Ronan Lyons | Personal Website
Ronan Lyons | Personal Website


Would you prefer a promise or a fight? A different take on Obama-McCain

Hot on the heels of last week’s word cloud for Barack Obama’s acceptance speech, I’m delighted to be able to do the same for John McCain’s acceptance speech. The word cloud is below and as you can see some old reliables crop up: country is more important than world, Washington gets a bit of a grilling, and “change” is about as prominent in McCain’s speech as it was in Obama’s. That latter one sounds about right, when you think about just how much the GOP have decided – better late than never, I guess – that ‘change’ is working with the voters and that the Party had better make it look like they’re also not in the White House at the moment, so they can call for it too!

John McCain Word Cloud
John McCain Word Cloud

Whereas Obama’s little surprise was ‘promise’, tying him right back to Martin Luther King, McCain’s was ‘fight’. The language is interesting, because it ties in to a broader strategy that the GOP are using, pitching the voter as essentially having to fight ‘the system’ in his or her daily grind and that plucky John McCain will be there on your side. The implication – particularly bearing in mind the now infamous ‘celebrity’ ad – is that Obama and his team are insiders, benefitting from a corrupt system. There’s almost an Orwellian feel to that kind of spin, when you think about the respective Washington careers of the two candidates!

In other news, Mitt Romney is nuts. As Paul Krugman wrote in an excellent article in the New York Times:

Can the super-rich former governor of Massachusetts — the son of a Fortune 500 C.E.O. who made a vast fortune in the leveraged-buyout business — really keep a straight face while denouncing “Eastern elites”?

Apparently, he can. As you can see from his word cloud, the fact that he’s done rather well out of the whole set up doesn’t faze him. He blazes on about those liberals and how voting for the incumbent party would really annoy those Washington elites. He reminds me of Mr. Burns’ speech when running for mayor, speechifying in good old-fashioned American style about going down to the Capitol and sorting out those fat cats!

Mitt Romney's RNC Word Cloud
Mitt Romney

What I particularly liked, though, was what he didn’t say. His word cloud makes by far the least reference to John McCain of all the main speeches at the Republican National Congress. In fact, you can almost use the prominence of McCain in the cloud of each of the speakers to work out who likes (and knows) him most. For example, take John McCain’s ‘best mate’, in a political sense, Joe Lieberman. John McCain this, John McCain that, you couldn’t get him to stop. (Incidentally, contrast that with next to nothing for poor old Dubya and even Obama!)

Joe Lieberman RNC Word Cloud
Joe Lieberman RNC Word Cloud

There’s a similar story with the man who’d always said all along that he’d back McCain if he weren’t the nominee, Rudy Giuliani. He seemed to be most frank about who was actually in the election, McCain and Obama.

Rudy Giuliani RNC Word Cloud
Rudy Giuliani RNC Word Cloud

Mike Huckabee also spoke – he’s a bit of legend, to be fair. First of all, it was an excellent speech, really well delivered. And secondly, the man said the word ‘desk’ – you figure it out – almost as much as he did John McCain! “John McCain want desk something something.”

Mike Huckabee Word Cloud
Mike Huckabee Word Cloud

Then there was Sarah Palin, who to be fair to her doesn’t really know McCain at all. She mentions him a little, certainly more than Mitt Romney, but nowhere as near as often as Lieberman or Giuliani.

Sarah Palin RNC Speech Word Cloud
Sarah Palin RNC Speech Word Cloud

What I found interesting about her speech is that it didn’t really mention Obama at all. In fact, while the total lack of reference to George Bush is entirely understandable, particularly when you bear in mind that the Republican congress was designed to make them not look like the incumbents, the almost equally deafening silence in relation to Barack Obama is a little perplexing. For an election that’s supposed to have whittled down to a referendum on whether Obama is suitable, both congresses certainly talked about John McCain a lot!

Just as I was writing this, I came across a good analysis by the New York Times, which takes a few key issues and assesses the frequency of their use. The big issues for Republicans were taxes and businesses, while the key topics for Democrats were healthcare, energy and the economy/jobs. A surprise? Probably not.

At the end, I think Barack ‘promise’ Obama and John ‘fight’ McCain is a good summary of the candidates. The question now is: which one would you choose?

It's the promise, stupid! Obama's DNC speech

The pre-speech favourite would no doubt have been “change”. Some thought it would be George Bush. Others John McCain, or Iraq. Others again thought it would actually be the economy, stupid – or something related, like jobs. Some commentators were speculating about Martin Luther King, given the date of the acceptance speech. Admittedly, very few thought it would be bowling and only the most tongue-in-cheek observer would have said frappacino or Chardonnay. Still, on the topic of what Obama talked about most when accepting the nomination for President from the Democratic party, they were all wrong!

So what was the top topic on Barack Obama’s mind – or at least in his mouth – when he gave his DNC acceptance speech yesterday evening in Denver? It turns out to have been promise – at least according to the official version of the speech given to the media. A full word cloud of the speech is below and makes for interesting reading, at least if you go away first and try to come up with a list of words you expect to make the top five:

Word cloud from Barack Obama's DNC acceptance speech, Aug 2008
Obama DNC speech word cloud

Does this really tell us anything? Well, for a start, there were indeed lots of good old reliables. John McCain and George Bush do feature strongly, while change and the economy also feature. But the singular prominence of promise is striking. And I think it does go back to Martin Luther King.

To me, the concept of “promise” – both in the sense of something that is owed and in the sense of potential for the future – ties in quite strongly with the theme of the promissory note from Dr King’s speech 45 years ago. The exact passage from Dr King’s speech is:

In a sense we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.” But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check — a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

You can see quite clearly both sides of promise coming out in that speech too. It then got me thinking about what were the great themes in Dr King’s speech. What did his word cloud look like? The answer is below:

Dr King I have a dream speech cloud
Dr King I have a dream speech cloud

Freedom is of course the clear winner, Negro probably wouldn’t make too many speeches these days, but if you look closely, you can of course see ‘promissory’ up in the top.

Interesting that a motif of Dr King’s speech could emerge as the key theme, replacing ‘change’, for Obama’s campaign. It will be interesting to see over the coming weeks whether “promise” suffers from the same problem “change” suffered from, and which all currencies suffer from when there is over-supply, a fall in real value!

Any takers on what McCain’s top phrase will be?

The world in 2100

Lots of people are probably familiar with the videos and podcasts. For those that are not, check out – it’s got a category called Most Jaw-dropping for a reason!

Through work, I was sent this link for a talk by Dr Janine Benyus, given all the way back in early 2005. It’s about biomimicry, how humans can learn innovation from other species (as distinct from bioprocesses, such as domestication, where humans can use other species, such as bacteria to clean water). In it, she describes just 12 ways in which we can use the 3 billion-odd years of R&D undertaken by 10-30 million species on the earth. Even if this list of 12 were exhaustive, and of course it’s not, it’s just the start, the implications in terms of inventions and research possibilities are huge.

I’m not an expert in the area of biomimicry, but here are some possibilities of what may exist by 2050 or 2100 that really excited me:

  • A world without car-crashes, learning instead from locusts, which have a neuron that prevents them from bumping into each other, even when there’s millions of them per square kilometre
  • A world where water is harvested from air
  • A world where metals are mined without quarries
  • A world where products self-assemble (like shells), giving themselves particular colours without using pigments (like peacock’s feathers) and then which disassemble or decay after a set period of time (like some breeds of mussels)
  • A world which treats carbon not just as output, or indeed waste, but as plants do, as an input, for example in constructing plastics and other materials that need carbon

These are just some of the ideas in the talk, which itself is just an overview. Already at the time of the presentation, architects and designers were beginning to talk to biologists about how to incorporate some of the lessons that nature has learnt about ‘product design’.

Between talks like this, and scattered reports about the occasional breakthrough in quantum computing, it’s enough to keep sci-fi-heads and futurologists dreaming for years to come!

John, Mary & Anastasia, take a bow: Cork’s Smiddys and Beausangs in 1901

The Irish Family History Foundation has started to put online its researchers’ work on the earliest complete Irish Censuses – those of 1901 and 1911. (Permit me to digress and lament the various circumstances, from bizarre mid-Great War bureaucratic decisions to Irish Civil war tactics, that led to the destruction of the 1821-1891 Irish censuses, one of the longest-running censuses in the world, in less than ten years.)

Being a quarter Cork, I decided to avail of the Cork North & East service and examine two of my main Cork surnames, both of which are relatively rare – Smiddy (could be a Catholic offcast of a branch of the Smithwicks, or maybe a Scottish name, no-one seems to know for sure) and Beausang (lots of fancy stories about this, most involving France, naturally enough – previously Boozan, Bouzane, Boosean and whole host of further variants!)

The first thing I did was check out all the first names in each of the Censuses. Being now entirely won over by the phenomenon that is word-clouds, I made a cloud of Smiddy 1901 Census first names from Cork, you can preview it below, or click on the link to see the full details.

Plain old John and Mary lead the way – no surprises there – followed by Patrick, Timothy, Maurice, Thomas and Michael for the men, and Catherine, Bridget, Margaret and Johanna for the ladies. Of all the names, only Timothy and Maurice stand out for being particularly family-related – all the others are very common 19th century Catholic names altogether.

I did the same for Beausang and all its variants here:

In the Beausang clan, poor old John is dumped off top spot by James, although Mary continues to dominate the ladies. William, Patrick, Michael and Thomas are still there – but sure enough, no sign (well hardly any) of Timothy or Maurice and instead Richard features. James and Richard would be expected to be there, given their prominence in the 1820s/1830s Tithe Allotment returns and again in the Griffith’s Valuation returns.

What I found fascinating, though, is the presence of Anastasia/Anastatia on both lists. The 1901 Census was conducted just as Irish society was connecting to the wider world in a less step-shift way than permanent emigration. Looking a the full database in my extended family tree, international communications seem to have caused a revolution in naming from the late 19th Century in Ireland. New names enter families as the old Irish naming procedure was replaced by a desire for the unusual. I must check up on which royal family boasted an Anastasia in the 1890s – presumably the Romanovs? – to inspire Cork-based copycats!

I’ve also wordled up the parishes where they lived, so I know which parish records to go back and have a look at. I did it for both the 1901 and 1911 censuses, for both surnames. Here’s Smiddy, 1901:

And here’s Smiddy, 1911.

Here’s Beausang, 1901:

And here’s Beausang, 1911:

I’m a bit sceptical about making comparisons across time based on the IFHF census records, as I don’t believe that all Beausangs and Smiddys based in St. Mary’s – presumably St. Mary’s Shandon – moved from there to Youghal on the Cork-Waterford border between 1901 and 1911. Much more likely, I should think, is that not all civil parish returns are there for both years. We’ll have to play the waiting game on that one, but in the meantime

As you can see, there’s a huge overlap between the two surnames, particularly in the four civil parishes furthest east on Cork’s coast – Ightermurragh, Kilmacdonogh, Clonpriest and Youghal – home incidentally to all our Anastasias!

Firefox 3 and the many add-ons

Yesterday, I downloaded and installed Firefox 3 (having been on 2.x before that). Firefox 3 has the apt motto one size doesn’t fit all.

And I have to say, this is the life, eh? Apparently, some people still use Internet Explorer. Apart from sticky-user syndrome – where people are scared of change and don’t really see the potential of switching – I can’t think of a reason not to switch to Firefox. I’m not IT-literate enough to fully document all the good reasons to switch, but perhaps I can make the point by talking about some of the add-ons I use.

Add-ons, of course, being another thing that separates IE from FF – whosoever is smart enough to program something funky that other people will use to enhance their online experience can share it with the world!

So here are some handy add-ons that I’m using at the mo:

  • gTalk sidebar – I can yap away in a panel on the left no matter which tab I’m looking at
  • Linkedin and Facebook companions – status updates, new messages and LinkedIn searches without having to open up a rake of tabs
  • Hyperwords – translations, currency conversions, stock prices, google searches, image/video searches, blog searches, all from a little box in the top right hand corner
  • Scribefire – something which apparently allows me to post to my blog without me having to log in to WordPress at all. This is my first time using it… so far so good, so I guess it’ll be handy. For those who do end up trying it and have the same difficulties as I did looking for something called an API url, here’s the help article your looking for.
  • Fireuploader… not won over by this yet, but I’ll keep giving it a go. Allows me to upload pictures to Flickr or Facebook, for example, from a single window which can wander through your computer.

Right, so that’s my Scribefire experiment plus Firefox praise session over and done with. I’m off to check out and see what this virtual worlds thing has to offer…

Growth, inflation and investment: hot topics in emerging markets

Having recently discovered the fantastic word-cloud abilities of, I decided to play around with it. I took the top 500 stories on Google News, for the term ‘Emerging Markets’, from June 2008. I had to make quite a few adjustments to take out names of newspapers etc., and the cleaning still isn’t complete, but nonetheless, this kind of thing will probably become a lot more common as we try and develop ways of managing the flood of information out there.

Perhaps no surprises in the word cloud, but I still found it very interesting. Growth, inflation and investment/investors are the major news topics online for emerging markets. Oil and demand are also important. I find it interesting that global is so large – presumably that’s the online news world coming to terms with the ever greater importance of emerging markets in the global economy. Previously ‘hot topics’ such as development or sustainability don’t really register, while emerging topics such as diversification or decoupling are not taking centre stage yet.

Economist likes sociologist’s book – Shocker

As everyone knows, economists and sociologists are the faculty equivalent of cats and dogs. As an economist, I’m more or less brought up to think that sociologists are a bit funny, really, and their models and ways of explaining the world around them good cannon fodder.

Cover of \'Before European Hegemony\'

Imagine my surprise, then, when I opened this book recently – it having been part of a bulk Amazon order of titles that sounded more or less up my street – and read up on the author… a sociologist! Not only that, the book was twenty years old! Many people will stop now having learnt what I thought would be the only lesson to be learnt from this entire episode: always find out a little bit more about a book before you part money for it. In fact, I think there’s an old English saying along those lines… don’t cover a book with a judge, or something similar.

Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, the book. I decided to do as a Baz would want me to and do one thing that particular day that scared me. Besides, not knowing an awful lot about non-European economic history during the period A.D. 1250-1350 year dot-2008, surely I’d learn something, right?

Sure enough, once I got past the fact that I’d picked out a textbook for a sociology course from the 1980s, I never looked back. The writing is structured, with chapters organised around each on of the 9 spheres of economic activity identified. The paucity of non-European data – which has indeed blinkered somewhat economic historians and cliometricians writing recently – is tackled head-on, rather than ignored. In the style of a true economic historian, she goes on the hunt for proxies to inform the scale and scope of international trade between, for example, the Indian east coast and the South-East straits.

There are a few annoying habits throughout the book – a bit of name-dropping or over-indulgence in highly theoretical or fringe debates, particularly in the notes – but this is an excellent introduction to a fascinating period in world history. Particular points of interest include:

  • the analysis of China and its technological advances and wealth of records
  • the Middle East, the fascinating Genizah haul from medieval Cairo, and how the ban on usury was overcome by Muslim traders
  • and the emergence of Europe from its Roman imperial shadow and taking its place among the world system (before, ahem, re-making the entire system in its own image)

So, while cats and dogs may still not be on best terms, a few more books like this will put paid to Disney’s plans to release ‘Economists and Sociologists’!

Bush versus Zapp Brannigan

Now, I know it’s very trendy these days to knock George Bush. Fun too. For those reasons and more, here is the world’s first ‘Can you tell whether Zapp Brannigan or George W. Bush said this?’ quiz…

All you have to is have a guess whether each of the following was said by Captain Zapp Brannigan of Futurama or Commander George W. Bush of USA. This is only a simple blog, unfortunately, not a survey, so most untechnologically savvy-wise, the answers are at the bottom!

  • We don’t know anything about their race, history, or culture, but one thing’s for sure. They stand for everything we stand against.
  • They hate what we see right here in this chamber — a democratically elected government. Their leaders are self-appointed. They hate our freedoms — our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.
  • Rock crushes scissors. But paper covers rock! And scissors cuts paper! Kif, we have a conundrum. Search them for paper! And, bring me a rock!
  • I think — tide turning — see, as I remember — I was raised in the desert, but tides kind of — it’s easy to see a tide turn — did I say those words? (when asked if the tide was turning)
  • Now, like all great plans, my strategy is so simple an idiot could have devised it.
  • I’m also not very analytical. You know I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about myself, about why I do things.
  • Men, you’re lucky men. Soon you’ll all be fighting for your planet. Many of you will be dying for your planet. A few of you will be forced through a fine mesh screen for your planet. They will be the luckiest of all.
  • Anybody who is in a position to serve this country ought to understand the consequences of words.
  • I hate these filthy neutrals, Kif! With enemies, you know where they stand, but with neutrals—who knows. It sickens me.
  • Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.
  • One day a man has everything. The next day he blows up a 400 billion dollar space station. And the next day he has nothing. It makes you think.
  • Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we.
  • If we can hit that bull’s-eye, the rest of the dominoes will fall like a house of cards. Checkmate!
  • We need to counter the shockwave of the evildoer by having individual rate cuts accelerated and by thinking about tax rebates.

Some weird parallels, alright! But as you might have guessed, in each pair ‘Dubya’ was the second of the two, while Captain Zapp was numero uno!

Apocalypto, or The Luckiest Man in Maya

(Potential spoilers, here so tread carefully!)

So Gibson’s Apocalypto is out. For those not up to speed on his latest work, it’s set in the last years of the Aztec-Mayan empire and follows the fortunes of one man and his efforts to escape slavery and sacrifice, and rebuild his family and his way of life.

On the upside, it’s an uncannily realistic glimpse at the life of the ordinary punter in the Mayan empire (although I do not claim to be at all an expert on that topic). For that, and its use of the Mayan language, it is very welcome. Even more so, it’s a timely reminder, in these times of unprecedented prosperity and security of wellbeing for those of us in the Western world, that the vast vast majority of people who have existed have had fleeting, painful, violent lives.

On the downside, its glimpse into the Aztec-Mayan empire is itself far too fleeting. For example, instead of a helpful where-when intro slide at the start of the movie (e.g. Aztec-Mayan empire, east Mexico, early 16th Century), he starts with a rather leading quotation: ‘A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within’. Gibson’s main point seems to be that these guys were pretty savage and – at least for the elite – decadent, as epitomised by the behaviour of the Aztec royal family.

Given the obvious religious beliefs of Gibson, there are two worrying implications of the way that everything is presented. First, it seems to be implicitly reducing the barbarity of what the Conquistadores did. Secondly, there’s also the hint that the Aztec religion, in its ignorance of natural phenomenon such as eclipses and its bloodthirstiness, left the people ripe for conquest. That, of course, is sheer hypocrisy given the practices of the Christian Church of the time.

The ‘they had it coming’ point is Gibson’s main argument, so he misses a whole host of opportunities to communicate different messages to the viewer. The quotation above used to ‘guide’ the viewer at the start implies that the empire had been in declining health at the time of the European invasion. Yet the film doesn’t touch of any of this and my limited knowledge of the Aztec empire suggests that the empire’s recipe for success was not far removed from what was going on at the time/what was depicted in the film. And for all that Gibson implies about the trend of the empire, the viewer doesn’t even know at the start of the film where or when the film is set!

All we get instead is a fairly bog-standard plot about one man fighting against the odds, albeit in a strange environment. And, dare I say it, even allowing for the willing suspension of disbelief, this particular chap is incredibly lucky, perhaps too much so. He has a Rocky-like ability to be able to soldier on no matter how many times he’s pierced by an arrow, while in true Austin Powers style, baddies – and indeed other slaves – fall for good at the first flesh-wound. Even given his name of Jaguar Paw, the scene where he outruns a fully grown jaguar for a good half a kilometer or so through dense forest, while heavily injured, is a little hard to believe. The film relies quite heavily on the ‘you’ll have to believe me’ skip-a-scene technique – so when he finally reaches his family, who are stuck down a well, and peers down the 10 or so metres at them, the next scene is them happily roaming through forest. So, we’ve to take it on good faith that he somehow fashions a way of rescuing his wife, who has just given birth, and his two children (one a minutes-old infant) from the well. And all of this is allowing the film its largest conceit, where the protagonist is saved with seconds to spare by a solar eclipse…

In summation, the film is definitely worth a look, for the reasons outlined at the start. However, it could have been so much better… A really good film communicates its message effectively, i.e. it tells a complicated or nuanced message through a simple or easy-to-follow storyline. This film told a really simple message – some people get lucky – with a very complicated storyline. Oops!