Sophie Sakka dressing NAOAs well as being an amazing scuba instructor, experienced Japanophile, and all-round-fabulous-woman, my lovely friend Sophie Sakka is a humanoid robotics researcher.

When we first met, Sophie was teaching a robot to jump.

Now, she’s launched a non-for-profit organisation aimed at bringing robotics and the arts closer together, and within the reach of ordinary people.

8706_679726695425929_4471715117916355550_nI think Sophie’s terrific, and wanted to share her work with the kids of Australia, so I wrote an article for CSIRO’s Scientriffic magazine.

And now, with thanks to Scientriffic, I’d love to share that article with you…(and PS: if you have curious kids aged 7 to 10, and you’re looking for something fun to read and do, I totally recommend a Scientriffic subscription.)

AtSuper-models-Scientriffic just 58 centimetres tall, NAO is dressed to impress. Modelling outfits by French designer Marie Rebérat, the robot recently starred in its own fashion show, performing dance routines programmed by robotics researcher Sophie Sakka.

“I entered Marie’s shop to buy clothes for myself,” says Sophie, founder of arts-and-robotics organisation Robots! and researcher at the Research Institute in Communication and Cybernetics of Nantes, in France. “I had the robot with me, and Marie fell in love with it.”

Sophie and Marie decided to stage a fashion show, starring NAO.

“We used Marie’s outfits and my programming,” says Sophie, who is teaching NAO how to copy human movement. “The show was such a success that we extended the idea, running public shows for a month.”

Performing might come easy for some, but for NAO, every move must be carefully programmed.

“NAO can also sit down and stand up,” says Sophie, “and I’ve made it climb stairs. The hardest thing for NAO is balancing.”

And as we approach the mad, final run-up to Christmas, it feels like the hardest thing for me is balancing too. I hope you’re having a great Silly Season and I’m looking forward to a fab 20145 (already?)!


The finished product: the text panel for Guanlong – hooray!

Want to be paid to learn new things?

Be a science writer!

I recently worked as a writer on the Australian Museum’s TYRANNOSAURS – MEET THE FAMILY exhibition, now touring New Zealand.

Prior to this job, if you’d said “tyrannosaur”, I’d have screamed “Rex!” and started running. I knew they had teeth, I knew they had claws, I knew they were extinct.

And that was it.

Well, turns out, there’s a whole lot more to know about tyrannosaurs, and I was lucky enough to learn some of it on the job.

Making every word count

The process for writing museum panels is a long one.

- Each panel is short — some less than 100 words — but they each have to grab attention, communicate a message, and add value to the visitor’s experience.

- The TYRANNOSAURS panels had to work for kids and adults

- They also had to steer clear of any typically Aussie references: the exhibition is touring different countries, so it needed to work for audiences around the world.

-  Accuracy is most important of all. I worked with a paleontologist on the panels for this exhibition, to make sure everything was spot on. Every fact was triple-checked, every sentence was scoured for ambiguity.

Ten drafts, 200 words

The panel pictured above introduces a primitive tyrannosaur named Guanlong wucaii, meaning Crown Dragon. We’ve only found two Guanlong specimens, so not a lot is known about this dinosaur. It was my job to communicate the key facts in something super-interesting and engaging. What do you think?


Guanlong wucaii: the crown dragon

Guanlong is one of the oldest tyrannosaurs known: it hunted 95 million years before T. rex.

Height: 1.1 metres tall at the hips.                 

Length: 4 metres.

 Lived: 160 million years ago (Late Jurassic).

Discovered: By T. Yu in 2002, Xinjiang, China.

Meaning crown dragon, Guanlong was named for its flashy head-crest. Fragile, hollow and made from fused nasal bones, the crest may have been attractive to other Guanlong. Such a showpiece is unusual in a predator.

Shaking hands with Guanlong
Guanlong isn’t your typical tyrannosaur: it has long arms and three-fingered hands for grabbing and ripping. But the shape of its teeth, skull and pelvis all link it to the tyrannosaur group. Like many tyrannosaurs, it almost certainly had feathers.

Trapped in a footprint
The two known Guanlong died in the same way: they fell into the muddy footprint of a massive herbivore and were trapped. The 6-year-old died first and was probably trampled by the adult, who arrived later. Both skeletons are almost complete.

Likes: Elaborate headwear.

Dislikes: Being called primitive.




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!



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