Friday, December 31, 2010

2010 - Economic Predictions - Scorecard

Back in Jan I made six predictions for 2010. This is a review of these and a discussion of how I went. Soon, I'll try my hand for 2011, but that's another post.

1. Double dip recession by mid year
Miss. It didn't happen, although it felt like it might at one point. Of course, you could argue that we never got out of the first dip, but that's beside the point here.

2. There will be trouble with US treasuries
Miss. I underestimated the Fed's ability to make up the demand with the likes of QE2. The US now owns more treasuries than any other country. They are eating their own dogfood. This is a short term tactic which has kept the game going, but it's a very risky thing to do.

3. Geopolitics will become more unstable
Miss. I'm glad to be wrong here. There have been some stresses in Europe, Mid-East (Iran) and Korea, but it's more or less held together.

4. Gold/Silver will have a rough ride
Miss. I should have specified the currency I was considering Gold / Silver in, and I thought I gave an indication of yearend up or down - but re-reading it I chickened out and didn't. Gold has stayed above US $1000 and is now trading at over $1400. Silver has recently gone balistic, after doing not much for the first 6 months of the year. My reasoning for the turbulence was linked with the double dip idea, so it's not surprising it also failed.

5. The US dollar will have a rough ride too
Miss. The USDX went up, quite a lot by mid year, and has since come back down to more or less where it started. Not really what I thought would happen. There are some sounds that the US dollar might be under threat - with rumours of alternative reserve currencies, but these have not been substantiated, yet.

6. Inflation? Deflation?
Hit! Well, a fairly easy call this one. I said "Deflation on the things you own or don't need (luxury goods), inflation on the things you need (food, energy). ". Food and Energy have gone up, in some cases dramatically, and certainly not by government statistics which are basically lies.

So... how did I do? Quite badly, really. I am reminded by the saying "Being early is the same as being wrong". The main thing I didn't anticipate is the willingness to dig the debt hole deeper and deeper to keep the game going. The bailouts of companies, or in the case of the EU, whole countries, continues as a matter of course. Default is a dirty word, as the interconnections are too strong and would mean systemic failure. Although nobody really believes that we are on long term sustainable policies or trends, the short term outlook in the year was positve and remained so. In other words, the future has been sacrificed for the sake of the now. How long this can go on is for my next post...

Sunday, November 28, 2010


We have been keeping chickens on our suburban block since Feb 2009, which is not all that long, but long enough to have a few tales to tell. In that time we have had 7 animals, and sadly only 3 are still alive today. This is the story so far.

It started with me building a cage for them under our deck, which gives a huge secure run of over 10 meters. One end of it is always dry, and this is where I put their laying station and coop. Initially there was one door in, but a little later I put another door at the other end, which allowed them to easily free-range in the small back garden we have. 

We started with 2 "Light Sussex" birds, both around a year old. We called them Henny and Becky. The light part of the breed name is due to them being mostly white, as for weight, they are solid birds. Henny is on the right, for what it's worth (click for larger image).

Becky was the leader, and was tough but very fair - caring even. She spoke with a soft cooing, and was very easy to like. I say spoke because in my experience, all chicken communicate - but have their own unique sounds. Henny, at the time, was very timid, and kept her distance where possible.

Things were going well, so we decided to increase the flock to 4, by adding two more light sussex birds. We found some going reasonably cheap, and I drove to a parking lot in the middle of nowhere to pick them up. We called these two Max and Shelly.

Unfortunately, this is where some trouble started. The two new birds were younger, at about 12 weeks, and almost as soon as we got them home they got sick with "Bird Pox", which is not a big deal for an older bird but very rough on the younger two. We were also still very green at chicken maintenance, and this was also quite rough on us. It also happened to coincide with a long rainy period, where it was miserable for everyone. The two younger birds got progressively worse over the course of a week or so, and despite reassurance from the internet research that it would all be good, it wasn't. We were hand feeding the birds, giving them medicine and it all wasn't working. Their heads were swollen with sores, and their eyes covered over. They could not see to eat.

Shelly died. Max was renamed Plucky, as she really tried hard to live on, and showed a real sense of spirit. Going through the ordeal together we were willing her on, and formed quite a bond with this little being. She did, in fact, survive the Pox but a few weeks later we noticed a slight cloud in one eye. This appeared in the other eye, and we suspected she was slowly going blind. While she could still see to eat, she continued to grow and although identification is difficult, I believe we even got one or two eggs from her. One day though, about 6 months later, it was clear she could not see enough to eat, and was starting to waste away. She is the only bird I have had put down, it was the only humane thing to do. I can't kill a chook myself (not a pet anyway) so I took her to a vet. Really, we should have eaten her, but I doubt any of us would have eaten a bite if she was dinner.

One morning, unexpectedly, Becky was found dead in the Coop, near the door. A close examination of her showed no signs of problems - in fact, apart from being stone dead she was in perfect health! At around this time there was an unwanted visitor into the chook house - a possum. It was eating the chicken food. It took me a long time to work out exactly how it was getting in to the pen, as I had made the wire go all the way to the roof. I believe what happened is that the possum, in the morning, decided to take refuge in the coop and trapped poor Becky, who simply died of shock. It was a sad day, and there was wailing from the kids for some time.

From then on, Henny was the leader and we saw another side to her. She started out being quite vicious, but has since mellowed quite a bit. She still doesn't take any crap from anyone, and will peck someone out of the way if they don't get the message early. She's stopped being frightened of me, in fact, quite likes being around me.

The flock was getting a bit lean again, and as chooks are social animals you don't want to risk having just one. So I decided to go and get some more birds. We researched breeds and decided to get a different kind this time - the Australian bird the Australorp. They are all black birds with a beetle green sheen to them - very striking. But a funny thing happened when I was at the chook farm. I wanted to get three chickens. They also had white leghorn crosses, and Rhode Island Reds. I decided to come home with one of each breed, much to the exasperation of my better half. These new birds were named Lily (white leghorn), Mabel (Australop) and Artemis (from a book, Artemis Fowl - the Rhode Island Red). I did insist that all three get a jab for Bird Pox, which was not a standard procedure.

These young chooks were the three amigos, and I separated the henhouse so that they could see the other chooks though the barrier and get used to each other. Then I made a small hole so the small birds could go in with the bigger ones, and come back to safety if they wished. After a scuffle or two, this worked, and before long these birds were a flock. It took about a fortnight.

One issue we have with the location of the hen run is that it does get hot down there. Despite being in the shade, 40+ degree days are really nasty. To add to this, the air conditioning compressor is located near their run, and when it's very hot we want to put this on, which blows HOT air around outside. The solution is to have an A-frame cage in the garage, and on days that are going to get really hot we moved the birds into the cool area and they just had to chill out there. It was on one such day that the Rhode Island Red, Artemis, suffered more than the others and passed away. We think that in the tighter constraints of the A-frame she might have not been able to get to the water easily. She was a quirky chook, and again, sorely missed.

Since that time, and touch wood, we have had a lot more success, and have developed a routine that seems to work for everyone. Each morning a bowl of food is prepared for the birds (usually a slice of bread, some lettuce chopped up, and perhaps some leftovers, mixed with a little sunflower seeds and scratch mix). They always have dry food, softened dry food (ie wet in a bowl) and three sources of fresh water, including a huge water bell. The girls have been laying eggs for us most days, and we have not had to buy too many in the last year or so. Mabel took the longest to produce eggs, and hers have a slight mauve tint to them. She's a really sweet hen, so soft and gentle. Lily is a dumb blonde, and I don't think I would get another leghorn - except for the fact that she is by far the most reliable layer in the flock. The only thing I don't like about the Light Sussex is that sometimes they get "dirty" bum feathers, which need some trimming to keep clean.

Mabel recently went broody - she just wanted to stubbornly sit on her nest and do nothing else. This caused some issues, firstly that the laying station was occupied and the other hens had to find somewhere else to lay their eggs. She goes into a trance, and will even sit on an empty nest. I have to pick her up and put her down in front of food for her to snap out of it, for a while, so that she eats and drinks before clucking her way back onto the nest. I tried to separate her, but really, she got quite distressed and I didn't like to see her like that. We have not had any eggs from her for a while, and she's lost a lot of weight, but I'm hoping she'll snap out of it soon. They say it's a compliment to your chicken keeping abilities if a bird is happy enough to go into this state, and I hope this is true.

One thing that I have learnt is that each bird has it's own personality and character. They all like a routine, but perversely, they will change at least one thing per day! That may be the sleeping arrangements, the place they lay eggs, the number of eggs, what they eat, something. It's become somewhat of a joke that I come back from visiting the hens and say as I walk in the door "well, that was different!". "What now!?", everyone yells. This makes owning chickens fun, in my opinion, you never quite know what's going to happen next. It's work too, there is no doubt about that, and it's also somewhat costly, but it's worth it. They make good pets, are friendly, and entertain. When I go down of a morning with their food and Henny runs to the door to greet me, it cracks me up every time. The eggs are very special, not just because they are as fresh as is possible, and organic, and delicious, but because you have had a major part in caring for the creature that provided it. It's proof that it's all working, and it's good for them and it's good for you - you can taste it!

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Mad Skillz - Part 2

It's been a while since I wrote Part 1, where I discussed spinning and knitting. Since then, or perhaps in parallel, I have obtained a bunch of other skills. Nothing here on it's own is much to talk about, but in total I think you will see that it's got a direction and purpose.

Chickens - This deserves a post all on it's own, and I think I will do this one day - the story of the chickens, but not here and now. Rearing chickens is a skill, of that there is no doubt, and in some ways a chore. You need to understand them at least a little, to make them happy, safe and secure. There is daily feeding and watering. The chicken mind is quite something, and they all have very distinct personalities. When they are happy and healthy, the eggs are extreme in their deliciousness. Any cakes or dishes made with them are fantastic. I really like chilling out with my chooks. We have 3 chooks at present -- Henny (an original), Mabel and Lily. "Three egg" days are the best days you can have.

Rat Catcher - Whatever chickens like to eat, rats like to eat too. So if you keep chickens, at some point, you will also be dealing with rats (and if you leave that too long, in Australia, snakes!). So, I have also been trapping rats, killing and burying them - about 30 or so to date. The traps I use are cages, which capture them live. I then drop them into a bucket of water, and they are dead in a minute or so, doesn't take long. When I first did this, my heart was racing, and now it doesn't skip a beat. I guess I've learnt how to kill, and you could argue that this is not a good thing. One good side effect of this rat disposal is that we no longer have the pitter patter of tiny feet in our roof, which was disturbing our sleep and leaving droppings everywhere. I check each animal I catch to make sure it's not a native marsupial, if I ever get one of those I'll let it free. We have also caught a few "rats with wings", the annoying birds (not sure of the breed) that come and steal the seed too. I let them go - but perhaps I shouldn't.

Bees -  Similar to keeping chickens, but not really the same, are Bees. I like Bees a lot, and we inherited a bee hive from our next door neighbour when he moved. We have had the hive about a year now, but I have not opened it since moving it. Before they left we had a harvest and got 30 jars of the most delicious honey I have ever had. I managed to score 6 jars, which was a lot really. When I have some time, and it's not too hot or windy, I'll suit up and take a peek. I hope the hive is healthy, as there was some evidence of hive beetle present. Fingers crossed.

Knives - Well, if you read my other posts you'll see I have quite an interest there. I won't go into details now, other than to say my collection now spans about 40 folding knives. I think I'm near the end of my accumulation though!

Knife Sharpening -  When you own a knife, one metric on how good it is, is how sharp it is. When you get a knife that you really like and it's blunt as a butter knife, then the issue of sharpening is raised. My early sharpening efforts were pretty poor. I got a diamond stone off eBay with 4 grit strengths. The problem is that it tended to chip the edge in my hands, and produce otherwise uneven results. The standard kitchen sharpener is made to fix a rolled edge, not really sharpen. And the hand held ones with the disks inside seemed too dinky for me, like sharpening for dummies. After some time brewing on this issue I bit the bullet and purchased a Lansky sharpening kit, which has the ability to control the angle that the sharpening is happening. It takes some time, but I am a lot more confident of the results.

Knife Making - Again, there is a recent post that goes into this in a lot more detail, so I won't go over it all again, but making knives is a skill. It's one I enjoyed learning, but do not see that I will be putting into practice a great deal. It takes a lot of equipment, for a start, and time.

Knife Accessories - So once you have made your knife you need to store it, and the question of a sheath comes up. I scored some free leather scraps, and managed to make two sheaths for my made knives. They are really just blade covers, using paracord in the stitching, but they came out alright. I added a plastic lining on the inside so that the leather would not get cut. The results are quite amateur, but the whole point was to learn about the art, not to produce a masterpiece. Using the parachord I have also made lanyards, and a Cobra bracelet. Youtube is an amazing resource for learning quick little skills like this, and there is no shortage of people online who are great at teaching you if you want to learn.

Vegi Patch - Gardening is no big deal, but on our land it has some challenges. One thing I have done is compost the chicken litter and poo, and this makes for some great organic fertiliser. In truth, the vegi patch is a bit of a failure, mostly for it's location, but the current plot has some beans, lettuce, pumpkin and parsley. Elsewhere in the garden we have a lemon, mandarin and rosemary bush. It's not much, but it's better than nothing and I take a huge amount of pride and joy in eating anything that our land manages to bear. It always tastes great, even if it's only a mouthful or so!

So, I think that's everything! I'm not sure what's next in the long search for happiness, but I'm pleased with the things I have done so far.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Knives - The Next Generation

Well it was kind of bound to happen. As I seem to be on a journey to learn basic life skills, and have also developed a hobby of collecting and appreciating knives, so it is somewhat natural that these two things have collided. The result of this collision was a weekend knife making course in Canberra at the Tharwa Valley Forge. It was quite expensive, and was a birthday present to myself.

To cut to the chase, I made these two knives ...

Which I have to say I'm quite proud of, for my first attempt! These knives took two days of fairly hard work to make. The first part, where the blade was forged out of a steel bar was particularly hard for me, and I lost arm strength when in the last stages of the bowie (lower one). The hammers become super heavy after swinging them around for an hour or so.

The top knife was based on a book I read during the weekend on Bob Loveless, a classic american knifemaker. I really like his knife designs, for their simplicity has great functional beauty. The book also told his life story, and it was interesting in itself, but now ended as he has recently died. So my homage to him was the deliberately finer of the two knives, with a "less is more" approach trying to copy as many of his design elements as I could. The spine of the blade was supposed to be level with the guard, and it's close, but not quite right. I have since sanded it down a fraction more.

Both knives are pretty close to the design I did in on the first night, actually, as this shot shows. Note that I did the design in pen, which is fairly stupid. The bowie was not supposed to have such a large ricasso, but there are so many times that I just had to say "Well, it's not perfect but in the time I have, and the skills I have, it's the way it is, so move on!".

The steel has been properly heat treated, and due to it's thickness I believe will last a long, long time with proper care. The wood used on the Loveless is Jarra (dark) and Applebox (lighter), on the bowie is Mulga. The mulga is heavier, harder, has a nice glow to the wood and has nice grain. The black part of the bowie is in fact a plastic material used in kitchen benchtops, and has a slight fleck to it. The yellow metal is brass, which over time will tarnish if it's not polished of course.

I really enjoyed making these knives. The course was well run, friendly, and informative. The sense of achievement at the end was uplifting. It was also exhausting, and sleeping was no problem after each day!

What's next then? Well, I could make some more blades, but I do not have a burning desire to do that at the moment. I think I could do a better job of creating the knives a second time around, BUT on the other hand I don't have all the equipment nor a friendly and skilled teacher to save me from major mistakes (like not making the blade straight, for example...). I have developed a deep respect for well finished hand made knives. I now know, first hand, how hard it is. Mass produced knives have made us expect perfection, and in a hand made world, this is a very tall order.

Instead then, I am motivated by an outstanding need -- what I need to do is make some leather sheaths to hold the knives. They need a home, and a way for me to carry them should I want to. This is another skill to learn, one I want to learn as much for the sake of completeness than anything else. I do like the creative element of leather work, so perhaps I will really groove to it once I try it, I don't know yet.

I am also not quite happy with the sharpness levels on these knives. The bowie is the best of the two, and I de-boned a leg of lamb a few days ago and it did the job better than any other knife we have in the kitchen. I already have some sharpening tools, but I'm not really happy with them or the results I have gotten so far. Again, I am learning a skill here, but I think I might not have the right tools for the job yet. So... I have invested in another eBay purchase, this time a Lansky sharpening system, which should keep the angles sorted and hopefully enable me to get a really fine edge. My goal is to make them shaving sharp.

If I create a really nice sheath, and get them good and sharp, there is one last step to make them completely "done". That is, getting them engraved with my mark. I have already scoped that out with an engraver (I won't do it myself) and there is a moderate cost involved, so I may or may not go that extra step.

The journey continues!


I was going to write a really long post about this, but I can't be bothered.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Knife review : BEE L05-1

I now have a collection, which I started only about a year ago, of about 30 or so folding knives. This collection is partly discussed in my posts

Knives - Part 1
Knives - Part 2
Leatherman Squirt P4 vs S4 vs PS4

My collection has brands such as Buck, Kershaw, Benchmade, Spyderco, CRKT and others. Today I want to brain-dump a bit on a different knife however. This one.

As this post title suggests, it's the BEE L05-1 model, which is etched on the base of the blade. It's a fairly large knife, filling my hand with the handle when open. The blade is full flat ground, almost 9cm long, with a liner lock and wood scales. A nice touch is that the top back of the blade has been rounded off, so that it does not jut out when the knife is closed.

I really love this knife, it's by far my current favourite. The main reason that I want to pick up this knife all the time is it's opening action. The ergonomics for my hand are just perfect - my thumb falls into the right place below the stud, and a gentle flick of it and the blade comes out. Now that I have used this blade for a while I realise that the others I have used are cramped in this area.

I should mention that this smooth action is not quite the way it came to me. It was a little stiff in it's action, and felt like there might have been some sand or grit in the mechanism. What was worse was that the liner did not engage the way I wanted it to - it only just caught the back of the blade, and sometimes not much at all. This represented a safety issue, and I wanted a reliable lockup each and every time.

So I took the knife apart (which is fairly easy, having torx screws holding it together). Once I had the blade out I used my bench grinder to take off a fraction at the back of the blade, being careful to keep the slight angle it already had. I was somewhat cautious about doing this, as too much off would make the lock travel all the way across the blade and introduce blade play. So keep in mind when doing this -- too much is a disaster. I briefly sanded the blade on 240 grit paper. Then I re-assembled the knife, adding in some globs of grease to the bushings. There is one bronze, one plastic (teflon?) - worth noting which way these go before you take it all apart.

I was very happy with the result of my tinkering. I managed to take of exactly the right amount off the back of the blade so that the liner is fully, but just, engaged every time. This was probably good luck more than skill, but I'll take it! There is plenty of wear left on this knife. Also, the lubrication had the benefit of making the opening action super smooth. I was able to adjust the tightness of the pivot screw so that it was easy to open, and the blade was still almost centred. This is why it's such a joy to open - it's easy to flick open, and locks up tight when it does.

An important part of a liner lock knife is not just the lock up, but also what it's like to unlock the knife and put the blade away. This is also really nice on this knife. The liner is fairly easily pushed away, and the blade can be pushed back one handed. Now here is an important thing : the choil (the semi-circular cut out at the base of the cutting edge, near the pivot) is generous and means that you are not in any risk of cutting your finger as you close the blade. The choil hits your thumbnail if you don't get it out of the way fast enough. Also, when opening, if you fumble and it weakly opens and doesn't lock, you can push on this choil area to engage the lock.

The other positive about this knife are that it feels nice all over (good shape, good materials), and it looks good. The knife steel is the standard Chinese of 8Cr13Mov, which is good enough. It's not great, but it's ok. One thing that I find amazing is that this knife cost me around $20! This is an absolute bargain.

Are there any complaints about this knife? Sure, well, firstly I should not have had to take it apart to get the lockup to be perfect. Mind you, this may just be my sample. It has no gimping on the spine of the knife, and the lanyard hole is not lined. It's quite heavy. The BEE logo looks like something right out of the 70's, which I find cute but you might not like. The screws which hold the belt clip on seem to have come loose a bit, I have re-tightened them, so I'm watching that issue.

Overall though, this is a knife I really, really like. So much so that I bought another one - so that I have one for work and one at home. I have also bought (but not yet received) the BEE L05 (not L05-1) which has the black G10 scales rather than the wood. It promises to be a great knife also. Do a search for this model on eBay and pick one up on the cheap, they are well worth it in my opinion. I have knives that cost me 10x as much as the BEE L05-1, but I use them 1/10th as often!

Update 2010-12-29 : I have now used several L05-1 and L05's, and they are great, great knives for the price or even triple the price. The lockup issue above was not repeated on any other I've handled (~8 now), although most came stiff and benefited from a take apart and light application of grease around the bushings. It's good to have two torx screwdrivers for this -- one for each side of the knife, or else sometimes one side just spins. I have given this knife away for Christmas presents, and they have gone down well. I have one of these by my computer at work and home, and by my bed. They also fit nicely in jeans pockets and carry well. I say : Get one!!!

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Leatherman Squirt P4 vs S4 vs PS4

This post will likely interest only a small number of people on the planet, those who know of Leatherman's tiny multi-tool "Squirt" range, and wonder what they are like, or possibly which one to buy. In particular, the latest model, the PS4 combines some of the features of the previous generation - so it's the latest, but is it the greatest? Note that I am not an electrician, so the E4 is of no interest to me and I don't have one (the main tool is a pair of wire strippers).

Firstly, the three tools share some components. They all have a slip-joint (non-locking) knife, for example. This is decent, and fairly sharp when you first get it, so you need to treat it with respect or you will lose some flesh. Note that it's flat ground but the final edge is only on one side of the blade. I use the blade a lot, it's good to have one in your pocket, and nobody is going to feel life threatened when you pull it out HOWEVER, it's also a good way to lose your tool. All you have to do is take it through airport security and they will confiscate it. In fact, that's where two of mine came from, second hand from airport security auctions.

Moving on, they all also have a bottle opener, wide flathead screwdriver (that's one tool) and a one-dimensional phillips head screwdriver. The later arguably also has a small flat head screwdriver at the end also. The one-D thing, in case you have never used it, works surprisingly well. Anyway, that's it for the common tools amongst the P4, S4 and PS4.

Let's cut to the chase and get to the main tools. The clue is in the name of each tool, of course. S=Scissors, P=Pliers. The only tricky one is the PS4, which has pliers as the main tool... and scissors as a minor tool. I'll go over that again to make it absolutely clear. The S4 has scissors, but no pliers. The P4 has pliers, but no scissors. The PS4 has pliers (main) and scissors (minor). You can't have two main tools, and what I mean by minor is that they are smaller and an outside accessible tool, along with all the others. While I'm on this thought, this is one of the things I really love about the Squirt design - ALL tools are accessible from the outside except the main tool, which requires the wonderful butterfly action to open.

A picture may really help here, so here goes -

(Click for larger image)

So, anyway, scissors versus pliers? They both clearly have their place. The S4 is a fantastic "personal grooming" tool, as is evident by some of the companion minor tools. For more general work though, I feel that the P4 is a better bet. The reason is that the pliers are fine enough to make decent tweezers and can cut string (in the wire cutters). Most other things that you might want to cut with the scissors you can get away with using the blade instead. The scissors in the S4 are pretty decent, however, they are quite short and so you will only get a maximum 25mm cut each time. You don't want to be hacking away at an A3 piece of paper with these little snippers, although they are sharp enough that most times you can run the scissor along once you start a cut (obviously, it depends what you are cutting, but paper or tape would do this).

The scissors in the S4 have some grunt to them then, but in the PS4, not so much. I'd still cut my finger nails with them, but that's about it, and I don't know if it'd get through my toe nail! Maybe. So they are a bit dinky, more like a SAK pair of scissors, and only good for really minor jobs. They are even shorter too, at 16mm by my measure. One good thing -- both are sprung, so a cut comes back ready for the next cut. I like this in the main tools too - the pliers are sprung also, please don't underestimate how good that makes them. The spring action on my PS4 is slightly stronger than the other two.

The reason for so much pontificating about the scissors is that they are the "line in the sand" between the PS4 and the other models. It used to be pliers OR scissors, and now you can have both. Is there a sacrifice? Well, as it turns out there is. Not just the fact, already pointed out above, that the scissors are fairly wimpy. The bigger sacrifice is that the scissors take up two minor tool spots, and one in particular I have found handy in everyday use. The two tools lost (as per the P4) are the jewellers screwdriver and the awl. These are both thin tools, and this is where they become handy, being able to get into cracks or a small hole. The PS4 loses both these tools, and as a consequence, has no thin tool. You could argue that you can use one of the blades of the scissors as a thin tool, but it's not really made for that.

The one tool on the P4 and PS4 that I don't use much (and I wish they had used instead for the scissors) is the file/saw/chisel. I've never used this, actually. Funny, but there it is. I'm sure some people use them "all the time" and think they are wonderful. Not me. The S4 has a more useful tool instead, a metal nail file / cleaning hook / ruler. The ruler is a joke, managing just 3.5cm with some of the markings missing. But the hook/nail file are excellent. Coupled with the main scissors and the metal tweezers, you can see why this is the one to have for "personal grooming".

The PS4 has some other "generational" changes too. The design is somewhat different than the other two. The scales, for a start are a matt finish. I thought they were plastic at first, but discovered they were not. How did I discover this? Well, this leads to another subtle design change : that the scales on the PS4 are considerably less rounded at the edges. Sharp even. And when you are using the pliers they are a bit uncomfortable on the hand. So I went at them with some sand paper, and after some rubbing, I exposed the metal underneath.

The S4 and P4 I have are second hand, and fairly "well loved". One issue with the scales is that the anodised aluminium chips fairly easily, particularly around the end with the keyring. I have not had the PS4 all that long, but I get the impression that the finish on this might last a little better.

What they also did with the PS4 is change the scooping that is in the scales, so that you can access the tools. On the P4/S4, the scoops were generous, and symmetrical, identical on all 4. On the PS4, they are considerably smaller, and not symmetrical. Actually, that's not quite right. The long tools (blade and file) get a long scoop along the length of the tool. The smaller tools get no scoop at all, the thumb nicks being *just* proud of the scales. The scissors get an off centre tiny scoop. It's all a bit random, really, in a modern way. One advantage, I suppose, is that it might be slightly faster getting orientated with the tool when you pull it out of your pocket. With the symmetry on the other models, you get less visual clues. I will say that I've never had a major problem finding the right tool, quickly, on the P4, so this is only a very minor win. I will say that I have found, on occasion, getting tools open on the PS4 a slight fiddle, so that's a bigger loss. I have ok finger nails, but if you bite yours, you might not be able to open the tools at all.

One other thing to mention about the scales on the PS4. They are slightly thicker than the P4/S4, and the whole tool is held together by torx screws rather than thick rivets. The screws are taller than the rivets too, so the overall effect is that the PS4 feels ever so slightly wider (about 1mm, it's not much). Potentially this enables you to take the tool apart. I don't intend to, and I don't think many people will, but I guess that's good. The finish also seems to be less cold to touch on the PS4 too, although I might be imagining it. Might be good if you live in a really cold place, but I don't.

I really know how to crap on about nothing, don't I? But for some strange reason, this stuff is interesting to me. I don't know why!

I think it's important to come to a conclusion here. Which is my favourite? And I'm not going to cop out by say "I like them all", even though, I actually do. Let me eliminate the easy one first then. The S4 stays on my keyboard at home. I don't carry it with me as a rule, and like using it but I could live without it by using other tools more suited for the job (I'm looking at you, nail clippers!).

So that narrows down the field to the P4 and the PS4. I had the P4 as an essential every-day carry for ages, and swapping out to the PS4 has highlighted some of the differences. I am yet to use the dinky scissors, but I have had the PS4 in my pocket and missed the jewellers screwdriver. In terms of the (to me) all important "fiddle factor", the P4 I have has the absolute perfect tension to snap back as I open and close it repeatedly. I even half close it and squeeze just enough for the tool to close on it own. It's a joy to do this, again, I'm not really sure why, it just is. Please note that I have used other P4's, and they do not all have this wonderful tension. If the hinge on the main tool has been damaged, this will be ruined, for example.

So which is it, the P4 or the PS4? C'Mon...

Oh, this is hard. Um. Ok. Well, the PS4 I have is new, and black (which I like). But the P4 is a nice blue too, but it's a bit beat up. Oh. Ah...

It's a close race, really, but in the end my heart is telling me this : the one I like the most, overall is the P4. It's just such a nice, tactile experience to use this little wonder. And it has the tools I most often use. I do prefer the symmetry of the scales, if I'm honest too. I partly wrote this post in an effort to make up my mind about this, so now I'm done. Phew!!

BTW, I would recommend buying any of the Squirts on eBay. The retail stores seem to delight in marking these up the wazoo, so it can be half the price. No matter which one you buy, you will wonder how you ever got on without it. They really are wonderful things (and make great gifts too), I'm a big fan of them. I've never wanted or owned a large multi-tool though, it's a compact size and weight of the squirt that makes it the winner it is.

Edit 2013-07-26 : You may be interested in the review of the Gerber Dime against the Leatherman P4 here!

Friday, August 20, 2010

Gold - Part 2

Well, it's been a while since part 1, and I have been thinking lately about a different angle on gold.

This is probably an odd angle, actually, but I think it will help shed more light on the slightly mysterious subject of what makes gold valuable. I'm going to take a bit of a flipside view of gold to do this -- looking at the reasons I gave for why gold was valuable in Part 1, and then disproving most of them!

Firstly we need to start a thought experiment. Imagine that you go to the toilet, and come back with a small sample of, um..urine. Wee, piss, you get the idea. Now further imagine that you add a small preservative to this, and then seal it in a small glass vial which in total weighs exactly one ounce. Place it on the table and next to this, place a one ounce of gold bullion bar. Let's look at these two things side by side.

I think it's fair to say that very few people would part with good money for what I will now mostly refer to as "the vial". It is intuitive that this is not very valuable, if at all. I have not tried to sell a vial of my own urine, but I don't think I'd get a lot for it, do you? Perhaps less intuitive for some, is that the gold is by contrast considered very valuable. Even if you do not understand why exactly, or agree that it should be, at least take it for the truth that the market price of gold is currently well north of $1000.

What I want to examine is what these two objects have in common, because these can't really be the things that makes gold valuable. Let's get an obvious one out of the way quickly and by way of example of what I am talking about; they are both yellow. In fact, gold can be a slight range of colours from white, light yellow, straw yellow and a pink yellow (some copper content). I believe urine can have a similar colour range -- if you drink a lot of beer it is diluted and goes pale, and if you are sick and there is blood in there too, it can be pink. Gross perhaps, but I'm just saying they have a reasonably similar colour pallet. I am further suggesting that we can conclude it's not the colour of gold alone that makes it valuable. If it was, the vial would be valuable too, and in the previous paragraph we concluded it isn't.

On a similar vein is the "shiny" quality. Gold is shiny. I would like to point out that so is aluminium foil, and that's not selling for $1000 per ounce. I suspect too that the glass vial could refract light in a most pleasing manner if you took the time to hold it up to a light just so, and look at it like that. So I think Shiny is out too, although you could keep arguing this point for a little longer perhaps.

What about divisibility? One claim about gold is that it's "easily divisible". This is supposed to make it a good bartering/monetary metal as you can portion it out as needed. I have read of merchants that trade in gold wire, as this can be cut to any length. This makes perfect sense, and it can then be easily then wrapped around something, like your wrist for example, so it's practical. On the other hand, if you have a one ounce bullion bar, like the one on our imaginary table, then the only way for the common man to divide this is using a hacksaw. You might get two rough pieces and a waste of gold filings (and if I did it, blood everywhere). Sure, if you happen to have a furnace you could remelt these filings, or sell it as dust by weight, but it's becoming a fiddle. Consider next our vial. If you unstopper it you can pour out as little or as much as you need into another vial. On this basis, I think that the wee is also easily divisible. If they are both easily divisible, it's not this factor that makes the gold the more valuable thing on the table then, is it?

How about "universal recognition"? One supposed benefit of gold it that it's known the world over. I would suggest that everyone the world over goes to the toilet at least once per day too. In this experiment (at least), this is not the deciding factor.

Gold is "rare" as well, being found only in certain rock deposits in limited places on the planet. Is this the thing that makes the gold valuable? Well, the urine could be considered rare, from a certain perspective. If you think it's YOUR urine, then only you can make it, then even over your entire lifetime I would wager (not actually having done the calculations) that there would be more gold on the earth than urine you could produced. From this (admittedly highly contrived) viewpoint, the urine is probably rarer than the gold. Of course, if you take the capacity of all the people and beast in the world, then the vial contents is not rare at all. I'm not really trying to deny this, but just to extend the thought experiment where possible. Suspend reality a little to stay with me here.

Moving on then to the next property, let's now consider the argument often presented that gold has "little industrial use". Because it's more-or-less unused, it can focus on being a monetory metal the logic goes. Other commodities are more affected by industrial demand fluctuations which effect long term price. This is all well and good, and sounds reasonable. Then we look on the other side of the table and try and think of industrial uses for the vial, and draw a fairly big blank. Urine is not useless, but it's also not exactly turning the wheels of industry today either.

Gold makes excellent jewellery, and this demand partially makes it valuable, right? Well, you could turn the vial into a pendant and wear it as jewellery too. It's a matter of taste, after all. No, I don't mean for you to taste it! It just needs some good marketing, perhaps? If Angelina can wear a vial of blood for a while, why not piss?

I don't think gold is valuable just because it's a solid either. Our vial is a solid of sorts anyway, in that it's made of glass. And you could freeze it's contents to make it all a proper solid, but I'll admit that not being a solid at room temperature is the reality here. There are plenty of other solid objects in our life that are not valuable, such as lead. This is further a soft metal, so it's closer to gold in this regard. Is being a solid the single secret to the high value of gold? Doesn't seem likely.

Gold is a dense metal though, which makes it compact for carrying vast wealth. On the table the two objects are the same weight, one ounce. The glass vial, being not as dense, takes up slightly more space but is still easily transportable. It seems unlikely that this is the make-or-break property that differentiates the two objects in value, wouldn't you say?

So, to summarise the thoughts so far as to what is apparently NOT responsible for gold's high value : It's shiny or yellow or a solid or dense, it's divisible or universally recognised, it's rare or has little industrial usage, or that it makes good jewellery. Not a bad list of things that we have excluded, don't you think? Did you think you'd get all that just by comparing it to vial of piss? Any surprises so far? Might be a good time to stop reading and think -- if it's not these things, what is it?

Let's move on to some more difficult things then, if you are ready...

What about durability? Gold is effectively "everlasting", and never tarnishes. Golden objects unearthed from thousands of years ago are practically untouched by time. This is a tough one, and the vial is not looking so strong here. Note that I sneaked in a preservative in the bottling process to add some life to the argument. I would further suggest that for most people, the important span of time is one human lifetime. If something can last 100 years, then it's probably considered by most to be pretty durable. Could a perfectly sealed, with preservative, vial last that long? I have no idea, and I doubt anyone has tried this, but let's say that it might, in ideal conditions (probably away from light and heat). Gold wins here, but not without a fight, and it's not clear if this is the one property that makes gold so special.

How about the "product of labour" argument? That gold is so hard to mine and refine, and represents many hours of labour that can't be faked. This is similar to rarity, but with a twist. It's not exactly hard work to make urine is it, so I think gold wins here too. Staying with this though, are there any other things you can think of that take a lot of time/effort to find or create, but are yet worthless? If it's truly worthless, then you probably would not even bother, but that doesn't mean that examples don't exist. How about finding naturally burnt toast in the shape of Homer Simpson? It might take days of popping toast in the toaster before one comes out looking like him. Would that make it valuable? Sadly, in our sick and twisted eBay world, it might! Oh well, bad example then, but I think you can probably find another.

Gold has been a historical store of wealth, and has a lot of "folklore". The same can not be said for the vial, I don't know any stories extolling the virtues of urine. Kings and Pirates and all that. So chalk one up for gold, again.

So some possible reasons that gold IS valuable are that : It's durable, its a product of labour and that it has some folklore. Not the longest of list, is it?

I will stop this now, because I think I've made the point I set out to make. I do want to just say that I know quite a lot of the logic here is weak in places, at best. The point was not to prove in a watertight logical argument what makes gold valuable, but to playfully consider a situation and see what ideas might come of it, and in the process perhaps questioning some assumptions commonly held.

I believe that gold is valuable for good reason, and that is simply because it has many properties that make it valuable. It's not just one, but them all. Other things may have one or more of these properties too (like our vile vial), but gold has the complete set, which makes it stand apart from everything else. Picking them out one by one like I have done above is a divide and conquer technique -- they all seem weaker on their own. It is the sum of the parts which makes up the real story of gold.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Modern Torches and Pitchforks

I was thinking the other day, what do modern torches and pitchforks look like? Are they even possible now, what with police and other security forces controlling the public?

Of course, "Torches and Pitchforks" is more of a metaphor these days. Nobody expects you to turn up with a real pitchfork. Instead, it's an image of an angry mob, armed with simple weapons, but despite this they are quite a thing to fear. Mob mentality is reduced to very simple, and often brutal, outcomes. They are often out for vengeance, they are very angry, perhaps irrationally so. They might do thinks that any single member of the mob would not do on their own.

These days though, I'm not sure these mobs will form. The problem that I see is that modern society isn't built the same way it used to be. There is not a strong community bond in this consumer based, mall centric world. It's every person for themselves, and people live next door to each other without knowing their names or wanting to know their names. This is a consequence of compressed living spaces of cities, and the mind-boggling number of people that live in them. If everyone tried to have relationships with each other, well, it just couldn't and wouldn't work. It's the way we create space when there is none.

This is in the cities, anyway, I think country people are probably a different matter. They have the space, and the time. They do get to know each other, and do help each other, and do look after each other more. They also tend to be more friendly, practical and self-sufficient, and not inconsequentially, armed. I like 'em, on the whole. I don't think they are more or less likely to form mobs either.

Anyway, getting back to the city-folk for a minute, what would it look like if they did go into a serious form of unrest? I wonder if the recent outburst in Greece against Austerity measures are examples of this. Riots. People with bandanna's on their faces throwing rocks and petrol bombs at police lines, and overturning and burning cars. Is this what it now comes to? Or perhaps it's a more passive affair, subtly subverted by a host of interested groups, such as the "tea parties". I think it might start out passively, but given time, will move on to more violent variants as the results are not forthcoming.

If this is the case, then is this likely to come wholesale to every city in the US and elsewhere, as the global crisis deepens and deepens, and livelihoods are destroyed? I wonder about Johnny six-pack, sitting on the couch, overweight, watching American Idol and eating cheese doodles. Is he going to get mad enough to start throwing rocks? What will it take, where is the breaking point? When is he going to get of his large ass, open his window and shout "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it any more!". Will it be too late, will it matter and what will happen next?

It partly comes down to the question of what keeps society together now. Is it the mass media - drowning out any independent thought with an endless stream of happy talk drivel and fantasy? Is it the self-medication, the "take this pill and you will feel better" generation? Is it the safety net, the unemployment benefits, the food stamps, the free medical care? The isolation so everyone feels powerless? Is it simply the lack of a charismatic and inspiring leader to provide the spark for unrest?

I think the Internet may well play a part in bringing like-minded people together. This might sound like a geeky fantasy to you, and perhaps it is, but I don't see any other form of "quiet assembly" that's possible these days. I noticed an article on the SMH about the idea of an "internet kill switch" for the president of the USA. There may be more to this than first meets the eye.

It's worth pondering these tricky questions I think because it will expose a bit of how this might play out. The pressure is increasing. Who will be in that mob, and what they will be chanting about?

I think that it's a test of society cohesion (in the US at least) with the recent ending of a number of long unemployment benefit programs, the oil spill, and the threat of the double dip recession (although I believe the first dip never really ended, it was just papered over for a while).

Perhaps, and this is something some libertarians fear, the heart of the average American is truly dead and he will never get off the couch. He would rather keep taking the pill of denial until he is destitute and effectively a slave or sent off to die in a bogus war. Perhaps the controlling "powers that be" are so effective that they can do whatever they like without consequence. The bread and circuses will keep the peace.

I don't think so, or I don't want to think so. I think there is a point where things will go from smouldering to fire, and it might happen a lot faster than those powers predict or suspect. There is provision in the declaration of independence that reads "..That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it..". I wonder if this "right" to abolish is to be tested, and how well it will all go down. Discontent can happen at the polling booth, of course, but that is a slow process and it's a choice between the lesser of two evils. If the whole house of cards needs to come down, can this actually be done?

I know I have asked more questions than given answers here, but that is because my thinking on this topic (and knowledge, for sure) is incomplete. Time will provide some of the answers I am looking for I guess. Comments welcome.

ps. Just read this article, which touches on some of this points I have raised, particularly in the beginning.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Bitching like a bitch, Bitch!

First, Bitch means a "female dog". I think everyone knows that.

Then as an insult, this was thrown at some unfortunate woman in the long lost past and it stuck. So, for many years, it was a pretty bad insult that might get you a slap in the face if you called someone it openly. If you were bitching about something, then you were really complaining.

And recently, well, it's now something else. There are those that say the word in a jaw dislocating way so that it's now "bee-atch", which I find fairly tiresome. It's taken on a whole S&M subservient slave connotation. It's a word of power, if someone is your bitch, then they do what you tell them to. But between friends, it's seen by some as a conspiratorial term of endearment, like you are a party-animal or something, or perhaps a bit moody.

And on blogs of late I have seen it as replacement, almost, for the word "everyone". It is an exclamation after a word or phrase, to add emphasis. For example, "Gold... bitches!"

I'm over all of it. I think the word has peaked. I'm hoping it will recede into the background as quickly as it's risen to prominence - like "bad" (meaning good) or "whatever" (meaning I don't care). Mind you, if it does this it will probably because it has been replaced by something even more irritating. I don't know what it will be exactly, but my kids like to use "random" instead of bad (meaning bad). That' fairly random, so whatever, bitches.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Gold - Part 1


What do you think of, immediately, when you read that word and think of gold? What image is conjured in your mind?

Is it of an overflowing treasure chest, perhaps recently dug up by a very happy pirate? Or perhaps of Fort Knox, with stacks ceiling high of shiny gold bars? Or maybe of the wealth of royalty and the church - crowns, chalices and crosses?

If you thought of any of these things, or something like it, then you would probably be normal! The interesting thing about all of these images or perceptions of gold are that it's a) Very valuable and b) practically unobtainable by normal people.

Here is the thing though, at this point in time gold is not particularly valuable and is obtainable by anyone. You may think that US$1200/AUD$1400 or so (as of when I write this) is a lot of money. However, it isn't when you think of the wealth of kings or the church, or to look at it in another way, compared to the $ value of debt in the world. If you think of the cost of the average house, you could buy many kilos of gold for this. So, the perception that gold is unobtainable is currently false. I say currently, because it is quite possible that this perception may become reality in the future.

The other interesting thing about how most people view gold is that they do NOT view it as money. Some gold coins are stamped with a dollar value, but that is so low compared to the cost of the metal content nobody in their right mind would trade a coin for paper currency. No, gold is not considered currency. You can not pay your electricity bill with it.

It is worth pointing out that in Zimbabwe, where hyperinflation has destroyed the local currency, gold is a currency. Grains of gold can be used to by groceries. When things go very, very badly wrong with the paper currency, gold can be used. Why would people trust it more than paper? Well, in Zimbabwe's case they simply added more zeros to the paper until it was worthless. Gold can not be wished into existence, it must be mined and this takes effort. It's rarity and lack of manipulated supply is part of it's allure.

While I'm on that line of thought, what makes gold special? Why do people like it, or value it? This is worth trying to understand, as it will have an impact on the value of gold in the future as events play out. As just mentioned, limited supply is one factor. What else? Well, as a member of the Periodic Table of Elements, gold is a fundamental particle, and can not be manufactured. People have tried, for years, and you just can't do it (unless you have something like the LHC, which is not exactly a practical solution).

Gold has some rare physical properties too, that I think are important factors. It does not oxidise, which in practical terms means that it stays shiny forever. This everlasting quality is why it is seen as a store of wealth. Unlike other investments, time does not affect it. A lump of gold given to you when you were born will be the same lump when you are 100 years old. Humans like shiny things, it makes them visually interesting. Don't underestimate this as a factor.

Gold is also a pleasant colour - light yellow. It can be white (more silver content) or pink/red (more copper), but the purer it is, the yellower it gets. Most metals are grey/silvery in colour - so this yellow is a rare thing. Again, this adds to the visual interest, especially in jewellery. This colour looks good against many peoples skin. Without getting into the psychology too much, I think it's easy to see that gold could be used to make oneself more attractive. Again, don't underestimate this as a factor.

Rounding out the interesting properties of gold is it's immense density. What this means is that a small amount is valuable, and transportable. In an emergency, it's about the most valuable thing you can carry with you. Diamonds are, these days, partly ruled out because they are now able to be manufactured so that they are practically indistinguishable from natural flawless diamonds.

So, gold has a lot of things going for it. It this all of the reasons that make it valuable? No, there is one more - rarity. This isn't just limited supply (that governments can't come up with 10x, 100x, 1000x the volume each year), but that it is only found in small volumes in certain places around the world. If every rock in your garden (and everyone elses) was made of gold, it would be worthless. On the contrary, most of us are likely to live out our entire lives and never see a piece of natural gold in nature. You just don't stumble on it on your average walk.

Another plus is that gold has no counter party risk. What this means is that it's not a debt, you do not rely on someone else to "come good on a promise". This is not so of money in a bank (who can close and ... it's gone), or a stock in a company who can go bust. You get the idea. Even cash is a promise by the government to hold it's value and not overspend. The counter party risk example here is again, Zimbabwe.

Because gold has universal and fundamental appeal, it is globally recognised as having value. Paper notes may not be convertible if you flee a country, but gold will be.

In summary then, the positives of gold is eternally shiny, pleasantly yellow, very dense, very rare and has no counter party risk.

What about the negatives?

Well, is it "useful"? While it does have some uses, but it's not overly so. Many of it's uses are simply celebrating it as precious - as in jewellery. I shake my head when I see gold plated TV cables. Compared to other precious metals, I think gold isn't brilliant in this area. Silver has more industrial uses - which is good for it as this means it is "consumed", and it becomes rarer still. Some people have argued that gold is valueable because it does not have any other use. I find this a somewhat weak argument myself, but it does have some merit. The basic idea is that gold has a single purpose - to store wealth - and nothing else.

I am amused when discussing gold, someone invariably says something along the lines of "it's useless - you can't eat gold!". Well, for a start, most people don't eat paper money either. In Australia, it's not even paper - our money is actually plastic (it's more durable than cotton, I believe, and harder to forge). Besides, you can eat gold - it'll pass right through you with no effect whatsoever - and gold flakes are often put on very fancy desserts and foods. So, forget that line of thinking, a wealth store is not meant to be eaten. On saying that, if you are starving, a loaf of bread is vastly more valuable to you than a kilo of gold. In a crisis, if you can't eat, gold will not be what's on your mind.

Some people, mostly of the doomer survivalist type, also come out with arguments that guns and ammo (lead) are more valuable than gold. The line of reasoning is "I will shoot you and take all of your gold!". This brings into question the issue of personal security, and perhaps how to keep your gold safe (ie hide it). If you have wealth, you can buy security, assuming things have not devolved to cave-man like chaos. I think some form of security is a good idea, I'm not opposed to this at all. I also think there is "security in obscurity", stay low under the radar and you will not be a target.

Note too that when I am talking about gold, I am talking about the physical metal in your hand. Not an ETF, or some paper promise of gold which may or may not be there -- that's counter party risk again. I would avoid "paper gold" unless you have a very specific short term investment strategy and understand the risks involved. Paper gold and physical gold are NOT the same thing, despite currently trading at the same price. One day this will change, radically.

Other detractors of gold point to the historical precedent of the US making owning gold illegal, and it being effectively confiscated. I think this is a fair enough concern, on the basis that those in power will change the rules to suit them, no matter how unreasonable. What will happen if this was to transpire is that gold would go underground - to the black market. The price would up a great deal too I suspect, and the governments would have no slice of the action, which is not a desirable outcome for them. I don't see this as likely, but possible. I am generally a law abiding citizen, but I wonder if I felt a law passed such as making gold ownership illegal whether I would abide by it. If the law itself is theft, should you? The other issue with this is that laws change in a country only - and gold ownership is worldwide.

If, say, the US tried to ban gold ownership for it's citizens, the outcome would be a massive revaluation everywhere else. Central banks do not want gold re-valued, I don't think, at least, not yet. Paper money is so much easier to manipulate to their whims, to devalue, to create and distribute as they see fit. Paper money is power if the populace has faith in it. I don't think that they want to give up this power, and are trying to keep a paper based system going for as long as possible. I find it revealing to know that central banks keep tonnes of gold. Why do they do that, do you think? Why too are they net buyers of gold now?

So, sorry if this post is meandering but gold has many facets to consider and ponder over. It touches at the heart of what we consider wealth and money, and these are deep topics once you get going.

Now, in my opinion gold serves one other important function. It is an insurance policy, a hedge (in it's correct usage of the term), against currency collapse. If a percentage of your wealth (how much? good question) is in gold, it can't really be easily destroyed. That sense of protection, particularly in times of financial chaos, are what makes gold valuable. Again, in my opinion, we are headed for a great deal more chaos that we have even seen in the last few years. There are too many charts that have gone parabolic, and compound interest on unpayable and unfathomable amounts are crushing the whole viability of the system itself. History is full of failed currencies, but not full of failed globalized financial systems. Perhaps the closest example is the fall of the Roman Empire, but even this doesn't quite capture where we are today.

The value of gold then, as measured in today's (inflation adjusted) dollars, is highly likely to keep on rising. If even a small proportion of the population loses faith in paper currency and invests in gold then the price will rocket up. It is likely that gold will rightly be seen as only being affordable by kings again, and this makes silver the gentleman's choice. When gold reaches the stratosphere, then silver will start it's major rise as a viable alternative to day to day currency. You might buy a house or land with gold, but your weekly groceries with silver.

While I am on this thought, I think it's funny that in Australia at least, people still call our coins "gold" and "silver" coins. None of our coins contain gold or silver, but they are made to roughly look like they do. This is a psychological trick, a slight of hand. Really, it's all a fake. The US had the real deal with the "silver dollar" but that got killed because again it was too hard to keep up the ruse and it was holding back the currency manipulators. What is a silver dollar worth today?

So, should you own some gold? If so, how much? And how should you buy it, and if it's physical, where should you keep it? Should you pay off debts first? Should you stock up on food, buy land first? What happens if you are effectively broke?

Look, everyone is at a different stage of life and has a different story in terms of wealth. If you have no wealth at all, then any discussion of gold is perhaps moot. It doesn't apply to you. You have no wealth to preserve. If you are currently living hand-to-mouth, that is, pay check to pay check, then you are probably in the same boat. You might be able to save a bit each paycheck and store this in gold or silver, but maybe not. It would be good if you could, really. If you have lot's and lot's of money, or are in a later stage of life and are living off investments, you perhaps have a lot of wealth to be concerned about. The common advice given is to invest in the stock market and interest bearing government bonds. I think this is all well and good, but a percentage of your wealth should be in precious metals, just in case. How much? Well, perhaps as much as it takes for you to feel comfortable that this makes you safe. 10%. 20%. Who knows, something like that. You have to work that out yourself.

As for me, I have some gold, but not a lot. I'd really like to have more. Honestly. A real gift would be a collapse in the gold price right now. I'd double my holdings if it went under $1000 again, or perhaps more. I don't know if it will, but it might. I suspect we are in for wildly volatile times ahead, and these may briefly present great opportunities for those willing to act quickly. What is likely though is that price may fall suddenly but it might be impossible to find supply. Once the gold rush starts in earnest, the currently open door to the man on the street may be slammed shut. I think this is likely, but I don't know when things will unfold. It could happen this year, next year, or 2012. I think it'll happen by then at least, and probably with escalated world tensions if not outright world war. Times they are a-changing.

This was but a scratch of the topic on gold. I'll come back to this subject another time and look at other elements of it. In the mean time, if you are interested in gold as a subject, I recommend reading current and past posts on FOFOA (Friend of Friend of Another, yes, very x-files). Until then, good luck with any gold (and silver) holdings you may have!

Saturday, May 29, 2010

JIT vs the Death Wobbles

A modern capitalistic society has a number of companies which supply the populace with staple goods. These companies, like all others of significant size, are listed on stock exchanges, and require "shareholder value". This means being as efficient as possible, not wasting money, you understand. Which sounds reasonable, particularly if you own some stock of said company.

There is a problem though. A chain of supermarkets has warehousing costs that they want to keep at a minimum. When you get down to the nuts and bolts of this problem, you end up with the "just in time" philosophy. In essence, it means that they store only enough stock of goods to supply their stores "just in time" for them to run out, and keep a minimum buffer of goods. How skinny is this supply? Well, it is measured in days. Honestly, I work in retail, and I know this for a fact. In Australia, Woolworths (one of the biggest chains) keeps about a week of inventory. Of course, slow moving lines might go for longer (eg blank DVDs), and fast ones (like bread) are almost measured in hours.

You may be struggling to see a problem with this, and I don't blame you so far. Lets look a little further down the supply chain. The companies that supply the supermarkets warehouses work in a similar fashion - just in time - more of less, on aggregate to the entire market. It is not in their interest to be out of stock, but at the same time (and depending on the product) it is also not in their interest to have a large oversupply warehoused as well. It's a balancing act. So anyway, there is perhaps another week or so of supply in the next tier down, perhaps a little more, depending on the product. Could be a few weeks more, but probably not months.

OK, big deal, two+ weeks of stored supply before you reach the manufacturers. What's the point here? Well, the point is what might happen in a crisis. And by that, I mean any crisis, but there are several big ones potentially looming. I'm a bit of a "doomer" and what I have in mind is a currency collapse (Euro, US Dollar you name it), coupled with a stock market collapse. This may lead to a collapse in international trade and banking, even local banking. What happens then?

Well, people panic, and they buy food. And it will all be gone overnight. I mean it, overnight. Because the JIT philosophy works only under normal trade environments. In a panic, the shelves will not be refilled in time, and as soon as they are refilled (which mostly happens at night, by the way) they will be emptied. Even seasonal times, such as Christmas, throw this out of whack, and is a preview of what I am talking about.

I thought about all this today as I happened to go shopping, and at the checkout register I chose the credit card reader was not working - I had to go to another area to have my card processed. But I started thinking about what would happen if all the cards readers were not working. In a banking crisis, this would be the case. Credit would be frozen, and even access to a positive balance would probably be frozen. It would be cash only, and that would be a problem for a lot of people past the first few days. Do you have more than one weeks shopping cash on hand right now?

Assuming you could even pay for the food, the supply of staples is likely to be sold out anyway. There are a lot of lists online that people have compiled showing what is likely to run out first. These lists are not just made up (although some are), but are based on observations during recent crisis times such as Katrina, or during the collapse of the Russian empire. Some things are what you would expect - Fuels, Generators etc. Other things are perhaps a little odd-ball, and may not be front of mind, such as the gloriously politically correct "feminine products". How long can your household go without buying more of these?

What I am trying to get at here, and probably failing dismally, is the link between the JIT and the buffer society has against a panic during crisis. They really are at opposite sides. Now, one could reasonably argue that the times that JIT seriously fails us are "once-in-century", or less often even. The trouble here is that we have had stability since WWII, and that seriously looks like it could end any time to me. It is possible that I am either paranoid or delusional, but it is also possible that I am seeing things just a bit before everyone else. I keep a close eye on international finance and the story is very complicated, but in general we have gone from a lending crisis to a company/banking solvency crisis to a sovereign solvency crisis. There is no next tier up from here, except perhaps a global solvency crisis, and that is where the buck stops. We are well into uncharted waters in this arena. World wars have started on less than the conditions that we currently are under. The level of volatility is likely to rise dramatically in the near future which will cause extreme government policy action.

As a young boy I rode my skateboard down a lot of hills, much to my mothers disdain as this also meant quickly worn out sneakers that I used as brakes. There is a condition on a skateboard which was called by my friends and I - the "death wobbles". This starts out slowly, but the amplitude of the wobble grows despite your efforts to correct it, and culminates in you being thrown off the board at full speed. These events often ended in a minimum of war wound like skin scrapes, and at most broken bones. In the very final moments, when you know for sure you are doomed, your mind seeks in panic a place to fall to as a soft landing, to minimize the certain damage. Heaven in these circumstances is a patch of soft grass. It's also notable how the panic comes late in the game - up until that moment things are "under control" - until they aren't.

The analogy here is that with JIT in place, it's like getting the economic death wobbles and being surrounded by rough tarmac, and having no shoes on. There is just no escaping the damage. Food supply, along with personal security (and liberties), will become the primary concern when this thing gets out of control. The global banking system is in a death wobble right now, with the amplitude of the problems are growing. This is how I see it all anyway....

Saturday, May 22, 2010

2013 - Future entry

Well, it's now 2013 and we can finally look back on 2012. What a year. As we all know, it wasn't quite like the movie. No giant meteors. No cosmic intervention, just the average human carry on. Mind you, that can be just as destructive.

I was reminded by the hype and tension for the Y2K. I worked in the computer industry and the fear by some pre-2000 was bordering on irrational. Set the clocks forward and see what happens if you are that worried, I said. Y2K? No real problems. 2012 was similarly supposed to be the end of the world because of some Mayan calendar issue. C'mon. And my tea leaves say Apple is a good buy at the moment, and if you are a Sagittarius born under the year of the Monkey, then you are going to get a pimple on your left butt cheek.

And yet, 2012 sucked bad. Let's face, it wasn't a good year. 2011 wasn't either, and 2010 wasn't much better - near the end of it anyway. It's a wonder how the fan keeps on working with all that shit being thrown at it. I am hopeful that the worldwide misery has peaked, but time will tell on that. The clowns running the show still don't get it, or worse, get it and are actively part of the problem. The human condition seems to excel in suffering.

There are lot's of things people miss now. It's strange to think that just a few years ago anything, and I mean anything, could be purchased for a price. Not that everyone exercised this "right", but the dream that it was there was at least something. Now this dream has well and truly gone and reality is biting down hard for almost everyone. What do you miss most?

For many, despite the lack of a meteor, 2012 was indeed quite like the movie, the outcome was similar. Worse even, as the deaths we have seen were not instant, innocent and painless. Nobody really wants to dwell on what has happened, in case it happens again, or worse, happens to us. I hope it doesn't happen to me or my family, and I hope it doesn't happen to you or yours. Survival, it turns out, is still a very strong instinct in the human species.

Anyway, I wanted to wish you all a happy new year. I hope 13 is not an unlucky number for me or you. Here's to a better year! Drink it if you've got it!

Kobo eBook Reader rough Review

A "Kobo", for the uninitiated, is an anagram of "Book", and it is an eInk based ebook reader. It cost A$199 from Borders bookstore. We got a black one, for reasons which I will explain in a minute. If you want some photos and thoughts on this device, I suggest a quick read here first before I give my take. Don't worry, I'll wait as long as needed.

Back? Ok. Well, let's start with my conclusion first - what's it like? ..... Good!

A book reader is a one trick pony. It must display text, as readable as possible, in a comfortable package. Taking this criteria, and keeping as many bells and whistles away, the Kobo achieves these simple goals. This also helps keep the price down, I might add, not to get distracted by other features.

I've used computers for decades, but I'd never seen an eInk display before. It looks a little like a very old Mac SE display (told you I have been using them for decades). Although not as many grey scales at 8. This is enough for simple images, but it ain't a portable photo album folks. It can just manage a passable book cover. As for the pixels, they are small enough to make a serif font look decent, and the complete stability of the display adds to its readability. You see, it only refreshes the pixels when it repaints the whole screen, something it does each page turn. This involves a complete black then white write, then the display is drawn black again. Think of an etch-a-scetch and you are not far of the mark. The contrast ratio is not perfect, the background is light grey rather than white, and the text is very dark grey rather than black, but in even semi-decent light it's easy to read without eyestrain. And yes, you need external light as it has no backlighting - something that enables the battery life to be measured in days.

What I also like about this unit is the dimensions - it's small but not too small (about the size of common paperback), and very light. It needs to be light because reading can take a long time, and every tiny gram starts to multiply with each hour. It is lighter than most books, so really it's a plus. It also has a nice "quilted" back, which is really just a textured matte surface, which does feel quite pleasant.

Navigation of pages is done with the 4 way controller on the bottom right of the unit, and it's dead easy to do - your brain does it by itself after a while so there is no taking away from concentrating on the book.

So, are there any negatives? Sure, I can give you a whole bunch. But they are minor gripes really.

Let's talk ergonomics. The first issue is the location of the USB port, which is directly under the 4-way controller at the base/side of the unit. As you are holding this one handed your hand falls on this port and it's uncomfortable compared the rest of the silky back. The controller also has slight bumps on them, like braille, and they surprisingly irritate the surface of the fingers after a l0ng while. If this was my unit, and it's not, it's my wifes, I would get a razor blade and shave them off. I know where to press, they are not needed.

We got the black Kobo, and that was for two main reasons, and one minor one. Firstly, the controller on the white unit is a really bright blue, which is distracting to your eye as you are reading. On the black unit it's a more subtle grey. Secondly, I felt that the white might end up looking grubby after a while of use, and black will hide this. The minor reason is that I just felt it looked better, just simple opinion.

So, in use there is another minor issue - the slow response time. The screen is not like an LCD on a computer, or a TV. You do something and then wait a second or two for it to refresh the screen. And you see the flashing while it does it, it's quite obvious, not subtle at all. I use it as an opportunity to blink, or close my eyes for a second, to give them a split-second break from reading, but that's just my way of dealing with this issue. I am not an overly patient person, and if it was even a fraction of a second longer it would be too slow, but as it is, it is acceptable. Straight reading is ok, but navigation to other pages at random is trickier.

The unit does have expandable memory, which is good because some other readers don't have this (ie Kindle). However, the SD card slot only reads SD cards up to 4GB, and it doesn't come with the spacer (blank plastic) card which keeps the dust out. I had a spare lying around, but c'mon. Oh, and there is not cover or carry case of any kind included, nor can you buy any yet, so you have to be super careful not to damage the unit. Not that it feels flimsy, and the screen has a plastic feel to it, not glass covered, so a slight knock might be ok.

In terms of syncing the unit, and buying books, the experience is fine. It can handle only a few formats, ePub and PDF, but they claim to be "working to improve this". We'll see what the future brings there. I would expect at least support for plain text files, that should be a no brainer.

What is the point of buying such a thing, you may still be wondering? Is it just another totally unnecessary tech toy the world can do without? Well, I sympathize with this sentiment, but counter with a bit of mathematics, and a bit of green ethos sprinkled on top (which may or may not hold water)

So - mathematics? Well, dollars and cents. My wife is a fairly "Constant reader" and churns through a few books a month. These cost somewhere between $20 - $30 each in paperback, and we have groaning bookshelves of them despite her giving them away when she can (to school book fates and the likes). Anyway, in a single years reading, at 2 books a month, she might spend 2x12x25 = $600. It all adds up you know. So, enter the Kobo. It cost $200. And books cost $10-$20, that is, they are often $10 or more cheaper. I think you can see where this is heading. So the year cost of the Kobo, with the purchase price included, is 200+2x12x15 = $560. So it's making money back after a year. If you keep it up, after several years you have made back a sizable sum as you don't have the cost of the Kobo in there.

So - green ethos? Well, ignoring for the minute the environmental cost of manufacturing, shipping the Kobo itself, and possibly the poisons released when it's disposed of at the end of it's life (See why I said "may not hold water"?) - eBooks are better than Paper Books. It's the whole atoms verses electrons thing. You can move electrons - information - about with a lot less effort than atoms - thinly sliced trees with ink (ie books). Books have weight and volume, and manufacture and shipping have costs. Hard for me to measure exactly, but picture a Kobo on one side of the scales, and all those books on the other.

You can carry a decent library with you on a trip with a lot less weight than the real thing. But to me that's balanced by the issue of having to look after the device - battery level and make sure you don't damage/lose it etc. When you finish a paper book, you can pass it onto a friend, if you wish. With any eBook reader there is the issue of DRM (the dreaded Digital Rights Management) and of big brother stopping you from doing anything generous and natural like that. There are free formats, but most of the things you want are probably not free.

You could yack all day about the pros and cons of ebooks versus paper books. In the end, I think they both have their place. eBooks are a bit like a movie rental - for something you are more or less going to consume and not really need afterwards. Paper books are for things of sentimental value, or those with pictures, or something you have a stronger emotional connection to perhaps and you want to really "own" a copy.

Other random gripes are the inability to delete a book from the reading now list (open a book once, and you are reading it pal, like it or not, until you scroll past the last page). Also, in the book store, the 100 free classics don't show up in your bookshelf, which seems counter intuative, and there does not seem to be a way of deleting any of these if you don't want to have them any more. Some people are having poor battery performance (a few days), and the battery level indicator and the charging seem to be somewhat contradictory and confusing. I suspect people are not turning the unit "off" and this has something to do with it, but perhaps that's me, and besides, it should have some sort of auto-off feature. It asks you the time, but yet there is no easy way to find out what the time is. These all feel like version 1.0 issues, and I'm hoping in time they will more or less all go away with software updates. Things like colour, full touchscreen, MP3 playback etc are all overkill in my opinion. I see this as a very different device to an iPad, for example, even though you can read books on an iPad or a computer.

There is a lot of potential for simple refinements in the Kobo. It think a dictionary would be a good one. It may not be possible, but in terms of the eInk screen a selective refresh would be a great improvement (that is, if it only needs to redraw part of the screen, just black/white/redraw that bit rather than full screen). And better grey levels and contrast ratios, faster response etc will all come with the subsequent generations of devices. Wait for them if you want, but I think this device is cheap enough to dip your toes in the water with this technology. It's fun, we are all enjoying reading on it, and anything that encourages reading can't be bad, right? Right?

Saturday, March 27, 2010

32bit or 64bit OS?

Ah, for most people, the answer would be a something like "Er, What?". Clearly it shouldn't matter, and I think that is important to keep in mind. Because I think it's getting to the point where this is probably the case.

In the Windows world, we more or less moved over to 32 bit with Windows 95. What is 32 bit anyway? Well, imagine 32 1's or 0's in a row. That's a representation of a number. It's 2 to the power of 32, or 2x2x2x2...x2 (32 times), which = 4 billion or so. Now, there are 8 bits in a byte, and, well, I'll let wiki explain the rest if you are interested. The practical implication of this is that you are limited to 4GB of memory. Which is a lot, right?

Well, no. Not really any more. And certainly not if you want to do anything serious, like a database or virtualization. Even consumer PC's these days, since the hungry-hungry-hippo called Vista was let loose, have come with 2GB ram as a reasonable medium standard. If you have even remotely paid any attention to spec changes over the years you will know that they double every now and then. So we are only one double away from hitting that 4GB limit.

There was a 64 bit version of windows XP. It was very much the bleeding edge. Almost nothing worked on it, and peripherals in particular were the pain point. Getting that printer or scanner, video card etc to work was a real gamble, and most times you got snake-eyes. Vista was actually better, as the 64-bit version was released at launch date, and flagged that hardware vendors had to start producing 64-bit drivers from now on or else. And they have. Of course, the 32/64 bit question was somewhat hidden by the overall horribleness that was Vista. Windows 7 is really just Vista done right, and to be honest, the latest patched version of Vista is actually not too bad. However, it's reputation is permanently tarnished and much like Windows ME will spend it's eternity in History as a dud, a lemon and a turkey.

Well, most sane people, and those cautious in businesses around the world, have largely been hanging on the XP platform waiting to jump over Vista. It has helped that since the Core2 the CPU's have more or less also been "good enough" to keep going for a few years. The GFC has not helped IT budgets much either, so this has also influenced things.

Anywhoo, at my place of work we recently replaced a bunch of XP machines. What did we get? Well, some intel i7 based Dell boxes, with Window 7 and 6GB of RAM. Yours with a 23" LCD and Office for around $1700 Australian - which is a pretty good deal in the current market. Yes, I know Office 2010 is just around the corner. Sometimes these buying opportunity windows open up just briefly and you go for it when you can, even if it's not 100% ideal. I also think of the permanently revolving doors you see at some hotels -- if you wait for it to stop you are waiting forever.

So, perhaps you are wondering, which did we get - the 32 or 64 bit version of Windows 7? Well, the clue should be the 6GB RAM. Are you paying attention? Stay with me here!

So, how have i found the 64 bit experience? On the whole, like the rest of Win7, it's almost flawless. Really, the water is fine, jump right on in. With new hardware, you know the PC itself is going to work. The trick then is any legacy software and hardware. In my environment the biggest bugbear was Access 95 databases we were still using. This was the final push for me to upgrade them all to 2000 format, and I'm glad I did. My previous post goes over this in tragic detail if you are interested in that saga.

The other problems I had were --
  1. Installing SQL 2000 client tools. The installer recognised the 64 bit environment and didn't like the idea of putting the 32 bit version on the CD there. Fortunately, I found that you can still install it by running an installer buried a bit on the CD. A google search turned up this solution in under 5 minutes. Yes, and caused by trying to continue to use old software note.
  2. Printing to our copier at work required downloading a new driver. Printing to an older, less popular and consumer grade printer also provided interesting problems, but I was even able to do this using the Vista driver.

Overall, I have (so far) not had a problem I have not been able to solve. This is as much a testament to Win7 as the 32/64 issue, but I think there has been significant evolution of the software over the years to prepare for this moment.

You may be wondering - will we have to move to a 128bit OS in a few years time? Well, there is that whole "never say never" thing (which is clearly self-contradicting, but that's not what I mean). Remember that each extra bit doubles the number it represents. So a 64 bit number isn't double a 32 bit number, it's 4 billion or so larger. That's a LOT of memory (16 billion GB). Like, probably as much as has been manufactured in the history of mankind, or not even. In one PC. Doesn't seem all that likely, does it? So, I think this is probably safe to say the this is the last of these kinds of changes we will have to make in our lifetimes. I've lived through 8, 16, 32 and now 64 bit OS's. Change is pain, but to be honest, this is the least painful of these transitions I have experienced.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Upgrading from Access 95 to Access 2000 (or greater)

This blog entry will only interest a relatively few people on the planet. If you don't use Microsoft Access 95, then I suggest you stop now. This will not make much sense nor be particularly riveting.

I have used Access 95 at work for about the last decade or so. The main piece of software the company uses was written in it, before I started working there and I have carried on from there. On the whole it is a good piece of software, and I think it speaks well that it can be used for so long. It even has some advantages over more recent versions, primarily the ability to have a single server copy of the front end that everyone uses which can be edited in real-time. It might seem like an afterthought, but it has excellent help that is actually helpful. Contrast this to .NET or Excel help which is generally useless. I think perhaps Access 97 was better than 95, and it shared many of the positives and had some features I like such as intellisense (where it completes the word in code, and also gives you parameters for functions etc). Anyway, it's a moot point as we were stuck with 95.

However, it is also not without it's flaws. The most notable being the limit to a machine with 1GB RAM (usable, which is a point worth noting). It also is quite slow sometimes and has some interesting compatibility issues with SQL server data types and locks. For example, it shows boolean values as 0 or -1, but does not actually work in a query if you compare it to -1, but does if you compare to <>0. It fails to delete data in linked ODBC tables reasonably often, I'm not sure why, but at least it let's you know it didn't work. Mind you, we are using the now-old SQL 2000, so that might have something to do with it.

There are some patches that are mandatory for any Access 95 install, by the way, including a patch to the Visual Basic for Applications (VBA) VBA232.dll. The right version is just over 1MB, the wrong one is just under.

Anyway, the deal breaker for us is the RAM issue. 1GB seemed like a massive amount of memory back in good old 1995 when this software was "new", and I believe it still is a lot, but todays machines have and need this and more. Vista was a massive memory hog, which is why at work we stuck with XP, but Windows 7 is a lot more reasonable. Recently we have upgraded a number of desktops at work and they have come with 6GB of RAM and Win 7 Pro 64 bit. This blows poor old Access 95's mind, and it perversely gives the error that that it is out of memory when you try and launch it.

Now, recently I discovered it IS possible to run Access 95 on a machine with over 1GB of RAM. Well, sort of. What you do is limit the machine to only use 1GB (actually, just under), no matter how much RAM is installed. It's certainly easier than physically removing the SIM cards, and it means that you don't have to have the exact SIM configurations installed. To do this you use (in Run type) MSCONFIG and then go to the BOOT.INI, and look at the Advanced Options. In there you can set the max RAM to 1023 MB. This is one MB under 1GB, which as we all know is 1024 and not the dubious marketing 1000 MB. A reboot later and Access 95 will indeed work. The downside of this technique is that the rest of your OS will probably suck badly with this limit. There is a possible relief valve you can use to eek out just a little more performance, if you are determined to go this way, and that is to then increase your virtual memory. This is done in the My Computer (right click), Properties, Advanced, Performance, Virtual Memory. If you set the minimum to 2048, max to 4096 (ie 2-4GB of VM) then things will go.. ok.. probably. When I tried the above to the new 6GB machines, they did indeed work ok. Not as quickly as with the full 6GB, but not too badly. I tried multitasking with 5 or 6 applications (eg Outlook, Word, Excel, Paint, IE, etc) and it all ran. But despite getting this working (and it was somewhat of a revelation to me that this was even possible, I was resigned to the fact that it wasn't), I felt this was a "second best" solution. Really, the time has come to move on from Access 95.

Over the years I have tried to "bulk" upgrade from Access 95. That is, to create a blank database and import the objects from the Access 95 database. I have tried it to 97 and 2000 without success. I can't recall now what exactly went wrong, but after importing a number of objects the whole thing just died - mostly with errors about the code being corrupt or something.

However, on Friday I was able, for the first time, to do this. The machine that did this miracle was my recently rebuilt (due to a hard drive failure) XP box, which has just under 1GB of RAM, and Office 2003 installed, patched to the latest of course. The database being imported into was actually in the older Access 2000 format. The trick was to make sure that the Access 95 database I was importing from could compile first (don't even think about importing it if it doesn't). I imported objects also in a fairly specific order, which may or may not matter. First make sure all the linked tables are there, and any references (I have Excel reference because there is some code that manipulates spreadsheets). I imported the code modules and macros first. Then the queries. Then the forms/reports. Why in this order? Well, these things can rely on each other - and it works best if the thing that is being relied upon is already present. It also allows you to try compiling the database between each step to make sure it all still works.

In our case I need to import three databases into one existing one. The issue of good naming conventions of objects becomes apparent. I have a policy of naming forms, for example, with the prefix "Form A01 - ", showing that it is a form in the database "A", and its number is 01. After the dash is some description of the form. If there is a query used in that form, then the query is called "Form A01 -" too. Reports are "Report A01 - ". Where possible queries are saved and named, so recordsources of forms and objects (eg lists and combo boxes) get saved as named queries. It makes for a lot of queries, but it means they are all visible outside of the form editing. Anyway, one advantage of this system is that when 3 databases are combined the objects are all uniquely named. If they are not, the first duplicate gets a "1" added to the end of it's name, or "2" or "3", depending on how many duplicates there are already. For this reason alone it is also a good convention never to END a named object with a number. The duplicates may or may not be the same of course (think : code fork), which will need to be checked, and if there are hundreds of these it may become an insurmountable problem. Either that or work our where each object is used and rename it, which is a big job again. This needs to be sorted out before the first object is even created, so it's either a problem or it isn't at this stage of the game.

So, was the process perfect? Well, no, not quite. I have only tested certain functions, and most things seem to be working correctly, but there are some oddities. For example, some forms have up to 6 copies of the "file" menu, which is definitely abnormal. These are custom menus, and usually there is just one. I'm not sure what that means at this stage.

[Edit - I worked out what this was caused by. The forms with multiple menus all had subforms, and these subforms had menus set. In access 95, only the parents menus were used but in later version all forms menus were drawn. The fix was therefore simple - remove the menus on the subforms. They were not supposed to be there anyway, it was just from sloppy form copying.]

I seem to recall that there might be issues with the DAO versus ADO view of life - that is, how recordsets are handled in code. I need to check into that pronto as a lot of the important code actually uses this. A re-ordering of references might be all I need to ensure it does what I want, and certainly it has compiled the code, so that's encouraging.

What more is there to say?

Oh, I know. I have had to do some slightly tricky things to emulate the development I had with Access 95. I'm used to editing the server copy and everyone uses that. The problem is that Access 2000 and onward seems to delight in corrupting any multi-user front end. You have to really have a local copy for each user. So how to do this? The solution I came up with is to have a local copy of the front end. When it launches it checks a version number in a table versus a version number which is a constant on the main menu form. If these are different it warns the user that there is an upgrade available. They then press an upgrade button on the form which launches a batch file the quits the app. The batch file pauses for a second (waits for the quit) then copies the server version to the local directory, and then re-launches the database. It all works quite well, apart from the issue that I have different versions of Excel installed around the place (2000, 2003, 2007) and this breaks the references. This is something that needs to be fixed each time - the first time it tried to run code it fails, and drops into debug. Stop the code and deselect the missing reference, and select the right one. Compile and off you go. I have thought of perhaps having three different versions of the master, one for each version of excel, but I can't be assed doing this as I don't have enough users to justify the hassle. If I had hundreds of users I would. Mind you, if I had hundreds of users I don't think I'd be using Access. We do also have a web-based front end, but it's oh-so-much-quicker to develop stuff in Access.

I will be slightly sad to see Access 95 go. It's been a solid workhorse. From 2000 format, I suspect it will be relatively easy to go to 2003 or 2007, but these things have a way of making a liar out of me, so take that with a grain of salt. I'll post here if/when we cross that bridge.