Monday, 23 April 2018

Cream filled biscuits

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It was a long time ago now, but I once encountered an employer that loved using the 'big stick'. Of course I'm referring to the metaphor of the person attempting to encourage a reluctant mule into action by dangling a carrot just in front of the mule and keeping it ever so slightly out of reach, whilst simultaneously smacking the mule on the rear with a stick.

As a general social strategy I tend to treat other people as I would like to be treated, and back in those days I guess I was a bit naive, because it never really occurred to me that there would be employers that felt otherwise. The business was a strange place, and I can only suggest that the business was akin to working for a bunch of internet trolls. After eighteen months of negativity, criticism, and general stupid monkey business, I gave them the big stick and told them to 'shove it'. And I felt better for doing that too.

There was one amusing incident which sticks in my mind to this very day. The general demeanour of the place left me feeling vaguely stressed, and occasionally that upset my stomach. One afternoon with an upset stomach, I had an inescapable need to fart. I shared the office with a couple of co-workers, but that day there was only another co-worker there, and he was sitting diagonally opposite me. Being the boss gives one certain perquisites and so I let rip. Having an upset stomach means that, well, it didn't smell very nice at all. In fact the putrid stench stuck to the walls.

And wouldn't you know it? Just at that time, the big boss decides to ask me a question and into the office he walks. He immediately backed out of the office and stood in the doorway, looking basically unimpressed. Quick as a flash I said to my co-worker: "For (a very naughty word beginning with the letter 'f' and sounding a lot like the word 'luck') sakes (the name has been removed to protect the innocent), that is revolting!" The big boss walked off in disgust, and my co-worker and I just fell to laughing. And we laughed for about fifteen minutes solid. It was hysterical and it was a momentary break from the tension in the place.

Some situations are predicaments, and it is very hard, if not impossible, to change the culture of a business, especially one that is basically very aggressive.

Fortunately I am very employable and I rapidly moved on to another job, with less hours, more money, and a frankly less psychotic culture. I feel that at this point in the story we need some music and so I picked a song for this weeks blog by the Cold War Kids called "Miracle Mile". It is a great song and it speaks about the singers struggle to make something happen of his life and of his decisions.

"I was supposed to do great things
I know the road was long
But I wasn't raised to shoot for fame
I had the safety on

I cut my ties, I sold my rings
I wanted none of this
If you start from scratch you have to sing
Just for the fun of it"

The next employer was owned by a nice private equity fund. The business used to make lots of useful stuff that people needed, like shoes (for one example), and it was an interesting place to work and had a great culture, and I enjoyed being part of that team. They employed a group of accountants too, and so we all had the chance to sit around at lunchtime and discuss anything else other than accounting - which can be a rather dull subject. We shared the office with the information technology (computer geeks) people, and I did note at the time that they wanted to speak about computers during lunchtime, so us accountants generally didn't invite them to Friday lunches at the pub.

A year or two into my employment with that business, the owners began closing various manufacturing businesses, instead focusing on importing the items that we once used manufacture locally. It was all very strange and I got to experience first hand what it means to shut down a manufacturing business.

"I feel the air upon my face
Forget the mess I'm in
Hold me again, don't count mistakes
I lost track of them

I’d be alright, if I could just see you
Come up for air, come up for air
A miracle mile, where does it lead to
Come up for air, come up for air"

The editor used to joke to me that during the recession in the early 90's (which predates this particular blog story), that 'everything was OK with the business until the cream filled biscuits disappeared from the tea room'. Except that I don't believe that she was joking.

The employer that I worked for that was shutting down all those manufacturing businesses used to supply packets of really tasty cream filled biscuits in the tea room. In those days I never touched coffee, but of an afternoon, I'd always head into the kitchen area and grab a 'Tea, Earl Grey, Hot' (fans of Captain Jean Luc Picard take note!) and a packet of cream filled biscuits without a care in the world. In my hubris, I even repeated the editors joke to my fellow accountants. We would all have a good laugh! But then one day, the cream filled biscuits disappeared, and I knew that everything would be different from then on.

"I was in the mud, I was in the dirt
Went underground and I found what I was worth
All alone and I know I can't stay
But we're walking up and down the streets to stay awake"

Frost settles in the valley below the farm
How good is that photo? That photo was the first frost of the year which drained all of the cold air from this side of the mountain and concentrated it into the valley below. The night was a cold night and there was even a tiny bit of frost in some of the garden beds here. I took pity on Ollie the short haired cattle dog (who everyone knows is actually a cuddle dog) and let him sleep in front of the wood fire. It is important to note that Ollie is an idiot because he has been very busy tearing up his woollen blankets during the summer because he is a puppy and puppies are normally idiots. He is just not old enough to recall the bone chilling cold of the previous winter.

Despite that one cold night, the days have been strangely warm for this time of year. Both the editor and I have also been recovering from the recent bout of flu. And I took advantage of the editor sitting on the beanbag on the verandah with a dog in her lap, reading a book whilst enjoying the warm autumn sun, to sort out a project that has been annoying me for a very long time - the garden water pumps.

I'd been meaning to get to this overhaul of the garden water pumps, and this week seemed like an auspicious time. The existing arrangement worked, it just wasn't very good and looked like this:
The garden water pump system prior to a major overhaul
What can I say, it was a bit dodgy looking, but it worked - more or less. The first thing I did was remove the steel (and poly-carbonate) cover.
Mr Toothy inspects the existing garden water pump arrangements and makes suggestions. He has long hair and a short temper.
Fortunately for me I have Mr Toothy who is knowledgeable in all things water pump related and he made some excellent suggestions:
Mr Toothy is impressed with the works done on the garden water pump system
Based on Mr Toothy's suggestions I added two steel rails underneath the arrangement so as to lift it 50mm (2 inches) higher off the surface. I also relocated the circuit breaker for the pumps and re-wired all of the electricals and protected all exposed wires with plastic conduit.

Then we went with friends to enjoy a comedy show at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival and latter enjoyed dinner after the show. It was a very funny show. Fortunately no rain was forecast and I could just down tools and return to complete the project the next day.
The completed garden water pump system
The next day I worked on the arrangement for several hours. The pumps had to both be moved towards the centre of the arrangement. Then I added flexible half inch braided (pressure rated) hoses onto both the inlet and the outlet connections for both pumps. And finally, the smaller of the two water pumps scored a much larger grey 8 litre (2.1 gallon) pressure accumulator tank.

I then had to connect up the system and test for leaks. There are always one or two leaks in such a system. The leaks were fixed, the system re-tested, and then I cut a new steel cover from scrap steel that I had to hand. All up a job that I believed would take about four hours took about ten hours, and that is how things work out sometimes. It looks good, and now works even better!
The new garden water pump arrangement looks good and works even better
The thing I have learned from this experience is that it is not possible to implement a reliable water pumping system on the cheap.

We also commenced constructing the first step in a new concrete staircase. When you live on the side of a hill, stairs make for easy access! Steep ramps suck.
A new concrete staircase has begun!
The chickens had been digging away at the path to the secondary woodshed (appetite for destruction!), and so we began foiling their nefarious activities by extending the rock wall to the downhill side of that path:
We began adding a rock wall to the downhill side of the path to the secondary woodshed
The warm autumn days have meant that it is easy to continue ripening crops. A month or two back I added a huge load of mushroom compost to the raised potato beds, and over the past week or so, the plants have begun sticking their noses out from the soil:
The potatoes have begun sticking their noses out from the deep compost
Really purple dark capsicums (peppers) are ripening
Dark red capsicums are putting on more colour

These slim eggplants are strange looking, but very tasty. But so small they probably wont be seen next year.
Slim capsicums (peppers) have been the clear winner this season
Jalapenos chili are hot, but they're not that hot...
Parrots are plentiful here. A large family of Crimson Rosella's live at the farm. They are equal parts delightful and nuisance, but fortunately we grow more than they can eat.
A Crimson Rosella acting as a lookout for its fellow flock in an elderberry
But more excitingly, the pair of King Parrots that live here, appear to have produced three offspring and now five of the parrots live here.
A girlie King Parrot consumes some of the wormwood
A boy King Parrot consumes some of the geraniums
Despite the incongruity of the nights being cool and the days warm, there are heaps of flowers around. And the bees love having such a long growing season!
Nasturtiums now climb through many of the garden beds
Geraniums are plentiful, diverse, and beautiful here
Chrysanthemum's herald the imminent onset of winter conditions (and mothers day)
Our own private leaf change - a Japanese maple

Our own private leaf change - a Sugar maple and a shed
As always the final word of the week should go to the Cold War Kids and their most excellent song - "Miracle Mile":

"Get outside, get all over the world
You learn to love what you get in return
It may be permanent, it may be peace of mind
But you have to slow down and breathe one breath at a time"

The temperature outside now at about 9.30pm is 17’C (63’F). So far this year there has been 201.2mm (7.9 inches) which is higher than last week's total of 190.2mm (7.5 inches).

Monday, 16 April 2018

A sad little lonely box

This blog is now available as an mp3 podcast through the link:

What is this thing? I mean, I know what the thing is, but what is the thing doing here all by its lonesome self? To me it looked like a sad lonely little box which was sitting on an asphalt footpath in an inner northern suburb of Melbourne. I took a really good look around the area and I could see that the box had no friends at all. None.

The box was a really well constructed raised garden bed measuring about 1 foot by 3 foot. In the raised garden bed I noted the following plants growing: Nasturtium; Eau de Cologne Mint; Lemon Thyme; Alpine Strawberries; Lavender; and Flat Leafed Parsley. As a stark contrast, all of the small gardens in the surrounding houses were full of ornamental plants. There was not an edible in sight in those front yards - unless of course you'd enjoy a nice rose hip tea?

I like raised garden beds and have over a dozen of them here in constant use and they are great for growing annual vegetables. Did I mention that yields from raised garden beds are exceptionally good? No, I did not. Well they are. In fact, I have plans to obtain more raised garden beds over the next year or so.

So what the heck was this raised garden bed doing stuck out on the footpath, growing a collection of plants that whilst technically edible, are so low maintenance that they probably could have been planted in the drain next to the curb? No doubt they will go to seed and end up there anyway. It just makes no sense whatsoever. In fact I actually made the very witty observation to the editor: "What the (a very family unfriendly word that begins with F, and sounds a lot like the word 'chuck') is this?"
The author stands behind the lonely raised garden bed looking bemused
The funny thing from my perspective was that any one of those plants  has the capacity to take over the entire three square foot of garden space. And I can identify each of those plants and know how they can be consumed or used. However, given the lack of edible gardens in that area, my gut feeling told me that not many people around there would have had the same knowledge. It was even stranger to me that there was no signage telling the locals what these plants actually were. I reckon the only real reason I can see for the existence of that sad lonely little box was that it was used as a display of social values for the residents. The box sort of says to me: "We're so green, we grow edible plants in raised garden beds on the footpath. Oh my goodness and dearie me, I didn't say the front yard, I said on the footpath!"

Back in the days when I lived not too far from that street, I actually did dig up the lawn in my front yard and attempt to grow vegetables there. Of course, being naive, I didn't understand that green leafy vegetables are almost impossible to grow in composted woody mulch. And what do you mean that I have to water them during summer? They're plants, surely they'd just grow by themselves? Apparently not so. Fortunately, I have learned a thing or two since those heady days. Plants sure are complex.

It doesn't take too long to notice displays of social value, mostly because being mainly for display purposes, they're easily seen. Good marketing, I reckon! I've encountered a few people recently who have extolled the virtues of electric vehicles. Now, I reckon electric bikes are a great idea, and they make sense to me. Electric cars on the other hand are so expensive and have such limited range that they make little to no economic sense to me.

But electric cars are such a great display of social values. They scream: "We're so green, we could drive this vehicle and emit no pollution. Oh my goodness and dearie me, of course we charge the vehicle from the mains electricity!" Down here the majority of the communities mains electricity is derived from burning fossil fuels. If you've ever taken a look at a brown coal fired power plant, and I have, well, let's just say that it's not a pretty sight.

In this instance, people are confusing the potential with the reality. Sure, you could potentially install a solar power system on your roof and use it to charge your electric vehicle - but the system won't produce enough power to do anything else at all in the household. And that is assuming that the solar power system is big enough in the first place, because most solar power systems that I have seen installed are simply too small to charge an electric vehicle. It is also worth noting that roof designs for houses I see constructed are simply not well thought out enough, or even large enough to support a really huge array of solar panels (my own included). The panels for huge solar power systems, simply won't fit on most houses with their available roof space.

Fossil fuels are just so good, quick and reliable that we tend to think that all other energy sources are good, quick and reliable too. Unfortunately, they're not. I know that for sure as solar PV panels won't produce any power when it is snowing:
The author with solar PV panels in snow from back in August 2017
Five years ago I thought that I'd get around those problems with snow, clouds, dark and stuff that bedevil solar PV panels. I installed a wind turbine. That was when I found that you can have snow, clouds, dark and stuff, and it can also be not windy enough. I spent several months of my life trying to get the best out of that wind turbine. I wasted that time, but learned a great deal about wind.
A dark day for renewable energy. Cloudy and still!
Fortunately, I'm not one for displays of social value. If I was into that business, I would have kept the wind turbine, and whenever people visited the farm I could have pointed at the wind turbine lazily (and I really mean lazily) spinning in the breeze and make some profound observation like: "Cool!" And that would be about as useful as a sad lonely little raised planter box on an asphalt lined footpath on the hard streets of Melbourne.

This week has been such a strange week of weather for mid Autumn. Earlier in the week, the daytime temperature reached 36'C (97'F) and that was crazy hot for this time of year. But by 11pm that evening the air temperature had cooled down to only 24'C (75'F) and that would have been a hot night for summer, let alone mid Autumn! Note that Autumn in Australia runs 1 March to 31 May, which I believe is different from the spring in Northern Hemisphere countries. How unique are we!
11pm mid Autumn 24'C / 75'F is simply crazy hot weather
The long term and short term weather cycle here runs like this: Cold; Cool; Warm; Hot; Really Hot; Wet; and then back to Cold. That sure was the case this week because whilst most of the week has been really hot, on Saturday lunchtime the heavens opened and over an inch of rain fell. Then just as suddenly, the air temperature cooled and we had to begin running the wood heater.
Over an inch of rain fell over the mountain range beginning Saturday lunchtime
I've still not been feeling well this week due to the lingering effects of the flu, and even worse, the editor succumbed to the dreaded flu virus. I have been ensuring that I get plenty of rest:
The author and the fluffies crash out one quiet afternoon due to the lingering effects of the flu
Ollie took advantage of my illness because he knows that he should not have been on the couch, but when you are sound asleep...

Last weekend my friends with the epic shed gave me three point of lay chickens. How nice is that? They breed chickens and supplied us with three very good looking birds. Left to right in the next photo: Light Sussex; Indian Game; and a bird with some Faverolles in its parentage.
The three new chickens were confronted at the door of the hen house by the toughs
The oldest chicken in the chicken collective is about eight years old now (the brown Araucana chicken standing on the edge of the concrete in the photo above) and she took a firm line with the newcomers and gave them all 'what for'. Chickens are brutal, and they adhere to the old adage of 'go early, and go hard'.
The brown Araucana chicken gives the newcomers 'what for?'
The egg production should pick up once we are past the winter solstice. Until then, all up the sixteen chickens currently produce one to two eggs per day.

Surprisingly enough, despite both being ill, we actually managed to do some work about the farm. We were keen to complete the corrections to one of the concrete staircases that were begun last week. The concrete stairs constructed last week, had all cured during the week. All that remained to be done was to pour in a couple of wheelbarrow loads of crushed rock and lime into the cavity that will form a flat landing between the two sets of concrete staircases.

I carried about nine crate loads (three wheelbarrows worth) of crushed rock and lime down the stairs and dump it into the cavity which will form a landing. Each crate contains eight full shovel loads of crushed rock and lime.
The author dumps a crate load of crushed rock and lime onto a cavity that will soon form a landing
The crushed rock was soon smoothed out and formed a nice flat landing between the two sets of concrete stairs.
The crushed rock was smoothed out and it forms a landing between the two sets of concrete stairs
We then spread the remainder of the load of local crushed rock and lime around the water tank which was installed last week. The crushed rock makes a great all weather surface which you can comfortably walk on even in the wettest weather.
Local crushed rock with lime was placed around the water tank that was installed last week

We had a huge boulder to hand near the new water tank, and so we set that into the upper edge of the garden bed and extended the path a bit further down the hill.
A large boulder was set into the edge of the garden bed and the path was extended down hill a bit further
With rain expected on Saturday, I moved several hundred strawberry plants into the new strawberry terrace which was constructed only late last year. The lavender that was planted on the edge of the strawberry terrace has grown prolifically this summer despite the hot and dry conditions and the lack of regular watering. Those plants are tough as.
Several hundred strawberry plants were planted on the strawberry terrace. How good do the lavender look?
When I went to harvest the single large pumpkin a few days ago, I discovered a little tree frog sheltering on the pumpkin:
A tree frog shelters from the sun on this huge pumpkin
I left the tree frog alone, and went back a day later to harvest the pumpkin plus all of the watermelons. The watermelons taste good too.
Pumpkin, watermelons, eggplant, and capsicum (peppers)
Today, I harvested our first ever quince. The mandarins have also become much larger this season as the trees are getting bigger.
Our first ever quince, and the mandarins are getting bigger this year
I dug up a few horseradish roots today because I'm gifting them to a friend who expressed an interest in them. Of course I had to try them out first and they are hot as! And they are guaranteed to clear any blocked sinus!
I dug up a few horseradish roots
The birds have been enjoying the prolific olives. We have decided not to harvest the fruit this year because our previous experiments with preserving olives have left them tasting overly salty. Clearly further investigative work needs to take place with this fruit. Can anyone suggest any good recipes that they have tried themselves? Or has anyone produced their own olive oil?
Olives are prolific
In the past I have killed at least four tea camellia's that I can recall. No doubt the body count is much higher than that (edit: 8 dead, 1 incoming). However, I am determined to get one of these plants growing here. This week I planted another tea camellia, and lets hope that things go better for this plant. My track record is not good.
A tea camellia sits between a blueberry and a Chilean guava
The Poopy-quat (the resting place of Sir Poopy) is doing very well and has even produced tiny little kumquats!
The Poopy-quat is doing very well
And onto the flowers!
With winter fast approaching the many citrus trees are producing fragrant flowers
This geranium is a stunner of a colour
Geraniums produce a huge diversity of flower colours here
I've begun to grow nasturtium through the existing garden beds and it is tough as (edit: tough as what?)
Looking at this garden bed you wouldn't know that we went almost ten weeks with hot days and little rain
The temperature outside now at about 8.00am is 12’C (54’F). So far this year there has been 190.2mm (7.5 inches) which is higher than last week's total of 158.8mm (6.3 inches).