Search This Blog

Monday, 2 October 2023

You Missed a Bit

This is Australian social history. Conservative politicians whine that standards are dropping, that children are no longer taught the important dates and names (presumably including the names of those conservative politicians). They want unquestioning and regimented learning of the names of lots of dead white males. If you push them harder to define Australian history, their version comes down to Bushrangers and Convicts (both scum); Diggers (the military ones); Explorers (brave openers of untamed wilderness); Farmers (who turned the sterile wilderness into riches at no cost); and Gold (ours by right of conquest). I call this the BCDEFG model.

If you question the politicians about these, they may be able to name five of the more than 2000 bushrangers who once flourished, their understanding of convicts is pitiful, they could not locate a single battlefield on the world map, they would be lucky to name more than four explorers worthy of note (and no, Burke and Wills don't count), they have no understanding of the harm done to country by agriculture, and their "history" of gold is codswallop.

This is the Good Oil, from the author of the National Library of Australia's The Big Book of Australian History. (It's a secret, but the original version of this work was my assemblage of all the Australian history I had written since 2000. That was the marble slab from which I carved BBAH. Don't tell anybody, please!)

This is how people lived, loved, ate, dressed. recreated, travelled and much more: social history writ large (and large means 773 pages, 1.4 kg on thin paper). There is no index in the dead tree version, so get the much cheaper ebook version and use the search function, OK? This is an untapped goldfield, a giant assemblage of original sources.

An ebook in full colour for Kindle; $8.38 and

A print-on-demand paperback$60

You'd have to be mad to want the dead-tree version!!

The base page for all of these books is here.

The Speed of Nearly Everything

My commissioning editor said "write me a book about fast stuff that people can read on the john", so I did, but I managed to sneak in some good physics… I set out to look at some of the ways we can work out how fast a salmon leaps out of the water, how fast you fall from the top of a high building, speed records for really slow animals, snail races.

This second edition has been brought up to date, with new material and a good selection of illustrations. It tells you how to tell how fast a whale or a salmon leaps out of the water, how fast you will be going if you jump off the (missing) nose of the Sphinx, or how fast a botfly really flies. (Note that this information appeared in the first edition, pages 17 to 19, but an incompetent reviewer, William B. Palmer, falsely asserted that it was missing.)

It also deals with the challenges of outrunning bears, bulls, buffaloes, elephants, emus, black mambas, crocodiles, and assorted dinosaurs, snail and slug racing, the speed of cockroaches, chameleons’ tongues and spherical horses, the speeds of assorted couriers and messengers, telegraphs, ships, trains, land vehicles, satellites, time travel and travelling faster than light. In short, nearly everything.

Quoting the publisher’s blurb for the first edition, this is a fascinating almanac of facts, statistics and stories about the speed of virtually everything. Speed records; comparative speeds; relative speeds; optimal speeds; fastest speeds; slowest speeds; human, animal, mechanical and natural speeds are gathered together in an easy-to-follow, original design, and explained in engaging text written by a leading popular science writer. The statistical element is supported by fascinating discussions, historical anecdotes and speed trivia both serious and silly.
This book is written for general readers, and my aim was to take a look at speed, and explore how we find out, and what we know. Here are just a few of the things I played with:

  • Learn the real story about the bumblebee that couldn't fly but did.
  • How long would a snail take to do a mile?
  • If you jump off the Empire State building, will you splatter or pierce the pavement?
  • How fast do cockroaches run?
  • What really happens when things go faster than the speed of light? (It is possible!)
  • What was special about the earliest land speed records?
  • How fast is a chameleon's tongue and how does it do it?
  • How fast is a volcano?
  • What was the world's fastest book?
  • How high can a high jumper leap on the Moon?
  • Can you play golf on the asteroid Eros?
  • Can you outrun the Pamplona bulls?
  • Who wanted to spin women in labour at high spped, and why?
  • What happens to a dijeridu on a hot day?
  • Is it safer to be hit in the eye with a 0.22 bullet or a squash ball?
  • What was the world's longest skid in a vehicle?
  • Could a human outrun a T. rex?
  • Can you survive falling from an aircraft without a parachute? (Yes, three people did.)

Where to get it

An ebook in fullcolour for Kindle; $6, and

A print-on-demandpaperback. $25

The base page for all of these books is here.

They saw the difference

This is a social history of science.

After a lifetime of talking, broadcasting, writing, explaining and teaching about science to all levels from kindergarten to tertiary and the general public, Peter Macinnis thinks he is getting close to hanging up his mouse and keyboard.

This is a curated selection from the essays, articles, stories, talks and chapters he has delivered across half a century of science activism, with some bridging passages thrown in.

Here, you will find background on most aspects of science, from stable isotopes to black holes; from what Darwin got wrong to magic numbers; climate change to difference engines; the Antipodes to liquid crystals; scientific fraud to the other six types of science; plate tectonics to slime moulds; unconformities of a geological kind to steam turbines; statistics to killing cancers with germs; perfect numbers and imperfect, fraudulent scientists; who Wimshurst was and why he mattered, why James Watt never watched a kettle and why it's too late to worry about 'Frankenstein genes'.

This is a lively potpourri of science, a gentle flood of understanding of the whys and wherefores of science.

The base page for all of these books is here.

The Nature of North Head

These are my personal thoughts and footnotes, circling around a lovely place, North Head, at the entrance to Sydney Harbour. Less than 10 km from the central business district of a city of 5 million people, we have an island of wilderness with animals and plants that reflect what the area was before my mob invaded it in 1788.

Here you will learn about the geology of the area, something of its history and Indigenous past, and a great deal about the life forms that live here. I look at the bacteria that make manganese stains, lichens, slime moulds, fungi, mosses, liverworts, ferns and flowering plants including orchids and some carnivorous plants.

I also look at the spiders I have met on the headland, the insects ditto (including the bird of paradise fly!), birds, frogs, reptiles and mammals.

Google Play

The mobile phone edition is here: cheapest and best.

Amazon versions

full colour e-book version, optimised for phones and tablets; $3.00;

 A full-colour print version paperback. $50

An ebook in full colour for Kindle; $4.00 and

A print-on-demand colour hardback (pricey: it's in US DOLLARS!!!).  $USD 40

The base page for all of these books is here.



This is brain food, distilled from a web site that drew over 4 million visitors in the 1990s. It is a tool for all home-schoolers including modern instant and involuntary home-schoolers, but mainly, this is fun for humans.

This is a practical introduction to the art of curiosity across Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics, or STEAM to the cognoscenti.

Brought out in a rush during the first Covid lockdown, I tired of po-faced idiot commercial publishers who could not see how useful this would be for kids and minders.

The book aims to nurture curiosity, wisdom and joy in learning. There are no po-faced lists of "facts" to be learned. The author pulls faces at all such books! No prior knowledge is required of readers, but the author's prior knowledge is clear: each and every one of the 300+ activities and explorations described here has been used by the author many times before. The image on the cover is a grand daughter operating a turbine.

A friend's husband took over her copy, saying "this was written for retired engineers". It wasn't, but if your mind is active, you will find joy here. From balsa-wood planes to cryptography, from limerick-writing to musical instruments, from optical illusions to sundials, bubbles and pet pillbugs, paradoxes, puzzles and games: there's something for everybody.

Where to get it:

Old Grandpa's Book of Practical Poems

This is what it says, a volume I produced for my grandkids. It started because I like to read poetry to my grandchildren. 

One of them told me all grandparents should do the same, so here's what you need. Do you remember these lines?

o Oh Captain, my Captain;
o In Xanadu did Kublai Khan;
o There was movement at the station;
o Yesterday upon a stair;
o Abou Ben Adhem;
o Seated one day at the Organ;
o In a rose red city, half as old as time.

Did you get them all? Would your grandchildren?

This is the third edition of a canonical collection of English verse that young people of all ages can benefit from encountering.

It is for grandparents to buy, and the selections are mainly intended for reading aloud: adult to child; child to child; child to adult. The poems are followed by brief notes on the poets, just in case.

Where to get it:

Not Your Usual Villains

Social history of an entertaining sort. Australia was here long before the whites arrived. According to their narrative, it was founded as a penal colony, and the residents were all felons, but they and their descendants turned out to be an interesting mob, who didn't always follow all the rules in quite the way that the authorities hoped.

Some of their villainy, however, was low grade, like the practical women who wore trousers, and the people who went swimming. A few of the swimmers wore decorous clothing, but "the rest of us reefed off our clothing, in our hurry sending buttons in all directions, and plunged into the pleasant water", said Miles Franklin. 

nother villain was Moondyne Joe, who was probably the only convict ever given a pardon for being excellent at escaping, and then there was Diver Fitzgerald, rewarded by the governor for stealing (as ordered), a ship's bell at night.

We need to mention the Sabbath breakers, the convicts and debtors who "ran", and Lola Montez, described as "a very simple-mannered, well-behaved, cigar-loving young person...".

Where to get it

An ebook in full colour for Kindle; $4 and

A print-on-demand paperback$25

The base page for all of these books is here.

Not Your Usual Treatments

The history of medicine is strewn with bizarre notions about what caused illness and death: the gods, witches, poisoners were all early targets. Later the doctrine of humours ruled, and from then onwards, the practice of medicine made perfect sense, if you accepted the crazy model that the medical people were working from.

That was often a big ask, but this book helps you to understand where orthodox medical practitioners were coming from when they applied leeches and dosed people with millipedes, spiders, dog droppings and worse, far worse.

The author has waded through most of the "Domestic Medicine" books that were published from the 1600s on, and delved into a few earlier grimoires as well. Nowhere else will you learn useful ways of repelling bores by discussing the gory details of leech culture and use, but there are far odder treatments awaiting you. Tapeworm traps, lowered down the gullet, artificial limbs and the efficient uses of mummies and hanged men's thigh bones are there as well as boiled puppies and electric shock.

A half-plucked duck placed on the belly, a hot onion on the crotch, a tobacco pipe up the rectum after drowning, a fried egg on the bite of a mad dog, monkey gland injections, drinking radium-laced water until your jaw crumbles, being x-rayed to restore your youth were all popular.

The author was advised by his pet leech, Gladys.

Where do you get it?

 An ebook in not much colour for Kindle; $4 and

A print-on-demand paperback$25

The base page for all of these books is here.

Not Your Usual Gold Stories

Seized back from Five Mile Press which made a mess of the marketing and went belly-up. They failed to answer my emails, and under my Use It or Lose It principle, they lost it. New material, new research.

These are the other stories about gold. 

All Australian children are given an account of the chase for gold in Australia that runs like this: Nobody knew there was gold in Australia, Edward Hammond Hargraves discovered gold in New South Wales in 1851, and then the rushes began.

This is false history. T he first claim of a 'gold mine' was a fraud in 1788; the first real gold find was in 1824; the first working gold mine was in South Australia in 1843; a shepherd, Hugh M'Gregor regularly sold gold in Sydney in the 1840s; the first gold rush was in Victoria in 1849, but the authorities choked it off; and Hargraves never discovered gold. What Hargraves did was to provoke a gold rush that could not be stopped, by declaring that there was gold over wide area, stretching from the site of the 1824 find to where M'Gregor was collecting gold.

This book is written for readers of all ages. The only qualification is that you should curious about Australia's past, and unwilling to accept the mindless pap that is regurgitated in Australian schools. Forget about how Hargraves was the first to discover gold: he wasn't the first, and if the truth be known, he never did find gold. He was, however, a consummate conspirator, and by his actions an claims, he triggered off Australia's gold rush.

The new cover reveals one of the secrets of finding where gold is. You look for mud in a stream, and follow it to its source. How does it work? Read the book...

Don't look for a detailed rehash of the Eureka business here. Yes, it rates a mention, but there were many other acts of violence, perpetrated on the goldfields, and I don't even deal with all of them.
This book offers fresh history. Here, you will read about

  • How a convict called Daly "discovered" gold in 1788 (he was lying, and he was later hanged for other offences);
  • How an unnamed convict on the Bog Hill, the western side of the Blue Mountains, found a nugget in 1823 or 1824, and was flogged;
  • How "Old M'Gregor" came in to Sydney with gold from the Wellington Valley for many years;
  • How others saw gold just below the Big Hill;
  • How Australia's first gold mine was opened in the 1840s near Adelaide;
  • How gold was found in Victoria in 1849, but the authorities put a lid on it;
  • How Edward Hammond Hargraves learned of Old M'Gregor's and other people's finds;
  • How Hargraves studied the start of a gold rush;
  • How Hargraves did not find gold, but announced a goldfield stretching from the Big Hill to the Wellington Valley;
  • How Hargraves and a henchman conspired to stop any rush being blocked by the authorities;
  • How people heard about the gold;
  • How they went after gold;
  • How they found gold;
  • Who made the big profits;
  • What the diggers ate, drank and slept in;
  • How some of the diggers died;
  • How people came to Australia from all over the world;
  • How the Chinese gold seekers were singled out for attack;
  • The many, many ways of robbing and cheating on the gold fields;
and much more.

This is not the "history" you learned at school. I hated that rubbish as well. One of my hopes in writing this book is that I will manage to subvert the staid and hackneyed curriculum. 

Where to get it:

An ebook in full colour for Kindle; $5 and

A print-on-demand paperback$25

Some other links:

The base page for all of these books is here.

Not Your Usual Clever Ideas

 The history of invention, dedicated to those who, like Schrödinger’s other cat, think outside the box. It began as a look at crazy inventions, but over the years that I was researching it, in between writing other books, I realised that many weird inventions must have seemed like a good idea at the time.

Take this list:

* an egg on a parachute with a fish-hook inside, to catch snakes;
* a gadget on trains to let them collect mail as they fly past;
* a horse-powered paddle-wheel ferry; and
* a gunpowder-powered pile driver.

Which one of those makes the most sense? The quick answer: odd as it may sound, all four are/were legitimate when they were introduced.

Here, you will meet also the shark-proof suit; the shoe gun; the combined cigarette lighter and perfume dispenser and much more. Also, a parachute that attached to your head (but you would be safe, because it came with shoes with nice cushiony soles); a combined grocer’s package, grater, slicer and mouse and fly trap; a steamship based on the rolling pin; and a catflap that was fitted with a colour sensor, so as to admit inventor’s ginger cat while blocking the passage of a neighbour’s black cat, though it could also be used to trigger a bomb in space.

This brought me to a couple of questions, of which the first one was: were these people nuts? The catflap was probably invented to make a point about the fatuity of some of the patent laws.

Over time this book morphed from ‘Crazy Inventions’ to ‘The Perils of Ingenuity’, to simply one question: why do humans get such odd ideas? The answer is: because they can. Without inventions and ingenuity, we would be less than human.

This book remains as a bit of a freak show, an entertainment that looks at wild ideas that we can snigger at, but in the end, you will find that your sniggering comes back to bite you, when I show why one clearly mad invention made absolute sense to me, because I am a science educator, and I was once sent to another country to help them with their teaching materials.

So you can have fun, but in the end, you will learn!

Where to get it:

An ebook in not much colour for Kindle; $4 and

A print-on-demand paperback.  $25

The base page for all of these books is here.

Not Your Usual Bushrangers

Seized back from Five Mile Press which made a mess of the marketing and went belly-up. They failed to answer my emails, and under my Use It or Lose It policy, they lost it. New material, new research.

Here's what I said about the first version when it came out, but brought up to date.

These are some of the 2000+ bushrangers who never became famous. The first British settlers invaded Australia in 1788, and for the first 50 years, there were significant numbers of convicts. Some of them escaped into the surrounding bush, but as they had no idea how to survive, they preyed upon settlers and the other convicts. 

The first bushrangers, though were more-or-less honest, and the suggestion of criminality only attached itself to the word in 1805. Bush ranging went on until about 1880, and a few desperate characters played the role until later-in fact, the last bushranger died a few months after I was born.

There are people who fume about how standards are falling, that children are no longer taught important dates and names (meaning the details of encrusted politicians). Oddly enough, it’s true: educational standards are falling, at least among the conservatives.

Ask these huffing old fogeys to define Australian history, and they serve up these fluffies: Bushrangers and Convicts (both scum), Diggers (the military sort), Explorers (brave openers of untamed wilderness), Farmers (who turned the sterile wilderness into riches at no cost) and Gold (ours by right of conquest). I call theirs the BCDEFG model.

The new cover
If you probe these stuck-in-the-muds about their headings, they will struggle to name five of the more than 2000 bushrangers who once flourished; their grasp of the convict system is pitiful (the lash, the noose, that’s it); they could not point to a single battlefield on a world map; they would be lucky to name more than four explorers worthy of note (and note that Burke and Wills don’t count); they have no understanding of the harm done to country by agriculture, and their history of gold is complete rubbish.

So their BCDEFG history of Australia is a morass of worthless scribbles. One in fifty of them may change that to the ABCDEFG, but the ‘Aborigines’ don’t come into it for most of them—and don’t confuse the poor dears by amending it to a more polite IBCDEFG. Mention the role of Indigenous Australia, and they look at you like a mallee bull that just ran at full tilt into Crooked Mick of the Speewah.

This book is about the realities of what should be in their B file. Here you will meet the Governor's official thief, a bushranger who was given a pardon for being good at escaping, and other people who never got a mention at my school.

Where to get it:

An ebook in full colour for Kindle; $5 and

A print-on-demand paperback$25

The Lawn: a social history

In this book, I explore the strange coming-together of means, opportunity and motive in the mid-nineteenth century, and the lasting social changes that followed when the lawn emerged as the dominant slice of the modern built environment. After the lawn, leisure time would never be the same.

The key enabling technology, the device that made things possible, the invention that let grass dominate our environment was the lawn mower. Without the mower, the emerging professional middle class might admire the lawns of the aristocracy, but lawns remained out of reach to people who could not command the efforts of a veritable army of menial servants, armed with scythes and directing grazing animals.

The new cover
Even with the mower in place, lawn could only impose itself on ordinary citizens as an object of veneration and a source of toil when the suburbs provided enough space for lawn to fit. The enabling technology that in turn allowed suburbs to exist was commuter transport. Stately homes and city parks could have lawns without transport, because the aristocrats did not need to go to an office each day, and even if they did, their servants were on site all day.

Moving wealthy professional people out to homes with space meant developing accessible suburbs with houses on separate blocks. Only suburbs gave enough space between and around the houses for lawns to fit.

Lawn mowers and suburbs would not have been enough to drive the lawn craze if people had not firmly believed that ownership of a lawn was proof that the owner was a person of status. Or to be blunt, that a lawn owner was rich. In order to prove how rich they were, people were willing to waste their leisure time, were happy to pillage and devastate the environment and they were eager to squander their wealth to show that they really were wealthy.

Where to get it:

Mr Darwin's Incredible Shrinking World

First published by Murdoch Books, returned by them: this is an updated version with new illustrations and new material. This is the Director's Cut. Here's what I said about the first version when it came out, but brought up to date.

People say history was invented to stop everything happening at the same time, but in 1859, something went wrong . Events, world-changing ones, bobbed up all over the place.

This outpouring,  this knowledge explosion wasn't without precedent. In 1543, Copernicus and Vesalius both published game-changing books on the solar system and anatomy, and with other authors jumping in, the 1540s were a Golden Age for science.

In all probability, the flood of new science in 1543 happened because Gutenberg's clever printing press had been around for a century, making it mature technology, (or it may have been Spanish gold from South America) but 1859 was a single year of concentrated breakthroughs, all over science and technology. (I have a suspicion that gold from Australia and California may have played a part.)

Among the scientific heavy-hitters in 1859, Louis Pasteur's swan neck flasks had killed off spontaneous generation before the year ended; Charles Darwin's book explaining evolution came out in November; and away off in Brno, Gregor Mendel was breeding his peas. John Snow's cholera map was printed; the work of Ignaz Semmelweis on stopping infection by hand-washing was complete; Joseph Lister took up his chair in surgery in Glasgow, and Florence Nightingale developed a plan for hospital statistics. In geology, Charles Lyell was making loud noises that the planet was far older than the biblical 6000 years. In physics, James Clerk Maxwell determined his distribution law of molecular velocities during the year, and Gustav Kirchhoff related black body radiation to temperature and frequency.

We ended the year with many new things: slide rules and prismatic binoculars, spectroscopes, the gas discharge tube, aluminium that cost less than gold, Bessemer steel, tree ring dating, oil wells, the internal combustion engine, the Riemann hypothesis, the Rankine cycle, mauve and magenta dyes, meteorology, the leotard, the first patent for a brassière, Tabasco sauce, Pimm's No, 1 Cup, and an amateur astronomers' guide, Celestial Objects for Common Telescopes nicely matching the first observation of solar flares.

In the northern summer, and electric arc, powered by a steam generator, was towed through the streets of Paris. Gaston Planté invented the storage battery that year, as well. In 1845, there were 900 miles of telegraph line in the US, by early 1859 there were 30,000 miles. By year's end, many more parts of the world were linked by telegraph cables that could report on Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld, Verdi's A Masked Ball, and Gounod's Faust, which were competing with Brahms' first piano concerto, while outside, croquet, lawn tennis and football were suddenly popular. Just back on Verdi, his Aida was commissioned to celebrate the opening of the Suez Canal. which was commenced in 1859, alongside a railway line that saved travellers from Europe going around southern Africa. Everything back then had its roots in 1859.

The new cover
Peter Macinnis is a science writer who often dabbles in historical matters. A one-time fraud investigator, he is always interested in the why and hows of things, which explains how and why he came up with a theory to explain the 1859 effect while wandering quietly around a family wedding, observing human interactions as people strove to find their seats, a curious model of scientific discovery. Once a few people had found and taken their seats, others had reference points to work from, to find their seats. That theory is excellent for explaining the Periodic Table of the elements, and probably also the germ theory of disease, but the new sports, for example, were probably powered by the recent expiry of the patent on lawnmowers.

Some of the other effects were probably fanned by the gold that was coming out of Australia and California, but the main thing was that the world was suddenly getting smaller, as railways, steamships and telegraph lines bound the world together. It opened the way for tourism, which hindsight will probably identify as the key element in spreading the pandemic of the 2020s.

Even now, we find emerging events that have their roots in 1859.

Get it here:

An ebook in full colour for Kindle; $6, and

A print-on-demand paperback.  $25

The base page for all of these books is here.

Mistaken for Granite

This is earth science for rock watchers. The rocks won't tell you (but this book does) about poets, playwrights and plagiarists; mad (maybe) and devious (certainly) scientists; altitude sickness; ringing bells in Boston; walking on and inside volcanoes; elephants in stiletto heels; golf in space; rocks in exotic locations; a tourist authority conspiracy; a quiz show that got it wrong; the art of making aqueducts; finding water in a desert; poison wells; fat strippers and oil wells; hot spots; fake fossils; pretending to be a wizard in Coimbra in Portugal (where the undergraduates wear Harry Potter cloaks); how (and why) the author smuggled a fossil; stone fortifications, monuments, bridges and buildings; rock inscriptions and art, and what they tell us; behaving oddly in art galleries; mapping the planet's surface and interior; gravity and finding exoplanets; telling the truth about cholera and lies about SARS; why climate matters and more.

To be blunt: nowhere else will you read how Eunice Foote (yes, a 19th century woman!) was the first to explain how carbon dioxide would cause warming, and there's lots more. This book is written with adult readers in mind, but there is nothing here that I would not have understood when I got interested in rocks at 14. So bright teens and upwards...

Get it here:
To be blunt: nowhere else will 
An ebook in full colour for Kindle; $5 and
A print-on-demand paperback, $25.

Kokoda Track: 101 Days

What is it with publishers, that they let award-winners slip into out of print? This was a bloody good book, one that caused me a lot of angst. Eve Pownall Honour Book, 2008 Children's Book Council of Australia Book of the Year Awards.

Shortlisted in the NSW Premier's History Awards, 2007. My aim was to take the complex story of a complex campaign, and explain why it was important for a bunch of under-trained and poorly-supported militia to hold out crack Japanese troops who vastly outnumbered them.

The book has one clear moral: War is a risky get-rich-quick scheme, where the people who plan to get rich quickly have no plans to take any of the risks. 

The new cover.
Kokoda is the story of luck, where the right people happened to be in the right place at the right time. They were sent to defend an entirely unimportant piece of ground, the airstrip at Kokoda, but they ended up fighting a dogged rearguard action as they moved slowly along the Kokoda Track, most of the time with inadequate support and equipment, holding off a far larger Japanese force, until reinforcements could reach them. Even after that, the Australian forces were massively outnumbered, but 101 days after the first fighting began when an Australian patrol chanced on the Japanese invasion force, the Australians walked back into Kokoda.

I have never walked the track, and at my age I probably won't, but when I was 17, the same age as some of the militia in the 39th and 53rd battalions, I was working in New Guinea, at the Moresby end of the track. It was in peace-time, but I still remember the culture shock of landing in that environment. I met and talked to a few of those who were there in the war. I was always good at getting older males to tell me their tales: it is probably what got me into the way of writing history.

The story of the campaign is a human tale, a story of courage and grit -- and gutless cowardice by two generals who had oozed their way into command by political means. But I have no plans to write that prosecution brief again. Suffice it to say that I talked to one of Blamey's staff (my uncle, as it happened), and I read what others had to say, and I know who I admire.

There were some good blokes on the Kokoda Track. It was originally referred to as "the Owen Stanley track", and it was only when that super-egotist MacArthur tried to grab all the credit that it became called by that clumsy Americanism "Kokoda Trail".

You see, MacArthur tried to control all the press releases, and the journalists who hadn't been there took the lead that had been set by Yank PR men, cowering in a bunker in Melbourne. Not to put too fine a point on it, the Australian War Memorial toed the wrong party line when they nailed their colours to the 'Kokoda Trail' mast. The loudest proponent of that name was a clown who never went north, and who later distinguished himself by his virulent defence of Robin Askin, a well-known Liberal premier and crook who was, if anything, even more corrupt than Thomas Blamey.

Get it here:

An ebook for Kindle (no real colour); $6, and

a print-on-demand paperback in half-tones; $20.

The base page for all of these books is here.

Sunday, 1 October 2023

Australia's Pioneers Heroes and Fools

 On the left: the original cover. Think of this, if you like, as an adult version of Australian Backyard Explorer. It was written several years earlier, and led the people at the National Library of Australia to think that I was an historian. While it is true that I did, at one stage, wish to become a pre- and post-Islamic mediaeval Javanese historian, I ended up becoming a botanist. As one does...

This book is about Australia's colonial explorers and how they did things. In large part, it is the story of the unexpected explorers, the women, the teenagers, the convicts, the Aborigines, but it is also the story of how the early Australian explorers did things. This goes into all the sorts of questions my teachers should have covered, but nuanced by the insights of a wilderness bushwalker

It looks at what they took with them, how they planned their trips, how they navigated and surveyed and mapped, how they found food and water, how they managed their animals and their humans, how they mended the sick and broken, and how a few of them died when mending wasn't enough.

On the right, the cover of the new edition. It does all of that and a great deal more. In both versions, the book began as a more serious study of how Australia was mapped, starting in 1606 and coming up to the present, but in the end, I decided to stay mainly with the more personal stories of the 19th century explorers, though I make a few excursions either side, when there is a lesson to be learned, as in the strange case of Kenelm Digby's scientifically wounded dog. Oh yes, and there is some serious science and technology in there as well.

An ebook in full colour for Kindle, $5 and

A print-on-demand paperback in monochrome (colour wasn't really needed)  $25.

The Monster Maintenance Manual

 This book, with Adele K. Thomas' delightful illustrations (left), designed to match my whimsical descriptions, was badly managed by a house that was in crisis. Murdoch Books (no relation to Rupert!) was later taken over by Allen and Unwin, but all print copies were remaindered or pulped. I still have a small stock of the originals, but this was written for children like my children and grandchildren, and I wanted it out there.

I have not lost sight, either, of the way the meltdown also lost us the interest that Cartoon Connection had in the book. I planned to write a series of Mr Men-style stories about my monsters, and I had drafted a dozen of those, which remain my IP, so I have decided to add them in the new edition, along with some discarded monsters and a few new monsters.

This is not a book for the faint-hearted, not if you drill down into the word-plays, puns and sneaky references. This is me having fun, knowing that the right sorts of adult reading this will grok it, but perhaps not share it, because the right sort of kid, in years to come, will suddenly realise why one of the piano tunas was called Bosendorfer. I was that right soirt of kid, and still am. Live with it!

The heirs to the publishers failed to claim the rights to Adele's images, but I decided to use my own, anyhow, shots like this sequence of Schrödinger's Cheshire Elephant:

The stipple style that I use is something I learned from being a biologist, and the monsters emerged from my becoming a bureaucrat who sat through interminable meetings. I found that if I sat between two droning bores and doodled, they became distracted by the weird creatures that emerged from my dotting pen. They would fall silent, leaving the rest of us to get on with formulating policies. You see, I could walk and talk at the same time...

So, long before I found a literary use for things like this beastie on the right (for the purposes of the book, it is now a piano tuna), they served a useful purpose.

Here are some samples: The last of the Copywrong Pirates;
The Deconstructionist who liked books; and
The Mud Alligators who liked kitchens

Buying it:

An ebook in slight colour for Kindle, $6, and

A print-on-demand paperback in black and white because that's all you need, $25.

The base page for all of these books is here.

Curious MInds

 On the left, the cover of the original edition, on the right, the new revised edition.

The italics below are mine. Note that the passage this was written in 1825, long before people were supposed to be talking about mammals laying eggs. In fact, Sir Joseph Banks was discussing the idea in 1804, but they never mentioned that in Zoology III!

"But this is New Holland, where it is summer with us when it is winter in Europe, and vice versa; where the barometer rises before bad weather, and falls before good; where the north is the hot wind, and the south the cold … where the swans are black and the eagles white; where the kangaroo, an animal between the squirrel and the deer, has five claws on its forepaws, and three talons on its hind-legs, like a bird, yet hops on its tail; where the mole (ornithorhynchus paradoxus) lays eggs, and has a duck's bill; where there is a bird (meliphaga) with a broom in its mouth instead of a tongue..."

— Barron Field, Geographical Memoirs on New South Wales, 1825, 461 - 462.

The cruelly-named Barron Field (what were his parents thinking?) is just one of the cases looked at here: I also deal with Dampier not eating guano; the fat-bellied fish; the Liverpool Monster; bunyips; a hero of the croquet lawn who married an heiress; how Charles Darwin got it badly wrong; how Ferdinand Bauer was kicked off the map; three Germans who stood up for Australian science, and artists having hissy fits.

This came out in 2012, and a new edition is now out, as of 7 November 2021. Here is what I said about the first edition (plus some nice reviews), and here's a bit of that:

It is the story for some of the curious minds who came to Australia, or in a few cases were born here, people who cared about the natural history of the place. Some were artists, some scientists, some collectors, some explorers, and some just enjoyed natural history.

Oh yes, just by the way, I know exactly what Barron Field's parents were thinking, when they dropped that ill-omened name on him, but you will have to read the book to find out.

An ebook in full colour for Kindle, $8 


A print-on-demand full-colour paperback, $50, necessarily expensive.

Australia's Hidden Heroes

For too long, the story of how Australia was on the winning side in three wars (Boer War and two World Wars) has been hidden, thanks to government suspicion, fear, duplicity and inertia. Australia had two stalwart citizens, whose efforts tipped the balance in favour of the Allies.

One was known as Crooked Mick, a bush hero and strong man who hailed from the Speewah, and this tells of the exploits that he and his companion, a scientist named Henry Cruciform managed to pull off, while surrounded by foreign agents who were, as Mick once said in a candid moment, were "…worse than them Speewah blowflies, the ones that eat crocs".

Here for the first time, readers can learn how Mick and Henry rose to positions of secret prestige and influence, not only in Australia, but across the globe, due in large part to the reports of the foreign spies who gathered close around them, trying to win their secrets. In the world's corridors of power, the two were spoken of in hushed tones.

Here, the reader can learn of Crooked Mick's athletic prowess and how his scratch team of station hands beat the MCC at cricket; how Mick rode four bulls at once; his dog's mathematical skills; how he fought bushfires, floods and droughts; the Speewah girls' snake circus; the world's only Möbius dog; how a British officer at Gallipoli wanted Mick sent off for unsporting behaviour and how Mick sank several German submarines; how Mick sorted the drop bear problem; how Flash Jack drove 400 44-gallon drums from Speewah to the Big Smoke; how Smiling Annie's daughter told the time and other daily events in the Australian bush.

We also meet the many inventions and discoveries of Henry Cruciform, Australia's premier scientist who accidentally blew up Professor Moriarty while working with Sherlock Holmes to perfect the scientist's new explosive, nitrogum. Cruciform also invented radio, X-rays, the transistor and a fiendishly devastating form of psychological warfare.

It was Mick and Cruciform who shot down the Red Baron, and Cruciform acted as a strange attractor, so that during a single picnic lunch in Adelaide, he suggested the titles Forsyte Saga and Heart of Darkness to John Galsworthy and Joseph Conrad respectively, as well as suggesting X-ray diffraction to William Bragg, who later won the Nobel Prize in Physics for this very work.

History will never be the same, once these facts are known. Warning: the book contains the shocking truth about Mata Hari's time in Australia, how Professor Moriarty really died, the true genesis of the Boy Scouts, the music of Arnold Schönberg, and who really killed the Red Baron. Readers will need a strong stomach.

This book is hard to put down. I know, because I have already tried poison, flame-throwers, a knife and a squadron of tanks, and STILL the thing lives.

Not to beat about the bush, this is classic Australian yarn-spinning, coming from the only Australian author who is a trained con man who never went over to the dark side.

The base page for all of these is here.

Looking at Small Things

This runs the gamut from hand lens to microscope. It
is a guide for youngsters from 9 to 90, wanting to look at small things, whether they are animal, vegetable or mineral. It covers the range from zoom lens or naked eye to hand lens (magnifying glass), tablets and phone cameras, with or without a clip-on lens, USB cameras connected to computers and binocular and monocular microscopes, with or without a drop-in camera.

The book's dedication tells you where I stand: "This book was written to engage the curiosity of solo 7-year-olds such as I once was; to answer the questions of curious 17-year-olds such as I once was; to provide the answers that elude hard-pressed 27-year-old teachers such as I once was; to offer ideas wanted by happy and engaged 37-year-old parents such as I once was; to provoke the imagination of 47-year-old museum educators such as I once was; to draw outside 57-year-old compulsive writers such as I once was and still am; to inspire 67-year-old grandfathers such as I once was and still am; and to enliven the life of 77-year-olds such as I recently was."

As a child, my unscientific parents bought me a toy microscope, but they could offer no suggestions about things for me to look at. This book fills that very need for the next generation, gently offering ideas and inspiration. Here, the reader will learn how to meet nature on equal terms: flatworms; mantises; leeches; spiders and their webs; springtails and sandhoppers; skulls and bones found in the bush; pollen grains; hairy leaves; plant roots; sand; rocks; rusty iron; decaying wood, lichens; mushrooms and snail shells.

They will discover the detail that lies hidden in banknotes and coins; drops of water; soil; compost; crystals and more. Ant lions, earthworms; cockroaches and pillbugs may all, depending on taste, become their pets and friends.

See a sample here

An ebook in full colour for Kindle; $4 and

A print-on-demand paperback; $25

The base page for all of these is here.

Australian Backyard Naturalist


So this book was about being a naturalist anywhere, and in the second edition, I added plants and microscopy, lifting a bit from Looking at Small Things (we will come to that later).

This book won a major award, it remains popular with kids, so please, give it a look. Recommended for kids older than seven, but grandparents find it a marvellous way to entertain the young. This is an excellent tool for lighting fires in young hearts and minds.

The joint winner of the almost-as-prestigious W.A. Premier's Award for Children's Literature in 2012, this book is about looking at things in the outdoors. It is probably the book I care most about, because it liberates kids (as I like to say, from 8 to 88) to bother the wildlife in non-harmful ways,

It was the fact that it was missing from the shop shelves that triggered people to email me, asking where they could get copies, and that in turn provoked me to take all of my titles back.

The "backyard" here is highly elastic. I was stuck with the term, because these books were seen as part of a series that started with Ragbir Bhathal's Australian Backyard Astronomy, but as an old anarchist/surrealist bureaucrat, I have never allowed rules to get in the way. My backyard is anywhere I can get to (and back from), before dark.

There are two choices to buy it: