Monday, September 03, 2007


Late afternoon driveand walk along the shoreline of the Forth, taking in Granton and New Haven.

Fireworks over Edinburgh Castle this evening to make the closure of the Edinburgh International Festival. The accompanying music was provided by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, but was poorly or totally inaudible from my vantage points on Princes and Castle streets.

From our time in Siracusa, Sicily in March.
An article by Paul Sheehan, in the Sydney Morning Herald caught my eye:

It's a dog's life - without one

THEY scratch, fart, fidget, drool, lick their genitals, defecate and urinate in public, often make too much noise, and sometimes bite people. Even so, we love them because they represent qualities we most admire but often find lacking elsewhere - loyalty, enthusiasm, innocence, honesty and love.

We may be carnivores, we may be rapacious consumers of other species, but don't mess with dogs. Dogs are different. They are integral to who we think we are as a society. That's why they are constantly used in advertising, surely the highest compliment. [...]

What does it mean, then, that this special place is being eroded by the pressures of modern life? In Australia, keeping dogs as companions is in serious decline. Earlier this year, a study commissioned by the Australian Companion Animals Council found a significant decline in the dog population. In 2000, Australians kept 4 million dogs as companions. By this year, the number had dropped to 2.75 million, a plunge of 31 per cent. (Cat numbers also declined over the same period, from 3.2 million to 2.3 million, a fall of 28 per cent.)

Experts attributed the sharp decline to children spending less time playing outdoors and much more time playing video games, and watching TV and the internet. One byproduct of this behavioural shift has been a surge in childhood obesity. Another byproduct, it appears, has been a decline in the role that companion animals, especially dogs, occupy in family life.

Researching this subject, it was fascinating to find the many scholarly studies which measured positive roles that companion animals play in social life, with dogs at the forefront. Various studies have concluded that animal owners have lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol levels, higher survival rates after serious illness, and suffer less from loneliness or depression. A number of studies have concluded that companion animals tend to enhance family life. If dogs are being pushed aside by the accelerating pace of modern life - more technology, less time - if we have less time for the altruism required to keep a dog exercised and engaged, then we are in danger of losing a better part of who we collectively are.

Mr Sheehan does miss out the very relevant point that Australian government agencies are legislating away access to companion animals by the restrictions on rental/apartment access, public transport, or even the ability to sit down at a table at an outdoor cafe. [Related news may be found on Barking Mad's website here. ]
It's also not just family life that is enhanced by pet ownership, it's community bonding. When I moved into a room in Alexandria in 2004, I was able to take Bondi over to the off-leash area in the park up the road each afternoon to play with other dogs. Within a matter of weeks I knew more of my neighbours than my landlord/housemates who had lived in the street for years. The off-leash areas in Seattle were where Anthony and I first started making friends outside of the Aussie ex-pat community.

Ireland is now part of the UK - which will be a surprise to them.

I'm back into family tree mode again, and have just installed the 2008 update to Family Tree Maker software. It has had a major overhaul, with a handsome new interface, but it takes much longer to start up than its predecessor. I discovered today that it does not recognise low disk space conditions when starting and just provides a general error dialog before closing.

One of the new features is a Places mode that allows you to pinpoint all the place names of events on a map. There are a few problems with this feature, to wit:
  1. It doesn't handle the case where you have exact street addresses in locations outside the USA (like the UK or Australia) and the clean-up process basically strips the street level information. It will do this even if can find the street address on the map. Ditto for churches recorded for baptisms and weddings. Map markers are frequently up to half a mile off the proper location, which may be a bug with the Microsoft Virtual Earth data underlying this feature.
  2. The geographic database appears to be missing "United Kingdom" as a recognised place name, even though it is fairly full of UK localities. A rather large oversight. It also lists Wales as "Wales, England, United Kingdom", and lists Ireland as part of the United Kingdom. I'll file these with an article in the Sydney Morning Herald this week which referred to England as an island.
  3. The entire program frequently crashes when doing place name lookups. It should be more robust. It's also common for it to spend several minutes looking up place names (which does not appear to be an issue with network bandwidth) and the program is totally locked up while this occurs.
  4. The feature does not recognise that you may have boundary-changes between the time of the event and the present day map data. For instance many of the English counties have changed boundaries many times over the last century, and the Welsh counties have flipped between English and Welsh names. If you convert places to current county names then you lose the correspondence with historical records.
  5. It doesn't recognise NSW as a place name, so you have to change every occurrence in every record to New South Wales.
  6. When in doubt of a placename, it always defaults to US locations. It might be better to look first at the country of the primary individual in the database.
  7. Sometimes if it can't find a match on street+town, it tries to match on the street in another town ... in another country! For example, it can't match on Eldon Row, Dolgellau, Wales .. so it suggests Eldon St, Canberra, Australia. Ridiculous.
  8. When migrating the previous version's data, it puts all the "Occupation" data in as place names.

Just finished James Robertson's The Testament of Gideon Mack, which was shortlisted for last year's Man Booker Prize. The story of a secretly atheist Scots clergyman who contends that he was rescued from a fall into a gorge by the Devil himself, it has some parallels with Martel's Life of Pi, not least of which is "which story do we believe? the most interesting one with a Bengal tiger or the devil? or the reasonable story? In terms of the writing, it was very much of a Jonathan Coe meets David Mitchell affair, which is an excellent place to be.

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