Saturday, 31 January 2009

David Marr fluffs his mate Kirby

We'll be rid of Kirby shortly, and already he's angling to top up his enormous pension with a UN gig.

Who else to fluff up his chances of a well paid sinecure than his old mate, David Marr.

Marr says this is in his fluff-piece:

Traditionally only chief justices are formally farewelled by the court. The rest are expected to disappear without fuss.

Exactly. Why don't you whisper that to Kirby, and tell him to bugger off into obscurity ane leave the rest of us in peace. And at age 70, surely it's time the silly old fart released himself from the government tit once and for all. If he takes a job with the UN, he should give up his pension.

Let's build lots of empty buildings

The latest wheeze by our overlords and masters is to spend our tax money on propping up the commercial property sector.

I suspect arms have been twisted by the likes of the BLF (or whatever they call themselves these days) in order to keep union construction workers on high paying rackets.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd says the Government will pay for half of the plan to help finance commercial property projects, including housing developments, shopping centres and office buildings.

Just who is going to occupy those shopping centres and factories and office blocks once they are built? If anything, the vacancy rates for existing commercial properties are about to go up. Why dump more property into a market that is softening? Don't they realise that this is how markets work? When demand dries up, supply should automatically be cut off by the market. It makes no sense at all to increase supply when demand is flat or falling.

If this one action doesn't convince you that we are ruled by economic illiterates, nothing will. When government starts interfering like this, you end up with white elephants that are never occupied, and end up being bulldozed 20 years down the track after they become blighted and horrible from lack of maintenance - for without a rental income, no maintenance can be performed.

The Urban Taskforce's Aaron Gadiel has welcomed the plan to unlock credit for developers.

Developers? They're going to support nasty, grasping, greedy, profit-driven, Rolls Royce-driving, trample on the underclass, uncaring, urban sprawling, habitat destroying, white shoe brigade developers? I thought developers were the spawn of Satan to the left, profiteering at the expense of the "little guy". Why haven't the Greens gone nuts at this? Every other time they see any sign of government support for evil capitalist developers in this neck of the woods, they go ape shit.

The market for apartments in Australia has turned to crap. Prices are dropping rapidly. Why should this encourage the government to step in and provide support? I know they are trying to link this to support for "affordable housing", but if they think there is a linkage there, they have rocks in their heads.

Think about where a lot of the apartments are built - areas like the Gold Coast and the Sunshine Coast. Apartments there sell for millions of dollars. Many are bought by "speculators" and landlords, and are then rented to holidaymakers. Building more apartments on the Gold Coast for the family holiday market is hardly going to fix the "affordable housing" problem in inner city Sydney. Especially when fewer families are likely to be taking holidays for the next few years. Apartments are not being built at present because there is no demand for them. Or at least nothing like the demand that was there 2 years ago.

A hell of a lot of apartments that have been built in recent years have been snapped up by investors using negative gearing. I personally know a couple of blokes in their 50's who were worried about their lack of superannuation, so they borrowed half a million and bought some cheap apartments. Do we really need to prop up landlords? (Having been an apartment owning landlord, I feel I have some right to comment on this). What goes up can just as easily go down. When you buy an asset, you accept that there is a downside risk as far as the price is concerned. I didn't think that a left leaning government would feel that they have a duty to support "speculators" with money taken from "battlers".

Once again, Krudd shows that he has a shakey grasp of reality.

On top of that, the construction industry uses lots of cement and steel - two products that produce a lot of greenhouse gases when they are manufactured. Can anyone see the irony in a government that aims to cut greenhouse gases actually propping up an industry that pump out lots of those self-same gases?

This mob don't know whether they are Arthur or Martha.

Try this poll

My Political Views
I am a right social moderate
Right: 7.02, Libertarian: 0.59

Political Spectrum Quiz

My Foreign Policy Views
Score: 7.73

Political Spectrum Quiz

My Culture War Stance
Score: 4.76

Political Spectrum Quiz

I guess you could summarise this as "Kill them all, let God sort 'em out".

Can Telstra utterly screw up? Yes we can!

We have two sets of lines coming into our house - a personal line, with Optus, and a business line, with Telstra. The business line supports a fax and phone, which J uses to run her company.

Last week, J got a call from a customer saying our fax was not working. On investigation, she found it had been disconnected. We'd paid our bill, so there was no explanation for what happened.

J spent two hours on the phone with Telstra. Two very annoying and frustrating hours. For some unknown reason, someone at Telstra had decided to cut that line off. At first Telstra thought she might have decided to move to another carrier - they asked her to call a certain number and listen to the recorded message - that would tell her which carrier the line was with. She rang it, and the message said, "thank you for selecting Telstra".

Apart from taking two hours to sort out, it also took several phone calls to a number of different divisions to sort it out - and none of those divisions were able to talk to each other and pass on information about her problem. When I got home, I found she had wasted half a day trying to get it fixed.

We experienced something like this at work last month. The company I am currently working for spends a lot on Telstra services, and has thousands of phone lines with them at different sites. Those lines are used to book incoming sales orders. One of our offices suddenly found that instead of getting dozens of calls per day, it was getting none. Then, the manager of a competing company down the road rang them to say that they were getting a lot of calls from people wanting to talk to our company! It turned out that, out of the blue, someone at Telstra had made a change in some software that diverted all the calls from our company office to our competitor. Talk about an utter balls up.

So I was not surprised when they cut off J's business line. We don't know how long it was down for - potentially days, which could have cost thousands of dollars in lost orders.

Here's the kicker. I just got a call from Telstra. They were not calling to apologise for their catastrophic and uncalled for cock up. No.

They were trying to get me to convert our Optus line to Telstra!

The Irish backpacker on the other end was most insistent that I listen to her spiel. I had to yell at her to get her to shutup, and I then told her about Telstra's recent attempt to liquidiate J's business. She took that in her stride, and then carried on with trying to get me to dump Optus.

I had to yell at her to go fuck herself and then hang up in order to get rid of her. Even after yelling at her to go fuck herself, I could still hear her babbling down the line as I went to hangup. I reasoned that if I didn't make it abundantly clear to her that I didn't want to switch to Telstra, they'd just call back.

I hope I made my point.

The good, the bad and the ouchy

The good thing about this week is that I managed to fit a number of long-ish rides in, totalling nearly 220km. For me, that's really good. Before I get too exultant though, it's worth remembering that Chook rode from Sydney to Goulburn a few weeks ago, taking the long road (294km) and did that in a day.

I will continue to persevere, weather permitting.

The bad is that I gave the Armoury Cafe in Homebush another go, and was not particularly impressed. The original cafe suffered an attack of arson a few years ago, and ended up as a crispy pile of tangled beams. It was rebuilt and re-opened not long ago. I dropped in last weekend, and without any exaggeration at all, I'd say there were a billion cyclists sitting there, drinking coffee and having a mid-ride feed.

I'm not a big fan of eating during a ride, but since I was there and needed some energy, I went with what I thought was the least offensive menu item - a bowl of bircher muesli.

I love a good bircher muesli. I used to go to Melbourne every year, and during that trip, I'd make a pilgrimage to a (now closed) restaurant called Halcyon, just to have their bircher. In my mind, it is still the Mecca of bircher. They served it with grated apple on top, together with some twists of thinly grated lemon rind.

The Armoury has not picked up that mantle. If anything, it is the Rwanda of Bircher. It is the Kazakhstan of Bircher. It was a thick lump of grains, held together by half a kilo of honey. It was like eating a molten honey-nut bar. I detected no yogurt, no grated apple and no lemon zest (three things I now put on mine when I make it at home, reminding me forever of Halcyon). Riding home afterwards, I felt like I had a brick moving through my intestines.

I always give a cafe a second chance, and sometimes a third chance, so I went back again during the week. This time, I had their special bacon and egg roll, simply because it was listed as being served with home made tomato chutney. I am a sucker for good home made tomato chutney, jam or relish.

It's great when you find a place that serves a great relish, but this place was not it. I know that a bacon and egg roll might sound like an odd choice for a mid-ride feed (and it was), but once again, for a place that gets a gajillion cyclists on weekends, they had nothing on the menu that was really suitable as a light snack.

The ugly part was when I left. Outside the cafe, there are half a dozen fountains that squirt water onto the footpath. I love them. Kids play in them when its hot, they're not some wanky modernist artistic "masterpiece", and they fit in well.

I decided to ride through them to cool down. In another park at Homebush, the fountain from the 2000 Olympics is setup on a big stand, and you can ride under it on a hot day and get hit by a deluge of freezing water - a great thing when the mercury is up around 40.

I rode through a fountain once, and it cooled down my left side, so I turned around and rode through again, hoping to cool my right side.

I was halfway through the fountain when both wheels went out from underneath me. The path is polished stone, flawless and smooth as glass. On a hot day, when water is added, it has a friction co-efficient close to zero.

I crashed down on one side, bruising my leg from hip to knee, and barking a bit of skin off one elbow. As usual when I hit the deck, I just lay there on my back for 10 seconds having a quiet groan. Since this was right in front of the cafe, about half the patrons stood up to see if I was ok, and a few came over to see whether I was conscious or not. There was nothing broken - just me lying there thinking "idiot". One mum had a little girl with her, and when the girl saw me hit the ground, she started crying (projected pain I guess). Even though my bruised leg was killing me, I had to hop up and jaunt around a bit to show her I was ok, and she stopped crying.

A minute or two later, I was back on the road, heading home. Once they saw I was ok, one table raised their beer glasses at me and gave a small cheer. Thankfully, no one called out "taxi!" That would have been embarrassing.

What sort of damn-fool artist designs a water feature (or an "ooh-ah" as I call them) in a public place where people are walking and riding by, and sits it on frictionless, polished stone? Only a creative type could be that thick.

The worst thing about typing this story is that my elbow is still weeping, and it sticks to the arm rest of my office chair every time I lean on it. And when I rode home, the blood that had run down my forearm immediately solidified in the heat, tangling itself into the (many) hairs on my arm. Every time I bent my arm to have a drink, the bloody crust would stretch and rip a few hairs out. Ouch. That's why very keen cyclists shave their legs - it is nothing to do with wind resistance. Rather, taking bandages off hurts less when you aren't ripping out leg hairs with them.

But apart from some aches and pains, I am fit to ride some more.

Friday, 30 January 2009

What is it with Palestinians and toys?

I was so taken by this photo in the SMH that I took a photo of it (I was in a cafe at the time, and the paper is from last weekend). The caption reads, "Khalid Abed Rabbo sitting in his family's ruined home, clutching his children's toys".

I searched for this photo online, and could only find this one in The Age:

It's been cropped, and the caption is different - but it's the same photo.

I think we have seen this sort of heart-string tugging propaganda before....

Although the house is rubble, the toys look like they are spotlessly clean. Hmm....

Not putting your global warming money where your mouth is

Don't you just hate people that ponce around making statements about global warming, how terrible it will be for us and how we all have to take action now - and then they do fuck-all themselves?

Here is an illustration of a council beclowning itself - a cycle path beside the Parramatta River. The concrete is very new and shiny - this has been laid in the last year or so. It's definitely been laid after Algore started boring or scaring the pants off the rest of us.

The council that built this is very concerned about global warming, and has adopted a strategy to fight it. Yet look what happens during a high tide - the path floods. To the left of this path are lots of low-lying playing fields and the like.

If the council was that worried about a rise in sea levels and so on, why didn't it spend a bit of money building this path on a berm 2 or 3 feet high?

Idiots, with a capital "I".

Pollsters will ask these questions.........

*P4. Thinking about Australia again, in a short paragraph please tell us what is the most important issue facing the country. If you do not wish to answer this question please write N/A in the field provided.

Answer - Putting David Hicks in front of a firing squad.

Boy admits to being wrong

Once in a blue moon, I do get it wrong. I thought the rebuilding of this path was going to result in a lot of trees getting the chop, which would hopefully lead to greenie head's imploding.

Damn, I was wrong. Instead of chopping into the trees, the engineers are chopping into the road. The temporary fence is sitting on a new gutter, showing where the path will be built out to. That section between the new gutter and the pink path is the bit of road that will be disappearing. That will be made up (presumably) by eliminating the existing bike lane on the other side of the road. Essentially, the road is being picked up and moved two feet to the right, allowing path widening on this side.

The engineers have chickened out though - they're only widening a short section of path, and have stopped just short of the really difficult bit - the bit where they will probably have no choice but to chainsaw some big trees. I guess the money has run out for this year, so unless Krudd decides to stimulate us some more, I will have to wait until next year to see if we can explode some greenie heads (I figure that if you present a greenie with a choice between a tree and a non-polluting form of green transport, their brain will melt down at the idea of having to choose between two different options. Greens want it all, and can't comprehend the concept that many things in life involves trade offs between the lesser of two evils).

Not much recycling is happening on this project either. I thought they'd leave the existing path in situ, and just pour a bit of concrete into the gap on the side.


There is a digger of some sort there right now tearing up the old pink path, so a shiny new concrete strip can be laid along the entire length. Personally, I favour that idea. Bugger having a path in three strips that will suffer in the long term from subsidence, cracking and so on.

But just think of the amount of CO2 that will be released from having to produce all that cement for this path (cement production is an incredibly energy intensive process, requiring lots of heat). It just goes to show that even a green initiative, like a good bike path, requires CO2 producing, energy intensive processes and capital equipment (bulldozers, cement mixers, trucks and so on) that require fuel. Bugger the idea of building this with a pick, shovel and wheelbarrow.

One thing I hate about a lot of greenies is that they decry trucks, cement, cars and so on, but if you asked them to actually build this path using no mechanical aids, they'd quit at the first blister. Twats.

Thursday, 29 January 2009

Ivan Milat "rushed" to hospital?

The cafe in the building where I work has a TV permanently tuned to Sky News near the coffee machine. I was standing there idly the other day, watching as the barista made my latte, when the news scrolled across the bottom the screen that Ivan Milat had sawn off a finger and been "rushed" to hospital.

Some might like to believe that all our prison staff wish to keep Milat happy, alive and comfortable for the rest of his days, but I am enough of a cynic to think that "rushed" might not have been the operative word.

We have been told that Milat took 20 minutes to saw off his finger (he'll never get invited to join the yakuza), and then sat down and called a guard because he wasn't feeling well.

I imagine the scene in the guard's office went something like this:

Two guards are sitting at a table, playing chess. A third strolls in the door.

Strolling guard: "Hey fellas, Ivan's lopped off one of his appendages".

Chess playing guard: "Please tell me it was his head".

Stroller: "No such luck - he's only short a little pinkie".

Chess playing guard: "Bugger. I knew I should have left him with a bigger knife".

Stroller: "He's complaining about not feeling well and wanting to go to hospital."

Chess: "Well, I guess we'd better organise an ambulance for him. Anyone know the phone number by chance?"

The other two guards look at each other and shrug.

Chess: "OK, in that case, I'll go look it up".

Other chess playing guard: "Not 'til we finish the game. Your move".

Half an hour later........

Stroller: "Gee, that was exciting to watch. I've never seen anyone take half an hour to make one move".

Chess: "Yeah, well he had me at check-mate just as you walked in the door, but I wanted to make sure there was no way out of it. Righto, where's the white pages?"

Moaning can be heard from down the corridor.

Milat: "Where's my ambulance? Have you bastards called one yet?"

Stroller: "We're getting there Ivan - keep your socks on. And your fingers too."

Chess: "Har har har. I'm sure the white pages are around here somewhere. Anyone seen them lately?"

Milat: "It's triple-zero, you ignorant bastards. I'm dying in here!"

Chess: "Triple-zero - that's where the white pages are! Room triple zero, down in the basement. (sticks head out door). Thanks Ivan! I'll go down and have a look for them! Back soon!"

Stroller: "Before going down to the basement, have you studied the safety checklist for working in underground spaces?"

Chess: "Bugger. No, I haven't. Anyone seen that checklist?"

Milat: "You pricks! It's triple-zero!"

Stroller: "We know Ivan, we know. But we can't go down there until unless all protocols are strictly followed. I'm sure you understand."

Milat: "Wankers. Bastards. Fucking murderers."

Chess: "Oh, Ivan - that's a bit rich. Just hang on deary, we'll find that number for the ambulance soon."

......ambulance arrives 3 hours later.

Chess: "Righto Ambo, Mr Milat wants to go to hospital, and he's in a hurry."

Ambo: "Oh, the poor little lambikins, did he hurt himself? Did he specify which hospital he wanted to go to?"

Chess: "Nope."

Ambo: Good-oh. We'll have him there in no time".

Ambulance goes through gate of prison. Instead of turning towards Goulburn, which is 10km away, it goes in the opposite direction at 100 miles an hour.

Ten minutes later....

Milat: "Hey, shouldn't we be there by now? The hospital is just up the road."

Ambo: "Yeah mate, it's just up the road alright. About another 300km and we'll be there."

Milat: "You dirty bastards! Where are you taking me?"

Ambo: "Cootamundra. And try not to bleed on the floor will you."

Milat: "I insist on going to Goulburn hospital! Take me there this instant, or I'll sue you for everything you're worth."

Ambo: "Well, you've got me scared. We'll take a shortcut."

Ambulance turns off the Hume Highway onto a gravel road.

Milat: "You (bounces off ceiling of ambulance) bastards! I'm (slams into wall) not going (hits roof again) to forget this!"

And that is how he was "rushed" to hospital.

What did you do on Australia Day?

Actually, I did stuff all. Went for a long ride (for me) of about 5okm, then flaked out all afternoon, utterly exhausted. I went to put the lamb chops on the BBQ, and found that the second burner had gone the way of the first - ie, dead BBQ. The horror, the horror........ no BBQ on Australia day.

However, three things did intersect and force me to get off my arse and do something I should have done a long time ago. Those things were Private Sher, Trooper Donaldson and Australia Day - to me representing Duty, Courage and Service. If mention of those names stirs something deep within you, you'll understand where I am coming from. If not, go read a different blog.

I put together a "care pack" for a soldier who has deployed to a foreign land. We've never met - we only know of each other through a mutual friend. But he's over there, and I'm over here, and I figured it's time someone else apart from his family sent him some home comforts. You don't need to know someone directly to send a package - you can send one to "any Australian soldier" in say Afghanistan, and know that a digger over there will be munching on Minties or Anzac biscuits in a few week time.

It costs nothing to send a package to troops in the field (so long as you put the right address on it). I bought a BM sized box from the post office (about the size of a shoe box) for $2 and then filled it to the 2kg permissible limit (using electronic scales in the kitchen).

The sad thing is that 2kg is not much. I felt bad about the rather pathetic amount of stuff that I could fit into a 2kg limit.

So I bought a second $2 box, and sent two boxes.

There's no point sending things they can buy or scrounge for themselves in whatever dusty location they're in, and I guess each and every deployment is different in terms of what the troops would like and what they can get. What you send needs to be light and non-perishable, and hopefully meaningful. Here is the sort of stuff I sent:

  • Anzac biscuits
  • Bloodnut biscuits
  • Minties
  • Mixed pack of chockie bars (they may turn into a molten disaster by the time they arrive - we'll see)
  • Twisties
  • Milo
  • Peanut paste (smooth and crunchie) - they can get vegemite, but in this particular location, no peanut paste for you
  • 2 minute noodles
  • magazines (all they are getting is Women's Weekly and so on)
It can take 3 weeks to get there, so we'll see what sort of feedback I get on what worked and what didn't. These are small, simple comforts and reminders of home. I'm going to save the magazines that I read and send them in the next shipment - soldiering can be boring as hell, and reading can help pass the time. No one is going to care if they are second hand and a month old when they arrive - by the time they have been passed around the base, they'll look like a salivating dog has been chewing on them.

If you're interested, try sending a package to Afghanistan:

"An Australian Soldier"
Op Slipper
Australian Defence Force

If you personally know of someone who is overseas, you can ask for their AFPO address and go from there.

You need to fill out a customs declaration at the Post Office when you send it, and you need to show ID, but that's it (so try and remember what you put in the box!)

For me, this simple act made it the most meaningful Australia Day I've ever experienced.

And the first black president is.... Condi Rice

Heard this on a podcast today, and googled it when I got home.

You can read through all the constitutional guff if you like, but in essence, during the time between 12:00, when Bush and Cheney stepped down, and 12:01 when Biden took his oath of office, the next person in line was the Secretary of State - Condi Rice.

The first black, female president of the US.

Sorry O, but you really are (a) number two.

This is the sort of thing that will be an after-dinner argument between constitutional geeks for at least the next century.

Oh, and Obama is the 43rd president. 43 men have been president, but one of them served two terms that were separated by someone else. Grover Cleveland had something to do with it. Beats me - I don't know my US history that well.

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Burning our money

I love the Burning our money blog, which you can find on my blog roll. Here is my local homage to that great blog.

I write this from experience, having seen this sort of thing happen in the public sector agency where I worked.

Krudd wants to spend our money to "get the economy moving". He could just give it back to us in the form of tax cuts, but that would not be "wise" spending. Krudd, being the All Knowing, can spend our money much more wisely than we can.

With that, it is worth bearing in mind the four ways to spend money.

You can spend your money on yourself - that spending gives good value.

You can spend your money on someone else - a present. Many presents are shockers, a complete waste.

You an spend someone else's money on yourself - think travel expenses. I always spend more lavishly on myself when I am spending someone else's money than my own.

You can spend someone else's money on someone else - which is usually an utter waste. All government spending falls into this category.

The fastest way for Krudd to crank up the spending is to expand existing spending programs. The bureaucracy is given $10 billion, and told to spread it around all the existing programs that the government is running.

Let's say for arguments sake that one of those programs is building heroin injecting rooms (of which we have one in Sydney, in Kings Cross). Forget the morality and effectiveness and all that - just assume that building them is seen as a Good Thing and that we need more of them.

There are about 150 councils in NSW. Let's say the program gets $150 million, so each council gets $1 million to build an injecting centre.

Most councils would prefer to spend the money on cracking roads and failing drainage and the like, but they are told they have to use it to build an injecting room, whether they need one or not.

Out our way, $1 million would buy you a small block of land, and little else. So the council might buy a vacant block and stick up a "Coming soon" sign, and then do nothing as the money has run out.

Out at Bourke, you are essentially given 50 acres for free, and the council builds the Taj Mahal.

Except in Bourke, they have no heroin addicts. The local member opens the centre, and then the promptly lock it up and board up the windows.

But I forgot one thing - the way Labor operates is via a spoils system, so the councils in Labor seats get $1.95 million each, and those in Liberal or National seats get a packet of Smarties.

So our council now has $950,000 to build a centre on its vacant block. Which it duly does.

Our local member, Angela D'Amore, ponces up and cuts a ribbon and declares it open. She makes a nice speech thanking Kevin Rudd for giving us the money (how can someone give us what was our money in the first place?). There is a nice brass plaque on the wall to commemorate the affair. Photos are taken and press releases are issued.

Six months later, it still hasn't opened for business.

Council can't afford to employ anyone to work there. The grant covered the cost of building it, but provided no funds to run it.

One year later, the place burns down, because no maintenance was done on the place. Council can't lodge an insurance claim, because they couldn't afford to take out insurance on the building.

The taxpayer, now homeless because the economy is on the ropes, uses the burned out shell as a place to sleep.

The heroin addicts don't care - they inject where they have always injected, which is in the safety of their Housing Commission flats.

Except for the one homeless addict, who lives in a culvert at the far end of the suburb. He never would have used the injecting centre, because it was too far from his culvert anyway.

This is the way Krudd and Co will "wisely" spend your money.

Monday, 26 January 2009

More adventures in straw

Since my stories regarding the hippies and the straw bale houses have garnered a larger than usual number of comments and questions, I will write some more on this matter in a Q&A format.

Q. Do they wash away in the rain?

A. Only if you are dumb enough to not allow for a large roof overhang. Given this is Ostralia, and the country is generally flippin' hot, wide verandahs are a great idea anyway. For a single storey house, eaves of 75cm are the minimum. If you get rain that slants in a lot, go wider with the roof.

It's important to remember that the outer layer of render is full of lime, making it similar to cement. Does your cement render wash off your brick house in the rain? If the answer is 'yes', sue your builder.

Many years ago, the Big T's parents decided to build a house out of rammed earth near Margaret River. They had terrible problems with the council, who were also worried about it washing away in the rain (because they heard the word 'earth', and thought the house was just rammed mud). Rammed earth walls contain 10% cement (help me out here Big T - long time since I worked on that cement mixer), so they are very unlikely to wash away.

The only troublesome time with straw bale houses and rain is if it rains before you get a cap on the wall. Before leaving the site each day, you have to put plastic or tarps over the top of the walls and weight them down.

Q. Aren't they full of mice?

A straw bale contains very little oxygen as it is. Once you wrap it in render on all four sides, it is hermetically sealed. The fun thing to watch as you are applying the first coat of render is to watch all the mice come rushing out when there is only a small patch of unrendered bale left. They know the O2 is running low, and they split. Once the wall is sealed, nothing can live in there. If the bales are dry before the render goes in, they won't get mouldy or break down. There are houses in the US (Montana I think) that are 100 years old, and when they've taken off some render to have a look, the bales have been as good as new. Think mummification.

This is also why they won't burn in a bushfire. Fire needs oxygen. Even though the outer wall can get stinking hot, the straw inside will not burn or smoulder without oxygen.

Q. I'm worried about bushfires. What should I do?

A. Move elsewhere.

Or, slap a thicker layer of render on the outside, keep your gutters clear, close the gaps below the roof and clear out all the crap around your house. That's a good start.

Q. Do they look like crap inside?

A. They look 'rustic'. If you like that look, then they look great. If you hate that look, cover the walls in plasterboard and make the inside look like every other suburban rabbit hutch. In fact, if you hate the look, build with brick. As the bale nazi would say, "No straw for you!"

Q. How do you run wiring and plumbing?

A. You run wiring in conduit into the bales before applying any render. You can cut a trench using a chainsaw (chainsaws are the tool to have with straw bale building) and slot the conduit into that. If you need more wiring later, well, you've fucked up.

As for plumbing, fanatics would build wet areas out of bales, but I wouldn't. Build your bathrooms and laundry and maybe even your kitchen out of something else.

Q. Are you better off with an unsupported wall, or using a stud frame and in-filling?

A. I've done both (once). Stud frames are not hard to build (even I can do it, sort of), and they are not that expensive. However, fitting the bales into them can be a pain in the arse.

When it comes to doors and windows, I think the whole design of the house needs to be rethought. Instead of taking a design that works well for a brick and tile house and simply building it out of bales, you should think about what works with bales and what doesn't, and design accordingly.

For instance, I'd build windows right up to the roof. Putting bales on top of a window frame is a pain. Your house will look odd, but be easier to deal with. I'd even recommend doing windows that go floor to ceiling. Same with doors - go for really tall doors, or put a wooden or feature window above the door, rather than bales.

But that's just me. Putting up a straight bale wall without any holes in it is quick and cheap. As soon as you put holes in it (doors and windows), you add complexity, and complexity adds time and money.

Q. Can you paint it?

A. Sure, it's just render. I think you need to be careful about the final coat of render, and that's it. Because you are using dirt, it is darker than normal cement render, so you might need more paint. If the surface isn't treated properly, the paint will peel.

Me, I'd leave it alone and simply hang a lot of artwork.

Q. How do you hang artwork?

A. Picture rails. You can't whack a nail into a bale.

Q. Maintenance. What about maintenance?

A. Dunno. Ask me in 10 years time.

Q. Does it crack?

A. The way we did it was to build up multiple layers of render. The "original" method is to get a whipper snipper and use it to "clean" all the stray, sticky-outy bits of straw off the bales before putting on the first coat. You take all the little bits of straw and cut them into segments an inch or so long (I think) and mix that into the first coat of mud. The little bits of straw act like re-bar does in a concrete floor. You can cheat and put up plastic mesh instead (you staple it into the bales) and apply render to that. The plastic supposedly acts in the same way and stops cracking. You also really work that first layer into the straw (more render ends up on your feet on the first few coats than on the walls - but then it's only mud.)

We were given formula for each coat, but the idea was that you added more lime as you went out. The first coat can be really grainy and lumpy, but you want the last coat to be smooth. Lippy got a professional plasterer to help with the render - you should have seen that bloke flick mud onto a wall - just magic.

Q. What if rain gets into it?

A. If the straw goes mouldy, I think you are screwed - total or partial rebuild required.

Q. Would you build with it?

A. I'll give that a qualified 'yes'. It would depend on the block.

The best idea the hippies introduced me to was this idea of building "pavilions". Let's say you buy a block up the coast somewhere, have limited holidays in which to build but want to do it yourself. The pavilion idea is perfect.

On your first holiday, you build a one roomed pavilion. Take your pick as to which function it will have - I'd do the lounge/dining room first - a big open room that you can also sleep in until a bedroom is built. [You cook on a BBQ and wash under a portable shower strung over a tree.]

Next holidays, you build another pavilion - say a bedroom. By keeping them as separate buildings, you don't have complications with joining walls or rooflines. You can build square, rectangular or round buildings - take your pick. Yes, round rooms are very easy with straw bales.

If the kids want to stay, get them to build another pavilion as their bedroom. If more guests come to stay, they can put up another pavilion for sleeping. You link the pavilions with boardwalks if required (covered if it rains a lot).

You build as time (and money) permits, and depending on need. Expansion is easy (if you have the room).

If I was in a hot climate, the cooking area would be an open walled tin shed with a concrete floor and flyscreens all around. But that's just me.

Councils and building inspectors would probably freak at all those ideas, but that's life.

Funnily enough, BundyMan (who lived in the Territory for 20-odd years) thought that was the answer to a lot of Aboriginal housing. Forget building 3 bedroom, 2 bathroom brick and tile bungalows like we have in Sydney or Melbourne, where all the materials have to be shipped in (at enormous expense) and where all the labour has to be flown in (at enormous expense).

If I can put up a straw bale building using a reasonable amount of local materials with simple tools, then the blackfellas should be able to do the same.

I will post more on that idea later.

Pooping in the nest

One of the things that constantly brings joy and mirth into my otherwise dull and suburban life is the behaviour of the ferals in the housing commission developments roundabout. Oh, how I wish we were back in the east, sipping lattes, swigging unoaked Chardonnay (oaked is for the uncultured, uncivilised suburbanites) and generally bantering about the latest play we had seen at The Wharf.

[I'm not kidding about most of that. We used to have season tickets to the Sydney Theatre Company, I had a room full of very expensive Chardonnay (oaked and unoaked) and my favourite coffee is still a latte - and I did live in the eastern suburbs for over a decade].

But one thing we lacked in the east was an underclass. Sure, we had a number of homeless loons that hung around the cross, and I guess you could count the drunken pommie backpackers at the Bondi Hotel as an underclass (shaven heads, soccer shirts, sunburn, tattoos and muffin tops are not a good look) - but the only place where we had a proper, multi-generational gathering of dole-bludging bumwipes was at Woolloomoolloo - and we avoided that area most of the time. One could spend their entire existance in the east without once bumping into a member of the tit-sucking victimhood.

Alas, that is not the case here. The government, in its infinite wisdom, decided that the unmotivated, spiteful little tramps should be exposed to the productive members of society, which meant dropping housing commission developments slap bang in the middle of places where "working families" want to go. Wasn't that a great idea - putting thieving families with horribly expensive drug habits right in the middle of working families, who have houses chock-full of all the goodies that study, hard work and effort tend to bring. I was going to say "thrift" as well, but given that most of the people around here have hocked themselves to the eyeballs in order to get an Audi A6 and a plasma TV the size of a ping-pong table, I'll leave thrift out of it.

Here we have one of our two "open prisons" as I like to call them. Notice that some little bumwipe has decided to poop in the nest by spraying graffiti over their own home.

Most of the time, I'd say "you can sit in your own filth", but it then struck me that there might be old age pensioners stuck in a place like this, jammed up cheek by jowl with a wife beating Ice addict who has just avoided jail by claiming to be a victim of society, for the 78th time.

If we're going to blow a stack of taxpayer cash on a stimulus, at least use part of it to build a pile of prisons. It's good for the construction industry (which is in the dumps), it will provide ongoing employment (for warders) and it will keep the toerags separated from the rest of us. Even better, build the prisons on Christmas Island, and let them swim home when they've done their time.

Hooray for Epping, hooray at last

I humbly present to your photographic evidence that after four attempts, I finally made it to the Epping Road cycleway. I don't think anyone is going to be employing me to lead an expedition to the North Pole anytime soon. I have less navigation ability than a Lebanese taxi driver.

I managed to get thoroughly lost in the back streets of Ryde before finally popping out unexpectedly onto Lane Cove Road - which was a very bad place to be. It's 3 lanes each way, 70km/h (with the traffic going much faster than that) and steeply uphill. I developed a theory as to how some cyclists get hit from behind by cars whilst desperately trying to avoid being clobbered from behind by a car.

On a road like that, let's say you have two cars in the left lane, coming up fast behind a cyclist plodding away in the same lane. Although the leading car has plenty of time to change lanes to go around the cyclist, they wait until the last possible minute to do so - and they may not even bother indicating as they do so - they just amble to the right a bit and sweep past a few inches away from the cyclist.

If the trailing car is tailgating, or the driver is fiddling with the radio or mobile phone or whatever, they have no warning of an approaching bike, and are suddenly shocked to find that the car in front has moved over and they suddenly have the bum of a cyclist filling their vision.

And then the bum of that cyclist hits their windscreen with a loud crunch, and we have another "tragedy" on our hands.

Except it is everything but a tragedy. It is not an accident. It is a completely avoidable collision, brought about by a pair of drivers being idiots.

So if you learn nothing else today, learn this - if you are driving along a road with 2 or more lanes, and you see a cyclist plodding along up ahead, change lanes NOW. Don't wait until you are right up their bum.

[As an aside, if you are driving along say the Hume Highway and you see a car on the side of the road with the driver changing a flat, do the driver a big favour and get into the inside lane. Don't blat past them at 110, with your bumper a foot away from their back. I hate it when people do that. They've got two whole lanes of road, yet they choose to fly past an unprotected human as rapidly and closely as possible.]

The RTA has plastered the cycle path with lots of examples of this amazing "lane changing" signage. The idea is that at certain points, pedestrians can cross the path to a bus stop, pedestrian bridge, shops etc. In some places, the location of where the pedestrians are supposed to walk changes, so the signage is there to instruct them to go from walking on the left hand side of the path to the right hand side. All it did was confuse the hell out of me. I bet they held a risk assessment workshop, and decided that signage like this was required to reduce their liability when there is a crash. Idiots.

The best to stop pedestrians and bikes from colliding is to physically separate them. The RTA has no problem putting up fences alongside roads to stop pedestrians from walking on the road with the cars, but can't see that the same idea makes sense when it comes to two wheeled vehicles and foot traffic.

Although this couple appear to be using the crosswalk, they aren't. Just before I took this photo, the woman was walking in the pedestrian lane and the man in the bike lane. Just as I took it, both moved into the bike lane. Idiots.

Further along, the cycleway moves onto the "road", and it should be clear to all that the red bit is for buses, the green bit is for bikes, and the bit on the side where the bloke in blue is walking is for blokes in blue who are walking. I bet though that if I hung out here long enough, I'd see people walking up and down the green lanes. And possibly even the red lane. How much clearer do we have to make it?

And here we have the dipshit of the week - a lone pedestrian using the bike path across the Harbour Bridge. Spotting these turkeys is just a matter of time - if you wait long enough, an idiot will present themselves.

On a happier note, as I was going through town, I spotted a Police car blocking a street down near Millers Point. Being a sticky beak, and having nothing better to do, I went down that way for a look. Last time I did that, I got closer to a shooting at the Casino than I really wanted to be, so I approached with caution. It turned out that the road was closed for a wheelchair race (the next photo is a really bad photo of a wheelchair race, taken from 100 metres away). The Police said I could go through, but I would have to walk - no riding the bike. Since I have a bad habit of slipping over when walking in my bike shoes (because the metal cleats hang out the bottom and turn them into ice skates), I decided that discretion was the better part of valour and tried a zoom shot. Utter fail.

I must say, the Police were doing a fantastic job of discouraging anyone from going and having a look. If you read somewhere that no one is turning up to watch disabled athletes race, keep this in mind. The last time I saw this many Police and barriers, APEC was in town.

Having almost ridden through a Police checkpoint during APEC, I was scanning the rooftops for snipers as I approached the barriers. It's not that we are disinterested in sports like this - rather, it's the modern 'elf and safety culture that is preventing public participation.

Australia Day banners on the Pyrmont Bridge. Ross, please note - no advertising on any of them.

And last but not least, a pair of idiots on two wheels. I love to rant about idiot mums with prams, dog owners with dogs, pedestrians with cloth-ears and no brains and super-aggressive joggers, but these two cyclists took the cake.

There are parts of The Bay where you put your foot down and fly - those are the wide open bits where bikes and pedestrians are well separated, and where you have about 300 metres of clear road ahead. And there are parts of The Bay where you slow right down, relax and go with the flow. Those are the bits where the path is narrow and crowded with all forms of non-motorised traffic, sight lines are restricted by vegetation and trees, and where the road surface is poor (tree roots pushing up the tarmac).

A sensible person, regardless of whether they are walking alone, walking in a group, walking a dog, running, pushing a pram or cycling, takes note of the conditions and adjusts their speed and position on the path appropriately.

These two were not sensible. They were aggressive, fucking idiots.

They overtook me just as I was about to pass under a bridge. The path was narrow and sharply winding. Sight lines in that spot are very limited by bushy shrubs. You're going from bright sunlight into comparative darkness, and it can be very hard to see someone in front of you in the shadows. I knew there was a pedestrian in front of me in the gloom under the bridge, so I was coasting and preparing to brake if need be.

That's when these idiots decided to go past. The first idiot overtook on a blind corner and nearly collected the pedestrian from behind. Second idiot wanted to keep up with first idiot, so he overtook on a very sharp blind corner. He misjudged his speed and the sharpness of the corner, so he had to cut right across in front of me to avoid going into the harbour. I narrowly avoided clipping his back wheel, which would have put both of us chest first into a coppers-log (treated pine log) fence, and then head first into a shallow, rock filled harbour.

Idiots. Absolute fucking idiots. And they were grown men about my age. Just goes to show that age does not necessarily bring wisdom.

They then proceeded to thrash through the pedestrians like sharks through a tuna shoal, annoying just about everyone walking along a crowded path. No, strike that. They annoyed absolutely everyone they came near.

The pathetic part was that when we finally made it through the bottleneck and out onto the open bike path, these guys weren't that fast. I took it easy through the crowds, so they were well ahead of me by the time they hit the open road. However, I still managed to make up a considerably part of that gap by the time we parted company. They had ridden like idiots, risking colliding with dozens of people, and in the end, they weren't as flash as they thought they were.

Stupid Old Farts. I wish they'd both go and buy a Harley Davidson each and act like tools on the open road. (I bet one is an accountant and the other a lawyer).

Tanned monkey feet

The Good Weekend section in the SMH this weekend ran a great story on migrant kids, and why they came to Australia and what they thought of living here. Although I like to mercilessly bag the SMH, I will give them a big thumbs up for that story. It was very, very good. Unfortunately, it is not available on line, so if you want to read it, you'll have to throw some money at Fairfax.

Somewhere in all that, there was a line about Australian's having beautifully tanned feet, and what a wonderful thing that is. In that vein, I present to you some partly tanned Monkey feet. As you can see from the brown toes and white stripes, he is very fond of wearing his Wiggles sandals.

Sunday, 25 January 2009

Dribble continues

Obama is at it again. And they mocked Bush for saying silly things:

"Frankly, the news has not been good. Each day brings, I think, a greater focus on the problems that we are having, not only in terms of job loss but also in terms of some of the instabilities in the financial system," he said.

Shall we deconstruct this short speech, the only bit quoted fully in the SMH today - possibly because it contained the smallest amount of gibberish.

So he tells us he is going to focus on two things - job losses and financial instability. Well, one thing I know about focus - you can only focus on one thing at a time. It doesn't matter whether you using a microscope or a camera or a telescope or the Mark I eyeball - you focus on one thing, not two, or three, or four.

But that is not the worst of it. Say that little speech out aloud, and try and figure out what he is saying. What's this about "....the problems that we are having, not only in terms of..." - none of that makes sense. I hate this "in terms of" figure of speech. It's dribble. It's useless. It's a waste of airtime.

For God's sake, speak in complete sentences. If you can't do it off the cuff, bring back the teleprompter. Spare my eardrums this cascade of piffle!

Straw bale house building

This is from the archives, an email that I sent back in 2004. The names and locations have been changed to protect the guilty.

I’m sure you always wanted to know how the three little pigs had their unapproved dwelling demolished by the local council building inspector, Mr Wolf. So I’ll tell you, since I now know how to construct buildings using straw bales and mud.

It all started last week when I got a very excited call from Lippy. Lippy & BundyMan have wanted to build a guest house on their property at DestinationX for a while, and they’ve been debating what to construct it with. It appears that Lippy has been pretty keen on using straw bales, and after a bit of web surfing, found that a course was being run at Ganmain (about half an hour west of Wagga) by a mob called Hippies Inc.

Since I am the closest free labour to DestinationX, I was immediately roped into the course. How silly am I? I have spent $495 of my own money to learn how to build a house for someone else – for free. I must be losing my marbles.

Lippy also grabbed Bumcrack (daughter) and Rob (boyfriend of the aforementioned Bumcrack) to attend since they will also be providing free labour. Except that they are teenagers, and they can’t even work up the energy to clean their rooms. I know that their idea of working on the guest house will be flopping on the couch watching TV and moaning, “Aw Mum!” every time Lippy yells at them to bring us a cold drink, first aid kit, ambulance etc. I have seen more active sloths than those two. Somehow, I have the idea that I will be doing the work of three people.

So I sign up for the course, and am immediately booked into the Ganmain hotel. If the Ganmain hotel has ever received an accommodation star from any travel organization like the NRMA or RAC, whoever gave it to them should be sacked on the spot. Well ok, it was only $15 per night, so you get the idea of how classy this establishment turned out to be.

All was going well until sometime on Thursday when Lippy rang to say that she wouldn’t be going after all, since she had to hop on a plane to visit a few CIA people in Washington to talk about national security etc. All very hush hush. I reckon she just wanted to get away to do a bit of shopping in Hong Kong, and is using this new gig as a way to get out of lots of things. Like getting covered in mud.

After getting to DestinationX on a long weekend in one piece on Friday night, BundyMan and I hit the road at 6am on Sat and headed south. The kids had driven down on Friday and already sampled the delights of Ganmain, which are very few and far between. Getting into a fight at the pub with one of the various ex-cons seems to be the highlight.

I take it you have never heard of Ganmain? Niether had I, and neither had my country town road map, which to date has included every little two bit train stop that I have had to visit from one end of the state to the other. Except Ganmain. I found it on the map by putting my finger on Wagga and then tracing along the railway line going west. There it was, somewhere on the way to Narandera.

The course was supposed to kick off at 9am, which is about when we pulled into town. Finding our way around was not too hard, since the town consists of a wheat bin, two pubs and a few hundred people. We went straight to the building site, only to be told that everyone was over at the Red Cross hall. The Red Cross hall was probably slapped up around 1940 as a rest stop for troops going somewhere on the train, and it looked like it last saw maintenance around that time.

An interesting crowd of learner builders had assembled – BundyMan and I had both assumed on the drive down that we would be two rednecks mixed in with a bunch of Democrat voting, whale hugging, tree kissing, bearded weirdo’s. Instead, it looked more like we had just under 20 fairly normal looking people. Plus a few kids under the age of three that were running amok in all directions. We also met Mr & Mrs Hippy, the couple that were running the course.

The first hiccup came when I went to pay. I haven’t owned a cheque book since 1999 and they didn’t accept Visa. And there was no ATM in town, except for one of those dinky little cash dispensers in the pub. As I was to find out, it would only dispense $200 per day. I was starting to think about driving to Wagga to visit a proper ATM, when I was told that I could pay at the end. Assuming that the pub had not run out of cash by then.

We said our hellos and abandoned the Red Cross hall for the building site. Mr & Mrs Hippy had bought a block of about 2 acres in town and were in the process of slapping up a series of buildings. Their house was at one end of the block and we were building at the other end. I use the word “house” loosely, since their idea of a house was to build a series of structures that served one function each (pavilions as they put it) instead of a “monolithic” structure. One of the pavilions was the “marriage room” which was inhabited by the “principal partners”. We were to hear lots of new age terms like that over the next few days. There was a lot of eye rolling amongst the participants when each new term came out.

This photo shows the site and the “Hall of Conciliation”. To the right of it, and through the smaller trees, is the men’s dunny. Next to it is a bloke standing in a trench – that is the foundations for what we were building, the female dunny.

The Hall of Conciliation was a hoot. Our Greenie friends decided soon after they moved to Ganmain that they would put up their own gesture of reconciliation. They held a straw bale building conference and 102 like minded nuts turned up from around the world and they stuck this thing up in 3 days. After spending 3 days on the site, I have no idea how they managed to do it. I’m sure that about 98 peace freaks sat around and argued for 3 days about which way to point the building to maximize the feng shui and 4 brickies put the building up on their own.

Back to the Hall. There are no blackfellas in Ganmain. They all live down the road about half an hour in Narandera. If they wanted a cultural centre, I’m sure they wanted it close to where they live. However, no white man decided to ask them. Our hippies just decided that they would erect it in Ganmain. I’m sure that it gave them a warm and fuzzy feeling doing that, even though the blackfellas down the road wanted nothing to do with it. Paternalism at its worst.

This of course made them really popular with the locals. Not. I went to the Australia Day BBQ breakfast in the Victory Park (erected 1946, but lacking any captured German artillery) opposite our pub. About 150 locals had turned up for a snag and some fried eggs, and it was a very monocultural crowd. Our hippies slagged off at the locals at every chance they got for their small mindedness, their lack of vision etc etc etc, but after three days, I was starting to side with the locals.

I should mention that Mr Hippy worked as a salesman for Honeywell back in the 1970’s and 1980’s and made a lot of money selling mainframes. In other words he is a wealthy, Balmain dwelling, BMW driving intellectual that probably had a mid life crisis and decided to go hug trees in the middle of nowhere. Or he smoked too much dope or dropped too much acid and had a brain meltdown. His brain was so fried, he wouldn’t have been able to peddle drugs in Nimbin.

He had no idea about a hell of a lot. But he thought that he knew a lot about everything and loved to talk and talk and talk. I should mention now that towards the end of the course, he started telling us how the Gnomes of Zurich controlled the oil industry. The eco-nut conspiracist in him had been well hidden for 2 ½ days, but it started to burst out towards the end. I was waiting for him to tell us about the alien abduction and the anal probe, but maybe we had to stay for another 2 days to hear about that.

The days consisted of a few hours of stuptefyling boring lectures about the evils of cement (consumes too much energy in making it, which I can appreciate), the horrors of the patent system (profiting from knowledge is bad) and the silliness of monolithic building design. Unfortunately for me, straw bales are too uncomfortable to sleep on, so I had to struggle to stay awake through the droning rants against Boral and their evil board of directors (they are in league with the Gnomes of Zurich to sell us more bricks), the luddites that inhabit most town councils (yes, we know about that one – move on) and the beauty and purity of straw bale construction (if we didn’t know about that already, what were we doing paying 500 bucks to attend this course?)

After a few hours of boredom, we would be let loose on the building site. When we left at the end of day 3, the place was about 50% complete. That was not due to any lack of effort – it was due to a total lack of project management (telling people what to do is bad – sends negative vibes which get embedded in the building). I reckon that the 20 of us could have put the entire place up in a day – if Mr Hippy had told us what to do. We were paying to learn from his experience – not to make every mistake again ourselves!

For those of you interested in building, he had one thing right. He was aiming for a construction cost of around $100 per square metre. He had screwed that down to $120 on his last project, and was looking at ways to hit $100. Obviously the first thing to do is to get 20 people to give you $500 each – that pays for all the materials and gives you at least 20 hours each of free labour. With that principle in mind, I reckon I could rebuild the Opera House for about $10,000.

When we got there, he’d already had a front end loader in with a bucket to excavate a circular foundation about 18 inches deep. Into that we dumped about a tonne of railway ballast, which we had to cart to the hole via a trio of the most beaten up, rickety wheel barrows that I have ever seen. I suggested after day one that we should hold a ceremonial bonfire of the wheel barrows in order to force a bit of expenditure on some better equipment, but why buy something new when you can use a totally clapped out bit of junk? It didn’t matter that we pulled muscles and dropped loads because they were total rubbish – at least we weren’t throwing stuff away.

All Greenies must die.

Shovelling railway ballast is a contradiction in terms – you can’t shovel it. It’s designed to lock together to form an immovable base for 10,000 tonne trains, so you can’t stick a shovel into it like gravel. A few of us spent some hours standing on the pile getting blisters and moving rocks. It was real chain gang material. That part went well, because as soon as we stumbled into the daylight from the introductory lecture on the evils of concrete foundations, the organized ones saw the pile, spotted the wheel barrows, grabbed all the available shovels and went to work.

Mr and Mrs Hippy (or should I say the “Principal Partners”) stood back and watched the dust fly. It all appeared to be too much for Mr Hippy – it looked like he had never seen people grab tools and go to work like that. I think he expected us to light up a bong and sit under a tree talking about whether the rocks really wanted to go into the bottom of the hole or not, and whether it was bad of us to force rocks into a hole that they didn’t want to inhabit.

By lunchtime, the hole was full of rocks (willing and unwilling) and topped off by sandbags. The idea is that the bales go on top of the sandbags, which presumably act as part of the damp course (sorry, I was mentally asleep through that part). We also put some high tensile wire through irrigation pipe and put that in under the ballast – those wires act as tie downs for the bales later on. I won’t try to explain it – let me just say that there were springy wires poking out of the ground everywhere.

Notice the kiddies in this photo. They spent the three days running all over the site, squabbling over toys and splashing in the bath tub (we had a tub there for water for the cement mixer). Personally, I am amazed that they are still alive and in one piece. How they did not end up electrocuted, burnt, bashed or broken limbed is a miracle of chance. Let me put it this way – the cement mixer was electric. Next to it was the bath tub. At one stage, the power cable was disconnected from the mixer and flicked into the bath tub by accident. Luckily, the kids were not in it, and someone had just unplugged the cable at the other end to run the circular saw. It was that kind of building site – haphazard, disorganized and a definite health hazard.

To summarise - I thought everyone knew the correct way to put a rake down. I was wrong. I trod on one and got a solid whack on the shoulder. Safety was not their first priority.

Other on-site hazards included several stupid dogs that ran around running into people carrying bales or wheeling barrows or cutting things with circular saws. Here is the dumbest of the lot with one of his favourite balls. This dog was so dumb, it had trouble chasing balls.

After the sand bags went down, the bales went up, and then the fun really started. I say that for two reasons – we then got to start playing with mud, and the Hippies spent all their time arguing. They have built at least 30 houses together as a commercial operation (some costing several million dollars) and they still have no idea what they are doing.

Because we built a circular wall, there were triangular gaps between the bales that needed filling. Here is what I was told over an 18 hour period:

  • Fill the gaps with mud and straw tonight (Mr Hippy)
  • Fill the gaps with straw only in the morning after trimming the bales with a whipper snipper (Mrs Hippy)
  • Why have you filled the gaps with mud before trimming? Mud conducts heat – you should have used straw! (Mr Hippy)
  • Fill the gaps before compressing the walls (Mr Hippy)
  • Why did you fill the gaps? We haven’t compressed the walls! (Mr Hippy)
  • This mud is too wet (Mr Hippy).
  • This mud (the exact same mud) is too dry (Mrs Hippy)
  • This mud (same mud) is too dry (Mr Hippy)
  • This mud has too much sand (Mr Hippy)
  • This mud (same mud) has too little sand (Mr Hippy)

You get my drift. Between the two of them, they managed to contradict each other and themselves at every stage of the construction. They couldn’t project manage the construction of a dunny, so I have no idea how they go on a multi million dollar housing project. Their clients must be very patient. Or rich. Or stupid.

This went on and on for three days. By lunch time on Monday, some people had had enough and they started leaving. Funnily enough, it was all the do gooders that seemed to split early. When BundyMan and I left (because of the drive home), those that were left consisted of a brickie, a builder, an IT guy (who looked like a brickie) and a landscaper (who was currently doing labouring on building sites). We found out during the last half hour or so that they were generally a very non-liberated, sexist, gun toting bunch of guys. They had attended the course because they were either:

  • Broke, and needed to build the cheapest possible house for themselves, or
  • They could see a buck in it building houses for Balmain basket weavers

We’d seen signs of that in the pub on the preceding two nights, but it came out nicely when a few of them ganged up on Marcus, the bright green Democrat voting astronomer and told him that both Gulf Wars were a good idea and that it was a pity that Bush Snr hadn’t finished the job in 1991.

All this was said out of earshot of Mrs Hippy, who has a very annoying, shrieking Kiwi. She would have had a fit if she had heard nice words being said about George W. on her property. None of us were game to confront her views – there’s nothing quiet so terrible as the totally righteous. No wonder the town hates them.

So, what did I learn?

For starters, my hands are pretty soft. A couple of hours of the shovel and a few blisters started popping up. I had to become a wimp and resort to work gloves.

Never let a hippy supervise anything more complicated than the making of a mung bean stew.

Making cement uses lots of energy. Making straw does not. Man plants the seed. Nature grows the seed. Combine harvesters collect the seed and balers bale the straw and trucks transport the straw and man builds houses with the straw.

Put big eaves on a straw bale house – at least 750mm, and preferably verandahs.

Hippies and brickies can argue all day about what lime is the best to use where (by that I mean building lime, not the stuff that you put into a Thai salad dressing).

A compressed straw bale wall is about as solid as a concrete wall.

Straw bale buildings are extremely well insulated (something about an insulation factor of 4, which might mean something to those that know something about building insulation), and I know that because I spent several stinking hot days in one, and it was very nice. It was in the high 30’s when we were working, and the buildings did not need air conditioning if they had insulation in the roof.

Wool seconds make great roofing insulation. About 4 inches in the ceiling does wonders, and it’s cheap.

Mud render is very difficult to apply to straw walls – there is definitely a technique to it. Some people go the easy route and wrap the bales in chicken wire and then shoot cement render at it using a pump. That costs more. If you are going the cheap way, get lots of friends to come round and get dirty. The dunny had around 10 metres of external wall, which was 2.7 metres high. We had to render the interior and exterior with 50mm of render. I calculated that roughly at 2.5 cubic metres of mud. Ron reckons that a cement mixer holds 0.4 cubic metres of stuff, so that is at least 60 mixer loads. It’s a lot of mud. And it goes on one handful at a time.

If you want a straw bale house, do not expect the walls to be straight.

Straw bale walls can be load bearing up to two storeys. You can also build using an infill technique if you want, but it costs more.

You can also use jumbo square bales for big buildings. You then end up with walls 3 to 4 feet thick.

Would I build one?

Yes, if I had a couple of acres somewhere with nothing on it. For a beach house or a weekender etc, it would be perfect. If you get it right, it costs next to nothing for heating or cooling. Any idiot can build one. A fairly incompetent builder like me can probably make it look alright, and because you don’t expect it to be square and plumb, incompetence is not a worry. They look great with recycled timber in the roof beams and second hand tin on the roof and second hand windows etc – very rustic. And very cheap.

And if you stuff it up totally, it is not that hard (or expensive) to demolish and do it again.

Plus I like the pavilion idea – BundyMan is thinking of pursuing it for Aboriginal housing in the NT. You put up a central kitchen/dining/living area and surround it with single room “pavilions” which provide a sleeping room for a couple or family or the kids etc. You have more kids, or need an office or guest room or store room, you put up another pavilion. Makes sense to me.

Would I recommend the course to anyone else? Yes. It would have been much more enjoyable, and fulfilling, if we had done three things:

  • Sorted out the management and project management side of things first thing on day one. There were enough leaders on the course to provide a team leader for a bunch of teams, and everyone else was perfectly happy to be bossed around and told what to do. However, everyone stupidly deferred to the hippies (since they were running the course) and we should have just taken control and used them for technical input.
  • I’ve become safety paranoid at work. I would have felt a lot better if we’d run toolbox meetings before each work session, and if we’d cleaned to the site up and run it more safely.
  • If we’d used the whiteboard and done some planning before each stage. They had a whiteboard, but it was generally viewed as the sole property of Mr Hippy (who is the only person that I have ever seen that was incompetent at using a white board to explain concepts).

If those three things had been in place, I might have finished this story off with a picture of the completed building. As it is, I reckon that I will drop into Ganmain next time I go to Wagga, and it will still be half complete.

Bloody hippies.

Alternatively, once Lippy gets back from her Secret Squirrel meetings in Washington, I will be in DestinationX every second weekend shoveling dirt into a cement mixer.

Act now on climate change - torch this car

Don't you love the type of person who wants action on climate change, but drives around in an old, carbon spewing behemoth?

Yes, that's what the sticker on the bumper says.

I can accept that kind of wishful thinking from someone that has made a personal sacrifice and wasted money on a Pious, or downsized to a Coke can on wheels that drinks fuel by the thimblefull. I'd even partly accept it if they were driving a 2008 model Commodore, since the latest models are the cleanest of the lot. But this - this is just rank. I've been stuck behind combies being driven by hippies (with "save the planet" stickers all over the back) that put our more pollution than the East German chemical industry, and this is almost as bad.

I can quickly solve the CO2 output for this person - a bag of sugar in the fuel tank will ensure this Commodore never again sullies the sweet gases of gaia.

(Photographed from my bicycle, not my 4WD).

Saturday, 24 January 2009

Eco friendly housing

What! Me writing about eco friendly housing? Is there something in the drinking water?

Back in 2004, some friends wanted to build a strawbale house on their property. The idea was to build a one room "gazebo" (as they called it) to see how it went.

I got a call in January, just before Australia Day, from Lippy to say that she had booked her family and me (the slave labour) into a strawbale house building course in Ganmain.


Ganmain. Drive 5 hours to Wagga and turn right and head for Perth.

How could I refuse? Did I have anything better to do on a long weekend than drive to the end of the earth, hang out with hippies, bake in the summer sun, get a new set of blisters on my hands and dirt under my fingernails? Of course not.

As it turned out, Lippy couldn't go on the course. She was doing hush-hush national security stuff at the time, and she had to go and hang out with Donald Rumsfeld for the long weekend (presumably learning how to waterboard hippies - something I would have loved to try out by the time the weekend was over). So I did the course with her partner (bundyman), her daughter (bumcrack) and her daughter's partner (Opportunity squanderer).

As this was before I blogged, I wrote a long email at the time to my friends, cursing the hippies and the heat, and if I ever find it, I will put it up.

This is what the finished product is supposed to look like, although you can put a more professional looking roof on by using new tin instead of used tin. The walls are essentially mud, packed on several inches thick by hand. This is what we used to do as humans, until we discovered how to make bricks in enormous brick factories.

Frankly, I really enjoyed it. I love building stuff, even if it means occasionally falling off a roof and ending up with a leg full of stitches. Even a completely incompetent builder like me can fashion a workable building out of straw, mud and a bit of cement.

Here's the "gazebo" in progress. By this time, it was May, and winter was closing in. I froze my arse off building this thing - the wind came howling in across the plain that this property sat on, and I made sure I counted all my fingers when I sat down to dinner - just in case any had frozen off during construction. Which partly explains why we were building with strawbales - they are just the best when it comes to insulation - at least 4 times better than double brick. Having baked through many an Australian summer, when we get around to building a place, part of it will be straw bales (if our "green" council will allow us to use such a radical and eco friendly product).

The floor boards were a classic. They are made of thinly sliced ex-railway sleepers. Each sleeper was put through the mill to remove the rough outer bits, then sliced about 3/4 inch thick to produce the most incredible floorboards I have ever worked with. The sleepers were all different - blackbutt, yellowbox and other hardwoods, so the boards came out as red, yellow and almost black. Nailing the damned things down just about killed us - they call it "hardwood" for a reason.

A lot of stuff in the place was recycled. All the joists and bearers for the floor came from a demolished house. The floorboards were all discarded sleepers. I think the tin for the roof came from an old shed up the road that was being demolished (I was around for the shed demolition, but not the raising of the roof, so I don't know what ended up on top).

Although we did the course almost 5 years ago, I still remember the hippy that ran it raving on about cement and concrete, and how much energy it used to create the stuff. Now I love cement - it is the bedrock of civilisation - but people do have a tendency to go overboard when using the stuff. Especially the wogs. I'd love to run around at night smashing the cement lions that dot the front yards of this suburb.

Having help build a place out of bales and mud, and seen how incredibly good the result is (and how cheap and easy it is to build), I despair when I see rabbit hutches like this being thrown up all over town. We have problems with housing affordability - this stuff is cheap. You can DIY most of it. Running air conditioning all summer costs a packet - you hardly need to turn it on if you've got walls half a metre thick. The combination of straw and mud is amazingly fireproof - better than brick in fact - making it great for bushfire prone areas. It's easy to repair - even Monkey can mix mud and throw it at a wall. Building it is fun, and it's something all the family can get into.

However, with all its advantages, most Councils look upon it with horror - even those that profess to be deeply Green. Having had a go with this stuff, I reckon most of the guff that our councils and government departments feed us about "going green" is just that - guff. Aflatus. Hot air. Twadle. I'll believe they've gone green when suggestion the building of a strawbale house raises a smile on their faces, rather than a grimace.

Renovating, country style

Some friends of mine used to own a fruit farm in rural WA. This is the kitchen in their farm house. When they bought the place, the house was a flea infested dump. The previous mob had dogs, and the dogs had fleas. All the carpets had to be pulled up and burned. Everytime I visited, they had not gotten around to replacing the carpet, so the floors were bare concrete.

Trendyman renovated the kitchen in his usual fashion. Some rich luvvie decided she wanted a new kitchen for her McMansion, so the old one was ripped out and thrown away. Trendy, never able to resists a bargain or a freebie, kindly took it off her hands. It was an almost perfect fit for the farmhouse, apart from the bench closest to the camera. It stuck out about a foot too far to the right.

Some people would approach this delicately, carefully marking the wood to be removed, cutting it with a circular saw and then sanding back the edges before restaining the wood.

Trendy hacked it off with a chainsaw. If you walked past the bench and nudged it with your arm, you collected splinters. He was too cheap to hire a plumber, so he also did all the pipework for the plumbing - instead of welding or soldering the pipes, he used superglue.

It was bloody perfect, if you ask me. I thoroughly enjoyed sitting at that bench and drinking a few beers after a hard day of sitting on the verandah and watching the Swedish backpackers pick fruit in their bikinis.