Thursday, 29 November 2012

And Yet More Beer Tasting

I assembled a further 6 craft beers for tasting, none of which I had ever tried before. I tasted each of them from a glass; over a few days, mind, I didn't sit down and guzzle a six-pack. Then I scored them on a 1 - 10 scale where 1 means 'I'll never buy that again, yuck' and 10 means 'I've just ordered another 50 bottles'.

Here they are:

1. Little Creatures Pale Ale by Little Creatures Brewing Pty Ltd (Fremantle, WA), 5.2% alcohol.

What they say: "To enjoy this beer, drink it from a glass."

What I say: I did drink it from a glass; it had a modest head and a caramel smoothness that made it slide down easily. Pale gold in colour. I particularly liked the fact that it had a Best Before date.

Andrew Score: 8

2. Little Creatures Bright Ale by Little Creatures Brewing Pty Ltd (Fremantle, WA), 4.5% alcohol.

What they say: Nothing whatsoever

What I say: Almost identical in taste to the Pale Ale above. Very pale gold in colour. I actually preferred the lower alcohol content by the end of the glass.

Andrew Score: 9

3. Mountain Goat Organic Steam Ale by Mountain Goat Beer Pty Ltd (Richmond, VIC), 4.5% alcohol.

What they say: " This is a certified organic steam ale. It's the product of an all-natural brewing process that incorporates cool fermentation and a hit of wheat malt. The result is a palate cleansing ale. "

What I say: I prefer beer descriptions that don't pretend to be relatives of wine descriptions. I realised while I was tasting it that I should have tried this one and the Little Creatures Pale Ale side by side, as they are very similar in appearance and taste.

Andrew Score: 8

4. Mountain Goat Hightail Ale by Mountain Goat Beer Pty Ltd (Richmond, VIC), 4.5% alcohol.

What they say: " A good beer is a natural beer. The Hightail is bottle conditioned and free of preservatives. "

What I say: Don't tell you much, do they? In fact this is a traditional dark ale with a huge head (it took over 5 minutes to get all 330ml into the glass). Lovely dark amber colour, the taste is almost but not quite closer to a Bitter than an Ale. Its naturalness is evident by the amount of sediment in the bottom of the glass.

Andrew Score: 7

5. William's Organic Pale Ale by William Bull Brewing Company (Bilbul, NSW), 4.5% alcohol

What they say: " William's Pale is a true Australian brew. Clean fresh citrus flavours make William's Pale Ale smooth on the tongue, long on the quench and refreshingly easy to drink. "

What I say: 'Long on the quench.' Say what? In fact this is another Pale Ale comparable to the Little Creatures version. A smooth caramel flavour like the Little Creatures, the difference here is the colour, which is very pale indeed. As usual I didn't get any citrus flavous.

Andrew Score: 7

6. Cricketer's Arms Natural Long Brew Lager by Sundance Brewing (Melbourne, VIC), 4.6% alcohol

What they say: " Cricketer's Arms is brewed longer to deliver an extra dry lager. Made with sun dried Australian malt, Cricketer's is infused with Amarillo hops imparting an intriguing citrus character to the aroma and flavour. " Mind you, I had to get out a magnifying glass to read all that; you certainly don't want to waste label space describing your product, do you.

What I say: I took a sip and thought: "Hey, that's nice." So I took another sip and thought: "No, that's really nice." Then I set the glass aside, or thought I did, while I pootled off to do something else for a couple of minutes; when I returned the glass was empty: "Hey, who drank my beer?" Since I do these tastings home alone, there is only one possible answer to that.

I've subsequently bought a six-pack in the hope that I could get one glass to stay full long enough for me to describe the head, the colour, the aroma, the flavour. No chance. You're going to have to buy it yourself.

Andrew Score: 10

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Black Gold

I recently read a book 'Black Gold: A Dark History Of Coffee' by Antony Wild, published by Harper Perennial in 2005 (ISBN 1 84115 656 6). Antony Wild worked for thirteen years for the UK's foremost speciality coffee roaster, and is credited with introducing speciality coffees into the United Kingdom. He subsequently worked as a journalist and has written several books. In other words, he is well placed to know what he is writing about.

About the only person to emerge from the book with his reputation intact is Napoleon Bonaparte. Wild is especially scathing of empires and their corruptions. Here's a taste of what he has to say about the Americans:

" The Western Hemisphere produces two-thirds of the world's coffee and consumes a third of it. As the biggest single consuming nation (some 25 percent of worldwide production) the USA has, with impeccable economic foresight, regarded the countries of Central, and to a lesser extent South, America, as Uncle Sam's back yard. Although overt colonialism is making a comeback, the USA, until relatively recently, has adopted a covert approach to the achievement of its economic hegemony in Central and South America. Much of this was driven by two considerations: countering the threat of 'Communism' (or indeed anything with the faintest taint of socialism), and maintaining regimes 'sympathetic' to America and American business in place, which have in nearly every case been oligarchical or military. As the latter created the conditions in which the former flourished, there was always a fundamental structural weakness in the strategy, causing problems that could be countered only by ever more repressive regimes. Thus in support of this flawed approach these countries have witnessed, and continue to witness, an unending series of acts of state terrorism perpetrated by the USA in the form of interference in the electoral process through violence and intimidation, assassination, funding of guerrilla armies and death squads, illicit gun and drug running, and, when considered necessary, direct military intervention. " pp 232- 233.

It would have taken me 10 paragraphs to say all that, and the end result wouldn't have been half as lucid. Highly recommended reading.

Monday, 12 November 2012


A lot of Americans trumpet the idea that the USA is the home of the world's only genuine democracy, where decisions are made democratically (by vote) rather than by fiat. That this is not in any way true doesn't seem to deter them. It's not even true in California, where a heck of a lot that should be decided by elected politicians is in fact decided by referendum, thereby pretty much making the state ungovernable. It certainly isn't true for the USA as a whole.

You are probably aware that the USA recently voted in a presidential election. Pundits had been predicting for months that Barack Obama (Dem.) would defeat Mitt Romney (Rep.) by a sizable margin. When that is exactly what happened they all jumped onto their blogs to congratulate themselves.

In fact, the result was very close, and had the Republicans used the same polling day strategies as the Democrats it's quite possible that Romney would have won.

Here's the problem: in the USA, voting in the presidential election is optional (this is the case for lower tiers of government as well). Now some states are rusted-on Republican and some are rusted-on Democrat, and there's little you can do to change the outcome in those states, so everybody concentrates on the so-called 'swing states'. In addition to the usual blitz of TV ads and candidate speeches and rallies, on polling day both sides release armies of volunteers to go from house-to-house offering to transport voters to polling booths, thus capturing the apathetic who wouldn't vote at all.

This year the Democrats did exactly that in the time-honoured fashion (they might bribe voters with a free sandwich too, I don't know). The Republicans decided to adopt 2 strategies that were contrary to tradition: first, they held huge rallies in two key swing states (Ohio and Pennsylvania) on polling day, thereby removing vast numbers of volunteers to stand around for hours yelling silly slogans instead of transporting voters.

Second, and much worse, they rolled out a new computerised system based on mobile phones which would alert the volunteers to who had not yet voted, so they didn't waste time knocking on the doors of people who had already voted. The system was called ORCA.

ORCA didn't work, and large numbers of volunteers sat around doing nothing all day waiting for a phone call which would tell them where to go to collect voters. The call never came, and the phone number they were supposed to call to report problems with the system never answered.

It's quite possible that had the Republicans either used a system that had been properly tested in the real world, or alternatively decided to use tried-and-true methods, they could have scooped up enough apathetic voters to alter the outcome in enough key states for Romney to get home.

But even with the committed rolling out to vote and the Democrat volunteers scooping up far more of the apathetic than the Republicans, the eventual outcome was decided by almost exactly 50% of the electorate. So a whisker over 25% of eligible voters voted for Obama; as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad scathingly commented, that's hardly a mandate (although in his case his army of volunteers rigged the vote so he got 95%, which isn't exactly a mandate either).

It's reasonable assumption that people who are too apathetic to vote in a presidential election are going to be just as apathetic in other elections too. The historical trend has been that voter turnout in presidential elections in the USA has been declining from a high of 80% in the 1830's to a low of 50% in the 1920's, rising to 60% in the sixties and then declining again to the 50% of the present day.

So this what true democracy looks like, where 50% just don't care (or are too fat to get out their front doors)?

Monday, 17 September 2012

More Beer Tasting

It's been a while since I did this, and I think it was on a different blog anyway. This post was triggered by one of the people in the liquor store I frequent pointing out a beer fridge I'd never noticed before, with craft beers in it. Now when I say I 'frequent' I don't mean I, like, hang out there or anything. And nor do I go there every couple of days, in case that's what you were thinking.

So I cruised the fridge and selected 4 Australian beers to taste. When I got to the checkout the guy said: "You know if you buy 2 more beers you get a discount, which will probably just about pay for one of them." So he helped me select a couple more.

So I tasted each of them from a glass; over a few days, mind, I didn't sit down and guzzle a six-pack. Then I scored them on a 1 - 10 scale where 1 means 'I'll never buy that again, yuck' and 10 means 'I've just ordered another 50 bottles'.

Here they are:

1. Balmain Original Pale Ale by Balmain Brewing Company Pty Ltd (Balmain, Sydney, NSW), 4.9% alcohol.

What they say: " A full bodied English style ale, with a rich malt and subtle caramel character. Derived from two base and three speciality malts. Three complementary hop varieties provide hints of citrus hue, wild spice and a clean bitter finish.

" All natural and unfiltered. Drink from a glass to allow for full appreciation of the golden-copper colour, the aroma and flavour. "

What I say: Mostly true. I could taste some spice. The citrus hue escaped me completely, probably because I haven't been drinking beer long enough to taste a colour (only 45 years, you see). I liked it, and the golden-copper colour was unusual.

Andrew Score: 7

2. Matso's Mango Beer by Matso's Broome Brewery (Broome, WA), 4.5% alcohol.

What they say: " Matso's Mango Beer is based on a classic Belgium Blonde recipe using a 100% mango fruit blend. An easy drinking beer with excellent fruit aroma and balancing dry sweetness. "

What I say: This was always going to be a challenge, because I really dislike mangoes. And what they say is just rubbish: '100% mango fruit blend'. Say what? Or do they just mean they stuck a few mangoes in a blender? Similarly, 'balancing dry sweetness.' Say what?

So I was predisposed to dislike it, but when I was in Broome I hung out at Matso's enjoying their food and their wheat beer (Matso's Monsoonal Wheat Beer). So I thought I should give it a fair try (a.k.a. drink the entire stubby). It's not a beer you could drink by the bucket at a single sitting, but it was actually very nice. And it is beyond doubt the most unusual beer I have ever tasted.

Andrew Score: 8

3. 4 Pines Pale Ale by 4 Pines Brewing Company Pty Ltd (Manly, Sydney, NSW), 5.1% alcohol.

What they say: " 4 Pines Brewing Company offers great flavour sensations through variety, quality craftsmanship, natural ingredients and traditional time-honoured techniques - no short cuts! Pale Ale: A colourful deep ruby-amber appearance, aromas of pine and grapefruit overlay a malty background on the palate; full bodied malty flavours with a tight and bitter finish. "

What I say: I confess I have no idea what a tight finish is, but the rest is pretty accurate (although I didn't taste any grapefruit). Loved it, and the 330ml disappeared very rapidly, which is a bit of a worry at 5.1% alcohol.

Andrew Score: 9

4. 4 Pines Kolsch by 4 Pines Brewing Company Pty Ltd (Manly, Sydney, NSW), 4.6% alcohol.

What they say: " 4 Pines Brewing Company offers great flavour sensations through variety, quality craftsmanship, natural ingredients and traditional time-honoured techniques - no short cuts! Kolsch: Light straw in colour with aromas of lemon and lime. A light malty palate, finishing crisp, clean and showing hints of spice and citrus. "

What I say: Got everything except the citrus. And the colour just yells REFRESHMENT at you. I loved this one too.

Andrew Score: 9

5. Golden Ace by Feral Brewing Company (Baskerville, WA), 5.6% alcohol

What they say: " Golden Ace is a crisp dry Belgian style golden ale with a refreshing lemon hop character. Best enjoyed fresh. Treat like milk, refrigerate where possible. "

What I say: Very hoppy, quite bitter. It is very Belgian in its high alcohol content, but it wasn't at all refreshing.

Andrew Score: 3

6. India Pale Ale by Feral Brewing Company (Baskerville, WA), 5.8% alcohol

What they say: " Hop Hog American IPA. "

What I say: I have no idea what they are talking about. Again, very hoppy, quite bitter and very dark; it didn't really resemble a Pale Ale at all. I liked it a little bit better than the Golden Ace, but it took the best part of 45 minutes to empty the glass; I really wasn't enjoying myself.

Andrew Score: 5

Monday, 13 August 2012

Demolishing The Pear Tree

I have a friend who has a 60's era ex-govie (government built house). The house is a rectangular block, north facing, well set back from the kerb. For some reason the sewer connection does not take the direct route down the eastern side, but instead runs along the back, down the west side and then diagonally across the front garden. This piece of 60's lack of forethought could have yielded endless problems with tree roots, but amazingly there was just one.

Some time after the house was built, but long before my friend bought it, someone planted an ornamental pear at the N-W corner, right on top of the sewer line. The tree had now grown past the gutter and was interfering with the sewer. Sometimes you can get round this if the roots invading the sewer are secondary, but in this case it was almost certainly the tap root that was the problem.

So she asked me to help her get rid of the tree. Initially I thought it would be a job for an arborist, but a closer inspection suggested that maybe we could do it ourselves. Enter the essential tool:

Here in the Berra you can take green waste to the recycling centre for free provided you don't take anything bigger than 100mm diameter or 4m long. Since the two trunks and the lower branches were bigger than 100mm they would have to be chopped into chunks and periodically included in the household waste collection.

So I bought an electric chainsaw and, despite never having previously used a chainsaw, in 45 minutes I had reduced the tree to a pile of branches and a pile of logs. At which point she could pour a small amount of Glyphosate on the stumps to kill the roots.

The trouble is: I really enjoyed it. Previously I'd been daunted by fat branches because they're pretty laborious with a hand saw. But with a chainsaw: BRRRAAAP! Clunk! BRRRAAAP! Clunk. Job done. (Yes, Petunia, even electric chainsaws make a lot of noise).

Now, instead of admiring trees for their foliage or their sturdy trunks, I look at them as targets. Which can be a problem in the Berra as we have something like 750,000 trees on public land and at least that many in private gardens. I think I'm addicted; I hope it's just temporary.

Monday, 16 July 2012

This Makes My Blood Boil

I was going to post a link, but it appears the article is not in the public domain, so here's a scan of the relevant portion:

Hmmm. Not big enough. Tell you what, I'll retype the relevant portion. From an article by Fred Pearce on Page 28 of Issue No 2870 of New Scientist titled 'Stealing the earth':

" Mighty Momn was angry. She was doing her washing a few miles from Lake Victoria in east Africa, soaping her clothes in the shadow of a tall chain-link fence, behind which there was a large farm. The farm was owned by an evangelical American who had made his fortune running private prisons for state governments in the US before coming to Kenya and taking a leasehold to drain the Yala swamp and grow rice in place of papyrus.

" Calvin Burgess, the prison king, assured me he was bringing wealth to the region's Luo people, and that the swamp he was draining (with the help of engineers from Louisiana) was a worthless malarial wasteland. He had erected a large white cross in the middle of the farm, which he called Dominion Farm, to assure the world he was doing God's work.

" But Jennifer Acheng, wearing a torn pink T-shirt emblazoned with the words 'Mighty Mom', begged to differ. " Calvin came to see us when he started ", she said. " We were so happy. We sang for him then. We called him " rain - the father of food." " But this was not to be. She and the 1500 or so villagers squatting outside the farm fence told me that the swamp had been their wealth. " We cut papyrus to make mats, baskets and thatch for our huts. Even the poorest families had at least twenty cattle for meat and milk, " said Acheng.

" Now they are cut off from the swamp, their cattle are gone: all they got in return are a few jobs for women weeding because, as the farm manager Ronald Boone explained to me, the women are cheaper than pesticides. "

You can find Fred Pearce's latest book here:

The Land Grabbers

Sunday, 24 June 2012

How Did I Miss This Album?

Janis Ian wrote her first song when she was 13 years old, Society's Child, released in 1967; it tells the story of an interracial romance doomed by social pressure. Many radio stations in the South refused to play it at all, and a station in Atlanta that did play it was burned to the ground.

She went on to become well regarded for her clever melodies and melancholy lyrics, her best selling album probably being the 1979 release Night Rains. I thought she had completely stopped recording, but apparently not: Folk Is The New Black was released in 2006, and it's an amazing 'back to your roots' journey. Working with Victor Krauss on upright bass and guitars, and Jim Brock on percussion and drums, Ian produces a masterpiece of intimate sound, delightful melodies, and unforgettable lyrics (the context here is a rising tide):

" While politicians lie and cheat to get to higher ground
We follow them like sheep, and salute them while we drown "

She has also been writing science fiction for the last 15 years or more, and therefore gets an extra 50HP and +3 on Charisma from me.

You rock, Janis, you truly do.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

This Way Madness Lies

I have an occasional need to transport my bicycle in my car. The car is a Volvo C30, which looks something like this without the rear spoiler or the twin exhausts:

So with the rear seats folded flat I can just fit the bike in the car, passing it through the tiny tailgate opening, provided I remove the front wheel. Which ought to be easy as it has a quick release. It isn't easy because the bike is quite old and only has a quick release at the axle; getting the fully inflated tyre past the brake blocks which have no release, quick or otherwise, takes a mountain of effort.

So much effort, in fact, that I went looking for a better solution. On the Interwebs I could see that Volvo had two solutions in principle: a bike carrier on the roof, or a bike carrier on the towbar. The latter solution looked expensive and so it turned out, so it was fortunate that they no longer make the rear bike carrier anyway. Volvo offered me a very attractive price for the rooftop solution, so I went with that.

The solution comes in two parts: a pair of load carriers (your generic roof racks) which are transverse across the vehicle, and bicycle carriers which run longitudinally, fitted on top of the load carriers:

Now add the bicycle carriers and the bicycles:

So the collection of parts eventually arrived and, after reading the instructions 10 times, I fitted the load carriers without much difficulty. It would have been no difficulty at all except stupid here tried to fit the rear carrier with the wrong side to the left; eventually sorted. Emboldened, I went to fit the first bicycle carrier. The manual had two fixing methods: either a clamp tightened around the load carrier or a bolt fitted within the aluminium extrusion of the load carrier. The latter didn't appear to be possible since that space was occupied by a rubber seat, so I tried the latter. Over and over again, failing every time.

So I gave up and went back to Volvo with my tail between my legs and said to the parts man: "Help. I can't do it." He said: "Ah, yes, there's a trick to it, I only found out about it myself a few days ago." So we went out to my car and he started to show me the trick: "See, what you do, you release the end cap of the load carrier. Right, now peel out the rubber seat. Right, now insert the bolt with the head inside inside the extrusion ... no, not that bolt, the one with the fat square end." I said: "I didn't get a bolt like that, this one is all I have." So he said: "OK, you'll need that other bolt, those ones you've got won't work, I'll order some."

I picked up the replacement bolts today, which brings me to the point of my post. I don't believe I'll have any trouble fitting the bits and finishing the job, but let's look at what I received. First, 3 plastic bags each nearly half a metre long containing 1 folded sheet of A3 paper, 2 bolts, 2 washers and 2 complicated nuts for hand tightening:

The front page of the A3 told me I had a 'T-groove kit and wheel holder' for every model of Volvo under the sun EXCEPT mine. The next page contained this useful diagram which has nothing whatsoever to do with my situation, and a comments form:

Page 3 has this diagram which has exactly nothing to do with my situation either, but did inform me that the washer goes on the nut side, not the bolt side:

As you can imagine, these little diagrams did not occupy much of the page. Page 4 was totally blank.

If you refer to the image of the bag above you can see that the bag itself has a Part Number, and two applied labels. The first label (the big square one) just tells us the Part Number for the contents of the bag. The other label is where madness lies:

This label refers to the total order, not just the first bag. But in what demented universe does an oversize bag containing 2 bolts, 2 washers and 2 nuts require both a Part Number and a Product Number? Why is the Part Name 'Retainer' when the enclosed manual refers to the bits as 'T-groove kit'? What is a Case Code? Why is the 'Spec emb' field blank, and what would it mean if it wasn't? And why does a plastic bag need a Part Number? And so on.

Now if we run out of electricity before we run out of oil, then all the world's computers will crash and the Volvo Parts facility will no longer be able to work at all. But the guy at Roof Rack City will just hand label his bits and buy some candles. Makes you think.

Friday, 1 June 2012

The Tenant's Dilemma

When we moved into this house over 20 years ago, we were very lucky. It's a nice house in a good area, and was offered as a rental, which suited us just fine, as we had very limited capital and not much disposable income either. Over the years the rent has diverged from the market, becoming lower and lower relative to the competition, and is now sitting at 80% (est.) of the free market rent. This has made the place, financially, a good deal, certainly compared to buying, and so when I received a letter from the agent inviting me to renew the lease at a slightly increased rent, I agreed.

Which is where the problem began.

Clearly the agent hadn't discussed the renewed lease idea with the owners, because they came back and said they had no clear idea where they were going in the next 12 - 18 months and would not be interested in renewing the lease (which means the tenancy would become month to month). It doesn't take much of a brain (fortunately) to realise that they have paid out the mortgage on their investment property, and are looking to get the capital gain as soon as the market is right.

Now this property is in Canberra, and presently the market here is going backwards for houses and townhouses, and likely to continue that way for some time as an avalanche of blocks is being released in new residential subdivisions. To find a previous era when this much land was being released you almost have to go back to the 1960's. If you are the owner of a residential property here where a portion of the market value is attributable to scarcity, be prepared to take a bath.

In other words, get out quick. Which doesn't help me in the slightest. Here are the options:

OPTION A: Buy the place. And then watch its value diminish over the next 5 - 10 years. Yuck.
OPTION B: Rent somewhere else in Canberra (at a minimum 20% premium over the current rent). Yuck.
OPTION C: Buy somewhere else in Canberra, and then watch its value diminish yadda yadda yadda. Yuck.
OPTION D: Buy somewhere else in Australia where houses are a lot cheaper, and then who gives a rat's fart whether it does or does not increase in value? My hankering is for the Queensland Sunshine Coast, because I have been seduced by its climate. Prices are 60% - 65% of the same thing in Canberra.
OPTION E: Leave Australia altogether and buy something in France.

Wait ..... what? Where did that last one come from?

I borrowed a book from the local library titled 'Buying A House In France' aimed at English audience; it was just an impulse borrow, I didn't have a plan. Flicking through the pages without reading anything I came across the colour illustrations. First one, a 5-bedroom 2-storey stone and grey tile roof house with gorgeous pale green shutters on over 7,000 sq.m. of land, with the back lawn sloping down to the river (un-named). And I thought, yeah, right, how many million euros for that?

In 2010 it was 310,000 euros (just under A$400,000) at present exchange rates.

Of course, that house is no longer available, but trawling the Interwebs I found something comparable for 250,000 euros (A$320,000). Do I speak French? Barely a word. Do I know anybody in France? Nope. How would my income be affected (memo to self: check 3 times)? Probably very badly. However, I know I won't want to do this when I'm 70 years old; while the last flush of youthful vigour is still with me (hah!) is the time to do it. Or pass the chance by, and have no regrets.

Friday, 11 May 2012

Scribble Scribble Scribble

I have been chastised for being leisurely with my posting. Like most people who are taken to task for their performance, I immediately took umbrage and told my chastiser exactly what I thought of him. This was both unfair and stupid: unfair, because he had done no more than say the truth, and stupid, because I vented my umbrage to the air, whereas the chastisement had proceeded via electrons. After I had given things some thought I decided that maybe I do have to lift my game - 3 weeks between posts risks alienating an audience, and if I can't be bothered posting more often than that, then I should be keeping a diary, not a blog.

And yet. And yet. I set the remit of this blog quite a bit wider than the previous one, which was entirely about my motorcycle, but that change has failed to yield much more in the way of topics. Actually, to some degree it must, because I am presently without the motorcycle, having lent it to R until the engine in his bike is replaced, and yet I can still find something to blog about.

The title of this post comes from the book of the same name by Simon Schama, which is in turn a reference to the comment purportedly made by Prince William Henry, Duke of Gloucester and Edinburgh (i.e. a royal duke) in 1781 when he received a copy of Volume 2 (or Volume 3, or both) of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire:

" Another damned thick, square, book! Always scribble, scribble,scribble! Eh! Mr Gibbon? "

The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is a very famous set of volumes, but it isn't very readable. In fact, I don't know anyone who has read it, and I'm the kind of person who knows people who have read War and Peace. At least, that's what they claim: since I haven't read that myself I wouldn't know whether they were telling porkies or not. You can try Gibbon for yourself at Project Gutenberg here:


But my story today is not about Gibbon, it's about one of the articles in the book Scribble, Scribble, Scribble. The title of the article is The Unloved American: Two Centuries of Alienating Europe first published in The New Yorker on 10 March 2003. In it Schama quotes several European writers who had visited the United States of America during the 19th and 20th centuries, and come away decidedly unimpressed, Charles Dickens and Rudyard Kipling to name just two.

It is the quote that concludes the article that struck me most, and it comes from a writer well known in her day but little read today: Frances Trollope, who in 1832 published Domestic Manners of the Americans. She is the mother of the better known Anthony Trollope. Domestic Manners of the Americans sold like hot cakes and set her up for life; it sold well on the eastern side of the Atlantic because it confirmed every prejudice the Europeans had about the Americans, and it sold well on the western side of the Atlantic because it got the Americans all riled up. 'Trollope' became a term of abuse in America, and in New York there was a waxwork of Frances Trollope in the form of a goblin.

And what did she have to say that got the Americans so riled up? Well, among many other things, this:

" If the citizens of the United States were indeed the devoted patriots they call themselves, they would surely not thus encrust themselves in the hard, dry, stubborn persuasion, that they are the first and best of the human race, that nothing is to be learnt but what they are able to teach, and that nothing is worth having which they do not possess. "

Nearly 200 years later has much changed? Has anything changed? I think not.

I am saddened to discover that 'trollop' meaning prostitute or immoral woman predates Frances by at least 200 years, and does not derive from her puncturing of American pride.

Friday, 20 April 2012

Nature Red in Tooth and Claw

Actually, "Nature Red in Beak". Let me explain.

When I opened the front door to go for my walk, I swept a small lizard (skink) inside which had been hiding under the door. A few weeks ago, on my walk, I was in the middle of stepping over a small twig when it wriggled away, and I realised it was either a small snake or, more probably, a legless lizard. On that occasion I emitted a manly shriek and jumped a foot in the air. Since it was clearly a lizard on this occasion, I merely grunted in surprise, and then decided to walk first, de-lizard the house second.

When I returned I found a Greengrocer Cicada sitting on my front doorstep. This was quite unusual for a couple of reasons: first, these creatures are not common here in Canberra, since their range is mostly coastal; second, it was very odd to find one sitting on my doorstep, since they are normally found in trees or long grass.

Anyway, I got the broom and pan and gently evicted the lizard, which just lay on the front porch without moving. I then brushed the cicada onto the front porch also, at which point the reason for all this wildlife hiding at my door became apparent. While I was standing there holding the screen door open a magpie arrived. It is reasonable to suppose that it had been stalking both of them, and they knew it.

The magpie eyed off both targets, ignoring me entirely, then went for the lizard, at which point I shut the screen door (not wanting a bird in the house) and kept watching. After a couple of attempts it managed to tear off the lizard's tail, which fell on the porch wriggling and writhing, obviously in great pain. The main part of the lizard fell onto the ground just beyond the porch, obviously dead. At this point the magpie set the lizard aside and went for the cicada instead, demolishing it in several sharp snaps of its beak.

Then the magpie did a rather curious thing. After cleaning its beak on a sleeper in the courtyard, it returned, picked up the still wriggling lizard tail, stilled its movement with a sharp bite, and then walked up to the front door with the lizard tail in its beak. I said: "No, I don't want it, you can have it." The magpie turned around, walked to the edge of the porch, dropped the lizard tail and flew off. Now magpies will eat skinks, but they prefer invertebrates, and obviously the cicada was sufficient for its present needs. But it was hard to escape the impression that the magpie was offering me the lizard tail as a thank you for allowing it to get the cicada.

Anthropomorphising, I know. But I'll stick with my interpretation, since the Buddhist in me is distressed knowing that my actions led to the death of two very small harmless creatures, and while the cicada was a meal, the lizard was simply killed on speculation. I shouldn't have intervened, that's all I'm saying.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

The Hunger Games

I went to the movies on the weekend, on a whim. I was conscious that I hadn't been for a few years, and I thought I wouldn't like to get too far out of touch with popular culture, whether I approve of it or no. My newspaper had a glowing review of The Hunger Games, and since it was sort of sci-fi (being set in a post-apocalypse future) I thought it would be right up my street. The film is based on the first novel in a series by the American writer Suzanne Collins, a writer of juvenile fiction, and she also helped write the screenplay.

Now if you have some intention of going to see it yourself, you should stop reading right here, because there are spoilers ahead.

OK, they've all left the room? Let's continue.

In the USA the film is rated PG-13+. In Australia it is rated M (meaning 15+ but not mandatory). Here is the nub of the story, from IMDB:

" Set in a future where the Capitol selects a boy and girl from the twelve districts to fight to the death on live television, Katniss Everdeen volunteers to take her younger sister's place for the latest match. "

The boy and the girl have to be aged between 12 and 18, so it's a fair bet the target audience is in the 9 - 15 age group. Which would make it difficult for them to get in to see it in Australia if anybody policed the rating, but of course nobody does. The day I went there were only 5 or 6 people over the age of 14 in the theatre (including me) and all of those remaining adults were parents escorting children under the age of 10; in fact one child looked to be no older than 6. The audience was about 60% teenage girl, 30% teenage boy.

Now call me an old fuddy-duddy if you like (go ahead, you know you want to), but what parent in their right mind would think a movie in which a whole bunch of teenagers run around in park armed with machetes, Bowie knives, bows and arrows, and land mines(!) trying to kill each other is suitable fare for a 6 year old? Or even a 10 year old.

The movie makers were worried that having a girl as a lead protagonist would hurt ticket sales, but they needn't have been. The books have been selling like hot cakes, and the movie was always going to do well; in fact it took in US$155m on its opening weekend, so it has surpassed Lord Of The Rings (Ep 1) and Harry Potter (Ep 1) already.

Having all those teenage girls in the theatre certainly amplified the emotional content. They squeaked and gasped at the scary bits, sobbed quietly at the sad bits (plenty of those) and generally behaved like they were totally involved. About two-thirds or maybe three-quarters of the way through the movie our heroine Katniss is risking her life trying to get medicine for the boy from her district, Peeta, when she is jumped by a girl from another district who has previously been set up as an evil person. Evil girl commits classic movie bad person mistake of gloating first as she prepares to cut Katniss' throat. Suddenly a boy from another district appears and kills evil girl by repeatedly slamming her head against a wall.

At which point almost the entire audience, excluding the old farts, broke into spontaneous applause.

Now call me an old fuddy-duddy if you like (go ahead, you know you want to), but we've just witnessed a young man kill a young woman by slamming her head repeatedly against a wall, and this is worthy of applause? If he killed a Bug Eyed Monster I'd be all for it, since the BEM has no hope of gaining our sympathy, but this is person on person graphic violence, and the kids were all for it. I was shocked.

This was the most violent and disturbing scene in the movie, the rest being pretty formulaic. If you want to discover what the violence is like before buying a ticket for your 12-year old, go here:

Parental Guide

Now I know quite young children play quite violent video games, but there's a difference. The kids may be engaged by the game, but they know perfectly well it isn't real - they can turn off the X-Box whenever they want without causing any harm to the characters. A movie is different; a movie differs from a stage play in that it is attempting to present a verisimilitude of reality whereas a play is an exposition.

I walked out of theatre a little disturbed.

Later I watched an interview with Jennifer Lawrence, the actress who plays Katniss Everdeen. She is, of course, beautiful. And 21. At the end of the interview she was asked for her favourite line from a movie; she quoted the " she's a witch" sequence from Monty Python's Monty Python And The Holy Grail. I was completely smitten and immediately sent off my proposal of marriage to her agent.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Australia's Prime Ministers

The recent shenanigans between various members of the ALP leading to Kevin Rudd's unsuccessful shot at retrieving the leadership, and hence returning to be PM, caused me to wonder whether any of these people (or their Opposition counterparts) really have the stature and capability to lead this nation if there was a crisis. For example, a real shooting war, with enemy planes bombing Darwin and points south.

World War 2, in fact. What were our leaders like back then?

Our story begins in January 1932 when Joseph Aloysius Lyons became Prime Minister at the head of the United Australia Party (UAP), defeating James Henry Scullin (ALP) who had been shafted by ALP supporters of Jack Lang, as they sided with the UAP just to make sure they got rid of Scullin. Lyons was possibly Australia's best liked Prime Minister - in the book Australian Prime Ministers (Michelle Grattan ed., New Holland Publishers, 2008), Anne Henderson wrote: " It needed no spin doctors to craft Joe and Enid Lyons into salt-of-the-earth Australian family folk. " Lyons had been a Tasmanian Opposition Leader and Premier for the ALP, but couldn't stomach the federal ALP, and formed the UAP instead.

Lyons did well enough to be re-elected for a third term in 1937, but by then the toll of frequent commutes back to Devonport in Tasmania, and advancing years, left him ill and the government rudderless. There was a bitter and very public split with Robert Gordon Menzies in early 1939, which led Lyons to say that he believed " ... this situation is killing me. " He was right; he suffered a heart attack on Thursday 6 April 1939 and died the next day (Good Friday).

Earl Page, Lyons' deputy, took over as caretaker PM and used his 19 days in office to lambast Menzies, who he regarded as a traitor to Lyons, saying that if Menzies was elected leader, then the Country Party would withdraw its support for the UAP. Menzies justified himself by saying he had had a secret deal with Lyons whereby Lyons would hand over leadership to Menzies and Lyons had reneged (gee, does this sound familiar?). In the event the UAP elected Menzies as leader and the Country Party split, ensuring that Menzies had enough votes to survive any no-confidence motion.

The United Kingdom of Great Britain declared war on Germany on 1 September 1939 and Australia, as a loyal colony, followed suit, Menzies making the announcement a scant 5 months after assuming the Prime Ministership. Menzies has been much criticised (possibly unfairly) for not doing enough to put Australia on a proper war footing, but it is difficult to see what more he could have done. He has also been criticised for being too much of an Anglophile and sending our boys 'over there' when they should have been kept here to fend off the Japanese, but that criticism conveniently ignores the fact that in 1939 Australia had declared war on Germany while the war with Japan would not be declared for another 2 years.

One thing Menzies didn't do was butter up his colleagues; in fact, many positively detested him. This would prove fatal for his Prime Ministership. In February 1941 Menzies went to the UK to plead with Churchill face to face to reinforce the Pacific, particularly Singapore which was vulnerable to a land based attack. Churchill refused to do anything, probably because he couldn't, but also because he believed (or pretended to believe) that Singapore was impregnable. However, while Menzies was away the plotters plotted, and when he returned in May 1941 they pounced, claiming, amongst other things, that he was unpopular in the electorate and a liability (gee, does that sound familiar?). He called for a Cabinet vote of confidence, and was trounced.

Arthur William Fadden, until that point Leader of the Country Party, was elected in Menzies stead, there being no more suitable candidate. He assumed office on 29 August 1941 but he wasn't destined to last long in the job; on 7 October 1941 he lost the support of the independents and a Supply vote on the floor of the house, and John Joseph Curtin (ALP) became Prime Minister.

It was Curtin who received the news on 8 December 1941 that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbour. It was Curtin who announced, to Chruchill's fury, that Australia now looked to the United States of America for help to protect Australia's borders. It was Curtin who insisted on Australian troops released from the North African campaigns being repatriated to Australia, not Burma. It was Curtin who introduced conscription for overseas service, just before the 1943 federal election, which, far from unseating the government, resulted in the ALP being returned with control of both houses.

Of Curtin, David Day says (Australian Prime Ministers, p217) " Curtin's honesty of purpose, strength of character, power of oratory and political acumen all marked him out as a great leader." To cement this reputation, he died, probably from complications arising from emphysema, on 5 July 1945; as David Day says " ... to almost universal dismay."

Francis Michael Forde took over for a week while the ALP caucus organised itself, and the caucus then elected Joseph Benedict Chifley as leader and Prime Minister, a job he kept until he lost the election to the newly invigorated Liberal Party under Menzies in 1949. It is to Chifley's everlasting credit that he didn't want the job and was reluctant to stand. Obviously, he had little to do with the war effort.

Really Australia was led by just two Prime Ministers in World War 2 - first Menzies, then Curtin. Of the two Curtin is far the more impressive character, not least because he didn't shaft anybody on his way to the top job. Australia was lucky to have him. Menzies suffers by comparison in part because the news in the first 2 years of the war was all bad, but also because he came to the job having shafted Lyons (and possibly thereby helping to kill him), and was then shafted in his turn.

So who of the current cohort (on either side of the House, or in the ranks of the minor parties or independents) is the next John Curtin? Not a single one of them. Not one. Which is a worry, because if WW3 started tomorrow, we'd need such a person, wouldn't we.

Friday, 27 January 2012

Favourite Things

I follow the blog Life Of An Architect among others, and recently an occasional guest poster, Scott Taylor, decided to introduce himself by providing a list of his favourite things. You can find his complete list here:

Scott Taylor

If you don't want to follow the link, here is a summary:

Favourite Furniture: Eames Chair And Ottoman
Favourite Pen: Paper Mate medium
Favourite Designer Item: Eames Plywood Leg Splint
Favourite Car: BMW 2002
Favourite Poster: Lebowski Fest, 'Richard Nixon Bowling' by Shepard Fairey
Favourite Architect: Carlo Scarpa

The blog owner, Bob Borson, decided to respond by posting his own list of favourite things, largely but not completely following the schema provided by Scott:

Bob Borson

If you don't want to follow the link, here is a summary:

Favourite Furniture: Eames plastic chair with eiffel base
Favourite Pen: Sharpie Ultra Fine Point
Favourite Deserted Island Food: Egg Rolls
Favourite Car: 1969 Jaguar XKE II Sof Top
Favourite Poster: 1934 Guinness "Guinness Is Good For You"
Favourite Movie: Raising Arizona
Favourite Architect: Bob couldn't decide

The favourite Deserted Island Food needs some explanation: when you are washed up on this deserted island, you discover it has a magical machine that delivers a plate of your favourite food whenever you want. The problem is you select the food to begin with, and then that is all you can have. So what is the food that you would be prepared to eat day in, day out?

So I decided I would post my list of favourite things here, again following the schema set by Scott but deviating a little.

Favourite Furniture

As it happens, I own my favourite furniture but I couldn't decide on just one, so here's all of them:

Eames Chair And Ottoman

You got that one right, Scott, and they not only look terrific, they are really comfortable too.

Parsons Table

Named for the Parsons New School of Design, it was actually designed by Jean-Michel Frank at the Paris Atelier (the Paris branch of the Parsons School) in the 1930's. The point of the design is that the rails supporting the top are the same face dimension as the legs, which are square. I have two - a coffee table and, more importantly, a dining table that I made myself. Due to a slight confusion as to what was a saw guide clamp line and what was a cutting line the table is not exactly the size I originally planned, being more square. Both tables are black.

Breuer Cesca Chair

Six of them go with my dining table.

Carlo Bartoli Storm Chair

Mine are black and go with my family room table, which is about to be replaced with another table I will build myself as soon as I discover a suitable flitch of timber for the top.

Favourite Pen

Rotring Tikky in 0.2mm, 0.5mm and 0.8mm. Well, that's what I have, anyway.

Favourite Deserted Island Food

Steamed Mussels With Crusty Bread. I cook these with chilli, onion, garlic and white wine (half in the pot, half in me) as often as I can.

Favourite Car

Couldn't decide, so here are two.

1969 Jaguar XKE II, the soft top version. You got that one right, Bob.

1967 Lamborghini Miura. Words fail me. I came close to tears when one was shoved off a cliff in the original version of The Italian Job.

Favourite Movie

Alien by Ridley Scott, Director, 1979

I saw this more than a dozen times at the theatre, and watched it another half-dozen times once I bought the DVD.

Favourite Architect

Casa Mila (La Pedrera) by Antonio Gaudi, 1910.

I could have used almost anything by Gaudi as a representative image. I can imitate the work of many architects as a design exercise, but Gaudi is beyond me.

Favourite Motorcycle

2009 Kawasaki Z750.

Mine is a slightly darker blue and a lot dirtier, but otherwise identical.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Technological Singularity

The Singularity, as it is sometimes called, is that moment when machine intelligence exceeds human intelligence for the first time. I quote Wikipedia here:

" Technological singularity refers to the hypothetical future emergence of greater-than-human intelligence through technological means, very probably resulting in explosive superintelligence. Since the capabilities of such intelligence would be difficult for an unaided human mind to comprehend, the occurrence of a technological singularity is seen as an intellectual event horizon, beyond which the future becomes difficult to understand or predict. Proponents of the singularity typically state an "intelligence explosion" is a key factor of the Singularity where superintelligences design successive generations of increasingly powerful minds.

" The term was coined by science fiction writer Vernor Vinge, who argues that artificial intelligence, human biological enhancement or brain-computer interfaces could be possible causes of the singularity. The concept is popularized by futurists like Ray Kurzweil and Terence McKenna and it is expected by proponents to occur sometime in the 21st century, although estimates do vary. "

You can read the whole Wikipedia article here:


Now Ray Kurzweil has been forecasting that The Singularity will occur in 2045, but recently I've started to wonder if it might not happen sooner. Here's why.

Recently I had dinner with some very nice people, and the conversation turned to politics, as it sometimes does, and in reference to Tony Blabalot, one person said, dismissively, "Oh, Mr Budgie-Smugglers." I might have been in a contrary mood, I don't say I wasn't, and I immediately asserted it was 'Budgie-Snugglers'. Everybody derided this, and one person immediately jumped to a Internet-connected laptop nearby (not his own) and looked it up in Wikipedia, to confirm that it is indeed 'smugglers' not 'snugglers'.

So what could have occupied several people for several days as they phoned their friends and relatives trying to get a consensus was suffocated at birth. OK, fine, I was wrong (I kind of suspected I might have been) but it was interesting. First, Wikipedia had an entry and it was definitive; I mean, the bloody expression wouldn't have got past the front gate of Encyclopaedia Britannica. Second, his immediate response to the debate was to find a nearby Internet connected computer and refer to Wikipedia. If he had a smart 'phone he would have used that. Effectively, instead of cluttering his brain with facts, he was happy to refer to Wikipedia's 'memory'.

Is it really going to take another 33 years to achieve a kind of brain-computer interface that can look up Wikipedia just by thinking about it? I can't believe that. In terms of the brain-computer interface Verner Vinge was originally talking about, I think we could get there by 2020 if not sooner. Worth thinking about.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Comments On This Blog

Some people who have tried to post comments on this blog have reported that they can neither see comments from others nor their own. I cannot post comments myself using Firefox or IE8 (the comment form appears but the comment is not saved), but if I use Google Chrome it works just fine, and others have reported the same thing. And one of my followers has reported they never get notified when there is a new post, even though that is exactly what being a follower means.

All very weird.

Some of these problems emerged after I turned off comment moderation, so I've turned it back on, and now invite anyone reading this to try and post a comment. It doesn't matter what you say because all of this is going to be deleted shortly, so feel free to say what you really think :-)

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

A Tale Of Two Books: Part 2

The second book was published a little earlier, in 1972: The Limits To Growth, attrib. to Donella H. Meadows and others, collectively reporting as the Club of Rome. The book was a report on the outcome of a series of models of the possible future state of the planet, given a variety of input conditions and a variety of assumptions about growth. The models were run in a computer program developed at MIT called World3.

The results were depressing enough in 1972: in the majority of models, human society collapsed some time in the next 100 years. The only models where that didn't happen were the ones where growth was deliberately stopped. These conclusions aroused a perfect storm of controversy, particularly from economists, who complained that Malthus had said much the same thing 170 years ago and he had been proven to be wrong by technological development increasing the means of production i.e. technology would save us this time too.

But the Limits authors had tested for that. Quoting the No 2846 edition of New Scientist here:

" In some runs, they gave World3 unlimited, non-polluting nuclear energy - which allowed extensive substitution and recycling of limited materials - and a doubling in the reserves of nonrenewables that could be economically exploited. All the same, the population crashed when industrial pollution soared. Then fourfold pollution reductions were added as well; this time, the crash came when there was no more farmland. "

No matter what the researchers did to introduce technological magic to solve the problems, exponential growth was simply prolonged until it overcame the magic. The only thing that worked was limiting growth, effectively to zero; doing that resulted in a stabilised system rather than a crash.

Nobody has improved the World3 program since 1972, partly because the controversy put people off doing global modelling, and partly because it is difficult to improve. Taking advantage of the power of modern computers to make the model more complex (and therefore more realistic) just doesn't work, because as the models become more complex, it becomes harder to figure out why certain outcomes have arisen. World3 remains a pretty good, and useful, approximation.

So what happens if you update World3 and make the present conditions the input, rather than 40 years ago? The answer, sadly, is that the time to have gone for one of the scenarios that yielded stabilisation rather than collapse was 1972. Quoting New Scientist again:

" There will be no more sequels based on World3, though. The model can no longer serve its purpose, which was to show us how to avoid collapse. Starting from the current conditions, no plausible assumptions produce any result but overshoot. "

Wait, what?

Collapse is inevitable? Yes, exactly, collapse is inevitable, and most probably before 2100.

Here is a graph that compares a typical run of World3 (solid lines) with real-world equivalents (dotted lines):

(The source for that graph is New Scientist again).

1977 was my final year at university, and I was very busy. I somehow managed to read this important book, accept its conclusions and then completely forget about it for 35 years. I was so glad that some tentative steps were being taken to deal with global warming that I overlooked the fact that global warming is a symptom rather than a problem in its own right. The problem isn't global warming or pollution or peak oil or water supply; the problem is growth itself.

Collapse means a lot of people are going to die. Perhaps the people doing the dying will be them, not us, but it is the people most estranged from the sources of food production that are most likely to die, and that sounds more like us than them. And when I say " a lot of people are going to die ", I mean billions; if the maximum sustainable human population on this planet is, for example, 4.5 billion, then at least 2.5 billion people are going to die in the collapse, be it from warfare or a pandemic or starvation or whatever.

Get yourself a copy of the 7 January 2012 New Scientist and read Debora MacKenzie's article for yourself. Or go here:

Doomsday Book

You'll have to register with New Scientist if you do that.

Monday, 9 January 2012

A Tale Of Two Books: Part 1

When I was a young(ish) university student I read two books, on apparently completely unrelated topics, which changed my thinking about everything. I read them in the same year, 1977, and it might have been better, for me and perhaps for all of us, if I had read them when they were first published.

The first book I want to talk about is the newer of the two: Platform For Change by Stafford Beer, first published in 1975. It consists of the text of a series of talks Beer gave as the President of the Operational Research Society during the period 1970 - 1973, augmented by several sets of overarching narratives containing methodical explanation and historical connections. His thesis was that, by using computers, cybernetics could make a useful contribution to civilian society. Cybernetics, developed during World War II, attempted to match industrial production to wartime (primarily battlefield) needs. So, for example, if Theatre A had a plan which required 10,000 bombs, cybernetic methods would be used to coordinate bomb production and deliver the bombs to Theatre A in time for the plan.

Beer argued that you could just as well apply the same principles to civilian production. In the process of explaining how this could be done, he addressed and solved a great many issues. The idea that, for me, stood head and shoulders above the rest was this question: "Why do bankers and TV game show hosts get paid enormous salaries while people who contribute far more to the general good of society, such as nurses or teachers, get paid a pittance?"

Of course, if you take the view that the total bucket of money available is the same in either case, then bankers get paid more because there are fewer of them. But Beer asked the question a different way: the injustice here is obvious, but why do we put up with it? Particularly, why do the people getting paid a pittance put up with it?

Beer's answer was that your reward for doing a job comes in two parts: money which includes things like annual leave, bonuses and superannuation; and eudemony which is the happiness which comes from doing good, and which is next to impossible to measure. Nevertheless, teachers are rewarded by the knowledge that almost everything they do contributes to a better society, whereas bankers are confronted with the knowledge that practically nothing they do contributes. Beer argued that the total eudemony of the society could be increased by creating jobs that contributed and eliminating jobs that didn't.

He got his chance to prove that his cybernetic theories could be applied to a real world economy when the newly elected Marxist government of Salvador Allende in Chile invited Stafford Beer to come to Chile and implement his Operations Research ideas. Allende's belief was that Marxism had failed everywhere else in the world because invariably these societies had become military dictatorships. He was going to do something different: he was going to let the people decide what they needed, and, via Stafford Beer's computers, the government would direct the factories to produce and deliver what was needed.

It quickly became obvious that what the people thought they needed was more schools and hospitals, and fewer tanks and machine guns. The military and the elite hated this, and, on the 11th of September 1973, the military staged a coup and killed Allende - they claimed he shot himself in despair, but how he managed to put a .45 calibre hole in his head with the .22 calibre gun purportedly found in his hand was never explained. The Chilean military had a great of help and support from the United States of America, particularly the CIA, and while the Americans had been trying to bring Allende down since 1970, there remains the possibility that they became particularly energetic when they realised Allende was fashioning a Marxist society that might actually work.

Platform For Change finishes before the coup, although it was published later. My deep and abiding hatred of American government agencies, particularly the CIA, dates from the time I read this book, knowing as I read it what had happened. For the avoidance of doubt, if your memory doesn't reach back to that time, the US President at the time was Richard Nixon, the Secretary of State was Henry Kissinger, and the dictator who took over after Allende was General Pinochet.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

ATEMA: Reflections

Would I do it again? Too right I would. In fact, I'm planning the next trip already. Would I do it again starting tomorrow? Er, um, perhaps not, got to get some things sorted first.

The Weather

December is the second wettest month of the year in SE Queensland and NE New South Wales (January is the wettest), so this was a pretty silly time of year to make that particular trip. As it happened I was very lucky on the way up, since I was following the rain band, one day behind; had I left one or two days earlier the trip up would have been wet and miserable. Actually, if it was raining on the way up, I probably would have stayed longer in Sydney if it wasn't for the fact that I had made bookings at O'Reilly's and Mooloolaba.

LESSON 1: Research the climate before planning the trip.
LESSON 2: Don't make bookings unless there is absolutely no choice.

The Luggage

One tank bag, two soft panniers, one pillion-pad pack, all up may be 100 litres (maximum volume with all packs expanded may be 160 litres). You'd think that would be plenty, but it was barely sufficient. I carried 6 days worth of clothing (t-shirts and underwear) and did my washing twice on the trip; stuffing in more clothing wasn't practical.

All of the luggage presented problems beyond flimsy or lost raincovers. The tank bag creates turbulence, particularly when expanded; the panniers tend to droop, meaning the right hand pannier wants to rest on the hot exhaust pipe; and the pillion-pad pack makes mounting and dismounting very difficult. If I had left behind the fleecy track pants (didn't use), the first-aid kit (ditto) and the camera (barely used), I wouldn't have needed the pillion-pad pack; in fact, I could have put the camera into a backpack.

The problem is that this luggage solution is the best there is for what is essentially an unfaired sports bike.

LESSON 3: If you're going to tour you need touring luggage.

The Cost

Not counting wear and tear and damage repair on the bike, I estimate I spent about $2,200 for a 13-day vacation, or about $170 per day. I made no effort to be frugal; if I wanted wine with dinner (and I did), then that is what I had. When I was in my mid-twenties I rode up from Adelaide to the Sunshine Coast on my TX500 with a tent, a sleeping bag and a few essentials in a backpack, so I'd done frugal, I didn't need to do it again.

Staying home might have cost $200 (I don't count the rent, since that still has to be paid whether I'm home or travelling), so the $2,000 difference has to come out of the bank account. That's the air component of the long-dreamed-of but probably-never-gunna-happen Europe trip, spent on a bike ride.

LESSON 4: Be realistic about the cost.

The Bike

Since the Canungra drop was entirely my fault, the only mechanical problem on the whole trip was the locked-up engine cooling fan in Mooloolaba. The riding position was perfect for me, and the hard seat was no problem at all once I perfected the art of standing up to ride every 75k or so. The bike had way more power and braking than I was ever likely to need, and the wide chicken strips on my Pirelli Diablo rear tyre show that I'm a bit timid when cornering, so there was plenty of lean angle in reserve if I ever needed it (or had the courage to use it).

Kawasaki claim a top speed for the Z750 of 240 km/h, which is more than double the maximum speed limit of any road in Australia except for the Northern Territory, so there's no shortage of power. I was getting about 6 litres per 100km, which is hardly frugal for country riding, but it's not very expensive either.

So would I recommend the bike for touring? Well, no. I mean, you can do it, obviously, I just did. But the luggage problem, and the fact that you can't adjust or even lubricate the chain (because there is no centre stand) means that the bike is less than ideal.

LESSON 5: Expecting a UJM marketed to hoons to be a capable tourer is a bit silly.

So I'm noodling about replacing the bike with something more suitable, but I'm really hesitant to get onto the slippery slope to a Gold Wing or BMW, since those massively heavy lumps just don't entice you to get up at 6am and go for a fang.

Sunday, 1 January 2012

ATEMA Day Thirteen: Crescent Head To ... ?

It was still raining when I woke up, but it stopped while I was showering (the irony not lost on me) and I was able to pack up and head off in the the dry. The leg from Crescent Head to the Pacific Highway was fun, with sweeping bends, but all too short, and when I got to the Pacific Highway it started raining again.

Today I had two plans: Plan A was to ride down the Pacific Highway to the junction with the Oxley Highway, then up the Oxley to Tamworth, then via a few back roads to Bathurst for an overnight stop - this was the fine-weather option. Plan B was to ride down the Pacific Highway as far as I felt like riding, and if that turned out to be Sydney, well and good - this was the foul-weather option.

I barely saw the junction with the Oxley because of the rain, so that made the decision for me. I revised Plan B as I continued south - I would now push on to Sydney, ride into the centre of the city, find a 5-star hotel willing to accommodate a damp motorcyclist and treat myself to a very expensive dinner. I might even book a spa treatment and allow somebody to massage my damp skin with therapeutic unguents, although that being something that never happened in my life previously did make it a little unlikely. Energised by these pleasant dreams I zoomed down the highway - well, actually at 100 km/h, but the only times slow moving trucks appeared ahead of me was at the beginning of an overtaking lane, so it felt like zooming.

I fuelled up at Bulahdelah, and it stopped raining. However, it started again as soon as I took off, and kept up until the traffic chaos which marks the start of the F3; unsurprisingly, 10km down the F3 the rain started up again and continued all the way to Sydney. The traffic on the F3 didn't slow down at all for the rain, so I didn't either; on the F3 you either keep up or get squished. A fair indication of what the weather was like was that I was wearing my fleecy top under my motorcycle jacket, and at no point was I too hot.

As I approached Sydney I estimated that I would reach Hornsby a little before 12 noon. Plan C now entered my head: fuel stop and a sambo from a servo and push on. I figured 45 minutes to cross the back half of Sydney via the Cumberland Highway, then 3 hours down the Doom Highway - I could be home before 4pm. Thoughts of a 5-star hotel, grand dinner and spa treatment vanished in an instant. Another 4 hours and I could be HOME! Suddenly I very much wanted to do that, and even if it started raining bricks I wouldn't be stopped.

As it turned out it stopped raining as I reached Hornsby, so I fuelled up in the dry. Heading off via the Cumberland Highway with fully 50% of Australia's entire fleet of trucks for company I was much more cheerful. The cheeriness lasted until I suddenly found myself almost the sole vehicle travelling down a six-lane road into downtown Parramatta, the trucks apparently having moved to another dimension.

I stopped at another servo to get directions ("Go the way you were going for another few blocks until you see the signs for Cumberland Highway, then turn left") and the sambo I had forgotten at the fuel stop, and wandered out to the edge of the forecourt to see a heavy rain band heading straight for me. The combination of Sydney truck traffic and heavy rain didn't appeal in the slightest, so I shoved the half-eaten sambo into the tank pack and left in a hurry.

As it turned out that rain band didn't catch me, but it didn't make any difference, because as I got onto the Doom Highway outside of Liverpool I ended up in another one instead. By now I had perfected the technique of standing up on the footpegs for a few minutes every 75km or so, which relieved the numb bum and allowed me to feel as if I had stopped for a break between fuel stops; I tried to avoid standing up when I was in the midst of a fleet of vehicles in case my actions were misunderstood. I didn't get any wetter standing up, but it did feel a bit precarious at 110km/h in the rain.

The fuel stop this time was Marulan, and as I approached the Heavy Vehicle Checking Station, it stopped raining. I was used to this by now - it stops raining whenever I stop, but returns with redoubled force as soon as I get moving again. This time, however, it didn't. A couple of light sprinkles between Marulan and Goulburn, and then it stopped altogether. In fact, by the time I reached the southern end of Lake George I could see a patch of blue sky, and as I rode up over the last hill near my house the sun was shining, the birds were singing, the air was warm and I was now too hot in my fleecy top.

So after about 720km of riding in the rain, non-stop except for fuel, I'd finally found somewhere warm and dry. It was just before 4pm when I got off the bike for the last time, and I felt as if I could have kept going for another 300km if necessary. I had taken the precaution of putting a beer in the fridge before I left, and it hadn't gone off in the time I'd been away, so all was well with the world. I even finished the not-at-all tasty servo sambo as I scanned my mail.

I went out for dinner, since there wasn't any food in the house, but I wimped and took the car, so the meal doesn't count as part of the trip, which is a pity, because I cleared my plate, making the meal rank with O'Relly's. And that in a restaurant I had never tried before, in keeping with what I had been doing on the trip.

And when I got back from dinner I came over all sentimental and gave the bike an affectionate pat, and muttered something complimentary.