The Seby Runestone

August 2, 2017

A thousand-year-old runestone stands at the village of Seby, at the south-eastern corner of the Swedish island of Oland. It might be more correct to say that the village stands at the runestone. But see how things decay as time passes. Me, for example.




Notice that the runestone has IMPROVED in quality and tidiness over the years, whereas the little chap beside it has definitely weathered, and now has a sort of despairing expression instead of the youthful confidence of 1974. It’s a sort of Runestone of Dorian Gray.

A helpful sign lists the text; it is a typical example – in modern English it would be “Ingald and Nosey and Sven raised this stone after Rodmar, their father” and the sign helpfully goes on to explain “The name ‘Nosey’ is a nickname, usually applied to a person with a big or characteristic nose.

The names of Nosey’s brothers and father have stood here for ten centuries! Few other memorials to men have lasted as long. But whereas in the 1974 picture the scenery behind the stone was empty, now a house stands there and a small green modern runestone appears on Tuesdays, for example on 10/8/2010 and 25/7/2017:

The bin has had the same lid for 7 years, but in 2017 they are throwing out more rubbbish. Tut tut! The sky has also turned from blue to grey. Some anthropologist should re-visit the site in some future year, on another day of the week. If it’s not underwater …

Bjorketorp Rune Stone

July 29, 2017

Ah, Sweden, home of the Viking culture (ca 700-1000AD). There are thousands of rune-stones here, mostly around the Stockholm area and mostly standing in the fields or moved to stand near a church, having withstood the external Nordic winters for eleven centuries. But down here in the south of Sweden, there are still a few runestones standing around, and I love them all.

Runes of course belong to a 16-character alphabet called the Futhark, because it goes FUþARK HNIAS TBMLR –

Yes I know there are two A’s and two R’s (and no E or O) … but you would not argue with the Vikings. What you have there is the Younger Futhark; there is an Elder Futhark, of 24 characters, which allows a better mapping to our 26-letter alphabet and is therefore used (with invented additions) by modern rune fans such as Tolkien, and by the whole wacko culture around runes. It is quite hard to find a historically correct Internet page about runes, among all the woo-woo stuff.

Rune stones usually have a very simple message, which you can almost read today because modern English is derived from Old Norse. Here’s a basic one, DR317 (they are all catalogued) –

Tufa risþi stina þisi uftir kamal buta sin uk asur sun h(an)s
Tove raised stone this after Gamal husband hers and Assur son his

As you see, the layout of the lettering was very badly planned, and there’s no art work in the middle; we have a very cheapo runestone here … but today I visited the Bjorketorp Stones (DR360), which stand in a forest glade near Ronneby. These mighty monoliths were raised in about 700 AD – somewhat before most other runestones:

The main stone has a handy recess so if I were to turn sideways, my big belly would fit to it nicely. On the back a few runes say “See other side of stone” … well, actually they say “Prophecy of Doom”:

And on the front, in ancient runes of the Elder Futhark, reading left-to-right but from the bottom line upwards: “haidz runo ronu falahak haidera ginarunaz arageu(*) haeramalausz utiaz weladaude saz þat barutz”.

What, you want it translated? That’s hard, as these are ancient runes of the Elder Futhark, predating even Old Norse, but here goes. Please stand back, your monitor may catch fire:

In modern Swedish: “Mäktiga runors hemlighet dolde jag här, kraftfulla runor. Den som bryter detta minnesmärke skall ständigt plågas av arghet(*). Svekfull död skall träffa honom. Jag spår fördärv.”

In English: “Mighty runes’ secret hid I here, powerful runes. The man who desecrates this monument shall be plagued with abiding wrath(*). Terrible death shall come to him. I spell his ruin.”

(*) The word asterisked here, and ringed in my picture, has strong connotations of passive male homosexuality. (In Viking times the, er, active role was acceptable manly behavior; the passive role certainly not). We have a gay runestone here! It was legal to kill someone who spoke this word to you as an insult. See

Actually I took that photo of the runes in 1980. Today the runestone was standing in a weathered condition, with lichen starting to grow on it. Someone cleans the runestones every few decades, and the runes are re-painted in red – as accuracy is important, the painting is done by a university Professor or similar.

Noting what the inscription says, I hope the man who cleaned it in 1980 took due care not to desecrate it – not the wire brush and Brillo pad, please. Leave the angle grinder at home! I wonder what happened to him …

Another dire fate, although not as bad as being rogered by horny homosexual Vikings, awaits those who park nearby and fail to visit the runestone, because this little modern blue inscription says “Parking only for visitors to the runestone”.

Stora Raby church, Lund, Sweden

July 26, 2017

Behold, I have flown to Sweden; and it is time to fire up this blog again. Lufthansa gave me a turkey sandwich, with this contents declaration:

It does not need to include “Contains: Turkey” because the turkey is holding the sandwich. Anyway, after 28 hours of flying and eating airline food, I arrived OK and was soon taken on a tour of a little church just outside Lund, in Skane, south-western Sweden. The priest spoke to the masses about the general history of this 13th-century Lutheran church:

… presumably explaining (it was all in Swedish and I am not up to speed yet) how a 13th-century building can be Lutheran. The church is so old that its tower no longer stands up straight, or perhaps it never did.

And as you see, they leave a spirit level – a Holy Spirit level! – at the base of the tower, so people can see for themselves how much it leans.

The Leaning Tower of Stora Raby, no less. We moved inside this perilous structure for more history:

The middle section was restored in 1528 and given a new roof. As you see at the top left in that picture, the new roof stands in front of a major artwork depicting the Trinity, actually obscuring God’s face:

But they have left a sort of slot for God to fit into. No wonder he looks so glum. Probably not best pleased at his Son being crucified … the head of a dove representing the Holy Spirit pokes in at the left. Nearby is a sort of fish tail, with the date (1528):

But as you see, this is really the end of one of the ceiling beams. Outside again to tour the graveyard, where one grave is nicely air-conditioned:

And the sundial … it runs from 3am to 9pm! When I saw this, its side of the church was in the shade. But even in the shade, it still shows the correct time once a day, digitally, just after a quarter past six in the evening. 🙂


July 16, 2017

In an idle moment at the computer – I wonder how often that ever happens? – I came across a site selling newly invented Fidget Spinners, and I ordered two.

Before they arrived I found myself in Paddy’s Market in Sydney, together with my friend Richard. Cheap versions of such items were for sale there (spinners, that is, not friends) and we bought one each. We then spent many joyful hours spinning them, photographing them, making web posts about them, etc. Well what would you rather we were doing instead? If you spin one while on a train, the AC lighting causes dark rays to appear and slowly rotate on the spinning surface, and with a bit of measurement you could deduce the spinning rate as a multiple of the AC frequency of the train’s electrical system.

I also found a new way to stir coffee. But I digress.

Soon after I returned to Melbourne, my two high-quality spinners arrived, by courier from the USA, neatly packaged and sealed in round tins. The spinners, that is, although it would be a good idea to … And this was the very day that my son and his fiancee were due to fly off to Munich to visit her friends and her parents, Sepp & Carolin!

In a rare moment of generosity I gave my son one of the spinners, as a gift to his fiancee’s parents in Munich. 24 hours later I saw a video of my delighted future father-in-law, wasting time with his new spinner. As Sepp and myself Skyped we both felt a bond between ourselves and our two cultures and nations, spanning (or, maybe, spinning) the planet. Not the first time for me – because I married a foreigner, 40 years ago.

There was to be revenge. Weeks later my son & his fiancee returned to Melbourne. Bearing a gift. From Sepp. Who did his national service in the German Army. Circa 1980. This is Sepp’s gift – a gift that will last forever. And can break through concrete.

Behold me, with my German Army Spade! A marvellous piece of enginering, in 1/8″ thick steel, with a fitted wooden handle. A mighty beast, an instrument of construction and destruction, the weapon maybe of some great warrior. Note the elegant curved edge, the subtly dished bowl, and the natty wooden handle. This is a work of art and a wonder of technology, as well as a humble shovel.

For is not the Spade of great use, both in war and peace? See below, how the basically-equipped soldier easily pushes his enemy’s rifle away, and is about to wallop him with his E-tool (“entrenchment tool”, the Army term for a spade). Not shown, but after killing his adversary, the E-tool can then also be used to bury him.

That is a Russian army picture – and the weather seems to have improved in Russia since I was a lad. But going back in time, note also, below, this Soviet Army poster which I photographed in Magadan in 2012. Behold the grim determination of the Marxist warrior as he digs his way across hostile terrain to confront and defeat his capitalist enemies, or perhaps to dig a hole into which they will hopefully fall. “The Shovel – Friend of the Soldier”.

Postscript – later I thought I saw my new spade in another room in the house. Curious, I went back and checked and yes, my son has flown TWO of these back from Munich. In his checked-in aeroplane baggage. Imagine how they must have glistened in the airport’s security X-ray scan! So, regrettably, mine is not the only German Army Spade in town.

But, what a gift! Who else would give a thing like that, well I probably would actually … Sepp, I spun my way into your world, but you have shovelled your way into my heart. Sepp, I love you.


July 10, 2017

Woo what? Margama. (pronounced WooMARgama, not WoomarGAma). Last weekend, this tiny hamlet (near Holbrook NSW) was graced by the visit of one of the motorbike groups that I belong to.

The main road from Sydney to Melbourne used to run right through the community, but since 2011 the Hume Freeway has bypassed it. I must have driven through Woomy a few times, but I do not remember it. It has a few houses, one hotel and one garage – the hotel is modest and the garage doesn’t sell petrol any more and is just a small shop. The town map says a lot.

[Note added later. Prince Charles and Princess Diana spent the night here in Woomargama, circa 1983. It is said that the infant Prince William, second in line to the throne of England, took his first steps here. Possibly, he was trying to reach Melbourne.]

I arrived in the late afternoon. Nice quiet town … nobody about, not even at the shop.

But the views were relaxing and bucolic. For example:

And there were several Interesting Stones that were dug up and brought here when they were building the freeway nearby. Interpretive Plaques have been affixed to explain how interesting they are.

The playground and BBQ area.

A Tree.

But we all met up and had a big BBQ at the hotel, drank a bit of beer and wine and stayed overnight. We had a good time; the hotel has a nice bar. The next morning was fresh and cold.

My motorbike displays the temperature … minus 5*C. I decided to go home on the freeway; I had planned to go on the scenic back roads, but there might be black ice and I’d fall off. Barbro and myself are about to go and lead a bicycle ride for 32 people in Sweden, so we do not want complications now.

As you see above, some interesting ice crystals formed on the motorbikes. This cheered us up no end, especially as the hot water pipes had frozen and there WAS NO HOT WATER.

By 10 o’clock my bike had thawed out, and I rode home in temperatures of up to 4*C (we are having a cold snap). Honestly, it was warmer in Siberia (where in 2012 I had +2*C at the start of the day and 6*C in the afternoon).

This was the bike’s shake-down ride before a big trip. Next week I am going to lend my bike to one of my Road of Bones mates, and he will ride off with Steve from Sydney and some other guys, looking for major dirt tracks to ride in central Australia (the Birdsville Track, etc). They are likely to end up in Darwin, which is where we got to last year. Indeed, they might leave my bike somewhere like that and fly home, in which case I will happily go up and ride it back later in the year.

Go well, old friend.

Equations, and stuff

July 2, 2017

Here’s some bizarre scientific equations to while away the time. Soon I will post about the 2010 cycling trip in Sweden and then as it proceeds, the 2017 trip that is about to happen.

Astronomy is always a source of, er, astronomical numbers. Very massive things (like, black holes) emit gravity waves as they move about. Well, so do less massive things, but then the gravity waves are harder to detect. I have to say “massive” rather than “heavy”, as things can only be heavy if they happen to be near the Earth. I tried to run a competition once, to gues the weight of the Great Melbourne Telescope’s clock-driving weight:

which in fact weighs about 229 kg. I was correctly told that its mass is 229 kg, it only weighs that because it happens to be near the Earth – it would weigh nothing if it were in outer space, although it would be expensive to get it there – and if it were taken to the North Pole it would weigh less. I got one helpful answer listing what its weight would be if it were on various other planets, and pointing out that it would weigh 216 milligrams less when at the top of its 10-foot vertical travel, just after the clock had been fully wound, minus 59 milligrams for the air it displaces, which is less dense if you go up 10 feet.

Two weighty questions – answers at end of this post – Supposing you have a meat pie for lunch, where would be the best place to find out how heavy it is? And where would be a good place to weigh a whale?

Anyway, back to gravity waves; I was at a talk about these the other day. With the very most sensitive apparatus working under the most delicate conditions, scientists were just about able to detect the gravity waves from two unusually large black holes that were orbiting one another. Here’s the mathematical equation giving the energy radiated by gravity waves from a pair of objects orbiting one another

You see “c” there, well that is the speed of light, and here it is being raised to the 5th power, so the numbers are pretty vicious. We need hardly bother with the factor of 32/5.

Now this power can be worked out for the Earth orbiting the Sun; and between them, they are radiating 200 watts into space by this means. (The Sun radiates more than that, from other processes). Now this perpetual loss of 200 watts is taken from the Earth’s orbital energy, causing the Earth to spiral in towards the Sun, and indeed eventually to fall right in, which will happen after a time of 3,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years, given by :

Isn’t that reassuring? The brightness of galaxies on the surface of the night sky is measured in mJy.kpc2 (milliJansky square kiloparsec) and 1 mJy.kpc2 is about 9,521,540,000 kg metre-squared per second squared. Please do not confuse that with mJy per square kiloparsec, because one of those would be about 0.00000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000105025 kg PER metre-squared second-squared. Woops.

This brings to mind a joke about cosmologists (who study the origin of the universe) – levity, not gravity. One of them was trying to calculate some sort of cosmological constant, and wanted some measurements done at a radio telescope, and the next day the engineers told him “We did a quick first set of measurements, and we estimated your constant as being between 6 and 7 – maybe 6.3, very roughly.” “That is a very encouraging result”, said the cosmologist, “please do some more measurements and refine it.” Four weeks later “We’ve done the accurate measurements and now your constant is determined to be 873,000 billion”. Cosmologist grins and says “That is an even MORE encouraging result”.

The Pythagorean Expectation in baseball is an attempt to predict the percentage of wins that a team should be getting, based on their past performance. One formula is: % = rs2 / (rs2 + ra2) where rs and ra = runs scored and runs allowed. Now some commentators applied this to basketball and use different exponents: Daryl Morey used the 14th powers, % = rs14 / (rs14 + ra14) and John Hollinger used 16th powers. Approximately. Thus, the New York Yankees in 2002 scored 897 points and allowed 697 points; so they should have won 89716 / (89716 + 69716) = 98.2% of their games. One day I’ll post about asymmetric cryptography, where the exponents go much, much higher but can still be brought back into the real world.

Ah yes. The best place to weigh a pie is somewhere over the rainbow; with reference to the song “Somewhere Over the Rainbow – Weigh a Pie …”; and whales should of course be weighed at a whale-weigh station. I’d better stop now; next post will be about my trip this weekend to Woomargama.


June 10, 2017

So, one month after the Carl Larsson museum, we were still hanging around Sweden, and we embarked on a multi-day Bicycle Ride, with our friends Tommy and Irene. This ride was so wonderful and inspiring that now, 7 years later and 7 years in the planning, we are about to conduct 30 Melbourne riders on a similar ride in Sweden, 12-28 August 2017, which will be fully written up in this blog, oh yes.

We hired bicycles like this one. Bear with me … it had 3 gears, and no front brake; the rear wheel had only the hub brake (you brake when you back-pedal, which I found very annoying). The frame was heavy steel and it weighed about 30 kg. But – but – the Swedish Army uses these bicycles! Imagine them going into battle on heavy pink bicycles; I bet that would terrify their enemies. A fighting soldier, of course, carries a very heavy pack – a First World War British soldier carried 66 lbs – so he/she would not need a 27-gear racing bicycle. These bikes had a top speed of about 15 kph and that was all you needed, what with only one hub brake. Anyway, here’s Irene, Tommy, and myself at a Swedish youth hostel –

And as we rode around Småland – a southern part of Sweden known for its forests and glass works – in that hazy summer of 2010, wonderful things happened, as they do, one of which I will here and now relate.

We rode into a ghastly industrial town one morning, and headed for a cafe, desperate to score some coffee’s. But the town had only one cafe for its 500 inhabitants, and this for our greater convenience and enjoyment had just been sold off to some Arabs, and it was permanently closed. What to do … it was miles to the next town. Now this town also had only one shop – a small supermarket.

So we headed in there to see what there was. Luckily, this shop sold almost everything, including plastic tables and chairs. Which we earnestly tried out for size.

As we relaxed among the chairs for sale, we saw that across the aisle there was a metal stand for putting hot pastries and croissants on. This stood empty, but hope springs eternal in the human breast; and indeed, the stand bore a Helpful Sign which said that hot pastries would arrive every day at 10 o’clock … and it was 10 o’clock! And sure enough, some hot pastries were forthwith delivered and were placed upon the stand, where they sat for about 5 seconds because, unlike the chairs we were sitting on, we actually bought these.

Now, we thought some coffee would be nice and would go really well with the croissants … but the manageress said sorry, the shop did not sell coffee. (Plan B would be to buy ground coffee, a coffee filter with papers, and a kettle). However they did sell coffee cups, and we were welcome to borrow some off the shelving, whereupon she poured us the coffee from her own thermos flask!

Imagine our delight! This was further enhanced when we left, as she came outside and showed us the best roads to ride on (which were not as marked on our map), recommended some cute places to go when we came to the forest, and told us what was worth and not worth seeing on our way.

O, what a glorious morning – the care and love of the shop manager, good coffee and fresh hot cakes, and some useful tourist information. And all at the only shop in town. Now you might wonder, what was the name of the town? We passed its railway station on the way out.

Skruv, is the town name. It means “screw”. Reflecting the dark, industrial nature of the area.

A town called Screw. Screw. I’ll show you a Swedish one:

Pot Plant Stand

June 9, 2017

It’s been a while on the blog, but this story will sprawl out in all directions, like a bush. It starts long ago in Sweden, where on one of our many visits, some years ago in 2010, we visited the Carl Larsson’s House Museum.

Larsson was an artist famous for paintings very cute indoor and outdoor scenes of his own idyllic family life and surroundings, about 100 years ago. Awww, how cute!! At the Museum we also saw this chair, made for him by a local carpenter.

I’m not sure who designed it, maybe Larsson himself or perhaps he was swayed and convinced by an ambitious carpenter (this has happened before – 2000 years ago) but Larsson took a strong dislike to it while it was still being built. Therefore, he had it delivered to his house at night so nobody would see it … but we are seeing it now, aren’t we?

As we exited Larsson’s house we passed through a gift shop – as one is forced to do – and I saw a sketch of this oddly designed Pot Plant Stand, built like a ziggurat. And I resolved to make one like it, one day. Well, that day has now arrived! But unfortunately I mis-filed the above picture – it was under “Cute pictures” instead of under “Sweden trip 2010” – the first time I have ever failed to find a photo among the 145,645 on my hard disk.

So, although I still recalled the approximate design, I had to re-design it from scratch. And here it is: behold, the Pot Plant Stand of Doom –

and as you see, it stands up on its own without any cross braces because the wood is so thick and the joints are strongly made. You see, I have taken up woodwork as a hobby, and that will be one of the ways this story will branch out on, later. I gave it to my daughter Emma (another story branch coming up) and installed it in her flat; here it is, ready to go out into the cold and dark on her balcony –

Well, with the great irony of fate, just after I had made and delivered the bloody thing I saw a picture of the engine of the Emma Maersk. This is, or 7 years ago was, the biggest container ship in the world when I sent a picture of it to my daughter, namesake of the ship. She can carry thousands of containers and cruise at 37 knots – the ship, that is – my daughter is yet more amazing. But enough! and to the picture – here’s the engine, 4 storeys high:

That is the biggest engine ever built, eight times the power of the Titanic. And below are pictures of the ship. The first container ships carried 4 containers across the deck; this one carries 22, arranged in a ziggurat which coincidentally is reminiscent of my pot plant stand, eh?

Where is all this going, well the engine picture is new but it led me to dig up the ship pictures, which are 7 years old. And as I clicked through those pictures, the very next picture in my “Cute Pictures” hard-disk directory was – guess what –

Yes, the missing pot plant stand! And now I see it did have a cross-brace, well mine does not need one, hah.

However: I have built the bloody thing upside down!!

Now I have downloaded the official brochure of the Larsson one. It is sold by a “Chair Club” based at the Larsson home, which has furniture of similar design. The gist of the caption is: “Its modern design is due to Karin Larsson (Carl’s wife) and it is made by local carpenter Hans Arnbom. As this item is rather big, it should stand in a window bay and be fixed to the wall so it doesn’t fall over.” (Hah! Mine stands up firmly by itself.) “It is made from quality plywood (arrghh) sawn by water-powered machinery … this is a collaboration between the Carl Larsson museum and Kotte Toys of Dalen, near Skruv.”

And there ends this story branch, but those last words will open up a whole new story, of the Sweden bike ride we did at the same time in 2010. A story of wonder and inspiration – in the next post.

New Zealand’s Space Program

May 25, 2017

This is New Zealand. (At the bottom right).

And this is the main part of the North Island, with the Mahia Peninsula sticking out of the SE coast.

Here’s the Mahia Peninsula. You can stay at the Onenui Farm Stay, I am sure it’s very nice. But note those bare paddocks right at the southern tip – that is part of Onenui Station.

That’s the farmer, and some of his sheep, which seem to have gone out of the gate. It probably doesn’t matter much.

But what is that in the middle of the bare paddock?
It is the launch site for the NZ Space program.

The company involved, Rocket Lab, 3-D print their rockets. Now, the NASA rockets cost $100 million and upwards. Elon Musk’s Space-X rockets cost $60 million, but he brings them back down the right way up (as opposed to the usual disastrous “nose down” method of re-entry) and re-uses them. But Rocket Lab’s NZ rockets cost only $5 million. They can 3-D print a new one in 24 hours.

That’s one fresh off the printer, (“here’s one I made this morning”), and here it comes. Maybe towed by the farmer’s tractor?

They had the Onenui launch site blessed by the local Maori elder.

The first rocket is ready to launch today – they are waiting for the weather to clear. As well as a 150kg satellite to be put into orbit, the rocket will carry Maori artefacts and a sample of Onenui soil into space.

How very civilised.

Here in Australia we don’t even HAVE a space program.
God bless New Zealand.

… and it was the best birthday I ever had. W’ll d’n, f’llas.

Faith Betrayed

April 30, 2017

A final gist of a story by the obscure French humorist Alphonse Allais. Apparently his neighbour lived with a girl for many years, until she disappeared in mysterious circumstances. To start with, they got on very well, but after a while he suspected her of being unfaithful. “It’s true, John is so cute.” she bleated. So what he has got that I haven’t … “John’s got a nicer car than yours”.

So he upgraded his car to the latest sporty model, and their relationship returned to harmony. But then he caught her out again. “Yes, I couldn’t resist Arthur”, she sighed, “He’s much slimmer and sexier looking than you”.

Well, after some months of dedicated effort at the gym, and expense at the hairdresser and tailor, he managed to lose weight and scrub up his appearance, achieving a suitably sexy look, and things returned to normal again. For a while, at least … then suspicion again reared its ugly head, and he confronted her a third time: “Charles has a better sense of humour than you”.

So he rushed to the bookshop to buy a copy of Pas de Bile, the latest collection of pieces by famed author Alphonse Allais. He read it from cover to cover, and back again, until he was so impregnated with the spirit of this unique book that they both could hardly get to sleep at night for laughing.

But in time, that faded too and he was betrayed yet again. This time, she grunted “Henry has a much bigger and nicer house than this one”. So, he took out a bank loan and acquired a McMansion, better looking than Henry’s, and his wayward girl friend again returned to him.

There were, sad to say, several more cycles of hanky-panky, suspicion, confrontation, and confession, followed by an impressive emulation resulting in an improvement over whatever attribute the latest beau possessed, with subsequent acceptance, remorse and reconciliation.

Indeed, there were too many to list here, but the last betrayal before she mysteriously vanished entailed: “Luigi is such an exciting and special man – he is an axe-murderer and a hit-man for the Mafia…”

Door Closer

April 28, 2017

Scene: An iron-monger’s shop in Paris.

Enter M. Alphonse Allais, the obscure French humorist.

Ironmonger: Good morning – can I help you?

Allais: Good morning – I want to buy a door-closer.

Ironmonger: Ah, one of those gadgets with a spring, that you fix on a door so that it closes by itself?

Allais: Yes – but not too expensive, if possible.

Ironmonger: One medium-price automatic door-closer, then.

Allais: As long as it’s not too complicated and fiddly.

Ironmonger: Of course not, sir. Just a cheap, simple automatic door-closer.

Allais: Yes, please. But I don’t want one of those really strong ones that pulls the door shut before you’re halfway through.

Ironmonger: I know, some of them can almost tear your jacket off. So what you want is a simple, reasonably priced automatic door-closer with gentle action. Is that it?

Allais: Absolutely. Not too gentle, though – I’ve seen some that work very slowly.

Ironmonger: I’ve seen those too – the door’s still half-open when you come back! What you’re looking for is a simple budget model, gentle-action quick-return door closer.

Allais: I think that covers it. As long as it isn’t too stiff. One or two brands seem to be so powerful that you have to push like mad to get the door open at all.

Ironmonger: Right! So what we’re after is a low-cost, straight-forward, gentle-action, quick-return, easy-to-operate automatic door closer.

Allais: Yes, that’s it! What have you got in stock like that?

Ironmonger: Sorry, we don’t do door-closers.

Fire Insurance

April 25, 2017

Alphonse Allais invented many useful things, such as an aquarium with frosted glass (for shy fish) and a hearse that pre-incinerated the corpse on its way to the funeral. Apparently, he had a friend who had a business where coffee beans were imported, stored, roasted and sold wholesale. Coffee beans are green to start with; upon roasting they become brown and aromatic, and can be used for making coffee.

Unfortunately, due to a catastrophic neighbourhood fire, his warehouse was completely destroyed. Prudently, both the building and its contents were insured against fire, so he filled out and sent in the claim form, and the next day an insurance assessor visited the site and surveyed the damage.

Now this insurance company was pretty crafty – one ingenious client had claimed for gradual fire-damage to his entire winter’s stock of kindling and firewood, plus coal, candles and cigarettes, and they paid up, but then had him prosecuted for arson and sued to get their money back.

Their report to their client read as follows. “Your insurance policy was comprehensive, fully indemnifying all your losses. The insured value of the destroyed warehouse building was 2,000 francs. The warehouse contents were 500 sacks of green coffee beans, valued at 20 francs per sack. These are now roasted brown coffee beans, worth 30 francs as the roasting process normally costs 10 francs per sack. Assessing your losses overall, you owe us 3,000 francs”.

A dark and stormy night

April 23, 2017

The obscure French humorist Alphonse Allais claimed that he arrived at a hotel late one very dark and stormy night, but the receptionist would not let him in. “It’s 11:30 and the Manager said not to let anyone in after 11pm”. “But listen, my good man, it is pouring with rain and I have nowhere else to go” – “Sorry, sir, but it’s more than my job is worth…”

So Alphonse shouted, above the noise of the storm “Look, here’s a tip for you” and pushed a $100 note through the letter box. Then things changed very swiftly – the door was opened and he staggered in, and was given a towel to dry himself. Since one can expect a certain level of service for $100, he commanded “Bring my suitcase in”. The receptionist went outside into the dark and stormy night to fetch it, but then a sudden gust of wind blew the door shut behind him.

“Let me back in!” “But you said that it was management policy not to let anyone in after 11pm”. “But… but… how am I supposed to get in, then?”

“May I suggest, you might get in by the same way as I did.”

And very soon, his $100 note came through the letterbox.

A Remarkable Tale

April 17, 2017

This is derived from a story by the obscure French humorist Alphonse Allais, translated by Miles Kington of Punch magazine. Everything on this blog is true, and that first sentence is true also, and I will re-tell the story faithfully.

Years ago in a French coastal town, poor little Pierre was sent by his mother to the market, to buy an eel. It was eel season and she knew there were some fresh ones available. Pierre’s mother gave him a 5-franc coin and said “Get a good one, but mind you don’t get swindled – don’t pay more than 1 franc for it. And mind that you bring home the change.”

Pierre set off along the towpath for the market and, not having seen a 5-franc coin very often, he flipped the coin in the air and caught it. He flipped it again, higher and higher and sure enough, eventually he missed the catch and the coin rolled away – and to his horror it rolled straight into the river! And to make things worse, a sudden gust of wind blew his beret off, and that fell into the river too. “Merde!” said Pierre.

Luckily there happened to be a rowing boat moored nearby, with the oars still in it, so Pierre leapt into the boat, untied it and rowed out (after having tried to row it out without first untying it; this story is accurately detailed) to where his beret was slowly floating down the river. The beret was waterlogged but still floating, so when he reached it he promptly fished it out of the water and dumped it into the boat. And, guess what, inside the beret was – a magnificent eel! As Pierre had lost the 5-franc coin and was thus unable to buy a similar one, he thought this situation to be very appropriate.

Triumphantly he took the eel home, although his mother told him off for losing the 5-franc coin and getting his hat wet. Then, looking forward to a dinner of eel&chips, or however they serve eel in France – eel medallions? – she began to prepare the eel for cooking.

But when she sliced the eel open, guess what she found in its stomach?

The 5-franc coin … no, I am joking. It’s a huge, magnificent coin, that an eel could never swallow and an eel’s stomach is much too small to hold it. No no no. No way. What were you thinking?

What she found in the eel’s stomach, was eight 50-centime coins. This was exactly the change that she was expecting to get from the 5-franc coin.

Sometimes the things in life just fit neatly into place, eh?

Preston Market

April 11, 2017

This is a homage (strictly: an homage) to Preston Market, where we shop every Thursday, reaching it easily by train; near the station, a prominent poster extols the gratitude of the local MP for his election:

… this electoral district being named “Batman”, after the founder of Melbourne. If Mr Feeney had failed to gain the most votes, the poster might say “Holy Shit, Batman!”. The railway station is next to the car park. So the driver of the white car really need not have parked it there.

There is always a crowd of shoppers – below is the market generally, and one of the areas in the Market where you can buy junk food.

If you ever go there, I would recommend the Slavonija Deli for meats, and much besides. But there are lots of choices.

There are many butchers, this one below having a sign showing happy farm animals. I reckon that sheep, pig and cow would look a lot less gay, were they to behold what has become of their colleagues, at the TX Butcher.

UPDATE – And here’s another butcher sign. Be careful! Learn to pull the hand away before the chopper gets as far down as the table!

You can even get wine for 99c –

Their $2.99 stuff is wine, but it must be truly terrible stuff. For 99c you would get a “wine style drink“, made from commercial alcohol added to flavoured water. Well what do you expect for 99c? You could buy a few bottles of that (if you get a bottle, that is) in paper bags, and take them to parties where you proceed to drink other people’s wines.

I regret to report, however, that the market has large area of closed stalls and emptiness, and the rot of modernity (probably with its attendant capitalism and greed) is setting in –

I saw men in suits with clipboards walking around (the men, that is) and some smartly dressed people having a business-like meeting. Some areas have been “modernised” already.

I will miss the old-style market. I am a fan of a Macedonian pop group of 8 people called “Synthesis“, having seen them on SBS-TV in 2001; three gorgeous ladies who sing, plus a band of 5 musicians on semi-classical and traditional instruments. I looked everywhere for a CD of their music (try Googling a name like “synthesis”). I asked for it at the Preston Market music shop, by now in desperation. The proprietor gave me a withering look and pushed a large pile of CDs, that had been sitting on the counter, across to me. I remembered that withering look for a long time – with its nuances of centuries, nay, millenia of Macedonian agony and cultural repression – but I only bought one copy of the CD. Now that Youtube has been invented, you can all let this one rip.

And you can click to hear the song “Me Fatiye“, with video – but not the actual video that haunted for me seven years, between when I saw it on SBS-TV in 2001 and about 2008, when I first got hold of the CDs.

Ah, Preston Market, with its Macedonian and a thousand other vibrant cultures. My mother from Britain, may peace be upon her, could not believe her eyes at the cultural mix to be found here. (And the size of the meat in the butchers’ shops.) But finally we left the market and got the train back home. This area is so dodgy that the “Crime Stoppers” anti-theft display at the station is itself at risk of theft –

The Ringworld

April 5, 2017

I’m an amateur astronomer and member of the Astronomical Society of Victoria, which 10 years ago was asked to send a speaker to a primary school in a mid-Victorian town. Foolishly I volunteered, and on the day I was treated to lunch in the town’s only cafe, a guided tour of the area, tea and cakes after I’d spoken to the kids, and a BBQ in the evening. Here’s me waffling to the kids:

The whole school had been doing a 3-week Space Project about anything space-related. They had been reading about the planets and stars and galaxies and deep space. And they’d done poster projects on spacey themes:

Why am I telling you this? Because something hit me that I want to share with you. You’ve just seen it, actually.

Most amateur astronomers have other science-y interests and the older ones have generally read a lot of science fiction books (the middle-aged ones tend to follow Star Dreck). Devotees of “hard” science fiction – which seemed to end in about 1980, when sci-fi all went over to fantasy – will know of the books by Larry Niven, prominent among which is the Ringworld series.

The Ringworld is a concept related to the Dyson Sphere – Freeman Dyson, who I see is still going at 92, pointed out that a sufficently advanced civilisation on some distant planet would have a lot of apparatus in orbit to take energy from their star, and eventually might have enclosed their star completely, in which case we wouldn’t see it. (Actually, we would – the shell around the star would eventually have to heat up, and we’d see it as a sort of large dull-red star, like Betelgeuse). Freeman Dyson wrote some great books about his time in WW2 and since, notably about Project Orion – a spacecraft having a metre-thick beryllium plate at the back, to be propelled by shooting atomic bombs from Earth at it. In 1957 this was a serious proposition, and the project was highly classified.

The Ringworld was a much lesser but more realisable idea, a wide band of tough material (yet to be invented) all around the star, in the orbit of what had been a planet. An inner set of whopping great metal plates would cast shadows on it, to make day and night. In the Ringworld books, the band is about 100,000 miles across and 250 million miles around – giving it a surface area of about 100,000 times what we have now.

These sketches give you the idea; I read the book 40 years ago. And then, 10 years ago there I was, standing in front of these poor kids in this poor school, shamefully deprived of resources and funding as are all country schools, waffling on about planets and eclipses and what it would be like to land on the various planets (… unpleasant, or extremely unpleasant) and my gaze wandered over to the wall of poster projects. And I saw this. I stopped in mid sentence and stared.

Out there in this bush town, some kid, some unvarnished kid of 8 years old, had drawn the Ringworld. A concept parallel to the thinking of Freeman Dyson, but independently invented in a bush town, with only rudimentary education and help. This was ten years ago … so what other ideas has that kid, who’d now be 18, what might he (or she) have thought up? What genius lies out there? What untapped resources of intellect?

But I am reminded of a depressing quote, possibly by Barack Obama, that for every Shakespeare, Mozart, or Einstein there are probably 30 or 50 equally gifted people who are stuck working in menial jobs, not visible at all, their talent lost to us.

Caught Between Two Stools

April 1, 2017

Hello! I am the kitchen stool. I’m from IKEA and I am a very good stool – I even match the colour scheme. I’m very handy for standing on to reach the highest cupboards in the kitchen, and Steve also borrows me to reach high stuff in the garage. Oh yes, a very useful stool I am.

Who the hell are you? You must be the new stool that Steve said he’d buy for him to use in the garage. Would you like to try your hand at being a kitchen stool?

Naah … you don’t look good there. You don’t even match the colour scheme, and you’re not varnished like I am. I think I looked better there, much better, and besides it’s been my place for years. Let me stand beside you.

OK so here we are together – you see I have much bigger legs – and I am lining up nicely with the side wall, whereas you are overhanging into the room a bit. You don’t have a clue, do you? I have long thought that standards at IKEA are slipping.

Now listen, son, when you’ve served your time and yellowed like I have you might, you just might, get a guernsey in the kitchen. But until then, leave experienced old hands to their established work, OK? Look, I’ll show you something else, get back into position again a minute …

Yes I thought so, you even cast a funny shadow. You’re just not good enough for kitchen work; clear off and work in the garage, like Steve said. I’m going to ignore you until you go away.

Yes, bugger off.

Shut the back door behind you, and don’t come back!

[New stool] Well OK, I suppose this is it. Even the garden chairs are too busy talking to each other to notice me. So here I go, out into the wide and dangerous world. I’ll probably get dirty and scratched very quickly.

This must be the garage, where I will be condemned to serve a wretched life of abuse and misery. O, woe is me!

Hello guys, I’m the new stool. (I suppose they can see that – I am the only thing in here not covered in dust and dirt). I see I am even shorter than Bailey, the little step ladder … what, will none of you talk to me? [Sob]

[Narrator] But as the new stool comes to accept its doom, let us rejoice as we view its surreal safety instructions. As the top left picture shows, it can miraculously levitate a 100 kg weight. Second from bottom left, rain makes the stool cease to exist, so when it snows it’s already gone. Centre, don’t step between two stools – although this is exactly what IKEA have done, moving from the old heavy one to the new lighter one, with fewer bolts to tighten up. Second from bottom right, having bought it, you should look carefully at it; it is indeed to be greatly admired. At top right, however – a picture of only the stool. Maybe it is hazardous simply by existing?

How Canada got its name

March 30, 2017

Wonderful country, Canada. My cousin went to join the Mounties and had to undergo the rigorous initiation ceremony, where you have to drink a whole bottle of whisky, and then chase a bear in the forest, and then make love to a woman. So in front of his new mates he downed a bottle of Canadian Club, and set out (somewhat unsteadily) into the picturesque Arctic forest. He was gone for some time, and his mates were getting a bit worried but they did hear some scuffling sounds and some bear growls in the distance. Then he came staggering out from among the fir trees, but now he was in a hell of a state, panting heavily, clothes all torn, one boot missing, a black eye, and his face and hands all scratched and bleeding. “Sheesh, that wash difficult”, he slurred, “Now where’sh thish woman I have to chase?”

But where did the country’s name come from? When intrepid explorers first came into the area, they loved the place so much, they decided to settle there. One explorer said “Hey, I thought we might get fed up of being ‘oot’ and ‘aboot’ and stay in camp some time – so I packed a Scrabble set! Except, er, when the food ran out last week and the cook made alphabet soup … well, he used up all the vowels.

“Anyway, I’ll pull oot some letters for a name and can somebody write them down … here’s a C, eh. N, eh. D, eh …”


March 27, 2017

What’s she saying? Oh come on, any geek would know this. One of the most famous lines in cinema. The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951) – with Harry Lime as (OK, Michael Rennnie) the space alien, and his faithful robot “Gort”. His flying saucer lands in the middle of Washington –

– and luckily it was only 1951, because its mega-powerful electromagnetic pulses would have melted every computer and piece of electronics from there to Baltimore. (Perhaps this would be a good idea after all.) The Americans, bless them, promptly bring up guns and tanks, and shoot at it. This film – now regarded as one of the best ever made – has many allusions to Christianity (the spaceman takes the name “Carpenter” when in human form; sins, forgiveness and redemption; Gort with his limitless power is the Holy Spirit, etc).

The spaceman tells the poor passer-by lady, the equivalent to Mary Magdelene, to go up to the robot and, in order to stop him destroying the world, utter the immortal line “Gort: Klaatu barada nikto”. Whereupon the robot adopts a lecherous expression (as far as is possible with a blank metal face), picks the lady up and carries her into the flying saucer, locking all the doors behind them.

When I was at uni I had to screen this film to an audience of 400 priapic students, the double-entendres flowing like wine, but at this scene the students went totally wild; I had to rewind the film by 2 minutes and screen this bit again. I must also tell this, that when the spaceman walked into the streets and asked a passing 7-year-old kid “Please tell me, who is the most important man in this country?” someone shouted “Bob Dylan“. Ah yes, robots were all the rage in those days, and indeed they still are. Cheaper than paying live actors, and you can own the copyright when you sell replica toys.

Now when I were just a lad, I got this board game, I think it was for Xmas 1958 – and I see it is still being manufactured (as a replica)

The robots developed into actual mechanical toys in the 1980s – it was not feasible to make these for public sale until then. You could buy my namesake, Steve the Butler – with a skirt; Steve the Transvestite Butler:

And Morgan the Talking Robot, with his Mystery Bump-N-Go action … I’ll move right along now, this is a family blog … Other robots could bring food.

But, do you really need all those soft drinks? Nowadays such a robot would lecture you on the evils of sugar and obesity, and then deliver a 5000-volt shock when you tried to pick up the drink. But these daggy ones could not do much else, and you had to load them up with the drinks first, and then while you were at the drinks cabinet you may as well pour one for yourself anyway. This next one is bringing you a tot of whisky (just prepared by you, of course) and it can pour a glass of wine – surely a most perilous operation.

Its motors were very noisy and it was clumsy – and unfortunately, it did not know when to stop pouring the wine! One can imagine it tipping wine into the lap of your guest, soaking her mini-skirt and ruining your chances for the evening, then flailing the wine bottle around while grinding its way to and fro across the carpet, its motors and gears clashing with an ear-splitting grinding sound, its eyes flashing in manic style and its voice barking “Ha! Ha! Now. Play. The. Abba. Record. Or. I. Will. Destroy. The. Fondue. Set….”

Perhaps you should have bought this one instead.

I wonder what that one does … Batteries not included. Then these two guests come to your party … but they soon disappear into the bushes, making clanky mechanical sounds and the screeching of metal upon metal … “No! Fetch. The. Oilcan. First!”


March 13, 2017

[cue: evil organ music]
BWAHAHAHA!! Now I will reveal my evil plan for world domination!

We have a new cat. At least, I think we do – we picked it up from the Cat Shelter 3 months ago and it is very shy, so it hides under the bed all the time and I have never really seen it. If it sees me first, it runs away (as so many people do). I could have bought a stuffed cat, and put that under the bed. People have asked for a photo, so, this is what the cat typically looks like.

That is the cat at CP7N. You see, it has identified a number of Cat Places, where it prefers to hang out. This is the seventh CP, in a sort of canvas sling under our folding bed, and there are north and south-facing varieties. Another Cat Place “CP9” is outside, on top of the air conditioner, and while the animal was roosting there I managed to get a decent mug shot.

Lars managed to pick the animal up and in the brief moment before it got agitated, I got another good photo, although the camera is programmed to pick up human faces so it focussed more on him. I need to get the proper Cat Camera.

Now, one is obliged to register cats and dogs in the City of Yarra, as the council so carefully reminded me after the Cat Shelter dobbed me in. So I downloaded the form and filled it in. Curiously, the form mentions only cats and dogs – maybe you can keep other animals as pets without a licence. Aardvark, giraffe, hippopotamus, nematode worm, boa constrictor, ant, fly, stegosaurus … perhaps a whole family of immigrants? But only cat & dog need to be registered … and you can only have two, except with permission (and I expect that such permission takes a financial form).

So I went trotting around to the Town Hall to submit the form and pay the fee. You have to attend in person, but there is no need to bring the animal, which I would have thought was more relevant than being there myself. I also think it would be much more fun if everyone was obliged to bring or send their pets to the Town Hall for registration, and on the same day.

Officer looked at the form and checked on the computer. Said “H’mph” and wrote “454264” beside my name, and “244055” beside the address.

Now I thought I was called Stephen Roberts, and that’s as it may be, but what relevance is that, because in the council’s machinery I am 454264, married to 562316 and living at 244055. After my form was amended accordingly, so as to match reality, and the fee paid, the cat’s rego tab was issued:

You can also get a blank tag, for cats that prefer to remain incognito or anonymous: (and mice would be anonycat?)

It is optional to attach the tag to the animal, which is just as well because the cat (a) has already been microchipped and (b) has never worn a collar and would have very definite views about starting now. So now Cat 111796 is logged as living at 244055, in the care of 454264 and 562316. They should issue a tag for me to wear … then if I fall into the council’s shredder, they can see who it had been. (Barbro’s number factors into 2×2 x 257 x 547 but mine into 2x2x2 x 56,783. I always felt sort of difficult like that).

But I see from the adoption papers that the cat already possessed a tag, from Central Animal Records (who really ought to make a fortune by selling off their website ID at: – that tag being 1832591 and the cat’s microchip is coded 956000005900157 (surely giving it a feeling of superiority, as this number factors into the primes 29 x 31 x 1,063,403,788,543). I reckon “956” means “tabby cat” and they expect to register nearly 1000 billion of them, that’d be 120 cats – tabby cats, that is – for every person on the planet.) So this poor overloaded cat had three ID numbers before it even had a name. Four, actually – the Cat Shelter called it “7557”.

Oh and someone will ask. Name is Persia – strangely, because it is most definitely not a Persian cat. Well, its name is now officially “111796”. And she was female, but has been taken to the vet so now she’s “it”.

The Cat Shelter put a label on each hutch, with the occupant’s age & name and anything you ought to know before deciding to adopt, for example one pompous-looking feline had “I do not like children or other cats”. Other cats had “I scratch the furniture” and even “I like to bring live snakes into the house” so nobody is going to adopt those cats, eh?

One wonders, at least 562316 wonders, what labels would be displayed for 454264.

Supernova 1987A

February 28, 2017

Now here’s a true story – and you’ll see why it has that title. I came out to Australia with Barbro and a 1-y-o child in 1984, on a 3-year contract. Before we even departed the UK we had talked to Poms who had been out here and every one of them regretted going back, so we sold our house before we left Britain. And in the first week that we were here – in the middle of winter – we knew this was where we’d be staying for the rest of our lives. Somehow, we would achieve that.

Everything good about life in Britain could also be found, and better, in Australia. Well, except for two things: milkmen who deliver milk; and Indian food. (Strictly, British-Indian food, because what I had lived on for most of my adult life so far was nothing like what you get in India). The night-time views of Halley’s Comet were better down here, too. I made sure that my grandmother in the UK saw it, because she’d seen it in 1910, and I took pains to let my daughter see it, so she can see it again when she is 78. Anyway, one night – 10 April 1986 actually, I am good with dates – I was out at 3 a.m. viewing it, in my front garden which was all lawn with a good low horizon, when I saw something else remarkable. Turning my gaze from the skies back towards the earth, I saw, driving his float up the deserted street, a milkman.

It transpired that milkmen did exist in Melbourne, but because milk goes off very quickly in the fierce Australian sunshine, they plied their trade at night. Like the green cheese-eating unicorns on the far side of the Moon, which some believe exist but nobody has yet seen one, milkmen were the stuff of legend except for those who come out in the middle of the night and conduct scientific investigations. So after that, we had our milk delivered and I hankered only for decent curries.

The rest of 1986 went by and 1987 came around; my contract would run out in July. So Barbro and I were thinking very seriously and now urgently of staying on in Australia, which basically would entail my getting another job, a job with an Australian employer. This would be hard, but what does “hard” mean? I’ll tell that story another time, as it has its own sparkling gems of manic obsession and intrepid adventure, but anyway there we were in Melbourne “for a limited time only”. Now, one day, there opened at Chadstone shopping centre – which was much smaller and a bit skungy in those days – there opened an Indian take away food shop. One evening –
and I remember the date – I attended thereat and purchased a take-away of curried goat.

So we sat there in our kitchen, Barbro and myself and our now two children, and a meal of curried goat. You couldn’t even get goat in the British Indian culture of my earlier days. And it was wonderful; I cried. I cried tears of three different types – firstly, because I had asked for the curry to be diabolically hot and my body’s every orifice was earnestly engaged in reaction; secondly, because I had now completed my collection of milkmen and curries, leaving nothing else to be desired; and thirdly, because life was so wonderful and now I knew it always would be, and would become even more so because of what was about to happen.

Sitting on our plastic chairs, I looked over our Formica kitchen table at Barbro, and she looked at me. We were both thinking about what was ahead of us – finding two new jobs, buying a house, physical remoteness from both our families, losing our European friends, throwing away my very promising lifetime career in the UK, losing even my UK citizenship; but for what Antipodean wonders? What adventures lay ahead? This was the moment of decision. I needed Barbro to be sure, and answer within 10 seconds. And within 1.5 seconds she had said yes. (Quicker, I might say, than when I asked her to marry me; that took 8 seconds). If Rubens had painted the scene, he’d have put in a choir of angels. (and omitted the 1980s plastic furniture)

And I remember the date, partly because I am good at numbers and dates, but no astronomer would forget that date, and now it is 30 years later to the day, 25 February 1987. We went outside – and there was a new bright star in the South. Now there are famous stories that involve a bright star in the East, but this one was in the South. Bathed in the bizarre intergalactic light of Supernova 1987A, hammered by photons and blast waves emitted 170,000 years ago in the Large Magellanic Cloud, we greeted the skies of our new country. That light never shone on Britain.

And yes, some hard times and difficult adventures followed soon afterwards, but we made it and 30 years later here we still are. Still together, with two wonderful children. Life has been good, despite that Supernova fading back into obscurity. And not for a single day have we ever regretted that decision to drop everything and stay in Australia.

Manholes of the city of Split

February 19, 2017

Consider the ancient Roman city of SPLIT, on the Dalmatian coast. Apart from its Roman ruins, medieval heritage, and modern history, Split possesses manhole covers of many types – and you get better quality paving along the touristy seafront streets, as in the second picture:

Split has many ancient streets and buildings. The street shown below is the narrowest street in the city (of course, because if it wasn’t then some other street would be the narrowest street and we’d be talking about that one instead of this one; and indeed this may have actually happened, so the street below is now the narrowest street, if it wasn’t before, which it might not have been, but it is now, whether it was or not before).

And below it is a stock photo of Khrushchev’s wife, Nina Khrushcheva (with admirers). Upon consideration of the relative widths of street and wife, you can appreciate what happened in 1964, on a State visit, when Mme Krushcheva walked along the street (strictly speaking: halfway along it) and got stuck.

And the street is so narrow that there is no room for manhole covers! However, other streets of Split are not thus limited, which brings me at last to the topic of this post. Yes, here we go! with some natty modern designs from the Purator company:

The blue dot is some sort of inspection mark, it wasn’t on all the covers. Or maybe they were the reduced-price “Blue Dot Bargains” in the manhole-cover shop … here’s some Hungarian covers that have crept over the border.

“Csatorna” is Hungarian for “channel”, the Magyars eschewing the opportunity to mark their export covers in the language of the target market … Now these below, are locally made in Split. (With five or more foundries in town why did they have to bring covers in from Hungary?)

This one below shows the Roman Aqueduct for which Split is famous; it has been restored and is in daily use (although not for the purpose associated with this manhole cover).

Now these next two are from the SABBO foundry, north of Zagreb.

It’s in a town called Krizevci, birthplace of St Marko Krizin, a Croatian nationalist and Catholic priest executed for his beliefs in 1619.

A Calvinist army took over the town and its leader wanted to execute all the town’s Catholics; the Protestants were opposed to this, but were happy if the priests got the chop. (Hey! We agree on something!) St Marko’s relics are kept at Esztergom Cathedral in Hungary:

International dislike continues to this day. Exceptionally (as I collect only round, iron, sewage covers) these below are telephone covers; this one was made in Merkur, wherever that is, and is marked in Cyrillic – a script used in Montenegro, to this day a bitter enemy of Croatia –

Elsewhere in Split, someone has taken an angle-grinder to such lettering –

Finally, these two were made in Bjelovar, at the foundry named after Tomo Vinkovic, a WW2 hero.

The foundry is still in business but I see that it has been plagued by “insufficient working space, inadequate personnel staffing, insufficient expertise of employees, finding the required number of farmers, lack of working capital, unadjusted relationship between the price of raw materials and prices of finished products, the adoption of the new product range, market demand, delays in production due to power cuts – and more”. Otherwise, I guess things are going pretty much OK.

Ah, the love of manhole covers – just in Split, you get Roman ruins, Catholic martyrs, war heroes, international bigotry, industrial disputes, a saint, modern designs, Hungarians … what’s not to like?


February 9, 2017

This mighty tome “The Life of Captain James Cook” by J.C.Beaglehole is so thick, that there is room to put the author’s lengthy name horizontally on the spine.

Cook of course was a brilliant naval captain, explorer and adventurer; despatched to visit New Zealand in 1769 and while down here, to see if he could discover any other islands, so as to fill out a space on the map. The book despite its length is a ripping read from cover to cover. My own life has been thus illuminated by the discoveries and adventures of James Cook, and by the toil (and name) of J.C.Beaglehole.

I see that Beaglehole wrote another book – a suitable follow-up: The Death of Captain Cook. This is a much shorter book, probably because the death took much less time and involved much less detail than the life. (Page 1: “Arrghhh!”, said Captain Cook. The End).

Now, last year I visited Wellington NZ and its famous Beehive building –

And nearby, I saw a natty manhole cover with strong Kiwi elements in its design –

I just thought you’d like to know that. And near that, I found a cute little wooden church, still bang in the centre of Wellington. The whole church is wooden and there is a glorious stained-glass window behind the altar.

Why am I telling you this? Well, some of my readers have come to appreciate my churches and manhole covers (despite my being an atheist – and I’m not very interested in sewage either). And because, after I took those interior pictures in the church, I turned around and found myself face to face with this plaque on the wall –

Historian & citizen in whom the past was always present as a living force
e kore te tino tanga ta e ngaro e oro i te tokomaha – 10.x.1971

Ah, Dr Beaglehole, we meet at last! I had no idea that you were born and lived in Wellington, with a few years in London. Your biography of Capt Cook was published posthumously, prepared by your son Tim. You travelled extensively in Cook’s wake, and you edited Cook’s journals – 4 volumes of 1,000 pages each! Wikipedia shows Cook’s voyages:

Beaglehole’s career in pre-war and post-war NZ was marred by difficulties in getting and keeping academic posts, due to his radical left-wing views, picked up during studies at the London School of Economics. (Not much has changed there, eh). Later, he was showered with honorary degrees, and an Antarctic Glacier was named after him. Which one? Beaglehole Glacier, of course. With a bit of imagination they could have searched Britain for an actual beagle hole and used that, but, there was evidently a glacier going spare with regard to naming.

I conclude with a portrait of the great academic and author himself. His Order of Merit – the second such award to a Kiwi, after Rutherford – hovers in the top left corner. As did his political views.

Best before: MCMLXXVIII

February 7, 2017

Cleaned out the fridge the other day. It was getting too full of clutter – a lot of old things that we have been keeping for ages – half finished jars of curry paste, etc.

The most stored things seemed to be spices and pickles that we think we are going to use, but we never get around to using. Tamarind paste, for example – ghastly stuff if you use too much (or if you use any at all).

I was generally aware of the existence of all the things in the fridge – so they are cluttering my mind as well as the fridge. I knew we had some Chinese pickles that had been in there some time. Notably, this Hoi Sin Sauce

I swear this picture and story are true, like everything else on this blog. That bloody jar has been in our fridge since the last millennium!

That’s probably the phone number of the manufacturer on the lid – Sydney 66469. E-mail and the Internet were not very common when this jar was made.

Noting that the fridge draws 150 watts about 10% of the time to drive the cooling engine, and estimating that this Hoi Sin Sauce jar constituted 1% of the contents of the frige, a fanciful calculation shows that it has cost us $44 to keep this jar cool for 16 years.

We ought to throw it out, of course. But now it has been with us so long that I feel it is part of the family. So I put it back. But now Barbro has thrown it away! Hey, it might have been nice stuff. At least, the cat could have had it. Anyway, now I’ll have to go and buy another jar of Hoi Sin Sauce. And maybe we can keep that for 16 years … I am sure Hoi Sin Sauce is very nice. Must try it some time.


January 31, 2017

A little pot-boiler to fill the time. Near my house there runs a major bicycle path, that goes right across the centre of Melbourne. In recent years, cafes and a bicycle repair station have appeared along it, its surface has been re-laid and its road junctions tidied up. The bicycle shop located beside the path has been doing a roaring trade and has begun to sell expensive coffee on outdoor tables. On summer weekends you can’t get a table there.

Further along the path there are more cafes. Probably to heighten awareness and to create the desire to patronise these establishments, my local council (who are bicycle-friendly; as a ratepayer, I am very proud of them) has painted a teapot on the path.

This is the teapot.

They have also added a painted cup and saucer – very useful and necessary, if the painted teapot is to be any use.

The tea must be pretty amazing stuff, because the cup is hovering well above the saucer, instead of being placed upon it and held in place by the force of gravity. Local U.F.O. fans would prefer to see the saucer hovering above the cup … but let’s move on; at this place there’s also a drawing of a full place setting. Now I’ve had some pretty amazing dinners in my time but I have never seen a place setting quite like that. Six courses plus dessert!

But the curious thing is, this teapot and its appurtenances are located as far as possible from any of the cafes along the bike path. Maybe you are supposed to get the idea of having a cup of tea (and/or a formal 6-course dinner) and then, fired with enthusiasm, you can work up a thirst for it by riding your bike as far as possible to get it.

Anyway, it’s my ratepayer levies at work. May I move on to relate the tale of my coffee pot, and how I used to enjoy my coffee every day, until my knob broke.

This device is a percolator – and thereby hangs another tale, it’s made by Breville but you can’t buy it in Australia; after a long search I had to buy this one in New Zealand and import it – and the presence of the top knob is absolutely critical to stop the boiling water flying out of the tube up the middle of the pot, and to divert the water back onto the coffee grounds, which are in a holder inside the top. No knob, no coffee.

So, to the Internet, where I found some replacement knobs at astronomical prices – more than the whole percolator cost, although without the air fare to New Zealand – but I did locate one at a reasonable price in Sydney. Imagine my joy, some days later, when an enormous parcel arrived –

and after a thorough search of its contents I eventually found my new knob. Voila –

And there you see a rare action photo of the new knob creeping up on the old knob, about to displace it like a doomed chess piece. The exchange was indeed carried out, and I soon had lift-off and was wallowing in coffee again.


January 25, 2017

Had a lovely day last week cycling around Werribee, albeit in merciless, burning sunshine. The town and name of Werribee, to Melburnians, are famous for something; and here’s a clue:

OH YES!! The weary manhole-cover fan returns to his home city, where they don’t muck around (so to speak) on labelling their manhole covers. The output from Melbourne’s 4 million inhabitants all flows downhill to Spotswood, where it is lifted through 65 feet (by a huge pump, mercifully – and you can see the historic old pump, still in working order, at Scienceworks) and then flows downhill again, along one enormous channel, to Werribee where it is processed in huge rectangular ponds. These are nowadays well to the south of Werribee, but we Melburnians have an expression “In more shit than a Werribee duck” and Googling that expression turned up this –

I wonder how many orders they get. Werribee is easily reached by suburban train, and here is the bike route we took. The actual 50-km bike ride is the squiggly lower part of the left-hand loop – the rest are train rides.

Google Earth shows that the fields south of the town – towards the sewage works – have a curious brown colour. Don’t ask why!

Riding from Werribee station, out of the town and then across expanses of savannah and wastelands, we came to the Historic Covered Sewer. Here’s the sign for it –

The sign says “This historic brick structure …” but as you can see, or rather, as you cannot see, nothing is in sight here. Even the sign is hiding behind a bush, and I saw that that bush has found an appropriate use, as this place is far from any facilities … A widespread search failed to find the historic Covered Sewer. But of course, if it is a Covered Sewer then we would not see it, would we? But, riding on, we soon saw it from underneath.

A short climb followed by a cursory search then revealed a section of it that was never covered. For 4 million people you can understand why it was replaced by more modern, wider channels.

There are explanatory signs at this place. In its day, this uncovered part of the covered sewer might have been a tourist attraction; people would come out here from Melbourne for picnics. Well, perhaps not exactly just here. We rode on – the nerds and geeks staying behind awhile to admire this endeavour of humanity – and we came to Werribee Park, a huge historic mansion with a small zoo nearby, and extensive formal gardens and grounds.

Here I got lost – I stayed behind to take photos – these photos, actually – I hope you readers appreciate my efforts (cue weepy violin music) so I rode around and around, and I saw all of the grounds about three times over. There are historic farmstead buildings in the grounds –

And works of art –

After I found a way out, I tracked and caught up with the other riders, using my “Find Friends” app to see where Barbro was – and after lunch, we came to the small hill that overlooks what was the Cheetham Salt Works. The world price for salt must have gone down, because these are now abandoned, but the ghastly salt lakes are still there and are now called the “Cheetham Wetlands”. Going up the hill (and, better still, down the hill), there is a stairway called the “100 Steps of Federation” – evidently built in 2001 – and on top of the hill is a Work of Art –

I don’t know what this symbolises. Perhaps it gathers the wind and makes a sad, mournful low noise. It’s called the “Time Beacon” so perhaps they blast compressed air through it at 7am to wake everybody up. This 17-metre hill is the former tip site for Altona, now tastefully covered in grass. From this vantage point, you can see Geelong on days when the air is not too polluted, and there are dismal views of factories, and the salt flats, and some dead trees –

Riding on, past the site of the 1897 Explosives Works, towards Altona and Williamstown we saw other works of art along the path. Even the new towns around here (such as Point Cook and Wyndham) are beautifully laid out and have nice works of art in many places … very uplifting. From the bike path, we had this view of the distant spires of Melbourne –

melb wart

That photo is for readers who like to see Melbourne with cyclists and a work of art. Readers who prefer to see Melbourne sans velocipedes and artworks can look at the picture below.


January 21, 2017

Wao!!! And look at this – DOUBLE Trump! We can now enjoy this game for 4 years! (Or maybe 8 years, now there’s a thought).

I was glad not to get a thick booklet of safety warnings, in 18 languages – I bought a cassette tape USB player together with these decks of cards, and it came with 8 pages of safety warnings … Put the cassette in the machine – Warning! Look out! Not trap body parts under the cassette! Ouch! Arrghhh!

American Presidents should come with a booklet of safety warnings. Anyway, this pack of cards had instructions for use on the back of the packet –

Not use play methods other than the cards! (Don’t push that red button when you lose). Do not use uncivil methods!! Be polite! Be nice!

I wonder what the first two instructions are, the two in Japanese. Maybe they do not equate to the English instructions at all. They could have added many more: Don’t play the ace when you can use a lesser card! Don’t smile when you get a good hand! Don’t gamble against the big guys … in fact, don’t gamble at all! Don’t even play cards … go and do something useful instead.

Indeed, it is now the time for good men to do more good and useful things than ever before. As my Californian friend said: I am not a quitter, I will make the best of the cards that were dealt to me.

Lutfiye’s, Numurkah, Katamatite

January 8, 2017

Went for a coffee yesterday with the motorbike group, meeting at Katamatite, in northern Victoria. It was very hot and it’s a long ride – 3 hours ride plus breaks, and you can’t ride a motorbike that long without a break. There’s no accommodation in Katamatite, and rather than get up early, I decided to spend a night in Numurkah nearby. I passed by Numurkah last July with Don, on the way back fronm Darwin; being tired and wet then, we rode around the edge of the town where the main road now goes, and I regretted not seeing the town.

So now was my chance, and even better, noting that Shepparton is on the way there, this would be my latest chance to have lunch at Lutfiye’s, pictured above. I dined there in 2009 when I passed by at random, and it was very good, Lebanese hummus and felafel and tahini and tabouleh and little sausages and meats, bread, all the works, beautifully done and I loved it. On that visit I took this photo in Wyndham St –

and in my Feb 2010 trivia quiz I set the question “where’s this”, and got some correct answers together with tales of Shepparton. I promised the winner a lunch at Lutfiye’s … which I still owe. You can still read the answers and Shep stories at this link.

What with all this, I determined to return to Lutfiye’s and dine again on their wondrous produce. Went through Shep again one evening, but Lutfiye’s is closed in the evenings … Shepparton is very unpleasant to drive through, a lot of traffic and traffic lights and the suburbs spread out for miles and it’s better to avoid it, but even the bypass road (that runs N-S to the east of the city) has speed limits and small villages along it. In 2014 I drove through Shep again one Sunday – it was closed again. Went there in July 2016 with Don, tired cold and wet, on a Saturday and guess what, Lutfiye’s opens only on weekdays.

So this time I thought I’d ride up to Numurkah early in the day and go straight there, so as to be there during shop times, and return via Shep the next day – a Saturday – but I checked the Lutfiye web site and yes they’d be closed all Saturday, so I re-scheduled my ride and went up on Friday through Shep, enduring the horrendous traffic and suburbs, and I parked the bike right outside Lutfiye’s. In weekday shopping hours, no less! But it looked strangely empty … guess what … a sign on the door, closed for a visit back home to Lebanon for the whole of January. A thousand curses!! I had to go up the street to another cafe, which was nowhere near as good.

But one day, one sunny day, I will make it when Lutfiye’s is open. I can see it now – I will dine on the very finest Lebanese cuisine, engorge myself with second helpings, wash it down with the finest coffee from the Levant, and I shall gaze through the window at the place where I have stood four times now to gaze back into the empty cafe where I will then be sitting. One day, one perfect day … O, I will plan this so accurately and meticulously, and proceed to execute my plan with zeal and dedication. Just you wait! I will achieve this goal. (Could be the basis of an ironic story, e.g. that I finally make it, fulfilling my last ambition but on emerging I get run over by a bus, hit by a meteorite, run over by a stampede of wild buffalo, find out that Donald Trump is President, etc.).

Anyway, where was I … after I was outside Lutfiye’s. I rode on to Numurkah – main drag shown above – and booked into that hotel shown, the Telegraph Hotel – a pretty basic room but what do you expect for $30. It was 3pm, so I strolled out – hopped, more like, it was very hot, like 38*C and the sunshine was merciless – and dashed into the tourist office. This was well equipped with brochures, mostly for other towns. But I do like op-shops and Numurkah has three. I had brought a book to read, I always do – but sure enough, in one op-shop I bought two more books and I managed to read only one, so I am a book behind after making this trip.

One of the books I bought – for 50c, would you believe – was this wonderful picture/travel book of the Great Silk Road, with old photos of places like Irkutsk where I have been (and I recognised some of the buildings). The map on the inside covers shows places I visited in 2012 – Istanbul, Moscow, Samarkand, Tashkent, Skovorodino and yes, Neryungri, the jewel of the Kolyma. I have ridden my BMW motorbike from London to Neryungri, as I pointed out to the amazed shop assistant, and even rode beyond it where no road is shown … but now I am in Numurkah, eh.

The book describes a Siberian tribe who hunt fish. The fish provide not only food but everything else – the skins make a tent hide plus all the clothing, bedding, utensils, etc. And the tribe never wash, so as they sit there reeking of fish, in their fish-skin clothes in their fish-skin tents, a smell of fish is, er, apparent.

But back to Numurkah, where the main street has some art-deco buildings and in the roundabout there is a red turbine wheel mounted in flowing water. Now there was something (ahem) fishy about this. I looked at it for some time at the flowing water before it hit me – the wheel was turning the wrong way. I took a video, but I haven’t worked out how to link to video files yet … but I assure you it was going against the flow.

Perhaps Numurkah is in a parallel universe where things go in reverse –
the wheel turns against the water, the sun goes west to east, people get younger, Donald Trump does not get elected, Lutfiye’s opens at weekends, space aliens come and dismantle the Pyramids, etc.

The Telegraph Hotel is famous for its evening meals, and I looked forward to feeding on their famous foodstuffs, but when I went in all the places were taken! So I went over the road for a Chinese instead. This was of gargantuan proportions – you’re in the bush now, mate – but it filled out the evening. And me. I spent a semi-sleepless night, it was so hot. My room had three things – a bed, a TV that didn’t work, and a pedestal fan. By golly, I was glad of that fan.

Next morning I was up at 6 – not so hot now, only about 32*C – and read a book for a while before riding the bike to Katamatite. This township is 1/10 the size of Numurkah and its claim to fame is that the winner of the 1995 Stawell Gift lives here. The Gift is a celebrated, historic 120-metre foot race, the pride of the town of Stawell in the Wimmera. Contestants are handicapped by distance, with the aim of having them all cross the finish line together (in contrast to other races, where they are arranged to all start together and finish separated by various distances). More remarkably, owing to a false link in Wikipedia, Glenn Crawford, the 1995 winner, had apparently already been dead for 23 years when he competed. What a guy, eh.

The real Glenn Crawford, anyhow, would have been the toast of Katamatite and to this day, the town sign echoes his feat with pride. You can imagine how many other things happen in Katamatite. It gave me another trivia quiz question – see Question 4 at this link.

But now 20 motorbikes descended upon the town and we had coffee in the town’s only cafe! Various riders and machines attended, and we all enjoyed ourselves immensely. Various bikes, one with 3 wheels, and look who made the muffler on the bottom one (click the picture to embiggen it).

Katamatite may not have seen the like for a while. It’s a lovely town, with a historic precinct, permanent historical exhibition and a well laid-out wide main street. But golly, was it hot – 37*C if it was anything – although that is probably not remarkable up there in the bush. I rode home in fierce heat and it was 39*C when I got home in Melbourne. It’s OK riding a motorbike in the heat if you can keep going along – it’s traffic lights and stationary traffic that makes it miserable.

Manhole Covers of Ljubljana

January 3, 2017

This is the page you’ve been waiting for! I took a break from the blog – post-trip depression, then Xmas and New Year, etc etc. There has always been something else to do, such as to go out and come in again, or to look at cats on Facebook. Actually we got a new cat in mid-December, a 4-year-old tabby from the cats’ shelter, she is very shy so she spends all day under the sofa or under the bed and comes out only at night. So, after 3 weeks, I have not really seen the cat yet. The cat-food disappears, and the litter-tray is used, but that’s all I ever see. It’s all a bit pointless really, I could have bought a stuffed cat and put that under the sofa.

But to the point – the manhole covers of Ljubljana! I’ll start with this one with the red dot – it’s in the main square of the city and from that red dot, all road distances in Slovenia are measured! Walking around and looking down – O, there is such a choice:

But a typical manhole looks like this one below. “Kanalizacija” means “sewage” and to keep my hobby within bounds I do not generally do telephone or fresh-water covers, or concrete ones, or square ones. The circular, cast-iron sewer covers furnish all I desire.

You see (in the small print; click it to enlarge) that it was cast in a place called Ivancna Gorica. From Wikipedia I see that this town in the middle of Croatia has no history, having been founded in 1945, but the former hamlet on the site has a church and shrine, and a Roman milestone that was re-carved in 1583 (so it’s hardly Roman any more, is it)? Janez Erzen (1929-2009), a theatre critic, was born there, well actually not really as he was born before the town was. And … but wait … crikey look at this … Akrapovic, who make mufflers for motorbikes, are based there! Akrapovic are among the gods of the motorcycling world; their mufflers are highly prized and are even fitted as standard on certain brand-new BMW bikes. Well well well – now maybe, if they are handling iron and other metals, just maybe they are making the manhole covers too. Imagine that, an Akrapovic manhole cover. Made of titanium, of course. Just fancy that … but back to the streets. Here’s one with a design.

A worker with a pole, presumably cleaning out the drains – so what’s that on the end of his pole? (Update: of course, it is an iron foundry worker with a ladle of molten metal, albeit not enough to make a full cast-iron manhole cover as about 60kg of metal is required. They draw a cow on cartons of milk, so why not depict the maker on the manhole cover?)

Moving right along, some covers are made in France by PAM Rexel, who also make office staplers.

Yes, French manholes, for heaven’s sake. And you see from the one above that PAM stands for “Pont-a-Mousson” and there is even a picture of its iconic bridge on the manhole, above the name. (Showing one of the many gifts of my hobby, because you can’t see the whole bridge from anywhere at all – you can’t get far enough away with a clear view to fit it into a photo). Pont-a-Mousson is a war-torn small town in NE France. (France is a small country somewhere else in Europe). It has an abbey – Premonstratensian, of course – and a huge manhole factory, whose products are found all over Europe:

And this place (the town, that is, not the manhole factory) was the birthplace of Margaret of Anjou, who married the English king Henry VI. Ahem, ahem .. King Henry VI of England and France, actually. I just thought I’d point that out. The only king to exist in three parts – Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

Back to Ljubljana, a city whose legends include a fire-breathing dragon that lived in its castle. The dragon symbolises the power, courage and greatness of the city. Its origins are disputed but the most plausible legend is the one with St George – yes, it is THAT dragon. A few of the city’s manholes – not as many as in those German cities where every manhole proudly displayed the city’s heritage – reflect this theme:

Other covers, as above, show the castle tower without the dragon (or perhaps the dragon has flown away). Maybe some people prefer to see the dragon and others prefer not to. Dragons can be scary, after all. People can walk along the respective streets that have the manhole covers that they prefer. Or not look down. Or up.


November 11, 2016

I lined some of our cyclists up against a wall, and shot them. But, interesting though they may be, the wall is also of interest.

Our trip to Croatia has ended. We had perfect weather nearly every day – there was an Indian Summer all over Europe – but as we tried to fly out from Dubrovnik (a very small airport) the rain gods massed, and put on a Huge Storm with a brilliant display of lightning. A group of uniformed airport staff and some aeroplane pilots all ran across to the window to see it.

And why they were so interested, was that the lightning had hit the airport radar and disabled it. So there were no flights at all after that – and none the next day either. We were sent from Dubrovnik to Zagreb by coach – a nine-hour journey, arriving at 6am. At least it was quite a nice coach. We had paid for a room at the best hotel in the city, in which we slept all morning. Then after a very nice lunch with Ivan, and a final walk around the city, we flew home to Melbourne via Doha.

I have two final posts from this trip before I descend to general stuff. Be glad – for in this post, there are no manhole covers. But a lot of walls. Among other things that I am interested in, is stonework done in various styles. Here’s some Roman walls in Split, built around 400AD.

Like the Incas and ancient Greeks, the Romans laboriously cut the stones so the next course fitted neatly as it came in. You see that block I have highlighted – they would have cut THREE stones below it instead of making it fit and then cutting it more on the top surface. There must be a reason for doing it this way, but I can’t sort it out. (In some other walls at least, only the front face fits like this – there is a wedge of empty space behind it, so it is not a difficult thing to do, just laborious). The Romans of course built many huge stone structures, like this one, now ruined, on Mljet.

I have already shown the stone walls of Hvar and other islands, built mainly to remove the stones from the fields, but well built, with unnecessary style. Korcula has terraces on its hillsides, and I saw this amazing poster photo of them –

That picture is by the local shutterbug Zoran Jelaca, and you should click to see his website for a lot of very nice photographs, although I could not find this one on it.

The local stone is different on the different islands, but generally it comes in three-dimensional chunks that do not split cleanly and must be terrible to build with. And when freshly exposed, some stones are red in colour. Damaged walls show the red interior stones for some decades, until they weather to grey.

So, building a wall requires the stones to be fitted together like a jigsaw. I myself learned how to build a stone wall, in British Cotswold stone which splits in flat blocks, but these constructions are quite amazing. This one, on the mountain behind Dubrovnik, starts from a triangular natural stone.

Of course you can build a shepherd’s hut, or even a house and a roof, with messy stonework if it’s a cheap job.

And that last one is a potter’s kiln, built in 1914 but never used, due to the advent of yet another war. Of course a lot of war memorials have walls – below is a bust of a Secretary of the local Communist Party, placed (offensively) in front of plaques commemorating “fighters killed in the crazy times” and “victims of the fascist terror”, ending with “in gratitude, the memory of generations of Alliance fighters”. Having respectfully read the inscription, now look at the stonework – there are no horizontal courses. It is a vertical jigsaw puzzle.

But onto the well-built walls, with no horizontal courses – each one is a jigsaw puzzle. The modern ones are actually thin slabs of stone stuck onto concrete, but the older ones are the real thing. Click to see these bigger, they are beautiful.

This next one is a house wall, with tiny stones laboriously stuck into the concrete.

Along the path up the mountain behind Dubrovnik, the 14 Stations of the Cross have brass pictures mounted on squat walls. This is the first one, Ecce Homo, and even these walls have courses cut to shape.

Sorry, it’s been a while since I’ve posted – post-trip despair, on top of which Donald Trump has existed. And now Leonard Cohen has died. What a shit of a week. But let’s move on. Next post: manhole covers!!

Montenegro: Kotor

November 6, 2016

We did a one-day tour of Kotor and Budva, driving into Montenegro for the day. This required two border crossings (four customs posts) and the officials were not very helpful, as the two countries were recently at war and forgiveness is not a concept around here. Montenegro is quite different from Croatia – the driving is diabolical, for one thing. We drove past Sokol, which has a historic castle, and the road signs to it are in Glagolitic

Had coffee in a new complex of high-class holiday homes, recently built to soak up some of the wealth from visiting Russians. There were some silly boats in the harbour.

And so to Kotor, which lies on the most amazing natural harbour but is also an ancient walled town.

Indeed the walls go right up the hillside, like at Ston, so that Kotor became a highly defensible city in the Middle Ages. Tourists here are mostly rich Russians with trophy wives, the shops flogging vulgar jewellery, but the stone-paved streets look just like Dubrovnik and Korcula –

The city used to be Venetian – when Venice was a powerful city-state, around the time of Shakespeare – and signs are evident, for example the Venetian Lion motif and monuments to St Mark.

The lion holds a book with Latin text translating to “Peace be unto you, Mark, O my evangelist”. But the religion here is Serbian Orthodox – the churches look like Russian Orthodox, with an iconostasis inside –

– and copious icons. The main church had four HUGE icons of the four Gospellers, a gift from the Orthodox Church in Moscow; they are 3m x 2m in size. Here’s Matthew and John –

And I saw a very natty Last Supper, where even the food is better than usual –

Off the narrow main street of Kotor, I got this nice photo of an alley with houses going up the hillside, and a little old lady in the window –

But this next photo has a story:

I thought I’d wait until that bloke went away and then do the picture again … I usually don’t like having people in my pictures, especially people doing ghastly things like stopping to blow their nose (that did happen), or standing in a slouch with a huge beer gut hanging out, or taking a photo or poking on their iPhone. Cruise-ship mobs following a pink umbrella are the absolute pits. So I waited for him to move out of shot. But he stood up, holding his camera, and was waiting for ME to go away – evidently he doesn’t like people in his pictures either. So we stood our respective grounds, fighting this sort of duel, but a duel in time rather than in space. Eventually, thoughts of international goodwill and the friendly cooperation of nations drifted into my brain, and so I backed down and I moved out of his shot. Defeated! But I wish him well, and I hope he got a nice picture. Or maybe he has posted a picture of me on his blog.

Dubrovnik – war damage

November 2, 2016

Now, as readers might have feared, this post will be grim. Dubrovnik was shelled, bombed and strafed during the Homeland War of 1991-92. Look at my picture of Stradun as it stands now:

You see the green hillside in the background? That is over the border into Montenegro, which was at war with Croatia. Our tour guide and her friends used to stroll down the Stradun in the evenings, but they couldn’t in 1991 because they’d be shot at by snipers. And Stradun looked like this:

We visited a major artist and sculptor whose studio is in Dubrovnik. Seven Montenegrin artillery shells fell on it in 1991. He was not best pleased:

So you don’t go into his shop and talk with a Montenegrin accent. He has a UNESCO brass plaque on the wall

– with enlarged reproduction, showing the UNESCO symbol of a world-class cultural monument with Latin text “Serbia and Montenegro and the Yugoslav National Army damaged the city of Ragusa (Dubronvik) 1991 1992”. Actually, next to it (and bordered in red) is the famous inscription from the local castle “Non bene pro toto libertas venditur auro” (It’s not a good idea to sell freedom, even for all the gold in the world).

On top of the hill where the cablecar goes is an old fort, now abandoned, but even that took some cannon hits. (Note the reddish colour of the freshly exposed rock – there will be a post about stone walls soon, with an examination next week and plenty of detentions handed out)

Colour maps are displayed of the war damage inflicted – all of which is now repaired.

We went up the hill of Mt Srd by cablecar and walked back down on the zig-zag path. This has 14 hairpin bends on it, and the Croats, being devout Catholics, have set up 14 brass plates of the Stations of the Cross at them. Zealots can thus climb up the path – which is stony and thus painful to walk on, as well as bloody steep – and have a really miserable time, contemplating the agonies of Christ.

From the top you get this view of the old city and people commented on the nice red roofs. And there is a reason why the roofs are so nice and new. Bloody awful, sorry.


November 1, 2016

This medieval walled city marked the end of the cycling tour, and of our European trip. Indeed, we have been travelling for eight months – NZ, China, Alice/Darwin, Germany, Slovenia, Zagreb, Dalmatia, 3-6 weeks in each with only a week at home in between … that is why these blog posts are now so sporadic, because now that I am back at home I cannot get around to doing anything.

So in we go, through the city’s main gate which has a genuine drawbridge. There are not many tourists in this photo! … it was mid-October and the season goes until early December. But in August there are hordes and hordes of people, plus big groups from the cruise ships. Here’s a typical alley, with cat.

Another alley, with restaurant and tourists.

There is some washing hanging up at top left; people used to live here within the walls in large numbers and there are still a few left, but nearly all properties have gone to holiday homes (mostly for rich Russians) and the normal life of the city is all gone. The view below shows the cablecar going up Mount Srd in the background, which is where I took the picture in my previous post.

That is the famous clocktower at the end of Stradun … the clock is identical to one in Split. The whole “sunburst” assembly rotates and the litte disc on it tells you what the time is. There’s also a digital clock, for good measure. Here’s the main church, with in front it a statue of Roland, the famous adventurer (as in the French epic: “Song Of …”)

At Roland’s elbows you can see round, pointed plates of armour. The points of these are 532 mm apart, so he always has to stand still like that, otherwise they wouldn’t be. Because the city marketeers used to use this statue to measure cloth, etc. When I was a kid there used to be a standard yard on the walls of Trafalgar Square, and I was later traumatised to discover that this was not the actual standard yard (which anyway used to be the distance from King Heny VIII’s nose to his fingertip), it was only a copy, very slightly inaccurate. And worse still, the standard was not a yard at all, but a metre. And it was in Paris, splutter splutter. Nowadays the standard weights and measures are all defined with respect to atomic physics, except for the kilogram which will become so defined in 2018, but until then – how many things weigh exactly one kilogram? Only one!

Back to reality. The streets of Dubrovnik and even the outside walls look cute at night:

You call yours a wall … THAT is a wall. The old city is still surrounded by mighty walls and fortifications, including against the sea.

Into Dubrovnik

October 28, 2016

So we rode across Mljet to where the ferry sails across to the peninsula. (There is a very long peninsula starting out from the coast near Dubrovnik, almost ike another island). Here we said an emotional goodbye to Duje, our wonderful guide. He was always either riding with us or driving the van, and every time one of us got lost in the middle of nowhere he would appear like a guardian angel and guide us to safety. Together with Ante, the office guy from Meridien Ten travel, we had the most excellent planning and service at all times, the bus was new, the bikes were very good (and Duje cleaned them every day), the maps and guidance notes superb, the hotels all wonderful, ferries well coordinated blah blah and everything was 110%.

We would miss riding on these islands – Brac, Hvar, Vis, Korcula, Mljet – the remoteness of the countryside, and visiting the villages – someone sent me this photo of most of us having fun.

The ferry passed by a tiny, sandy island with a single coconut tree and a skinny, ragged man, who frantically waved at us. “Yes, he’s always very glad to see us”, said the captain. And another joke:

Even the sea was interesting. Look at the lumpy texture of the surface here (click to make the picture bigger):

And on a calm day, the white clouds were reflected in the sea surface:

So it was goodbye to the bicycles and onto the bus we went. With baggage.

Now the ride into Dubrovnik was mostly rather dull and it was getting dark when we arrived. We did however pass by a place called Ston, which has a major castle and a huge system of defensive walls many kilometres in length, right up the hillside. In mediaeval times Ston controlled all access to/from the peninsula, and all the shipping into Dubrovnik from the north.

These walls are comparable in magnificence to the defences of Dubrovnik itself, but there is some damage and repairs are in progress.

But finally we came into Dubrovnik; our hotel was just outside the city walls (and nowhere near the vast complex of new hotels, further along the coast). Next day we got this view of the walled city, from a vantage point high on the hill behind.

And there I am at Stradun, the famous main street, its surface polished to a shine by millions of touristic feet. In the background is the famous clock tower. More of this anon, but it looks exactly unchanged from when Woody & myself visited it in 1972:

… and thereby hangs a tale, of stupid wars and suffering.


October 26, 2016

Another boat, this time a dignified slow boat which made for a longer but much nicer voyage, from Korcula to Mljet: another long, thin island and we landed on the western end, where there was a small village with one hotel, fortunately quite a nice one. We rode away from the quay and stopped for coffee at the hotel, after riding, oh, 50 meters or so. The whole western end of the island is a National Park, with very nice vegetation and lakes with clear water.

The water is so clear you can see the bottom, even on the other side. Two tracks set out from our village; fortunately a new bridge joins them up; Barbro took this picture.

Although when I got there, the bridge was infested with Whitehorse Cyclists

Mljet, like all other islands, has a hill in the middle, and yet again what a hill it was. Well, we were used to it by now and we just rode up it – the slope of the road gives you an idea.

There were also copious stone walls – useful as walls to make terraces, as well as to get rid of the stones from the soil. I will write a separate blog post about these, but for now, cop this lot:

Mljet has a lake in which there is an island with a 12th-century church.

This church had a shrine to St Mary in her guise as the protector of sailors, and thus was visited by countless pilgrims over the centuries. To get to the island you come to this jetty, grab the orange flag that is in a bush nearby, and wave it (the flag, not the bush).

The people who run the restaurant on the island, becoming overjoyed with awareness of the impending sale of a lunch, then send a boat to fetch you. Yes we had a very nice lunch on the island … despite this noisy and smelly little transporter thing slowly going back and forth, with tiles on it.

Arrrh, now when I were just a lad, we had a thing called a “wheelbarrow” for doing this, invented centuries ago, and it was silent. The Irish used to say that the English invented it so they could learn to walk on their hind legs. Ah … here’s another joke, labourer on building site asks the foreman for an oilcan, because the wheelbarrow goes eek, eek, eek, eek … and the foreman says “You’re fired” “Why?” “Because that barrow goes eek-eek-eek-eek…”

Anyway the reason for the use (and indeed the existence) of this transporter thingy is that it can climb a 45-degree angle and get up a flight of stairs.

After lunch, here is the boat going back. (You can see a person with the orange flag in the background). Michael, the President, helpfully indicates to wait two minutes.

Observant readers will note that in order to photograph these happy cyclists I was obliged to eschew the opportunity to grace the vessel with my own presence. I thus was given time to roam over the rest of the island, which took me – yes, two minutes. The 12th-century church was under repair and not really open to visitors, but I got in and saw this stained-glass window, of interest to mariners.

Psalm 84: How amiable are thy tabernacles, O Lord of hosts!
(and yes, there is always one not straight)


October 25, 2016

We transferred from Hvar by private speedboat – there are no ferries between the islands, you’d have to go via Split, as none of the inhabitants are interested in islands other than their own.

Korcula has a lovely old walled city, better than Dubrovnik – well, it is certainly less inundated by tourists. That’s it in the picture above, although a painting in a hotel also does it proud:

Now, the ferry landed at another town further along the island, which is very long and thin. And there is this attribute of islands, that if you start from somewhere and go somewhere else and both places are on the coast, then there must be a sort of collection of rocks and dirt in the middle, or it would be an atoll. So here’s me puffing up the middle hill of Korcula … I must have been bonkers.

The old town has walls and a natty single entrance through a square tower:

Inside, there is one main street with all the other streets running parallel from it, in a herring-bone pattern. With space inside the walls being at a premium since the Middle Ages, all of these streets are very narrow

All the streets are marble, polished by centuries of trade and tourism.

An active RC Church is in the small main square; we peeked in during an evening service and the place was packed. A nun passed by:

At night the streets are suffused with nice lighting.

In our free day on Korcula we rode 10km along the coast to a small fishing village …

… passing a football ground with the inevitable graffiti extolling the virtues of Hajduk, the team in Split. Really, I do not know if they ever play anyone else, or if they do, what happens if they lose. The adulatory text translates as “Our love will never end; our love will never lose its shine“.

What I liked, though, is the detailed picture of the saint, who is believed to protect the fishermen from storms. Please click on him to embiggen him, and see the detail.

The Stones of Hvar

October 22, 2016

First, a leftover picture from the last post. What’s her left hand doing? And look at the expression on the donkey … a knowing wink at the camera!

Now. The most striking feature in the countryside of the island of Hvar is the piles of stones. Yes! Piles of stones are everywhere. Most are hundreds and some are thousands of years old, back to the time of the ancient Greeks who lived here.

The main crop here is lavender – Hvar grows a significant portion of the world’s supply, especially when there was a blight and the crop failed everywhere else. Here are some lavender plants, in a stone-free enclosure.

Grapes were also grown on Hvar and some centuries ago, another continental blight caused a grape shortage except on Hvar. It was worth clearing every square inch of soil to grow grapes, for a while. Hence the piles of stones. But some piles are very neatly built, better than needed just to get rid of the stones; look at these, for example.

In some parts of Hvar, so many stones were cleared that whole lines of stones were formed, running right across the landscape.

These landscapes are unique in the world, and the Croatian government has applied for a UNESCO Heritage listing. If this is awarded, the stone arrangements will have to be curated and presented for tourism at public expense.

Another post will deal with Dalmatian stone walls, which are themselves remarkable in other ways. And there will be manhole covers, of course.

But for now, join me in marvelling at these stones. The stones of Hvar.

Across Hvar

October 20, 2016

This day, it was sunny again and we rode across the island of Hvar, starting at Hvar town and ending at Jelsa, from where the bikes were collected and two buses took us back to Hvar town.

However. When you ride across an island, by definition you start at sea level and end at sea level, but in the middle there has to be higher land, or it would be a lagoon or atoll rather than an island. The assemblage of rocks and dirt in the middle is called a “hill”, and can be quite high. Unnecessarily high, in fact, as we agreed as we panted our way up this 400-metre one. (But I heard that our club’s hard riders yesterday in Australia rode 137 km with a 5,500-metre ascent – 14 times as much!!)

Here’s Barbro – on the road way down there – plodding her way up it with grim determination.

Ha! Ha! But on top of the hill, there is this little chapel – built by a bloke who went overseas for many years but in his later years returned to Hvar, his homeland and built this chapel – in 1937.

And a view of Stari Grad, a beautifully preserved old seaside town that even has UNESCO heritage listing.

That’s Stari Grad (“old town”) there, and we have evidently ridden up from that altitude. Must have been crazy. But look at this, there is another UNESCO heritage listing now being applied for …

… for the walls and stone piles of Hvar and nearby islands. These will be a topic in my next post. Here’s an old lime kiln built in 1914:

– but never used, as war broke out so it is perfectly preserved in its pristine state. On down to Stari Grad, and what a descent, 64 kph for some parts of it. A well-earned coffee in the town:

But you don’t get much coffee! The middle cup is as served, the outer two cups have been drained. Well what do you expect for 8 kuna (A$1.60)? Here are some of our riding ladies, and a historical old relic, sitting on a cannon.

Now what happened here? The bird must have become worried about the texture of wet concrete, and taken off.

After coffee back on the bikes and ride to the next town, Jelsa, also a cute town, where we had a very nice lunch. Barbro had a fish baked with vegetables and spices, all in greaseproof paper. It was so good, she said, that she wouldn’t even let me eat the paper.

Jelsa is famed, now, for its recent statue of a donkey. Here’s me posing with it. I am standing behind it so you don’t see my gut hanging out, quite a disgraceful sight, indeed I should probably have taken the donkey away with me so I can always place it in front of me when people look at me. Or, better, just show the donkey … I am touching it like a wet cabbage because it is now mid afternoon and it has been in the blazing sun and is now red-hot.

Jack is therefore sitting very gingerly on the donkey. He is saying “hurry up and take the picture come on take it the camera will focus itself hurry up ow ow OWWW…”


October 18, 2016

(These posts are a week or two behind real time – this one has been delayed due to chaotic flight back from Europe)

We travelled by speedboat from Vis to Hvar, in heavy rain. The bikes on the van had to go by car ferry via Split. Due to rain we did not ride today but visited Hvar town and the fort above it.

My picture is out of focus … all this technology and he can’t focus the camera … but an old historic picture shows it better.

The main square of Hvar town, normally infested with tourists and cruise ship parties, was relatively empty due to the rain.

Up a lot of steps and then up a steep slope to the fort. When you get there, there is a souvenir shop with a handy seat for those not interested in shopping.

The view from the fort over Hvar town.

The fort had a prison cell which was down a set of steep steps. Coming back out of it, I banged my head quite hard on the roof as I climbed the last step. So this is probably how they stopped the prisoners escaping: just as they got to the top of the stairs they would crack their skulls and fall back down again. However, people were shorter in those days … have I told you the true story about Mitchell Rupe, an American prisoner in the 1990s, sentenced to death by hanging, a barbaric practice which requires the use of this Useful Table showing how much rope to allow depending on the weight of the prisoner in pounds:

Rupe’s life-saving mission was to get past the end of this table! – so by constantly eating junk food, he gained weight to 409 lbs and then pleaded that if he was hung from any height at all, his head would come off, and this would constitute cruel and unusual punishment. Unable to be hung for that reason, he died instead from being overweight.

But I have digressed, as usual. This is the sunset view from our (large commercial) hotel at Hvar –

Vis – military tour

October 16, 2016

A grey rainy day on Vis: the Blue Cave is the Grey Cave and inaccessible due to rough seas, so we went on a tour of the military installations on the island. Therefore, we felt obliged to start the day with a huge breakfast, which was also a feature of all the other days, but today we had an excuse, albeit a very poor one. The bacon was really good – very thick and served in tiny pieces, as is the custom here, well that’s what they told me – it’s how the Vis butcher does it.

Our Vis hotel (San Giorgio) owns a roofless house opposite, which they use as 5 enclosed gardens:

Off we go in two 4WD’s and we start with a view of Hoste Island

… named after Captain (later Sir) William Hoste, a protege of Nelson who rose to be an acting captain at age 18. He kept four British ships here at Vis, controlling the whole Adriatic and preventing the French from building up an army to wallop the Ottoman Empire. In 1811 the exasperated French assembled a force of 9 ships – twice as many – and “attacked”, that is, they came into Vis harbour one at a time and were respectively shot at and repulsed. Then they assembled their entire landing force, plus the admiral, on the foredeck of one ship which Hoste (using brilliant seamanship) passed by and raked with a triple-shotted cannon. And that was that. The inhabitants of Vis had a grandstand view, and named this island in the bay after Hoste.

Some years later (1866) the Italians were bombarding the town from new ironclad ships. The Austrians also had ironclads, and there had never before been a fight between two such ships (apart from a single shot in the US Civil War). The Austrian ships arrived and a melee began, with the ships under heavy fire and then they started to ram one another. Again with the inhabitants of Vis getting a grandstand view. (This started a fashion for ramming as a means of combat, and new ships were equipped for ramming; then there were accidental rammings within the same naval force. Attention was also drawn away from the development of gunnery, for some decades).

The British occupied the island 1811-1815 (and 1943-45) and built a fort. There is also a Britsh military cemetery, which I visited (no pictures)

Moving on to later wars, after World War 2 Tito fell out with Stalin, who then famously said “I will shake my little finger, and there will be no more Tito” – this from the guy who had just defeated the Nazis – so Tito prepared Yugoslavia for another conflict, this time with heavy machinery instead of blokes in the hills with rifles. Vast amounts of money were spent, notably on something called Object 505 (look it up) but also some of it here on Vis where huge tunnels were built, we saw one that was to service Yugoslav-made trucks that fired rockets from a swivelling apparatus on the back. Two trucks would come in, one at each end, and be equipped with fresh rockets. The whole tunnel was atom-bomb proof and had 7-ton concrete doors.

Those are polystyrene rocks, to be scattered over netting to disguise the entrance. There were also inflatable dummy buildings which were inflated by soldiers puffing through mouthpieces! Of course they don’t take care any more to hide the roads, so you can now see it easily on Google Earth.

We moved on to look at some naval gunnery emplacements along the coast, these were also lavishly designed and well hidden, but would not last 5 minutes if a conflict arose (again Google Earth above). A system of tunnels interconnects them, still walkable today. Here we are preparing to go in, and an actual tunnel.

The guides carefully counted us as we went in, explaining that it would be bad enough to come out with a person missing, but much worse to come out and find we had one person extra. The guns are in place but were deliberately damaged after WW2. Here’s one of our riders:

“If I could turn back time … ” There were air extractors to remove the smoke when the gun fired, to prevent the smoke giving away the gun’s position, and a stepped concrete roof was fitted above the gun in an attempt to disperse the sound –

During WW2 a runway was secretly constructed, and kept hidden by moving bushes onto it every night. Winston Churchill was landed here, to meet Tito. The runway still exists and is kept viable – or it would be, when the farmer has moved that last toilet-roll off it.

Seen from Google Earth, at the western end of the runway and at the bottom-left of my picture, is another secret British installation.

Yes! A viable Cricket Club operates here. Here’s the scoreboard, and apparatus necessary for the game and its rituals.

How civilised … how very, very civilised. This corner of a foreign field that is forever England … admire the club’s website here:

We ended our Military Tour by inspecting yet another lavishly built tunnel, this one now containing a winery. Which we also inspected. I removed some samples for later analysis.

A final piece of trivia from this day … these are carob seeds, from the tree outside the winery, and we were told that such seeds were used to weigh gold because they all weigh exactly 1.08 grams each. The word “carat” derives from “carob”. But an article in Biology Letters 2(3): 397–400 – referred to by Wikipedia – points out that carob seeds vary in weight about as much as the seeds of anything else. Another good story ruined by the facts.