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Saturday, 29 December 2012

Effective Science Writing


Look me up on the web, and you may find that I have said that I sometimes do pro bono work—if the task is interesting and/or the cause is a worthy one, but preferably both.

So when Pramila Majumdar asked me to help out by writing a chapter in a book called Effective Science Writing, I jumped at it. Yesterday, I got an email to say that it has been launched in India, and I will get a copy in due course.


The launch party, somewhere in Assam, December 28, 2012.
As it is now out there for young Indian science writers, I thought I would share the chapter that I was asked to write, as I submitted it.  Note that this is unedited, but it is there for general consumption. [Note also that I have added a few updates, which appear, like this, in square brackets and red text.]

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3. Things to keep in mind before you begin writing
Peter Macinnis is an Australian science writer. Trained as a biologist, he has been a secondary science teacher, a systems bureaucrat, a fraud investigator, a museum educator, a teacher of computing and the in-house science writer for an online encyclopaedia. He has been writing and publishing books related to science for 40 years, and working as a freelance broadcaster for Australia's ABC since 1985. He writes popular history (with a science bias) for adults, and has had children's books named as "notable" in three of the past four years by the Children's Book Council of Australia. These generally have a science theme.
His Australian Backyard Explorer (published by the National Library of Australia) was the CBCA's Book of the Year in the information books category [in 2010]: it looked at the people who mapped Australia, and the science and technology they had to use. [It was listed later in the 2011 White Ravens awards. His 2012 sequel, Australian Backyard Naturalist, recently won a Whitley Award from the Royal Zoological Society of New South Wales.]

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I have a brief of sorts to write this chapter. In it, I was asked to discuss these topics:
Understanding your readers;
Searching for stories and;
Where to publish;

I was also asked to add other important ideas. I will deal with these:
Fitting science into unlikely places;
Setting down a plan and applying it;
Keeping a full record of ideas, information and sources;
Being open to revision;
When to write the ending;
How to know what information is reliable;
Why you should always listen to your editor;
The importance of networking.

I am writing this introduction some days before I will start writing the main text, and I am copying the points above from my notebook, ten minutes after I scribbled them down. The final product will probably be very different, but I plan to leave this introduction unedited. That may be the most important thing I do here, because it shows how I think.

Note that I used a paper notebook and an old-fashioned pen for my first sketch of this chapter. I always scribble some rough notes, and I will come back to that later, but it is important for the reader to realise that I am almost totally reliant on computers for my productivity.

My first step, at this point, was to take those 11 points and paste them in below this introduction, using the same order as above. I formatted them (in MS Word) as headings. I added full stops at the end, then opened up some space between them so I could start inserting text in blue italics. The blue text works like the scaffolding on a building site, and all the blue bits will be demolished at the end.

This is the end of the introduction that will not be revised. After this paragraph, everything may be revised and changed as I work my way into my thinking. From past experience, I know it will be!

Why communicate science?
I do it because I love and admire science. I hope I can help reduce the amount of stupidity in the world by helping readers to understand the role of science and technology in their lives. I want to show people how to assess the claims of flat-earthers, perpetual motion eccentrics, medical frauds, climate change deniers, opponents of evolution and other charlatans. Some of the frauds are confused, others want to make money by confusing people, but they can all be rejected by people who understand science. I don't try to beat the frauds, I try to make people more able to see what the crooks are doing.

I want to make my readers immune to unfounded fear, while being able to assess the very real risks that can emerge from some kinds of science and technology. I want them to see the opportunities of new science and technology, I want them to be able and willing to grab those chances and use science and technology to help other humans. I want them to know how to learn from previous mistakes.

There was a famous World War I French general, called Marshal Foch, who began every planning meeting by reminding his staff that the key objective was to defeat the enemy. Only then, knowing that, would they start their meeting. Before I start to write, I sit down and ask myself whether I plan to help people understand, or if I want to win hearts and minds, or to fascinate them—or maybe I just want to amuse my readers. Most of the time, all of those will be in the mix, but I need to know what I hope to do.

Point number 1: aside from earning a living, what are you going to do with the story you are sitting down to write? What changes will it make? (I hope that this chapter will help people focus more closely as they write about science.)

Searching for stories.
There are excellent sources around for science writers, because most researchers out there want to be famous. Finding material is never the problem, but keeping your head above the flood and finding the right material can be a real challenge. Behind all those researchers hoping for fame, there are public relations people, pushing easy angles that lazy journalists can use. By all means read them, but never trust a press release as a major source!

Many press releases seem to promise a better way to do something, but the most common line is a cure for <the common cold; multiple sclerosis; cancer or some other disease>. Lots of new drugs might one day lead to an approach that may generate a molecule that might attack an obscure cancer, way off in the future. Most of the time, the discovery will go nowhere, but a PR person will dress this up as an amazing, absolutely certain cancer cure.

Remember that most discoveries are interesting and offer a story to tell, but only a few discoveries are breakthroughs. Remember also that there are things a science publicist might do or say that no professional science communicator would do or say. The publicist and the communicator both want people to go "wow!" but only one of them wants that to be a reaction to the science.

Press releases can be useful, if you know who to trust. Between 1998 and 2005, I churned out 30,000 words of science news each month. It was a treadmill, but an easy one, because I had all sorts of people alerting me about interesting stuff. I began with Eurekalert and Newswise, where I signed up for lists of the press releases that were placed on those two databases each day.

The best part of that is that both Newswise and Eurekalert are free. The first is some sort of consortium, the second is run by AAAS, the American Association for the Advancement of Science. You can find them at http://www.newswise.com/search/index and http://www.eurekalert.org/search.php. The second best part is that this search can look back at all of the stories containing a key word, so you can see how else a topic has been in the news.

The third best part is that you can work out who are the good feeds with information that you can use. I had a good personal relationship for some years with the American Geophysical Union, and could get copies of the actual published papers, so I could read at least the abstract and conclusion, while skimming over the discussion. When I found a good source, I would ask them to put me on their mailing list, and set of one my email filters to sort those emails into a special priority box.

Mind you, that was before Twitter. These days, you just need to select who you will follow with some care, and then the world's news will come to your door. I don't use Twitter that much, because I mainly do books these days, but I still follow Newswise, Carl Zimmer, ConversationEDU, Guardian Science and tedtalks.

Sometimes, a story will find you—and those ones are often the best. Many years ago, I was looking at a law that was proposed by two Frenchmen, Dulong and Petit, a rule of thumb that ties atomic weight to the specific heat of an element. I though that was rather clever, went back to their original work, and started converting the data into modern units. Then I pulled down a chemical data book, and found some odd discrepancies, and realised that I had uncovered a fraud that had been unnoticed for 165 years.

Later, I found that a couple of other people had noticed the fraud at about the same time, but by then, I had done a little radio program on it and got myself known. I have never looked back.

Point number 2: there is never any shortage of material to work with, and there is a story in almost everything, if you look at it the right way. (I have drawn almost entirely on experience to write this piece, but I also chatted with am couple of friends who are in the same game.)

Fitting science into unlikely places.
Many years ago, I was one of a group of bushwalking science teachers. We often took some of our students along with us on day walks, and we always managed to find a few interesting bits of geology or biology to show them. Then one of my friends bought a brilliant book called Science As You Go, and we realised that we could bring in chemistry, physics and even astronomy, even in the wilderness. That was how I learned to look for the science in almost anything.

I like bringing out the science behind curious things like the way seagulls follow behind the ferry that I ride to and from Sydney; or the science behind sand that squeaks when you walk on it, or the reason why poisons work as they do; or even how an orb-weaver spider makes its web, and why it always makes it across the garden path I need to walk along each morning. One of these days, I am going to write an essay on this quote from one of J.B.S. Haldane's essays, 'On Being the Right Size', from Possible Worlds.

You can drop a mouse down a thousand-foot mine shaft; and, on arriving at the bottom, it gets a slight shock and walks away, provided that the ground is fairly soft.  A rat is killed, a man is broken, a horse splashes.
Maybe I won't, though I would love to. What I do know is that a comment like that makes a science piece truly memorable. If people smile about it for a few days, they are thinking about it, and that principle is lodged in their minds forever.

Science communicators should avoid trying to be comedians, but the occasional memorable line makes the reader recall, relish, and roll over the facts that lie beneath it. The best place for that wry or clever comment is usually at the end of the piece.

One of my zoology lecturers once told us "a female whale evaginates her teat and the calf clings on while she pumps out six to eight gallons of milk in as many seconds." That was interesting, but what made it stick in my mind, 45 years later, was his extra comment that "if the calf doesn't hang on, it gets a face full of milk".

Point number 3: there is always a place for humour in a piece, but it should be humour that serves some purpose other than making people think you are a nice person. (I am prepared to bet that half of my readers will tell somebody either the Haldane quote or the amazing whale fact.)

Creating a beginning.
I never consciously sit down and wonder how I am going to begin a piece. I suppose there must be a point where I think of my start, but usually, the beginning emerges from the real facts that made me think of writing a piece.

The start is important, and fiction writers know this. They work endlessly over the first page, trying to create the perfect hook that will keep the reader hanging on while they do the necessary foundation work. Pick up any best-seller, read the first page, and look for the hook. It will be there, and you need a hook as well.

I think I mainly use one of these tricks:
The plain news piece. This is fairly ordinary, and also fairly common. You simply write up a discussion of what a scientist somewhere has reported and then explain why it is important. Fort a bit of polishing up. You can set the scene first, and then cut to the new discovery.

The direct question. This is a fairly straightforward situation where you ask the reader if he or she has ever considered why something is important.

The indirect question (I was showing a trigger plant to a friend who asked . . .)

The completely irrelevant anecdote that suddenly becomes relevant later on in the piece, or even at the very end. This one works well when you are a bit older, and have the experience to think of an anecdote you can use.

The atmospheric, a trick piece where you set the scene and then work your way in from there. This is a subset of the irrelevant anecdote, but it can work very well.

No, I'm not going to do it all for you. As a science communicator, you are an essayist, and the only way to learn your craft is to study with the masters. Here, I have to confess myself ignorant of good role models from the sub-continent, so I will suggest a method to use if you are writing in English. I leave it to you to undertake the translation of this into a more local method, but I am sure that it can be done.

I can recommend Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt and Leigh Hunt for writers of the past. In more recent times, there are Walter Murdoch (and Australian, and the uncle of Rupert Murdoch, but don't hold that against him!), J. B. Priestley, George Orwell. Or you may prefer to look at the science essayists like Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Martin Gardner, Stephen Jay Gould, Sir Peter Medawar, Oliver Sacks, Lewis Thomas, Lewis Wolpert—and J. B. S. Haldane, who alone among those on this list, had an Indian connection.

You can also search more widely, looking online at the intelligent pieces written for the New Yorker or The Guardian. Or you might try an Australian radio program called Ockham's Razor (one to which I sometimes contribute). This draws mainly Australian contributors, but it also gathers speakers from all around the world. They must all speak for 15 minutes, less a top and tail, about 2000 words, and the quality is patchy but often reaches sublime levels.

I suggest that you gather a collection of perhaps 60 pieces that you really like, and 15 or 20 pieces that leave you uninterested. Then analyse these, as if you were a forger of bank notes. Make lists of the methods used, the tricks of the trade, the flourishes, and rate them. :Look at the low-rating ones, and if you think they are useless, remove them from the list.

Once you have your methods, you can make a deliberate choice of the tricks you will use in a piece. In this way, you will make these tricks part of your tool-kit, and before long, you will use them naturally.

Point number 4: know before you start how you plan to begin. (Once you have done that, you will probably know how you are going to end.)

When to write the ending.
I like to start with a good idea of how I will end a piece. If I don't quite know what that will be when I begin, I try to have an ending in place by the time my first draft is 40% complete. By that time, I will have most of the key points set down, but I will probably be starting to ramble.

Recently, I have been writing a set of children's books, each of about 1500 words, each one to have 17 "openings", with a picture on one page, and text on the other. I write the first six opening to get the story line set, then I write the ending, which is often two or three openings in length, then I fill in the middle section.

About a third of the time, I will later change my first ending to a better one, but at least I didn't waver and wobble.

Point number 5: know as quickly as you can how you plan to end—and before you start writing is best. (Only then will you know where you are going.)

Keeping a full record of ideas, information and sources.
From time to time, even the most focused writer is going to falter, wondering just what brilliant idea was supposed to be going there, or just where that idea came from. That is the reason why I started storing everything in a spreadsheet, about ten years ago.

Mow I know what spreadsheets are supposed to be for, but I heard a story of an old Sydney sporting journalist who used to write news stories in Visicalc. And I realised that he was doing one paragraph to a cell, and then using numbers in another column to sort the cells. It's something that journalists used to do in the days of typewriters and hot metal typesetting, when we used copy paper and double-spaced our paragraphs on that.

I realised that I could do a lot more, because you can sort on three different columns, so I started adding three columns on the left: chapter, part and number, as well as whatever datum I had found and its exact source.


But I hadn't finished yet: I could sort at other times by date, or place or topic, and compare items from different places and then sort again and move everything back into sorted chapters.

The example here is from an incomplete research database for a study of gold rushes and gold lust, around the world. The text in column F already totals more than 120,000 words, twice the length of the book I plan to write.

From time to time, I spot something interesting but not for the book in hand: labelling it chapter 99 pushes it to the very bottom, and because I always use the same layout, I can quickly scoop up those odd bits and move them into a more relevant spreadsheet at some later time.

The thing about my spreadsheet system is that it works like a large number of filing cards that I can shuffle in a variety of ways. I can sort all the entries by year or date, or by the place where they happened. This helps me to see patterns that I might otherwise miss.

Point number 6: plan and record from the very start, because there will always be one vital point that your editor will query or doubt. (Good record-keeping saves time and avoids headaches.)

Setting down a plan and applying it.
Some 3000 words into writing this chapter, I took a break and slept. I awoke in the early morning with a fairly well-formed outline for a general-market book with a strong science bias. Even before my first cup of tea, I noted down six chapter headings, and a few things to chase up. Now I can get on with this, knowing that I won't lose those ideas.

The plan is your helper, not a tyrant. As I work through this in Microsoft Word, I have the Document Map open, and every so often, I type a paragraph that I realise is more relevant to one of the other sections. When that happens, I move it. I have already shifted many of the headings, added a new one and merged two others, but I am still following the plan.

Point number 6: always have a plan. (Starting to write without a plan is like trying to explore Norway without a map or compass. It may be interesting—until you fall into a fiord!)

Understanding your readers.
You need to know what your readers expect, which means knowing what they are likely to understand.

Most readers know little of other countries' idioms, so you need to "fit in" and make your writing appear to come from one of them. It have learned that Americans have only heard of one civil war, so where we might write "the US Civil War", they just say and write "the Civil War". Every audience has its own peculiarities.

Think about the age of the audience, the strength of interest and type of interest that they will bring to their reading. Are the readers going to understand what it means to think like a scientist? Will they know that science is often puzzling, going against intuition?

For example, if we just examined the world in our lifetimes, we might say that species don't vary, because we can't see it happening. To explain evolution, we have to make people understand that our intuitive ideas are often wrong.

Point number 7: know you public. (If you don't, they probably won't want to know about you!)

How to know what information is reliable.
You need to choose your source and reference material carefully. There are many traps out there for somebody working on the fringes of journalism, because they are usually decent, honest, reliable people who don't tell lies. There are also frauds who try to sell fake stuff, there are PR people and bloggers whose job is to make pollution look good, politicians who prefer to muzzle the truth out of ignorance or greed.

With experience, you will learn where the charlatans are. For some years, I would not read anything coming out of the US Office of Naval Research, because the stories they released were not only boring and misleading, but every six months or so, the flacks there would release a few old stories again, hoping nobody would notice. I assumed they had a monthly target for press releases, and met that target by recycling. I met their dishonesty by ignoring them.

There were other US colleges with no real research to report, who kept on churning out bland rubbish. This is why, whenever possible, you should find and read the abstract of the paper online, and if you are going to write about it, you should email the lead author or the nominated contact person, and ask for a PDF of the paper. That gives you a chance to form your own opinion.

When I am scoping and planning a book, I will use Wikipedia as a starting point, but I know the traps: I use Wikipedia as a place to find things I should look into. There will always be rubbish there, but the quality stuff is building fast, as more and more people add original material and the sources. To see the sort of thing I mean, I contributed original material to the entries on the Silex Piano and the 1812 New Madrid Earthquake. In each case, I chanced upon original material that no search would have uncovered, and added it.

All I would say is: approach Wikipedia (and everything on the web) with caution. Use those sources wisely!!

Point number 8: trust nobody. (At least until you have double-checked what they say.)

Being open to revision.
Know as you begin that most of your first draft will be changed, either by you or by your editor. All writers are egotists, and the better you are as a writer, the more people will notice that (to be polite) you have a high regard for yourself. That usually shows up as a high regard for what you write. Anybody who can't see how good your writing is can be safely ignored, right?

Wrong. You are being your own worst enemy, because you are up too close to the issues, you care too much about things, but you simply can't make a judgement. The copy editor who questions your work is a friend, not an enemy.

There is another aspect: when we re-read what we have written, we see what we expect to see. All sorts of typos, spelling mistakes and bad grammar can slip past us. One method that I favour is to use software that converts my prose into an mp3 file that I can listen to while I am reading the text. The software I use is quite cheap, as it was designed for use by people with poor vision. You can find and buy it on the Internet: it is called TextAloud.

Against my better judgement, I was persuaded a few years ago to write a history of a World War II military campaign. I was asked to write it so teenagers could understand the complexities of a three-month series of battles on the Kokoda Track. As it happened, the general commanding the Australian army was a coward, a bully, a fool and a crook. My book rapidly turned into a brief of the evidence to prosecute that general. It didn't fit the brief I had been given.

I had a chat with the publisher, we agreed that the manuscript was rubbish, I ditched that draft, went back to my notes and wrote a second draft that told a human story and became a prize-winner. The first draft would never have won anything.

Point number 9: trust your editor. (Editors have a different view, and can often see what you can't.)

Where to publish.
This is the one area where I won't be of much assistance. As I have indicated, I have my networks, my contacts, and a solid reputation for always delivering as specified, on or before the deadline. That helps, but there's another issue that is even more important.

Remember what I said about listening to your copy editor? Here is a secret: editors talk to each other about writers, and they sometimes recommend an author to a published, based on knowing their track record. I rather suspect that some of my most valuable deals would have been missed if they knew me as a difficult character who refused to make changes in the text.

That is why you never refuse an offer, because you never know which one will give you the contacts you desperately need. The same applies to the poorly-paid writing jobs that are offered by magazines published for schools. Most of these have a regular turnover of staff, in part because those magazines go out of business, but also because the editorial staff are always looking for better work. And when they move on, they take the email addresses of productive and helpful writers with them.

The short answer as I see it: it isn't what you know, it's who you know, so you need to work hard to make yourself known.

I have rarely succeeded with a "cold call" where I come in as an unknown and pitch an idea, but it sometimes works. Most magazines offer a list of staff names, and sometimes emails. If they don't provide emails, you can sometimes work them out. Suppose you want to publish in The Magazine, and you know that the email addresses will all be in the form <something@themagazine.co.in>, there will be a few email addresses floating around out there on the web.

You need to be tricky and Google <"@themagazine.co.in"> (with the quotes but not the angle brackets) or <email AND "@themagazine.co.in">. With luck, this will harvest you enough email addresses to show you how the IT staff at The Magazine generate email addresses for the employees.

(This also works when an airline refuses to pay a promised refund because the call centre says wrongly that the refund has been paid, there is no other phone number and no published email address for the CEO.) 

(Note: the paragraph above is an example of the sort of indulgence that tempts clever writers. Under normal circumstances, I would have deleted it, but I left it in as a warning. While both true and correct, it is smug and doesn't tell the reader anything important. Be ruthless!)

So, once you have a name and an email, send a short email to the editor's assistant: one paragraph on your qualifications and achievements, a second paragraph listing one to three proposed topics, and asking if they would like to see a full outline or a draft. If you get no answer, try emailing the editor instead, but don't mention the earlier email.

I began my writing life expecting to write books and magazine articles. I was lucky enough to find a second strength: the writing of crisp 2250-word essays (this chapter is in effect, two such essays back to back). Then I found myself hired to write science news by a publisher whom I approached about an entirely different project. Luck was definitely a part of it, but persistence also played a part.

The printed book is probably dying, slowly, and magazines and newspapers are disappearing, but there is still a place for crisp prose that carries a message, interests the reader and ends cleanly.

Point number 10: it does no harm to approach an editor with a proposal. (Try to keep it down to one page of 12-point type with your name and contact details at the top, one paragraph about you, one paragraph about the content of the article you wish to write, and a few sentences about why you are well-equipped to write the article.)

Point number 11: good luck, and welcome to a noble profession. (I wrote that, just after writing the introduction—but I hope you guessed that!)


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[Addenda:

For more technical tricks, see How I get to write a book, and Planning a book with a spreadsheet. Also, look down the left-hand side of my writing home page and test out the links.]


Wednesday, 12 December 2012

An Australian Christmas


I was asked by a friend overseas to explain for her students what an Australian Christmas is like. Here is how I explained it in 1992. It was only later that I expanded it and turned it into a talk as well. The radio version was written in 1993, and I think it went to air at the end of that year. I was reminded of it the other day (I am now talking 2012), when an English friend asked what it was like having Christmas in summer.

Then I found myself minded, a few days later, to annotate and resurrect it while making an appointment to have a basal cell carcinoma burned off tomorrow.  Read it through, and you will see why that was a trigger.

You can find the original 1993 radio script here and at the bottom, there are links to my other radio talks.

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Our Christmas is different, under the Australian summer sun. My favourite Australian Christmas carol says it all, I think:
The north wind is tossing the leaves,
The red dust is over the town;
The sparrows are under the eaves,
And the grass in the paddock is brown . . .
Now that's Christmas in Australia. My family have lived here for close to 200 years, and while there're still traces of our Celtic inheritance and culture, we're part of this land now. When the Koori people claim any sort of relationship with their land, most whites scoff, but you can become a part of the land. It even happens to whites, with time.

Much of our sense of belonging came very fast, once the time was right. My parents' generation still look to Europe, my generation, and even more, my children's generation, see Australia as "home". This isn't the cheap imitation of patriotism favoured by struggling politicians, it's a deep sense of being in the right place.

When I visited Britain earlier this year [that was, 1993], I went to Kew Gardens. I explored the more exotic plant displays for a while, then I went to the "Australian house" for the muted greens of our vegetation. I sat and looked, and knew then it was time to go back home where I belonged, back where the greens are less lush, the dust is red, and the Christmas wind is hot.

A winter Christmas would be totally alien to me. Some forty years ago [60, now!], I learned that carol about our red dust and brown grass at school. It seemed right then, it seems perfect now. My parents never knew the song as children: its time hadn't come, then. Their carols were about winter snow and cold, but my favourite Yule-tide song describes what I experienced as a small boy, the warm summery Christmas times and events that I still love today.

As an only child, I always took off after lunch on Christmas Day for the local beach, with one of my new books from the uncles to read. (Those books always seemed to have a Scots or Jacobite theme when they came from the uncles.) When I left for the beach, my parents had a sleep to recover from the 4.30 am start we kids in the street always demanded, plus the rounds of drinks in each others' houses, from 8 through to 12, and a heavy, if cold, late Christmas lunch. Every year, my father would slip and cut himself, opening the tinned ham. It was one of the givens in life.

They played that carol on the radio, and a number of others from the same South Australian composer, just as I sat down to the keyboard to write this out. Now I've heard my Christmas song, I know that Christmas is here.

Usually there's a warm westerly breeze, our local equivalent of South Australia's north wind, coming from the continent's dry interior. All our hot winds come from the dry centre of the continent, and a hot wind is part of Christmas, too.

As a child, down at the beach in the late afternoon of Christmas Day, with my new book and my towel, there'd be sun, hot wind and hot sand, seagulls scavenging for scraps, a few worn-out adults improving their sun-tans, back before we learned all about skin cancers, and that's how I still think of Christmas. All salt and sand and seagulls and slightly smelly seaweed. A sibilant time.

It's late on a Sunday morning as I write this. I've just spent the last two hours at the beach, where my son is a "nipper", a trainee life-saver. Several hundred boys and girls have spent the morning in beach sprints, flag races, swimming races out past the breakers and back, and surf-board races. Now four small ones are in the back yard, piping as though they're competing with the birds, while my wife plasters them with cool factor 15 sunscreen, before they can go into the pool.

All of a sudden, the day spent on the beach or round the pool, soaking in the sun to get a healthy tan, is a thing of the past. Christmas presents this year will feature broad-brimmed hats, UV-proof shirts, sunscreen in designer bottles.

There's been a ghost of Christmas past in our house this week. My wife found a red patch on my back last Sunday. She was putting sun-screen on me before I went out as one of the safety patrol for the children during the swimming race. It was only small, but it was there.

I said that probably the mark was no more than an insect bite. She agreed, and we both worried silently to ourselves. The next day, I went to have a medical check. We may feel we belong here now, but our Celtic inheritance hangs over us, and Australia has the highest incidence of skin cancer in the world: we take no chances any more. It didn't make us gloomy, but we played safe.

In the end, it was nothing serious: only a small red patch that the doctor burnt off with dry ice and alcohol, just to be on the safe side. Not to worry, he told me: skin cancers are easy to deal with, so long as you get them early.

Then, because I like to get value for the consultation fee, I casually mentioned a small dark patch like a mole on the sole of my foot. The good doctor almost wrenched my foot off in his eagerness to get a clear look at it, for melanomas, he said, often appear first as dark patches on the sole. Melanomas aren't skin cancers: they're much worse. Melanomas are colonists, who leap-frog about, all over the body, riddling it with out-of-control growths. Melanomas are killers, but my spot was no melanoma, to our joint relief.

The politicians of the northern hemisphere muddle around about banning CFCs, and say the ozone hole is only in the south. In Edinburgh last April, I was told the only problem with the ozone hole was a few skin cancers in people of Scots descent in New Zealand. Nothing for anybody else to worry about, said the speaker.

Well, they'll soon learn that they're not immune either. Soon they, too, will understand the difference between skin cancers and melanomas. It's taken our wider public just two or three years to recognise what some of us first heard about twenty years ago. Soon the Northerners will have to change too, when the ozone holes start to appear over the Arctic. But hopefully it will not affect their Christmas habits, just their summer habits.

It's been raining here, once again. Australia's had a lot of rain in the last few years. Not long ago, there were floods in some of the best wine-growing areas. Still, "We always have unseasonable weather in summer", say the traditional cynics, tongue in cheek. Our local rain has brought frogs around from the nearby creeks, and so I check the pool at night and in the morning, to save them from drowning. That's almost become a Christmas habit, like having an early morning swim before the sun gets up too high.

We change our Christmas habits slowly, but few of us will sit down to a hot Christmas dinner in Australia this year. Some will take picnics to the beach and sit under umbrellas, eating sun-screen flavoured chicken or ham sandwiches, and they'll lick at fast-melting ice cream cones. Others will be out on boats on the harbour, while others will wait till Boxing Day when a fleet of up to 200 yachts will set sail to race to Hobart, 600 nautical miles away. A few people will go to the cricket or the tennis, many will just sit in their shady gardens, brushing away the flies.

The well-off may decide to go to a restaurant (if they booked in months ago), where they will eat too much, and drink too much good Australian wine. I, too, will drink some Cabernet Sauvignon, a red wine from an area where the dust is generally red, and the grass is brown, or will be, when the recent floods dry out. Red wine isn't good for me, I know, but I'll indulge in a small way. And I'll try not to cut myself, opening the ham.

My family will sit for their lunch in the enclosed and screened conservatory that I refurbished last year, a sort of extension of the family/lounge/dining room. My older son and I have just replaced the panel of shade-cloth on the clear fibre-glass roof today. It's tough black fibre-glass cloth, which will block out the sun's heat, and much of its ultra-violet.

We'll drink cold drinks in its welcome shade, and maybe even sleep there at night when it's hot. With luck, I'll finish the shelf where the flower pots and fish and frog tanks will go, before Christmas Day. I only have one frog at the moment, recuperating after being netted, three quarters drowned, from the swimming pool, but I'll release it tonight.

Right now it is noisy with children in the pool. My study windows are open, and four eleven-year-olds are in there, playing water cricket or something similar. The gum tree that hangs over the pool is in flower, and we've scooped maybe 2 kg of stamens from the pool surface. Christmas for us is a time of flowers, but they can be a mixed blessing.

We have Santa Claus here: just as we were leaving nippers, my son said "Oh, that's right. There was a Santa person coming at eleven to hand out lolly bags." "Do you want to go back," I asked. "No, they'll probably get salt all over them when the Santa comes in, in the surf boat."

The Santa in question is not the real one at all, but the fattest adult member of the surf club, in swimmers and Santa suit, smuggled out in a surf boat. He gets robed out beyond the breakers, and then comes ho-hoing in, standing in the bows and waving as the boat rides the waves to shore.

These surf boats are long, slim and light, rowed by four rowers and controlled by the "sweep" who steers the boat, and keeps the stern to the boiling breaking waves. The sweep is mostly an older man, who has already had many skin cancers burnt off. In a few years, I suppose all the boat crews will wear full suits to row in the morning sun.

Well, that's Christmas in urban, coastal Australia. Inland, we've had some good rain, but soon it'll be dry again, the red dust will swirl, and the grass will be brown once more. To outsiders, it may seem desolate, bare and forbidding. To us, it'll be more like home.

With luck, the sparrows won't get in under my eaves too much, for they go there to eat the spiders. I counted fifteen species of spider there, the other day, and what with the wasps eating some, and the sparrows plundering more, the spiders are having a hard time. I resent these feral foreign birds, which displace our native birds, as well as munching on my spiders.

Out on the plains the brolgas are dancing, says another of the carols in the set. Brolgas are magnificent birds, though I've only once seen them dancing. We leave for the bush, two days after Christmas, and we'll spend three or four days in the wilderness, where the Devonian metamorphics thrust up into the base of the Permian sedimentary rocks, where a single hand can span a gap of 100 million years in geological history.

We'll all take our new books (maybe with less of a Scots and Jacobite flavour to them than in my youth), and a couple of spare fly sheets to shelter from the sun under during the day. With any luck, the bush flies will be less of a problem than they were last year.

We'll see no brolgas, but we should see many other birds, kangaroos will crop the grass around the tents when it gets dark, and wombats will waddle and crump noisily through the camp site in the middle of the night. There'll be too many invertebrates to count, alas!

We'll explore the area, and maybe find a good cave in the higher rocks: the prospects look good. These "caves" are generally just rock overhangs, but they're good for camping in, during really wet weather. Some years ago, my three children and I were rained into a cave for 36 hours: when the mist lifted, we could wave at the people in the cave over the valley, and we could make our way around the cliff line to visit the university students in the next cave, or the adults in the other direction, or they'd come and visit us. For a wilderness area, it can get quite convivial in the Budawangs at Christmas!

We'll probably bump into any number of other like-minded families and groups on the single-file foot tracks. We'll all stop, each file to the left side of the track, share a few words, discuss wood and water supplies, and what's living where, who's heard the latest weather forecast, and then move on.

That's an Australian Christmas, in my view. Who needs snow, or reindeer, or jingle bells, when you can drift along a mist-covered river at piccaninny daylight, hoping against hope for a brief sighting of a shy platypus?

     The north wind is tossing the leaves,
     The red dust is over the town;
     The sparrows are under the eaves,
     And the grass in the paddock is brown ,
     As we lift up our voices and sing
     To the Christ child, the heavenly King.

A merry, joyous and peaceful Christmas to you all. May your land grow on you and yours, as this new land has grown on me and mine. We all deserve to belong to our own land, whether it has been our land for sixty years or sixty thousand years. We hope Australia will have a prosperous New Year, but somehow I think we will only do so when we can come to grips with the problems that come with belonging to a land.

Some years on, my children are somewhat grown, and every so often, I get little bits burnt off. So far so good . . .


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I must confess that, twenty years on, Christmas will be more sedate and less adventurous.  And according to this article, my favourite carols are being forgotten. A few pages on, you can find an article by me about bunyips, should the fit take you.

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The original version is one of a set of talks which were originally heard on ABC Radio National in Australia. All of the talks are copyright © Peter Macinnis, 1985-2012, but permission will be readily granted on request for all educational and most non-profit purposes (and for socially useful for-profit purposes)—I'm not particularly territorial, and on this one in particular, I'm generally delighted to share.



Watkin Tench's insects


For the most part, early scientists and collectors in Australia took little notice of "insects" (a term which in those days generally included spiders as well. To the collectors, spectacular birds and mammals were best, followed by reptiles and amphibians. It seems as though fish were regarded just as something to eat if they were edible, while the invertebrates and the inedible fish were of no interest at all.

Chrysolopus spectabilis, Long Track, Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park,
spring 2011, suiting on a gate at the trail head.
There were exceptions, of course.  John Lewin came out to Australia to paint nature as he saw it, but he was funded by a London entomologist, on the understanding that he (Lewin) would deliver lots of insects to his benefactor.

And, of course, one of the few animals collected by Sir Joseph Banks at Botany Bay in 1770 was Chrysolopus spectabilis, the "Botany Bay diamond weevil".  It's a fairly memorable beast that comes in different colours in different parts of the country.

Ordinary settlers like Watkin Tench found the invertebrates hard to ignore. Tench may not have been a naturalist, but he seems to be the earliest to write down what he saw of them.

Summer here, as in all other countries, brings with it a long list of insects. In the neighborhood of rivers and morasses, mosquitoes and sandflies are never wanting at any season, but at Sydney they are seldom numerous or troublesome. The most nauseous and destructive of all the insects is a fly which blows not eggs but large living maggots, and if the body of the fly be opened it is found full of them. Of ants there are several sorts, one of which bites very severely. The white ant is sometimes seen.
Spiders are large and numerous. Their webs are not only the strongest, but the finest, and most silky I ever felt. I have often thought their labour might be turned to advantage. It has, I believe, been proved that spiders, were it not for their quarrelsome disposition which irritates them to attack and destroy each other, might be employed more profitably than silk-worms.
The hardiness of some of the insects deserves to be mentioned. A beetle was immersed in proof spirits for four hours, and when taken out crawled away almost immediately. It was a second time immersed, and continued in a glass of rum for a day and a night, at the expiration of which period it still showed symptoms of life. Perhaps, however, what I from ignorance deem wonderful is common.
—Watkin Tench, A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson, ch. XVII.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

My life as an hysterical woman

Some thirty years ago, I had the misfortune to work in an office where the Assistant Director in Charge of Paperclips was an awful little oik named Ted.  He bore that title because I gave it to him after he committed repeated acts of vindictive spite against me, or more commonly, against third parties, decent and competent people for whom I was trying to do the right thing.  I was one of that old-fashioned breed that really meant it when I said "I'm from the government and I'm here to help you."

I learned some years later that he hated me because he had once crossed swords with my late father and been mauled.  Or so I was told by an unreliable source.  It doesn't matter, he was out to get me.  My father and I differed in many things, but neither of us offered even medium-length shrift to fools.

Ted was a fool to think that having a go at me was a good idea, because I had been home-baked, honed on the hard stone my father's idea of perfection.  I had also been to master-classes in dirty verbal and organisational fighting before I decided that politics was not the life I wanted.  I never did play office politics, but I was good at playing the hedgehog when people started kicking butt.

There had been a period at the end of 1985, when I was leading a major rescue, brought about because a large number of examination papers had to be reset and reprinted because the Government Printing Office people had made a total mess of their security.  In New South Wales, students at the end of their last year of High School, sit public examinations, and the system had been sabotaged.

My job was quality control. I was brought in, well into the year 1985 (guess which nasty little scrote engineered the delays that prevented a timely start!).  My task was to prevent the errors that had happened in the two previous years, and we did all of that.  Now, with the last-minute security breach at the end of the year, I had to get a very large number of papers reset in an impossibly short time. Luckily, my immediate boss had asked me to come up with a War Book, a set of contingency plans.

Being subversive, I assembled the original thinkers from around the office, the perceived "misfits" and the mavericks, people who thought like me and cared about the job of serving the public. Because I had the cream of the crop, when the alarms sounded, we had a plan for just about everything.

I had, on instructions from above (not all the high and mighty are complete idiots), interviewed old former administrative and clerical staff, and gathered their dismal forebodings, as well as what they had planned to do if one of their fears became real.

At that time, staff were either "Professional", meaning graduates, generally teacher-trained, many of whom were refugees from the classroom, and A&C, people who had started as clerks, and worked their way up.  Like the professionals, they were a mixed bunch, but at the time, the professional people were taking more and more of the senior jobs, and feelings were a little tense.  Because I was my father's son, and he (as a graduate) had gone from "Admin and Clerical" across to "Professional", he had been seen as having a foot in each camp, and some of them had known me since I was in short pants. The result was that I had unique access, and I used it.

Being me, I had registered the file as A Compendium of Disasters Great and Small.  That, my crew and I all agreed, was a great name for it—which tells you a lot about us.  In the end, we only needed only one of the many plans, but we had the one we needed.  It wasn't spot on for what happened, but we had a plan for those consequences, caused a different way.

I will say more about the process of applying that plan some other time, because our travails in implementing it in the face of a stampeding herd of fear-sodden superordinates (note that I do not, for good reason, refer to them as "superiors") makes a textbook case of what happens when people panic. For now, I will stick to the main story. (Looking ahead, a note in mid-2015: I will invoke the Thirty Year Rule in the near future, and tell all.)

Everything was done in Ministerially mandated secrecy, behind locked doors.  I designated a cheap but reliable worker to control the locked door, so my "friend" Ted took away his services.  Because he controlled the funds, he could do that.  I found another source of funds that he could not control, and put my own guard in place.

Our big worry was that a TV crew would bust in and film enough to reveal who was involved, and the politicians wanted a tight lid.  Ted organised the placement of security warning signs which were on an ascending scale of severity, clearly spelling out where the activity was going on. (Think of the children's game "cold", "warm", "hot", and you will get the idea.)

My loyal crew of mavericks, answerable only to me, and all having been targeted by Ted in the past, adopted a regular routine of moving the signs so they led away from where we were working, ending up in front of a broom cupboard.  In any media invasion, that should delay things and give us time to drop the blinds, lock the doors and call the cops.

I swore then that Ted would get his comeuppance.  We got through the reset on time and everybody but Ted got praise and promotions.  That was a nice start, but it wasn't enough.

The following year, we had a flare-up of cases repetitive strain injury, RSI, carpal tunnel syndrome in our work force.  This was the time when old-style typists were moving onto computers without any real training in ergonomics.  Then Ted made his mistake in a meeting of senior management, where I was the junior at the table, but I still had a seat.  "It's odd," he said, "how it only affects hysterical women."

I had him. "Are you sure it's only hysterical women?" I asked gently.  He sneered his affirmation.

"In that case, " I said, "I must be an hysterical woman as well."

This led to general laughter, but I had their attention as I explained in clinical detail what RSI was, what it felt like, and what its causes were.  I added that I was suffering it because I was writing a lot of correspondence for the Minister, adding casually that I had talked with people in the Ministry about it.

All of a sudden, the nasty old sexist was out on his own.  Nailed.  Nobody was sure whose ears I might have reached, but Ted had crossed every one of the people around the table in the past, I learned later.  They sat there, grinned, discussed the issue and agreed on a proper plan of action.

Anyhow, the point is that I have been managing arm, wrist and back problems for many years.   Dancers end up with crippled feet, fast bowlers in cricket, like writers, end up with arm and back problems.  I have lost most of the last three weeks of writing time because I was somewhere between severe pain and agony.  The diagnosis was that the problem came from me sitting too much.

Now since my initial self-outing as an hysterical woman, I have taught a lot of people how to manage things.  I knew the signs. I accepted the warnings.

Problems shouldn't have happened to me: I had a desk at the right ergonomic height, I had the best of chairs and the right foot-rest. The trouble was that the best of chairs was so comfortable that I spent too long sitting in it, an intervertebral disc played up (as it had been doing in mild form for the past 53 years, I realised later) and I was in real trouble.  It was worse than RSI, but part of the same family.

I did what was necessary to avoid being crippled.  I switched to typing standing up. But I knew I had to get things ergonomically correct. I started with a table top supported by boxes and a varying number of books as I zeroed in on the right level.  Notice how, in the third shot, my arms are flat on the table surface.


The monitor is still too low, but it came up for the last shot, seen on the left, taken a few days later.  At this point, I knew the necessary height, so all the books and boxes went, replaced by a skeletal table.

I fine-tuned the set-up, but after it took a steroid shot in my sciatic nerve to stabilise things, I decided to hasten slowly.  I think I may eventually drop the level another 2 centimetres.

See the notes in blue italics to the left.
[Added later] On the right, you can see  the final rig that I established. This is, in essence, a light table carcase, with a heavy top. If other people were likely to stray in there, I would have added stabilising screws or hooks,

And most importantly, if other people had to use it, I would have added some method of changing the height, because good ergonomic design demands that the height be precisely set to match the user, as outlined above.

The whole episode was brought on by frantic work to meet a deadline that was a bit too optimistic.  I may still meet it*, but it will be close.  In a sense, it was my own fault, because I was pushing along, ahead of schedule, so I had room to cover anything going pear-shaped—and in the process, I made my spine go pear-shaped.

Boys and girls, men and ladies, don't let this happen to you.  Sit right, exercise right, and don't try to beat a mad deadline.

In the long run, it really does detract from the joy of writing.

But no matter how miserable I get, I will always recall with joy and real pleasure how I identified with the hysterical women.
----------------------------------------
* Footnote: I did, in fact, meet the deadline for the Big Book of Australian History, but when the second edition was being prepared in September 2014, I had reverted to sitting, and I nearly did my back in again.  As soon as I felt the signs, the standing desk was (and is) still there, and I only needed to move the monitor and the mouse from the corner to the right of the computer in the picture above, back to where you see them above. I avoided trouble, just!

Moral: the price of mobility is eternal vigilance!

Sunday, 2 December 2012

The fruit bats, the palms and lytico-bodig

This entry is dredged from old files. It has the potential to have been overtaken, but Kymmaree made a comment that you can see in Collecting and Pressing Plants, and I am too busy right now to do a full reply, so this will have to do.

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First, here is what I wrote in July 2002: note the date carefully, because there may be newer findings!

The neurological disease, lytico-bodig is found only on the island of Guam, and it is now becoming rare. It became well-known when Oliver Sacks wrote of it in his book, The Island of the Colour-blind, describing his experiences on four islands in the area of Micronesia.  (By an odd coincidence, I had been on the island of Pohnpeim helping them with their science curriculum, and transited twice through Guam, not long before Sacks went there; I am quite colour-blind; and I attended a lecture by Sacks at about that time. Sadly, I knew nothing of his observations, and he wasn't talking about that work.  You win some, you lose some)

The disease hits many of the older Chamorros, the indigenous people of Guam, and its symptoms include loss of recent memory, wasting muscles, Parkinson-like tremors or complete immobility.

Aside from the book (highly recommended for a general readership), Guam has for many years been the focus of major studies. In medical circles, though, lytico-bodig as it is called by the Chamorros, is identified as a neurological disease known as ALS-PDC, short for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis - Parkinson-dementia complex.

Under either name, it exhibits itself with symptoms and fatigues in common with Lou Gehrig's, Alzheimer disease, and Parkinson's disease. The presence of the disease in the population of the Chamorro increased at alarming rates, and then just as mysteriously, decreased. Investigations have looked at everything from the water they drink to the air they breathe, but no solid evidence has been linked to the disorders.
Another view of the same plant


At its peak, ALS affected some 400 per 100,000 Chamorro, but now that Guam's cycad-eating bats have disappeared, the rate has fallen to about 22 per 100,000. Confined to the Chamorro lytico-bodig climaxed in the 1940s when it was the main cause of adult death and today it only occurs in older adults and rarely in any individual born after 1960. There was no genetic link to the disease, nor was there any obvious infectious origin. The only known correlate seemed to be with the Chamorro diet, and it was known that the toxins of the cycad plant caused neurological disorders.
An Australian cycad with fruit

That made sense: the cycad, a primitive sort of plant, is generally toxic, but in most parts of the world, locals know how to treat and eat the seeds. And sure enough, the Chamorros knew of the plant's toxicity as well. They ate part of the cycad in the form of flour in tortillas, the plants were washed repeatedly, and the amount of toxin they were exposed to was minimal.



On the other hand, there is a Chamorro delicacy, flying fox in coconut milk, that might be to blame. The flying fox is actually a large fruit bat, with a wing span of 1.2 metres (four feet) or more, and this dish is a delicacy served on special occasions. Mostly consumed by men, the entire animal, including the fur and all the insides, are eaten during social gatherings and certain important events. Women sometimes eat the bat as well, but only the breast meat.

Earlier this year, Sacks (from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine) and Paul Cox, Director of the National Botanical Gardens in Kauai Hawaii, came up with a tantalising suggestion. The bats are known to forage on cycad seeds, which contain much higher levels of neurotoxin then the rest of the plant. According to Cox, "when the people consume the animals, the effects of the toxin could be biomagnified," leading to high enough levels of the neurotoxin for people to show signs of ALS-PDC.

Flying foxes are hard to photograph
when flying and even harder to shoot.
Further evidence: the bats were eaten in ceremonial occasions and their consumption was a core part of Chamorro custom, particularly in the villages of Umatac and Inarajan, and these villages have the highest incidences of the disease. The authors also found the flying foxes some times consume up to two and a half times their body weight per night in fruit and nectar - and that they were particularly fond of cycad seeds.

So why did the disease break out and then die away? The island was taken over by the US military after World War II and used as a military base, leading to a new economic system, disposable income, and a heavy trade in the bats. One species of flying fox has already been wiped out on the island, and another is on the verge of extinction.

By day they roost in trees and so
are very easy to shoot.
The US military is not wholly to blame: the introduction of guns for hunting has led to massive downturns in the populations of food animals on many other Pacific islands. Flying foxes remain still, hanging in trees during the day, even when people are at close enough range to have an easy shot with a small-bore rifle, so after the 1940s, a great deal more flying fox was available, but in the end, the species was hunted almost to extinction by the 1970s, and the locals were then supplied with imported bat carcases, brought from Samoa, about 18,000 of them each year, at US$35 each. Significantly, there are no indigenous cycads in Samoa.

So far, this is only a hypothesis, and work is continuing to sample the few surviving Guam flying foxes to see if the bats contain high levels of the cycad toxin. Sandra Banack an ethnobotanist at California State University in Fullerton, California is working on the issue. "This is just a start," she said in a recent interview, "Bush-meat has the potential to contain many kinds of toxic chemicals. People should be cautious eating it."

**********************

Then I wrote this in August 2003:

Lytico-bodig  is a condition that is now only encountered in elderly people on the island of Guam. It shows up as what is technically called ALS-parkinsonism dementia complex (ALS/PDC), one of the reasons why the Chamorro name lytico-bodig is also common. The Chamorro people of Guam once had an incidence rate of ALS-parkinsonism dementia complex that was 50 to 100 times higher than the rate of ALS elsewhere. The decline in the incidence of ALS/PDC among the Chamorro mirrored the decline of the population of flying foxes (a type of fruit-bat), by the 1960s and 1970s.

It seems likely that the local flying foxes were absorbing some sort of toxin that came from a plant on the island, probably one of the local cycads. The local bats were hunted almost to extinction after World War II, and replaced by bats imported from other islands which do not seem to cause the same problems. But while the disease is no longer a problem, it remains an important area of study because it offers researchers the chance to model some of those conditions, and perhaps get an insight into what is causing them.

Now fifty-year-old museum specimens of the Guamanian flying fox may shed more light on why the Chamorro people once had an extremely high incidence of lytico-bodig. At the same time, the study, supported by the ALS Association, introduces the role that biomagnification of neurotoxins might play in the development of symptoms similar to those of ALS, Parkinson disease and Alzheimer disease.

Researchers report in the August 12 (2003) issue of Neurology that skin tissues of the flying foxes contained elevated quantities of BMAA (beta-methylaminialanine, or more formally, n-methylamino-L-alanine), a non-protein amino acid that has shown to kill neurons in cell culture, and is believed to be a possible cause of ALS/PDC.

Once readily available and consumed by the Chamorro, native flying foxes in Guam are now an endangered species, so the two researchers, located at the Institute for Ethnobotany, National Tropical Botanical Garden in Kauai, Hawaii, turned to bat skin specimens from Guam now housed at the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at the University of California at Berkeley, to measure the concentration of BMAA.

The skins contained a high concentration of BMAA - ranging from 1287 micrograms per gram, or parts per million to 7502 micrograms per gram. For comparison, the researchers also analyzed cycad plant seeds for their toxicity because they were an important part of the diets of both the flying foxes and the Chamorro. Although cycad seeds contain BMAA, the concentrations of the neurotoxin in processed cycad flour is believed to be too low to be toxic, and therefore their consumption was not associated with immediate ill effects. Compared with the high concentrations in bat skins, the concentration of BMAA in the unprocessed seeds averaged 9 micrograms per gram.

"The concentration of BMAA in these 50-year-old museum specimens suggests that the Chamorro people may have unwittingly ingested high doses of BMAA when they ate flying foxes," says Paul Alan Cox. "This appears to be a consequence of biomagnification of the toxic substances in the food chain."

Cox and Sandra Banack were building on the research hypothesis by Cox and Oliver Sacks, published in Neurology in March 2002, which theorized that the flying foxes' penchant for cycad seeds (which are toxic only in extreme doses) is what made the flying foxes toxic to humans. Earlier epidemiologic studies had raised the suspicion that the high incidence of ALS/PDC in Guam was due to the traditional foods of the region. Cox says other neurotoxic cycad molecules should now be studied to learn whether they are possible contributors to development of the disease.

In a related editorial in Neurology, Carmel Armon, from the Department of Neurology at Loma Linda University School of Medicine, Loma Linda, California, called the evidence of biomagnification of cycad-derived toxins in flying foxes "tantalizing."

He suggests it would be useful if future studies would confirm that the flying foxes in the museum are representative of the flying foxes that were consumed, adding: "The high concentration of BMAA in the museum specimens may have been the reason why these specific bats became museum exhibits." ALS/PDC research would also benefit from a look for biomagnification of suspected toxins in current ALS/PDC patients as well as in controls.

I'm not sure what has happened in the past nine years, but that gives the curious readers enough names and unusual terms to allow a tight Google search.

Over to you.

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Falling stanards

This is recycled from another blog that is about to be withdrawn.  I thought I had already saved it to here, but apparently not.  I'm rather busy still, so here's some brain food.

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Yes, I know, that title...it's annoying when you see a typo like "stanards", but as we get older, we tend to fuss more about such things.  Rest assured: it was deliberate, a bit like running one's finger-nails down the blackboard (yes, I'm an old teacher, and I used to do that on hot Friday afternoons to get them (and me) awake).

I want to offer a set of newspaper clippings that I assembled, some little time ago.  I used to draft rude letters for an exalted personage, and we were always getting whinges about falling standards.

It occurred to me that I should employ a well-known quote, variously attributed to Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Cicero and others (if I had to choose one, my money would be on Cicero, but that's another story).  It goes like this, and the idea was to show that this particular line is ancient:

"The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority, they show disrespect to their elders.... They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and are tyrants over their teachers."

"The young people of today think of nothing but themselves. They have no reverence for parents or old age. They are impatient of all restraint. They talk as if they alone knew everything and what passes for wisdom with us is foolishness with them. As for girls, they are forward, immodest and unwomanly in speech, behaviour and dress."

If you are ever tempted to quote the stuff above, please be aware that it is almost certainly bogus. What follows, though is the Real McCoy.
1.  At a recent examination . . . only 40 per cent of those who presented themselves secured a pass.  This is a truly deplorable reflection of the examination system, which after all these years, and at the expenditure of an enormous amount of public money, has thus shown itself totally incapable of teaching the simple requirements of reading, writing and arithmetic . . . If the instruction imparted at our schools is so lamentably defective that it merely turns out pupils so shamefully inefficient that they are unable to undertake even humble clerical duties, what in the name of goodness is it that the scholars do to learn to equip them for anything better? 
***************
2.  Inspectors complain of the English which they do or do not find in the primary schools. Reading lacks fluency and expression; articulation is defective . . . Spelling has not reached a high standard . . . Grammar is the bugbear of most teachers and children . . . Even writing has not reached the satisfactory stage. "Back to the 3Rs" will be the necessary slogan if improvement does not soon show up. 
***************
3.  Half the girls leaving school nowadays can't wash up the breakfast dishes, cook an egg, fry a chop, or wash their own stockings. But they can turn out coloured drawings that would make a cow bilious, and can do eurhythmic stunts like a professional dancer. But they can't do three messages without making a mistake in the change, while an attempt to peel a potato drives their parents to tears.
And the boys - they can't break up a fruit case for the copper fire, knock in a nail to hang up a cheap calendar, or be entrusted with two orders for the butcher. But they can talk wireless like a scientist, discuss psycho-analysis, and play handball 14 hours a day.
A lot of expensive faddism has crept into our education system, and the things that they will be called upon to do every day of their lives, they cannot do. 
***************
4.  Can pupils who attend the primary and secondary schools of the State spell properly? Is sufficient time devoted to the subject, and are the methods employed effective?
Many people interested in the intellectual development of the rising generation maintain that, judging by the examples of spelling which come under their notice, the answers must be given in the negative. 
***************
5.  After the introduction of a spelling list into primary schools, there was considerable informal discussion of the effect on the standards of spelling. As objective evidence of any change would be of value to the Curriculum Committee, the Director-General (on May 1 1951) approved an investigation to compare spelling standards with those of five and sixteen years earlier. To summarise the views expressed there was a general, but not a unanimous, feeling that a drop in standards had occurred which was especially evident as mis-spellings in written expression. 
Now here are the sources:

1:         Truth, 9 September 1915.
2:         Brisbane Daily Standard, 4 October 1917
3:         Truth, 24 December, 1924
4:         Telegraph, 27 August 1930
5:         Research and Curriculum Branch, Bulletin No. 6, 1952

But wait, there's more!

Here are some more comments on how society is going to bits, items that I dug out more recently. This time, the sources are supplied, with hot links to the originals.

ALBANY BOYS'.
This school makes steady and satisfactory progress. More attention - has been paid, during the last year to the lower standards. The arithmetic of the second and third standards is still deficient. Very few scholars provide their own books, using instead the free stock originally intended only for children receiving gratuitous instruction. 
The Western Australian Times Tuesday 27 August 1878 

***************
BIG DECLINE SEEN IN MORAL STANDARDS
The value placed on chastity has undergone a bewildering change in our time; and promiscuity and pre-marital experiences were regarded "tolerantly by an increasing number of young people," said Dr. Irene Sebire, Child Guidance Clinic director, at Blackfriars, Sydney, speaking at the summer school of the, Australian Institute of Political Science.
"The family to-day is passing through a crisis-which many feared it might not manage to survive," she said. 
The Canberra Times Tuesday 30 January 1951 

***************
"I do not know whether something is wrong with our social standards, or whether it is because of defective education, but we cannot close our eyes to the fact that drink is, consumed in enormous quantities in excess of that required for refreshment." 
The Canberra Times Thursday 17 February 1927 

So next time a mate starts rabbiting on about the awful younger people, just remember that people once said the same about us!

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

The entombed miner


Well, it's been a month, and I have been frantically busy, collecting an award for the book that came out in May, a Whitley from the Royal Zoological Society of New South Wales for Australian Backyard Naturalist, which they apparently liked, and then doing the publicity for the book that came out on October 1, Curious Minds, and then working on the next book which is straightforward Australian history for ages 7 to 14, a broad view of a few billion years.

So as a sop to my conscience, here is a story that I referred to earlier this year, the tale of a man who nearly drowned in a desert. For Australian readers who recall Stuart Diver at Thredbo, there are some parallels here, and that's not a weak pun on "diver", either.  The story kept a nation enthralled.  I won't have room for this in the current work, but I will get it into print some time.  You get to read it first.

* * * * *

A section showing the whole mine, to give a
 sense of perspective, and a portrait of
"the entombed miner".
For journalists, the story of Modesto Varischetti had everything. For starters, the man they called "the entombed miner" risked being drowned in a desert. He was a widower with children in Italy who had come to Australia to earn enough to keep them.

Best of all: the plan to rescue him with divers in special suits, rushed by train from the coast, 600 km away. They had drama, a risk of slow drowning, a man buried alive, children who would be orphans, and the hope technology would save him.

Varischetti's position
Dry places can be dangerous when it rains, because the rain runs across the dry ground in a muddy, rocky torrent. Around 4 pm on Tuesday March 19, 1907, heavy rain fell for two hours near the Westralia and East Extension mine, north of Coolgardie.

The run-off flowed towards the pit head, and plunged down the shaft. Other mines in the area also took in water, but this mine was hit hardest.

The first the miners knew of the problem was when a torrent of mud and debris hit them, but twenty of them were rescued, hauled up the shaft in skips, metal bins on cables. Only one miner was left, and the missing man was soon identified as Varischetti.

Zeroing in on levels 9 and 10, this is the position Varischetti was in when the water stopped pouring in, and before baling started.
The mine was divided into levels, each 100 feet, some 30 metres, deep. Level 9 was 270 metres down, level 10 was 300 metres below ground. The water filled the mine almost to level 9, and Varischetti had been on a drive, a horizontal tunnel, on level 10.

There seemed no hope for him, but he was in an air pocket in a blind vertical shaft, above the level 10 drive. When water filled the shaft, the air was compressed, but it held the water back so the trapped man did not drown. He sat back, and waited to be rescued.

People cheered when they heard that Varischetti was alive and tapping the rock in the shaft. At least he now had some hope, because the men above him had signalled their level with nine knocks and he had replied with ten. They knew where he was, but they had to get the water out of the way.

Pumping water from 270 metres down is difficult. The only way was to lower skips from the surface, haul them up, and tip the water somewhere away from the shaft. After some repairs, seven hours after the flood, water was being dragged out.

It was going to take at least ten days, and a different rescue method was needed. The young son of the local mining inspector, Josiah Crabb, came up with the answer. "Why don't you use a diver?" he asked. Enter Diver Hughes, as he was called. Frank Hughes was a former professional diver who had gone mining, so he knew mines and diving, but he had no diving suit or other equipment.

This was the age of the telegraph and the express train. Telegrams to Perth had a train rushing to the goldfields, with diving equipment and extra divers. It was a special train, with one coach, a brake van and an extra truck of coal as ballast to stop the train swaying, and it made the trip in record time.

Hughes planned to take in a second diving suit, put Varischetti in it, and bring him out. First he had to take in food, water, writing materials and an electric torch while baling continued. When the water dropped enough, Hughes walked through the drive, keeping his mouth close to the roof, without a diving suit. He made several trips as the water fell slowly, before Varischetti agreed to walk along the drive with him—though Hughes had to carry the exhausted man part of the way.

Late in the afternoon of March 28, the entombed miner left the shaft, 9 days and 2 hours after his ordeal had started. The excited crowd had been warned to stay quiet so as not to upset him, but spontaneous cheers broke out for all of those concerned. Worked up to a fever by the press, they cheered a great victory.

Frank Hughes and Thomas Hearne, another diver who helped, both received awards, medals and commendations, as well as the cheers of the mob. Even the Minister of Mines, who had done no more than have his staff meet the demands telegraphed from the goldfields, was decorated by the King of Italy. Nobody minded, because the humans had beaten nature.

Varischetti went back mining, and died at Kalgoorlie Government Hospital in 1920 of 'miner's phthisis', a dust disease of the lungs. He was just 46, and we soon forgot him.  Nobody commented on the irony of the man who nearly drowned dying of dust on the lungs.

Without telegraphs and express trains, the rescuers would have been too late. Without the telegraph lines that spanned Australia and the world and the steam presses and steam trains that delivered the news to a fascinated public in Australia and Italy, there would have been no wonder and nowhere near the level of celebration.

Modesto Varischetti would have just been another anonymous casualty of human greed.

If you want to know more about the history of gold in Australia, you could do worse than use this link which takes you to most of my research sources.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

An unexpected change of direction

Any careful reader of this blog will realise that I sometimes diverge into history.

I am not an historian: I am a story-teller, but in history, there are just so many stories to tell.

Right at the moment, I have been side-tracked. With a new book due out in eight days, my publisher has thrown a "quicky" at me.  The history of Australia in about 120 chapters of 750 words each, before the New Year.  I am now busily writing my way into this by tackling one of the most difficult portions, the story of Australia in the Great War, or World War I.

Now I do military history fairly well: I even get awards for it, from time to time, but I'm not that keen on doing it, because there are too many sad stories to tell.

Today, I an working on the 1915 'Coo-ee March' from Gilgandra to Sydney, 320 miles, 500 km.  It started out with 30 bushmen and ended with 263 young men when they reached Sydney.

I have just clipped one bit from a newspaper story: you can see it on the right or you can read it in The Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate (Parramatta), Saturday 13 November 1915, 11.

This is why I am not that keen on writing military history.

Mind you, I made that pretty clear when I blogged about a poem called My Son, some months back.

Am I being discourteous to the memories of those I write about?  I don't think so, because I believe that they went to war to make the world a better place for later generations.  If we know what went on, perhaps we can make some improvements without people having to die.

Oh, and for those who have been asleep, here's the new book, out in all good bookshops on October 1!  This one is written for Big People. but it is a spin-off from Australian Backyard Naturalist, inspired when I saw all the mouth-watering stuff at the National Library of Australia that wasn't usable in ABYN.

And now, I will replace my nose on the grindstone.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

I'm back on deck

Just that: I haven't slipped between the cracks or fallen off my perch.  I'm just a bit busy.  Something more substantial in a day or two.

This is a nice wasp from Vanuatu, which is completely irrelevant, but which may distract you from my lack of activity.

Nasty-looking, isn't he?

Saturday, 18 August 2012

Keeping snails and slugs away



A large land snail, found on club moss
under a banyan tree on Tanna, Republic
of Vanuatu on the Pacific Ocean.
A land snail from Margaret River,
Western Australia.
Are you fed up with slugs and snails?

This is a pbi, a partly-baked idea, suitable for somebody looking for a science project.  That means you need to do most of the work!

You can get rid of snails and slugs with bare copper wire, several dry cells (torch batteries—or flashlight batteries if you are American), or a small power pack (transformer-rectifier) and to test it, you will need some live slugs or snails.

Get some advice on connecting the batteries or the power pack to the wires. Look up <electronics components site:.au> for local suppliers and enter <battery holder> to find what you need. (That works in Australia, Americans may need to vary that wording.)

Old power packs from discarded phones or other gadgets will do, if they deliver 3 volts or less.

The idea is to make an electric fence to keep snails out of a seedling bed. The best design is two parallel wires, each connected to one terminal of your power supply.


You will need to work on insulating the wires from each other and the ground. I suggest using small pieces of polystyrene foam, cut from waste packaging and pushing the wires through, so as to keep the wires apart and out of contact with the ground.


Questions worth asking:

  • How many volts does it take to repel a snail?
  • What voltage do you need to keep slugs out?
  • If they leave slime across the wires, does this conduct electricity and "flatten" the battery, or waste electricity? 

Some ancient history:

Now here is an old version of the electric fence, based on the way two different metals will generate a small current by forming a "galvanic couple", a sort of simple battery, presented by Septimus Piesse.

It was written up in English and American science journals before the end of 1863, so it is now a very old idea, first published in Scientific American in 1863. The image below comes from that journal.

How to set out the zinc and the copper. 
Scientific American May 2. 1863, p. 276. 
Having a few pet plants which slugs and snails are particularly fond of as food, I have devised the following simple and efficacious mode of protecting them against their and my enemies; and as this plan may be useful to some of your readers, I herewith send you a description of my galvanic circle.

Procure a flat ring of zinc, large enough to encircle the plant; make a slit in the ring after the manner of a keyring, so that it can be put round the stem of the plant and then rest upon the ground.

Now twist a copper wire into a ring very nearly of the same circumference as the flat zinc ring, and putting it round the plant, let it rest upon the zinc, as in the illustration.

No slug or snail will cross that magic circle; they can drag their slimy way upon the zinc well enough, but let them but touch the copper at the same time and they will receive a galvanic shock sufficient to induce them at once to recoil from the barrier.

A bit of simple introspection and research should lead you to the conclusion that the three volts mentioned in my design was massive overkill.