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Sunday, 31 January 2016

A tale of lattice

A trellis is usually taken to be a light framework of wooden or timber bars, fastened where they cross, producing a screenwork of square or diamond-shaped gaps, generally filling a window or door space, and it gets its name from the trilicium, a Latin term for a warp thread made of three separate threads. Variant forms of this word are found in Middle English and Old French, but these days, people are more likely to speak of a lattice.

This is much the same thing as a trellis, but made from a thin wooden strap, a lath. This comes from the Old English lætte, through the Middle English laþþe, a word that was still in use in Shakespeare's time, when Falstaff declares to Prince Hal that he will "beat thee out of thy kingdom with a dagger of lath" in Henry IV Part 1, and it is a word which may still be heard in the expression 'lath and plaster'.

There is a similar word in German, laden, meaning a counter or shop, probably derived from the sense of lath as a plank, used to make a counter in a market place, but ladders were never made from lath, and even though ladders were often used in a barn, they have nothing to do with what Chaucer called variously a lath and a lathe, meaning a barn.This name comes from the Old Norse word hlaða, which is also seen in the rare verb 'lade', meaning load, and still seen in the past participle, 'laden'.

In times gone by, Kent was divided into a number of lathes, each with a lathe reeve, a bit like the shire reeve who gave us our modern sheriff, but what of the lathe that we use to turn wood and metal? The standard explanation ties this to the hlaða and 'lade', on the basis that this is similar to the Danish 'lad', a stand, seen in compounds such as savelad, a saw-bench, and væverlad, a loom (think /weaver-stand' to get the feel for this one).

Along this line of reasoning, the 'lad' is a pile built up in a regular way to make a stand, and so the lathe was a turning-lathe or turning-stand, and so became just a lathe. The fact that this is a little improbable has been happily ignored by etymologists in the past. It is just possible, though, that etymologists are less interested in technology than in words, and may have missed another possibility.

While we now use electric power, and before that, people used steam or even water-power to drive a lathe, in the middle ages, a lathe used a long and whippy arm over the bench, a treadle below, and a strap that went around the timber being worked. As the treadle went down, bending the boom, the strap made the timber piece turn.

Then when the treadle was released, the strap spun the timber in the opposite direction. Now the bending part of an arbalest or crossbow is called a lath, and it is just possible that our modern lathe was once a turning-lath, instead, or maybe the two ideas got mixed up.

One major use of lattice in the past was to make chancels, screens used to separate officiating clergy from the masses, or a court from the general public. The chancel, and what lay beyond, would be guarded by a chancellor, who was basically just an usher at the bars (chancelli) of a court.

But while constables were coming down in the world, the fortune of chancellors was on the rise, and soon they were Lord Chancellors, lording it over just about everybody, controlling whole universities, and even having courts of their own, the Chancery courts that Dickens depicts so lovingly in Bleak House.

These courts were every bit as awful in their behaviour as Dickens describes them, so that pugilists used the expression 'in chancery' to describe a fighter who had his opponent in a headlock, while beating him in the face with his spare fist. It would be enough to get you in a lather, but that, it seems, is an unrelated word.

Monday, 18 January 2016

Why Crooked Mick's dog seems stupid

For some reason, people seem a little puzzled about Crooked Mick's dog.  I keep having to point out that it wasn't really what you might call a clever dog, in fact it was generally regarded as the silliest dog on the Speewah, especially when you consider its size.  And it was lazy, too.

More than one New Chum had to be advised against trying to saddle Crooked Mick's dog after some wag had asked them to do just that.  Not that anybody cared about the New Chums all that much, but people of sensitivity could see how appallingly embarrassed the dog became, since all the saddles were too small for it.  Excepting for Mick's horse's saddle, but no New Chum could even lift that, and the dog wouldn't've helped them either.  Too embarrassed, you see . . .

The dog's main intellectual limitation was, as I've mentioned before, in its total inability to light a fire unless you gave it matches, and they had to be safety matches at that.  But in spite of that, I'm inclined to think Mick's dog was brighter than people thought.

I came to this conclusion after one occasion on which I saw the dog sit, wag its tail for a bit in an odd way, get up, turn round, look at the ground, turn back, wag again, and so on.  Curious, I wandered over to have a look.  There in the dust was a textbook example of the diagram that always illustrates Pythagoras' theorem.  Well, almost textbook: I'd say that the right angle was about 3 degrees off, but the squares on the three sides were all very good indeed.

The dog spent about half an hour fiddling with it, but it never seemed to get that right angle any closer, and in the end it mooched off.  So I think that all the time people were laughing at the dog for being stupid, it was just being absent-minded.

Which is no excuse, really, because a working dog has to keep its mind on the task in hand, and that was where Crooked Mick's dog fell down.  I mean, take the time it had to boil the billy for Mick out on the edge of the Grassy Paddock on the Speewah.  There were no trees for miles, not even little shrubs, so the standard method was to light a grass fire, and run along holding the billy over the flames.

Well Mick's dog had the matches that day, so it got the water, started the fire without any problems, and ran along until the billy was boiled, but like I say, it was absent-minded.  When the billy boiled, the dog was five miles away, but it had gone and left the tea behind!

Maybe the dog had its mind on Fermat's Last Theorem or maybe it was dreaming of something new to do with Napier's bones, or perhaps it was the four-colour map theorem, which the dog solved, many years ago, by rounding up a number of geographers and eating all their coloured pencils, but that's another story.  And in any case, who needs a dog that can do original mathematics?

* * * * *

Note: there is a whole book of these stories, which I am currently pitching to publishers, but they will probably appear in an e-book.

There will be quite a number of these on the blog, all with the tags Speewah and Crooked Mick.

Sunday, 3 January 2016

Some more unusual rocks

This past week, I have had a bit of a break, in between taking an 83 kword file and another 5.5 kword addenda file and hacking them down into a 77k file that I hope will be volume 1 (or 2 or 3) under the title Colonial Concerns.  This is Australian social history that I hope will prove acceptable to my publisher.

I still hope to write Not Your Usual Rocks, so we went off looking for petrified trees. There were two lots that I had read about, around Lake Macquarie, and I managed to find both sites. The Blackall Park one, however, was hard, and the area is so pillaged that I won't say how to get there: if you have a special need, contact me with an email address for a reply with how-to-get-there details.

This item on the left was in the area:  I suspect some joker was playing games. It is NOT what we were seeking.

On the right, you can see the real thing, as viewed at high tide.
And here is the same thing, seen at low tide. When the Revered W. B. Clarke recorded these in the 1840s, there were 500, while in the 1970s, there were said to be 30 (the rest had been "souvenired").

We found just two. This is not a Good Thing.

I found Clarke's description of the area, which he calls by its local name of Kurrur-kurran, in the The Sydney Morning Herald, 4 August 1845, p. 2, which you can jump to from this link. In that same article, he mentions another site, at what is now Swansea Heads, and I will explain how to get to that one.

First up, choose a time of low tide. We went back on our last day to see what was visible of the "petrified trees", and it was nearly all under water.

Like this picture at the right.

But at low tide, there are some marvellous remnants to be seen.  In the shots that follow, there is an Australian 50-cent coin for scale: this is 37 mm (1.5 inches in primitive countries) .

To get there, drive towards Swansea, take a left towards Caves Beach, but pick up Northcote Avenue, then Lambton Parade and park at the end in the Reid's Reserve car park.  Find a track through the dune to a beach on the east (it's very sheltered by a reef, so often has lots of children and dogs). Go to the water's edge, swing right and head around, out onto the rock platform.

Then look for these:

Well, if that doesn't ring your bell, forget it, but there's something else to look for, liesegang markings.

The cliff at the back of the platform is part of the Reid's Mistake Formation. This is a tuffaceous sandstone with pronounced jointing and amazing folding.

Over the millennia, water has seeped through the joints, and soaked into the rock, producing these patterns. First, here is a ranging shot to show you where to go: from this part of the cliff, turn left and go along the concrete (there's some sort of drain there), until you get to here:

Now move in and look for things like this:
The first one (above) is rock covered by water. The second one (below) is dry.

 The last two are also dry, but I have loaded these as hi-res. Try clicking on them.

And please, enjoy!

I have just found a few useful side bits in Wikipedia under

There are probably other leads as well, if you search on "Kurrur Kurran", but the first of these links tells us what happened to some of the missing material.

January 3, 2016: I am working on this title. I don't like it much at the moment, but that usually happens with my books.  I fix the  unlikable bits before anybody else sees them. It needs a new chapter 1.

Friday, 1 January 2016

Keeping cockroaches as pets

Let's start the New Year with a BANG. *

Household cockroaches cause strong and inexplicable reactions. In some thoughts about insects, I quoted this anecdote:

 I once unfortunately stated to a Queensland gentleman that my coat had been bitten by cockroaches at his brother's house, which I had just left.  'You must have brought them with you then,' was the fraternal defence immediately set up.  I was compelled at once to antedate the cockroaches to my previous resting-place, owned by a friend, not by a brother.  'It is possible,' said the squatter, 'but I think you must have had them with you longer than that.'  I acquiesced in silence, and said no more about my coat till I could get it mended elsewhere.
— Anthony Trollope, Australia and New Zealand, London: 1873, page 67.

Some cockroaches, on the other hand, are cute.  Yes, I know that sounds weird, but I share the general revulsion to cockies in the house, but these are different: they are bush cockroaches.

Because so many people have strong reactions, I want to share a quick and easy "cage" that you can use, to keep your pets secure. The two photos above were taken, using a bush cockroach that I kept in the "cage" for a couple of days. It had leaf litter for it to burrow in, and I kept this moist. Not soaking wet, just moist enough to save poor cocky drying out.

The photographs were taken like the one above on the right.. I always use a sheet of coloured card behind the things I am photographing. Usually, I use blue, but I felt like a change this day. You rarely see this sort of rough shot, because I normally crop, rotate and resize as necessary, but in every set, I include one pulled-back shot to show how I did it.

The key thing, though,is containing the cocky or cockies. The picture on the right is from page 177 of my Australian Backyard Naturalist, if you happen to have a copy, but it isn't necessary to buy it. Just get one out of a library though, because there are quite a few easy wrinkles like this one.

There are four bits: a plastic container with a rim; leaf litter and residents; a large-enough piece of fly-screen; and TWO (note that: two) sets of linked rubber bands, joined up by a double hook, made from a paper-clip.

In these photos, you can see one set of rubber bands holding the fly screen in place, while the other set is just lying there.

Rubber bands break: that seems to be one of the unstated laws of science. That is why you need two sets, so the cockies don't get out.

As for food, I often throw in a slice of raw potato, which provides food and moisture, but usually, my pets aren't there long enough to risk starving.

Sometimes, I keep mosquito wrigglers, and I don't let them go when they emerge as adults, so I use flywire there as well. Note the sticks that the adults can rest on: otherwise, they will drown. You need nice green water which provides food for the wrigglers.

Here, once again, I use two or even three rubber bands, just to keep my family happy.

The cockroach cage can also be used to keep slaters (alias pill bugs) and also mystery eggs that turn up in the garden I found one set of these and suspected they were lizards, so I transferred them indoors.

My suggestion: take this idea, purloin it, try variations on it, and if you find a neater way, please leave a comment here.

* Oh, yes, about starting with a bang: I was up until 3 am, having seen in the New Year with Sydney's fabulous fireworks.  Here's a sample of what you can see at that link:

So if there are any typos, I have an excuse!

Monday, 28 December 2015

Yes Monster

Right now, I am well into the second volume of Colonial Concerns, though if the first volume fails to sell to a dead-tree publisher, I will pile the two together as a Great Big e-book: I have 130,000 words in the bag, all sorts of amusing side-lights to Australian social history, and it is galloping along.

Today, I am working on the story of bubonic plague in Australia, starting with a tale that reads like a script outline for Yes, Minister! Take it from me: it's all real.

* * * * * * * *

By the 1890s, the medical profession largely accepted the idea that germs (usually referred to as bacilli) caused disease, and these things were regarded with superstitious awe. Imagine how the Victorian Board of health felt when they received an anonymous warning in late 1898 that a Dr. Haydon, living at Macarthur, near Warrnambool, had arrived from India about six months earlier, with samples of the bacilli of the bubonic plague.

There was no time to lose (other than the six months that Gray had already been in Australia!), so the Board sent a Dr. Gray to call upon Haydon to see if the covert denunciation was correct, and if it was, to try to persuade Dr. Haydon to hand the microbes over for destruction.

Haydon confirmed that he did indeed have the bacilli, saying that he had secured them for experimental, purposes, at great risk to himself, and he wanted £300 compensation if he had to hand them over. The Board, as all Boards do when faced with a contrary view, started to flap and flail.

The colonial government had no legal power to interfere with the importation, so they appealed to the Minister of Health, Mr. H. R. Williams, and this is where the comedy started. The Secretary of Trade and Customs, Dr. Wollaston, stated that everyone coming to the colony is technically bound to report everything in his possession.

Inquiries at the Customs Department showed that no such importation had been reported. Microbes are not dutiable, and there was no law to prevent their importation, but the Minister proposed sending a Customs officer to seize the germs, after which, Dr. Haydon, instead of being compensated; should be prosecuted for secretly importing the germs of a fearful and dangerous disease.

Those who have worked in bureaucracies know that Sir Humphrey Appleby has always been there. Wollaston, who was formed in that mould, saw a better way. The microbes had been imported in gelatine, opening up a legal solution. Gelatine was subject to a duty of 3d per lb. So, as Dr. Haydon had not paid the duty, the department was entitled to seize the gelatine!

Detective-Inspector Christie, who was more used to seizing illicit whisky stills, contrabrand tobacco and cigars, jewellery, and the like, was told to leave by the 4.20 p.m. train for Warrnambool, and hurry along to Dr. Haydon’s at Macarthur, where he was to seize the microbes. I like Australian Town and Country Journal’s version:

This was the first time, he had been entrusted with such a duty; and, not knowing one microbe from another, he felt nonplussed, until he was informed that he would be accompanied by a bacteriological expert in Dr. Gray, who would identify the particular parcel. Armed with a writ from Dr. Wollaston. Detective Christie left by the 4.20 p.m. train, and Dr. Gray, who was on his way back, was instructed by telegraph to join Christie and return to Macarthur. Christie was directed to seize the microbes at all hazards. This he did, and destroyed them by fire. [1]

And so, children, Australia was saved from a terrible fate of bubonic plague. Well, not quite, because the germs, if they were what they were believed to be, lacked anything that could transfer them from one person to another. And in any case, plague was just around the corner, but to learn more about that, you will need to do your own research, or read the book.

[1] Australian Town and Country Journal (Sydney), 19 November 1898, 13,

Sunday, 27 December 2015

The nature of wit

Snff?  Eh? What?

Oh, yes, sorry, I drifted off there for a bit. I am hard at work writing and forgot to post anything here. No matter, here's something I prepared earlier.

To most of us, the word 'wit' appears either in the form of somebody being witty or in some way having lost their wits, and given that, it is a little hard to deal with the Biblical and formally legal expression 'to wit'. King Henry uses the expression, just before Gloucester, the future Richard III stabs him in Henry VI, Part 3. Henry tells Gloucester:

Thy mother felt more than a mother's pain,
And yet brought forth less than a mother's hope,
To wit, an indigest deformed lump,
Not like the fruit of such a goodly tree.

This reference to Gloucester's hunchback turns out to be an unwise career move on Henry's part. Again, at the end of Act II in The Merchant of Venice, a servant tells Portia

Madam, there is alighted at your gate
A young Venetian, one that comes before
To signify th' approaching of his lord,
From whom he bringeth sensible regreets;
To wit, besides commends and courteous breath,
Gifts of rich value.

So what is this wit that the characters speak of? It comes from an ancient Indo-European root meaning 'to know', and that is precisely what 'to wit' means. Variations on the term even turn up in languages like Czech, where a bear is called medved, because, as every reader of Winnie the Pooh knows, bears have a serious interest in honey.

Now honey, which yields us mead, even today, is medd in Welsh, mádhu in Sanskrit, and meodu in Old English, so it should not surprise us if the Czechs call their honey med. The second half of medved is our 'wit' in English, or wissen in German, or veta in Swedish, while in Sanskrit, we find four collections of knowledge called the Vedas. In other words, the bear, to the Czechs, is the 'honey knower'.

The verb 'wit' even turns up in an inflected form, as 'wot', mainly in poetical works, so we should not be surprised to find it awaiting us at every turn in Shakespeare, as in this comment from Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra:

O happy horse, to bear the weight of Antony!
Do bravely, horse; for wot'st thou whom thou mov'st?
The demi-Atlas of this earth, the arm
And burgonet of men.

Over time, the root has buried itself deep within the language. A wise person was one who knew things, and wisdom and knowledge were seen as the same, and even a wizard seems to come from that source. A witch, however, may be different — in Old English, a male witch was a wicca, while a female witch was a wicce. Some of the 'witch' trees, like witch hazel, though, are entirely free of witchery, coming instead from the linguistic root that gives us 'wicker', and meaning pliable, easily bent.

And just to confuse the issue, there is another Old English word that we now render as 'withy', generally meaning the twigs of a willow or similar tree, and sharing an origin with the Latin word for a vine, vitis, which we recognise today only in the form of viticulture. But while we may be assured that in vino veritas, in wine there is truth, there is no trace of knowledge on the vine, though intelligence of a sort often travels by way of the grapevine.

Knowledge can be found elsewhere, though. The 'wiseacre' who seems to be a modern term of contempt, has an ancient history, going back more than 400 years to a time when the wiseacre was a wise-sayer or soothsayer, not unlike the Dutch wijsseggher of the same period, or the German Weissager, meaning the same thing.

Nowadays, we seem to relate wit to a rapid response, as in a witticism, or having a quick wit. Whatever wit was, though, Francis Bacon thought it was undesirable in court, when he observed that "Judges ought to be more Learned, then Wittie".

There is one wit that is essential in any legal hearing, and that is the person called before the court to reveal what they know: the possessor of knowledge, the all-knowingness we call 'the witness'.

There is a bird of the curlew family known as the godwit, but this does not seem to have any particularly good theistic connections, and I decline to speculate in any way, shape or form about the peewit.