Category Archives: Learn New Skills

#59 Become a Citizen Scientist

Australia’s in the middle of the great 2017 Australian Bird of the Year vote.

Apparently, the Ibis is leading the polls, which is annoying many people who deride them as ‘Bin Chickens’ due to their scavenging habits. But it’s not their fault they’ve been squeezed out of the Sydney wetlands market.

As I tell everyone who complains about the cost of living in the big cities: ‘Move to the country. Life’s so much better here. Just take a look at the accommodation we provide for our ibis…’

So realising what an abundance of bird life we have here, I took the opportunity in late October to

#59 Become a Citizen Scientist 

when the Aussie Backyard Bird Count was held. This allows anyone the chance to play at being a great naturalist for a week: 

It’s as easy as downloading the free Aussie Bird Count app from the App store and noting all the birds you see in your location over a 20 minute period at any time of the day for one week. And thanks to GPS, it knows where you’re looking. Simple, I thought.

Oh dear. The arrogance of ignorance.

I quickly realised that having superb eyesight is the first requirement for all budding twitchers.

Strike One.

I was known as Mr Magoo at primary school, even when wearing my brand new, dorky spectacles.

…this is an easy mistake for the near-sighted 

As I spent the first seven years of my life seeing the world as one blurry blob, I missed out on essential early visual training that most people with normal vision take for granted. At least, that’s my excuse.

Using binoculars during the 20-minute spotting sessions helped but it didn’t fully solve the problem. Because there’s another difficulty: the subjects being studied.

Sloth spotting I could manage, but birds move really fast and flit around, darting here and there before you’ve had time to take a good look at them and then they fly away and they’re gone.

Strike Two.

There’s also the matter of bird identification.

The brightly coloured ones, like fairy wrens and rainbow lorikeets aren’t a problem,

…easy peasy (and in the next street)

but what about all the neutral-looking brownish-greyish nothing-to-see-here types? Who can spot in an instant whether their tails are up or down, what the shape of their beak is, what are the exact colourings on their undersurface or details of their neck markings to aid identification?

So, even if you’re lucky, and the bird stays still long enough to get a good look, you need to know the actual name of what you’re seeing. You need Knowledge.

Strike Three.

Sure, the app tries to help, but it only works for the cognoscenti. So I entered descriptive phrases like  ‘medium-sized bird, near water, looks a bit kookaburra-ish with a flat sort of head, and a greenish cap and a lovely cinnamon colour when it flew away,’ but Google was silent on the matter.

(A couple of weeks after the count had closed, I happened to show the photo to a friend who, unbeknown to me, is quite the bird identifier, and she immediately said ‘Oh, that’s a Nankeen Night Heron’. AND SHE WAS SPOT ON!

She wants me to call on her any time I have difficulty identifying birds. This is going to be invaluable next year.)

You can imagine what my earliest list looked like:

Embarrassing

The app presupposes way too much in-depth knowledge, too.

Like any talented pre-schooler, I know a duck when I see one, but that wasn’t good enough for this app. It wanted to know if it was a Wood Duck, a Grebe, a Shoveler, a Shelduck, a Mallard, a freckled duck… oh the list was endless. And when I chose one that looked a bit similar to the ‘duck’ I was seeing, it would flash up the message, ‘unlikely based on survey location,’ so I was back to square one.

By day 6, I knew I was in desperate need of professional help during spotting sessions, so I called on friends who live on the outskirts of town, in the hope that I’d see more interesting birds than house sparrows and spotted doves. I struck gold.

Not only were they brilliant at seeing them, but they knew their birds, had several bird books, and by the end, we had a list that helped bolster my reputation no end:

Elephant stamp for this lot. 

I’m now wondering if I should go on to join a citizen science group for frog listeners using an app that identifies the frog you’re hearing. At least poor vision wouldn’t be a handicap, just the leech-ridden, mosquito infested swamps I’d have to frequent.

Meanwhile, if you’d like to participate in the 2017 Australian Bird of the Year vote, polls are open until December 9th and you can vote here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

#56 Try and Grow a Dead-Straight Carrot

Many a home gardener will tell you that producing a normal-looking carrot in the back yard patch is not as easy as those bags of soldier-straight, perfectly symmetrical, evenly sized, deeply oranged carrots readily available in every supermarket would have you believe.

In fact, even the odd looking “Crazy bunch’ carrots they promote in stores in an attempt to wean us off perfection are pretty impressive with their depth of colour and generous girth.

So I’ve come to believe that the perfect carrot you see everywhere is about as natural as a Stepford wife or a Venezuelan beauty queen.

Quite a challenge then to

#56 Try and Grow a Dead-Straight Carrot

I’ve attempted carrot farming a few times over the years, but the bitter disappointment of waiting months, only to harvest yellowing, mangled, bifid runts has meant that the allure of planting them every year has now waned into oblivion.

Of course, I thought I was following all the rules:

  • Soil: Rich, dense and well composted
  • Seedlings: Healthy looking ones in punnets from a reputable nursery
  • Feed: Regularly, with a high quality nitrogen-containing fertiliser
  • Water: Frequently and generously

Then I watched a gardening show on television about growing carrots and realised every single rule I’d followed was, literally, WRONG, WRONG, WRONG & WRONG.

So, um, starting again…

  • Soil: Rich, dense and well composted?

Ha! Don’t be silly.

Collect sand from the beach and mix it with so-so soil you have that’s a bit deficient in nutrients. Especially deficient in nitrogen.

Just make sure it’s light and fluffy and sort of trickly between your fingers.


  • Seedlings: Healthy looking ones in punnets from a reputable nursery?

Why do they even sell them?

Nope. Never grow carrots from seedlings. Doomed to fail apparently.

 Planting from seeds is the only way to go…


  • Feed:  Regularly with a hIgh quality nitrogen-containing fertiliser?

NO!
Not unless you’re after copious greenery on top and rubbish carrots underneath.
NO NITROGEN FEEDING


  • Water: Frequently and generously?
    …if you want to DESTROY them.
    So water when you think of it.
    Sometimes.
    If the mood takes you.
    Whatever.

Then there are a heap of other tips you need to follow:

Cover the newly-planted seeds to keep them warm, cosy and protected until they sprout:


Cull a number of the sprouted seeds early to reduce crowding:

Then discard the seedlings removed…

No…oo. My babies…


Cull again a few weeks later when growth is lush and magnificent.
Yes, again.

Carrot growth lush

And discard again…

This is doing my head in…


Until finally, weeks and weeks later, when a small orange blip is seen breaching the soil and you believe it’s time to harvest, you hope against hope that you’ve managed to grow a dead-straight carrot.

Perfect carrot

YES!!!

 

 

 

#55 Create Perfect Crispy Salmon Skin

If there’s one treat on earth that’s even better than crispy pork crackling – because it’s lower fat and doesn’t involve murdering a sociable, intelligent and highly trainable animal – it would have to be salmon skin that’s been baked to crunchy perfection.

(I mean no offence to all the salmon out there, but be honest, you’re not in Babe’s league.)

So for months I’ve been trying a variety of cooking tips found on an assortment of Google sites to achieve this, and after much experimentation using friends as guinea pigs (thank you all for suffering through various iterations) have finally hit the jackpot and am delighted to share the results, which have proven to be reproducible in my oven at least, right here, right now.

#55 Create Perfect Crispy Salmon Skin

It turns out that salmon skin nirvana is not too difficult to achieve:

  • Preheat a fan forced oven to 200ºC
  • Choose a salmon steak with a generous covering of skin. I’ve noticed they sometimes sell skinless salmon steaks. Unbelievable! I pray they don’t just toss out the skins…
  • Carefully detach the flesh from the skin with a sharp knife, just so…

  • …before scraping off all the fat and any residual flesh on the undersurface so the skin is glistening and streamlined.

  • Then cut to size and pat dry on a paper towel:

  • Next, season generously with salt, pepper and oil, rubbing in well, and lay the pieces on an oiled metal cross-wire cooling rack.

(It goes without saying that Murray River pink salt, freshly ground black pepper using an obscenely long pepper grinder and a virtuous brand of EVOO were chosen)

Now the following step is VITAL to success:

 

  • Place the racks with their compressed cargo onto a baking tray and into the hot oven on the middle shelf.

Then, if you cook the salmon fillet in a frying pan on the stove top at a low-moderate setting for 5 minutes on one side and 4 minutes on the other, this 9 minutes will be the exact time it will take for the skin in the oven to reach perfection.

Yes, really.

I invert the two little trays (as one) at the same time as I turn the fillet on the stove top, too, just for symmetry.

The salmon skins should be golden brown, straight-as-a-die and delicate crunch heaven.

You’re most welcome.

#52 Bake an Authentic Austrian Torte

Aah, Austria.

How could I ever forget my one-and-only visit to this beautiful land-locked country?

Three of us on the obligatory rite-of-passage backpacking trip around Europe found ourselves in Salzburg at Christmas in 1974.

Mozart, the Sound of Music, golden cakes and tortes and strudels that reached out from shop windows to embrace us and our first ever White Christmas.

Magic.

But then life got in the way and I forgot all about the country and its delicious pastries until a few years ago when I was gifted a small slice of an Austrian Panama Torte, baked by my elderly Austrian neighbour Martha and kindly brought over by her husband Joe, as a thank you for the spare eggs I’d given them.

I was told this was a special-occasion cake, complex to make and based on a precious recipe they’d brought with them from their home country to Australia after the War.

Clearly this was a very special offering and after the first bite, it was obvious why. It was melt-in-the-mouth chocolate and almond nirvana. The future was now clear for me:

#52 Bake an Authentic Austrian Torte

I asked for the recipe a few times over the years, but with our busy lives, it never quite happened so I resigned myself to the memory of that cake rather than ever tasting the reality of it again.

Until one day, three months ago, Joe brought frail Martha over to my place – together with her handwritten recipe, translated from the original German, for the famous Austrian Panama Torte!

We sat in the garden as Martha haltingly talked me through the Byzantine instructions and I faithfully took notes and tried to make sense of the sometimes confusing translation.

2 ½ ribs of chocolate? Who measures chocolate in ribs?

Austrian cooks, that’s who and they mean horizontal ribs, not vertical

The almonds and the chocolate, I was instructed, MUST BE carefully hand grated. No food processor should go anywhere near them or this whole light and fluffy flourless concoction would come crashing down.

And the egg whites have to be beaten to within an inch of their lives but their folding into the almond/chocolate/egg yolk mix must be done with the tenderness of wrapping a newborn.

The oven door has to be propped ajar for the first 15 minutes of baking or the mixture might just refuse to rise.

this was serious baking

And yet it worked, and a newly minted, pleasingly light and fluffy cake came out of the oven:

Martha’s had a lifetime of practice slicing it horizontally to perfection – two cuts, do you mind – before spreading the chocolate butter icing between the layers, but my skills doing this tricky manoeuvre with such a mercurial cake were untested.

Enter, the ever helpful YouTube with instructions on how to measure the cutting lines before marking them with toothpicks…

… then gliding a fresh piece of dental floss through the cake just so…

… creating three (almost) perfectly cut horizontal slices.

This only left the chocolate butter icing to prepare and spread between layers and all over, before garnishing with lightly toasted almond flakes…

…and cutting into slices to share with family and friends

And the taste?

 

 

#51 Construct…something

A story oft told in my family –  and it’s not apocryphal – is that when my father was conscripted into the army in 1941 and tested to assess where his skills lay and therefore where best to deploy him, he scored zero for ‘mechanical comprehension’. Zero.

Never before in the history of the AIF – and possibly the navy and the RAAF – had a seemingly intelligent chap failed to answer even one question correctly in this particular category. As a result, he became something of a cause célèbre for a while, then found his niche writing and producing sketch comedy and variety shows – in between fighting the Japanese – which helped boost the men’s morale in their down time.

What this meant, of course, is that I grew up never seeing a hammer, nail, screwdriver, drill, lever, cogwheel or any type of power tool in use at home. Ever. And although I’d longed for a meccano set as a child to no avail – though to be fair, I never told my parents this as it would have shocked them – becoming a talented handyman has long been a secret, unfulfilled desire. I am in awe of people who can build things.

So on the basis that my old letter box needed a makeover recently, the time to put to use my horribly stunted home handyman skills had arrived:

#51 Construct…something (that requires limited tool skills)

The letter box in question is nothing more than a space between bricks that had a plastic tub at the base, wedged in with two black rubber hose lengths, to catch the letters and a makeshift ‘lid’ to prevent rain dripping down. Embarrassing really…

…hence the blurry photo

So its replacement would need to be made of a waterproof material that could be measured to fit snugly, cut to size without using anything with the prefix ‘power’, formed into an oblong shape with a couple of ‘steps’ bent in opposite directions and then painted.

Material that could do all this was totally beyond my mechanical comprehension (I’m with you, Dad) so I turned to a friend and expert we’ll call my Bunning’s Buddy (or BB). We meet there most weekends; he to buy mysterious tools and materials for his latest innovative mini-Taj Mahal projects and I to watch in awe before heading to the garden section.

(I’d post photos of the AMAZING floor to ceiling bookshelves he made that can be opened with a hidden handle to reveal an entire bedroom behind, but it might make my revamped letter box look even more pathetic.)

Anyway, BB recommended using Corflute:

…a hitherto unknown product that looks like cardboard but acts like plastic!

Turns out, this waterproof material can be measured to fit snugly, cut to size without using anything with the prefix ‘power’, will bend along straight lines and can be painted. Bingo!

Using the well known rule among tradies to ‘measure twice, cut once,’ I soon realised this guide was meant for professionals. The rule for newbie home handymen, is ‘measure twice, cut once, return to Bunnings for more Corflute, measure twice, cut once, return to Bunnings again for supplies, repeat ….’

But eventually, stage one was successfully completed:

Then stage two:

And finally stage three: painted and secured:

And all done without hammering a nail, driving in a screw, using a power tool or cutting myself with the Stanley knife.

Dad would be proud!

#46 Learn How to ‘Nest’

It had never crossed my mind, until recently, that all the wonderful artefacts you see in museums and galleries need some sort of ‘holiday home’ where they can rest in safety when they take a break from being on display.

Not having owned an array of precious art works and therefore never having had a need to store them off season, I would have assumed, had I contemplated the issue, that galleries had enormous storage rooms where, in their down time, the treasures sat on shelves behind glass, a bit like a mirror image of their upstairs life, on ‘display’ but seen by no-one, until they’re let out again to be admired.

Where do you go to, my lovelies, when you’re out of favour?

But following a further stint volunteering at our local galley/art museum, MAMA, I’ve now discovered where they’re all stored. And I’ve been lucky enough to assist there, wearing white cotton gloves as I work in a locked room behind another locked room, where no sunlight ever penetrates, sealing their fate.

Yes, I’ve been permitted to enter the hallowed, temperature controlled bowels of MAMA to

#45 Learn how to ‘Nest’

It turns out that each individual item needs its own special box into which to snuggle down, cosseted in folds of exclusive wrapping material and buried in foam that’s been carefully sculpted to match its shape such that when it’s all packaged up, even an earthquake couldn’t damage it.

This is called ‘nesting’ and if you loved messing about with scissors, glue guns, paper, box cutters and firm craft foam when you were young, have I got the job for you.

So…

We start with the item/s needing a holiday:

metadisc-on-stand-1

Metal disc (and stand) with $1 coin for perspective, waiting for their nest

Cut, sculpt and paste very special black foam, known only to the cognoscenti, into the shapes you need to closely fit the items:

cutting-foam

Then cover this foam in a protective, spun bonded material known as Tyvek ® and attach it using your glue gun.

glue-gunning-2

Tacking pins can help with this sometimes tricky procedure:

pinning

If your shapes and sculpting, and wrapping and glueing have all been calculated correctly, the covered foam will look like this:

metal-disc-and-stand-nest

And your precious items will fit like a glove:

metal-disc-and-stand-in-nest

All that’s needed is to slip this into the plastic box that you’ve previously chosen for its snug fit, place a layer of protection on top so it forms a seal under the lid, like this…

metal-disc-and-stand-2

And voila!

final-metal-disc-and-stand-nested

Nest in peace safely, my little treasure…

Once nesting small items has been mastered, you can move onto much larger ones.

scary-mask

…scarier, too

The principles are the same, though.

From this…

mask-being-fitted

via this…

to this…

mask-nested-3

then this…

mask-nested-4

To final, sealed, resting place…

mask-nested-5


There is a downside to learning how to nest, though.

I discovered this by accident after reading a recent newspaper article, with photos, about the return to Egypt of plundered sarcophagus covers dating back to the time of the Pharaohs.

antiquities-returned

Rather than focussing on the amazing, plaster-coated wooden sarcophagus decorated with hieroglyphics and brilliant illustrations, and rather than marvelling that something dating back to 3000 BC was still in existence and intact, I found myself studying the packing, the foam and the Tyvek ®  very, very carefully and thinking, ‘I could have nested that. Easy as…’

 

#44 Correct a Mistake on Wikipedia

It may be of concern to some readers that Wikipedia can, on occasions, make mistakes.

So when I discovered a minor, but troubling error on the popular site recently, I thought it would be interesting to learn how to:

#44 Correct a Mistake on Wikipedia

Growing up in an era when we depended on Encyclopædia Britannica to tell us the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, discovering that a publication with the august letters ‘pedia’ in its name might, now and again, tell us a porky makes for uncomfortable reading.

Perhaps the spelling of the word Wikipedia should have alerted me. It’s missing the all important  ‘æ’. Let’s be honest here, the letters ‘æ’, especially when they run together, proclaim from the rooftops that information in the publication in question has been overseen by pipe-smoking dons from prestigious universities.

Universities that look a little like this:

Sandstone uni

photo: Toby Hudson Wikimedia

Wikipedia, on the other hand, with its missing ‘æ’, admits that it’s written almost exclusively by volunteers.

Volunteers who look more like this:

Wiki volunteers

Photo by Fuzheado at Wikipedia [yes, really]

Being an ex-university lecturer now turned volunteer myself, I understand only too well the stark difference between a salaried, tenured academic who produces meticulous research for peer-reviewed journals, and an unpaid hack wondering ‘when’s morning tea?’

So I’m not blaming Wikipedia at all if a mistake should creep into its pages. I’m just delighted that they allow retirees with not enough to do readers a hassle-free way to correct errors. This perfectly demonstrates The Wisdom of Crowds. Try doing that with Encyclopædia Britannica.

So…

Checking the Wikipedia site for my home town recently, I found a rather surprising mistake.  It’s illustrated by the glowing yellow lines and the pointed red arrows which I’ve only just worked out how to add to a photograph.

Albury pre

You can see there are two problems here:

Top arrow: If Albury were only 462 kilometres from Sydney, couldn’t we drive there in under 5 hours? Who’s ever made the interminable trip to Sydney that quickly?

Bottom arrow: But then they tell us Albury is 554 km from Sydney. Huh?

Sorry, a factual mistake is one thing. A factual mistake PLUS an internal inconsistency is another altogether. One of these just has to go…

So with the help of a little button on the Wiki page called ‘edit’ I could do just that:

Albury post 3

Voilà!  All fixed!

I am now officially a Wikipedian, the name given to those who work on Wikipedia.

Or, as I prefer, a Wikipedant.