Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Battle for the Shed

I'm not above resorting to chemical warfare to protect my property and ensure my personal security.  Especially when my enemy has way more legs than I do.

Basic food cooked simply.
Pancakes for breakfast.
The Shed is a place I go to get out of the press of a busy city.  You may not think of Perth as any more hectic than your typical coma, but I still like to get away from the traffic, noise and crowds, such as they are.  Plus, the house I live in is too small to have any kind of workshop or space for my hobbies.  It is also so close to the neighbors that I can hear their phone conversations and smell their cigarette smoke.  Probably the most revolting stench in the world.

Every week or so, particularly when the neighbors have a loud party, I get out of town and head up to the Shed to re-charge, re-focus, de-stress, look for hope and meaning, and generally take stock of things.  The Shed provides me with the solitude, silence and fresh air that I need for that.  It also gives me the chance to do things that I really enjoy, to work on projects, write, pursue hobbies, read, or just lie in my hammock in harmony with nature, peacefully thinking of ways to finally get the bastards.

Chili with cornbread and a cold
Ginger Beer.

At the Shed I eat basic food cooked simply.  Baked potato roasted in the coals of a fire, a porterhouse grilled in a cast iron skillet with an onion which I slice up using a Swiss Army knife (a surprisingly useful item). Once, however, I prepared an entire Thanksgiving feast in the Shed for my son and myself, which he didn't touch.  Apparently he "doesn't like" turkey.  On winter evenings I light a fire in the stove; at sundown in the summer I get out the telescope (a 7" Maksutov on an equatorial mount) for some astonishing southern hemisphere stargazing.

There's always work to be done too: things to build, firewood to cut, trees to plant and irrigate, rain gutters to keep clear, tools to sharpen or repair, and improvements to make.  On one occasion, however, the Shed offered me something I wasn't expecting.

Protracted Warfare with an Entrenched Enemy.

The Australian Redback
(shown not fully mature)
It was one of those Friday afternoons.  I arrived at the Shed full of care and eager to begin ignoring my burdens for a day or two.  I unlocked the gate, drove the Toyota light truck around to the back and parked it.  I grabbed my overnight bag and the weekend's groceries out of the truck, unlocked the door to the shed, and stepping inside, put my face straight into a spider's web.

Not just any old spider, either: a RedbackLatrodectus hasselti, highly venomous cousin of the American Black Widow, Latrodectus hesperus.  I have heard that some scientists were claiming these to be genetically subspecies of the same species, but I can't find a reference to that factoid today.  The markings are different, and the Redback's black body is more of a velvet matt compared to the Black Widow's high gloss black.  But if you happen look underneath a Redback (as one does), you can see the same red hourglass that is the Black Widow's trademark.  I also am convinced that the Black Widow's silk is at least twice as strong as a Redback's.  Much of my suburban Arizona youth was spent battling the dreaded Black Widow, whose silk is pound for pound stronger than steel and makes a distinctive crackle when a stick is dragged, with some considerable effort, through a web.

Redbacks also have
the hourglass marking.
After doing the creepy-spider-creep-out dance for the requisite five minutes outside the Shed, I promptly acquired a sturdy stick (which, according to Douglas Adams is the second most useful thing ever).  I re-entered the shed by knocking down the web covering the doorway with my stick.  Then another web after that, and another.  I looked around me and discovered I was in way over my head.  There were Redback webs covering every surface of every item in the shed and spanning every space available. Every web had at least a tiny pale hatchling Redback spider on it, though quite enough of them were considerably larger and more mature.  I had walked into the middle of an infestation.  Not just an invasion, a total Redback occupation of the Shed.

My main weapon against Redbacks is a spray bottle of the kind that you put a mixture in and pump up.  I also keep a small bottle of concentrated pyrethrin-based insecticide in the Shed.  On this occasion it would do me no good, however.  I looked wistfully at my spray bottle and at the very large Redback that had made her web right on top of it.  I waved my stick thorough its web, hoping to retrieve my one effective weapon, but that caused the Redback to retreat INSIDE the handle of the sprayer, rendering the sprayer completely inaccessible to me.

Fighting my way back out of the shed, I regrouped at the truck.  I had been beaten.  Defeated, for the moment.  I needed reinforcements.  I needed The Warrior to take charge.  But he'd better hurry: in a few minutes the only shop in the tiny village of Bindoon would close for the night.

In a moment, I was back in the battered old Toyota, my foot planted hard on the accelerator, barreling down the road racing around corners like my hair was on fire.  That is to say, driving just as I normally do whenever I get behind the wheel. I made it to the shop moments before it closed.  I purchased the town's last two cans of insect spray, and pointed the truck once again towards the Shed and its hundreds of eight-legged interlopers.

My plan was simple.  Taking a page from Lord Nelson of the Royal Navy, who said, "Never mind maneuvers, always go straight at 'em," I took a stick in one hand, a can of spray in the other and tucked the second can into my belt.  Entering the Shed, I sprayed everything within reach, then knocked away webs to push further inside the shed.  The spray's neurotoxins work quickly, but a writhing Redback is still capable of planting a deadly bite before it permanently points its legs to the sky.  I had to watch that my victims were not climbing up my boots or dropping onto me from overhead webs.

Finally, in the fading light of the afternoon and with both cans of spray totally exhausted, I made it back out of the Shed with my newly liberated pump-sprayer and the bottle of pyrethrin mix.  Using a small stick I dislodged the still-twitching corpse of a Redback from the sprayer handle, filled the 1-litre tank with an extra-strength mix of insecticide, and went back around the entire shed, drenching every object and surface in bug killer, including the walls, ceiling and floor.  This mix dries on the surface and kills anything that walks on it for up to 3 months. It gets scorpions, centipedes, spiders, ants, flies, tics, roaches, anything with more legs than are strictly necessary, in my opinion, for locomotory propulsion.

I resolved that day to maintain the Shed's defenses more diligently in the future.  A Redback can have a thousand offspring at one go, and to avoid a repetition of this near-disaster I would not leave the Shed vulnerable to an infestation again.  Every visit to the Shed begins with a thorough scan for those telltale lopsided-pyramidal webs that always mean Redback, and every three months the entire shed gets baptized anew in pyrethrin.

Of course total security is never more than an illusion.  I don't want to kill every scorpion, Redback, or centipede on my entire block of land; only the ones that get ideas about turning my Shed into some kind of . . . spidery . . . place where spiders are.

I think I need a break.  Time to head for the Shed, put my feet up for a while.

Monday, August 29, 2011

How I Survived

Life can be rough.  Most people get knocked around a fair bit by the time they reach middle age, and the fun doesn't necessarily end there.  In spite of this, many people also figure out a way to get through it and still  experience joy in life.

Thomas Jefferson, whose contributions I otherwise admire greatly, expressed a belief that the great goal of Life was the minimization of pain.  Well, Tom, you couldn't have been more wrong about something.  Because the only way to minimize pain is to end it all. Right now.  Everyone.  And that's not going to happen.

Numbat.  Now found only in the
shrinking southwest forests of
Western Australia.
Jefferson, at that point in his own journey, perhaps didn't realize this secret, that life is really a classroom, with pain one of many wise and valuable teachers.  Perhaps even the wisest and most valuable of all.  Because when we discover, as Mr. Spock said so many years ago in the future, that pain is merely an artifact of the Mind, and the Mind can be changed, then we might  discover that every evil in life can be transformed into a blessing.  We're not just looking for the tiny silver lining on a large dark cloud, we're hijacking the entire cloud and using it for a grander purpose.  Every nefarious scheme of the Devil is frustrated when we commandeer it for something good.

I often reflect on the story of Joseph.  His older brothers took his fine coat, beat him up, threw him into a nasty old pit, and sold him into slavery.  His life was officially over.  He now had nothing.   If that isn't pain, I don't want to know what is.

Years later, the tables were turned.  Joseph was the de facto ruler of Egypt, and his brothers' lives were entirely in his hands.  They grovelled and begged for forgiveness for what they done.  His answer?  I paraphrase:  "What's to forgive? Brothers, I should thank you, because that little holiday you sent me on was the greatest thing that ever happened to me!"

Stromatolites.  A primitive
microorganism now found only
in Australia, responsible for
all life on earth and by far the
most fun you can have
watching rocks grow.
When my former life came to an end while I was living overseas in Australia, I had to make a choice whether to stay, or buy a one-way ticket back to Arizona.  I chose to stay in Australia and remain as much as possible a part of my son's life.    I became an Australian citizen and started looking for ways to make the best of things.

That lasted for about three weeks.  I quickly gave up trying to make the best of things, and decided instead that if life was worth living, I would have to do more than that.  Clinging to survival is fine for things like Stromatolites and Numbats, but I think I have a bit more potential than that.  I am a reflection of the Divine, the Creator of the Universe.  Gods aren't the sort to "just get by."

"Hi, Wodan! How's things?"  "Well, Snorri, with a bit of luck, I might just make it through the rest of this week.  We'll see..."    No, that wouldn't happen.  You see, Gods have a much broader and grander vision that extends beyond 5 PM Friday.  And we have inherited that same capacity for vision as part of the divine birthright.

Wodan, Master of the Wild Hunt,
Wanderer, and famous god.
To move beyond "just getting by," there were a few things I needed to get a better handle on.  Fortunately, every self-help book, personal development manual or seminar, volume of sacred scripture, religious teaching, and all the recorded wisdom of the ages seemed to be saying the same simple things:  You are divine.  Life is growth.  Everything is now.  Things happen for a reason.  Enlightenment is the End of Suffering.  You create your life.  Pain is only in the meaning we assign to an event.  You have a choice.

The more ways I heard this, the more sense it began to make.  The pieces started to fit together. Like Joseph, I can see there could be a day when I will thank God for every "bad" thing that ever happened to me.  I have already begun to view a number of events in this way, which at the time were extremely painful.

Naturally, your journey of discovery will be different from mine.  You probably didn't stumble upon this blog for any higher purpose in your life.  Quite likely it will not plant a seed of inquisitiveness in you that leads to new horizons in your life.

I would, however, like to pay homage to just a few of the books that have helped change my life.  Of course, mere pages in a book were of no use to me until I started trying, at least, to put the ideas into practice.  And all these books can ever do is remind you of things you already know.  Just knowing obviously isn't enough.

Yet the act of reading and studying is an act nonetheless. Thoughts and actions turn into big things, like the Shed for instance.

The Power of Now.  Calm down, take things one day at a time, and don't allow your past to rule you.

Getting Things Done.  Calm down, take things one at a time, and don't allow your future to overwhelm you.

Getting Past No.   Calm down, never attack, never defend.  How to negotiate with difficult people in your life.

Learned Optimism.  Innoculate yourself today against that common cold of mental health: ordinary Depression.

Iron John.  Men: learn to understand on a deeper plane who and what you are.  Women: this book will probably not make any sense to you at all.  Don't.

Manhood.  Women:  this is your instruction manual. Steve Biddulph is one of my favorite Australians.

Raising Boys.  Parents: this is your instruction manual. Also by Steve Biddulph.

As a Man Thinketh.  The 19th century spiritual and personal development classic by James Allen, still relevant today.  Click to download your free pdf copy (314 kB).

The Richest Man in Babylon.  George Clason's classic allegory of financial self-reliance, annotated and expanded.  Click to download your free pdf copy (461 kB).

Think and Grow Rich.   The classic 20th century masterpiece by Napoleon Hill that virtually started the Self-Help movement. This is as much about spiritual riches as it is about money. This is your free pdf copy (834 kB).

Have you found teachings or writings that have helped you do more than survive?  I'd love to hear about them.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Walk on the Wild Side: Australian Creatures are Invading The Shed

Australia's amazingly diverse wildlife, creatures of all sizes, shapes, colors and number of legs, all share one attribute: they all want to get inside my shed.  To eat me, I assume.

Before it was even finished  - yes, I know a proper Shed is never really finished, so let me rephrase:  Before the siding and roof were even in place, Australian creatures started to invade the Shed.  They crawled, slithered, hopped, flew, buzzed, sprang, glided, perambulated, skulked, and abseiled into it. They must have thought, "Finally!  'Bout time someone put up a shed in our corner of the outback.  We've been waiting millions of years just to get indoors."

The first new resident was this old girl.  I've seen gerbils that weighed less than this, and with less hair.  Actually, this suited me fine.  It was like having a watchdog guarding the place while I was away.  (Click for larger versions of pictures.)  It seems perfectly normal that the first creature to turn up would have eight legs.  There are an estimated 20,000 species of spider in Australia, 90% of them still unknown to science.  A government biologist told me an account of a retiree who went for a walk in the "bush" (Australian term meaning almost everything that is outdoors), and was bitten by an unknown type of spider.  To his amazement, the older gentleman did not instantly drop dead.  Instead, he found that on the wrist on which he was bitten, his arthritis was completely gone.  Cured for a period of three weeks.  They've tried for years to find another one of those spiders - no luck so far.  They should check in my Shed. Maybe it's one of these:

I'll show you more spider pictures in a future post.  The biggest spider I've caught to date was this one:

Huntsman spider.  Terrifying
and totally harmless
Yes, that's an inch ruler next to it, and yes, you are reading it correctly.  That is a 5" leg span.  Do not come to Australia if you have a problem with spiders.  Like I did.

Well, I got over it, somewhat.  The human brain has much greater plasticity than people used to think.  You can change anything about yourself that is not helping you be happy or successful.  And I'm not selling a self-help program.  It's actually true.

Earlier in my life, if I even saw a spider from a distance I'd have nightmares about it for days afterwards.  I had a genuine, full-blown case of Arachnophobia.  A clinical and irrational fear of spiders.  And of all places to end up!  But with a really good camera and not much else to look at around here, my unconscious beliefs about spiders altered in a subtle but important way.  I still do not want them on me.  Yes, if a spider happens to make direct contact with me in any way, I still do the "creepy-spider-creep-out dance" -  you know the one: wiggle and shake everything available and jump around while repeatedly slapping and brushing your body all over for 5 minutes.  But now, rather than merely horrible and terrifying, spiders to me are interesting as well. These days if I see a tremendous hairy eight-legged monstrosity ambling across the floor of my shed, I exclaim, "Holy Mondeo! Jeepers Chrysler! . . . . .  I wonder if I can get a close-up of its fangs."   I could.

A Swag.  Notice how often 
a stick comes in mighty useful.
In school they always taught us that mammals are mammals because they bear their young live rather than laying eggs.  Only birds, reptiles, fish and insects lay eggs.  Right?  Wrong.  Before the Shed was here, I used to camp out on my vacant 5-acre wooded block of land in the bush.  I slept in a canvas "swag," an Australian invention that combines tent, mattress and sleeping bag rolled into one rugged, manly and practical item.  One night I was awoken by the sound of a wire brush being rubbed against the canvas, and for some time I sleepily considered what on earth that could possibly be.  At some point my brain became alert enough to realize it must be an animal of some sort, and that this animal must be very, very close by.  So close in fact, that it was rubbing up against my swag.  It is at this point that I leapt eight feet straight up in the air squealing like a girl.

An Echidna. 
Composing myself somewhat, I located my boots (checking inside them for unwanted surprises), a flashlight and my camera.  I was rewarded with a sight few people have seen.  A very rare animal found only in Australia: the egg-laying sharp-quilled mammal called the Echidna.  It is the only relative to the bizarre and improbable Platypus which also lays eggs and is a mammal.

Over the years all sorts of creatures have attempted to enter the Shed.  Some have succeeded:

Scared little lizard
in a saucepan

Poisonous Centipede

Blue-Tongue or Bob-Tail
Scorpion vs. Boot.
(Boot wins, but it took
3 stomps)
Very Odd Cricket
Spiky brave lizard

Some haven't quite succeeded yet, but were close:

Kangaroos.  Earth's Dumbest

16" Gould's Monitor

Rhinoceros Beetle

Mouse Spider (was chasing me)

Angry Blue-Tongue Lizard
(because he couldn't come in)


Scary Weird Lizard

Rare Jewel Beetle

One thing about this part of Australia where there are no crocodiles, dingos or sharks:  I am the top predator. Even with Redback spiders, centipedes, scorpions and poisonous snakes, I feel much safer in the Australian Bush than I do in, say, Wyoming or Park City.  They have bears, moose, mountain lions and coyotes, all of which are capable of doing me great harm.  Although a Blue-Tongue lizard will likely get to keep my finger if he gets hold of it, I hope I am smart enough not to go sticking my finger in its mouth in the first place.  While there are real dangers in the Bush, they are dangers that can be managed using Homo Sapiens' greatest evolutionary advantage.

A Brain.

Outback Australia is a most astonishing place to be.  And I haven't even shown you any of the birds or flowers yet!  Stay tuned.

Friday, August 26, 2011

The Four Blokian Elements

Aristotle and Plato. These
guys were NOT HANDY.
Ancient Greek philosophy holds that there are four essential things in the world:  Earth, Air, Water and Fire.  Aristotle proposed a fifth, "Aether," which due to its complete non-existence set back human progress by thousands of years.  Indeed, it still hinders us today because there are intelligent (though misinformed) people around who believe the universe contains some kind of aether or absolute reference frame, long after such notions have been absolutely proven otherwise by precise measurements.  You know who you are, physicist at UWA, who of all people really ought to know better!

See, the problem was that Aristotle and his Greek ancestors were philosophers, not scientists.  It's like having your pool man do your taxes, or your accountant tune up your car.  Things work out better if everyone sticks to what he or she does best.

Don't misunderestimate me - I think Philosophy is great.  It is perfect for getting at questions that cannot be otherwise untangled.  But if a simple experiment can settle the question, it belongs entirely to Science, and to Science alone.  Pose the question in a testable format (called a "hypothesis") then do the experiment or make the observation.  Then do it again.  Then get someone else to do it.  Then have someone else do it again.  If the results agree, the question is settled.  End of story.

The best thing about Science is that every answer brings up two or three new questions.  The even better best thing about science is that in the long run our knowledge ALWAYS increases.  The stupid thing about Science is that on the whole people who do it are lousy communicators.  They use too much jargon, and when they find something out to an unassailable degree of certainty, they ironically call it a "Theory,"  thus confusing the public mind into assuming there is still appreciable doubt on the matter.  Well, I have a "theory" that scientists should look that word up sometime.

I also think something needs to be done about this old and useless idea of the four Greek  elements, which clearly are rubbish.  Not only are they interchangeable with each other, but fire for one is obviously a product of the others rather than a thing in itself.  Plus, have you ever been able to build something useful from these so-called "elements?"  Me neither.  Do they assist even conceptually in any attempt to design things that work better?  I suggest that they do not.  Besides, just look at their economy today.  Clearly, these hopelessly incorrect ideas have not helped the Greeks accomplish much of anything in the last couple of millennia.

Boys are natural born engineers, scientists and craftsmen, provided our educational system minds its own business and leaves them alone. By nature, boys will work out for themselves how things work and how to make things that work.  They instinctively understand that there are four types of objects, meeting four unique requirements and accomplishing four basic ends.  Never mind what the things are made of, the important thing for accomplishing goals is how things work. Also, these four elements have nothing to do with abstractions (lies, really) like earth, air, water or fire.  This is why many attempts to educate boys in the finer points of Greek Philosophy end in failure.

If a bloke, therefore, comes away from school untarnished with failed philosophies and urban myths (Edison invented the light bulb?  nonsense!), he will become a successful builder, tradesman, engineer or scientist.  Such people retain from their early childhood an understanding of the Four Blokian ElementsRocks, Sticks, String and Glue.

Everything that must be made can be made from these four functional elements.  Successful Blokes understand when to use which element, and how to combine them to make things that actually work.  When something fails, a Bloke can immediately see that the problem was in having too much or not enough of one of these four elements.

Rocks.  Rock is three-dimensional, solid and unchanging in shape.  It can support tremendous compressive loads.  If a rock crushes, you needed a bigger rock, simple as that.  If a thing is too heavy, it contains too much Rock element, and you should look to see where rocks can be replaced by glue, sticks or string.  Aircraft designers for example continue to this day to trim away rock-ish or rock-acting material, replacing it with lighter, stronger stick-ish or string-ish materials.  Rocks are not great when it comes to pulling things or where any bending is involved.  But for a stationary object capable of carrying tremendous loads, Rock is your answer.  

SticksDouglas Adams honored the Stick as the Second Most Useful Thing Ever.  It is obvious he had an instinctive understanding of the Four Blokian Elements.  Sticks are light, two-dimensional (except when they're not), they resist bending (one thing neither rocks nor string can do), and they can keep things up in the air.  Bridges are essentially a long stick spanning a river.  Sticks transmit motion and force from one place to another.  In the case of a bridge, a stick rests on two rocks, one on either side of the  void to be spanned.  The stick transmits the rocks' "holding things up" property out to the middle of the river, giving you some of its support and allowing you to virtually levitate in mid-air!   

A spear, an example of stick-ness, is a way of telegraphing stabbing movements over to an enemy.  With a spear you can make a hole in someone who is trying to make holes in you without having to be there in person.  You can be up to four or five feet away at the time of the poking, thus avoiding any direct participation in all that tedious business of hurting, bleeding, and dying.  Unless your enemy also has access to a long stick.

In a car, what is essentially a stick transmits the drive power of the engine to the wheels of the car, meaning that you can put the engine in a good place for engines to be, while simultaneously keeping the wheels in places that work really well for wheels.  

String.  This element does not keep its shape, is very light for its strength, cannot support like rocks or push like sticks.  Instead, string mainly pulls.  String is only strong in one direction (is in fact a one-dimensional object), but is flexible enough to direct that strength wherever it is needed.  String can be rigid like a steel rod or stretchy like a bungee. String can wrap around things, be woven into fabrics (making two-dimensional string!), can reinforce sticks, and even be incorporated into rocks, making them more string-like or even stick-like in their pulling and bending capabilities.  The four Blokian properties combine readily without essentially changing what they are.

Glue.  The essence of glue is that it puts things together.  Glue can assume any shape, can be rigid or squishy, and can be made of almost anything.  Cement is like glue before it hardens and becomes rock.  Welding is like gluing metal together with metal.  Glue is also like actual glue, squeezed out of a tube, but it is also the sticky side of tape.  Duct Tape is just string and glue sold as a combination of pure Blokian Awesomeness.  There are thousands of kinds of glue, and blokes spend a lot of time working out just which is the right glue for a given situation. 

Xanthorrhoeoideae or
"Grass Tree," one of many
which I personally own.
There is even a kind of really useful glue produced by this Australian plant of the subfamily Xanthorrhoeoideae of which there are currently 28 known species.  (I am glad this isn't a podcast, because I have no idea how to pronounce that word. Hell, I can't even mispronounce it.)  It is a distant relative of the Yucca plant, the Joshua tree, and for some reason, Asparagus.  

More examples of the Blokian Elements in action:

A hammer is in essence a rock attached to a stick, using string or glue.

A wheel is in essence a rounded rock on a stick.  If you need to take into account the bouncy-ness of the tyre, your mental image of the wheel instantly changes from that of a rock on a stick, to some air-filled glue-covered string on a stick.

Click it!
A sailing ship is an amazing collection of string and sticks, with rocks for ballast and glue plugging the leaks, all powered by air.  One of the most incredible engineering feats in human history.

So why isn't air also a Blokian Element?  Because a bloke does not need to provide, fashion, hunt down or invent air.  That's why.  It is not something he needs to be concerned about, because it's not his responsibility to make.

When a bloke makes something, he has to know where to place the rock, where the sticks go and the best way to arrange them, when and where string is needed, and how to glue it all together. When building The Shed, for example, the sand under cement slab had deeper footings dug into it where the support columns would be.  That is precisely because there needed to be more support (rock) right at those spots for the columns that were going to be there.  When someone understands these four functions and what they do, everything he or she makes turns out more successful. 

Fixing the mower last Thursday.
As an engineer, I've been deep inside the guts, physically and mathematically, of all kinds of things, from buildings and bridges to spacecraft, robots, giant steam turbines, pianos, engines, dams, vehicles, mines, motorways, refrigerators, stereos, and factories.  Every part, bolt, screw, beam, cable, gear, wheel, capstan, plate, rod, gusset or ferrule can be examined for how it functions dynamically as each of the four Blokian Elements: Rocks, Sticks, String and Glue. By doing that, I get a front-row seat for understanding how the technology works and how to improve it.  It also means I have a massive advantage over say, ancient Greeks, when it comes to assembling flat-pack furniture, putting up a child's swing set, fixing a broken lawnmower, towing a car out of sand, or engaging in massive projects like The Shed.

As magicians of the man-made world, blokes who "get" the Four Blokian Elements can literally build circles around old Greek philosophers with their pointless hand-waving speculations.  I remember absolutely nothing about a very funny 1983 Neil Simon movie called Max Dugan Returns, other than the following mis-quote:

"Philosophy pays, as long as you have the right one."

Douglas Adams: Australia for Non-Australians

I have to re-post this with attribution because it sums up better than I can the things that are unique, surprising and interesting about Australia to people who somehow didn't manage to be one of the 21 million lucky people living here.   I thoroughly endorse the author's findings, conclusions and recommendations.  -John.

PS. Most sources acknowledge this as genuinely the work of Douglas N. Adams, author of the Hitchhiker's Guide series.

Australia for Non-Australian
By Douglas Adams.

Australia is a very confusing place, taking up a large amount of the Bottom half of the planet. It is recognisable from orbit because of many unusual features, including what at first looks like an enormous bite taken out of its southern edge; a wall of sheer cliffs which plunge deep into the girting sea. Geologists assure us that this is simply an accident of geomorphology and plate tectonics, but they still call it the "Great Australian Bight" proving that not only are they covering up a more frightening theory, but they can't spell either.

The first of the confusing things about Australia is the status of the place. Where other land masses and sovereign lands are classified as either continent, island, or country, Australia is considered all three. Typically, it is unique in this.

The second confusing thing about Australia are the animals. They can be divided into three categories: Poisonous, Odd, and Sheep. It is true that of the 10 most poisonous arachnids on the planet, Australia has 9 of them. Actually, it would be more accurate to say that of the 9 most poisonous arachnids, Australia has all of them. However, there are curiously few snakes*, possibly because the spiders have killed them all. But even spiders won't go near the sea.

(* Editor's note: there is actually no shortage of snakes, and nearly every single one of them deadly poisonous, of course.  -j.j.)

Any visitors should be careful to check inside boots (before putting them on), under toilet seats (before sitting down) and generally everywhere else. A stick is very useful for this task. Strangely, it tends to be the second class of animals (the Odd) that are more dangerous. The creature that kills the most people each year is the common Wombat*. It is nearly as ridiculous as its name, and spends its life digging holes in the ground, in which it hides. During the night it comes out to eat worms and grubs. The wombat kills people in two ways: First, the animal is indestructible. Digging holes in the hard Australian clay builds muscles that outclass Olympic weight lifters. At night, they often wander the roads. Semi-trailers (Road Trains) have hit them at high speed, with all 9 wheels on one side, and this merely makes them very annoyed. They express this by snorting, glaring, and walking away. Alas, to smaller cars, the wombat becomes an asymmetrical launching pad, with results that can be imagined, but not adequately described.

(* Editor's note: I seriously doubt this, because the Kangaroo is pretty deadly, too.  It causes its mayhem by suicidally hurling itself onto roads at night in front of fast-moving automobiles.  Fortunately they are also not very smart, and frequently just bounce off the side of the car, or miss altogether. -j.j.)

The second way the wombat kills people relates to its burrowing behaviour.  If a person happens to put their hand down a Wombat hole, the Wombat will feel the disturbance and think "Ho! My hole is collapsing!" at which it will brace its muscled legs and push up against the roof of its burrow with incredible force, to prevent its collapse. Any unfortunate hand will be crushed, and attempts to withdraw will cause the Wombat to simply bear down harder. The unfortunate will then bleed to death through their crushed hand as the wombat prevents him from seeking assistance. This is considered the third most embarrassing known way to die, and Australians don't talk about it much.

At this point, we would like to mention the Platypus, estranged relative of the mammal, which has a duck-bill, otter's tail, webbed feet, lays eggs, detects its aquatic prey in the same way as the electric eel, and has venomous barbs attached to its hind legs, thus combining all 'typical' Australian attributes into a single improbable creature.

The last confusing thing about Australia is the inhabitants. First, a short history: Some time around 40,000 years ago, some people arrived in boats from the north. They ate all the available food, and lot of them died. The ones that survived learned respect for the balance of nature, man's proper place in the scheme of things, and spiders. They settled in, and spent a lot of the intervening time making up strange stories. Then, around 200 years ago, Europeans arrived in boats from the north. More accurately, European convicts were sent, with a few stupid and deranged people in charge. They tried to plant their crops in Autumn (failing to take account of the reversal of the seasons when moving from the top half of the planet to the bottom), ate all their food, and a lot of them died. About then the sheep arrived, and have been treasured ever since. It is interesting to note here that the Europeans always consider themselves vastly superior to any other race they encounter, since they can lie, cheat, steal, and litigate (marks of a civilised culture they say) - whereas all the Aboriginals can do is happily survive being left in the middle of a vast red-hot desert, equipped with a stick.

Eventually, the new lot of people stopped being Europeans on Extended Holiday and became Australians. The changes are subtle, but deep, caused by the mind-stretching expanses of nothingness and eerie quiet, where a person can sit perfectly still and look deep inside themselves to the core of their essence, their reasons for being, and the necessity of checking inside your boots every morning for fatal surprises. They also picked up the most finely tuned sense of irony in the world, and the Aboriginal gift for making up stories.

Be warned. There is also the matter of the beaches. Australian beaches are simply the nicest and best in the entire world. Although anyone actually venturing into the sea will have to contend with sharks, stinging jellyfish, stonefish (a fish which sits on the bottom of the sea, pretends to be a rock, and has venomous barbs sticking out of its back that will kill just from the pain) and surfboarders. However, watching a beach sunset is worth the risk.

As a result of all this hardship, dirt, thirst, and wombats, you would expect Australians to be a dour lot. Instead, they are genial, jolly, cheerful, and always willing to share a kind word with a stranger, unless it is an American. Faced with insurmountable odds and impossible problems, they smile disarmingly and look around  for a stick. Major engineering feats have been performed with sheets of corrugated iron, string, and mud.  Alone of all the races on earth, they seem to be free from the 'Grass is Greener on the other side of the fence' syndrome, and roundly proclaim that Australia is, in fact, the other side of that fence. They call the land "Oz", "Godzone" (a verbal contraction of "God's Own Country") and "Best bloody place on earth, bar none, strewth." The irritating thing about this is they may be right.

There are some traps for the unsuspecting traveller, though. Do not under any circumstances suggest that the beer is imperfect, unless you are comparing it to another kind of Australian beer. Do not wear a Hawaiian shirt. Religion and Politics are safe topics of conversation (Australians don't care too much about either) but Sport is a minefield. The only correct answer to "So, howdya' like our country, eh?" is "Best {insert your own regional profanity here} country in the world!". It is very likely that, on arriving, some cheerful Australians will 'adopt' you on your first night, and take you to a pub where Australian Beer is served. Despite the obvious danger, do not refuse. It is a form of initiation rite. You will wake up late the next day with an astonishing hangover, a foul-taste in your mouth, and wearing strange clothes. Your hosts will usually make sure you get home, and waive off any legal difficulties with "It's his first time in Australia, so we took him to the pub.", to which the policeman will sagely nod and close his notebook. Be sure to tell the story of these events to every other Australian, you encounter, adding new embellishments at every stage, and noting how strong the beer was. Thus you will be accepted into this unique culture.  Most Australians are now urban dwellers, having discovered the primary use of electricity, which is air-conditioning and refrigerators.

Typical Australian sayings:

  •  "G'Day!"
  •  "It's better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick."
  •  "She'll be right."
  •  "And down from Kosciusko, where the pine clad ridges raise their torn and rugged battlements on high, where the air is clear as crystal, and the white stars fairly blaze at midnight in the cold and frosty sky. And where, around the overflow, the reed beds sweep and sway to the breezes, and the rolling plains are wide. The Man from Snowy River is a household word today, and the stockmen tell the story of his ride."

Tips to Surviving Australia:
  • Don't ever put your hand down a hole for any reason whatsoever. We mean it.
  • The beer is stronger than you think, regardless of how strong you think it is.
  • Always carry a stick.
  • Air-conditioning.
  • Do not attempt to use Australian slang, unless you are a trained linguist and good in a fist fight.
  • Thick socks.  (editor's note:  Sturdy boots.  Leather gloves.  A hat.  -j.j.)
  • Take good maps. Stopping to ask directions only works when there are people nearby.
  • If you leave the urban areas, carry several litres of water with you at all times, or you will die.
  • Even in the most embellished stories told by Australians, there is always a core of truth that it is unwise to  ignore.

See Also: "Deserts: How to Die in Them," "The Stick: Second Most Useful Thing Ever," and "Poisonous and Venomous Arachnids, Insects, Animals, Trees, Shrubs, Fish and Sheep of Australia, Volumes 1-42"

By Douglas Adams

Clifnotes: Crikey!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Surprisingly Useful Things The Shed Could Not Do Without

The profound usefulness of things like chainsaws, rainwater tanks, canned chili and electricity are not in question.  Nobody doubts the utility of these things nor is anyone very surprised by it.  Here are some things however that are amazingly, surprisingly useful that you may not have considered.

Bricks.  You can never have too many bricks laying around.  They're like perfectly squared-off rocks, just waiting to be stacked up for holding some things up off the ground, set down to keep other things ON the ground, spread out for walking on or lined up for shouting at.

What, you don't yell at inanimate objects?  Well, maybe you should try it.

I'm just saying.

No, don't look at me like that!  It's a perfectly cromulent hobby.  Look it up. They say it's good for you.

So, if anyone ever offers you free bricks, especially the solid kind used as "pavers," accept as many as your car, truck or bicycle will carry.  That would be about two, in the latter case.  I guarantee nobody has never said, "Gee, I'm sure glad there aren't any bricks around here."

Neodymium Magnets.  Rare-earth or "super" magnets can hold an enormous amount of weight.  With practice, a couple of these can become like a second pair of hands for you.  But if you're careless, they can take off one of your fingers, or far worse, erase your hard drive.  While building The Shed, I used two of these to stick a sheet of steel siding onto the steel frame.  They held it firmly in place while at the same time permitting me to adjust its position, alignment and height.  Then I could let go of it entirely to reach for my cordless drill and some self-drilling screws.  I've never run out of uses for these gems, but you have to be careful and store them where their strong fields will do no harm.  Keep them well away from computers, watches, clocks, cameras with motorized lens systems, and CRT displays (old style TVs).  NEVER put them in your pocket.

Swiss Army Knife.  Some people think it's a gimmick, a mere toy, or a parody of being prepared for anything.  Such people are obviously just jealous.  Feast upon the magnificence!  This one knife has 31 awe-inspiring tools.  Why?  Because you can never predict what life or The Shed is going to throw at you.  I have repaired an entire laptop computer using only a soldering iron and a Swiss Army Knife.  And I would have needed just the knife if I had owned the more advanced model (with soldering iron).

I currently own four Swiss Army knives that I know of.  I have found as many as I have lost in my life.  But the loss of one particular knife was most upsetting to me, since I bought it in actual Switzerland for 30 Swiss Francs back in 1985.  June 11th, it was.  A Tuesday.  It was partly cloudy in Luzern that day as I entered a shop in der Bernstrasse....

Forget anniversaries and birthdays:  men get sentimental about hardware.

Q: Can I substitute a Leatherman for a Swiss Army knife? 

Hmmm, well, I suppose you can improvise and make do, if you really have no alternative.  Genuine Leatherman brand multi-tools are also very pricy.  Look at it this way:  imagine telling someone you "fixed it using my multi-tool."  Now try it again with "Swiss Army knife."   See the difference?

Desk Lamps.  Now, I know that sounds a little pedestrian, a bit boring really, but it's the kind of thing you could easily overlook and not realize the hours of grief it would have saved you.  Just get one, OK?  They're cheap.  Go buy one now.  Keep it sitting around with a good bright bulb in, ready to go.  Then one day you might find yourself staring at 439 microscopic watch parts that are all the exact same shade of color as your table top.  NOW how does that extra desk lamp sound?  Pretty good, huh?

Clothes Pins (aka Laundry Pegs).  The kind with little springs.  Wooden, not plastic.  These are like miniature carpenters' clamps.  I use them everywhere.  Curtain falling down?  Clothes Pins.  Want to keep the ants out of the cereal?  Clothes pins. Parts of a model need to be held together while the glue is drying?  Clothes pins.  Working in an awkward position, upside-down from a ladder with only one hand free?  Clothes pins.  They can keep small tools or parts within reach until you need them.  Soldering wires together with your Swiss Army soldering knife?  Clothes pins can hold wires in place so you no longer have to burn your fingers.  Cord dangling in front of the web cam while filming another low-budget science video?  Clothes pins to the rescue again.  They are so cheap you can keep a large supply on hand and never worry if you lose one, break one, step on one or accidentally drop one in boiling acid.

Clothes pins are the perfect assistant.  They are around when you need them, they don't ask silly questions, mention their personal problems or complain about severed fingers etc., and they disappear when you're done with a job.

I wouldn't use them for hanging laundry outside, however.  There is a type of Australian bird that likes to steal them.  Why?  I dunno - evolution I guess.  Perhaps he find them really handy around the nest.

Kerosene.  Before I had electricity in The Shed, I used a kerosene lantern for light.  Obviously I didn't do a lot of watch repair or science videos in those dark days and even darker nights.  It's still occasionally useful to light the old lantern if all my flashlights turn up dead.  But what's really useful about Kerosene is its qualities as a fire starting solution. 

When it's cold and dark and you have important things to be getting on with,  you COULD start a fire in the stove using either the "teepee" or "log-cabin" methods you learned in scouts, but frankly, why spend so much time on it?  Just throw a bucket full of twigs and sticks in there with an accelerant and let 'er rip, following it up shortly with some larger stuff.  

I keep my used engine oil in old juice bottles to use as a fuel supplement. You'd be amazed how long a wadded up page of newsprint soaked in engine oil can actually burn.  But it just doesn't light very well and is an inadequate accelerant especially when cold.

Gasoline is plentiful but also inadequate.  It volatilized too quickly.  If you splash some on the pile of kindling in the fireplace, by the time you put the lid back on (VERY IMPORTANT - ALWAYS put the lid back on the gasoline before doing another single thing, such as striking a match, seriously, I'm not kidding), enough gasoline will have evaporated in that short time to cause a fairly entertaining fireball when you light it.  Sure, the fire will start amazingly well, but you won't have any eyebrows for the next few weeks. 

Kerosene is the answer.  It has just the right qualities to light easily and get the fire going without going "FOOM!" and making the entire shed smell like burnt hair.

BONUS: the kerosene I get has citronella oil in it, the smell of which drives flies and mosquitoes away. 

Fire Extinguisher.  I was looking around the Shed one day, looking at all the firewood stacked up, all the combustible building materials in this corner, all the used engine oil over there, the gasoline, the kerosene, the soldering iron, the power tools and various other sources of ignition not to mention the open flame of the gas camp stove, the odd candle or lantern, and indeed the wood-burning fireplace itself, and I thought to myself, "You know, John, there's something missing here. What IS it? I seem to recall that there is something else that belongs in a place that has all of these various elements together.  What can it possibly be?  

Six months later the light finally went on and I purchased one of these.

First Aid.  Commercially available first aid kits such as the useless and expensive name-brand one I was guilted into purchasing when I had a small child are really stupid.  They contain such medical essentials as coronary stints and emergency titanium hip replacements, but nothing I can actually use when something like this happens.  I therefore keep just a few basic things on hand such as sterile bandages, medic tape, pure alcohol for disinfecting wounds, antimicrobial ointment (e.g. neosporin), super-glue, and some aspirin or generic pain reliever.  There are few situations these simple items alone won't deal with.

Once on a camping trip with my son, some sort of Australian creature bit my son on the leg.  Probably a large ant, possibly a spider.  He screamed for 15 solid minutes as I drove him at high speed to the nearest outpost of civilization (such as it was), a country pub.  The woman in charge heard my explanation of the situation, she checked the color of the bite area, and calmly reached for a packet of Panadol, Australia's answer to Tylenol (except it's paracetamol rather than acetaminophen, but that might even be the same thing - who knows).  She crushed half a tablet between two spoons, added a drop of water to make a paste, and applied it directly to the bite.  Instantly the boy stopped screaming and had no further complaints.  About the bite, anyway.  He found plenty of other things to complain about, rest assured.

Had this been in America, he would've been air-evac'd to an emergency room, undergone a battery of expensive tests (including that machine that goes BEEEEEP!), kept overnight for "observation," and given an expensive course of antibiotics.  $100,000 later, he'd be freaked out, possibly succumbing to a hospital-borne infection, and likely missing several of the more optional organs that most kids come with. 

In Australia, you get half of a 20 cent Panadol and a stern lecture about being more careful by a woman in her 60's with tattoos.  Now THAT's Health Care!

It's astonishing what can be accomplished with very little material but just a bit of know-how.  This is what makes Australia and Australians unique and endlessly interesting.