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Saturday, 19 April 2014

Scary spiders

I freely admit that some spiders are scary, and you have to know what you are doing.

On the left is a funnelweb spider (Atrax sp.) that I found in the Snowy Mountains about thirty years ago.  I was shooting with a Pentax SLR with close-up rings, and I didn't get all that close, and I was a bit nervous — which explains why the shot is a bit blurry.

The rest is probably down to nerves! The shot on the right is a close-up of the fangs of a dead relative, an unnamed mygalomorph spider.  One has every right to be scared of animals like the one above!

Or indeed, of the one on the left. Discretion being better than valour, I freely confess that this redback, photographed in one of the nursery houses, was most sincerely dead. I don't think anybody has died from a redback bite for a LONG time, but the bites are very painful, they say.

The redback is a close relative of the American Black Widow and the New Zealand katipo — and the Australian redback is good at stowing away. One made it to Tristan da Cunha some years ago, from memory it was in some NASA equipment rgar was shipped there from rural New South Wales.

The thing is: you don't need to get close to spiders to study them, you can engage in historical research. That aside, their eyes "glow in the dark" when you shine a bright light on them, because the eyes reflect some of the light back at you.

At night, you can spotlight spiders on open ground and examine them. Here is my ever-helpful wife posing with a strong light behind her ear: walk out in the garden, look for glowing eyes in the grass and then move in on them.

Just get as close as is comfortable to the glowing eyes, look at them, talk to them nicely, and move on.

And you can use this link to get some historical newspaper information.

This is part of a new series, all of which are tagged Nature Study.  Look for this tag at the end of this post and click on it to find the other related pieces. I have also gone back and retro-tagged previous articles that fit, so you will actually find quite a horde of them, so that you need to look at two sets of older posts as well.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Looking at spiders 2

Other tricks that are worth trying include catching webs with raindrops on them, or using flash in the dark. Note that (aside from a mild trauma from the flash {maybe}) for the spider, these do no harm to animals.

Now look at the webs below left: There is always something new to learn, and I have NO idea at all what sorts of spiders make these webs that lie flat on the ground, but they are quite common in grasslands and open heath.

I have seen these webs from Cape York to Victoria, but I have always  been with people who were in a rush, so they remain unknown.

I suspect that the spiders making these webs catch small hopping crustaceans and  things like that.

The joy of going out and looking is that there is always something that requires an answer.

The other way is to find dead spiders and pose them. Dead huntsmen occasionally show up in our garage, and if they are fairly fresh, they can be placed in a jar with a damp tissue, which softens them so they can be posed and support in place with pins as they dry again.

None of those pins goes through the spider: they just support it while it dries, letting me get the pose on the right.

This is part of a new series, all of which are tagged Nature Study.  Look for the tag at the end of this post and click on it to find the related pieces. I have also gone back and retro-tagged previous articles that fit.

Bear with me.  I'm going to stay with spiders for a bit.

Monday, 7 April 2014

Looking at spiders 1

I took up spiders in 1958 when I saw Keith McKeown's Australian Spiders. The frontispiece was of a jumping spider like the one on the left, but the photo showed it face-on, and I fancied a resemblance to my Latin teacher. Any life form that could mimic Latin teachers had to be OK.

Then, with my (very) distant Scots ancestry, the St Andrews Cross Spider (right) was interesting. They insist on putting a saltire in their web, and then put two legs along each line. Why?

The best guess I have seen is that they do it to make themselves look larger to potential predators. They are a nice easy target, and usually found in the nursery where I work as a volunteer

Over the years, I have come up with some wrinkles to make snapping easier. That jumping spider kept springing away, so I put in a glass salad bowl, with blue card in the bottom. Then I just had to wait until it got tired of leaping.

I used to wonder how orb-weavers (left) avoided getting caught in their vertical webs, but as the side-shot on the right shows, the webs are NOT vertical. The web is just a blur because most of it is out of the focal field, but you can see the angle.

Later, I decided to try capturing the web better, and started working with card sheets, and as you can see on the left, not all cards are equal. The blue background hides the web completely. Still, the plain background is less distracting that out-of-focus brickwork.

This is part of a new series, all of which are tagged Nature Study.  Look for the tag at the end of this post and click on it to find the related pieces. I have also gone back and retro-tagged previous articles that fit.

Friday, 4 April 2014

Take a dose of millipedes

I am working on a new book which has the working title Not Your Usual Treatment, and it will include bizarre folk remedies, quack operations and bizarre devices, all used to "treat" in some way a real or fancied condition. The exact form will emerge from the research and the digging, and here is an example of a "find" and where it has led me, so far.

The hunt began when I was poring over Buchan's 1790 Domestic Medicine. I can't prove it uet, but I suspect that much early colonial medicine was influenced by this volume, or its competitors, and I was fascinated with the huge list of ailments that were amenable to treatment with "Peruvian bark", which is a sort of antique code for quinine.  It was the bark of the cinchona tree.

In the middle of that hunt, I found a gem, but to understand it you will need to know that chin-cough is a dialect word for whooping cough.

The millepedes, or wood-lice, are greatly recommended for the cure of a chin-cough. Those who chuse to make use of these infects, may infuse two ounces of them bruised in a pint of small white-wine for one night. Afterwards the liquor may be strained through a cloth, and a table-spoonful of it given to the patient three or four times a-day.

William Buchan, Domestic Medicine, 287.

Buchan expressed his reservations about the cure, a few chapters later:

Many dirty things are recommended for the cure of the jaundice ; as lice, millepedes, &c. But these do more harm than good, as people trust to them, and neglect more valuable medicines; be sides they are seldom taken in sufficient quantity to produce any effects. People always expect that such things should act as charms, and consequently seldom persist in the use of them. Vomits, purges, fomentations, and exercise, will seldom fail to cure the jaundice when it is a simple disease; and when complicated with the dropsy, a scirrhous liver, or other chronic complaints, it is hardly to be cured by any means.

William Buchan, Domestic Medicine, 373.

a woodlouse
a millipede
But there was a taxonomic problem here. The millepede (or millipede as we now write it) is a juliform diplopod, a beastie with many, many pairs of legs, two pairs to each segment. More importantly, I recalled reading in an old textbook (possibly Grassé's Traité de Zoologie) that the diplopods secrete hydrocyanic acid, which would make ingesting them a bit risky.

three views of dead slaters
On checking, I discovered that they actually secrete benzoquinones which are nasty, but not deadly. Still, I wouldn't swallow a diplopod, especially one which had been annoyed by being crushed!

Wood-lice on the other hand are terrestrial crustaceans, known also as pill-bugs, sow-bugs, slaters or grammar sows, among other names, and I guessed that this was what was meant. I confirmed this from a couple of old sources, but I wondered why the millipedes were having their good name delivered to a bunch of land crustaceans, with a different shape and may fewer legs.

Sir Francis Bacon, Lord Verulam, had the answer for me:

Millepedes or Woodlice, which roll themselves into Balls, are bred chiefly under Logs of Timber, but not in the Timber…

Francis Bacon, Philosophical Works, vol, 3, 115 (about 1625).

A pill bug!!
A juliform diplopod.
So there we have it: they are grouped because some of the slaters, the ones called pill-bugs, roll up to protect their bellies, and so do juliform diplopods.

Before Linnaeus, any sort of criterion could be applied, if it suited you, and so the millipede was a wood-louse or vice versa, if that suits you.

An addendum posted April 5: I have been doing some further checking and Theophilus Redwood, in his A Supplement to the Pharmacopoeia, London, 1857, at page 163, explains that the correct animal to use is the Oniscus armadillo, which is the beast above, to the right. He says:

Millepedes are prepared by exposing then to the vapour of hot  alcohol, which kills them, In this state they are always contracted into the globular form, and thus are distinguished from the wood-lice, which have sometimes been confounded with them.

Statue of Sir Hans Sloane,
Chelsea Physic Garden.
I wondered about how widespread the practice of medicinal use of wood-lice was, and I landed once again in a favourite place, the garden of Hans Sloane, which I visited in London, eight years ago. The garden is now better known as the Chelsea Physic Garden, and it is a delight to those who know a bit of medical botany.  Where does Sloane come in? Well, it was once his garden.

Portrait of Sir Hans Sloane,
Chelsea Physic Garden.
Sloane was Anglo-Irish and trained as a medical botanist in London and France, but went to Jamaica with the Duke of Albemarle in 1687. The result was his great Natural History of Jamaica and a dead ex-pirate, because he helped treat that wicked old retired pirate and ex-Governor of Jamaica Henry Morgan, whose main problem was too much grog. (As a side note, one of the themes I am playing with is the use of alcohol for medicinal purposes, but that's for later.)

Sloane and another medico called Fulke Rose treated the poor bloke with millipedes and oil of scorpions. Luckily, a number of his other patients thrived, because Sloane had taken a good supply of "Peruvian bark" with him, and that meant that he could treat malaria (and if Buchan is to be trusted (he couldn't be), Sloane could also treat pleurisy, TB, diphtheria, spotted fever, smallpox, measles, scarlet fever, sore eyes, and just about every other ailment in the book,

Sloane did one other useful thing: he tasted cocoa in water and found it bitter, but mixed it with milk and gave it as a medicine. Aside from that and his membership of the Royal Society, Sir Hans Sloane, as he became, leaves the picture now.

But how were "millepedes" prepared?  In the early 1600s, John French offered this recipe for aqua magnanimitatis: the water of magnanimity, which was good for deafness:

"Take of ants or pismires a handful, of their eggs two hundred, of millepedes or woodlice one hundred, and of bees one hundred and fifty. Digest all these in two pints of spirit of wine, being very well impregnated with the brightest soot. Digest them together the space of a month, then pour off the clear spirit and keep it safe."

Thomas Willis (1621-1675) thought the stuff would do for headaches: as a rule, when one preparation is accorded multiple powers, that indicates something dodgy—but then aspirin eases headaches and thins the blood, so it's not a perfect rule. Here's Willis:

We ought not to omit, or postpone the use of Millepedes or Woodlice, for that the juicew of them, wrung forth, with the distilled Water, also a Powder of them prepared, often-times brings notable help, for the Curing of notable and pertinacious Headaches.

Thomas Willis, Pathologiae cerebri.

The idea of medical millipedes was still around in the 19th century, going on Knapp's 1829 Journal of a Naturalist:

We may even now, perhaps, swallow a few matters, the arcane of the needy or the daring, in the various compositions of powders, draughts, and pills, which are not quite agreeable to our palates or out stomachs; but our forefathers had more to encounters, as they had more faith to support them, when they were subjected, for the cure of their maladies, to such medicines as album græcum, or the white bony excrement of dogs, bleached on the bank, for their heartburns and acidities; the powder produced from burnt mice, as a dentifrice; millepedes or woodlice, for nephritic and other complaints; and the ashes of earthworms, administered in nervous and epileptic cases.

John Leonard Knapp, Journal of a Naturalist, 1829, 337.

And I dug up a 1906 reference in Nature which took me back to William George Black's Folk-Medicine, published in 1883:

A relation of mine was in the cottage of a wise woman at Penzance about two years ago, and found that she was still in the habit of prescribing in scrofulous cases grammar sows, sow-pigs, millepedes or woodlice, to be swallowed as a pill. According to the Penzance woman, the sufferer must himself secure his medicine, but she had a corner in her little garden where nothing was grown but mint and thyme, and there the sow-pigs were reared. As a concession to modern feelings, patients are now allowed to wear this disagreeable medicine in a little bag round the neck, if they shrink from the heroic remedy of swallowing it.

William George Black, Folk-Medicine 1883, 198.

There was also a footnote which gives us a few more names and shows that the practice was widespread in Britain:

Miss M. L. B. 17 October, 1878. "In the Eastern Counties they are called old-sims and sow-bugs, and in other parts St. Anthony's hogs. Their Latin name is porcellio scaber. The Welsh have several names for this insect, — gwrach-y-coed, i.e. the withered old woman of the wood; gwrach-y-lludw.
But how safe were  you, swallowing these things?  Not very, I suspect, given a tale that Edward Wright passed on to the Royal Society in 1755. Wright was in Paris and keen to observe the small animals that Buffon and Needham had been reporting as developing in sealed bottles, which appeared to be cases of spontaneous generation of life. In the way of Fellows of the Royal Society, he experimented and recorded. Details are from Edward Wright, Microscopical Observations, Phil. Trans., 1755, 698.

On May 1, 1752, at 11 in the morning, Wright "…made an infusion of dried millepedes, or wood-lice, such as are commonly kept in the apothecaries' shops. These he put unbruised into a small phial, so as to make it half full; then poured on them as filled it neck and all, stopped it with a well masticated cork, and put it in a pocket, where it was kept in a mild degree of warmth." On examining it that night, he found it "…swarming with oblong, slender, flattish animalcules…"

You can see them on the right. Those are bacteria, I would say, and they can only have come from the dried wood-lice, I think.  Take a dose of wood lice, and you might be in trouble!

Mind you, others who were taxonomically challenged might have been in trouble as well. Imagine what would happen if somebody managed to confuse millipedes with one of these chaps. Centipedes would not be nice to swallow.

So, you see where the idle eye can lead you down some curious by-ways!

PS: I am indebted to my good friend, Marian Drabkin, who found me a Huffington Post article which adds a bit more detail on wood-lice and indicates that they were also good for tooth-ache. I don't think I am finished with this topic just fact I know I'm not, because I keep coming upon more recipes for "millepedes".

Friday, 28 March 2014

Steering a course through cyberspace

Cyberspace, that ill-defined area controlled by computer technology, first appeared in William Gibson's Neuromancer, but that was just one point in a long trail that began with the ancient Greeks.

The old Greeks called the art of steering a boat something that sounded like 'kubernan', but for complicated reasons to do with the ways we transliterate Greek into our alphabet, we write this as cybernan. The Romans were more accurate when they adopted this word into Latin as gubernare, calling the steersman a gubernator, a word that lives on in American English in 'gubernatorial race', a competition to elect a governor.

In the engineering sense, a governor is once again involved with a sort of steering. In simple terms, it is a control device which stops something from running out of control, and cybernetics is intended to carry that same sense of control, of maintenance of the status quo.
Watt's governor

James Watt did not invent the first steam engine, but he invented a governor, the first automatic speed control for a steam engine. This neat gadget featured two brass balls and a series of levers called a pantograph (another Watt invention that he later adapted to reproduce drawings, among other things). Watt's 'governor', from the Latin word, reduces the steam supply when it spins faster, and increases the steam supply when it runs slow, and thus by feedback (another Watt invention), it controls the engine's speed.

With careful design, the steam engine and the governor ease into a compromise where the engines spins at constant speed, and the governor holds the balls at a constant angle, so the steam supply is held constant.

Norbert Wiener went to the Greek word to name his method of aiming guns to shoot down German 'buzz bombs' (which used feedback controls as well), he dubbed his control systems and their study "cybernetics". And that, in turn, gave us cyborgs, cyberspace, cybercrime and cybersex, so now 'cyber' means anything done by computer communication. But the language progresses: if people who know each other in cyberspace meet in the real world, they are in meatspace.

In nautical space, the item used by the steersman to control the ship was a stéorbord in Old English, a rudder or paddle placed over the side of a ship, traditionally on the steerboard side, which became the starboard side. The other side of the ship used to be called the larboard side, and this is often explained as a corruption of lee-board, but this is unlikely for a number of reasons.

It is rather more likely that larboard comes from the Middle English laddeborde or latheborde. This indicated the side of the ship from which loading took place, now called the port side, also meaning the side from which loading took place, but preferred by sailors because it was less likely to be confused with 'starboard' when shouted in an order given in a howling gale.

Sadly, one bit of folk etymology attaching to port and starboard, the alleged origin of 'posh' is completely untrue. The yarn has it that 'posh' stands for 'port outward, starboard home', indicating those who, in travelling from England to India, were to be allocated the cabins on the shadier port side while sailing to India, and the shadier starboard cabins sailing back to England. It is a pretty tale, but one entirely unsupported by any evidence. In reality, 'posh' probably was a slang term for money.

Some things change slowly: young people going to see are still taught that "If two lights you see ahead, port your helm and show your red", which means swinging the tiller over to the port side, which turns the bows to starboard, showing the port light, which is red, yet the tiller was replaced by the ship's wheel soon after 1700.  Small boats still have a tiller, but few of them have navigation lights.

This tiller, nothing to do with farming, was the grooved stock of a crossbow, and hence a beam of similar size used to control a rudder, a word which comes from the same root as 'row', reminding us that originally the helmsman steered with an oar-like paddle.

But why was he called the helmsman? Did he have a special hat, a turn-helm? Apparently not: the steering sort of helm was a hjalm in Old Norse, and that was just another name for the tiller. When Mao Zedong was acclaimed as the Great Helmsman, he may have governed many people, but he did not need a Chairman Mao hat to qualify for the title.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Finding a lost mountain

The problem with searching for lost mountains is that they have probably been lost for a very good reason. In Australia, the early traditions was to slap the name of some wealthy and powerful patron or potential patron on each feature as it was added to the map.

Later, it became more common to actually ask the locals what the name of a place was, and to record that, but in the early days, the names given by savages were of less interest. So the largest river near Sydney is named the Hawkesbury after a worthless trimmer in the British government, and the main geological element seen around the city is now called the Hawkesbury sandstone, though Wiananatta shales and Narrabeen shales lie on either side of it.

If you are naming things after people, there are a few rules: you cannot name anything after yourself, though two colleagues can each claim a discovery and name their find after the other. The only problem is that sometimes the thing they see as a significant feature can be less so when you aren't trying to carry out a trigonometrical survey.

From page 157 of one of the books that
came from the search described here, my
Australian Backyard Explorer.
Triangles were very important in convict days. As every convict-oriented tourist attraction likes to remind us, just before a re-enactment that involves splatting somebody's back with tomato-soup-covered thongs, convicts were tied to an iron triangle before their lashing. Out in the bush, though, as people set out to map a new continent, triangles were central to the whole mapping thing, which commonly went by the name of triangulation.

The Greeks understood triangles, Mason and Dixon used them when they surveyed the Mason-Dixon line in the US, European surveyors understood it when they used triangulation to accurately plot lines up and down meridians at different latitudes so they could plot the shape of our globe, which is not quite the perfect sphere that the Greeks had assumed.

It works like this: if you have a carefully measured base line, you can get compass bearings on a prominent landmark from each end. Then if you draw a scale version of the baseline on your chart, you can locate that landmark in relation to the base line by completing the triangle. You just need to know the length of one side of the triangle, and the angles, which you get from the bearings, and that landmark is located. Repeat this with landmark after landmark, and you can begin to fill the map in, adding names as you go.

Now comes the beautiful part: if you are in a new place, like the junction of two streams, and if you can get bearings on any two known landmarks (though three will always be better), you can locate that point on the chart as well, and so accurately locate the river at that point. Then, as you work your way into new territory, new landmarks may be added to the map and given names.

Triangle by triangle, the chart builds up, each point being pinned down: and you don't just have the angles to play with, because you can also make an accurate measure of the distances between two mountains that are separated by a chasm, a burning desert, shark-infested seas or crocodile-ridden swamp. If you have one side measure, and the angles, you know the lengths of the other sides, and putting everything on the map is just simple trigonometry.

In short order, what began as a base line measured along a beach or across a plain, anywhere that is reasonably flat and open, is quickly parlayed into a chain of triangles linking named features that may extend over many degrees of latitude or longitude, or both.

And in time, the mountains and other features that were used at first as reference points, fade into the mists. Instead, surveyors will rely on a small number of accurately placed "trigonometrical survey stations", trig stations to the unwashed like me, poles with what appears from a distance to be a ball.

Far beneath the Hawkesbury sandstone, the Narrabeen shales and other rocks, the whole Sydney sedimentary basin sits on a bed of coal, the Permian coal measures, coal that comes above sea level in Sydney's south and north, and also approaches the surface of the ground in the west at Lithgow, past the mountains that hemmed in the colony.

The coal outcrops to the north were found in 1797, when Lieutenant Shortland entered the mouth of what was briefly known as "the coal river" in 1797, but he had the sense to dub it "Hunter's River", close to the modern name of Hunter River, celebrating the name of the then governor of the young colony of New South Wales, Captain John Hunter.

Newcastle is still a coal port.
It seems that even before official exploration, fishermen had found their way along the coast to the coal river and brought back lumps of coal to sell in Sydney, and there is evidence to suggest that boats were visiting the Hunter to cut timber (one branch of the river was already known as "the cedar arm").

Whatever the earlier history, it all became official in 1801 when a party that included Lt Colonel George Paterson, Ensign Francis Barallier, Surgeon John Harris and Lt James Grant, RN, arrived in His Majesty's Armed Surveying Vessell (sic) Lady Nelson, to survey the entrance to the river, and to assess the land for agricultural potential, as a source of timber, and as a source of coal.

The colony, based at Sydney, continued to grow, but the colonists were hemmed in until 1813 by a range of mountains to Sydney's west, which seemed to offer no way through. These mountains are made of the tough Hawkesbury sandstone, which also makes the insipid and sandy soil of Sydney, stuff unfit for a decent vegetable garden, incapable of supporting flocks and herds, deficient in trees suited for building work or minerals to be dug from the ground.

Even shell banks, suitable for making lime, were in short supply, so the group were expected to look into many things. (In fact, the first commercial export from the colony was a small cargo of 45 tons if coal, sent to the Cape of Good Hope in 1801.)

Before they left, all of them, except Barallier, who surveyed the area and made the chart, knew where their names would appear on the map, along with the name of the colony's governor King and King's wife, Ann, Paterson's wife Elizabeth, Harris' brother surgeon, William Balmain, and even a Mr. Edgerton, who was a friend of a friend of Grant. Today, all of those names have disappeared from the maps, even if they were once key features in the charting of the lower Hunter Valley.

I knew from Grant's journal that it was he who named "Mount Edgerton", shown on Barrallier's map as the "Egerton Hills", and Paterson had named Mount King and Mount Grant, while Barallier's map revealed Mount Harris and Mt Balmain, and a river branch called Paterson's River, which is now the upper reaches of the Hunter. Paterson's River has gone, and no modern map, shows any of them. A visit was needed, but the wilderness of 1801 is now a sprawling city of 400,000, and I rather feared that my mountains would be underneath suburbs.

I selected a finite set of targets: Mts Ann, Elizabeth, Grant and Harris, and called in at the Newcastle City Library. I had emailed them to say that I was coming, what I had read so far, and what I hoped to find, so I was met with several helpful books, but far more importantly, a copy of Barrallier's chart, an older-than-me Ordnance Survey map, and more modern maps were also on hand. It soon became clear that my lost mountains were beyond the city limits.

I expected the maps to be a little disappointing, because I thought they were Grant's work. Governor King, later in 1801, when Grant asked to be allowed to leave the colony, was rather dismissive of his skills: " . . . I should [have] been glad if your ability as a surveyor, or being able to determine the longitude of different places you might visit, was in any ways equal to your ability as an officer and a seaman."

Instead, the chart was the work of that supposed paragon of cartographic virtue, Ensign Barallier, and I began to understand why Barallier's chart of his wanderings in the Blue Mountains has been impossible to reconcile with today's landscape. In short, I soon realised that Barallier's chart of Coal Harbour was not a close match for either present-day charts or reality. Barallier wasn't as good as people had thought.

Whatever the man's deficiencies as a cartographer, the layout was more or less right, and as I looked at the windings of the river on the different maps, I began to link up some common features, and to spot some possibilities. Working with maps on different scales, and with Barallier's eccentric rotation of the map to put west at the top, it helped to have some clues left by one of the librarians, in the form of an indication that "Mount Grant is below Clarencetown".

That gave me Mount Grant as a small prominence, 3 km SE of the town, far from any roads, on the thoroughly modern Clarencetown CMA sheet. Working systematically, triangulating from one map to another, one prominence to another, I pinned the assorted hills down, more or less, in a hypothetical way, perhaps. One high point stood out as worthy of attention: it was near a road, just after it crossed a railway line, and it had a name.

There was a trig station shown on it, so I knew it would be prominent, even if it now bore the dismissive name Comerford's Hill. Better still, there was another marked trig station near the hamlet of Largs that appeared to match another of my mountains, so I headed for the area outside the rural city of Maitland.

Then, my potential Largs mountain (Mt Edgerton) proving elusive, I headed for the second target, and by asking around for the Rosebrook road, found myself crossing a bridge where a side road was labelled "Mount Harris Drive".

Did I mention that my note-taking methods are a bit chaotic? I write everything down as I spot it, so I can always go back and reconstruct the processes, so I wasn't sure which mountain this was supposed to be. There is another Mount Harris in New South Wales, named in 1817, but that is also rare on maps, and a target for a later search, so I was delighted to find this one.
The Hunter River, seen from what is now Comerford's Hill.

The sign said Mount Harris, so Mount Harris it was. I should, perhaps, have mentioned that the mountains in this area are vertically challenged to a marked degree. This may help to explain why this Mount had been downgraded to a mere Hill, but at least it was small enough to drive around.

Comerford's Hill must once have been a farm, now it is several swanky hobby farms behind an unwelcoming gate across a muddy track, so I went up the gravelled Mount Harris Drive instead. This took me past a water reservoir with a trig station on top, but there was a higher rise, a little further on, so I drove further, and got out.

Being unchallenged (I was rather hoping somebody would come out to question me, so I could question them in turn), I walked to the crest, and found that I was looking down on the Hunter, Paterson's River to Barallier. I cannot reconcile this with the map, but Grant's description of it as having "extensive and picturesque" views tallies with what I saw (except that the locals have created a rubbish dump at the highest point).

Of course, it was only later, when I realised that Mount Harris is quite a long way from there, and that this hummock was in fact Mount Ann, that I realised I had another serial geographical victim on my hands, besides Dr Harris (and Barallier, whose name appears on no map that I know of). You see, in an effort to curry favour with Governor King, Lieutenant Grant had, five months earlier, named "Ann's Island" in Jervis Bay, unaware that it had already been dubbed "Bowen's Island", the name it bears today on the charts.
The other Mt Harris on the Macquarie River is also unimpressive.

So in sum, I have found just one of the lost mountains. lurking where it always was, but under two false names. I need more maps, more research time, and another 500 km of driving, in order to sort the question.

When I set off to pursue John Oxley's travels, when he named the 1817 Mount Harris, I pursued it. This one is 46 metres above sea level (I wasn't joking about vertically challenged!), but it is still findable.

It is better to travel hopefully than to arrive, but plain travelling isn't all that bad, either.

Friday, 14 March 2014

Looking at Atlases

Do you recognise this fellow on the right? If you think you do, then you have probably fallen for the same wrong belief that I have accepted for most of my life. Here's the low-down, but don't worry: it turns out that we are in good company!

The first Atlas was a particularly strong person, the brother of Prometheus, and like Prometheus, he was a giant. Atlas was given the task of holding up the sky, after the gods of Olympus defeated the Titans in battle. Set to this task in some undefined place to the west of the Mediterranean Sea, Atlas even lent his name to the ocean he stood in, which we still call the Atlantic Ocean.

The ancients assumed that part of the sky rested on some very high mountains in Morocco, still called the Atlas Mountains, while Mount Atlas was the tallest of that range. One legend says that Atlas was turned into the mountain after he refused accommodation to Perseus after Perseus had killed and beheaded the Gorgon Medusa.

The head was a useful trophy, as anybody who saw the Gorgon's face was turned to stone, and the incommoded and unaccommodated Perseus flashed the severed head at Atlas, who promptly became a mountain.

There was just one small problem: even the ancient Greeks knew that the world was no flat slab, but an orb, a globe, and around 150 BC, they even had a good estimate of the size of our planet, so there was very little need for Atlas in the thinking of scholars, but to the common folk, the world was flat, and remained so until sailors started sailing around it , around 500 years ago, which kept Atlas gainfully employed, so far as the common folks were concerned.

Once the sailors started going off and filling in bits of the map where once there were only dragons, there was a need for new maps, showing the true relationships of the parts of the world, and globes became popular. When Mercator published a book of flat maps, his son illustrated the cover with a picture of the world globe, held aloft on the shoulders of a strong man. From supporting just the sky, Atlas now had the task of supporting the whole world. It is perhaps from this mapping context that we get the drawing paper size called Atlas, which is 26 inches by 34 inches, or the same as eight sheets of foolscap.

Back to our man-mountain, though, the Perseus-Medusa-Mount Atlas tale has another problem. A second Greek legend says that later, when Heracles was given the task of obtaining the golden apples of the Hesperides, he approached a distinctly non-mountainous Atlas for help. Atlas asked Heracles to take over the load-bearing task while he, Atlas, fetched the apples. Then on his return, Atlas told Heracles that he was fed-up with carrying the load, and that he, Heracles, could carry on holding up the heavens.

He may have been physically strong, but Atlas was not very bright. Well, to be honest, he was seriously thick in the noggin department, so when Heracles said in his most affable tone that he agreed, but would Atlas take over for a moment while he, Heracles arranged a pad for his head, Atlas took the load for a bit, and as you may have guessed, Heracles made off, taking the apples of the Hesperides with him.

That eminent playwright of the appropriately named Globe theatre, Shakespeare, has Cleopatra speaking of Mark Antony as "the demi-Atlas of this earth", while in the third part of Henry VI, Warwick the king-maker tells Edward "Thou art no Atlas for so great a weight" — in this case, the weight of the kingdom, which Warwick plans to take away from Edward.

Milton mentions Atlas as a high mountain in Book 4 of Paradise Lost, to give the idea of a giant Satan. And Charles Atlas, of course, made his fame as a strong man. All in all, it seems that time has taken away the load-bearing role that Atlas once had, leaving just the strong-man aspect — except in one case.

That venerable guide to all things in the human body, Gray's Anatomy, tells us that "The first cervical vertebra is named the atlas because it supports the globe of the head." In other words, even though the load-bearing function is recalled, it is in terms of the picture on the cover of Mercator's atlas book, rather than in terms of what a rather thick-witted Titan really had to do in older days.

Monday, 3 March 2014

Picking a good book

This story began with a headline that read Scientists find secret to writing a best-selling novel. You can read the whole of the story here and you can read the actual paper here. It was in the Proceedings of the 2013 Conference in Empirical Methods in Natural Language Processing.

I will just quote one paragraph from that paper: it says a great deal if you read it aloud, so you can savour the clumsiness in the construction.

For our experiments, we procure novels from project Gutenberg. Project Gutenberg houses over 40,000 books available for free download in electronic format and provides a catalog containing brief descriptions (title, author, genre, language, download count, etc.) of these books. We experiment with genres in Table 1, which have sufficient number of books allowing us to construct reasonably sized datasets.

I think it makes me wonder: do these people know how to write coherent English? To put it another way, I would not be asking them to review or revise one of my manuscripts.  They are junior academics, and I am sure they are trying hard, but they needed more sage advice before they rushed into print.

True, they had some quantitative measures such as counting the connectives (good) and mention of body parts (ludicrous). They also concluded that prepositions were good and verbs were bad, though apparently not as bad as foreign words, symbols and interjections!

Basically, Vikas Ganjigunte Ashok, Song Feng and Yejin Choi, a trio of computer scientists at Stony Brook University in New York, had grabbed a whole bunch of classic books from the Project Gutenberg collection.  Then they analysed the  texts and compared their measures with historical information on the success of the work.

They ran their study over a number of books in different genres measuring things like “interestingness”, novelty, the style of writing, and how engaging the storyline was. Yeah, right, no chance of any halo effect there, eh?  No chance of somebody saying "This is a book about Harry Potter, so it mustn't be very interesting, right?

Wrong. That's the first flaw: the analysis is far from objective.

What followed reminded me of a dodgy attempt by the Control Data Corporation in 1980 or 1981 to foist an outdated and kludgey system called PLATO on four government instrumentalities in New South Wales: they wanted to sell the BSLS (Basic Skills Learning System) to Correctional Services, the Apprenticeship Directorate, the Education Department and TAFE.

I am fairly certain in retrospect that somebody had been bribed, because it was getting an and uncritical easy run, with a total of $200,000 to be shelled out--a lot of money back then, when a deputy principal got less than $20,000 a year. Subtext: it was a lot of money!

My boss thought that there was a rodent-like odour to the proposal, and asked me to have a play with the evaluation reports they had given us, some 400 words of raw (and cooked) data.  He and I had done the same Master's course in evaluation and he knew my weird penchant for dissecting out buried dross and detecting things that do not compute. It didn't take long before my antennae began to twitch.

No wonder: there was dross everywhere.  From memory (the original papers are two floors down, in an unmarked box), they showed us an evaluation where the control group size was zero (but the control group still had scores). There were other cases where the control group was scoring at the ceiling level of a test, but the experimental group had the grade levels of their equivalent scores extrapolated.

In plain language, the control groups were fitted with hobbles and a ball and chain, the experimental group (the ones using PLATO) were issued with JATO packs, and then the groups were sent out to run a race.

The perceptive reader may be wondering why I don't mention the Hawthorne effect here.  Yes, that was alive and running as well, but that was minor compared with the procedural fudging that was going on.

These people weren't even good cheats. In the batch of research papers they sent (apparently hoping we would weigh them rather than read them), they accidentally included a memo where a distraught underling told the shiny gung-ho boss at Control Data that the whole thing was a fiasco, and I was able to look at the dates on which the shiny boss had published his latest glowing reports. I could show that they came after the date received that he had stamped on the deadly memo.

I had this bloke chapter and verse, because like him, I used to submit stuff to the ERIC clearing-house. I knew when one of my submissions was received at ERIC, and I had a lower accession number than one of his glowing reports, but the date stamp on the memo was even earlier than my submission.  It followed that after he got the heads-up, he kept on flogging the dead horse.

In short, these people were frauds, but they were hopelessly incompetent frauds because they gave me the evidence on a plate, but the funniest part was one study where they had used regression analysis to present an equation which claimed that the students using BSLS would gain one whole grade BEFORE they started the course. That's what happens when you apply any sort of statistical analysis without knowing what you are doing.

That was what reminded me of the book-quality study complained of above.  You see, figures don't lie, but liars can figure.  Proof is here.

I was told to bury my report, which made me wonder if somebody higher-up either suspected or knew that bribes had gone out.  I know from the attitudes of the people I spoke to that they weren't on the take — either that, or they were better actors than I would expect.

The purchase was blocked, so I did as instructed, leaving my report in a drawer for several years. Then I learned that a known muppet and dodgy character (he back-stabbed me once) was spruiking PLATO at AARE (the Australian Association for Research in Education).

So, being full of charity and having itchy shoulder blades, I gave a paper the following year, outlining the damning faults and showing what a rort the whole PLATO thing had been.  I guess it had the desired effect, as the muppet left the country.

I kept all of the evidence, just in case one of those I foiled ever reads this and decides to try a lawsuit.  It won't fly, my friend. It's past history, but if you want to be silly, I eat people like you.

Coming up to modern dodginess, the funny thing was: before I even got through the abstract of the book-quality paper, the same antennae were twitching.

All I can say of this paper is that I hope no publisher ever hears about this idea, because this appears to be a great example of what we old computerists call GIGO.  They tried...

Or was this one of the 120 papers of computer-generated gibberish that Cyril Labbe of Joseph Fourier University detected recently?

That's about the only logical explanation.

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

How I won the war

Well, one of them, and it certainly wasn't the war you were thinking of. As you will see, if you read on, it was a war that was vitally important to the preservation of sanity and due decorum

Because I was bullied as a child (probably no more than any other physically small but articulate boy got and still gets, but it was no fun at all!), I learned guerrilla tactics early.

Those who bullied may not have known where it came from, but things often went wrong for them. I was never caught or accused, and my lips are sealed as to what I did, though one or two of the hoaxes I pulled off at school would be well-enough known, at least to those who assisted me. People who shouted at me always paid a penalty of sorts.

I assumed that nobody had ever penetrated my masking activities, my guise of mild-mannered geniality, but at university, one of my friends was an elderly Czech who was always "Dr Racek", and in his papers, "A. A. Racek", though as his name was pronounced "Rahtsek", his students often called him "Dr. Ratsak" after a commercial warfarin product.

Not me, though.  I think he took me on as a friend because I was the outdoorsy type and could be persuaded to bring back mud from the edges of salt lakes and stuff, from which he could hatch and study obscure crustacea.  Or maybe he saw something of him in me.

I don't know his back story, but he would have been of military age in World War II.  For some reason best known to himself, he lent me a copy of a translation of Jaroslav Hasek's The Good Soldier Švejk, although, as he pointed out, it was Germanised as The Good Soldier Schweik.

I had, a few years earlier, read Catch 22, and I had been for three years a public service clerk in lowly orders who observed his fellow underlings with the eye of an anthropologist. I had learned to swim like a fish in the sea of the clerk-people.  I had an unerring eye for opportunities to make the self-important look ludicrous.

So I had mastered the art of the anarchist (without the bleak bad humour of old-style anarchists — I was a conservative anarchist who didn't like blowing things up).  Now, I learned that there were other ways to manage the authoritarian mind, the military mind, the bullying mind. Švejk became my guiding light.

Jump forward a few years.  I had graduated, I was teaching, I was married, and we were not all that well paid.  Anything and everything that offered money was worth doing, even quiz shows — but that's another story.

I was inveigled into becoming an officer of cadets. The NSW Cadet Corps in those days was a sort of military operation. One wore proper army uniforms and insignia, one got pompous, one saluted, one marched, one stood at attention.  Well, one was supposed to try.  This one faked it.

In short, this one became Švejk. I dreamed of subverting the route marches into nature rambles and other tricks. They didn't come off.  I will pass over most of the details, and refer only to army camp at Singleton. There, the cadets were under canvas, but we were in barracks, except when we went into the field.

That was when the cunning Good Soldier came into his own.  The cadets did something called lantern stalks, which involved two platoons setting out from two lanterns on two ridges. Somewhere in the gully between, they would meet and try to "kill" each other by taking a strand of wool that was around each cadet's arm.

Each encounter brought mighty swearing, and in the silence immediately after, they would see me standing there as I said quietly "When you make noise like that, you are drawing in the rest of the enemy — learn to move and fight in silence."

Recalling the swear words they had spoken, one would ask me how long I had been there.  "I just came over when I heard the noise," I would lie. They never twigged that I had been there in a shadow, masked by a blanket to change my outline.  I got a reputation that I did not merit, but truly enjoyed.

It also helped that I was (and probably still am — I haven't fired a rifle in 40 years), a crack shot.  On the rifle range, when two Cadet Under Officers decided to give "Mac" a helping hand, the result of my ten shots was 28 bulls and inners. I told them that they had both probably missed on their first shot, but whatever the case, it appeared that the assistance was unnecessary.  The CUOs were senior cadets, and they had me better sussed than most, unlike the "real" officers, but at least I kept them guessing.

Now about the "real" officers: the second camp was all in barracks, and that entailed going to the officers' mess at night. Back then, a number of the officers were World War II types who were crashing bores, full of how they single-handedly Won The War.

I considered spiking their drinks, but there wasn't anything to use, and that was what led me to the Regimental Aid Post — or as We Military Chaps called it, the RAP.

They had no powerful laxatives that might fit the bill, but I got chatting with the third-year medical students who staffed the RAP, and told them how boring the officers' mess was. These people, I opined, must have made military history by Winning The War from the Catering Corps.  We looked at Napoleon's maxim that an army marches on its stomach, but discounted that as an explanation.  We found common mind sets.

Now here was the situation: I had a car, and a uniform with a First Lieutenant's pips on it. I also had a good command of the language of authority, and an excellent set of skills in hoaxing, but no refrigerator, and being in uniform, I could hardly walk into a pub and buy a case of beer.  The RAP students were in civvies, they had no car, but they had a refrigerator, ostensibly for storing medicines.

Together, we were invincible. There was no security on the camp.  I could drive one of the students into town, he could go into the pub and buy some beer, I could drive it back in, and in the unlikely event that a sentry had been posted in our absence, none would question me.  I even had a cover story ready for having one of the medical students with me in the car, but it was never needed.

And that, children, is how we won the Bore War.  I would arrive back at the Officers' Mess, late in the evening, and the Colonel, and old stager, would see me, still bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and murmur "There are very few of us left..."

Note: certain parts of this tale may (or may not) have been adjusted and/or embellished to make a better story. Other parts may (or may not) be entirely false and misleading. That caveat applies equally to everything in this paragraph, including this sentence

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Kangaroos in the top paddock

This charming piece of Australian vernacular denotes somebody who is doolally or barking or crazy. Of course, that's subjective, as the old irregular verb has it:

"I am an original thinker, you are eccentric, he has kangaroos in the top paddock."

The thing that got me started was finding a reference to a work called The Friend of Australia, which attracted brief notice in the Australian colonial press in 1831.

The author was identified only as a retired officer in the East India Company, but he had elected himself as an expert on how Australia ought to be explored..

I went looking for a copy of the book, but there didn't seem to be one at first glance.  I later located several copies in Mitchell Library.

Part of my mistake was that I thought the Mitchell copies were only in microform, which gives me vile headaches, so I went seeking a PDF, and found this one, available through Google Books. Luckily, Mitchell is a bit of a second home, so I will track the book down in due course,

Above and/or to the right, is how the book was advertised in The Times, November 11, 1830, column 1, page 1.

To give the reader more of a taste for what passed for literature then, at least in the house of Hurst and Chance, I have left a bit more in place.

I am now busily reading the book, because the local press reaction was rather amusing.  He wanted explorers to carry a ninety-foot (27 metre) mast in three segments, so that a lookout could be posted, high enough to see any marauding "Indians".

Mind you, this mast also gave the intrepid explorer a chance to see further, something that most Australian explorers from Cook onwards, achieved by climbing a mountain, a hill or even  a tree.

 But the author, whose name I now know to be Thomas Maslen, was by no means done.

My reading is incomplete as yet, but one of the Australian press comments was that Maslen thought elephants would be a useful addition to the equipment of the explorer.

And to turn away the spears of the Indians, he proposed armour. He referred to it as chain mail, but his description gives a different sense.

If you fire off enough mad ideas, one or two  may prove to have merit. Maslen wanted us to use camels to explore.

The picture on the right above shows John Horrocks up a tree in the mid-1840s, but if you look closely enough, you will see the hump of Harry the Camel, lurking behind a bush.

Camels, as many explorers found later, were a good idea, though Harry wasn't a good idea, because just a few days later, he shot John Horrocks — but that's another story.

Anyhow, Maslen gave us an image of how the camels might look in Australia, where the soldiers wear top hats and march, while the officers (I assume) ride in howdahs on a giant camel that clearly had taken its steroids that morning.

Nowhere in Maslen's book do we see any truly Australian scenery, and there are no Australian animals, because even if he had kangaroos in the top paddock, Maslen had never seen a kangaroo.

page 216 (book pagination)
When the second edition came out, the one that Google Books have, the Preface, dated March, 1836, said that he was in the Siberian Wilds.
page 218

I had thought the elephants completely excised from the second edition, but no, they are still there, starting on page 214 (chapter 12, p. 247 in the PDF file).

You can't help laughing, can you?

Some part of this will appear, at some future time, in one or another of the Not Your Usual series, probably as a side note to Not Your Usual Explorers...

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Comments policy

A few scammers have been trying to get in here.  Please don't waste your time posting links here which don't relate to the page you are commenting on.  I review all comments, and if your comment is generic, or if I don't know you, or if the link you have added looks even the tiniest bit dodgy, I discard the comment.  This is to be a safe place.

Monday, 10 February 2014

Two pleasing reviews and a nice thing

The first review was a brief blog entry that tells me a Montessori person has found Australian Backyard Naturalist.  That pleases me lots, because it means catching more young minds.

The nice thing: By an odd chance, I have also, this day, had an email from Harry Allen, an Auckland academic who had found a reference to my book Curious Mindsand wondered if it was out yet.  This was delightful, and to see why I think so, you need to read my comments about Harry Allen in an earlier blog entry that related to Curious Minds: it is called A Slap in the Face With A Dead Fish. Before you draw any conclusions, don't judge that essay by its title!

The second review is for Curious Minds, which came out about 16 months ago. Academic publishing has long lead times, but this was worth waiting for.  I have taken the liberty of amending an error in the spelling of my name at one point.

Colour me chuffed.
Source: Journal of Australian Colonial History, Vol. 15, 2013, pp. 230-231.
Peter Macinnis, Curious Minds: The Discoveries of Australian Naturalists, National Library of Australia, Canberra, 2012, pbk, ISBN 978 806422 754 1, 213 pp, $39.99. With Curious Minds by Peter Macinnis, the National Library of Australia has produced yet another masterpiece of colour illustration, as if to demonstrate by example that the death of the book has been greatly exaggerated. The book is beautiful to the feel: its 213 pages in soft but durable covers can be bent and flicked through like a good field naturalist's guide, revealing startling illustrations from the best nature artists of each era, and also striking portraits of some of the main characters discussed. A solemn elderly Joseph Banks stares out of one page, followed by pages of the equally knobbly Banksia plants named after him, and after these, some of the many eager but often unworldly botanists that he sent out to carry on his work.
The main text is made up of thirty seven biographical sketches of the men and women whose minds engaged with the strange nature of Australia, who then went on to describe and illustrate its flora and fauna and present their discoveries to the world. These bio-sketches in turn are inserted between several hundred reproductions of species and landscape paintings, floral and beastly drawings, human portraits, and maps, averaging two to a double page, itself a history of illustrative art over 300 years. The account is arranged more or less consecutively, which is to say historically, beginning in the late seventeenth century with Willem de Vlamingh and William Dampier, Dutch and English respectively, but both presenting a very negative initial view of the Great Southland. Vlamingh comes across as an unimaginative and bored bureaucrat-seaman, forced against his will to inspect and survey a long coastline of tedium. With Dampier, the Johnny Depp-style pirate who gave occasional papers to the newly formed Royal Society, the new geekish sensibility can almost be seen struggling out of the monotonous shipboard log entries. To cut open a shark at Shark Bay and find a newly devoured 'hippo' inside (in fact it was a dugong) and think it worth reporting, heralds the re-emergence of tabloid science from the good start made by Herodotus thousands of years previously. For if there was one attribute that all this 300 year long cavalcade of nature reporters had in common, it was an eye to publication. This reached its peak, in the mid-nineteenth century with the Goulds (of Bird League fame), husband and wife, making a commercial success of bird painting and, incidentally, helping Charles Darwin's big ideas on matters of detail. The appetite for publication often involved some interesting skulduggery as to whose work it really was being published, and who could get their work to the publishers first across perilous seas in faraway London or Europe (for the Germans and French were active in the game of pursuit of curiosities). Macinnis makes some interesting points about the nation-building influence of the wide publication of Australian naturalist accounts, and how these in turn morphed into the Blinky Bills and Snugglepots of children's literature, which created a virtuous circle of national pride and environmental awareness. Beginning with the versatile Mrs Meredith, many of the compilers did not hesitate to join the fight to stop the senseless destruction of many of the wonders that they described, though it was obviously a lonely battle at times. One objection I would make to the text is that the author seemed to be a little dismissive of Ludwig Leichhardt and his bush skills. Leichhardt was willing to learn from and greatly appreciated the Aborigines, unlike most of his men, always excepting the gentle John Gilbert. It was unfortunate that these two were probably killed as a result of actions of members of their parties, actions of which they almost certainly had no part. I had to read the translated diaries (edited and translated by Arousseau) of poor old Ludwig at one stage of my career, and came to appreciate how the man was almost the type of the neglected and misunderstood nerd — totally brilliant in all things of the mind, but pretty hopeless at the lesser social skills such as leadership of an exploring party. Probably not uncoincidentally, Dampier had the same character failing, as did the brilliant but unstable Polish-German William Blandowski, and probably many others discussed in Curious Minds. It is not unreasonable to think that many of these investigators turned to nature because many of its prospects were more pleasing to them than human company.
 The more successful built enduring careers out of their passions. The celebrated Ferdinand von Mueller laid the foundations of Australian bioscience: as with his compatriot Leichhardt, he championed the local over the imperial. Prolific writers such as Louisa Ann Meredith also encouraged the transformation that many settlers underwent, 'from a dislike of the Australian bush to an appreciation of its wonders'. Full references are given at the back of the book so that all the art reproductions presented can be followed to their source, a very welcome service to the reader. The author is a former science teacher, whose students were very fortunate to be taught by someone with the obvious knack of bringing complicated ideas, events and people to life. Robert Haworth
Oddly enough, I didn't think I was being dismissive of Leichhardt, though I had been in an earlier draft, until a reviewer pointed me to some research that showed I was wrong. It's a matter of taste, I guess.

Monday, 3 February 2014

Making pics for young people

I am flat out like a lizard drinking, pitching two manuscripts today, so the last thing I needed was distraction from Book Chook, but that's what happened.  Curses on you, Book Chook!

I lost the best part of an hour , but I had loads of fun.

Here is the sort of thing I achieved.

The Book Chook page is about sites where kids can create pictures, so being a hopeless artist, I just had to give it a try.

It was dead easy! So I had to share it.

Warning Sign Generator
My recommendation:

Go to 
Book Chook Favourites - Online Image Makers 
 and have a play for yourself.


And now I'm getting back to work.

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Incompetent design

I am incandescent.  I took my grandchildren to Auckland Zoo today, and found these two appalling examples of dangerous design.

I used to work in museums, and I know how important it is to make sure that everything is safe and fool-proof.  I wasn't a designer, but I worked with designers, and I and my crew worked with the designers to make sure that stupidity like this was not allowed to happen.

If it had happened on my watch, heads would have rolled, mine among them--and rightly so. I had a staff member lose a fingertip in a steam engine, and it isn't a laughing matter.

I am posting this here, as well as on Facebook, because I am aware of a nasty bureaucratic tendency to demand of Facebook that posts be taken down.  Facebook are craven muppets who concur far too easily with shouting blimps.  I am also sharing it on Google+, and I have other blogs up my sleeve.

So, Auckland Zoo, you have just one valid choice.  Try to take this down, and I will put it up on another blog.

Before fingers are severed, I suggest you pull your fingers out, and get rid of these highly dangerous installations.

Analysis: The problem is shearing action. The discs in the first picture are more than 2 cm thick, made of plywood, and close-fitting.  The square hatches are about 40 cm square, just as thick, and if anything, even closer-fitting. Any downward pressure in either case would crush or sever digits.  In a jostling crowd, that is bound to happen, sooner or later--or a single child will drop the undamped square hatches on its or somebody else's hand.  These things are heavy!

Here is what I wrote on Facebook:

This is about gross stupidity.  I am NOT about to be nice. 

Dear Auckland Zoo, I know I could be polite and professional and send you an urgent polite message suggesting that you take your designers and counsel them.  I have elected to tell you publicly to take them outside and kick their arses until their noses bleed.

These installations that I saw today in a children's area at your zoo partake of the nature of guillotines.  One bit of misplaced weight and fingers will be severed or maimed beyond surgical redemption.  The edges are too close together, and the possibilities for high mechanical advantage should be apparent to a roadkill possum.

I used to work in museums, and I know how important safety is in interactives.  Now I suggest that you pull your fingers out--BEFORE you have to pull children's severed fingers out of these ill-conceived designs.

I do this in full awareness that now you have been made aware of the dangers inherent in these designs, you will have VERY limited legal defences hereafter.  So be it.  You have a VERY simple, quick solution.

Now here are some search terms to help make this show up in Google searches:

legal liability, dangerous design, poor design, safety, children, culpability, mismanagement, misguided bureaucracy, health, welfare 

Afterword: I had several strident-to-abusive messages from muppets who just didn't get it.  I was accused of being OTT (Over The Top) for speaking out on safety, and I was told that children have to learn to cope with dangerous situations, to which I asked if that particular idiot wanted to send children into a minefield.  The last one accused me of being PC.

Get it straight people: I understand danger when I see it, and I see the need to underline it. The zoo told me they had been monitoring it (no sign of that when I was there), and that they were planning "repairs".

I replied that they needed to get rid of the whole installation.  I will be happy to provide statements and advice when somebody is forced to sue these fools. The harm will probably come when teenage schoolkids are pushing and jostling, and some uninvolved child has its hand in the wrong place at the wrong time.