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Saturday, March 31, 2012

"Fahrende Gesellen"

I've sometimes wondered how much of my peripatetic life I owe to my early days with the "Fahrende Gesellen", a sort of German version of Baden-Powell's scouts sans the left-handed handclasp and three-finger salute.

I must've been 11 or 12 when I joined up, after which I spent almost every weekend and every school holiday "auf der Waltz", either with the group or on my own. Being impecunious didn't mean I couldn't travel the world. I hiked and hitchhiked all over Germany and across to England, Holland, and Scandinavia, and deep into Italy, France, and Spain, living off the land and sleeping in the open or in farmers' barns or, less often, in youth hostels (another German "invention").

Looking down from the Leaning Tower of Pisa, taking the lift up the Eiffel Tower, dangling my feet into the stinking canals of Venice, hiking across the Brenner Pass into Italy, eating polenta with farmers in the Dolomites, and riding on a donkey down the cobbled lanes of Clovelly --- I'd done it all by the time I was 14 which was just as well as my carefree school days (and holidays) had come to an end as I signed my articles to start my professional career.

With all that Sturm and so much Drang in me, emigrating to Australia at the age of 19 seemed a natural progression. Memories of the "Fahrende Gesellen" are still with me today, especially when I read their quarterly magazine.

Their simple philosophy has stayed with me throughout my life:

"Der Bund der „Fahrenden Gesellen“ hat seinen Ursprung in der Wandervogelbewegung des vergangenen Jahrhunderts. In einer Zeit der zunehmenden Ablösung der Menschen von ihren natürlichen Lebensgrundlagen wollten die jungen Menschen hinaus aus „grauer Städte Mauern“ in die Natur. Nur mit dem Nötigesten ausgerüstet suchten sie die Abgeschiedenheit von Wäldern und Feldern, um ein Leben fern der bürgerlichen Einengungen und Konventionen zu führen - eigenverantwortlich und selbstbestimmt. Auch heute sind Wanderungen mit dem Rad, dem Boot, vor allem aber zu Fuß ein wesentlicher Bestandteil unseres Tuns. Wir nennen sie „Fahrt“. Dazu gehören das Übernachten im Zelt oder auch beim Bauern, das Kochen auf dem offenen Feuer und das Singen."

"The "Fahrende Gesellen" have their origin in the Wandervogel movement of the last century. At a time of increasing alienation from the natural world, young people wanted to shake off the restrictions of society. Equipped with just bare essentials, they wanted to get back to nature and be free to determine, and be responsible for, their own action. Trips by bike, by boat, but particularly on foot, were a major part of our activities. We called them "Fahrt" (Tour) which included camping out in tents or in farmers' barns, cooking over open fires, and singing our songs."

Friday, March 30, 2012

Tiled into a corner

I thought you might like to know that the tiling job is progressing well: one room is almost covered in tiles! They can't be walked on yet which poses an interesting question: will the tiler be our houseguest for the night?

Unless, of course, he can levitate which he may want to do to get home to his eight children. Eight!!! Are we becoming a nation of tradies? I mean, our last plumber had five children, and the gyprocker and the carpenter six each. Has it something to do with their tools of trade?

Thank you but no thank you!

A concerned friend who's handy with advice which is always abundant and completely free, asked me when seeing my www.thisisaprivatesale.com sign, "Why don't you list with a professional real estate agent?"

Well, I am listed with several people who gave up their previous plumbing jobs to triple their earnings by calling themselves 'real estate agents'. Their biggest effort so far has been to get the Agency Agreement, one of which I signed on the bonnet of the agent's car which he never got out of.

I had a few inspections, especially on rainy days when some tourists, desperate for something to do, ask a local real estate agent to be taken on a Captain Cook's Tour. The last time an agent rang to say that he would bring out some people "in the next half an hour", I suggested they make an appointment for the next day. "But they won't be here tomorrow", the agent cried. My point exactly!

Another agent couldn't understand why I didn't accept an offer by a potential buyer who wanted me to hold the property for him for the next twelve months while he did 'due diligence'. If at the end of the year he decided not to buy, he'd get his deposit back and walk away. I told him to keep walking.

One agent, clearly a failed statistician, tried to impress me with the enormity of selling this high-value property by saying, "So far this year only 8 people have driven over the Batemans Bay bridge willing to spend over $1 million dollars on property. Thus if you sit on the bridge and count the cars for just one hour you see the task." I didn't know that every car driver crossing the bridge was looking for real estate, John, but I take your word for it! It just proves that 78.9% of all statistics are made up on the spot (if not on the bridge).

At least one agent was generous enough to impart his marketing secret onto me. "Instead of asking for $2million, make it $1,990,000", he suggested. "Why not do a Woolies and make it $1,999,999.99 ?", I countered. I haven't seen him since.

Anyway, I have my own strategy: I'm offering the buyer FREE BEER and a free "Riverbend" mug. He'd be a mug not to accept!

Happy Easter on a budget!

No sooner is Christmas behind us and we are already heading for Easter!

I mean, I hadn't even got around to taking the old Santa off his perch by the gate. Oh well, this will have to do this year!

Happy Easter to you all!

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Work in Progress

The tiler has turned up! We ripped out the old carpets and are now laying the sheeting on which to glue the tiles. Tomorrow it'll be tiling and tiling and more tiling.

A great spot for a spot of wardrobe-drinking

As always, the best ideas come to me as I go along. Such as leaving off the sliding doors to the inbuilt wardrobe. The 2-metre space inside the wardrobe is a perfect spot for the faithful old sofa which I bought all those many years ago when I first settled in Sydney.

After all, this bedroom will become our small 3.6 x 3.6 metre sitting room during the winter and in it will be the old sofa, an archair in the opposite window corner, the computer desk in the other, a cosy heater and wall-mounted TV/DVD between them, and the fishtank under the window.

Not an artist's impression and not to scale

Watch this (floor-)space for more pictures!


The Australian Navy intercepted three boatloads of people off the North West coast of Australia.

This placed the Navy in an awkward position as the boats were heading not away from, but towards Indonesia.

Another surprise finding was that they were loaded with Australians who were all seniors of pension age.

Their claim was that they were trying to get to Indonesia so as to be able to return to Australia as illegal immigrants and therefore be entitled to far more benefits than they were receiving as legitimate Australian pensioners.

The Navy is believed to have given them food, water and fuel and assisted them on their journey north.

We are booking the next boat out. Let me know if you want to come too.

In the meantime, the Australian government is forcing older Australians to work longer by increasing the retirement age - with predictable consequences:

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Trundle along

This is the compelling story of how ordinary Australians come together to save a small historic town with the wonderful name of Trundle. The town is dying, its falling population threatening its existence. Abandoned farmhouses are part of the landscape, schools are struggling and younger locals flee to Sydney, six hours away.

The town is refusing to go down without a fight and some of its citizens hear of something called the Rent a Farmhouse scheme, which has successfully encouraged families with appropriate skills to move to disintegrating rural towns.

The Trundle Tree Change Committee is formed with the aim of renting out some of the area's derelict farmhouses for $1 a week. The body is soon inundated with over 400 applications.

The story was made into an ABC television documentary which went to air last Tuesday night. It showed five families moving into their new $1-a-week homes. All very touching and cute but I was absolutely gobsmacked when one new tenant, an Eqyptian, had barely set foot into his new house and already loudly complained that the house had no swimming-pool!!!

A house with swimming-pool for $1 a week in rent? Why not also your very own helipad, Mustafa?

Symphony in G(rey and Green)

Whether it's bright and sunny or drizzly and grey as it is today, the Clyde River is beautiful at any time and in all its moods.

The cool change helps as we empty the two downstairs rooms in readiness for the tiler who'll come tomorrow to lay cool, clean floor tiles. I had bought the tiles more than two months ago and it's taken me all this time to find a tiler who'd charge me less than a king's ransom to do the work.

The job should be finished before the weekend when we will move everything back into the rooms, except that we'll do a swap: the small sitting room facing the water becomes our bedroom so that we can look out on the river at night, and the room facing the pond becomes our second sitting room, small enough to keep warm on the occasional cold winter's night.

Here's Mozart's Symphony in G Minor; just right for a day like this:

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Australia's very own Robert Louis Stevenson

In 1957 James Michener and A. Grove Day devised a series of questions to identify those who really knew the Pacific. The only useful question to ask was to name "best writer about the Pacific," as there was only one 'correct' answer: Louis Becke.

Born at Port Macquarrie in Australia, where his father was clerk of petty sessions, Louis Becke was seized at the age of fourteen with an intense longing to go to sea. It is possible that he inherited this passion through his mother, for her father, Charles Beilby, who was private secretary to the Duke of Cumberland, invested a legacy that fell to him in a small vessel, and sailed with his family to the then very new world of Australia. However this may be, it was impossible to keep Louis Becke at home; and, as an alternative, a uncle undertook to send him, and a brother two years older, to a mercantile house in California. His first voyage was a terrible one. There were no steamers, of course, in those days, and they sailed for San Francisco in a wretched old barque. For over a month they were drifting about the stormy sea between Australia and New Zealand, a partially dismasted and leaking wreck. The crew mutinied--they had bitter cause to--and only after calling at Rurutu, in the Tubuai Group, and obtaining fresh food, did they permit the captain to resume command of the half-sunken old craft. They were ninety days in reaching Honolulu, and another forty in making the Californian coast.

The two lads did not find the routine of a merchant's office at all to their taste; and while the elder obtained employment on a sheep ranche at San Juan, Louis, still faithful to the sea, got a berth as a clerk in a steamship company, and traded to the Southern ports. In a year's time he had money enough to take passage in a schooner bound on a shark-catching cruise to the equatorial islands of the North Pacific. The life was a very rough one, and full of incident and adventure. Returning to Honolulu, he fell in with an old captain who had bought a schooner for a trading venture amongst the Western Carolines. Becke put in $1000, and sailed with him as supercargo, he and the skipper being the only white men on board. He soon discovered that, though a good seaman, the old man knew nothing of navigation. In a few weeks they were among the Marshall Islands, and the captain went mad from DELIRIUM TREMENS. Becke and the three native sailors ran the vessel into a little uninhabited atoll, and for a week had to keep the captain tied up to prevent his killing himself. They got him right at last, and stood to the westward.

It is from this and many other personal experiences that Louis Becke weaves his compelling tales, including one about Bully Hayes, the infamous buccaneer, and haunting tales such as that of Edward Barry, the South Sea Pearler:

"Just after midnight, three days later, Velo, the Samoan, who was on the look-out, came aft to Barry and said,--

"_E manogi mai le fanua_" ("The smell of the land has come").

"Good boy, Velo," replied the mate; "keep a sharp look-out, for on such a night as this, when the sea is smooth, and the land lies low, we shall not hear the sound of the surf till we are right on top of it."

An hour or two later Barry called Rawlings, for right ahead of the brig there was a low, dark streak showing upon the sea-rim, which they knew was the outline of one of the palm-clad islets on the south side of Arrecifos Lagoon. At daylight the _Mahina_ ran through the south-east passage, and dropped her anchor in thirteen fathoms, close to the snowy white beach of a palm-clad islet, on which was a village of ten or a dozen native houses. There was, however, no sign of life visible--not even a canoe was to be seen.

Immediately after breakfast the boats were lowered, and a brief inspection made, not only of some of the nearest of the chain of thirteen islands, which enclosed the spacious lagoon, but of the lagoon itself. The islands were densely covered with coco palms, interspersed here and there with lofty _puka_ trees, the nesting-places of countless thousands of a small species of sooty petrel, whose discordant notes filled the air with their clamour as Rawlings and Barry passed beneath, walking along a disused native path, while the two boats pulled along the shore. The village was found to be abandoned.

After examining the nearest islands, and deciding upon a spot whereon to build a station, the two white men returned to the boats, which pulled out towards the centre of the lagoon. Half a mile due west from the centre of the south-east islet the deep blue water began to lighten in colour, till it became a pale green, and the coral bottom lay dearly revealed at a depth of five fathoms."
Read the whole story here.

And there are many more here.

The writing is on the gate

Click on image

Well, here's my all-out sales pitch: a FOR SALE sign on the gate!

Not that it will receive much attention: on average only three people a week come this far down the lane: the mailman (who's not buying); the junk mail distributor (who's not buying); and the garbage collector (who's not buying either).

Which leaves the odd tourist who's lost his way and, instead of buying himself a new GPS, may decide to buy "Riverbend"!

P.S. If you need a well-above average sign at a well-below average price, contact Joseph at Shoalhaven Signs.

Monday, March 26, 2012

This week's book-bag

My book-bag this week contains a couple of very interesting books: Bertrand Russell's "The Conquest of Happiness" and Patrick White's autobiography "Flaws in the Glass".

Russell's monograph, written by him at the age of 58 (he lived to 98), is what we would today call a self-help book. As Russell put it, the book contains "no profound philosophy or deep erudition," and was "aimed only at putting together some remarks which are inspired by what I [Russell] hope is common sense." And how wonderful those remarks were.

A nice combination of philosophy and self-help guides the reader through what makes a person feel the way they do and how to change it. It is divided well: because first you'll want to know what's wrong, then things that make it better, then the total person to walk away as. Many of his examples of what makes us unhappy are definitely around today, retaining much of what made the book poignant. Surely, it is dated. Russell explains to the reader how much of a stress it must be to see planes in the air. Stuff like this does not change the flow of the book to a modern reader though. His general arguments still apply.

Patrick White's "Flaws in the Glass", published in 1981, is an amazingly frank self-portrait. In this he reveals the truths about his homosexuality; his feelings of inhabiting different personae and sexual identities; his lifelong feud with his mother; his alcoholism, and his later political radicalism. It certainly helps to understand his complex fictions, but more importantly his relationship with Australia. Here is a chronology of his life.

Everyman's Library

The gilt floral spines and petite dimensions of the Everyman's Library series ring familiar to anyone who has frequented used bookstores or explored a dusty attic. Started by Joseph Malaby Dent with those first iconic volumes issued in 1906, there's nothing quite like Everyman's Library. The books are familiar, they're beautiful, and, even today, many cost less than $20 each. They're a wonderful window into the excitement of building a personal collection of books, or anything else.

Dent was something of a tyrant and a penny-pincher, but also a visionary. He wanted to make money, but he had a lot of idealism, too. A self-educated man, Dent believed strongly in publishing great books with high production standards and selling them at the affordable price of a shilling each. The idea succeeded beyond Dent's wildest dreams and, by 1975, Everyman's Library consisted of 994 titles .

There's something about a beautifully bound and presented book which has no dust jacket and no commercial blurb - or should that be 'burp'? - and which is not 'bulked up' with double-spacing, large print margins, blank pages between chapters, and large typeface to make it appear thicker than it really is. Typically, the page size of an Everyman's Library volume is 9 x 5 inches in an 8-point print.

Everyman, I will go with thee
and be thy guide,
In thy most need to go
by thy side.

A Everyman's Library edition fits easily into your pocket to be on hand when you want a good book to read while you're travelling or waiting at the dentist's. The original editions have become collector's items but are also available as reprints.

Right now I've started to read Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim again:

"He was an inch, perhaps two, under six feet, powerfully built, and he advanced straight at you with a slight stoop of the shoulders, head forward, and a fixed from-under stare which made you think of a charging bull. His voice was deep, loud, and his manner displayed a kind of dogged self-assertion which had nothing aggressive in it. It seemed a necessity, and it was directed apparently as much at himself as at anybody else. He was spotlessly neat, apparelled in immaculate white from shoes to hat, and in the various Eastern ports where he got his living as ship-chandler's water-clerk he was very popular. " To read the whole story, click here.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

They've already started!

In the Queensland state elections, the Labor Party has been comprehensively defeated. It hasn't just been thrown out of office but almost totally thrown out of Parliament.

And the jokes have already started:

Q. What’s the difference between a Toyota Tarago van and the Queensland Labor Party?

A. The Tarago has eight seats.

There's hope for Australia yet!

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Another weekend

I I have spent a few hours sitting on my little tractor to turn grass into lawn and we also drove the 20-odd kilometres
to Shallow Crossing at the top of the Clyde River to dangle our feet in the crystal-clear mountain water. It was a perfect day!

Looking at the UDDER side of dairy farming

We visited friends at Cobargo who run a dairy farm of some 120 cows on 400 acres. We stayed for the weekend and while Padma helped inside the house, I assisted with the rounding-up and the milking of the cows.

Rounding up 120 cows twice a day, once at the crack of dawn and then again late in the afternoon, and then sterilising 480 teats with iodine and putting suction cups on them is not my preferred life style but I learned a lot in those two days and can now honestly say that I no longer believe that milk comes out of a bottle!

Friday, March 23, 2012

No news is good news

The Art of Thinking Clearly

First we had cuckoo clocks, then cheese with large holes in it, and finally Rolf Dobelli's Die Kunst des klaren Denkens (who's Swiss hence his book is written in German - but then so was Mein Kampf.)

If you can't read his book, either because you're allergic to Swiss cheese or can't stand the sound of cuckoo clocks, or because you can read neither German nor Swiss, you may want to read his English essay Avoid News - Towards a Healthy News Diet.

In it Dobelli makes the case that news makes us distracted, wastes time, kills deeper thinking, fills us with anxiety and is toxic to our mental health. His analogy: "News is to the mind what sugar is to the body."

Dobelli's analogy with food is a good one. We know if you eat too much junk food, it makes us fat and can cause us all kinds of health problems. Dobelli makes a good case that the mind works the same way. News is brightly coloured candy for the mind.

News is systematically misleading, reporting on the highly visible and ignoring the subtle and deeper stories. It is made to grab our attention, not report on the world. And thus, it gives us a false sense of how the world works, masking the truer probabilities of events.

News is mostly irrelevant. Dobelli says to think about the roughly 10,000 news stories you've read or heard over the past year. How many helped you make a better decision about something affecting your life?

We get swamped with news, but it is harder to filter out what is relevant - which gets me to another point that hit home. Dobelli talks about the feeling of "missing something." When traveling, I sometimes have this feeling. But as he says, if something really important happened, you'd hear about it from your friends, family, neighbours and/or co-workers. They also serve as your filter. They won't tell you about the latest antics of Madonna because they know you won't care.

Further, news is not important, but the threads that link stories and give understanding are. Dobelli makes the case that "reading news to understand the world is worse than not reading anything." In markets, I find this is true. The mainstream press has little understanding of how markets work. They constantly report on trivia and make links where none exist for the sake of a story, or just for the sake of having something that "makes sense."

The fact is we don't know why lots of things happen. We can't know for sure why, exactly, things unfolded just as they did when they did. As Dobelli writes, "We don't know why the stock market moves as it moves. Too many factors go into such shifts. Any journalist who writes, 'The market moved because of X'... is an idiot."

You contaminate your thinking if you accept the neat packages news provides for why things happen. And Dobelli has all kinds of good stuff about how consuming news makes you a shallow thinker and actually alters the structure of your brain - for the worse.

News is also costly. As Dobelli points out, even checking the news for 15 minutes three times a day adds up to more than five hours a week. For what? He uses the example of the Mumbai terror attacks in 2008. If a billion people spent one hour of their attention on the tragedy by either reading about it in the news or watching it, you're talking about 1 billion hours. That's more than 100,000 years. Using the global life expectancy of 66 years means the news consumed nearly 2,000 lives!

Pretty wild, right?

So what to do? Dobelli recommends swearing off newspapers, TV news and websites that provide news. Delete the news apps from your iPhone. No news feeds to your inbox. Instead, read long-form journalism and books. Dobelli likes magazines like Science and The New Yorker, for instance. If you're like me interested in the market, read the weekly Economist.

Dobelli himself has sworn off the news. And he reports he feels much better for it: "less disruption, more time, less anxiety, deeper thinking and more insights." I can't do the whole idea justice here; you have to read Dobelli's article yourself. It is the antidote to news. It is long, and you probably won't be able to skim it. Thanks to heavy news consumption, many people have lost the reading habit and struggle to absorb more than four pages straight. This article will show you how to get out of this trap - if you are not already too deeply in it. Check out the full article here.

Print it out! (it's only 10 pages). Turn off the smartphone. Stop checking email for 25 minutes. And just read it. Be forewarned: It might just change your life!

Thursday, March 22, 2012

About 40 years too late for me!

Why is there more chance we'll believe something if it's in a bold type face? Why are judges more likely to deny parole before lunch? Why do we assume a good-looking person will be more competent? The answer lies in the two ways we make choices: fast, intuitive thinking, and slow, rational thinking.

In the highly anticipated Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman takes us on a groundbreaking tour of the mind and explains the two systems that drive the way we think. System 1 is fast, intuitive, and emotional; System 2 is slower, more deliberative, and more logical. Kahneman exposes the extraordinary capabilities — and also the faults and biases — of fast thinking, and reveals the pervasive influence of intuitive impressions on our thoughts and behavior. The impact of loss aversion and overconfidence on corporate strategies, the difficulties of predicting what will make us happy in the future, the challenges of properly framing risks at work and at home, the profound effect of cognitive biases on everything from playing the stock market to planning the next vacation—each of these can be understood only by knowing how the two systems work together to shape our judgments and decisions.

System 1 is the agent of our automatic and effortless mental responses. System 1 can add single-digit numbers and fill in the phrase “bread and —.” It is equipped with a nuanced picture of the world, the product of retained memory and learned patterns of association (“Florida/old people”) that enable it to spew out a stream of reactions, judgments, opinions. System 1 can detect a note of anger in a voice on the telephone; it forms snap judgments about those we meet, Presidential candidates, investments that we might be considering. The flaw in this remarkable machine is that System 1 works with as little or as much information as it has. If it can’t answer the question, “Is Ford (F) stock a good investment?” it supplies an answer based on related but not really relevant data, such as whether you like Ford’s cars. System 1 simplifies, confirms—it looks for, and believes it sees, narrative coherence in an often random world. It does not perform complicated feats of logic or statistical evaluations. You hear about a terrorist incident and want to avoid all buses and trains; only if you slow down, employ the tools of System 2, do you realize that the risks of terrorism affecting you are very slight.

System 2 is your conscious, thinking mind. We conceive of this active consciousness as the principal actor, the “decider” in our lives. System 2 thinks slowly; it considers, evaluates, reasons. Its work requires mental effort—multiplying 24 by 17 or turning left at a busy intersection. We attribute most of our opinions and decisions to this thinking, reasonable fellow.

It's a great read but, unfortunately, it comes about 40 years too late for me! I've made most of my major decisions in life - and they've mostly been System 1.

This ridiculous nidicolous life!

My favourite place in Bali

It's time to spread our wings again: for Padma to visit her parents in Surabaya and for me to contemplate my navel at Banjar Hills in Bali.

All we need to do is find somebody to look after "Riverbend" and the two little dogs during our absence.

Interested in a free holiday by the river? Email me!

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The culmination of a lifetime of learning

Turning grass into lawn can be a real challenge with one of those temperamental 2-stroke lawnmowers.

The secret of getting it started everytime is in the correct turning-off: ignore those controls on the handlebar; they're there just to confuse you.

Turn the lawnmower off by shutting off the fuel supply! Simply turn the orange lever to the horizontal SHUT position and let the engine run itself dry!

To start again. point the orange lever downwards to the OPEN position, give the little black rubberball next to the fuel line a quick squeeze, pull the starter, and - PRESTO! - it works every time.

I thought you could benefit from this culmination of a lifetime of learning ☺