Saturday, October 31, 2009

'Playtime' and building a great business

The Lee Valley tool company makes great quality, well-priced, innovative tools. Period.

Over the years I have bought several of their handplanes, and assorted other paraphernalia, and their stuff and their service rocks.

Rob Lee and his crew give us everything we love about Canadians. They've taken old world quality and infused it with new world ingenuity. They've taken old style service, and somehow managed to maintain a stunning standard among customers all over the world. They have promoted gifted individuals, and yet always kept the 'top end' of the business wide open to the ideas of the masses. They have taken handtools to a new level, and yet not forgotten how to have fun. (Their new product releases every April Fool's Day capture this.)

This cool little shoulder plane is also a great example of the spirit of ingenuity and play. It is stunningly good value for the machining and tooling involved. And since this baby was launched only a few days ago, woodworkers across the various fora have been buzzing with excitement.

But it's like this every time Lee Valley release a new tool now. They know how to build the excitement so it's just like Christmas morning with a bunch of six-year-old kids. Except it happens more than once a year.

Lee Valley is a business that woodworkers love to deal with. What more could you ask for? Great quality, great fun, great service, great people, great knowledge, great accessibility, great value. They have decisively nailed a winning formula.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A thick wad of reward

How many loyalty cards can a person physically cart around on their person?

It seems that every time you buy another espresso, or donut, or bag of groceries, or book or tank of petrol, someone is trying to reward (and build) your custom with a little piece of plastic or cardboard.

I used to collect loyalty cards too readily. The situation was pretty desperate: for years I even carted around a Spotlight card - how much use do you think a 25-year-old male was going to give that one?!

One day I realised that I had such a fine collection that even when the opportunity came to use one of them, I would inevitably forgot to dig through my stash to find it. It was a bit like the problem of owning the Entertainment book: one would inevitably find the vouchers that could have been used well after the moment had passed.

So there was the reward of loyalty to urge future patronage: a wallet full of punched and marked cards.

These days I only keep one coffee card, and it's stuck to my pinboard in the office. If I'm going to keep any loyalty card, it's got to get used at least once a fortnight.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

English as she is spoke

This four-minute high quality documentary captures our perception [sometimes?] of those we regard as outsiders to our own language and culture.

It also offers some interesting commentary on how we perceive language being taught and learned, and how it actually functions.

"You speak English well!"

If it puts a smile on your dial, you might also enjoy this more slapstick one from Micallef (who has employed the mechanics of this gig in several other skits over the years).

Monday, August 10, 2009

In the face of a child

Sometimes a moment takes you back to your childhood.

Caelan has been wanting to go fishing with me for a long time. We finally got to wet the lines the other weekend up at Forster.

His excitement and his interest reminds me of my own excitement at my dad taking me fishing as a little 'un up at Forster.

Sometimes as you look into the face of your child, you see your own reflection. In a moment, your childhood returns.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The sum of the parts

I wonder if you've ever tried to sell anything on eBay.

It amazes me how similar items can sell for such different prices. Sometimes it just seems to be a question of timing - the right / wrong people find / don't find your item at the right / wrong time.

But I'm pretty convinced a lot of it has to do with the quality of your descriptions. I used to move a bit of stuff on the 'Bay and got pretty decent prices for it - on one occasion selling a secondhand item for considerably more than it was worth new.

I worked with a few simple principles on eBay:

1. Be completely honest. If the item's not rare, don't list it as rare. If it has faults, point them out. Some of my listing titles have included the words 'NOT rare', 'Common as mud', 'More common than mud' - and I got great prices for all those items. Honesty is attractive to buyers. This also applies to postage - don't rip people off.

2. A listing is nothing without good photos. Give each listing at least 4 focused pictures, being sure to present as much detail on the item as you can, especially in areas where buyers are looking for detail. A lightbox, or a backdrop that contextualises the item, might be of assistance. An 'action' shot like the one above is good to include - it opens people's minds to the possibilities of what they could do with the item.

3. Give the item a really thorough description with the best grammar and spelling you can muster. If you can demonstrate a little technical knowledge of the item, that also helps.

4. Tell the story. People are curious, and love to know the history of where the item has been, which celebrity owned it, and which side of the American Civil War it fought on. This is the non-tangible, non-spec side of things - but it makes a difference, and adds to the character and uniqueness of your item. Stories give context to raw data.

5. Start the bidding low. This gets things moving. If you've got the above ingredients right, you'll get a sale and it will probably be at a price you're happy with anyway.

6. Finish items at a time when people are likely to be home. Most of mine finished in the evenings, and the bidding always heated up in the last ten minutes. Evenings were kind to me - not many people would feel comfortable bidding in front of the boss at 11.15am!

What are your eBay tips for success? Can you sharpen up these points?

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Any flavour, so long as it's vanilla

Funny the things you never notice until someone else points them out.

I was listening to two blokes on ABC Sydney this morning discussing the blandness of modern car design. One of them made an interesting observation: when you get a street parked full with bland modern cars, you get increasingly bland streets ...

Monday, August 3, 2009

When everyone pitches in ...

Back from a short break - we had a couple of wonderful days with the family up at Smith's Lake (20 minutes' drive south of Forster).

I admit it's been hard to switch back into some sort of normality.

We shouldn't have stayed in the house we stayed in. I mean, we didn't deserve it.

By the time we split the costs between seven adults it cost us each around $33 per night. This gave us a massive house with a spectacular view over the lake and ocean, the world's most insane spa, a great kitchen (and top-shelf coffee machine), and about a million bedrooms and bathrooms.

When we all pitch in, it becomes amazingly affordable. On our own ... out of reach. And strangely - I think it was the more enjoyable to have a house like this full of people and energy and bubble. So everyone wins. Great house, great location, great company, great price.

Can't argue with that.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

When did you realise ...

... you were onto something?

How long did it take for you to see that you were seeing something?

... to name a pattern, to speak into the darkness, to say, "Come forth!"?

How did you feel when others didn't see the same - and laughed? When others joined with you, and wondered about what could be ... how did you feel?

When you were way out of your depth, when you wound up in conversations that you felt like you had no right to be in?

When did you realise ... how much of it was grace?

Monday, July 27, 2009

A simple buzz

Simple things. Kids. Ice cream. Messy ice cream. Smiles all 'round. Sticky fingers and chocolate beards. Sugar hit.

Doesn't get much better.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Behind closed [roller] doors

Closed doors leave our imaginations free to wonder / wander.

We know that doors have a way of hiding what really is, preserving all along the veneer of normality, or wealth, or tidyness that is conveyed from the outside.

When we open doors and look inside, the veneer doesn't always (or often) correspond with the internal reality.

These guys in Germany offer a nice critique of that with a pretty special piece of silliness. They take the biggest door in the house, and offer their take on "I wonder what's inside?"

Of course, we are all still left wondering what really is inside behind their veneer-upon-a-veneer!

Saturday, July 25, 2009

For the want of a really good question

Many occasions in life will see us engaging in the hunt for 'the right answer'. From the time we were in kindergarten we've been trained to expect that a question posed anticipates an answer supplied, and a learning goal achieved.

Finding answers can be tough; but not as tough as trying to find the right question.

Social change strategist Fran Peavey speaks of questions as being like levers set to work on the lids of paint tins: some questions are a 'short lever' and may just manage to pry the lid off; other questions have the capacity to not only open the tin but to get in there and really stir things up.

Questions are not made good by volume, but by their ability to stir us into deeper realisation and unsettledness. The best questions for agitation are not questions where the questioner already knows the answer, but those where the answers are yet to be discovered in an act of co-creation engaging various parties around the table.

As Peavey says, "People need to come up with their own answers. Questioning can catalyze this process. Don't be disappointed if a great question does not have an answer right away. A powerful question will sit rattling in the mind for days or weeks as the person works on an answer. If the seed is planted, the answer will grow. Questions are alive!"

Oh that we lived into this reality more often! Many times we find ourselves beset by a barrage of questions, yet strangely comforted that the inquistor knows the answer, and will lead us to it if we cannot find it ourselves. It starts at school, and is a method most educators never tire of.

"What colour is the car, Suzie?"
"What is 6 x 2, Todd?"
"Who were the signatories to the Treaty of Waitangi, and on what date was it signed? Why is there a perception that the bilingual nature of the Treaty favoured Pākehā?"
"Why should you use a registered fitting station to secure your child's car seat restraint?"
"What behaviours does the Apostle Paul say believers must exhibit in v.9? Why must they act this way?"
"How can you tell if a person has been physically or psychologically abused? What are the signs?"
"So I've presented you with these two options, and it's now for you to make the choice: which one fits your personality type?"

These are questions with short leverage. And that's okay if you're only after data, zeros and ones.

But occasionally a really good question will come your way. And it will stir at you and niggle you until something in your life changes. We are starved for want of good questions (especially the unaskable questions: "What would it take for someone here to ask us a question that may completely unhinge us -- and even the questioner?").

What are the questions that have changed your life?

Friday, July 24, 2009

A guide to not killing the enjoyment for others

We get through our fair share of fermented grape juice at our place.

Wine is one of those areas where there's a lot of snobbery and pretence. Our knowledge of wine is limited, but we're always willing to learn.

This article impressed me as one seeking to escape from the snobbery without dumbing down the enjoyment of good wine. It's kind of a 'walk around it and appreciate its many facets' approach.

A good wine is enjoyed all the more when we take just a few minutes to see it, breathe it, smell it, let it linger, savour it. In other words: camp on it, and engage your brain and senses.

The upshot of this article is: tasting and enjoying wine doesn't have to be hard or snobbish. As we enjoyed a nice Kiwi Sauv Blanc this evening it repayed just that little bit of extra time to stop and appreciate it.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Finding a teacher who can teach

Music lessons can really suck.

It's not always the question of students being lazy - sometimes it's the issue of teachers who don't know how to work with the student they have in front of them.

I had four music teachers in my life; three of them never got it. They spent all their time trying to force me and my sisters into music theory, scales, and Grade 2 piano books.

It worked for sister number 2, but not so well for sister number 1, and not at all for sister number 3.

But now it's the family baby (no. 3) who can improvise so readily. She can hear a tune, and have it to keys in no time. As for me, it wasn't till I got to my second guitar teacher that I found someone who quickly worked out that I wasn't going to play hours of chord progressions or scales: he celebrated my improvisation, and sought to work backwards from it, recording and writing it down as I experimented and settled on things.

He was the smart teacher. Twelve years with the piano expert has left me with little more than some recollection of where I might find middle C. But my guitar teacher knew how to work with kids who didn't follow the pattern of the curriculum.

Wherever you are, Lars, I love you, man.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Going by the board[room] ...

Too many things in life go unquestioned.

I'm convinced one of them is the boardroom meeting.

This institution / ritual has been with us for ... a long time. It's part of our DNA; it's what we do. Birds fly south in winter. Ants get busy before rain. Businesses have meetings.

Just out of curiosity, have most of the substantial changes in your business / organisation been driven by what came out of formal meetings?

How often have meetings captured the best of what your people are capable of? How often have meetings opened a window into the brilliance and giftedness of the company's people?

How often have meetings aired with honesty (and grace) the real problems you face? (As opposed to tip-toeing around sensitive issues, afraid to name them for fear of repercussions?)

How often have meetings allowed for the honesty of complexity while driven by the need to generate consensus (and expeditiously at that)?

How often do meetings deliver for your organisation what we believe (and hope) meetings are supposed to accomplish?

I think meetings have a usefulness, but I'm still trying to decide just what that usefulness is. We've just had two days' of meetings, and it felt good and impassioned, and we talked through some pretty weighty stuff (and got some bonus beer and tucker thrown in for the trouble).

And I'm still left wondering what meetings are all about. Educate me.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Skilled for the onwards and upwards

Life is constant upskilling.

It seems we're always being prepared for one task or another through a process of training and trial.

We simulate reality in all sorts of ways. Nothing's quite as good as the real thing, and eventually training ends and we launch into 'the thing' itself.

I wonder how long it will be till plastic bars bolted onto a wooden platform become tree branches or rocky outcrops?

Monday, July 20, 2009

Footprints in the sand

Recently, while waiting for a client to get to our meeting, I was left in a tea room with a copy of a book on tracking Australian animals and birds. Through lots of photos of footprints and scats the book taught you how to identify what had trafficked through your local area.

Life is full of footprints. Wherever we go, the marks of our presence are left behind. The tracks of others are left for us to follow, to read, and to learn from.

Whose footprints are you following? What are you learning from looking at the footprints around you?

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Finding a sweet spot

Different places bring out different things in people.

We took the boys down to Wollongong today. Caelan, who is usually cautious, seemed to relax quite a bit and got his feet (and most of his clothes) very wet.

Elisha, who looks for any excuse to run wild, did just that.

You only have to put young boys in the presence of water and sand and they undergo a sort of primal transformation. It is a great place to watch their inhibitions melt as they run along the water's edge, play with sticks and shells, throw sand (usually at the faces of other unfamiliar kids), chase seagulls, and plonk down on the beach in the sopping wet pants.

We shared some of those lovely uninhibited moments with our boys today. Free time spent at the beach brings out such different sides of their personalities to time spent in the loungeroom.

Sun, sand and surf are a licence to frolic and innovate and explore. Elisha had his first experience of sand running through his toes as his little feet sank into beachsand (you don't see much of this out near Mt Druitt). His little face was full of all kinds of interesting expressions today as new possibilities for play emerged.

Deep inside me, I feel a little bit of that urge as the waves lap and the seagulls screech.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Good designs can be timeless ...

... but this is a little bit wrong.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Hitting the sack vol. 2

Yes, back to my favourite 4 sqm in our whole house.

It's a real smorgasboard in 'bed land' these days: pocket springs, Bonnell springs, foam boxes, memory foam, latex, down etc.

Beds just ain't a hessian mat on the floor anymore.

The choice is somewhat overwhelming. All you can hope is that the design that does it for you now will still be delivering for you in 5 years' time.

Our last bed was a massive disappointment and its innards basically collapsed within a few years. When we got rid of it two weeks ago, it had more in common with the topography of the the south island of New Zealand than with the mattress we bought back in 2002.

Do you have any golden tips on choosing the right bed? One slightly greasy salesman kept saying to us, "Just leeesen to your buddy."

That's all well-and-good in the first instance, but what if your 'buddy' is telling you that the mattress you bought 3 years ago is not what it was when it left the shop floor?

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Beckoning springs

Two weeks ago we bought a new mattress. This is good.

Comfy, supportive ... everything a good mattress should be (Sleepmaker 701).

Without further ado, I am going to find that mattress right now and melt into it. Bliss.

See you in the new day.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Tales in the tailings

What do the 'leftovers' in your neighbourhood tell you about the place?

Driving into Singleton this morning I was greeted by this massive pile of tailings.

The client I met with told me how much the mining companies have impacted the life of the town. Some of the mining companies donate significant funds back into the community as well as employing local people.

The tailings, the railway tracks, the payloaders ... they all tell you about the town and its character.

Our neighbourhood has very few 'leftovers' - but just down the road there is an old paddock and a rusty barbed wire fence.

What is now medium-density housing was once a thriving farming area. Just the other day a client was telling me that he remembers learning to drive on a farm out here.

In a previous suburb we lived in the style of houses said it all: a place largely settled by returned soldiers who bought their blocks, build a simple garage, and lived in it while they built their own fibro homes.

There are tales in the tailings. Having your eyes open enriches your understanding of where you are, and what has made it what it is.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

What sorts of memories will you leave?

How do you imagine yourself being remembered?

When someone says your name in 80 years' time, what would you like them to recall?

What is it that contributes to how a person is remembered?

What is it that you think you'll be remembered for? Is it a lifetime of patterns, some singular achievements, or some crazy one-off event (like eating 15 cheeseburgers in 5 minutes)?

Monday, July 13, 2009

Fox in socks

A Dr Seuss tonight I read
I read it to my son in bed.
My son in bed was wearing red
In bed and red while daddy read.

(It's true actually - he was wearing his bright red jammies.)

Dr Seuss it drains me so
My brain gets tired; my tongue won't go
My tired eyes boggle; my brain gets goggled -
But have you ever snoggled a Zoggle?

(Okay, my head's hurting now.)

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Spare the grease, spoil the BBQ

Too much TLC can spoil just about anything.

If you're too soft on your kids, you ruin them. If you always keep your plants in nursery conditions, you never harden them off. And you can be too kind to your BBQ as well.

Yes, for years I went through an almost religious cleaning ritual with my BBQ. After each cooking session, I'd be out there scrubbing it down, and getting just about every speck of grease off it. No yucky sticky pieces of six-month-old charred pineapple on my grill.

But you know something about grease? It's a rust inhibitor. Amazing. Grease on = no rust. Grease off = equals rusty sausages next time you fire it up.

Today was ridiculous. We had house church at our place and burgers for all. But it's hard to cook up a feed for a crowd when you've only got enough non-rusted space to do 3 hamburger patties at a time while the rest of the BBQ radiates its magnificent heat across acres of rust.

So I've been forced to abandon my much-loved rituals. My attempts to preserve this meeting place of metal, meat and fire ended up assisting the decline of my BBQ - there are now literally sheets of rust to be chipped off each time.

So tonight I raise my tongs to all those greasy, sticky, dirty old BBQ hotplates out there. I've learned my lesson: keep it mean.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

A heart torn by three tiny leaves

Got stuck into the front lawn today. One of the nice things about kikuyu is that it really does shut down in these cooler months and gives me a few weeks' break between mows.

Today as I trimmed and slashed I was forced to admire the tenaciousness of the white clover (Trifolium repens to most readers here, I'm sure). Even though I hit it last year with MCPA and bromoxinil, it's back with a vengeance this year.

It's one of those plants whose appearance I both love and dislike (the bees are madly in love with it), but whose nitrogen-fixing qualities I (and the rest of the lawn) appreciate. So maybe I'll be a little kinder to it this year. We'll see.

It's one of those things that is aesthetically a little off-putting, but is in every other way beneficial (a bit like brown bread or orange juice with the chunks in it).

What do you think? Mercy on the clover? Or doom, death, and destruction?

Friday, July 10, 2009

Stepping across unconventional stones

Kids with an adventurous spirit have a way of getting to where they want to be.

Unconventional forms of assistance are by no means unacceptable. You don't need a step-ladder for climbing - heck, if trampling over toys, crawling along the back of the lounge, clambering up on the coffee table, gets you where you want to be then why not?

What do you clamber over, jump from, scramble through to get to where you need to be?

The best stepping stones aren't always purposely designed that way.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Do you dig it?

If you don't know anything about these, then perhaps you should learn.

You never know when your three-year-old might ask for one.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Going, going, gone

Cordless gear is great.

Over the years I've appreciated the flexibility and excellent battery life out of some good cordless drills (if you know tools, blue Bosch and Panasonic).

I've also had a decent run out of laptop batteries. Over the years most of the laptops I've owned have had Ni-Cd or Ni-mH batteries in them. I have always been careful to cycle batteries, and to not leave them plugged in too long. And so I would often still be getting up to two hours' use out of a five-year-old battery.

Not so this time. On my present laptop the battery is Lithium-Ion. The big plus: it recharges so quickly, and is cool with being 'topped up'. The downside? It doesn't have the longevity of the other guys.

These lithium batteries are apparently good for about three hundred cycles, and then the chemistry ain't so crash-hot anymore. And that's what's happened here. The nice long runs of 2 or 2 1/2 hours have come to an end. Quite abruptly. We're good for about 15 minutes now.

I knew there had to be a trade-off for the convenience and power! Has anyone else made this discovery? I think I'd almost rather go back to the Ni-mH days.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

What's over the hedge?

What's over the hedge?

Is this a barrier? Or an invitation?

Does it command silence, or feed speculation and wonder?

Is it a feature in itself, or does it add definition to some other feature?

What I like about a natural hedge like this versus a Colourbond fence: it offers partial glimpses and flashes of light and colour. Colourbond says absolutely "This is where your space ends." This isn't quite so cut-and-dried.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Green overheads ahead

A roof is a roof is a roof. Except when it's a goat paddock.

A look at some of these roofs is a bit of a blast from the past. But it's the way of the future.

The City of Toronto is leading the way here. If you live anywhere near the heatsink that is western Sydney, you'll be saying 'Bring it on'!

And more trees - as opposed to this highly selective piffle.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

The tradesmen's entrance

We hang out with some pretty crazy friends.

I guess this kind of works when you're not exactly on an even keel yourself.

Crazy friends are good - lots of raucous laughs, some tears, great food and wine, some pretty full-on conversations, and the reminder that it really is good to be alive.

We were with a mob of them this afternoon / evening, for our six-weekly catch-up of FOCG (I will only tell you that the first two words are 'Friends of' and the last word is 'Grace'. You'll have to die wondering what the 'C' part is).

Anyway, somewhere in the conversation someone introduced the concept of the tradesmen's entrance. We were talking about the pretentiousness that surrounds properties, and indeed whole cities: we put our best foot forward, and hide all the rumblings - the dirty laundry, the sewer, the hot water system, old broken furniture, the fire escape, the long grass - out the back.

Sydney's no different. We live less than five minutes from suburbs like Bidwill and Shalvey - and Sydney's no different.

And our lives are no different. People who encounter us in a state of readiness find a neat and orderly front yard, newly cut green grass, and a big ... driveway.

But the tradies go down the side, and come around the back. They know where things are really at. They know what work needs to be done. They see - horror of horrors - what we don't want the whole jolly neighbourhood to see.

Our lives are no different to the games we play with our houses and our cities. Best foot forward, people.

And heaven help you if you encounter a 'tradesman' - someone who decides not to enter your life through the well-advertised front door, but down through a side gate and into the messy rumblings of the dingy, seedy back of your personal apartment (where dirty laundry is the nicest of what's there).

Most people - most, most people - will never see down into that part of your life. But there are eyes that see - you know that, don't you?

Saturday, July 4, 2009

To lead - what does it take?

'Leadership' is a word with a lot of baggage loaded into it.

Mark Strom has made the argument before in his 'Leading Wisely' lecture series that we perhaps do well to boil the subject matter back down to a simple verb: 'to lead'.

So much discussion about 'leadership' ends up in lists of 'The 12 qualities of', 'Studies of famous leaders', 'The irrefutable laws of' etc. So little of it ends up being about the simple human activities of leading and following.

I've begun reading Ron Carucci's Leadership Divided. It's a very interesting read. Without saying any more, I wonder which attributes resonate with you when you think about the times you have been led well - or have led another person yourself in a way you think was effective.

Is it always the same attributes that come into play?

Can a perceived strength in one circumstance become a perceived failing in another - and vice versa?

Friday, July 3, 2009

Toot toot chuggah chuggah!

The Wiggles play on high rotation in our household, especially between the hours of six and eight in the morning.

But the world of The Wiggles doesn't end when the videos stop. The imaginary world of coloured skivvies, ditsy pirates and purple octopuses continues.

This is not a cardboard box; it's actually the big red car. Sadly, the big red car is now part of local landfill. But not before the two little adventurers went for some Wiggly car trips in it.

You've got to love the way that kids find something which bears (to the adult mind) only a vague resemblance to something else that they know and love, and then live out a whole world of adventures in it. And most of the time it's with the simplest things.

Thursday, July 2, 2009


Cara is a fan of The West Wing and is gradually watching her way through the various episodes.

Presently, she's in Season 3. During the episode she was watching last night, I heard the following exchange between Toby Ziegler and newly-named U.S. poet laureate, Tabatha Fortis.

Tabatha: I like crossing off lists - it's very satisfying. You like lists?

Toby: Yes.

Tabatha: You like crossing things off?

Toby: I'll let you know if it happens.

Later in the evening I finished a short-ish book by Tim Keller, The Prodigal God.

It's nice to finish things.

It's gratifying to cross things off. Sometimes when I have a lot of tasks to do in a day, I write a list. I cross them off as I go. Occasionally, I remember things I've already done, and add them to the list, then cross them off immediately. (Okay, that's just a little too obsessive, I know.)

Finishing things is gratifying. But what about starting things?

A friend said to me recently that his gift isn't in finishing things; it's in starting them. For him, starting things is gratifying. Seeing others build on them is also gratifying. When I look at how he's wired, and what he's contributed to over the years, it makes sense.

I guess there is a gratification that comes with completing something, and a gratification that comes with starting something as well. But what about the middle bit?

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Thomas in flames

I don't quite remember how I happened across the work of Leo Kim.

Leo took that series beloved of every young boy, and came up with his own episode titled 'Thomas Tank Mad Bomber'.

Leo must have known he was on to a big hit: boys (big and little) love trains. And explosions.

Personally, I think the Thomas series was always begging for a good explosion. You only ever had to watch an episode or two of the original to recognise that here was one seriously vindictive shedful of steam engines. A sudden malicious flame-burst was only ever a toot-toot away.

While the episode itself is worth the watch (gotta love the droll humour that follows after 1:30), even more fascinating are all the 'making of' videos that Leo has done to showcase the challenges of film-making with model trains on a shoestring.

It's clever stuff. Even if Leo is Victorian.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Where the fun's really at

Adults think they know what kids want.

Kids know exactly what they want.

A playground full of equipment designed by adults for kids to play on.

And a bubbler designed by adults for people to drink from.

Where do think the kids spent most of their half hour at the local park?

And no, it didn't end dry or tidy. But they did discover a new way of having loads of fun - no play equipment necessary.

(By the way, if you want to see a really 'smart' park, next time you're passing through Blayney stop over and let the kids loose on Heritage Park - it's a park that stands up even without the play equipment.)

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Getting my feet wet. And dry.

In the last week or so we've had the news of North Coast flooding. I was in Grafton the day before the big event, and thankfully made the trip back home before all the action happened.

When you live in a city like Sydney, you can quickly lose perspective on the realities that other people face in terms of the weather.

You only have to hop in your car and drive a few hours north or west to see it. From Grafton in flood last week, to Canberra in drought this week, I'm reminded how limited my perspective is.

Sometimes you don't have to go all that far from home to see things very differently. When you get there, the difference is obvious.

But somehow when you're at home, you can't see it. Homes flooded, and paddocks drought-parched - and here I am, dry and safe with a green lawn in the Sydney suburbs. It all seems so far away.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

When more is less

During the week one of my meetings was with the manager of a Paulownia plantation.

Paulownia originated in China, and was naturalised in Japan centuries ago. It is widely used for the building of furniture and fine cabinet-making, especially in the marine industries (the timber at its best is straight-grained, strong and very light).
As the 79-year-old manager of the plantation drove me around, he explained some of the lessons they'd learned along the way.
One of the main ones was: don't plant the trees too close together.
It would be easy to think that jamming as many trees as possible onto the site would make the exercise more profitable. But it's not so.
When the trees are too close together two things happen. Firstly, there is competition in the canopy as the trees compete for light. And as a result, the trees end up with winding, bendy trunks (which translates into shortly harvested lengths, and less straight grain).
Secondly, the trees don't grow as big. In fact, the final difference in terms of timber yield would be over 100% - the big difference being in the thickness of the trunks.
Sometimes less is more.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Rough and not-quite-ready, but what the heck!

While catching up with a pair of landscape architects on the south coast the other week, I couldn't resist the temptation to get a snap of their main worktable.

This wasn't some sort of attempt to give the studio an 'arty' edge; it was the reality of trying to get work done in the middle of a renovation.

This simple affair hadn't even been given the 'once over' prior to installation; this door which appeared to have had long exposure to the weather showed all the signs of being picked from the rubble heap and dumped on two trestles. During our meeting I discovered a rusty nail sticking up on my side of the table (next to the dead lock).

A pristine, precisely-manufactured desk is imbibed with no inherent ability to generate productivity. Conversely, some of the finest art has been produced on some fairly rough-and-ready work surfaces (if in doubt, survey the photos of famous British chair bodger, Jack Goodchild, at work in his Naphill workshop).

Chris Schwarz over at his Woodworking Magazine blog recently held a competition for the roughest workbench ('Most Pathetic Workbench') his readers could find. The photos - and his descriptions ("the thing that looks like a small mammal") - are worthy of five minutes of your time. Schwarz does make the comment that you don't need a great bench to do great work, although it probably helps.

I'm guessing that the landscape architects I met with the other week still haven't upgraded that work table; I'm sure they will one day. But in the meantime, they'll get on with churning out thoughtfully designed landscapes.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Back to front

A few weeks ago, I attended a conference up at Boomerang Beach near Forster.

The first afternoon of the conference gave participants the option of being involved in any one of several different field trips. The 'learn-to-surf' trip felt a little ambitious to me after a late night, and so I opted for the National Parks and lighthouse tour.

The Sugarloaf Point Lighthouse has been automated for several years, and so there is no active keeper onsite. Nevertheless, the keepers' huts have been restored by the NPWS and are available as holiday accommodation (bargain hunter's delight at only $4000 per week in the summer).

The huts are situated at the bottom of the headland, with the lighthouse up above. As we prepared to walk from the head keeper's hut up to the lighthouse, our guide asked, "Can you guess which side is the front of the hut?"

It was a good question. One side faces out to sea, another side faces down towards the trail by which you enter the property, another towards the cottage next door (with a trail between them), and one side up looks up the hill towards the lighthouse. Which side is the front?

This side, apparently. And if you walk into the house, you'll find that the layout reflects that.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Bumper to bumper

Why is it always so much easier to break something than it is to fix it up?

Can you think of a single thing that's easier to fix than it is to break?

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Dinner for two?

I wonder when the two-place dining table was invented?

It's a great principle - especially when you've got two people to work with it.

Not quite so affirming or memorable when you're on your own ...

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Ideas have consequences

So does where you park your car ...

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Yesterday's standard

I just picked up this Wahl Eversharp mechanical pencil.

There are scores of these things available over the internet. The Wahl company began production of these pencils around 1915, and had sold over 12,000,000 by 1921.

This model - referred to as 'Gold-filled' (gold-plated) - is still surprisingly common. Back in the day there was nothing especially out-of-the-ordinary about this sort of pencil.

The standard of finish and quality of machining is high - this is a piece of writing art; functional but aesthetically pleasing. 'Henry' obviously thought it nice enough to not be in a hurry to lose it.

Now I compare it with my day-in, day-out Faber-Castell. Functional and sleek ... but I'd doubt someone will score this pencil in 80 years' time and wonder at its quality and design.

Ah, yesterday's standard!

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Taking a shot at Cupid

Happy Valentine's Day!

Pictures of Cupid appear around the place at this time of February.

The obvious design question revolves around the machinery of love, or the history of archery.

What makes love work is a little bit too big for me to tackle tonight, so here's a nice little running history of the story of bows and arrows.

In case you're wondering, Cupid is normally seen armed with a recurve bow (compound bows and cross-bows coming onto the scene long after his innovation).

Friday, February 13, 2009

If you choose the white pill, Neo ...

... your clients will appreciate some minty freshness.

Before I walk into a meeting with a client I always do two things: turn off the mobile phone, and pop a Tic Tac or two (I say 'or two' because according to the ads they effortlessly tumble out of those little plastic boxes in twos).

My boss is a big advocate of the breath mint. He was put onto it by a former minister who told him, 'Never decline a mint when one is offered you.'

I would rather be in the place of offering myself a Tic Tac than getting into a meeting just after coffee and having a client force some mints across the table to me.

As it happens, the Tic Tac is due this year for the embarrassing cards and the special party with long speeches: the humble minty sugar bullet turns forty in 2009.

I wonder if anyone still has an original packet? It's not just the Tic Tac itself that is fresh; the box design, with its classic integration of the living hinge, is pretty cool and timeless - a nice design.

The Tic Tac is brought to us by Ferrero, the same people who blessed the world with the 'Rocher' (and also with that source of novelty plastic toys that every parent dreads the assembly of, the Kinder Surprise).

Here is a nice little article on the Tic Tac; only thing missing is an 'Ode to Tiny Pellets of Deliverance'.

That little 18g pack loaded with 1.9 calorie white wonders lasts a surprisingly long time. They don't feel like a lolly - they are, instead, a business accessory. Perhaps I should be claiming them as a business expense (Russ??).

Is there a small familiar 'work accessory' you enjoy occasional indulgence in? (Perhaps we should just take various forms of caffeine as a given.)

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Recovery from discovery

Don't act all shocked on me. Yes, I am back for the third evening in a row. Who knows? This could be habit-forming! Perhaps not. But maybe. I dunno.

Moving along ...

How often has the act of discovery put you in a bind?

You stumble across some hidden gem - perhaps it's the $50 / night accommodation you found in *******, Tasmania. Or it might be the stunning $4.50 'Titanic' burger that was unveiled to you in ********, in rural northern NSW. Perhaps it was just the pleasure of spending some time one-to-one in the company of a Jimmy Watson trophy winner, and indulging in his delicious port at the cellar door in ****** ***** in Victoria.

And so you see the bind.

You want to tell someone else about your discovery, but you don't want to spoil it. You want to be able to discover it again, finding it just as satisfying as the first time you discovered it. There is a longing for the discovery to remain unspoilt.

I guess it's probably a form of selfishness, often disguised with half-convincing justifications.

Of course, when you do share it with other people, and they 'taste' of your discovery, there's that wonderful moment that they share their delight with you. And if you never share a discovery, you don't have the pleasure of those conversations.

And perhaps the little burger joint in Inverell, or the Graeme Miller winery in Dixon's Creek, or the ladies who manage the manse accommodation at Stanley will think that no one loves them and decide to shut up shop ...

Perhaps the best way to keep a discovery alive is to share it.

P.S. Many thanks to Dave & Erika for clueing me up on where we could buy copious quantities of **** at truly amazing prices. We have stocked up with several cases since! The Murray Valley Ch@rdonn@y which worked out at around $2.45 per bottle delivered is amazing. The $4.65 Sh!r@z was also stunning value.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

"It's a bit didactic" AKA "So obvious it hurts"

There is a sounding board in my life called Cara.

The Greek word behind the name means 'joy'; just occasionally the name means 'ouch'.

We sound a lot of stuff off each other: ideas, art, photos, music, kids, wine, the pronunciation of 'bolognaise' (all in no particular order). Nothing is safe.

The other week I legally downloaded a free album ('Nobody's Cool') off the website of the (now defunct) Californian band The Arrogants. Several songs on the album grabbed my attention straight away. They were the simpler songs on what is a fairly Cranberries-ish (is that a word?) album. Their lyrical intent arrested my attention.

The songs 'Why T.A.N.G. is my favorite band' and 'Nobody's Cool' are songs that tell us to keep it real. There's really no such thing as a rock star or some super breed of human being that carries more dignity and value than the rest of us. You cut us, we all bleed.

I played the songs to Cara, hoping to impress her with the 'in your face' approach the band took to the issues. Her response? "It's a bit didactic." Ouch.

It's too straight-up, too obvious. And I think she's right.

'Why T.A.N.G. is my favorite band' attempts to be a cool song, but what it actually does is explain / rationalise parody. In so doing - in telling us why T.A.N.G. are a cool band, and how they critique the music industry, and what's wrong with the music industry - the song actually labours a point that T.A.N.G. makes with ease.

Ironically, one of the band members of T.A.N.G. is a band member of The Arrogants (the lead singer's husband).

The telling of truth can be a delicate matter. There is, unfortunately, a trend afoot to make truth somehow slippery and evasive or unknowable, and this borders on deceit.

On the other hand, we see those who can only tell truth by taking everyone out the back of the woodshed for a talking-to.

Emily Dickinson gave us that line: "Tell all the truth but tell it slant." Eugene Peterson has prodcued a series of lectures on the parables of Jesus using the title, 'Tell it slant'.

This is not about making truth slippery; it is, instead, about reading human beings well as we engage in the business of truth-telling.

Sometimes the court jester has more success in making truth apparent than the lecturer. There is a way of telling truth that comes in under the radar, that comes not straight at our armour but with a glancing sideways blow instead. And it strikes us hard and deep when and where we least expect it.

Jesus did this with his parables. T.A.N.G. apparently did it with their songs. And The Arrogants manage to take a slant telling of truth, and give it to us straight. A bit like someone producing a film called 'This was Spinal Tap: the documentary behind the mockumentary'.

(That said, I have been enjoying the album; it was hard to argue with the price.)

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

When words ... run out

Sometimes it's really hard to know what to write.

Sometimes words seem so inadequate.

For joy, for sorrow, for grace, for compassion, for bewilderment, for hope, for forgiveness, for walking into darkness, for pressing towards light.

We are able to 'feel' far beyond the boundaries of words.

Monday, January 19, 2009

A good year for a classic

2009 is a good year to read a classic or three.

For those who pay some attention to the people whose books moulded Western history, you may know this year commemorates the five-hundredth birthday of John Calvin.

Sadly, Calvin is not present to celebrate with us (he has a prior engagement he is attending to), but he has left us with many books which - like him or loathe him - have contributed to the moulding of Western society.

None of Calvin's works does this more so than Institutes of the Christian Religion. I have read probably half this work before, and have decided that 2009 is a good year to reimmerse myself in this classic. I'm following this reading plan, and finding it very manageable.

Every evening - like a toddy before bed - I imbibe in a little Calvin. That is normally followed by a page of two of Darrel Martin's The Fly Fisher's Craft: the Art and History (see my previous post).

During lunchtime at work, I share a salami sandwich with Luther. Many years ago I digested quite a good chunk of that work he regarded most highly himself: On the Bondage of the Will (1525). And now I'm plodding my way through it again.

If you ever want to encounter passion in a writer, you'll meet it in Martin Luther. He's so bold, so brash, so rude. He gets away with a lot - probably as much as Jerome who referred to Pelagius as 'that fat, bloated alpine dog'. Yeah.

On the Bondage of the Will is incisive, careful writing, but so jolly entertaining too. Seeing as I was dipping back into Calvin again, it seemed only fair to let Luther in on some of the action too.

As Luther writes in response to Desiderius Erasmus' On Free Will (1524), he drops you straight into the action in the introduction. If you know even a little about Reformation history, you'll note his outrageous sense of humour:

"[I and others long before me have refuted your assertions on free will such] that it seems even superfluous to reply to these your arguments, which have been indeed often refuted by me; but trodden down, and trampled under foot, by the incontrovertible Book of Philip Melancthon "Concerning Theological Questions:" a book, in my judgment, worthy not only of being immortalized, but of being included in the ecclesiastical canon: in comparison of which, your Book is, in my estimation, so mean and vile, that I greatly feel for you for having defiled your most beautiful and ingenious language with such vile trash; and I feel an indignation against the matter also, that such unworthy stuff should be borne about in ornaments of eloquence so rare; which is as if rubbish, or dung, should be carried in vessels of gold and silver. And this you yourself seem to have felt, who were so unwilling to undertake this work of writing; because your conscience told you, that you would of necessity have to try the point with all the powers of eloquence; and that, after all, you would not be able so to blind me by your colouring, but that I should, having torn off the deceptions of language, discover the real dregs beneath. For, although I am rude in speech, yet, by the grace of God, I am not rude in understanding. And, with Paul, I dare arrogate to myself understanding and with confidence derogate it from you; although I willingly, and deservedly, arrogate eloquence and genius to you, and derogate it from myself."

Tell us what you really think, Luther!

So it's a good year for a classic. Which means when I'm done with Luther, I'm going to have to hunt down another classic ... any suggestions? Some Shakespeare? Plutarch? Gibbon? Wordsworth?

What recommend ye?

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The right timing for something special

You all have one, I'm sure: something that you put away for a special occasion - but you're never quite sure when the occasion is special enough to bring it out and use it.

So it is with new fancy notepaper, a luxury perfume, that ball of wool that was handed down to you from your grandmother, handspun by her as a young woman.

Apparently, everything has a season, and a season is appointed for everything under the sun. The challenge is reading the season. Or maybe it's reading the object and trying to work out which season it is.

When is the season right - when is it special enough - for the lavish act of using something special that will not be replaced? And when you use it, will its use in fact be lavish? Or is it to be savoured, drawn out, lingered over? Is the joy of the moment to squander it lavishly, revelling in the luxury, or to delay, to mete out steadily?

Our wine rack has accumulated a few 'special moments' over the years. We recently opened a bottle of wine that we were given to enjoy for our fifth wedding anniversary. We have had this bottle since our wedding, and I'd been eyeing it off, waiting for the opportunity to share this 11 year old cabernet with my wife. The moment arrived: we popped the cork and ... it was corked.

So it goes. Sometimes the item is right - even the season is right - and then oxygen goes and gets in the way. Sometimes things can become so precious to us - their 'ideal day' so ideal - that their season is never realised, and they pass their peak into uselessness, or supersede our days and pass into the hands of another where they languish in obscurity.

Sometimes you take something precious in your hands, look at the company around you, realise that it may never get any closer to the ideal day than now, and then recklessly dive in.

But how we long for retrospective vision! We long to know if this is the moment. But we can never know. It is a 'gut' thing ... we hunt after a hunch ... and then we take the prize in our hands, and the 'moment' in the other, and we bring them together.

Perhaps we judge the moment of meeting to be a success if we remember the moment, the friends, the atmosphere, more than we do the thing itself.

I've never regretted opening my favourite cabernet, or using my favourite 'saved up' birthday card, for such an occasion. Sometimes the season is no longer an 'if only' or a 'maybe next year', it is now.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Long-awaited answers to 'Celebrity lookalikes'

Okay, after days of tense silence, it's time to withdraw my offer of a free case of premium Belgian beer, and put the answers on the table.

Elisha is giving us his best Donald Sutherland.

And Caelan lets go with an almighty 'Crikey!' to honour the departed Croc Hunter.

You can all go back to normal eating and sleeping patterns now. Life's normal programming has resumed.

Cracked forward view

We've well and truly tipped over from 2008 and into 2009; or as some of you know it, from the International Year of the Potato and into the International Year of Natural Fibres.

This blog has often played with the theme of reading patterns. While some of that means observing present concurrent phenomena, most of the time it means reading the past and making sense of the present from what we find there.

At the conclusion of one year and the opening of the next, people typically 'take stock' and try to gain perspective.

In a way, this photo summarises my experience of standing at the start of January, looking forward and looking back. The view behind is much clearer and more complete than the tiny glimpse in the bottom left-hand corner which is 'the road ahead'.

Yes, it is inevitable there will be some continuity with what has gone before: after all, as the picture reminds me: 'Objects in mirror are closer than they appear'. The year past is not all that far behind. Nor the year behind it. And some of what was set in motion then rolls over into now and tomorrow.

Last year was an amazing year. A new job, new house, new suburb, new friends, new baby. It was a year with surprisingly few regrets, and many surprising discoveries. Experiences of truth, kindness, grace that could not have been anticipated.

It was a year of discovering strengths and weaknesses that I didn't know I had. In many ways, it was a year of fumbling and bumbling, trying to pick the way through some unfamiliar territory. It was a year of gut instincts and prayer, mistakes and little victories.

The forward view is limited, cracked. The present - let alone the future - is hard to see well. We see in a mirror somewhat more clearly than we do through a window.

Yet neither is seen with fullness of perspective. For that we wait for more than a new year; we wait for the revealing of the One who completes all, and who sees all - without cracks or omissions.