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Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Incompetent design

I am incandescent.  I took my grandchildren to Auckland Zoo today, and found these two appalling examples of dangerous design.

I used to work in museums, and I know how important it is to make sure that everything is safe and fool-proof.  I wasn't a designer, but I worked with designers, and I and my crew worked with the designers to make sure that stupidity like this was not allowed to happen.

If it had happened on my watch, heads would have rolled, mine among them--and rightly so. I had a staff member lose a fingertip in a steam engine, and it isn't a laughing matter.

I am posting this here, as well as on Facebook, because I am aware of a nasty bureaucratic tendency to demand of Facebook that posts be taken down.  Facebook are craven muppets who concur far too easily with shouting blimps.  I am also sharing it on Google+, and I have other blogs up my sleeve.

So, Auckland Zoo, you have just one valid choice.  Try to take this down, and I will put it up on another blog.

Before fingers are severed, I suggest you pull your fingers out, and get rid of these highly dangerous installations.

Analysis: The problem is shearing action. The discs in the first picture are more than 2 cm thick, made of plywood, and close-fitting.  The square hatches are about 40 cm square, just as thick, and if anything, even closer-fitting. Any downward pressure in either case would crush or sever digits.  In a jostling crowd, that is bound to happen, sooner or later--or a single child will drop the undamped square hatches on its or somebody else's hand.  These things are heavy!

Here is what I wrote on Facebook:

This is about gross stupidity.  I am NOT about to be nice. 

Dear Auckland Zoo, I know I could be polite and professional and send you an urgent polite message suggesting that you take your designers and counsel them.  I have elected to tell you publicly to take them outside and kick their arses until their noses bleed.

These installations that I saw today in a children's area at your zoo partake of the nature of guillotines.  One bit of misplaced weight and fingers will be severed or maimed beyond surgical redemption.  The edges are too close together, and the possibilities for high mechanical advantage should be apparent to a roadkill possum.

I used to work in museums, and I know how important safety is in interactives.  Now I suggest that you pull your fingers out--BEFORE you have to pull children's severed fingers out of these ill-conceived designs.

I do this in full awareness that now you have been made aware of the dangers inherent in these designs, you will have VERY limited legal defences hereafter.  So be it.  You have a VERY simple, quick solution.

Now here are some search terms to help make this show up in Google searches:

legal liability, dangerous design, poor design, safety, children, culpability, mismanagement, misguided bureaucracy, health, welfare 

Afterword: I had several strident-to-abusive messages from muppets who just didn't get it.  I was accused of being OTT (Over The Top) for speaking out on safety, and I was told that children have to learn to cope with dangerous situations, to which I asked if that particular idiot wanted to send children into a minefield.  The last one accused me of being PC.

Get it straight people: I understand danger when I see it, and I see the need to underline it. The zoo told me they had been monitoring it (no sign of that when I was there), and that they were planning "repairs".

I replied that they needed to get rid of the whole installation.  I will be happy to provide statements and advice when somebody is forced to sue these fools. The harm will probably come when teenage schoolkids are pushing and jostling, and some uninvolved child has its hand in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Are scientists really mad?

There are most definitely mad inventors: imagine how
the operator of this machine is going to dismount!
I am in New Zealand at the moment, playing with the grandchildren, revising a couple of manuscripts and gathering some data. The result is that I am a bit busy, so here is something from the Odd Bits Basket.  I dug it out because, as a grandfather, I want my grandkids to have a world to live in.

It was written in 2009, and published once before in a defunct blog. I have pulled it out and polished it up a bit, because regrettably, most of it still holds true, except that now the mad pollies who formerly foamed in the background have now taken charge.

If I asserted that the world was flat, and a politician heard me, would he (these idiots are almost always male) then demand that scientists explain why it wasn't flat before they spent lots of taxpayer money to launch a satellite?

An idiot who shall remain nameless has just burst onto the airwaves with his news that a conference he attended was told that solar flares account better for global warming, so before we do anything, the scientists have some explaining to do.

Yeah, right, Nero, and we'll keep the fire brigade in reserve, will we, until we know that Rome's really burning? What's that? You want them to come along to your violin performance? OK . . .

Sorry, we return now to our transmission. But you know, don't you, that this sort of rubbish rhetoric is the stock-in-trade of a certain style of politician. It's enough to make any scientist mad as hell.

Kurt Lambeck, president of the Australian Academy of Science, had some strong things to say in 2009 about the global warming "sceptics" in Ockham's Razor, and you can read them at, but I have to wonder why uninformed twits like the unnamed polly feel that they have a democratic right to deny the science, simply because a half-baked idiot at a conference with curiously shady funding denied the science.

As Luis Alvarez, no mean scientist himself, commented once: "There is no democracy in physics. We can't say that some second-rate guy has as much right to opinion as Fermi." Mind you, Alvarez was talking about physics among physicists. I hate to think what he would have to say about the polly wanting to derail everything just because he's been conned by snake oil merchants.

I think the polly feels free to thump his tub and posture in public because so many of the uninformed, the unwashed and the unwary (i.e., people like him) subscribe to the view that all scientists are mad scientists. If you can dismiss scientists as mad, then you may feel free to call into question the careful, but often hard-to-understand views of the scientists. The world is flat, you muppet, anybody can see that, and if you don't, you must be mad!

So: are there mad scientists?  Or mad people with scientific tendencies?

If you are a forensic psychiatrist in a secure unit, you are bound to seek an outlet for your creativity. Around you, psychotic patients are pursuing the patenting of their inventions for inflatable moon buggies and the like, and it occurred to David James and Paul Gilluley that the British Patent Office might be a repository of psychotic ideas, so they went on a trawl.

Oddly, they were unable to find evidence of mad inventors, but they nonetheless described their experiences. The abstract is at -- if you go there, you can download the PDF of James, David V. and Paul L. Gilluley, Psychotic patients and patent applications: The mad scientist revisited?, Psychiatric Bulletin (1997) 21: 764-768.

The authors surveyed unusual patents and authors with unusual track records, but found nothing as odd as what their patients wished to patent. Unabashed, they wallowed in nutty inventions, and later, shared the tastes, sights and sounds. Their conclusion: "the only creative 'mad scientists' are those who were creative scientists before they became mentally ill". I was glad to read that.

Definitely recommended for a few light moments, and even a bit of serious introspection.

I wonder why there have been no studies of mad politicians. It certainly isn't for lack of material! 


A couple of hours after posting this, I found this account of shonky doings behind the climate change deniers, here in New Zealand.  Read it, and get mad!

Sunday, 12 January 2014

The trick cyclist in upper west Central Park

This story involves dead germs, invertebrate eyes and a mutant foxglove. Be warned!
I was actually doing a small vignette on Coley's mixed toxins when I came across Bertram Buxton. Coley was in the habit of treating sarcomas with a heat-killed mixture of two bacteria, Serratia marcescens and Streptococcus pyogenes. He injected his brew into cancers of the colon and uterus. "Coley's mixed toxins" as the brew was known, had mixed results, but a few of them were spectacular.

Now before you shrink back in horror and disgust, these were serious germs. Various strains and infections of Streptococcus pyogenes can cause impetigo, strep throat, scarlet fever, erysipelas and toxic shock syndrome. Serratia marcescens plays a role in some forms of bacteraemia, so neither is something to take lightly, but the treatment was certainly less deadly than the disease.

More importantly, medical lore had recorded cases where gangrene infections had seen off cancers, so there was a scientific basis of sorts. A decade or so back, researchers started to see that the secret was probably a cytokine, a chemical known as Tumour Necrosis Factor or TNF. For a while, there was a flurry of activity, but then it all died away again.
Anyhow, that took me to the pages of Science to see what had been said about Coley's toxins. That brought me to Dr Buxton when I encountered his obituary, written after he died in Devon at the age of 82, in 1934.

Buxton had somehow fetched up on a cholera ship in New York harbour in the 1890s. I will have to poke around later, to find out what a cholera ship was, but I can make a guess. Ten years or so later, now aged 50, he was working as a pathologist, preparing Coley's toxins for the treatment of inoperable sarcoma".

NOT Dr. Buxton.
He returned to England in 1912, but before then, he had shown a stern distaste for the money-grubbing that so often characterises modern science—and even more medicine. When some of his work looked as though it might be commercially important, he decamped to Venezuela and wrote "a remarkable study of the invertebrate eye". He was also an expert and a pioneer in microphotography, but where I would regard that as a diversion, his obituarist, one James Ewing, did not.

"His sole diversion was riding the bicycle and his remarkable skill in trick performances was long remembered by pedestrians on the upper west side of Central Park."

Back in England and now aged 60, Buxton turned to plant phsiology at the John Innes Horticultural Institution, and "produced by mutation a giant fertile hybrid of foxglove which was recognised by the Kew authorities as a new species".

Ewing quoted an earlier obituary in The Times, which referred to his work in agglutination, laying the foundation for studies in the assay of toxins and antitoxins. "The perfect charm, breadth of view, and superb technique are memories of Buxton which will not easily be forgotten by his many pupils and associates."

My current writing program has no place for Buxton, so I thought I would share with you this man who seems to have devoted his life to knowledge.

They just don't breed them like that any more. No, not the foxgloves, silly!

Thursday, 2 January 2014

Dogs and navigation

As the year turns over, I am currently engaged in trying my hand at something new, YA historical fiction. Usually, I write factual material, but I have been aiming since 2005 to fit some of the many bits and pieces I have read and written about, into a coherent fictional narrative.  Where will I publish it?  Dunno: I have genial interest from one publisher, but I may just go to e-book

Dubbed (in my head) The Cornish Boy, the series involves a teenager who acquired the basics of science and technology before being forced to flee Cornwall for Australia, where he does the things teenagers did in those days, like going exploring, digging for gold, and other stuff. The other stuff is all determined and drafted, but as yet, under wraps: suffice it to say that pirates and lost treasure are involved, as are paddle steamers, but everything is closely related to reality.
Mary Reibey, who is on our $20 note.

For example, women in the 19th century often wore male clothing for a variety of reasons (including disguise, practicality and safety), and one of my female characters will be given advice in wearing male clothing by an elderly Mary Reibey, who was sent for trial as a male horse thief named James Burrow, before her gender was discovered.

Book 1 includes a degree of setting-up, and as he needs, in book 2, to be able to navigate, and because he may need to be able to manage dogs in a later book, dogs appear as well.  Mainly, though, this yarn is a simple way of explaining the longitude problem: in book 2, the Cornish boy and his employer use the satellites of Jupiter to determine their longitude.

Sir Kenelm Digby (Wikimedia Commons)
That tempted me to slip in a true tale. It relates to a hypothetical dog based on an invention credited to Sir Kenelm Digby, who was both a naval commander and a diplomat. His father was involved in Guy Fawkes’ Gunpowder Plot, but the son was only two years old and suffered no taint.

As a naval commander, he understood the need for portable time, but as he died in 1665, long before somebody put forward the invention I am about to describe, he ought to escape any taint once again.

Digby developed a nostrum called ‘a sympathetic powder’ for the cure of wounds. This powder was to be put on the weapon that caused the wound, not the wound itself. He claimed that when a dressing from a wound was placed in a basin of the powder, the person jumped.

Digby died in 1665, so he is innocent of what happened next. In 1687, an anonymous inventor proposed that each ship putting to sea be provided with a scientifically wounded dog, which was to travel on the ship while the dressing remained in the home port.

Each hour, day and night, some careful person in the home port would take a dressing which had been on the wounded dog, and place it in Digby’s sympathetic powder. This would cause the dog to yelp, thereby indicating for those on the ship the time back in the home port.

Sadly, the sympathetic powder time system never worked, so explorers needed to load up with sextants, chronometers, barometers, thermometers and more—and use them a good deal.

But it gives a whole new meaning to the watchdog—or at sea, to the dog watches.

Now about dogs in exploration, Ludwig Leichhardt’s last kangaroo dog died almost at the end of their expedition, but their terrier, taken as a pet and watch dog, died of heat exhaustion much earlier. Leichhardt commented:
"During summer, the ground is so hot, and frequently so rotten, that even the feet of a dog sink deep. This heat, should there be a want of water during a long stage, and perhaps a run after game in addition, would inevitably kill a soft dog. It is, therefore, of the greatest importance to have a good traveller, with hard feet: a cross of the kangaroo dog with the bloodhound would be, perhaps, the best. He should be light, and satisfied with little food in case of scarcity; although the dried tripe of our bullocks gave ample and good food to one dog. It is necessary to carry water for them; and to a little calabash, which we obtained from the natives of the Isaacs, we have been frequently indebted for the life of Spring."
Both John McDouall Stuart and and Ernest Giles' companion, Alfred Gibson had dogs called Toby, which was a popular 19th century dog's name. Stuart’s Toby died of the heat, Gibson’s dog wandered off into the desert while both Giles and Gibson were ill and Toby was never found. Gibson died later in what is now Gibson's desert.

In 1876, a few years later, Giles was taking better care of his dogs, as this tale reveals:
On this occasion a tall, gaunt man and his wife, I supposed, were gazing at Tommy's riding camel as she carried the two little dogs in bags, one on each side.
Tommy was standing near, trying to make her jump up, but she was too quiet, and preferred lying down. Any how, Tommy would have his joke - so, as the man who was gazing most intently at the pups said, "What's them things, young man?" he replied, "Oh, that's hee's pickaninnies"...
Then the tall man said to the wife, "Oh, lord, look yer, see how they carries their young." Only the pup's heads appeared, a string round the neck keeping them in; "but they looks like dogs too, don't they?"
With that he put his huge face down, so as to gaze more intently at them, when the little dog, who had been teased a good deal and had got snappish, gave a growl and snapped at his nose. The secret was out; with a withering glance at Tommy and the camels, he silently walked away - the lady following.
Somehow or other, that tale may well seep in.  All I need is a bigger shoehorn.
Within 48 hours of my posting this, Mary Ludwick in Texas shared a link from the Christian Science Monitor to an old-fashioned email list we are both on, which offers another possible reason why explorers may have taken dogs with them.  I wouldn't bet on it, though...