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Thursday, 31 January 2013

Let's play nicely


There is always a risk, when we consider statements that are more than a few hundred years old, that some of the key words may have altered drastically in the interim, changing the meaning entirely.
St Paul's Cathedral, London

When King James II commented that the new St Paul's Cathedral in London was "amusing, awful and artificial", should Sir Christopher Wren have slipped out the back and slit his throat?

Not a bit of it: the monarch was merely observing that he considered the building to be pleasing, awe-inspiring and skilfully achieved, and no insult or criticism was intended. Or so they say.

In Richard II, Shakespeare has John of Gaunt say:
Gaunt am I for the grave, gaunt as a grave,
Whose hollow womb inherits nought but bones.
This prompts King Richard to ask "Can sick men play so nicely with their names?" but this is no praise, as we shall see. In the Reeve's Tale in the Canterbury Tales, Chaucer writes "This miller smyled of hir nycetee", which we might be tempted to take to mean he smiled at their nicety, but a more accurate rendering is that he smiled at the simplicity of the two scholars he planned to swindle.

That aside, most of the time when Chaucer uses 'nice', he means foolish, for that was the original meaning of the term. We get this word from the Latin nescius, meaning ignorant or unknowing, with the prefix ne- meaning not, and the -scius reminding us of words like scientia, knowledge, or even science. So originally a nice person was somebody who knew nothing, a fool, in other words.

Then began the slow progression of this word to its present meaning of somebody who is inoffensively pleasant. After the simple meaning of 'foolish' that Chaucer has as the primary meaning, the word came to indicate people who are foolishly concerned about particular things, and then it became fastidious and precise, and after that, we might have spoken of somebody being nice in their dress, with no hint of praise intended.

At the time when King Richard spoke to John of Gaunt, though, only one meaning would have existed, but Shakespeare's audience would have understood 'nicely' here to mean something like delicately, or with precision, a sense we preserve today when we speak of somebody making a nice point, or performing something to a nice degree.

In the same way, we may speak of somebody having a nice sense of discrimination or honour. Discrimination is bad (unless it's positive discrimination, whatever that may be!), but having a discriminating palate is a good thing among foodies and wine buffs.

Piero della Francesca's Resurrection, with a blow-up
of Piero as an inset, top right corner.
Finally, it came to our modern sense of 'pleasantly agreeable', and it is a term that is commonly applied to people of a religious persuasion, church-going Christians who might look at Piero della Francesca's Resurrection and admire it greatly.

These are people who would admire Piero for depicting himself as one of the sleeping guards outside Christ's tomb, and who would glory in the nice precision with which Piero had identified himself by showing his goitre, an outgrowth of the thyroid gland, caused by a lack of iodine in the diet.

While people closer to the sea got enough seafood to provide the iodine they needed, in some areas, people never saw the sea, and food from the sea could not reach them before it went rotten — unless it was preserved in some way, like anchovies. Seafood was expensive, and so many people went without, and developed goitres as a result.

In extreme cases, iodine deficiency and the goitrous condition can bring about a degree of simplicity and gentleness that was seen by their luckier neighbours as like that of the Christians, or chrétiens as the French-speakers in alpine areas called them.

That is one version of the origin of the term — the other is that the goitrous were recognised as still being humans with Christian souls, as opposed to the brutes of creation, unbaptised, but incapable of sin.

Either way, the more goitrous among them became known as chrétiens, or crestins, and so we got our word 'cretins', now generally misapplied as no more than a term of abuse. Once, though, cretins were a group who were at once nice in both the original and in the more modern sense.

If the cretins had been uniformly naughty right across the alpine areas, would that have been a case of a regional sin?

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

The mystery of the seahorse teeth



This story goes back some years to when I was writing a book called Mr. Darwin's Incredible Shrinking World.  Basically, this was about the events of 1859, the year that Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species.  It is common to hype the publication and say that the world would never be the same again, once Darwin's work was in print. The implication hangs there that if Darwin had published sooner, the world would have changed sooner.

My response was to agree that yes, the world did change, massively, in 1859, but that it was doing so in any case, and most of the changes happened before Darwin's book came out, and change depended on those points.  Many enabling things happened, like the development of the spectroscope, which allowed some new elements to be identified, enough so that a few years later, Mendeleyev could draw up the periodic table of the elements.  We hit a critical mass of identified elements in 1859.

There were other patterns as well: germ theory was fluttering around, though not yet accepted, muscular Christianity had emerged a year or two earlier, the notion that we needed mens sana in corpore sano, or "a healthy mind in a healthy body".  Lawns (the subject of another book a few years later) were in vogue, so were public parks, and many team sports—and lawn tennis, began in 1859.

Why was Darwin's world shrinking?  Communications were getting faster, the world was rapidly being linked by a web of telegraph cables, railways were reaching out as fast as they could lay tracks, steam presses got news out faster, and books and newspapers were rushed across a nation or the world by steam trains and steam ships.  They started digging the Suez Canal in 1859, to bring the world closer together.

There were changes in materials as well, and I started looking at cargoes that steamers brought to the world's major ports.  I was interested by gutta percha, a rubber-like material that was used to waterproof cables under the sea.  It also made waterproof boots and clothes and envelopes in which naturalists could send specimens of seaweeds to one another.

It was fascinating, though not entirely productive, but my interest was in unearthing the unexpected.  Like the discovery that The Times reported in January 1859, the screw steamer Behar had docked at Southampton from Alexandria, bringing passengers and pearls valued at 12,200 rupees, 728 bales of silk, 490 bales of flax, 59 boxes of oranges, 26 cases of seahorse teeth, 23 packages of elephants' teeth and 47 packages of sundries.

In late October, the same paper advised readers that the mail packet Norman had reached England from Table Bay with one package of specie, 253 casks of wine, 2000 horns, six cases of ostrich feathers, 100 cases of arrowroot, 13 bales of wool, 180 bales of skins, 1000 wet hides, 44 tons of copper ore and "ten packages of sundries". (What, pray, was the rest of the cargo, if not completely sundry?)

It sounded a bit like that Masefield poem, but I was particularly taken with the seahorse teeth carried by Behar.  We have seahorses near my home, and they are relatives of the pipe fish, curious little things looking like the knight of a chess board.  I had visions of exploited workers somewhere, sitting with tweezers, picking the teeth out of the mouths of small dead fish, and dropping them in a glass bowl.  How many teeth, I wondered, would it take to fill one bowl?  Would the ting! ting! of falling teeth deafen them as they fell into the bowl?

I wondered what the teeth were used for, and suspected a medical application.  In the end, I discovered that "seahorse" had at least three simultaneous and contradictory meanings in the 19th century—and the Oxford English Dictionary asserted that my little fish, genus Hippocampus, was first called "seahorse" in 1859 (that was wrong, but we'll come to that later.)

In point of fact, the seahorse teeth came from the other two types of "seahorse", and the teeth were a form of ivory.  To find out which sort of animal's ivory was involved, you needed to look to see where the ship came from, because if the ship came from the east, the seahorse in question was a hippopotamus (that name comes from the Greek for "river horse"!).  If the ship came from the north, the seahorse in question was a walrus.

I dealt with the matter fairly promptly, and went back to more pressing matters like Abe Lincoln preparing to make his run for the White House and the last battle to see several royal persons commanding armies: the resulting carnage from a battle with modern arms and untrained leaders provided the impetus that gave us the Geneva Conventions and the Red Cross a few years later.  See what I mean about a time of change?  The seeds of more recent strife in Chechnya and Indochina were sown in 1859 as well…seahorse teeth just didn't rate a lot of attention.

Anyhow, if you Google the phrase "seahorse teeth", you will find my name associated with a few of the top hits, but now I have some time to spare, I thought I would dig around more carefully, because I was still fairly ignorant on the matter.

First up, it turns out that my original thought of a medical benefit from the teeth had some merit. Francis Bacon, Lord Verulam, died in 1626, but not long before he died, he wrote in his Natural History in Ten Centuries that wearing a ring of seahorse tooth could prevent cramp.  Reading between the lines, "cramp" here probably meant rheumatism, but did he believe it himself? You decide:
Nor is the philosopher less free from the absurdities of sympathetic magic, such as wearing a lion's claw to make one brave. Thus the wearing of diamonds, emeralds, and yellow topaz comforts and exhilarates, rings of seahorses' teeth worn on the fingers prevent cramp, the root of the peony tied to the neck cures the falling sickness and the nightmare, little bladders of quicksilver or tablets of arsenic are to be worn as preservatives against plague, being poisons themselves, they draw venom to them from the spirits.
This seahorse tooth may well have been walrus tooth, because in 1633, there is a passing reference to a Captain Bruton, who was apparently somewhere near modern Canada.  The Captain had dealt with the locals to buy a "unicorn's horn" (probably a narwhal's tooth), but then he went with them to buy seahorse teeth, and they killed him.  Bruton is a bit shadowy, so just as I left the seahorse teeth on the back-burner for later, now I leave Bruton.

Onward and upward: Thomas Sheridan's A Complete Dictionary of the English Language, 1780 and 1789 is available though Google Books, and by now, the walrus was at the front in any discussion:
The seahorse is a fish of very singular form, it is about four five inches in length, and nearly half an inch in diameter in the broadest part; the morse*; by the Seahorse Dryden means the hippopotamus.
In 1800, Thomas Pennant offered a list of imports from the East Indies, and seahorse teeth were on the list. (Pennant, Thomas, The view of India extra Gangem, China, and Japan, v. 3., 282.  London, J. White, 1800: try Google Books and you will find it if you persevere.)  Those would have been hippo teeth, but then, just four years later, this appeared in The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, 16 December 1804, on page 3:
Captain Rhodes has brought up several of the very curious tribe vulgarly denominated the sea-horse, nearly resembling that found at the Philippines in shape, but in other respects differing… the whole length of the animal not exceeding twelve or fourteen inches. 
That is no walrus or hippo!  So in 1804, 55 years before the OED has it, vulgar people are calling the fish a seahorse.  How forward of them, how vulgar!

In February 1827, readers of the same newspaper could learn of traders who had settled at Natal in southern Africa, where Mr, Henry Nourse had bought " a quantity of the tusks of the hippopotami, which had formerly been regarded by the Portuguese and natives as of very trifling value. The sale of Mr. Nourse's cargo, however, discovered that sea-horse ivory was worth half as much again as the tusks of the elephant, and since that time it has been in great demand, and better estimated by the Portuguese." 

That's a hippopotamus, that is. Yet in 1835, when a Colonel Fairman was called before the Bar of the House of Commons, he was described as having "…a long pair of sandy coloured mustachios hanging down on each side of the mouth, giving his countenance, very much the appearance of that of a walrus, or sea-horse, in the books of birds and beasts."  Now the seahorse is a walrus again.

Much of the seahorse ivory was used to make false teeth, even in 1860, but American dentists had investigated porcelain as far back as 1818, though in 1822, an anonymous Boston writer classed "the teeth and tusks of the hippopotamus or sea-horse" as the best of all.  By 1830, though, porcelain was making significant progress.

Still, there were other ways the ivory could be used. The story of Henry Harrison, who appeared in a Sydney court in 1838 is best left in the words of the reporter, who called himself Sam Weller:
Henry Harrison was placed at the bar, with a stick resembling a boa constrictor taking a snooze, with a sea-horse tooth top; this appendage was placed along side of him, and they were well matched. The charge was for flourishing said stick about his head in the streets, thereby placing in eminent peril the knowledge boxes of several of her Majesty's subjects; he was therefore secured. As there appeared to be a considerable question whether Henry had, or had not, been indulging in spirituous or vinous potations, and there being no fuddleometer at hand, he received the benefit of the doubt, and together with the dray-load of a walking stick, was allowed to depart; Henry, grasping his companion in his arms, dropped a tear upon the ivory nob, which had become somewhat sullied by a night's lodging in the watch-house, bowed and departed.
There's what the world needs: more fuddleometers!  This is especially so as the assorted vessels called Seahorse which get in the scholar's way of sorting the seahorses were now joined by a steamer of that name which, in 1840, started out on the Gravesend–Australia run. This one is worth looking up, because there were a few adventures on her first voyage.

A table of Chinese customs duties was published in the Southern Australian on February 9, 1844.   It reveals some rather strange merchandise. This is a selection rather than a quote, mainly featuring those we might not see or know today and a few old friends:
Assafoetida, Bees' wax, Betel Nut, Cochineal, Cow Bezoar, Cutch, Elephants' teeth (whole and broken), Fish maws, Flints, Horns (buffalo and bullock), Horns (Unicorn or Rhinoceros), Mother of Pearl, Putchuck, Rattans, Skins (cow, ox, sea otter, fox, tiger, leopard, marten, land otter, racoon, shark, beaver, hare, rabin [sic— other versions of that time show "rabbit" here], ermine), and Seahorse teeth.
Blast!  Now I have a few more items for the to-do list!!

Meanwhile, the seahorses had made it to central Australia by 1845, where Captain Charles Sturt had gone out, seeking a theoretical inland sea.  Sturt got on well with Aborigines, and when one man visited his camp, he tried to get information by showing his guest pictures from "Cuvier's Plates", some of which the visitor seemed to know:
He guessed the use of the boat the moment he saw it, and pointed to the north-west as the quarter in which we should go…He examined the sheep-netting, and putting his head to the meshes, intimated to us by signs that the fish we should find were too large to get through them. He recognised the turtle, the hippocampus, and several sea-fish, figured in, naming them respectively; but he put his fingers on all the others, and gave them a general name…
From this, Sturt deduced that the man had been to a sea that contained seahorses, and not too far away, at that.  Hope springs eternal and all that: sadly, there was no Inland Sea to be found.

The following year, the Navigator, from Boston reached Hobart, and the cargo included a cask sea-horse teeth.   Then following year, Mr. De La Hunt, Wholesale and Retail Chemist & Druggist of Hobart Town was offering for sale both seahorse teeth and dentists' gold, indicating what use the teeth might be put to.

In 1849, the brig, William, 121 tons, from the Fiji Islands, reached Sydney on February 4, and on February 6, Mr. Mort was offering for auction, 10 tuns of cocoanut oil, 11 pigskins, 2 cases of tortoiseshell and one bag of seahorse teeth which appear all to have arrived in the William.

Ivory sales continued to boom in London, and a sale in late 1882 saw good sales:
There were offered 129 tons ivory, including 35 tons from Bombay, Zanzibar, and Mozambique, 46 tons from Egypt and Malta, 10 tons from the Cape, and 28½ tons from the West Coast of Africa, Lisbon, etc. There were also 3½ tons of sea-horse teeth, 2¾ tons of mammoth, and 3¼ tons of cuttings and waste.
Then followed some sums, showing that people were beginning to get a bit of biological understanding, something that might not have happened if Darwin hadn't printed his troublesome book:
It is estimated that the 5,286 tons of ivory imported into Great Britain during the nine years from 1873 to 1881 inclusive represent 296,016 pairs of tusks, and consequently the same number of elephants that have died or been slaughtered to meet the demands of luxury for the last nine years. At this rate of destruction it is clear that the noble elephant must rapidly disappear, and ivory become a thing of the past, unless the traveller of the future should reveal fresh sources of supply on a vast scale.
The walrus type of seahorse offered another product that hardly rates a mention until it was gone, when it popped up in The New England Magazine, August 1894, 655 (my italics):
Pitch and turpentine torches, seahorse oil and candles have dickered and faded away. Tents, thatched roofs, hewn clapboards, fiddles and bass viol, the foot stoves and the sexton who supplied the live coals, along with the procession of silent, mournful faced worshippers, will never be called back, except in memory and even then after a little time, one by one they drop out of mind and print.
In 1927, ivory came from elephant tusks, rhinoceros horns, narwhal horns, seahorses' teeth, walrus teeth, and boars' tusks, but the writing was on the wall, and the plastic was on the billiard table. Ivory was still used for the backs of hair brushes, bead necklaces and billiard balls for the wealthy. But the world was still changing.

In 1936, Lord Ritchie, Chairman of the Port of London Authority could report that he had found in the schedule of rates, duties to be paid on both "dragon's blood" and "seahorse teeth", neither of which he had heard of. (The Times, April 22, 1936, and the newspaper felt that it needed to explain these two products to its readers.)

(To save adding it to the crowded back-burner, Dragon's Blood, Sanguis draconis or Sang. Drac. on the pharmacist's shelves, was a gum from certain trees, used to be used for dyeing horn to imitate tortoiseshell, in staining marble, and for various kinds of tooth-powder (which we used before tooth-paste).

Anyhow, that was the end of the seahorse tooth as an item of commerce. Right at the end, though, I was trying to find out how big the teeth are in the seahorse we know today, and I discovered something I ought to have known as a biologist.

I needed that training, because to cut through all the other bits and pieces of informatic detritus, the dark matter of the web, I had to use biological language and search on <Hippocampus dentition> to discover that the fish we call a seahorse has no teeth.

In short, seahorse teeth are as rare as rocking horse manure and hen's teeth. Or space on my back-burner!

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* Footnote added February 8.  Lesley Knieriem commented on something else in an email: "The text began with the words "морж"  and "плотник"  ... [and he]  recognized them as "Walrus" and "Carpenter"...  So there is Thomas Sheridan's mysterious "morse" explained!  All things come to those who wait.

NOTE: this link appears in the comments below, but it isn't clickable. http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-33085031 Now it is!

Addendum, 31 July 2017: Somebody went to the trouble of tracing the disappearance of teeth in the Hippocampus crowd. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/12/161214151616.htm

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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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Mr. Darwin's Incredible Shrinking World was published by Pier 9/Murdoch Books in paperback, ISBN 174196279X or 9781741962796.

Try your local library!  Libraries are marvellous!

Get it as a Kindle e-book from Amazon UK

Get the Kindle version from Amazon US (the price looks better at the time of writing)

Get quite a few of my books in ePub format from Angus and Robertson





A patented egg parachute




I am getting on a bit and some bits of me are no longer working as well as they might, but I have some good yarns still to tell.  Some of them are even written.  The thing is, I lack the patience to cajole nervous publishers into taking them on as projects, so I plan to use some of my tales as blog entries here, while others will probably emerge as e-books.  We'll see how it turns out.

Mostly, these items, whether in e-book form or blog entries, will relate to my curious mind and assorted temporary obsessions: some of them entail revisiting things I write about years ago, like seahorse teeth, which I will come back to later.  Today, let me talk about crazy inventions.

From US Patent 5813165
In the superficially crazy stakes, there are probably few inventions which could hold a candle to U.S. Patent 5813165, granted in 1998 to Franklin Wayne Dougherty Sr. for a biodegradable snake trap, designed to be dropped by parachute, and incorporating an egg and a fish hook. Surely, I thought when I read this patent, the specification was part of a complicated shaggy dog story?

Then I recalled an experience, one hot tropical dawn, five years before the patent was granted.  That experience gave me a context in which to examine the idea and recognise just how amazingly clever it was. So I have to wonder: how many of those crazy ideas that we see as "ludicrous" ideas only appear ludicrous because we lack a key detail?

I was working on the island of Pohnpei in the Federated States of Micronesia, between Guam and Hawaii. I was there for a science curriculum development in a new nation, and I began each day by going for a dawn walk, usually along the Deketik causeway that ran over to the Pohnpei International Airport, about 1 km away.

Traffic on the causeway was usually light, and there were wetlands to admire, making it a pleasant walk. One day, I noticed a lot of activity around the airport and realised that many people were moving around, and they all seemed to be in army uniform. Micronesia is pleasant and civilised, so a coup was unlikely, but I decided to retreat.

Later that day, the locals had a good laugh at my expense when I told them I had run away. From time to time, aircraft coming in from Guam arrived with one or more brown tree snakes, and when a snake was spotted, the army was called out to hunt the snakes down.

Guam's snake infestation of Boiga irregularis originated, around the end of World War II, probably in a ship that came from Papua-New Guinea. The population levels are now high, most song birds on Guam have been wiped out, and the rain forests are declining because song birds pollinate many rain forest species.

The snakes also invade electrical systems, shorting them out. They seem to be quite capable of getting into cargo containers that can end up on other islands. Nobody really wants that.

The snake trap can be dropped into inaccessible areas from an aircraft, and it will hang in trees where only the snakes can get at it. They will swallow the egg whole and then crush it, at which point they will be hooked, and in the end, they will die.

Pohnpei has rain forests, and there are rain forests on Saipan and many other Pacific islands. Until snake numbers are reduced in infested places like Guam, we can expect to see the army called out in any places that are snake-free. That apparently crazy biodegradable trap may just help a few soldiers get the chance to sleep past sunrise.

In short, that turned out to be a clever solution to a serious problem caused by brown tree snakes in Micronesia. So how many of the other "ludicrous" ideas that we have seen are only ludicrous because we lack a key detail?

The devil is always in the details, as we can see here.

There was a tale doing the round in the 1840s about a sailor who had broken his leg, and was advised to share the details of his case with the Royal Society. It seems he had fallen from the top of the mast, and fractured his leg, he had dressed it with nothing but tar and oakum, and yet in three days was able to walk as well as before the accident.

The collected Fellows of the Royal Society confessed that they were amazed, but sorely puzzled. Despite what Bishop Berkeley may have believed about tar water, he was not a medical man, and so tar was not a recognised medication. Neither was oakum. Quite a few of them doubted whether the leg had really been broken, and they demanded more details and more proof.

Certificates were delivered, attesting that yes, the leg had indeed been broken, and that truly, absolutely no other dressing had been applied. Letters went back and forth, and surgeons began to worry that they might have been losing a valuable portion of their practices. Imagine how relieved they must have felt when the honest sailor, in a postscript to his last letter, added these words. "I forgot to tell your honours that the leg was a wooden one."

So when you scrutinise something that is new, different or unexpected, it all depends on where you are standing, but stand not in judgement, not even on a broken wooden leg, until you have all the details!

The tar water?  That's another story for another day.

Thursday, 24 January 2013

Pelican log

Pelicans being fed, The Entrance, NSW,
about 1990, a tourist attraction using scraps
from the local eateries.
OK, normal service is about to be resumed. My nasty back problem has eased, I have managed to finish the book that has been eating all my time, and my life will be a bit more my own to go and smell the flowers and admire the birds.

When I say "finish", that is the manuscript only: there will be feedback, edits, revisions, cuts needed by design and much more, so the work isn't over, but the really hard part is done.

The book I have been doing is a history of Australia for young people, and while I know most of the content fairly well, there were some bits where I was rusty or less interested, but I was working to a set of specifications, so I just had to get up to speed on the weak areas. Most writing jobs, the writer (or this writer, anyhow) only chases stuff which is of interest. Here, the target age group needed a good outline of what happened, how and why. I couldn't just goof off.
Clontarf Reserve, king high tide.
Clontarf Reserve, low tide.

Anyhow, because my back was being annoying, I have been doing more swimming, and I decided to take my tablet to the beach, and record the extremes of the tide at my usual favourite, "Clonny" to the locals, Clontarf Reserve on the maps. It is on Middle Harbour, a part of Port Jackson (alias Sydney Harbour).

Here, you can see two extremes: a king tide and an almost matching low tide. Look carefully, and you will see that these shots are taken from the same place.

Lake Eyre, Central Australia, birds in flight, inset, birds feeding.
This shot was taken from a light aircraft at about 500 feet.
Then I noticed a pelican out in the bay.  I like pelicans, always have and probably always will. The Australian Pelican, Pelecanus conspicillatus, is the world's largest.

Big and clumsy on land, pelicans soar gracefully, and from my study window at home, I can see them working their way from updraft to updraft.  At each, they circle, gaining altitude, and then glide off to the next on a wing span of up to 1.8 metres. In the outback, they use thermals in the same sort of way.  Smart birds!

Pelicans have a sense that tells them when there is water in Lake Eyre. The lake is usually a flat dry plain of white salt, but sometimes, a cyclone moves in over the northern or eastern coast and rain buckets down, far inland. If the low pressure zone that is the ex-cyclone pushes far enough south, the rain fills a maze of channels that carry the water south, and maybe, into Lake Eyre.

The water moves across the plains at walking pace. At Lake Eyre, the salt dissolves, the mud softens, and the eggs of tiny crustaceans and fish hatch out. Algae that have been lying dormant below the salt come back to life. The crustaceans eat the algae, the fish eat the crustaceans, and then the pelicans arrive to eat the fish.

Dead fish, Lake Eyre South. Note the coin for scale.
Nobody know how they do it, but pelicans know there is water in the dry centre of Australia. Over many, many thousands of years, instincts have evolved to send them into a place full of fish, with no predators. There, they build unprotected nests, feast on fish and raise as many new pelicans as they can.

Then, as the water dries up and the fish disappear, the adults fly off, abandoning the last chicks if they cannot fly. Next time a low pressure zone slops in over the coast and delivers water to the lake, the chicks that got out safely will be back again to breed.

The careful reader may be wondering if I am just a tad obsessive about pelicans.  Not really, but these sagacious and gainly/ungainly birds do, from time to time, become a temporary obsession.

I like pelicans.  Live with it.




 Anyhow, I was taking shots with the tablet, and I began to wonder if maybe it would be better if I used a real camera.







Well, that was easy enough.  When I go to the beach in the early morning, there aren't that many people, and they are mostly regulars, so expensive kit can be safely left on the beach, and I took the camera each day.

And that was how I made an interesting discovery.






I took the next shot (it should be on the right, I hope) to post to Facebook, calling it 'Fisherfolk all'.  In the background, there's a human in the water, while nearest the camera, one Australian Pelican, six Little Black Cormorants, and on the left of the shot, one seagull.


These are sharky waters, and I commented that maybe the birds were out, waiting for the 08:45 shark to pass by.



The next day, I realised that the seagulls fly at the cormorants and the pelicans when they surface to swallow fish, and I noticed a certain amount of ill feeling.



The cormorants are less able to fight back, but there is no doubt that the pelican does.

By the way, these are all large-ish shots, so you can see more detail if you click on the pictures.


Then I found something magical. The cormorants and the pelican hung together: I thought the cormorants were just hanging around the pelican for protection, but there's more to it,

Pelican and underwater cormorants, cooperatively fishing.

They work as a team to catch fish!  I only have one shot to show this so far: the pelican is on the outside of the pool, and three cormorants were working on the inside, swimming together and all of them were catching fish.

I know this, because I could see them popping up to swallow and then diving again.

Sadly, the study period may have come to an end, because after preening himself on Thursday morning, the pelican flew away. A few minutes later, I saw him (or her?) gliding fast from the north. Close to the pool's end, a couple my age were watching something up in the sky and got the fright of the life when the pelican passed over, about a metre up. When I spoke to them, they said their attention had been on another pelican, circling up high, gaining altitude.

They swam back to the beach then, and a couple of minutes later, I saw a new pelican climbing into the sky.  I think it was my pelican, which had flown around the corner to pick up an updraft.

If it was my pelican, perhaps it knows there's a flood coming, somewhere inland, and it's off to breed.

We'll see, but I am looking in my box of temporary obsessions to see which one to take up now.

Friday footnote: no pelican this morning :-(


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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.




Thursday, 3 January 2013

The buttered cat, revisited

It is a little-known fact that I used to be a research physicist.  What I have never before admitted was that I gave it up after watching action-thriller movies which proved beyond doubt that the laws of physics often fail to hold.

Now I am sort-of retired, I have decided to clean up and clear away some of the intellectual detritus that lies in my bottom drawer, like my proof that the world only looks round because of the shape of the lenses used to photograph it.  I will get to that one later: I have noticed a recent upsurge in the matter of the buttered cat, and thought it time to share my data.

Background: The question goes like this:

1. When you drop a buttered piece of bread, it drops butter side down; and

2. A cat always lands on its feet.

So what would happen if you took a piece of buttered bread, strapped it on the back of a cat (butter side up) and dropped it off the a high tower?


Theory, as often found on the Internet:

Even if you are too lazy to do the experiment yourself you should be able to deduce the obvious result. The laws of butterology demand that the butter must hit the ground, and the equally strict laws of feline aerodynamics demand that the cat cannot smash its furry back.

If the combined construct were to land, nature would have no way to resolve this paradox. Therefore it simply does not fall. That's right you clever mortal (well, as clever as you mortals can get), you have discovered the secret of antigravity!

In short, a buttered cat will, when released, quickly move to a height where the forces of cat-twisting and butter repulsion are in equilibrium. This equilibrium point can be modified by scraping off some of the butter, providing lift, or removing some of the cat's limbs, allowing descent.

Most of the civilized species of the Universe already use this principle to drive their ships while within a planetary system. The loud humming heard by most sighters of UFOs is, in fact, the purring of several hundred tabbies.

The one obvious danger is, of course, if the cats manage to eat the bread off their backs they will instantly plummet. Of course the cats will land on their feet, but this usually doesn't do them much good, since right after they make their graceful landing several tons of red-hot starship and angry aliens crash on top of them.

As a committed scientist, I investigated it, and reported back. I have never published all of my data, so here is the truth about this conundrum, for the very first time.

TOP SECRET, now declassified

We immediately flew into action, planning to levitate cats, but stopped, realising that we had to do the experiments first, or our flights would be invalid. We paused to ponder the available variables. The only proper way to investigate this is to experiment with the variables: cat, butter and dropping. Bread, we realised, was only an intermediary, a substrate of negligible importance.

A cat is a furry mammal with claws. We can use non-furry mammals like chihuahuas, non-furry non-mammals with claws like eagles, and furry clawless mammals. This led us to select a really unlucky rabbit (it had just lost all four of its feet in a poker game). It was allergic to butter, swelled up enormously, and floated away on the breeze.

Butter is organic and oily, so one of my colleagues proposed holding the cat constant and replacing the butter with other carbon-based fluids. Unfortunately, we used ethanol which produced a very high cat, which looked promising, but the cat just sat there, smiled, and then dissolved, explaining the Cheshire Cat effect.

High-octane Avgas looked promising, but an over-excited researcher rubbed the cat with amber, producing a spark. This produced the first recorded occasion on which a cat went "woof". The cat was no longer constant in a number of apparently vital aspects.

Fish oil caused the next cat to chase itself so fast that it overheated, due to air friction, causing a convection effect which took it up into the atmosphere in a highly uncontrolled manner, destroying a small UFO from Sirius. At least, we think it was, as the Air Force people we talked to kept saying something about "Gotta be Sirius".

About this point, we considered dogs, since Sirius is the Dog Star, and the Dogon people of North Africa knew about Sirius being a double star. While we realised that people might be cynical about this, we were all too aware of the connection between the cynics and dogs (the word "cynic" actually means "dog-like"!!). Remember that Socrates was always in the doghouse with Xanthippe, the first landings in America were at Labrador, and one of the greatest saints in the Christian calendar is St Bernard. Taken with the fact that intellectual Scots are called canny (a clear parallel with canine), the way was clear.

Unfortunately, the research was in fact unnecessary, as we discovered with a quick literature search, always an important part of the scientific armoury. Older readers may remember Laika, the dog in the Sputnik: recent research in the freed archives of the Kremlin reveals that all of the early satellites were in fact powered by buttered dogs, and it was only an unfortunate breach in security that revealed one instance, that of Laika, levitating around the earth in a butter barrel.

On instructions, we closed down this aspect of the investigation, and turned back to the cats again. Sadly, I have to report no practical advances in this area, as we were unable to find any suitable semantic alternative to dropping, and so we devoted our efforts to producing a calibrated cat-dropper.

As this proved physically dangerous, we switched our efforts to producing a taxonomy of cat-dropper variables, so that future workers should immediately be able to identify any cat-dropper to type.

In view of the overwhelming importance of this advance in human knowledge, we would welcome donations of funds in any hard PacRim currency, to assist in this project. We hope then to turn to developing a classification of butter types by salinity, oiliness, particle size and colour, and to a full-scale taxonomy of cats.

Meanwhile, if anybody sees any worried-looking lightly buttered cats flying in city streets, please tell them that the reference to "rightly battered cats frying" was, in fact, an unfortunate typo by a Japanese temp, and that they would be completely safe to come back. Oh yes, and say that we've removed those graffiti in the lab, the ones that read:
"The habitat of our tabby-cat
Is a fireside warm and bright:
If pussy dear should get too near,
We'll put her out tonight."
Even though there really WAS no felico-incendiary allusion intended. . . One final brief etymological and entomological note. Buttered flying cats must surely makeus think of the order Lepidoptera, otherwise the world's moths and butterflies. Why are they so called? Well, the answer is simple: they metamorphose from caterpillars, and I need hardly point out the significance of THAT.