2014 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here's an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 9,100 times in 2014. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 3 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

It’s how many days till Christmas? Nooooooooo!

My place settings at the Christmas table have names attached to baubles, which I reuse each year.

My place settings at the Christmas table have names attached to baubles, which I reuse each year.

For the first time, we actually went shopping on Boxing Day this year. For my friends in the US and other countries where they don’t have Boxing Day, that’s December 26. It is a national holiday and traditionally the time of post-Christmas sales (when retailers get rid of all the rubbish they couldn’t sell at inflated prices before Christmas).

However, we went to only one shop on Boxing Day, and it was for my husband to buy me a pre-approved present for my birthday, which is coming up soon. More about that in January.

Anyway, the shopping centre carpark was even more congested than it had been leading up to Christmas. It always astounds me that after the consumerist excesses of Christmas, people are still eager to acquire more stuff.

In the shop we went to, I saw people buying up huge baskets and trolleys-full of junk…for next Christmas. Themed serviettes, tree decorations, cards, wrapping paper and the like. I felt a pang of pity for them, actually, as if they have nothing else to look forward to except next Christmas, yet most of them will be under such financial stress that they have to buy stuff for December 2015 in December 2014 when it’s on sale.

Yesterday morning, fittingly, there was an interview on the radio with a woman who helps people de-clutter their houses. That is, get rid of the excess stuff. I remarked to my husband what a ‘first-world problem’ that was: having too much stuff, when most of the world doesn’t have enough.
I thought of all those useless baubles: the tinsel, the discarded cards, the wrapping paper, the table centrepieces. Imagine how many millions of dollars people spend on these every year. Do you really need a plastic reindeer and fake snow in a country where it’s summer at Christmas time and reindeer belong to countries across the other side of the world?

Not to mention the heaps of gifts that are unappreciated—and also the reason many people go to shopping centres on Boxing Day, to return stuff they didn’t like. Other unwanted gifts are just put in the back of a wardrobe, to be trotted out when the giver visits. Some are even re-gifted, of course.

I’m lucky: I seem to always get great presents that are things I want or can use productively. But I know lots of people don’t.

How about this idea? Instead of running around buying loads of presents for family members, everyone in the group draws a name out of a hat and buys one good present for that person. Each person provides a list of things they would like to a pre-determined amount. Result: you have to buy only one present; that present will be exactly what the person wants.

The world's loneliest egg timer: stuffed in a cracker, then left behind on Christmas day.

The world’s loneliest egg timer: stuffed in a cracker, then left behind on Christmas day.

Here’s an ironic tale to finish: this year, I spent $50 on a box of 6 extra-special Christmas crackers (Americans, you can see what these are here). This is because I usually spend about $20 and the prizes are all rubbish, and most people discreetly leave them behind when they depart.

The prizes inside my super crackers were indeed much better than normal…but one guest still left his prize behind. It was an electronic egg timer. Cute, but superfluous, nevertheless.

The art of science or, the science of art


Rainforest Walk at Monash University, Clayton campus, Melbourne. The artful rainforest gardens demonstrate a mix of art and science.

Rainforest Walk at Monash University, Clayton campus, Melbourne. The artful rainforest gardens demonstrate a mix of art and science.

I was walking through the science faculty’s section of my university campus the other day, impressed with a state-of-the-art new building and renovated classrooms with their “collaborative learning hubs”— round tables for tutorials with connections for charging electronic devices, and even laptops provided.

It’s so far away from the arts building, in both distance and facilities, it’s like a separate world.

It seems whenever I hear talk of a “clever country” in Australia or calls for more money for research, they’re talking only about the sciences.

I wonder how we got to this point in which our society so deeply divides arts from sciences, and “arts people” from “science people”, even at school. After all, sciences developed from arts, from those with the imagination and bravery and tenacity to investigate the world and how it works.

It seems to me that investigating the world and how it works is also the work of artists. In great artists, I see scientific qualities, and in great scientists, highly developed artistic qualities, too.

Leonardo Da Vinci, artist AND scientist, had it right. In art he found science, and in science, he found art. He appreciated the qualities in both and understood that the line between them was a blurry one, if it existed at all.

piano-tunerIn reality, beyond stereotyped media and ideology-fuelled governments, there are many artist-scientists. I was reminded of this recently when reading the novel The Piano Tuner, by Daniel Mason (Picador 2002). The novel, inspired by a true story, takes place in the 1880s and is set in the remote highlands of the Shan States of Myanmar (then Burma). A British piano tuner is employed by the War Office to travel there from dreary London to tune the piano of an eccentric British officer. Apart from being a wonderful adventure story, the novel is interesting in that its author, Mason, was a medical student at the time of publication. He had completed a bachelor’s degree in biology at Harvard, and had written much of the novel while working for a year along the Thai-Myanmar border on malaria research . I googled Mason and found that he went on to specialise in psychiatry, but is still writing fiction. He’s combining both careers effectively, as this recent event shows.

Other artist-scientists who come to mind are the Australian writer Colleen McCullough, who studied neurophysiology and worked in research and teaching at Yale University in the US; and the great British crime writer Agatha Christie, who was a qualified apothecary assistant.

And in our cultural life, various practices are a mixture of art and science. Think of gardening and cooking, for example.

When did we start making such strong divisions between science and arts, or even thinking that one field was “cleverer” than the other? In my last year of school, I studied English, German, history, geography and…chemistry. It took me a lot of insistence at school to be allowed to do chemistry, because it didn’t “fit” the rest of my course, but I wanted to have a science in there. When I was doing my bachelor of arts degree in the 1980s, you could still do a BA majoring in mathematics or psychology, interestingly. On the other hand, the engineering faculty was overwhelmingly male, as was the field of higher degrees in any of the sciences.  There’s a photograph of my mother in her PhD graduation day march with the other graduates in medical fields: she is the only female in the photo, yet it was the late 1980s.

In the 1980s, too, some vocational degrees started trying to introduce and acknowledge the validity of arts. For example, engineering students had at least one arts unit as part of their BE, albeit one specially adapted for them. Sadly, these arts units were the subject of scoffing and ridicule among engineering students of the time who had, they thought, more important things to do. I was told bluntly by one engineering student that “anyone” could do an arts degree, whereas an engineering degree was much more difficult.

This attitude remains, particularly in the press and in government circles. I think it’s time to revive the arts, to correct assumptions that arts subjects are easier than sciences, or are for people who aren’t good enough to get into science courses. I’d like to see the arts and science overlap much more.

And while it’s not impossible for an arts major to do a science unit or two, or even to do a double degree in some disciplines, it’s not common. But it should be encouraged. Why not a double-degree in physics and comparative literature, for example? French and chemistry? History and neuroscience? Or just cherry-picked electives for the sake of a rounded education. I don’t think it would hurt student doctors, for example, to do a couple of units of English literature, writing, art history, French or politics, say.

And me? I’d like to revisit high school mathematics and I’d like to learn physics.