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Tuesday, 29 March 2011

The second half of 2009

December 27, 2009
The cover of the recent Korean edition of
Mr Darwin's Incredible Shrinking World.
By December 23, I had completed the second draft of Australian Backyard Naturalist and I am now working on the third draft. In the past week, I have had two surprises: the first was a Korean translation of Mr Darwin's Incredible Shrinking World which I had known nothing about. Then on Boxing Day, I checked my spam trap, the email address that appears on my public pages, and found an email from Germany. It seems that 100 Discoveries has been translated into German, and will be on sale in July 2010.

I sold the rights to that one, so no royalties, but writing isn't all about money and I was paid well for the rights in any case. Mainly, I think writers care about the money because it's evidence that people are reading what we write. To be blunt, if we cared about money, we'd do something else, because unless you write good quality bad fiction (no, there isn't a contradiction there: the stuff in teh page-turners I'm talking about is always well-crafted), the money isn't going to emerge.

December 17, 2009
This morning, I completed the final touches on the returned edited manuscript of Monster Maintenance Manual and sent it back to my patient editor, Shelley Kenigsberg. I'm working along on the completed first draft of Australian Backyard Naturalist, and I have bought the new camera, though I have yet to take it out of the box. Been busy, see? I have also had some nice reviews that you can see at Australian Backyard Explorer: you can see them at that link. 

This is my favourite design.
Three Youtube clips have now been posted by the publisher, the National Library of Australia. In the first, I talk about the truth that underlies the explorers' stories and reveal some of my motivation for telling those stories. In the second, I show viewers how to make a pooter, a device used to catch small insects. Why? Well, most explorers went out with a number of aims, and one of them was to make "scientific collections". The third clip shows me using some home-grown equipment to catch insects in the grounds of the National Library, last southern winter.

December 7, 2009
I have sent back the corrected edits of Monster Maintenance Manual. By this, I mean that I have mainly been through and agreed to the edits of the editor, commented on a few, questioned a couple and provided new text in the points where it was needed. Today, I went to Sydney for Christmas shopping, to arrange some travel for next year, and to buy a new camera. Coming home, it was a bit hot to correct the draft of Backyard Naturalist so I read some mathematics instead, looking for reminders of things I might do. That was how I came across the following comment from Bertrand Russell. He said that said that a mentor had given him:  
…various simple rules of which I remember only two: "Put a comma every four words," and "never use 'and' except at the beginning of a sentence." His most emphatic advice is that one must always re-write. I conscientiously tried this, but found that my first draft was almost always better than my second. This discovery has saved me an immense amount of time.
We hates him, we does. Re-writing is essential for me! That does it: Russell's Paradox is banned from The Book of Numbers. Just as well, given the way I have struggled in the past to understand Russell and Whitehead.

December 2, 2009, a bit about editing
Life comes in rushes. I have just returned from Briskepticon, the Australian Skeptics' convention in Brisbane. On the plane coming back, I read the Naturalist draft but I also sketched out some of the plans for a new book, probably to be called The Book of Numbers, which has been lurking at the back of what passes for my mind since I saw a travelogue about Paris on SBS. No, I'm not saying any more about that one just now. 

I arrived back to find that the edited ms of the Monster Maintenance Manual was in my inbox. So I have Ingenuity briefly on hold, the Backyard Naturalist draft to check, Numbers to think about and the Monsters ms to work through. Shelley Kenigsberg has edited my work before, and she is marvellously thorough, which is what is needed, but it makes for a bit of a slog.

Books don't emerge like a bean shoot sprouting out of the ground: they need lots of meticulous work to get them right. I have worked in editorial roles in the past, and my golden rule is that the editor is pretty much always right, even when he or she doesn't "get it". If the editor doesn't understand, the writing is bad, but the suggested change may not work: that means the writer needs to stop, think and rephrase. More often, the editor does get it, and changes, usually the suggested ones, are made. 

It is a very stupid writer who gets on a high horse and rejects changes, because the writer is too close to the work, and cannot see the flaws. As an educational bureaucrat, I used to, as I said then, conduct 51 choirs, all composed entirely of prima donnas.

These were the HSC examination committees in the state of New South Wales, and I and my team of editors were put in place because the committees had been missing mistakes because they saw what they expected to see. It wasn't stupidity, it was just human nature. Anyhow, the result is that I don't argue with editors. I may reason or plead, but if they won't budge, I go with what the editor says.

The editors I work with are all happy to take my MS Word files and mark up the changes with "Track Changes" turned on. Typically, I read the amended text for sense, skim the deletions and insertions and then select a block of text and click to approve all the changes in that block with a single click. I also have "Track Changes" turned on, so the editor can look at the file I send back and react further as necessary.

The editors also add comments from time to time, maybe explaining why a change was made, or asking a question. I attend to these as well and add comments (in italics) within their comments, or occasionally, add one of my own. It's all SO much easier than a battered bunch of paper with scrawls all over it. Sometimes, technology is incredibly sweet for writers.

November 22, 2009
As usual, the delay in coming back is an indication that I have been busy. Two major presentations, one in Canberra, one in Sydney, and two books in the air. I finished the first draft of Australian Backyard Naturalist yesterday, and I have printed and bound a copy to take away to Brisbane for a conference next weekend, where I will be addressing the question: If Darwin did not exist, would it be necessary to invent him?

Now I will be working on that, and also on the Monsters book and Ingenuity. And enjoying summer. 

September 12, 2009
Notice how these posts are getting more frequent? I'm having a bit of trouble getting down to the disciplined setting-out of ideas because I'm having too much fun. Chris (my other half) and I went out to Camden, more than 100 km away to visit a generous tardigradologist, Dr Sandra Claxton, who has spent more than thirty years working on these tiny animals. She shared with us her ingenious methods for extracting tardigrades from bark scraped from trees, I had a try, and succeeded. I'm stoked! 

[Note in 2011: sadly, these ended up only getting a marginal mention in the book.  Most of the microscopy went, but I am adding that material into this blog, and I hope to follow up with lots more of the advanced stuff. You will find most of the key tardigrade information in an entry called Hunting the Elusive Tardigrade.]

Today, I have been working on a Tullgren funnel (also called a Berlese funnel), based on a 1-litre plastic milk bottle. I will add a photo later, but I wanted a stable and cheap arrangement. I cut the bottle in half, poured a layer of plaster of Paris into the base to make a flat surface that I can see my catch on (and also to make it more stable), then turned the top part into a filter funnel, using an old wood chisel to chop out the flat part of the cap, leaving just the screw part. Then I cut a piece of fly wire and clamped it to the top with the cap screw-ring. This was one of the tricks I learned from Sandra Claxton, and I have a few more plans for the same trick. One of the lovely things about science is the way scientists share ideas and techniques. 
If this description doesn't make sense, look at the pictures. You can see the components and an untouched bottle on the left, along with an assembled funnel in the right-hand picture. The idea is to put some leaf litter in the funnel, then lay a cover on the funnel, and apply a gentle heat source like a 25 watt incandescent light bulb to drive the tiny animals down. Incidentally, the plaster is damp (I soak it in water for several minutes, then pour off the excess and blot the plaster dry), so that will help to keep them alive when they fall through the mesh. 

Tomorrow, once the plaster is set, I will give it a test run, and take pictures of it in operation and add a picture or two of my 'catch'. What actually shows up depends a lot on where I take my samples.

September 8, 2009
Over the weekend, I ported across the two spreadsheets I have for Ingenuity and Australian Backyard Naturalist into Word, and got the rough formatting done, though I will leave Ingenuity to mature for a bit. Try this sampler of crazy inventions to see some of the things that may end up in it. 

Today, when I went out to check for mail, I spotted a small and very hairy caterpillar on the path. Right now, I take every opportunity as it arises, so I'm always coming home with odd bits to photograph. So I fetched a dish and a brush, and gently collected the caterpillar. As a rule, the hairy ones cause discomfort or pain, so I treated it with care and set it down on a book in the sun to take a shot with the macro lens. The light was sharp and bright, but some of the detail was lost in the shadows.
I decided that what was needed was some light from the other side, to fill in the shadows, so I went and got a mirror and called my wife to help. We lit it from two sides and quickly learned something new: when lit by sunlight from one side by the sun and from the other by reflected sunlight, a caterpillar gets hot and takes off. Anyhow, I got a few nice action shots of a caterpillar trying to pass itself off as a racehorse. 

I'm putting some of my nicest shots up on Webshots, and so far I have Plants (please admire the dandelion), Rocks, earth and stone, and Cape York. I have started the animals one and put some token shots in there, with more to come soon. There are a few other albums as well, and there will be more in the fullness of time.

September 5, 2009
I am now hard at work on Australian Backyard Naturalist, the sequel that was mentioned below. As part of this, I have bought two new microscopes, I'm about to choose a new digital camera, and I have ordered a 3 megapixel specialist camera to match the microscopes.  The book dungeon is now also a lab, and I am spending more time poking my nose into invertebrate habitats. This is the sort of stuff that I enjoy . . . it's a terrible life, but somebody has to do it!
An ordinary house fly, seen under the microscope.  This is actually a composite of a number of pics taken on different focal planes.

My aim will be to introduce young readers to the vast array of life that is all around them, including mites on their foreheads, and methods for doing things like keeping spiders and even making a microtome. As you will soon realise, I have a lot of stuff to hand in my web site, but there will be much more in this book. Tardigrades, onychophorans, springtails, ant lions will all be there, along with ideas on how to catch and keep these wee beasties. 

Those, however, are just a few of the starting points. Meanwhile, I am still researching the ingenuity book and getting it into shape.

A microtome made from a large bolt and matching nut. The details on this appear in this blog in 2011 in an entry which has a self-evident title.
August 6, 2009
The publicity is going well for and I have even been in the Sydney Morning Herald. Yesterday, I had an email from the National Library of Australia, and there will probably be a follow-up to Australian Backyard Explorer. Details later, but I'm hard at work on the plans.

I have just posted the zipped explorer quotes database online. This is the flatfile DB that I used to create both Australian Backyard Explorer and Australia's Pioneers, Heroes and Fools. This is in Excel format and draws widely on Project Gutenberg sources, as well as material that I laboriously transcribed by hand. It is available for use and sharing in all educational or self-educational contexts. It may be shared for free, but I claim compilation copyright and will pursue vigorously any person who tries to sell it, unless they have discussed the matter with me first and shown that they have added value to the product. I am always approachable to those who share my ethical standpoint. 

The main advantage is that the quotes are sources and given keywords, so that references to caymans, caimans, crocodiles, saurians, alligators, allegators and alegators all shoe up if you search on the right key-word. It was created for personal use, so it's a bit idiosyncratic, but play with it! 

July 13, 2009
Well, I'm most of the way through the interviews for The Lawn, and I'm just back from FNQ. On social networking sites, I generally use the handle McManly, and you can see a bunch of my photos rather muddy-looking on Facebook or rather spiffingly on Webshots—look for the newest folder, with yesterday's date on it. While I was away, The Lawn had a good write-up in The Age, and before I left, I recorded an interview with ABC Radio National's Phillip Adams.

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This blog covers quite a few different things, so I tag each post. I also blog about history, and I am currently writing a series of books called Not your usual... and the first two have been accepted by Five Mile Press, The offcuts appear here with the tag Not Your Usual... . For a taste of Australian tall tales, try the tags Speewah or Crooked Mick.   For a miscellany of oddities, try the tag temporary obsessions. And language us covered under the tags Descants and Curiosities, while stuff about small life is under Wee beasties.

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