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Wee Small Hours

Sweet dreams. Image by Karatanya.Insomnia can be devastating (in some cases fatal) and there is a special place in the irritating file for waking up a few minutes before one’s alarm goes off. Being torn from slumber by a terrifying nightmare is less than pleasant and if the house is being burgled or the neighbours are engaged in a particularly noisy dispute it can make for a disagreeable evening. Then there’s snoring, noisy parties and various natural disasters. So being awake in the wee small hours has a poor reputation, but – the above circumstances aside - there is something very special about waking in the middle of the night. 

Whether you are alone or with company, the relative peace and stillness lends itself to all too rare moments of reflection and creativity. Often there seems no reason to wake up, but in those moments before drifting off again I usually enjoy just lying there being along with my mind, letting it have its way.

How wonderful is the realisation (perhaps at about 6am) that it’s the weekend or a public holiday or – better yet – you’re on vacation. Simultaneously soothing and exhilarating. The sleep that follows is often rich with dreams, with strange worlds and adventure. Even waking to find that it was yesterday that came with the unusually early start is a great feeling. Today you still have 2 or 3 hours to snooze.

I remember many years ago waking up very early in the morning and wondering why. Then I farted. I was amused and impressed and would have pondered the circumstances a bit longer, but I almost immediately fell asleep again. When my alarm clock went off I recalled its flatulence equivalent and laughed out loud. I love the fact that my body was able to recognise the need to fart and so wake me, but only long enough to achieve gas evacuation. After that there was important sleeping to be done. On a few occasions I have actually woken myself up laughing, and it is a tremendous way to start the day.

If you happen to be in love, you might find that early morning waking becomes more common. It can be an aching wake, but so profoundly sweet and addictive. That accompanying reminiscing, imagination and yearning were captured so simply and so well in Bob Hillard’s lyrics to In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning, made famous by Frank Sinatra. Those moments should be cherished.

I have spent countless hours (or perhaps minutes, it’s so hard to tell) lying in bed musing on all manner of themes, some useful, some troublesome, many just interesting. I treasure the opportunity to follow a thought all the way to it’s (il)logical conclusion, and now I kind of feel like a nap.

Words on words

A paper fortune teller, aka chatterbox, whirlybird or cootie catcher.It seems to me that the relationship between thought and expression has changed. Like most significant changes in human history, the change is born of technology, but its implications are far more profound. I believe we are experiencing a critical shift in how we communicate and thereby the way we develop and maintain relationships. The rise of cyber bulling, the cult of celebrity and the 24-hour news cycle are all symptoms of this revolution.

First though, let’s go back a bit, perhaps about 6 million years back.

Sometime after humans split from the other great apes, we developed spoken language. The complexity of these languages has become extremely complex and for a very long time that complexity was restricted to the spoken word. Written language only dates back to about 3,000 years ago and it was a real game changer.

From conversations that were limited to real time face-to-face interactions, we were able to reach each other across a much broader space and time. Even today graffiti exists on the ruins of such cities as ancient Ephesus and Pompeii.

Anyone who has had their teenage world shaken by the revelations of a paper fortune teller knows the power of the written word . . .


The development of paper made the transmission and storage of information much easier, but he power of information remained. Anyone who has had their teenage world shaken by the revelations of a paper fortune teller knows the power of the written word. The act of committing words to paper carried weight and for Beautiful calligraphy in the Book of Durrow (680 AD)generations it was the domain of the educated and the powerful. Producing records and books was traditionally a slow process, completed entirely by hand (even paper fortune teller seemed to be constructed only by a few – almost exclusively girls – who had been schooled in dark paper arts). This was the state of play for most of the history of written language. Even today we hang onto the idea that once something has been written it is somehow more important or trustworthy. “I read somewhere . . .”. And yet, today anyone can write anything – and have it read. Perhaps the simplicity with which we can commit something to the page (or the screen) should demand greater scrutiny or review, but more of that later.

The printing press was invented around 1440 and it was nearly 100 times faster than other methods of reproducing written text. This led to more things being printed and as more people became literate we saw profound changes in education and social mobility, not to mention record keeping, personal communication and advertising.

To religious tomes, historical and administrative records and personal diaries, we added pamphlets, newspapers, theses, technical manuals, novels and reference texts.

New methods of text transmission emerged, including mail coaches and railway systems, ballpoint pens, electronic printers, facsimile machines and photocopiers, but these were still based on paper-based writing. Communication in general was greatly changed with the advent of telegraph systems, radio, film, television and the telephone, but the next quantum leap for the written word was probably email. The arrival of electronic mail and the internet have re-energised written language.

A wonderfully retro photocopier. Image courtesy of Quasimondo.To those of us who love words, this is generally a fine thing. I cringe as grotesquely as the next person when I am confronted by some of the unconventional approaches to grammar, spelling and sentence structure that litter the online world, but I am generally thrilled that people are writing and reading, that they are creating and inspiring and provoking and analysing. I am fascinated by the evolution of text in txt messages and tweets, and I am intrigued by social media, which is essentially a pen friend program on steroids. However, there are less pleasant features as well. Look no further than the comments on YouTube videos, many of which seem to be very aggressive and personal. Many blogs and many reader comments thereon seem exceptionally - and pointlessly – vitriolic, although is there ever a point to vitriol?

The “thing” is, we are now part of a machine that not only allows everyone to express a view, quickly, easily, and frequently, but it demands that we do. The system has an insatiable appetite, but we are still learning what this means with regard to writing and interpreting. As I alluded to above, written words still seem to carry more weight than they ought, or rather the act of writing seems to bestow words with too limited a range of importance.

When Gina Rinehart writes a column in Australian Resources & Investment (a mining industry magazine that basically no-one outside the mining industry has ever heard of, let alone read), she has an obligation to generate content – to write words. In the past someone in this position might have been restricted to writing about, well, perhaps the mining industry. They might write less often, maybe even with less words, and they might need to undertake a more considered approach to their writing - one that reflects their expertise and experience. Today they can meet their obligations by writing across a far wider range of themes, moreover there is encouragement to write something provocative, something that will attract a response, thus generating more content and drawing more attention.


I’m waiting to see an unflattering cartoon of Gina as Marie Antoinette, shouting tersely, “Let them eat work!”) . . . 


I have not read Gina’s article in full or in context (I just couldn’t justify $199 to subscribe to the journal), but it seems to me that both what she chose to write and the response it received in some parts of the media (and today I note further responses to these responses) indicate that we are still coming to terms with this new(er) world of more words and more writing. Gina appears to have made some over-simplifications about the community, in particular the commonality of people actively complaining about not being rich enough and the likelihood of those within this cohort spending a significant amount of money and time in drinking in pubs with friends. Were her comments insightful? I doubt it. Does she have the right to make them? Of course she does. Were her comments of value to the publication? Only the editors could say. They have probably raised the profile of Australian Resources & Investment, but I don't know if this will translate to increased subscriptions. Who really cares though? Gina Rinehart giving behavioural advice might be comedy gold (I’m waiting to see an unflattering cartoon of Gina as Marie Antoinette, shouting tersely, “Let them eat work!”), but does it really warrant any other response?  We are all entitled to an opinion and the dialogue can be rewarding, but if we react as quickly and as passionately to every opinion (opinions that usually have little or no impact on us or almost anyone) it becomes white noise.


I would advise anyone who is about to write something aggressive and reactionary to write their thoughts out by hand, in full sentences with correct grammar and spelling, ideally with a quill and ink . . .


Image courtesy of PaulasofiasimoesI despair at the preponderance of opinion, speculation, commentary and gossip and the simultaneous - perhaps corresponding - decline in expert analysis, correct referencing, quality investigation, and genuine news reporting. I embrace new avenues for written language (for a class clown like me, Twitter is gold), new collaborative creative endeavours and increased opportunities to connect easily with others, but we are still toddlers in the online environment. We are still learning how to write what we mean, when to write it and when to simply shut up. We are still learning not to assume that someone is out to get us, to take a breath and perhaps give the benefit of the doubt (at least for a moment). I hope we are slowly getting better keeping out tempers. There will always be those who aim to provoke, but If we decide, as we mature, that explosions of vitriolic venting are simply self-indulgent, maybe they will become less common online. I would advise anyone who is about to write something aggressive and reactionary to write their thoughts out by hand, in full sentences with correct grammar and spelling, ideally with a quill and ink. I’m sure the world will be a calmer place (and the increase in the use of quills would be a good look too). Perhaps when we remember that writing is powerful, we will start to respect the act of writing and the reader a little bit more. Anyway, that’s my opinion, and I’m right. 


". . . a faintly tinted glass sphere with a tongue of twisting multi-coloured glass in the middle". Image by Photoblogster.Shrill calls echo through suburban streets. Follow your ears, and your eyes will find a Dickensian moonscape buzzing with half-sized humanity. An expanse of bare, dusty earth crowded with children with dirty hands and knees, huddled in feverish conversation or shuffling aimlessly through the throng. This was the marble pit at my primary school. It emerged every morning before school, at recess and at lunchtime. It was a place where plans were made, deals were done and innocence was weakened.

I cannot say how long this went on. It seemed like months, but it might have been days. This was, after all, a time when summers lasted for eons and eight-and-a-half was a world away from eight years old. I do, however, remember a distinct beginning and end to the marble pit.

Playing marbles is by no means unusual in a primary school, but the nuances of any particular marble competition or tradition are often unique. From time to time I find my mind drifting back to that strange moment in my childhood when the lure of the marble pit rendered the rest of the schoolyard all but empty. To the uninitiated, the pit was as exciting, confusing, strange and limitless as a Turkish bizarre. With commodities and competition, salespeople and charlatans, it was simultaneously a market place, a casino and a sideshow.

The colours and details are dimmer now, bleached by decades of synaptic activity, but I remember how the system worked and what the prizes were. There were several different types of marble. Here are the ones I remember.

  • Marble: a faintly tinted glass sphere with a tongue of twisting multi-coloured glass in the middle.
  • Cat’s Eye: colourless glass sphere with a tongue of a single coloured glass in the middle, most commonly this was green or yellow
  • Red Barron: like a cats eye, but the central coloured tongue of glass was red
  • Smasher: essentially a ball bearing, rather than a glass marble
  • Crystal: glass sphere with no other coloured glass inside. These sometimes had a green, yellow or blue tint
  • Peewee: opaque, with a dingle solid, but pale colour
  • Coloured: opaque and white with feathers of pale colour here and there

There were also two sizes of marble, standard (about 1.5 centimetres) or “Tommy” (about 2.5 centimetres).

There were dozens of competition sites scattered across the marble pit. At each site there were two competitors: a spruiker and a shooter. The spruiker would place a marble on the ground in front of them and use their finger to draw a line in the dirt some distance away.  The shooter would the roll a marble from this line, aiming for the spruiker’s marble. If they hit it, they would win the spruiker’s marble; if they did not hit it, they forfeited their marble to the spruiker. This is the simplest scenario, but the characteristics of the specific marbles involved in each game had a great influence. For example if the spruiker’s marble was a more valuable marble, for example a cat’s eye, the shooter’s line would be placed further away. If the shooter’s marble was more valuable than a normal marble, he or she would negotiate more than one shot.

All through this spontaneous barter yard there was a constant cacophony of spruiker’s calls, within which you would hear reflected every possible permutation of marble types.

“Win a tommy!”

“Win a red baron!”

“Win a marble”

“Win a tommy crystal!”

One would then need to carefully choose the game that would best meet your needs, based on the which marbles you were most interested in obtaining, which marbles you already had in your possession and the best chances of winning.

“Win a marble!”

“Win a tommy smasher!”

You would also need to consider the consistency of the shooting surface and try to avoid anyone with a reputation for unsporting or violent behaviour.

“Win a cat’s eye!”

Once you had selected a game, you would then begin the bartering process to determine how many shots you could have with your shooting marble of choice.

“Win a tommy!”

“How many for a coloured?”


“No way – four.”

“Na, three.”

“Can I have a test shot – not for keeps?”

“Alright - then three.”

Of course it wasn’t always as congenial as that. I mentioned earlier that I remember a distinct beginning and end to the marble era. My memory is that playing marbles was eventually banned by the school, because it was the root of too many fights. The odd thing is that I do not remember seeing any fights.

Image courtesy of cliff1066™.In theory the marble pit might have been a great opportunity for student development. It was a chance to learn about market forces, supply, demand and value. It was a chance for students to improve their arithmetic and numeracy, as well as honing valuable skills in communication and diplomacy. There was also the obvious motor skills and hand-eye coordination.

Sadly it was also an environment that unleashed some of our less pleasant primal instincts - ‘Wall Street’ meets ‘Lord of the Flies’. Perhaps this is the real reason it was banned, or maybe our teachers knew that we would have our whole adult lives to embrace greed, envy and materialism. Maybe they wanted to extend our childhoods for as long as possible.

Paper Chase

Image by GiantsFanaticI’ve become more and more disappointed with news media over recent years. I know I’m not alone in this, but a few days ago I asked myself why – what did I really want from the media? I mean it’s very easy to criticise, but could I articulate what the problem is, or – better still – could I offer any solutions. The answer is maybe.

I analysed the morphology of a popular Australian newspaper, which revealed two interesting things. The first was a list of basic newspaper content; the second was a very interesting analysis of the anatomy of the newspaper. Let me explain. 

I have identified the following types of newspaper content:

  • Reporting of events
  • Speculation
  • Promotional editorial
  • Advertising
  • Analysis
  • Opinion
  • Gossip
  • Political lobbying/campaigning

There is probably a place for all these components, but I fear that some are masquerading as others and that the balance is often wrong.

When I deconstructed the newspaper, I observed a surprising phenomenon. The front few pages included news reporting, but this provided very limited detail and included rather a lot of speculation, often bordering on gossip or lobbying. The back pages reported sport results, and a significant amount of analysis of these results, but once again much of the space was concerned with speculation and rumour. We would not accept this level of shallow reporting or lobbying in the weather section, or the index or the stock market report, so I wonder when we started to accept it in other news sections.

Of course there was also advertising in the paper, as well as content clearly designed for amusement or entertainment (comics, quizzes, Sudoku, crosswords, etc), but the more I looked, the more it seemed that the most factual information and reporting was in the physical centre of the paper and that in general, the further you moved from the centre pages towards to front and back pages, the more opinion, speculation and gossip there was.

There was an editorial section, but this seemed very small compared the amount of space that seemed to be dedicated to editorial opinion or campaigning. If supporting or undermining a political policy is so important to the editorial or owners of the newspaper, they should feel free to express in this the paper, but surely this should be clearly identified when and where it is included. It seems to me that there was far too much paper space that appeared to be news reporting, but which was clearing taking either an adversarial or advocational position.

The middle few pages by comparison included the racing guide (almost entirely simple clear facts), the classified section (likewise factually based, with clear statements of intent) and the births, deaths and marriages section (a little celebratory at times, but still primarily about the reporting of facts). 

Perhaps editors and journalists could learn something from the sections of their newspapers that are provided by their readers.

Image by MarcelGermainI do see a role for analysis and speculation and even opinion, I just think it all needs to be handles the right way and there is a need to get the balance “right”. So here’s my list of newspaper content in my preference order, with some very quick notes.

  • Reporting (facts and events)
  • Analysis (rational, educated and fair)
  • Speculation (logical and balanced)
  • Advertising (as necessary, clearly identified)
  • Opinion (researched, referenced, open-minded)
  • Gossip (as entertainment only)
  • Political lobbying/campaigning (in clearly marked editorial only)

Editors, you can have that one gratis, but please credit my contribution and mark it clearly as opinion.

Getting to Know You

Image by Chris KP, based on photos by Ed Uthman and MollybobA couple of months ago ANU (the Australian National University) published a study examining attitudes of the Australian community to science. The study by Rod Lamberts, Will Grant and Aaron Martin, is based on interviews with 1,200 people and considers attitudes towards a wide range of issues and interests.

The media release excitedly claimed that Australians are more interested in science than sport and that they feel politicians do not pay enough heed to the nation’s scientists. And well they might be excited. These results support the belief held by many that there is more to being Australian than sport, beer and American TV, but of course there is. There is always more depth and breadth than that which is provided by a stereotype.

Now I’m as big a sucker for an insightful social study as the next person, but it is the details that I find truly engrossing. Hinted at and hidden within the data lie the subtleties and contradictions that together form the truth, in this case a truth that is perhaps always changing.

The study did ask for demographic information, such as gender, age, children in house (number and age), country of birth, education, religious beliefs (and behavior), vocation and income, but this was not included in the poll results that were released publicly. That seems a pity, because any understanding of someone’s opinion or beliefs is best understood in the context of the rest of their life. Certainly if we are to get any clue as to why someone holds the beliefs they do, we need to know “who they are”. Ideally this should include some information about their existing beliefs about, understanding of and experiences of – in this case - science.

Any effort to build a scientifically literate society must consider what attitudes and beliefs those being studied already have. Furthermore any effort to evaluate the impact of a given science engagement initiative needs to include information about those who were (hopefully) being engaged. That said, I understand the authors are hoping to have the study published in a peer-reviewed publication and I’m sure this will include far more detail.

Survey respondents were asked to rate the contribution of a range of professions to society. These included doctors, teachers, police, politicians, journalists, priests, lawyers and the military, as well as scientists, engineers, entertainers and artists. Unfortunately there was no scope in the survey to discuss what these terms mean, specifically what they mean to the respondent. Of course it’s perfectly understandable that there was no a discussion of these terms. It would take rather a lot of time, which might be an imposition on both respondent and researcher.

As someone who works in science education/communication and the performing arts, however I’m be interested in how respondents define terms such as “scientist”, “artist” and "entertainer". It’s not that there are correct or incorrect definitions for such terms, but what someone understands them to mean and what their experiences have been of those vocations will surely have an impact on how they value them. Does the respondent by chance work within the particular profession they are evaluating? When articulating their position on “artists” are they including dancers, sculptors, stencil artists, and comic strip producers? Does the descriptor “entertainer” include TV actors, stand-up comedians, radio hosts and buskers?

I was pleased to learn that the questions about the most important challenges facing Australia were completely open-ended, that is respondents could suggest anything they felt was a problem or a challenge. The resulting list includes a wide range of issues from industrial relations and global warming to taxation, education, and young people’s behaviour. The breadth of the list reflects the diversity of the Australian community. Coupled with the data about frequency of response, it gives a real sense of how people feel across the community, perhaps more than any other section of the poll. 

Social science carries the baggage of complex variables that are impossible to control completely. One challenge facing researchers is to recognise the impact of these variables on the interpretation of their data. Another is finding the balance between the burden that additional data can bring and the deeper insight it might provide. You don’t want to miss an opportunity to better understand the detail and basis of respondent’s responses.

The ANU poll is incisive and I recommend you check it out. It is designed for public consumption, so it is an easy read. It’d be great to see newspaper editors and TV producers take heed, but don’t hold your breath. You can find (and download) the survey results here.