Archive for the ‘Any old stuff’ Category

My motorbike will cross Australia

June 4, 2018

Alternate routes shown. My motorbike will cross Australia from east to west … But without me on it. Let me explain. I woke up one morning, I had them thrombosis blues. Yes I woke up one morning, I had them thrombosis blues. One leg twice the size of the other, I didn’t know what to do. Well I hopped down to the doctor, he said I’m glad you came. Yes I hopped down to the doctor, he said I’m glad you came. He sent for an ambulance, said if you die it’d be a shame.

So (this was back in February) at the hospital they diagnosed a DVT (blood clot that can detach) and I got put onto these new and trendy pills for 3 months, that would hopefully dissolve it. And as with so many things hoped for, this did not eventuate and when I got scanned again last week the clot (a) had not dissolved, (b) had got bigger, (c) had moved to above the knee where it is much more dangerous and (d) I had Barbro with me and she went ballistic. Wife, doctor, technician and nurse all ran around the room giving me an earful. So now I am on Warfarin, which has to be monitored every couple of days.

That’s me, yesterday. The doc said that, apart from taking the medication, I should simply clear off and live a normal and active life, with the awareness that at any moment I might suddenly and painlessly drop dead on the spot. I am in very good health and this situation is normal anyway (heart attack, hit by a bus, struck by meteor, Korean atomic bomb, UFO abduction etc) so what has changed? But I am not ready for a view of the underside of the lid just yet, and my family and friends were all adamant that I should stay in Melbourne. Even the man next door said so, too, and he has to put up with me living next door to him. Steve & Hugh, the two guys I was going to ride with, do not want to be burdened with a dead body and a surplus motorbike in the middle of the outback. So, a six-week motorcycle ride across the desert is now not feasible. Look, this is one part of where I was going to go:

And you see from the timing and alternative route that this Kiwirrkurra road is so bad that it would be nearly as quick to get to Punmu via bloody Katherine, more than 3 times the distance.

I wouldn’t mind really but the guys at BM Ringwood had just prepared the bike for the trans-Australia journey, with new tyres, new chain and sprockets, oil changes, new wheel bearings, new brake shoes, better air filter, new rack for panniers, etc etc etc at a cost of $2,100 and I was actually loading the bike with gear and tools for the pre-trip trial run when my wife found out about my medical condition. When she came down from the ceiling I found it diplomatic to start unloading the bike instead.

So now I have a fully prepared bike and I suppose I could use it for next year’s Big Bike Trip, but if I ride it in the meantime it would not be fully prepared by mid-2019 – the tyres half-worn, etc – you do not want to try to buy new tyres and spare parts when in remote places. What was I to do? Probably in sympathy, my good friends Deany and Lynnie in Wellington – Deany rode my bike last year when I was overseas – were going to go to South America but last week, the day before their flight, Lynnie broke her big toe and their whole trip has had to be postponed.

HOWEVER this leaves Deany with a 5-week hole in his life and here is a prepared motorbike ready for a 5-week trip that starts in a few days! So he will fly over to Melbourne, tomorrow, and Deany will ride my bike across what the Kiwis call the West Island. May the sheep and camels tremble in fear at his approach. Here’s my bike at the end of the 28,000-km ride to Magadan in 2012 – see how the drive chain hangs slack – and a photo of Deany in 2012 with the Magadan city mascot:

Last night it was 3 degrees here in Melbourne, and it would be sub-zero in the middle of the continent. I turned up the central heating and went out for a nice dinner. When Deany, Steve and Hugh are camping out in the remote bush, in the rain and freezing cold, eating cold baked beans out of a can, I will think of them. With great pleasure.

In Magadan: Me (from Melbourne), Steve (from Sydney) and Hugh (from Brisbane)


A Maze – Solved

May 25, 2018

(26/5/18 – See end of this post for an update).

Being an uber-nerd, I just had to solve the 1772 x 1772 maze shown a couple of posts ago. It is beyond human effort to solve, but it wasn’t a human that did the job. For the interest of other geeks and nerds who may have the misfortune to come across this blog, here is how I did it, by programming in Python.

First the maze has to be read into the program. I have no ability whatsoever in graphics (as you will soon see) but my original was a BMP file of 396kb. I had to make a JPG of it to get it onto this blog, and JPG, being a compressed format, comes out fuzzy at the detailed level, whereas a BMP is a bitmap – an absolutely clean black&white version. I must have originally converted it from some other format, because my BMP has a few extra pixels in the corners here and there; by saving it as only 2 colours, only 1 bit per pixel is needed and the BMP file is effectively 1772 bits by 1772, packed into 1772 lines of 224 bytes, with a 62-byte header. Here is the top-left corner of it:

That shows about 1/12 of the width and 1/12 of the height of the complete thing, so this is truly an enormous maze. But as you can probably see, this data should be easy to compute with, and the first thing I noticed is that the black and the white lines were all either 3 or 4 pixels wide. Further, the runs along a row or a column were either all-black or all-white (but this does not matter). I wrote Python code to find the horizontal and vertical edges every 3 or 4 pixels, and could thus reconstruct the maze as a smaller, neater version with cells exactly 1×1 bits. Lo and behold, there were now 512 rows and 512 columns – 2 to the power 9 – that is obviously how the maze was generated. Because, generated it was – no human could set to and write a maze this big.

Solution of the maze was now very easy. You look at each white cell, and if it is surrounded by exactly 3 black cells and 1 other white cell, then it must be the end of a dead-end, and can therefore be coloured black without losing the real path. Then, looking at the white cell that was next to it usually shows that to be in the same dead-end, and furthermore it is now the last cell in the dead-end and can itself be turned black, and so on. I found that a single pass over the whole 512×512 maze closed off all the dead ends, in about 1 second of computer time. The white cells that are left were simply the solution path.

As I have no ability in graphics – I have spent 20 years trying to learn ‘tk’ and ‘tkinter’ – I put the solution out as ASCII characters, and took a screen dump of that – this is the north-east quarter of it:

I was also able to go back to the original BMP file and add black dots to it along the real path. I cannot feasibly show the whole thing here, but this is a tiny piece in the middle of it –

Ho hum, 20 hours wasted I suppose. I really should get on with writing up the Myrtleford cycling trip and the upcoming 6-week trans-Australia ride. But today’s excuse is that I have suddenly become a year older, and I need to go and celebrate.


UPDATE (the next day)

I have found three much larger mazes and solved them the same way. The above maze was 512 x512 – these are 5769×5769, 10001×10001, 32767×32767 cells (100, 400, 4000 times the size)

The solution times and results were as follows – essentially linear on the area of the maze, as expected. Marvellous what Python can do on a modern computer (“Make an array of 1 billion numbers…”)

512×512, 5 seconds to prepare the maze as 1×1 cells, then 0.36 seconds to solve it – 6570 dead ends, the longest dead-end 9818 cells, 32k white cells in the final path.
5769×5769, 127 seconds, 842k dead ends – longest 37k, 235k white cells
10k x 10k, 385 seconds, 2534k dead ends – longest 62k, 470k white cells
32k x 32k, 4197 seconds, 27M dead ends – longest 273k, 2754k white cells

I could have sped the program up, of course, but I really must stop this and start packing for my trans-Oz trip. Since these three were clean BMP mazes to start with, I was easily able to make a graphic of the final path in black-on-white = and here they are. Note they are essentially left-to-right squiggles, showing psychologically that the same person prepared the mazes, and in the same way:

A Maze

May 22, 2018

Been riding my bicycle 5 days and about to embark on Another Huge Motorbike Adventure … bear with me as I get this blog up and running daily again.

Meanwhile, for those of you who (like me) like to solve silly and stupid problems with the computer … here is a somewhat more difficult maze as a JPG file. (I have the BMP which is much cleaner but it appears that I cannot attach that to a WordPress post; the BMP file is easy to process in a simple Python program, and I have solved it).

I suppose you’d better click on it to embiggen and download it. (Or, preferably, not).


January 17, 2018

Spare me for a few days, there is a family wedding coming up at the weekend. Blog will resume next week.

Meanwhile here is an arty farty photo of cobblestones in Krakow, taken in the dark and the rain. Your eyes will swap between seeing raised stones, and rectangular hollows with walls.

Crikey – blog quiet for a month

November 20, 2017

Woops, I got sidetracked with other things (as so often happens in my life) in the middle of reporting my Sweden ride. Even now, I am travelling and have only a laptop to work on … but I will get the blog going again soon, with photo of Olofstrom and more places in Sweden that we rode through, earlier this year.

Meanwhile, as a post should have a picture, here’s the ratings for television viewing in Norway in 2014. Channel NRK2, always at the bottom of the list, had a bright idea – they stuck a camera on the front of the Hurtigruten ferry that takes a few days to sail along the entire Atlantic coast. And showed pictures LIVE for 5 days, 24 hours a day. Audience reaction was, er, somewhat more than expected and the whole country ground to a halt as the Norwegians, glued to their TV screens, watched their coastline drift slowly by.

The pictures would have looked a bit like this, on a good day – actually this is a place in Iceland, but Iceland used to be governed by Norway, ah, those were the days.

Channel NRK2 then returned to its normal programming, and to its place at the bottom of the list.

Watch battery

October 17, 2017

My watch stopped. The battery was flat. Hey, look on the cheerful side, now it will be correct twice every day.

Actually it need not be exactly twice every day. There is daylight saving so, if my watch had stopped at 2:15 then on the first Sunday in April (Northern hemisphere logic will differ) it would be correct 3 times on that day. And correct only once on the first Sunday in October.

Or, if I were to fly to Europe or around the world, my stopped watch could be correct several or many times in a day. Or if I were an astronaut orbiting in the International Space Station … it would be correct twice every 88 minutes. Approximately. (The other astronauts would have strangled me long before this).

So, I went to look for a new battery for my watch. I don’t even like wearing a watch, but I won this one in a raffle and it’s a very good one, so I do wear it, but as I am retired I neither need to know nor care what the time is. 🙂

I ‘bought’ a free watch recently. You pay for just the postage. It was a terrible-looking and ghastly-quality watch and it did not function at all, however, I got my money back.

Last time the battery failed in my real watch, I took it to Myer’s and they said “Certainly Sir, we can replace that, $19 please” but I went ahead and got the new battery. I reasoned that the watch would be no use without it, but now for $19 I could wear the fully-functioning watch with its lap timer, logarithm scale, eclipse predictor, MP3 player and banana bend calculator! The girls would flock to me (but I should elaborate here and say, as everything on this blog is true, that this did not actually happen).

So THIS time I found an obscure little watch-repair place run by a little Chinese guy and I took my watch there. I was keen to support a small, battling enterprise rather than the fiendish Big Capitalism department stores … and the Chinaman replaced my watch battery. And he charged me … $30. It would have been cheaper to go to Myer’s! Arrghh! Or note this:

Bluebottle: What time is it Eccles?
Eccles: Err, just a minute. I’ve got it written down on a piece of paper. A nice man wrote the time down for me this morning.

Bluebottle: Ooooh, then why do you carry it around with you Eccles?
Eccles: Welll, um, if a anybody asks me the time, I can show it to dem.Bluebottle: Wait a minute Eccles, my good man.
Eccles: What is it fellow?
Bluebottle: It’s writted on this bit of paper, what is eight o’clock, is writted.
Eccles: I know that my good fellow. That’s right, um, when I asked the fella to write it down, it was eight o’clock.
Bluebottle: Well then. Supposing when somebody asks you the time, it isn’t eight o’clock?
Eccles: Well den, I don’t show it to ’em.
Bluebottle: Well how do you know when it’s eight o’clock?
Eccles: I’ve got it written down on a piece of paper.
Bluebottle: Ohh, I wish I could afford a piece of paper with the time written on. Let me hold that piece of paper to my ear would you? ‘Ere. This piece of paper ain’t goin’
Eccles: What? I’ve been sold a forgery.
Bluebottle: No wonder it stopped at eight o’clock.
Eccles: Oh dear.
Bluebottle: You should get one of them tings my Grandad’s got.
Eccles: Oooohhh.
Bluebottle: His firm give it to him when he retired.
Eccles: Oooohhh.
Bluebottle: It’s one of dem tings what it is that wakes you up at eight o’clock, boils the kettil, and pours a cuppa tea.
Eccles: Ohhh yeah. What’s it called?
Bluebottle: My Granma.
Eccles: Ohh. Ohh, wait a minute. How does she know when it’s eight o’clock.
Bluebottle: She’s got it written down on a piece of paper.

But, the punch line is yet to come … because the Chinaman set the time on my newly be-batteried and charged-up and functioning watch. And, it used to be right twice a day (approximately) – but he set the time two minutes slow and now it is NEVER correct!

But cheer up … As the watch loses about 1 second per day, in 86,280 days it will be correct again! (Once.) Which is about 236 years, but the battery will go flat long before that. Now, for $30, I should have got the solid gold 100-year battery. So for the next 36,500 days my watch will be wrong at all times, then it will stop and be correct twice evey day again. Probably approximately (see above). And furthermore, the sooner that it stops, the more accurate it will become …

Moral: buy the cheapest possible watch battery (I would recommend Myer’s).

Indeed, do not buy a watch battery at all.

Eight Votes!

October 7, 2017

Imagine my joy – my son reported that, strewn on the pavement by our letterbox were EIGHT PEOPLE’S VOTING PAPERS for the same-sex marriage survey! Evidently someone had gone along gathering them from the letterboxes, for whatever reason, and then had been apprehended, or changed their mind, or been struck by a thunderbolt … or forgot to keep holding them – whatever, and they just dumped them there. People’s humanitarian rights, strewn all over my street.

Passions run high in my street, as in most places – nearly all houses display the multi-coloured “yes” poster. And the fans of the “no” vote are reduced to spraying “no” on the walls, thus damaging other people’s property as well as denying other people’s rights. “The Marriage Act cannot be changed” whined a friend of a friend of mine, ignorant of the fact that John Howard changed it one afternoon in 2004.

But, wah-heyy, now my son could vote eight times! But he didn’t. He went back along the street and posted the papers back into the respective letterboxes where they belonged – believing that people should have freedom to do as they please, if no harm is done. I would not tell people how they should vote, or (far worse) vote on their behalf.

I filled my own paper in, without any help. Unfortunately all I could do is tick the “yes” box. Or maybe fortunately, because if I could show the real extent of my feelings, if I could express my rage at this stupid, harmful, costly exercise even being conducted, the paper would curl at the edges and catch fire.

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Pre-ride clutter

September 14, 2017

While preparing for the 13-day Sweden ride for 32 cyclists (which has already happened and was concluded successfully, a month ago, but now the photos are in I will be blogging it from now on, a month in arrears), during our ardent pre-ride surveying I found a Swedish cafe that served British food:

– complete with HP Sauce and tea, albeit from a tea bag and not the proper tea pot. Meanwhile, a friend travelling in Norway sent me this photo of a Norwegian manhole cover, with woman holding harpoons and a circular cake of bread, and standing on a whale:

And in the notes for the course that I recently completed in Reservoir Geomechanics (yes, really – I am now qualified to drill oil wells) I happened to come across this Useful Equation for the von Mises criterion:

The joke is, that a lot of things can be set equal to an empirical constant. But at least we know that J2 must be positive. As the sodium atom said, “Darn it, I think my outer-shell electron has fallen off” (Are you sure?) “Yes, I am positive”

And, indeed, I was pretty positive when I thought I had discovered a new runestone …


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.

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?


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.


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.

OK, we get this far, then maybe a miracle will occur ….

February 25, 2016


They walk

February 10, 2016

This is my son, with a weka. That’s him, on the right, with the hat.


No, he is not trying to catch the weka with a view to eating it; he has brought plenty of food with him. Here is some of the food. That’s why his pack is so big.


He has brought the girl with him as well. Very organised, is my son.

But the two of them are bonkers. They are walking the whole length of New Zealand. No, I do not know why, either. This is the path.


They have trodden the whole length of the North Island and now they walk the South Island. This is the top part thereof.


And on the map you can see the locations of the SPOT tracker they carry. Every ten minutes it broadcasts its position. I know, because I am sitting here at the the computer watching it. Every ten minutes.

These are the valleys and passes where their path goes now. They came down that valley at the NE corner, camped in a hut before turning west and crossing that mountain range, descending into another valley which comes to a dead end, from which today they have emerged. The nearest next settlement is Boyle Village, a few days ahead. Boyle Village has a nice car park but only holiday homes, that are normally unoccupied. A road goes through it, so if they need supplies they can hitch-hike from there to Hanmer Springs, 57 km off the route.


The views are incredible. When they get a chance, they post pictures at their site and you can pick up the SPOT tracker from that site.


Last night, they camped at Lake Constance (1330m above sea level). Today they walk along its shore. I see it all; they enter the Waiau Pass track. The ridge stands before them. They walk. They ascend. They stand on the ridge. There is a milestone for the Te Araroa track here. It says 1,980 km. They recall the milestones that said 0 km, and 1 km. And 100km, and 1000km.


Together they stand on the mountain. Behind them, a sharp drop to Lake Constance and the Blue Lake, the clearest water in New Zealand and possibly the whole world. Before them, a stunning vista, a view over the entire South Island. They gaze. They marvel.

Now they descend. I am watching.

I look forward to the time that we will meet again, my son and I. My wonderful son and his wonderful lady. I will fly; my pride will carry me. Oh yes, we will meet. At Invercargill.

Cowboy Hat

January 20, 2016

Long, long ago, when the earth was still young – well, when I was still young, and when the Stuart Highway was still dirt – we drove across Australia in a Volkswagen Kombi. “We” being myself, my wife Barbro, and our daughter Emma then aged 2. We visited many places in SA/WA/NT, and towards the end of the 7-week trip we camped in Katherine, where we booked a boat tour of the Katherine Gorge.

There were three choices of tour, so at the jetty at 8am there were 2-hour, 4-hour and 8-hour boats all drawn up for boarding. We had all day so we had booked the 8-hour one. The 2-hour boat looked natty and was full of clean-clothed tourists who were helped into the boat down wooden steps, and when the scrubbed-up guide said “Hello my name is John” they all chanted back “Hello John” in unison. And the boat had a nice roof – the sunshine is fierce up there. The 4-hour tourists looked a lot rougher, they climbed along a plank into their boat which had a scruffy, rudimentary roof over half its area, and a matching scruffy, rudimentary guide who said “Good Morning” but only half of them responded. And as for our 8-hour cruise, we had no plank, we had to wade to the boat which had no roof at all, it was just a barge really, the tour guide was a veteran of the area who just said “OK let’s go” and nobody noticed because we were all hardened, sunburned veterans of the outback.

Oh yes, a motley crew we were, in ragged but tough clothes, all dirty with the red dust of the Outback. Except for one young man, tough-looking face but he had all-new cowboy outfit clothes – shiny boots with metal studs and stitching/drilling patterns, brand-new jeans, new fluffy shirt, new jacket with leather strips hanging down and an enormous brand new HAT, ten-gallon style, spectacularly decorated with extra stitching that held small metal symbols and objects around the crown and the brim. What a dude! They must have talked about that hat from Alice to Darwin. It certainly commanded attention.

We puttered along, passing the Jedda Rock (above; named for the 1956 film of that name) and we saw the other two boats go by. The 2-hour tour tore past us very fast, did a U-turn in front of the rock paintings but did not stop. The 4-hour tour landed for people to view the rock paintings properly, and then turned back. But we had 8 hours, so after the paintings we stopped to swim in a waterhole, and then went further up the Katherine Gorge as far as a rigid boat could physically get.

When our boat could go no further we landed on a sandy beach, under a cliff, far from anyone else, and we spread out our lunch. The view from the top of the cliff was magnificent, and indeed as we would later attain that location I now append that view here –

But to get to the top of the cliff required climbing the cliff. And here is that cliff, in all its vertical glory –

Now I was pretty fit at the time, what with experience of walking and hill-scrambling in England’s Lake District but I am no mountaineer and have always had a fear of heights. It was about 40 metres to the top and we began scrambling over the easier rocks, lower right in the picture. When anyone got into difficulty with climbing, the people nearby helped them – it was that kind of a group – but somehow I ended up alone on a ledge, a couple of metres short of the top, but the remaining cliff face was nearly sheer, with no handholds and footholds only lower down, on which I perched precariously with my head sticking up above the top surface, like a lost meerkat. I wouldn’t say I panicked, but I had no idea what to do next.

Then a voice said “Here y’are mate”; an arm came down and a huge hand – it was like the hoof of an ox, but with fingers – grabbed hold of my arm and I was pulled bodily up and deposited safely on the top surface.

And there we stood, just we two; that is, myself, and the young man in the natty clothes. He was evidently working at a remote cattle station and had gone into the city on leave, and to spend some money.

“Thanks, mate”, I said, in my unfortunately British accent.

And “Nice Hat”.

New Year’s Eve – Free Fireworks

January 8, 2016

We spent a few days at the BMW motorbike club’s Xmas Camp at Yarram – in eastern Victoria, inland a little bit from the coast. It’s a quiet country town, well placed for touring the area – Tarra-Bulga National Park, the Grand Ridge Road, some small historic port towns and a lot of epically bendy roads great for motorcycling, with great views almost all the time. Yarram has all the basic facilities you need (a pub and an opp shop) and its people are very welcoming. Our camp site was very quiet and the cabins and facilities were good. The club sets up its own marquee and kitchen tent, with coffee and tea all day and all the stuff for breakfasts, including a fry-up.

At the entrance to the camp site there is a neat concrete slab, with boom gates. But there is a gravel road each side and there is plenty of room to pass beside the boom gate, if it were in use, which it wasn’t. The concrete slab is the biggest concrete slab in Yarram. People come from far and wide to look at it, point and say “That is the biggest concrete slab in Yarram”. Which would be a bit futile really, because if it wasn’t, or if it wasn’t there, then some other concrete slab must be the biggest concrete slab in Yarram, and people could flock to that.

Over the days, if we weren’t touring the area, we sat around the campsite table and went yakety-yak, and walked into the town. Where someone saw a poster “Cabaret – New Year’s Eve – Regent Theatre”. I kept silent that I had googled “Old Time Dancing” at the same venue. This, as we found out, was not a show at a theatre that you see while seated at a table. The Regent Theatre is a lovely old 1920’s building, next to the Post Office, but inside it is bare, with a stage at one end. Here a duo (guitar and keyboard) played country music, while the locals danced folk dances. Fair to say, there were tables around the edge and we could spread out nibbles and wine etc (the only shop shut at 9pm – I was just in time) but this was not a show to look at, rather, it was for joining in – which we were warmly invited to do. Each of us danced very badly.

Beside the duo on the stage was an easel with wooden slats listing what dances would come next – Pride of Erin, Scottish Reel, 4-4 Cha-Cha, etc. and someone had to keep getting up to move the slats upwards. Then at about 9:20 pm I suddenly realised the top two slats listed “Circle Waltz” and then “SUPPER” followed by empty slots. And sure enough the MC came on the stage and said OK it is supper time, there is some cordial in the lobby, instant coffee and tea bags or you can have tap water. And after the supper there will be a BUSH POETRY READING … so we made our excuses and left. (One of us wanted to stay, and recite Eskimo Nell) Everyone, every single person present, said goodbye to us. I tried to explain that we were a motorbike gang from Melbourne and could not keep up with the pace.

Back at the camp we rued our decision because it meant we’d have to miss the NYE fireworks display – for kiddies at 9:30, grown ups at midnight. These were to take place not at the town showgrounds, but at a place called Alberton West to which a free bus would bring persons wishing to attend. Spit roast, bouncy castle, Bucking Bull, free kids activities, music, food, drinks at bar prices. Now as Google Maps shows, this settlement is 7km SW of Yarram – and as the Earth View shows, below, it has, oh, 4 or 5 houses, and the DWWWW Football Club. Someone should hold regular mid-week seminars for ladies to learn the Internet at this place – the DWWWW Women’s Weekly Wednesday World Wide Web Workshop, or DW-11 for short. I wonder what the D stands for. Don’t-ask?

But all is not lost. As a simple calculation (below) shows, at a distance of 7km you can see things that are only a few metres off the ground! So from a suitable vantage point we’d see the rockets and airborne fireworks, if not the ground displays. I was requested to explain. Draw the Earth as a circle of radius R – preferably, draw it smaller than reality – and a pole of height h. If you were at the top of the pole, your line of sight to the horizon just touches the Earth’s surface at a point at a distance d. And being tangential to the surface, this line is at right angles to the Earth’s radius at that point. So we have a right-angled triangle with one side R, one side d, and hypotenuse (R+h). This diagram shows it clearly.

The top of the pole is marked O because it is a very high pole and that’s what you’d say if you looked down. In fact, if you fell then neglecting air resistance you’d hit the surface with velocity = sqrt(2hg), which is very interesting and could be a topic of conversation with the ambulance crew on the way to hospital. Anyway, due to Pythagoras we have

R²+ d² = (R+h)²
R² + d² = R² + 2Rh +h²

(pay attention, there will be an exam next week)

d² = 2Rh + h² and we can neglect h² compared to R, so
d = sqrt(2Rh) and R=6371 km.

If d is measured in kilometres, and h is in metres, then d = 3.57 times sqrt(h)

Thus for d = 7 km, h is about 4 metres so with your eyeballs 4 metres off the ground you could see the ground up to 7 km away. And, more usefully, vice versa which saved us having to go to Alberton West and climb up a step ladder. Of course there are always bushes and trees and suchlike in the way, but even above those we hoped to see at least the aerial fireworks. So at just before midnight we crept down to the Yarram main road and looked to the SW, that is, along the minor road in this view:

Unfortunately, and as the picture shows, there was a house of height H right in the way, but this was still the best place and we saw a few exploding rockets and star-bursts, just to the right of the white chimney. Except for a couple of optimists who went nearer to the house, thus causing its height H to subtend a greater angle at their eyeballs.


Penrose Tiling

December 21, 2015

I remember the streets of Helsinki –

whose surface is covered by Penrose tiles. There are basically two types, the kite and the dart, and they have the amazing property that they not only cover a flat surface completely, with no gaps or overlaps, but the arrangement of the tiles is random and the pattern never repeats. Click on this link for a full explanation.

There is the further amazing story that Kleenex decided to print such a pattern on their bog paper and Prof Penrose sued them, and won. This is believed to the first time that a mathematics professor has succesfully litigated against a toilet paper manufacturer. Kleenex reckoned that such a never-repeating pattern would be ideal for their particular requirement, because embossing bog paper with any pattern helps it to bulk up and become fluffier (thus needing less paper to fill up the roll), but a formally repeating pattern would also cause the paper to sit unevenly on the roll. Of course, the pattern cannot have been truly random – they have to manufacture bog rolls with some sort of deterministic, physical machinery. Later, Penrose and Kleenex were reported as having entered into a “cordial and constructive” relationship; see here.

Sir Roger Penrose is a very smart guy – one of his PhD students was Stephen Hawking. Apart from describing the Universe, he invented the Penrose triangle, which I was often drawing in my school rough book in 1963. You will all have seen one by now, but (exasperatingly) somebody has now actually made one:×791.jpg

and here is one in East Perth (source: Wikimedia Commons)

But back to Penrose’s dart/kite tiling. And, returning to Helsinki, when they laid the tiles they could just put them down any old how

And the Finns who set maths exams exploited this. Look at Question 7 in this exam paper for example.

What? What? You want to see it in English? Surely, Mathematics is a universal language that has no need of translation. But OK, here it is:

High school diploma 23.3.2011
Q7. Part of the Helsinki Central street was converted into a pedestrian precinct, and was paved with the Penrose tiles, which are invented by English mathematician Roger Penrose in the 1970s. The surface can be covered in an infinite number of different ways, so that no tiling pattern ever repeats. The tiles are available in two different forms, kite and arrow. Both are quadrilaterals, of which the angles and sides are indicated below. (a) Calculate the lengths of the remaining sides to three decimal places. (b) Calculate the tile surface areas to three decimal places.

Isn’t that interesting? And while I had my head down, admiring the Helsinki streets I noticed … oh look out, here it comes … a whole new world of manhole covers. These will be in a separate post some days later, but for now, here is one of them … well, 14 of them actually. Helsinki might yet rival Tallinn as a manhole-cover fetishist’s paradise.

Walking across New Zealand

October 28, 2015

My wonderful son LARS ROBERTS and his German girl friend ROMINA have begun their walk across New Zealand from north to south. They started north of Kaitaia, and they are looking forward to a day off in Invercargill in March.

They are carrying a Spot Tracker and you can see their progress hour by hour at THIS LINK

They have prepared well, they have excellent equipment and good maps – from NZ DoC – here’s Cape Reinga for example:

Go back over the older traces and you can see them actually go to Cape Reinga:

And they went to the beacon north of the car park. Why didn’t they go all the way to the northernmost rock, you may ask, well, as this (admittedly exaggerated in height) Google Earth map shows, there is a precipitous drop to the jagged rocks below:

After that, they went south along Ninety Mile Beach, seeking Invercargill. Why is the beach called that, you may wonder, well they found out, it took them 6 days to walk along it, all on sand. I bet they were glad to hit Ahipara, a veritable metropolis with camp site, post office, roads, buildings, etc.

Yesterday they passed through the Herekino Forest from one side to the other. The vegetation is so dense that the tracker could not see the sky at times. The path is narrow and muddy, and very steep and hilly. The NZ SAS carry out field training in this forest.

Everything else on the walk is said to be easier than conquering these two features, and today they steamed right over some open countryside and into another forest. They flew right past Takahue, according to the traces; maybe it is a dull place. Only 140 days to go, eh. I don’t know why they are doing this and neither do they, but I am so proud of them. So very proud.

Interlude: My latest toy

October 27, 2015

Taking a break from this blog for a few days – I have work to do. Will post about St Petersburg next week, it was really amazing. But first …

Look what I HAVE GOT!

No, no! Not the pot plant, the clock!

The what?

Yes, that is a Fibonacci Clock from Project Kickstarter. Here’s the link.

It tells you what the time is … eventually. The cells have sizes 1,1,2,3,5 (it’s a Fibonacci spiral) and they light up in red and green. Blue is both red+green. White is neither.

The hour is in red; the minutes (divided by 5) are in green. This one is showing 10:40. Of course, by the time you have worked that out it will be 10:45 and the display will have changed. But, isn’t life beautiful?

The poor inventor sold more than he ever thought he would, and for months his flat must have been submerged in plywood, circuit boards, postal packs etc.

I just think this is wonderful. I hope he moves on to invent more bizarre stuff.

Track my son’s NZ walk!

October 8, 2015

This Post is an interlude between the cycling and non-cycling parts of our Russian trip.

My son and his girl friend are crazy about each other – but I think they are also just plain crazy because they are going to walk the entire Te Araroa track – the entire length of New Zealand, both islands. They will start in a few days north of Kaitaia, and end up in Invercargill next March. The trail is well set out and well documented by the eight NZ Te Araroa Trusts, and by the NZ Department of Conversation (sic).

In case they get lost, they will carry a Spot Tracker. It will post their position every 15 minutes or so, if it can get a GPS fix. Anyone can follow them on the Internet by clicking here which takes you to this link:

And you can see the past history. Thus you can not only follow their progress, you can also see where they have gotten lost, fallen down a gully, been abducted by a UFO, eaten by Lord of the Rings monsters, given up and stayed in the pub, etc.

The single trace now at the link is me, trying the device out on my Motor Cycle on 2/3 October. You can see (at trace #3) where I buy petrol; traces 15-16, my favourite cafe at Violet Town; trace 17 is where there is an at the V/T Post Office which I like to visit, but it was closed; traces 24-29, the bike is parked near my friend’s house; at trace 30, we moved the bike under cover and the GPS signals failed after that; it emerges at trace 31 the next morning and traces 36-38 are where I had coffee in Rutherglen. The ride back to Melbourne was quite interesting, and I wish you could see it but I forgot to press the button on the device that you have to press every 24 hours. So, 24 hours after I set out, there I was near Wangaratta and the device shut down after trace 42. I got it going again the next day, but you can see from traces 43-46 that I have brought it off the motorbike and into my house.

So far, so little privacy when you have this thing with you. But I look forward immensely to the day soon when I, and you dear reader, can follow the progress of my wonderful son and his girl friend as they hike 3,000 km across NZ!

Cycling in Halland – Day 1 of 3

August 6, 2015

For boy readers especially, we saw this mighty Liebherr crane as we left Halmstad:

You can’t make it out at this resolution, but the main shaft (painted orange) has FOUR full-length extensions that can slide out, under load. For the counterweights, each orange block (2 visible, of 6) and each horizontal slice weigh 12.5 tons.

And we’re off! Going inland, NE from Halmstad on the “Hylteslingan” trail, 169 km over three days..The buildings rapidly thinned out to nothing and we were in flat farmland, with increasing amounts of forest. After 20 km of this we came to a rest stop, beside a Viking burial site with small rings of stones. It was too overgrown to photograph well; these sites are very common and the authorities can’t keep up with keeping them all tidy). But here we are, at lunch.

You see that spectacular hill in the background. Geologically it is gneiss, hard rock left behind from volcanoes that once infested this region before the land wore away and reduced hundreds of metres in level. What no man has seen, however, is what happens there on Christmas Day. You see, the trolls that inhabit this region also celebrate Christmas.

It is said that on Christmas Day the whole hill lifts up, on pillars of solid gold and a bright light shines out of the interior. And men would be well advised not to interrupt the party.

Now that Liebherr crane looks a bit pathetic.


July 26, 2015

This post is really to test the laptop computer I will be using for the next 6 weeks, into which I have just transferred my, well, my life. I hope to put up almost daily updates of my travels in Sweden, Moscow and Helsinki … if this post works!

This is Pluto. SOUTH Pluto. No I am not going there .. actually I am leading two bicycle rides to the Solar System Model of Pluto, along the Melbourne foreshore, in October.

What totally freaks me out is that mid-20th-century names are being assigned to the newly discovered features. Hillary, a great mountaineer and philanthropist – Norgay, an equally great mountaineer – Sputnik Planum, named after a rival and arguably better space program than NASA’s – and, amazingly, Cthulhu Regio. Do NASA know something about the Great Old Ones coming back? In sunken R’lyeh he lies dreaming – that is not dead which may undetected lie, and with strange eons even death may die … Sorry for the gibberish: your life has either been affected by the works of H.P.Lovecraft, or it hasn’t.

Suzdal Film Location

July 22, 2015

As a teaser for my upcoming trip to Sweden, Moscow and Helsinki … readers may recall that I did a bit of a motorbike ride across Russia in 2012. One of the places I visited was Suzdal, 150km east of Moscow – a location that was used in the film “Andrei Rublev”. If you have 3 hours to spare, you can view this 8-part masterpiece of Tarkovsky’s here:

Parts 1-4
– note the isolated Church of the Intercession, on the Nerl River, in the 4-minute opening sequence of Part 1 – we will be cycling to it this year (it is at 56* 11′ 47″N, 40* 33′ 40″E)

Parts 5-8
– part 5 is pretty violent, but cut to the 8th episode “The Bell” at 46:16 onwards. This 50-minute episode vies for being the best film ever made, and it was filmed in Suzdal. I was watching it yet again today, the 9th or 10th time I have seen the film, and I have 3 books about it. I dumped these stills from the screen; note the white-walled kremlin in the background.

I wanted to find the place where the bell was cast, a spectacular scene in the film – I had already spent years looking for it on Google Earth – … and on 19 June 2012 at 6pm there we were in the cafe at 56* 25′ 53.5″ N, 40* 26′ 26″ E – looking SW (away from the neighbouring brick-walled St Euthymius Monastery) towards the white wall of the Pokrovsky Monastery, like this.

The view behind was strangely familiar. My friends Lynnie and Deany are posing in front of one of the most amazing filming locations on the planet.


It matches:

And I will be there again on 26 August this year. Bring it on! I will write this blog most days as I travel, oh yes indeed, I will get around to it.

A Short Short Ride

July 15, 2015

I had this Dazzling Idea. I belong to a big bicycle club that puts on 10 or 11 rides every week, of varying length and difficulty. No, that’s not the dazzling idea, although it is a good idea as it is a very friendly club. Their “easy” rides are 30-40 km, “medium” is 50-70 km and “hard” is 80km+, with hills. (Cycling 50km on flat paths is quite easy, believe me). Here’s a ride in Canberra:

The club welcomes new ideas for rides, and as no current ride is less than 30 km I have begun to organise “short” rides of 10km return, with a nice coffee stop in the middle of the ride. Or at the beginning and end of the ride. Or, instead of the ride.

So far these short rides have gone well; the bloke who turned up for the inaugurual ride liked it. (That is a new word, by the way, derived from “inaugural” and “rue” – when you do something for the first time, and regret it). I know he liked it because he also turned up for the second ride – alone, again. Maybe he just likes nice quiet rides undisturbed by other riders.

I was down to lead a “short ride” to Merri Creek Labyrinth today, only about 10km return, it was not raining but it was bloody cold (5*C), which puts people off. I got early to the start point and waited … and waited … the time neared 10am, the official start time, and I was standing alone in the car park, viewing a vista void of velocipedes. Soulfully wandered I the great expanse of tarmac, uncluttered by bicycles … wait a minute! There’s one parked over there! Er, that’s my bike … my thoughts turned to our hapless Club President, who had trialled rides on Fridays for which nobody turned up. I got the phone out to call him and say that I could now share his experience. Then I would cancel the ride and go home.

But as the clock turned over to 10:00:00 a lone cyclist loomed out of the mist … and it was our President! My ride would have to take place after all. And ride we did, sacrificing the principle that the “short” ride should average 10kph and never go over 15 kph. I led, he was the “whip” (tail end charlie), and the other cyclists were in the middle. 5km and 15 minutes later, we completed the first stage of the ride, reaching the little-known Merri Creek Labyrinth. We raced the final stretch, and I did quite well, coming second whereas the President came second from last.

Here we are at the Labyrinth (except for the rider who took the picture). I got lost in it, and there was some delay while I found my way out. Note the fogginess wafting in from the right – that is COFFEE STEAM, miraculously reaching this area from the nearest cafe, and very soon we were embarking on the second or “cafe” stage of the ride – a gruelling hour of coffee, cakes and conversation.

Just as we were preparing to leave, someone we knew passed by and called in, so we had to have coffee all over again. Phew!

We took a democratic vote and decided by 2-0 to end the ride there (As ride leader, I get 2 votes; everyone else gets no votes). The ride was fun, it always is, even if the President had spoiled my chance of leading a ride where nobody turns up. So I’m going to show up for his Friday ride, and spoil that.

A Shopkeeper’s Tale

July 13, 2015

Here’s another tale from out of the murk of my life – bear with me, there will be a glorious ending. About 20 years ago a friend of mine from Melbourne went to work in the bush and found himself managing the general store in an aboriginal settlement about 5 hours’ drive west of Alice Springs. I had this dazzling idea: that together with my son (then aged 10) I would go and run the store to give him a break, while my wife and daughter (13) went on a trip to Europe. “You got the short straw there, Steve” said my work colleagues, mostly ex-policemen; but my friend pointed out “It will look good in your resume”, and indeed to this day it does feature on that document. The store was the only place in town, it sold everything and my three-week career as shopkeeper gave me decades’ worth of life experience.

We spent a week learning how to run the store, then we were left on our own. My son had two jobs – keep up the stock level on the shelves, and rush outside every 10 minutes to shoo away the wild dogs that gathered there. The Pitjantjajara word for this is “Paya” and it is the first word you learn – without it, you will not get out of the house to learn anything else. The dogs know where the storekeeper lives and will follow him, slavering at their jaws when he goes to open the shop; if he fails to open the shop precinct, containing all its rubbish, rejected food and other canine goodies, they will eat him instead. More Pitjantjatjara words that I recall: Yes is “uwa”, no is “wiya”, I was called “Tjilpi” which means “old man”. One = “kutju”, two = “kuturpa”, three = “mankurpa”, and four = … well actually there are no words for numbers. “Kutju” means “alone” and “kuturpa” means “resembling”. “Mankurpa” was a new word invented by the whites, to try to establish a numbering system, and that is far as they got.

I should explain that Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara are recognised as separate dialects among the Western Desert languages, but they differ only in a single word: the verb for “come” (which also means “go”) namely “pitjantja” or “yankunytja”. Respectively. Look, I hope you are paying attention, there will be an exam on Friday… Recently a third dialect, Ngaanyatjarra, was sliced off from the Yankuntjatjara body. These languages are thousands of years old … and they are complicated! Much harder than any European language, and probably harder than Japanese. I mastered about 50 words (and none of the grammar) in 3 weeks.

The tiny airline that services the community with 1 flight a week (they have one Cessna) is called PY Air. That’s because if they called it Pitjantjatjara-Yankunytjatjara Air they’d have to buy a plane with bigger wings to paint the words on. And the weight of the paint would make the plane fly in an arc and land at Herrmansburg instead. They fly in once a week to collect the shop’s cash tin among other chores, but there is no need really because all the banknotes go round and round in the same community. There were no $50 notes in the town, only 20’s 10’s and 5’s and you could recognise individual notes as they passed through the shop. The locals do not keep their money in wallets or purses – they carry the banknotes in their armpits.

Anyway, despite the language difficulty, these semi-nomadic societies have been functioning for thousands of years with no concept of quantities or numbers. This causes despair among the recently arrived white bureaucrats who, for example, have to hand out old-age pensions.
“How old are you?” – I’m very old
“When were you born” – Long time ago
“Do you have children” – Er (starts to recite names) – Yes, many
“Where do you live” – now this is a very silly question because everyone moves around all the time. Even among the ghastly concrete houses, they change places every day or two. Babies and children are passed around so much that you cannot tell who originated them.

But when you think of it, our own society needs precise numbers only for (a) money and (b) technology, neither of which has ever been used by these semi-nomadic people. I could tell dozens of stories of my short life among them, some very emotional. As shopkeeper you become the moral guardian of the entire town – there were 4 white people: shopkeeper, administrator, Essential Services Officer, and the teacher in the school. I was welcomed and they all helped me, but it was clear that when my friend was in place, none of the 4 whites could stand one another. Indeed the next time my friend left town, he’d been gone about two hours when the ESO managed to get the town committee to sack him from his job; and this backfired badly upon him, so that the town lost both of them.

The ESO’s duty is to keep everything functioning, as far as possible; the town’s power came from a diesel generator. Being an amateur astronomer, I borrowed his car to go off into the bush one night and see the night sky, without interference from the glaring lights that floodlit the town’s two streets like the Berlin Wall (which was still standing at the time). “But there is no need to do that” said the ESO, “You go and turn the generator off, the entire town goes dead, you look at the stars, and when you have finished looking at the stars you turn the generator back on again.”

Anyway, one of my duties as shopkeeper was to hand out the dole money; every two weeks everyone got $313.40 and partly because they were not really able to count it, it got spent very quickly. Indeed any smart female would spend every cent of it immediately in the shop, before a male got hold of the money and went off to the Alice to get drunk. A woman would typically chain five shopping trolleys together and fill up the lot, so it was hard work in the shop that day. The most popular food choices were tinned spaghetti and Coca-Cola. After a few days people would start showing up with “I am hungry and I have no money left” and I was not supposed to lend money – the shop had a huge sign hanging up “NO CREDIT”, but sometimes you had to bend the rules. In some settlements everyone was very deeply in debt and the shopkeeper would hold everyone’s bank cards and know the PIN numbers, but this place had not been allowed to get that bad.

Mercifully this was a “dry” settlement, unlike Herrmansburg which had a booze outlet, and a policeman and a nurse, both of whom were kept very busy. We had to drive past there on the way in from the airport, a good road had been built to bypass it but I wanted to see the town, as I had been there eleven years previously. So there we were, driving in the middle of the empty desert when my friend suddenly said “This is Herrmansburg” and I said I wanted to go through the town, not the bypass road. “But this is the town” he said, and when I looked closely, yes there were a few ruined buildings and a few people – mostly with injuries – basically living in holes in the ground. Every advertisement for alcohol should be made to include a view of Herrmansburg.

So – I am getting to the point – along came “pay day” when I had to hand out the dole money. You had to be acutely aware of who owed money to the shop, and to whom in each household you should give the money. One particular man came along, surprisingly early in the day, and collected his family’s $313.40 – and very soon I heard (on the bush telegraph) that I should not have given it to him and he was already on his way to the Alice, leaving his wife and child starving and penniless. I put word out to ask his wife to come to the shop. A skinny, ragged girl of 13-14 turned up … but yes, it was her, complete with howling baby in tow. I gave her the $313.40 all over again and told her we’d manage paying it back somehow, after the next handout. I have never forgotten her name or the poverty (yes, Bob Hawke, the poverty) in which that poor girl was surviving, raising a child, and trying to manage an abusive, alcoholic husband.

I tell this tale because today there is a good ending. Twenty years after those soul-scarring 3 weeks which I would not have missed for the world, I have seen this newspaper article. Actually it is two-year-old news, but old stuff can pop up like that and people start copying it around the Web as if it was new. Well, it WAS new, to me.


The article goes on to name the eight newly-qualified women. They come from a wide area of the Western Desert, but one of the names was familiar.



More odds and ends

June 28, 2015

Gotta get this blog running smoothly again. I have been pratting around, wasting time as usual – hey, I’m retired 🙂 The new garage is up to the floor of the upper level. But meanwhile … here’s a shop in the LaTrobe Valley – Click to embiggen it, like all my pictures. Whatever do they sell here? (answer at bottom)

And look what $1 can buy you!

Only a month until I go overseas for the Sweden/Russia bicycle trip. I hope the wheels do not come off – imagine the feeling of disappointment felt by this poor bloke:

And here’s the Melbourne Anarchist Club’s HQ. Yes, really:

Sadly, it is about to be demolished – it has stood, until now, like a little oasis of anarchy in a cultural desert of capitalist development. But really, how can there be a club of anarchists? Does it have meetings? With a chairman? Does he/she call the meeting to order?  (Surely he/she would call the meeting to disorder)

(Shop at top of post: sells all sorts of stuff including pensioners – which are 10% off – and LED signs for other shops)