Saturday, 14 September 2013

Australia: a country so big that its rainfall can affect global sea level

Australia is a big place. So big, in fact, that the Climate Sciences Research Highlights in Nature a couple of week's ago reported that Australia’s record rains lowered sea level [Nature 500:504 (2013) doi:10.1038/500504a]

Australia soaked up so much rain between early 2010 and late 2011 that global sea levels temporarily dropped.

— or, as Nature World News put it: Sea Level Rise Temporarily Halted as a Result of Australia Hogging all the Rain. (The “hogging” is a bit of an exaggeration, methinks, especially given all the other countries that also had floods in 2010 and 2011!)

A long-term trend of rising sea levels was brought to a screeching halt between 2010 and 2011 when atmospheric patterns came together in such a way that much of the precipitation they carried was driven over Australia, which the continent thirstily soaked up.

“No other continent has this combination of atmospheric set-up and topography,” NCAR [National Center for Atmospheric Research] scientist John Fasullo, the lead author of the study, said in a statement. “Only in Australia could the atmosphere carry such heavy tropical rains to such a large area, only to have those rains fail to make their way to the ocean.”

As the map (from ProProfs Geography Quiz Assignment 3 created by rebeccafr) below shows, most of Australia’s precipitation does drain into the surrounding seas but there is a large catchement area - including a good chunk of Queensland - that drains into Lake Eyre.

I’m not sure how much this contributed to the “soakage” versus empty aquifers elsewhere but, either way, it’s an impressive indication of how large Australia really is.

Friday, 13 September 2013

Farwell, old squashy kangaroo friend

It’s exactly a month until the Big Move Down Under and therefore seemed an appropriate time for a quick post to say goodbye to an old friend. Before you feel too sad on my behalf, the friend in question is a hat - an Australian Barmah “Squashy Kangaroo” hat to be precise.

I got my Squashy a few years ago during my first visit to Australia, on holiday. One of the appeals at the time - as suggested by the name - is that it folds up and squashes down nice and small, ideal for travelling.

Since Australia, I have mostly used it a sun hat in the garden but it’s also been on a few more exciting/adventurous trips with me, including our Honeymoon in Belize. Over time, however, it has got a bit mis-shapen sweat-stained and the prospect of ample opportunity to replace it meant that it was finally time to say goodbye. I am not sure whether I will get exactly the same type but I definitely see another Barmah hat (or two!) in my future.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

A review of the "Instant Markdown" eBook from Packt Publishing

If you monitor my Twitter feed, you might have noticed that I was sent a free copy of a Instant Markdown eBook from Packt Publishing to review. I’d not come across Packt before but their general approach looks good - making DRM-free eBooks in multiple formats (once bought, you can get the ePub, PDF or Kindle versions) and paying some kind of royalty to Open Source projects that form the basis of their books. Despite time being a bit limited at present, learning more Markdown is potentially a big timesaver (as I use it a lot now) and it’s a short book, so I agreed.

Unfortunately, the book itself turned out to be rather disappointing. It was indeed quite short - a bit too short. The topics covered were themselves quite useful and it reminded me of a couple of things that I had previously noted to look up. The problem was that they did not really provide any insight that five minutes on Google or, in some cases, even the Markdown Wikipedia article would not match or beat. All too frequently, the content consisted of:

  • XXX: Read about it at <url>.

Screenshots, examples and even descriptions were sorely lacking. Just directing the reader to a website does not really seem enough to me. It’s the kind of thing I might do it my blog, or in a Markdown cribsheet, but not in a book, even an e-Book - especially one priced at £7.64. (Bizarrely, when there are screenshots they tend to be things like login screens, which is rather pointless.)

The lack of screenshots in the intro section could be forgiven as one of the best ways to learn Markdown is just to play with it and see for yourself what it does. Another criticism that I have, however, is that this eBook does not explicitly promote this approach: rather than starting with an online Markdown editor, such as Markable (or one of the other editors mentioned later in the book), the author begins by recommending the download of the official Markdown Perlscript and running it from the command prompt as a starting point.

The other reason that a different approach would be useful is that the book seems to assume a lot of HTML knowledge from the outset. Being a bit of a geek, I generally code my webpages in raw HTML - or, at least, I did before I discovered Markdown! - and so I recognised the HTML code that the Markdown was being converted into. People used to WYSIWYG editors might not be so familiar, especially with tags like <blockquote> and <code>. I am not sure at whom the book is aimed but it seems too superficial for geeks and yet too geeky for non-geeks.

Some of the more advanced features in the Top 8 features section are potentially useful but suffer from the superficial handling mentioned above. A few more screenshots or descriptions would have been useful for tools such as and writing Presentations - what do these things look like? Ditto the MultiMarkdown section. For example, the maths section for this is:


Here is a math support example:

   \\[ {e}^{i\pi }+1=0 \\]

I don’t know about you but, at the very least, I would like to know what \\[ {e}^{i\pi }+1=0 \\] actually looks like when converted into HTML and opened in a web browser. For me, this really epitomises the book: it feels like it was lazily knocked out in an afternoon.

There were some useful things here - Pandoc is something I will be playing with and it was good to be reminded of it - but I’m not convinced that it is any more useful that one of the many Markdown guides that are kicking around for free online. (Some of these, almost ironically, are provided in “People and places you should get to know” section!)

The final problem that I had with this book was the lack of critical insight. It will, for example, give the basic code for embedding a picture in Markdown but fail to point out that it cannot be sized or aligned - to do this, you need to insert actual HTML. It will point to a few different tools but not really discuss the pros and cons of using an online versus local editor, for example. When giving the code for inline links ([text](url)) versus reference links ([text][ref][ref]: url), I expected it to point out that the former was clearer and safer if likely to be combining Markdown text from different sources (especially if using numerical references) whereas the latter is better if the same URL is being referenced multiple times. There was nothing like this. As someone who has largely picked up Markdown on the fly, I had hoped to pick up some useful tricks and tips and things to watch out for. I did not.

In summary, this is a handy reference guide to Markdown with some links out to some useful tools that themselves use Markdown. At £7.64, however, this eBook is not worth the money. More informative guides are freely available just a quick Google search away. (The documentation of free Markdown editors like Mou (Mac OSX) and MarkdownPad (Windows) is a good place to start for the curious.)

Monday, 9 September 2013

Brilliant Barbara's Cat Rescue

Having said (a temporary) goodbye to the cats, we had to find a new home for most of our cat paraphanalia. This was partly because some items are not allowed to be imported into Australia and partly because the plan is to be reunited with the cats before all of our shipped possessions have necessarily turned up.

Happily, much of it proved useful to Barbara’s Cat Rescue, from whence our two cats Mia and Arthur originally came. Shortly afterwards, I came across the leaflet that she gave us when we first got them:

Barabara is pretty amazing. As far as I can tell, she has pretty much dedicated her retirement - and house! - to looking after rescue (and stray) kitties of all kinds. It was really nice to be able to give something back after all this time - and to be able to report how well Mia and Arthur were doing, four and a half years on.

If you live in the Southampton area and are thinking of getting a cat, please think of Barbara’s Cat Rescue. Perhaps we lucked out by getting such sweet cats but we’re really glad that we adopted.

Sunday, 1 September 2013

The journey Down Under begins (for the cats, at least)

Yesterday hailed a major (and not entirely welcome) milestone in our preparations for the big move to Australia as we said a (thankfully temporary) goodbye to the cats. As we are moving out of our house next week but not actually moving to Australia until October, Mia and Arthur have gone on their holidays a bit early. We’re going to miss those little furballs!

Being cats, they have dropped hints in the past regarding possible modes of transport should a big move be on the cards…

In the end, though, we decided to get some professionals on the case and have arranged things through PetAir UK. We’ve been very pleased with the service so far and can heartily recommend them for anyone else thinking of making an overseas move with their furry friends. Their Facebook page is quite heartwarming (and reassuring) too. Run by vets and with a cattery near Heathrow, we know our kitties are in good hands.

Quarantine for cats moving from the UK to Australia is only a month, so we should hopefully be reunited in mid November. It’s going to be a long ten weeks, I think, but I suspect we might have one or two things to distract us in the meantime.