Monday, 3 June 2013

Losing the Good Plates

I bet you thought I'd left the blog to fester and die the death of a thousand bot impressions.

In fact it's been on my mind for the past couple of months, but I haven't been able to write a post because, well ... I like to write about what's on my mind, and what's been on my mind has been engineering a return to Canberra, but that's not really the sort of thing I was comfortable publishing in a public forum where work colleagues and supervisors can see it before we're ready to talk about it.

Now that a secure job has been snared, I can wind up this little blog and draw a nice metaphorical line under it.

Yes, it's a definite end to the "Good Plates" blog. There are a couple of reasons for this.

I started the blog as a way to stretch my writing legs, and it has certainly served that purpose. Along the way I discovered that I wasn't much motivated to write unless I was writing for an immediate audience, which is a bit of a handicap for someone who's trying to work out whether they should be considering writing as a career. So there's one reason.

Another is that this is a blog about this adventure of ours, venturing out of our comfort zone and into deepest, darkest central Victoria. That adventure is coming to an end and so it is logical to me to not keep blogging under this title.

This is not to say I haven't enjoyed putting together these posts.  Looking back over them I'm pretty happy with the thoughts and turns of phrase I've been able to generate, and the positive reaction they've been able to provoke.  One, in particular, keeps coming back to me.  The one in which I referred to some friends who moved away from Canberra, tried to move back and failed, so moved away again.

I know it could seem odd to some people we know, to up sticks and move interstate, for apparently no very good reason, and then to turn around after slightly less than two years and come back. But we feel we've achieved some important things, and that it hasn't been an exercise in futility.

We've confirmed that our hearts are very firmly in Canberra.

We proved to ourselves that we weren't trapped in any place, that we could make a choice, step off that ledge and have an adventure. Not knowing "what could have been" might have been the thing that smothered us in the end. Knowing where we belong now is a more comforting and valuable thing than it could otherwise have been.

The central theme of this blog has been to take advantage of what you have before you and not miss a chance to savour your Sunday best. "Using the good plates" means not letting the things you value most gather dust.

I hope you'll agree that it's worth taking the chance that enjoying the thing you value most might result in losing it.

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Quiet Time

I've been a bit short on subject matter to bang on about recently, resulting in a quiet old time here in blog-land, for which I make no apology.

Just to keep things interesting, though, I thought I'd share something that Mrs G pointed me at a few nights ago. It's song-writer Peter J Casey's blog, major to minor (also in the blog list, in the sidebar).

Peter writes about music and musical theatre from a deep musical background, using an expert vocabulary, and a wicked, dry wit. Most recently he demonstrated why the songs in the television series "Smash" just don't work in a theatrical sense, and his series of posts on Eurovision are also great fun, with a level of musical geekiness that's rare to read, and even rarer to be able to follow. The blog also includes recordings of some of his songs, mostly funny, some just thoughtful, but all of them beautifully constructed.

If you've got a spare moment you could do a whole lot worse than navigating over there and browsing for a little while. You don't even have to tell him I sent you.

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Giving Machete Order the chop

Original Australian daybills

A week or two ago my interest was grabbed by an alternative order of watching the Star Wars films, called the “Machete Order”. Not being a person who is content to let things remain theoretical, I suggested to Mrs G that we try it out over the Australia Day weekend. The results, I’m sorry to say, were not good.

Mrs G and I are both Star Wars tragics – we both grew up with the original films and toys. However, where I could happily watch any of the original trilogy any number of times, Mrs G can't, preferring to leave her childhood memories the way they are. She reckons she got her money’s worth out of Episode I just by seeing “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away …” on a cinema screen again, but was so turned off by the content of the film that she didn’t bother with the other prequels. I only saw the others once they went to DVD, and only once each at that.  However, I’m pretty familiar with the stories, having played through the LEGO Star Wars “Complete Saga” console game. In short, we’re original trilogy adherents with little or no time for the prequels.

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Holiday amnesia

I got back to work this week after three weeks away.

This was the longest single break from work that I've had in about 18 months (possibly longer), but I knew in advance that day after day of not needing to wear shoes, or shave, or even shower before lunch, would probably result in a familiar effect when I returned to work. I would probably not remember my password to log in.

Passwords are a pain in the arse. I think my experience is similar to most people, in that there are at least five separate systems I have to access, all requiring passwords, and all on slightly different reset schedules. (If you don't have this experience at work, I bet you do at home ...) So, while it is possible to set the same password for all systems, I still have to change passwords reasonably frequently.

Then there are the password strength requirements, which also vary between systems, so if you're going to use the same password across all systems, you need to adhere to the requirements of the most stringent one.

I'm reminded of xkcd's illustration of this subject, in which (I think) it was demonstrated that a long, plain text pass phrase is actually much harder to crack than one of those jumbled up letter-number combinations. (I say "I think" because sometimes I don't really understand the maths.) However, most corporate systems won't allow a password without numbers, and some don't allow plain text words.

My solution is to use acrostics. I select a phrase which is meaningful to me at the time (e.g. something in my life that I've just done or am about to do), use the first letter of each word of the phrase, decide which ones should be most sensibly capitalised, and work out some numbers which are also logical. That way I can reconstruct the password if I actually forget it.

For example, a password based on this sentence might be "Feapbots07" - the first letter of each word, the first capitalised only because it came first, and the number "07" because it's in the seventh paragraph of this post. Happily, this password would be pretty easy to remember, because it's pronouncible, but it is also reproducible because I know how it was derived, and it's unlikely someone else could casually deduce it.

To get back to the point - even with this password creation technique, I still tend to forget them, and their derivation, after a couple of weeks of not using them. Knowing this, I deliberately created a very memorable one about a week before going on leave. I even logged in to work remotely during my break (which was a coincidence, but I wanted to find out where all the smoke in the air was coming from one day), and that had the effect or reinforcing the password.

As a result, I had no trouble logging in on my first day back. I was immediately prompted by one of the systems to reset my password, so I created a new one and set about changing the password across all systems.

So, this year my holiday amnesia was not password-related. No, instead it was transport-related.

I had to walk to work this morning. My motorbike battery was flat.

When I got off the bike on Monday afternoon (first day back at work), I forgot to switch off the ignition and remove the key. The headlight is hardwired to the ignition so, unless it's turned all the way off, the headlight stays on and drains the battery.

I got out to the carport this morning, went looking for the key in my bag, couldn't find it, looked at the ignition and there was the key, in the "on" position, and the headlight was ominously off. I had a flat battery, and there's no kick-starter on these new-fangled machines.

One of the things about riding a motorbike is remembering the sequence of events required to get you geared up and moving. Put your gloves on before the helmet and you make it very difficult to fasten the chinstrap. Hit the starter with the kickstand down and (in my case) the engine won't turn over. Forget to engage neutral and/or pull in the clutch before hitting the starter and you're in for a case of whiplash. That kind of thing. The most efficient and correct sequence becomes habit. Arriving somewhere doesn't require as much coordination as leaving, as long as you just remember to shut things down.

It turns out that, after a few weeks without riding, I'd simply forgotten to take the key with me when I walk away from the bike.

Now I've remembered how to use my battery-charger.

Friday, 4 January 2013

Hand made

The original "Red Special"

After last year's DIY experiences, the Christmas period set me to thinking about what I would like to do in 2013.

I had a terrific home-brewing set-up two houses ago, and have always wanted to get back to that. The shed here in Bendigo, however, is far from thermostatic, and only really fit for brewing in Autumn and Spring - very similar to traditional brewing seasons, if the truth be known. But no, I needed a project to fire the synapses now and feed the soul.

Ever since I was evangelically fed early Queen recordings by my friend Greg, at St Hilda's College, Melbourne University, I've been a big fan of the guitar stylings of Brian May. Now, I am by no means any kind of proficient guitarist myself, more a hacker who's been paid for my talent for faking proficiency better than most. However, that doesn't prevent me from dreaming of greatness, and of playing wonderful guitars. So, I have also held an ambition for some time of owning a Brian May "Red Special".

For the uninitiated, Queen's guitarist, Brian May, built his own guitar in cooperation with his Dad, because he couldn't afford to buy one. The "Red Special" is itself now a rock icon, with its unique sound and place in many of the rock/pop milestones of the 70's to 90's. To have a copy would, to me, be just wonderful.

About a year ago I cottoned on to the idea that it was possible to buy electric guitar kits. You get a raw wooden guitar body, a raw wood neck with the top and frets preset, all the electronics necessary to make it work, and instructions to put it together. I thought to myself how great it would be to be able to build myself a "Red Special". I enquired with the company I'd found, and they said they could do special orders of the things, so I quietly rejoiced and set myself a private timetable to get around to acquiring and building such a thing.

As always, life intervened. The now-famous kitchen reno took over the last half of last year, and by the time I got around to catching up with the guitar kit guys, as far as I can tell they'd gone out of business. Despair! And abandonment.

Around Christmas 2012 I decided to go looking again, and still couldn't find a supplier of "Red Special" kits. So I thought to myself I should back off the gas a little and start small. Build a Fender Telecaster copy as a first step. After all, starting with the thing you really want to work is rarely a good idea, right? I chose a Telecaster because, of all the classic electric guitars, it is the simplest. Only two pick-ups, so the wiring is simpler. But it's a versatile sound, used by guitarists from the vanguard of Rock to contemporary Country. A "Tele" can be a guitarist's workhorse and, built well, will just improve with age.

Thankfully I found a terrific supplier of Tele kits in Perth, and my first one arrives sometime next week. I've made some enquiries with these guys and it turns out they can do a "Red Special" kit as a special order.  Whoo-hoo! However, I'd like to build my own Tele first, then I'm on a promise to build two more, one for a gigging friend in Canberra, and one for my brother in Wodonga. Once I have those three under my belt I reckon I should be ready for the big one.

It should be a really great year. I'm very much enjoying the discovery, comparatively late in life, that I like building and making things. I had been channeled into very internalised, intellectual pursuits from midway through high school, and therefore didn't get exposed to a lot of this stuff until I went looking. I'm finding it very satisfying, and it should be so much more so with things that I can pick up and play.

Look out for the guitar updates!

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Playing with food words

Meatloaf - but I won't do that.

Family GP had a bit of a riot around the table the other night.

I'd managed to pull off one of those meals that was both made up on the spot (along general guidelines provided by Mrs G) and evoked actual "wow"s from the minions. I don't like to brag, but I like telling you how impressed they were. OK, I'm bragging.

I'd made individual meatloaves in silicon muffin forms. In the mix was your standard onion, beef mince, salt and pepper to taste, but I added a very finely grated carrot, some finely minced mushroom, and left out the egg and breadcrumbs, which are really just stand-ins for reasonable food. I also added a good dollop of hoisin sauce to the mix, and another sneaky one at the bottom of each form, so that it bubbled up through the stuff as it baked.

I don't think this is exactly restaurant-grade anything, but the result impressed.

Conversation moved to how it could possibly be improved. The first suggestion was for a little blob of fetta in the middle. Then the fetta had to be poked inside a potato gem (a tater tot, for any Yanks reading) before the meatloaf mix was formed around it. Then the fetta-stuffed potato gem needed a bacon blanket before disappearing inside the meatloaf.

About then we got sidetracked by how it should be described. Following the example of the "turducken" (a turkey stuffed with a duck, itself stuffed with a chicken), and after much hilarious experimentation, we settled on "me-baco-tater-fetta-loaf" to describe this entirely fanciful concoction.

Nobody at any point actually thought we would ever make such a thing, it was just a silly conversation where everybody got to throw in a ridiculous idea and see where it led.

Do other people have dinner table conversations like this? I remember well the terrible punning conversations I and my brothers (and Dad) would have when we were young, while our Mother groaned and sighed. When I married Mrs G, Mum advised her to ignore us when we started to try to out-do one another with ever more terrible puns. Anything else just encourages us. We still do it, because the only encouragement we need is each other.

There's a harmless, silly kind of fun in creative wordplay. I'd much rather be collaborating in the naming of a "me-baco-tater-fetta-loaf" with my minions than talking about the weather, or what they might have seen on television.

There's also laughter.

It's so good to laugh with your minions. The healing power of laughter should not be underestimated.

For all the trials we've faced this year, getting around the table and being silly quickly restores a bit of perspective.

Mrs G and I are blessed to have families which are only mildly dysfunctional. For those of you less fortunate, yet who are obliged at this time of year to share meals with the odd people you're related to, I hope you're able to spot some absurdity and run with it.

You never know who'll try to keep up.

Monday, 10 December 2012

Strange victories

Tomorrow I'll be eating leftover crumbed fish and potato gems, and this is a victory.

Those with even a passing familiarity with the kitchen will realise that leftover crumbed fish fillets and potato gems don't react well to microwaving at lunchtime the next day. They might resemble the cheap tastiness of last night but they by no means resemble the exciting crunchy texture that makes it worth taking things out of the freezer and treating them to heat in a way that makes them acceptable on the plate.

And yet I will be thankful, and here's why.