The Blog (archived)

All posts in chronological order, as originally published
Page 4

Extreme Survival - A Good Read

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Have you ever heard an amazing survival story, and wondered how some people are able to endure extreme environments? I have, and a book I’ve just read explains in absorbing detail how the human body can adapt to hostile conditions … and what goes wrong if it doesn’t.

The book is “Surviving the Extremes” by Dr Kenneth Kamler, an American surgeon, explorer and climber. This skill combination has led him to practise emergency medicine on expeditions to Mt Everest, the Amazon jungle, the depths of the ocean, and other places that must cause his family to worry about him.

book-survextreme.jpgIn the book he describes the threats to life found in tropical jungles, deserts, the ocean’s surface and its depths, high mountains, and space. Such delights as extreme cold, heat stroke, starvation, dehydration, pain, inadequate oxygen, zero gravity, and radiation.

Many captivating accounts of survival - and failure to survive - are mingled with the author’s own adventures. His experiences of trying to save the lives of nearly-dead climbers near the summit of Mt Everest in a severe storm are related vividly and with feeling. I almost felt like I was there, while inwardly feeling very glad I wasn’t.

What made this book a stand-out for me was the fascinating insights into how the human body adapts to accomodate threatening circumstances. Using his medical knowledge, the author descripes in gory but compelling detail the effects that something like extreme cold or lack of water has on its victim, and how the body tries to minimise the effects. He explains how a boy in the jungle can slash through his arm with a machete and not feel much pain, how Sherpas can hike through snow in bare feet without getting frostbite, and other feats best not tried at home.

This sort of thing interests me because of my love of cold and mountainous places. I’ve often noticed how exposure to cold leads to reduced circulation in the arms and legs, an automatic response which helps retain warmth in the essential bits (I measured this in my “lunch in the fridge” experiment, see blog post "Increase in body temperature while eating lunch in a refrigerator"). The body’s built-in ability to adjust to cold impressed me, but that was nothing compared to all the adaptations Kenneth Kamler explains in his book. My appreciation of how well designed our bodies are took a great leap.

In cases where some have survived while others in similar peril haven’t, Dr Kamler highlights both physical preparation and the will to live as vital factors. Interestingly, he admits that other factors may exist which science and medicine may never adequately explain. Faith is one factor he hints at.

Of the forty or so book I’ve read so far this year, Surviving the Extremes is one of the best. Fascinating and enjoyable to read, even if it did make me think twice about my desire to climb Mt Kilimanjaro.


A Better Ballot Paper

Thursday, November 8, 2007

ballot-alt2.jpgI’m sorry, I couldn’t help it. My postal voting forms arrived today, and I just had to do some scanning and make a digital “enhancement” to one of the ballot papers. The result appears here.

The ballot paper is for the impending Australian federal election. Aussies have become very cynical and weary of our politicians, and I suspect many voters would love to see the last box on a ballot paper labelled “None of the above”, as my modified version does. This would provide a legitimate way of expressing dissatisfaction with the candidates on offer; better than writing rude words and thereby invalidating the vote, as some do.

If a ballot paper like this were to be real, the last box could even get the most votes. Perhaps someday we’ll see a candidate change their legal name to “None of the above” and appear last on the list, preferably without being linked to any political party. If not victory, it would at least guarantee a head start.

Frivolity aside, being able to vote in democratic elections is a privilege denied to many, and not to be despised. Even if many politicians deserve our cynicism, they could be a lot worse (as they are in some countries). I’ll be making my vote count … even if it might be a little tempting to add another choice to the ballot paper.


In A Time Zone Of My Own

Monday, October 29, 2007

Australia’s summer time zones,
showing hours ahead of UT (GMT).
The unofficial red +8 zone only
applies to me and my home.

Is it possible for an individual to live according to standard time while everyone around him adopts daylight savings time? I’m not sure, but I’m going to find out.

Yesterday Western Australians put their clocks forward for the start of daylight saving. We don’t normally have it here in WA, but we are in the second year of a trial period before yet another referendum to see if daylight saving will be adopted permanently.

We’ve already had three trial periods followed by referendums, and have voted against daylight saving three times over three decades, but our politicians clearly don’t like the decisions of those they allegedly represent. Last year I blogged about it (see "Democracy in Western Australia?" for the full story).

If a majority of my fellow citizens had voted for daylight saving, I’d accept it and reluctantly conform. But they didn’t. I object to the undemocratic way the government is forcing the issue against the demonstrated wishes of its people, and I’m feeling a little recalcitrant.

Last year I adjusted my clocks (all 14 of them) but managed to remain in my standard-time routine. This year I’ve not changed any clocks at all. I’ve declared myself and my home “daylight saving free zones”, and continue to live according to Western Standard Time as far as possible.

Of course there willl need to be some adjustments where I interact with society around me. I’m a student, and my classes now start an hour earlier (by my watch). No problem - I won’t need to get up much earlier as I already allow spare time at the start of the day. The timetable changes caused by daylight saving will just rob me of that spare time in the coolest part of the day (making it daylight robbery, not daylight saving!). My life is relatively uncluttered by appointments, and I’m not currently working, so I don’t expect any great problems with being an hour behind everyone around me. Keeping the time that better suits me and the climate should offset any inconveniences.

How practical will it really be to operate in my own time zone? Will it make much difference to anything? I don’t know, but I’m giving it a go, and will blog about the outcome. It’s my own subtle protest against goverments who ask their citizens what they want then disregard their answers.

Update: After writing this, I saw a story in the West Australian newspaper (see “Protesters glad to be behind the times“) about a Murchison couple who are ignoring daylight saving, as they did last year too. It seems many others in rural WA are doing likewise, so I’m not alone.


The Hypocrisy Of Current Affairs TV

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

I normally prefer to write about more positive things, but feel compelled to indulge in a brief whinge after the latest display of hypocrisy by Channel Seven’s current affairs program, Today Tonight.

I felt irritated a couple of weeks back, when Today Tonight aired a story about half the contestants in the finals of Australian Idol being Christians. They made a big deal of this, as if there was something sinister or wrong about it, and alleged that the pastor of Hillsong Church had encouraged its members to vote for some of the Christian singers competing on the show. The allegation was unsubstantiated, and denied by the church, but the truth apparently wasn’t important to the story.

Bill Muehlenberg wrote a witty response in his blog (see Danger! Danger! They Are Taking Over!), highlighting the anti-Christian bigotry often shown by Today Tonight. He points out that in a recent census 64% of Australians identify themselves as Christian. Also, Christians sing a lot in church, increasing the likelihood of developing their talent. The fact that some of those doing well in a singing contest are Christians is therefore a perfectly logical outcome, not a scandal.

And even if a church did encourage its members to vote for certain entrants, they wouldn’t be alone. Clubs, social groups and even businesses do exactly that. Last year an Australian Idol contestant from Albury-Wodonga had the local pub raise money to pay for phone votes, but Today Tonight didn’t run a story on that. Even Today Tonight has been known to promote individual contestants, as they did with the Perth couple competing in “My Restaurant Rules” a few years ago. The couple won, thanks in part to the free promotion Today Tonight gave them.

no-tt.gifWhat pressed my button though was last night’s program. There was a story having a go at a group of Christians hoping to influence the approaching federal elections by expressing their opinions to politicians (how dare they use their democratic rights, like everyone else!). This was followed by another reference to churches “stacking votes” in the Australian Idol contest.

Immediately following this was a story about a Perth dancer doing well in the “Dancing With The Stars” TV show. Apart from being shameless cross-promotion of one of their own TV shows (which was to air later that evening, what a coincidence!), it stongly suggested that Perth viewers support (ie vote for) the celebrity paired up with the Perth dancer. So it’s okay for Today Tonight to solicit votes in talent contests, it’s okay for other groups to do it, but if they think a Christian group might be doing the same thing … it’s a scandal, worthy of a critical “news” story.

It is often said that churches are full of hypocrites, and they have their share. As a church member I can readily admit we’re not perfect. My observation, however, is that more hypocrisy can be seen outside churches than in them, and Today Tonight is a shining example (see this article for more details). They’ve lost one semi-regular viewer, and if Christians are anywhere near as numerous as the census suggests, they stand to lose a lot more.

Now that I’ve got this off my chest I can forgive Today Tonight’s hypocrisy and turn the other cheek … while turning to another channel.


Good Service From A Bank

Friday, October 19, 2007

You don’t often hear “good customer service” and “bank” mentioned in the same sentence. In Australia, banks are commonly viewed as greedy and heartless organisations which ruthlessly bleed their customers dry. Sometimes this sentiment is justified, and bank-bashing is popular. Today, however, I was pleasantly surprised to receive good service from my bank in spite of its public perception.

I was depositing a pile of coins, and only had to queue for about two minutes. Not content with just being prompt, the teller was observant enough to notice that my home loan interest rate seemed higher than she thought it could be. She asked if I’d like to talk to a lending officer to see if they could work out something better for me, and I agreed. Another very helpful and knowledgeable woman appeared within minutes, and she went to some lengths to understand my circumstances and see what the bank could do to make me better off.

Having previously compared banks and accounts, I’m familiar with assessing fine print, fees and charges, and am good enough with numbers to weigh up benefits with costs. That’s why I hadn’t already changed to a cheaper home loan - usually the savings are offset by disadvantages and higher costs in other areas, such as credit card and transaction accounts (these came fee-free as part of a package with my existing loan). The woman I saw today was able to sort out a combination of home loan and other accounts which really do work out cheaper for me. I felt she wasn’t merely doing a job; she appeared genuinely keen to do what was best for the customer.

Saving money obviously pleased me, but equally impressive was the way two bank employees took the time and effort to provide very good customer service … not what we are conditioned to expect from banks. Especially in a busy bank, on a friday.

It got me thinking about the negative image of banks, government departments, and other large organisations. Much dissatisfaction stems from procedures, policies and prices: things determined by management. Customer service problems often arise through lack of staff or training: something management is responsible for. The bulk of the employees, who do the work - the ones we deal with - are regular people trying to do as good a job as they can in their circumstances.

Today’s experience was a reminder not to let an organisation’s bad image prejudice our judgement of its staff. Good customer service does exist … yes, even in a bank!

(For the curious, the bank I refer to is the Dianella branch of BankWest)


Spring Delights

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Baby ducks at Lake MongerSpring has arrived, and my regular walks around Perth’s Lake Monger are less comfortable. There’s more sweating, the pollen in the air requires hay fever medication and eye drops (for me at least), and the flies have begun their annoying return. It’s not all bad though, as the lake at this time of year has some treats.

One delightful sight is all the freshly hatched baby birds that start popping up at this time of year. Yesterday I found the duck in the photo taking her new chicks for a swim, which they seemed to be enjoying. The pitter patter of other tiny webbed and clawed feet should arrive soon, including the fuzzy brown balls that grow into black swans. It’s hard to imagine anyone not finding them cute.

Lake Monger drying up
Lake Monger in March 2007 (left) and October 2007 (right)

Another pleasant sight is the healthy rise in water levels. Back in March the lake was drier than it had been for many years, with large areas of mud, algae, and exposed lakebed. A winter of near-average rainfall, consistent enough to maintain good runoff, has filled the lake again. The surrounds are green and lush, and there’s a feeling of abundance that was hard to imagine just six months ago.

I may not enjoy the walking conditions as much in spring, but I can appreciate the lushness and baby birdlife. As the young ducks grow up during the coming dry months I’m sure they too will be grateful for the extra water in the lake this summer.


Spring Madness

Friday, September 28, 2007

It’s that time of year again. Spring has sprung, and Perth’s bushwalkers will be dusting off their boots and venturing outdoors again. Multitudes will soon start hiking the Bibbulmun Track, and I’ll be scratching my head, wondering why.

I love hiking the Bibbulmun Track too, but for me winter is the obvious season to do it. The weather is cool enough to do some serious walking without frying or drowning in sweat. Campsite rainwater tanks abound with fresh clean water. Little water needs to be carried because it is so readily available near much of the track. Venomous snakes are nowhere to be seen, mosquitoes are minimal, and flies … what flies?

Lake Maringup, a pristine lake accessible only on foot using the Bibbulmun TrackWith the track also bare of humans, the shelters along the track are never full, so the tent can be left at home. There is room to spread out, never a queue for the pit toilets, and no competition for space at the picnic tables. Then there’s the refreshing peace and quiet. Many find that the solitude of winter raises their enjoyment of the natural environment to a higher level - there’s nothing like having an entire national park all to yourself.

Why then do most people avoid hiking until spring? It might make sense in a cold climate, but we don’t have a cold climate. People speak of spring’s warmth, but that only increases sweating and the need to carry more water. It rains less, but with the influx of walkers that leads to water tanks running low, and the water becoming less than fresh. Snakes - all of them venomous - become active, mosquitoes worsen, and flies return to drive walkers mad. Wildflowers flourish - pretty, but no fun for hay fever and allergy sufferers. Crowds on the track diminish the sense of wilderness, and it becomes necessary to carry a tent in case the shelters are full. Even if they’re not, competition for space - and use of the toilet - can detract from the experience.

As I put away my hiking boots (figuratively speaking) until next winter, people who put their boots away for the winter are getting them out. It’s a sort of changing of the guard, like the winter shift going off duty as the spring shift clocks on.

It doesn’t make much sense to me, but it suits me just fine. The spring crowds are happy to hike in the warm weather, and I’m happy to let them, enjoying peace and quiet in the cool comfort of winter. It reminds me just how different we all are, and how well this can work out.


Confessions Of A Coffee Snob

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

I’ve always enjoyed drinking good coffee, and trying to get the best from my espresso machine. However, I’ve recently climbed to new heights of coffee snobbery, becoming a signed up member of the CoffeeSnobs website, and started roasting my own beans at home.

A beginners home coffee roasting setupRoasting green (raw) coffee beans is a lot easier and more accessible than you might think. The photo here shows the simplicity of my beginners setup. Sitting on a crate is the main tool - a popcorn popper - with the addition of a soup tin chimney so the beans don’t pop out. Near it are a metal sieve and colander (for cooling the beans after roasting), oven gloves (the popper gets very hot!), a clock for timing the process, and some green beans in plastic bags. The crate is not necessary, but is handy for ventilation under the popper and for storing the stuff in. The only part I didn’t already have was the popper - costing only $20, this wasn’t much of a barrier to home roasting.

I won’t go into detail about the process, which is described very well in “A beginners guide to roasting using a popper” on the CoffeeSnobs website. Generally less than 8 minutes plus cooling time is all it takes, and a wonderful aroma wafts far and wide. A lot of chaff and some smoke also wafts far and wide, which is why it’s best done outdoors.

Easy, right? Yes … well sort-of. Roasting beans is easy, but getting them to taste their best takes practice. The optimum degree of roasting varies with the individual popper, the ambient temperature and humidity, the amount of beans used, and personal taste. Different beans will also prefer different roasts, varying according to country, plantation, and crop. You’ll need to try different roast times, compare results, and make notes for future reference - lots of trial and error. Yes, there will be errors! But with green beans costing as little as one third or one quarter of the price of commercially roasted coffee, a lot of money can be saved, even with a few mistakes.

Straight from the roaster!For me this chance to experiment is part of the fun. It’s only a matter of time before I add a thermometer to the setup, and some method of slowing the speed of the roast to improve flavour development - all of which appeals to those like me who have scientific curiosity and do-it-yourself urges.

Why do it, other than the satisfaction? Because using freshly roasted beans at their flavour peak, ground using a decent grinder just before brewing, has the potential to make truly fantastic coffee … better than that found in most cafes, if all variables come together. The quest to reach this potential is why many coffee snobs roast beans at home. Even when the coffee isn’t as good as it could be, it’s still pretty good, and cheaper. I can think of worse things to be than a coffee snob!


Blogging Drops Off As I Begin Studying

Sunday, August 19, 2007

My regular readers (hello to both of you!) may have noticed I haven’t written much lately. But I can explain.

I’ve recently put career number two (information technology) behind me and embarked upon full time study for career number three (library and information services). The course is not hard yet, but switching back to full time study mode has not come easily. Absorbing new learning and juggling seven subjects at once - with homework - may have come naturally when I was young, but as a mature-age home-owner stuck for many years in the routine of work, some mental readjustment has been needed. And it’s not just my mind that’s being stretched - I’ve upped my exercise level and joined a gym too.

Consequently my internet habits, which were already modest, have been taking a back seat. I will continue blogging because I still like to write, but my regularity will probably remain low and inconsistent for a while, until being a student becomes as routine as my previous life.


So Glad I Don’t Own A Luxury Yacht

Monday, July 23, 2007

The toys of the rich, such as flashy cars and yachts, are normally thought of as being good and desirable; something worth aspiring to. However owning a luxury yacht may not always be a good thing … and I’m not just saying that because I can’t afford one!

Cottesloe Beach on a stormy dayI was prompted to think this way by some of the weather we’ve been having lately here in Perth (the photo here shows Cottesloe Beach on a day not suitable for swimming). Strong cold fronts, winter gales and rough seas have produced the sort of conditions that occasionally result in boats breaking loose from their moorings and being damaged. Although I haven’t noticed any recent news reports of storm damage to yachts, it does happen, and if I had a yacht moored out in the open I think I’d be a little concerned about it in squally weather.

Then there’s the cost. According to a West Australian newspaper story (here) boat ownership in Perth has risen massively but the number of parking places for boats hasn’t, and with demand outstripping supply the fees for yacht moorings have skyrocketed. This must surely be a concern for people who bought a boat with an inheritance or a lotto win, but don’t have an ongoing high income.

When I woke in the night recently to the sound of destructive winds and heavy rain, for some unknown reason I visualised luxury yachts being tossed about and breaking loose from their moorings. At that moment I was genuinely glad that I didn’t have a yacht of my own to be worried about.

It made me think of a Bible verse found in Ecclesiastes 5:12 - “The sleep of a laborer is sweet, whether he eats little or much, but the abundance of a rich man permits him no sleep“. With that thought I rolled over and fell asleep.


One Thing At A Time, Please

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

You may have heard it said that men can only do one thing at a time, whereas women can do several things at once (if you have, it was probably a woman that said it). Even if it’s true that doesn’t mean men are inferior. On the contrary, an article in the Wall Street Journal executive career site suggests that doing one thing at a time is more efficient.

The article, titled “Juggling Too Many Tasks Could Make You Stupid“, reports on scientific research which shows that doing several things at once - multitasking - can be less efficient than doing one task at a time, and comes with a cost. Here are some pertinent quotes from the article:

  • “People who multitask are actually less efficient than those who focus on one project at a time, according to a study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology. The time lost switching among tasks increases with the complexity of the tasks, according to the research by Dr Meyer and others.”
  • “Managing two mental tasks at once reduces the brainpower available for either task, even when these activities engage two different parts of the brain.”
  • “If the tasks require the same parts of the brain, such as two assignments that both draw on language skills, it’s going to be extremely hard to succeed efficiently”
  • “Chronic high-stress multitasking also is linked to short-term memory loss”
  • “It doesn’t mean you can’t do several things at the same time,” says Dr Just, co-director of the university’s Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging. “But we’re kidding ourselves if we think we can do so without cost.”

I’ve often felt that I can work more effectively by doing one thing at a time, and doing it well, rather than trying to do several things at once and doing none of them well. Finding research that supports my belief is gratifying. Now if I hear a woman complaining that “men can only do one thing at a time” I’ll view it as a compliment … a sign that we men are just working more efficiently!


Goodbye Toenail

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The human body is full of surprises. Just a month ago I had no idea that you could lose a toenail, other than by being tortured. Then one of my own nails decided to drop off, opening my eyes further to the wonders of our bodies’ capacity for self-repair.

It all started with a 48km walk. My boots were probably a little too snug to begin with, but with the addition of an extra sock layer and feet that are enlarging slightly with age, the result was squashing of the little pinky toe on my biggest foot. Once the pain and blistering eased, I noticed the toenail had come loose, attached only at the rear end.

A quick check in Google revealed that toenails loosening and falling out are not uncommon among serious runners and hikers. In fact many comments in runners forums suggest you’re not a real runner (or hiker) until you’ve lost a nail or two, as if it were an initiation into a higher level. I read of one person who, having lost all his toenails, not only kept them as souvenirs but had a necklace made out of them … with extra toenails donated by others! Despite my tendency to collect things like navel lint and beard clippings, I draw the line at toenails.

Fortunately, when an injured toenail detaches, a new one grows in its place within six months with minimal discomfort. I know its a trivial complaint compared to the medical traumas that so many others suffer, but I still find it a little unsettling that something thats always been there can just loosen and drop off. Unsettling, yet the body’s ability to eject and regrow a damaged part strangely fascinates me. We are well-designed creatures.

Being squeamish, I’ve just had my doomed toenail removed properly by a podiatrist. As I watch it regrow over the coming months I’ll console myself with the thought that my credibility as a hiker may have increased!

If you’re really keen, that toenail necklace can be seen by clicking here.


More Amazing Cats

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Buffy, no relation to any of the cats in this postHere are some more examples of cats who have shown that they are capable of more than we usually expect.

Sky News reports of a two-year-old male cat called Kuzya who crossed Siberia by himself. Kuzya was on a summer holiday in Yakutsk, eastern Russia, when he ran away from his family. After weeks of searching, the Efremov family returned home to Olenyok without him. Three months later, Kuzya arrived tired and thin at his family’s house, having trekked 1300 miles across Siberian woods, hills, rivers and lakes. My earlier post on "Amazing Stories of Cats Coming Back" has more examples.

In Columbus, Ohio, according to USA Today, Gary Rosheisen fell out of his wheelchair and was unable to get up or call for help. Police received a 911 emergency call from Rosheisen’s phone, but with nobody on the line. After calling back and getting no answer they went to the apartment to check things out. Gary Rosheisen was found on his bedroom floor, but in the lounge room police found his cat Tommy lying next to the phone. Their only plausible explanation is that Tommy the amazing cat dialled 911, probably using the speed dial button next to the speakerphone button. This didn’t surprise his owner, who’d once attempted to train Tommy to dial 911.

Many people still think animals operate purely by conditioning and are incapable of conscious thought. That Ohio man and Russian family, and anyone else who has owned cats, would know there is more to our furry friends than meets the eye!

Links: Cat Crosses Siberia from Sky News and Cat Called 911 To Help Ill Owner from USA Today

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