* take nothing for granted    
  • Sydney Harbour from Mosman

  • Ha'penny Bridge over the River Liffey Dublin Ireland

  • The Kalyan Minaret Bukhara Uzbekistan

  • Dubrovnik Croatia

  • Dushanbe Tajikistan

  • Bucharest Romania - from Palace of Parliament

  • Great Wall Shuiguan China

  • Shanghai China

  • Terracotta Warriors Xian China

  • Giza Pyramids and Sphinx Cairo

  • Jemaa el-Fnaa Marrakesh Morocco

  • Damascus Syria - (Oct 2010 pre destabilisation)

  • Istanbul Turkey

  • Cappadocia Turkey

  • Saltzburg Austria

  • Cezky Krumlov Czech Republic

  • Prague Czech Republic

  • Champs Elysees Paris France

  • Oberbaum Bridge (over the Spree) Berlin Germany

  • Budapest Hungary

  • Rome Italy

  • Florence Italy

  • Venice Italy

  • Valletta Malta

  • Lisbon Portugal

  • Limerick across the Shannon River Ireland

  • Seville Spain

  • Alhambra Granada Spain

  • Mosque–Cathedral Córdoba Spain

  • Moscow Russia (from Moscow State University)

  • Trafalgar Square London England

  • Mumbai India

  • Udaipur India

  • Taj Mahal - Agra India

  • Varanasi (Benares) India

  • Madurai India (the cow insisted I move out of its way)

  • Kathmandu Nepal

  • Lake Iskanderkul Tajikistan

  • Pyramid of the Sun Teotihuacán Mexico

  • Zócalo Mexico City

  • Buenos Aires Argentina

  • Ipanema Rio De Janeiro Brazil

  • Iguazu Falls Argentina-Brazil

  • Machu Picchu Peru

  • Lake Titicaca Peru-Bolivia

  • Grand Canyon National Park Arizona USA

  • Boston USA (across the stern of USS Constitution)

  • Washington DC USA (from Arlington House)

  • San Francisco USA (from Alcatraz Island)

  • Los Angeles USA (from the Getty Museum)

  • Flame towers Baku Azerbaijan

  • Havana Mummers Cuba

  • Bucharest Romania from Palace of Parliament

  • Registan Square Samarkand Uzbekistan

  • Bratislava Slovakia

  • Lake Bled Slovenia

  • Mount Ararat behind ancient Zvartnots Cathedral Yerevan Armenia

  • Kiriwina Island Papua New Guinea Dancers

  • Lake Sevan Armenia

  • Peace Bridge Tbilisi Georgia

Unless otherwise indicated all photos © Richard McKie 2005 - 2020

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Biology - we can't escape it

>  Medical Fun and Games

Prostate Scan

Recently I become aware of a medical problem that's exclusive to men - so if you are a woman you need read no further.
I had prostate cancer. And according to Cancer Australia I was but one of nearly 17 thousand men to be diagnosed in Australia in 2020, most of whom were around my age. Indeed 50% of men my age have some level of prostate disease.
So I've been having some medical 'fun and games' and my experience may be helpful, or at least interesting, to other men out there.




>  The Prospect of Eternal Life

Eternally Damned

When I first began to write about this subject, the idea that Hamlet’s apprehension concerning 'that undiscover'd country from whose bourn no traveller returns' was still current in today’s day and age seemed to me as bizarre as the fear of falling off the Earth should you sail too far to the west.

Yet it has become apparent to me that some intelligent, educated, people still identify the prospect of eternal life, in either heaven or hell, as an important consideration when contemplating their own life and death.



>  The Chemistry of Life

Egg and sperm race

This article - that begins with 'What everyone should know' was written back in 2013 as an appendix to The Meaning of Life, my wide-ranging essay for my children about understanding: what we can know and what we think we do know.
Since I began The Meaning of Life in 1997 my children have, to my pride and delight, each surpassed my knowledge in these areas of medicine and science. But now I have grandchildren to inform.
I recently updated the brief chapter on viruses to include an image of a cell infected with Covid-19
Some readers might find it interesting.



>  More on Technology and Evolution

He Jiankui

2018 will be remembered for one thing in particular: this was the year that a scientist successfully took the Human genome into our own hands for the first time.

"Is this the beginning of the end of the 'natural' human race?"  I wondered at the time.

Dr He's stated goal was to protect the children of HIV infected parents from the virus by editing the CCR5 gene to prevent expression of a protein required for the virus' replication. Would this immunity be passed on to their children and to successive generations?

A year later, at the end of 2019, a new virus evolved and jumped to humans: Covid-19.  And like HIV, some people seem to be invulnerable while for others, particularly in some ethnic groups, it's fatal. So again geneticists are asking: "to what extent are genes involved?"



The Virus

>  Love in the time of Coronavirus

In the News

The July breach of quarantine in Melbourne and subsequent wildfire spread of Covid-19 has echoes of 1919 when the Spanish Influenza got loose after a breach of quarantine in Melbourne.
To that point Australia was effectively free of the disease.
An estimated 15,000 Australians died of Spanish Influenza at a time when the total population was just 5.3 million. The Australian population is now almost five times that number.

Fortunately, the Victorian outbreak was extinguished, by a draconian lock-down and border closures, until elimination was achieved.  Victoria has improved contact tracing to match that in NSW and testing campaigns across the Nation have achieved effective elimination, allowing borders to be reopened and tourist and family travel to resume, as in New Zealand and a handful of other countries.
Yet many international arrivals are infected and cases in quarantine are numerous. Several have been sent to ICU's and there have been three Coronavirus related deaths since mid October. Thus breaches of quarantine remain a significant risk and sewerage testing occasionally identifies an area requiring increased testing. But otherwise it will be Christmas as usual in much of OZ (except Sydney's northern beaches - thanks to another quarantine escapee). 

Worldwide it's a different story.



>  The race for a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine

Coronavirus cutaway

Developing; manufacturing; and distributing a vaccine is at the leading edge of our scientific capabilities and knowledge and is a highly skilled; technologically advanced; and expensive undertaking.
Yet the rewards are potentially great, when the economic and societal consequences of the current pandemic are dire and governments around the world are desperate for a solution and well over a hundred research teams have joined the race.

So when can we expect to be lining up for a jab?



>  Conspiracy

Good and Bad

Social Media taps into that fundamental human need to gossip. Indeed some anthropologists attribute the development of our large and complex brains to imagination, story telling and persuasion.
Among the imaginative nonsense that results are many erroneous rumours and conspiracy theories.
For example, at the moment, we are told by some that the new 5G mobile network has, variously, caused the Coronavirus pandemic or is wilting trees, despite not yet being installed where the trees have allegedly wilted, presumably in anticipation.
Of more concern is the claim by some that the Covid-19 virus was manufactured in a laboratory. Recently a malicious fabrication along these lines was attributed to Nobel Laureate Tasuku Honjo who has had to take pains to refute this slander.
So who is responsible for this malicious misinformation and what is their motivation?



Energy and the Environment

>  Clean Coal

Carbon sequestration

Coal is one of Australia's largest exports, second only to iron ore. In export value last year coal outsold the nearest rural export, beef, sixfold. The next largest rural export was wheat - against which coal contributed eighteen times more value to our economy - followed by wool, just one twentieth the export value of coal. 

Australia's third largest export, by value, is petroleum gasses and now, with fracking, methane. This export is getting closer to the value of coal - perhaps overtaking coal in 2020 under the influence of the Covid-19 caused world recession.

Iron ore remains the king of exports but it would be useless to the buyer without metallurgical coal and or natural gas, so it goes hand-in-hand with the coal exports.

Almost all Australia's coal is mined in Queensland and New South Wales. So it's very important to the economy of those two States but also to the prosperity of all Australians. Australia is after all a 'commonwealth'.

Australia's third largest energy export is uranium. Australia has the world's largest proven deposits of uranium and is the world's third largest producer/exporter, after Kazakhstan and Canada.

In electrical energy terms, each ton of uranium replaces 18,000 tonnes of coal. Yet, for a variety of reasons, some domestic, uranium exports are lower now than a decade ago. They are valued at less than a billion dollars (around 2% of the value of coal) but several countries are building new nuclear power stations to meet their climate commitments so this market could improve.

To this end it has been seen by some necessary to mitigate the poor carbon credentials of coal and to a lesser extent petroleum (in comparison to uranium and renewables) by spruiking: 'clean coal'.  By which, clean coal advocates mean the sequestration of carbon dioxide: Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS).




>  Hydrogen Economy

Cartoon - 'weird shit'

Back in 1923, scientist and polymath, J B S Haldane, proposed a network of hydrogen-generating windmills for Britain. Since then the idea of storing electricity as hydrogen has hardly ever been off the drawing board.

It seems very attractive:

  • Hydrogen can be produced in any high school science lab (or kitchen) in a tub of water with two electrodes, topped by inverted test tubes (or jam jars), and a battery. We all did it as kids.
  • And when you burn it (or explode it by mixing it with the oxygen - don't) you get energy and your water back.
  • And of course, as NASA will attest, it's also a pretty good rocket fuel, perfect in some conditions, but not for high powered boosters. And not quite so good in a Zeplin.

As young adults we were all converts. Hydrogen offered pollution free urban transport to compete with electric vehicles.

The only problem seemed to be storage. You need to keep it cryogenically, at below -253°C, or compress it to 70MPa. But it's a very common feed-stock in the chemical industry (and at NASA) and they manage it. And then there are the light metal hydrides, that resemble hydrogen batteries - you put it in and take it out when you need it.

It was an 'easy sell' to a shop-floor politician or the commerce educated CFO of a corporation. And many scientists and some engineers just want to experiment or to make a working prototype. They don't care about the overall economics or energy balance.

Consequently there have been many many trials. Ford and GM produced hydrogen fuelled cars - for a while. Toyota is at it again.

What went wrong?

The short answer is - physics.  As school children we didn't notice that we got back just a tiny fraction of our battery's energy.

Using electricity to make hydrogen and then hydrogen to make electricity (to drive wheels) adds two, very energy consuming, steps to just using the electricity directly. Modern batteries on the other hand, lose a lot less conversion energy, back and forth, and allow for regenerative braking, recovering up to 20% of that committed to getting the vehicle moving. Ask Elon Musk at Tesla.

For a full energy balance analysis read:  Does a Hydrogen Economy Make Sense?

Hydrogen is generally used in a fuel cell to produce electricity as it's even worse in an internal combustion engine. As a fuel it's not nearly as: easy and safe to transport and store; energy efficient; or energy dense as petrol or a hydrocarbon gas - burning carbon again. 

But my real gripe is not with so called 'green hydrogen', produced as Haldane suggested, by electrolysis, using over produced energy from turbines (Haldane's windmills) or other green sources like: solar panels or waves. This makes sense in some situations where the electricity is surplus or incurs a cost - for example when the spot price goes negative, due to low demand and overproduction of wind or solar. 

My concern is with hydrogen produced by 'steam reforming', employing hydrocarbons or coal. This is how over 90% hydrogen used today is produced. And it's how it's proposed that Australia produces hydrogen for export. Used as a transport fuel this 'dark hydrogen" releases more than double the carbon dioxide to deliver the same power to the wheels, than does a conventional petroleum fuelled vehicle; or even an electric vehicle that is charged from the grid using 'dirty' coal fired power. It's the opposite of 'green'.




>  Climate Change - a Myth?

Ice core data

Bushfires started early in the annus horribilis, 2020, and were the worst for many years.  We had a very smoky Christmas.  Then came the floods in some of the very same areas.  Many claimed God or Gaia was punishing us for Climate Change.  Then came Covid-19. God or Gaia again?

Yet several friends and acquaintances continue to assert that the climate is beyond our control or that 'Climate Change' is a myth.

Might this be true?




Travel - Remember that

>  Turkey

Ayasuluk Citadel

In August 2019 we returned to Turkey, after fourteen years, for a more encompassing holiday in the part that's variously called Western Asia or the Middle East.  There were iconic tourist places we had not seen so with a combination of flights and a rental car we hopped about the map in this very large country. 

We began, as one does, in Istanbul - the end of the Silk Road. 




>  The Balkans


In September 2019 we left Turkey by air, to continue our trip north along the Adriatic, in the Balkans, to Austria, with a brief side trip to Bratislava in Slovakia. 

The Balkan Peninsula was among the first regions on Earth to be civilised. The ancient Vinča culture of the area developed Old European Script, the oldest form of writing known, and clay tablets have been found in the area dating back to around 5,300 BCE.

Consequently it is a much contested geopolitical area, prized by conquerors and by those who want to capture the hearts and minds of their followers.



>  The Caucasus

Caucusus landform

More Silk Road Adventures

One of the birthplaces of the Bronze Age, the Caucasus Mountains have long acted as a barrier between Eastern Europe and Central Asia.
Sitting astride one of ancient humanity's most important trade routes, the Silk Road, added to their strategic significance.
Having followed the Silk Road from Xian and Urumqi, in China, across Tajikistan and Uzbekistan (see 'In the footsteps of Marco Polobelow) our next step had to be to the Caucasus.
So in May 2019 we joined an organised tour to Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia.



>  Ireland

Hands Across the Divide

In October 2018 we travelled to Ireland. Later we would go on to England (the south coast and London) before travelling overland (and underwater) by rail to Belgium for a few days and then on to Berlin to visit our grandchildren there.
The island of Ireland is mainly rural and not very densely populated. It was unusually warm for October in Europe and Ireland is a very pleasant part of the world. It's not unlike Tasmania, and in many other ways familiar, due to a shared language and culture.  Yet it's history over the past few thousand years is labyrinthine in its complexity. Over two weeks we spent many hours in museums around both countries that share this island, fascinated.  As a result, this article contains a long, yet much abbreviated, 'Potted History'. There are also smaller articles on fourteen of the towns we meandered between in our trusty rental car. 
If my spin on the history is no interest to you, you can avoid the verbiage and philosophising. Take a shortcut.  I've put some of our photos into a Google Photos album, instead of making the article even longer:



>  Central Asia

Amir Timur

In the footsteps of Marco Polo

In June 2018 we travelled to China before joining an organised tour in Central Asia that, except for a sojourn in the mountains of Tajikistan, followed in the footsteps of Marco Polo along the Great Silk Road.
In medieval times China lay hidden to Europe behind the veil of the terrifying Mongol Empire. Yet Venetians still traded in Chinese silk so at the end of the 13th century Marco Polo, with his father and uncle, followed the thread of silk all the way to China.
After his return he became a prisoner of war in Genoa where he related his amazing experiences at the Court of Kublai Khan to Rustichello da Pisa who subsequently published them as the Travels of Marco Polo.
The things they didn't know they didn't know so shocked and amazed educated Europeans that the Travels of Marco Polo is credited by some historians with initiating the European Renaissance and the collapse of monasticism, leading to the Scientific Revolution and the modern world. 
In Central Asia we too would learn things we didn't know we didn't know.



>  Hawaii

Hawaiian Flag

We were there in February and had noticed that it was hot underfoot on Kilauea.

Less that 100 days later, on May 3, a 6.9 level earthquake shook the Island, damaging buildings we had stood in in downtown Hilo, including the Post Office. Several lava vents simultaneously opened east of the Kilauea summit and 2,000 people had to be quickly evacuated as poisonous gasses belched out.

Why is it always just after we leave that things get exciting?

See the May 2018 Addendum at the end of The Volcanos chapter at the end of the Big Island page... 



>  United States of America - 'middle bits'

Old Glory

In October 2017 we returned from the United States where for over six weeks we travelled through a dozen states and stayed for a night or more in 20 different cities, towns or locations.
In these travel notes I've provided a separate chapter for each significant stop along our way, whether we stayed overnight or not.  My notes have turned out to be very long but could well have been much longer - as it's a fascinating country that has so much history, culture and language in common with us that it's extremely accessible and interesting.
Much of our time was spent in states that were for a short time in a separate country: The Confederate States of America.  Thus slavery, The Civil War and its consequences loomed large there. 
By far the longest chapter is Andrew Jackson's Hermitage - Tennessee that contains an explanatory short history leading up to that period and beyond that informs many of locations we travelled to.
Readers might like to 'cherry pick' chapters that could interest them for other reasons, like Graceland or NASA or the Grand Canyon, from the contents table.




>  Japan


Here is the story of our 2017 Japanese sojourn, when we took a short introductory package tour: Discover Japan 2017 visiting: Narita; Tokyo; Yokohama; Atami; Toyohashi; Kyoto; and Osaka.
Japan has been an important theme throughout my life.  Their unconditional surrender came exactly four weeks before my birth, as a result of the first A-Bombs. 
So that my life spans the nuclear age, the cold war, the space race, Japanese recovery, détente, the digital revolution, biomedical science, and the rise of China.
I couldn't help making one or two historical observations.





>  Romania

Capitoline Wolf

Here it is at last.  I've finally given up my fight with Google Pictures and accepted URLs the length of small essays, just so that I can store my images in The Cloud.
The essay on Southern England uses the old Picasa image storage. But in the middle of writing this, a few days later, Google withdrew it and introduced their mega-URLs. Then, before I could get any further with a solution, I found myself in hospital.  See below.

Anyway I hope this was worth the wait - particularly for those of you who like to travel and have not yet been to Romania.



>  Korea - addendum or: - How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb

Jongno Tower, Seoul, S Korea

The biggest news of 2017 was on American Independence Day, the 4th of July 2017, when North Korea had launched a rocket that travelled vertically to reach an altitude of 2,802km (1,731 miles) well beyond the orbit of the International Space Station. Thus demonstrating that they could put a nuclear weapon into orbit, to strike anywhere on the planet. That N Korea is not bound by The Outer Space Treaty, the convention that prohibits putting these weapons in orbit, is a point the media seemed to ignore.
Since then there have been even better performing rockets and an H bomb test.
So in the new year I've brought this article up the list a bit and added a further update.  Yet irrespective of these recent advances, not a lot has changed. 
As was already evident last July, it is now even more obvious that a land attack on N Korea would risk a retaliatory nuclear attack on the US or an indefensible ally like Australia and ,as ever, any solution needs to be diplomatic.
But like Kubrick's Dr Strangelove, we've learned to 'stop worrying and love the bomb'.
This is largely because of MAD - mutually assured destruction.
So, strangely, I find I'm not too worried.
Unless President Trump really is mad.



More Travel

Read more Travel...



>  The McKie Family

McKie Ginger Beer

This is the story of the McKie family down a path through the gardens of the past that led to where I'm standing now.  Other paths converged and merged as the McKies met and wed and bred.
Where possible I've glimpsed backwards up those paths as far as records would allow.
In six generations, I, like most people, have 126 ancestors.  Around half have become obscure to me. But I know the majority had one thing in common: they lived in or around Newcastle-upon-Tyne in England.

During that time Newcastle grew from a small port town into one of the World's most important and innovative cities.  Thus they contributed to the prosperity, fertility and skill of that blossoming town during the century and a half when the garden there was at its most fecund.

So it's also a tale of one city.



>  Luther - Father of the Modern World?

Luther and the witches2

Continuing the religious theme, 2017 also marked 500 years since Martin Luther nailed his '95 theses' to a church door in Wittenberg and set in motion the Protestant Revolution.
It's caused me to recall an exhibition in Germany in 2016 - Luther and the Witches - and to wonder how much impact this superstitious man might still have on my descendents, two of whom are German.
My research and speculations made this article quite long enough. So if you're interested in the witch hunts Luther contributed to click on the linked album within and see the exhibition for yourself.




>  Alternative Facts and other Untrue Tales

Parvati - Jodhpur

Most fiction has it's roots in real events.  Yet the flights of fancy (untruths) these inspire can be more fun.

Some of these tales can be read in a few minutes others like: The Cloud and The Craft, require a good bit longer.










    Have you read this???     -  this content changes with each opening of a menu item


Hong Kong and Shenzhen China






Following our Japan trip in May 2017 we all returned to Hong Kong, after which Craig and Sonia headed home and Wendy and I headed to Shenzhen in China. 

I have mentioned both these locations as a result of previous travels.  They form what is effectively a single conurbation divided by the Hong Kong/Mainland border and this line also divides the population economically and in terms of population density.

These days there is a great deal of two way traffic between the two.  It's very easy if one has the appropriate passes; and just a little less so for foreign tourists like us.  Australians don't need a visa to Hong Kong but do need one to go into China unless flying through and stopping at certain locations for less than 72 hours.  Getting a visa requires a visit to the Chinese consulate at home or sitting around in a reception room on the Hong Kong side of the border, for about an hour in a ticket-queue, waiting for a (less expensive) temporary visa to be issued.

With documents in hand it's no more difficult than walking from one metro platform to the next, a five minute walk, interrupted in this case by queues at the immigration desks.  Both metros are world class and very similar, with the metro on the Chinese side a little more modern. It's also considerably less expensive. From here you can also take a very fast train to Guangzhou (see our recent visit there on this website) and from there to other major cities in China. 

Read more ...

Fiction, Recollections & News

A Womens' view




The following article presents a report by Jordan Baker, as part of her history assignment when she was in year 10 at North Sydney Girls’ High School.   For this assignment she interviewed her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother about their lives as girls; and the changes they had experienced; particularly in respect of the freedoms they were allowed.

Read more ...

Opinions and Philosophy

The race for a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine





As we all now know (unless we've been living under a rock) the only way of defeating a pandemic is to achieve 'herd immunity' for the community at large; while strictly quarantining the most vulnerable.

Herd immunity can be achieved by most people in a community catching a virus and suffering the consequences or by vaccination.

It's over two centuries since Edward Jenner used cowpox to 'vaccinate' (from 'vacca' - Latin for cow) against smallpox. Since then medical science has been developing ways to pre-warn our immune systems of potentially harmful viruses using 'vaccines'.

In the last fifty years herd immunity has successfully been achieved against many viruses using vaccination and the race is on to achieve the same against SARS-CoV-2 (Covid-19).

Developing; manufacturing; and distributing a vaccine is at the leading edge of our scientific capabilities and knowledge and is a highly skilled; technologically advanced; and expensive undertaking. Yet the rewards are potentially great, when the economic and societal consequences of the current pandemic are dire and governments around the world are desperate for a solution. 

So elite researchers on every continent have joined the race with 51 vaccines now in clinical trials on humans and at least 75 in preclinical trials on animals.

Read more ...

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