Full racks and funky bikes

October 26, 2016 at 14:07 | Posted in bicycles | Leave a comment
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trendy coloured singlespeed bicyclesSo here it is, the first of my series of positive cycling stories, to overcome the gloom of my last effort. Yes, for the next six weeks I am going to bring you upbeat and positive cycling news, views and pictures that I gather from my rides.

The first comes from the bike racks outside my local library and supermarket. I’ve increasingly noticed that they are full – in recent weeks I’ve had to attach my bike to nearby railings, as the rack is full. Now, it’s not a huge rack – only three stands. But when I moved to the neighbourhood, I often had it to myself. So it seems that more and more people are riding to our local shops, which is great news. Great news for them, as it’s fun and keeps you fit. Great news for the environment, as it means less pollution and greenhouse gases. And great news for local businesses, as evidence shows that people who ride bicycles to a shopping location spend more money in more stores than those who drive.

I was at the library this morning, and couldn’t help noticing these bikes locked up at the rack. Three colourful singlespeeds, artfully parked as if for a photoshoot. Even my daughter noticed them unprompted, and commented that she liked the red one best. Yay for colourful, fun, single-gear bicycles!

Metre matters

October 19, 2016 at 20:58 | Posted in bicycles | Leave a comment
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camera-on-bikeI haven’t been blogging a great deal about cycling recently. That’s not because topics don’t endlessly suggest themselves; as I cycle back and forth to work hundreds of potential articles fly around my brain. Aside from a busy life that seems to make writing difficult;the other problem is that most of the things I mull over on my commute are relentlessly negative. Since most of my riding is on cycling-unfriendly roads at peak times, under what is one of the most cycling-unfriendly governments in the world, it’s sometimes hard to capture the enthusiasm and joy that comes from riding a bike.

That’s not to say I hate my commute. It’s way better than driving (which I do occasionally, and is awful). The turn of the pedals, the satisfaction of cresting a hill, the feel of rain on my face – these are all wonderful things, and everyone should ride a bike and experience them.

But I have held back from writing about the ridiculous increases in fines for petty offenses ($106 for not having a bell, for example), the continued anti-cycling rhetoric from the Minister for Roads, Duncan Gay, the victim blaming from the head of the NSW roads authority, and the stalling of so many worthwhile cycling infrastructure projects whilst unwanted multi-billion dollar urban motorway projects go ahead unbridled.

I also did not write about the one positive action that happened – a new road rule was established that required car drivers to give at least one metre of clearance when overtaking a cyclist. Of course, this was wrapped up with all the fine increases, and all the government and media coverage and emphasis was on how these terrible cyclists were being brought into line and punished. There was no public information campaign, for example, to explain the 1m rule to motorists.

That said, it did get media coverage; mostly from the cyclist-hating right-wing Murdoch press that mostly consisted of clueless comments about how it would make overtaking cyclists more dangerous, as those poor motorists were now forced into the middle of the road (!). Helpfully, the chief of the NSW Police also came out and said that they would not prosecute infringements of this law (unlike the huge new fines for bells and helmets, which they enforced with great alacrity).

But, to take a positive from this sea of negativity, I did notice that after the law was introduced, motorists did, on the whole, start leaving more space when they went past me. There just seemed to be a few less close passes, or drivers ‘squeezing past’ rather than waiting five seconds to safely overtake.

However, with virtually no enforcement from the police (only three fines issued for close passes in the first 6 months) and no media reinforcement, things have now returned to normal. Those drivers who, when the issue was in the news, did think a little harder when seeing me up ahead, have sunken back into complacency – too busy talking into their mobiles and breaking the speed limits to take any notice of me.

And, accordingly, the close passes are back. I probably get a car or truck passing me closer than 1m at least once a week. I now have cameras on my bike that make it easy to measure this quite precisely, so I can be quite sure. However, I until now have not taken any complaints to the police. For the most part, the passes are not very much less than 1m, and the effort of trying to report them only for the police to do nothing just doesn’t seem worth it.

(As an aside for those who do not ride bikes; passing a cyclist with 1m to spare is too close. Way too close. If you ride a bike and have a car come that close, it is an unnerving experience. 2-3m is the minimum distance you should be aiming for. 1m leaves little margin for error – if the cyclist hits an unexpected pothole, for example, and swerves somewhat they will be under your wheels. So the law is set a 1m not because this is a safe distance – but precisely the opposite. At 1m you are driving in an unsafe manner, and unsafe driving quite correctly should be penalised.)

However, the other day a particularly egregious close pass prompted me for the first time to go to the police. Here’s the footage from the front and rear cams:



It was very close. I could have reached out and touched the car. I held my breath and held my line, just hoping she wasn’t going to move a tiny bit closer and clip me. Just so thoughtless. She saw me, she hesitated, and then decided that my safety was worth less than the five seconds she would have to wait to overtake properly.

The police, predictably, were not interested. I had to fight to get them to even take a statement, and they immediately told me they would not issue a fine, as they considered that the matter was ‘not serious’. I did get a call back from the officer later that day to say he had spoken to the driver, who was ‘apologetic’.

So there we are. An everyday tale of cycling in Sydney.

I’ll finish with a promise. I will try to publish a positive cycling story on this blog every week for at least the next six weeks. Remember folks, cycling is still fun. Cycling is still safe. And cycling is still life-affirming. I’ll try and remind us all of that over the next few weeks.




Animal Farm – George Orwell

October 18, 2016 at 16:36 | Posted in books | Leave a comment
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animal-farmDo you suffer from insomnia? Well, if you do I may have the answer. It takes the form of a BBC radio programme called ‘In Our Time‘, in which exceptionally plummy-voiced academics discuss incomprehensible subjects in soporific tones.

It just takes a little of Melvyn Bragg’s introduction (‘and joining me to discuss the influence of thirteenth century epic poetry on the development of the Romance languages are, Edwin Higginbotham, Emeritus Professor of Nearly Everything at the University of Somewhere….) and I’m asleep. It’s one of my favourite programmes, and I assume all this erudition is somehow lodging itself into my somnambulistic brain.

A little while ago, I stayed awake long enough to pick up that the following week’s programme would be about George Orwell’s Animal Farm. This prompted me to read the original book, which I’m not sure I had ever actually read.

The story is, of course, very familiar. The animals of Manor Farm rise up against the brutal and incompetent farmer, and after chasing him away begin to manage the farm for themselves as a sort of co-operative utopia. In those first very heady months everything goes well, with all the animals working together to improve their conditions.

However, it soon starts to go sour, as the pigs (the intellectuals of the farm) start to take more and more for themselves as they exploit and terrorise their fellow animals until, in the famous last scene, the pigs and men in the farmhouse appear indistinguishable from each other, the pigs having turned into the very oppressors they sought to overthrow.

It is a searing commentary on the events of the Russian Revolution, and the eventual rise of Stalin, although written at a time when Britain was in the throes of the Second World War, with Russia as an ally. Because of this, here was significant pro-Russian sentiment in the UK at the time, and Orwell struggled to find a publisher. It was eventually published just after the war, at a time when the pro-Russia sentiment had evaporated and the horrors of the Stalinist regime were becoming more clear.

However, the historical overlay is not necessary to enjoy the book; although it’s a bleak read. It has a kind of relentless inevitability about it; from the moment the pigs first take the milk for their mash the spiral down towards the final outcome seems somehow fixed. It is of course a classic, and worth reading again if you haven’t read it for a while.

Having read it, I then looked forward to the programme to further sharpen my appreciation of the book. But alas, I was asleep within a few minutes of it starting…


Tim Tam Mango

October 8, 2016 at 20:08 | Posted in biscuits | Leave a comment
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arnott's mango tim tam biscuitI recently had the dubious pleasure of attending a ‘management off-site’. Not in Fiji, or even the Blue Mountains, but in Manly. Oh so glamorous.

After our executive lunch in a beachfront cafe (where they forgot to bring half the things we ordered), we had ice-cream from a concession in the ferry terminal. Oh yes, I lead the glamorous life of a business executive. The last of us to make their selection was our Operations man, an affable German still fairly new to Australia. After examining the flavours on offer, he plumped for a scoop of chocolate and a scoop of mango.

How we scoffed. ‘Amateur!’, we told him, having chosen two flavours that clearly had no chance of making a harmonious dual-scoop marriage. And, indeed, with some chagrin, he had to admit that it didn’t really work as a blend. ‘But vee do not have all ziss selection of ice-cream in der Deutschland,’ he plaintively cried. We nodded knowingly. No Australian would ever make such a flavour faux-pas.


Well, as it happens, not a week after that inglorious management exercise in Manly, Arnott’s have done exactly that, and released a mango Tim Tam. (They seem to be in a bit of a tropical theme at the moment, having also recently done Pina Colada and Pineapple. The rumour is that this is due to the Tim Tam team being relocated to Queensland.)

mango-tim-tam-biscuitI bought some, and took them to work for people to sample, and the results were not spectacular. The mango cream is sort of OK, in an over-sweet mango flavour kind of way. But it just fights with the chocolate on the palate, and the whole thing is a sickly mess.

Sorry Arnott’s, a mango chocolate biscuit just isn’t going to work. Even a German could tell you that.

I’m going to give these a two out of ten.


The After Party – Anton DiSclafani

October 2, 2016 at 19:49 | Posted in books | Leave a comment
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afterpartyFollowing my resolution to read a book from the library every time I take the kids there, I picked up ‘The After Party’ from the display of new books by the children’s section, without really even glancing at it. It’s not a book I probably would have chosen normally, but I think this new ‘grab from the library’ strategy has quite a bit going for it, as you get to read some interesting and unusual books.

This book is set in 1950s Houston, and drips with period detail – the rich, bored, un-emancipated housewives of rich oilmen live in a dizzy world of socialising and manners. Their lives are at once luxurious and stifling.

The book revolves around two characters in this world – Joan, from one of the oldest and richest families, and Cece, her friend, confidant and sometime chaperone. Joan is unconventional; straining against the barriers of convention. She is the darling of the gossip columns as she moves from one outrageous incident to another. Cece, desperately wanting to conform to  the expectations of society, is drawn to Joan and spends her life in Joan’s orbit, both enthralled and appalled as she attempts to understand and corral Joan’s behavior.

The novel explores the relationship between these two women as Joan’s life spirals out of control, and DiSclafani deftly explores their obsessive and stifling friendship, set against the backdrop of rigid societal expectations.

It’s an enjoyable book, but not exceptional, and the pace drags a little sometimes. It is an interesting window into both the era and the dynamics of female friendship.

Shapes Barbecue – New And Improved

August 29, 2016 at 16:19 | Posted in biscuits | 1 Comment
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shapesboxesIt’s taken me a bit too long to catch onto this, but there has been a veritable social media frenzy going on recently that dwarfs even gossip about failing censuses or the latest from The Donald. Yes, it’s the reaction to Arnott’s ‘New and Improved’ Shapes.

Shapes are, of course, a range of savoury snack biscuits that boast the unusual feature of having ‘flavour you can see’. Except that, in the new version, apparently you can’t.

Arnott’s have launched a whole new range, including new and improved version of some of the classic flavours. However, I guess to hedge their bets, they are also still making the original version of two types – BBQ and Chicken Crimpy. So, when I saw both the original and new on sale at the supermarket, I bought a packet of each to do the definitive taste test.

But before we get to the comparison, let’s take a look at a few choice comments on Arnott’s facebook page.


Oh dear.

And on twitter?



So what prompted Arnott’s to change this iconic snack – which has been in production for over 50 years? Well, apparently people were complaining that they wanted more flavour on their Shapes, and that the flavour wouldn’t stay stuck to the biscuit. Pesky stuff that visible flavour. I must admit, reasonably tuned into to the biscuit world as I am, this was not an issue I was aware off. Indeed, for many people having the flavour fall off is kind of the point, as it means the last biscuits in the pack accumulate the flavour that has dropped of the ones above. And then, at the end of the pack you get the pleasure of running a finger inside the pack to collect the dregs of flavour that remain. The whole thing could have been designed to deliver a gradually-increasing dose of Flavour You Can See, culminating in that last, luscious hit of salt and monosodium glutamate. But apparently this way of enjoying Shapes was passé, and a redesign to get more flavour, more consistently on each biscuit was required.


This redesign was about more than just the flavour adherence mechanic, however. It was also about the flavour itself. Changes to the recipe were made, which somehow also yields the New And Improved versions an extra health star. Looking at the nutrition panels on each box, it seems pretty much everything is the same, except the new ones have less salt and more sugar.

Anyway, enough of all that. How to they compare? Well, you can read about the original ones here, as I looked at them some time ago.

Compared to the originals, the new ones have a slightly lighter, more open texture, which actually I quite liked. However, things are not so happy in the flavour department. The new ones are clearly much sweeter (that extra sugar), and amazingly even more artificial tasting. Besting the originals on artificial-ness was a big ask, but the Arnott’s team have managed it. Overall, the new flavour is not very nice. Too sweet, to cloying. It’s hard to eat a whole box of these in one go; they get sickly. The originals, by contrast, are highly addictive and are gone in a flash.

Having drawn my own conclusions, I put out the two types in different bowls next to each other in the office. The Original flavour bowl was empty in about 10 minutes; an hour later there were still some left in the ‘New And Improved’ bowl. So clearly my co-workers agree with my assessment.

So will Arnott’s relent? Will they retire the New And Improved, and quietly revert to the originals? In the meantime, I’m going to give these New And Improved BBQ Shapes a 2 out of 10.

T1 bike trailer / towable luggage…

August 23, 2016 at 11:05 | Posted in bicycles | 1 Comment
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trailerPushy’s had a mid-season sale recently, and there were some bargains to be had. And given that the objective of buying things ins a sale is not to buy things you actually need, but rather save as much money as possible by buying things you probably don’t need but which are heavily discounted, I found myself purchasing a DOM T1 bike trailer – reduced from $650 to $99. I mean, who could pass that up?

It duly arrived, and my initial impressions were favourable. It’s well made, with a high quality finish and some nice design touches. It hitches to the bike via a small loop / hook which bolts onto the rear axle (an extra-long QR skewer is supplied for those needing such a thing).

So what it is? Well, it’s advertised as a trailer, but to be honest ‘towable luggage’ would be a fairer description. It’s a large-ish suitcase with oversized flip-out wheels and a towing handle that can be attached to the back of a bike. The wheels are pneumatic, but are small and skinny – think pram wheels, rather than bike wheels.

hitchIt’s perhaps for this reason the instructions stress that the maximum recommended speed is 25km/h – less if you are riding on uneven surfaces. A ‘go anywhere’ adventure trailer this is not. It’s not really a touring trailer. It’s for doing short-ish flat-ish slow-ish rides. Think riding to the station or airport (when folded down, it can be checked in as hold luggage – it comes with an external cover to protect it in transit).

I think it could actually be quite useful for me; I’ve been looking for a solution to allow me to cycle to the airport when I travel on business, and this might just work – as is for longer trips, or for shorter trips I can put a smaller cabin bag into the trailer for the airport trip, and leave the trailer locked up with my bike whilst I’m away.

I’ve never ridden with a trailer on the bike before, and it does feel a little odd – you feel it kind of tugging at the bike as you pedal. But overall it goes along quite well. The warnings about excessive speed and bumps are necessary though – I manged to tip it up on the first trip. Admittedly this was with it empty, and it bounced around much less when loaded. However, it does underline the need for caution – if it hit a pothole, there’s a risk it could go over – which might not be fun if you were in heavy traffic.

trailerfoldedThe only aspect of the design I think could do with a rethink is the way the wheels fold. It’s all very cool they way the fold away (they work as pull-along wheels when folded in), but they fold up kind of backwards. This means that when you are riding, the pressure on the wheels pulling them backwards makes them want to fold up – especially on uneven surfaces. This means you have to do up the quick-release cams super-tight to ensure this doesn’t happen, which makes folding and unfolding harder than it needs to be. Some sort of locking mechanism to prevent the wheels folding when in use would be handy,

Anyway, I’m very excited about my new purchase. A genuine bargain for $99! Now we’ll see how often it actually gets used…


Here’s a video of me riding with it, and tipping it over going up a pram ramp…


Nod – Adrian Barnes

August 15, 2016 at 21:57 | Posted in books | Leave a comment
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nod adrian barnesHurrah! I finally got around to reading another book. Regular readers would be forgiven for thinking that the ‘book’ part of my blog title seems rather irrelevant. Apologies for this, dear readers. I will do my best to make amends.

I picked up ‘Nod’ by Adrian Barnes from my local library, when I was there with the junior Chillikebabs. Aren’t libraries great! Just like bookshops, except the books are free, and there is fast wifi. We go there a lot, but only ever get out kids book. So my new resolution is borrow (and then read) at least one grown-up book on each visit.

Nod is a dystopian novel, set in a contemporary world where, suddenly, almost no-one is able to sleep. As sleep deprivation takes hold, society falls apart alarmingly quickly. A few lucky individuals, including the books main protagonist and narrator, Paul, are able to sleep – but they all have the same strange dream. And some children are also able to sleep – but are rendered mute and unemotional, moving to live rough in a park all together.

At all sounds very weird when I write it like that, and I guess it is; as the book progresses it becomes more and more dream-like, mirroring the decaying mental state of the ‘Awakened’ – those that are unable to sleep. Strange cults begin to develop, behaviour becomes savage and violent, and through it all glide the serene ‘Sleeper’ children.

I enjoyed it a lot, although felt it was just a bit short of being a great book. Some of the literary allusions are a bit too forced, and at times it descends into a zombie-horror-flick parody. However, those are minor criticisms, it’s a book that stays with you for a while after you read it and which has some thought-provoking themes.


Kids, helmets and changing play

August 8, 2016 at 12:07 | Posted in bicycles | 1 Comment
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kids on bike helmetsHere’s the Chillikebab kids, ready for an outing to the park for a picnic. See the excited faces! And check out how different they look form a few years ago

There’s also another difference you may have spotted, too. Yes, they are wearing bike helmets. Not because I made them or even asked them to, of course. But because they wanted to. And whilst I’m no fan of helmets, I am all for personal choice – and if they want to wear them, and feel more comfortable with them on, then that’s what we will do.

However, it does bear some examination. I stopped wearing a helmet before they were born, and up until now they have never had one. So what changed?

Well, going to school. Their teachers promote helmet wearing as part of ‘safety awareness’. They have had in-school visits from Kidsafe (an organisation I have very little time for, btw). And there is peer pressure from their friends.

I have gently asked them about all of this, and told them it’s up to them if they want to wear one or not – that some people do, and some people don’t. But they now prefer to have them on.

This makes me somewhat sad. Not because they are wearing helmets per se, but because of what it is doing to the way they play. They often have their bikes and scooters out in the garden, and used to charge around on them from time to time, in the middle of whatever game. Now they have to come and find one of us to put their helmets on. And then take them off again. Which kind of kills the spontaneity – which means they ride their bikes and scooters less.

It’s quite noticeable. The negative pressure on bicycle usage from helmet compulsion is something I am very familiar with from the academic literature, of course. But it’s very sad to see it first hand, with your own kids. To see that they are discouraged from doing something safe, fun and healthy because of the insidious pressure from the plastic hat brigade.


Tim Tam Toffee Apple

July 26, 2016 at 15:24 | Posted in biscuits | Leave a comment
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Atim tam toffee apple packnother day, another Tim Tam flavour. I feel a little sad about all this, actually. A new Tim Tam flavour used to be a major event. Something pretty seismic. Certainly worthy of significant excitement.

tim tam toffee apple biscuitBut now, well, some of that is gone. Flavours come and go, and unless you are quick you might not even realise it before it disappears again, only to be replaced by yet another. What used to be something sweated over; the evolution of a cultural icon, now seems to be a mere pawn in the commercial objectives to keep major supermarkets onside. Exhibit a) – these are only available in Woolies.

Sorry, didn’t mean to get maudlin there. Let’s get into this.

For me, toffee apples are associated with Halloween. Generally they consist of cheap hard caramel over an even cheaper apple, jammed on a stick. I haven’t had one for years, but I think the generally accepted way to eat them is to chew off the toffee bit whilst aiming for minimal apple consumption, and then throw the apple away.

So how does this new Tim Tam measure up? Well, the inside is a rather startling red colour, I suppose to evoke the look of a red apple. They do have an applely (appley? Applee?) aroma. To taste they sort of do taste like cheap apple with cheap caramel, so I suppose they do evoke those childhood Halloween memories.

I’m doing them a bit of a disservice. They are actually not too bad. A bit over sweet, perhaps, and without a great deal of depth, Definitely not a classic. But far from offensive. I’m going to give them a five out of ten.



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