Thursday, 31 May 2007

Vertebrae & Beans

My back mends slowly, but mends. It reminds me of some years ago when I had another back problem. It was characterised by the back feeling okay but occasionally, unexpectedly, pinching a nerve. The immediate effect was that the pain would make me sink to my knees briefly. That action released the nerve and I could stand up and continue what I was doing. Quite bizarre but manageable. The staff got quite used to seeing me walk across the laboratory and do this strange genuflect as if ducking from an imaginary sniper and then continue on as if nothing had happened.

At that time I found the above packet of jelly beans in a store and had written to the manufacturer, lamenting that even though I had eaten the beans I was none the wiser for it.

The letter tickled the fancy of the manufacturer and a small correspondence ensued that resulted in the Managing Director delivering a box of jelly beans to my work. I received the message that he was in reception and headed down stairs to greet him. I reached the bottom of the stairs and as I turned into reception my back pinched the nerve and I sank to my knees in front of the somewhat startled man.

"It's OK", I said "It is a traditional and quite respectful chemist's greeting to a man holding a large box of jelly beans."

What else could I say?

Friday, 25 May 2007

Unveiling a beauty.

Jean-Léon Gérôme, Phryne before the Areopagus 1861.

This painting seems most apt for this post.

Firstly, it is of Phryne the courtesan, my wished for 'grand romance' in my responses to one of Lillie's interview questions. The story that goes with the painting is a fascinating one: Phryne had been accused of profanity. When it seemed as if the verdict would be unfavourable, her counsel tore off her robes. The sight of her beauty so moved the judges that they acquitted her.

Secondly, Lillie has revealed another beauty in a comment posted to my interview answers. She says that she also asked Cosmo Newbery a set of questions and that he is answering them in a most individual way, presumably the only way he can. Some of you may recall that Cosmo, Percy and a dog, K9, had a poetry duel last year in which I figured quite prominently as the subject. Oh yes, the dog won.

Sorry for a bit of a 'fill-in' post - my studies are a pain in the neck and my back is a pain in the back. Both are improving.

Monday, 21 May 2007

Urgent: Product recall.

My back has been niggling this weekend. It reminded me of a letter I wrote a while ago to the ACCC (The Australian Competition & Consumer Commission) to initiate a product recall, due to God's shoddy design of the human back.

Dear Sir,

I have watched with interest and admiration as the ACCC has taken on the high and mighty and wrought justice for the common man, often seemingly against the odds. Bravo!

I feel it is time that the ACCC took on the highest and mightiest, the ultimate multinational that has shown no respect for the individual and quite callously distributed shoddy material to the general populace for far, far too long.


Now my principle gripe is with the design, reliability and lack of service and support that relate to the human back. It is clearly a second rate design, poorly thought out, badly produced and all attempts at getting in touch with the service department have fallen on deaf ears.

There is a compelling case for a product recall.

I would urge you to take up this case on behalf of myself and all others who suffer from the negligence of this all too aloof manufacturer. No other manufacturer would be allowed to foist such shoddy merchandise on the public. It's time for a day of reckoning.

And don't think that you cannot do it. Sure he's big, but after the EPA slapped an order on him a few millennia back there has been a mark reduction in world-wide floods, parting of seas, plagues of locusts and sundry pestilence, and the ecologically damaging down-porings of manna. And smiting has been reduced to next do nothing.

You'll certainly have my backing.

The ACCC replied:

Thank you for your letter of 14 November regarding faults with the human back.

You allege that God has been negligent in regard of the design, reliability and service of the human back.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) administers the Trade Practices Act 1974 which applies to corporations who are engaged in 'trade or commerce'.

Generally issues of theology do not raise matters of trade or commerce and consequently the ACCC is unable to investigate your complaint.

Thank you for bringing this matter to our attention.

I had a second attempt:

Thank you for your reply to my letter regarding the urgent need to slap a product recall notice on that most dubious entrepreneur God, slum landlord and supplier of shoddy backs.

I feel more than a little disappointed that you did not take up the challenge.

I am not familiar with the wording of the Trade Practices Act 1974 but I am sure that it requires you to perform your duties without fear or favour, providing consumer protection from the purveyors of fine snake oil, regardless of whether they hand it down from the cloud covered mountain tops or flog it door to door.

You state in your letter that God is not engaged in 'trade or commerce' and that this is why he does not come under the umbrella of the Trade Practices Act 1974.

I disagree.

Man was, we are told, made in God's image. Badly made, I contend. This sure smacks of the ill-considered franchise 'opportunities' found in the back pages of the business section of the daily papers. If not a franchise then this is a pyramid deal of enormous dimensions.

Jesus, currently the Operations Manager - World Wide (formerly Regional Manager - Galilee), when asked what he was doing in the temple replied "Wist ye not that I must be about my Father's business?"

This confession alone should be enough for you to get stuck into Him.

I urge you to reconsider your decision.

Silence from the gentlemen of the ACCC.


Friday, 18 May 2007

The Lillie Interview

I have been interviewed by Lillie, a lovely, thoughtful and thought provoking lady.

1. Someone has agreed to finance your next big project. What will it be?

Travel. I have done a lot of travel and still seen so little of the world. There is much of Asia that I have not seen. I would love to do the Beijing to London train trip. Have not seen any of the Americas, north or south. Provincial Europe, especially France and Italy, is largely untouched. As is Spain. The list goes on and on. But there is a proviso; I would want to travel ‘local’ where possible. No going from five star hotel to five star hotel in tinted window limousines. Okay, the occasional splurge to a good restaurant but generally I would want to meet the locals, travel with the locals, eat where the locals eat. This would make the trip much more interesting and probably please my financier, too.

2. Margaret agrees you can have one "great romance" with an historical or fictional person. Who do you choose, and why?

It was a delicate decision and Margaret was reluctant to agree, even though it was a theoretical situation, but I finally chose Phryne, the courtesan.

There are four reasons for the choice. Firstly, there are obvious attractions, physical and sensuous, in having a ‘great romance’ with a skilled courtesan. Secondly, the lady was obviously a great character, having both legendary beauty and intelligence. You can read a little about her here. The affair would not be dull. And thirdly, she was the inspiration for a detective character in a series of books written by one of my (first) university friends, Kerry Greenwood.. And finally, linking a little to my answer to question 1, the whole idea of seeing an ancient society as it was has a lot of attraction.

But mostly the skilled courtesan reason.

3. What activity do you wish you had done or done more of? Explain.

Pretty much everything to do with art. I consider myself as being able to do most things if I set my mind to it. (Except folk dancing). But once I have done them, I do not stick at them long enough to be really proficient. Consequently I have two very nice tables, a couple of very nice leadlight windows, a few quite acceptable paintings, a couple of cast silver things, some interesting photos, several dozen bottles of wine, a book and a haybox. Probably painting is the one I most wish I had done more of. It is still on the ‘to-do’ list. Or the ‘to-do-more-often’ list. There is an enormous pleasure in creating something beautiful and then going back to it the next morning to marvel at what you have created.

4. Of what are you most proud?

My wife. My children. Okay, you could argue that they are a ‘given’ but I am proud of them nonetheless. And of me? I am proud of…I don’t really know. There are lots of things that I like about me, a few things that I don’t like so much but the term ‘proud’ doesn’t sit comfortably with me.

5. What is the favorite thing of each of your senses?

Hearing: Rain on the roof. Especially thunderstorms, from in the gazebo.

Sight: The daily changes in the garden; life, growth and purpose.

Taste: Pesto, homemade with ‘still warm from the garden’ basil and served with homemade pasta.

Touch: Skin. More specifically, female skin.

Smell: Dead heat between coffee, hot bread and star anise.

Bonus question: On days when you feel most despairing, what gives you the most comfort?

The support of family, Mozart, the garden, going for a walk.

* * * *
Directions for the Interview Meme:
1. Leave me a comment saying "Interview Me."
2. I will respond by asking you 5 questions. (I get to pick the questions.)
3. You will update your blog with the answers to the questions.
4. You will include this explanation and an offer to interview someone else in the same post.
5. When others comment asking to be interviewed, you will ask them 5 questions.

Wednesday, 16 May 2007

More than one year...

I was accused of taking one year, admittedly the worst on record, and extrapolating rashly.

The above is the rainfall chart for the last three years. Still not pretty.

Today there was a conference regarding the rising levels of suicide and depression in Australian farmers. It takes more than one year of bad weather to break a farmer's spirit.

The picture above is of Lake Wendouree in central Victoria. It didn't get to that state in one year.

The chart above is the level of water in Melbourne's catchments. For some years rainfall met demand but there was not sufficient to actually build reserves. As of this morning's papers our catchments are at 29.3% of capacity. It takes more than one year for that to happen. (The Thompson Reservoir, the reservoir that would 'drought proof' Melbourne is at 17.5% capacity.)

There is talk of ceasing to provide irrigation water to the farmers of the Murray-Darling basin. That situation does not happen after just one year.

So...does this point the finger at climate change? Or is it just one of those 'things'? A pigeon in the turbine of life? Or ostrich, perhaps. We certainly have plenty of sand.

I am told that it is the height of hubris to think that humans could effect climate change.

It is the height of stupidity to think we couldn't.

We effect climate change on the small scale every day - heating and cooling our little pieces of a local climate in houses and cars. We build our lives around modifying our environments.

Why is it that some people think that we and our actions cannot impact on the larger environment? The arguments seem to be either that it is so big that nothing we do will have an impact or than any impact we have is out of all proportion to the natural cycles.

If the people concerned about the environment are showing the height of hubris, the people who think they can chuck any crap they like into the environment and not stuff it up for everyone else are showing far too much humility for my liking.

Tuesday, 15 May 2007

(gasp!) Water! Water!

OK, things are not as dry as that photo would suggest but they are dry. But in a cold, autumny sense at the moment.

Today we reached the dubious milestone of the driest one year period on record.

The rain fall for the last year was:

The blue is the average rainfall for each month (mm). (Remember that it is a fair expectation for things to fall above average half the time.)

But of course it cannot be due to global warming. George said it wasn't and that was good enough for Johnny.

If it looks like a duck and sounds like a duck

but doesn't have any water to swim in, is it still a duck?

Friday, 11 May 2007

Soft Drinks, Hard Facts.

An old post from my, now defunct, food chemistry blog:

Some time ago I stumbled across this rubbish on the internet:
Top Ten Reasons Never To Consume Soft Drinks!

A few lessons in clear thinking (and food chemistry) are called for .
I couldn't resist answering a few of the points. (Well, all of them really.)

1. Soft drinks steal water from the body. To replace the water stolen by soft drinks, you need to drink 8-12 glasses of water for every one glass of soft drinks that you consume!

So you would dehydrate and die if you only had soft drinks to drink?

2. Soft Drinks never quench your thirst, certainly not your body's need for water.

See Item 1.

3. The elevated levels of phosphates in soft drinks leach vital minerals from your body. Soft Drinks are made with purified water that also leach vital minerals from your body. A severe lack of minerals can lead to Heart Disease (lack of magnesium), Osteoporosis (lack of calcium) and many other diseases. Most vitamins can not perform their function in the body without the presence of minerals.

Apart from colas, which soft drinks have phosphates?
Are we on a soft drink only diet here? No chance you might get a bit of nutrition from other foods? French Fries maybe?
Tap water is largely mineral free. (Unless you live in Adelaide.)
As is most bottled water. So what are you saying? I need to drink sea water?
And where does that leave vitamin supplements?

4. Soft Drinks can remove rust from a car bumper or other metal surfaces. Imagine what it's doing to your digestive tract as well as the rest of your body.

Urban myth. Try it. It doesn't work.

Anyway, my digestive tract is not made out of steel. Neither is my car bumper, actually.

5. The high amounts of sugar in Soft Drinks causes your pancreas to produce an abundance of insulin, which leads to a "sugar crash".

Now, this is possibly true, after a fashion. I mean, would one drink send you into a "sugar crash"?

6. Soft Drinks severely interfere with digestion. Caffeine and high amounts of sugar virtually shut down the digestive process. That means your body is essentially taking in NO nutrients from the food you may have just eaten, even that eaten hours earlier. Consumed with french-fries which can take WEEKS to digest, there is arguably nothing worse a person can put in their body.

Oh, I love this one!
Remember caffeine is only in cola soft drinks, generally. But is also in tea and coffee. As is sugar, quite often. So does the same follow?
And just where does your body actually store these frenchfries for their week of residence? Would soft drinks not be the ideal dieter’s food if this were true?

7. Diet soft drinks contain Aspartame, which has been linked to depression, insomnia, neurological disease and a plethora of other illness. The FDA has received more than 10,000 consumer complaints about Aspartame, that's 80% of all complaints about food additives.

I find the numbers hard to believe. Complaints about aspartame out number complaints about preservatives, colours, MSG, flavourings, and salt? I don’t think so.

Yes, it probably has been linked to these things. Most additives have a long list of suspected side effects. Some people do have adverse reactions to all sorts of things. Most don’t. Some people are fatally allergic to peanuts. Should we ban peanuts?

8. Soft Drinks are EXTREMELY acidic, so much so that they can eat through the liner of an aluminum can and leach aluminum from the can if it sits on the shelf too long. Alzheimer patients who have been autopsied ALL have high levels of aluminum in their brains. Heavy metals in the body can lead to many neurological and other diseases.

Yes, soft drinks can eat through aluminium cans IF the lacquer is faulty. So can orange juice. The evidence re Alzheimer’s is not conclusive and current medical opinion does not support aluminium as a cause. Aluminium is not a heavy metal.

Just by the by: if Coca Cola does get in contact with the aluminium due to lacquer failure the colour (caramel) will precipitate out, leaving a clear liquid.

9. Soft Drinks are EXTREMELY acidic: The human body naturally exists at a pH of about 7. Soft Drinks have a pH of about 2.5, which means you are putting something into your body that is hundred of thousands of times more acidic that your body is! Diseases flourish in an acidic environment.

Oh goodness me!
The stomach is also somewhat acidic, down as low as ph 2.0. Why should it worry about a drink that is not even as acidic as lemon juice?
Bacteria do not flourish in an acidic environment; that is why things are preserved in vinegar.

10. Soft Drinks are the WORSE THING you can possibly put in your body. Don't even think of taking a sip of a Soft Drink when you are sick with a cold, flu or something worse. It will only make it that much harder for your body to fight the illness. all those times I was given lemonade when I was recovering from an upset stomach as a boy...

They are hardly the WORST THING you can put in your body. What about cyanide, strychnine and Brussels Sprouts?


There is nothing like a really good ratbag to cheer up an otherwise dull evening.

Wednesday, 9 May 2007

Gangland shootings

Carl Williams, a local underworld character, got three life sentences for organising the shooting of various other underworld figures.

10 types of people.

There are 10 types of people:

Those who understand binary numbers and those who don't.

Monday, 7 May 2007

Forlorn hope?

I enjoy growing my own vegetables. It is not enough to be self-sufficient but there is a lot of satisfaction in it. To be cooking dinner and go out to the garden and grab a handful of fresh herbs gives me some sort of sense of participation in the world.

Of course there is the small matter of planting and weeding but weeding has diminished since I took mulching to heart. Mind you, since mulching became serious (due to a general lack of water and water restrictions that say you can only hand water and only between 6am and 8am Wednesdays and Sundays) there have not been as many return plant visits - the annual reappearance of parsley and silverbeet from previous years dropped seeds has pretty much stopped.

Over recent years I have tried growing cabbage, with mixed success. They are prone to mildew, aphids and cabbage moth grubs. Last week, full of hope, I planted some cabbage seedlings. Savoys, those nice crinkly ones, and some red cabbage.

Before I had finished planting in the first punnet of seedlings, there were cabbage moths fluttering around the already planted ones. How do the know? Where do they come from? The neighbours don't grow vegetables. Do the moths hang out in the crab apple tree just waiting for me to plant cabbages? Grrr. Maybe I'll buy me a butterfly net. OK, moth net.

On to the internet: GOOGLE: "how to handle cabbage moths". Found a warm and fuzzy 'organic' site that suggested that the environmentally responsible way to handle cabbage moths is to spread broken egg shells around the cabbage seedlings and the short sighted and seriously territorial moths will say "Uh-oh, this is someone else's plot, better move on. Sorry to bother you ladies!"

I think the organic folk have been smoking their cabbage leaves.

My moths would look at the eggshells and say "Look! An airport!"

Friday, 4 May 2007

Money & Happiness.

Well, that was a bit of a disaster!

A post on giving a cheap, anonymous pleasure to children ended up with me being labelled a paedophile and out of touch with the meaning of happiness.

Oh, the joys of blogging.

OK, lets look at the money-happiness thing.

Can money buy happiness? That begs the question 'What is happiness?' I have no easy answer to that. At the very basic level, if you are in need of food and shelter, money will buy security and some certainty; but is this happiness?

At the top of the range, you can afford better health care, employ people to do the tasks that you don't want to do, live a better lifestyle; but is this happiness?

People argue that if they got a pay rise, they would be happier. But ask them how happy they are a few weeks after a rise and you will find them no more happy. They are used to the money and no longer get pleasure from it.

Have you ever noticed that you get more pleasure buying things than you do from owning them? You go through the whole rigmarole of buying a car, the research, the haggling, the joy of driving it home. A week later it is just a car. People adapt to new circumstances. If I was to give you $100 a week you would not get more and more happy each week. You would get used to getting it and expect it.

You can be well off, comfortably attended to and wanting nothing, and yet be unhappy. Happiness is more closely associated with contentment and satisfaction, whatever your personal circumstances. But it also seems to revolve around a personal set-point. People seems to have an inner happiness 'thermostat' that regulates their perceived happiness, their subjective well-being. Small things, even big things, will take you in either direction but you will usually return to your normal setting.

Footnote 1: Money lets you take holidays. Do holidays give happiness? The evidence suggests no. In real time, at least. People get a lot of pleasure looking forward to holidays and a lot of pleasure looking backward to a holiday but their happiness levels are usually lower while they are on holidays. The before and after perspectives usually ignore the trials and tribulations of the holiday: flight issues, food issues, accommodation issues, health issues, the weather...

Footnote 2: In my previous version of this blog I ran a small survey asking people how contented they felt relative to the 'average person'; 55 out of 85 respondents said they were more contented than the average person, 19 were average and 11 were less than average.

Footnote 3: A survey in the US found that people thought that people who had a lot of money were more likely to get into heaven. (They obviously are not familiar with Matthew 19:24)

Wednesday, 2 May 2007

What price happiness?

Observation 1: I have a mug in the study that accumulates small change, 'schrapnel', that is more of a nuisance than anything to carry around.

Observation 2: Money can't buy happiness. You may argue with me on that one but after doing the literature review for my thesis I can back it up with references. I'm talking serious money here - pay increases, even lottery wins, are consistently found to give only transitory happiness.

Observation 3: But a little money can buy a disproportionate amount of happiness. Especially for a child.

Looking on the Australian Kindness Movement website I was taken with the idea of dropping a few small coins in children's playgrounds.

What a lovely idea.

Tuesday, 1 May 2007


Gentleman, n: Someone who knows how to play the accordion. But doesn't. (Anon.)