Saturday, December 26, 2009

Driving Mr Pumbaa

This year, we decided to drive our Welsh Pembroke Corgi 'Pumbaa' to Melbourne so that he could experience Christmas with a big chunk of Siew Fong's family.

On the way, we wanted to stop in Canberra to see an special art exhibit of paintings (impressionist, pointalist, and post-impressionist) from the Musée d’Orsay, Paris. So we stayed with our friends Malcolm & Janita at Ballalaba, near Braidwood. Mr Pumbaa enjoyed the experience of barking at wallabies.

On leaving lovely Ballalaba, one of the aforementioned wallabies jumped in front of my car, I swerved and missed it, although it's tail may have brushed the bumper.

We drove via Cooma down the Monaro Highway, even though that route involved about 70kms of dirt road. It was a pleasant drive, after the dirty part, and there was very little traffic. As we approached Cann River, we saw a helicopter water bombing a bush fire. It reloaded from a dam next to the road.

In Melbourne (or Kew actually), Mr Pumbaa and his hostess Sandra tolerated each other.

For Christmas lunch I made a pumpkin pie and Balsamic Strawberries with Whipped Mascarpone Cheese, which my sister-in-law Siew Ling declared to be plate-licking good!

Gifts were distributed, and games played.

Young Nigel liked my gift of 'Robo Rally', but he still preferred to spend countless hours playing 'Halo'.

We further ventured to visit the 'Little Penguins' at Philip Island. Penguins and other natural phenomena duly observed, we motored to Morwell, and did a coal mine and generation station tour. The kids were bored, but I was jointly fascinated and appalled at man's domination over his environment. Brown coal is OK, as long as we keep looking in the same direction as the folks who like nuclear power.

A day spent lounging by the pool later, and after consuming copious quantities of excess sustenance, we borrowed a Tarago and made our way to Ballarat, home of the Sovereign Hill (SH) amusement park. SH was actually quite a bit better than I expected. It was reasonably authentic, not everything in the park was overpriced or designed to thin my wallet, there wasn't too many trite things on display, and it provided the unlikely opportunity to get our money back, panning for gold (didn't work out that way though).

On Thursday, Siew Fong's Aunt Nelly dropped by to make a nice laksa for lunch.

We had a quiet New Years celebration. On Friday we went to an Italian restaurant that specialized in portions that were larger than one could eat. The other patrons made me feel thin.

Over the period we played a few games of Powergrid. Young newbie Nigel won every game except his first.

On Sunday, we went to the open markets at Camberwell. Trash and Treasure galore! Well, mostly trash. I think I am the only one to technically pick up any treasure, and that was because I picked up some pre-decimal pennies and half-pennies. The best bit of trash I witnessed was someone trying to sell a framed, ugly, Titanic-themed picture puzzle.

On Monday, Mr Pumbaa said his goodbyes to his hostess, and we departed for Sydney. 10.5 hours, and some boring roadway later, we were home.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Work, a four letter word for the source of the 'root of all evil'

I have recently started a sortie into a new career direction.

The back story: I have been a bit disillusioned with my current career recently. Work has seemed more tedious, and new work has been slow in arriving.

I started to look for a new job. Although there are many jobs in IT advertised, most I see either don't exist (fake ads), or the descriptions don't interest me.

Then I went to this job fair for 'mature aged workers'. Sadly all the employers present there were either military or police related, which didn't suit me. There were also lots of organisations selling training services, for careers in industries that aren't hiring, or for shonky medical practices (e.g. aromatherapy, coaching, massage therapy, etc). But there were a number of entities selling the idea of aged/disability care professions. This had never occurred to me before as a potential career choice for myself. But I was surprisingly intrigued with the idea.

I notice whenever I ponder what I want in a career, one thing always is at the core: I want to make the world a better place for others. In IT this translates to making software that improves someones work life, or makes something easier for somebody. Or fixing somebody's IT problem.

So I called an old primary school friend (my best friend at Orono Elementary, Doug Sweetser), who I knew had done some work in this field a few years ago. We talked about his experiences in caring for a physically disabled adult.

Later I found out that another parent who I knew from Ferncourt Primary School (Caelin & Leah's alma-mater) is presently working in the care profession. I have a great deal of respect for Geoff, so I also gave him a call to ask his advice and talk about his experiences. Geoff does respite care for a mentally disabled adult. He suggested that I do some volunteering in the industry to get a feel for it. Besides supporting my decision making process, this could also count as work experience when looking for a job.

I contacted a local organisation that supports volunteering in my area. After a short interview, they gave me a list of organisations to contact that were looking for volunteers. At the top of the list was a company located almost walking distance from my house, and doing exactly what I was interested in: WALCA.

Tuesday is my weekly WALCA day, when I work more or less as a staff member, performing most of the duties of someone who works there, except I don't get paid. I help the participants arrive, feed them, talk with them, walk with them, find them things to do, monitor their progress, and assist when they leave. And I help with cleanup, or anything I am asked to do.

For privacy reasons I cannot discuss WALCA participant details, but I can say most are severely mentally and physically disabled. Most are in wheelchairs, and most have very limited communication abilities. They all require a high level of personal care. Each has different and individual needs and personalities. The challenge for me is to try to understand those needs, to provide my support for them to engage in a more fulfilling life. WALCA does structure daily routines and development plans for each participant, and I will have to develop my own skills to forward those plans.

I am very unfamiliar with people with disabilities. One of those shameful things we often refuse to admit is that we don't always know how to comfortably interact with someone who is different, whether that be because they are in a wheelchair, they are intellectually disabled, they are otherwise physcially disabled, or even if they come from another land with different customs and languages. I don't like to admit it, but I sometime suffer from this embarrassing mild affliction. Still, I endeavour to acknowledge that this happens, notice it, and re-adjust my perceptions so that I can see and interact with all people equally. That said, I find that I really like the participants as people.

With no experience in the caring industry, I am often very uncomfortable with not knowing what to do next, and not knowing how to create the best outcome for each event I encounter. So in that respect I am well outside of my comfort zone.

As I get to know the participants, I am becoming more comfortable with them. It is a real delight to prompt a smile from someone, or see them enjoy something that I often take for granted.

So far (just after a few weeks), although I am a bit uncomfortable with my lack of skills, I have thoroughly enjoyed my experiences. I will likely undertake some more professional training. The only problem I have with the career choice is the pay is one of the lowest awards, but that is mostly an ego problem.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Why I like board gaming

It can be challenging
I mostly play 'Modern Board Games' ("MBG"). MBG's are often created in the EU (primarily Germany), where family gaming is quite popular, and are often called 'Euro Games'. These games rely more on the player's skill than luck. Luck sometimes, but not always, adds an element of balancing or randomness to these games. But skill and planning are more important to win. Occasionally, I will still play a classic game, such as chess, cribbage or backgammon.

MBG's have widely varied themes and mechanics/rules. The games are complex, interesting, fun, and usually have scope for replay-ability.

Collectively my gaming group has a very large collection of games. Some games get played a lot, we often have new games added to the collection, and some get played only once or twice a year. So we are constantly learning new rule sets, and developing new strategies.

The chance element in many of the games, as well as the actions of the other players, drives one to modify strategies.

I particularly like games designed with some sort of economic element, where building some sort of beneficial generating facility plays an important part in winning. Some of my favourites are Power Grid and Agricola.

It can be just plain silly
The majority of our time is spent on playing sophisticated games, (although sometimes it seems we spend an inordinate amount of time prevaricating on what game we should play). We often spice up, or lighten up the sessions with some 'fillers' between big games. Evenings are ended (and sometimes started) with something light. Card games, kids games, silly themes, anything frequently generating a giggle, even if it was designed for someone a fraction of my age. Actually some of the modern children's games can involve sophisticated strategies.

An excuse not to drink
The standard of fellows I game with is rather high. I must have my full faculties to have even a weak chance of winning.

Board gaming is by it's very nature a social activity. Between and during games we comment on our lives, current events, popular culture. We make jokes and mildly tease each other. We plan special events and trips. Usually before the gaming begins, some of us share a meal together and/or carpool to the session, which is another opportunity to interact.

Interactivity, Creativity & Variety
Some hobbies, such as watching sport, actually have a very low level of real interaction for the participant, who is primarily an observer. In gaming, the participant develops strategies, makes decisions, and reacts to circumstances.

During the games there is often amusing repartee amongst the players.

Sometimes we create new games and test them with each other.

We play quite a large range of games, and many have interesting aesthetic aspects.

I don't really like computer-based games
I find video games and other computer based games really inhibit social interaction. And the prevalent themes usually involve unrealistic, yet gory, violence.

I can share my hobby with my family
Some people consider games just an activity for children. I consider games to be an opportunity for real quality time with my children, involving many of the features I described above.

Before I add a new game to my collection, or buy a game for someone else, I ask myself a few questions:
  1. Did I enjoy playing this game (if I had play-tested it before)?
  2. Do I think my family would enjoy playing this?
  3. Is it distinct from games I already have?
It's just good clean fun that is interesting.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Gateau Basque

An intriguing recipe from this month's Australian Gourmet Traveler ('AGT') magazine. A cake filled with pastry cream.

Last week I bought a couple of copies of gourmet topic magazines ('delicious.' and AGT) to see if there are any I would be interested in subscribing to. I found that I wasn't that impressed with the content in general. An awful lot of glossy ads for things I can't afford, and don't really want. A few nice recipes, but not that many. A lot of "celebrity"personalities covered though, which again are not in my personal domain of interests.

AGT did have a focus this month on Spanish and Basque recipes, and a particular dessert caught my attention. I was also inspired to make a 'Butter Chicken Curry Paella', my own invention, which turned out OK, but not great.

The gateau didn't look that difficult, just time consuming. It proved to be a bit more tricky than I expected. Normally with a cake you make a batter, with this one you make a dough, which is then chilled and rolled, similar to a pie crust. The dough was a lot stickier than I was prepared for, and my method of rolling onto floured baking paper wasn't entirely successful. I did manage to get it into the pan about 70% intact, and then was able to repair it. The repair process was initially frustrating, with sticky fingers doing more damage than repair, until I got my hands wet, which simplified matters greatly.

Also my abysmal St George Oven was hotter than it was supposed to be. Never buy a St George Oven, they look nice, but have the worst quality. The gateau was a bit over-cooked on the bottom. It did smell wonderful though.

It ended up tasting quite nice. The mix of textures were very pleasant, and the flavors well balanced.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Grumpy Old Man - Public Performances

What is it about going to a movie, or a play, or a concert, that brings out the 50% of society that really don't give a damn about anybody else in the world?

Where do these cretins get the idea that it is OK to ruin everybody else's experience of a performance due to their own ignorance of those around them?

Small children: if you haven't trained your child(ren) to act responsibly at a public performance, don't bring them! If you do bring them, and they start to act up, be considerate of every one else and leave! It may surprise you that others don't pay for tickets to performances to experience the abysmal behaviour of your family. If you choose to stay, at the end of the performance offer to pay for the tickets of everybody else at the venue in compensation.

Mobile phones: Turn it off. It's that simple. You are not important enough to leave it on. Really, you aren't. And any call that comes in isn't a critical call. If you are waiting on a critical call, don't go out to a public performance. If you are a person who has a responsibility in society to respond to emergency requests (doctor, fire dept director, etc), you should be clever enough to know how to put your phone in silent mode. Persons in society who are specifically not holding that responsibility are businessman, politicians, and social butterflies. If you must ignore this, just offer compensation to pay for the tickets of everybody else at the venue. And giving some money to the cast would be gracious too. An important person like you can certainly afford to compensate everybody else.

Illness: If you are sick, stay home, get well and give your ticket to someone who isn't ill. Don't go out, infecting large crowds with your disease, coughing and spluttering your heart out.

Wrappers: Ladies, you know who you are. You decided to bring along that cough lollie (because you were ill), or discount candy (because you are too cheap to buy something at the candy counter). At that really quiet, emotional point of the performance you decide to open that wrapper, and in consideration of everyone else, you do it as slowly and loudly as possible so nobody will notice. Why is it I am always the one sitting in front of you? Did you ever notice that almost all of the packaging available of the items at the candy counter don't make a great deal of noise when opened? No, you didn't. If you must bring something along, use a reusable cloth container, and bring food items that aren't individually wrapped and are quiet to munch. Your neighbors, your budget, and the environment will benefit.

Personal Hygiene: If you can't be bothered to bathe, or wash your clothes properly, you shouldn't go out. Nobody want's to see you in an unclean state. This includes using public transport. It doesn't matter if your apparel has been out of fashion for 10 years, but it does if it isn't clean.

Sitting Properly: Sure, you can put your feet on the seat in front of you, as long as you pay for it, clean it after, and give some compensatory dry-cleaning funds to the persons on either side.

Litter: Nothing gives you the right to drop your cigarette butt, candy wrapper, bottle cap, straw, bottle, bag, receipt, or other item. Dispose of it properly.

Talking During the Performance: Do I really need to go into this?

Alternatives: If you can't abide by the simple, basic rules of society, don't go to a public performance, go to the football instead. At the football you can possibly engage vigorously with the other persons of a like mind, possibly reducing your impact on the gene pool.

Grumpy Old Man - Definition

I am a grumpy old man. Why, you might, or might not ask?
  • Grumpy: well, that's a given. The world could be such a better place. I do my bit, but an awful lot of others don't, or even worse, they actively try to make it worse using their ignorant points of view.
  • Old: At least one of my children has moved into teenagerhood. As everyone knows, any parent of a teenager is automatically 'old'.
  • Man: I am male, they call me Mister, instead of Master, I am married, and over the legal age to vote for idiots, ergo, I am a man.
So that's my definition. Take it, or probably leave it.

Monday, September 21, 2009

It seemed like a good idea at the time....

Yes, the title has an ellipsis with 4 full stops. What does this mean? It means something really something is about to be something. I wanted to emphasize something. But I digress.

Before travelling to NYC, I decided that we (as in Siew Fong and I, not you and I) should take the opportunity to dine, at least once in our life, at a incredibly fancy restaurant. We had been to good restaurants, some even classed as 'fancy'. But I had never, at least by my recollection, been to a truly recognized fancy restaurant, as recognized by a biased and commercial guide such as Michelin. So I researched restaurants with at least 2 Michelin stars in NYC. The first couple I tried to reserve were closed the week we were in NYC, but 3 star 'Le Bernardin' was open, and had an open table.

It turned out that this was one of the top rated places in NYC, by Zagat, and #1 in French cuisine. The kids were left with the geriatric relatives to fend for themselves. We donned finer clothing than usual to dine. Fortunately a tie was optional.

So we had the tasting menu, with matching wines. This meant really tiny servings of incredibly good food, served impeccably by affable staff for a pile of cash. Well, not a pile of cash, but a whole lot of electronic bits that would come back to us as Amex points. I can say that it was reasonable value for money.

One of the dishes served was a crispy bread crusted black bass served with a parsnip custard. Mmmm, parsnip custard. You have no idea how fabulous this was. It was so smooth, creamy, and even, dare I say it, tasty.

It had to be done at home. I knew it had to be done.

So on our return to Sydney, I went to the local fruit and veg shoppe, and got some turnips. And now you know my terrible secret: I often confuse parsnips and turnips. Not quite the end of the world, and probably not as horrible a prospect as having a national health plan.

So it was a turnip custard to be made. I just don't do fish. Fish is expensive, and far too easy to ruin. So I picked up my favorite budget cut of meat: pork neck, from the Chinese butcher. I blended up (meaning chucked in a blender) a handful of almonds slices and walnut meats. A bit of flour, an egg, and a bunch of cream later, and I had a batter. The pork neck, sliced into steaks by the overly friendly butcher (I am reasonably confident that I am now his friend, or brother, or something), was marinated in some cranberry jam and salt. I grilled the pork until done, dredged it in the nutty batter, and gave it a quick shallow fry in some oil to crisp it up. Don't you just love to dredge stuff, it's just so, so industrial.

Good Lord! I haven't described the manufacture of the turnip (not parsnip) custard! OK, so I peeled the turnips, chopped them into tiny cubes, and chucked them onto a steamer tray above a teeny lake of water in the pressure cooker. 15 minutes of pressure cooking later, and after a bit of cooling, I removed the turnipettes to the blender (I cleaned it after the nut affair). A bit of blending, an egg, some cream, a tiny bit of salt and pepper, and then a tinier bit of allspice, and I had a proto-mousse. To the ramekins Batman! Holy ramekin in a bath of water in the oven at 200 degrees C for 30 minutes Batman!. This would have been really clever if I knew what I was doing. While it was very smooth, it was a bit coagulated.

But it tasted divine. Not parsnip divine, but divine enough.

I served it all with some couscous and steamed asparagus. The pork didn't crisp very well, but tasted nice.