Thursday, April 30, 2015

A-Z Blogging Challenge: Zip Fasteners

Yes, I do realise that this is a rather strange subject for a post but they are somewhat on my mind at the moment. This is because I've had to deal with some zip related instances recently.

The worst of these started when I accidentally shut the cat in the living room with the inevitable messy consequences. In my attempts to repair the damage to the sofa cushions I thought I'd take the cushion covers off so I could wash them and the inserts separately. That's when I was reminded of the most common failing of zip fasteners. They stick, especially when they haven't been used in a while, and these hadn't been opened since we bought the sofa. I took up the first cushion, seized the tag and pulled. Nothing happened. I tried again, still nothing. I may have then said a few words my mother wouldn't have approved of. I pulled again. It didn't budge. I tried my mother's trick of rubbing a candle along the teeth. Nope. Still stuck.

I examined it more carefully, starting at the tag end and moving along to the other end. The teeth were all aligned  - until I got to the other end and found they weren't. It's possible there were more mother disapproved of words before I realised that the misalignment wasn't part of the problem since all the other teeth were properly meshed together. Back to the tag with a pair of pliers and a hope that brute strength would work this time - and it moved, only a few centimetres but a start, before it stopped, then moved again, stopped and so on until I finally had the cushion open. Except for the misaligned section, which blocked the opening just enough to prevent me taking out the insert.

More muttering. I decided to turn to the next cushion and found myself in exactly the same position with a jamming, misaligned zip which I could only partly open. At this point I gave up the battle and washed both cushions as they were. At least that way the water could drain out from the inserts through the gaping openings - and surprisingly, once they were dry, the zips did up with no difficulty. It was like they were taunting me.

 I won't bother to outline my problems with the self opening jeans' zip or the zip up bag which has somehow managed to jam its tag underneath an overhang of fabric which can't be cut away without destroying the bag, except to say that obviously zips have it in for me at the moment.

So is there a solution? Suffice it to say these things rarely happened in the "old days" when all zips were made of metal and had larger teeth. That wasn't perfect either, of course. Metal toothed zips were bulky, prone to corrosion (I bet candle wax would have worked on one of them, though) and less flexible than our modern day zips made as they are of nylon and designed to be invisible but after, my recent experiences, I think I'd sacrifice visibility for practicality.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

A-Z Blogging Challenge: Yaks

These creatures have always fascinated me. This photo comes from Asia Insider Photos where there are many wonderful photos of them.

Photo -

So the yak. It is a long-haired, herd bovid native to the Himalayas and Central Asia, even as far north as Russia and Mongolia. There are two species - the domesticated one of which there are a large number and the wild population, which is small and listed as vulnerable. By all accounts, yaks are friendly and easily trainable.

Domesticated yaks are used as beasts of burden and for their milk, meat and fibres. Their dried droppings are used as fuel, vital in treeless mountain regions. The milk is used to make cheese and butter. Milk is used in a popular milk tea and the butter is used in cooking, in lamps and as an ingredient in yak butter tea, which is drunk in large quantities throughout Nepal and Tibet. Meat is eaten fresh after the annual before winter slaughter, dried and after being naturally frozen. Meat and blood are also used in sausages. Hides are made into leather which is used to make children's coats, boots and gloves, for rope and bags and, in some areas, for making coracles.

Yaks produce several different types of fibre. The long "skirt" hair is used for tent fabric and ropes while down mixed with the skirt fibre is woven and used in a variety of ways in different areas.  These include for tents, blankets, bags and clothing. It can also be made into felt. Down hair alone is used for clothes, suiting, knitwear, blankets and carpets. Yak down is marketed as yak cashmere which fetches high prices with its feel and lustre being thought to be better than that of wool.

It was interesting doing this research because I realised that I actually knew almost all of this. I just hadn't put it all together in my mind. If you want to find out more about yaks this wikipedia article is quite useful but you might also have a look at these websites.

10 Products From Yak and Their Utilisation

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

A-Z Blogging challenge: Xylonite

I found this entirely by accident. It was something Google threw up but it fits well into the blogging challenge.

So xylonite is apparently the first thermoplastic ever invented. Originally patented as Parkesine by its discoverer, Englishman Alexander Parkes, in 1855 as fabric waterproofing, it was shown at the Great Exhibition in London in 1862 where he was awarded a bronze medal. In his early experiments Parkes had experimented with adding camphor to the mix to make a hard substance and had called it xylonite but didn't go any further with it.

Financial difficulties meant Parkes and his associate, Daniel Spill, were unable to develop the process further and Parkes' patents were acquired by an American, John Wesley Hyatt, not long after. Hyatt was interested in using Parkesine to make billiard balls to replace the current ivory ones, and set up the Albany Billiard Ball Company. He and his brother, Isaiah, added camphor to the mix again and patented the resulting substance as celluloid, and established the Celluloid Manufacturing Company to produce it.

Meanwhile, Daniel Spill had formed the Xylonite Co. to take over Parkes' patents and he took legal action against the Hyatt brothers to prevent them marketing their product. This continued for years and in 1884 the final result was that neither company had an exclusive right to the product and, because he had mentioned using camphor in his early experiments and patents, that Alexander Parkes was the inventor of the substance. Both Spill's and the Hyatt's companies were allowed to manufacture the product and over time celluloid became the accepted name for the product.

For those of my generation celluloid was commonplace. It was used to a large degree in photography and film making but it had other uses, too, because it could be moulded and shaped and it replaced ivory in many objects. It wasn't only used to replace ivory, though. My mother had a celluloid doll and I believe table tennis balls are still made of celluloid as are parts of some musical instruments. The main disadvantage of celluloid was that it was highly flammable and, as a result, its place has been overtaken by safer substances. It could also become brittle and fragile when exposed to the air.

Monday, April 27, 2015

A-Z Blogging Challenge: War or Peace

It's odd to think that World War One was once known as The Great War and, even more tellingly, as The War to End All Wars. It was so cataclysmic with such an enormous loss of life, so many appalling casualties and such horrific destruction that they believed that it could never be repeated. Well, as we all know they were wrong - terribly, horribly wrong - because it was less than a generation later when the world was plunged into war again on a scale that was at least terrible as World War One.

World War Two is usually dated from Nazi Germany's invasion of Poland in 1939 but this was only when Germany crossed the line set by Great Britain and her European allies. In fact much of the world had been in turmoil for some time before that.

In March 1936 Germany had begun build up a military presence in the Rhinelands (these had been made a demilitarisation zone in the Treaty of Versailles following World War One), followed by annexation of the Sudetenland (German speaking areas of Czechoslovakia) and Austria in 1938. Similarly in 1936 following a number of skirmishes in previous years Italy launched an invasion and occupied Abyssinia. Alienated by the league of Nations' response after this, Italy turned to an alliance with Nazi Germany. In Asia things were no more settled with Japan and Imperial China having been at war since the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931. Then, of course, came the calamity that was World War Two. We've been no better since 1945 with the Korean War, Vietnam War and multiple wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan to name only a few.

You'd have thought we'd learn, wouldn't you, but we seem to keep making the same mistakes over and over, driven by fear, ideology, desire to expand territory from population increase or simple greed. It's depressing. Still I live in hope. We have the ability to change and make a better world. For the sake of humanity, I hope we do.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

A-Z Blogging Challenge: V is for Valour

Today is Anzac Day in Australia. It's the day Australians remember the 25 April, 1915 Gallipoli landing of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, an all volunteer force. The landing was bungled with the troops were supposed to land at Cape Tepe which had a beach suited to advancing troops. Instead they landed at what became known as Anzac Cove where the troops found themselves under fire from entrenched Turkish troops on a narrow beach surrounded by rugged cliffs. By the end of the first day there had been 2,300 allied casualties and the front had only moved forward 900 metres. Until December they and the allied troops from Great Britain, other parts of the British Empire and France made valiant attempts to breach the Turkish lines - notably in the battle of Lone Pine and later the battle of the Nek - but were unable to break through and gain control of the Dardanelles Peninsula as had been planned.

Conditions on the peninsula were by any standard appalling. The men were ill-equipped due to the expectation that they would have advanced off the beach quickly and supplies were difficult to land and slow coming. Nutrition was poor - largely bully beef (tinned salt beef), hard tack biscuits, sometimes supplemented by bacon, onion, jam and cheese. With water in short supply, hygiene was also poor with no water to spare for washing clothing resulting in lice infestations. The only chance to wash personally was by swimming - inherently dangerous because the beach was periodically under fire. Sanitation was rudimentary and rotting bodies, refuse tips and open latrines provided excellent breeding grounds for flies which carried diseases like dysentery, diarrhoea, enteric fever and para-typhoid. Illness accounted for many of the casualties during the campaign.

It was decided to withdraw from the peninsula in December, 1915 after the deaths of 44,070 allied troops (including 8,709 Australians) and 86,692 Ottoman troops and vast numbers of injured on both sides. In a brilliantly organised evacuation all allied troops were withdrawn without losses. An elaborate plan made it appear as if normal camp life was continuing while troops were gradually evacuated mainly at night between 8 December and 18 December, 1915. Various ingenious devices like the drip or "pop off" self firing rifle were cobbled together by the troops and used to make the Ottoman troops think they were still under fire.

In Australia the Gallipoli campaign has become a symbol of Australia's growth into nationhood and it  is commemorated with dawn ceremonies and marches of those who have served in the armed forces and their descendants. So many Australians wanted to visit Gallipoli this year to attend Anzac Day ceremonies that there has had to be a ballot. Enmity long forgotten, the Turkish people also visit the war cemeteries and welcome visitors whose ancestors they were once involved in deadly combat with. I'd hope that we would be as generous in the same circumstances.

I'm somewhat ambivalent about what Anzac Day has become because it seems to me that many people have a somewhat romanticised view of the young hero at war when the reality is anything but that. The truth is war is brutal and destructive and, even after the conflict is over, the survivors often live on damaged mentally and physically. That said I still see Anzac Day and similar commemorations like Remembrance Day on 11 November as important. They remind us of the terrible waste of life that war entails on all sides and that is something that every generation needs to have reinforced.

You can read more about the Gallipoli campaign here and about World War 1 in general on this website which has a fairly comprehensive list of total casualties (killed or injured) for all countries involved in World War 1 - at least as far as they can be determined given many were never recorded and so their fate still remains unknown. It usefully shows the percentage of casualties of those mobilised from each country, too.

"Lest we forget."

Friday, April 24, 2015

A-Z Blogging Challenge: Ugly by Robert Hoge

This is an extraordinary book by an extraordinary man. Robert Hoge was born with his forehead marred by an enormous tumour, distorted facial features and twisted, useless legs. His mother didn't even want to take him home but eventually did. Having made that decision, his parents were determined that he should have as normal life as possible and, despite multiple operations, did their best to give him just that.

In Ugly Robert Hoge tells the story of his life up to the birth of his first child. It's a fascinating and moving read. I've met Rob - he was one of the organisers of Clarion South when I was lucky enough to be a participant in 2007 - and I was deeply impressed at his organisational ability and how he refused to let anything beat him. He's also a gifted writer. I recommend Ugly highly.

Ugly was published by Hachette Australia in 2013 and is available from bookshops and as an ebook.

Robert Hoge's website is here and he's also on Facebook.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

A-Z Blogging Challenge: Time

It seems to be slipping through my fingers at the moment. I've just realised how far we are into the year. It's almost the end of April! How did that happen? It seems only a few days ago that we were celebrating my birthday - but that was just after New Year, wasn't it. So what has happened since then?

There must have been a lot - it's nearly four months after all - but it all seems to be a blur of mostly nothing. Except now I look at it seriously I realise that, apart from living daily life, there have been other things happening. A lot in fact. There have been celebrations - several birthdays for starters, family get togethers (quite a few actually and especially nice to have caught up with family from the eastern states), meet ups with friends (there have been a number of those and very nice they were, too), absorbing a bit of culture (the Doctor Who concert and Sculptures by the Sea being the stand outs) and some sadness with the death of my much loved little dog, As well we've been working towards some very necessary renovations.

Hmm. All in all I've been pretty busy, haven't I. No wonder things have been speeding along. Turns out I've hardly had time to take a breath.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

A-Z Blogging Challenge: Smoke

We woke up this morning to a thick smoke haze - and yesterday was the same. It's burn off season when the Department for Parks and Wildlife burns selected areas of bush land and forest in an effort to prevent wildfires in the following year.

There is some debate as to whether burning is a good idea. There is inevitably harm to wildlife and many people find this distressing. Birds and animals will die or be injured, food supplies for the survivors will be lost and nesting sites like hollow logs will be destroyed. All of this is very sad and  I believe very few of us would deliberately set out to harm wildlife. I certainly would never endorse harming any creature. I'm a vegetarian for heaven's sake. On the other hand, though, I can see the need for burning because over many thousands of years our bushland has adapted to living with fire. Eucalypts are highly flamable due to their volatile oils so even without human intervention there have always been bushfires and many Australian plants won't germinate without exposure to smoke. As well, the Australian Aborigines, the original inhabitants of Australia, used fire to modify the landscape and provide areas of new growth for hunting. This produced what early explorers described as a park like land when they first came here. Fire is part of what makes Australia and we have to accept that.

The thing is, if we don't burn, there will be much more severe fires and these fires are far more destructive of wildlife than prescribed burns. Of course prescribed burns don't always go as planned. They can get away and spread further than intended, even turn into bushfires sometimes, and there's always the problem of smoke. For asthma sufferers like me that's more than just an irritation and we've had to have the house completely closed up for days this summer with smoke from bushfires and prescribed burns. Even so I think it's worth putting up with this to protect the community at large from wildfires. We've seen some terrible examples of this with loss of life and homes in Australia in recent years and I can't believe anyone would wish to see that again.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

A-Z Blogging Challenge: Les Revenants (The Returned)

I'm so excited. Les Revenants Series 2 is coming, with filming is apparently well underway for release later this year. Series 1 aired here, and in most English speaking areas, as The Returned. It was gripping horror, very different in every way from Resurrection, the American series based on The Returned, a novel by Jason Mott, which uses a similar starting premise but heads off in an entirely different direction.

It's not spoilery to say that the story revolves around a small town where the dead suddenly reappear, in some cases after many years, as they were when they died. The consequences of this are widespread, disruptive and often destructive and the series explores these in a way that's dramatic and illuminating. With a number of complex and interconnecting storylines and multiple twists, it held me from the first moment and I loved every intense second of it.

Along with Orphan Black, the Canadian science fiction series starring Tatiana Maslany, this was one of my speculative fiction viewing highlights in 2014 and I can't wait for both to come back.

Monday, April 20, 2015

A-Z Blogging Challenge: Quolls

There are six species of this small marsupial - four in Australia and two in New Guinea and ranging in size from around 300 grams to 7 kgs (about the size of a domestic cat). They are also found off the mainland in Tasmania and on other islands off the Australian coast. The Australian quolls - western quoll or chuditch, tiger or spotted quoll, northern and eastern quolls - once spread over most of the continent but are all listed as vulnerable or endangered due to habitat destruction due to land clearance and urban spread, poison baiting, foxes, feral cats and, in the northern parts of the country, from eating the introduced cane toad which is poisonous when ingested.

The quoll of most interest to Western Australians is the western quoll or chuditch. It's a small and appealing creature with a body length of about 33 cms and its tail adding around another 28 cms. It weighs from 1-2 kgs and it feeds on small vertebrates, insects and freshwater crayfish, as well as carrion if it's available. Mainly active at twilight and dawn it sleeps in hollow logs during the day. It is quick on the ground and also climbs well, making it an efficient hunter.

The chuditch is found only in the jarrah forests of south western Ausralia although it once ranged over 70% of the continent. It was listed as endangered until a successful breeding program was set up at Perth Zoo. Following intensive fox baiting over 300 western quolls have been released and are breeding in the wild. The species is now listed as near threatened in Western Australia and a trial release of adult western quolls has been made in Wilpena Pound in the Flinders Ranges National Park in South Australia. The western quoll is a totemic animal of the local indigenous people so the success of the trial has importance beyond restoring the natural balance by reintroducing western quolls to the area.

You can find out more about quolls here.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

A-Z Blogging Challenge: Pangolin

Well, I saw this video - apologies for the advertisement at the beginning - and thought I had to write about this fascinating, nocturnal creature.

The pangolin, also known as the scaly anteater, gets its name from its covering of thick, overlapping scales. These scales are made from keratin, just as our hair and nails - and, for that matter, the horn of the rhinoceros - are. They are an effective protection against predators, though, when they roll themselves into a tight ball. Its strong front legs are well adapted for burrowing and they use their rear legs and tail for balance and to remove the excavated dirt. As its alternative name implies the pangolin uses its extremely long, sticky tongue to feed predominately on ants and termites, although sometimes it includes other invertebrates. Although most species are ground dwellers, there are several that are adept climbers some of which even sleep in on branches or in tree forks.

Pangolins are found through Asia and sub-Saharan Africa and are under threat from land clearance, which is robbing them of their habitat, and the illegal wildlife trade. This has made them one of the most endangered mammals in the world.

Friday, April 17, 2015

A-Z Blogging Challenge: Opals

Opals are the national gemstone of Australia with Australia producing the bulk of the world's opals and, in particular, the spectacular black opal. I'm sorry I couldn't find any suitable images - I was hoping to persuade a friend to let me take a photo of a piece she owns but ran out of time. Still you can find some stunning - and probably much better - photos here.

Classed as a hydrated amorphous or non-crystalline form of silica, opals have a unusual internal structure which means they diffract light. Precious opal comes in many colours depending on how and where it was originally formed. One piece may contain a number of different colours with the rarity of the combination and brilliance of the light determining the value. Unlike precious opal potch or common opal doesn't show flashes of colours. The most valuable and spectacular of the Australian opals is the black opal and red on black is the most valuable of all.

For some reason opals have a reputation as unlucky but that doesn't stop their popularity for use in  jewellery. The best pieces are shaped into cabochons but even pieces too thin to cut and shape can be used with a backing to make beautiful pieces of jewellery.

Opals don't only form from deposits in rocks although this is the most common. They are also found in the form of fossilised wood and tree roots, even as opalised dinosaur bones and marine creatures.

The major opal fields in Australia are around Coober Pedy - where many dwellings are underground to deal with the extreme heat - and Andamooka in South Australia and Lightning Ridge in New South Wales although there are some smaller fields in south west Queensland.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

A-Z Blogging Challenge: Narwahls

So I was sick recently and spent a lot of time watching nature documentaries including one about a pod of orcas (better known as killer whales) that moves up the coast of the Canada into Arctic waters during the short Arctic summer where they prey on narwahls which have moved south to breed.

I had, of course, read about narwahls before and they are curious and fascinating creatures. It proved very difficult to find a clear photo so I had to settle for this drawing published in 1820 and now in the public domain. It's not a bad representation, though.

In: "An account of the Arctic regions with a history and description of the northern whale-fishery", by W. Scoresby. 1820. P. 588, Vol. II. Plate XV. Library Call Number G742 .S42 1820.

A member of the toothed whales, they are unique in having no teeth in their mouths. Adult males (and rarely females), though, have a long tusk, which can be close to three metres in length, and is formed from a canine tooth extending from the left upper jaw. It is straight with a spiral twist ending in a smooth polished tip. Why they grow this is unknown as is much else about the narwahl. Males average 4.1 metres in length (not including their tusk) but can reach 5.5 metres while females are slightly smaller, averaging 3.5 metres.
The beluga whale is the closest relative of the narwahl and that they spend their winters under the Arctic pack ice, gathering around fissures to breath. These fissures can close unexpectedly and leave the narwahls relying on them to suffocate.

Narwahls are predators that feed on mostly Greenland halibut, polar and Arctic cod, cuttlefish, armhook squid and shrimp. They are some of the deepest diving marine mammals diving between 800 and 1500 metres up to fifteen times a day and taking up to 25 minutes for each dive. They are believed to suck their prey into their mouths.

With only between 75-80,000 narwahls remaining they are regarded as near threatened and, although Inuits are allowed some subsistence hunting, trade in their ivory is banned in much of the world. Their future seems uncertain if the Arctic pack ice continues to melt and it will be sad if they disappear completely.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

A-Z Blogging Challenge: Milk Rant

I'm not a great lover of milk but I do use it in my coffee which is where this rant comes from.

Where I live milk comes in plastic bottles like this.

With a sealed lid like this

 When you twist the lid you break the seal and the you can pour the milk.
Now these seals are secure against tampering so why would several milk companies decide to add another layer of security to their milk? I assume it's because occasionally a few drips seep out if you lie a bottle on its side but this doesn't allow any way that the milk could be contaminated. So they have done this.

As you can see there is a firmly - very firmly - fixed cover which has a tab attached. This you are supposed to pull up to remove the cover. Looks nice and neat, doesn't it. Trouble is for those with arthritic fingers, carpal tunnel and any other grip problem as well as those with large or weak fingers this is impossible. We have to resort to sticking a knife or other sharp implement in and sawing the cover open. This means that not infrequently we - and the floor, bench top, cupboard doors - get splashed with milk.

At least there are a few companies still showing a modicum of sense but why cause a problem in the first place?

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

A-Z Blogging Challenge: Limes?

I grew up thinking I hated limes. This was because my mother loved a "lime" flavoured cordial (I think it's called cool aid elsewhere. It's a "fruit" flavoured sugary syrup, which is mixed with water to make it very diluted for drinking and much loved by children). To me at least, the lime version was frankly revolting. Where we lived can be very hot - 38-39 C is not uncommon in the summer and every year we manage to hit plus 40 C on a number of occasions - and this means plain water gets less than thirst quenching. Cordial was a cheaper option than most other flavoured drinks and is still popular, of course. But I'm digressing. The point is that this was my introduction to "limes" and I never wanted to try them or go near them again.

Fast forward quite a few years and TV chefs are rhapsodising over limes. They're using them in all sorts of ways and I cannot understand why anyone would use let alone like them. They're revolting, right? Then one day a friend gave me three limes from his tree and I felt obliged to use them. I dug out one of Nigella's recipes and was blown away. It was delicious, even the scent of the lime was delightful and nothing remotely like that of my childhood memory. I got more adventurous and experimented, even substituting lime for lemon in various recipes. All equally yummy.

So now I'm hooked and I have my own little lime tree.

As you can see it's had a bit of a tough summer - almost all the citrus in our area have been attacked by aphids and leaf curl this summer - but it's recovering with new shoots coming.

It's a dwarf so it will always remain in a pot but even last year it produced half a dozen full size fruit although it is no more than three years old at most. This year's crop is already looking impressive. Fingers crossed it lives up to its promise.

Monday, April 13, 2015

A-Z Blogging Challenge: Koalas

I doubt if many people from anywhere in the world haven't seen an image of the koala. They are as iconic representatives of Australia as the kangaroo and emu - by the way, for Americans the last is not pronounced "eemoo", but "eemyou" and you can't imagine how confusing this mispronunciation is to Australians when we hear you say it this way on TV or in a movie.

Okay back to the topic. The koala - often miscalled a koala bear although it's not a bear or even related to the bears - is an Australian arboreal marsupial and it's remarkably cute to look at. It is an adept climber, lives on a specialised diet of eucalyptus leaves and, due to the low nutritional value of its diet, spends much of its time sleeping although it can move quite quickly when it wants to. They are perceived as placid, even lazy, as they sleep in among the tree branches with those at sanctuaries regularly trotted out and given to visiting VIPs and celebrities to hold, most of whom are lucky enough to get away with not being peed on.

So that's the standard view of the koala but there's more to it than that, of course. The koala is found in the coastal eucalyptus woodlands of eastern and south eastern Australia, ranging from south-east Queensland to south eastern South Australia. It has been reintroduced to the area near Adelaide and Kangaroo Island and in ancient times was also found in the south west of Western Australia. Northern koalas tend to be smaller in size and paler in colour and population density is very varied with those in Queensland, for example, being numerous in south eastern areas and uncommon in other areas while they are only common in The Pilliga State Forests in New South Wales, but, on the other hand, are abundant throughout Victoria.

They tend not to be social animals but mothers and babies remain together until the mother becomes pregnant again in one to three years. Pregnant and lactating females can be aggressive as can males in dominance battles over territory or breeding females but otherwise they tend not to waste energy on fighting.

Like all marsupials, the baby koala or joey is little more than an embryo when born and it (there is usually only one although twins do occur occasionally) makes its way from the birth canal through the mother's fur to her pouch where it attaches to one of her two teats and suckles until it emerges fully from the pouch at about nine months to ride on its mother's back or abdomen until fully weaned.

For relatively small animals, koalas have a large range of very loud calls to communicate and signal breeding availability. These can be heard as far as several miles away. You can hear some of their sounds here, here and here.

Sadly many populations of koala are being affected by the STD chlamydia which is having an impact on fertility but a recent breakthrough by scientists in Queensland raises the hope that a vaccine is on the way.

There's much more to know about these fascinating creatures and you could look here , here and here if you're interested.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

A-Z Blogging Challenge: Jainism

I recently watched a documentary on Jainism in India. Many Jain villages there have an animal sanctuary but this documentary was about a particular village where the people live so strictly by Jain principles that they welcome wild animals into the village. They are fed and those that are injured in any way cared for. As a result even timid animals like deer show no fear and wander wherever they want.

The main principles followers of Jainism live by are:

1. Non-violence. Jains believe as far as possible in avoiding harm to all living creatures in a descending order from humans through animals and insects and even including plants. Violence or war in self defence is allowed as is use of plants when they are essential for food but they must be harvested with care so as to cause the least harm. Some even avoid eating root vegetables because other organisms may be injured when they are harvested and even if such injury is caused by carelessness it is not an acceptable excuse. As a result most Jains are lacto-vegetarians - that is they eat vegetable and dairy based foods but not eggs or flesh - although some take it even further and are vegan, eating only vegetable foods.

2. Non-absolutism. This means open-mindedness and recognition of different perspectives including tolerance of other beliefs.

3. Non-possessiveness. This means avoiding greed and therefore using only what you need and sharing what you can.

While I don't agree with all Jain beliefs, it seems to me that, no matter what our faith system, following these principles would only improve the world.

Friday, April 10, 2015

A-Z Blogging Challenge: Island Dreams

Ah yes, islands. They have such a hold on our imaginations, don't they. So many of us dream of our own island, away from the cares of daily life. Usually these fantasies are small pieces of tropical paradise surrounded by white beaches and enclosing a lagoon. No interfering busybodies, no demands on us or our time. What could be better?

Well, a lot probably. Most islands aren't idyllic paradises. Many are too small, too isolated or lack a water source. The climate may be arid, too hot or too cold. It could be too windswept to grow anything. Perhaps it's no more than a rocky outcrop, a patch of low lying infertile sand or overshadowed and threatened by an active volcano. And how do you survive if you're the only person on an island or even if you're part of a tiny community? What happens if you are injured or get sick? Do you want some of the trappings of modern civilisation like electricity? Would you prefer to buy clothing or, if you have the time and inclination to make your own clothing, would you prefer to have someone else make the cloth? After all it takes many hours to spin and weave enough to make even one garment. Living a subsistence life is all very well but how do you get extras without something to trade or the money to pay for it? How do you get work to earn money for things you might consider essential. On a small, isolated island with a tiny community there's not going to be many options. What happens if you fall out with your neighbours? More, what future is there for your children? How do they get an education? So many questions.

Still there are islands that do fit our fantasy. These are islands large enough to support a fair-sized population, where there are job opportunities from a variety of sources ranging from agriculture and fishing to tourism, but are small enough to feel special. I'm thinking of islands like the medium sized ones in the Caribbean or the Mediterranean. Even in those places difficulties remain with a drift of the younger folk to the mainland where there are more opportunities in education and employment.

I'm still drawn to an island life, though, and given the chance - like winning a major Lotto prize which would obviate most of the problems listed above (money after all is a great facilitator) - I would happily move to one, just as long as it wasn't too far from the mainland.

Thursday, April 09, 2015

A-Z Blogging Challenge: "H"

and, no,  I didn't forget to put in the subject heading. I'm talking about the letter itself.

Poor little letter "H". It's not its fault it gets into all sorts of trouble and involved in controversy.

Let's start with what it sounds like. According to the various dictionaries I've looked at the standard pronunciation is "aitch" and that's what I grew up with. Those who said "haitch" were generally regarded as uneducated. Of course, given that there are other English dialect speakers (even in other parts of Australia) who favour "haitch", the Irish, for example, this is obviously unfair.

So poor little "H" is already struggling with competing views of correctness. You'd think that would be enough but, oh no, it's not so lucky. It also has the problem of the indefinite article that precedes words beginning with "H". Should it be "an historic event" or "a historic event", for instance? What about "an hotel" or "a hotel"? After all no-one would say "an horse", would they, or "an heart"? Then there are words like "hour" which always have "an" as its indefinite article. Are those who insist that words like "historic", "historical" and "hotel" should be preceded by "an" pretentious as I read recently or are they correct?

Well some research shows the rule of thumb is "a" is used when the "h' is sounded as in "habit", "horse" and "hospital",  and "an" when the "h" is not sounded as in "honour"  or "hour". Then things get murky because it depends partly on pronunciation with some people using a less aspirated "h" beginning some words making it a softer sound. This means it's harder to actually say the "a" and "h" in succession so "an" is easier option. As well, it can depend on whether the emphasis is on the first syllable of the word or the second with "an" being used for words like "historic" and "historical'.

So is "an" used for "historic" and its fellows pretentious or logical? I suppose it depends on where you were born, what form of English you speak and how comfortable you are in your usage. Despite strident claims on various websites, either remains acceptable according to more reputable sources although some suggest that "an" is on its way out. I guess we'll just have to wait and see.

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

A-Z Blogging Challenge: Gargoyles and Grotesques

These have always fascinated me but I thought they were the same. It turns out they aren't. Even more what we tend to think of as gargoyles - well, what I think of as gargoyles, bizarre creatures that lurk on the roofs of medieval buildings - turned out to be grotesques or chimeras. This is because gargoyles are actually disguised water spouts. 

So these - at Quito Cathedral in Ecuador - are gargoyles. 


    Author : Delphine Ménard (notafish }

This is also a gargoyle  - photo taken by Jon Sullivan at the Natural History Museum, London, England and released into the public domain.

But this little creature from Winchester Cathedral is not.

Author: Tony Hisgett from Birmingham, UK         
                             Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

 Nor, I suspect, is Le Stryge at Notre Dame de Paris

(photographed with Henri Le Secq by Charles Nègre in 1853).

They are both grotesques because they don't incorporate a spout to take water away from the building and are purely decorative. Grotesques can be humorous, have human faces or form or can be fantastical creatures like griffins or mixtures of animals in which case they are chimeras.

So I learned something new today. Always a good thing.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

A-Z Blogging Challenge: Foxes

This is a European red fox (Vulpes vulpes)

                                          Image from Public Domain

Handsome fellow, isn't he. You wouldn't think that he and his fellows have been listed among the most damaging invasive species in Australia, would you, but, along with rabbits, feral cats and cane toads, they are.

Adaptive, opportunistic and intelligent it's estimated there are as many as two million red foxes on mainland Australia with only the tropical north and some isolated islands free of them. Tasmania has, until recently, has been free of foxes. Although they were introduced early in European settlement no permanent populations were established - it's believed they were wiped out by Tasmanian devils - but since 2002 there have been persistent reports of reintroductions and an eradication program has been started there.

How did they come to Australia? They and rabbits were introduced in the mid 1800s - rabbits for food and foxes for recreational hunting - although early releases seem to have failed. Foxes didn't spread rapidly and widely until a release on the Werribee Park property of the  Chirnside family in 1871. Thanks, Chirnsides. While rabbits are a major prey for foxes - their spread followed that of rabbits - they are equally likely to prey on small animals like newborn lambs (which makes them a major pest in pastoral areas) and native mammals, frogs, birds including poultry, reptiles, insects, fruit and carrion. They are also carriers of a number of diseases and there is a well founded fear that if rabies ever reaches our shores - Australia is the only rabies free continent - they would form a reservoir for the disease. As a result extensive baiting using 1080 poison (which is not poisonous to native animals) is being widely carried out in some states to try to control them.

But foxes are not just bush or farm dwellers. These days urban foxes are increasing. Opportunistic scavengers as they are, and with their ability to make dens in burrows, under bushes and in hollow logs, they are perfectly adapted to make use of suburban gardens, parks and nature reserves. 

The old folk song, The Fox - you can hear Nickel Creek's version here - epitomises the fox's reputation for cunning and slyness. A little unfair perhaps for a creature just trying to survive. It's hardly its fault we brought it to places where it has no natural enemies. That said though we have no choice but to wage war on them.

Monday, April 06, 2015

A-Z Blogging Challenge: Elephants - Casualties of War

The African Elephant is an extraordinary creature but even it has problems - and some are unexpected, at least by me.

I don't know why I hadn't realised before just how much damage our wars inflict on the animal world. I'd heard about - and been shocked by - the threat to the lowland gorilla by the civil wars in equatorial Africa but I hadn't considered the obvious implications that this means to other creatures. I guess our focus is so much on human loss that we tend to not see the other losses.

This was really brought home to me, though, when I saw a documentary recently on the elephants in Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique. When the country was torn first by the war for independence starting in 1964 and then by the civil war, which followed it between 1977 and 1992, both soldiers and rebels slaughtered wild animals for food but elephants suffered even more with the rebels also killing them for their tusks. (Sadly, poaching is still endemic in much of Africa despite the world wide ban on the sale of ivory.) Given that elephants are long lived, have excellent memories and live in close knit family groups, this has left a serious on-going problem of elephant aggression.

For the most part adult elephants are protected from predators by their size and while they may give threat displays they rarely do more. They don't have to. If you are faced by a tusked, 4 metre tall bull elephant weighing 6,000-7,000 kgs or even a smaller mature adult cow elephant standing at 2.2 metres and weighing 3,000-3,500 kgs unless you are armed and/or in a vehicle, you are not likely to stay around to test how serious they are. But during war, armed soldiers in military vehicles are not so limited. Threat displays are useless and what follows is remembered.

Since the war ended the people of Mozambique have been trying to rebuild their country. Restocking and rebuilding Goronsoga National Park was part of this. The park was reopened to tourists some years ago but elephants have long memories and they have attacked people, particularly those in vehicles. This is not just bulls in musth - testosterone fuelled breeding mode - but mature cows as well. Many of these were orphaned or watched members of their families slaughtered during the war and their behaviour seems directly linked to their or their mothers' and grandmothers' experiences during that time.

Something had to be done and in 2011 Dr Joyce Poole, a world leading expert in elephant behaviour, was brought in to conduct a wide ranging study into the elephants of Gorongosa, including the effects of the war on their behaviour. Given their intelligence she believes she can rehabilitate the elephants so they understand that tourists don't represent a threat and there already seems to be a change. Let's hope she is successful because these are not the only elephants traumatised by war in Africa and aggression is occurring in a number of other places, too. Finding an answer to trauma caused aggression here could then be applied to other populations and, given the massive decline in their numbers, anything that lessens the conflict between these amazing creatures and people is to be encouraged.

You can read an interview with Dr Poole about her work here. She also works with Elephant Voices.

Saturday, April 04, 2015

A-Z Blogging Challenge - Daylight Saving

Ah yes, one of my pet hates comes to an end for this year in Eastern Australia. Why does it irritate me so much when we here in the more stubborn West have not given into it? Well, it does still inconvenience us. Any business we have with companies on the east coast - except for Queensland where they have also resisted instituting it - and that includes Canberra, our federal capital, and two of our major cities, has to be conducted in a time window of five hours instead of the six hours we have the rest of the year. Not being constrained by business hours, private individuals aren't quite so badly off but let's face it even six hours is much more limited than those on the east coast have to work with.

Daylight saving is an artificial construct that as far as I can see really doesn't work anywhere but particularly where we are located in the world. We've tried it here after much lobbying by business - three times in fact - and each time at the end of the trial it has been comprehensively voted against. You have to wonder whether that would be the same result if those on the east coast were also given a choice.

On a personal level I've loathed it every time we had a trial of it. I find it messes with my body clock and that it doesn't ever really adjust.

But it's not just my personal inconvenience. There's been research that shows our circadian clocks don't adjust to Daylight Saving Time. Other research here and here shows a slight increase in heart attacks and there's evidence that many people suffer extended sleep interference with its attendant and well documented effects.

Then there's this research which confirms what I have always suspected that Daylight Saving Time increases energy use and this one that suggests an increase in fatal road accidents.

So my loathing of Daylight Saving Time seems justified. Do you agree?

Friday, April 03, 2015

A-Z Blogging Challenge - Conventioning

Or should that be conventioneering? Probably neither. What prompted this flight of fancy is it's Easter and that means Swancon. Never heard of it? Then let me inform you.

Swancon runs for the four days of the Easter long weekend and is the annual convention of WASFF - the Western Australian Science Fiction Foundation - a busy time for those of us in Western Australia interested in speculative matters especially those who write and/or read speculative fiction. Conventions are run all over the world and range from small local affairs - one I was involved in running was only one day - to worldcons which run for five days or longer and bring in people from all over the world. They all, though, aim at promoting speculative fiction and give an opportunity for authors, readers and gamers to get together and share ideas and interests. Some are more focussed on costumes or gaming while Swancon has writing panels, a gaming stream and a well thought out children's program - but they all celebrate speculative fiction whether written, in games or from television and movies.

This year Swancon is forty which is quite an achievement for a con in a relatively isolated part of the world - have a look at a map and you'll see Perth probably deserves its reputation as the most isolated capital city in the world. Its Guests of Honour include multi award winning American author, John Scalzi and best selling Australian author, Kylie Chan.

Another convention I really like is Conflux in Canberra. Its focus is very much on writing and I get there as often as I can. Relatively small, it's friendly and gives me an opportunity to catch up with other writers on the east coast.

These are only two of a number of conventions in Australia. Much as I'd love to go to them all distance (and the inevitable cost of travelling) stops me.

But Swancon is on here now. Want to guess where I'm going to be tomorrow?

Thursday, April 02, 2015

A-Z Blogging Challenge: Black Light by K. A. Bedford - Reviewed

It's twelve years since Ruth Black was notified that her husband had been killed, one of many casualties during the Great War but even now how he died remains a mystery. An eccentric woman of means, she has moved to the sleepy coastal fishing town of Pelican River in Western Australia where, cossetted by her servants, she writes 'scientific romances' and is making a new life. Her comfortable existence is shattered by the arrival of her Aunt Julia warning that she has visions showing Ruth's life is in danger. Initially sceptical, Ruth and her friend Gordon Duncombe, soon realise Julia is not exaggerating. But who would hate her so much?  The three find themselves in a desperate race to stop the unknown enemy from carrying out his plan.

K. A. Bedford is better known for his science fiction - his Time Machines Repaired While-U-Wait is one of my all time favourites - so Black Light, a paranormal thriller, is something of a departure but he's definitely nailed it. The meticulously researched 1920s setting is detailed but not laboured and it anchors the story in reality. That said there's a lot going on in this world that is unexpected and outside our familiar existence. There are the elves, accidentally brought by the early colonists and slowly fading away so far from their native soil, and magic - both black and white but equally dangerous. Against this background there are unanswered questions from Ruth's past and the malevolence of her pursuer which together combine to make a gripping story. The author taps into many of the ideas occupying intellectuals in the early part of the twentieth century like spiritualism ( a favourite interest of Arthur Conan Doyle), time travel (with a nod to H. G. Wells) and science which prompted the beginnings of science fiction (Ruth writes 'scientific romances', an early name for science fiction).

I liked much about this novel. In particular, I like Ruth who is not afraid to ignore societal norms - she wears 'mannish' clothes and has unfashionably short hair - although she hides the insecurities that living her life the way she wants has caused. At the same time she is intelligent, brave and thoughtful and we can see why she is beloved by those who are prepared to accept her as she is. I'd very much like to hear more from Ruth.

Black Light was published in January 2015 by Fremantle Press and is available from the publisher, and other booksellers as a paperback and an ebook and will be available from from June 1. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

A-Z Blogging Challenge: April 1

I had all sorts of plans for today's post - don't worry, I'm sure they'll be used later - but first I opened my Facebook news feed. Then I realised it's April 1 and that this was probably not a wise thing to do. April 1 is April Fools' Day, after all, and once I had read about a dozen posts, some of which are simply surreal, I realised I have no idea which of the more outlandish ones are genuine and which are having me on. The trouble is as a speculative fiction writer - and consequently with many friends who are also speculative fiction writers - I get a lot of posts which feed into our mutual interests. They can be serious science, historical research, speculative fantasies, political commentary or even works of art. By and large, anything that can feed our imaginations fascinates us and gets posted along with the more mundane minutiae of life. Most days it's easy enough to work out which is which but today, with so many creative people playing mind games, it wasn't quite that simple.

As a result normal posting will resume tomorrow. In the meantime, though, I'm sure this little fennec fox and friend is real. Oh the cuteness. Who says animals don't have friendships.