The Blog (archived)

All posts in chronological order, as originally published
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Introducing My New Website

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

It’s been a long time since I wrote anything here - a whole year has flashed by - so I thought it was about time I gave an update and introduced my new website

One reason for my lack of additions to this blog, and the rest of this website, has been the ongoing combination of work and study. One part time job, one casual job (which encroached on evenings and Saturdays), and part time study kept me out of mischief for a while.

Thankfully I’ve now finished my Diploma of Library and Information Services, and no longer have assignments to annoy me. Nor that feeling that “I ought to be doing homework” weighing on my mind whenever I was doing anything other than homework. I feel like a normal person again, or as close to normal as I want to be.

Screen-shot of a page on Roaming Down UnderWhen I wasn’t working or doing homework, my modest creative energy has, for the last year or more, been diverted away from this website to another project: a new website about travel in Australia and New Zealand.

I love travelling, especially to places which haven’t yet been changed forever by mass tourism. I also love taking photos which record the natural beauty of the places I visit. Writing about such places appeals to me too, and is therapeutic. When I realised there is room on the internet for what I had in mind, I felt compelled to create it. The result is my new website, called Roaming Down Under. Not surprisingly, it lives at

I haven’t announced my new website before because I wanted to have a decent amount of stuff in place before promoting it. Although it may never be truly “finished” (the site documents my life’s travels, which I hope will continue for some time yet), the 57 pages I’ve done so far probably constitute a “decent amount of stuff”.

Some of my travel entries from this blog have been moved over to my new site, and any future stuff I write that is travel-related will go there too.

I still have ideas for the blog you’re reading now, and other parts of this website such as the Snow In WA section. This website shall continue. However, priority for web writing will go to Roaming Down Under … and now I’m done with studying, there’s the novel I hope to finish drafting this year! If there are more long gaps before blog entries, that will be why.


Hot Enough To Cook An Egg On A Sidewalk?

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Is there any truth in the phrase “hot enough to cook an egg on the sidewalk” (or the footpath as we call them in Australia)? I’ve often wondered this myself, and rather than just google it I thought it would be more interesting to try it and see the result with my own eyes.

An egg at varying stages of cooking on hot bricksThe main ingredient - a hot day - was clearly present. Outside my home I measured the temperature as 41°C (105.8°F) in the shade, although I suspect it may have been closer to 42.9°C (109.2°F) which was the official Perth maximum. Whichever it was, it certainly qualified as hot.

I don’t have a footpath nearby, but the top of a low brick wall provided a flat surface with similar thermal properties. As for the egg, an old one in the back of the fridge, a year past its use by date, was a perfect candidate. I could use it in an experiment without feeling I was wasting it.

Having cracked the egg on the bricks, I photographed it at intervals to record the changes (click on photos to see a larger version). The egg white stopped spreading out within a minute, and the yolk firmed noticeably within two. It looked hopeful! After a promising start, however, further progress was disappointing. Even after half an hour most of the whites were still gooey and not white.

When I eventually scraped the egg off the bricks after two hours, the whites were mostly firm but not properly cooked. The yolk looked almost edible, but as the egg was so old, not to mention contaminated by dirt and bits of brick, I didn’t fancy eating it. I concluded that hot bricks (equivalent to a sidewalk) are not a viable way of cooking an egg, even if you overlook practicalities like hygeine.

Back inside, I consulted the internet. According to the US Library of Congress, eggs need a temperature of at least 70°C (158°F) to properly cook. Also:

“Once you crack the egg onto the sidewalk, the egg cools the sidewalk slightly. Pavement of any kind is a poor conductor of heat, so lacking an additional heat source from below or from the side, the egg will not cook evenly.
Something closer to the conditions of a frying pan would be the hood of a car. Metal conducts heat better and gets hotter, so people actually have been able to cook an egg on a car hood’s surface.”

I couldn’t get a reliable temperature reading of the bricks, but suspect they weren’t hot enough. The roof of a car is a much better idea. Any car parked in the sun during a Perth summer can get up to 60°C (140°F) inside, and I’ve measured this in my own car often enough. The roof should be hotter, and with some aluminium foil and a little oil, I expect an egg would cook more effectively there than on brick … probably good enough to eat.

I’ll try egg-cooking on a car another time. For now I plan to stay in the only sensible environment in such hot weather - indoors.


More On Dodgy Green Nozzles

Saturday, December 5, 2009

In an earlier blog post [How green is your nozzle?] I questioned the environmental claims of low-flow water-saving nozzles. I was referring to shower nozzles then, but my doubts apply to kitchen taps too. A fine example of dubious green logic involving kitchen taps has come to my notice.

tap aerator A large organisation I’m familiar with, but prefer not to identify, has fitted flow regulators to about 600 conventional taps throughout all its many buildings and locations. It was boasted that these small devices fitted to existing taps will save massive amounts of water while cutting bills and helping the environment. However, the taps which have been modified, that I’m aware of, are in kitchen areas. I’m still scratching my head wondering exactly how these new flow-restricting devices are supposed to achieve any real savings.

You see, most tasks done using the taps in the staff kitchens depend on a certain volume of water. Filling a one litre jug uses one litre of water. Filling the kitchen sink to do the washing up takes one sink of water. To make one cup of tea requires - you guessed it - one cup of water! Restricting the flow doesn’t affect the amount of water needed - it just means it takes three times longer for the water needed to squeeze its way out of the tap.

Water usage might have even increased. Previously the taps just delivered water neatly to where it was needed, and nowhere else. The fancy new water-saving nozzles disperse water finely in a broad high-speed spray, resulting in surrounding surfaces being coated with unwanted splashed water which then evaporates or drains away. Isn’t this a waste of water, not a saving?

tap flow regulatorOn the one hand you have the feel-good environmental claims:

  • Significant savings to water consumption
  • Money saved on water bills
  • The environment is helped

On the other hand, my observations:

  • Water saving is doubtful, as most kitchen tasks need a certain volume regardless of the speed of the tap
  • Staff time is wasted, as people wait longer to fill their cups or jugs (instead of working)
  • Water is wasted due to splashing by the new nozzles

And don’t forget the costs:

  • The financial cost of buying and installing 600 flow regulators
  • The environmental cost of producing the flow regulators: mining and processing the metals, then manufacturing, packaging and transporting them. All this takes energy (from fossil fuels), and probably some water is used too.

The real winners, rather than tap users or the environment, are surely the manufacturers of these allegedly water saving products. I think they deserve congratulations for their marketing skills. They know that saving water and being concerned about the environment - clearly good things - have become fashionable. People want to be green, and to be seen to be green. Water saving product makers have exploited this situation with magnificent shrewdness to make a lot of money.

I see it as a great contradiction - in an age when our environment needs us to consume less stuff, makers of “green” products have enticed us into consuming more stuff … in the name of helping the environment! As for the flow regulators I’ve written about, the water savings may be questionable, but the marketing has been a great success.

P.S. For kitchen tasks where a slower water flow is practical, don’t forget that flow can be reduced by simply not turning the tap on as far!


World Toilet Day

Thursday, November 19, 2009

World Toilet Day official logoDid you know that November 19th is World Toilet Day? If you think the concept of a world toilet day sounds a little absurd or frivolous, then you’re probably not one of the 2.5 billion people on this planet who don’t have access to proper sanitation. Yes, that’s a lot of people without access to something most of you reading this probably take for granted - the humble toilet.

We may be in the twenty-first century, and have the technology to place Michael Jackson’s nose in orbit around one of Saturn’s moons (if we really wanted to), yet an incredible 1.8 million of our fellow humans still die each year because of a lack of proper sanitation. In fact, diarrheal diseases kill more children than either malaria or AIDS. Something as simple as the safe disposal of childrens’ poo could slash their diarrhoea by 40%, and those in developed countries could also benefit from more numerous and more hygenic public facilities.

That’s why the non-profit World Toilet Organization was formed - to improve toilet and sanitation conditions worldwide. As well as trying to influence governments to improve their sanitation policies, they hold World Toilet Summits and Expos, and drive market-based strategies to promote sustainable sanitation systems. November 19th was declared “World Toilet Day” to increase awareness of the problem and generate local action for better sanitation.

Official Big Squat logoYou might be thinking, “how can I help?”. On the other hand you might not, but in case anyone feels so inspired, here are some options:

  1. Sponsor a School Toilet in India, or even donate an entire toilet block, via the World Toilet Organization
  2. Give the gift of a toilet through one of the other charitable organisations which conduct worthwhile projects in less developed countries (such as Compassion Australia)
  3. Take part in the Big Squat - a movement for the toilet-less. Simply squat for one minute in a highly visible location, and if anyone notices, explain why you’re squatting (flyers can be downloaded)

If you’ve missed world toilet day this year, there’s always next year!


Mobile Coffee Roasting With A Breadmaker

Thursday, November 12, 2009

I hereby reveal my latest development in the home roasting of coffee beans - a breadmaker and heat gun roaster mounted on a trolley for easy setup and storage.

Previously, I roasted coffee beans with just a bowl, a wooden spoon, and a heat gun mounted on a tripod. A heat gun is like an industrial strength hairdryer, blowing out there at 600°C, and it worked very well. It all dismantled and fit into a crate for easy storage indoors, the only disadvantage being the time required to set it up and pack it away.

Mobile coffee roaster in storage mode
1. In storage mode

Recently I progressed to using a bread maker to house and stir the beans - much easier, with greater temperature control and more evenly roasted beans. The only problem was that it didn’t all fit into a crate, and taking all the bits outside and setting up, then later dismantling and storing, took longer than the roasting itself. Because of the smoke and chaff produced when roasting coffee it needs to be done outside, but I don’t have anywhere outside suitable for storing the gear, so the obvious solution was to build some sort of mobile arrangement. These photos show what I came up with (click on any of them to see larger versions).

The first photo shows my coffee roaster in storage mode, as it is when kept indoors. Built onto a box-moving trolley is a wooden platform holding the bread maker, a heat gun mounted on the centre column of a tripod, and the fold-down cooling platform (the toilet seat). Stored with this are the other necessary bits - cooling tray, power board, extension cable, multi-meter with temperature probe, stopwatch, oven glove, wooden spoon, fold up stool, and a sweat band (it can get hot when roasting). The only thing not housed on the trolley is the fan: that’s because it gets used elsewhere for other things.

Roasting in progress
2. Roasting in progress

The second photo is roasting mode, seen here inside my garage. Hot air from the heat gun blows onto the beans being agitated inside the bread maker, with the bean temperature being measured by a probe inserted into the side. Temperature is adjusted by moving the heat gun up and down. The fan reduces the stress on the heat gun element while also blowing away some of the chaff.

The third photo shows cooling mode. Once the beans are done, the fan is laid down on its back, a mesh cooling tray is placed on top of the fan, and the hot beans are poured onto the cooling tray. It only takes a minute for the air blowing upwards through the beans to cool them down completely. After the removal of the beans and a quick bit of unplugging and folding up, the contraption is ready to be wheeled back indoors until next time.

Beans being cooled
3. Beans being cooled

Why the toilet seat, you may ask? I needed some method of supporting the fan in its laying down position - something to keep it up off the ground to allow good airflow, with plenty of open space in the middle where the fan draws up the air. A toilet seat performs this function perfectly, without modification. It even came with its own built-in hinge so it could be folded up for storage … and being a guy, leaving the seat up comes naturally to me.

Apart from the bread maker (which I picked up second-hand from a pawn shop), I didn’t need to spend anything on this mobile coffee roaster. I already had the trolley, the bits of wood and other parts, and the toilet seat was been sitting around for at least 10 years waiting for another chance at life. It all supports my belief that nothing potentially useful should be thrown away in case it might be useful one day.


When Soup Goes Off

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Most of us have probably done it at some time … covered some leftover food and put it in the fridge for later, and then forgotten about it. Sometimes the result can be interesting.

A bowl of moldy soup
A little bit past the use-by date, maybe?

A few months ago I made a thick vegetable soup, of which an extra bowl was covered and stored in the bottom of the fridge for another time. A few days ago I rediscovered it, covered with mold - but not just any mold. I’m no fungus expert, but there appear to be five different types of mold on the soup, ranging from black, cream and grey to orange and green. The colours and variety of the growths fascinated me, so I couldn’t just get rid of the soup without first photographing it for posterity.

If I was a famous artist, I could probably proclaim this soup mold to be art, and exhibit it in a gallery. As I’m not, I’ll share my fungal art here on my blog (click on it to enlarge).


Microsoft Help In The Toilet

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Anyone who has used Microsoft Word will probably have come across the built-in assistant known as Clippy. That’s the animated paperclip which pops up and offers what is called context-sensitive help, such as “It looks like you’re writing a letter. Would you like to …”

clippy-poo.jpgWith computer applications popping up in places like telephones, refrigerators and car GPS units, it might only be a matter of time before computer screens start appearing in toilets (sponsored reading matter, perhaps?). My imagination ran away … what sort of online help would Microsoft offer to toilet users?

The image on the right is one possibility I came up with when I should have been doing something more important like studying. I don’t know where I made it - probably on one of the many image-generator websites around. I just re-discovered it while searching my hard drive for something else, and thought I’d share it. Considering how thoroughly computers are infiltrating our lives, it may not be as far fetched as it looks, which is a scary thought.


Flat Out Like A Lizard Drinking

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Recently I’ve been flat out like a lizard drinking. After having used this colloquial phrase a few times, I started wondering about its origins, and found these definition on the Urban Dictionary website:

Flat out like a lizard drinking
1. Verb/simile. To be working really hard, or so under the pump that you’ve found yourself dehydrated.
2. Adj. Simile. To be extremely busy to the point of running “flat out,” a play on words involving the image of a lizard that physically stretches itself thin to literally drink water from a pond etc.
3. To be, or have been, hard at work. Originating in Australia.

A lizard drinkingI have indeed been rather busy lately, which is why I haven’t updated this blog (or the rest of this website) for a long time. My readers may know I’ve been studying and working for some time now, which accounts for my flat-out-ness and reduction in spare time.

In April I reduced my studies to half of full time, and with a job also amounting to half of full time, I thought things would be more balanced. Not so! My assignments became more time consuming, which apparently is normal in the end stages of the course I’m studying (but they didn’t tell us that at the beginning). Then I acquired another job doing casual relief work in a number of libraries, with the amount of work so far exceeding my expectations. Between the two jobs I’m now working more than full time, while my home computer sits unemployed and neglected on most days.

It’s a good sort of busyness, though. With all the economic gloom we hear on the news, I feel blessed to have as much work as I can fit in. Also my two jobs are very different and provide balance and variety, while both being close to home and in my field of study.

I do hope to fit in some writing occasionally, because I find it therapeutic … but if I don’t it’s because I’m like a lizard drinking: flat out.


Lost: The Battle Of The Bra Fence

Monday, April 13, 2009

It may be a few years after the event, but I’ve finally learned that the Cardrona Bra Fence has been removed. Rules and political correctness have once again snuffed out something that dared to be different.

The Cardrona Bra Fence just prior to its removal
The fence back in the good old days … before the
fence-mounted brassiere was banned for our protection

The Cardrona Bra Fence was a section of farm fencing in rural New Zealand on which hundreds of womens’ bras had been hung. It began when four women each hung their bra on the fence as a new year celebration for the new millenium. In the succeding six years the bra population multiplied and it grew to be a unique tourist attraction, gaining worldwide attention (and frequent donations of underwear). I visited the quirky collection in August 2006 and blogged about it here, blissfully unaware that just two weeks after my visit the whole lot would be pulled down.

As you may imagine, the sight of hundreds of women’s undergarments hanging artistically from a roadside fence tended to polarise people. While an overwhelming majority viewed it positively, a few saw it as an eyesore, an embarrassment or a traffic hazard, and tried to have it removed. Some claimed it might offend Japanese students in Wanaka, 24km away.

After many unsuccessful legal challenges, and the burning of many bras (on the fence), it was found that the fence rested on public land. The Queenstown Lakes District council then stepped in and ordered the removal of the bras from the fence, declaring them to be an eyesore and traffic hazard. On September 9, 2006, the fence was stripped of over 1500 bras.

I toured the bra fence at its peak, and thought it was rather decorative. At the worst, it was no more unsightly than some of the other man-made structures in the region. Perhaps it could potentially have been a traffic hazard - maybe - but no more so than plenty of other roadside distractions which nobody seemed to be as concerned with. Oh well, at least the vocal minority no longer have to suffer the sight of a fence that didn’t look the same as every other fence.

The battle of the bra fence may have been lost, but I can take comfort in one thing. I was among the last privileged travellers to behold the spectacle of 1500 mammary support garments fluttering majestically in the breeze on a humble farmer’s fence.


The Joys Of Being A Working Student

Saturday, April 4, 2009

I’ve been a student now for nearly two years. At first I was studying full-time and able to focus on being a student, which wasn’t too bad. For the last five months, however, I’ve been doing three-quarters of a full-time study load while also working about three days per week, and I’ve not surprisingly been feeling a little bit stretched. Writing is therapeutic, so to cheer myself up I thought I’d write a list of some of the positives of an overloaded combination of work and study. Here it is:

  • It encourages good spending habits. Earning too much to receive a student allowance, but not earning enough to cover all expenses in the long term, is an excellent incentive to practise careful budgeting.
  • It improves appreciation of spare time. This is the principle of supply and demand in action - the less spare time there is, the more highly it is valued.
  • It makes life easier for indecisive people by limiting the decisions about how to spend after-hours time. That’s because, whatever the day or time, there is always some sort of homework that ought to be done!
  • It helps get chores done. When faced with a pile of unpleasant homework and study, mundane household chores which have been put off for a long time suddenly become more attractive in comparison, and may actually get done as a form of homework avoidance.
  • It can encourage a better outlook on employment. Full time work can be a chore, but the endless after-hours homework that comes with studying can inspire appreciation for a job which you can forget about when leaving work for the day.
  • It is a double blessing. Many people would like to study, but aren’t able, or would like to work, but can’t find a job … I get to do both! While doing both at the same time can be tiring, many are denied the opportunity to do either.

Now that I’ve avoided homework for however long it took me to write this, I really should get back to revising for an exam on Monday. On the other hand, my toilet needs cleaning …


My First Million (Visitors)

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The moment passed unnoticed, and I’m not sure exactly when it happened … but sometime near the start of this year this website received its one millionth visitor.

I only noticed this milestone when transferring website statistics into a spreadsheet, something I do only occasionally. Accurate numbers are missing for parts of this site’s ten year history, but the steadiness of visitor numbers means I can be fairly confident that the one million total was reached within a month or two either side of the start of 2009. Not hits, or page views, but unique visitors - actual humans visiting this site (repeat visits within each month are filtered out).

My mind boggles a little - this is just a non-commercial, hobby-related personal website which I’ve hardly ever promoted. I can credit the visitor traffic mostly to the page about my navel lint collection, which has been referred to by numerous other websites and media stories over the years. In fact, as of today, there are 2786 websites linking to my navel lint page, according to Google - a testament to the popularity of things considered weird. What encourages me more is knowing there are another 2100 websites out there linking to pages on my site other than the navel lint page.

If only earning the first million dollars was as easy as accumulating the first million website visitors … if it were so, I might have been reporting this via satellite from an Antarctic cruise ship!

Thank you for visiting.


Coffee Roasting Ups And Downs

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

In 2007 I blogged here about how I’d begun roasting my own coffee beans using a popcorn popper, and shortly after I reported on an improved method using a heat gun and bowl. Things have progressed a little, so I thought I’d do an update on the steps forwards, and backwards, and the lessons.

Ready to roast: raw beans in the bowl
Ready to roast using my current
setup: raw beans in the bowl

The setup was simple - a heat gun, mounted on a tripod, blowing super hot air (600°C) into a stainless steel bowl, with the beans being stirred by hand with a wooden spoon. Heating is adjusted by moving the heat gun towards or away from the beans (hence the tripod). It produced some great tasting beans, but with some drawbacks. One was the stirring by hand, which can feel a little tedious when done for 15 minutes at a time. Another was the way the bean temperature fluctuated in windy weather - the wideness and shallowness of the bowl left the beans susceptible to the cooling effect of wind gusts.

No problem, I thought. I built a motorised stirrer, and switched to a tall and narrow tin to shelter the beans more. Unfortunately it didn’t work. The tin shape might have reduced the influence of wind a little, but I couldn’t get the stirring to work properly. I experimented with different stirring speeds and paddle designs, but couldn’t get the motorised stirrer to mix the beans thoroughly enough. The result was unevenly roasted beans - some underdone, some almost charcoal, and few in between. Not nice!

So I went back to the wide open bowl and the wooden spoon, and came to appreciate just how well it worked. Stirring for 15 minutes once per week isn’t that hard really, and does allow for very thorough mixing. As for temperature fluctuations, I just took more care to avoid roasting in the wind.

I also tried being more scientific about temperature control. Instead of just observing the bean temperature readout, I set up a laptop and entered the numbers into a spreadsheet while roasting to produce a live chart of the temperature profile, which I could try to match with that of previous good roasts. This proved distracting, and more trouble than it was worth, so I went back to calculating the desired heating rates in my head.

After the roast: beans cooling
After the roast: beans cooling

One worthy improvement was the use of a fan (see photos). While roasting, the fan provides cool air for the heat gun intake, which prolongs the life of the element. It also blows away the chaff which the beans eject when they crack open. After roasting, the fan is laid on its back so that it blows upwards: this rapidly cools the beans when they are spread over a mesh screen above the fan.

It seems somehow ironic that, after trying to improve the roasting process with technology and a motor, returning to the low-tech simplicity of the heat gun, bowl and spoon has worked better. Apart from a basic temperature display (I need some measure of how fast it is rising), I roast coffee by sight, sound and smell, and the results keep getting better as I get to know each bean type’s characteristics. Equipment and gadgetry are appropriate for big commercial roasters, but human senses and experience are sometimes all the home hobbyist really needs.


The Cost Of A Healthy Meal

Saturday, February 21, 2009

“Healthy food costs too much” is a complaint I’ve heard many times on TV - usually on current affairs shows where people account for their over-indulgence in take-away and fast food. I’ve often thought the opposite was true, so after eating one of my favourite healthy dinners last night I thought I’d calculate the cost and see exactly how expensive it is, or isn’t.

The healthy dinner consisted of a selection of fresh vegetables … peeled, chopped, bathed in olive oil with a little garlic and ginger, then left in the oven to slowly roast for an hour. Sprinkled with a little salt and dried oregano, this substantial vege feast was not only bursting with goodness but also tasted great and filled me up. The smell was pretty good too. To drink with it, I had a chilled glass of water - filtered tapwater with a bit of lemon juice (from my own tree) which is refreshing and complemented the veges nicely. The cost of this drink was negligible; here is the cost breakdown of the meal:

A healthy roast vegetable dinner

0.65 sweet potato
0.70 butternut pumpkin
0.55 white gourmet potatoes
0.24 carrot
0.38 pickling onions
0.17 garlic, minced
0.14 ginger, minced
0.45 olive oil (extra virgin)
0.02 salt and dried oregano

This is cheap for a main course in Australia - I don’t know of any take-away fast food meal with drink which can be had for less than $3.30, or $4.30 if you add some yoghurt for dessert like I did. I haven’t got the time or inclination to do a thorough price survey, but I’d expect to pay two or three times that much, per person, for a typical burger combo meal, or fish & chips, chinese, take-away chicken, or pizza. Some good frozen or refrigerated dinners from supermarkets can be found for $4 to $6, which is probably the cheapest fast food option, but still not quite as cheap as a healthy dinner made at home.

But what about meat? I often eat fish or chicken, in which case I’d halve the amount of vegetables above and steam them in the microwave. The total cost would vary a lot, depending on what fish or chicken I used (I’ll take note of the costs in future), but would still be less than an equivalent take-away … and healthier!

I should point out that the ingredients I listed above were all top quality, fresh, and locally produced here in Western Australia. You could lower the cost even more by using lesser quality imported vegetables from supermarkets, although they don’t taste as good.

Next time I see someone on TV with a burger and fries, complaining that healthy food costs too much, I’ll feel justified in disagreeing. I suspect the only way that home-made healthy food costs more is if you measure the cost in terms of time, effort, and planning ahead, rather than money.

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