Another Spectrum

Personal ramblings and rants of a somewhat twisted mind


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Winter meals

Winter and Meals go together so nicely, and this winter has been no different. And we’re not going to let the inconvenience of a lockdown get in the way. The video clip is here to remind me of the pleasure I get sharing meals with the wife and whānau. If you enjoy it too, so much the better.

The meals have been made by the wife and/or myself. Care to speculate who cooked what?


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What next?

It’s been one of those months. Mostly “developed world” challenges, but if that’s the only world you’re familiar with they are real challenges in every sense of the word.

On the last day of June we switched internet and telephone providers. It’s not something I do regularly, but it’s a very competitive market in Aotearoa New Zealand. There are literally dozens of providers that supply various combinations of internet, home telephone lines, mobile telephones, electricity, and gas. Some provide all those products and services (and sometimes more) as a single package. However, the wife has a monopoly on choosing our electricity provider, while I make the decisions around the communication services, so I doubt we’ll ever have a single provider for all. Her priorities and mine are quite different.

We have now switched to a single provider for home phone, mobile phones and Internet, saving us nearly $50 per month. We’ve been using them for mobile phone services for some years and have been very happy with them, so when they made an offer that was to good to ignore, I decided to jump in boots and all. Usually switching between providers here is a painless operation and usually, if there is an outage, it’s often only minutes. Not this time.

The internet went down for no more than 10 minutes during the switch, but the home phone went dead and remained so. No dial tone, no anything. I won’t go into all the details, but it took two days and a replacement router before our home phone was back in business.

At around the same time, my old back injury returned with a vengeance. It still hasn’t settled down and I remain in some pain, but I’m damned of I’m going to take any more of those prescribed Tramadol tablets. My current inflexibility might make my movements appear as though my spine is made of a single plank of wood, but at least I’m moving. The Tramadol made me so drowsy and confused that I couldn’t find my way out of a paper bag, let alone safely boil water for a cup of tea.

I selectively filter some internet traffic arriving at our home network, and have done so for more than ten years., through OpenDNS’s content filtering service. It worked reliably with my previous internet provider, but was proving very hit and miss with our new provider, and nothing they did made any difference. It took me two days of trawling the internet and some experimentation on my part to find the cause. The new router requires DNSv6 server configuration as well as the usual DNSv4. While OpenDNS do provide DNSv6 servers, it turns out these do not support content filtering. Whenever the router switched from a configured DNSv4 server to a configured DNSv6 server, content filtering would cease until it switched back to the former.

Identifying the problem was one thing, solving it was another. The new router must have DNSv6 servers configured. It will not accept blank or invalid IPv6 addresses. It took me nearly half a day of scratching my head to come up with a simple solution: Configure the DNSv6 addresses to a non exiting device on the local network. That way, when the router attempts to connect to a DNSv6 server, it gets no response, so marks it as unavailable and consequently resumes using one of the assigned DNSv4 servers.

Twenty-three years ago when I was working as an I.T. engineer, the cause of the problem and a solution probably would have come to me very quickly. But then I also had access to diagnostic tools that make troubleshooting relatively easy. After being out of the industry for so long, my 72 year old brain being not quite as sharp as it once was, and having a non-existent set of diagnostic tools, perhaps I should be proud of the fact that I solved a problem that a younger generation of I.T. engineers weren’t able to, even if I did take the best part of three days to do so.

Yesterday a tree at the front of our section (property/lot) fell over blocking our driveway. Another distraction I could have done without. This morning I planned to catch up with some work that had fallen behind due to all the major and minor inconveniences over the past few weeks. We have our two grandsons staying with us for a few days, and while they do make keeping to a schedule difficult, they are a welcomed and much appreciated distraction. I had just started to cook some porridge for their breakfast when the power went off.

Disruptions to the electricity supply are few and far between, and on the rare occasion they do occur, power is usually restored very quickly. Not today. The boys waited, and I waited, and when power hadn’t been restored ofter twenty minutes, I phoned our electricity provider. In the good old days, when the lines company was also the electric power company, their call centre would very quickly know the nature of any problem and when power would be restored again. Not now.

The local lines company, being a natural monopoly cannot sell electricity, and we have no direct connection with them. We buy electricity from one of the fifty or so retailers that sell electricity into this region, and when a problem does occur, we contact our retailer. When I phoned retailer, the call centre was unaware of the problem but they would lodge a fault with the lines company who would then investigate.

That’s the problem these days. It doesn’t matter whether it’s electricity, internet, phone or gas (and in some areas, water and sewerage) the company you buy the product/service from is not the one that delivers it to your door. There’s always at least one degree of separation, which makes it just a little bit more difficult know what’s going on.

It’s times like this I wonder whether we did the right thing in removing our two wood burners during renovations last year. We removed them because their cost of running, even for just six ours each day was considerable more expensive than the heat pump we had installed a few years back running 24/7. But as the house slowly but surely got progressively colder during the course of the morning, I was starting to have second thoughts. When power was finally restored just after midday, it was a decidedly chilly 13°C inside.

A few minutes after power was restored, the front doorbell rang. Standing there, was a guy dressed top to toe in Hi-Vis gear. He was an employee of a subcontractor to a company hired by the lines company to repair and maintain the lines company network. How many degrees of separation does that make it? In the “good old days” he would have been an employee of the monopoly local electric power company. He just wanted to ensure all was now well, and to let us know the outage was caused by a car crashing into a power pole just a few hundred metre from our home. He’d been assigned the task to call on those who had lodged a fault with their electricity retailer. Perhaps an inefficient way to update their customers, but a very much appreciated personal touch that many other businesses could emulate.

Let’s just hope that today’s incident is the last “inconvenience” for some time to come.


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Trapped

Well, we were for a few hours yesterday. A cotoneaster fell onto the driveway overnight making vehicle access impossible and requiring foot traffic to duck down to waist height.

The fallen tree. Rain and mist hides the background.

The weekend was marked by gale force winds and torrential rain. And while we thought we had escaped any damage, it seems that their combined forces weakened the ground sufficiently for the tree, roots and all, to topple. It’s always had a preference of growing over the driveway, and no doubt its lopsidedness was a significant factor in its demise.

Fortunately a crew from All Tree Services arrived within three hours of us contacting them, and half an hour later, very little evidence of the tree falling remained, apart from the root stump. That’s too large for their chipper and will need to be ground down. That’s a job for another day.

The tree was destined to be removed in a few years anyway. We’d planted a Cherry blossom tree and Japanese maple close by to replace it eventually, but were in no hurry to remove it as it provided shelter and an abundant supply of berries for birds in early winter. It also provided a measure of privacy, filtering the view of the house from the street. It will quite a few years before it’s replacements are sufficiently large to provide much privacy at all.


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Photovoltaic generation and more

PV generation

Since the 7th of May, our household has been generating some of its own electricity. Given that it’s only another three weeks until the shortest day of the year arrives, we’re achieving better savings than I expected. We have an all electric home (no gas, oil, coal, or wood), so we do consume quite a lot of electricity – 818.8 kW/h in 25 days of May to be precise. We generated 40% of that ourselves from 23 PV panels mounted on the roof.

In the highly deregulated electricity market of Aotearoa New Zealand, there is a considerable difference between the price supply companies sell electricity to consumers and the price they will buy back surplus home generation. Their sell price is typically around four times their buy price. The price differential made it tempting to install storage batteries so that we could call on surplus power when generation was low. But after discussing that option with several installers, we concluded the the return on investment was longer that the estimated life of the current generation of batteries.

Instead, we have installed an “intelligent” inverter that diverts any surplus electricity into the hot water storage system. Instead of maintaining a constant 55°C (131°F) the water is allowed to fluctuate between 40°C (104°F) and 78°C (172°F). Only after the water has reached its maximum temperature does the inverter allow electricity to be exported to the grid. Don’t worry, a regulator ensures that the maximum temperature at the tap (faucet) is no more than 55°C. In effect we’re using the hot water system as a sort of battery. We haven’t needed to use grid electricity to heat the water since the solar power was switched on. Even so that has been a few days where we have exported small quantities of electricity. I expect that in summer we’ll be exporting considerable amounts during the day, and as the heat pump will be switched off, our nighttime use should be minimal.

Covid alternatives to travel

For the most part we Kiwis have been largely unaffected by Covid-19 with the exception of international travel. In our case, it meant the cancellation of an extended holiday in Japan. We’ve concluded that at our age, it’s unlikely that we will feel the urge to undertake the journey once the dangers of the pandemic have passed. Instead we put the funds intended for travel towards solar power. Of course it’s not just a case of having the panels installed. The house, and especially the roof was in need of a repaint, so it made sense to paint the house before the solar panels were installed.

But if we’re going to paint the house, there’s a matter of some repairs that have been on the backburner for a while. The front door for example. Aging had caused fine cracks to develop in some of the wooden panels allowing daylight to be seen through them, not to mention a draft in windy weather. And if the door is to be replaced, why not replace the horrible single-glazed yellow sidelight with something that allows more light into the entrance lobby while reducing heat loss?

To cut a short story shorter, we had a new thermally isolated door and sidelight assembly custom made. The door has a digital lock so that’s one less key I have to worry about. The installers took only two hours to remove the old door and sidelight and install the new assembly. The transformation is quite amazing! Some of the recent changes can be seen in the images below.

The front door – before and after

The front (2 images) and rear (1 image) of the house before the repaint. The rear view clearly shows to state of the roof.

The final result with PV panels installed – 10 on the east facing front, and 13 on the rear facing west. The original paint scheme consisted of eight colours, the new has just four.


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Tea for two

Tea is the name Kiwis give to the evening meal. Why, I have no idea, but that’s the way it is. And before anyone tries to tell me that we are mutilating the English language, may I remind you that the Americans call the main course of a meal the entrée, when it’s supposed to be the course before the main course, and they commit the greatest of all culinary crimes by topping an oversized meringue with whipped cream and berries and calling it a pavlova!

The wife and I don’t dine out often. Quality restaurants tend to be somewhat pricey in this country, and being on a limited budget, we get better “bang for bucks” by buying top quality ingredients and cooking at home. Besides, even better restaurants tend to leave us a little disappointed. The wife has an exceptional skill when it comes to flavour and aroma and she has a mastery that few professional chefs could better. A quiet intimate tea for two with a glass or two of NZ Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris or Chardonnay in the comfort of our own home is hard to beat, and there’s no need to drive home afterwards.

While perhaps presentation isn’t quite up to that of the professionals, flavour and aroma more than makes up for it. Here’s a selection of home cooked meals we’ve enjoyed over the past month [Duration – 2m 37s]

Nothing can beat a lovingly prepared home meal


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That’s better

Although the sun is still struggling to get out from behind the clouds, at least we can (almost) see the mountain range in the distance, the wind has died down and the UHF television aerial has been restored to its rightful place on top of the roof. As they say: Happy wife, happy life.

What a difference 24 hours can make


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Unseasonal

In Aotearoa New Zealand, the seasons are very easy to remember: Autumn starts on the first day of March; winter starts on the first day of June; spring starts on the first day of September; summer starts on the first day of December. Easy isn’t it? So how come the weather gods get it so wrong?

Here we are, well into the second week of summer and most days have been like this:

So our television aerial remains lying where it fell during the storm on the first day of summer.


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Feilding Friday

Sometimes, when reviewing world news, my life seems surreal. I see headlines such as US virus deaths top 2,800 in a single day for 1st time and Coronavirus claims 1.5 million lives globally with 10,000 dying each day I wonder if I’m on the same planet as the news gatherers.

Here in Aotearoa New Zealand we are going about our lives as we have always done. Sure there’s an expectation that we scan a QR code whenever when enter a shop or where crowds are, but most most members of the public conveniently “forget” to do so. And if we travel by air, then there is a necessity to wear a face mask while onboard the aircraft, but otherwise we go about our business just like we did twelve months ago.

The pandemic has affected us indirectly. For example many supply chains that cross our borders are broken or under stress. Part of the cause is demand for many goods has increased dramatically as Kiwis abandon international travel in favour of retail therapy and home improvement projects. Part of the problem is due to this nation’s isolated location in the South Pacific, so it can take some time for supply to catch up with unexpected demand. The pandemic only exacerbates the situation as international freight services have been reduced and freight terminals are struggling to cope with demand. A large part of their workforce is typically made up of international visitors on working holidays. They are conspicuous by their absence since the Pandemic started and delays are now a fact of life.

A typical example is the Ports of Auckland, where arriving ships are queued up at anchor outside the harbour for eight to ten days before being able to berth. It can take even longer for containers, once offloaded, to be delivered to their destination and some containers currently piled up at the port won’t be delivered until after Christmas.

The stressed supply chain affects the wife and I mostly by the lack of Japanese food products available from the supermarket and specialty food shops. What’s available arrived in the country prior to the current crisis and no one knows when, or even if, new stock will arrive. Where we were previously able to procure difficult to find products directly from Japan, those suppliers now inform us they are unable to ship to New Zealand. Even Amazon won’t ship – we’ve tried.

But apart from those relatively minor irritations, life goes on as normal. One ritual we often perform is to visit the Friday Feilding Farmers’ Market for local, in season produce. This morning was no different:

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Summer officially started here on the 1st of December, but strong winds made being at the market somewhat unpleasant, not to mention the the need to avoid occasional flying signage. Don’t be alarmed at the lack of face masks and social distancing. Neither are necessary.

The strong winds are more of an inconvenience that the pandemic at the moment. Most of the wife’s evening entertainment is derived from free-to-air television. That provides sufficient choice for her needs. but on Tuesday evening, the wind brought down our UHF aerial. I’m now at the age where I roof climbing fits into the “not me” category, especially as the roof is pitched at 45 degrees and the ridge where the aerial is was mounted is a little over 9 metres (30 ft) from the ground.

The electrical company I called sent around two youngish electricians this afternoon, but they decided that due to the height and strong wind, discretion is the better part of valour. Neither were height certified (I didn’t know such a thing existed) and the work would necessitate the use of safety harnesses. I’m beginning to understand why multistorey homes cost much, much more to maintain than the typical NZ single floor home. So we need to wait on the availability of their only height certified tradesman, which apparently won’t be until the middle of next week. I hope the wife survives.


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Week fourteen of six

One of the inevitable facts of life is that home renovation projects take longer than anticipated. The company managing the renovation had estimated the work would take five to six weeks, but here we are in week fourteen and there’s another one, possibly two, weeks still to go.

The project was supposed to have started way back in autumn, but COVID-19 put a stop to that. Then it was to be a early June start, and finally got under way in the first week of July – mid winter! As part of the project involved adding a large skylight in the expanded upstairs bathroom at one end of the house, and a light tube into the dining room at the other end, some delays were inevitable due to inclement winter weather.

On top of that there’s a total of 6 rooms involved to varying degrees, and the project manager has to organise tradies from his own company and the subcontracting businesses. It’s quite surprising how many subcontractors are involved: scaffolders; electricians; plumbers; plasterers; painters; vinyl floorers; light tube installer; double glazing installer. It only takes one subcontractor to fall behind schedule for some reason to have a flow on effect. And there’s been one flow on effect after the other…

However, we can now see light at the end of the tunnel. We have a working loo upstairs and downstairs at last. This might not seem a big deal to some, but at our age traipsing downstairs to the loo at the opposite end of the house to answer a call of nature in the small hours, and then traipsing back upstairs is no longer the trivial pursuit it once was.

For myself, I loathe turning on lights during the night. I’m hypersensitive to sudden changes in illumination. The experience borders on painful – probably an autism trait. To lessen the discomfort, we have a nightlight in the hallway that provides a soft illumination when there’s no other source of light.

While that’s perfect for getting from the bedroom to toilet, once the toilet door is closed, the problem of lighting raises its head. This is especially an issue for us males as we’re required to aim throughout the performance, so lighting is essential. In the past, its been a matter of gritting my teeth and bracing for the discomfort before switching in the light.

No longer. The new loo has built in lighting “under the rim” which makes hitting the target a simple task. No need to switch on that ceiling light any more. And the wife appreciates the heated seat and integrated bidet.

When it comes to “toilet technology” this country trails way behind the gadetry that can be found in the wife’s homeland of Japan. When I first visited Japan in 1971, heated toilet seats and integrated bidets were quite common. Now it’s not uncommon to find such gadgets as automatically opening lids, automatically raising or lowering the seat depending on which way round you approach the bowl, ultraviolet sanitising, automatic flushing, and integrated bidets that not only wash the privates but also gently air dry afterwards.

When I last visited Japan a couple of years ago, I found myself counting the number of controls in toilets and trying to figure out what each one was for as many only had Japanese script, which I can’t read. Some even had touch screens that as well as providing all the controls for the toilet, seemed to have the functionality that a smartphone or iPad would be proud of!

One commonality that both Japan and Aotearoa share is that it is rare to find the toilet in the bathroom. It’s in a room all by itself. In this country it’s always the case if there’s a single toilet in a home. It’s bad enough having a single toilet for a whole household, but the mind boggles to think of the complications that must arise in a typical family household when washing and toileting share a common space.

And how can anyone enjoy a long luxurious soak in the bath knowing that at any time someone might have an urgent call of nature? It really doesn’t bear thinking about.

And while on the subject of toilets, what is it with American toilets? Most American toilet bowls contain enough water to float the Titanic in! It took me a long time to get over the fact that they weren’t blocked and about to overflow. Ours are “minimalist” when it come to water. as you can see from this snapshot of our new installation.

High tide line

There’s a little over 30 cm (12 inches) from the water line to the top of the bowl whereas in the US the waterline in some toilets was so high, one is in danger of dunking one’s undercarriage.

Our new toilets are somewhat more water efficient than our old ones, being dual flush,and using either 3 litres (0.66 gallons) or 4.5 litres (0.99 gallons). I know President Trump has issues with water efficient loos. Apparently he finds it necessary to flush them up to ten times after use. May I suggest, Mr President, that the problem isn’t the loo, it’s you. Get yourself sorted.

But back to the renovation project. The largest part involved expanding the bathroom on the upper floor into unused roof space so that we could install a decent sized bath. The old one was narrow not very deep and very short. It was impossible to immerse the entire body at once, and no way could the wife and I share a bath. So we overcompensated.

The new bath is a whopper, being 1795 mm (70.7 inches) long by 1050 mm (41.3 inches) wide by 490 mm (19.3 inches) deep and holds 275 litres (around 70 gallons). Plenty big enough for the two of us. We would have liked to have installed a Japanese style bath but they’re not readily available in this country and due to the quantity of water they hold, considerable strengthening of the floor joists would have been involved. As it was, it was necessary to fix steel plates to the joists underneath the new bath.

The new bathroom is divided into in two zones, somewhat similar to a typical Japanese bathroom. A dry area that contains the vanity units, storage units heated towel rails etc, and a wet area that contains the bath, shower, and body jets. The two zones are separated by a glass door and glass side panel on which is printed a photograph of a Japanese autumn scene.

And that glass door is the last of oh so many delays. The manufacturers mistakenly made the glass door and panel to standard door height specifications instead of the size of the opening between the two zones, which extends to ceiling height. So now they have to manufacture a new door and side panel and reprint the image onto the glass. It’s supposed to take up to ten working days to complete which means it won’t be ready until Wednesday next week.

And when this project is complete, we start planning for the next one, which is painting the exterior of the house. Due to the height of the building and steep pitch of the roof, health and safety regulations requires safety scaffolding to be used. Unfortunately as the scaffolding will exceed six metres (19.7 ft) in height, it must be installed by a certified scaffolder. It’s going to be expensive – very expensive, both to hire and install.

Some might argue that as only the wife and I occupy our very large (by NZ standards), multifloor home at the top of a steep hill, we would be better off moving into a smaller single floor dwelling on the flat, especially as we’re now in our seventies.

But we’ve grown into the space available and the incredible view eastwards over the town to the Tararua and Ruahine mountain ranges, and Manawatu Gorge in the distance is priceless. We’ve decided we’re staying until we’re carried out in a wooden box.


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Distressing

This afternoon I spent some time on the phone while three “experts” from Spark (my telephone & Internet provider) tried to “help” me solve a “problem” with my Internet connection.

I usually enjoy these “sessions” and try to string along those providing the “assistance” for as long as possible. My aim it to make their “support call” stretch out to more than an hour, but today I only achieved 43 minutes. My reasoning is that while they’re trying to scam me, they can’t scam someone else.

Today I chose to put the phone onto speaker so that I would could have both hands free to undertake other activities while frustrating the hell out of the callers. This was the first time I’ve done that. And it was my undoing.

The wife, who is much less tolerant or sensitive towards people who she believes is in the wrong, today showed a more sensitive streak.

In most interactions with others, I tend to be as courteous and polite as possible, and the wife frequently chastises me for not being more aggressive or confrontational in cases of disagreement. Usually she has little regard to the sensitivity of others when it comes to achieving her goals. She can be ruthless. I know. I have witnessed her in action for nearly 50 years. My ways are much more gentle and yet I’m not convinced she’s any more successful than I am.

I must admit that I find it difficult to read emotion at the best of times no matter how hard I try, but when it comes to dealing with people such as this “help desk” trio, I honestly have absolutely no interest whatsoever. And when it comes to dealing with scammers such as these, I’m grateful for having this autism characteristic.

I had switched the phone to speaker at about fifteen minutes into the call and the wife was able to listen in on the conversation. At first she seemed amused, but when I glanced up at about the 30 minute mark, her grin had gone and something which I have learnt to be associated with concern was showing. Concern for what or who I couldn’t decipher.

However, at about 40 minutes I could tell that the wife was clearly upset and I assumed it was because I was wasting time and hadn’t completed a task for her that I had started moments before the phone rang. At that point I let the the trio know that I knew they were scammers. Of course they tried to bluster their way out and threatened to suspend Spark’s services to me. On my suggestion that they do so, they hung up.

It was only then that I discovered why the wife was upset and distressed, and that was because of how I was winding up the trio According to the wife, they were very frustrated and the woman caller was almost in tears. This was a surprise to me as I’ve seldom witnessed her being sensitive to the feelings of others in times of conflict, and never when she considers the other to be in the wrong.

She’s brought up the subject of how upset the woman was on several occasions over the rest of the afternoon and into the evening, and I can only assume that she was sensitive to their emotions because she was not directly involved – she was an observer and not a participant. Whatever the reason, it is a new and surprising revelation to me. Even after all this time she can still surprise me.

Lesson learnt. Next time (and that’s bound to happen again before the year is out), I won’t enable the speakerphone.