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Thursday, 23 February 2017

The True Opposite of a Luddite

Well, I've been flat-out getting two books out the door, mainly Australian Backyard Earth Scientist, which is going to be fun, so there has been little time for other writing. Here's something I put in the rainy-day file.

Although I am no longer all that actively involved in education (I just play at being the visiting scientist at a local school), old habits die hard, and I keep my ear to the ground.

This is just one of the things I have in common with dead wombats (that's a very dead wombat on the right). And, I suppose, dead teachers (and I used to be a member of the Dead Teachers' Society, but that's another story).

Over the years, I have become largely immune to the teacher-Luddites, the absolutely determined rejectors of technology. You can tell from a certain shrillness in their tone that their real problem is that they are terrified of what they see before them.

Well, I can relate to that. I have managed to take on board a number of the more recent inventions of the Web, but when I look at my Web pages, they lack a certain modernity. I could probably sit down and make them more funky, but one science site for kids pulls in half a million a year, so I just leave it alone. They ain't broke, so why fix them?

I download podcasts, but I don't use RSS, and I don't VOIP, mainly because it will take time away from writing, and I'm pretty busy right now. Colour me verging on the Luddite. Mind you, I don't think I'll ever be a real Luddite or even a good facsimile of one. Tradition has it that the Luddites, around 1810, took their name from a chap who may have been Ned Ludd or Ned Ludlam.

Or maybe he didn't exist, but if he did, he came from near Leicester, and apparently he broke two stocking frames in a fit of rage. The Luddites broke machines because they threatened people's work, which was a bit different.

The modern Luddites don't break machines, but when they try to use computers, they break the hearts of techies. "My computer's got a virus," they scream.

Techie: "Why do you say that?"

Luddite: "It won't open my file!"

Techie: "What did you create the file in?"

Luddite (long-sufferingly at this silly question): "Microsoft!".

Assorted deities including Erudite, the goddess of smarty-pantses, willing, I won't ever be like that.

But the big problem with some Luddites is that they ooze into management, perhaps by clerical error, and somebody tells them to mend their ways and mind their manners and get with the flow. All of a sudden, the Luddite becomes a fervent exponent of all things technological. In a way, they remind me of George Orwell's sheep in 'Animal Farm'.

Remember them? The animals, symbols of the proletariat, chanting "Four legs good, two legs bad," and later, other variations of that. The reformed Luddites, the anti-Luddites, have their own chant "Old ways bad, new ways good", and they target, in particular, that evil old technology, The Book. It's simple enough for them to think that they understand the concept. Books bad, machines good, they chant.

Now I always found it amusing that when Marshall McLuhan decided the book was dead, he wrote several books to prove it. The modern anti-Luddites seem, for some reason, to be somewhat illiterate, so they don't write books. They just attack them with a vehemence that would not have been out of place in the Opernplatz (now the Bebelplatz) in Berlin, one May night in 1933, when some truly charming people burnt books.

I need a new name for them, though. These people aren't really anti-Luddites, they are inverted, backward Luddites. If the Luddites are followers of Ned Ludd, then these people must be the followers of Ned Dull. Hereafter, they shall be Dullards.

The Dullards have two main lines of argument:

"We don't need books: you can get everything on the Internet."

"Books go out of date, and then we have to throw them out."

I answered the first of these silly claims in a talk on the ABC, some years back, in a talk you can find at  In essence, I argued that making a book involves a lot more than blogging or emailing does. There is an art and a craft to shaping a book, writing it, editing it and designing it. There is a huge difference between knocking up a web page or five, and creating the sustained narrative that is a book.

Well, I would say that, because I write books, quack the Dullards. I, on the other hand, have a first-hand knowledge of the research, the sweat, the tears, the revisions and the efforts of professional editors and designers that go into my books. I also own quite  few web pages with six-figure counts.

Yes, books can go out of date, or some of them can, especially computer manuals and the like, and the savvy reader checks for the date of publication, which appears on the back of the title page.

Very few web pages have a date on them (all of mine do), and there is no guarantee of quality in a web page. A reputable publisher normally will have done at least a cursory check for quality, so there is some sort of implied guarantee in a book, most of the time*. Look at and then look again more closely. Click on the link "For teachers" if you still don't get it. That's right, the whole site is dodgy, and while this one has been created as a warning, people get taken in.

I know. I invented the town of Cootaburra and put it on the web, and over the years, my tall tale of a non-existent town and its fanciful Giant Dung Beetle has been featured in newsletters, a government report, at least two books and one magazine, as well as a number of educational sites.

Just search on Cootaburra and see for yourself. Just stay clear of the ones at Tripod if they are still there, because they were flagged as attack sites that distribute malware. Yep, that's right, a few web sites can be downright dangerous. Books don't do that (except, perhaps, Marie Curie's lab notebooks at the Sorbonne, which even now are so radioactive that would-be readers have to sign away any right to sue, and those aren't published books).

So the Internet can be downright wrong, it's generally not self-correcting, you can't tell if it's up-to-date and it may even cause active harm, but does this upset the Dullards? Not a bit of it: they are hell-bent on getting rid of books and replacing the allegedly useless books with gleaming new technology. Only in this way can they demonstrate their incisive brilliance, their sterling qualities of leadership.

Given a choice between barbarians at the gate and Dullards at the gate, give me the barbarians, any day. You can reason with barbarians and even civilise them with time. Barbarians rape and pillage, but once they've gone, the pieces are still there, so you can start again.

Occasionally, a Dullard emerges who has slipped through the ranks to Senior Management and becomes a principal who can make educational decisions without being educated. They don't just do away with books, these special Dullards, they do away with librarians and leave readers bereft of guidance, at the mercy of any devious snake-oil seller with a glib yarn about giant dung beetles. I'm still working on a special name for that sub-class of Dullard.

No, not that name. Or that name. Or that. I want something I can use in a family-values blog.


* It was my then publisher who published and was caught out by the Helen Demidenko hoax. I recall this, because I had written a novel that was a transparent hoax at three levels, a literary joke that would have amused but never fooled, pretty much as detectable as Cootaburra. I submitted the ms just as the Demidenko business was coming apart, and got a frosty rejection which I only understood when the scandal all came out. The ms is still in my filing cabinet, and I take it out occasionally and whimper sadly at its unhappy fate.

Thursday, 2 February 2017

The sad tale of Jennings Carmichael

I mentioned Jennings Carmichael in passing, when discussing the convicts who came to Australia, but I think it's time to look at her experience in a bit more detail.

To save you jumping over to that link and fossicking through it, here is what I said about her there:

Workhouses still existed in 1904, when an Australian poet named Jennings Carmichael died after her husband deserted her. Her three sons were placed in an English workhouse until Australians found out about them in 1909, and took up a collection to pay the boys' fares back to Australia. (See Jennings Carmichael: Her Children in a Workhouse, The Argus, April 16, 1910, p. 4,  and see other articles in Trove which are tagged 'Jennings Carmichael'. You will see the tag when you go to the link above: click on the tag, and at last count, 103 other articles will be listed: it seems we volunteers who do the tagging have been busy).

Grace Elizabeth ‘Betsy’ Jennings Carmichael, otherwise known as Mrs Francis Mullis, lived from 1867 to 1904. She was born at Ballarat in Victoria, but died in Leyton Workhouse in England after her husband deserted her in Britain. All in all, her life was one of tragedy: her father died when she was three, and her mother then remarried, taking ‘Betsy’ with her to Orbost on the Snowy River. Her three sons, left in another workhouse were later brought by public subscription to Australia, where they changed their names from Mullis to Carmichael.

The history of this shocking case can be followed in the newspapers of the day. A group of dedicated volunteers (the writer of these words among them) have been tracking down, correcting and tagging all of the news stories related to Jennings Carmichael in the Trove Historic Newspapers collection at the National Library of Australia. You can find these items here:

Much of the information on this little-known and unfortunate poet has since been provided by her extended family, who also provided the text of Let there be no tomorrow and Wattle Day Tribute, which appears on her grave in England.

Wattle Day Tribute

Ah, little flower,
I loved of old
Dear little downy
Heads of gold.
— Jennings Carmichael.

Let there be no tomorrow

Let there be no tomorrow
But one long fair today
Today of the ripen Autumn,
Today of the pensive May.
Let there be no tomorrow
Swiftly the moments fly,
While the sun shines o’er the valley
and the calm stream idles by.
Let there be no tomorrow
But here for a little space,
Let only the day’s completeness
Be felt in its fleeting grace.
Tho’ Autumn thoughts are round us
Colouring vale and hill
Yet dreams of the Summer are with us,
In all their sweetness still.
Let there be no tomorrow
Skies of transcendent blue
Let there be no tomorrow
Leaves of Autumnal hue
So sky, and leafage and valley
Ripe in the season’s prime
may hold forever a picture
In the golden frame of time.
Let there be no tomorrow
Into our sunlight cast
Changing the glowing present
Into the faded past
Let there be no tomorrow
Bearing our wealth away,
So sweet is the picture painted,
By the thoughts that are mine today.
— Jennings Carmichael.

My reason for going into it in more detail is that the English-speaking world seems to be descending into another round of the same vicious and cruel economic thuggery that characterised the world before about 1900. When later students come to look at the return of our most recent descent, they may find some convenient source material here.

Sunday, 29 January 2017

Australia's mystery poet

Who was ‘Hugo’? I have no idea, but there are two of his poems available in the newspapers of his day, both in The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser in 1831. One of these, Zodiac Light, was competent by fairly ordinary, but The Gin shows a new awareness among the white people of the colony. I speculate that ‘Hugo’ was born between 1800 and 1810, in the colony, and grew up with Aboriginal playmates. He writes as one who knows the bush — and the Aborigines’ plight.

This poem was first published as “Original Poetry” in The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, Saturday 16 July 1831, page 4. It offers early instances of several words like gin, gunya and waratah.

(As I have a strong interest in such things, I have found an even earlier case of waratah from 1804. Oddly, there seems to have been no other mention of the plant until 1826, when the modern spelling first appeared. By 1831, Hugo was out-of-date in his terms. The real question must be: what happened to him?)

The Gin
“Where spreads the sloping shaded turf
By Coodge’s* smooth and sandy bay,
And roars the ever-ceaseless surf,
I’ve built my gunya for to-day.

“The gum-tree with its glitt’ring leaves
Is sparkling in the sunny light,
And round my leafy home it weaves
Its dancing shade with flow’rets bright.

“And beauteous things around are spread;
The burwan*, with its graceful bend
And cone of nuts, and o’er my head
The flowering vines their fragrance lend.

“The grass-tree, too, is waving there,
The fern-tree sweeping o’er the stream,
The fan-palm, curious as rare.
And warretaws* with crimson beam.

“Around them all the glecinæ*
Its dainty tendrils careless winds,
Gemming their green with blossoms gay,
One common flower each bush-shrub finds.

“Fresh water, too, is tumbling o’er
The shell-strewn rocks into the sea;
‘Midst them I seek the hidden store,
To heap the rich repast for thee.

“But where is Bian?—where is he?
My husband comes not to my meal:
Why does he not the white man flee,
Nor let their god his senses steal?

“Lingers he yet in Sydney streets?
Accursed race! to you we owe,
No more the heart contented beats.
But droops with sickness, pain, and woe.

“Oh ! for the days my mother tells,
Ere yet the white man knew our land;
When silent all our hills and dells,
The game was at the huntsman’s hand.

“Then roamed we o’er the sunny hill,
Or sought the gully’s grassy way,
With ease our frugal nets could fill
From forest, plain, or glen, or bay.

“Where sported once the kangaroo,
Their uncouth cattle trend the soil,
Or corn-crops spring, and quick renew,
Beneath the foolish white man’s toil.

“On sunny spots, by coast and creek,
Near the fresh stream we sat us down ;
Now fenced, and shelterless, and bleak,
They’re haunted by the white man’s frown.

She climbed the rock—she gazed afar—
The sun behind those mountains blue
Had sunk; faint gleamed the Western star,
And in the East a rainbow hue

Was mingling with the darkling sea;
When gradual rose the zodiac light,
And over rock, and stream, and tree,
Spread out its chastened radiance bright.

So calm, so soft, so sweet a ray,
It lingers on the horizon’s shore;
The echo of the brighter day,
That bless’d the world on hour before.

But sudden fades the beam that shone,
And lit the earth like fairy spell;
Whilst in the East, the sky’s deep tone
Proclaims the daylight’s last farewell.

“Fast comes the night, and Bian yet
Returns not to his leafy bed;
My hair is with the night-dew wet
Sleep comes not to this aching bead.

“The screeching cockatoo’s at rest;
From yonder flat the curlew’s wail
Comes mournful to this sorrowing breast,
And keenly blows the Southern gale.

“Avaunt ye from our merry land!
‘Ye that so boast our souls to save,
Yet treat us with such niggard hand:
We have no hope but in the grave.”

Thus sung Toongulla’s wretched child,
As o’er her sleeping babe she hung.
Mourning her doom, to lead a wild
And cheerless life the rocks among.

Their health destroyed—their sense depraved
The game, their food, for ever gone;
Let me invoke religion’s aid
To shield them from this double storm
Glycine sp.   (Peter Macinnis)

Of physical and moral ill;
We owe them all that we possess
The forest, plain, the glen, the hill,
Were theirs;—to slight is to oppress.

— Hugo

* Coodge: Coogee
* burwan: burrawang
* warretaw: waratah.

* glecinæ: probably  Glycine sp., a member of the Fabaceae

Waratah, Telopea speciosissima (Peter Macinnis)

Monday, 16 January 2017

Announcing Australian Backyard Earth Scientist

As promised last week, here is some news. At a rough guess, the book is 12 months away, maybe more. (Note inserted January 16: the book is now complete, and submitted for editing and design.)

Back in October, my favourite publisher, the National Library of Australia, asked me if I was interested in doing a sequel to Australian Backyard Explorer and Australian Backyard Naturalist.

The title they suggested was Australian Backyard Geologist, but they wanted a lot of climate science in there, so I proposed that we call it Australian Backyard Earth Scientist, and we agreed on that title.

Part of the reason I was so keen is that I am well-advanced on Not Your Usual Rocks, a work on straight geology for older readers, and you can get a sample of that from this link. When I looked at that just now, I realised that not one word or item of content from that link has found it into the book.

For that matter, little of my search for the unconformity at the base of the Sydney Basin has come in, either, so Not Your Usual Rocks is still a viable proposition, and that was always my intention.

I jumped the gun, and before I got formal approval to do the book, I was up to the fourth draft. I am now zone-refining the seventh and eighth drafts, and I still don't have the contract.

Anyhow, this explains why I have been occasionally remiss of late. It also explains why I went to visit and photograph Sydney's volcano a while back, and a few other things.

Here are a few of the pics we may use: there are 320 in the first rough grab.

Using a clinometer.

Midnight sun, North Cape, Norway.

Svartifoss (Black Waterfall), Iceland, with columnar jointing.

 Simulated sedimentation.

Looking for spiders, Sahara.

Iceberg, but is that  a polar bear on the right?

 The Amazon dropping as the dry season develops.

Reykjanes, Iceland: the rift that makes the Atlantic get larger.
 Iceland: classical glacial valley (these are amazingly hard to find!).
 Lenticular cloud at midnight, Norway
Petroglyphs, Alta, Norway.

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Australia's colonial poet laureate

Michael Massey Robinson was transported in 1798 for writing a criminal poem. Others came free or were born free, and as we will see shortly, they wrote poetry that many would regard as a crime against good taste. Robinson’s poem was written as part of a criminal act.

Called Old Ham Fresh Drest, the poem was an attempt to demand money with menaces from one James Oldham Oldham, an ironmonger in Holborn, who had been apprenticed to a Mr. Dolly. When Oldham completed his apprenticeship, Dolly took him on as a partner. Dolly then became ill and bed-ridden, so Oldham ran the business until Dolly died, in about 1774. Some 13 months later, Oldham married the widow Dolly. He later became an alderman of London.

Well before that, an attorney called Peake told the neighbours that Oldham was responsible for Dolly’s death, but as Dolly was not yet in his grave, a coroner examined the case and declared that the death was due to natural causes. Peake kept up his claims, and Oldham sued him and won £500 in damages.

The case went all the way to the House of Lords, but Oldham still won. In 1796, Robinson went a letter to Robinson under a false name. He claimed to be acting for the author of a poem making the same allegations. He explained that the author was in prison and needed money.
Oldham entered into negotiations with the blackmailer, placing an advertisement in the Daily Advertiser, seeking a meeting. The blackmailer instructed him to send “a Banknote in a letter addressed to R.R., to the Cambridge coffee-house, at the top of Newman-street in Goodge-street …” This letter was to be placed in a letter rack there.

Oldham played for time, saying he wanted to see the manuscript that he was being asked to buy, and some twenty six-line stanzas were sent to him. A sample of four verses will show the nature of the writing:

“THE DEED WILL OUT,” the phantom cried,
And forwards mov’d from side to side
To intercept his rout;
Whilst our pale traveller dismay’d,
With falt’ring speech address’d the shade,
And ask’d, “WHAT DEED WILL OUT?”

“Pause thee a while, and list!”—it said,
And sigh’d and shook its aged head.
(Our hero trembling stood!)
“Why in the early scenes of age,
“Didst thou in such a deed engage?
“Remember—BLOOD for BLOOD

“Of years, not five times five are past,
“Since, circled round thy humble waist,
“The dingy apron hung,—
“Thy heart then no foul mischief brew’d;
“Thy mind a moral track pursu’d;
“And guileless was thy tongue:

“Till dire ambition, like a fiend,
“That hurls destruction, without end,
“On each devoted slave,
“Burst forth. —Then lust assum’d a name
“To hide a secret guilty flame,
“And doom me to the grave!

Oldham told his clerk to deliver the letters and then watch to see who collected them. One letter was collected without him seeing anybody, but the second one was collected by Robinson, and he was seen by both the clerk and a waiter. Oldham’s attorney, a Mr. Sarrell, with his (Sarrell’s) clerk, a Bow Street (police) officer named Rivett and another man then arrested Robinson. He was tried, found guilty and sentenced to death, but this was commuted — at Oldham’s request.

Robinson was then aged 52, but he lived on to the ripe old age of 82. On the way out, his superior manners led to him being allowed to dine with the petty officers, and he was allocated wine each day. One Richard Dore was travelling to Sydney to take up the post of deputy jusge advocate, and by careful cultivation, two weeks after landing in Sydney, he had a conditional pardon and a post as Dore’s secretary.

He was convicted of accepting bribes and spent some time on Norfolk Island, but by 1810, he was chief clerk in the secretary’s office under Lachlan Macquarie, and the composer, each year, of an ode on the day of the king’s birthday. In 1819, Macquarie gave him two cows “for his services as Poet Laureate”.

Five verses from one of the odes will suffice. This was for the King’s birthday in 1811:

To trace the mystic Course of TIME
Thro’ each revolving Age,
The MUSE aspires, with Views sublime,
And, wondering, turns the Page !—

That Page, where Hist’ry’s treasur’d Lore
Legends unfolds of Days of yore, 
When Rome her sov’reign Flag unfurl’d,
Rose the proud Mistress of the World;

And, rich in Arts, in Arms renown’d,
Aw’d the devoted Nations round;
‘Till LUXURY’S imtemp’rate Trains
Spread Desolation o’er her Plains;

And INDUSTRY, with nerveless Hand,
Retir’d, dejected, from the Land :
Whilst rent by Faction’s wily Spell,
Her Senates droop’d—her Fame and Freedom fell

Not so, yon ISLE, against whose sacred Shore
Bellona bids reluctant Thunders roar!
Not so, our ALBION, whose imperial Shield
Still waves triumphant in the tented Field!

An unbiased judge might be drawn to the opinion that Michael Massey Robinson’s criminal poetry had become a continuing habit.

Saturday, 31 December 2016

Setting a thief to catch a thief

I've been seriously busy, so here's a piece I prepared earlier.

When I was overseas ten years back, I had fun, but I was also working — gathering information for writing projects in hand, but I ended up in London the day that England was eliminated from the World Cup. It was a hot day, I was in Earl's Court in a pub with a stuffed kangaroo, and firm intentions of making the British Library on the Monday. I never made it, but that was another story.

Sunday, though, was a different matter, and I met both my goals. I had some unfinished business in Chelsea, left over from 1993. Then, I had failed to see inside Carlyle's house or the Chelsea Physic Garden, though I found a rare statue of William Huskisson, the first man to be run over by a train. So I went back to Chelsea, knowing that this time I would see all three — if I could find Mr. Huskisson.

I took off across-country (as much as one can in built-up London), passing Chelsea Pensioners and other curiosities, following a set of signs to Carlyle's House that were surely created to confuse potential German paratroopers in World War II, but I eventually got there, just after they opened.

I told the lady I wanted to see the chair, assuming she would know that I mean the one that Jenny sat in before jumping up to kiss Leigh Hunt. If that means nothing, it's a reference to a poem that Leigh Hunt wrote:

Jenny kiss'd me when we met,
Jumping from the chair she sat in;
Time, you thief, who love to get
Sweets into your list, put that in!
Say I'm weary, say I'm sad,
Say that health and wealth have miss'd me,
Say I'm growing old, but add,
Jenny kiss'd me.

Apparently only a few people recall the story, but the guardian knew it, and we admired the chair, which regrettably, I could not photograph, due to some grotesque administrator with mad notions about copyright. I looked around, recalled the venomous comment that "it was good of God to allow Mr and Mrs Carlyle to marry, thus making only two people unhappy, not four" and chided myself for recollecting it.

Then I took me off to the Chelsea Physic Garden ( which was created as a place where doctors and others (physicians as they were dubbed then) could come to see the plants that were of known or assumed medicinal value.

After hearing an interview that Robyn Williams played on ABC Radio National's The Science Show, I knew that there were some beds of poisonous plants, and I had a professional interest in those.

Poison is a funny thing: people are scared of it, and when I say I am interested in poisons, people look at me oddly. I feel a bit like Jo in Little Women, whose enthusiasms led her into deep waters:

"Eager to find material for stories, and bent on making them original in plot, if not masterly in execution, she searched newspapers for accidents, incidents, and crimes. She excited the suspicions of public librarians by asking for works on poisons."

Jo, of course, is a slightly disguised Louisa May Alcott, so it probably happened just as she said — I can certainly believe it. But like Jo, my interest is benign, because I am interested in the good poisons, like antibiotics, disinfectants and other medical objects that are more lethal to the bugs than they are to us.

So I rolled into the garden, looked at the map, and asked where the poison beds were. I got one of those looks, until I explained that I am an Australian botanist who writes (among other things) about poisons. The guide took her finger off the panic button, and showed me where to find the carefully unmarked bed.

It was pretty standard fare, but I went away satisfied, having seen a couple of plants in the flesh, as it were, that I had only known from illustrations, as well as nodding to quite a few old friends.

The point (which I always get to) was that I know and knew that poisons are used to fight many things. I know also that sterile maggots are sometimes used to clean up necrotic tissue around wounds, and that we use leeches still. I have even heard of people taking worms to treat Crohn's disease, and I know about a 19th century man who used bacteria against cancer — I will get to him some other time.

Most of the 19th century pharmacopoeia contained mercury, arsenic or some other virulent element, and even today, most medicines are dangerous in large doses (mind you, 200 kg of potatoes or a hundred cups of coffee will also kill you — they key is the dosage).

But people taking bacteria to eliminate parasites sounded like a new one, so when I heard about this, I went burrowing. And found the lead was a bit wrong. My informant had also missed that the bacterium is one that is well-known around the traps, because a toxin from the bacterium is used in many pest-resistant plant species, like GM cotton.

According to a report a few years back in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (I never throw old notes away), bacterial proteins were being used to counteract hookworm. A protein produced by the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt, given orally to laboratory hamsters infected with hookworms was as effective in eliminating the parasites, curing anaemia and restoring weight gain in the hamsters as one of the drugs currently recommended to treat infections in humans.

The protein, called Cry5B, targets both developing, or larval, stages and adult parasites, as well as impairs the excretion of eggs by female worms, said the researchers at Yale and UCSD.

I call it nifty.