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Saturday, April 29, 2017

"Gunner Billy," Naval VC

Book available from the NMRNZN
One century ago, New Zealand's only naval Victoria Cross was awarded to a lad who could have easily featured in a novel by Douglas Reeman.

As today's DomPost of Wellington reveals in a full-page feature today, his story was one of high seas adventure.

And, what's more, it was under sail.  William "Gunner Billy" Sanders was in command of a schooner, HMS Prize, which was sailing in disguise.

Born in Auckland, in 1883, Billy left school at the age of 15 to work as a mercer's clerk, but sneaked off in his lunch hours to explore the shipping in Auckland Harbour.  In 1899 he left the dusty confines of the store to become the cabin boy of the coastal steamer Kapanui, and then, three years later, shipped on a series of government steamers.  And from there he went into sail, in the busy trans-Tasman timber trade.

When the Great War broke out, he volunteered for the Royal Navy but for some unknown and incomprehensible reason was turned down.  Persistence paid off, culminating in his command of the schooner Prize -- which was a "Q ship," meaning that the vessel was disguised as an ordinary trader, with cloaked weapons, designed to draw unsuspecting Germans into the field of fire.

On April 30, 1917, off the coast of Ireland, the lookouts on Prize raised the German U-boat U-93, which was on the way back to Germany after completing its mission.  And the German commander fell into the trap -- opening fire on what he thought was a helpless sailing ship.

With marvelous cool-headedness, Billy instructed his crew to hold fire until the U-boat was in range of their guns -- a trial that they all withstood for twenty long minutes.  Then, when the submarine was just a football field length away, at last they returned fire.

The Prize limped away, badly damaged, with Billy convinced that he had put an end to the U-boat.  Unfortunately, he was wrong.  The submarine made it back, the commander reported the incident, and Billy now had the equivalent of a price upon his head.

On August 13, 1917, the Prize was back on patrol -- to be ambushed by U-48, which immediately fired a torpedo.  There were no survivors of the inferno.  Billy was just 34 years old.

Friday, April 28, 2017

The Money Ship

The Money ShipJoan Druett has just released, The Money Ship. It is available worldwide  in paperback and for kindle download.
Money ships were wrecks of treasure-galleons belched up from the bottom of the sea after tremendous storms, yielding doubloons and all kinds of precious treasure ... gold bars and bullion, chests of brilliant gems.
Oriental adventurer Captain Rochester spun an entrancing tale to Jerusha, seafaring daughter of Captain Michael Gardiner — a story of a money ship, hidden in the turquoise waters of the South China Sea, which was nothing less than the lost trove of the pirate Hochman. As Jerusha was to find, though, the clues that pointed the way to fabled riches were strange indeed — a haunted islet on an estuary in Borneo, an obelisk with a carving of a rampant dragon, a legend of kings and native priests at war, and of magically triggered tempests that swept warriors upriver. And even if the clues were solved, the route to riches was tortuous, involving treachery, adultery, murder, labyrinthine Malayan politics ... and, ultimately, Jerusha’s own arranged marriage.
Joan Druett, bestselling author of many award-winning books, including Island of the Lost, Tupaia, She Captains, and the Wiki Coffin mystery series, paints an epic drama of fortune-hunting in the South China Sea during the first two decades of the nineteenth century. The Money Ship is a fast-moving novel on a sprawling canvas that spans three oceans and a myriad of exotic ports. As the pages turn, Jerusha voyages from the smuggling and fishing port of Lewes, Sussex to Boston in its glittering heyday, then back to newly settled Singapore, until her quest for love and pirate treasure comes to a spine-chilling climax in the benighted lands of Borneo.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Icebergs threatening commerce by sea

From Old Salt Blog

Hundreds of icebergs have drifted into major shipping lanes off Newfoundland, forcing ships to go far out of their way to steer clear of the massive ice mountains.
“It’s the only place in the world where icebergs intersect in a major shipping lane like that,” Gabrielle McGrath, commander of the United States Coast Guard International Ice Patrol, told the from her office in New London, Conn. “The ships are having to go out of their way to get around that iceberg limit … so it’s taking them a lot longer to get across the Atlantic.”
McGrath said 616 icebergs have already moved into the North Atlantic lanes so far this season, compared to 687 last year by the late-September season’s end. The influx started in late March, she said.
At the same time, an iceberg which has grounded in Newfoundland’s Iceberg Alley near the town of Ferryland, about an hour south of St. John’s, has become an instant tourist attraction, attracting thousands to see the towering blocks of ice. 

It's official -- neo-liberalism is a failure

From RNZ

Jim Bolger, the New Zealand Prime Minister who ran with the privatization movement, now deeply regrets his actions.  New Zealand has fared badly, he says in Guyon Espiner’s excellent RNZ series The 9th Floor, which consists of interviews with five ex NZ PMs: Geoffrey Palmer, Mike Moore, Jim Bolger, Jenny Shipley, Helen Clark.

Bolger says neoliberal economic policies have absolutely failed. It’s not uncommon to hear that now; even the IMF says so. But to hear it from a former National Prime Minister who pursued privatisation, labour market deregulation, welfare cuts and tax reductions – well, that’s pretty interesting.
“They have failed to produce economic growth and what growth there has been has gone to the few at the top,” Bolger says, not of his own policies specifically but of neoliberalism the world over. He laments the levels of inequality and concludes “that model needs to change.”

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Russian hackers targeting French election

From the New York Times

History is repeating itself.   And Russia is determined to weaken Europe, NATO, and America, for reasons that can be guessed but are unrevealed.

Macron, opponent of Marine Le Pen, the far right candidate for the French presidency, is being targeted by Russian hackers.  As the newspaper describes:

The campaign of the French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron has been targeted by what appear to be the same Russian operatives responsible for hacks of Democratic campaign officials before last year’s American presidential election, a cybersecurity firm warns in a new report.
The report has heightened concerns that Russia may turn its playbook on France in an effort to harm Mr. Macron’s candidacy and bolster that of Mr. Macron’s rival, the National Front leader Marine Le Pen, in the final weeks of the French presidential campaign.
Security researchers at the cybersecurity firm, Trend Micro, said that on March 15 they spotted a hacking group they believe to be a Russian intelligence unit turn its weapons on Mr. Macron’s campaign — sending emails to campaign officials and others with links to fake websites designed to bait them into turning over passwords.
The group began registering several decoy internet addresses last month and as recently as April 15, naming one and another to mimic the name of Mr. Macron’s political party, En Marche.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Diagnosing a psychopath

Some years ago, I wrote a book about a whaling captain who was a serial killer.  

It began with stumbling over a semi-literate journal in very bad shape, which had been written by the cooper of the whaleship Sharon.  It was not easy reading, being a rough daybook, revealing little despite the daily entries.  But then, suddenly, I was reading a grueling description of the young black steward being beaten to death.  By the captain.  While the rest of the crew stood by and watched.

It led to a great deal of research, involving a lot of travel and asking a lot of questions that I had never expected to be asking.  The plot thickened when I found logs of previous voyages with the same captain -- voyages in which there were unexplained deaths.  So, was this captain a serial killer?  And, if so, was he a psychopath?

How can you tell if a man or a woman is psychopathic?  I found a book called Without Conscience, written by the psychologist, Robert Hare, which contained a fascinating checklist.  

The list in full is: glibness and superficial charm, grandiose sense of self-worth, pathological lying, cunning/manipulative, lack of remorse, emotional shallowness, callousness and lack of empathy, unwillingness to accept responsibility for actions, a tendency to boredom, a parasitic lifestyle, a lack of realistic long-term goals, impulsivity, irresponsibility, lack of behavioural control, behavioural problems in early life, juvenile delinquency, criminal versatility, a history of "revocation of conditional release" (ie broken parole), multiple marriages, and promiscuous sexual behaviour.

The scary part is that most people you know display one or two of these characteristics.

Interestingly, a lot of this is echoed in an article by Tom Chivers in the New Zealand Herald, called Born to Kill?  An interview with Robert Hare reveals that he is still working away at the problem.

"Real" psychopaths score a lot more of the list, he says.

A pure, prototypical psychopath would score 40. A score of 30 or more qualifies for a diagnosis of psychopathy.
Hare says: "A friend of mine, a psychiatrist, once said: 'Bob, when I meet someone who scores 35 or 36, I know these people really are different.'
The ones we consider to be alien are the ones at the upper end."
Just in case your mind is wandering in the same direction as mine, this discussion in the newsletter of the Secular Buddhist Association will be of interest.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Life-saving medieval medicine

A hero of mine is John Woodall, who featured boldly in my story about sea surgeons on whaleships, Rough Medicine.

Born about 1570, Woodall was apprenticed to a London barber-surgeon at about the age of 16, and served in Normandy during one of the interminable wars of the time. In 1599, having been inured by then to the sight of blood and dismembered limbs, he returned to London to become a member of the Company of Barber-Surgeons, earning the right to have a red-and-white striped pole (symbolizing blood and bandages) outside his establishment.  He went to the Netherlands after that, to learn chemistry by working with an apothecary-alchemist. His adventurous and rather gory career carried him on through a plague and a voyage in the tropics, to an appointment as the Surgeon-General of the East India Company.

It was a job he held down for thirty years, and is important because (a) he was the first man to devise and stock a medical chest for surgeons at sea and (b) because he wrote the first manual in history for seafaring medics, The Surgions Mate, which was first published in 1617.

It is an odd and intriguing volume, remarkable for its kindly attitude to ailing seamen, and its very strange recipes.  It's impossible not to wince at the prospect of being dosed, for instance, with "Worme-wood Water" (absinthe, a poison), which he considered "gratefull to the stomacke," in that it "consumeth and breaketh winde mightily, killeth the wormes"  -- but, according to a marvellous paper in The Smithsonian, medieval medicine such as practised by Woodall and his contemporaries could provide a solution to modern antibiotic-resistant bugs.

"Medieval medical books could hold the recipe for new antibiotics," writes Erin Connolly.  As she goes on to say, she is "part of the Ancientbiotics team, a group of medievalists, microbiologists, medicinal chemists, parasitologists, pharmacists and data scientists from multiple universities and countries. We believe that answers to the antibiotic crisis could be found in medical history. With the aid of modern technologies, we hope to unravel how premodern physicians treated infection and whether their cures really worked.

"To that end, we are compiling a database of medieval medical recipes. By revealing patterns in medieval medical practice, our database could inform future laboratory research into the materials used to treat infection in the past. To our knowledge, this is the first attempt to create a medieval medicines database in this manner and for this purpose."

A recipe for an eyesalve from ‘Bald’s Leechbook.’ © The British Library Board (Royal MS 12 D xvii)

An exciting discovery was a recipe for a salve for a stye in the eye.  As Connolly describes, "In 2015, our team published a pilot study on a 1,000-year old recipe called Bald’s eyesalve from “Bald’s Leechbook,” an Old English medical text. The eyesalve was to be used against a “wen,” which may be translated as a sty, or an infection of the eyelash follicle.

"A common cause of modern styes is the bacterium Staphylococcus aureus. Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (or MRSA) is resistant to many current antibiotics. Staph and MRSA infections are responsible for a variety of severe and chronic infections, including wound infections, sepsis and pneumonia.

"Bald’s eyesalve contains wine, garlic, an Allium species (such as leek or onion) and oxgall. The recipe states that, after the ingredients have been mixed together, they must stand in a brass vessel for nine nights before use.

"In our study, this recipe turned out to be a potent antistaphylococcal agent, which repeatedly killed established S. aureus biofilms – a sticky matrix of bacteria adhered to a surface – in an in vitro infection model. It also killed MRSA in mouse chronic wound models."

Interestingly, the method laid out in the Leechbook had to be followed exactly.  It seems that though we now deride those old practitioners for their reliance on bloodletting and balancing the "humors,"  they often did know what they were doing -- and the lore of the old barber-surgeons, apothecaries and alchemists of the medieval past is still of value today.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Secret tomb of five archbishops

From The Smithsonian
The Church of England doesn’t have a pope, but it does have an Archbishop of Canterbury.

Historically, the Archbishop has wielded lots of power, so you’d think historians would know where every one was buried.  But that’s not exactly true—as the BBC reports a recent discovery uncovered five buried archbishops.

The remains of five Archbishops of Canterbury were found in a hidden crypt beneath St. Mary-at-Lambeth, a medieval church in London. The structure is located next to Lambeth Palace, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s official residence for nearly eight centuries. While the church hasn’t been used for religious worship since the 1970s, but it once was noteworthy not just because of its famous location, but because of the rich history within.

Part of that history was uncovered by builders busy doing a restoration project on the church. They were lifting flagstones from the ground when they uncovered a hidden tomb. A glimpse of an archbishop’s red and gold miter—the traditional headcovering of a bishop—greeted the builders, the BBC reports. When they went inside, they found a stack of coffins, many with nameplates that point to famous residents.

Among the dead uncovered are five Archbishops of Canterbury, including Richard Bancroft, who played a role in the creation of the renowned King James Bible. Bancroft violently objected to the translation of the bible—the third and most famous English translation in existence. But later on, he ended up overseeing the entire contentious project, and was the man who laid down the guidelines.

As The Smithsonian described in a previous issue --

Forty-seven translators and scholars produced the King James Bible, which was first published in 1611. The project dates back to 1604, when King James I decided a new version could help consolidate political power. A popular Puritan bible had downplayed the divine right of kings — greatly offending James — and James manipulated different Christian sects until they agreed to produce a different translation.

The result became an incredible, long-lasting success. The King James Bible has influenced language, literature and culture for more than 400 years.

Wry commentary on NZ politics

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Shipwrecks and Lost Barbeques in the Marlborough Sounds

From Radio NZ news

Story by Tracy Neal

 Mapping the seafloor in Marlborough has thrown up one or two surprises, not least the discovery that it has shifted slightly since the Kaikōura earthquake, Land Information New Zealand (LINZ) says.

Its national hydrographer Adam Greenland said they have also found a shipwreck in shallower waters than first thought, and a selection of barbecues, fridges and bottles most likely tossed overboard from boats.

And Mr Greenland said shore-based observations showed a minor horizontal shift in the land due to November's magnitude-7.8 earthquake.

"In terms of the seabed and the survey we're carrying out we have seen some minor changes but we're still analysing that data, however it's nothing as extreme as in Kaikōura," Mr Greenland said.

The project uses multibeam echosounder technology from a ship and is a joint effort between LINZ and the Marlborough District Council. Sonar readings were used to create 3D digital maps and shipping charts to show the land formation of the seabed and the marine ecosystem.

The $1.5 million project began last year, and will soon finish with a final report to be released next year.

The focus was 43 hectares of seafloor in the Queen Charlotte Sound and in Tory Channel. Mr Greenland said the aim was to update navigation charts especially as shipping and cruise liner operations were expected to increase. The research would also provide data for the council to help it manage the area's marine wildlife.

LINZ said the areas being mapped were identified as a national priority for updating navigation information as they were last charted about 70 years ago.

"It's really looking at the future, for shipping and cruise tourism, and the need for good charts for the (Captain James) Cook anniversary celebrations," Mr Greenland said.

Planning is now underway for an event in three year's time, to mark the 250th anniversary of Captain Cook sailing into Ship Cove, in the Queen Charlotte Sound.

Jetty at Ship Cove -- the entry to the Cook Memorial