling into my keyboard. Everyone eating it is Asian, too, so I think I might be a little conspicuous if I gate-crash. Sigh.

Friday poetry blogging: Falkenlied

I can't believe that in my medieval poetry posting frenzy, I never posted this one. It was always one of my favourites, and took on a special meaning for me in the years that Geekman and I were living 18 000 km apart.

There are a few versions of this, but this is the one from the Codex Manesse. Scroll down for the translation (mine).

Der von Kürenberg (c. 1160)

Ich zôch mir einen valken mêre danne ein jâr.
dô ich in gezamete, als ich in wolte hân,
und ich im sîn gevidere mit golde wol bewant,
er huop sich ûf vil hôhe und vlouc in ándèriu lant.

Sît sach ich den valken schône vliegen,
er vuorte an sînem vuoze sîdîne riemen,
und was im sîn gevidere alrôt guldîn.
got sende sî zesamene, die gelíeb wéllen gerne sîn!

Falcon Song
(my translation)

I once trained a falcon for longer than a year.
Then when I had tamed him as I wanted him to be
and into his feathers gold I had wound,
he flew up into the sky and away to another land.

Since then I have seen the falcon flying,
From his feet silken jesses were trailing
and in his plumage he was all red-golden.
God send those together who dearly long to be loved

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Carnivals are fun! (Except for mine)

Does anyone know if there is a blog carnival for graduate students and related posts? Because I've had a look around, and haven't found one. But I'm constantly coming across interesting posts by and for grad students that motivate me or at least help me feel like I'm not alone, and I think it would be great to have a regular round-up of those.

So if you do know of an existing carnival on this theme, please let me know. Otherwise, would you be interested in one if I got it started? And if you are, you have to help me think up a catchy name for it. I'm bad at that sort of thing.*

* If you want proof of how bad I am at this, the first names that suggested themselves to me were, "The Carnival of Desperation", and "The Carnival of Gloom and Despair", which probably say something about where my thesis is at right now, but don't exactly have a ring to them that will make people come lining up to read and be merry.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Who will evaluate the evaluators?

I will!

(Marked on a scale of 1 (highly unsatisfactory) to 7 (excellent).)

Ability to follow instructions: 1

Was anyone listening when I pointed out that there was a different set of evaluation forms for the lectures and that this set was only for evaluating the tutorials and the tutor (me)?
Because comments like, "This course had too much assessment" and "The lectures should have been more often than twice a week" are kind of... NOT RELEVANT.

Internal consistency: 1

Most students commented favourably on my ability to explain difficult concepts clearly (which, at the risk of blowing my own trumpet, I think is one of my biggest strengths in teaching). One said, "StyleyGeek clearly knows a lot, but can't put it into words to save herself."

95 % of the students gave me the top mark possible for "approachability and engagement with students". One commented, "The tutor was way too distant."

Two students said that I move through the material too fast and don't give them enough help with the practice problems. Another two said that my class is like "linguistics for morons" (yes, that's an exact quote) and that I should speed up and let them work out the details on their own.

Attention to (irrelevant) detail: 7

"StyleyGeek really needs to improve her handwriting."

Understanding of the time and effort your tutor owes you: 1

"Suggested improvements" included: "The tutor should run an after hours study group to help us with our assignments", and "StyleyGeek needs to be available in the weekends for students who work or have children."

Ability to compose comments that will make your tutor's day: 7

Also under "suggested improvements": "Fire ScaryLecturer and replace him with StyleyGeek."

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Tuesday, July 18, 2006

I have questions

Why am I always sitting behind the one person on the plane who immediately on take-off puts his seat into the extreme reclining position and stays there for the entire trip?

Why is it that on every trip I am selected for a "random" search? Do I look like a terrorist?

Yes, I am blogging from an airport. Because I can.

Monday, July 17, 2006


I forgot to mention this when I posted about the Peter Brown lecture the other day, but I was shocked and appalled by the way the Museum Director began his speech of welcome to the lecture:

"Before we begin, I would like to acknowledge the traditional aboriginal people whose land this museum is built on. And now it gives me great pleasure to introduce Professor Peter Brown..."

Wait a sec, back up! Which traditional aboriginal people would those be, then, eh? Did you just not bother to find out the name of the tribe that this land was stolen from? Or is it too hard for your European tongue to pronounce?

This is like referring to "traditional asian people" when you mean the Chinese. And then pretending that this counts as an "acknowledgement" is adding insult to injury.

And I bet this is the guy who was responsible for the display on level two of the museum. The one that has glass cases containing random weapons, tools and artwork, without any attempt at arranging them in related groups or putting them in some sort of context (not even suggesting which tribes they might have come from), and the whole thing simply entitled "Aboriginal Artifacts".

Thankfully there was an excellent display on Indigenous Australia and Queensland Indigenous history on the next floor up, but that doesn't exactly cancel out the seeming lack of interest with which this one was thrown together. Especially since anyone going through the museum in order will get to this haphazard jumble before they come across the real exhibition.

Things I like about Brisbane

Going everywhere by boat.

Houses on stilts.

The fake beach. (That smell? Chlorine, not salt.)

People thinking they are cold. It's so cute to see people wearing scarves and coats when the temperature is not significantly different from a NZ summer. My favourite cafe at the university here even provides blankets for people to wrap themselves up in if they want to sit outside with their morning coffee.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Brisbane by night: Take II

During my walk by the river last night, I looked back along the path to see if there was a better photo opportunity in that direction, and saw a man teetering on the edge of the promenade. His feet were half over the river, half still on the edge, and he was swaying back and forth, looking down at the river.

And I froze.

Either he was thinking about jumping, or didn't care much whether he fell in or not, since even after one moment where he nearly lost his balance completely, he didn't move to a safer position.

Now, the river isn't very deep at the edges there, and not especially cold, although the current might be quite strong. And the drop from the promenade to the water was only a couple of metres. So if he was wanting to kill himself, he'd chosen a plan with a very low probability of success.

This was my main reason for not intervening. The other reasons were that (a) he hadn't seen me, and I was worried if I said anything, he'd be startled enough that he would fall in, and (b) he looked kind of unbalanced (in more ways than one), and there was no one else in sight in case things got unpleasant.

If I'd had a mobile phone, I would have called the police, but I'm a paid-up member of the 'I already hate all phones, why would I want to carry one around with me?' society. So instead I stood there for around ten minutes, watching him sway, thinking that at least if he did end up in the water, I could get him help fast.

Then all of a sudden, he took a step back from the edge, and walked away down the path in the other direction. Problem solved. Or maybe he'd just thought of a more effective way of doing the job. Either way, I have a nagging, unresolved feeling that someone should have done something about it.

Brisbane by night

Walking beside the river last night (after an unsuccessful attempt to find an internet cafe).

The view on the other side soothed most of my internet withdrawal symptoms.

But it didn't help much with the shakes.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Last night's lecture

The first thing I noticed about Peter Brown is that he seemed to be on the verge of keeling over with exhaustion. This was a man who has been on the public lecture circuit a long time. It also showed at a point in the presentation when he knocked a key that made his computer desktop visible, where you could see five different clocks with local times all around the world, and folder after folder labeled “USA lecture”, “Australian lecture”, and so on.

Despite the tiredness, he was an engaging speaker. I didn’t think so for the first five minutes, when his credentials, background, etc was delivered in a monotone that was completely oblivious of sentence transitions. I have no idea when the man breathed, because he didn’t seem to leave himself any time for it.

But then he told the story of the discovery as a narrative, and the suspense at each point in the story just about stopped me from breathing. When he got to the point where he realised what they had found, I felt shivers prickling up and down my spine. It seemed that Brown himself got a little emotional in the retelling, too. But after all, imagine what a life-changing event it must have been: One minute you are looking at a skeleton that just doesn’t make sense: it looks like something from 2 million years ago, but you know it is only 15000 years old. The next minute your measurements confirm that it isn’t homo sapiens, it isn’t homo erectus, and to be honest, it just isn’t homo anything.

Brown said quite categorically that if the team had had access to the full evidence (the arms of the first individual, and the other skeletons) when they published the first article, they would never have classified the skeleton as homo. The first one they found was ‘the basketball player’ of the group, and her arms were bent beneath her, so not uncovered and measured until much later (when it was found that the skeleton had the same arm-to-leg ratio as a gorilla -- nothing like any of the homo family at all).*

Peter Brown’s conclusion, which he claims is shared by the rest of the team and everyone who has looked at the evidence themselves, is that these came out of Africa around 3 million years ago, and that they are related to australopithecines. They obviously made stone tools, but seemed to have had no symbolic culture (art, pottery, etc), and probably no language. This first attempt at an exodus from Africa was generally unsuccessful, but an enclave of these things survived on Flores, and possibly other Indonesian islands, until they were killed 15000 years ago by a volcanic eruption.

I thought he convincingly demonstrated that homo floresiensis is not related to any of the other hominid groups, and that the most similar family is australopithecines. He didn’t seem to have much evidence that they had reached Flores so early, though, or even that they left Africa 3 million years ago. He only had evidence that they had been in that particular location for the 3000 years preceding their extinction, and apart from a few tools found in Pakistan and China, there is not much evidence of such an early wave of migration from Africa.

I would have thought that if another genus of hominid had been hanging out in the region for 3 million years, we would have found more trace. But then, I would have thought if strange hobbit hominids had been hanging out in Indonesia 15000 years ago, we would have found them before now, too, yet we didn’t. Brown seemed certain that more skeletons and other archeological evidence will be found in the region now that they know what to look for.

I would say that the biggest point that struck me from his lecture, though, was how much the media suck.

To start with just about every newspaper and magazine who ran a piece on the “hobbit” skeletons created an artist’s impression of it, and every one of them sent him the picture to comment on and correct, then systematically ignored every flaw he pointed out. All of them gave it an improbable nose. Not one of them got the leg-to-arm ratio even vaguely right.

Secondly, the “controversy” surrounding the skeletons was entirely media-generated. The public was given the idea that there are three competing theories: that they are pathological human skeletons, that they are homo floresiensis, and that they are the products of island dwarfism. In actual fact, according to Brown, all experts in the field who have published in peer-reviewed journals on the subject, all of the 12 (12!) reviewers of the first article, and everyone in the field who has read the papers agree that these are not pathological specimens. Brown pointed out that there was originally a whole section in the first article devoted to refuting this idea, but that the reviewers were unanimous that this was unnecessary because it was “so bleeding obvious”. The only person who has claimed the pathology explanation was someone a news team sought out after the discovery was announced in order to find an opposing viewpoint. The guy hadn’t read the article or seen any of the evidence, and said it must be either a pathological human, a mistake, or a hoax -- which is precisely what ALL of Peter Brown’s team believed until they had seen it, because the reality was just so unexpected. But the media made it sound as though both this random guy who hadn’t seen the skeletons or the evidence, and Peter Brown, who had worked on the skeleton himself and had peer reviewed publications on it, had equally valid and well justified viewpoints.

As for the idea that it was island dwarfism, this is not someone else’s viewpoint, but rather the “most likely scenario” envisaged by Peter Brown and his team when they published the first article. This was because they had not yet seen the arms of the skeleton (or any of the other 7 or 9 skeletons), since these were buried underneath the rest of the body. He said that once they had seen the ratio of the arms to the legs, they knew that it couldn’t possibly be dwarfism, but had to be something completely new. So no one believes in the “island dwarfism” explanation now, but the media continues to portray it as a competing theory.

There was a question session at the end, which was a demonstration of how to be diplomatic. Example:

“Are the excavations still ongoing?”
“Yes, elsewhere on the island, but not in Liang Bua.”
“Is that political?”
“Yes. Next question, please.”

And finally, I have to mention the image that stuck with me most from the talk. This was from a moment near the start when Brown was talking about how humans (and presumably also these things) traveled from the mainland to islands like Flores, and how it was a bit of a mystery that they made it, considering how strong the currents are. Then, after a moment’s thought, “Of course, elephants managed it, since that’s where the ancestors of the Flores ‘bonsai elephants’ came from. But elephants are very buoyant.”


* This wasn’t his only evidence for the classification of these skeletons, though. He also systematically showed that they differ from modern humans and homo erectus in premolar shape, brow ridge, brain size, chin (lack of), shape of base of skull, and size of teeth relative to body size. He showed that there is no pathology that would cause the arm-to-leg ratio, the brow ridges, and the lack of chin. The head-to-body ratio is also different from pygmy humans (who still have a ‘normal’ skull size, while these things have the brain size of a chimpanzee).

Inhibitions, he has none

After the homo floresiensis talk last night (which I will post about in detail later today -- it was very exciting), a bunch of us were at a bar, when a complete stranger came up to our table.

"Excuse me," he said, "I don't know anyone in Brisbane and I'm feeling very lonely, so I wondered if I could join your group for a few drinks."

The unexpected thing is, he turned out to be (apparently) a completely normal guy.* I was expecting extreme oddness, if not mental illness, judging by his willingness to go up to complete strangers and tell them he was lonely, which is something I could never do in a million years.

So I couldn't help feeling a kind of admiration towards that attitude. Wouldn't the world be a simpler place if none of us were scared to tell people around us what we needed and ask for their help?


* Apart from the fact that he comes from a town called "1770". (The linked website spells the name out, but the guy we met claims the locals always write it in numerals.)

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Look what I'm going to tonight!

Peter Brown is a member of the team that originally discovered the skeletons that they are calling Homo Floresiensis. I'll be interested to see what he has to say.

(And secretly, I'm hoping to see a fight.)

Will work for food

A comment on the sad state of academia (overheard at lunchtime):

"I have quite a nice theory about this, but if you want me to convince you of it, I rather suspect you will have to buy me a coffee."

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Brisbane has signs that make me laugh

I'm not the only one who's not 100% in favour of these birds:

Attention comrades!

This is the first time I have seen a speed limit sign for bicycles. How does a cyclist know how fast they are going?

Another Andrew Spencerism

Which is also probably only amusing if you are a linguist, sorry.

"No one has a half-way decent theory of semantics for us to interface with: you just get things in capital letters, or endless strings of lambdas to do with donkeys."

(It feels very wrong to blog about someone when they are sitting less than five metres away. I came in to class an hour early to feed my internet addiction; so, apparently, did he.)

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Photos for Lucy

Yesterday morning I wanted to take photos of the ibises you see all around Brisbane.

But when I got close, they advanced on me in a very determined manner.

And then I had to run away a little bit.

I think it's meant to be a compliment

One of the other students at the summer school just told me that if I "ditched the academic look", I'd look like Cameron Diaz.

Is that a good thing?

Monday, July 10, 2006

Disclaimer: this is only funny if you're a linguist

The conference has ended (sigh), but now the linguistics "summer school" begins. One week of intensive courses on such funky topics as language and genetics, or paradigmatic morphology! (Okay, maybe I'm the only one who's excited about that last one).

Today in Andrew Spencer's morphology course (Andrew Spencer!)*, he came out with the great line:

"A morphologist who believes in morphemes is basically someone who doesn't know the difference between inflection and compounding. Otherwise known as a Minimalist syntactician."


* It's very exciting (in a geeky sort of way) taking a course taught by someone I only ever came across before on the covers of textbooks. I think I always had a sneaking suspicion that he didn't really exist as an actual! live! talking! person!

How do I love conferences? Let me count the ways:

Exploring other universities' campuses.*

Finding new and funky ways in which your own university needs to get with the program. Every library needs its stationery vending machine.

Mmmm.... tropical.

Discovering the many ways in which backpacker accomodation (the refuge of the stingy grad student) can fail to live up to (even my meagre) expectations and yet simultaneously far, far surpass them.**

Conference dinner: this year livelier than most. Not often do you get a chance to see your supervisor do the 'macarena' (not pictured -- I'm keeping those photos in reserve)

... or to watch big names in your field being dragged onto the dance floor to learn to belly dance.

And last, but absolutely not least, the seemingly humble conference bag. Crammed full of useless information, and guaranteed to fall apart the first time you try to use it, but somehow still able to induce the comforting feeling of having got something in return for that obscenely high registration fee.


* Why do all universities smell the same?

** Room with no window; tropical garden with swimming pool. Receptionists so far beyond incompetence that watching people (try to) check in has become a spectator sport; free shuttle bus to anywhere you want to go.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Note to self: laughing at other people's languages is Bad Form

I came across the best words ever in a presenter's example sentences at the conference today:



(The first one means "jealous" and the second means something like "will fall and break".)

I was the only one who found this words funny. I was just about falling off my chair killing myself with laughter, then turned around and noticed that everyone was giving me A Look.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

The never-ending story

Despite my maybe over-optimistic attempt to give an "ending" to the ScaryLecturer saga a few weeks ago, it continues. Oh, it continues.

When I checked my emails for the first time part way through my week in NZ, I found my inbox was foundering under an onslaught of mails from the Head of Department. These turned out to be increasingly frantic attempts to find out some (any! even fictitious!) marks for certain students from the course I had been tutoring for ScaryLecturer.

It turns out he went off on his scheduled overseas trip without having finished marking the exams. And three of the students were due to graduate at the end of this semester, but obviously couldn't unless their marks were finalised in time.

The best I was able to do was ftp into my university files and find the marks for the in-term assignments that comprised 50% of these students' grades. But those put two of the students on borderline passes so without their exam marks it can't be sure whether they will be eligible to graduate or not.

The HOD called
The Dean, and
The Dean called
Security --

no, wait, that's an A.A. Milne poem.

But he did, and he did, at 11 o'clock at night, with the final deadline for course marks at nine the next morning, and they broke into ScaryLecturer's office to find a pile of partially marked exam papers, MISSING the two belonging to the students due to graduate. I am told that they then all went around to ScaryLecturer's house and lurked there in the dark for a while but couldn't quite bring themselves to break into private property.

So in the end, the two students will graduate, whether they really deserve to or not, and ScaryLecturer will not be a popular guy when he gets back to Australia.

Meanwhile, my inbox is gradually filling with emails from baffled students who want to know why the marks which just came out say "incomplete" for their linguistics course. I've settled on a slightly more diplomatic reply than the one that first occurred to me, which was, "Because your lecturer is an incompetent arsehole."

Friday, July 07, 2006

Hooked on a feeling and I'm high on believing

My conference presentation is in an hour, and I've just figured out what I'm really talking about. I've given this talk once before without being quite sure. And this time it is going to be so. much. better.

It feels like my brain is on some really excellent drugs. Or maybe they put something exciting in the conference coffee. Whatever it is, I like it.

Not all bad

There were the occasional amusing moments in my trip, though. The best ever came during a conversation between my mother and the people she was staying with:

"I can't seem to get my dial-up internet to work."
"It probably only works from your house, because it needs your telephone line. But I have broadband. Would you like to use that?"
"My dial-up SHOULD work."
"Well, even if it does, if you are going to be using the internet much while you are here, you should use my broadband account, because unlike dial-up that doesn't cost me any extra."
"Oh, I won't be using the internet much. I'm not really a web browser."

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Well that wasn't any fun

Moving house is horrible at the best of times, even when you are only helping someone else do it, but this was quite exceptionally bad, so I'm not going to dwell on the details of it too much here.

As an indication of a certain source of irritation, though, and because the commentaters to the post below convinced me that normal rules of respect for ones elders don't apply on a blog, here are three things my mother came out with when meeting me off the plane (in her defense, due to a delayed flight, it was 2 o'clock in the morning and neither of us was at our best).

"Your hair looks... different."
"Yes. It's a new cut."
"Do you like it?"
"Well I suppose that's all that matters."

"Is that all you brought with you to wear? We have a proper winter here in Christchurch, you know, not like Australia." (This set the tone of the next week, where she kept stepping into the role of "host to the ignorant Australian tourist", continually forgetting that I lived in Christchurch for three times longer than she has.)

And, running her fingers through my hair: "Do you need to borrow some shampoo when we get home? When did you last wash your hair?"

So that gives you an idea of one source of unpleasantness in the trip -- not at all unexpected, and not really very that serious, but just irritating enough to make things seem even worse than they really were. And I wanted so much to be all sympathetic and helpful, since my mother's life has really turned to custard this year, but I found my reservoirs of sympathy dried up all too quickly and I whenever I wasn't concentrating hard on being nice, I turned back into a sullen fourteen-year-old.

Then there was the general horribleness of moving house. Especially since it kept reminding me that we will probably have to be doing this ourselves within the next year sometime.

And then, and then, as if that wasn't enough, I came down with the virus that everyone in the whole of New Zealand currently seems to have, which has for the past four days has filled my lungs with mucus, taken away my voice, and left me unable to walk more than 10 steps without sitting down to rest. The only good thing about it was that the accompanying fever meant that I felt warm for the first time in the whole 10 days I was there. Curse people who think that large wooden houses with enormous glass windows, wooden floors and no insulation are the right sort of architecture at a latitude of 43 degrees South.

But I'm back. And I've had a hot bath, and slept a lot under my own snuggly warm duvet, and eaten a good dinner cooked by Geekman, and I'm almost feeling ready to leave for the conference I have to go to in Brisbane this weekend.

Just as soon as I work out how I can present my talk (and chair the ninety million talks of the two-day workshop I am running) without a voice.