Ever feel like the night life in your city just isn’t cutting it?

Check out my review of Alcatraz+ER, a science-themed Tokyo pub, originally published in Cosmos magazine. I dare you to read it and not secretly wish you could be there. I still have nightmares…

Alcatraz science barPub crawl – Alcatraz meets E.R.
Ever felt it might be easier to ingest your drinks by drip? Maybe you’d prefer alcohol in a capsure? By test-tube? Perhaps a giant syringe is more to your liking? Or you might skip all these niceties and drink straight from the beer bedpan. The only hard-to-find drinking vessel at Alcatraz+ER is a glass.

One of Tokyo’s kookiest and most fashionable bars, Alcatraz+ER is a mish-mash of emergency room, prison and morgue. Just the place for fine dining and a cold one, especially if you don’t mind sharing your space with preserved body parts, blood spatters and X-rays (spot the axe).

Looking from the street you’d never know. But step out of the lift on the second floor of this nondescript building, and things quickly become a little disconcerting.

For a start, there are no people. No reception. Not even any noise. The silent walls are decorated with mugshots and chemistry equipment. At the far end of the otherwise empty room is a barred cabinet holding four buttons: “Press your blood type,” the sign commands. For those who reach through the rusty bars to hit a button, there’s no turning back.

The doors that slide open reveal a cacophony of shrieks, clangings, techno music and reruns of Silence of the Lambs. A nurse in a miniskirt appears with handcuffs and a giant syringe. She cuffs you, then leads you through a maze of dimly lit corridors (the giant floors of which occasionally reveal buried bodies) to the table of your choice.

Less adventurous diners may choose to be locked in a concrete cell and fed through iron bars at a stainless-steel table. Braver punters, unphased by bloodstains and second-hand surgical instruments, can opt to dine in a dimly lit operating theatre. On a first date? Skip those awkward moments when you’re alone as a couple by sharing a cell-for-three with a hunchback or a bloodied mummy.

And just as you start to feel comfortable using tweezers to select tasty morsels from a preserving jar, or sipping from the pot marked ‘Biohazard,’ there’s a blood-curdling scream closely followed by sirens. The place goes pitch black.

If you’re lucky, an ultraviolet glow will light the chaos before the escaped lunatic murderer finds your cell. Wearing striped prison garb with hurricane hair, he sprints through the corridors in an attempt to evade the armed guards who will eventually wrestle him to the floor. Sedation with a giant hypodermic quickly follows, he’s led away, and you’re free to get on with your drinks. Tokyo sure knows how to party.


WIll they still need us? Will they still feed us?

Will they still need us? Will they still feed us?

Laurie Oakes spoke tonight at Curtin University on political journalism in the digital age. It was terrific.

I’ve never identified as a journalist (I’m a writer), so I don’t suffer from the same issues that besiege modern journalists, but I can look around and see the world is changing, and the job of a professional writer with it.

DIY political journalism

Politicians with a story to tell need no longer rely on town criers, carrier pigeons or traditional media.

Oakes pointed to the White House and its 20-something-strong team of PR people, all cranking out material freely available on social networks and picked up by mainstream media to fill the gaps between ads.

The middle-man, otherwise known as the journalist, no longer needs to worry about getting quotes right or finding a suitable photo: politicians are providing the world with their own quotes, photos, videos, tweets, and (new to me as well) 5-second Vine videos.

The stories they don’t want told

To survive, says Oakes, journalists need to find the stories politician’s don’t want told. This relies on cultivating sources, but who wants to be a source when your phones can be tapped, your emails hacked, your credit card records seized, your phone’s GPS tracked… Anyone? Anyone?

The fight with Big Brother, says Oakes, can partially be won by combining studies in journalism with computer science, so our journos are tech-savvy and practice good IT hygiene. “Computers and journalism are fused now,” he says. “You’ll never prise them apart.”

Oakes’ 6-point “listicle”: Reasons for optimism

Despite the challenges, Oakes was optimistic: “Journalism is coming back, or will come back…Every time there’s a change, it increases your ability to tell stories.”

So why the optimism? Well, here’s his 6-point “listicle”:

1) Newspapers are still with us. As far as reasons for optimism go, this is right up there alongside Today I didn’t get hit by a truck. And yet, it is true. Newspapers have proven to be more resilient than expected, Oakes says, and are adapting to the “uber platform” and finding new ways to finance journalists at the same time.

2) Quality journalism is still being produced. Despite reduced ad revenue, reduced circulation and reduced employment opportunities, Oakes believes great stories are still being told and great truths unearthed.

3) Paywalls are working. The reader-pays system of providing online content has been slow to take off, says Oakes, but has seen “encouraging results.” And paywalls encourage quality: “If you want to see something, it has to be worth buying.”

4) Quality is winning the quantity war. Outlets are financing quality journalism thanks to “rubbish that makes money on the net.” The old she’ll-be-right slap-something-together attitude to online publishing is no longer cutting it.

5) Stories need to be told, by someone. You can leak all the documents you like, but unless somebody takes that information and sifts through it to give it meaning, your story won’t really be heard. Journalists, says Oakes, are still relevant.

6) We have new storytelling tools galore. Real-time videos, live translation apps, phones that edit and record and tapdance (okay, not that last one), and the ability to broadcast from anywhere, anytime. “It’s almost enough to make an old hack wish he was just starting out,” says Oakes. “I’m in awe of what can be done now in storytelling.”

And as well as provoking thought on journalism, democracy, and privacy, Oakes provoked some thoughts I rather wish I hadn’t had: apparently Kevin Rudd paid his way through uni cleaning houses, including Oakes’ place, and “he was pretty good on the s-bend,” he jokes.

But jokes aside, I agree with Oakes: it’s a wild and crazy time to be a journalist. And sometimes, the most amazing things rise out of wild-and-crazy times.

The climate is right for bold, IT-savvy journos to really make a different to the way we see the world. So go forth, meet sources in lake-edge car parks at midnight, and don’t forget to leave your phones behind. I say, good luck to you!

Image credit: Bryan Ledgard

Riverton-Library-School-HolidaysTerm 3 is nearly over!

It’s time to celebrate, so come on down to the Riverton Library on Thursday 9 October to talk dreadful writing and spooky stories.

We’re aiming to have loads of fun, including a bit of theatre, some games and some writing.

This will be a fab morning and it’s totally recommended if you or your 8-years-plus beloved want to have some fun.

You can also check out Clare Stace’s delightfully dramatic storytelling (2 October) and Sanny Ang’s awesome storygami (7 October).

All events are FREE but bookings are essential, so pick up that phone: 9231 0944



When I’m not writing children’s fiction, I’m writing popular science, and right now I’m thrilled to be working with SciTech as a consultant editor, collaborating with the ScienceNetwork WA news team and content editor to increase our readership and spread the word of Western Australian science.

This is a mission I’m close to: to paraphrase Todd Sampson, saying you’re not interested in science is like saying you’re not interested in life.

And to borrow the words of Australia’s Chief Scientist, Ian Chubb, science ‘is not something that can be turned on or off when we feel like it’. It needs long-term commitment and funding.

So we need to be celebrating and supporting our scientific achievements, and writing them into the spotlight is part of this. I don’t think science can fix all the world’s ills, but it’s certainly worth our best shot.

Before I took on this role, I wrote four incredibly diverse stories for SNWA, showcasing just a slice of what makes WA science so great. I’ve posted links and summaries below. If you’d like to read more great WA science, check out the SNWA website or subscribe to our weekly news update. See you there!

Ouvea parrot

‘Avian AIDS’ virus poses threat to endangered New Caledonian parrots

Summary: The local people of New Caledonia have worked hard to protect their native Ouvea parrot, improving its status from critically endangered to threatened. Now a young Aussie researcher has found that rainbow lorikeets introduced to the parrots’ island are infected with avian circovirus, an incurable parrot disease that could crossover into the Ouvea parrot population. Read the article…

Dung_beetle_CSIRO_DAFWAFrench beetles tackle Great Southern cattle dung

Summary: There’s a new player in the battle of the bushflies vs dung beetles, and it’s French and rather horny. In this article I look at Onthophagus vacca, an imported species of beetle introduced to a Kojonup cattle farm as part of National Science Week. Read the article…

climatology_WestPacificWarmPool_CNASAEarthObservatorySkipjack tuna fare better under high-res model

Summary: For years our scientists have done the best job they can with the tools available. Now, using meatier supercomputers and higher-resolution ocean models, forecasts indicate climate in the 2060s may not be as devastating to tuna populations as lower-res models previously indicated. Read the article…

cryptosporidium_oocystsGene sequencing refines threatening parasite list

Summary: How do you tell the difference between a tiny, shiny ball that could infect our entire tap-water-drinking population, and a tiny, shiny ball that can’t infect humans at all? The oocysts of parasite Cryptosporidium may look the same under the microscope, but now a Murdoch University professor is using genetic sequencing to tell them apart. Read the article…



freelance puppy on stepsWe recently adopted a rescue puppy from Wish, and for the first time since I was a kid, I’m sharing my life with a pooch. It’s terrific.

I expected the joy of seeing my kids learn to love and care for a dog.

What I didn’t expect is that this floppy-eared creature could teach me so much about my job.

So here it is.

Ten things my puppy taught me about freelance writing:

1) Enthusiasm is everything.
Sherpa loves to meet new people, she loves to eat, she loves to walk, she loves to greet. She loves to jump, she loves to snuggle, she loves to wake up in the morning and she can’t wait to dive in to the day. How bloody refreshing is that! And what a great example. I just look at her tail, and approach my working day in the same way.

2) Walking keeps you healthy and helps with ideas.
Let’s face it: good writers spend most of the day sitting on their bum, lifting fingers and cups of tea. This is essential to success, but so is brain-clearing exercise and blood-flow. I walk Sherpa a couple of times a day and my mind has never felt so clear.

3) Dog parks are a great place to meet new friends and hear new stories.
If you ever want instant access to an entirely new and friendly group of people, take your dog to the local dog park. At the dog park I meet and chat with people I’d never ordinarily strike up a conversation with. And I hear stories – fabulous stories – that spark my imagination and make me happy.

freelance puppy asleep4) When you need a break, it’s okay to roll over and stretch in the sun.
You can’t work and work and work and expect to produce great results all day long. Sometimes just 30 seconds outside, with my hands held high in the air, is enough to refill my supply of energy and creativity. Sherpa prefers half-an-hour, and that’s okay too.

5) Pee breaks are a great opportunity to stretch-and-sip.
Sherpa takes every chance for a stretch. She’s reminded me that stretching is one of life’s unsung pleasures, and pee breaks – before and after – present an important stretching opportunity. While you’re at it, take a sip of something hydrating. It’s good for you, and before you know it, it’ll be time for another pee break.

6) Poo stinks.
There’s no arguing here. No one likes it, and no one looks pretty doing it, but it has to be done. So, if there’s poo in your day, get it over with. Pick it up, seal it off, throw it away. Then stick your tail in the air and get on with the rest of your glorious day.

7) Run for the ball, bring it back: repetition has its place.
I adore variety, creativity and freedom. But repetition can also have its place. Paying bills, writing invoices, formatting pages… Sometimes, and especially when I’m tired, repetition can be comforting and even healing. It can even be fun. Ball, ball. Bill, bill.

8) Boundaries and rules are important.freelance puppy
You’re allowed on the red couch, but not the brown couch. You can dig in the sandpit, but not in the garden. Rules are important because they build healthy habits. And healthy freelancing habits lead to a healthier, wealthier freelance writers. So set yourself some rules for what you’re going to achieve in your day: finish this project before answering those emails; make these phone calls before having that coffee. And stick to the rules.

9) Life on the lead isn’t all bad.
A freelance dog can walk to the park whenever it wants. It can eat whenever it likes and whatever it can hunt. It can even wear its pajamas to work. And it loves this. But life on the lead isn’t so bad either. Reliable food, people by your side, some predictability in your day… In my career I’ve been lucky enough to have a balance of both, and I think this mix really works.

10) Love is unconditional.
Sherpa doesn’t care how many times my manuscripts are sent back for editing, or how many pitches are rejected in a row. She cares about ear tickling, tummy rubbing and long walks on the beach. And isn’t that what life is all about? So even if I’m all tied in knots about something in my day, when Sherpa comes to settle at my feet, I just reach down to tickle her soft too-much-skin puppy head. And voila! A moment of peace. How magic is that!

So hooray for dogs and hooray for the beautiful people who rescue and foster them.

And remember: dogs are not just for freelancing….although they do help, a lot!


How my over-edited novel looks: I know it's in there somewhere.

How my over-edited novel looks: I know the original is in there somewhere.

Is your script missing something? Does your story meander? Or maybe you can’t seem to find your rhythm? Join the club!

CPR for your script: form and structure

I’ve been working on the same *insert-swearword-here* manuscript for nearly three years.

My draft has been through a zillion carnations and reincarnations. It’s been called The Cockroach Book, The Half-witch Wars, Exploits, Ranger and now Short-changed. It’s been edited to within an inch of its pathetic over-edited life: in fact, there are no longer any cockroaches — or indeed half-witches — anywhere to be seen in the manuscript.

The result is a lot like an Egyptian mummy: so much band-aid, you can’t see what’s underneath.

Help! Where’s my novel?

Enter the Australian Writer’s Guild, with another of their super-useful workshops. This seminar is on structuring a feature film, and it’s run by UCLA graduate Barbara Connell, now pursuing a PhD at Murdoch’s School of Media, Communication and Culture. I know a feature film isn’t a novel, but writing for kids is a whole lot of action, dialogue and fast-paced fun. Feature film, anyone?

I sign up for Barbara’s seminar because deep down I am hoping she might have a secret potion or magic word or infallible technique that can unwrap my mummy and reveal the novel inside. She does.

And the secret is…

“Writing is not about manuals. It’s about manual labour. The only thing that’s going to get you there is sitting down and doing it.”

Argh! I know this. But ouch, it hurts to hear.

Barbara admits craft and technique have their place alongside hard work. Over the morning she runs through the script structures used by a dozen different screenwriting textbooks, and there’s something useful in each one.

But, says Barbara, there’s no need to go overboard.

“For me it can sometimes be too much,” says Barbara. “It can do your head in.”

I quite like the science of all that theory, but if your story is drowning in formulae, Barbara says go back to basics: watch and analyse movies like the one you want to make, and ask yourself the big questions:

Three-step CPR: Grab, maintain, reward

A great film is basically “a good story, well-told, with heart and substance,” says Barbara. It’s that simple. So, if your story needs urgent medical attention, start with its three vital signs:

Grab: Is it a good story? Is it worth telling? Is it a story someone wants to hear?

Maintain: Do you have the craft and technique to keep the audience in their seats?

Reward: Does your story have heart? Does it have substance? Does it satisfy the audience?

Barbara says nailing the reward is often the hardest. “How do you want your audience to feel at the end of the film?” she asks. “Form and structure is about architecting the story so the audience has an emotional experience.”

And that’s my problem!

I’ve dissected the heart right out of my story. I’ve created a sort of Frankenstein’s monster, and it’s wandering the page — functioning quite nicely, thank-you-very-much — but it’s missing a few essential organs.

Perhaps it would be more sensible to bury this thing deep in a pyramid somewhere, and begin on a new creation. I say no!

Breathe, damn you! Breathe!

I’ve had enough of half-finished projects. I’m going to bandage and sew and cut and glue until this thing works.

Watch out world: this story lives!


Photo credit to scrappy annie

Cristy Burne: the culture of tea

Lush liquids: the culture of tea (in CRAVINGS magazine)

When I write, I drink tea. When I need comfort, I drink tea. When I’m catching up with friends, I drink tea.

And I’m not alone.

If you’re a fellow lover-of-tea, or you want to know…

  • what teas to serve with fried eggs, or
  • how to store your tea, or
  • what to serve when Prince Charles drops in…

…Here’s a story I did a few years back for CRAVINGS magazine. Make yourself a cuppa, and enjoy!


Few beverages have had greater influence on our history than tea. Tea has long been a symbol of friendship, cherished for its fine flavour, and cemented in our daily ritual as a respite from cold, fatigue, and ill health.

Five generations of tea

Tea has such a complex social history that connoisseur Hilary White has collected a library of more than a hundred books on the subject. “My family has been in tea for five generations,” he explains. “Three of my four great-grandfathers came to Ceylon to grow tea…one from New Zealand, one from England, and one from India. They married locals and stayed on for a hundred years.”

Hilary now owns Elmstock Tea, the largest tea wholesaler in Australia. He is also part-owner of the Leaf specialist tea houses in Cottesloe and Mount Lawley. “I’ve been in tea for 27 years,” he says. “It’s still a very genteel trade. Everything’s done with a handshake.”

Elmstock’s Balcatta warehouse is stacked floor to ceiling with some of the world’s finest teas; its contents turn over every month. “We supply about 32 million cups of tea a year,” Hilary explains.


Maidens in muslin gloves

As we chat, Hilary prepares water in a pot for two. He walks the length of his laden display cabinet, then selects a white tea: Silver Needles. “White tea is made from only the buds, hand-separated from the leaves. Traditionally it was picked only in the morning, by young maidens wearing muslin gloves. They cut the buds with golden scissors into muslin bags.”

He carefully scoops two teaspoons of shrivelled silver-gray tea into the glass pot. “This sells for around $400 a kilo, but you get 400 cups. In ancient China, only the nobility were allowed to drink white tea.”

The kettle whistles to its end: he takes it up and begins to pour. “Now watch them dance,” he says, and steaming water gurgles into the pot. The tea needles whirl and jump with the currents. “It’s almost as if they’re alive,” he says with wonder, and it is. Each needle seems to move of its own accord, stretching into the warmth of the water, lapping up its heat.

Tea for two

We chat while we wait for the tea to brew. There’s a strong sense of ceremony, but it’s welcoming and comfortable, like I’m in my own kitchen.

When the liquor is tinged with gold, we are ready. Hilary pours into two half-sized glass cups and hands me the one closest. “Cheers,” he says. And we breathe in the velvet smell, warming our hands through the glass. And then we drink.

The tea tastes pure, light, as if I’m cleansing my soul as I sip. “It’s a very subtle brew,” smiles Hilary. “You could drink this all day.” He sips again and exhales with approval. On finishing his first cup he stretches back in his chair. “How very civilised,” he beams, a picture of satisfaction. We pour a second cup and continue to talk.

brewing-teaThe Beatles, Bin Laden, Mick Jaggar

“Tea crosses boundaries,” Hilary explains. “Who drinks tea? The Beatles, Prince Charles, Hilary Clinton, Osama Bin Laden…Our stockman drink it. Mick Jaggar has it in his dressing room. Tea is a cultural thing. It’s international. An Indian villager in Darjeeling will drink tea from an iron mug. That same tea will be drunk at the Savoy, served on fine china.”

“You don’t have to drink the same tea that your granny drank. I drink a Chinese tea called Lapsang Souchong…it’s smoked over pine logs…you only use half a teaspoon. The nearest thing in flavour is Laphroaig Single Malt Islay Scotch.” (I take a whiff of the Lapsang leaves and am nearly knocked out. It’s a rich, pungent smell that reminds me of campfires and blows to the head).

A royal drop

Apparently Prince Charles’ favourite brew is, naturally, a white tea. “It’s called White Peony. When he came in 2005 there was this mad flap to find it, and of course we had it. We knew he was coming two months before it was even announced.”

It’s no surprise that Elmstock had the Prince’s tea: they stock 120 different blends, some traditional, some more curious. Their caramel black tea comes with chunks of caramel, the Pina Colada green tea is a symphony of pineapple and coconut (“just like the drink”), and one whiff of the quince-flavoured tea has my appetite racing.

Then there’s cinnamon orange, choc mint, chai masala… The colours and smells are sensational: there are reds, rich purples, blues, pinks and bright yellows. “There are different teas for different times of day and different occasions,” says Hilary. “Not all teas are the same. Just like wines, each region’s tea has a different characteristic. When a tea sales catalogue comes out it might cover 2000 teas.”

Matching food and tea

While coffee is usually served alone or at the completion of a meal, tea has for centuries been integral to fine dining. In the same way as certain wines complement particular foods, different teas can be selected to enhance your gastronomic experience.

Fried foods, eggs, bacon, smoked meats: Ceylon Pekoe, English Breakfast, Dimbula, Irish Breakfast, Flowery Pekoe, Assam, Darjeeling, Jasmine.

Breads, cheese, jams: Ceylon Pekoe, English Breakfast, Flowery Pekoe, Dimbula, Assam, Darjeeling, Jasmine.

Light savoury meals and brunch: Ceylon Pekoe, Dimbula, Assam, Darjeeling, Green, Oolongs, Sencha.

Meats and game: Earl Grey, Jasmine, Assam, Lapsang Souchong.

Poultry: Darjeeling, Oolong, Jasmine, Lapsang Souchong.

Fish: Darjeeling, Oolongs, Earl Grey, Green, Sencha.

Spicy Foods: Ceylon Pekoe, Dimbula, Darjeeling, Oolong, Green, Jasmine.

Strong Cheeses: Earl Grey, Green, Lapsang Souchong.

After a meal: Darjeeling, Green Tea, Oolong.

Tea time: Any tea! All teas!


Hilary White shares his tips on great tea:


  • “The enemies of tea are dampness, light, and age. If you ever see tea served out of glass jars, be careful. In seven days that tea becomes like straw…it loses all its subtleties. Use a ceramic jar and keep it airtight.”
  • “Tea absorbs anything in the area. If you put vegetables next to some tea, that tea will taste of vegetables the next day. It just soaks up moisture and odours – that’s one of the characteristics of tea.”


  • “We recommend rain water or spring water…boil it once, then tip it out. And always use freshly boiled water”

Choice of tea

  • “75% of all tea is now drunk in tea bags. But we don’t want to encourage that.”
  • “Always go for quality. It tastes better and you use less, because there’s less rubbish in it…less stalk.”
  • “The price difference between my tea and supermarket tea is probably ten per cent. A cup of supermarket tea might cost you 5c, so my tea costs you 6c. You don’t pay much more for a quality experience, and you’ll notice the difference.”

Brewing time

  • “One teaspoon of black tea for three minutes, maximum. Half a teaspoon of green tea, for one minute only. A lot of people don’t like green tea because they brew it for too long. And they use too much.”
  • “Longer brewing does not equal a better taste: letting the tea ‘stew’ releases more tannins.”

Caffeine in tea

  • “A cup of black tea has one third the caffeine of a coffee, green tea has half of that again. White tea has virtually no caffeine; infusions have no caffeine at all.”
  • “If you have a problem with caffeine a good trick to is to brew a pot of tea as normal, then tip it out within the first minute. When you brew the second infusion it will have much less caffeine. Most of the caffeine is extracted in that first minute.”

More tidbits on tea…

  • A teaspoon is around 20% larger than a coffee spoon
  • Tea is an infusion of the leaves of Camellia Sinensis plant in boiling water. Herbal teas aren’t strictly teas because they aren’t made from this plant.
  • Tea contains zero calories and can aid metabolism and digestion.
  • The English habit of pouring hot tea onto cold milk was developed to protect their delicate porcelain from shattering due to the heat.
  • Until 1784 the tax on tea was 119%, enough to encourage a thriving smuggling trade, complete with underground tunnels, clandestine encounters and cloak-and-dagger antics. Most of this excitement ended when William Pitt the Younger reduced the tax to 12.5%.
  • On April 25, 2007, Harrods held an auction of fine and rare teas, continuing an annual tradition dating back to 1679. Guest including tea connoisseurs from Russia, China and the Middle East competed to purchase limited edition tea lots from some of the world’s premium tea estates.

Photo credit: chumstock

Photo credit: Micke Nordin



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