Thursday, October 29, 2015

Olives from Spain and tomatoes from Italy: Why?

Various people exhort us to read the label on the bottles and cans that we buy.  Greenies want us to be sure that the contents have not hurt any whales, food-freaks want us to be sure that no salt has ever come near it and patriots want us to avoid buying anything imported.

And I DO read labels, but for a quite different reason from the three above.  I like the information they contain about economics.  They don't actually mention economics but they still tell us various things about economies.

The labels that particularly interest me are on the El-cheapo cans  on the bottom shelves of supermarkets -- usually bearing some sort of "House" brand. And what they tell us about the world is quite amazing.  They tell us that CHINA FEEDS THE WORLD.  Not only do they make almost all of our electrical gadgets these days but they also feed us all to a significant extent.  "Made in China" is what you nearly always read on those "Home brand" bottles and cans.  Chinese groceries now populate the world.

People tend to sneer at such goods but for the many who prefer to keep their money for beer and cigarettes, China is a godsend.

So how come?  Doesn't China have its work cut out feeding its own 1.3 billion people?  It's those clever Chinese farmers.  They can make crops spring lushly out of even unpromising ground.  Let me give an historical example of that:

Two of my great grandfathers were in on the Palmer River goldrush.  The 19th century was a century of goldrushes as new lands were opened up -- and one of the goldfields was on the Palmer river in far-North Queensland, Australia.  And much gold was dug there by people from all over the world.  And Chinese miners were there too.

Some of the Chinese, however, realized that they could win more gold by using their farming skills.  The miners had to eat and bringing in food from South was very expensive.  So the Chinese market gardeners got more  gold from selling their produce than they ever would have got by mining.

BUT:  The soils on Cape York Peninsula (where the Palmer lies) are notoriously poor and shallow.  So what to do about that?  Easy: The Chinese gardeners went all around collecting people's shit -- the traditional fertilizer of China, India and lot of other places. Shit-collecting is real shit-work but it is amazing what people will do for gold. And shit is great fertilizer so the Chinese market gardens flourished.  You can still see patches of lushness where the Chinese gardens were as you travel through the area to this day.

So the Chinese are great farmers and much of China is fertile so they coax amazing amounts of food crops out of their farms. China is about the same size as CONUS, Australia and Canada (about 3 million square miles in all 3 cases) so they do actually have a lot to work with -- enough to feed their own 1.3 billion people plus feeding lots of us.

And you can learn all that by reading labels!

But sometimes you can get a surprise.  You pick up a cheap can and expect to see "China" somewhere on the label but in fact see the name of some European country.  Why would Europeans want to send their stuff half way around the world to Australia?  Easy: Because of the EU common agriculture policy, which is mostly aimed at propping up French peasant farmers but which affects the whole of the EU.

Europe's problem is one that makes Greenies say "nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah" when you tell them about it.  Now that fracking has put panic about oil running out to rest, the Greenies these days are constantly prophesying that we will run out of food (Global warming, you know).  European agricultural administrators must wish there was some truth in that because their problem is the opposite: Europe produces TOO MUCH food -- more food than they can sell.  They pay their farmers big  subsidies to produce all the excess food and then pay Australians and others to eat it. Insane of course but that's politics.  You wouldn't want to contend with angry French farmers either.

So when I recently picked up from my local supermarket a very cheap bottle of Manzanilla olives from Spain and some very cheap canned tomatoes from Italy it was because the EU was selling the stuff off at a fraction of its cost just to get rid of it.  In the old days they used to donate it all to Russia (They did!) but Russia feeds itself pretty well now that they have got rid of Communism

Still, I suppose it is good that the Chinese have some competition.  Pity the European taxpayer, though.  Interesting things, those labels, aren't they?

Incidentally, olive trees grow so well in Australia that in South Australia they are regarded as weeds!


I am pleased to report that I have at least some readers who know stuff.  One reader has asked how I square surplus olives with reports that this year's olive crop is way down due to unfavorable weather

In a way, the question answers itself.  The big jar of olives that I recently bought is NOT the product of this year's crop.  It has been known since ancient times how to store olives and I am sure that the EU people of today are really good at it. And in the way of these things, the EU bods would not sell off their stuff straight away.  They would wait until all hopes of a normal sale were gone.  So goodness knows when my olives came off the tree.  They taste great anyway

Another thing that I believe to be true but have not researched is that olives grown for oil and olives grown for human consumption are different.  So a shortage of oil olives may not tell us much about the supply of eating olives.

For what it's worth, I NEVER these days buy ANY European olive oils -- not even the big green tins of "Olio Sasso.  Diretta importata dall Italia" that I remember from my childhood.  Italian and Spanish olive oil distributors have really blotted their copybooks with contaminant and substitution scandals so I now buy  Australian olive oil exclusively.  Australian olive oil is a Southern European product made with Northern European ethics. So there are pyramids of Spanish and Italian olive oil in my local supermarket but I bypass them all.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Long time no see

Up until yesterday, I had not seen Sandra Barnes since she was 4.  She is now 35 and we met at my place for afternoon tea yesterday.  Both her parents were once good friends of mine but over the years I had lost touch with them, much to my regret.  And both died around 15 years ago.  So it was a pleasant surprise when Sandra found me on Facebook and got in touch.

There were a lot of family disruptions during her childhood so she did have a difficult childhood that has left its mark.  She now however seems to have got over most of that.  Her parents had tended not to talk much about their past, which was once very common, so I was able to tell her a lot about her parents that she did not know and was very pleased to hear. She was particularly pleased to hear my fond recollections of Alec, her father.

I think I was able to be helpful and supportive to Sandra in various ways so I expect to be hearing from her again.  Her  father and I saw eye to eye on most things so I should be able to express thoughts and viewpoints similar to what her father would have wished to say to her were he still alive.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

A boy turns 4

4 is a wonderful age for a bright child.  They can observe, reason and talk -- and they do.  But given their still limited range of experience, the conclusions they come to can be hilarious.  They get things wrong but you can see their reasoning.  A quarter of a century ago, both Timmy and Joe were great examples of that and I remember that time with great fondness.

But a new generation has now arisen and the latest to turn 4 is Dusty.  Suz and Russ put on his birthday party on Saturday.  It was a lunch and whenever I have been invited to a lunch in the past, it has been my practice to skip breakfast -- so that I would have the capacity to try a few things on offer at the lunch.

That tends to make me seem more gluttonous than I am, however, so this time Anne and I decided that we would have a light breakfast beforehand.  And we decided to have jam sandwiches.  So I had some of that wonderful Chinese bread I get locally and at around 9am I put various jams on the dining table.  I also put the big Vegemite jar on the table.  And that was too much.  Vegemite goes wonderfully well with well-buttered fresh bread so the jam was ignored.  I had two slices of bread with Vege on them only. Plenty of butter and plenty of Vege on fresh bread is one of life's great pleasures IMHO.  Anne just had honey on her bread as she usually does.

There's a story in that.  Anne is very cautious about what she eats so when I bought Leatherwood honey she assured me that she didn't like it.  I just raised an eyebrow at that.  It steadily went down however so under pressure she completely revised her opinion.  I now have Yellow Box honey and that is going down steadily too.

Americans will never understand Vegemite, our iconic Australian sandwich spread, but the Brits do. Their Marmite is quite similar. And then there is Kiwi Marmite ....

So back to Dusty.  He was already showing signs of his new age of responsibility.  Up until now on any family occasion Dusty has given an exhibition of perpetual motion -- running everywhere.  But on Sunday he actually walked quite a lot!  Growing up is an amazing thing.

Dusty was however consistent in that he again got a lot of his birthday cake smeared across his face.  He is an enthusiastic eater.  I can't imagine where he got that from.

Russ fired up his big BBQ as usual and cooked some excellent sausages, among other things.  Being something of a sausage freak, I had three!

I talked a bit to Ken, fresh back from visiting Paul in Edinburgh. As was to be expected, Ken gave a view of the situation in Edinburgh that differed considerably from what Paul reports in his emails.  Those two disagree about almost everything. My relationship with my son is a great contrast.  We mostly see eye to eye but where we don't the view of the other is respected.  We laugh a lot. And Joe is no pushover.  He's got a lot of quiet confidence.  

And it's the same with Paul and me.  I have his complete respect and I have always supported him and helped him in any way I can.  Paul is not normally antagonistic, though he is very exuberant and assertive.  He is a lot of fun and we miss his lively presence now he is away.

Opening the presents was a lot of fun.   In the usual modern way, Dusty got heaps of them.  And he gave good cuddles of thanks to his donors.  Some sort of water-bomb gadget seemed to be the biggest hit.  Via Jenny, I gave him a track set for his toy cars. Joe gave him a plastic gun.  All little boys like guns and Dusty's parents allow such things.

Everybody was pleased to see Joe, as they usually are, and I saw him get big cuddles from both his mother and his sister.  He brought Kate along and I think she is now getting used to the family and all our little idiosyncrasies.  She spent a lot of time speaking to Anne, who no doubt had wisdom to offer.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The saga of the chair -- plus Zar und Zimmermann

One would think that getting hold of a comfortable office chair would be a simple matter, but it can in fact be a problem. I sit in front of my computer for around 12 hours a day so I am rather aware of the chairs I sit in whilst doing so.

Many years ago at the Rocklea markets I bought a quite simple office chair that had apparently been sold off by some government department.  And we know that governments always buy the best. It is only the mug taxpayer who is paying.

And this chair was very good.  It was upholstered in a fetching shade of maroon and was generally referred to as "the red chair".  And I sat in that chair with the greatest of ease for around 20 years.  It did however over the years become rather grotty so when something in the steel chassis snapped and gave the chair a lean, I decided that it was time to bid the red chair goodbye.  I put it out the front and it disappeared.

That was a great mistake.  I have never since found a chair as good as the red chair.  To replace it I first went to Lifeline to inspect their offering of chairs and found one that seemed good -- costing me about $25.  But it just was not comfortable enough so I looked around suppliers of new office chairs and found that sums of around $1,000 were being asked for a lot of them.  No way!

So I eventually ended up at Officeworks.  You would think that they would have a good range of office chairs on sale and they do -- mostly for around $200 -- made in China.  So I bought one -- a "Bathurst" chair.  And it was really good, just what I wanted. But after about 9 months something came adrift inside it and it developed a distinct lean.  So I took it back.  Officeworks is one of Mr Goyder's tentacles and he seems to have drilled it into all 200,000 of his employees that they must be cheerful, pleasant and helpful at all times.  And they are.  So I had no difficulty at swapping the degraded chair for another one.  But I was not of course going to risk a second Bathurst chair.  So I chose a slightly more up-market one and paid the difference.

But within a year, its casters seized up. They ceased to cast, if that is what casters do.  So instead of the chair rolling it could only be dragged.  That did considerable damage to my polished board floor, which later cost me quite a bit to fix, so I took that chair back too -- and chose yet another one.

And the third chair wasn't bad -- though not as good as the Bathurst chair -- but it too failed eventually.  After 11 months it started refusing to stay up.  I would be sitting in front of my computer typing away and suddenly finding that I was sinking down floorwards whilst doing so.  I could only take so much of that so went back to Officeworks with that chair too.  It was quite a heavy thing so Joe came with me and carried it.  I suspect that he did more than carry the chair for me.  Being tall, taciturn and well-built with short hair, he might have been mistaken for my bodyguard or some such.  He wouldn't have looked like someone you would want to argue with!

Anyway, I was treated with good cheer and came away with another chair of the same model as the one that had sunk.  One can only hope that I won't be  back there again next October.

It was of course a "some assembly required" product but I am getting good at that by now so it only took an hour to put it together.  Anne happened to be present so was fascinated to see me doing something with my hands for once. She is a nurse by trade so even adopted a nurse-like role -- things like handing me my Allen-key when I dropped it.

So wish me luck with my new chair.  I suspect I will need it.  Its casters run very well so I am pleased about that.

Also yesterday I got in the mail a DVD of Zar und Zimmermann -- a German comic opera written about 150 years ago. It took me a long time to decide to buy it but I thought it might be worth a go. It is Austro/Hungarian operetta from either side of the year 1900 that I like and this was composed well before that period in Germany. But I seem by now to have acquired all of the few available DVDs of Austro/Hungarian operetta so I thought I might branch out a bit. Zar und Zimmermann (The Tsar and the carpenter) is after all an acclaimed and popular comic opera that is still performed in Germany.

Alas, however, the humour was very low level -- clown humour just about.  It had none of the quick wit and sophistication of Austro/Hungarian operetta.  I just got bored with it and turned it off 1.5 hours into the 2.5 hour show.  Maybe I will try to watch it again some time.  Could the final hour redeem it?  Who knows?

UPDATE:  I have now watched the final hour of the show and have ended up more favourably disposed towards it.  I even got a laugh out of the scene where the mistaken emperor Peter meets his girlfriend in his new role.  The show as a whole was just fun with nothing horrible happening -- which I liked.  I tried to re-watch the mentally ill "Carmen" recently but couldn't do it. It was just too silly.  I gave that DVD to Anne.  She likes conventional opera.

I was most taken with the scenes of Dutch shipbuilding, set in 1698.  It was great to see the old hand-tools in use -- adzes, augers, two-handed planes and crosscut saws. I may be one of the few left who have had some contact with all that.  I have seen a man use an adze and I have myself used a wood auger.  It is downstairs in my garage as I write this.

And seeing the crosscut saw was very nostalgic.  I remember my father setting and sharpening his big blue-steel crosscut saws.  He used them to cut down big forest trees in the era before chainsaws.  Yes: There was such a time.

And the very first Ray in my Australian family was a sawyer -- A central trade in building the old wooden ships. How do you get evenly straight planks without a circular saw?  The old sawyers did it.  The original Joseph Henry Ray came out from England to Australia as a convict chained up in the hold of a sailing ship -- an East Indiaman.  So I almost could see my great-great grandfather at work in this show.

An excerpt:

YouTube sometimes does strange things when clips are called from it. You get the wrong clip altogether sometimes. If the above clip is irrelevant, the link to the intended clip is here:

There were actually some distinguished people in the show.  The girlfriend was sung quite charmingly by the Slovakian Lucia Popp, whom the Austrian cultural authorities recognized as a Kammers√§ngerin.

And the conductor was the distinguished Australian Charles Mackerras. There seemed to be rather a lot of Mackerrases around in Australian public life at one time.

The show was supposedly set in "Saardam", now "Zaandam". The production was from the Hamburgische Staatsoper, 1969.