Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Construction time

I've spent a hectic day or so rebuilding my company's website. It was looking dated, and I've been mucking around with new website technology - in particular the pages option from WordPress - and thought it was time to bite the bullet. I'm seriously impressed with WordPress. I hadn't used the system before, and it was dead easy to install it on my server, with one click of the Fantastico button.

Next was a template. With literally thousands to choose from I found one that uses my corporate colours and has an ideal layout. Cost me all of $35. Came with instructions and a link to a video which explained it all beautifully.

Within three hours of making the decision to update, I had my four key pages up. I spent most of yesterday populating the site with portfolio items and other pages and doing final tweaking to text and layout. Half the time was spent going through all my work and selecting and editing key items for the portfolio.

A friend who recommended WordPress to me (he uses it to build sites for clients) pointed me in the direction of a contact form with anti-spam options and THAT installed with the click of a button. Very impressive. Having been used to FormMail and PERL scripts, it was a doddle.

My own business is 'business communications': websites, graphic design, copywriting and editing. I started it ten years ago when HTML was still the most common and affordable way to build a website for small businesses. I don't have the mental capacity to be a software engineer - my brain isn't wired that way - so messing around with java and other scripts hasn't been an option for me. I've been supplying people with robust HTML sites until now, but I'll be selling clients on WordPress from now on.

I now have a site which displays seamlessly on all browsers, shows off some nifty little sliders and other graphic devices, uses blog tags (on pages I select to use as posts rather than pages) to raise my SEO and in general looks 100% better than the rather swish little HTML site it replaced.

I'm a happy little bunny today.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Back: off

Dammit. Every time my fitness reaches a certain level, something gives. Usually my lower back or my neck. There I was last week, getting fitter, running for a longer portion of our morning walk every day, belting around on the bikes and feeling a million dollars. And now I have pulled muscles in my lower back.

I don't know how I did it. I think possibly I slept awkwardly on Friday night - probably twisting my lower body around the two cats who curl up tightly against me on colder nights. They can overheat me and I've probably wrenched something in my sleep trying to get my legs around them without kicking them off (I'm too kind to them, I think; I hate disturbing them too much when they sleep).

It wasn't too bad on Saturday morning however, just a little bit twingey. So I was daft enough to do some gardening. We have clay soil here. Planting anything new usually requires a pickaxe, and I had four plants to get out of their pots and in the ground. As I swung the pickaxe cheerfully I revelled in how much fitter I was than a few months ago; gosh, it was no effort at all, I wasn't puffing, I could go on for ages...

Two hours later I was hitting the painkillers and lying in front of the heater with the heat blowing onto my back. Yesterday I was still stiff and despite the beautiful day didn't even feel up to a ride. More painkillers. More heater. A short walk with the dog in the afternooon. It's still sore this morning but not as bad as yesterday. Time to start moving about more but I'm not up to anything strenuous.

Bugger!!! Big fat bugger!!!

Saturday, May 15, 2010

The craft of Mr Bickle

My grandfather was a baker with his own bakery in Sydney's inner west. If you spoke to any of his customers they'd tell you that Mr Bickle made the best bread in Sydney. He was respected in his craft - during WWII and the era of food rationing the government had consulted him about breadmaking, flour quality and other elements of his craft. He'd retired by the time I was born, and my grandparents bought their bread from their local baker on the northern beaches, or the supermarket. Pop didn't go in for making his own after retirement. Can't blame him after 40 years on the job I guess!

Except for once. I was ten, and our school teacher wanted us to learn about bread and we were given an assignment to bake a loaf of bread. Our teacher would judge the loaves in a competition. Parents were allowed help. In my case, Pop did the work and I watched and learned. I'd never seen him in action before; his arms were still strong and wiry as he kneaded and pulled the dough until it became elastic and pliable. The smell of the baking bread in the kitchen was divine (Mum didn't bake her own either so it was a first for our kitchen.) As far as I can recall he just used plain flour from the supermarket to make this lovely loaf - supermarkets didn't sell strong flour back then. It didn't surprise me when Pop's loaf was judged the best.

Pop's bread in his baking heyday contained no preservatives, unlike today's bread. However, even so, it didn't go mouldy for lack of chemicals either as supermarket bread does today. I suspect that the wheat grown more than 55 years ago didn't have the wealth of pesticides and other much sprayed onto it that today's wheat gets to ensure the harvest is as big as can be. A lot of the fertilisers and pesticides available today hadn't been invented then - and thank heavens for that, really!

Even bread you buy today at owner-run bakeries is pretty well rubbish for the most part (and supermarket bread is DEFINITELY crap). The wheat that makes the flour has been loaded with toxins as it grows, both sprayed on and in the soil. T'other Half and I still buy the supermarket or bakery stuff though for the most part. Around here the choices for organic bread aren't great. There are frozen organic spelt loaves in the local health food store but the flavour seems to have been frozen out of them.

I do bake my own bread from time to time - you have to set aside half a day for it, although you can work and do other things while the dough is proving (rising). Getting organic flour hasn't been the easiest around here until fairly recently. Organic plain flour is available in the supermarkets, organic wholemeal (which I prefer) is much harder to find although I notice our health food store has it in occasionally and the health food section of the supermarket had it last week, so I stocked up. Organic strong bakers' flour, should I wish to make white bread, doesn't seem to exist. My oven is a cantankerous thing, too - it's feast or famine, or rather burnt or undercooked depending on the oven's capriciousness on the day. I have to add half an hour to any baked dinner I make and bread can be quite hit or miss. Hence home bread baking doesn't happen as often as it should in this house.

But today was Farmers' Market day - hurrah!! We have Farmers' Markets five minutes' drive away once a month, and there is a bread seller there from a bakery up the coast with a range of superb organic breads. They aren't cheap - I paid $8 for a loaf of rustic sourdough (at left), and $9 for a loaf of spelt, which is frankly bloody ridiculous - but the flavour and texture leaves commercial breads for dead. I'm sure there is cheaper organic bread to be had in Sydney but not around this part of town, and driving halfway across Sydney to save a couple of dollars on bread costs a lot more in petrol.

Farmers' markets are popping up all over Sydney, giving a fresh and usually organic alternative to supermarkets, and it's a good thing. I like to buy directly from the farmers; you know you're getting fresh stuff which hasn't been in cold storage for weeks, and the farmers are getting the money directly. Five or so years ago there were only a handful of farmers' markets/organic markets, now there are several in each region of the city. Some of them - like the Fox Studios market - are huge affairs where you are really dazzled for choice.

My mother thinks I'm mad in my quest to seek out good organic food. "Organic!' she snorts contemptuously. "Overpriced rubbish! WE never had organic food in MY day!" But as I point out to her, when she was a girl and young woman a lot of the food she ate would have been close to organic, or at least it would have had far fewer chemicals sprayed onto it. In an era before refrigerators were commonplace, fruit and veg would have truly been only seasonally available, and you would have shopped several times a week for the freshest stuff. (My mother is 85 next month... so I'm talking 1920s-1950s.)

So now I have a fruit bowl full of this season's apples - Pink Lady apples, some with the vestige of a stem still attached. They are a little lumpy and misshapen, unlike supermarket apples. They aren't perfect to look at, but the flavour is so intense it makes you delirious. I have the last of this season's tomatoes, smaller than they were last month at the markets, but still full of flavour. I have pumpkins and carrots and autumn's harvest in general.For my bounty, I paid less than I would have at the local greengrocer. My kitchen smells of fresh produce. I have washed-rind and cheddar cheese worthy of a French fromagerie. From the organic saltbush lamb man we have lamb steaks and chops which melt in your mouth, from the Hunter Valley meat man a whole half rump which I know from experience will make the tenderest steaks. We have a months' worth of meat now (we don't eat meat every day).

And best of all I have the bread. The loaves are unsliced, and the bread seller recommended slicing them before freezing the loaf if we weren't going to scoff them all in a couple of days. I've just finished slicing them (and having to have a taste along the way). Mr Bickle would have been proud to have made them; the texture is perfect, the loaves are dense and heavy. In a mass production world it's good to know that the craft of Mr Bickle is a lot more than just pre-mixed flour blends churned out by people who haven't even done a baker's apprenticeship, and that there is a growing number of people like me who demand old-fashioned artisan bread without all the chemicals.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Sydney's getting more bike-friendly

It was heartening to hear in the news a couple of days ago that the City of Sydney Council is planning a more thorough off-road network of bike routes. Cycling in the heart of the city is terrifying. I'm not game to try it. It's bad enough driving through town, and even being a pedestrian has its moments when cars jump red lights.

So here's the plan so far. In a nutshell:

'At the heart of this commitment is a safe, convenient and sustainable 200 kilometre network (including 55 kilometres of separated cycleways) that we are building to reduce road congestion, cut emission and improve public health.
We have designed the network to improve connections between employment, recreation and residential destinations to make cycling an attractive transport choice.
To build this network the City has allocated $76 million over the next four years.'

The map above shows the central business district. It's a start! Some of it is already in place, like these lanes in King St:

Sydney City still has a fair way to go though. Parramatta City Council has some fab bike routes which we've used at weekends. Its central business district is far more bike friendly.

In an inspired move (I say inspired because it's rare that our state government does anything inspirational) the T-Way bus system that connects the north west of Sydney via special lanes and bus-only roadways and flyovers comprises cycle lanes. It means you can ride, should you feel fit enough, from Parramatta to Richmond without having to go through door zones or traffic.

The M7 motorway which links the northwest with the southwest has a specially built, separate cycle path running parallel to the motorway so cyclists can take the M7 route but be totally separate from cars and traffic. My friend Julie who works for the Roads & Traffic Authority (RTA) says that cyclists still insist on using the hard shoulder of the M7 instead of the cycle path though - why, I don't know; you get the same exits whether you're on a bike or in a car. I can't imagine why you'd want to risk your life riding in high speed traffic when you could have a brand new cycle path without gravel, broken glass or any other obstacles.

Wandering around the RTA website I found this little handbook for cyclists.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Is it autumn... or fall?

Hurrah, the sun was shining on Saturday and Olympic Park, with its 35km of bike trails, beckoned. I reckoned it was time Penelope got a run around the Park - last time I took Petunia, but this is really Penelope's territory. Relatively flat, it's ideal territory to get a heavy hub-gear ladies' cruiser going at a smart pace. Our ride usually starts near the river, where we warm up our muscles riding along watching boats on the sparkling water.
As you can see, it was warm for late autumn - I'm in clothes that scream 'spring'. Or scream something, anyway. Stripes with an Hawaiian print skirt - what WAS I thinking!? :-) T'other Half isn't as sartorial as I when we go out; it's always the same old shorts and t-shirt mix.
Once you've gone along the water you can choose to turn left at Silverwater Bridge, and ride up past the prison to Holker Street. Holker Street has a slight slope up to a set of traffic lights and then a long, lovely straight run that's slightly downhill. You have a bike lane all to yourself and a bus lane between you and the cars. You can go like stink. We did. T'other Half told me he was in top gear pedalling down Holker. So was I - and I was gaining on him. Penelope gathers a lot of momentum when she has the space to. I don't usually get to put her in top gear as a lot of our local riding is stop/start. It felt absolutely wonderful screaming along as hard as I could pedal with the lightweight little road bike in front getting closer and closer to Penelope's front wheel.

Then we were back on the bike paths, where I typically hover between third and fourth gear. They're winding and go past wetlands, and through bushy areas, past the back of houses, and criss-cross around the place. We usually do the Riverside ride, about 17km, then cross over a main road and ride around Olympic Park itself or the Bicentennial Wetlands. There's another opportunity to pedal like fury on some of the quieter roads there, as they have bike lanes, new and smooth tarmac, and glorious sweeping bends.

However, we'd reached the spot at the southern end of Riverside where we usually turn around and backtrack a bit until we get to the main road when T'other Half tried to turn his bike in a very tight turn and hit the tarmac.

We were only going at walking pace, so it wasn't a bad fall, but he hurt his hip and his knee - ironically, not on the side that actually hit the ground, but I think he twisted his other leg trying to keep his balance or stay on the bike.

T'other Half picked himself up and made masculine grunty moany noises and remounted, but we didn't go on for the longer ride. He was in a bit of pain and for once didn't charge off ahead of me but was content to stay at my tail as we rode back to the car. He said he has now given up all ideas of joining a Golden Oldies Rugby Club; he just doesn't bounce like he used to.

We're both rubbish at tight turns; I've fallen down a couple of times at slow speed trying to do a 180 but then I have awful balance anyway. That's why I find Penelope, with her stability, much nicer to ride than Petunia despite her weight. I think I'll have to do more practice on turns; I usually dismount if we have to turn around on a narrow pathway and retrace our steps.

It's Monday as I write this and he's much better now, but was still stiff yesterday so no riding or avid dog-walking either. Tomorrow we'll be back into it though. We're already planning another ride for this weekend as the weather is just so wonderful right now.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

My goodness, I'm actually getting fitter!

This no-smoking lark is paying off. T'Other Half and I have been for quite a few rides in the last week; just locally, nothing long and interesting, but I've noticed a difference in my fitness. Stamina was never my strong point even before I became a smoker. I'm basically a lazy git who hates riding up hills.

But on our rides lately, when we've both had the road bikes out and are more evenly matched, I can keep up with my husband. In short sprints, I can overtake him if he's not ready for me *evil cackle*. His bike is a kilo lighter than mine and he's a lot stronger than I am, so he does get away from me after a bit when my legs start to ache too much to pedal like fury. But not nearly as much as he was getting away a month ago.

On our usual ride there is one short, steep hill that usually has us both gasping. At the beginning of autumn I was taking this in low gear and being overtaken by joggers, my breath sobbing. Now I'm doing it in fourth, and not gasping for breath. My legs ache by the time I'm at the top, but I can simply keep pedalling steadily and carrying on.

I'm not seeing much success in my permanent quest for weight loss since we started riding regularly again, but the improved fitness and stronger wind is a real bonus. I still long desperately for a cigarette on a daily basis, but then I think of that blasted hill, and all the other hills where we live, and the craving goes away.

Hopefully the weather will be fine - or at least not raining - on Saturday and we can head down to Olympic Park and get a couple of hours' riding in. For now though, I'm about to saddle up the trusty Pashley and head to the shops.