The writing diary of a well-mellowed science writer who cares about the public understanding of science and knows the ropes. This blog bounces between my curiosity, the daily realities of professional writing, the joy of pursuing nature, and my recycling of ideas that won't be in some book or other as far as I can see, but still needed sharing. I welcome comments and suggestions! Spam will be blocked and reported. For my books, see http://members.ozemail.com.au/~macinnis/writing/index.htm
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Wednesday, 6 May 2015
A question of collaboration
Anybody who knows much about the books I write could be
excused for sniffing and saying "Ah, yes, Macinnis—always got his nose
stuck in the 19th century!" Well. it's
true—I do find the middle of the 19th
century fascinating, but only as a nice place to visit. I wouldn't want to live there, not unless I
can have a time machine to send back antibiotics, good cheese and a decent
It was a simple era, and somebody from our time can
understand even the fastest of the changes in science and technology happening
back then. Later, it all became too
complex. Mark Twain's Connecticut Yankee could go back in time
to King Arthur's court and reproduce 19th century technology, but could you make a transistor, a computer, or a
This belongs to somebody, If it's yours, give me a shout!
I don't long for the old times, but I find them
interesting, and I like finding things that belong more in the realm of
alternative-future fiction or steam punk. I lap up clockwork fly traps, steam-powered,
wing-flapping flying machines, balloons powered by tanks of compressed hydrogen
driving engines that turn the propellers or even balloons hauled by eagles.
It's hard not to feel smugly superior, reading their predictions
of the future. Let me lie back on the
couch, doctor, and I'll tell you about it.
It all began when I was a teenager, still in short pants,
reading the words of Egon Larsen, a mid-20th century science writer, praising
the virtues of atomic energy:
"Within a few years isotopes will turn up in many more
expected or unexpected places — perhaps the slogan 'Gamma Washes Whiter', will
become quite familiar to us when our ultra-sonic washing machines are equipped
with some gamma source to sterilize shirts and socks and napkins." 
A little earlier, he'd explained nuclear waste disposal like
"Even highly radio-active solid wastes can be disposed
of safely in the sea provided all relevant factors are kept in mind: movement
of the surface water, the breeding and migratory habits of fish, and the
possible hazard to seaweed where it is harvested for food, fertilization, or
industrial use." 
Perhaps, doctor, you can see why I grew alarmed. I knew little of food chains and
concentrations and nothing of the effects of ionising radiation on tissues. I'd barely heard of the concept of half-life,
but these predictions just felt
wrong. They seemed like a bad future.
Being a compulsive book gatherer, I started collecting
old books which offered visions of the future. I found they always warned us to make way for
the bright new future, to plan, to prepare, and
to act now. I also noticed that the
future always included flying cars and a world where we had swapped eating for
the efficiency and superior nutritional value of food pills.
What's that, doctor?No, I don't want to take two
fish and chips pills and call you in the morning. May I continue?Thank you.
Popular Science, 1930s.
Popular Science, 1930s.
Another common early 20th century theme was the modern
airliner. This had all the frills of a
1920s luxury ocean liner, but slung beneath the gas bag of a motorised balloon.
These Zeppelins on the grand scale each
had a ballroom, a dining room seating 129 fashionably attired gentlemen and
ladies, with space for dozens of servants and individual cabins, each fitted with
a bath and a shower. Modern cattle class, eat your heart out!
And one more definite, absolutely certain future: the
pneumatic telegraph. This did in fact
happen in a small way.It was still around
when I was old enough to be aware of it at a local clothing shop, where money
and sales dockets were carried through tubes to a cashier on another floor, and
the change and a receipt were returned similarly. It was scaled-down, but still clearly the
From Scientific American, 1860s.
The money and paperwork travelled in a small cylinder,
just the right size for the tubes. It
was neat and effective, but a mere shadow of the projected pneumatic telegraph,
which 19th century seers thought would replace messenger boys and telegraphy,
carrying messages and parcels unerringly to their destinations though tubes, using
high pressure behind or low pressure in front—or both.
Readers were assured that these innovations would
revolutionise their lives. Capitalists were
admonished in the early 1860s to put money into these schemes, ignoring all
Now imagine a world where farmers had walked off the land,
because, let's face it, food pills would soon do them out of the job. Think of a world where the roads had been dug
up and sold off to developers, because flying cars need no roads.
Contemplate a world where the cables have all been torn
down or dug up and sold for scrap, because the pneumatic telegraph was coming. Ponder a world where the airports have been
sold off to robber barons and covered with towering future slums, intended to
house the otherwise unemployed farmers, road-makers and cable layers, because
modern airships don't need long runways.
Nobody would plan on that basis, would they, doctor? I mean, it's ludicrous, isn't it? What sort of idiot would plan for the future,
based on half-baked notions, pipe-dreams?Who would base decisions on special pleading from interested parties, all
eager to hack out an empire for themselves?
So, why do people happily embrace the prospect of a world
without libraries, based on the prediction that we don't need books or
libraries any more, because we can get
everything we need from the internet?
Those who make sweeping assertions like this don't know
what books are, have no sense of what libraries do, and absolutely no idea of
what the internet is—or offers. Most
importantly, these rigid descendants of Wackford Squeers lack the wit to see
that institutions evolve. Change is attained
through finesse, using scalpels, files and sandpaper, not bulldozers, flamethrowers
OK, doctor, so I'm probably biased, being a book
collector and writer who likes hanging out with librarians, but at least I've studied
change and how it happens. Perhaps that doesn't
qualify me to predict the future, but it gives me a clear insight into what doesn't work.
One profound and simple change to our society came when a
bright spark had the idea of combining the mouse and the graphic user interface
to make it easier for people to access their computers. Most people credit Alan Kay with this idea,
and he was certainly involved in creating our mouse and windows world.That's why I like his comment:
"Don't worry about what anybody else is going to do… The
best way to predict the future is to invent it." 
He said that in 1971, forty years ago, probably before the
mouse and GUI came up. But then he did the
necessary work. The people like that who
do things are the ones that make change
happen. Some may make better mousetraps
or a brighter light, others just nudge the system. These are small moves that
by themselves do little.Together, they make
a Brave New World.
One emerging cause of change is collaboration. For all the problems caused by mischievous
people, Wikipedia is an amazing resource of ideas, notes and reminders. As more and more people offer their expertise,
adding original sources and detail, it continues to outgrow the silly games of
You can see one of my
contributions in the entry on the Flint Piano or lithophone. I made it after I came across some original
material, looked at Wikipedia for more detail, found the account deficient, and
rewrote the article, using what I'd found.
Another time, I added the text (and a pointer to the
source) of a first-hand account of an 1811 earthquake on the New Madrid fault
in America. That tremor made the
Mississippi River run backwards, and it rang church bells in Boston. I tripped over the account while seeking the
origins of the word 'diggings', and thought it interesting. At some time in the not-too-distant future,
that fault will move again. When it
does, my contributions will be there, waiting and accessible.
The grand planners and self-promoters want to scrap
everything, so only their vision of
the future can be enacted. Sounds a bit
like China's Cultural Revolution, doesn't it? I'd rather see cultural evolution, where we
get to keep all the best bits, and preserve the spare bits for a while at least,
in a box in the garage.
In 1990, two mathematicians, Philip Davis and Reuben
Hersh, offered a refreshing view of computer art. They thought its future lay
"… the dynamic, the animated, the interactive.It should look not towards Rembrandt, but
towards Verdi's 'Aïda'.Not just the
classical 'Aïda', but an 'Aïda' with the audience singing along and scrambling
onto the backs of the elephants on stage.Chaos?No.Total theatre." 
This is the way our society is quietly heading.Invisibly, it's happening, all around us. The National Library of Australia (who are,
let me confess, sometimes my publisher) have a remarkable resource called
Trove. This is a massive collection of
digitised newspapers, linked to computer-generated text which registered users
More than that, they can add generic tags like
"bushrangers", "39th Battalion", or one of my favourites,
"early use of language", the tag I hang on the earliest instances I
find of words like 'squatter', 'billy', 'bludger', 'swag' and 'fossick'—among
others. Those tags are there for all
Equally, I was researching two London conmen called Tripe
and Montague, who in 1852, fleeced would-be emigrants who were headed for
I found their
trial transcript at the Old Bailey, but until I found a record of their pardon,
I believed they had been transported to Australia. I grinned at their probable reception here, if
they met any of those they had robbed.
Curious, I burrowed and found an 1856 classified ad in
the Sydney Morning Herald where
'W.W.' was advertising for friends who'd been caught up in the swindle.
Trawling along, I found another ad in the same paper in 1865, where William
Waterford was mentioned. I went back to the first ad, and attached a comment,
drawing any later reader's attention to the second ad and the likelihood that
the mysterious W. W. was in fact William Waterford.
Slowly, the resource is growing, and the prospects for
future researchers are being quietly enhanced, not by hewing and slashing behemoths,
but by nibbling and gnawing mice.
One day, I hope, people will turn around, raise their
eyebrows and ask "Where did all that come from?" That day isn't here
yet, but we can hope for it, and work towards it. If I'm wrong, no harm will've
been done, because nothing is scrapped as these small additions drop into place.
But we're not there yet. The other day, I was looking at an
old Times Literary Supplement in the
State Library of New South Wales' online collections, when another article on
the same page caught my eye. It
mentioned Sir Horace Mann appearing in a painting in Florence. I soon found Zoffany's The Tribuna of the Uffizi and with some effort, tracked down a key to
the people in the painting.
I wanted to annotate the TLS article so others could find the same resource, but I couldn't.
One day, that'll be a given, because
every system will have that sort of flexibility worked into it. As a stopgap, I edited the relevant entry in
Wikipedia, and added a link there.
That's the future I look forward to. The difference between my vision and that of
the people who'd sack the librarians, pulp the books and demolish the shelves,
all to make room for soft lounges, a couple of computers and a gleaming great coffee
machine is this: my vision offers hope, and doesn't prescribe world-crashing
and irreversible destruction. We build
on what we have, knowing that some of the old stuff—and some of the new—will be
discarded, once we're in a position to decide.
As the twig bends, so the tree bends.A future built on collaboration relies on
people who gain a quiet joy from contributing gems, nuggets and crumbs to
future generations, whimsical folk who amuse themselves by committing acts of
You see, doctor, this is the way the world bends—not with
a bang, but with a whimsy.
Egon Larsen, Atomic Energy, Pan
Books, 1958, p. 136-7.
Egon Larsen, Atomic Energy, Pan
Books, 1958, p. 136.