Saturday, 30 November 2013

Whisky Tasting

I subscribe to the magazine New Scientist, and in July this year they ran a competition for subscribers where you had a chance to win 12 sciency books. Since entering involved no more effort than providing them with my email address, I did so, and promptly forgot about it. I never win anything, and after 30 years of buying Lotto tickets with no success, I am completely immune to disappointment.

Months later I got an e-mail from them telling me I'd won, and could I please provide the delivery address. I couldn't even remember what the books were. When they arrived about a week later I discovered a very mixed bunch: one on the search for the Higgs boson was probably the most demanding, but it was also the sort of book that gets overrun with new discoveries; on the other hand, some were keepers, such as this one:

This book is a useful reference on all things alcumohol, but I was particularly struck by Page 40:

As some of you may know, I splosh some water in my whisky, but I had no idea you were supposed to do that; I do it because I enjoy the whisky more with a little water softening.

So, purely in the spirit of scientific endeavour, I grabbed my bottle of Johnny Walker Red and some measuring things and set to work. The standard Andrew serve of ice, two fingers and a splosh of water in a tumbler didn't sound much like the description above, so I placed ice in a tumbler, added my whisky and then immediately tipped the whisky into a measuring vessel. Result: 60ml (more or less).

So I pour myself a double shot with each glassful, which means I'm a soak but I already knew that. Next I got myself a small glass and, using an eyedropper, I put the recommended 6 drops of water in the glass. I could barely see it. So I doubled the number of drops, to match my standard double-shot issue of whisky, and I discovered the water made a very thin film in the bottom of the glass. This is not surprising, because 12 drops is only about 0.6ml.

So I think the correct technique is to wet the interior of a glass, shake out all the water that is not filming the glass surface, add 30ml (1 shot) of whisky, agitate to let the water get at the fatty acid molecules, then enjoy.

At which point I discovered that if you want fatty acid molecules you need a whisky that has them; Johnnie Walker Red Label doesn't very much because it is chill filtered to remove them. And why do they do that? Because Johnnie Walker Red Label, a blend of 35 different whiskies from both the east and west coasts of Scotland, is designed as a mixer base, and has been for decades, long before the company now known as Diageo bought the brand.

I also discovered via research on the Interwebs that I was using the wrong glass if I was going to start whisky tasting. So I went and bought some more appropriately shaped and sized glasses (not actual whisky tasting glasses as used by distillers, because they were stupid expensive) and I am now prepared to repeat the 'add a weetle bit of water' exercise with a non-chill filtered single malt. However, since it is presently 10:00am I will defer the exercise to a more appropriate time. As far as I am concerned, when whisky tasting you sip, swill and spit back into the glass, not into a spittoon, and when you've finished writing up your notes you consume the whisky. I may be a soak, but even I don't drink whisky at 10:00am.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Devils Born To Be Wild

On ABC News Online this morning (Wednesday 27 November 2013):

"Devils Born To Be Wild: Captive-bred Tasmanian devils are thriving on their new island home, breeding and interacting with tourists."

Really? Breeding with the tourists? Who'd a thunk it? Gives a whole new meaning to animal husbandry, I can tell you that.

I used to make a joke about a colleague (and friend) of mine, who had a desk with something special. He had the usual array of little containers we all have, to hold pens, and paper clips, and so on, but he also had an extra one - a punctuation container, filled to the brim with commas, semi-colons, full stops and an em-dash or two. He would write a letter (by hand) with perfectly conventional addressing, lead-in and salutation, but the body text was stream of consciousness with irregular capitalisation. He would then revert to convention for the sign off. To complete the task he would dip into his punctuation container and apply an even (and random) sprinkling of punctuation.

Of course he didn't really do this, but looking at the result you would be forgiven for thinking that my little joke was no joke at all.

I am reminded of the book 'Eats, Shoots and Leaves' by Lynne Truss, a how-to manual for punctuation. Truss hosted a BBC Radio 4 program on punctuation before publishing that book, so she's well positioned to write about the topic. Using punctuation correctly shouldn't be hard, but so many people make it seem so that I am forced to conclude that, in fact, it is hard.

Nevertheless, you don't expect sloppiness from the ABC: " ... new island home, breeding, and interacting with tourists ..." is hardly physics; it just takes a little care.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

The Fumes, Oh Help, The Fumes

It has been a weetle while since I have been out on the bike, on account of the infestation of the driveway by white crew-cab 4x4 with enormous trailers containing tool sets worth more than the truck. But today was a fine day with a clear driveway - no more time for prevaricating, time to ride.

Since it was approaching lunch time I didn't want to ride a big distance, so I settled on what I call the M&M route - Maroochydore, Maplethorpe, Montville and Maleny, then back to Maroochydore. There's the small matter of Nambour, which doesn't begin with M, but it doesn't take much rearranging to make it fit - Manbour. There we go. This is actually the first time I had ever ridden this route, and I never will again.

The loop starts on Maroochydore Road, a 2-laner where everybody sticks to the speed limit, especially if they are in the right hand lane. Clearly this road has been heavily policed at some time in the past, although the polices were absent today, but even at the speed limit it was a refreshing trundle. At this point, if I was writing a totally crappo novel (which I actually am, but this isn't it) I would say something portentous and overused like "Little did I know."

As I entered the outskirts of Manbour I realised it was excursion day for pootle monsters. I was at the back of a chain of 6 vehicles, with the lead vehicle determined to stick to 38km/h in a 50km/h zone while they worriedly searched for the exit to their next destination, which, sadly, turned out to be my next destination too. And once we got onto the correct road, signposted 80km/h, they launched to the dizzying speed of 62km/h and settled there. Since the road was double unbroken whites and lots of roadworks it hardly mattered, especially when you're No 6 in the chain, but as we weaved, wriggled and twisted our way up a mountain it did seem a bit of a pity.

Maplethorpe didn't seem very interesting, and at the speed we were travelling I was able to examine it at my leisure. However, a few vehicles departed the chain and as we proceeded with marginally more vigour it was obvious we were approaching a ridgeline (and Montville). I was still third in the chain at this point, but one of the others peeled off as we entered the main drag of Montville.

If I make something up you'll catch the spirit of the place: Ye Olde Montville Plains View Tavern. Just one of those? Heck no, try 10 or 12, on both sides of the road. Clearly at some point peeps trying to escape the heat of the coastal plain had come up here and colonised. And of course when you do that you go all twee and Anglicised, of course you do. And as I was passing through all of this touristy horror, still not first in the chain, a gang of women crossed the road to go to one of these appalling destinations.

This gang were mutton dressed as lamb big time, past the big 4-0 with room to spare. And each and every one of them had grabbed their 'get it from K-Mart' $16.99 scent and upended it over themselves. Each one with a different flavour, of course. You smell things more on a bike, but I couldn't help thinking that in a few minutes a bunch of innocent hapless victims in the middle of selecting their meals are going to be overpowered by cheap (and disgusting) scent. If they still want to eat after that invasion they have cast-iron constitutions.

By the time I had passed through Montville I was feeling quite sick with the scent, and so I bailed at the Woombye exit. Had this been racetrack smooth and wide enough for 2 vehicles it would have been a delight as it wound its way down the mountain, but unfortunately it was narrow, very rough, and infested with folks in 4-by racing up the mountain in total disregard for anything that might be coming down.

And when I got to Palmwoods (Malpwoods) I just set course for home, still awash with the scent, and very disappointed.

When I become Dictator of the Planet (next Tuesday for those of you who haven't been paying attention) I will ban the sale of any perfume costing less than $100 per 10ml. Then a gentle dab of Chanel No 5 on each wrist and the sides of the neck will be fine (provided you give it the correct 60 minutes to develop) and no femmes will be tempted to overdo it because of the cost.

I mean, if you need to upend a litre of cheapo scent over yourself before going to the office lunch, have you considered the possibility you might have gangrene? Your nether regions just rotting away? The unpleasant smell of the cheap-as-chips hairspray you use will be masked by the K-Mart perfume? I don't think so.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

The Bats

On a day last week the bats arrived, around 9pm. Tree loads of lyssa virus hanging out (literally) in my front garden. Bats hang out in very large conversational groups, communicating by squawking:

" Hey, I found a good roost."
" Me too. I have a good roost too."
" My roost is down here."
" My roost is up here. It's a good roost."
" Let me see."
[Sounds of flapping]
" Oh yes, this is a very fine roost."
" I told you, this is a good roost."
" I had fruit."
" Me too. I had fruit too."
" You had fruit too?"
" Yes, I had good fruit."
" Me too. I had good fruit too."
" I had a peach."
" You had a peach?"
" Yes, I had a peach. It was a good peach."
" Where did you find a peach?"
" On a peach tree."
" You found a peach on a peach tree?"
" Yes. It was a good peach."
" Where was this peach tree?"
" Down there. Lot's of peaches."
" I'll take a look."
[Sounds of flapping.]
[More sounds of flapping.]
" You were right. Good peach."
" You had a peach too?"
" I had half a peach. Then I dropped it."
[Widespread sounds of bat laughter.]
" I had some pineapple."
[More widespread sounds of bat laughter.]
" You never did."
" Yes I did."
" Fibber."
" No really, I had a piece of pineapple."
" Liar, liar, wings on fire."
" No, I really had pineapple."
" You couldn't bite a grape, let alone a pineapple."
[Widespread sounds of bat laughter.]
" A small human dropped a slice of pineapple."
" So.?"
" So I picked it up and ate the fruit."
" Oh. What did it taste like?"
" What?"
" The piece of pineapple."
" Oh. Tasty. Sweet. Fibrous. Bit like an orange, but different."

And so on until around 3:00am when they suddenly fall silent. After about an hour the songbirds take over, led by the kookaburras, heralding the dawn, which arrives about an hour after the birds first start making noises. Fortunately the majority of the bats have now moved on to bother someone else.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

If Everyone Charged Like Rental Car Companies

" Here, this one looks good: 1 bedroom studio apartment opposite beach, ocean views, mini bar and so on. Rack rate is $99 per night but if we book a week it's only $59 per night. We only want 6 nights, but that would cost $594 at the rack rate; the price for a week is just $413. "

" Sounds good, book it. "

[At the end of the stay, checking out.]

" So, we booked at the 1 week rate ... " [Waves credit card]

" Yessir, that's right. So I'll just tote this all up for you. $413 + 2 minibar @ $7 ea. is $427. Add daily room service fee of $18 / per day equals $126, subtotal $553. Premium location (beach view) fee of 24% is $132.72, subtotal $685.72. HLRF at $28/day is $196, subtotal $881.72. Taxable, of course. Paying by credit card? "

" Er, yes. What the heck is HLRF? "

" Hotel Licence Recovery Fee, sir. The State Government charges that just to give us the right to open our doors. Very annoying, but if we didn't pass it on we wouldn't be able to continue. So, $881.72 plus credit card admin fee of 3.6% of $31.74 is $913.46, and GST at 10% is $91.35, so the grand total is $1,004.81. PIN or sign, sir? "

[ Later, in the car]

" Well, that was pretty relaxing. "

" Not any more. Now I'm totally stressed by the bill. " {Hands it over]

" How can they get away with this? "

Saturday, 24 August 2013

I Had A Dream

Unlike Martin Luther King, whose dream for a fair and non-racist USA was actually an ambition, my dream was a real dream, just before waking. In my dream I was part of a group of people (none of whom I knew) listening to a political pundit pontificate. Briefly he was just a talking head, as you might see on television, but before that could develop into anything interesting, he materialised a body as well, dressed in a suit. He said: " I think at this election we will see the Taliban taking 5 seats. " For some reason I seemed to think he meant in NSW alone.

Now clearly the Taliban have zero chance of registering themselves as a political party in Australia. However, a party called, say, Etilub, which has an Islamist agenda, should have no trouble provided they don't break any laws. Why Etilub? Well, that's my (no doubt feeble) attempt to pronounce this Arabic word: الطلاب . And what does that word mean? "Student". And what does Taliban mean in Pashtun? "Student".

Now the real Taliban aren't students of anything, because they are illiterates from the northern frontier of Pakistan and southern regions of Afghanistan. All they have studied is bomb making and small arms, relying on their mullahs (who can read and write) to tell them what is in the Koran and the Hadith. They don't think of themselves as students; they think of themselves as members of the team that operates under the 'Students' badge.

My hypothetical Etilub party probably wouldn't win 5 seats in the whole of Australia, let alone in NSW solely. At least, not now. But one day it might. How then will debate proceed? Absent calls for Sharia Law, and there is still a fundamental clash of values. In Islam there is no separation between Church and State and cannot possibly be. In Western liberal democracies the separation is a chasm, deliberately introduced to keep the Pope out of politics. The bloody wars that established the current paradigm in the West took hundreds of years to come to a conclusion, and perhaps in ruined remnants of Yugoslavia it's not over yet.

I need to cogitate a little more on this. So do you, my dear and faithful reader.

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Electoral Compass

Yay! Yippee! We're going to have an election soon. Time to turf out this mob of incompetent jackasses and install the other mob of incompetent jackasses. Or, even better, have the vote so evenly split that neither of the teams of incompetent jackasses can govern at all without the support of the lunatic jackasses who have been braying from the sidelines.


Now I know I'm a leftie from way back, not least because the political right (anywhere in the world) is largely bereft of rigorous intellectual analysis. Nevertheless, it's always amusing to have these things checked, so I filled out a political compass questionnaire here:

Hmmm. No surprises there. Or are there?

Every time the Greens open their mouths I recoil in horror, because their policies are so often ill-considered and unaffordable. I am very keen to have parties of principle contest elections, but the idea of giving the Greens a major say in the destiny of this country is to me unwise.

On a continuum between extreme pragmatism and extreme idealism I sit right in the middle. I want to vote for a party whose policies derive from ideals (that I share) but whose policies also contain pragmatic plans to deliver them. Right now what I've got is a choice between 2 teams of pragmatists trumpeting their wares as managers (totally bereft of ideals), with a side from a range of idealists (including the Greens) who simply have not thought through what they are uttering.

And the only people fronting up with big ideas are the ones who have zero chance of forming government.


Monday, 8 July 2013

And Yet More Beer Tasting

I reckon I'm about halfway through the range of craft beers in my local liquor store, and while there have been a few that I didn't like, most of them have been pretty good. Most of this current batch are very good, with only one failing to get at least 8 points from Andrew. I realised in setting up this post that I have never reported on price; typically I won't pay much more than A$4.00 for a 330ml bottle because most craft beers are around that price for that size bottle, so I don't need to.

1. Byron Bay Pale Lager by the Byron Bay Brewing Company, Byron Bay, NSW. 4.8% alcohol.

What they say: " A crisp, clean refreshing lager brewed with premium malt and hops. " Bit terse that. No hints of spice or citrus? I'm disappointed.

What I say: Light straw colour, small head, spritzig rather than fizzy, curious absence of any discernible taste. So it meets crisp and clean by not tasting of anything.

Andrew score: 6

2. Beez Neez Honey Wheat Beer by Matilda Bay Brewing Co, Melbourne, VIC. 4.7% alcohol.

What they say: " Beez Neez is brewed with a blend of pale malted wheat and barley with pure light amber honey added to the kettle. This light, golden coloured beer has a malty honeyed palate but is decidedly dry as the natural honey sugars have been fermented out. Let it warm slightly from ice cold to enjoy as the brewer intended. "

What I say: Full marks to Matilda Bay for writing an informative description without a trace of bullshit. I didn't warm it up, but it wasn't ice cold anyway - I'm doing all of this tasting straight from the fridge. Attractive dark straw colour (almost amber), largeish but short-lived head, small but sustained bubbles, noticeable malt and barley flavours, and, despite what the label says, there is a trace of honey sugars.

Andrew score: 10 (this is right up there with Cricketer's Arms, although very different).

3. James Squire The Chancer Golden Ale, by Malt Shovel Brewery, Camperdown, NSW. 4.5% alcohol.

What they say: " Brewed using toasted grains of wheat and barley with Amarillo hops for a tropical fruit aroma, Golden Ale is the ideal thirst-slaking beer. "

What I say: Light to mid-amber colour (no real gold), small but persistent head, small but sustained bubbles, foreground wheat and barley over hops, and no discernible fruit aromas despite what the label says. However, it certainly lives up to its 'thirst-slaking' reputation.

Andrew score: 8

4. James Squire Nine Tales Amber Ale by Malt Shovel Brewery, Camperdown, NSW. 5.0% alcohol.

What they say: " Hand crafted with Pale and Crystal Malts and distinctive hops for a long, slightly nutty finish, this Ale writes another page in the glorious and enigmatic life of James Squire. "

What I say: Relaxed the leash on the copywriter a bit there, didn't they. Red amber in colour, small and short-lived head, some (but not many bubbles), very long finish with caramel and nut. You could easily drink too much of this.

Andrew score: 9

5. James Squire Sun Down Australian Lager by Malt Shovel Brewery, Camperdown, NSW. 4.4% alcohol.

What they say: " This thirst quenching lager is perfect at sundown, or indeed at any time of the day. Brewed using a unique malt and hop blend, hints of citrus and freshly cut grass shine through. "

What I say: Yay! Hints of citrus. Yellow gold in colour, larger and persistent head, reasonable quantity of bubbles, long finish with, as they say, a hint of citrus. Can' say I detected any fresh cut grass though.

Andrew score: 8

6. James Boag's Pure Tasmanian Lager by James Boag and Son, Launceston, TAS. 4.5% alcohol.

What they say: " From the only place it's possible: water, barley, hops, yeast, only from the island. "

What I say: I smell a marketing manager in that description. Yellow-gold in colour, largeish but short-lived head, lots of bubbles of many sizes, short finish with pronounced caramel, and I was unable to detect any other highlights. Drink with caution, it goes down fast.

So there we are: 3 lagers, 2 ales and 1 beer. You know what? I can tell the difference between each of these drinks but I can't recognise a characteristic lager or ale style to those so-named. They're all just beer to me.

Saturday, 25 May 2013

That Took A While, Didn't It

I'm back.

Most of those who know me already know why I've been away for 8 weeks, and those who don't can PM me to find out. I returned from Canberra via Melbourne, Lindenow, Mallacoota, Canberra, Cowra, Armidale and then to Buderim. I was glad in a way that I was obliged to take the car, because 3200 km + over 6 days might have been a bit of an ask on the bike. The bike would have done the distance easily, but I suspect the rider might have collapsed with butt fatigue around Day 3.

Travelling from Mallacoota to Canberra via the Imlay Road, I was slowing down for the T-junction with the Monaro Highway when, rounding the last bend, I came across a dirty yellow wet streak across the road. I had no idea what it was, but in any event I hit it almost as soon as I saw it. At which point all 4 wheels broke traction, and by the time I recovered traction at the front I was halfway into the oncoming lane. Fortunately there was nothing coming the opposite way at that particular moment.

Had I been on the bike I almost certainly would have gone down. The streak must have been almost pure oil. The car is a Volvo C30 which is an AWD with electronic stability and traction control, so to make that vehicle skid requires something special. Presumably the timber jinkers that infest that road are too heavy to be thrown off line by a little river of oil.

The car attracts more favourable comment than the bike, and both attract far more favourable comment than their owner, which is inevitable given they are both so much younger. Still sad but.

The other reason for being glad I was in the car rather than on the bike is that it rained from Cowra to the Queensland border, sometimes quite heavily. At the Queensland border the rain stopped, the clouds parted and the sun came out. Ah Queensland, sunny one day, freezing bloody cold overnight the next.

Normal blogging will resume in a day or two.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Temporary Hiatus

I have to return to Canberra to help deal with a near relative's medical issues. Normal service will resume as soon as possible but probably not for at least a couple of weeks. Any comments will be held pending my return.

Friday, 29 March 2013

Planning The Refurbishment

This renovation is going to be top-to-toe in that order, because the most urgent task is the roof.

The back boundary is full of trees, both in my land and on the public verge, so I had to walk a little further up the road to take this image. What we're looking at is the roof. YAWN, you say; looks like any other tile roof. Well, therein lies part of the problem. It isn't exactly a tile roof. I suppose a kind of generic description would be: ' Galvanised steel pressed metal roofing sheet formed into a tray with tile shapes pressed into a concrete filling and coated with bitumastic and stone chips. ' Trade name: DECRAMASTIC. Actually, that's one of those trade names like Velcro, which becomes generic.

Now when people say to me 'Why on earth are you replacing your roof cladding?' I just say Decramastic, and they immediately nod knowingly and pat my shoulder sympathetically. I did make allowance for replacing the roof cladding in my purchase offer, so there will be no big surprises here. There are three issues with the roof: 1) the Decramastic trays have been deformed by people stomping over the roof over the years thinking they're on something as rigid as a tile roof, leaving gaps; 2) the sealer coating has weathered to the point of not being there any more; and 3) there's no sarking or insulation.

You can't install sarking after the roof cladding, but with a metal roof, whether deck or Decramastic, sarking is essential because it is a vapour barrier, so the only way to install it is to remove the roof cladding and install it then. The sarking also provides an insulation layer up to about R1.5. But having gone to all that trouble I'm certainly not going to reinstall the Decramastic, so we need a replacement. This will be a metal deck of some kind, but I haven't decided on the profile.

Below the roof is a world of problems on the upper floor, all of them caused by previous owners doing things on the cheap. I'm going to ignore the plumbing and electrical issues for the time being, since there's plenty else to talk about, but I'll return to them in a later post.

The first thing to understand is that this house is about 25 years old and has been through several renovations, all done for minimal cost, and it shows. The most significant renovation was the infill of the ground floor. Whether the introduction of the internal stair to replace the previous external stair was done at this time I can't tell, but I suspect it was.

1. This door leads to the top landing of the external stair, except the stair no longer exists, so it just leads to a useless little deck. It has to go.

2. This east facing window does nothing useful. It has to go.

3. The fridge enclosure is very small because it is sandwiched between two existing windows. My existing fridge barely fits, and the Gargantua Maximus I plan to install instead has no chance.

4. This east facing window does nothing useful. It has to go. Getting rid of these two windows in the kitchen will allow overhead cupboards and range hood to be installed; presently there are none.

5. The brave little Westinghouse cooktop / griller / oven. I have to get down on my hands and knees just to see whether the oven gas has ignited, but I don't know why I bother, because it will clearly take at least a week to lift the oven temperature to 160. Sorry, Westinghouse, but I've had a wall oven for the last 22 years, I'm not taking a backward step. And all you trendoids who bought Agas - good choice, peeps; crawling around on your hands and knees to see how your souffle is doing defers arthritis.

6. Double bowl double drainer sink left over from the previous kitchen, installed here because the previous renovators no doubt thought that installing a dishwasher was a needless extravagance. I'd curse them except it was pretty obvious from first inspection that the entire kitchen has to be thrown out anyway.

7. What kind of a nut job installs a pantry hard on the edge of a sink? What kind of nut job installs a pantry deeper than it is wide? Answer: this wasn't laid out by whoever had to do the cooking.

8. The entire kitchen is white postformed tops and white drawer and cupboard fronts (mostly drawers). It only looks nice if you bleach it daily because the melamine sure does like to soak up a stain.

9. Whoever did all this arrived at a problem: nowhere to put the linen closet. No problem, put it in the family room. Now the family room doesn't have any wall at all: it's closet, or window, or kitchen bench, or bleed-off space to the more more formal living areas. Nowhere for aircon, paintings, bookcases or, well, just about anything.

10. A pet peeve of mine is a toilet separate from a bathroom which lacks a basin. If you have to go to the bathroom anyway to wash your hands, why separate the loo? (You do wash your hands every time, don't you?)

11. Nothing short of wholesale removal and redesign is going to rescue this bathroom. And, if by your ill-considered renovations you've reduced the upstairs accommodation to 1.5 bedrooms, why even bother with a bath?

12. This western window has to go. Not only is it stupid, but it looks onto a clunky aluminium sun screen and that's about it.

13. This is a bizarre use of space; why on earth does the robe to this room need to be set back except that you think it's cheaper to use the common wall to the main bedroom?

14. This western window has to go (see previous).

15. We have a platform in the stair at the upper floor level because the cretins who laid all this out couldn't bring themselves to enlarge the robe in the master bedroom!

16. It probably doesn't matter because the stair is seriously non-compliant anyway; not withstanding the lovely shiny timber it will have to be done all over again, this time properly.

17. Another shelf! This one just as useless as the last one. It comes into existence because upstairs projects north further than downstairs. Of course you put in a completely redundant and inaccessible shelf. Of course you do.

18. The climax - a slow-combustion heater. A wood-stove, in fact. Not only is this thing seriously in the way, but there's nowhere for a woodheap, and no wood supplier could possibly get his truck up the 1:5 driveway anyway. What on earth were these people thinking? Anyone need a slow combustion stove? (Daytime temps in winter up here are like, 20, degrees Celsius - ugh, shiver!).

Monday, 4 March 2013

Let The Renovations Begin

I bought what I knew was going to be a bit of a project. Now that I've moved in I've discovered it's going to be a lot of a project. Never mind, one small step at a time. Here's the view from the front: a traditional Queenslander with the ground storey filled in, which is what nearly always happens.

Since we're on a steep hill slope rather than a flood plain, all you lose by filling in the ground storey is a bit of natural ventilation. And since both floors are actually well ventilated this isn't a problem.

When I first arrived the letter box hadn't been cleared for 10 days or more, and all of the mail was lying in 75mm of water. The letterbox looked like it had been installed in the 1980's when the house was first built - one of those traditional Aussie letterboxes with a semi-circular lid that takes newspapers and magazines, painted reddish-brown on a rotting reddish-brown timber pole. The lid didn't fit properly, which allowed the extended wet season up here on the Sunshine Coast to fill the box with water.

So I bought a new letterbox and post and got a handyman to install it for me (I can do much with wood, but not metal or concrete). I had originally intended to start the renovations with the roof cladding, which is a major but necessary job, but it seems I'm starting at the front boundary instead.

Now this strikingly modern letterbox is not only out of character with the house, but also with all the slightly rustic letterboxes in my part of the street. However, I've got a McMansion up the hill behind me, so I've got to keep up the Jones's, don't I?

The drop from the lower storey to the letterbox is, I suppose, about 5 metres, and the driveway is about 25 metres long, so we're at a pitch of about 1:5. Getting the mail is a day's worth of exercise, and I don't relish taking the recycling bin down the driveway. I think I'm going to have to rig up some kind of winch system.

The letterbox is not leaning, that's just an artifact of tilting the camera to encompass the driveway. Getting up that slope in the pouring rain on a motorcycle was quite a feat; I have no intention of reversing down on the bike, so I'll have to turn around in the garage.

Monday, 4 February 2013

Temporary Hiatus

I am moving to my recently purchased house in Queensland over February. I have decided blogging with temporary equipment over a temporary connection is a waste of energy, so this blog will pause until March 2013.

Thursday, 24 January 2013

The Uncanny Valley

Over at 'diogenesian discourse' (see sidebar) Gerry has been trying to tease out whether bigotry is innate, and, if it is, whether we can rise above it. I think the topic I am going to discuss here is very relevant to that discussion.

In 1970 the roboticist Masahiro Mori published an essay titled Bukimi No Tani or The Valley Of Eeriness in English. He proposed (with evidence) that humanoid robots can provoke a uniquely uncomfortable emotion that their mechanical cousins do not. He suggested that we feel uncomfortable because humanoid robots appear dead and thus remind us of our own mortality.

Bzzzzt! Wrong.

Take a waxworks. Madame Tussaud's or indeed any other waxworks can be creepy (some of the original Tussaud's waxworks were based on death masks) but it's not because we are reminded of our own mortality. It's because it's creepy to hang out with dead people, or rooms full of dead people; we prefer the company of the living. And all of those immobile human-looking wax figures look like they are dead: they don't blink, breathe or react.

Now imagine the waxworks ramped up so that Hitler or Kylie Minogue move, talk and so on, but still in a not completely natural way. That's your humanoid robot. Our reaction is revulsion. What is going on?

(Image courtesy of New Scientist Vol 217, no 2899, p36)

First, the effect is real and uniform, and is reproducible, so our knowledge of it is based on good science. It's a phenomenon worth studying not only because everything we don't know needs to be studied, but also because it matters not just to roboticists but also to animators and CG artists. Getting past the Uncanny Valley might be worth a huge amount of money in film.

One thing that is certainly going on is that as the humanoid robot becomes more and more like us our brains spend more and more time processing in the visual and motor cortices. So when we see Edge, The Robotic Arm, we go 'Cool' and move on. No processing power is required to determine that Edge is not a competitor or an interloper.

On the other hand, if I walk past Kylie Minogue in the street (I Should Be So Lucky) I have to invest a considerable amount of processing power into judging whether it really was Kylie, or some convincing simalcrum or some flawed simalcrum.

What I am really trying to do here is discover whether this is Kylie (one of my tribe) or The Other (a member of some other tribe). This is really important because if it is The Other I may only have a second or two to bang Kylie over the head before she does the same thing to me. This has to be sub-conscious because our awake conscious brain is way too slow. So I look, absorb, the visual cortex reports 'not quite human' and I'm already swinging my mighty stone axe before I even realise what is happening.

And the more like us The Other is, the greater the cognitive dissonance, the slower the sub-conscious reaction, and the greater the risk. Until some threshold is passed where they are so much like us that we cannot, on visual inspection, tell the difference, and we react as if they are part of our tribe. If this all sounds familiar, it should, because it is one of the central themes of Battlestar Galactica, amongst other TV shows and films.

Note also that all the extra visual and motor cortex effort to discern whether this is Us or The Other can trigger a Fight or Flight reflex which, if unresolved, leaves us feeling physically sick, never mind the revulsion (which is cognitive). One reason surely that humans evolved to operate in groups larger than the nuclear family was to spread the load of deciding whether that human-looking thing over there is Us or The Other. Not quite sure? Get the Alpha Male to sort it out, we're not giving him all these nuts and berries and groomings and stuff just so he can kick back and do nowt.

The Other is not that which is not us; most of the Universe is not us. The Other is that which is creepily almost exactly, but not quite, like us, dwelling in the Uncanny Valley.

Sunday, 6 January 2013

HP Officejet 7500A: The Kludge

Wowsticks! 64 pageviews yesterday; I usually get 6 if I'm lucky. I doubt it's my peerless prose doing this, so it must be my topic. In this post I'll present the kludge that will allow you to print custom sizes on your HP 7500A up to the maximum width the transport mechanism can cope with. You might even be able to print banners metres long provided their height is 297mm or less.

I don't claim any credit for this solution; I discovered it on the Customer To Customer Product Support Community Forum (hosted by HP) in a conversation in October 2010 between Daniel (posting as 'freethinkin') and Bob Headrick, who is a Microsoft MVP Windows expert. Now it reads as if Bob and Daniel independently cooked up this solution, but they weren't the first to experience this problem with HP printers or find this solution; if you trawl the forums you find that exactly this problem of f****d up printer software has been going on for years with several other machines. And the usual fix is a kludge like the one I am about to present.

Let me repeat that. This. Has. Been. Going. On. For. Years.

What? No, no, there won't be any more ranting, I promise. What? OK, OK, no more profanity either, f-word above now redacted.

What we are going to do is install an imaginary printer; what the geeks call a virtual printer. The trick here is to make it send its output to the HP7500A, which will then print just as we desire. And the fact that this works means that the machine is perfectly capable of doing what we want, which is an even bigger indictment of the HP software engineers.

First we have to determine which port our HP7500A is hanging off, because we want to send our output from our virtual printer to the same destination. Start -> Devices and Printers, click on the HP7500A, then click on Print Server Properties on the top menu strip, and when the Properties window opens click on the Ports tab, and then scroll down if necessary until you find the HP7500A (make sure it is the printer, not the fax). In my case it is USB002:

You'll need to write this port name down on a scrap of paper because we're going to reboot the computer shortly.

Now go to HP's website and download the printer software for the HP Officejet 7000 E809a printer; it's called OJ7000v809a_Basic_14.exe, and it's about 115Mb, so you've got time to freshen up your coffee while it downloads. When it finishes downloading, double-click it to run it, and answer any questions it asks. And when the installation is complete, reboot your computer - I don't know why this stage is necessary, but on my Win 7 machine I couldn't get the printer to show up in the next bit until a reboot had occurred.

Now go Start -> Devices and Printers and click on the Add A Printer on the top menu strip. Wait for the panes to populate in the Add A Printer window, then select HP in the left pane and the Officejet 7000 809a in the right pane, then click OK. When asked, enter the port number you wrote down on the scrap of paper. When the Add A Printer routine completes, the window looks like this:

Wait, what? Where's my new printer? Don't worry, it's there, it's just Win 7 doesn't display it (might be the same problem with Win XP). This is probably because the programmers working for Microsoft on this area used to work for HP.

Now open up your custom size document in your application (DL envelope in this case):

And Ctrl-P, which reveals:

The highlight is on the Officejet 7500A because that is the default printer, but you can see the Officejet 7000A immediately above it, so select it and press OK:

You might have noticed just before you pressed OK that the preview didn't change. Sadly, auto-detect the size you are trying to print is not present, you have to do it manually. Nevertheless, we now have this window, which I must say looks a bit better thought out than the HP7500A version:

Click on the Features tab and you get this:

We've had to go here because the Officejet 7000A doesn't have DL envelopes built-in either, but if you click the down arrow next to the size you do get the option of a custom size. So click the custom selection and you get this:

So you call it something other than 'custom' (DL Envelope in my case). Remember to put the the narrow dimension as the width and the wider as the height, because in this instance we're printing Landscape. You might have to think about that for a bit. And after you press OK you new paper size will appear in the custom listing:

So select it, then press OK repeatedly until you are back in your document, whereupon your print job will start. Simple, reelly (like f*** it's simple). Now whenever you want to print your custom size you just have to remember to change your printer from the default.

In a subsequent post I'll cover how I got around the scanner in this gadget behaving badly, but that's for another time.


Saturday, 5 January 2013

HP Officejet 7500A: Thanks For Nothing, Hewlett Packard

Now it happens that I had been using Windows XP Professional SP3 on all my computers for quite a while (up until recently I had 3 computers, 2 desktops and a laptop). I had a stable home network, and all of the computers could see the printer and use the Internet. I was enjoying this environment so much it was inevitable that something would go wrong, and so it did in the shape of the C drive on the main desktop going to cack. Fortunately I had time to put a copy of my data (250Gb) onto a secondary drive before it died completely.

So I bought a new C drive. What I should have done, what any sensible person would have done, would have been to reinstall Windows XP. So I didn't, I installed Win 7 (64-bit) instead. That had 2 immediate and predictable bad effects: the network vanished (and I still haven't got it working) and some of my software couldn't be installed. This isn't front line software, so there's no point in setting up a Win XP 32-bit virtual machine just so I can get my favourite world clock software up and running. I decided I'd live with it.

After a while I found the fact that my original HP printer software couldn't be installed, and I had to use a vanilla driver, was annoying. The reason was that the original software reported ink levels every time a print job launched; with the vanilla driver I couldn't find out the ink levels at all.

This would have been the perfect time to say: "Oh stuff it, I'm reverting to Win XP", so I didn't. Instead, since I have occasionally the need to produce A3 prints, I bought a new printer. Now the old HP 5550 had worked without complaint or problem for years, so when I saw a new HP 3-in-1 (fax, scanner and printer) at a modest price, I bought it.

Bzzzt! Fail.

It certainly looks impressive:

I ran a few test prints and scans and they turned out all right, so I was pretty happy. The scanner is only A4 because A3 scanners cost a fortune, but it came with software that allows you to stitch together images. So far so ordinary. Then I came to print an ordinary business envelope (DL). I noted there wasn't an envelope slot, so loading DL required emptying the paper tray, which is a bit shabby. Never mind, DL loaded, DL page ready, let's go.

Bzzzt! Fail.

No DL paper size. Further investigation revealed no 'Custom Size' either, so I can't even create my own DL. This is pathetic.

And note the bizarre order available sizes are offered to you - why isn't A6 next to A5?

I tried various workarounds to force it to print my DL envelope, eventually settling on creating a frame in the top right corner of an A4 page that is exactly 110mm x 220mm and printing that. It worked but it meant I would have to redo all my stationery.


A little floundering around on the Interwebs revealed that, in fact, you could create custom page sizes, just not in the Ctrl-P dialog. You have go to the Devices and Printers (Start - Devices and Printers) page instead, select your printer and click Print Server Properties:

I should have expected what would go wrong here, but I didn't. So the first tab is Forms and it displays a list of predefined forms, neatly sorted into ASCII order. A little way down the form itself is the check box 'Create a new form'. So I used that, set the size at 110mm x 220mm (cuz we're printing landscape) and saved it as DL Envelope. Yay! All good.

I returned to my DL envelope, opened up the Print Dialog and looked for my DL envelope.

Bzzzt! Fail. The stupid printer will not honour the sizes set in the Print Server Forms settings. My DL Envelope is not visible, and nor is any other custom size I create.

The reason I should have expected this wasn't going to work was that the list of paper sizes presented in the Ctrl-P dialog is not only not sorted, it's clearly a subset of what is available in Print Server Properties. It was a faint hope that my custom size would escape whatever filter is going on here, soon dashed.

In my previous place of work we had an acronym for lumps of technology that patently failed to deliver what their manufacturers' claimed they would do: FUPOS. Fucking Useless Piece Of Shit. Well, thanks very much, Hewlett Packard, for releasing onto the market a FUPOS that can't even do what my little 10-year old printer can do.

The following 2 paragraphs have been edited to remove some swearing that apparently gave offence

And while I'm at it, thanks a heap HP for not having any kind of help or support but offloading all of that onto the 'Forums' (aka decent people who care, as opposed to corporate ****s such as yourselves who don't). Thanks a heap HP for releasing a product to market where the software was developed by the work experience kid, and nobody checked his / her work. Thanks a heap HP for pretending that the rest of the world doesn't exist and only good ol' USA is important, even as you gobble down my Aussie dollars.

Did I find a fix in the end? Yes, but you'll have to wait for the next post to find out what it is. It's a secondary fix, a kludge. The Primary Fix? Do not buy anything from HP. Let those corporate ****s drown in a sea of surplus inventory. All except the product manager responsible for this debacle; him (or her) I want delivered to me personally, in order that a great deal of lingering suffering may be inflicted. Quid pro quo.