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Thursday, 15 June 2017

The $ecret Touri$m Plan


The following information is embargoed.  Under no circumstances is it to be shown to any person who cannot prove Australian citizenship.  In appropriate cases, loyalty oaths may be administered as a precursor to granting permission to view the following.

It is a well-known fact that public museums do not pay their way: it is time they looked to private industry, which always pays.  The public sector should examine more closely the specific activities which pay.  They should seek to move our museums into the New Age of economically rational cultural experience.

Instead of displaying old bones and other relics of an increasingly irrelevant and bygone age, our museums must begin to address the needs and concerns of today.  They must present useful and memorable cultural experiences, compressed to allow the maximum variety and the widest geographical coverage, all within the shortest possible time.  Museums must be forced, if necessary, to give value.

We need look no further than one recent development to see how public museums are at present completely missing the commercial point.  I was recently fortunate enough to visit ‘The Australian Experience’.  It was a truly eye-opening to see just how much can be done commercially with just a small amount of flair and imagination.

The Australian Experience is a train of eight exhibition carriages, running from the Gold Coast down into northern New South Wales and back each day, with inbound tourists (that is, foreigners with plenty of disposable income) as the main targeted market.

It is hauled by a steam locomotive fondly known as ‘The Mauler’, (having been involved in 106 confirmed human fatalities: a definite draw-card for the non-traditional museum demographic).

The Australian Experience aims to give the busy tourist all of the experiences and photo opportunities which would otherwise take many days to achieve, and always with the risk of bad weather spoiling some of the shots.  The Australian Experience guarantees that there will be no such problems with photography for its guests.

On boarding at 9.30 am, passengers are welcomed to their seats in one of the lounge cars by Aboriginal hostesses in traditional gold bikinis.  There, they are given a choice of cocktails (named, for their principal flavours, ‘Billy Tea’, ‘Draught Beer’ and ‘Bluestone’).  The soothing background music in the lounge cars is a medley of traditional railway songs and ballads, including ‘Casey Jones’, ‘The Wreck of the Old Ninety-Seven’, and ‘The Tay Bridge Disaster’.  Once the train is under way, passengers can wander at will through the exhibition cars, trying all the varied delights that our wide brown land has to offer.

Car 1.

This carriage re-creates the parched outback.  Authentic smells (the carriage doubles as a working cattle truck each night), authentic lighting (cracks in the walls are covered with red cellophane), and a realistic cow depict life in the outback.  Staff are at present working on synthetic wool coats that will allow them also to use the cow in a scaled-up demonstration of genuineAustralian shearing.  The carriage is heated to outback levels by a ducted system running from the locomotive's fire-box, demonstrating the designers' concerns for both parsimony and for the conservation of energy.

At a quarter to each hour, coinciding with the simulated low tide in the Great Barrier Reef car, the Wet Season arrives, followed by the projection of time-lapse images of the desert bursting into bloom.  Visitors will be able to purchase colourful souvenir ‘Snowy River’ raincoats of reinforced paper (seen being manufactured later in Car 7), or they can remain within the protective plastic tunnel which extends down one side of the carriage, five minutes before the start of the Wet Season.

Car 2.

After the heat of the parched outback carriage, the tourist next enters the air-conditioned comfort of the ‘Great Australian Pub’ carriage.  Here we see trained blow-flies performing in one corner of the carriage, and two stunt men re-enacting a variety of famous Australian bar-fights.  There are broken bottle fights on the hour and half hour, with audience participation by prior arrangement.   All guests are provided with one complimentary drink from traditional Australian beer-cans (reusable, but hygienically sealed prior to use).  Further drinks may be purchased by guests.

Car 3.

Here the Great Barrier Reef is re-created.  Entering by a raised area, guests move down a ramp between long narrow tanks filled with brightly coloured fish and preserved corals.  This carriage has elliptical wheels to give the impression of sea motion, and to ensure appropriate smells of motion nausea from those patrons who spent too long in Car 2.

As patrons move down the ramp, they gain the impression of dropping below sea level, entering the secret world of the fishes, complete with recorded whale songs and sea shanties.  A small beach panorama is available at the far end, where guests may be photographed, along with a range of cardboard cut-outs.  Masks and snorkels are available for photos in front of the Reef tanks (realistic bubbles in the tanks are strategically placed for guests to pose near).

Car 4.

Here, guests meet the Australian Bush.  With a surround-sound system of taped bird-calls, Australian aborigines demonstrate their traditional Dingo Circus, and show videos of their boomerang-throwing skills (due to insurance problems, management have required then to use only cardboard boomerangs inside the car), and a small shop sells traditional Australian bush scents (Lantana, Prickly Pear, and Salvation Jane), plastic didgeridoos and other aboriginal memorabilia.

Car 5.

This is a marvellous Chamber of Horrors where guests see at first hand the problems of the early settlers.  There are tableaux of families dying of the Barcoo Rot, a face-painting activity where children's faces can be made up to simulate Sandy Blight, giant models of blow-flies (photo opportunity!), live Hexham Grey mosquitoes, depictions of dingoes stealing settlers' children, and, behind a fire-proof screen, a real bushfire, complete with recorded screams and simulated burning bodies (to allay the worries of the squeamish, guides point out that the bodies are actually those of bush-rangers).

At the far end, a children's jumping castle features a user-friendly range of giant goannas, crocodiles, taipans and other snakes and spiders.  With the exception of the taipans, which are de-fanged to protect the fabric of the jumping castle, all of these animals are inflatable rubber models.  Smaller inflatable versions of these may be purchased from the concessionaire.

Car 6.

Aussie tucker and Aussie self-sufficiency are the themes here, and guests are invited to participate in a shooting gallery activity.  No live animals are used: white metal targets with projected images of assorted mammals and birds on them are used.  Sensors identify where the target is hit, and sophisticated circuitry generates a scream appropriate to the shot's accuracy.

In any case, prizes are awarded to all.  For example, hitting five kangaroo targets causes a cup of kangaroo tail soup to be automatically dispensed, and other prizes include roast meat in damper sandwiches (pure reconstituted beef, but with an authentic aroma of koala meat), and savoury ‘possum stew’.

All food is cooked under the patrons' gaze on a gas-fired barbecue, and stuffed toy replicas of all the Australian wildlife targets will be on sale.  Guests who wish to be photographed with the tastefully posed giant dead Diprotodon may borrow a replica of a semi-automatic rifle to improve the authenticity of the photo.  This segment is augmented by one of the staff who collects road kills on her way to work each morning.  As a trained make-up artiste, she adds realistic bullet holes to each body.

Car 7.

The Australian city is recognised as the natural habitat of most modern Australians.  Along one wall, are panoramas showing the major cities of Australia, with strip-lighting from above, to allow these backdrops to be used for taking souvenir photographs (for the sake of convenience, Uluru will also be depicted here).  All of the expected icons are depicted in these panoramas.

The other side of the carriage features typical Australian city scenes: a typical sweat shop where newly arrived migrants make the ‘Snowy River’ coats for sale in Car 2.  Nearby, famous multiple murders are re-enacted against rear-projected backdrops (allowing a later expansion to international coverage), drug addicts inject themselves (using only the safest organically-grown and Australian-made materials), and convicts are flogged.  Products on sale include replicas of Arvie Aspinall's alarm clock, and the sweat shop staff and addicts perform multicultural dances when their other duties permit, adding a delightfully realistic air to the proceedings.

Car 8.

Known as ‘The Big Car’, this last carriage features scaled-down versions of thirty of Australia's favourite ‘Big’ icons: the Big Merino, the Big Banana, the Big Pavlova, the Big Prawn, and others.  By a clever application of optical systems, the guests may be photographed alongside apparently full-size icons.

This is the end of the exhibition, and guests can now return to the lounge coaches until they reach their destination, where they can have a two-hour visit to the ‘Las Vegas’ room of the local RSL club, complete with authentic poker machines, designed to accept and pay out in all Pacific Rim and EEC currencies, or they can join in the community singing of German beer hall songs, directed from a Karaoke machine.  On the return journey, they are free to visit the exhibitions again.

As you can see from this brief outline, the example is there, completely ready for us to emulate.  Even if Sydney ignores the chance of offering the same or similar experiences in other parts of Australia, The Australian Experience has by no means completely capitalised on the commercial possibilities

For example, many of the photographic props are provided free of charge, when they could be hired or sold, there is no rain forest experience, there are no crocodiles, no psychic sheep dogs, no albino or mutant or deformed animals, and there are no trained birds able to swear in many languages on command.  There is no option for conservation-minded patrons to shoot feral cats.

Looking again at the high end of the market, they offer no surf experience, no surf boards, no video games or simulations, and there are no plans to offer virtual reality experiences.  There are no thoughts of providing computerised interactive videos where the purchaser's image is electronically inserted into a wide range of pre-filmed Australian adventures, ranging from soft focus sex in the tropics to skiing naked down Kosciusko (naturally, with tastefully placed simulated icicles covering the rude bits), to more family-oriented fare, such as a kangaroo-back ride across Arnhem land.

The operators have totally missed the perfect opportunity to offer paravane sports from the rear platform of Car 8.  At this point, The Australian Experience has no special rides for the under five age group, no publishing plans, and no awareness of the franchising possibilities of their scheme.  That being said, they have still done well, and the way is open for a forward-looking organisation to seize this opportunity with both hands.

This madness is, in fact, based on a real submission that passed over my desk at one point, because the institution I was working for had a few hare-brained Marketing types who wanted a slice of the action.  I have toned down some of the more excessive suggestions, but there are definite echoes of the original to be found in Car 1.

I have recently found a long-lost file called Rudes, which contains many of my best minutes, notes and correspondence, written during a surprisingly long career as the world's only anarchist-surrealist bureaucrat. This was among them, and there are more of what my colleagues usually called Acid Drops to come.

Friday, 9 June 2017

The nature of starvation

This is an essay that I wrote in the late 1980s, as a radio piece. It was short, and harsh, because I delivered it in a voice lacking any sense of outrage. Some 15 years later, in Auschwitz, I heard a young Polish lady telling us the Holocaust story, in similar dispassionate tones.

The style packs a punch, because the listener hears no outrage, but is free to feel outraged. Demagogues, please take note: you don't quiver with rage, you nurture just rage — and then you may pass for human.

Anyhow, the producer listened as I recorded it in a single take, and then called it “a real smack in the gob”, which please me, because she and I knew what that meant. It won a minor award (a "highly commended" in the Michael Daley Awards, I think), after which I allowed a number of charities to use it for free. For all I know, it’s still being used.

So if it sounds familiar, that’s good — but it started with me.

The scene is Australia, where New Year’s Day is in summer, but it could be any day, anywhere.

It is the first of January, a hot, muggy, hung-over New Year’s Day morning in Australia. The time is just six-thirty, and the sun is already well up in the sky, as the first airliner of the day lumbers down the airport runway, lurches sluggishly into the air, banks, turns, and flies away at an altitude of five hundred metres.

It roars across the suburbs, disturbing the well-fed dreams of hope and New Year’s resolutions for last night’s revellers. Then leaving the suburbs behind, still flying at five hundred metres, it ploughs noisily into a mountain, killing everybody on board. Silence is restored … but not for long.

Two and a half minutes after the first plane lifted off, another fully loaded jet rumbles off along the same flight path to the same mountain, and again, all on board die. That second plane is followed by another, and another, and another, every two and a half minutes, right through the morning.

By 7.10 am, before most people have even had their breakfast, the air deaths have already exceeded the annual Australian road toll. All day, the planes fly, but mercifully, they stop at 6.30 pm, just as Australia sits down to dinner.

For all the horror this image brings to mind, the day’s unceasing carnage has only just kept pace with the numbers who died of starvation in the Third World that New Year’s Day. For them, there has been no hope, from us, there has been no resolution.

Before breakfast the next day, the obscene procession starts all over again, running to the same deadly timetable, for another twelve hours. Just after lunch on January the second, you can add in those killed at Nagasaki as well, and still the planes keep taking off, and crashing. Still they do no more than equal the deaths from starvation.

By the evening of the third, the toll has expanded to cover those who died at Hiroshima. The planes must fly for four months more, before we can count in the deaths in the Nazi concentration camps that took seven ghastly years to notch up.

Before the year’s end, you will be able to throw in all the battle-field deaths of World War II as well. There will be time enough left, in fact, for flights to cover Vietnam, the genocidal outbursts of Pol Pot, Idi Amin, and Papa Doc Duvalier, and still there will be flights to spare.

Each day, the deaths will have only just matched the deaths around the world from starvation. All the sickening holocausts, all the brutal massacres, all the killing fields of the latter half of this century, all of them equalled, corpse for corpse, in just eleven months.

But to kill as many as starvation and starvation-related disease will kill in just that single year, the flights cannot stop . . not yet. They must go on, right up until 6.30 pm on December the thirty-first.
Then, next morning, it will be a new year, and the flights must begin all over again.

Starvation does not take holidays.

For the starving, there is no hope, from us, there is no resolution.

One air crash is front-page news. Two crashes on the one day, and they will have special news bulletins. Make it three, and there will be a Royal Commission, resignations and sackings. It’s a funny old world.

Monday, 29 May 2017

My Visiting Scientist talk

One of the fun things I do is to be the "visiting scientist" at a local primary school, and I am to give a talk to stage 3 later this week. What follows is an outline of what I will probably say, though I still need to cut a bit. That said, any savvy adults wishing to chip in with comments, or, in particular, detected errors, go for it.

There are quite a few salient links here, and there is also some additional material, because I will encourage my students to read this, when they are ready.

My basic brief was to show them how other cultures helped us learn about the night sky. If you know me, you will know that I stand up for respect for other cultures.

Really, I am in the school to support all four STEM areas, but if you don't know the jargon, that's Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, and I like to at least give them all a bit of a canter.

I plan to begin my talk by explaining that I turned 21 last month. What I only explain later is that I am counting in base-36. I do explain that mathematicians use notation a lot, and I mention factorial numbers. If you don't know them, factorial 6 is written 6! and that means 6x5x4x3x2x1.

I add that mathematicians use lots of notation, and any mathematician seeing this, would immediately confirm that mine is a correct mathematical statement.

I then move on to observe that STEM is like a four-legged elephant: "Take away one leg and it may fall over." This goes with a pic that is part of my nod to technology: you can find any picture you want on the Interwebs.

That elephant lost its leg to a land mine, a nod to the fact that technology can do bad things, but other technology can fix the harm.

STEM is always about HOW COME? and WHAT IF? and that leads me into a verse that most of those I have ever taught have seen and heard (and the more perceptive reader will note that the elephant theme is still running):
I KEEP six honest serving-men
 (They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
 And How and Where and Who.
That is from Rudyard Kipling's 'Just So story' called  The Elephant's Child, which most people refer to as How the Elephant Got its Trunk.  In summary, it goes something like this:
  •   The Elephant’s Child always asked questions, and people spanked him;
  •   He wanted to know what crocodiles eat: each one he asked spanked him;
  •   The Kolokolo Bird told him to go to:
  •         the great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever-trees, 
             where he asked the crocodile about its diet.
Kipling was a delightful writer for children like me, with the elephant's old nose being a mere-smear nose, which got stretched, and mere-smear nose repeats over and over, as does the great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever-trees, but the bit I always loved was him saying:

'Led go! You are hurtig be!' Why?  Look at the picture above.

As Kiplingites will know, there is more to the story: if you aren't a Kiplingite: go to this link.

Why do I go off on this tangent? Well Kipling's 'Just So' stories tell us one version of how things began, but they may not be entirely reliable, and science has its own Just So stories.

For example, we say that Mendel discovered genetics, but anybody who has read my Not Your Usual Science Quotations will know about an account that Pierre de Maupertuis wrote about a family with six digits: here is an abbreviated version:
Jacob Ruhe had six digits on each hand and foot, as did his mother Elisabeth, and her mother. Four of Elisabeth’s eight children had six digits. Jacob Ruhe, one of the six-digital children … had six children; two boys had six digits …
So clearly, there was genetics before Mendel, and now, you might think I was ready to start on astronomy, but infuriatingly, I move back into numbers:

Thinking about the Ruhe family, if we had six fingers and six toes, would our counting be based on tens or dozens?

Then I demonstrate how we can count in blocks of five, with the help of an assistant, before revealing this truism on the right.

No, I won't explain it here, either but I do mention some reading (left) that they can do when they are older. My point is simply that we can count in other systems, if we wish. And why does this matter? Well, blame the Babylonians.

I filched this pic from Wikipedia (right), but it is just to show why we measure angles and time in a base-60 counting system.

Now, we really are getting close to astronomy, space and all that stuff. We begin with the shape of the Earth, which most of us think is a sort of sphere.

Did Columbus invent the idea of a planet that was round?  No, of course not: that's just a Just So story, made up by people who knew no better, passed on by modern ignorami.

Some 2000 years before Columbus, the old Greeks knew our planet was a sphere (even though they didn't realise that it was a planet). They knew the shape because:
  • things always fall towards the centre of the Earth;
  • they saw the Earth's shadow on the moon in a lunar eclipse; 
  • things further away disappear over the horizon; and
  • they could measure the size of the globe.
Pythagoras was probably the first to say that our planet is more or less spherical, but most Greek philosophers mentioned the shape at one time or another. Aristotle knew about it, and Archimedes clearly knew it, given his Proposition 2:
The surface of any fluid at rest is the surface of a sphere whose centre is the same as that of the Earth.
Even Herodotus (c. 485-425 BC), the first historian, seems to have had a hint of the evidence. He described a circumnavigation of Africa by Phoenicians, and how they saw the Sun to their north when they passed around the southern tip of Africa.
These men made a statement which I myself do not believe, though others may, to the effect that as they sailed on a westerly course round the southern end of Libya [Africa], they had the sun on their right—to the northward of them. This is how Libya was first discovered to be surrounded by sea...
In the 2nd century AD, an astronomer called Ptolemy summed up the evidence: as you sail north, the Pole Star is higher in the sky; eclipses of the moon are seen at a later hour in the east than in the west, and the differences are proportional to the distances east or west. When you sail toward a mountain, you see the peak first. The Earth always casts a circular shadow on the Moon during a lunar eclipse, and if that isn’t enough, the sphere was the most perfect shape imaginable.

When you put together all of these, the Earth just had to be a sphere, or close to it. Cylinders, flat and concave surfaces just did not measure up. Now all the Greeks needed to put the whole question to bed was a way of measuring the world. The problem was that they could not get a large enough tape measure, and even if they could, trees and mountains would get in the way!

The measuring bit involves another Just So story, because in the official version, Eratosthenes measure an angle of 7°12', which is 1/50 of a circle, but they didn't have protractors then, and we still can't be that precise with just a protractor. 

My guess is that Eratosthenes cut out a wedge of papyrus, matching the angle, and then made more copies, and formed them up into a circle: that's how I would do it. Still, here's the way the story is usually told, and how I told it in a book called 100 Discoveries, which is about how we probably discovered things.

Eratosthenes was a Greek astronomer, born in what is now Libya, and he died at Alexandria in Egypt. Being Greek back then was more of a cultural thing than a matter of living in Greece. If you spoke Greek, and especially if you were educated in the Greek way and lived among other Greeks, you were Greek, like Eratosthenes—or Archimedes, as we will see shortly.

Because he had access to the huge library in Alexandria, Eratosthenes learned about a vertical well at Syenê (today’s Aswân on the Nile). There, on a certain day of the year, the sun shone straight down the well at noon. And on the same day of the year, the noon sun was seven degrees and twelve minutes away from the vertical at Alexandria.

Divide 360° by 50, and you will see that 7° 12’ is one fiftieth of a circle so the two places are a fiftieth of the way around the globe. Long before Eratosthenes, the ancient Egyptians had noticed this difference in sun angle, but they thought the earth was flat, so they used the angular difference to estimate distance of the sun from the earth as about 5000 miles.

Eratosthenes knew the sun was much further off, which meant the sun’s rays must all be parallel, so the difference just had to be a result of the curved surface of the earth. Measure the distance from Syenê to Alexandria, multiply by 50, and there would be the circumference of the earth.

The angles were fairly accurate: modern Aswan is at 24° 5’ 23” north while Alexandria is at 31° 13’ north, so the angle was only wrong by about 1%, but the distance estimate was far more questionable. Syenê was not directly north of Alexandria, so they did not lie on the same meridian of longitude, meaning that if the measured distance was accurate, it would be too high. In any case, the estimated distance over land was always open to error.

The biggest snag for us is that Eratosthenes gave the distances in stadia. Back in the days when units were not standardized, this was fine. Sadly, the length varied from city to city and we have no idea exactly how long Eratosthenes took a stadion to be. If we assume the most probable length of the stadion, he was within a few percent of the correct measure of the planet—but he probably got close only because a few compensating errors evened out the rough bits in his method.

In the end, Eratosthenes said: “If the extent of the Atlantic Ocean were not an obstacle, we might easily pass by sea from Iberia to India, keeping in the same parallel.”

Then because we are in Egypt, I turn to Egyptian astronomy and the Nile floods. The Egyptians had no idea that monsoons in Ethiopia caused floods, but they knew when floods would come, based on the heliacal rising of Sirius, which is the time when Sirius is visible in the morning sky, just before the Sun, each August.

That leads me on to records in preliterate societies, and in the bush, not too far from the school, there are some petroglyphs, engravings in the rock made by Aborigines.

I have been seeking and photographing these for 60 years now, so I know a fair amount about them, as an uninitiated Gubba. I know that they were used for teaching, in much the way that I use PowerPoint. I also know that there are right and wrong ways to photograph them, and spilling water on them is now seen as the best way to record them.

Then there are the oral sources: it has been reported this year that the Gugu Badhun people of northern Queensland have a story about a pit with dust emerging and causing fire to run down gullies, and that sounds very like a volcanic eruption that probably happened 7000 years ago!

Working out some of the old stories mean they mean is hard, but some of them must have been reminders for things to do, or teaching legends, like Wirreenun the Rainmaker and Tiddalik the Frog.

(Wirreenun, in particular, has me excited, because it mentions using "ant-bed" [termite nest] to make a solid floor. I knew this as a common practice followed by early white settlers, but this points to their having obtained this from the people whose land they invaded.)

I will also mention a story from Jean A. Ellis's book, From the Dreamtime : Australian Aboriginal legends. This tale, The Two Brothers and the Pointers, explains the danger of fire, and whenever children looked up at the Pointers, two stars near our Southern Cross, they would be reminded to be wary of fire.

Here is a key point: I argue that the Greek legends about the stars are also using the stars as reminders, much the same as the way the original Australians used engravings and the stars — but the original Australians also used the stars as a calendar, just like the Egyptians, as these examples show:

Around Yirrkala, Orion and the Pleiades warn of storms that may upset canoes.
The Pitjantjatjara people lnew that the Pleiades (Kungkarungkara) in the dawn sky indicated the start of the dingo breeding (and hunting) season.
In Arnhem Land, the appearance of Arcturus and Vega was fish trap time.
In Victoria, that is time to look for the pupa of the wood ant.
Around Sydney, the Guringai were reminded when to gather emu eggs in October, by the Emu in the Sky.

Let's jump on this last one, because it relates to an engraving site that I have been visiting for 60 years: I went there first in 1957, but only now, have I found out Barnaby Norris' explanation. His pictures are copyright, and I am using them without permission, but I hope he will excuse my admiring use for educational purposes of one of those pictures. I got it from the link below, but go there for even better stuff.

There is a formation in the Milky Way, known in some Aboriginal cultures as the Emu. Here is Barnaby Norris' version of it:

Now the thing Norris noticed was that there are engravings of Baiame and his emu wife, on sandstone in Kuring-Gai Chase National Park, and in October, the Milky Way emu hovers above the stone one, just at the time when one should gather emu eggs.

In this way, the night sky became a reliable calendar (more reliable than the Julian calendar that was going haywire by the early 1500s when Copernicus began looking at it.

The Greeks had named the constellations and gave them legends that helped people remember them, but they named few stars, and they hardly used the stars for navigation, unlike Captain Bligh, who used something called plane sailing (and please notice the spelling!).

At this point, I launch into ways of making simple measures of angular distances in the sky, using hands, a cross stave and a simple astrolabe. I'll say more about those, some other time.

Then there's the kamal, invented by Arabic traders across the Indian Ocean. This uses a card and a strong with knots, and depending on the knot you use, can tell you if you are in the right latitude. The Arabs, by the way, gave a lot of stars their modern names: I cherry-picked this one from Wikipedia as well.

After a bit of jumping around, looking at early instruments, I come to the planets, and why they are called planets, heliocentric and geocentric models and the influence of printing and books and how, after Gutenberg invented moveable type in about 1460, there was a sudden surge in the 1540s: the titles, all in Latin, are left out here, but look up the author's name and the date if you want to know them.

1541, Paracelsus, medicine;
1542, Leonhard Fuchs, plant science;
1543, Vesalius, human anatomy;
1543, Copernicus, astronomy;
1544, Sebastian Münster, geography;
1546, Georgius Agricola, fossils.

One of those books, the De Revolutionibus Orbium Caelestium (see why I left the Latin out?) of Copernicus, proposed a new model for the solar system, but only to make it easier to correct the calendar that we had been using since the time of Julius Caesar.  he wasn't trying to change astronomy at all: if you think so, that's another Just So story.

Instead, I wrap up with a look at where the star watchers came from:


I have to confess that I know little about any work done by the:

Africans; and

But I know a few individuals who deserve special credit:

Copernicus (Pole);
Galileo (Italian);
Brahe (Dane);
Kepler (German);
Newton (English).

The thing about science: there's no national science, just human science.

And that's quite enough moralising for one talk!

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Control burning

This is something I wrote first in 1994, but this weekend, the air of Sydney is heavy with the smoke of control burns: we have had a number of lush years, and the standing fuel loads are high.


I got up early one Sunday to drive my older son down to the ferry wharf.  We live on the top of a hill, and as we pulled out of the drive-way, the hills to the north were almost hidden in smoke, each ridge more hazed than the one before.  Angus suggested that there would probably be more smoke haze before the day was out.  The trees on our hilltop were motionless, and so I had to agree with him.  We have had several mild and calm days, and the control burners have been out in force, getting ready for the coming summer.

These people have a simple aim: reduce the fuel levels close to any natural or artificial barrier that might slow the progress of a fire.  Get rid of the dead fuel on the ground, they say, and you can stop a fire anywhere.  Roads and fire trails often travel along ridges, and these can be used to stop fires dead, provided the available fuel has been burnt before the fire comes through.

A wildfire feeds on the gases that explode out of the fuel as the first searing blast leaps forward.  The drier the fuel, and the more finely divided it is, the more gas it produces in the first moments, and the worse the fire becomes.  If the fine, dry, standing fuel is burnt out before then, the summer wildfires will be starved.  That is why we burn the bush each year in winter and spring.

Aborigines "using fire to hunt kangaroos" by Joseph Lycett: like many early
white visitors, Lycett failed to understand the science involved.
Our natural environment has been regularly burnt, perhaps for the last 50 000 years, so our plants and animals are adapted to that sort of regime.  The original owners burned the Australian bush, clearing the undergrowth.  This helped them find the best track from A to B, it improved hunting, and it brought on new growth for prey animals to feed on.  So every living Australian plant is long since adapted to recovery from burning, the rest are long dead.  Equally, the bush animals which exist today are those which are well-equipped to escape from fire.

If we burn different patches in different years, we get the whole of a bush area running through a mosaic of stages.  In this way, nearby unburnt areas can first supply a refuge for the animals, and then later be a reservoir of seeds and immigrants to repopulate the burnt areas after the fire.  These small fires are slow, low in heat, and give wildlife a chance to escape to neighbouring areas.

Some people say that ‘conservationists’ oppose the practice.  This committed conservationist does not oppose it, because control burning kills feral plants and weeds, limits the spread of feral animals, and maintains the biodiversity of an area.  It is far less harmful than a rampaging wildfire every twenty years.  The opponents are mostly people who let emotion get in the way of good sense.

The most effective method is to make regular burns along roads and ridge fire trails, making a site for a fire break in time of need.  Of course, the cowboys who give 4WD off-road vehicles a bad name are forever demanding more roads and better access into wilderness areas, as though letting hoons in will somehow stop the fires from happening.  We need the fire trails, we need the fire breaks in moderation, but we don't need any more hoons in the bush.  The fire trails must be securely locked off, and we have to steer a middle ground between the mad green disease and organised ruthless perpetual arson.

Control burning must be carried out with care, whether it is the mosaic form or the roadside form.  Personally, I favour regular roadside burns to eliminate the weeds which grow there: cars are a major transport method for weed seeds.  This has been proven by analysing (would you believe it?) the sludge tanks of car wash establishments!  A good fire every year or two, penetrating five or ten metres from the road's edge, will see off most weeds, for they are unused to regular fire, and unable to penetrate beyond the disturbed roadside verges in any case.

One Sunday afternoon, in spring, 1994, we visited a favourite bush area, one that was badly burned in then previous January.  It is on a ridge fire trail with a large area of waratahs on its north side, which should have been blooming by then.  Waratahs have large spectacular red flowering heads, rather like the related Protea, and well worth the walk.  As we walked, my son and I played our usual spring ‘spot the species’ game, while my wife, a better taxonomist, pointed out all the ones we had missed.

Running across the photo, you can see the fire trail we walked in on.
Duncan and I found thirty species in flower before we got to the waratah patch.  All the way along, the southern side of the track showed unmistakeable scars from January's fires, even now, while the northern side seemed almost to be unmarked.  The fire fighters had clearly burnt off the southern side to make a fire break, and we started to gather hope for ‘our’ precious waratahs.  But just before the waratah patch, the wildfire had jumped the track, and the whole site was burned out.  We found maybe fifty young waratah plants, and many of the larger plants had survived, and were suckering nicely from the blackened trunks.  There would
be no flowers in 1994, and only a few next year, but 1996 should easily make up for it.

The fire had only run a small distance beyond the waratah patch: far enough to do significant short-term damage to the patch, but also far enough to ensure that there will be waratahs there for many years to come, sprouting from the ashes of their predecessors.

We climbed to the top of the next hill and looked at the plumes of white smoke rising all around us.  I wondered how many other waratah patches were being licked into shape, somewhere inside those burning areas.

Saturday, 29 April 2017

Engravings at dawn

This was written quite a few years back, but soon enough, I will be taking newest grandchildren out like this. The photos here are all more recent, because we keep hunting, and keep recording.

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Er collectors call this "a shield" — but is it?
Up in the early morning, long before piccaninny daylight, I look at the night sky to make sure there is no cloud, then I awaken my younger son.  His older sibs lack the resilience to tackle a pre-dawn scramble up a rocky hillside, but he seems to have inherited a wild and scatty nature that makes such things appeal to him.  He must get it from his mother, because she has elected to come as well.

All the day birds are silent at this hour, though I can hear one mopoke making his mournful cry of ‘more pork’ away in the distance.  We hurry into the clothing we laid out the night before, grab up the rucksack of water bottles, coffee flask and fruit, and then we sneak quietly out into the car and away.

In sunlight, water on the rock makes the images show up.
This is the only approved way, but there are lots of wrong ways.
We head for a small mountain, half an hour north of our home through the dark and deserted streets.  We pass just two other cars on the way out, and my son points out a smudge of light in the east, just before I stop the car.  The moon is about four days past full, so it is still up, and there is light to see by.

This is a wrong way. Some idiot has scratched the surface,
and missed the line. Notice the 38mm 50-cent coin for scale.
We all know how to walk quietly through the night bush without a torch, but the moon will help us see any wildlife still out on the hillside in the cool pre-dawn.  Dawn is close now, for the day birds are staking out their territorial claims with considerable gusto.

We have been this way be
fore, and we know from the tracks and scats we have seen that there are quite a few mammals in this area, so we walk quietly.  There is barely any breeze, but what little there is blows towards us.  We maintain our hope, but we also maintain our pace, for the wildlife is a secondary concern this morning.
Professionals (I'm not one) carry proper scales like this.
On a rock ledge that looks out to sea, there is a swarm of faintly engraved animals.  There are at least eight kinds of fish, lizards, and many other shapes that are too faint to see clearly.  We are here now because the early morning sun will have to slant across the ledge, bringing the faint grooves into sharp relief, and we plan to photograph as much as we can.  The engravings are at least 200 years old, but probably they are older, very much older.

I first heard of this ledge from a friend.  Some years ago, I carried his book on the area up here, and followed his vague instructions.  He is delightfully vague, as I discovered when we collaborated on a book some years ago, but I think the vagueness here may well have been calculated to make those lacking commitment retreat in dismay.  Anyhow, at first, I managed to get lost all over the mountainside.

These are probably eels. There is often a pool nearby.
After a while, I found three small groups and one very good site, but I eventually despaired of ever finding the famous ledge.  Heading back to the car, I went across country and stopped on the edge of a small cliff line to drink some water.  Stepping forward to look over the edge, I realised that I was about to tread on a whole mess of fish.

Most engraving sites are in places with good views, and this one is no exception.  From here, you can see the highest of Sydney's city buildings, some 30 km to the south.  Close by in the east, you can see Pittwater, the next harbour up the coast from Sydney, a few small patches of settlement, and a huge expanse of unbroken bush, with the Pacific Ocean lying beyond that.  By careful selection, you can see the view almost as it was before the white man came.

Probably meant to be a goanna: see my
previous entry for more on these animals
As we step onto the top level, the sun shows suddenly in the east.  I hurry my son back down the track, so we can watch it rise once more, then we scramble back up and sit behind the ledge.  Now we can relax, eat, drink, and search the bush below with our binoculars, looking to see who is late in getting to bed.  After the fires last year, we only see two wallabies and a couple of moving blurs, probably bandicoots.

It will be maybe half an hour before the sun is high enough to show the engravings off to their best advantage, and my wife begins to speculate.  The main engraving site on this mountain, after this one, is believed to be where the women went to give birth.  This mountain has most of the main food animals on it that women used to catch: could it be a ‘women's business’ site?

The sad fact about these sites is that nobody knows enough about them to say anything at all with any real certainty.  The people who knew the answers nearly all died within a few years of the arrival of the first whites, mainly from disease.  The remainder had their society shattered by the trauma of their losses: with few descendants to pass their culture on to, they took their surviving secrets to their graves.  Her theory sounds like a good one, we decide.

We know how they were made, though, because when the makers died, there were some works-in-progress. The makers used a larger stone as a hammer, and pecked small holes in the stone by hitting a piece of ironstone. Then they used something like ironstone to gouge a groove, joining the holes.

By now the sun is just beginning to slant across the rock.  My son sets up the camera on a tripod, lays a metric scale on the rock, and we start photographing systematically.  We repeat this every five minutes until the grooves start to fade with the rising sun, and then retreat back down the mountain.  Fruit may fend off hunger, but now we need a serious breakfast.

This is an emu, but from this angle, it is upside-down.
As we turn into our driveway, a black 4-wheel drive churns past in the street with its top is down.  Two women, one short and one tall, both dressed as Valkyries, all blonde plaits and plastic horned helmets, hurl the Saturday papers onto our front lawn.

The stereo in their car is playing ‘Ride of the Valkyries’, and they are lustily croaking all the ‘Tojohojo’ bits and giggling as they go.

We call this a spirit figure.
The Fancelli sisters, it seems, are filling in for somebody.  I rather suspect that it will not last for long — Wagner is not popular with the locals.

I must tell you all about them, one day.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Not Your Usual Australian Tales

This is a new, all-singing, all-dancing  Australian social history, and it's in e-book format, because that way, I can offer the reader >1200 hotlinks to the sources that I used. It is just a tad under a quarter of a million words, in 48 chapters.

You can buy it from Kindle for $4 (US or ~$5.27 AUD) right now. If you go to that link, you can view the first six or so chapters for free, using the 'Look Inside' link on the left.

And there's a great deal more background on the book if you look at this link.

What I am trying to do before I get old and gaga, is  quite deliberately to subvert the way people see e-books: this work is self-published, but that's because no commercial publisher has yet realised that there are really exciting things you can only do by exploiting a new medium.

I have no plan of going gaga soon, but I want to put my feet up in the next few years, and then howl with mirth as newbies realise I was right, and try to claim my ideas for themselves.  They are going to have this priority claim to get around :-)

How is this book subversive?

This is history like you never saw before: it is participatory history, where the reader can become a player.  You don't have to, but I hope you will.

If you are Australian, this book fleshes out the bald, dead-white-male hero story you learned at school. It introduces new characters (not all of them white, or male, or heroes); provides contexts; and encourages you to ask your own questions.

And if you have the misfortune not to be an Australian, Mark Twain explains why you should read this book:
“Australian history … does not read like history, but like the most beautiful lies. And all of a fresh new sort, no mouldy old stale ones. It is full of surprises, and adventures, and incongruities, and contradictions, and incredibilities; but they are all true, they all happened.”
Here, you will meet reformed would-be assassins who fought bushrangers; the first cases of redbacks on the dunny seat; the truth about bunyips and the crocodile in Sydney’s Rocks; methods for getting rid of fleas; how horse thieves worked; what had to be done before paddle steamers could run on the Murray River; the Russian invasion ‘scare’ in Melbourne; duels fought by foolish men; a scandal over a dead horse; cruel treatment dished out to coolies; wrecks, floods, bushfires, droughts and plague; booms and busts; early schools and early poets: some sublime and some awful.

The real history of Australia, the untold stuff, has many diversions, like the case of the society ladies who stood on their chairs, waving their handkerchiefs: their action was one of the starting points for the book, and in chapter 48, you will learn why they did it.

The real Australian history is very different from the packaged stuff that you get from written and dramatic fiction in books. The judges weren’t all monsters, screaming “Hang Them!”. Judges often worked very hard to save prisoners from the gallows (even Samuel Burt, who really wanted to hang!). That said, quite a few of the convicts were serious villains, who did far more than “steal a loaf of bread to feed their hungry children”.

Then again, some of the other convicts were political prisoners, and at least one was falsely convicted: you’ll find all of those here, and you’ll also learn that transported convicts weren’t kept below decks, in chains, the whole voyage — and Norfolk Island wasn’t always the hell-hole it was in later years.

Then again, the people they called squatters weren’t always rich, the first bushrangers weren’t thieves, and Edward Hammond Hargraves wasn’t the first to discover gold — in fact, he never did discover gold, but he conspired to make Australia’s gold rush happen. Oh, yes, and if you learned about the explorers at school, they weren’t all heroes, some were villains, and some of them were fools.

The surprises don’t stop there: specialist pedants will tell you that Matthew Flinders was the first to use the name ‘Australia’, but this book offers two earlier documented sources for that name. Then again, pop history has swimming only starting with ‘neck-to-knee’ costumes in the 1890s: sorry, but your ancestors, if you are Australian, probably skinny-dipped. Certainly, the nation’s first swimming races came off with it all off, so to speak.

In short, this book tells it like it was, but more importantly, in the age of Fake News and Alternative Facts, this book gives you the sources, so you can ask the important questions:
* what happened before that?
* do you really expect us to believe that? and
* what happened next?

Come on in: the water's fine!