Friday, 30 April 2010

In the mood

It's a strange phenomenon, being a blogger. Some weeks, my blog is on fire. I can't get enough of posting, updating links, writing progress reports on my 101 in 1001 project, clearing my RSS feed reader, and generally blogging. Other weeks, like this one, I'm just not in the mood for writing. I have a list of topics and ideas I'd like to blog about, but as soon as I start to write, I just as quickly stop.

I don't tend to let it get me down. I love blogging. Through it, I have come to enjoy the process of non-academic writing and become part of an international online community. It's not like I've made a commitment to anyone to blog. I'm not paid for it. Heck, I don't even know how many people read my ramblings. (To those of you who do, and even come back for more - thank you, thank you!)

I look at some of the Stuff blogs and wonder how they manage to keep up with their daily obligations to the blogosphere. True, many of them are journalists and probably used to churning out large quantities of words each day. But most of them have a central focus around a specialist topic, rather than being a random mish-mash of topics and events like this blog. Surely there must be more "I really don't know what to write tomorrow" moments than we're led to believe.

So, I'm not in the mood for blogging, but a couple of semi-related songs are going through my head right now. Enjoy!

In the Mood, sung by The Puppini Sisters
(I have no idea why there's a Wizard of Id cartoon in the background.)

I'm in the Mood for Dancing, by the Nolans
(I couldn't embed the original video. It's priceless!)

Monday, 26 April 2010

Driving me crazy

I write some of my best tweets while driving. Well, that is, I think of some pretty good ones while I'm driving. At least, I think they're good. The problem is, I don't have internet access on my phone or txt my tweets, and I'm hardly ever just on my way home or heading to somewhere where I can access wifi with my iPod touch ... and then I've forgotten them. Until the next time I hop in the car and the same thing happens.

I've decided to experiment with writing a blog post about the things that drive me crazy on the roads. This list is not exhaustive (it's merely a starting point, lol) and I'm sure there will be dozens more examples which can be added to it. Some happen over and over and over again. How do these people manage to stay on the roads without doing major damage to themselves or everyone else around them??

Tips for drivers

  • In New Zealand, we drive on the left-hand side of the road. Whether or not there is a line painted down the middle of the road, or the street is narrower than usual, or you're just driving home from the movies, the rule is the same. 
  • A busy intersection is not the place for a U-turn.
  • A street corner is not a car park. This is especially true if your car is technically straddling two streets at once.
  • If you indicate left to pull over the side of the road, this does not give you permission to then pull out to the right and do a U-turn. I know what you're thinking: "well, at least I indicated". I'd thank you for it, if only it made the slightest bit of sense.
  • When you drive 90km/h in the fast lane on the motorway, you cause other drivers around you to behave erratically and change lanes intermittently. When you speed up as the rest of the motorway rearranges itself around you ... well, words fail me.
  • If you are supposed to give way to me at an intersection but you try to sneak through by speeding up and assume I'll be able to slow down in time to avoid you, then you can expect to hear my horn. Yelling abuse at me, complete with rude gestures, when you could have been the cause of a crash and should have given way does not make you right.
  • Just because your car is loud and the back half of it barely clears the road, it doesn't mean that you can change lanes whenever you feel like it, pass on the inside, or drive through pedestrian crossings.
  • Perhaps taxi and bus drivers could stop for red lights, or at least not speed up as soon as a light turns amber? I know - crazy talk!
  • Randomly stopping in the middle of a busy street to let someone out of your car (or pick someone up) is never a good idea. It doesn't matter how much you gesture to me that I should pass you while you've decided to park on the road; I'm not prepared to drive head-on into traffic coming towards me in the other lane. Turning on your indicator after all the above has occurred does not get you out of trouble, either.
  • If you rear-end someone and end up crashing into the back of their car, don't get out and pretend that any damage or scratches to their car was there before you hit them. How the heck would you know?? (This one's for my sweetie.)
Care to add any of your own?

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Carrot cake

It's my sweetie's birthday this week. I asked what he'd like me to bake for him. "Chocolate chip cookies," he said. "What cake would you like me to bake," I clarified. "Carrot cake," he replied. "One that's moist. And has cream cheese icing." Of course he would have to pick something I've never baked before. #10 - Bake a carrot cake is on my 101 in 1001 list, so I looked up some carrot cake recipes and consulted the Twitterverse before settling on this one from the Canadian Living website. For the cream cheese icing, I used Blokes Who Bake - I'm coming to love that site!

I won't say this was easy. There's got to be a better way to grate carrots - even the food processor had issues. Also, the cooking time took a lot longer than I expected, although I encountered the same problem a few days ago when baking banana loaf, so I'm starting to wonder whether it's something to do with the oven I used to bake in. I was really worried that the cake wasn't cooked right through, and time was ticking away, but it seemed ok in the end. The cream cheese icing mixture was enough to cover all of the top and sides of a 23 cm round cake.

Carrot cake

  • 2 cups (240 g) plain flour
  • 2 teaspoons (10 g) baking powder
  • 2 teaspoons (10 g) cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon (5 g) baking soda
  • 3/4 teaspoon (4 g) salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon (2 g) nutmeg
  • 3/4 cup (175 g) granulated sugar
  • 3/4 cup (175 g) packed brown sugar
  • 3 eggs
  • 3/4 cup (175 ml) vegetable oil
  • 1 tsp (5 mL) vanilla essence
  • 2 cups (500 g) grated carrots
  • 1 cup (250 mL) drained crushed canned pineapple
  • 1/2 cup (125 g) chopped walnuts
  1. Grease and flour 23 cm (3.5 L) metal cake pan and set aside.
  2. In a large bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, cinnamon, baking soda, salt and nutmeg. In a separate bowl, beat together granulated and brown sugars, eggs, oil and vanilla until smooth. Pour over flour mixture and stir just until moistened. Stir in carrots, pineapple and walnuts. Spread in prepared pan.
  3. Bake in centre of 180°C oven for 1 hour 30 minutes or until cake tester inserted in centre comes out clean. Let cool in pan on rack.

    Cream cheese icing

    • 1/4 cup cream cheese
    • 2 tablespoons softened butter
    • 1 cup icing sugar
    • 1 teaspoon grated lemon rind
    1. Beat the butter and cream cheese together until smooth and creamy.
    2. Slowly mix in the icing sugar and beat until really well combined. Add lemon rind and stir to mix.

      Friday, 23 April 2010

      Musical interlude

      Time for a little musical interlude. Some random, nostalgic picks to make you smile on a Friday.

      I have yet to see the movie Boy (2010), the coming-of-age film by Taika Waititi, but hope to get to it while it's still showing in theatres. I chuckled as I read his tweet this morning about "Poi E":
      I do declare! After 26 years the song "Poi E" (from BOY) is now back in the NZ top 40!!! Let's try and get it to #1 by Christmas!!!
      How choice would that be? ;-) So, here's a bit of nostalgia for everyone growing up in New Zealand in the 1980s.

      I changed the default ringtone on my mobile phone this week, after realising how much I hated my old one, yet still managed to keep it for 2-3 phones over the years. I think this is a much better choice. It's also what I want played at my funeral, complete with the heckling and Zoot's wrong note at the end.

      And while we're still reminiscing about the 80s, the Ghost Busters theme was all the rage when we were kids, even if my friend and I had nightmares after going to see it at the movies for her 9th birthday.

      And, finishing with the 80s, this was the height of cool when we were kids, even if we were far too young to see the movie Beverly Hills Cop (1984). We would all try to play it on our classroom keyboard. I had recently started piano lessons so considered this to give me a bit of a head start, although that wasn't necessarily true. Axel F by Harold Faltermeyer - not a stupid frog in sight!

      Enjoy!! :-)

      Wednesday, 21 April 2010

      Banoffee dessert pizza

      This recipe for banoffee dessert pizza is from Food in a Minute. It's a variation of the classic banoffee pie, just a lot quicker to make. For some reason, my toffee didn't set quite as it should. That just left us more to pour over the ice cream and remaining whipped cream. ;-)

      Banoffee dessert pizza

      Maple toffee sauce ingredients
      • 2 tablespoons butter
      • 1/2 cup cream
      • 1/2 cup maple flavoured syrup
      • 2-3 pizza bases
      • 2 bananas, sliced
      • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
      • 1 tablespoon chopped nuts
      • vanilla ice cream
      1. Place the sauce ingredients into a saucepan. Bring to the boil and simmer for 10-15 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool.
      2. Preheat oven to 200°C and place one pizza base on a lined baking tray. Heat pizza base for 5-9 minutes or until golden. Take out from oven and spread with 1-2 tablespoons of the maple toffee sauce. Top with sliced bananas and sprinkle over cinnamon.
      3. Place on serving plate and sprinkle over nuts and top with ice cream and more toffee sauce. Serve immediately.
      Banoffee dessert pizza

      Banana loaf

      Today's blog posts are brought to you by over-ripe bananas. Yes, they were starting to pile up, so some baking was called for.

      I was looking for a recipe for banana loaf and found one on this cool site, Blokes Who Bake. Yes, that's right - a baking site for kiwi blokes. The instructions are short and to the point. For example, "You can chuck nuts in if you want". Indeed! The banana loaf recipe worked quite well. It needed a bit longer in the oven as the outside was cooked but the inside was still a little soggy. Oh, and it rose. And rose. And rose.

      Banana loaf

      • 1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon sour cream
      • 1 teaspoon baking soda
      • 125 g butter at room temperature
      • 1 cup sugar
      • 2 large eggs
      • 2 large mashed bananas
      • 2 cups plain flour
      • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
      1. Heat the oven to 180°C. Grease a 22 cm long loaf tin.
      2. Combine the sour cream and baking soda in a small bowl. Cream the butter and sugar in a separate large bowl. Beat in eggs, bananas and sour cream mixture  with an electric beater. Sift in flour and baking powder and stir it all through.
      3. Tip the mixture into your loaf tin.
      4. Bake for 1 hour or until a skewer comes cleanly from the loaf. Cool 10 minutes in pan. Turn loaf out onto rack and cool completely.
      • You can add nuts to the recipe if that floats your boat. (I added some walnuts.)
      • Ice it with a citrus icing. (I've left it un-iced, but even that was too tempting for my 2 year old nephew, who started up a litany of "cake, cake" as soon as he spotted it!)
      Banana loaf

      Sunday, 18 April 2010

      48 hour film festival

      V48 hours is New Zealand's largest film making competition and is happening around the country this weekend. This is when you'll see groups of film enthusiasts, amateur movie makers, and scores of volunteers (some with arms twisted behind their backs) out and about armed with cameras, random props, rustled-together costumes, and various versions of an ever-changing script. Madness!

      I was asked to be part of a team a few weeks ago. My experience with making movies is a tiny bit above zero, and I have little patience with video, but I was assured that the rest of the team would be similarly amateurish and any help would be appreciated. A bit of encouragement from the Twitterverse convinced me to give it a go. You only live once, right?

      The competition started with a briefing on Friday night. Our team were given their criteria, 24 cans of the sponsor's product, and a 48 hour deadline during which a movie of no longer than 7 minutes' duration has to be produced. Our compulsory specs were:
      Genre: twins (is that a genre? I thought a genre was something like horror or thriller)
      Character: Sydney Manson
      Prop: a broken toy
      Line of dialogue: When you look at it like that ...
      Word/idea/theme: fabricator (we had to look this up, as we all had different ideas about what the word meant. Turns out we were all correct, but decided to make our fabricator an author who fabricates stories for a living.)
      Camera shot: dolly grip zoom (no-one actually knows what that means. It will look amateurish, at best.)

      So, the scriptwriters set to work overnight on Friday. They composed an evil twin story about a girl who grew up to become a serial killer (as you do), and the 'good' twin solved the mystery of the murders by making connections between the victims' names and ages and the addresses she and her sister lived in as a child. Wonderfully melodramatic. Our six-year-old actor was such a star. We think she especially loved tripping her 'father' down the stairs and watching him plummet to his death.

      When we, the support crew, arrived for filming to begin on Saturday morning, it became apparent that my role (to supply lighting equipment) was not going to be so straightforward; our headquarters location was at the top of a steep street and up about 75 outdoor steps. There was no way I was going to lug boxes of heavy lighting up there, and I doubted even the guys would want to attempt it given that most of the crew arrived at the top huffing and puffing with only small bags in their hands. Plan B: I had an empty rental property on a flat section a few blocks away. We would use this place to shoot the interior scenes later in the day, once the exterior shots were taken while the sun was still up.

      Actors came and went on Saturday. Various support crew arrived and disappeared again. Suggestions were made, implemented, and rejected. The script was in a constant state of being rewritten. Time marched on. I still don't know how many are officially in our team; I guess I'll be able to work this out once I read the list of credits after our movie has finished, but I'm guessing it's somewhere around 12.

      The end of our filming day saw our team boast a suitably tired and frazzled director/producer, a few empty pizza boxes on the floor, and a grand total of four scenes shot - it's a wrap! Although some of the team are still working furiously to have the movie edited and cut before our deadline of 7pm tonight, I'm now sitting at home in recovery mode, contemplating my single day as part of the film industry and reflecting about how much hard work is going on around the country right now.

      Some things I have learned from my 48 hours film making experience:
      • I still don't have the patience for video. One day was enough for me. How can people seriously contemplate doing this day in, day out for a living? I repeat: madness!
      • I'm not good at the endless waiting around that happens while filming. Luckily I had a good book and my iPod touch, but I was frustrated at not being able to move things along faster.
      • I have more movie making experience than I thought. This came in handy, at times, especially when some extra direction was called for.
      • My writing and editing skills were put to good use rewriting parts of the script and eliminating plot holes. (Do you like my use of film jargon?)
      • I'd be terrible as a continuity person. Was her hair this way or that way last take? What happened to her handbag? Didn't we have two lights on before? Nope, I'll leave the close observations up to someone else.
      • Despite saying no from the outset, I still ended up recording music, supplying a large amount of sound and lighting equipment, a venue, and doing various other roles. How does this happen time and time again?
      • Somehow, the finished product is not so important to me. I feel that my work is done. Of course, I'm curious about how it will turn out, but I'm definitely a process, not a product person.
      • I'll be back next year only if I'm suitably bribed (to compensate for having my arm twisted). All offers considered. ;-)

      Thursday, 15 April 2010

      1000 Awesome Things

      Amazing things happen every day and there are multitudes of wonderful things around us for us to appreciate and enjoy. Life's simple pleasures. Many of them are free. But how do you find them in a world full of impending doom and gloom? Where are they hiding? And, once found, how do you partake?

      It's easy. Or so says Neil Pasricha, author of the Webby award-winning 1000 Awesome Things blog. Depressed by reading bad news daily and with his marriage failing, Pasricha decided to try to focus on the positive and come up with 1000 simple, free, awesome things, posting one each day on a blog. The blog counts down backwards from 1000 and includes things like finding money you didn't even know you lost, wearing underwear just out of the dryer, sleeping with one leg under the covers and one leg out, and celebrating your pet's birthday even though they have no idea what's going on. These are tiny, inconsequential events in the bigger scheme of life, but aren't they wonderful? I think so!

      Parischa has also collated 200 of his awesome things into a recently published book, The Book of Awesome (2010). If visits to his blog is anything to go by (around 12 million so far), this book is sure to be a runaway hit. I'm happy to stick with the digital version for now and have added the 1000 Awesome Things blog to my RSS feed reader. Apart from giving me a daily delivery of positive vibes, it'll also help me with goal #48 from my 101 in 1001 project: find something to be happy and thankful for each day. Done!

      Monday, 12 April 2010

      Help is at hand

      Greg, our IT manager has a great sense of humour. He goes through stages where he sends out lengthy emails updating us about the latest development he has spent months working on, or ironing out reported problems, or suggesting proposals for new initiatives. It would be easy for them to gloss over our collective minds as we ask the ultimate question: what's in it for me? This is closely followed by: how does this work again? Or: what did you say?

      Greg was in fine form on April Fool's Day last year. This year, he was suspiciously quiet, but today's email confirmed that he has, indeed, been a busy boy lately. As the company grows, a new help desk system has been put in place so that staff are not randomly emailing different members of the IT team and asking for help. It sounds impressive, but this system has several alternatives in place for Rick, one of the company directors. Here is the special service that Rick is being treated to:
      Rick, for problems with your email please email ricks-email@***.net, unless those problems relate to sending rather then receiving, in which case email nicks-sent-email@***.net. For problems with Google docs email ricks.googledocs@***.net, but only on Wednesdays. Google doc problem emails sent outside this time will be deleted. For issues with your iPhone please email convinceusweshouldcare@***.net. For problems with your Office applications just close 1000 of the 1500 office documents you currently have open and don't email anyone. For any of your other problems please consult a registered medical practitioner.

      Friday, 9 April 2010

      Ginger crunch

      I'm suffering from baking withdrawals. Time to fix that.

      This recipe for ginger crunch was featured on New Zealand's Hottest Home Baker recently. It is based on a recipe from the Edmond's Cook Book but with a varied icing mixture, something which I used to double when I baked it as there never seemed quite enough to cover the whole slice. This icing mixture was plentiful and spread evenly. (By the way, the picture isn't of my ginger crunch; mine never manages to stay together so perfectly.)

      Ginger crunch

      Ingredients for base
      • 125 g softened butter
      • ½ cup sugar
      • 1 ½ cups plain flour
      • 1 tsp baking powder
      • 1 tsp ground ginger
      Ingredients for icing
      • 160 g butter
      • 1 cup icing sugar
      • 4 tablespoons golden syrup
      • 5 tsp ground ginger
      • 1 cup icing sugar
      Method for base
      1. Cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy.
      2. Add flour, baking powder, ginger and stir. Make sure it holds its shape.
      3. Press into tin.
      4. Bake at 190°C for 25 mins or until light brown.
      Method for icing
      1. Put all ingredients into a saucepan, stirring constantly.
      2. Take off heat and add one further cup of icing sugar and beat.
      3. Pour over warm base and spread evenly.
      4. Leave to cool and slice when cold.

      Thursday, 8 April 2010

      The Sunday Philosophy Club - Alexander McCall Smith

      I quickly became enamored with Mme Precious Ramotswe while reading The No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency (1999) by Alexander McCall Smith. What's not to love about this full-figured, unorthodox lady detective, Botswana's first and finest? Her matter-of-fact nature, built on traditional womanly values, enables her to solve all manner of mysteries with warmth and hilarity. I was instantly hooked.

      The Sunday Philosophy Club (2004) is another series by McCall Smith. This time, it features a philosopher and amateur sleuth, Isabel Dalhousie, and is set in Edinburgh, Scotland. The blurb sounded promising and I looked forward to delving into a new series.

      The narrative is stilted with liberal doses of minutiae (which is extremely well researched), yet the characters and plot are incredibly shallow, despite attempts to be otherwise. The same level of detail was somehow charming when set in Botswana, but just serves as an unnecessary distraction in this book, almost reducing the plot to a series of fragmented ramblings. The promised action never eventuates, and as for The Sunday Philosophy Club ... who and where are they? They don't actually make an appearance, apart from a fleeting reference somewhere near the middle of the book. The ongoing mystery was lamely resolved, among gaping holes in the plot and hefty assumptions made about various characters. I came away feeling really disappointed.

      I read two other books between starting and finishing this one; sheer determination that this should not become another #BookFAIL was barely enough to keep me going. I think I'll stick with Precious Ramotswe in future.

      Monday, 5 April 2010

      Nga Manu Nature Reserve

      Nga Manu Nature Reserve in Waikanae is a small, attractive reserve about an hour north of Wellington. Featuring a range of native flora and fauna, it is also home to a number of bird breeding programmes and reptiles. We spent a few hours at the reserve today, joining the feed out tour, and enjoying a picnic lunch in the sun.

      Picnic area at Nga Manu Nature Reserve
      We got to see kakariki, kereru, kaka, kea, kiwi, morepork, little owls, and tuatara up close. This was the best look I have ever had of two North Island brown kiwi; they were much larger than any other I had seen before and quite happy to come out and eat in front of us. The following photos were all taken inside the nocturnal house on a limited light camera setting, so the quality isn't all that clear but I think the subject matter is fantastic!

      Little owls
      North Island brown kiwi
      My mother has always been a bird lover and my brother and I have inherited this trait. I love birds of all kinds and really love visiting large open aviaries, my best friend's worst nightmare. As a family, we would often stop in at aviaries or bird attractions while on holiday or on our way somewhere. Sometimes it was just stopping near a pond to feed ducks (for us, they were always called duckies). We would grab stale bread and entice the duckies towards us, grinning madly as they quacked around us and gobbled up the food. My mother would always try to catch one (usually successfully), but it always ended badly when my younger brother would attempt to do the same (always unsuccessfully) and we'd end up leaving with him very grumpy in the back seat. It was the same experience every single time and I loved it.

      As soon as we arrived at Nga Manu, I spotted some duck feed at the counter and quickly added it to our admission price; another activity on my 101 in 1001 list - #22: Feed duckies. There is something so satisfying about the instant congregation of bird friends that forms whenever free food is on hand. These duckies were no different, gobbling down whatever they could munch from our hands and following us when they thought their food source was moving too far away from them.
      Satisfied duckie friends

      Nga Manu is definitely worth a visit if you are in the area or want to show visitors a slice of New Zealand's natural heritage. Being smaller than similar reserves, it's easy to get around and a much more relaxed way to enjoy the beautiful grounds and scenery.

      Thursday, 1 April 2010

      Song book

      Music has always been a huge part of my life. My family have been in bands almost continuously since my father was a teenager; two generations, hundreds of gigs, and thousands of people we have entertained with live music. I've been out of the scene for the past few years but am in the process of putting together another group and getting back out there. Well, to be honest, we made great plans a couple of years ago, have an excellent song list, but are still only about 2/3 ready. Watch this space.

      Although I have been a keyboard player for most of my musical career, I'm planning to sing in my new band. I've always sang back-up vocals, which eventually turned to lead vocals as we looked to replace yet another female singer and realised that it would be cheaper and easier if I simply took over. After all, I would end up having to teach the new vocalist all of her parts, and dividing a band cheque between five people instead of six leaves a bigger share of the total. My argument that I was now taking two roles in the band (ie my pay should be doubled) fell on deaf ears.

      Even though I can be the queen of clutter, my music has always been very well organised. I have spent countless hours honing songs, albums, and playlists on iTunes. My musical charts are filed and I have copies of lyrics to all songs we have played. The difference is, they're written out from scratch after listening to the song over and over. I believe this is the best way to learn songs and lyrics; it's is so easy (and tempting) to download lyrics online now ... and they're not always correct, either. It has taken me years to build up what resembles a song book of my own, and what began as a single Word document has ended up with a few hundred pages. Part of my 101 in 1001 list (#47: Digitally organise my song lyrics) has involved organising my assorted and collected lyrics and into a single, more manageable format.

      I've ended up pasting my lyrics into alphabetical order and creating separate files for each letter of the alphabet within a 'master' folder. Rather than trying to manipulate a single file that is hundreds of pages long, this way I can quickly go to which letter the song begins with and find it within the file. I have created a single file (alphabetised) with all the lyrics for my next band collected together. It's not an ideal system (I'd like to do something in HTML where they hyperlink with each other), but it will do for now. I have also typed up some printed lyrics which I had written out in the days before Google (yes, that's how long I've been doing this) and had a chuckle at some interpretations I'd gleaned from listening to poor quality cassette tapes. I think I did quite well, back then ... considering.

      Now, all I have to do is retrain my memory and block up some of the holes in the sieve so I can actually remember the lyrics while I'm singing ...