Arnott’s Shortbread Cream – Strawberries and Cream

April 24, 2015 at 16:40 | Posted in biscuits | Leave a comment
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strawberriescreampackWell, those folks at Arnott’s have been busy, with the innovation department churning out yet another new range – called ‘Twisted Favourites’. There seems to be three in the range so far – a salted caramel version of the Monte Carlo, a choc orange version of the Delta Cream, and these, based on the Shortbread Cream.

I must say, I quite like the packaging. It’s nice to see the Arnott’s parrot in all it’s glory – this decidedly retro and un-digital-friendly logo should be used more, IMHO.

When you open the pack you are immediately assailed by a phenomenally strong smell of strawberry flavour. Not, unfortunately, strawberries, but that immediately recognisable artificial flavour that you get in cheap lollies. Except here it’s dialed up to eleven. It instantly fills the whole room; everyone who came within ten metres of my review packet commented on it.

strawberriescreambiscuitAnd then, when you bite into it, that flavour is dialled up yet again. Wow. That’s a lot of strawberry flavour in there. Now, if you absolutely love strawberry flavoured lollies, you are going to love these. Unfortunately, I do not. It’s too overwhelming, it obliterates the buttery goodness of the biscuit, is too sweet and has that slightly ‘dirty’ taste that seems to be ever present with cheap strawberry flavour.

Hmmm. Sorry Arnott’s, but this one’s another dud. I know. I hate to do it to you again. But for whatever reason, lately you’ve just seemed to have lost you mojo. Fingers crossed the others in the range are better – I’ll be getting to them in due course…

But for now this gets just two out of ten.

Double radish!

April 22, 2015 at 12:36 | Posted in bicycles | Leave a comment
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Well, my youngest finally outgrew the little BoBike seat. Her knees were practically jammed up against the handlebars, so it was time for an upgrade to a ‘big girl seat’.

doubleradishI showed her the colours available, and (somewhat unexpectedly) she chose black. So I ordered one from the internets, and a week or so later it arrived and we were ready to roll.

Fitting it to the bike was very easy; just move the other one back and put it in front. Because this entails bolting two adapter thingys to the rear rack, the bonus upside is that I now have a long flat surface back again, which will negate the need for extra bits when transporting my trombone.

Tthe rear seat is definitely rather ‘economy’, with the seat in front quite close. Perhaps I could fit a tray table..! I might move the front one forward another notch (the holes are spaced about 5cm apart) – we’ll have to see how close to my backside the youngest daughter ends up when we’re riding. In the meantime, it was all good, although the extra weight on the rear made it much more unstable when loading, even with the double stand. It also exacerbated the flex in the frame that Xtracycles tend to have, given it’s not a one-piece frame but a bolted-on extender.

Strangely, however, my youngest seems to have developed some sort of phobia about going on the bike. She’s fine when we get going, and loves going fast down the hills,  but every time we stop she starts crying and gets all panicky because ‘it’s wobbling’. Not quite sure what that’s all about – hopefully it will wear off soon, as it’s quite hard to find routes where I don’t have to stop..!

New pedals – at last

April 17, 2015 at 09:28 | Posted in bicycles | 1 Comment
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pedalsI’ve been riding my fixie for nearly ten years, pretty much every day. And, for the last few years I’ve noticed that my feet seem to slop around in the pedals rather, even with new cleats.

Anyway, I finally got around to buying new pedals to replace the ones that I got with the bike all those years ago.

It was only when comparing the old ones with the new ones that just how worn they were became apparent! Still not bad going for a set of basic, no-frills pedals (Shimano PD-R540, for those interested). Amazing how much of the actual metal structure of the thing has work away!

So now I have my shiny new ones on the bike. I daresay I’ll probably find them really stiff to unclip and end up doing a sprawl of shame. Hey ho! In another ten years they should have loosened up nicely…

Riding in Hannover

February 16, 2015 at 03:48 | Posted in bicycles | Leave a comment
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I had reason to go to Germany on business recently, which entailed staying in a hotel, and then going into the Hannover offices of the company I work for every day for a week or two.

bikehireBut how to get to the office? Well, the vast majority of my colleagues in the same situation would jump into a taxi, but I prefer to ride. It’s my daily commute that keeps me sane. Well, sort of. So I found a place to hire bikes form in Hannover, which was conveniently located near both the station and my hotel, and borrowed one. It was also a bike maintenance and parking garage, and it was a bustling place, with a steady steam of people bringing in and dropping off bikes.

stationbikesThe offices are not in Hannover itself, but about twenty kilometers away, so I mostly got the train to the nearest station and rode the rest of the way (which, at less than two kilometers, wasn’t really far enough…!). There are a lot of people riding bikes in Hannover, and it’s all setup for it very well. Bike lanes and shared footpaths abound, the the burgers of that city all zip around. Everywhere you look there are untidy piles of parked bikes. I’m not sure if Hannover has more cyclists than is average for Germany, but it was fantastic to see.

Also fantastic is the way motorists treat cyclists. As mentioned, there are quite a few bike lanes, but for the most part they are no Copenhagen-esque bike freeways. Often they are half the footpath, and sometimes weave back onto the road. But motorists are very aware of cyclists, invariably waiting well back from junctions to allow the bike traffic to cross before pulling up to the line, and giving cyclists plenty of room.

biketrainTaking the bike on the train was also a breeze, with a special carriage dedicated to bicycles. However, after taking the train for several days, I decided to ride the 20km back to Hannover one afternoon, to get a bit more exercise and see a bit more of the place. I checked the route, made plenty of notes and sketch maps and set off.

And got lost. The office is really in the middle of nowhere, in a rural area. So the route suggested by google was actually a lot of very small lanes, dirt tracks and forest pathways. This made it harder to navigate than expected, but as I rode along salvationbikecountry2 seemed to come in the form of cycling signposts. I followed the directions for Hannover, looking out for the small red bicycle route signs as I went, and for some time all seemed to be going well. I passed signs for Hannover saying 18km, 16km, 12km, 8km – this was going really well, and the route was fantastic. Not on roads at all, but following unsealed tracks across open land and alongside fields. There was barely another soul to be seen – just an occasional dog walker or jogger,

bikecountryAnd then the signs ran out. The path split three different ways, and there was no hint of which way to go. I had just passed under a main road, and could see a sign for Hannover on the road which headed to my left, so I took that direction.

It was around this time that the bike, a sturdy city bike with a seven speed hub, started to fall apart. Evidently bumping down unsealed tracks for fifteen kilometers was not what the hire place had in mind, as bits started to fall off it; the most important of which was the back brake blocks. Given that the brake levers were connected up the reverse way round to ‘usual’, this meant that when I wanted to slow down and instinctively pulled the right brake lever, absolutely nothing happened. I continued somewhat cautiously, by now realising I was very lost. And then it started getting dark. What to do?

Of course, in times gone by the answer would been to flag down a local, and attempt communication in my third-rate schoolboy German. Or perhaps get out a compass and map, and maybe a sextant to check the stars. However, in this day and age, I simply fired up Google maps on my phone (trying not to think about roaming data charges), found out where I was and navigated to a main road. Form there I was able to follow bike paths that ran along the broad footpaths, and made it back to the Hauptbahnhof without further mishap. A journey that should have taken an hour or had taken me about two and a half hours, and given that the temperature was around freezing, my toes and thumbs were starting to feel quite numb. However, I felt quite satisfied to have made it, and I felt I earned a grosse Bier vom Fass in the hotel bar that evening…

Broke Spoke

January 16, 2015 at 13:12 | Posted in bicycles | Leave a comment
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spokeI’ve been riding bicycles for a long time – since I was about four, I suppose, although there was a fairly long hiatus when I was in my twenties and early thirties. And, remarkably, in all that time, I’d never broken a spoke.

Others I know seem to face this as a perennial problem. They break spokes if not daily, then quite often. I see people talking in revered tones about certain master wheelbuilders who can build ‘bombproof’ wheels that finally rid them of the scourge of the broken spoke.

Well, I’ve been riding all sorts of cheap, mass-produced wheels for ever, and never had a spoke break. So when it happened on the way home yesterday, I initially didn’t know what had happened. There was a ping, and then some scraping, and then a ting ting sound as the wheel went round, and it got really hard to pedal. I assumed I’d got something jammed in the wheel, so it took me a while to realise what the problem was.

So what should I do now? I had no idea. So I lashed the broken spoke to it’s neighbour with a piece of wire (that’s why it looks so bent; I was wedging it in place), released the brake calipers (the wheel had gone wonky and out of true, and it was thing rubbing on the brakes that was making it hard to pedal) and carried on my merry way.

Hey ho. A first time for everything. Hopefully I won’t see another broken spoke for, oh, about thirty-five more years?

The Magic of Reality – Richard Dawkins

January 13, 2015 at 13:53 | Posted in books | 1 Comment
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When I was at  high school, I took classes in both French and German languages. My grades in both had been patchy, until in my third year I was taught French by a lady called ‘Miss Smith’. She was an excellent teacher, and suddenly French became much easier for me (and ultimately became the subject for which I got the highest grade when graduating). So in my fourth year, I was thrilled to also score Miss Smith for German classes too. Weirdly, friends who had had her for German previously all seemed to hate her, but I ignored them in the lead up to the new academic year. And yet, she turned out to be a terrible German teacher. She shouldn’t have been; German was her primary subject, and she was a native German speaker. But therein lay the problem; she was so familiar with German she struggled to teach it; couldn’t understand why we were struggling and got impatient, shouting at us rather than helping us.

I got a Richard Dawkins book for Christmas this year – The Magic of Reality. Unlike his other books, which focus on his own field, biology, this is a science ‘primer’ aimed at a general audience – specifically a non-scientifically literate audience. So here we have one of the worlds’ foremost scientific minds trying to make his subject accessible to those who may have in the past struggled with science, whether in school or more generally.

It is clearly a work of passion. Dawkins really wants everyone to know, understand and be inspired by science. In this book he covers not only his home turf, the evolution of life on earth, he also covers a range of other topics in geography, astronomy, physics and probability. he does this by asking a question (What is a rainbow?, Why to bad things happen?) and then using this as a springboard into the underlying science.

He also starts each section not with the science, but with some examples of how such questions have been answered in the past, with various myths, legends and religious stories. These then form a comparison with the actual explanation, with Dawkins intent to reveal that the scientific answer has more interest, awe and ‘magic’ than any explanation cooked up by shamans or prophets. As a structure this works well, with Dawkins amply demonstrating that the wonder of the natural universe far exceeds those limiting and colourless tales.

It’s an easy book to read, although the subject matter was all very familiar to me. However, at times the tone come across as rather condescending. Now, I’m not in the target audience for this book, so perhaps it’s just me. But there was a few things he keeps doing which really started to grate.

One is when he is explaining something, and either he uses a generalisation or there is an exception to the general rule. He just kind of leaves with a brusque ‘Actually, in this case they are not… blah blah… but I’m not going to go into why that is.‘ He does this over and over in various ways, and it started to get a bit maddening. Perhaps it’s because I already know the material, so those exceptions and side-points are actually more interesting to me than the main text, whereas Dawkins is trying to not confuse someone new to the topic. But it would have been better I think if he had either just left them out altogether (although I can just see the dilemmas that would have left Dawkins with, being pathologically unable to write something not 100% accurate!), or (more elegantly in my view) perhaps put in a small footnote to say that this is a slightly simplified explanation, and you can read a better one somewhere else, with some kind of reference. Heck, he could even write them himself (or invite others to do so), host them on a website somewhere, and use it to deliver audience engagement and various other marketing spin-offs. I’ll waive my usual marketing consultancy fees for that idea, if you’re reading, Richard…

The other one is is his exhortations to see his metaphors solidifying in your mind. ‘Can you see it … developing in your mind as you read this description?’ Can you? Can you really? Really? Now, I realise he’s trying to be chatty, but it’s a bit like a slightly crusty Oxford don trying to connect with a slightly disinterested teenager. Either your metaphors are going to good enough for us to grasp, or they are not, Richard, and no amount of exhortation is going to change it…

The penultimate sentence in the last paragraph is laced with deliberate irony, because of course that is exactly what this book is. Dawkins is a slightly crusty Oxford don, and this book is aimed at a non-technical audience probably slightly disinterested in science.  I’m not in that target audience, so perhaps not a fair judge of this book. But whilst it is customarily well written and accessible, I have a horrible feeling Dawkins has missed the mark slightly. He hasn’t fallen into the trap Miss Smith fell into, and shouted at us. But it’s notable that the chapters not on evolutionary biology are much easier to read and more interesting than those covering his own specialty.

A comparison point is Bill Bryson’s 2004 book  A Short History of Nearly Everything. This too aims to introduce a non-technical reader to the wonders of science, but I remember it to be a much more entertaining read. Tellingly, it’s written by a non-scientist; indeed someone who by his own admission initially knew nothing about the world or how it was made – it was going on that voyage of discovery that led to him writing the book. It’s a bit out of date now in some respects, but whilst ‘The Magic of Reality‘ has a lot to recommend it, I’d still recommend Bryson over it to anyone interested in broadening their scientific horizons.



First ride of 2015

January 8, 2015 at 13:36 | Posted in bicycles | Leave a comment
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mapWell, I got out on my first leisure ride for 2015 quick smart, going out with a mate on the 1st January for a spin. Such rides are now rare events, since the little ones arrived. Gone are the days of spending Sunday morning pottering around Bondi or going out to Watson’s Bay. Still, my once-regular riding buddy was in town (for some reason he moved to Adelaide…) so I took the opportunity.

It wasn’t a long ride, nor a fast one. This was in large part because my erstwhile riding buddy has gone all soft in the head since moving to SA, selling his fixie, more or less abandoning his road bike and spending all his time on some new-fangled thing I understand is called a ‘mountain bicycle’. So when he called up to see if I fancied a ride, he did say he would be on knobbly tyres, and ‘will be slow’. I was tempted with a rejoinder ‘so no change there then’, but I resisted, in part because my fitness is hardly up to much and I figured there was a good chance I’d be trailing behind, knobbly tyres or no.

As it was we had a very cruisy ride, chatting as we went, taking in some of the parts of Sydney we remembered from our days commuting (we used to work together). Hence the new Iron Cove bridge (this is new, and really quite good), Gladesville Bridge (still terrible), Epping Rd SUP (ahh, the memories!), North Sydney and SHB steps (seriously, they haven’t changed this yet?), the SHB (the best commute ever), Pyrmont Bridge (much improved with no monorail – are there any cops today?), finishing with a coffee in Pyrmont (absolutely terrible, but limited choice of places given the public holiday).

selfieAll very nice, and we took a selfie outside of our old office building – the building we both worked at when we started riding to work. It was a horrible building in many ways, with a stinky shower on the top floor and no bike facilities, but it was working there that got us both addicted to cycling. If you can call mountain biking ‘cycling’…

Eyrie – Tim Winton

January 4, 2015 at 09:15 | Posted in books | Leave a comment
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eyrieTim Winton is one of Australia’s Living Treasures. He is widely acclaimed as one of the world’s great literary writers, gifted with an ability to create fiction that is as readable and accessible as it is award-laden. So the story goes.

However, I’m going to have to admit something now – this is the first Winton book that I actually finished. I have started two others (including his most popular book, ‘Cloudstreet‘), but somehow never finished them; although I have no doubt that this says more about my philistinism than Winton’s ability. What has happened in the past is that I have started them, and certainly enjoyed the evocative writing and characters (although I find the style a little heavy going sometimes). But then I put the book down for a few days, and when I pick it up again it just all goes incomprehensible. For some reason I can’t remember anything I have previously read; it all makes no sense and after half and hour or so of hopelessly flicking back and forth trying to get back into it, I give up.

I picked up his latest, Eyrie, in the hope I would be third time lucky. I also vowed not to put it down for too long, in case the mysterious Winton amnesia might strike again. As it happened, I had little difficulty sustaining my momentum to the end of the novel – it’s oddly gripping, and had me turning the pages.

It is the story of Tom Keely; a former high-flying environmental campaigner now unemployed, divorced and down on his luck, scraping along and living in the seedy Mirador apartments. He drinks, battles hangovers, takes too many pills and tries to be invisible. However, when a long-forgotten childhood acquaintance, Jemma Buck, moves into the apartment just down the hallway together with her strangely intense young grandson, he gets drawn into their world, battling to help them, help himself and keep his fractured life from disintegrating completely.

Eyrie is a slightly strange and unsettling novel; we see the world through Tom’s eyes as he battles to make sense of the world around him, his hold on reality sometimes seeming to stretch thin. There are also flashes of black humour and beautifully observed characterisation. The ending is satisfactorily ambiguous, with many loose ends left floating.

It’s not a novel everyone is going to enjoy, and it’s a book that needs a degree of concentration and focus to read. However, I did enjoy it – and I also felt a slight frisson of satisfaction when I finally reached the end of a Tim Winton novel…

The Light Between Oceans – M.L. Stedman

December 31, 2014 at 19:36 | Posted in books | Leave a comment
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lightoceiansNot since I read Khaled Hosseini’s ‘The Kite Runner’ do I remember being so enthralled and emotionally engaged with a novel as with M.L. Stedman’s ‘The Light Between Oceans’. The former book I read in a single sitting on a long train ride in Thailand, and likewise I read ‘The Light Between Oceans’ from start to finish on a plane journey from New Zealand. Indeed, I didn’t quite finish it, even when reading it in the taxi on the way back to the house, so rather than going in to greet my family after my trip away, I sat on the grass verge outside to read the last few pages first.

When I then did go in, I think my two little girls were bit taken aback with the emotional welcome I gave them, fueled as it was by this extraordinary tale, set in post WW1 Australia. It concerns war veteran turned lighthouse keeper Tom Sherbourne, who lives with his wife, Isabel, on an isolated rock miles from the mainland. They struggle to have children, and when a boat washes ashore containing a dead man and a tiny crying baby Isabel thinks her prayers have been answered. However, the ramifications of the decision Tom and Isabel make that night reverberate through the following years as events become more and more entangled and desperate as the child’s true provenance emerges.

I highly recommend this book – you should read it.

New bike for christmas…

December 27, 2014 at 20:49 | Posted in bicycles | 2 Comments
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bykChristmas. Such an exciting time. I can still remember the thrill of coming down on Christmas morning to find a pair of bikes parked in the lounge – one for me, one for my brother. I was probably about four years old, and the bike was way to big for me – as I recall my father had to tie blocks of wood to the pedals so I could reach them. It was a Raleigh Champ, a cool red and gold affair with chopper handlebars and a banana seat.

So it was with great pleasure that I was able to recreate that momentous day for my own daughter this year. She was a bit less excited about it that I remember being when she first saw it – in part because she’s a dedicated scooter rider, and never really got the hand of the balance bike (which my younger one now hares around on with extraordinary grace and expertise – it’s quite something seeing a three-year-old practically doing a track-stand on a tiny kids bike), and in part because it was clear from the get-go that her younger sister was envious, and dying to have a go.

Still, she did finally give it a go, and in the end really enjoyed it, especially when I took her over the park and she could ride on a wide, flat path. Indeed, she asked to go back there later in the day to ride some more.

The bike is a BYK 350, which I bought without taking Girl Chillikebab #1 to the bike shop to try out. However, she’s just over a metre tall, and nearly five years old, so she is right in the middle of the range of that bike as it is advertised. However, I do have this niggling feeling it’s just a bit too big for her.

Part of the reason for this is the coaster brake. When she’s on the bike, she can’t get her feet down. No a big drama; she has training wheels, so she climbs onto the seat and starts to pedal. Except that if the pedals are not the right position, she can’t. With a coaster brake, she can’t pedal backwards to get the pedal in place to start, and she can’t scoot the bike forward with a foot on the ground to get it rolling and move the pedal forward.So I have to keep giving her a push start.

She pretty quickly got the hang of the regular brake levers, so I am wondering if I should somehow disconnect the coaster brake. Or even if such a thing is even possible. It was a problem I never really thought about, given I haven;t ridden a bike with a coaster brake since I was about eight. (My Raleigh Champ had just one hopeless front brake, and I survived. I even remember doing deliberate front-wheel skids on gravel with it. Kids these days are just spoiled, with their small-reach, tektro-alloy, machined-rim v-brakes…).

Still, she’s four years old, and loving riding a bike that’s a bit too big for her. Such is the spirit of Christmas.

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