Monday, 21 August 2017

The Big Jam

This blog is now available as an mp3 podcast through the link: www.ferngladefarm.com.au


One of my favourite books is “The Big Short” by the author Michael Lewis. The book is an engrossing view into the dark world of sub-prime US mortgage bonds and that story ends with the very unpleasant Global Financial Crisis in 2008. As a story, The Big Short follows several quirky characters who decide well before the Global Financial Crisis to individually make the unexpected gamble that the US sub-prime mortgage bonds would fail spectacularly at some point in the future (for that gamble is what a “Short” is). And we all know how that sub-prime mortgage bond story ended.

As I mentioned before, the book is engrossing. Once I began reading, I really had a great deal of trouble putting the book down. I fondly recall many pleasurable hours sitting in various cafes (possibly when I should have been working) enjoying a coffee and chuckling to myself at the sheer chicanery of Wall Street and the US bond market. The antics of the quirky few who decided to bet against Wall Street and the US mortgage bond market were also highly entertaining.

Of course that true story did not end well because the Global Financial Crisis wreaked serious havoc on people’s lives. It is also worth mentioning though that whilst a lot of dubious paper wealth was destroyed during that crisis, I don’t recall many physical assets (such as housing) being destroyed. And after that time, people who may have lost a lot of dubious paper wealth, still lived, loved and laughed as people have done through many crises before that one.

The book began with a quote from a long since deceased author: Leo Tolstoy (of War and Peace fame); who is quoted as having written:

“The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of doubt, what is laid before him.”


Bam! - from the long deceased Mr Tolstoy. The editor calls this 'can't be told'.

The author of The Big Short is Mr Michael Lewis who has written numerous books over the years. Another of those books again delved into the murky world of high finances. That book is called “Liar’s Poker” and the author tells his own story as a young bond trader. The book is also a worthy, if somewhat disturbing, read. Between the two books I have learned one or two interesting titbits of information about the world of high finance including the following (very alert readers will note that the two concepts are inherently linked):
  • Banks prefer flows of funds rather than piles of cash; and
  • An interest only loan is akin to a rental with debt.
Those two titbits of information alone were quite insightful into illuminating the behaviour of lending institutions. Of course Mr Tolstoy rightly pointed out that many intelligent people have already formed opinions on the subject so they must know how things work. I on the other hand profess to being mildly befuddled by the dark arts of high finance and so I keep both my eyes and mind open. However I did read today that Australia now has an alarmingly high household-debt-to-income ratio of 190 per cent. High finance indeed!


That bloke Mr Tolstoy was sure onto something. The other day I was thinking about the practical implications of his quote in my own life. An example of those implications is that long term readers may recall that the editor and I make most of the jams and preserves that we consume here from scratch. I have not purchased any jams or preserves for years. And the interesting thing is that whenever I discuss jams or preserves with other people, nobody has ever said to me: Far out, you must consume a lot of jams and preserves. Nope, I don’t believe that anybody has said that to me.

The longest term readers of all will recall that the editor and I constructed the house here using only basic tools. We undertook all of the work involved in that house construction too, with the exception of the: excavations; plumbing; and mains electrical works.  Constructing the house ourselves wasn’t a bad effort for a pair of accountants (office fauna!). The funny thing is that whenever I mention to people that we constructed the house ourselves, the first question is inevitably: Is the house made of mud brick? What a strange question and Mr Tolstoy may possibly suggest that those opinions come from intelligent folk.

On very rare occasions (now), I may mention to other people that the editor and I produce our supply of country wines and sake (rice wine). Most of those country wines have to be aged for at least twelve months so it is a complex manufacturing and logistical task and we are quite chuffed with our efforts. Unfortunately, the majority of people upon hearing – or seeing – that alcohol production process tend to remark: You must consume a lot of alcohol. That is clearly the opinion of intelligent folk who already have solidly formed opinions (although strangely not about jam and preserves).

To my mind a lot of the beliefs we hold onto are dysfunctional at best, and dangerous at their worst. But the problem becomes that few people want to consider that they are in fact holding onto beliefs that are as tightly held as the most fervent beliefs of a well groomed cult follower! And anyway, who wants to appear to other people as anything less than intelligent?

The singer Peter Gabriel wrote and sang a beautiful song in the late 1970’s about letting go. The song is titled: Solsbury Hill. Let’s hear a bit about the subject of letting go from Mr Gabriel:

“Climbing up on Solsbury Hill
I could see the city light
Wind was blowing, time stood still
Eagle flew out of the night
He was something to observe
Came in close, I heard a voice
Standing stretching every nerve
Had to listen had no choice
I did not believe the information
(I) just had to trust imagination
My heart going boom boom boom
"Son," he said "Grab your things,
I've come to take you home."

One of my personal favourite Mr Tolstoy discussions is the potential for lithium-ion batteries for use in off grid solar power systems. I have absolutely no idea about lithium-ion and have very little experience with those batteries. On this subject I clearly need to get at least a little bit intelligent and so I went to the Wikipedia webpage for the mineral Lithium and under the title “Reserves” read this most recent entry:

“On June 9, 2014, the Financialist stated that demand for lithium was growing at more than 12 percent a year; according to Credit Suisse, this rate exceeds projected availability by 25 percent. The publication compared the 2014 lithium situation with oil”


That latest estimate of the reserves of the mineral Lithium did not make for encouraging reading. It is never a good long term situation when demand outstrips supply (unless you are a supplier).

The bigger problem is that I see and hear a lot of beliefs that appear to me to defy reality. But then the conclusion could also be drawn that I am not very intelligent.

“To keep in silence I resigned
My friends would think I was a nut
Turning water into wine
Open doors would soon be shut
So I went from day to day
Tho' my life was in a rut
"Till I thought of what I'd say
Which connection I should cut
I was feeling part of the scenery
I walked right out of the machinery
My heart going boom boom boom
"Hey" he said "Grab your things
I've come to take you home."
(Back home.)”

This past week a huge storm rolled up from the Southern Ocean. Every day this past week, we have enjoyed rain, and then some more rain (and a bit more rain!) I quite enjoy a good storm like this and the skies put on a good show.
Yet another storm rolls up over the valley
Even the earth worms were escaping the seriously damp ground by seeking shelter on the veranda. It was very nice of the local birds to clean up all that earth worm business the following morning.
The earth worms were escaping the seriously damp ground by seeking shelter on the veranda
The rain did occasionally cease and that sun thingee (I do remember that sun thing) tenuously poked its head out from behind the clouds. On one such occasion the editor and I went to the local tip shop to pick up some building materials for use in future projects. And we discovered a huge quantity of galvanised steel 10mm x 10mm (just under half inch) RHS (Rectangular Hollow Square) tubes which will be used in the tomato enclosure as garden stakes. The tip shop also had a good quantity of PVC pipes which will be useful for the garden water simplification project (which I may not have previously mentioned). Anyway, the tip shop had good stuff, and we picked up 50 of those galvanised tubes for a throw out price. Winning!
Galvanised RHS tube and PVC pipe was scored at the local tip shop
Incidentally, I reckon that local tip has one of the best views of any tip in the country. You can even see the skyline of Melbourne on the horizon.
The local tip has one of the best views of any tip in the country
Observant readers will note that the vehicle on the sign in the photo above is in fact pointing in the opposite direction to the arrow. Fortunately, not being an intelligent man, I know to follow the arrow and ignore the abstract vehicle drawing. Beliefs may differ in that regard though. (Edit: perhaps you are meant to drive in reverse).

I had to seize breaks in the rain to undertake work this week. During two of those breaks, I brought up two cubic metres (2.6 cubic yards) of composted woody mulch. That composted woody mulch was then placed onto the recently excavated area in the now much expanded tomato enclosure. To be honest, that enclosure is now so huge that it will be hosting many new varieties of vegetables later in the year (hello corn, capsicum and eggplant).
Two cubic metres of composted woody mulch were placed onto the recently excavated and expanded tomato enclosure
After the first cubic metre (1.3 cubic yards) was placed onto the excavations, the enclosure looked like this:
The tomato enclosure after a cubic metre of composted woody mulch was applied to the recent excavations
Observant readers may spot in the above photo a Kookaburra (a bird with a big head and brain, but no preconceived ideas about high finance) sitting on the fencing and keeping a close eye open for grubs and insects. After the second cubic metre (1.3 cubic yards) of composted woody mulch was applied to the enclosure it looked like this:
The tomato enclosure after the second cubic metre of composted woody mulch was applied to the recent excavations
I have been reading recently about the experiences of a Buddhist retreat during a bushfire in California in 2008 (Fire Monks - thanks Lewis for the recommendation). As an outcome of that reading, I have been simplifying the water systems here. This week, I added a valve (which is the fancy name for an on / off lever switch for water) and attached that water pipe to one of the recently cemented treated pine posts. That pipe is occasionally used to transfer water from the reserve water tank up to the main house water tanks and the previous connections were a bit dodgy.
The simplification of the water systems is an ongoing project and this week it involved installing a valve and an attaching a pipe to a sturdy treated pine post
I run two off grid solar power systems here. A month or two back I added more solar panels to the smaller of the two off grid solar power systems. That increase in energy generation potential meant that I also had to upgrade the battery charge controller to a more substantial controller. The incredible rain this week provided the perfect opportunity to work indoors and upgrade the controller.
A new battery charge controller was added to the smaller of the two off grid solar power systems here
Spring is almost here and I observed that the Manchurian pear is almost in bloom:
The Manchurian pear is almost in bloom this week
Other spring flowers are almost upon us here too:
Jonquils are beginning to flower as spring rapidly approaches
Almonds are almost about to produce blooms. It may be a very good almond year here
One of the huge variety of herbage plants in the orchard is producing red flowers
The many daffodils are just about to flower in full
Who doesn’t appreciate Pentstemons?
I reckon Mr Gabriel needs to get the final words this week, so here goes:

“When illusion spin her net
I'm never where I want to be
And liberty she pirouette
When I think that I am free
Watched by empty silhouettes
Who close their eyes but still can see
No one taught them etiquette
I will show another me
Today I don't need a replacement
I'll tell them what the smile on my face meant
My heart going boom boom boom
"Hey" I said "You can keep my things,
they've come to take me home."”

The temperature outside now at about 9.30pm is 5’C (41’F). So far this year there has been 583.4mm (23.0 inches) which is more than last week’s total of 530.6mm (20.9 inches).

Monday, 14 August 2017

White dog fever

This blog is now available as an mp3 podcast through the link: www.ferngladefarm.com.au

Scritchy the miniature fox terrier is the boss dog on the farm. Despite her diminutive size and advanced age, Scritchy packs a punch and is full of energy. Recently I have begun adding a third of a low dose aspirin and a teaspoon of fish oil to her breakfast. And Scritchy has responded to these additions to her breakfast by exploding forth with energy, mischief and enthusiasm in equal parts. I spotted Scritchy today on a secret canine mission climbing a steep embankment behind the house:
Scritchy the elder boss dog climbs a steep embankment today

I would have serious trouble climbing that steep embankment, but Scritchy merely powered on up, pursuing whatever secret canine business that she was on. The other dogs have expressed concerns to me about Scritchy’s increased energy, mischief and enthusiasm due to the medication. It is a worry for the other dogs:
Help us! The other dogs express their concerns to me about Scritchy the boss dogs, increased energy, mischief and enthusiasm
Whatever! I blithely ignored the other dogs as Scritchy is a problem for them to deal with. Or so I thought. Scritchy now has become a problem for me. The other day I walked in the front door only to hear a thump sound. That thump sound was then followed by Scritchy exiting the bedroom door. It occurred to me that whilst I was out of the house, Scritchy had made a dog nest on the bed. And she knows that she is not allowed on the bed. Scritchy gave me her most innocent of looks, and then as I seized her to administer swift punishment she then gave me the powerful: Innocent old dog face number three, which to be frank is quite an effective strategy.

The main problem is that I have been suffering hay fever at night for the past few nights and I have been wondering about why that may be. The reality is that because Scritchy had been surreptitiously sneaking onto the bed whenever my back is turned, I had not been suffering from hay fever, instead I’d been suffering and snuffling from white dog fever!

I now have to face the choice of closing the bedroom door whenever I’m out of the house or cutting Scritchy off the supply of low dose aspirin and fish oil. What a decision I have to make. And Scritchy is so old that she no longer cares, and as such she is untrainable.

The funny thing is that I have seen that attitude before. About two decades ago I had an elderly neighbour. That elderly neighbour was quite the character. Despite having smoked for 60+ years, she had outlived her husband by about two decades. Occasionally she used to liven up the neighbourhood and outrage the more conservative neighbours by walking around the streets in what can only be described as an chiffon babydoll outfit (or so the editor described it to me as). Yup, she was quite the character that neighbour.

Being the nice young man that I was back then, I used to help the neighbour with maintenance on her home, and in return the neighbour used to look after our dogs whilst we were away. It was a good arrangement and everyone was happy.

Well, that was until the time that the neighbour was looking after the dogs whilst we were away – and she lost Old Fluffy the former boss dog. Old Fluffy had apparently flown the coop! Old Fluffy was a Pomeranian and as such she was a right pain when she was a young dog. To be fair when the time came to serious things up, Old Fluffy stepped up to take the position of boss dog and she changed almost overnight into a lovely dog, but back in those early days, she was feral.

So when we returned, we found the neighbour in tears because she had lost Old Fluffy. Interestingly, the neighbour mentioned that yet another neighbour had recently found a new dog, except that it was a Foxxy and not a Pomeranian. At this point in the story it should be mentioned that Pomeranian dogs can look a bit fox like (particularly to people unfamiliar with dogs). Anyway, I was immediately suspicious and went post haste to see the other neighbour, and sure enough they had Old Fluffy (the foxxy). After a brief hug to quell the tears, I considered that the case of the missing fluffy was solved and closed!

That neighbour sure was entertaining. I recall another time when Melbourne was in the grip of an extended drought and the percentage of water held in the dams was reported on a daily basis in the newspapers. It even became a topic of polite everyday conversation. During those drought days, watering of gardens was restricted to only certain days and even then only during certain hours. It was a grim time. However, I noticed that the neighbour had accidentally left her garden tap running and there was water everywhere as the garden was flooded. Being the nice neighbour that I was, I turned the garden tap off and alerted the neighbour to the garden flood during that drought situation – in the nicest possible way of course. The neighbour said to me: “This is my new watering technique, I’m just flooding the garden”. I then went on to politely remind her that we were in the middle of a drought. She replied matter of factly: “I’ll be dead soon, so I don’t worry about that”. Bam!

The imagination of the population down here has been captured recently by: The War on Waste. We have no garbage service at all here and as such we produce very little waste. Anyway, few people realise it, but waste is wasted income. And who wants to waste income ? 

A few weeks ago I went to the local tip, as I usually do every six months or so, to take my accumulated metal and glass products for recycling. When I got to the tip, I discovered that the metal was still being collected for recycling, but I was directed to put the recyclable glass into the landfill area for disposal in the old quarry. I thought this was odd until I later read that the bottom had apparently fallen out of the commodity market for recycled glass.

Fortunately I produce very little waste – including those items which are intended for recycling. I was put in mind of a story of a very old friend who I haven’t seen for many decades now. That old friend actually introduced the editor and I, whom he also knew. Alas the old friendship did not survive the blossoming new relationship between the editor and I. My old friend had this strange habit where he always used to over order food at a restaurant. This was back in the recession that we apparently had to have during the 1990’s, and both the editor and I were absolutely broke at the time. The funny thing was that both the editor and I independently used to annoy our old friend by taking home whatever quantities of food where left over due to his consistent over ordering. The editor had a good thing going utilising that otherwise wasted restaurant food and her dogs were happily fed many enjoyable feeds. It wasn’t lost on me that my old friend had a sense of pride in his consumption which generated a lot of waste, and to be honest it is not dissimilar from the hedonism displayed by my old neighbour.

From what I’ve seen, waste appears to me to be a cultural phenomenon and that is intricately tied up with social status. From the perspective of both today’s and future generations, being wasteful might make you feel good, but it is not a good look.

The sun has been shining and the weather has been sweet this week. We have been busily extending the tomato enclosure. As part of that project, the drainage channel next to the now much larger enclosure was widened. That drainage channel carries water from in front of the house to the swale below the enclosure. During a heavy rainfall the volume of water in that channel can be massive. Wider channels are less likely to fail during heavy rainfall. This is what it looked like both before and after widening:
A drainage channel was widened this week: Before photo
A drainage channel was widened this week: After photo
The area where the tomato enclosure was being extended was originally covered in grass. That surface vegetation was removed using a mattock. The brown volcanic clay underneath the grass was then broken up and redistributed over that entire area so that the slope in the new area matched the slope in the existing enclosure (which you can't see but is on the other side of the picket fence in the next photo below).
The area for the new tomato enclosure extension was excavated by hand
After a day of digging the excavation job was only about half complete.
After a day of digging the excavation job was only about half complete
The next day we continued digging and began removing the fencing which was originally at one end of the enclosure but is now in the middle. You can’t have a fence in the middle of an enclosure! All of the sapling pickets and screws were saved and they will be used on the new fencing for the soon to be much larger tomato enclosure.
The next day saw more digging and the original fence was removed
By the end of that day, the excavations were completed and the slope in the new area matched that of the original enclosure. Even Toothy was impressed!
Excavations were completed and the slope in the new area matched that of the original enclosure
Soil geek alert (skip to the next paragraph if you are easily bored!) The brown volcanic clay has to have a layer of mulch and compost applied to it over the next week or so before plants can be grown in it. Even then it will take many months before that mulch and compost turns into excellent soil. As a comparison, the older soil which had been fed with mulch and compost over the past two years looked superb as it was a rich black loam which was full of organic matter, moisture and worms. Good stuff!
The older soil in that enclosure was a rich black loam full of organic matter, moisture and worms
Nothing goes to waste here and even the rocks that we have been uncovering recently in the excavations are put to good use. All excess rocks are now being used to fill rock gabion walls, and I may not have mentioned the gabions for a few months, but the third gabion is now almost full!
The third rock gabion is now almost full
The grass that I removed during the excavations was also not wasted. I placed the grass into a wheelbarrow and then dumped it into the orchard where it was used to fill some of the many holes in the ground. The holes were created many long years in the past (decades ago perhaps) where an old tree may have fallen over taking its root systems with it and leaving a giant hole in the ground to mark its location.
The vegetation and soil life removed from the excavated area was used to fill up holes in ground in the orchard
I would have used the little Honda push mower to flatten out the lumps of soil, but the bees were enjoying the late winter warmth and those holes were a bit too close to the bee hive for my comfort! My first rule of beekeeping is: Don’t annoy the bees.
The bees appear to have over wintered well and were enjoying the late winter warmth today
The other day I noticed a young Crimson Rosella sitting on the weather station:
A young Crimson Rosella was sitting on the weather station
Well of course, that young Crimson Rosella was keeping look out for another Rosella who was on the ground chowing down on a pile of dog manure. I told you nothing goes to waste here. And I have not picked up dog manure for at least a decade as the birds are well onto that gear!
Another Rosella was on the ground chowing down on a pile of dog manure
I’d like to change the tone of the discussion and end the blog on a high brow note by sharing some of the flowers with the readers:
It is hellebore time here – White
It is hellebore time here – Purple or is it Pink, I can’t tell
It is hellebore time here – White with a black centre
This succulent is producing flowers
The lavender has continued to flower all winter
One of the hundreds of broad bean plants looks set to flower
The temperature outside now at about 6.30pm is 11’C (52’F). So far this year there has been 530.6mm (20.9 inches) which is more than last week’s total of 519.4mm (20.4 inches).