Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Weather and Health

It has long been recognised that the weather can affect our general mood and feelings of well-being. Cabin fever is a well-known psychological condition arising from an extended period of inclement weather that forces people to remain indoors. Symptoms include irritability, forgetfulness, excessive sleeping, and in extreme cases, paranoia.

Prolonged spells of hot weather are often associated with a spike in human mortality, particularly for the very young, the very old or the ill, and it is believed that so called heat waves are responsible for more human deaths than the more spectacular weather events such as hurricanes, tornados and gales. 

Washington citizens cool off in a fountain during the heat wave of 2010.
Image from Wikipedia Commons - click to enlarge

Increases in domestic violence also appear to cluster during hot spells, with irritability rising during these times. Increased consumption of alcohol may also be a factor here.

But it is also suspected that weather can influence our general health in a variety of other ways and this has proven a fascinating area of research since the mid nineteenth century.

An academic study was undertaken soon after the American Civil War by the eminent Philadelphian physician Dr. S. W. Mitchell who was interested in the effect of weather on war wounds and limb amputations. He observed that falling barometric pressure, together with rising temperature and humidity, frequently produced neuralgic pains in amputees.

Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell, c 1875
Image from Wikipedia Commons - click to enlarge

This observation was reinforced some 70 years later in an experiment performed by a German meteorologist Otto Hoflich. He correlated the pains experienced by a World War II soldier, Claus Thurkow, with the prevailing weather situation. Thurkow had lost his right arm during the War, and under instructions from Hoflich, kept a detailed diary on the dates and times when he experienced pain in the stump of his arm. The results were similar to Mitchell's conclusions regarding Civil War veterans.

It is believed that other conditions producing pain in the various joints of the human body, such as arthritis and gout, may also be weather sensitive, perhaps responding to changes in barometric pressure, temperature and humidity levels.

An acute case of rheumatoid arthritis
Image from Wikipedia Commons - click to enlarge

Perhaps the most surprising weather correlations that have been observed concern the beginning and cessation of life itself. Statistical correlations between the weather and coronary thrombosis (heart attack) have been demonstrated, usually involving conditions experienced with the approach of a cold front. Obviously weather is not the primary cause but perhaps the falling barometric pressure associated with an approaching cold front can trigger the onset of an attack in a person whose heart is critically poised because of disease.

Paradoxically, similar weather conditions appear to also precipitate the beginning of life with a statistically relevant correlation appearing between falling barometric pressure and the onset of spontaneous labour in childbirth. 

The onset of spontaneous labour in childbirth could be triggered by weather conditions.
Image from Wikipedia Commons - click to enlarge

Although the actual mechanisms involved in these situations are not understood, the statistics point to connections that demonstrate weather affects us in a whole variety of indirect ways. 

Perhaps in addition to the usual information, weather forecasts of the future will contain neuralgia advices, arthritis alerts and gynaecological warnings. 

The Australian Weather Book, Edition 3, Keith Colls and Dick Whitaker, New Holland, 2012

Weather, Climate and You, H. E. Landsberg, Weatherwise, Vol 39, Issue 5, 1986

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Young Griffo - Zephyr of the Ring

One of Australia’s earliest but least known world champions was the extraordinary Albert Griffiths, popularly known at the time as “Young Griffo”.

He was born in Millers Point, in Sydney’s Rocks district in 1871, and he lived and grew up in the immediate area. The Rocks in those days was not the pleasant historical locale so enjoyed by tourists today, but was a rough and dangerous neighbourhood, with general crime and street muggings commonplace, particularly after dark.

"The Rocks" in Sydney during the 1880's. A dangerous place to be after dark. 
Courtesy of the Council of the City of Sydney - click to enlarge

The notorious “Rocks Push”, a dangerous larrikin gang, ruled the streets by night, and fought with other local gangs such as the Argyle Cut Push, the Forty Thieves and the Straw Hat Push. These gangs had no compunction in knocking a passer by down and then “putting the boot in”, often seriously injuring or even killing the victim.

Henry Lawson, in his classic poem "The Captain of the Push"described something of the after-dark environment of "the Rocks" late in the 19th Century:

As the night was falling slowly down on city, town and bush, 
From a slum in Jones's Alley sloped the Captain of the Push; 
And he scowled towards the North, and he scowled towards the South, 
As he hooked his little finger in the corners of his mouth. 
Then his whistle, loud and shrill, woke the echoes of the `Rocks', 
And a dozen ghouls came sloping round the corners of the blocks. 

There was nought to rouse their anger; yet the oath that each one swore 
Seemed less fit for publication than the one that went before. 
For they spoke the gutter language with the easy flow that comes 
Only to the men whose childhood knew the brothels and the slums. 
Then they spat in turns, and halted; and the one that came behind, 
Spitting fiercely on the pavement, called on Heaven to strike him blind. 

It was in this rough and dangerous environment that Young Griffo grew up. As a youth he earned some money as a paper boy working the Rocks area, and to be successful he had to not only sell newspapers, but to defend his turf against bigger and older boys trying to muscle in on his corner. Despite his small height - only about five feet four - he was nuggety and powerful, and possessed amazing reflexes that gave him the ability to pick a fly out of the air without injuring it. The other older and larger boys learned to leave him alone or risk copping a beating.

It is not known whether he regularly attended school – being from the wrong side of the tracks in 1870’s Sydney probably meant not, and he was recorded as being completely illiterate and unable to count. 

He was eventually talked into becoming a prize fighter, and with some coaching, began to improve rapidly. He turned professional in 1886, and soon strung together an impressive series of wins in the featherweight division. He became Australian featherweight champion in 1888, and then in 1890, won the world championship when he beat titleholder Bill Murphy at the Sydney Amateur Gymnastic Club.

Young Griffo, circa 1888. Image from Wikipedia Commons - click to enlarge.

He then decided to head for the big money in the United States, finally arriving there in 1893, and began an unforgettable career there that would have many highs and lows. During this time he fought nearly all of the greats of his division and piled up an incredible record. Many of his fights were with men much heavier than himself, but he still won the vast majority of these.

His style in the ring fascinated the Americans. Although lacking a knockout punch he was a defensive genius and in an article in the Tacoma Daily News, later written in 1916, he was described thus:

“Not known as much of a puncher, but his skill was uncanny. He had wonderful headwork, almost impenetrable defence, dazzling feints, and rapid two-handed methods of attack. The cleverest boxers and hardest punchers were made to look ridiculous when exchanging swats with him.”

He amassed considerable prize money during this time, but his inability to count meant that he was short changed on occasion, with unscrupulous promoters giving him less than his entitlement. He was also generous and would often "shout the bar" after a win, going through his prize money in quick time.

And it was his drinking that was destined to later bring him down. He always preferred alcohol to training, and American whiskey proved to be a wonderful attraction. He began drinking heavily, and several of his important fights were performed when he was half drunk, but mostly he was still able to win despite his self imposed handicap.

Albert Griffiths c 1893
Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia

As Demon Drink gradually took control he found himself increasingly in trouble with the law for being drunk and disorderly, and was locked up on several occasions.

After his last fight in 1904, and with his main income stream at an end, he became virtually destitute and took to begging on the steps of the Rialto Theatre, in New Yorks Time Square. He would also raise money in saloons by standing on a handkerchief and betting drinkers that they could not hit him even though he would not move his feet from the handkerchief. But as the years passed he was hit more often.

Times Square in 1921 - a massive crowd follows the progress of the Jack Dempsey - Georges Carpentier  bout. Young Griffo may well have been present on this day. Image from Wikipedia Commons - click to enlarge

Young Griffo finally died in New York in 1927, at the age of fifty six, with the well known boxing promoter Tex Rickard generously paying for his funeral. Noted boxers from the past were in attendance, including the former heavy weight champion “Gentleman Jim” Corbett, who remarked as the coffin was carried out “ There he is boys, the Zephyr of all ring time. The only one that ever hit him was the Grim Reaper”. He was buried in the Bronx on that day.

The record he left behind was incredible. He lost just nine times in 232 fights, but with many of his bouts recorded as a “no contest”. However during this era a fight would be declared a “no contest” if the opponent was not knocked out, and in many of these Griffo was well ahead on points.

Albert Griffiths c 1926 - shortly before his death.
Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia

He was also a pioneer of he the practice, later made famous by the great Muhammad Ali, of nominating the number of rounds the fight would last before he emerged the victor.

Griffo was never defeated for either the world or Australian featherweight title.

In 1928 the founder of Ring Magazine, Nat Fleisher, wrote a book called “Young Griffo: the will o’wisp of the Roped Square” in which he noted that “Griffo was the greatest ever boxer I have seen in over fifty years of watching fights and fighters. His abilities to feint, move his head and not get hit were unparalleled”.

Fleischer also described Griffo as “the Shakespeare and Napoleon of his profession”, and “the fastest thinking, brainless boxer in the history of pugilism”. Fleischer ranked Griffo as number 8 in the all time featherweight division.

Mike Casey, the Boxing Journalist and Historian, writing for “East Side Boxing”, remarked that “Griffo seemed to drop straight out of some fistic heaven, and perhaps the gods were balancing the scales when they took him back at the age of fifty six. The mind boggles at what he could have achieved if he had been blessed with the mental toughness and the total commitment of a Julio Cesar Chavez or a Marco Antonio Barrera”.

Young Griffo was posthumously inducted into the Ring Boxing Hall of Fame in 1954, the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1991 and the Australian National Boxing Hall of Fame in 2003. His citation for the International Boxing Hall of Fame can be read here:

(Note that this citation gives his date of birth as 1869, whereas most other sources quote 1871)

In an era when many bronze statues are sculpted for a variety of cricket and football stars from the past it would, I think, be a fitting tribute to erect one for Albert Griffiths, standing on a corner or in a park somewhere down in the Rocks. As Australia's first ever world boxing champion and arguably one of our greatest ever fighters, made all the more remarkable by his battle up through poverty and lack of education to get there, he deserves some formal recognition from our city fathers.

And surely a movie awaits for an interested producer.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Flight without Engines

Nearly all of us are used to flying around the country, and indeed the world, in the amazing modern aircraft that are such triumphs of engineering and with the modern jet engine making it all possible. 

But there is another stream of engineering considerably older, that achieves flight without the use of engines, and this has produced a number of fascinating machines throughout the years.

In ancient times many attempts at flight were made using various contraptions with men leaping from cliffs using frantically flapping wings or rudimentary gliders, with the results often being fatal.

Early attempt at flight using eagles wings – these experiments often ended in disaster. Image from Wikipedia Commons – click to enlarge.

However there are existing reports that men flew in primitive gliders as long ago as the 11th century, with the English Benedictine Monk Eilmer reported as having glided for some 200 metres in his winged machine in about 1005. 

But the first properly documented human ascent using a machine was a tethered hot air balloon that lifted Etienne Montgolfier from the ground at Faubourg Saint Antoine, in France, on October 17th 1783. 

Reproduction of the Montgolfier balloon that produced the first successful human ascent in 1783. Image from Wikipedia Commons - click to enlarge.

This was the forerunner of the engineless hot air balloons that are still used up to the present day, particularly for tourist joy riding.

Kites, which are a form of tethered aircraft, were also used to lift people from the ground, possibly in quite ancient times. 

The Australian engineer, Lawrence Hargrave, lifted himself some 5 metres from the ground at Stanwell Park in NSW in 1894 using a train of 6 box kites acting in tandem. 

Hargrave used a chain of box kites to lift himself off the ground at Stanwell Park in 1894. Image from Wikipedia Commons – click to enlarge.

In 1866, the Polish carpenter Jan Wnek built and piloted a glider that was launched from the top of a local church tower. He successfully flew into the valley below on several occasions and this was the forerunner of ever more sophisticated aircraft that are now widely used as a popular type of recreation. As far as aerodynamics is concerned, the modern glider is the ultimate in flying without engines.

A modern high performance glider constructed of fibreglass. Image form Wikipedia Commons - click to enlarge.

Particularly fascinating examples of engineless flying machines arose from a prize offered to the first individual who could fly a figure eight course of 1 mile (1.6 km) powered entirely by human means. This prize, of $100,000, was finally won by the American engineer Paul Macready who designed the Gossamer Condor in 1977, using a pedal powered configuration. 

Another more substantial challenge was proposed – to design and construct the first human powered aircraft to cross the English Channel, and this incredible feat was also achieved by a Macready designed machine, the Gossamer Albatross in 1979.

This pedal powered aircraft crossed the Channel in just under 3 hours at an average altitude of 1.5 m (5 feet). For amazing footage of this historic event see

The Gossamer Albatross in flight, 1979. Image from Wikipedia Commons – click to enlarge.

The spectacular evolution of the so-called “hang glider” has also produced a fascinating variant of engineless flight. One of the main pioneers of hang gliding was Otto Lilienthal, a German aviation pioneer who succeeded in producing and flying a hang glider back in the 1890’s. Tragically he was later killed when his glider stalled in flight and he fell to his death.

Otto Lilienthal in flight from a hill - circa 1890.
Image from Wikipedia Commons - click to enlarge.

The modern hang glider, the result of continuous developments of Lilienthal’s work over the last 100 years, incorporates increased knowledge of avionics and evolving hi tech materials and has become a fabulous engineless flying machine.

It consists of a rigid aluminium frame upon which is mounted a flexible fabric wing and harness that holds the pilot.

It can be foot launched, simply by jumping off an elevation, or launched by towing behind a winch or boat. Depending on the skill of the pilot, and the prevailing conditions, modern hang gliders can soar for prolonged periods of time, reach heights above 5000 metres and travel for hundreds of kilometres across country.

A high performance hang glider in flight. Image from Wikipedia Commons – click to enlarge.

A close relation to the hang glider is the paraglider – a type of hybrid cross between a paraglider and parachute. Unlike the hang glider, this aircraft has no rigid primary structure but consists of a flexible fabric wing to which a harness is attached that supports the pilot. This aircraft is normally foot launched and extended flights over hundreds of kilometres at altitudes of several thousand metres are routinely attained through skilful use of atmospheric conditions.

A paraglider high above the ground. Image from Wikipedia Commons – click to enlarge.

Over the last 30 years or so there has been a proliferation of engineless flight vehicles, all made possible by increased knowledge of aerodynamics and the invention of lighter and stronger materials.

An interesting speculation concerns the antiquity of engineless aircraft. The balloonist Julian Nott raised the possibility that hot air balloons could have been by the Peruvian Nazca people of 1500 years ago to help them design their large ground motifs that depict spiders, monkeys, fish, sharks and various lines, some of which are plainly visible from space.

The Nazca ground motif depicting a monkey – image from Wikipedia Commons – click to enlarge.

As mentioned above, primitive gliders could have been in use in the 11th century and kites that lifted people off the ground were within range of the technology of the ancient Chinese. Also the use of bamboo and silk was well known to the Chinese of ancient times. Could a hang glider be built from these materials? Both are light and strong and it raises the possibility that devices such as these could have been built long ago but not recorded.

Therefore, engineless flight in its various forms could theoretically have been performed long before we currently understand and this is an area of speculation being investigated by various historians.

One of the most extraordinary forms of engineless flight was developed in the 1990's called a wingsuit. This consists of fabric stretched between the arms and legs to create a wing like structure. The wearer leaps off a cliff and is able to glide at high speed for considerable distances before deploying a parachute for landing.

Two wingsuit fliers in action
image from Wikipedia Commons – click to enlarge.

Some truly incredible footage was shot by Jeb Corliss carrying a camera during his wingsuit flight showing the high speeds achieved during flights of this nature. See it here

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Most Dangerous Animal

I still have a copy of a great book I first read many years ago, called “Hunter”, by Mr. J.A Hunter, Game Warden of Kenya between 1923 and 1949.

In this he describes his unique experiences with African wildlife during which time he was required to control aggressive animals that were threatening the local populations. Later in his career Hunter accompanied wild life photographers as a sort of “armed guard”, in case an animal charged the cameraman.

In his job as Game Warden Hunter shot and killed many African animals, but in the later years of his life he became heavily in favour of animal protection and his book “Hunter” describes part of his journey from shooter to conservationist.

During his 25 years in the African bush, Hunter assembled an extensive knowledge of African animals, particularly those large enough to be dangerous to humans, and provided his opinion on which are the most dangerous. The results are a little surprising.

Hunter rated the big five African land animals – the elephant, rhinoceros, buffalo, lion and leopard in order of their danger to humans, taking into account their temperament, physical abilities and likelihood of being stopped if charging. He did not include the crocodile or hippopotamus because these are semi aquatic and although highly dangerous, were not classed as land animals. 

Here is his rating, from least to most dangerous, taking all these factors into account.

The elephant was rated as the least dangerous. Because of its superior intelligence, the animal normally tries to avoid contact with humans, but when charging presents a large and easy to hit target for a human. However on occasion, if aware of being followed by a hunter, the beast will double back in a semi circle and wait motionless and in complete silence by the trail, waiting for the human to pass. A sudden charge from this position can produce terrible results. 

The African elephant: intelligent, powerful and on occasion, highly dangerous. Image from Wikipedia commons - click to enlarge.

The rhino was next on the list. Extremely unpredictable, the rhino will charge with little or no provocation, but like the elephant is relatively easy to hit with a rifle because of its bulk. A rhinos charge is usually one way, and it will not normally turn back for a second attempt at goring his victim.

The rhinoceros - a massive and aggressive tank like creature.  Image from Wikipedia commons - click to enlarge.

Then came the buffalo – classed by many as the most dangerous of all African land animals but not by Hunter. He noted that this beast is certainly extremely dangerous to humans, and is capable of exhibiting highly aggressive and unpredictable behaviour. It will charge without warning and if successful in knocking his target down, will, unlike the rhino, return to gore and trample the victim. Hunter also noted that a buffalo has all his basic senses highly developed. “A buffalo can see, hear and scent equally well. A terrible combination”. The buffalo will on occasion, like the elephant, double back and wait silently in the bush for the following hunter to pass by and then charge explosively from point blank range.

The African buffalo - huge, aggressive and unpredictable. 
Image from Wikipedia commons - click to enlarge. 

However, as with the rhino, the buffalo presents a large target that can usually be stopped with a well-aimed gunshot.

Hunter then discussed what he considered the two most dangerous animals of the big five. 

He rated the lion as the second most dangerous land animal in Africa. This big cat can charge a human at great speed, often from positions close by where his presence has been carefully concealed by camouflage, absolute stillness and silence. His teeth and large claws are devastating weapons and it presents a considerably smaller target than an elephant, rhino of buffalo.
Strangely a lion can be sometimes chased from a kill in the wild but Hunter noted that it would usually fight to the death to defend the kill of domestic livestock.

The African lion - a fast and deadly member of the big cat family. 
Image from Wikipedia commons - click to enlarge.

Only one animal, in Hunters view, is more dangerous, and this is, perhaps surprisingly, the leopard. Although much smaller than a lion, this cat is cunning and ruthless, and will attack a human without hesitation should the need arise. Its comparatively smaller size by no means reduces its danger to humans, with its large fangs and claws, coupled with a flashpoint disposition, lightning reflexes and complete lack of fear of humans providing a lethal combination. Its smaller size and rocket speed attacks make it extremely difficult to stop with a rifle, and often the leopard is upon the human before any weapon can be used.

In addition, leopard’s claws are often infected from contact with putrid meat and will more often than not produce infected wounds in a human. Leopards also have a great attraction for dogs and will readily risk contacts with humans in order to grab and carry away a domestic dog.

Public enemy numer one - the fast and cunning leopard. 
Image from Wikipedia commons - click to enlarge.

The leopard is a master at concealment and its mottled fur provides near perfect camouflage in the dappled light of a bush environment. And the fact that it is adept at climbing trees, means that unlike lions, it can attack from above, greatly increasing the problems for a following human.

Hunter concluded “ All in all I know of no beast that I would less wish to hunt in cover than the fast, savage, cunning leopard”.

For a terrible example of how much damage a single leopard can do to several humans, check out

The big five beasts referred to above were heavily hunted, in some cases almost to extinction, during the first half of the twentieth century, but are now widely protected. As Hunter remarked “Such is the strange way that man works – first he virtually destroys a species, and then does everything in his power to restore it”.

Reference: “Hunter”, by J. A. Hunter, Hamish Hamilton, London, 1952