*be sceptical - take nothing for granted!
Unless otherwise indicated all photos © Richard McKie 2005 - 2019

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How I miss Rio.  Rio de Janeiro the most stunningly picturesque city on Earth with its dark green mountains and generous bays, embelezado with broad white, sandy beaches.  Rio forever in my heart.   Rio my a minha pátria, my homeland, where I spent the most wonderful days of my life with linda, linda mãe, my beautiful, beautiful mother. Clambering up Corcovado Mountain together, to our favela amongst the trees.

Thinking back, I realise that she was not much older than I was, maybe fifteen years.  Who knows?

Her greatest gift to me was English. 

We had a precious VHS.  One where a panel on the top popped-up into which the tape was inserted then pressed down to do its magic.  Then, on our little TV, I could begin my lessons, learning English from American movies.


To keep us alive she worked in a bordel and sometimes turned tricks on the beachfront at Copacabana. 

Beachfront Copacabana

When she had a good night she would bring home a new movie and fresh groceries and we would have a feast.  Sometimes the tapes were borrowed or rented. But others she bought.  These had to be kept hidden along with the VHS and TV. There were a lot of light-fingered neighbours on our mountain. And more than once the authorities tried to clear us off.  Particularly those of us whose barracos were in sight of the funicular railway that carries the tourists to the top, through our luxuriant jungle, high into the clouds, to Jesus.  Can't let the tourists see how real people live.


Oh, how I loved her.  Learning from those movies was my penance for all my sins. My penance for being her burden.  My penance for when she was so badly hurt by that lousy pimp that she lay in bed for days on end.

Towering above us was Cristo Redentor, Christ the Redeemer, beloved of all the world. He who came to sacrifice himself so that all who believe in Him can have eternal life.  She put her faith in Him and venerated our mountain, for his love and protection.  

Christ the Redeemer

She is in his arms now.   Pray God I can still be saved to be reunited with her for all eternity. 

Oh minha mãe, I have promised God to avenge you.  His blood will wash away your suffering.

Has that sargento de la policía called for Father Jorge to vouch for me?   

Maybe it would be unwise to ask Father Jorge to hear my confession just yet: 'Bless me father for I have sinned.  Today I murdered a man.'


Midnight Cowboy, I loved that movie.  When I discovered that: 'Everybody's talking at me. I don't hear a word they're saying,  Only the echoes of my mind' meant: 'Todo mundo está falando para mim. Eu não ouço uma palavra do que está dizendo, apenas os ecos da minha mente'.  It spoke to me personally, in my efforts to understand.  From the moment I understood these words, English flooded into my brain and I started to dream in my new language. I'm thinking in it now.

Minha querida mãe, my dear mother, just fifteen years apart, no wonder we were so close.  As a man I've pleasured many a tourist woman more than fifteen years older than myself.  But I do prefer these Argentine gauchos.  Naïve boys from the country.  My life has been lived through Midnight Cowboy. And somehow the role of 'Ratso' suited me. To others I've been Enrico or Senhor Rizzo for most of my life. Up-market of course, I couldn't abide all that filth and untidiness.  I'm a sophisticated man of the world. 


I wonder when that stupid cop will give me some water to get this blood off my suit. 

Damn Salvatore!  Such a good find. Such good hands. I've been looking for one like him ever since I came to Buenos Aires. 

The tourists here are so naïve, such easy touches.  Back in Rio they're on their guard.  The guides even tell them not to go out at night.  But here they're up at all hours, obsessed with the Tango.  

Obsessed with Tango

Stupid people with too much money. 


Well I'm here to help.  My next scheme is great.  I'll get some cards printed introducing myself as chief guide for my tour company.  I suppose I could use the same one as I use for suggesting restaurants and nightclubs to tourists, to get my commissions.  

I'm so convincing and trustworthy: 'Here take my card and just mention my name they'll look after you. A special deal.'  In my neat brown three piece tweed, with elegant little moustache greying like my hair, butter wouldn't melt in my mouth.  Overpriced tourist joints love me. I'm well worth the commission.  A good little 'Ratso' but trustworthy, like Ratty from Wind in the Willows.

Minha linda mãe, my beautiful mother, and I loved to watch that together.  Sometimes we would sing. She imagined me famous someday, maybe a singer, like José Carreras.  That's why it's another of my personas.  Who wouldn't trust a singer?

Anyway, when I get out of this jam I can get rid of a pile of forged currency to pay for my trip.  It's easy for someone like me who knows their way around the tourist traps.  I'll just promote the same tours as others, undercutting the price.  I'll give a money-back guarantee.  That's the key.  I take the mark's deposit at short notice then cancel the tour: 'sorry not enough starters'; and happily give 'their money' back in return for the 'ticket receipt'.  Simple.  On second thoughts, I won't give them my card.  That would be stupid - they need to have nothing except the forged cash.  See, if you think these things out properly they usually work.


It all went like clockwork this afternoon.  Exactly as planned.  As I told Salvatore, 'the old trains are best because we can sit near the door'.   As it turned out the two Australian men had an interest in trains.  It was so easy. I just gave up my seats to their women and stood with them.  They were very happy to include me in the conversation.  At first it was too crowded and I knew it would be tight when they told me when they were getting off.  But Salvatore was perfect.  He picked up my hint when I made a fuss about which stop they wanted and I moved around sideways to get the mark into position.  At the stop before theirs Salvatore was like a bailarín: waiting til the last second; leaping up as if he had forgotten his stop; bouncing into the one with his wallet in his jeans back pocket; grabbing the wallet while the mark was still recovering; and diving out as the door closed.  Magic! 

BA Subway

But I almost had a heart attack when the mark realised what had happened as he left the train next stop.  I thought I was gone when he forced the doors back open.  Fortunately he looked on the floor thinking it might have dropped, before he looked, suddenly realising, at me. By that time he was too late, he had to retreat to join his friends on the platform, I was safe.

On the other hand, I suppose, if he had caught me I wouldn't be in this sticky position.


That wallet.  The cash was hardly worth the risk.  But $150 is better than nothing.  And that bastard was so quick at cancelling the cards.  Salvatore was so pissed off when he was almost caught trying to use one.  I did half suspect it was dangerous, that's why I let him have them.  Anyway Salvatore wasn't going anywhere if he got any money. 

He didn't even see the little bit of paper in the lining.  But he is more suspicious these days and must have seen me palm it. 

The stupid Australian had written his login and password on a scrap of paper and hidden it in his wallet.  Idiots like him often make a note of their password.

How much might he have?  More than enough for my trip. They're all millionaires.  They get about in jeans and open neck shirts but they fly around the world. They like to 'slum it', travelling with the locals to get the feel of a place.  Give me a break!  How can they know what it's like to grow up in a barrio bajo?  Or to make a lousy living selling your body to filthy tourists like them?


This blood will ruin my beautiful suit if I don't get it off!  And I'm a victim, being held in this cell is all wrong.  Maybe Father Jorge will demand that they give me some water. 

That sargent policía keeps looking in at me:   People stopping staring, I can't see their faces, Only the shadows of their eyes.  Now I can't get that damn tune out of my mind!

I had the name and password right there in my hand.  All I had to do was get to the internet café and transfer the money.  I was that close. 

Maybe I had cheated Salvatore just once too often?  But if he was going to be my 'Joe Buck' he had to turn those tricks, it's a fact of life. He needed to work his way.  If it was good enough for my saintly mother, it was good enough for an innocent country boy like him.

I didn't even know he had a knife. Stupid fool. I might be smaller and starting to go grey but I'm strong and fast.  And I grew up in a Rio favela and had more than one knife fight.  I still have the scars. He was a good boy until he met me. Pure. But when he tried to get the password, and with it my money!  

Maybe his soul is on its way to heaven?

Going where the sun keeps shining Thru' the pouring rain, Going where the weather suits his clothes,  Backing off of the North East wind, Sailing on summer breeze And skipping over the ocean like a stone.


Where is Father Jorge? I need to get out of here.  I need to get to Rio. 

Father Jorge will certainly confirm my story.  He believes I'm a businessman, a tour guide.  He knows I'm one of the faithful.  Attending Mass regularly; lighting a candle and praying for the soul of my mother.

It wont be much longer 'til I'm free.

I'll just stick to my story: 'He suddenly attacked me with a knife. No, I don't know where he came from. No, I had never seen him before.  He looked like a 'gaucho'.  He might've been trying to pick me up.  He seemed to lose his temper when I ignored him. Yes, of course I struggled to get away.  No, it was his own knife, but somehow he fell on it.  It was simple self-defence...'

On the up-side, now that I've despatched one soul I can happily send that, boceta de uma droga empurrando cafetão, (expletive deleted) of a drug-pushing pimp, who got my mother hooked, to eternal damnation.  So I'm going back home now, to keep my sacred promise to minha santa mãe, may she rest in Heaven.

But first I need to get the blood of Salvatore off me.

What did that detective de policía just say?  How do I come to have in my possession a piece of an Australian's torn name tag with part of his name and part of his phone number?  A tourist who had reported his wallet stolen earlier this evening by two men: one fitting my description; and the other resembling the deceased?



November 2013



I did indeed have my wallet stolen on the train in Buenos Aries by two men fitting the descriptions in the story.  The central character might have been innocent, until I saw the look on his face when I forced the doors back open to look for my wallet.  Then, as I retreated to the platform and let the doors close too soon, it all fell into place like a jigsaw. 

My friend Craig still believed our charming interlocutor innocent.  But Craig has long been a barrister who needs to believe his clients to be innocent.  So he has a poor record when it comes to being conned, as incidents in China with students who wanted to practice English and drink coffee for the first time; and sham Indian train officials; have proven.  He brushes off such incidents as affordable lessons or charity towards those less well off.

But despite such incidents adding additional spice to an otherwise bland tourist experience, I hate to be taken for a ride.  So in this story I imagined my principal trickster growing up in Rio - where we had glimpsed the shacks of the poor through the trees on the train up to see Christ the Redeemer - perhaps the child of one of the young 'working girls' we had seen plying their trade along the beachfront at Copacabana.  Then I gave him an inevitably misanthropic life, driven by discontent; malice; and self-deception - with he theft of my wallet his final undoing.

Obviously Salvatore's name is no accident.



Download this file (The_password.epub)The Password[epub for e-books]8 kB

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Burma (Myanmar)



This is a fascinating country in all sorts of ways and seems to be most popular with European and Japanese tourists, some Australians of course, but they are everywhere.

Since childhood Burma has been a romantic and exotic place for me.  It was impossible to grow up in the Australia of the 1950’s and not be familiar with that great Australian bass-baritone Peter Dawson’s rendition of Rudyard Kipling’s 'On the Road to Mandalay' recorded two decades or so earlier:  

Come you back to Mandalay
Where the old flotilla lay
Can't you hear their paddles chunking
From Rangoon to Mandalay

On the road to Mandalay
Where the flying fishes play
And the Dawn comes up like thunder
out of China 'cross the bay

The song went Worldwide in 1958 when Frank Sinatra covered it with a jazz orchestration, and ‘a Burma girl’ got changed to ‘a Burma broad’; ‘a man’ to ‘a cat’; and ‘temple bells’ to ‘crazy bells’.  

Read more ...

Fiction, Recollections & News

Australia in the 1930s



These recollections are by Ross Smith, written when he was only 86 years old; the same young man who subsequently went to war in New Britain; as related elsewhere on this website [read more...].  We learn about the development of the skills that later saved his life and those of others in his platoon.  We also get a sense of what it was to be poor in pre-war Australia; and the continuity of that experience from the earlier convict and pioneering days from which our Australia grew.                   *

Read more ...

Opinions and Philosophy

The Chemistry of Life



What everyone should know

Most of us already know that an atom is the smallest division of matter that can take part in a chemical reaction; that a molecule is a structure of two or more atoms; and that life on Earth is based on organic molecules: defined as those molecules that contain carbon, often in combination with hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen as well as other elements like sodium, calcium, phosphorous and iron.  

Organic molecules can be very large indeed and come in all shapes and sizes. Like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle molecular shape is often important to an organic molecule's ability to bond to another to form elaborate and sometimes unique molecular structures.

All living things on Earth are comprised of cells and all cells are comprised of numerous molecular structures.

Unlike the 'ancients', most 'moderns' also know that each of us, like almost all animals and all mamals, originated from a single unique cell, an ova, that was contributed by our mother.  This was fertilised by a single unique sperm from our father.

This 'fertilisation' triggered the first cell division. These two cells divided; and divided again and again; through gestation and on to birth childhood. So that by the time we are adults we've become a huge colony of approximately thirty seven thousand billion, variously specialised, cells of which between sixty and a hundred billion die and are replaced every day. Thus the principal function of a cell, over and above its other specialised purposes, is replication. 

As a result, the mass of cells we lose each year, through normal cell division and death, is close to our entire body weight. Some cells last much longer than a year but few last longer than twenty years. So each of us is like a corporation in which every employee and even the general manager has changed, yet the institution goes on largely as before, thanks to a comprehensive list of job descriptions carried by every cell - our genome.

Cell replication is what we call 'life'.  The replicating DNA molecule can therefore be regarded as the 'engine of life' or the 'life force' on Earth.  So it is quite a good thing to understand. 


What makes us human?

Different animals and plants have different numbers of genes and chromosomes that together make up their genome.  Many are far more complex than humans.  The 32 thousand  human genes are organised into 23 pairs of chromosomes within each of our cells.  But the protein-coding genes, that differentiate us, form only a fraction (about 1.5%) of the instruction and memory data that is stored in DNA. The remainder, coding for other aspects of cell chemistry, seems to be administrative overhead.

When human girls are born, they have about a million eggs in each of their two ovaries, nestled in fluid-filled cavities called follicles. But this number declines quite rapidly so that it is depleted by the time of menopause (usually before 50 years of age). Unless fertility treatment is in use, just one or sometimes two of these (apparently randomly selected) ova descends from the ovaries each menstrual period - down the woman's fallopian tubes where it (or they) may become fertilised if the woman has recently engaged in coitus (had 'sex').

As in vitro fertilization (IVF) demonstrates every day; we now understand that a unique version of your father's genome was injected into your mother's egg by just one of his millions of spermatozoa. So that when the two genomes merged a doubly unique cell, that became you, was the result.

Our genes, that are encoded in their DNA, come in equal proportion from both parents.  Unless we have an identical twin, resulting from division of the zygote (see below) after fertilisation, each of us is genetically unique; our genetic identity determined by that successful fertilisation. 



Human Reproduction - Click here to Expand


Within our species we are said to be of Caucasian or Asian or African appearance, to have dark or fair complexion and so on, and possibly to bear a ‘family resemblance’.  These traits are due to the particular gene variants we have inherited from our parents.

These have been passed down to us, with regular variations, from parent to child, and through many ancestor species, since life began on the planet. And all plants and animals on Earth belong to a single family because we all inherit the same system of reproduction from one original replicating cell, our last universal common ancestor (LUCA) 3.5 to 3.8 billion years ago.



The DNA molecular structure resembles a zip fastener, where each tooth can be any of four molecular bases.  The bases G-C and A-T are each small organic molecules that at one point are covalently bound to a triphosphate (containing three phosphorous atoms) and a sugar group that binds them in a ribbon.  At their free end Guanine is attracted to Cytosine, with triple hydrogen bonds, and Adenine is attracted to Thymine, with double hydrogen bonds. 

In the following notation: black = Carbon;  blue = Nitrogen;  red = Oxygen; white = Hydrogen.   Bars joining them indicate a covalent bond, an electron shared between the atoms.  A double bar indicates two shared electrons.   


  Cytosine (C4H5N3O) has a shape that attracts (fits)   Guanine (C5H5N5O) 

but not  Thymine (C5H6N2O2)  or   Adenine (C5H5N5), that attract (fit) each other.


Each of these bases is bound to a ribbon of  sugar molecules and at its other end lightly bonds to a matching base on the other half of the 'zipper' such that when it is 'unzipped' each attracts its opposite number (like magnets attracting the opposite pole) thus recreating a new matching half in the same sequence.


DNA replication. 


This unzipping and reforming is called self-replication. It is going on continuously in all living things as new cells are created to replace those that die. In an adult human around three quarters of a million of our cells divide every second.  This cell division is the process we call organic life and may continue (usually briefly) after we are legally (brain) dead.

Other chemical mechanisms within the cell translate the genetic information stored in the DNA sequence to manufacture the proteins from which new cells are built and differentiate themselves, organising to become our various organs and to thus arrange themselves to form a human; and not a gorilla or a crocodile or a kola or a rose or a cabbage. The human genome project had now identified 32,185 human genes.

Accurate reproduction is very important to the viability of an organism.  Just as: 'WOLF' does not have the same meaning as 'FOWL' the location and order of sequence G-A-T-C within a particular DNA string (chromosome) will result in a different outcome to the sequence C-A-G-T .   And this difference will influence cell structure and purpose:   'The wolf eats the fowl' has a totally different meaning to: 'The fowl eats the wolf'.

This method of storing and reproducing instructions and data is twice as efficient as the binary method we presently use in electronic devices.  For example the binary processor in your computer or reading device requires each character in in each word in this sentence to be encoded in two bytes (each of 8 characters or bits).  In other words 16 ones and zeros are required for every character on this page (eg 'a' = 0000000001100001) and a similar number for each pixel in a simple colour image.  But DNA can encode the same information (sufficient for every unique character and symbol in every language in the world) in just eight characters.

There are a fraction over 3 billion characters in the human genome (3,079,843,747 base pairs).  In computer terms this is equivalent to about three quarters of a gigabyte of information storage. The same data is stored in the nucleus of each of our cells.  This is in nuclear DNA, before taking into account separate, but smaller, storage in each of the mitochondria (see below). 

A 'gig' isn't much you might say (less than $1's worth) but the actual data storage density is in excess of anything offered by our present electronic technology.  Cells are a lot smaller than the chip in a memory stick - there around a billion cells per cubic centimetre in hard tissue.

This also points to another reality.  Had not this replication chemistry been available, and the conditions for the reactions been just right, life could not have occurred in its earthly form. 

Life relying on another replication method that was say binary would be at a disadvantage and would have to use different replication mechanisms.  If there was a chemistry, at different temperatures and chemical concentrations, allowing say six base pairs it would be different again.  We and our cousins (the other animals, plants and other organisms) that are all descended from the original replicating cell (LUCA - see above) are here because the conditions on Earth were and are just right for our kind of life to prosper.

Elsewhere in the universe it may be different.


Gene Mapping

Genes are just patterns of chemical molecules that are held within the replicating DNA mechanism.  The way they are encoded onto DNA can be likened to any other mechanism for copying and recording data: a DVD or even a vinyl record or the memory in this computer.  As a result they can be altered or damaged from time to time and some of these variations are successfully copied into subsequent offspring.  If they are particularly advantageous to survival and reproduction these changes, or mutations, rapidly spread throughout the species, so that over tens of thousands of years, individuals successful in one environmental niche are so different from those successful in another that a new species has formed (followed by a new genus, family, order, and so on). 

This process of periodic differentiation has been likened to the branching of a tree but because of the activity of bacteria and viruses and residual DNA that may be reactivated as well as limited cross-species reproduction  (for example Humans and Neanderthal) it is no longer believed to be quite that simple.

DNA encodes the instructions for creating each cellular colony, defining each species, and each individual within a species. DNA changes over time in such away that each change is a development on previous generations. So it is possible to trace DNA ancestry back through generations of a particular species over time.  For example, DNA studies are increasingly shedding light on the questions around human origins. 

Most animals, including humans, carry two types of DNA.  Our main genome is carried by the chromosomes in the nucleus of each of our cells. This comes from both our parents. The secondary genome, mtDNA, is carried by bacteria-like organelles within each of our cells, that convert sugars for cell energy, called mitochondria. These are all cloned (reproduced by asexual division) from the mitochondria that were within the original egg cell provided by our mother.

Cells may contain from one mitochondrion to several thousand mitochondria depending on species and cell differentiation.  As a result this is the predominant DNA found in a cellular sample.

So our mtDNA comes only from our mother; in turn from her mother; and so on and mtDNA allows us to map the female ancestral line.  This original egg cell was fertilised by a sperm from our father (sperm do not contribute their mitochondria). Once fertilised, the egg cell then divided repeatedly, differentiating in accordance with the coding instructions in our DNA, into the many cells that form the cellular colony that became 'us'.

Males are differentiated from females by a Y chromosome in place of one X. So sons can only inherit this from their father (like their family name in our culture) and periodic mutations in the DNA of the Y chromosome allow the (actual) male ancestral line to be traced back.

As a result of this work we now know that humans on the planet are all descended from a single group that left Africa less than 70 thousand years ago. 

Recent DNA analysis shows that early humans sometimes interbred with the Neanderthal; a separate hominid subspecies that left Africa much earlier and settled in the Middle East and Europe over quarter of a million years ago.

It's amazing to think that we have only understood it within my lifetime. Now the ancient view that people grow from a seed, provided by their father, and gain the spark of life at 'conception' from a god is totally debunked. So throw away all those ancient texts.



Viruses have been around since life began but they are 'of life', they are not technically 'alive' because they cannot themselves reproduce. They are extremely small - about 70 microns in diametre - and until the invention of electron microscopes in the 1930's their existance had only been inferred. 

To create copies of themselves they need a host cell with the necessary reproductive mechanisms. Over the millennia viruses have evolved the necessary mechanisms to penetrate cells, much like spermatozoa, and inject their DNA or RNA and capture the host's replication mechanisms so that the infected cell begins manufacturing thousands of virion (virus particle) clones of the invader. These then capture other nearby cells in the host animal or plant; or in similar bacteria.  Huge numbers of infected cells are usually destroyed in the process, sometimes killing the plant or animal.


Coronavirus particles (yellow) on the surface of a dying cell (that produced them)
Niaid/National Institutes of Health/Science Photo Library (from 


But animals plants and bacteria have become familiar with this threat and have in turn evolved means of dealing with or living with viruses to the extent that some are exploited for the benefit of the host.

In turn viruses evolve new strategies to perpetuate their reproduction. Thus new viruses arise from time to time, sometimes jumping from one species to another when an opportunity arises.

Many animals, including humans, have an immune system that has a memory of harmful viruses and means of neutralising them. Thus, once the animal has been infected and survived, the chances of reinfection are reduced.  Vaccines work by presenting our immune system with a harmless sample that allows it to recognise a particular harmful virus.

Since I first wrote this article the World has suffered a new viral pandemic.  It is a novel corona virus for which we have no established immunity and there is no vaccine.  At the end of June 2020 the Covi-19 virus has already killed half a million people.

It is estimated that this virus will no longer find sufficient vulnerable hosts to spread further after infecting around 70% of the populations in which it is spreading.  It has a case fatality rate of just under 1%, that is, of those who catch it just under one in a hundred die.  

Quarantine restrictions are in place in many countries to protect relatively uninfected areas, with local measures to eliminate 'hot spots'.  But the majority of the world's population, in excess of five billion, are in countries in which it is presently spreading.

Unless a vaccine is available soon it seems inevitable that many millions more will be killed.  The economic consequences are also dire.





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