Monday, June 30, 2008

Words that are three walls and a roof

Occasionally you happen across words in life which call to a much deeper part of you than just your ears.

They are words which speak to your heart, which dare you to walk towards a new place. They are words which become a space to live in.

My boss recently said to me, "The work we do with trees is a noble work."

I was sharing this with a good friend yesterday, who suggested that nobility was more a space to live in, than a space to merely fill with words.

'Nobility' is for me a three-walled room - a place to be able to be move towards and dwell in, yet without the feeling of being trapped.

So also words like 'dignity', 'honour', 'integrity'. These are words that we can grow into, they are rich places into which we can walk, spaces we can camp on.

But does the journey towards or the dwelling within come easily? Me thinks not. Is 'integrity' still 'integrity' if it becomes a place of resting on laurels and boasting?

I wonder which words it is for you?

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Happy feet?

Anyone who hangs out with me for any length of time knows how much I love my hiking boots. I find them so comfortable that I wear them everywhere - literally. (Okay, I occasionally take them off to sleep or shower.)

A few people have seen the boots and assumed that I have some sort of disability which demands specialised footwear.

But the reason I wear them is simple: they're practical, they're bulletproof, and most of all, they're comfortable.

My present footwear is a pair of Mack Timberlites. I've worn them almost every day all day for the last 8 months. They're holding up nicely with only a little dab of Dubbin each fortnight or so.

But just when I was getting attached, I learn that the boots which are kind to my feet are in fact cruel to them as well.

Apparently, wearing shoes is about the worst thing we can do for our feet: Adam Sternbergh says so. Actually, Adam's only the journalist; it was Dr William A. Rossi who in a 1999 article dared to call the shoe "one carelessly designed instrument ... [which has] warped the pure anatomical form of human gait, obstructing its engineering efficiency, afflicting it with strains and stresses and denying it its natural grace of form and ease of movement head to foot."

Our feet are not merely 'lifeless blocks of flesh to hold us upright', but 'earthward antennae', feeding our brain information about the particular surface we're walking on. And shoes prevent that from happening properly, with their padding, raised heels, and sprung toes.

My brother-in-law knows this. He used to do everything barefoot - and he was a farm worker. Fencing, feeding pigs, picking cucumbers, welding, driving and riding; all things easily accomplished with those feet-like-leather. I thought the context demanded workboots; he just treated his bare feet as workboots, and soon enough, that's what they became.

I rarely go barefoot anyway; I don't like stuff sticking to my feet. Probably the only two places I would ever go barefoot by choice are in sand, and on cool grass. But the fact is, the human foot is engineered to operate quite happily without any adornment.

Could I go down that path with the same dedication of some others? I don't think so; I love my Timberlites too much, and I'm not sure how much my clients would appreciate it.

But the article has made me think: in how many places have we denied the obvious and provided a 'solution' which endures for thousands of years and is never questioned?

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Making pictures in the dark

I have noticed Adriaan's interest in poetry and that rekindled mine. Over the years I have written some so Adriaan has asked me if I want to give it a voice.

Just so you know I was also the author of 'The Pig's Know' story on this blog a couple of weeks ago. That was not a poem but a word picture in full daylight.

Building on the pig theme, I have a poem. It is also a story and this time it all happens at Narrabri and in the dark. So here goes:

‘Old Tusker’

(The Wild Boar of Narrabri)

The sun sank low on the Pilliga dust,
A difficult place to eke out a crust.
Heat haze and flies are always there.
Rugged men…. These places share.

“That rotten pig has ripped the fence”
Said Reg…….. a man of great pretence.
“The ewes all gone right through the break,
I’ll get that blighter, no mistake!”

His brother, a man of very few words,
Kept his poise as he fed the birds.
“Old Tusker!” was all the talk he made,
As Doug collected the eggs new laid.

One Old Ram, hindered by his horns,
Remained to pick among the thorns,
While Reg turned the air fair blue,
Telling Doug just what he’d do.

“Get that pig around the throat … …....”
“Ride‘im like‘e is a goat ……………...”
“Kick‘is head in” …. “Make‘im squeal.”
No end of violence Reg would deal.

In pitch dark they went to prowl,
Looking for this creature foul.
Armed they were with lamp and gun,
Three dogs beside them on the run.

“I’ll sweep the lamp, you use the gun.”
Said Reg: “Be ready set to run!”
He strobed with many a threatening word,
So the pig’s approach he never heard.

Old Tusker had seen this all before.
A mean, angry and wily old boar,
Go for the lamp, first put it out.
Make the odds then turn about.

When finally he charged into view,
There was one thing left for Reg to do.
Jump, to avoid those terrible tusks.
Men in their path are less than husks.

Reg leapt – how he leapt and flung the lamp,
Up high he went like a vaulting champ.
But in his haste he mistook it’s track,
And landed astride that brutal back.

One trouser cuff had caught a tusk,
Holding fast and taking him brusque.
Reg grabbed the tail to steady his seat.
He yelled in fright with a mighty bleat.

Three dogs, up tight, came full alert.
At chasing things they were expert.
They closed the gap with greatest ease
And found this leg out in the breeze.

One caught a boot and held that fast.
Reg was splitting and very aghast.
The cuff gave way under the stress.
He and the dog were left in a mess.

The other two dogs continued the chase,
While Reg used a stick to sort out his case.
He clobbered the dog – an act of defence
And made his own way across to the fence.

Reg climbed a gate, sat there with poise,
Followed his dogs by dent of their noise.
Round in an arc the mighty chase bent,
Back down the fence in pursuit they went.

Reg listened for the tread of the ugly beast,
He would have one blow on his head at least.
He raised his stick and steadied his aim.
With a ferocious swing he managed to maim.

“I got’im, I got’im!” yelled Reg all aglow.
“I knew I could do it with only one blow!”
“That taught‘im a lesson, I busted‘is head!”
“Pig rippin’s all over, like mutton‘es dead!”

Doug came across, now holding the lamp,
Ready to bolster this self proclaimed champ.
He shone it around to find the dead ham …..
And said to his brother: “Ya Got the Old Ram!”

© Jim with ‘Tusker’

Friday, June 27, 2008

Interview No. 2: Coffee-lovin', Mac-huggin' Greek freak

Here's the second of a little string of interviews I've got lined up. Enjoy.

As long as I've known Dave, he's been a caffeine freak, searching for the freshest, liveliest coffee around.

When he's not doing that, he's hunting down ancient Greek nouns and participles. (And occasionally turning up for work as well.)

He finished his mid-year college exams only last week, but felt that another set of questions was just what the doctor ordered. So who was I to argue?

Celebrating Design: People from all over Sydney (and well beyond) would know you as the coffee freak who buzzes around from one café to another critiquing crema and aroma before posting your observations online. What got you interested in coffee in the first place?

Dave: Like most people, I think, I started drinking coffee as a means to stay awake; I was drinking more and more instant coffee, and then started drinking uni cappucinos.

It wasn't until I left uni that I started looking for a better quality of coffee. At my first job after uni, we bought a small espresso machine for the office: I started getting used to making espressos and lattes, so much so that I organised another espresso machine for the next place I worked in.

CD: What are the traits of a well-engineered coffee?

D: In my own opinion, an espresso and a latte have different traits.

For espresso, I look for something that's syrupy, that coats the tongue, has a somewhat bright flavour with a lot of complexity, and then stays with you for a long time afterwards.

With a latte, it's all about the milk-work. Often, you'll find that the kind of coffee that makes a good latte will make a lousy espresso: it's about something subtle: the coffee flavour and its interplay with the milk.

The process of engineering a coffee goes as far back as knowing the farms where the plant is grown, through the roasting process, checking the grind: even the kind of water that you might like to use to make the coffee.

People can obsess over it, and that can make all the difference in what you drink.

CD: How does an understanding for the work which goes into producing premium coffee enhance your appreciation of it?

D: When I'm drinking coffee (and now when I'm drinking decaf), I think about what the different flavours are, the texture, the aromas, the crema; it's a far cry from where I used to be with those dirt-flavoured cappuccinos back at uni.

The downside, of course, is that it's much harder to find a coffee that I'm happy with.

CD: Does the skill of learning to 'read' coffee translate over into any other experiences in life for you?

D: I think I learned most of my coffee tasting skills in the field of wine tasting, but they've gone far beyond what I'm able to detect in wine.

I've found that working on my palette has enhanced my enjoyment of food - provided I take the time to look at it. It's also helped me with cooking, because that's all about mixing flavours together.

Reviewing cafes has had a broader impact: it's helped me think carefully about how hospitality works, and what kind of spaces, and little touches, make all the difference.

CD: A while ago you turned to the challenge of learning a 'dead' language: biblical Greek. Many of us have had the opportunity to learn 'live' languages like French or Japanese. Is there a different pattern of learning employed for being schooled in ancient Greek?

D: I've never tried to learn a second language before, so I'm not sure what the process is for learning one. With biblical Greek, there's no real opportunity to practice it conversationally: it ends up being an effort in flashcards, and trying to see familiar patterns.

CD: As you learn their language, what picture of the Greeks of the 1st century AD era builds up in your mind? Does the language itself (and its form) tell you anything about them?

D: When we were first learning, the lecturer mentioned that Greek is a verb-based language, while English is noun-based. I've been trying to see how that works, but it has yet to become clear to me. The deeper I look into the language, the more complicated it gets - my latest reading project for Greek is a 600-odd page book just devoted to grammar.

CD: Coffee, Greek and Mac computers all seem to appeal to you strongly. Is there a common link in there somewhere?

D: There's something about logical, structured design that links the three, I think: if you look at the scoresheet that comes out for the World Barista Championship, you can see how coffee-making really is an ordered process.

There's something similar there with Macs, and with Greek: they each have an elegance and a structure to them.

Thursday, June 26, 2008


For some, the road is home.
Not me.
Though content enough in solitude
my home is home.

Home is where I am known and loved.
At home I am known by different names
to those names I am given on the road.
On the road I am 'rep' and 'salesman' and 'manager';
at home I am 'Darling', 'Daddy', and 'Mate' (to my neighbours).

On the road, home is more my car
than another man's motel;
home is more the voice of friends on the phone
than strangers in the flesh.
On the road, home can be tasted in meals and heard in songs,
but is it really home? No.

Home is faces familiar, stains on the loungeroom carpet,
clover in the front lawn.
Home is a mattress that needs replacing
and a shower that still leaks - even after my attempts to fix it.

Home is where I can put up my weary feet.
Home is where I belong when my name is not 'business'.
Home is where the presence of my company logo means 'Daddy's home!'
Home is not the road, and the road is not home; home is home.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

On being big, flat and popular

This is as near as we get to a picture in my motel room tonight.

Yes, it's a whopping great LCD screen.

Drive through any suburb experiencing a council clean-up, and you'll see no end of old CRT monitors and even the odd TV (always minus the lead). The whole world, it seems, is going to LCD technology. (Okay, 50% of the world in 2008, anyway.)

But what is LCD? How does it work? For an introduction to the technology, check out this link.

While you check that out, I'm going to finish my work for the day, and then research some local Port Macquarie food.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Short history of Musa gigantum

It's not every night you get to camp next door to a giant banana.

As I write, The Banana is enjoying the burning love of Elvis (which is playing over the motel's pool area), and is settling in to keep its nightly vigil over the passing roadtrains.

But the banana was not always here. It wasn't here when Captain John Korff sat out a storm in this area back in 1847. It was also completely unknown to the local Bundjalung people as well.

None of this is surprising, as The Banana first appeared in 1964. It was the brainchild of John Landy, a local Coffs Harbour banana seller, and not the 26th governor of Victoria.

Landy was inspired to make The Banana based on a real banana. Though it is like a real banana in colour and shape, its sheer size and the presence of signwriting will surely tip off the passing observer to the fact that it is not actually a real banana.

The Banana consumed 750kgs of concrete, and a fair bit of engineer Alan Chapman's time. It took 3 months to construct, and celebrated its 10th anniversary in 1974 - though this was almost certainly lost on the Germans who were rejoicing in the launch of the first Volkswagen Golf.

Here ends another lesson in the history of design. I think I spent a little too much time alone in the car today ...

Monday, June 23, 2008

Pooh's company

Playing on mum and dad's bed is fun - but it's a lot more fun when there's three of you!

For Caelan it's hard to imagine play without companions. Human company is good, but Pooh and friends aren't bad company either.

Why is it so?

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Educated out of creativity?

Perhaps the following story will have some resonance with your own experience of education. Perhaps.

Growing up, I had two great loves when it came to learning: the English language, and the creative arts. I loved to draw, and I loved to write.

My primary school teachers had the wisdom to allow both to flourish, and even encouraged me in my drawing where the education system had run out of space.

However, my entrance into a new 'enlightened' school in Year 7 changed everything. Disappointingly, English was about the only precious resource I was deemed able to produce, and so I was promptly catalogued into intermediate English, where I served out my entire high school incarceration.

So that was English.

Art was relegated to an even more lowly position. After some screen prints and lino cuts, it was time to move on from art, and into the 'real subjects'.

It was at this point that I lost all faith and all interest in the education system. I won't paint the last 4 years of high school for you, other than describe them as miserable with only a few exceptions. And damning.

The two educational passions of my childhood had been weighed and found wanting. As I left Yr 12, my UAI indicated that even a career serving chips at McDonalds would be wildly aspirational.

I didn't pick up a pencil to draw again until 2 years ago. And it wasn't until last Wednesday that I decided to have a crack at poetry. Why? Because for 6 years' of my secondary education and a good chunk of my tertiary education, no one made it seem all that important.

(I choose to phrase it that way, rather than say 'No one thought it was important' because I know that was not true of some of my educators.)

Can I say what a relief it is to know that I can still pick up a pencil and draw, or tussle with the keyboard and produce the waffle known as this blog?

(There seems to have been a certain resilience in my hard-wiring which has survived for 32 years in spite of the attempts of some educators to reformat my hard drive. Perhaps you have had a similar experience; I don't think I'm alone in this regard.)

Sir Ken Robinson is a well-regarded British educator and a captivating communicator. He gave this talk in February 2006 at the TED (Technology Entertainment Design) Conference in Monterey, California. I heartily recommend you take the 20 minutes to watch the clip; it will possibly be the most stimulating 20 minutes of your week.

Note the following big ideas of his presentation:

*The value of human creativity, as it is expressed in all its diversity, over against our culture's present obsession with a very limited range of human ability

*The problem of a limited view of intelligence impoverishing our present and future

*What happens when we live with the burden of 'always being right' (the stigmatisation of mistakes from our childhood education through to the corporation), and what this does to tentative expressions of alternative intelligence

*The seemingly unavoidable consequences of 'academic inflation' where today's MA has only the weight of yesterday's BA

*The need for a complete overhaul in our thinking about intelligence and creativity because we no longer live in a world whose needs are dictated by the Industrial Revolution.

Whether you're a propagator or receptor of education (or both), this video will prompt some sort of gut-level response (positive or negative).

I look forward to hearing your thoughts on the design of education, and how well you think that design fits with what see around and within us.

(Many thanks to my mate David Jones for providing this link late last year, after a fascinating afternoon watching my 2-year-old son design and play with wooden blocks.)

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Practice makes par

Today I shared in a delightful 9 holes of golf with two good friends up on the Central Coast.

It was an excellent game for my friend, Ferg. I didn't ask him the final score, but I'm pretty sure his game sailed close to par (he was once offered the opportunity to 'go pro' with the sport). This is the first game he's played in around a year.

Andy also did pretty well; I think his game was about 12 over by the end. He enjoys a fairly regular stroll around his local courses.

Both these guys know how to smash a ball hard and straight. It was an inspiration to watch both of them.

Meantime, I had the pleasure of losing around 4 golf balls (Andy's, and mostly in the briny deep), wading through (and hitting into) acres of mud, and collecting a car with my opening shot of the day, and a house on Hole 3; not a bad day on the course for me all told.

The differences between their style and mine seems to be so small. After all, we seem to hold the club the same way, stand the same way, point in the same direction etc. Yet while Ferg lands yet another drive on the green, I land one on the roof of a Falcon.

Good golfers make it look so effortless. But it's the years of practice, and the small differences that make all the difference.

Friday, June 20, 2008

One man's trash ...

... is another's playground.

I know it's a recurrent theme on this blog, but I can't get away from it. And this won't be the last time.

It seems to me that part of the art of living well is becoming more aware of what's around us, of the resources that lie within our reach.

Often because we're too busy looking for what we want to see, we miss what's there. We then find it all too easy to view ourselves as 'victims' and to play from within that disempowered status. It's all downhill from there, generally.

Who knows what we might find in each new context if we had the eyes to see? Sometimes the most magnificent resources lie in the most unlikely places.

A bunch of leaves. Is it a chore to rake up? A mess to deal with? Or one of the cheapest and funnest sources of entertainment for one who has eyes to see? Ah, the wisdom of child's play!

Thursday, June 19, 2008

A fantastic piece of [Aussie] plastic

Vegemite. The Victa mower. The Hills Hoist. Classic Australian inventions. Icons.

But does the name 'Dalson' mean anything to you? If not, go to your kitchen (but to work out what you're looking for, you'd better read the post first).

I can't imagine life without my Dalson [copy]. And, no, it's not a brand of vacuum cleaner; that would be these people, and they're English.

1947 was a big year. It saw the birth of this humble government body. More importantly, it saw the birth of the Dalson Aussie vegetable peeler.

This invention rocks. I can't remember when I last used a knife to peel spuds, but it was probably on Outward Bound back in 1991. (In truth, it was probably the first time I'd ever peeled any vegetable in my life.)

What I love about the Aussie spud peeler is how easily it peels spuds and carrots, but not knuckles; blood-free baked potatoes are a family favourite.

The Dalson Classic Peeler. Simple. Impressive. Enduring. Australian. (And possibly the only plastic item still manufactured here.)

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Life through a small, round, smooth window

My life: a small, round, smooth window
through which I explore
but a fragment
of the tattered, glorious whole

Inside my small, round, smooth window
everything fits, everything makes sense
but it doesn't
make sense of everything
tattered and glorious, whole

You blink. My small, round, smooth window is gone.
Eyes wide open
Blue sky above warm red earth
beneath my radiant, dusty feet

Not a head hair singed,
not even of the smoke
an aroma
and sounds of glorious feasting

Every small window has its day
to vanish -
small, round and smooth; small, rough-and-ready -
all must vanish (yours and mine)
and all be revealed
in the twinkling of an eye

Eyes wide open.
Radiant feet planted,
small dusty fingers ranging
over the tattered, glorious
whole made whole.

In memory of 'Puds', whose small, rough-and-ready window closed in June 2008.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Interview No.1: New Zealand finds style

Here it is, folks: interview numero uno. Enjoy! (I certainly did.)

A year ago, my friend Jordan crossed over.

He and his wife packed their bags and took off over the Tasman. The plane stopped over in New Zealand and they got off. (And still have not resumed their flight.)

Jordan is a person with a passion for design. It spills over into every area of his life. He even gets paid to design! Join me on a magical tour of mystery and intrigue as we spend five minutes getting acquainted with the world of Jordan ...

Celebrating Design: Jordan, it's 9 o'clock on Monday morning. You're at your desk. Can you tell us what the rest of the day might look like from here?

Jordan: At the moment I work predominantly doing web design, and the work itself falls pretty generally into two categories.

The first is the creation of static 'mock-ups' or a visual representation of how the website is going to look and behave. This mock-up is purely non-functional, however you need to keep the way everything will work in mind throughout. This is probably the part that is more traditionally considered the 'design' phase.

The second is the process of actually creating a working site from the design. We have programmers who handle the content-management system that we plug into, and any of the really technical workings.

Our part is applying the basic structure of the page in a way that is meaningful, useable and understandable, and styling that structure to match the design that has been approved. Any given day will probably involve aspects of both of these as well as ongoing tweaks to existing sites, quoting for work, and the administative side of things.

CD: Your job title is 'designer'. How much do you feel that your job allows you to work in that space of 'design'?

J: To be honest, this often depends a lot on the client. A good client is one that presents the problems that need solving, the goals that need achieving with the site, and trusts us to come up with a solution to it.

What more often happens is that the client comes to us with the solution they want, and just want us to make it look 'pretty' and make it work. So sometimes we work more as 'implementers' than designers - which can be frustrating. But it's part of working for clients, instead of for yourself.

That being said, even when we are implementing someone else's idea, there is still a lot of 'design' in the process; you just have more constraints and limitations to juggle.

CD: How do you determine what a good design is? How do you know when your work on a job is complete (besides the money running out!)?

J: It's a fine line. You can always look at something and see things that need doing (or at least I can), but there's a point you reach where you don't want to be over-thinking everything, and you just have to accept that the work is done.

Oftentimes this coincides with when the site has to go live, or when the client needs it done. You could still nitpick bits and pieces for days afterwards, but you have to leave it.

As far as 'good design' goes, I think it is often relative to who it is targeted for. When I look at something someone has done and it makes me go "Wow!", or is memorable, or makes me think about something I might not have before, then that is good design.

However, when I am working for clients, good design is about providing a solution that solves their problem.

It's all about context. Good design for an older market will be vastly different to what is good design for a much younger market. Good design communicates clearly and emphatically to the people it is directed to -whatever that message may be.

CD: How do you take a client's desires into account when you design for them? How do you maintain your own distinctive while doing another person's work?

J: In doing commercial work the client's desires are the ones that count. But if we have different ideas we can justify as solving what the client wants BETTER than what they desire, then our ideas start coming into play.

Design is always about working within limitations, and there is always room to have your own mark on what you do. It just may be to a greater or lesser extent in some cases.

CD: How does the concept of design spill over into other areas of your life besides work?

J: In a very narrow sense, I like to experience good design - whether it be in print, on the web, or even in interior design or industrial design. The ability for man to create things which are aesthetically and functionally pleasing is astounding.

But in a larger sense it is even more astounding to see the design (both functional and aesthetic) in our lives and the world around us. When you look at nature, when you look at the human body, when you look at your own life and see the twists-and-turns it has taken to make you what you are, I find it impossible to believe that it all happens by chance. There is design behind it, and there is a Designer behind it too.

CD: Do you have a story which will tell us something about your early interest in design? Do you remember which event helped you decide to pursue a job centred on design?

J: I must have enjoyed that sort of thing through high school, as I was always involved with creating the youth group term programme booklet and flyers and other things like that.

But don't think I realised I could do that sort of thing for a living until I started doing more of it for statewide Presbyterian Youth (while I was deferring Uni for a year). I was helping with booklets for camps, tickets for things, sometimes even video editing work.

Instead of going to Uni after my deferment ended, I went and studied Interactive Multimedia at TAFE and started heading down the path I am on now. I still find it quite amusing to look at the work I did very early on, and how far I have come from it. (

CD: Is there anyone in particular who inspires or encourages you to design?

J: I find inspiration mostly through other people's work, though not in the way you might expect. I find that searching websites for inspiration when designing a website (for example) tends to make you copy more than design. But it's always interesting to see how an idea used in film titles, or in a poster can inform the work you do on a website.

In terms of names I would have to mention Josef Muller Brockman, Jan Tischold, Saul Bass, Jason Santa Maria, Dan Cedarholm and Jon Hicks, for various different reasons.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Gentle interrogation

Reliable sources tell me that people from all kinds of interesting backgrounds read this blog. (And that people from all kinds of backgrounds avoid it as well.)

Conversations with friends reveal 'design' at many different levels: from the creation of webpages to the intentionality of an education system to the raising of children.

My own observations on 'design' are so small and limited; I would love to gain the perspectives of others. One way is for you to come on here and post (the offer still stands).

Another way is for me to post some interviews. I've already started emailling some people to gauge the willingness out there for some Q&A.

Basically, I email you some general-ish questions, you respond, then I refine my questions based on your response, you reply again, and we post.

If you can't think of anything you want to post on right now, but you're happy to be interviewed, then just let me know. I don't care who you are and what you do (actually, I do care very much - just not that way), you're eligible.

I look forward to seeing how you'll broaden our horizons!

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Doof-doof: white shoes in the wild west

Every place has its stereotypes.

The area I grew up in was known to some as 'Marajuana Mountain'; I don't think I need to explain that one.

I later lived in another place better known for its motorised scooters (also named by Spike Milligan as 'the world's only above-ground cemetery' - can you guess which town?).

Nowadays, we live in the home of the lowered Honda Civic with the pumpin' stereo and frangipani stickers, the kebab, and the white sneakers.

When we first moved out here, I was due for an upgrade in slippers. One pair of white Grosbys later, I was ready to hit the streets (okay, the hallway of our house).

Cara did not appreciate my attempt to be west-ified. And the white slippers, which were unfortunately a size too small anyway, ended up on FreeCycle.

What is it that people in your local area are known for? How do you react to the stereotype? Do you run with the herd, or critique stereotypes by an equal and opposite reaction of your own?

And your advice would be appreciated: what colour / type of slippers do I go for next time - remembering that I live west of Kenthurst?

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Tapping into the soul of a handyman

Boom boom.

Tap washers: I'm learning to love them.

At the moment I'm in the process of changing the tap washers in our house. We've had a few taps that required a bit more than just gentle persuasion (like the hot tap in the shower which just about needed to be screwed through the wall), and so I thought it was about time we did the washers and any reseating of the taps that needed to happen.

Being a rental house, I don't expect anyone has redone the washers since the house was built 9 years ago. So there's no time like the present to spend some money on them. And heck - what's the worst I can do? Flood the house, destroying the carpet and underlay and some irreplaceable pieces of antique furniture? There's nothing to lose.

The screw-down tap mechanism is such a simple but brilliant design. It's been around in one form or another since 1845 (first manufactured by Guest and Chrimes of Rotherham) - back in the day when they really knew how to make cool newspaper ads.

And I'm guessing it'll be around for a while yet. Despite the onset of the sink mixer, and the rise and rise of ceramic taps, there are still a heck-of-a-lot of olde-style neoprene washers out there.

The job of changing them is pretty easy (I'm not so sure about the task of reseating as my first attempt removed a scary amount of brass - but I learned from it). It's one of those tasks that every man needs to attempt at least once in his life (like changing a tyre in a suit, pulling apart a motorbike engine on the dining room table, or filling a waterbed (my score so far: 0/3)).

And the added bonus: every time you use the bathroom taps, you can proudly say to yourself, "This tap doesn't leak quite as badly as it used to because I had a go at it." Can you feel the satisfaction?

So go on fellas (and chickas) - bust out the spanners, buy some tap washers, and brace yourselves for an afternoon of family excitement. (And double-check the wording on your insurance policy too.)

Friday, June 13, 2008

White Ladder

This is my absolute all-time favourite CD; David Gray at his best.

White Ladder epitomises (for me) the best that music can be: songs that speak to you when there's a skip in your step (or alternatively, a tear in your eye).

I bought White Ladder in early 2001, having no idea who David Gray was. I had only seen a few TV ads for the album featuring Gray singing his heart out with the chorus of Babylon - and it was enough to get me in.

The album - a mix of ballads of love found and lost and found again - worked its way into my heart very quickly.

It was the time I was falling madly in love with the lady who is now my wife. And the upbeat optimism / sadness of the album spoke to me very deeply as someone whose new love stood in the fragile place that new love does.

The album was on high rotation in my player for years - long after the wedding bells had tolled. I don't listen to it very much now, but whenever I do, it's with fondness.

It's quietly playing in the loungeroom now as I blog, as the kids sleep, and as my darling wife cleans the kitchen (better quit bloggin' and start helpin'!). And it sounds as sweet as ever.

There are some excellent albums out there. But then there are the albums that really speak to you because they got your ear at a certain time in life. White Ladder is one album that will age well for Cara and I because of all it represents.

Even though our kids will grow up and mock us for playing such ancient music, I remain hopeful that they will one day understand what it is to be met by a piece of music in a deep place. And never left quite the same.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

The danger of demographic snapshots

Using surveys and statistical data as the sole means of gaining knowledge has always bothered me. Why? Because so often this data fails to capture what's actually there.

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of a fairly informal chat with an employee of Sutherland Shire Council. I say 'the pleasure' because it was a morning of rich insights built on the sound observations of those who know the area.

It's not hard to take a snapshot of Sutherland shire: an area 370 km² populated with 215,000 people (around 80% Australian-born), 3 national parks and 1 nuclear reactor.

But 'The Shire' is more than this.

There is a missing 'third dimension' when we choose to interpret a place purely through statistical data: we miss out on its story.

This is the danger of demographic snapshots: they need to be supplemented with a steady diet of stories (local histories, written and oral) if we are really going to 'get at' the things that make a place what it is.

My understanding of Sutherland Shire was enriched immensely through the sharing of some stories (e.g. how its development was shaped by its geographic isolation, and how its residents have responded to local issues and related dynamically to their council over time).

And of course one major historical decision dramatically affected the whole shape of The Shire's present demography: Captain Arthur Phillip's decision to break with James Cook's assessment, and to base the new colony at Port Jackson instead of Botany Bay.

If that one historical decision had been different, perhaps the demographic snapshots would look more like these.

I guess I'm only repeating what Jim said yesterday, and what I was hinting at the other evening with my post on the place of local knowledge in the world of satellite navigation: there's no substitute for a sensitive reading of context. And statistics will never suffice without stories.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Local Knowledge Takes Many Forms

I have two anecdotes that illustrate the nature of local knowledge. Both are set in Apia, the capital of Western Samoa.

Some years ago I was visiting Apia as a consultant with a UN agency. I happened to dine in a restaurant, with a government official, when a mother pig with twelve piglets wandered down the street.

Having been raised on a mixed farm - peanuts, dairy and pigs - this scene raised questions for me. Pigs on the loose had always triggered an emergency for my dad and his neighbours. Wanderers were soon rounded up and fences were mended.

In Apia no one seemed to be noticing these wandering pigs. I turned to my host with my question: “How do families in Apia know which pigs belong to each household?” My host contemplated my question as he watched the pigs, smiled and gave me a neat answer: “Well we don’t need to worry about that. The pigs know!”

Local knowledge takes many forms. Pacific Islanders have unique ways of working with local knowledge. When its pigs and people no one needs to worry. When its international aid and people that’s a different matter.

Some years after my ‘Pigs Know’ moment, I was attending an international meeting on water resources in the Solomon Islands. Among participants was the engineer responsible for Apia’s town water supply.

Water in Pacific Islands is critical to public health. Typhoid and other water born diseases are endemic, so town water must be well filtered and carefully chlorinated.

A bilateral aid agency had been welcomed by the Government of Western Samoa to design and build a water treatment and reticulation system for Apia. The agency sat down with the Government to plan a $20m project.

The Samoans urged the aid agency to design a system that would deliver 650 litres per person per day. The agency was not impressed and responded in words like this: That would be a vastly over designed system – the world standard is 250 litres a day.” Armed with this standard, the designers built their world class system.

Having rehearsed this moment, my colleague from Apia went on to say: “Water is so plentiful in Samoa, people just leave taps running. I can’t get treated water to the ends of my water mains. Worse still, the government is now making me augment supply by pumping untreated river water into the lines. We could have a typhoid outbreak!”

The take home message ……… “Learn to listen well and take notice of what the locals say. Knowledge sometimes resides in surprising places.”

Use ‘The Pigs Know’ principle to listen laterally, gain and rightly evaluate local knowledge. Insightful and lateral listening is the essence of good design.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Best left a few days ...

Dogs exemplify so many things well. Loyalty. Playfulness. The kinds of eating habits you never want your children to imitate.

While I was living on the farm, a special treat for our dog Jess was a large shin-bone from the butcher's. The bone could be enjoyed au naturale, just as it came from the fridge. Or even better it could be taken to the soil heap in the nursery, buried and left for a few days (or even a week) till the flavour improved. It could then be dug up and slowly savoured, the meat falling off the bone as if it were slow-cooked (I can hear you licking your chops now).

Of course, Jess was teaching the rest of us a simple lesson: some meals are best left a few days for all the flavours to fully interact with each other.

Late last week I cooked up a large pot of chicken tikka masala. We had our dinner, and then packed the leftovers away in the fridge. It made a reappearance yesterday, and was definitely more flavoursome. So also a mocha date pudding made at a similar time. With a couple of days' 'cellaring', the flavours enjoyed a more subtle integration. Time accomplished what cooking techniques and ingredients alone could not.

Thanks, Jess. Nice one.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Nothing beats local knowledge

I can't imagine doing my job without the help of a GPS.

It's enough of a challenge sharing the road with other users, let alone trying to navigate through unknown areas (especially major cities) with a street directory open on my lap.

When the nature of my job became apparent (i.e. that it involved tonnes of driving), we decided to splash out and buy a GPS. I had a friend who is a sat nav freak (G'day Andrew!) and so I sought his help on which brand and model to buy etc.

His recommendation was the Garmin Nüvi 660. And it's proven to be an excellent choice. I love the clear, wide screen, and the host of extra features on this unit. My favourites are the really useful dukebox for mp3 files, the FM transmitter (so all audio goes through the stereo), and the Bluetooth connectivity - I use this paired with my work phone to make a lot of calls on the road.

I do also use it for the maps.

While I cannot imagine doing this job without a GPS, and while it gets me to where I need to be every time, there's just one thing it can never replace: local knowledge.

The GPS is a [fairly happy] marriage of mapping technology, satellite connectivity, and mapping algorithms. It is a device that operates off data to calculate an outcome. And it does a pretty fair job most times (except for when it takes you into the scrub or the wrong way up a one-way street).

What I have discovered several times, however, is what the rest of you already know: that a GPS is still no match for a human brain with knowledge of the local area.

Although the GPS might insist that it is getting you from A to B using the fastest route, there's a very strong chance that a local cabbie / school mum knows a faster way.

You see, the one thing a GPS cannot do is read context. So when I'm in an area I know, I usually switch off or ignore the GPS. Occasionally, I leave it on to see how it differs in its assessment to mine. And 90% of the time, my alternative route ends up being faster.

You just can't beat local knowledge.

Of course, this way of operating is not unique to computers. It's the danger that knocks at the door whenever we try to find our way through a situation by calculating all the variables and applying a formula; often it may get a result - but will it be as good as the result we get when we harness the uniqueness of what is there in a particular context?

If you do a lot of driving (and especially if you're a stress-bunny like me in heavy traffic), save up and buy a GPS. Just don't get fooled into thinking that because it's working off 11 satellites (and your brain is working off, ummm, none) that it's always going to be right. When it comes to knowing context, a basic model human brain without any frills will still lick a sat nav.

Whatever Flight of the Conchords might say, robots are not about to take over the world just yet; your brain still has a future in road navigation.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Un-creating neighbourhood?

When we first moved to our new home, we knocked on a few doors in the street to introduce ourselves to people; we had the privilege of some good friendships in our last house, and wanted to 'get off on the right foot' here.

As we got around our neighbours, we learned that the people who had lived in our house before us were (what would been called 30 years ago) recluses. In other words, they would typically come home from work, disappear into the house, and not be seen again.

Today, we call that lifestyle 'normal'. So let's spend just a few minutes looking at how the physical features of a house itself might encourage this sort of 'normality'.

The dominant feature of the property is the house itself (preferably 2 imposing storeys), introduced to us by that slab of concrete / stencilled tiles out the front which spreads all the way down to the road. There used to be a space in there known as 'your footpath', but for the sake of simplicity we now call all of it 'my driveway'.

Some sort of very formal garden may exist out the front, or there might just be a concrete wall (you know, for ease of maintenance).

Phil Hewett of Newcastle Council believes that the people who choose to live behind these massive slabs of concrete infrastructure should be compelled to paint large-scale baboon buttocks on their properties. Yes, it's gross. But his point is: this is what you're saying to your neighbourhood.

So that's the front yard.

Out the back we have a fence. If we are to use the word 'backyard' at all, we evoke images of a walled-in space never used by children because it creates [justified] feelings of claustrophobia. This area is usually tiled or concreted, and always seem to be dark and damp in a trendy neo-Dickensian style.

In between the driveway and the fence we have the house. In a bygone era we spoke of a block of land (probably a quarter-acre, perhaps even a half-acre?) with a house on it. The house was only part of the living experience; people were actually known to spend serious amounts of time outside (and no, taking out the garbage is not considered 'serious time').

The inside of the house is like a universe. While the average number of Australians living in a house has fallen from 3.1 in 1976 to 2.5 in 2004, the average size of Australian houses has gone up. In the 1980's the average living area per person was 50sqm; it's now around 80sqm.

The loungeroom is dominated by a television so big you need the peripheral vision of a duck to take it all in. But that's not the only thing getting bigger: the massive twelve-seater leather lounge (bought on credit) moulds to our ever-increasing girth. The four-door fridge contains all we could ever want, and the high speed wireless internet which is available in every room allows us to shop online and have everything delivered to the front door.

No wonder public groups like The Heart Foundation are in the ear of major developers and councils, trying to get new housing estates redesigned so that this unsustainable, sedentary lifestyle (and the lack of neighbourly engagement it promotes) does not continue into the future.

I cannot believe so many of us actually call this sort of existence 'living'; I can believe even less that we speak of 'living in a neighbourhood'. It frightens me that we actually have the gall to speak of others as being unapproachable and unfriendly when the very way many of us choose to live betrays itself as unapproachable and unfriendly.

Maybe it's time to escape the barricades and take some fresh cookies over to next door. Or to mailbox the street and dare to have a BBQ out in your front yard on top of the big driveway. Just because we live in houses like these does not mean we need to succumb to the conditioning that they seem to promote.

Let's get past the walls and build some bridges. Perhaps a long weekend like this one is the perfect time to do it.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

When your uniqueness is appreciated

Over the last few years I've grown in my appreciation for that marvellous amber liquid that the Belgians call bier (I appreciate that English has a word of the same spelling with a slightly different meaning).

I tend to be not so hot on lagers (bar a few), but pretty content with most ales. Either way, there's no shortage of choice in Belgium; they produce over 500 different standard beers (including their unique lambic).

While I often take my standard straight out of the bottle (not so keen on cans), the Belgians are definitely serious about their beer glasses. So here's the kicker: every standard Belgian beer has its own glass. And its own special method of presentation (the preparation of the glass and the pouring is itself an art).

I think that's amazing. For most of us Aussies, beer glasses are generally either 'middy' or 'schooner', or (perhaps at a stretch) 'pint' or 'stein'. The concept of each beer having its own glass and presentation style seems a little beyond VB.

I guess I should be thankful that my company is based in Belgium - and, yes, there are some prospects of visiting them at some stage. Purely business, of course.

And maybe a glass of red.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Thinking outside the ...

Today's post is about cardboard boxes. And it has been begging to come into existence for weeks.

As some of you know, I'm presently signed up for a Dale Carnegie course. If you've ever done this course, you have probably recited the piece, "I found myself, yesterday, outside a huge box factory ..." There are actions that go with this speech which will haunt me for the rest of my days.

If that wasn't enough impetus for an entry on boxes, then the three guys in the class who work at Visy push it over the line; a stronger case for an entry on cardboard boxes could not have been made.

Ever since The Simpsons episode 1F11 ('Bart Gets Famous'), children the world over have been fascinated with cardboard cartons.

In case your memory needs a jog (or a complete rewrite), this episode opens with Principal Skinner and Mrs Krabappel taking the children for a field trip to the local box factory.

Any shred of glee that the tour might produce for the children is crushed when they learn that: (a) there is not, nor ever will be, any candy in the boxes in the factory; (b) no one at the factory has ever had their hands cut off by the machinery; (c) the boxes are assembled in Flint, Michigan, and only manufactured in Springfield.

The tour does not end well.

Nevertheless, the exposure that the programme gave to the humble cardboard box obviously had a positive impact: as I look around the room I'm in now, I count no less than 11 cardboard boxes. Seeing as episode 1F11 was first screened in early 1994, and none of these boxes appears to be older than 5 years, I think we can hereby conclude that even bad publicity is still publicity.

I could go into the history of the cardboard box - its commercial production in England beginning in 1817, the adaptation of corrugated cardboard into the walls of the box in the USA in 1895, its evolution into packaging for breakfast cereals propelled by the vision of the Kellogg brothers, the later threat of plastics and other synthetic packaging media - but that would require a whole paragraph.

So instead I leave you with this sobering thought: what packages your Cheerios today could be packaging you tomorrow.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Steely independence

Some inventions manage to bring together in themselves the best of some things and the worst of others.

Shopping trolleys. Need I say any more?

I guess I'd better; that's what you pay me for.

Besides their obvious uses as makeshift billy carts and garbage strainers in stormwater drains, they are also useful for carrying groceries.

The average shopping trolley (what the Murricans call a 'shopping cart') seems to hold around 200 litres - that's a lot of canned sardines and t.p.

So that's the upside: after all, who would want to lug all that around in one of these?

But then you have the Mr Hyde persona of shopping trolleys: their legendary handling.

Can anyone out there get these things to track a straight line? Why is it that when you want to go forward, the trolley always wants to demonstrate its ability to crabwalk? And then there's that wheel which is locked into a perpetual shudder, rocking side-to-side, so desperately in need of a balance and alignment.

Who, you may wonder, ever decided to 'bless' the world with this four-wheeled wonder / terror? It was a grocer from Oklahoma, Sylvan Nathan Goldman. And panel-beaters around the globe have been rejoicing ever since.

Of course, shopping trolleys aren't all light and laughter. Though I can't help but marvel at how much the child in this cautionary poster looks like Al Capone, the message is serious: kids, sit down or get ready for a 4-hour wait in emergency.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

I can jump [in] puddles

Apologies to Alan Marshall.

Kids and mud puddles are a magical combination. Children tackle water and mud with the kind of wholehearted abandon we can only dream of in a football match (or politics for that matter).

The only thing that can enrich a lavish experience like this even more is a pair of squelchy gumboots.

I love the capacity of gumboots to play to both a child's caution and his recklessness. Gumboots mean only one of two things: very dry feet or very wet feet.

Above you see Caelan demonstrating for us one way to maximise the effectiveness of gumboots: as portable reservoirs.

There aren't many things I can think of that serve opposite ends of the spectrum so well as gumboots. With kids anyway, they seem to invite initial caution followed by some serious jumping once the first dribble of water has trickled in over the top. Inevitably it ends with a grinning, soaked child and less than half the original puddle remaining (most of it now in the boots).

What a pity most of us adults only experience one aspect (the lesser aspect, perhaps?) of the capacities of our wellies. Kinda makes me want to go outside and jump in some puddles right now.

Only it's way past my bedtime. So I'd better do the responsible (adult-like) thing and go to sleep. And dream of muddy puddles.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Cakes of distinction

David MacCarfrae makes good cakes. Actually, he makes excellent cakes. No doubt you've lost sleep over the years wondering who made the wedding cake of HRH Prince Edward and Sarah Ferguson in 1986. Wonder no longer.

Cakes are, potentially, that kind of boastful food which virtually defies the viewer to turn animal and become an eater. I remember looking at our wedding cake (all those years ago) and thinking what a shame it was to spoil it by eating it.

The appeal of a cake seems to vary greatly depending on the occasion for which it is produced. The cake you bake to eat with friends at afternoon tea will likely appeal to the senses in different ways to the cake you produce for the 21st birthday party.

Ingredients and external design aside, do I even need to mention the fanfare / ritualistic devotion that can accompany the setting up and cutting of a cake?

There is little fanfare surrounding the cake in the photo above, though there was surely no lack of devotion. What sort of cake do you think appeals most to a 'young audience'? And why is it that what children find so appealing in a cake is the sort of thing that repulses many adults?

(The cake in view here was not only a gustative delight for young tastebuds, but a tactile experience for little fingers too.)

Just so we're clear, David MacCarfrae had nothing to do with this cake. And unfortunately, Andrew and Fergie never got to pull the top layer of their cake out of the deep-freeze for their 10th anniversary.

Monday, June 2, 2008

More than just sandals and meatballs

Ever since I was a kid I've had a soft spot for Scania trucks.

As I was cruising up the National Highway today, I noticed a few Scanias and thought they deserved an entry.

Scania trucks certainly look distinctive on the road - like another well-known Swedish brand.

Their appearance isn't ostentatious. They lack the chrome of other movers, opting instead for the utility of black plastic. Their lines are generally squarish, utilitarian. They simply say, in an understated way, "If you've got something that needs hauling, I'll do it. And I'll be here tomorrow if you need me again."

In a Lego-like way, I think they're beautiful trucks. These guys also seem to have some of that same quality.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

The perfect place to enjoy a cigarette

Why waste your time with fickle things like plants when you can smother the issue of maintenance with our old friend concrete?

This is the courtyard which features at the centre of our motel (I will not shame our salubrious compound by naming it).

Note the carefully placed ‘garden’ benches (hidden in the back lefthand end of the courtyard); after our trip to the art gallery, I was beginning to wonder if this was someone’s deliberately ironic critique of a space devoid of life and intelligence.

Two evidences of human activity punctuated this courtyard. One was a muddy set of builder’s footprints: a sign of hope, perhaps?

The other was a half-smoked, squished cigarette near one of the benches.

Come to think of it, it’s the perfect place for having the morning ciggie. Perhaps the match was too good, and the smoker got the message and cleared out, leaving the job half-done.