Monday, 9 December 2013

How Not to Organize a Funeral

     Marble Bar, in the Pilbara of Western Australia, has a reputation for being the hottest place in the nation. Just the same, there is supposed to be a hotter place, but it is not considered tasteful to raise the matter at a funeral.
     The "BARS" reputation though was upheld at a recent burial for the coffin was plainly labelled "HELL." "No need to have labelled it," observed a mourner meaningfully.
     "Course not," replied his mate, "all th' world knows where Tim's goin'!"
      The explanation was simple. There hadn't been enough timber for the coffin so the end was knocked off a Shell petrol case - so was the "S".
Reference: Ion L. Idriess (1932), Flynn of the Inland, Angus & Robertson (pp 192-3) of the 25th [1946] edition.

Monday, 2 December 2013

Tarantula Schnapps

Don't Try This at Home!
     Uzbekistan, 1920, and the Red Army was advancing on the great city of Bukhara. And some of the fiercest resistance was encountered at a certain caravanserai. Finally, it was bombarded into surrender, and the caretaker dragged off to a Revolutionary Tribunal. Well, he thought, this is the end of the line. My life is forfeit in any case, so I might as well go out in style and tell them everything. Have you heard about the missing caravans? he asked. Laden with gold, turquoise, carpets, silks, wool, corn, and weapons, they would be observed setting out, but never reach their destination. The Russian governor in Tashkent and the Diwan Begi of Bukhara made enquiries, but they appeared to have simply vanished into thin air. Well, he announced, I was responsible.

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Tornadoes in His Genes

     I've just been reading this month's (November 2013) edition of the National Geographic. As usual, it continues its quirk of not duplicating the article title. Thus, Robert Draper's article is called, "The Monster Storm" on the front page, "The Last Storm" on the index page, and "The Last Chase" on the first page of the article itself. In any case, it is a minute by minute account of the death of three storm chasers: Tim Samaras, his son, Paul Samaras, and their colleague, Carl Young. For years - nay, decades - their life had consisted on chasing storms in America's "tornado alley" in order to gain scientific knowledge on the causes and development of these destructive storms. It was a dangerous occupation, and this time their number came up.

How to Cook a Rotten Whale

     I would really love to see the scientific results of the Japanese whale kill ostensibly performed for "scientific research". Just the same, the continuation of whaling by Japan and Norway (everyone forgets them) does not fill me with outrage as it does many others. It is well established that minke whale populations have rebounded and that the kill is sustainable. That does not, of course, mean that I am enthusiastic about it. To put it bluntly, there ain't no humane way to kill a whale. I would turn vegetarian if I thought the bullocks, pigs, and lambs I eat had been killed by someone on an all terrain vehicle shooting them with an explosive harpoon, then allowing the frantic animal to charge headlong over the terrain, dragging the vehicle with it, until it succumbed.
     Be that as it may, the demise of big time whaling has meant that the world has lost some of the interesting bytes of information it once produced. Like, why a whale left standing - or rather, floating - too long was referred to as "burnt", rather than "rotten".

Saturday, 9 November 2013

What a Place to Land a Plane!

     Of course, we have all heard about the adventures of the courageous Allied agents who parachuted into occupied Europe during World War II, but how many think about the airmen who delivered them? The first drop was performed by 1419 Flight, 138 (Special Duties) Squadron on the night of 4 September 1940, under the command of Flight-Lieutenant "Whippy" Nesbitt-Dufort. And how did he acquire the nickname of "Whippy"? Let me quote the words of his friend, Jerrard Tickell.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

The Girls With the Golden Bras

     Most of you will be aware that the Indians of Central America are not what they used to be. Rapid and massive depopulation was the immediate effect of contact with the white man's germs, even more than from the cruelties of the Spanish conquistadores. Where nothing but impenetrable jungle now stands in Panama's DariĆ©n Gap, there were once found vast native settlements with palaces of mahogany, and the casual use of gold the like of which the world will never see again.

Friday, 11 October 2013

Amazing What You See in the Outback!

     Prof. Tim Flannery is probably best known to Australians as the head of the now defunct Climate Commission, which caused some controversy. However, his real forte is as a very brilliant mammalogist and paleontologist. His book, Country (Text, 2004) is worth reading, not only for its scientific information, but for some of his personal reminiscences. Take, for example, the account on page 29 of his youthful venture with a mate called Bill into Rottnest Island, off Fremantle, WA.
Bill's parents had honeymooned there and apart from an unfortunate incident involving Bill's dad snoring open-mouthed on the beach, and a defecating seagull with a crackshot aim, they had come away with wonderful memories.
     But his most amusing anecdote was the one about the American paleontologist, Tom Rich.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

When It Doesn't Pay to Have the Courage of Your Convictions

     As I pointed out in my last post, it doesn't always pay to have the courage of your convictions. Of course, we all say we admire the person who does. We also say it takes a big man to admit he was wrong.
     William Miller was one of those people who believe the Bible was written in code, and he had found the key. He was actually able to predict the second coming of Jesus to the day and the hour - apparently oblivious to the fact that the hour differs according to one's position on the earth. To quote the inimitable words of C. S. Lewis: "Thousands waited for the Lord at midnight on 21 March [1844], and went home to a late breakfast on 22nd followed by the jeers of a drunkard." Afterwards, one of his disciples, Samuel Snow persuaded him that the correct date would be 22 October 1844. But when the earth still turned after that day, Miller at least had the sense to call it quits, and admit he had been wrong. But for a New Guinea prophet, having the courage of his convictions came with a high price.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

A Couple of Cargo Cults

     Cargo cults! They spring up like weeds in Melanesia, and mutate like flu viruses. They would be amusing, except that they all lead to futility, and many of them to tragedy. Not that they are really unique to Melanesia. They represent one aspect of the sort of movements which eventuate when primitive societies come into contact with sophisticated ones. The American Indian Ghost Dance had cargo cult features. So did the terrible cattle-killing movement in South Africa, which left thousands of people dead. It has also been pointed out that Westerners beset by the same ignorance of economics tend to go in for socialist utopias. But the particular mindset of Melanesia makes it the centre of the full cargo cult phenomenon.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Indian Picture Writing

     I had completely forgotten about this until I recently started digitalising my old slides. I took this photo in January 1983 in the Casa de la Libertad ("Freedom House") in Sucre, the old capital of Bolivia. A sheet of paper covered with local Indian picture writing has been pinned to the wall, and it is intended to be read in an unusual style, called in Greek, boustrephon, or "ox-turning". Essentially, the human characters are pointing in the direction of reading. It starts at the lower left, and moves left then, like an ox ploughing a furrow, turns right, then left again, and finally right again, ending with the two vertical lines at the top right. Can you work out what it depicts?
     It is the Lord's Prayer.

 If you want to see some more humourous signs taken during my travel, click here.

At Least He Wasn't Prejudiced!

     I don't know why Australian schoolchildren are never taught about the sterling work their country did in governing Papua New Guinea. Nothing in my schoolboy history mentioned it, and the same was the case with my wife, Esther, who was actually born and educated there. And no-one performed greater service in the field than Sir Hubert Murray, Lieutenant-Governor of Papua from 1908 to 1940, and now largely forgotten by his ungrateful country.
    But it is not the purpose of this post to sing his praise, but rather to recall a somewhat humorous occurrence during his reign. Needless to say, part of his job was to ensure that native workers were properly treated, and not to allow anyone of bad character to recruit them. I shall quote from his biographer, Lewis Lett, in this case, largely dependent on Murray's own unpublished autobiography.

Friday, 13 September 2013

A Submarine Mail Service

     First there was mail carried by horse, then surface sea mail, then air mail, but would you believe, submarine mail? And why, you may ask, would they use a submarine to carry the mail through the Panama Canal, which is full of locks? Well, basically, it was a gimmick. But it did happen. I shall quote the philatelic section of a once popular magazine published in December 1919.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Burying the Rhinoceros Head

     In 1974 I moved to Sydney and joined the School of Biological Sciences at Macquarie University as a postgraduate. And the first organization I met was a group of very earnest undergraduates called (I think) the Biological Sciences Club. I never joined in any of their projects, but I remember that the first one for the year was "Burying the Rhinoceros Head".
     To understand this, you must know that the school contained a small museum, which the curator was determined to make into a comprehensive museum. Indeed, at one point my studies took me to the rear (non-public) areas of the Taronga Park Zoo, and upon my return, I informed the curator that I had just seen a newly deceased pygmy hippopotamus there. Almost overcome with joy, the curator immediately got on the phone and asked the zoo if he could have the body. The zoo wondered how on earth the news had got out so quickly.
     Anyway, the museum had earlier obtained the head of a rhinoceros, which the Club immediately adopted as their project, carrying it to a remote beach somewhere in the vicinity of Sydney, and burying it in the intertidal zone. This is not such a bizarre activity as you might think. When you visit a museum, and view the whitened bones of the specimens on display, you probably never thought to ask how the flesh was removed. Do you imagine some hapless museum worker painstakingly scrapped and picked it clean? The most common method is to feed it to a special colony of flesh-eating beetles, who will get into every narrow nook and cranny, and do their job. In the absence of such minuscule servants, an alternative is to turn it over to the worms and crustacea which inhabit the sand between high and low water mark.
     So, a few months later, a new project arose: "Digging Up the Rhinoceros Head". Would you believe, they couldn't find it!
    Who knows? One day, perhaps after a heavy storm, you will read a news report of a mysterious rhinoceros skull turning up on a beach near Sydney, and everyone will wonder where it came from. When that happens, remember: you read it here first.