Saturday, March 28, 2020

A letter from Oz to family self- isolating between France and Spain

Here we too are cutting ourselves off from the world as it goes to hell. Just putting the everlasting last touches on the renovation but we have been listed on  for a couple of weeks and having had a couple of serious lookers we have been overtaken by events and everything is shut down. Sorry to hear you are running out of projects -but if that were truly the case you would only be the victim of a lack of imagination. Here people are working away in their basements hacking ventilators for themselves and the masses before the local hospitals run out. Or giving impromptu concerts from their balconies in more crowded neighborhoods were density has gone 3-D. Or getting in touch with old friends by various platforms like Zoom and other teleconferencing internet things. Or putting the rams in to the ewes on April Fools day as usual and maybe a celebratory lamb roast for the occasion from one of 'The Man's' compadres who he himself will join in the freezer after 1.5 more menstrual cycles in case he misses the first opportunity. It sounds heartless but the world cannot absorb the natural increase of my herd for long with twins every 12 months, half of whom are female who repeat the process after an initial 18 month lead-up.
     You may wish to work out the length or time before my flock of 8 is spread over the solid fifth of the globe at 1 square meter per animal. I have done the same for humanity at a mere 2% per annum increase, a double every 40 years and 11 doublings ie 440 years are all that's required to fill and share their  allotted square meter with one or more of my sheep ( who will have preceded us  by at least 300 years ) by which time someone will have to go and that will be only the beginning of a real sh*tstorm.

     Our prime minister might be getting second thoughts. Being part of a smug upper-class holy roller church they surreptitiously greet bad news with joy, knowing that the immediate, pending or coming Great Tribulation will thin and clean up the earth for the faithful servants of Jesus,  namely them, living forever in affluence and basking in His radiant glory.  But there is evidence emerging that disaster makes no distinction on grounds of faith or station and the hammer falls where it may.  So its better to be safe than sorry and plan for the next election and a safe sinecure under usual and conventional skies. One of his ministers even has it (or more) and we all make time for special prayers for his (their) speedy recovery.

     A friend phones us occasionally to give advice. Yesterday she wanted to buy half a lamb but we only have 4 little guys to kill and are still buying dinner while we affectionately scratch their backs and rumps, measuring their prospects in terms of need versus greed -they are growing pretty slowly on a weekly basis. She also wanted to include the Penguin house in her air bnb operation for (now unemployed) young overseas agricultural workers who are being exploited by many including the Burnie Mayor who has been called to account for providing substandard accommodation. Of course we were hoping to sell and move into the as yet uncontaminated and unfilled space and are leery about tenants  seeing as evictions are about to be prohibited for God knows how long in these times. My next job is to apply preservative, seal and tile the bathroom and laundry floor and I am thinking then to turn it over to the local hospital or authorities for a few more beds for the very sick, maybe even with a few hacked and home- built ventilators (NPL)  which will be very welcome by then however unreliable.

     I saw a movie once (Pulp Fiction) with John Travolta in which I seem to recall a makeshift defibrillator was used by UNPLUGGING and cutting a lamp off the cord/pulling the two wires apart/skinning the ends and tieing around two spoons. Rubber gloves are also invaluable. Or maybe it was a famous Australian court case for murder that happened a block away from my wife's childhood and her father's forever home in the Western Suburbs of Sydney. It was in a small apartment block on the corner of Liverpool Road and she used to cut through the hall and courtyard on her way home from school unbeknownst to her parents who even then, (over 50 years ago) had warned her away. This pair of pedophiles had conned a worthless young single mother into leaving her two kids with them, a boy and a girl, for free daycare while she spent her days hassle free and making the CES-required job contacts.The little girl was alright and details were never released but in good conscience they had  tried to revive the little boy after he stopped breathing by the above. And so we all long secretly and tearfully in our heart of hearts for a human cull.

     Meanwhile my wife and I have gone through the 2nd stage of self isolation; dividing the house in half with the hall necessarily common property, all over a morning tiff about how long stale beans should be soaked before boiling. Closeness is  the predilection of humanity until it has actually been achieved and plumbed to its depths.

Love from George and Marilyn.

See this and more on and there is also if you haven't been there.  Contact me if you would like an opportunity to read or edit any of two books authored by myself during your confinements. And be warned that at least three times more people have pronounced them sh*t than masterpieces and I neither trust nor am I offended by either judgement.  But secretly and tearfully we long.......

Monday, July 8, 2019

Ecofest at Ulverstone: The Case for Biofuels in Transport and Power Generation

Renewables are the flavour of the month with a broad consensus in the scientific community that our continual reliance on burning of fossil fuels is the road to perdition. Resulting climate changes through increased levels of greenhouse gases will probably destroy civilisation within the projected lifetimes of many people alive today and set in motion unstoppable, drastic changes endangering or exterminating most life on earth in the longer term.

We understand the mechanisms, some of which are not rocket science. You can check out the behaviour of salt water at the poles in your own freezer with a thermometer. Sea ice is fresh because salt water freezes at a lower temperature, separating out the salt which falls as super saline, super cold and oxygenated water into the ocean deeps and makes its way around the world ever so slowly, stabilizing temperatures on the planet and allowing marine life in the ocean depths. It takes no great leap of imagination to work out what will happen in the deep ocean should the sea ice and polar currents be disrupted by fresh, light meltwater and fail.

The major engine of heat transfer becomes the atmosphere with super cyclones and a 'storm of the century' on a weekly basis. As for marine life think of an aerobic biology shifting to an anaerobic one. Fish can live only in the surface waters aerated by wave action. And in the depths without oxygen the element of choice for metabolic activity goes to the next line on the periodic table, which is sulfur and that implies a whole different set of organisms. Think rotten eggs but hydrogen sulfide only stinks in low concentrations. At higher ones it is undetectable, other than by falling over dead like the coal miner's canary. Sulphur being much in demand, the concentration in water drops steeply.

A biodieseler I know applied to the government for $300 thousand to set up and produce biodiesel from algae. They were intrigued and offered to match his own contribution of $150 thou and he was highly offended. I have no idea where he intended to grow algae in quantities – it would take large networks of channels of wastewater and stagnant lakes, none of which are available in Tasmania. His plan was motivated by a figure for oil production in algae which can produce up to 45% oil by weight of dry matter. This is far better than a crop like canola. I argued that he would never be able to grow and maintain a pure strain outdoors that would match up with a figure like that – algae is like any other plant and it is in the interest of the organism to put its efforts into cellulose, starch and sugars. But it seems I was wrong, research suggests the only criterion is maintaining a low sulphur level, which may be difficult in our world but is the rule in seven dead oceans like in Bob Dylan's song 'A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall'.

So this is the reset button. The plankton have gone and been replaced by massive blooms of algae fertilised by the rain-eroded topsoils of the planet and they will fix the CO2 we have so thoughtfully liberated from fossil fuels. When the algae dies it sinks into the dead zone and falls to the bottom unprocessed by bacteria or any living thing to be once again sequestered as oil shales which cannot be laid down in our familiar world which sequesters CO2 as limestone via coral polyps in oceans and vegetation on land. (The reefs are coming to an end too as we saturate and thereby acidify the oceans with CO2.) But the shales are here now, a relic of the great Permian die-off, proof positive it has happened before. So go for it kiddies, there are these fossil fuels laying around; free energy for the taking. So why should we consider 'renewables' like vegetable oil and ethanol as motor fuel?

The short answer is that we shouldn't. During the big global oil price shock President Bush worked to make America independent of the gouging Saudis. To this end ethanol plants were built, midwest maize growers subsidised and ethanol content mandated in petrol. The price of maize rose with the increased demand and even the Mexicans got into the act shipping their local staple northwards which led to food shortages and riots in Mexico City. Fermenting maize into ethanol returns about 30% by weight and if an SUV takes 70 litres in the tank, that has required about 200 kilos of maize which is a year's ration for a poor Mexican family, all for your one wind-in-the-hair long holiday weekend. Truly these things are the cars that are eating the world.

And there are other options that become useful in times of crisis. My neighbour during WW II was too young to enlist, but worked on the home front growing and delivering potatoes to the dock in Burnie. The truck had a petrol tank but as much of the driving as possible was done on producer gas. Silver wattle charcoal was burned in a vessel behind the cab with restricted air supply and water sprayed into the flames. Carbon monoxide and hydrogen were produced as the oxygen was stripped from the water and along with CO2 was sucked into the manifold giving just about enough power to help the heavily laden vehicle get to the coast, freewheeling as much as possible. When he came to a hill he would give it a judicious dose of petrol to get to the crest and of course the return trip uphill was made with an empty vehicle. But never underestimate the insanity of our leadership, this is not dead. 'Blue Hydrogen' is now on the lips of coal enthusiasts. We can keep mining and burning brown coal and similarly separate the combustion products with special membranes, converting it to clean hydrogen fuel which the Japanese want to buy as long as it is made somewhere else. Unfortunately the atmosphere is common property and 'somewhere else' doesn't exist anymore.

Biodiesel from waste restaurant oil(which is what this is all about)

Biodiesel is made from vegetable oil heated with methanol and a catalyst in a simple process – a colorimetric titration is done to work out how much fatty acid has been produced by oxidation in the fryers. A calculated amount of Potassium hydroxide, (usually 13 grams per litre of oil) is mixed with methanol (20% of the oil volume) to produce a poisonous liquid called methoxide. Added to dry 60 degree C veg oil in a processing tank with a conical bottom it raises the pH of the mix to 8.3 which is where the reaction takes place. In an hour of stirring the heavy glycerol fraction is stripped from the fat molecule (triglycerides) and replaced by the methanol. Next day the byproduct, a brown syrupy mix of glycerol, excess methanol and potassium is removed through a valve on the bottom of the processor. The biodiesel is clear yellow, about as thin as diesel or sewing machine oil and has a sweet smell. It is then washed with water three times and dried with a heating element and I add a biocide because it is quite digestable by a number of different organisms that can turn it (over years) into asphalt and acids which destroy fuel systems. Compared to dino diesel it is quite palatable, smells a bit like fish and chips and the dog needs to be restrained or he will drink the stuff.

Animal fat may also be used. I don't get this any more because everyone has gone into blends of canola with palm oil. Bio produced from fat has a couple percent more energy but starts to coagulate at about 5 degrees as opposed to 3 degrees for oil based fuel. It is also rich in stearates which are a fatty chemical with a very high melting point that coagulates on metal surfaces and in fuel filters and is relatively difficult to shift.

The Economics of Biodiesel

This doesn't come close to being a viable candidate to save the world. Do-gooders in the European parliament mandated a couple of percent biodiesel at the European pump which didn't do much more than motivate the destruction of rainforest in Malaysia, Borneo and Indonesia for oil palm plantations. That's not to say they weren't already motivated, logging companies were happy to flatten the country and ship the valuable timbers worldwide. If you want some moral order and a few jobs now you have to pay for it, and we here in Tasmania host one of the culprits; Ta An, subsidising their veneer peeling operations of supposedly regenerating sawlogs to the tune of 20 to 30 million dollars a year. It is an odd situation when you have to pay outsiders to take your natural resources, locals had actually been paying out for them for decades. It is also odd that our desperation co-exists with plenty like ….Free Energy. Used vegetable oil is a liability for restaurants and they are happy to give it away but even if it all went into the insatiable guts of the Cars That Eat the World it wouldn't provide transport for very many families. And since manufacturer's guarantees on modern diesel cars are void if you fuel them with biodiesel, popularity has dropped off and repairs to common rail fuel systems are exorbitant. Should you be so foolish as to try and start such a vehicle on a freezing morning with a tankful of coagulated biofuel the repairs may well cost more than the value of your car.

But I use it in a little common rail Fiesta with no problems, simply by fueling it 50/50 with ordinary diesel in cold weather. Recently I checked the EGR valve while working through some computer generated error messages/limp modes etc. The EGR was pristine after 100 thousand k's on biodiesel, no coking at all which is better than any dino powered engine I have seen. The error message read 'Low fuel pressure stop engine immediately' and 'Massive Fuel Leak seek help from your friendly dealer' who charged $130 to just to read the computer, deleted fault messages and sent my wife home with the admonition to bring it back in if the message comes up again. I bought an interface on the net for $40, downloaded a free Ford software program (not Ford's) and started replacing random parts, still cheaper and far more effective and certain than another trip to the dealer. The messages should have read 'Change Fuel Filter'.

Naturally the reader wants to know how much does this stuff cost to produce. It used to cost 30 cents a litre and now it is closer to 40 cents. If there was road tax payable it wouldn't be worth your time. So it is only a freebie in our affluent society. Everywhere else in the world people cook like we do at home, just enough oil to grease the pot or pan and it all disappears. In Asia biofuel is made from waste oil which costs to obtain. After all, it could very well be cleaned and filtered and sold back out on the streets to the food industry. Furthermore you can burn uncatalysed clean dry vegetable oil in your vehicle, the hitch being that you have to have a separate diesel tank as the veg. oil tank has to be heated to 80 degrees with a heat exchanger from the cooling system before you can shift the engine away from diesel fuel and similarly you have to purge the pumps and lines with diesel before you shut the motor down. And you have to do your own mechanical work because professionals don't want to deal with sticky and incomprehensible 'grease cars.'

The unified processor/washer dryer during construction complete with agitator on top. The next image is my Mark 1 processor with all the supporting supporting gear, methoxide mixer on bottom right, wash/dry tank and in foreground the little blue primary oil filter on left. For a final filter I use a water filter with cleanable element.

There is no point in my going into the details of a processing system. You can buy a new one made of plastic for 10 thousand dollars or make it in an old converted oil drum or discarded hot water cylinder for some hours of your time and a few welding rods. Plans are everywhere on the net, try Journey to Forever and Biofuels Forum is an Australian site that will answer all your questions although it is peopled to some extent by rank amateurs who have been sold some pup – like there might be a shortcut that omits the water wash by throwing plaster of Paris into the mix or a zeolite filter. Anyone who has tried unwashed bio generally loses in the end as caustic soda is very hard on your expensive (aluminium) injection pump, while water if not completely removed will destroy the moving parts of case- hardened superclose tolerance steel and there is an old appropriate adage “If it ain't broke, don't fix it.”

This and more is published on

Best wishes


Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Mining in Tasmania: In the Pits

When Mathew Flinders and other mariners were circumnavigating and mapping the island they couldn't help but notice powerful magnetic anomalies -which is to say their compasses swung unexpectedly and they understood there were large deposits of lodestone inland. So there is a long history here of finding mines. During settlement later, tens of thousands of man-hours prospecting turned up several world class mineral deposits, mostly depleted by now and these were followed by smaller short-lived operations made possible by modern advances in mining and exploration technology and changing economics that turned the focus from small high grade lodes that were discovered and mined out a century ago to larger and lower grade possibilities amenable to mechanization. This meant production as a function of human labour had to rise exponentially which is not good news for the many, if back-breaking struggle for your daily bread is all you know in the deep dark forest.

And we still consider mining and forestry prime employers on the island, and state governments do what they can to maintain the illusion that well-paid work would still be available for unskilled voters if not for the intransigence of their political opponents. Here I will declare a personal interest, having done those jobs and with investments over both hemispheres. They paid well and despite having skills I always had to travel but you could accumulate a stake and do something else after the inevitable winding -up. That's unless you were stupid enough to have put up your own money. And I have 'lost my children' to the world which is a good thing too because they could hardly have done as well locally. It's enough to know they are doing well, and harder on them because in the longer term I and we are only going downhill. And the reason for this article is a recent Labour forum in Burnie.

All those fresh- faced young candidates were a breath of fresh air after the sleazy big blue billboards or Jackie Lambie's worn yellow network resembling a police line-up. It was kind of a back to the future 50 years ago in high school when the A-class highschool goodies ran for the student council. Anita Dow loves Burnie, inexplicably other than that she was once elected mayor if anyone noticed. And she will work tirelessly for Braddon as they all will if unimpeded in majority government, going for broke to mend the sick and employ the multitudes although never so broke as the blue legion who will sell out anything at any price to retain their perks and positions. The organization of the meeting had been flawless, even I received a phone message in time to get there had I forgotten, but there was no sound system so there were gaps. But buzzwords everywhere were sufficient to fill the blanks. And Rebecca White was gorgeous and completely honest with a Green sympathizer who went away knowing there was no joy for them in the forest wars of a full employment Labour future.

The good will and optimism were broken for me only on account of an equally grizzled old nobody snarling in my face how I was a total a**hole, personally responsible for having imported a shipload of Canadian spruce pulp and shutting down the Burnie pulp mill for the permanent loss of hundreds of jobs. So I am somebody after all but there was no point arguing obsolescence, the mainland Maryvale replacement plant, and the extermination of free old-growth timber all the way to Tullah. He claimed to have been a maths teacher once, but more likely a cunning old Labour stalwart from way back in the days of fisticuffs on the picket line or a demented ex-footballer. Their minds may deteriorate, only the days of girls and glory are never forgot.

That was a round-about response to my question about the incessant government spruiking of fly-by-night explorers who inevitably fail to clean up and the general throwing of public money down the mining industry rat-hole. Will it end under Labour? Shane Broad took the question itself and the answer must have been the complete platitudinous and carefully constructed Labour party policy; essentially no. It will be reminiscent of a command economy, assuming an ongoing jobs bonanza created not with the Stalinist stick but the capitalist carrot of more public money funnelled via a contractual system. These would be negotiated to protect government finances and money would be paid out only for agreed upon and completed outcomes. This is somehow different from the present government's unconscionable money pot; and stirring the local sh** for political purposes with liberal donations of free publicity, and so hyping the highly unlikely to other investors who will lose their shirts too.

Outside of its ability to pull in fools, nothing is certain in this industry; not commodity cycles nor the existence of viable deposits nor the vagaries of bankers, brokers and and human nature. As Mark Twain said “A mine is a hole in the ground with a liar on top.” He knew it well, his own father was a sucker and young Samuel spent his childhood in worse than abject poverty because his family was devoid even of poverty's surety; they were perpetually wealthy but always temporarily embarrassed and on the move.

One surprising statement from Mr. Broad was that he believed deposits like Mt. Lyell should be mined out completely to be truly environmentally responsible. That is not true of course, if the ore is left unblasted it will sit quite comfortably where it was for the last 100 million years, solid and protected by water from the inevitable oxidation that occurs if or when transformed into fine sulphide- rich tailings in long-term fragile and inadequate dams with ongoing maintenance issues. The Indian operators had acquired the mine for virtually nothing. If low copper prices and an overhang of deferred capital expenditure drove them off rest assured it is all over. If this once world-class deposit can't be mined out it will be on economic issues. But who can tell; when grades and prices drop and operational expenses rise, a mine or ANY big business pushing the bounds of viability has nothing to lose, and there is no prize for guessing who has the upper hand in the game of blackmailing the local parliamentarians.

And there is another incongruity here for a Labour man. Old mines are death. They all are actually, my own experiences range from a near miss to better odds over shifts or months. In my first week on a first mining job I was knocked off a ladder on the side of the primary crusher feed chute when I opened a hatch and was met by a torrent of rocks. I reached down and grabbed the rung I was standing on as I went backwards over the void. Maybe I might only have broken my back on a handrail. More recently we were welding high up on the travelling chute above the concentrate bay at Mt. Lyell, part of which collapsed a month later. It had looked perfectly OK and a month doesn't rate another heartbeat per second.

In the meantime there are tilt switches in chutes that jam, followed by tonnes of muck and broken belting hurtling down the walkways. Rod mills are accidentally activated while men are still inside. If only momentarily the corpses can be brought out in one piece. Mismapped addits and shafts full of mud and water are broached. Loaded ore trains compact themselves at top speed into the end of blind tunnels having inexplicably failed to slow and stop at the dumping point and scoop trams fall down shafts to the loading facility. Rocks burst from the walls under pressure in old deeps and older open pit walls come down because the grade angles have knowingly been fudged to avoid the expense of removing hundreds of thousands of tonnes of overburden. And in every one of them there is noise and an ever-present miasma of mist and contained dust that settles on everything; over years the cable trays are filled with solids and it builds on pipes and structural members. You breath it all the time in every mill and mine. It's the subtle smell of your working life and you get to love it.

The Avebury mine was recently sold for $25 million to Dundas Mining Company. This has to be the bargain of the century – one hundred million at least must have been ploughed into it. The mill is intact and so the deposit is essentially free. The Chinese have uncharacteristically disappeared after making their investment. Only a fool wouldn't take note when these guys walk away but rest assured whatever our government, they will stand ready to back whatever eventuates, only a little encumbered by chrysotile asbestos in the mist and arsenic amongst the nickel.

Bendigo Mining was courted by Harmony of South Africa who walked away after due diligence. Investors should have taken note there too, the company then raised 90 million locally to build a milling facility but shut everything down almost immediately and went off to Tasmania as Unity Mining. With the help of Macquarie Bank they took over the nearly defunct Beaconsfield mine, still possessed of a good but problematic resource. One more disaster and on a long shot they took over the Henty gold operation. This was not a good bet either as Barrick's geologists had seen fit to walk away but to everyone's surprise it came good again for a little while. Did investors ever receive a dividend along the line? I didn't notice having lost interest in the management or their projects after my own losses with them on the mainland. And they had only been a few clicks away from Fosterville, the latest and biggest gold mining news in the world.

While investors are the last in the line of 'stakeholders' to ever see a return, the state government is the biggest bunny; committed to funding 40% of exploration costs. This is supposed to be a royalty tax holiday but without any successful mining outcomes it's really just a cash subsidy. Costs include the salaries of company employees and principals – the CEO alone will be on something between 200 thou into seven figures for any little podunk company with a market cap. of a few million. And the odds of an explorer transforming successfully to a mining company are a longshot of 100 to 1. That is not a made-up number and with dilution and other capital raisings, executive bonuses, options and salaries the horrendous 'burn rate' of raised capital mean a share investor is looking at a tenfold capital gain at best. The horses and pokies are a dead set home run in comparison. And so the boys keep coming with new schemes regardless that the island has been mined out, walked over, magnetized, gravitized and induced dozens of times. And the locals are endlessly eager to find a few months work, extend credit or recoup previous losses. But it leaves a residue of hard feelings.

The Tullanese will always blame Scott Jordan for the loss of the Venture Minerals bonanza – his article is in the TT archives at

People in the industry know that when somebody begins mining without delineating a resource it means they have no plan, no money, no credibility to raise real capital and the chance of a snowflake in hell. Golden Triangle in Burnie was a similar fiasco. The drillers were laughing (sort of) as their rods fell into voids connected to the Flowerdale River which didn't augur well for the open pit. While mining giant Normandy and partner Ford Australia were struggling to get a similar magnesium mine and smelter project up and running in Gladstone, Peter Salter flew off on a last minute global junket to supposedly raise a billion dollars then drifted away to be expelled from the board of some mainland gold mining company while Paul Lennon went off to spruik other disasters. And so the locals are left high and dry, forever burning with the rage of the dispossessed, handily directed away from the actual perpetrators.

So maybe we're for a change one day, thinking of those golden years at good old Harvey Johnston High. And Celia Fletcher god was she stacked. But she'll be a waddling old granny now under a different name which is OK, because she was never going to be mine anyway at mottled and scrawny sixteen with the whole football team out there in their little shorts.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Blood Moon

Bad omen for the markets' the old man said

Peering out betwixt the shutters mumbling dire prognostications

Ere his guests had fled.

'He had it coming or he knew it all along that President Trump

And 'twasn't Mary Marshall's cat 'Foreclosure'

-all she had left killed - balump balump

Dead as mutton as she crossed the street?'

'Hard times, so dry the soil blows away

Takes rain and growth to make it stay

And the sheep all hungry, squeezin' under fences 'fore they died.

As if. Stuff all here or on the other side.

Should have took those January prices

'Fore it hit the fan in Yarrawonga and all those other bloody crises.'

G. S.

"It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future." - Yogi Berra 

But it isn't really; couldn't be easier if you take tricks of memory into account. This poem really was penned before the deluge, after a dinner party Wednesday in which we had looked out the window to see the once- in- a- lifetime astronomical blue/blood co-incidence.  The markets had looked very toppy for a couple days and Yogi's problems are easily surmounted by careful selectivity. No-one will remember your mistakes for long. But you can put your successes out there interminably and so gain something of a reputation like Jean Dixon.  

"Don't go to Dallas or L.A., Jack or Bobbie."

So you see how easy it is.  She didn't say anything about Bobbie but no-one remembers and this new fillip to her reputation is perfectly credible. The blood moon prediction was no great personal success however, I didn't even bother to replenish my small put option portfolio that had twice expired after equally persuasive moments and 'third time lucky' is a superstition that didn't even cross my mind - if correct there would be better opportunities to come that aren't hamstrung by some ever-expiring contango. 
There was going to be more but looking back past last year's Christmas Horror story it's already been pretty well covered; still pertinent in Darkest Tasmania.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

The Circle of Friends Christmas Horror Story Challenge

                               Pillow Talk -  A Christmas Story by George Smiley

There is this soft arm across my face. “Sunday!” I say, “and we have a lot to do beside get ready for that barbecue tonight.”

She says “Oh god what time is it?”

She looks across to the dressing table. “Jesus Christ it's only five o'clock and you're wide awake. No wonder you don't get any sleep!”

No, it's 5:45 and the sun has been up exactly 16 minutes. Someone left the curtains ajar. Why it's necessary to open them every morning I have no idea but I love you anyway. Which automatically makes me feel guilty as hell because I worry that I might love you less if you weren't so small and soft and beautiful AND there would be so many more things I would hold against you.”

You wouldn't love me at all if you knew what I did to the T-bones,” she said.

I had a hard night too. One of our close family members had a virtually incurable disease that would be fatal without a transplant. They searched the world for a DNA match - there was only one and I had to fly to South Africa to pick it up. The match was with this transgender guy who had died of an overdose and I went out to a post- apocalyptic Johannesburg suburb to meet his mum and dad at the squat where he had lived. The suburb was bad, this place was horrendous, no plumbing, clothing and every class of waste and garbage strewn everywhere and mum and dad showed up about the same time. They were middle class, sad but resigned and wanted to talk about their son. We settled on the masculine 'he' – they had never come to terms with the idea that he had become their putative daughter and it suited me too because male had been an essential part of the tissue match.

Of course they put me through the whole transplant shtick; they told me what a wonderful but troubled person he had been with his estrangement and poverty and drugs and sexuality. I had to say how much we respected his integrity and how grateful we were that he had thought to offer his body to give life to others after his own really lousy one.

They had brought what we needed with them in a refrigerated container because they knew I had to catch a plane back as quickly as as possible. They opened the box and showed it to me. It was the size and shape of the guy's heart but basically just an amorphous ragged and bloody hunk of meat with no distinguishing features at all. Whatever it was, the only sure thing was that an apprentice butcher was unavailable when it was hacked out and they filled me in.

This was his re-engineered 'lady parts',” his mother said. “It's all that was left. He has helped so many people.”

We knew it would suit your purpose,” said his dad.

Which was true. They were very clued in. Our sick loved one had lymphoma, leukemia or somesuch and we only needed undamaged stem cells for an infusion to replace his gamma-blasted/ chemotoxified bone marrow rather than an actual healthy working organ of any sort. I think I was expressing surprise at the huge post- mortem popularity of this outcast when I noticed the sunlight coming in on my face.

So what did you do to the T-bones?”

She was looking at me somewhat stunned, then shrugged; dismissively, reproachfully. “Just forget about it, OK?”

She knows I almost never remember my dreams. “You just didn't expect to be trumped,” I said.

Being a reticent and proud person I would never have stooped to actually sitting down and inventing a surreal or prurient story like this for any reason unless it was for real money, and least of all a 'Circle of Friends Christmas Horror Story Challenge'. But it had just appeared; given miraculously; and about giving too which is so Christmasy I couldn't resist passing it on for the world; joining Bing Crosby and O. Henry with my contribution to the genre. My regular fans will thank whatever gods there be that one more poncey and verbose jerk has finally come off his pedestal to cater to the common taste. But it isn't me, I don't have that kind of imagination. So what alternate universe or dimension did it come from? After some head scratching I discarded the possibility of channelling leaving only one possibility which had to do with the pigs.

Earlier the previous day while making polite conversation over a cup of tea I said, “Now that we are getting on we have to start thinking about mortality and its possibilities. Now about the pigs for instance– they may seem friendly enough but if you were to have an unfortunate heart attack in the pen they would eat whatever parts of you were uncovered. If you were saved you would probably need a face transplant like that French girl on account of her dog.”

You are a lot older than me and you're the one who always goes in there anyway,” she answered “but I don't know that I could get used to looking at someone else across the table or in my bed.”

We men are different,” I answered. “If you were a recipient I could probably become accustomed to say Nicole Kidman or Katie Holmes, although they are looking somewhat shop-worn these days at best. And even with probable nerve damage like a partial rictus or a dropped lower eyelid I wouldn't kick either of them out of bed as long as I knew it was you underneath it all. Tom doesn't want either of them anymore and I think they left the church too in which case they are 'fair game.' “

But I know she would be back rebuilding me when she regained her speech so it would be a brief and illusory vacation at best, not even a change being as good as a rest. When you love someone they are already beautiful and in my case I am far ahead on a related count; not on a single morning have I ever endured the career- hazard curlers- and- mudpack crap screen celebrities inflict on their partners.

Then she thought maybe she could get used to George Clooney and diplomatically suggested that it was only because I resembled him a bit already.

I don't think George is on the outer with any particularly vicious and vengeful faith and so you might have to wait until he dies;” I answered. And I know she wouldn't be happy; beneath the superficial close resemblance between George and I there is a distinct unlikelihood that I might simultaneously find the savoir faire, strength and moral courage of his screen personae which she would automatically expect as a Clooney fan. I am a practical person, and in a 'Perfect Storm' I would certainly choose to get out of the wheelhouse and pop up to the surface along with Mark Wahlberg on the off-chance rather than pip- pip straight- upper- lip, old school tie, go down with the ship. And in the unlikely event of survival I could probably bear the sneers and contempt of my fellow man which takes both a reverse contempt and courage in itself. We don't get many visitors around here anyway. Or invitations, although people have noticed wonderingly that I have a nice dog; probably imagining I would be pleased with the inference.

So the barbecue was a rare exception. And early in those things everybody separates and the guys gather around the snag burner and discuss notable cars while the girls catch up organizing the plates and salads. Our host's home is brand new and I was helping with some small building chore. Eventually my wife came over with a plate of dinner lest I miss out. There was salad and a small mutton chop. So I understood hers wasn't a dream after all. Just what the hell did she do to the T-bones?

I will never know; sometimes magnanimous is more strategic than curious or vindictive. If I asked it would prompt some circuitous rationale to save face at whatever cost which annoys me no end and it would descend into a total s*** fight and it's the time of year to be making nice.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

And In Darkest Tasmania. The Horror......

It's deja vu all over again.” (Yogi Berra)

Who could forget that moment in a classroom full of little black girls when the heroically unfazed or utterly clueless George W. Bush got the whispered word on 9/11?   He sat looking on quietly and stayed to fidget with and famously to read a chapter from the now famous “My Pet Goat“ to the kids.

Well, I personally forgot. My own memory had him looking up with a mix of shock and triumph, as if he had instantly grasped the significance; which was that he would be comfortably re-elected to enjoy unfettered spending and personal power as a 'wartahm president'.   And that he had then settled comfortably back to the book without bothering to have the airforce scrambled, appropriate red alerts issued, airports and government buildings locked down and commercial flights suspended including that of the scarpering Bin Laden family.

The shock Brexit vote has upended the markets; which had previously discounted the affair; it was to be business as usual thanks to the failure of pundits (and more inexplicably bookmakers) to notice the existence of inarticulate, uninformed aged, unemployed or working classes in regional England.  Did our own silver-spoon end -of- term somewhat brighter Prime Minister instantly twig to the chaos that would play into his electoral hands?

Only the coalition has the economic plan in place and credibility yada yada..... “

So he is to be a Depression Prime Minister.  Public demand will see to it that any remaining credibility on budget balancing will not tie his hands.   Conservative governments are often cursed by gaining office in hard times. That initial certitude, dignified restraint and responsibility is comforting to most until they discover the real upshot: for true believers ideology trumps everything but self- interest and between elections it will be business as usual, cutting services while throwing public money at already leveraged, friendly zombie corporations and every spiv who blows in with grand ideas to 'make jobs, and 'get the economy moving again.'  And of all the states Tasmania is an especially famous destination for such all over the world; where venture capitalists (if you can still call them that) supply ownership and unaccountable management expertise while the public supplies workers AND capital in return for growth and jobs; facilitated by elected party machine mediocrities.   But for a while Turnbull will fill the bill. Although the trogs in the party suspect his liberal inclinations he is still a very attractive candidate, as was Herbert Hoover – a potentially great man in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong paradigm.  Austerity and economic rationalism just didn't cut it when unemployment reached 30% nor was there a social security net.

All this is not to say that Brexit will be the cause of another financial crisis.   It's still the same old, the last one never went away nor did or could the governments of the world bite the bullet with meaningful reforms to themselves, institutional practices
and central bank ideologies.  But any coincidental but significant event that imprints on human consciousness like the crash of '29 is automatically assigned the blame. You can take that anywhere, like why not pin the whole mess on the bellboy who told Rockefeller to buy RCA in the lift; famously initiating his well- timed sell orders. In fact it was already written in stone and needed only Chaos Theory's 'flapping of butterfly wings in the Amazon.'

The interesting thing about the volatility following Brexit isn't so much the drop in share market indices but a more telling yield spread on German vs. Italian 10 year notes, the German yield now -.1 % from +.1%, the Italian equivalent 1.3 up to 1.5 percent which is a change of 40 basis points, (.4 of 1%) for a total spread of 1.6%.  Over 10 years that reflects significantly on book values of these things held by financial institutions.   So the market is announcing internecine frictions: yet more trouble for the PIIGS to finance deficits, more responsibility on Germans and French taxpayers to shore up weaker member states, more pressure from and on same to commit to austerity, PIIGS to bail so as to fly, large institutions to bail who made the wrong bets on expectations of community support; price fixing and on it goes. The Grexit kerfuffle was only the beginning.

Everybody's stylish young facebook friends in that hemisphere are gutted. The old and the ignorant have broken the dream of a united Europe, which is disturbing when you remember Coventry, Ypres and the Somme.   But like Walt Kelly's Pogo said, “We have seen the enemy and he is us.” Or the fatted fools in Bruxelles and our own faith or toleration of the same. To quote another commentator, the well-known Richard Smiley:

“Of course the world markets went a little wild on the news. This will pass. I want to say a word in favour of small.

“Does anyone really believe that the EU will dare punish Britain for voting to leave? In the days of interlocking economies, that would be shooting yourself in the foot. There are also a number of other countries that are planning their own exit votes, and I highly doubt that they would support onerous conditions being imposed on Britain which they themselves would have to swallow in the future. The world has hundreds of years experience in dealing with relationships between nation states: lessons learned through bitter experience and countless failures. If there is anything that we have learned from all this it is that one size doesn't fit all, that the potential of advancement through diversity is still not exhausted and is unpredictable.

“We are now asked to believe by the EU diehards that the artificial creation of a United Europe, the fruition of the dreams of many politicians, political scientists, and economists (three groups of people that I wouldn't trust as far as I could throw them) somehow both foresaw and prevented all possible permutations of failure and crisis, and its unraveling will mean the end of the world as we know it; a disaster for the region.

“Ask yourself a few simple questions: Did the EU prevent the banking contagion of 2008-9 or any of the other crises that have hit the world economic scene? The profligate economic policies of the states of Southern Europe? The destructive austerity imposed by the European Bank on these countries? The answer is no to all. If fact, they made it worse. The regulations promulgated in Brussels not only didn't prevent our sociopaths and psychopaths in the multinational banks and governments from gambling, they enabled them to increase their activities to the point that for normal people, the numbers no longer have any meaning. The notional value of derivatives - what has to be paid out if the gambling bets ever have to be paid off - in the global economy have ballooned by another 20% since 2008 to over 700 trillion dollars, and in some circles are believed to be twice that. The banks have become too big to bail out in the event of a crisis. Now ask yourself another question: What is the chance that there will never be another crisis?”

Another crisis? My own personal estimate is 50/50 in the next 6 months. $220 trillion actual corporate, consumer and govt. debt priced for crazy low yields such that the principles of longer government debt are leveraged for 50%, others risk up to 100% losses if you consider the 2008 failure even for SGE's like Fanny Mae.   This is only measuring against normal market rates WITHOUT considering panic spikes, currency collapse, derivative failures and fractional reserve privileges enjoyed by the financial institutions of the world. The US Fed, Euroland and Japanese central banks have no more interest rate bullets at zero percent (ZIRP and NERP) outside of desperate and massive quantitative easing as purchasers of last resort to hold the line. 

And yet on July 2 our pols want it all and so bad, still.   Maybe those 100 thou indexed pensions will still be there after retirement. But not if they have to give me back my stinking 70 bucks a week and yours.

Last night I had risen in the small hours to a crazy vibration in the ceiling, a ragged thrumming followed by a similar pause; incessantly, like someone snoring.  It was a rat in a cage trap and I had never heard anything like it; normally they only make random scufflings.   I climbed up a ladder to the ceiling hatch and he snapped at my arm through the mesh as best he could - several times as I reached over for the handle.  This morning I pulled the cage out of the frogpond and tried to reconstruct the noise.  My conclusion was disturbing – he was big and obviously old enough to know the score and he must have been concentrating exclusively on the door, grasping the bars with both hands; shaking furiously then pausing momentarily to recover his strength, just like a man.  Raging yet focused; never losing hope.    But there could be no raxit.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The Ultimate Comfort Food

They look wearily out from the seafood display at Coles, eyes slightly sunken but nevertheless fat and shiny. And it's the best bargain on the floor, Atlantic salmon heads for 5 or 6 $ per kilo. They are at peace after a hard life crammed into pens and fed nothing but cylindrical pellets, shot across the water from gunboats, for which they do battle at close quarters, pectoral to pectoral, while the smell of urea wafts up from the bacterial mats beneath them on the sea floor. None could have known a good night's sleep in their lives but it's still better than the world outside. Occasionally there are storms, or seals break through the nets and escapees swim off freely for the first time. But soon they discover the truth of Orwell's slogan; “Freedom is Slavery!” for there is nothing to eat out there in the wide world that looks or behaves like a fish meal pellet and they find themselves completely at a loss; growing gaunt and fading slowly away even in the midst of plenty. Enterprising locals hook or net them while they are still prime; they will always strike at a pellet. Farmed fish are too fat anyway and the west coast Indians of North America before the white man apparently felt the same way about fat fish but for more practical reasons.

A real wild salmon is a pelagic fish which means they swim freely anywhere most of the time except during the spawning season when they congregate at the mouths of the great rivers and are easily netted. The fish stop eating when they enter fresh water and battle their way inland against the current for as much as 500 kilometres to their spawning grounds, following memories and impossibly diluted scent trails to arrive at the gravel beds where they were born. When it is all said and done they die and wash up on the shingle where predators and scavengers of all stripe take them coming, going and gone. Skunks, ravens, eagles, bears, lynx and cougar- transfer their nutrients to the surrounding forests which grow giant trees like nowhere else in the world. But somewhere in between, the skinnier and exhausted fish were caught, smoked and dried by man for winter rations and there were major trading routes by which these were packed all the way back down by the inland people to trade to coastal tribes. The trade must have been an unimaginable hardship. The Indians would have stuck to the higher country as best they could, for along the river trenches the huge igneous mountains, thousands of metres high stabilize at murderous grades as was noted by uncounted Chinese labourers who later perished in the Fraser Canyon while building our road and rail infrastructure. And the Coast Range continues all the way north to Alaska, borded by the ocean and the rivers pour into the cold, deep fjords which are absolutely perfect for....salmon pens!

The Norwegians were just the people to put them there; provincial governments are always suckers for moneyed big-mouths from out-of-town, bearing gifts. It hasn't done the hugely important wild fishery any more good than the forest industry however. In early spring the eggs in the river gravels hatch and the fry begin their journey to the ocean, growing en route in waters fertilized by the bodies of their ancestors. Beset by increased water temperatures, silting and faster run-off they nonetheless arrive at the salt water and the pens, where disease is rife. The farmed fish are fed fungicides and antibiotics to control disease, and unprotected exposure means a high mortality for the young wild fish. Worst of all are the sea lice that swarm around the pens and an attack by two or more is enough to kill a salmon fingerling. But the permanent residents have been coddled along in hatcheries and aren't put out until they are relatively large and strong. As for their own feed, as a cold-blooded organism they grow at a fairly economic yield around 1:10. We take everything so for granted, as if wild salmon or the tenfold mass of baitfish, and bycatch that make up the captive's rations is unlikely to have had any other traditional takers in the food chain. But a shortage of seals has turned killer whale diets to smaller and previously unnoticed creatures; specifically sea otters whose own diet was sea urchins and now the giant kelp beds are being decimated by the same. They were the nurserys for the young fish of so many species, including wild salmon. Who would have thought that other creatures near the top of the chain might be essential in maintaining balance and productivity on our behalf. But in the antipodes there are no wild salmon so farmed fish are all we get. Although the same pellets and chemical brews sustain them North and South don't worry, or at least take comfort - it was worth the sacrifice.

                                         Comfort Food – Fish Head Chowder

Take 3 large salmon heads as fresh as you can find, which should be about $5 worth and carefully scale anywhere that has been missed. Rinse and put them in a medium pot, cover well with water and bring to a boil. When they are cooked but still intact remove from the broth, cut away and discard the gills. These have a very unpleasant texture and if you don't get rid of them early you never will. Return the heads to the broth and meanwhile cut a large potato into thumbnail sized cubes, and a large onion to a similar size. When the heads have fallen to pieces completely and the gelatinous bits separate easily from the bones you have gone far enough for the moment. Allow to cool somewhat and remove the fins and a lot of of the bones with a fork. These are surprisingly plentiful but so thin they are almost insignificant in terms of the mass of meat and gelatin you are getting for your money. If you let the broth cool now for later use, a fork will stand up in it.

Add the onion and potato and go on cooking until these are tender. Add basil, black pepper and any other sweet herbs like marjoram or chopped fresh parsley that would be nice with fish keeping in mind the milk hasn't yet been added; and to make something truly wonderful add an optional large handful of cooked and shelled prawns. Add the better part of a litre of whole UHT milk. It's only a dollar a litre on special and is revolting in tea or coffee but here it is perfect. Add salt to taste – you have left it out until the end so the meat and vegetables will tenderize more quickly and it should still be just the right temperature to serve. With a loaf of bread this will make a capital meal for at least 3 people. Serve in a large bowl with a small saucer alongside in which to spit the endless bones of infinitely varied shapes and dimensions; not suitable for small children. Too bad for them - somehow we are wired to measure proteins - not necessarily as a flavour so much as a feeling of pure pleasure and this has it all.