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Saturday, 22 July 2017

The Great North Head Calamity

A view of the fall from an area now off-limits.
Philosophers who argue about trees falling in a forest where nobody hears them fall, now have a new conundrum, this one involving a rock falling and nobody hearing it.

At some point, one Wednesday in August 2016, some rock came down off the cliff, between the Hole in the Wall track and Fairfax Lookout. Perhaps somebody heard a bang, or two bangs, but that was it. Nobody seems to be sure about anything, and I don't report rumours, even if I react to them.

I picked up a rumour on the web, and hurried off to gather photographs. I was just in time, because the panic-merchants were already reacting wildly, fearing that Armageddon was upon us, we were all doomed, all of those things that flailing mismanagers love to shout to make sure that everybody else starts to panic. (This is a cunning ploy to hide the fact that they started to panic first.)

Quite a few weeks later, the best access points were still blocked off. The shots above came from those two points, because I beat the authorities to it, assessed the safety, and went in to record an unusual event.

The panic was based on the squeal that “the whole cliff might come down”. It will, one day, but not right now, and they blocked off unrelated bits of coast in any case.

I gave up a promising career as a management consultant in 1990 to avoid dealing with flailing knee-jerk managers like these. To manage risks, you need to understand the facts and the principles.

Rocks are peculiar solids, filled with flaws, planes of weakness called joints, and geologists have a bit of trouble accounting for them. The best explanation is that when the sediment becoming rock is buried deep enough to become rock, it is under pressure, and later, as it rises to the surface when erosion uncovers it, the rock expands and planes of weakness develop.
All rocks have joints in them, so there is something missing in that explanation. Anyhow, joints are there, and rock falls off when a joint is sufficiently undermined. The joints shape our cliffs, keeping them vertical.

Hawkesbury sandstone usually has two sets of joints, more or less at right angles to each other. You could write a book about them, and I'm doing two right now, one for young people, the other for adults).

Some of the sandstone beds are less resistant to weathering, the way that rocks “rot”, some of the beds in the sandstone are more like shale, and erode out, undercutting the beds above. 

Inner North Head has two clear undercuts, as you can see more clearly in the composite shot below. When the undercutting goes right under a joint, the situation is right for a block to fall, and that is what happened.

It wasn’t the whole cliff, just a block weighing perhaps 600 tons (my first, and wildly inaccurate  guesstimate): not nice to have land on you, but not Armageddon, either.

My neighbour Geoff Lambert suspected that it was bigger, and he did the research, using aerial photos, and came up with this:

"It was much bigger than I imagined. The surface area of the rock that fell was about 950m2 and the height (if no overhang), was an average of 33m. Thus a volume of 31000m3 and, at an assumed specific gravity of 2.5, a mass of about 75,000 tonnes."
That's a bit more impressive, but still not a record. The last time we saw a fall like that was in January 1931, and it was called a landslide. The process was slower and better observed, beginning with a fissure or cleft near Dog Face Rock.

This opening went from 2 metres to 4.5 metres over a couple of days, and already, “hundreds of tons” had fallen by 27 January — comparable to the whole fall at North Head. Within 24 hours, an alleged 100,000 tonnes had fallen. That puts our fall in perspective, just a bit.

Sir Edgeworth David knew what was what: this process had shaped the valleys of the Blue Mountains, and it had been going on for millions of years, he told the Sydney Morning Herald in May 1931. (See, if you want the full story.)

These events are rare, but inevitable, and for the past few years, I have been photographing likely future fall areas, in the hope of getting a before and after. In geological time scales, they are frequent, but on our scale, such falls are rare. The sky is not falling, Chicken Little!

Almost a year later, the area is still off-limits. I note that yesterday, July 6, was International Fried Chicken Day...

The Corso in winter

There was a river running through Manly once, back when the land was younger, when the sea level had been sucked down as water was drawn into the northern hemisphere glaciers.  The ancient river rumbled its way along from south to north in a deep valley, running more or less parallel to the coast we know today.
From Griffith Taylor, Sydneyside Scenery, p. 86.
In places, the old river approached the sea that lay just to the east, but still it followed the line of least resistance, pushing north through the jointed sandstone until it poured into the ocean via Broken Bay, some thirty kilometres up the coast.  The river was in a rut, a deep rut it had carved for itself, and there was no escape from that rut.

The river would only be set free from its course when the northern ice melted, letting the sea flood in over the low range of hills along the shore, making islands of the higher peaks, and filling the old valley with sand, dividing the river into many smaller streams.

All along the coast, streams that once added to the old river now flowed directly into the sea, washing the salt from the sea sand as it piled up, making a home for the first tough and adventurous plants that were poised, waiting to invade.  The roots of these early plants tied the sand down, more sand blew in, and slowly, beaches and sand spits grew into low sand hills.

These sand hills had to struggle.  As the vegetation built up on the slopes, wild fires would be started by lightning, destroying the plants and giving the howling winds a grip.  At other times, wild storms would drive the sea into the low hills.  The crashing waves would hiss and viper through, drowning the animals, poisoning the plants, pushing the sand before them and flattening the dunes.

In places, the waves would drive all the way through, reopening the old river bed to admit the high tide storm waves which would foam into the harbour on the other side of the dunes, turning the land-locked headlands back into islands again.  Then the storms would ease, and the whole slow process would start over again, building the sand dune communities up again.

All that has changed now.  Civilisation has come to the river bed, human occupation with its massive infrastructure of roads, drains, utilities and buildings that do not grow back again after a storm.  Dour and determined engineers have thrown up walls and barriers to hold back the sea, to thwart it when it attacks.  No sea, they have sworn, will ever again dare poke its nose into the thriving tourist centre of Manly, seven miles from the centre of Sydney.

Manly Cove was a small bay that got its name four or five days before Sydney itself, based on the white invaders summing-up of the local residents when they came looking for a place to settle in 1788.  Then the searchers sailed away to find a better anchorage for ships at Sydney Cove, and they made their town there.  You could sail to Manly in an hour or two, but it was a two-day journey by road, so Manly was left alone until the 1850s.  Until then, the sea was still able to break through into the harbour from time to time.

Then came steam ferries that crossed the harbour in forty minutes, a ferry wharf, settlers, developers, buildings, tourists and holiday-makers, and the beginnings of a seaside dormitory suburb.  ‘The Village’ of Manly was carefully marketed as ‘Seven miles from Sydney and a thousand miles from care’.  People who did not live there dreamed of it, and came to swim at safe harbour beaches.  In this century, they came to surf at the three ocean beach sites that lie along the wide ocean bay, once it was legal to do so, and the final nail in the civikisation coffin came with two new bridges around 1930, linking Manly to the city by road.

The Corso began in the 19th century as a simple street over the flat low sands that linked the roaring ocean and the placid harbour, but soon the sandy path was lined with shops.  Later again, it became a road carrying heavy traffic and trams.  Now it is mostly pedestrian plaza, with people, shops, a few illegal bicycles, skateboards and roller bladers, chairs and tables, trees and shrubs.  Everything that remains is geared to the tourist trade.

The tourists have been here ever since the 1850s, thronging the area in the summer, but when winter bites, the temperature falls to 15° Celsius, and the cold southerly blows in off the harbour, commerce slows, and the locals can outnumber the tourists again.  We come back into our own.

There will still be grandmothers with offspring to mind and days to kill, there will still be budget-conscious Japanese tourists who surf the winter seas in wet-suits.  And when the waves get too rough, they flit around with cameras, excitedly snapping the quaint natives.  All three of my children rode through their first two years in a ‘papoose’ on my back, and all three have been preserved in innumerable Japanese photo albums as samples of curious customs and local colour.

Like any tourist trap in the off-season, the Corso has a certain lonely raffishness in winter, but it also has a certain charm.  My writing cycle leaves me with a large free gap in the morning, every second Friday.  As soon as I can, I get down to the shops to pay bills, post letters,  and generally attend to some minor domestic chores.

A part of my fortnightly ritual now is the outdoor cup of coffee at 9.30.  I relish this time away from everybody, just me and my notebook as I plan the next two weeks.  All along the pedestrian area, there are tables and chairs: sit in one of the chairs, and somebody will come bustling out to take your order.

The coffee is good: it has to be, with so many outlets, and the service is fast, if only to move on the profitless non-customers, thoughtlessly wearing out their seats and tables.  They recognise no ‘regulars’ here, for the staff turnover is too high, but I see many of the same people each time I sit and watch.

The toddler with his grandmother, who always stands in front of the busking flautist, listening intently; the old man in a conservative suit and tie, almost hidden behind a wild white two-year beard; the young girl with pencil-thin legs, dressed all in black who surreptitiously sketches people, probably hoping somebody will notice her working and want to buy the sketches, but they never do; and the quadriplegic newspaper seller in his electric wheelchair; they are always there.

So is the fat skinhead in the torn shirt who nods his head to some distant drummer living in his iPod, nodding so hard that his ear rings sometimes tinkle, and half a dozen other walking wounded and unemployed.  They are the fixed scenery of the winter street.

Then there are the interchangeable Japanese, trotting efficiently to and from the surf beach with their short boards with the wicked samurai-sword-sharp fins.  There will usually be a scattering of Scandinavians wandering through but never stopping, for they are budget tourists, often a five-year-old will confidently sail by on roller blades, too young to be molested by the Council rangers, and sometimes there used to be Manly's famous skateboard riding dog, if the rangers were out of view. I think he's gone, now...

The soundscape is varied, with loud rock music from a sports and surf clothing store, and buskers — the flautist, a banjo player near the pub, a classical guitarist, and further along, there used to be a puppeteer whose puppets dance to the Irish tunes that come from his cassette player (he seems to have died).

The weekends are quite different, even in winter.  With greater crowds, the busking numbers will swell to include bagpipers, a dijeridu player, or a group of Morris dancers,  but on a weekday, the birds and the small children have the area to themselves.

Just after ten, a wave of people rolls up the Corso as another ferry load of trippers washes through from the wharf on the harbour.  I look sourly at the gulls and pigeons, picking over the food scraps, the wrappers and papers that drift along in the winter breeze, and I begin to long for the cleansing ocean waves to roll through once more, from ocean to harbour, sweeping all before them.

Then I know it is time to go.  But I also know that when I return in a fortnight, the old magic will have spread across the surface again, so I can sit in the sun, muse, and drink another flat white in peaceful reverie.

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Australian winters are different

Actinotus minor, the small flannel flower
This is an old piece, slightly freshened. Some of the pictures were taken in the past week, while the others are all species I saw during that time. As I say, our autumns are different, and so are our winters (which begin, officially, on 1 June).

At times, I can be a bit of a stick-in-the-mud.  Once I get to a certain point with a book, I set myself artificial and demanding goals and deadlines.  If I am working on an article or a book, I can be even worse.

Actinotus helianthi, the large flannel flower
So winkling me away from the keyboard can be a bit of an exercise, but after a couple of wet days, I was only too willing to get out in the late afternoon sun, and walk a couple of tracks, a couple of months back.

We stepped out, and walked past the park behind our house where perhaps a dozen kites were flying.  I looked carefully at the kite people, but recognising none, we moved off onto the bush track that runs down to a nearby beach.

Eriostemon, probably.
I may have mentioned that my wife is a botanist, and it has probably become apparent to the reader that I have leanings in that direction myself.  So it should not surprise my readers to learn that we started counting the species of plant that were in flower.

Things did not begin well, for the first hundred metres revealed only five species of proper plant and two weeds.  I like to boast that our native bush can always produce a dozen species in flower, even in the lowest autumnal slough of despond.
Grevillea buxifolia, the grey spider flower
Later, we found several pockets of summer carry-overs, taking our total past thirty, but that was later.

We walked on, acknowledging those we passed.  This is an urban trail, a footpath rather than a track, and you can expect to pass maybe a hundred people along the way.  Normally uptight city people would not acknowledge each other, but on a bush track, a different etiquette applies, based on the myth of bush mateship.  Even if it is more of a footpath, it goes through bush , and that changes the normal rules.

Another Grevillea.
At least one member of a party greets at least one member of the other party, and the others at least nod or smile.  It is also acceptable to stop and ask for information about the track ahead from somebody going the other way, or even to draw attention to some feature that might otherwise be missed.  At least this is a step up from the British preoccupation with discussing the weather.

This is fine with us, because autumn weather is usually fine.  Sydney Harbour at this time of year is crammed with boats.  Yachts of all sizes, launches, floating gin palaces and sleek hoon boats all cruise the harbour looking for a peaceful anchorage, out of the wind but in the sun, and the headland tracks reveal glimpses of usually empty bays, crowded with boats.  A kilometre away at Store Beach, five identical floating gin palaces are tied together, and we speculate on their purpose briefly.
Acacia sp., one of thew wattles. We have lots.

Just then we pass an American man in his sixties.  He overhears us discussing a suspicious plant, an aberrant species that we do not recognise, and he asks us whether he can expect to see many more flowers up ahead.  The etiquette of the track is something that people pick up rather quickly, and as he has grasped it, so sensing a fellow human, we take him back 50 metres to see an unexpected orchid, and a sundew.

 A sundew, Drosera spatulata, an insect-catching plant. There was another species there, D. auriculata, which
flowers in spring and summer, but it was in bud already. Sadly, it's impossible to photograph in the field.

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Australian accents

Have you noticed the silence? I have been away in Sri Lanka, travelling with a bunch of Australians in pursuit of snakes. crocodiles, monitors, birds of many kinds, water buffalos, wild pigs, squirrels, mongooses ... and, as you can see from the photograph, making close contact with wild elephants.

Travelling in a foreign clime can be a bit off-putting, but travelling with a bunch of fellow-Australians gave us a solid grip on normality, because we speak much the same language. Perhaps the reader will allow me to offer a short quote from, and hence plug for, my new e-book, Not Your Usual Australian Tales, available now on Kindle.
Sit in a coffee shop in Riga, a wine bar near Rome’s Spanish Steps, a restaurant in Bergen, a Greek café in Banff, a chippie in Glasgow, a tapas bar in Cuzco or a bangers and mash restaurant in Reykjavik, and when you hear Australian tones in the room — and trust me, you will — say in a carrying voice with vowels as flat as a roadkill goanna, one word: “G’day!”.
Then, from the corner of your eye, watch as the Australian heads turn this way and that, seeking their unseen compatriot who may have news from back home. That’s the news we want now, not news from Home, and a single “G’day!” reminds us of where home really is.

Slang, the vernacular, the peculiarly Australian form of English can be difficult to understand.  Slang aside, there are the words that all Australians use in a special way, like ‘bush’.  Even those Australians who speak ‘educated’ or ‘cultivated’ English will talk about ‘the bush’.

There are no forests or woods in Australia, just bush.  When people disappear into the wilds, they ‘go bush’ (or bushwalking), if they stray from the made path, they are bush-bashing.  Thieves who roamed the bush were called bushrangers, and if somebody has come up to the ‘smoke’ (Sydney) from the bush, then he or she probably lives on a farm or in a country town.  So you have to listen to the context.

There are three distinct forms of English that we detect in our own speech.  The ‘general Australian’ is broader, and less ‘English’, and it is more likely to contain references to manufactured products and cultural allusions and clever similes (‘Vegemite’, or ‘as mean as Hungry Tyson’ or ‘as flash as a rat with a gold tooth’).  ‘General Australian’ usually involves less lip movement.

The broad Australian accent involves no lip movement at all (to keep flies out of the mouth, some say), more reliance on tones (carries over longer distances), and many impenetrable slang terms, including rhyming slang, often similar to (but differing from) Cockney rhyming slang.  It is a gross error to see the Australian accent as deriving from Cockney, just because of fancied similarities in one or two vowels.

The ‘cultivated’ style of English is fancied by most Australians to be indistinguishable from English, and it is indeed fairly close, closer than Bostonian English, for example.  After just a few months in Australia, most English people lose the ability to tell whether or not a ‘cultivated’ or ‘educated English’ speaker is English or Australian.

As a user of that style, I have never been mistaken for English in England (though I have been in both Wales and Scotland), and I can also vouch for the problems that north Americans have in distinguishing the ‘educated’ accent from the English accent.  This style seems to be getting less common, if only because most ‘cultivated’ speakers can and do use at least one other form of local accent.

This sort of variation is by no means new.  Henry Cruciform, for example, is the source of most of my information about Crooked Mick, and the stories I tell are actually Henry's reminiscences of his own youth.  The old man usually spoke with me in the ‘educated Australian’ style, but when he was passing on to me a story of his experiences early this century, he would drop naturally into the broad form of speech, imitating the characters he knew and worked with, like Crooked Mick.  Incidentally, I am fairly sure that Cruciform was, in fact, the character called ‘The Professor’ in several of his stories.

The New Zealand accent is common in Australia, and hard to pick, even for an outsider who has been here for some time.  Australians say it is easy: ask the suspected New Zealander to count to seven.  For Kiwis, especially those from the South Island, the number between five and seven is sux, and lists are lusts.  It's a subtle difference, and not really important, except when a Kiwi clerical worker tells you with some urgency that we badly need some lists . . .

Some of the slang terms can be traced to regional English usages, others are of unknown origin.  The correct and safest procedure for any foreigner is to smile engagingly and look agreeable without actually agreeing to anything when slang is used in their presence.

So far as swearing is concerned, Australians use the same terms as other English-speakers, although with different frequencies.  You should have no problem in recognising when you are being sworn at, but context and tone of voice are more important than content.  A poor old bastard is an altogether different beast from a miserable bastard or a rotten bastard.

Then there are the aboriginal words, names for places, animals or things that are used quite unconsciously, like billabong, an oxbow lake in other places, or maybe tucker, which is food, and which may or may not be an aboriginal word, depending on who you ask.

Last of all, there are words that are used in Australia in some way that the scholars of Oxford know not, that you will never find in the Oxford English Dictionary.  Just as the Americans needed their Webster's, so we now have our own Macquarie Dictionary that tells us (and others) what we mean.  Try looking up ‘jam’ in all three!

As a writer, I have an enduring need to know when terms came into the Australian idiom, and I have recorded many of them at a site you can access either through, or as

The first resolves into the second, and one day, when I stop writing books and travelling, I will add to the list.

Right now, I am back on home ground, awaiting the edits of Australian Backyard Earth Scientist, and developing the draft of Australian Survivor (working title).

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!