Cycling

This rambling monologue is a week late, but better late than never. So, last weekend I went riding in Melbourne with Kate and Claire. It was my first ride since arriving here about a dozen years ago. And it was great, but it was one of the worst rides I’ve ever had.

I might not have ridden in Melbourne before, but I assume that bikes here are meant to work pretty much like bikes anywhere else. I hired my bike from Hire a Bike (on the river near Fed Square, phone number 03 9654 2762). Initially it seemed okay, but a few minutes into the ride I found that the seat was loose and would rock backward and forward as my weight shifted. Then, when I was over an hour into the ride, the handlebars loosened and rotated. It made it impossible to ride it, but luckily we were stopping at around that point anyway.

We had ridden along the Yarra River to the Collingwood Childrens Farm and had lunch at Lentil As Anything cafe in the nearby Abbotsford Convent. The cafe wouldn’t lend me a spanner (I’m not sure they even knew what one was), but the adjacent bakery was kind enough to lend me one and I fixed the seat and handlebars. I bought some nougat and florentines from them in return, and because they were very tasty.

It was a beautiful day, and as we rode along the river, I saw Melbourne from a perspective that I’d never seen before. Cycling on the trail, you can almost feel that you’re in a different city. There are places where the river is peaceful, only a few, old houses can be seen, and the green banks hide the suburbs around. You won’t see these places if you drive in Melbourne, or travel by train, but only by being on that bike path.

It reminds me a little of when we were in London, and your mode of travel set your perspective on the city. If you travelled above ground, you would think the city was laid out completely diferently than if you just travelled on the Underground. And just before we left, we met someone who lived and travelled on London’s canal system. It would’ve been good to try that as well – I think it would’ve been pretty amazing.

Anyway, it was pretty amazing to cycle along the Yarra. Although after that loose seat, I had a really sore butt.

The Failure of Dreams

Yesterday was ANZAC Day, and it is a day that looms large in the Australian psyche. Why is it that we always retell the story of Gallipoli, an overwhelming Australian defeat in the first World War? In some way, while failure is pathetic, it is somehow heroic. And the recent book club selection had a similar message.

I Was Bono’s Doppelganger

A cathartic tale of musical dreams crushed.

This is Neil McCormick’s autobiography. We learn that from a young age, his life’s ambition is to be lead singer in a world renowned pop group. Although we all have crazy ideas, and our friends set us straight, McCormick has the misfortune to be school-friends with Bono. Yes, that Bono.

Since you’ve never heard of McCormick, it’s not giving anything away to say that he never became world famous. However, the story of his musical disasters set against the rising star of Bono and U2 is quite incredible. Even if you’re not a U2 fan, this is a very engaging book that quickly sucks you in with intimate and honest details of the band before its mega-success, behind-the-scenes in the record (as it was at the time) business, and the unbelievable bad luck that seems to follow McCormick.

I don’t normally make a habit of reading autobiographies, but this one had a special magic that attracted me to it. McCormick is not some star-struck U2 fan, but apparently a genuine friend of Bono’s, who writes the Forward in the book. His take on the rewards, ravages and addiction of fame is particularly well-informed, and left me with hope, despite his own failure.

My rating: 4.5 stars
****1/2

The websites listed at the back of the book have ceased working, but if you read the book, you really should listen to some of his music. It will allow you to judge for yourself if he had the stuff to make it really big. The following links are from the Internet Archive:

You may also want to check out his CD on Amazon.co.uk as it sounds like it would make a fine companion piece to the book. Ghost Who Walks is the name that he releases his music under, but the picture there is definitely him.

Mrs Fields, eat your dough out

Classic Toll House Chocolate Chip CookiesI’ve been munching on these for the last week, so I might as well share the pain. I’ve had that extra incentive to go to the gym, too. But it must be healthy – it’s got nuts in it!

When Kate came back from the States a couple of months back, she brought me a souvenir: an American-style biscuit (err.. cookie) cookbook called “Old Fashioned Cookies”. I’ve made a couple of things out of it now, and they’ve been fab. This recipe was just like those Mrs Fields cookies, and the book calls them “Classic Toll House Chocolate Chip Cookies”.

Ingredients

2 1/4 cups plain flour
1 teaspoon baking soda (not powder)
1 teaspoon of salt
250g softened butter
1/4 cup white sugar
3/4 cup (firmly packed) brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 eggs
375g pack of dark chocolate buds (e.g. Nestle melts)
1 cup chopped walnuts

Method

Preheat oven to 190 celcius.

In a large bowl, mix together the butter, white sugar, brown sugar and vanilla until combined. Add eggs one at a time and stir them in. Sift the flour, baking soda and salt into the mixture and stir through.

Coarsely chop the chocolate buds and the nuts (if necessary). Mix into the dough.

Make balls of dough approximately one rounded tablespoon in size, and place on a tray lined with baking paper.

Cook for 9 minutes. Then remove and allow to cool slightly and set before moving them to a cooling rack.

Best eaten when still slightly warm, although should keep for several days after if stored in an airtight container.

The above is the recipe that I followed, although if I made them again, I would use more nuts (perhaps 1 1/2 cups) and slightly less baking soda (perhaps 3/4 teaspoon).

Easter French-toast Recipe

Well, Easter’s coming up this weekend, and everyone will be eating chocolate. But, before then is Good Friday – the day of the Hot Cross Bun. Once you’ve eaten your fill (and then some) of the buns, and a couple of days have past, the buns will be starting to go stale. Instead of throwing them out, recycle them in this recipe, as it will be many months (at least 8) before you see them on the supermarket shelves again. And, it’s a fantastic way to recover from too much chocolate (it’s healthy, it’s got fruit in it!)

Ingredients

3 or 4 slightly stale Hot Cross Buns
1 egg
1/2 cup of milk
Butter
Small amount of icing sugar (for decoration)
Maple syrup (for decoration)

Method

Slice the buns in half, so you have a “crossed” half and a plain half. Set aside for a second. Beat the egg and milk together until it’s fluffy and well-mixed. Heat a frypan on the stove, and start to melt the butter in it.

Place one of the sliced buns into the mixture. Wait no more than a minute, flip the halves over so that the other side soaks for a little. After it, too, has soaked a little, place the pieces into the frypan. Cook one side, flip, then cook the other. It doesn’t take very long.

Remove the french-toasted bun pieces and put on a plate. Dust with icing sugar and lightly drizzle with maple syrup. Serve!

Repeat the soaking-frying-dusting for each of the buns until you’re full (again) of bun, or have run out, and will need to wait until next Easter (or January, whatever comes first).

The BOM gets it wrong

Well, we all know that they get it wrong, but that’s not surprising since it’s a tricky job to predict the future. However, since they don’t ever tell us how accurate they are, we never knew exactly how wrong they were. Until now.

Average of differences between temperature forecasts and observations (Melbourne, Sydney and Perth)

The chart above is the result of some analysis on the data I collected over a month (between 25th February and 25th March 2007) for the cities of Melbourne, Sydney and Perth. The first thing you’ll notice is that the 7-Day forecasts are not as accurate as the 1-Day (i.e. tomorrow) forecasts, and that as the forecasts head off into the future, they get less accurate. This is as you’d expect.

Other things to notice are that (i) Maximum temperature forecasts are generally less accurate than Minimum temperatures, (ii) The Melbourne Maximum temperatures are the least accurate, while Sydney Minimum temperatures are the most accurate, and (iii) none of the curves are heading towards zero, i.e. the forecasts for the following day are still a surprise.

Since the data is collected over the course of only one month, it’s hard to say if this sample is representative of all Bureau of Meteorology forecasting, but at least we now have some idea of their accuracy. The rule of thumb seems to be that the next day forecast will be out by on average 1.5 degrees, and the 4-day forecast will be out by on average at least 2 degrees. This is better than I thought it was going to be, to be honest.

I’ll probably continue to crunch the numbers and see if anything interesting comes out, but I think I’ve won my bet.

Hints for hinges

We’ve had fun over the last couple of weekends putting together IKEA furniture. It was our first wrestle (although probably not the last) with assembling their flatpacks, and easier than I feared. Although, I now have to agree with a friend who pointed out that IKEA is a conspiracy against single people – it would be very hard to put together if there was no one to help hold things. On second thoughts, it’s more of a conspiracy against friendless, orphaned, single people. See, we all knew IKEA couldn’t be as squeaky clean as they tell us.

Anyway, there was a point in assembling one of the pieces that the instructions failed us. In case anyone else has the same problem, hopefully a web search has sent you here and all will be solved. We had a problem with the IKEA hinges. They are very good hinges (actually produced by a company called Blum), but we had a problem attaching the two parts of the hinges. But only on one piece – the Effektiv storage cabinet. Different hinges are used on different items, and the Effektiv hinge is on the left, while the Pax hinge is on the right.

Effektiv IKEA/Blum hinge Pax IKEA/Blum hinge

The hinges look very similar, but require slightly different approaches to attach. The Pax hinge (on the right) snaps on by clipping the clasp piece on the door onto the end of the cabinet piece nearest to the edge, then pressing the the hinge until it clicks at the back. The Effektiv hinge (on the left) is similar, but can fall off after you’ve done the above, unless you also tap the hinge with a mallet. This is all that’s required in order to fix the hinge.

I hope no-one else gets stuck like we did…

Forecasting Conspiracy?

Weather Station, MelbourneOn the weekend, I (perhaps impulsively) agreed to a bet with a friend who claimed that Melbourne’s weather forecasts are accurate, while I suggested that they were slightly better than totally random. I am to record the 7-day forecasts for the next month and see how accurate the 4-day forecast is for Melbourne (compared with say, Sydney or Perth).

Since the Bureau of Meteorology does not publish their historical forecasts on their website, or indicate their forecasts’s probabilities, I think they must be embarassed by how imperfect their art is (at least when it comes to Melbourne). In a month’s time, we’ll know if that’s true, or if there’s a more likely explanation…

Back from India

Sitting on the Cancer sundial in JaipurAlthough Kate’s written a great summary over on the travel blog, I just wanted to mention that I’m back from India. It’s full of amazing sights, sounds, and smells. And, it was incredible to be a small part of AD’s wedding over there.

The only negative was that I picked up a bug over there and fell sick the day after we got back. On one of the internal flights, I sat next to a guy who coughed on me for a couple of hours, so it’s no surprise really that I caught it. It’s just a bit mundane that it wasn’t the water, the food, or the animals, and it’s the sort of thing I could have picked up on a flight to Sydney. Anyway, all’s well now!

Queens of France and England

Why are we so interested in royals and Royalty? Is it their power, prestige or inbreeding? Certainly they live in a different world from the rest of us, and a couple of recent films make this point quite well.

The Queen

A watchable new take on the death of Diana.

This fictionalised biopic shows the early weeks of Tony Blair’s government in the U.K. and the development of his relationship with Queen Elizabeth II in the context of the death of Lady Di. The events of this film date back to 1997, so we’re talking almost 10 years ago now, but the impact still resonates today.

There are still unresolved conspiracy theories around Diana Spencer’s death. Blair is still in power and his government has led significant changes in the U.K. and on the world stage. The health of the monarchy in the U.K. continues to be debated. All of this stretches back to the material in this film, that weaves together fact and fiction seamlessly. We can really believe in this version of the characters.

The film also presents the massive contrast between the worlds of the U.K. Prime Minister and the U.K. Head of State. However, this is done with balance and a respectful touch. Both royalists and republicans will find something to enjoy in this.

I was surpised to find myself feeling considerable sympathy for Queen Elizabeth by the end of it all. Credit for this has to go in large part to Helen Mirren who carries the title role admirably.

My rating: 3.5 stars
***1/2

Marie Antoinette

Cinematic but slow.

Sofia Coppola casts Kirsten Dunst as the last Queen of France before the revolution. No, really. However, it’s quite clever, and together with a modern soundtrack lifts the historical Marie Antoinette character out of mythology (“let them eat cake!”) into a place where we can relate and almost empathise with her. This is the principle achievement in this period drama filmed entirely on location in France.

Coppola has based the movie on a book, but it could have been a picture book. There is little dialogue, but an emphasis on stunning visuals. Initially, I found this helpful to maintain the same sense of wonder than Marie Antoinette was clearly feeling at the same time. But as the film wore on, this feeling wore out. It all became rather dull.

Lost in Translation, Coppola’s previous film, has a similar feel, but it wasn’t as sparse and not as long. Marie Antoinette runs for two hours, and I was fidgeting a bit by the end. I think I would’ve preferred to flick through a coffee table book with photos of Versailles, clothing, shoes and food, rather than sit through a showing of the same images at the chosen pace.

My rating: 2.0 stars
**

Benno at CES

A friend of mine, Benno, is in Las Vegas at the CES conference this week. He works for Bluebox Devices and they’re launching their new media gizmo this week. After all the years of effort he’s put into it, it must be great to be there at CES showing and telling everyone about it.

Ron, David and Benno at CESHere’s a picture showing how excited they all are.

Well, maybe they are just tired. It’s from Graeme Thickins’ blog, where he covered several of the Australian contingent that’s over there at the moment.

Good luck guys, and hope you make lots of deals!