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Sunday, 26 April 2015

Crooked Mick fails to fight

I never got around to mentioning this, but Crooked Mick came down to the Big Smoke once.  He wasn't there long, though, before he got himself into trouble.  There was this bloke in town, claimed to be the world heavyweight champion of the world.  Well as you might guess, with two big men in the same town, the inevitable happened, and Mick wandered into a room in a fancy hotel, where this champion was holding court and showing off.  Mick just stood there quietly, watching while the champion bent a steel bar into a U-shape.  It was quite a thick bar, and the champion made quite a fuss about how hard the job was.

Then to prove how strong he was, he bent two more, even thicker, bars in the same way, and passed them around.  Two men took hold of the thinnest bar and tried to straighten it again, but they couldn't.  Then while everybody was still crowding around to look at the bars, the bloke moved over to two huge iron barbells, and a pile of spare weights.  Calling for their attention, he lifted first one weight, and then the other.  He was about to start adding extra weights, but he stopped, because there was a fuss going on in the background, and nobody seemed to be paying him much attention.

What had happened was that Crooked Mick had been looking at the three iron bars on the floor, and being a tidy sort of bloke, he picked them up to put them on a table.  Before he put them down, and without really thinking about it, he had bent them all straight again.  That would have been acceptable, but Mick had straightened all three at the one time, and the heavyweight champion of the world got really mad about this.  You could see he was really seething with anger, under the surface, and he was muttering something real nasty.

Anyhow, he tried not to let it show that he was angry, but I was there, and he said, all sarcastic like, "I suppose you'd like to try lifting these weights as well?".

Well Mick said nothing but walked over, and looked at the two barbells on the floor.  Everybody crowded around, and Mick looked at the weights, then says, "Most of you couldn't see me here, so hang on, and I'll move over near the door."

And with that, he picks up one barbell, tucks it under his arm, then slips his little finger around the second one, getting the balance just right and then scoops up all but one of the spare weights in his other hand, and starts to saunter across to a better spot.  "I'll come back for the other one," he says, "it's better not to strain yourself with stuff like this!"

Now I can see what you must be thinking: them weights were fakes, but it wasn't so: they were the real thing all right, because when he stopped in one place, the floor collapsed under Crooked Mick.  He plummeted down three floors, we found out later, but before we could all race out to see what had happened to him, he comes back up the stairs, still carrying the weights and the barbells.

Well that was too much for the champion.  He grabs a white glove from his pocket and steps forward, slapping Mick on the face with it.  "We will fight a duel!" he shouts.  "You will choose the weapons!"

Flash Jack was there, and so he takes Mick to one side and explains to him about the etiquette of duelling, and how the challenged person has choice of weapons, and how you always fight at dawn.  Crooked Mick stood there thinking for a moment, then says, "Righto.  I choose to fight with axes."

"I don't have an axe!" says the champion, starting to look worried.

"No worries, sport!" says Mick.  "I use two most of the time, so I'll bring 'em both, one for each of us.  See yer tomorrow!"

We never did though, even though we turned up at the park on time, with the axes.  In fact, we never saw the heavyweight champion of the world at all after that, and Mick went back to the Speewah the very next day, mumbling something about city folk being too rough for the likes of him.

In spite of what some people say, he was a very gentle bloke at heart, and I don't know what he would've done if the heavyweight champion of the world had tried to take him on.  As far as I know, Mick only ever fought one fight, and he lost that.

So when you hear people saying Mick'd rather have a fight than a feed, I reckon they're having a lend of you.

* * * * *

Note: there is a whole book of these stories, which I have more or less given up on pitching to publishers, so they will probably appear in an e-book.

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

Monday, 20 April 2015

The tale of Buckland's sturgeon

This is too funny not to share. Frank Buckland was a highly eccentric zoologist, and enjoyed his notoriety, I suspect.

Science in the 19th century was the play space of the gifted and curious amateur– and "curious" sometimes took on more than one meaning. 

Buckland is a prime example. The son of a clergyman, he was ordained as a priest, but became an academic and practical geologist, the first Reader in Geology at Oxford, where he presented a close argument for the way geology demonstrated Biblical truths in 1820.

Later, Buckland was swayed by Agassiz' theories on Ice Ages and modified his stance, but he remained opposed to the idea of evolution, up to his death in 1856. Buckland was memorable. among other things, for eating all sorts of animals: zebra, snake, earwig, puppy, sea slug and even a bluebottle, though he declared mole the most disgusting thing he had ever consumed.

He may or may not have eaten the dried heart of King Louis XIV (tradition says he did), but on his honeymoon, he identified some bones said to be those of St Rosalia as goat bones, and he investigated the alleged blood of a saint, which appeared fresh on a cathedral floor each morning. He lay on the floor, tasted it, and declared it to be bat urine (with which we assume he was familiar).
They don't make scientists like that any more, but if he were alive today, Buckland would surely be a leading television raconteur of science, with his own Youtube channel. Gilbert White would today be an environmental blogger, but White is another story for another day.

That's Buckland on the left. His words are below.

On Tuesday evening, at 5pm, Messrs Grove, of Bond Street, sent word that they had a very fine sturgeon on their slab. Of course, I went down at once to see it. The fish weighed, I was informed, 212 lbs [~95 kilograms]; it measured 9 feet in length [nearly three metres]. I was anxious to make a cast of this fine fellow, but I confess the size and weight rather frightened me; however, they offered me the fish for the night; he must be back in the shop the next morning by 10 am. Determined not to lose the chance, I called a cab, and we tried to get the sturgeon on the top of it, but he was "too much" for us, and we were obliged to give up all idea of this mode of conveyance of our huge friend from Bond Street to Albany Street.
Messrs. Grove then kindly sent him up in a cart, and we got him out of the cart easily enough on his arrival at my door, but it was with the greatest difficulty we hauled him up the doorsteps. We then thought of pitching him headlong over the railings into the area below, and thus getting him into the little front kitchen, which, though terribly small, I use as a casting-room; but his back was so slippery and his scales so sharp to the hands, that Master Sturgeon beat us again. However, I was determined to get him down into the kitchen somehow; so, tying a rope to his tail, I let him slide down the stone stairs by his own weight.
He started all right, but, "getting way" on him, I could hold the rope no more, and away he went sliding headlong down the stairs, like an avalanche from Mont Blanc. At the bottom of the stairs is the kitchen door; the sturgeon came against it "nose on" like an iron battering ram; he smashed the door open in a moment with his snout and slid right into the kitchen, gliding easily along the oil-cloth till at last he brought himself to an anchor under the kitchen table.
This sudden and unexpected appearance of the armour-clad sea-monster, bursting open the door—shut purposely to keep out the sight of "the master's horrid great fish "—instantly created a sensation scene, and great and dire was the commotion. The cook screamed, the housemaid nearly fainted; the cat jumped on the dresser, upsetting the best crockery; the little dog Danny, with tail between his legs, made a precipitate retreat under the copper and barked furiously; the monkeys went mad with fright, and screamed "Murder" in monkey language; the sedate parrot's nerves were terribly shaken, and it has never spoken a word since; and all this bother, because a poor harmless dead sturgeon burst open the kitchen door, and took up his position under the kitchen table.
—Bompas, George Cox, The Life of Frank Buckland, London: Smith Elder and Co., 1886, p. 200.

The first image is from an unidentified source, the second is from Vancouver Island University's sturgeon collection, and it bears no copyright notice — as one would expect from an 1886 original.

General note that I am adding to some of my blog entries: I have lots of different interests. If some area interests you, look at the very end and you will see a set of tags called labels. These are hot links that will give you a list of other articles with the same tag/label.

Saturday, 11 April 2015

Authors and models

This is an essay that I resurrected from a defunct blog. It is about an organism with a very small brain — and a fruit-fly.

The news a few years back was briefly full of the man who said unwise things about an unnamed Thai royal and collected a savage gaol sentence for his efforts.

We were told repeatedly that this "author" only sold seven copies of his self-published book, his only production to date. To call such a person an "author" seems a bit of a stretch.

I happen to be a member of the Australian Society of Authors, and my publishers release, on average, a couple of books a year, but I avoid the word "author" like the plague. I prefer to call myself a writer.

What is it that makes people want to seek grander descriptions? I am sure that the failed US vice-presidential candidate, Sarah Palin, would have described herself as an authority when she was in reality just the mayor of a large piece of frozen real estate. Of course, if she and her ilk keep on denying that things are hotting up, Alaska may soon be a tropical paradise.

This thought occurred to me a while back when I saw a Youtube piece in which this inherently shoddy piece of mental floss attacked the funding of  "fruit-fly research in Paris France". She said that it "really did not make a whole lot of sense", characterising it as a complete waste of money. The reaction of fruit-fly researchers everywhere was to say that it's harsh to be called a waste of money by a waste of space.

You can see her for yourself at, but there are quite a few versions out there on the Internet, because the glib stupidity of the throwaway line made the whole blogosphere quite incandescent. My choice just has the short version, 48 seconds of context plus the offending phrases.

Now we need to get one thing clear, here: the silly woman was actually attacking a particular project. It involves research into the control of the olive fruit-fly which is now a pest in California. It matters little where the research is done, the research has the potential to be immensely valuable in California, one of the States that she and her friend failed to carry.

Most of the blogs missed this distinction, and concentrated on the value of "fruit-fly research" per se. This is understandable, because to the lay reader, the efforts of researchers to study obscure organisms like the fruitfly, Drosophila melanogaster, the plant Arabidopsis thaliana, the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae, the bacterium Escherichia coli, the white mouse, the white rat and a few other standard life forms makes little sense unless you understand that these are used as models. They are used because we understand them, because we know a lot about them, and because they have comparatively short life cycles.

We understand these organisms remarkably well, there is a giant literature on them, and these days, their entire genomes are known. Scientists can discover principles using these organisms as models, but it is remarkably easy to ridicule "fish that glow in the dark" or "the mouse with an ear growing on its back", especially if you ignore the true background. I think the bloggers ignored the true background to Palin's fatuous line, but it matters little, because I'm fairly sure she had no idea what it meant either.

Fruit-flies gave us the first evidence that mutations existed, the first clear proof that genes lay on the chromosomes, but even today, they give us evidence on the sorts of conditions that are caused by genes that go wrong. The humble fruit-fly is a source of wisdom, whether it is studied in Paris, France, or Paeis, Texas, or Buenos Aires, or Vladivostok or Wagga Wagga.

But Sarah Palin had no idea of that, in my opinion. I believe she just thought fruit-flies were irrelevant to humans, which is a reasonable point of view if you are a creationist, as she seems to be. Somebody else, some anonymous hack who wrote the lines for her autocue, was the author of her woes. She just delivered the lines.

Ah, that's it! I knew there was something bad about being called an author.