Sunday, 28 October 2007

Weekend stuff

Frances and I spent some of this weekend out in the bush (about 1200m above sea level) on birding duties. There has been a very dry spell for about 3 months, but we re now getting some rain.

To recycle a cliche there is good news and bad news.
The bad news first. Australia is the home of the bush fly. What is known as "the great Aussie salute" is a constant motion in which the hand is swept across in front of the face to fan away the flies. We have been told this weekend that as a result of the drought (last 5 years, not the last few months) the population of beetles that bury cattle poop has dropped drastically: thus more poop = more flies. Here is a shot of Frances supporting this research finding.
The good news (well the photogenic news at least) is that the rains have led the marsupials to start continued foetal development. (When things get dry the foeti just get put into suspended animation until food and water become available again. Don't ask me how this happens, but it does.) Frances took this piccie yesterday.





At El Rancho, as well as the marsupials, the reptiles are also doing well. We have a good crop of large lizards (including the water dragon to the left).







There are also a few snakes: here is a photo of onethat has taken up residence near the clothes line. So far it hasn't been identified, but it is likely to be fairly venomous so we're tending to give it some room (but it isn't aggressive).

Thursday, 25 October 2007

Garden situation, late October






We have inherited a good lot of irises from the previous owners, of which these are the lairiest,





















These pale ones also have a subtle charm!
















We were kindly given some yellow flags by a friend and despite most of the water exiting the pond in which we placed them we now have some beautiful flowers to look at across the lawn.












In the vegie department we have a good crop of onions beginning to appear as well as several varieties of garlic. Needless to say there are also weeds which Frances removes!











This is an overview of the legume area. It was under the yellow box shown in http://franmart.blogspot.com/2007/09/persons-at-work.html so is really a remarkable recovery. Notice that the supervisor is still on the job!



We have several varieties of peas and they are all producing heavily. This is far and away the best we have ever done with them, despite their pounding from the fallen tree. This section are snow peas.
The potatoes are really hitting their straps. They are growing faster than we can mound them up again. Fortunately we have some straw to dump on them to slow them up a bit.

Various recent birds

The image below is of a great egret. I had hoped to get one of it sitting in a dead willow, but it flew as the shutter went, giving a much better shot!










This is an image of the Bar-tailed Godwit seen in and near Kelly's Swamp on 25 October 2007










On 24 October I was unsuccesfully searching the Australian National Botanic Garden for an alleged Spangled Drongo. Instead I found some flowering grass trees (Xanthorrhea sp) which were being thoroughly investigated by Red Wattlebirds. I don't know if this was a search for nectar or insects but the images are OK.




Wednesday, 10 October 2007

Interesting things to do with yeast

I am sure there are a very wide range of things to do with yeast. The two main uses I make of this product are baking bread (basic simple stuff in a bread machine) and brewing beer. However for the sake of completeness this post will also note some other people's efforts in the latter direction.

Vey little more will be said about the former. I use one of Lauke's mixes (usually the German grains one) for the bread and do not muck about adding fruit etc. As we live some 22kms from the nearest shop it is really good to have a fresh loaf available in the kitchen whenever we want one (and remember to fire the machine up the previous night). Although I am not greatly into 'sensory' things the smell of the baking bread is also quite pleasant on a cold winter morning.

Beer making
There are a couple of ways of beer making. The first is to delegate the task to someone else and just drink the stuff. This will be covered by commentary on various ales I have purchased and sampled. For the purists, it will also cover stouts and wheat beers, but rarely lager or pilseners because they are generally blander than I wish to drink. The second way is to make it yourself, which is my usual source of fermented product.

Commercial Brews
I generally don't use these too much since they are either expensive or uninteresting (or in some cases - often Irish-themed pubs - both). However I usually have a few cans of VB somewhere around for guests and will acquire some of the expensive stuff as a treat from time to time.

The local shops don't really seem to carry a wide range of brews: some Matilda Bay or James Squire is about the extent of interesting stuff. It is interesting to compare this with the situation in New York City where our local supermarket (a Coles-equivalent) carried about 50 brands of beer ranging from Bud Light (who does drink that gnat exudate?) to several of the great Belgian Trappist ales. They had obviously absorbed the Chuck Hahn philosophy of getting "people to drink more beers" rather than getting "people to drink more beer".

A comment about beer in New York must be followed by a reference to the Brooklyn Brewery. Not only do they do a very good lager (almost an oxymoron) style but they have some very robust ales. We got a six pack of Monster (about 10% from memory) and it was genuinely excellent, although approached with caution. They also have an excellent, albeit very high decibel, Happy Hour on friday nights.

An apparently reliable source of expensive but very good stuff in Australia is a stall (http://www.swordsselect.com.au/) in the Victoria Markets in Melbourne. They have a reasonable range of imported and microbrewery lines and appear fairly knowledgeable about their product. Recent acquisions from there have included:


  • Weihenstephaner Korbinian: A brew from Bavaria, running at 7.4% alcohol. Pure nectar. One of the best beers I have ever drunk.
  • Purrumbete Brewing Company Red Duck Porter. 6.4% alcohol. tastes more like an old ale than a stout. Not bad but while the comment on the label that "Does not include any real ducks" makes it worth an investment, it is nowhere near the appeal of the other two brews covered here.
  • Red Hill Imperial Stout. At 8.1% they can justify the "Imperial" tag. This is an offshoot of a winery of the same name who run a tasting venue along with the brewery. Its on the Mornington Peninsula so easy to visit when we are next in Melbourne. It has now been sampled and is rated "magnificent" (Martin) and "very nice" (Frances). It is full bodied and tastes like a good stout should. I could quite imagine sinking about 6 of these and being very willing to go and fight at Borodino! The tasting venue will be definitely be on the itinerary when we next visit Melbourne!

In Canberra - near where we live - the facilities of Dan Murphy's have been recommended as a venue worthy of exploration. This was backed up by offering a bottle of Velkopopovicky Kozel from Plzen (yes, folks, the home of pilsener) in the Czech Republic. This however is a dark beer which runs in at a surprisingly light 3.8% and had a very pronounced malty taste. Worthy of further testing.

Home brewing
Most of the beer that I make is created in a 23 litre fermenter acquired many years ago. I gave up bottling into glass when one shattered as I was capping it and required a fairly brisk visit to hospital: fortunately at that time we were living 400m from the second biggest hospital in the ACT! So now I use PET soda bottles which a) are free and b) work completely well as long as the filled bottles are kept in the dark. The one way I do use bottles is when I am able to get some swing-tops (typically Grolsch, but we did return from a trip to Europe with several empty Fischer bottles in our luggage). However I did find recently that a brew of Thomas Cooper's Stout (see below) blew the bottom out of one of them.

The unusual thing about my brewing technique is that I have found it to be a pain in the rectum to use sodium metabisulphite as a steriliser. A good swill of hot water from the tap seems to work just as well. I did try the metbisulphite once recently and for some reason the brew hardly had a secondary fermentation. To paraphrase John Wayne in Fort Apache "It was better than no beer, but only just."

A useful discovery for any readers in the vicinity of Canberra is that Butts and Booze now appeart to exist in Queanbeyan and offer quite a good range of product. The have shuffled around Canberra for years trying to find the balance between reasonable rents and accessibility and like many residents (including us) have found that the answer is to get into NSW!

Recent brews have included:

  • Thomas Cooper Stout: Generally like a stout should be. Dark and sweet with a good long lasting head. Probably not the best thing for Summer so some of it might get left a bit until next Winter.
  • Thomas Cooper Wheat beer: I like the taste of Wheat beers as much as anything in the fermented products area. Following the example of Matilda Bay "Beez Kneez" I use honey as the additional carbohydrate when brewing this and it makes for a very refreshing slurp.
  • Morgan's Yukon Brown Smoked Ale. Thrown on 25 October. I have tried this one in the past and rated it as pretty good. This time I have used Brigalow Extra Malt Brewing Sugar rather than the basic CSR sucrose. I bottled it on about 6 November and had a first bottle on 25 November: it is truly excellent and will be brewed again. The smokiness reminds me a bit of some of the nicer malt whiskies!.
  • Morgan's Ironbark Dark Ale. Thrown 20 November. I have a memory that this was an ingredient of our (so far only) attempt at Imperial Russian Stout: hint to self, must do that again to get ready for next Winter. Bottled on 4 December as covered in "http://franmart.blogspot.com/2007/12/beer-gets-skittled.html"

Tuesday, 9 October 2007

Marathon trip

This is essentially recording some stuff around our trip to Melbourne which had the purpose of me running the marathon. The sub-text of that is that I had found that the time I ran in New York (10 months earlier) would have put me at #15 in the ACT Vets 60 – 65 age group. As I turned 60 (or as Frances put it, depressingly, entered my 7th decade) 2 days before the race this seemed to be my best chance of additional fame.

Day 1 was a drive from Carwoola to Marlo on the East Coast of Victoria. This started by confirming that the shortcut through Captains Flat and Jerangle actually cut 20 minutes (as well as 50km) off the trip. The highlight of the drive was seeing a lot of echidnas wandering around. We have seen them in the past but this year they seem to be everywhere.

We started touristing at the Bemm River rainforest walk where there were a lot of birds calling, but as usual in rainforest, none were visible. We moved on to Cape Conran, taking a photo of a young person boogie-boarding and added a few bird to the list. A call was made to the Cabbage Palm Creek picnic area but no topknot pigeons were seen. A large number of mosquitos were seen and felt (and killed).



We were booked in to the Marlo Motel who recommended the pub across the road as a provider of food. The Motel was good, but the food at the pub was overpriced and rather ordinary. The next morning (Day 2) was my actual anniversary so I didn’t cop even the warranted criticism for an initial stuff up for our walk. We recovered from that and had a very enjoyable stroll from the French’s Narrows lookout to the Southern Ocean. Highlights were: a number of white fronted chats – including a great distraction display; copulating pied oystercatchers; and adding striated fieldwren to my life list.

The remainder of the drive to Melbourne was fine, although the tollway was clagged badly so we left it to its own devices. Some amusing bumper stickers seen en route:
  • ”Adventure before dementia”
  • “I used to have an open mind but my brain kept falling out”

It is also salutary to note that our fuel consumption on this leg approached 35 miles per gallon (8l/100km) to contrast with about 30mpg normally. The difference is driving a long distance at a steady 110kmh.

After checking in at the Ibis pub we went to the Vic Markets to acquire some bottled goods (dark brown in hue) for after the marathon. A very interesting process and some user feedback will be added in another post.

For the evening meal we went to the “Namaste on King” restaurant. This was of the Indian persuasion and was absolutely splendid. We know a tad about Indian grub after our time in Dar es Salaam and this was an excellent mix of spiciness and tastiness and very reasonably priced: a total contrast to last night at Marlo.

The following morning I went for an early morning cater around what used to be called “the Tan” track around the Botanic Gardens. As the old tanbark has been replaced by gravel I reckon it is better referred to as The Beige. This was done satisfactorily and we headed off to the Gardening Australia Expo at Caulfield Racecourse. The event was quite interesting in terms of quite a lot of unusual plants being available and several were purchased. However, as a friend noted it was quite expensive and there was nothing about garden design or such like. I spent the afternoon dozing (after bumping into Rob Ey – with whom I was to run on Sunday – in Spencer St. as he got off the airport bus). The evening was a visit to Docklands for a meal: we (Frances, Rob and I) went to Medici and put ourselves outside some Italia grub and a bottle of Tantanoola Tiger Cabernet.

On the Sunday Rob and I trotted off to near the Melbourne Cricket Ground – hereafter referred to as “the G”. This was the start of the marathon and we were pleased to get there with about 20 minutes to spare. Then it turned out that there was a problem on the road so the start was delayed by 20 minutes. Given that Rob’s flight back to Canberra was fairly tightly scheduled that could have been tricky.

When we got going the next issue was that the kilometre marks were a bit hard to spot due to them being on cards at ground level. However it seemed that we were travelling at about 5m 10secs per kilometre which was a tad brisk. By about 10kms Rob had issues with a blistered trotter and we lost a little time at one aid station trying to find the first aid dudes and then at the next one (15kms), getting the blister dealt with. We the poddled off again and for the next 15kms (mostly at about 5:25) trotted along with some thought given to how Rob’s foot was going.

By 30kms said foot was going rather well, just in time for my body to start disimproving its relation with my pain receptors. Rob expressed – quite firmly on a couple of occasions- the view that walking would not assist this so I might as well keep running. His arguments were persuasive and I found that as we approached 40km, having dropped to about 5:45 per km, I hadn’t walked at all – a first for me in marathons. We then trotted past Frances – who had wondered what had happened for her to miss us (not realising the 20 minutes delay at the start). A steady couple of kms including a very unpleasant ramp over a road going into the G, a lap around the outside of the G and finally ¾ of a lap of the sacred turf only a week after the Aussie Rules Grand Final. The result was a finish in 3 hours 54 minutes and 35 seconds, according to my watch. Most excellent and extremely satisfying. It was even better to find the official time was 8 seconds faster than my time and I was 17th out of 58 in my age sex class. It will also be the 15th fastest time logged by a member of the Canberra Veterans AC.

After rehydrating – I am told there is a lot of water in light beer – and gently strolling along Southbank in the afternoon I felt an early night of stacking zeds was in order. Despite waking after a short while and getting Frances to strap my right ankle (and waking again about 4am to undo the strapping) I slept for close to 12 hours and woke feeling fine.


We then headed off to a new Botanic gardens at Cranbourne which was excellent, including a nice walk through some heath with a bunch of birds. Much excitement was caused by spotting a 60cm Tiger Snake which staff of the gardens came to catch to relocate to the bush from whence it had come. Most entertaining, especially as it was the first tiger I had seen. The best bit was when it made a break for freedom between the catchers feet! We then headed further South to an historic garden run by the owner of the Diggers Club of which Frances is a member. A few $ were transferred to the club and we spent an enjoyable 40 minutes exploring the excellent gardens before returning to the City for another Indian repast with friends who now live in Melbourne.

The journey home the following day (Tuesday 10th ) commenced with another visit to the Victoria Markets where much good value meat was purchased. After a little grief we found our way out of Melbourne, including finding a new motorway, replacing about 30km of suburban slugging with 110kph trundling. We stopped for lunch at Chiltern Mt Pilot National Park and to do some birding. Relatively few birds were about, but another visitor did show us where a koala, plus attached joey (note the nose just above the diagonal branch), were hanging out. After this excitement, a few hours more blat and we were home.

Tuesday, 2 October 2007

Brickbats (and the occasional bouquet)

This post will showcase events in which we have received spectacular client service. To be fair it will include the good and the ugly (the merely bad isn't worth wasting your time with).

I have decided that in this post I will add more recent stuff near the top.

My initial blast was for Microsoft, because my posts appeared to have the wrong time etc on them and, with any computing problem, the default is to blame Bill Gates. Sorry for the sexism, but I don't usually give Melinda a serve. However it turned out that the issue was not with XXXXsoft but with Google, since there is an obscure setting in Blogger which defaults to all bloggers being on pacific Time. Thus Google get a brickbat. However they also get a bouquet because I was able to find the solution intheir help pages: a difference to XXXXsoft products.

Lets get positive: http://franmart.blogspot.com/2007/10/interesting-things-to-do-with-yeast.html includes some sideswipes - not quite brickbats - but also some large bouquets for the better brewers I have encountered!

Here is a brickbat for the United Nations Federal Credit Union (UNFCU) and a bouquet for Westpac (with a foreshadowing brickbat for UPS):


  • I wanted to order an MP3 player from B&Hphoto on 9th Avenue and this process went very well: just what I wanted, and even allowing for freight a very good price. Into the checkout and put in my address etc and my credit card details.
  • To avoid the extortionate exchange rate which Mastercard applies I decided to use my still active UNFCU Visa card and pay directly in greenbacks. Put in the number for that card and suddenly we end up on a UNFCU Visa security screen where they want an online purchase password (or some name like that). To get one of these you have to give them a few details including the zip code to which your bill is sent. So:
  • -> I put in the 4 digit postcode for El Rancho Carwoola. Sorry, not a valid zip code.
  • -> I put 10017 which I used last year. Sorry doesn't match billing address.
  • -> I said &%^&^%&!!! and reverted to my Australian card. I guess the key thing is to get one of their stupid passwords while still in the US.
  • The final amazing bit of this story is that within 5 minutes of finishing this business my phone rang and it was the folk from the Westpac Fraud Prevention Unitconfirming that the transaction was kosher. So my MP3 player is now in the tender hands of UPS (and if they perform as well as they did last time I used them I may have the player before Christmas)!

    In one of the first posts in this blog http://franmart.blogspot.com/2007/01/semi-homeless.html I expressed some angst about the fact that Palerang Council couldn't tell me when something was going to be delivered "because it's coming by courier". This post is not about the Council however - if anything it is more of an insight into what the person had likely experienced in the past. Cutting to the chase:
    Part 1
  • this story began one Wednesday when we found a card from TNT in our mailbox saying they had a package for us which they had not been able to deliver. It also included things to fill in to authorise the driver to leave it without seeing us on a subsequent visit.
  • I rang TNT to check that the driver would come to the house, not stop at the mailbox as do Australia Post. Not a problem. They couldn't tell me who the article was from (sent from Newington in Sydney, which no-one has ever heard of, but includes Homebush Bay) or to whom it was addressed. It was a small article - a standard envelope!
  • I then read the small print to find that as the signature required box was marked the driver couldn't leave it without seeing us. Another call, to discover that they couldn't try again until the Friday. It was suggested I ring again about 9am on the Friday to find if it was on the truck - they would have scanned the barcodes by then.
  • Ring at 9am on the Friday. No scans received yet: might not happen until 11:30. We'll just have to wait.
  • By 3pm Friday our drive has been untroubled by trucks so I ring again. Oh: the article hasn't loaded on the truck; agreed that it should have been; still can't tell me what it is etc. After explaining to the call centre person how much grief this is causing me, I tell them that the only thing I can do is to visit their yard in Fyshwick on the following Wednesday and pick it up myself. For once I hope that my "call is being recorded for quality purposes" because my end of the chat included a few statements about the quality of the service offered by the company. I concluded by suggesting they buy a dictionary and look up the words 'overnight' and 'express'.
  • Monday was a public holiday so nothing happened - not really that much different to other days. On Tuesday the phone rang and someone from TNT told me that the parcel was ready to be picked up. Words failed me, beyond checking that I could in fact pick it up tomorrow.
  • The final stupidity of the "system" is that when we got there the package was (a) not for us, but the previous tenants of the house; and (b) contained a part for some equipment that they had needed urgently! Fortunatel;y they live close by so i accepted it and delivered it to them.
  • To complete the stupidity of this company http://www.tnt.com/country/en_au.html I sent them an email with a few suggestions for improvement. It wasn't happy, but not a flamer either. No response.

Part 2

I ordered an MP3 player from B&H photo video on 9th Avenue in Manahattan. They were their usual fantastic seleves. (I did say there would be bouquets as well as brickbats in this post).

It was to be delivered - at a cost of $US40 to me - by UPS. UPS's idea of delivery was to pass it to Australia Post in Canberra rather than to me. This meant I had to go to Queanbeyan PO, 2 days after UPS said it had been delivered and pick it up. These courier companies could not lie straight in bed if nailed down. They are all SCUM!!

I took pleasure in passing the above views on to B&H - including the word "kvetch" to show sympatico with their ethnicity - suggesting they do not pay the UPS bill for this non-event! My comments were apparently noted: perhaps I should have put more Yiddish in there to achieve a definite "we are not going to pay this already"?