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Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Keeping Abreast of Improvements in Housing Technology

For those of you in the home construction industry around the Mid-Atlantic Area, the Pennsylvania Housing Research Center of Penn State's College of Engineering is offering the 25th in an annual series of conferences aimed at improving the quality and affordability of housing.

The 25th Annual PHRC Conference...
"provides information and updates on issues of interest to the residential construction industry. The first day of the conference, Wednesday (3/1), focuses on issues related to housing structures and their systems via breakout session in four tracks: Building Science & Technology, Construction & Management, Building Codes, and Multifamily. The second day of the conference, Thursday (3/2), provides opportunities to attend full-day workshops relating to specific areas of residential construction."

This is a nice program that offers local builders to catch up on the latest innovations and regulations while networking with folks that think a lot about the future of housing. And all at a very reasonable cost. Early registration discounts for the March 1-2 conference end in a couple of days, so check it out now.

Details and registration for the conference can be found here. 


Friday, February 17, 2017

Notes from the Road (15) - A Day That Will Live in Infamy

No, we're not talking about December 7, 1941, although we Americans will remember that one for much longer than any participants of that day in Pearl Harbor walk this earth.

I discovered another day of infamy, that the horrible Second World War brought us, one not really known by most Americans, but one that Australians will remember for just as long.

February 19, 1942. Seventy-five years ago this weekend...
"The Bombing of Darwin, also known as the Battle of Darwin, on 19 February 1942 was the largest single attack ever mounted by a foreign power on Australia. On that day, 242 Japanese aircraft, in two separate raids, attacked the town, ships in Darwin's harbour and the town's two airfields in an attempt to prevent the Allies from using them as bases to contest the invasions of Timor and Java. The town was only lightly defended and the Japanese inflicted heavy losses upon the Allied forces at little cost to themselves. The urban areas of Darwin also suffered some damage from the raids and there were a number of civilian casualties. 
The two Japanese air raids were the first, and largest, of more than 100 air raids against Australia during 1942–43." 
- Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bombing_of_Darwin
I had no idea this ever happened, until I found myself on the very dock that was hit on the first wave of the attack.

A striking image, as you're standing on the very dock where this happened.

Lest we forget...
The view of Darwin harbor today, in better times.
The raid on Darwin differed from that of Pearl Harbor, in that Australia had already declared war on Japan. The similarity was that it was just as successful, and that the inhabitants were just as surprised that day as the waves of Japanese planes buzzed down.

The Australian military, as well as the populace, decided it was a good time to retreat a little inland, to let the outback serve as a natural ally against the invasion that all assumed was sure to come.

The military retreated to here, as a first line of defense against the invasion. That's Darwin across the bay, with the harbor line low against the water.

The site is now the Charles Darwin National Park. I went expecting to find a bespectacled botanist park ranger combing through a treasure trove of  botanical specimens, and found instead a deserted park with deserted WWII ammunition bunkers.

Well, now, this is Australia. An open bunker for anyone to examine. The Australians can still afford to trust folks.

An interesting side story here.  Those pallets the boxes are sitting on...the hundreds of thousands of pallets used to import ammunition and other equipment from the US were left scattered all over the country after the war, and the Allied Materials Handling Standing Committee which had been managing war-time logistics was privatized as the Commonwealth Handling Equipment Pool. You may know that organization today as CHEP.
Well, I wandered around the park, and as I was once again in an unfamiliar range of forest, without the bespectacled guide I was hoping for, I could do little but walk and shoot.



The rest of Darwin's population headed farther, much farther inland, some as far as Alice Springs, 1500 kilometers away. But the bulk of them ended up in the little town of Katherine, a three or four day walk/ride back in those days, and waited out the war. The anticipated invasion never came, much to the relief of both the Australians and the Japanese soldiers.

The highway between Darwin and Alice Springs today. I doubt it looked this good back in 1942.
Lots of remnants of the war still remain. Here at a roadside park near Katherine are the old foundations of a staging camp.
And as you go farther inland, the terrain gets noticeably rougher. But the natives still find peace there. I saw this young lady jogging barefoot down the road from the camp at Tennant Creek, and when I went back down the road later I saw her sitting up on this outcropping, admiring the view. 
And this was the sunset she was pondering.
I had one more walkabout on the this road, about 200 kilometers north of Tennant Creek the next morning. Much of the land had been burned over, but I found a spot that looked pretty good, and got out to stretch my legs. Once again, I struggle to identify any species, but I invite my Australian friends to identify any species they can, and leave the video time mark and species name in the comments.


The biggest disappointment of my trip is that I did not get to visit the Kakadu National Park, a huge preserve just east of the road I've described in this post, that Ludwig Leichardt and his men stumbled through in the closing stages of their first, successful trip. I was running just a little behind on my trip, and considering how exhausted I was, and that I could use a day in Darwin to recuperate before climbing on an airplane for an around-the-world return to Pennsylvania, I decided to bypass the park and leave it for next time.

But here's a nice slide show on Google Earth that gives us a taste of what awaits our visit.

Well, I could share hundreds of more photos, and a few more stories of Australia, but I guess you get the gist of it by now. A big land, a great people, and a dazzling variety of ecosystems. I hope to make it back again some day.


Friday, February 10, 2017

Notes from the Road (14) - It's Saturday night, and the Pubs in Australia are Full

Well, we've reached the end of another long week, and you're looking forward to relaxing a bit. Looking through my Australian photos, I remembered a Saturday night in Queensland that gave me a break from the bush, and showed me how the real folks relax in the outback.

I had come a long way, and just as sun hit the horizon, I made it to the town of Blackall, Queensland.

Watching the sunset from the upper porch of the Barcoo Hotel in Blackall, Queensland. Don't know what XXXX Gold is, but I think I'll mosey downstairs and try some.
After throwing my bag upstairs, washing my hands and face, and brushing the flies out of my teeth, I casually sauntered down to the pub to grab a bite and a bit of the local color. The food was good...I think I had fried steak, or lamb, and the fries (chips down under) were just right, crunchy and yet light. I had learned to avoid what the Australians call tomato sauce, which is what you get when you ask for ketchup. It's a tasteless, slightly sweet red soup that trickles onto your food, and improves it in no way whatsoever. I'm opening a Heinz distribution company down there someday.

As I ate, I watched the locals come and go. I'm pretty sure everyone in Blackall is either related or knows each other in some way. As each group came in, they all gave a hearty greeting, and if any kids were in tow, they got hugs all around. It was nice to watch, but it made me feel just a bit more uneasy, as it was obvious that I was the only stranger in the place. But the waitress was friendly and acted like there was nothing wrong with a stranger in their midst, so I ate and watched folks drink beer, chat and laugh, and bet on horse races and lotteries above the bar.

Plenty of action in Blackall on a Saturday night.
I did have one problem in this scenario...I couldn't quite figure out what language the folks were speaking. I think it was English, in the same way that a New Yorker thinks that Texans are speaking English; sort of, but not really. I came to understand that the analogy is an apt one, because Queensland, especially in the outback, is to southern Aussies what Luckenbach is to New York City...a quaint place to spend an evening with Willie and Waylon and the boys, but not one to live in.

I felt right at home.

As I tested various species of the local drafts (the XXXX Gold is on their marquee for a reason), a couple of the screens were switched to a "football" game. Now I had tried to watch a couple of "football" games, but I couldn't get them straight...they seemed to be different games depending on where you were watching them. In New South Wales I had seen a bunch of guys named the Swans (really?) running around with a ball, and then kicking it wildly away whenever somebody got close to them. Sort of reminded me of the way my little brother played football in the front yard with me and the guys back in the day. But here in Blackall, the football game had a different look...one whole team lined up, and then the runner on the other team crashed headlong into them, until, bloodied and woozy, he gave up and passed the ball back to one of his mates. Now this, I liked.

But still, the action seemed random, and it never stopped, so I had a heck of a time figuring out what was going on. But I had just enough XXXX in me to muster up the courage to try to ask someone to give me a brief introduction to the game.

Well, there was one particular patron that night, a lady named Sally, who was so into the game that she kept shushing the folks around her so she could hear the game. She also had a jersey of one of the teams on, and seemed to be the only one who really cared what was going on. So in a break, I sidled over to her, apologized for being a dumb American, and asked what I thought might be an intelligent question about the game.

Without looking away from the screen, she said, "Pull up a stool, be quiet, and listen." And she proceeded to give me a running explanation of every facet of the game, play by play. We were rooting for the Broncos, and the other guys were the Cowboys. (Hmmm, sounded familiar.) This was a big playoff game, a semifinal in the championship of the Australian rugby football league, not to be confused with the Australian Football League, in which those sissy Swans played. And you know, the way she explained it, it started making some sense to me, and I actually started getting into the game. Just like two strangers at a Steelers' game, it was easy to relate to the action, especially when one of those darn Cowboys tried to rip the head off of one of our Bronco boys.

By halftime, the pub had inexplicably thinned out, and the bartender told us they were closing up for the night. No problem, explained Sally...there's another pub just down the road, within walking distance. Hmmmm...it was already past my bedtime, and I had to hit the road at sunrise the next morning, but I wanted to see the Broncos pull this one out, darn it. So I sallied forth with Sally.

We went down a block, turned right and began to walk through a neighborhood. It was dark, but the moon gave us a little light to see the street. I sure didn't see any pub ahead...the town seemed to becoming to a dead end. Sally explained the railroad used to run by this side of town, and the pub was next to where the railroad used to be. I began to have visions of headlines in State College that read something like "Professor's Remains found on Outskirts of Foreign Town" when suddenly there was a light in a window, we went in a little house-looking place, and there was a bar, and a TV.

And interestingly, the place was filled to standing room only...with the same crowd that I recognized from the last pub. By now, I was getting to feel like a regular.

Well, Sally kept explaining, but the game turned against the Broncos, which the rest of the pub seemed to like, since they were almost all rooting for the Cowboys. One of the bartenders came over to us, looked at me suspiciously, and asked, "What'll it be, Auntie?" Sally introduced me to her niece, who looked at me once more like I was an axe murderer after Aunt Sally's hidden treasure, but Sally assured her I was just a dumb American learning about rugby, the real football. Well, the young lady accepted that, but she kept an eye on me the rest of the night.

In the end, the Broncos lost, but Sally took it in stride.  She explained to me that next week, she would be rooting for the Cowboys, because after all, they were a Queensland team going against a club from New South Wales. That seemed a little odd to me...I couldn't imagine the Steelers losing to the Eagles in a playoff game, and me rooting for the Eagles next week just because they were from Pennsylvania. But that's the Aussie way, I suppose.

Sally guided me back to the Barcoo, and we were good enough friends by now that a handshake seemed silly, so we hugged and I thanked her for a night of being a real Aussie. She laughed, gave me her card, and told me to look her up the next time I was passing through...since she was a writer for a local newspaper and they always need good stories. Because, well, you know, nothing interesting ever happens in those little country towns, even in the outback.

The next morning, I was up with the sun, taking in the sounds of the outback birds and road trains, before I headed out once again.



Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Notes From the Road (13) - The Longest Walkabout: The Story of Ludwig Leichhardt

Source: Amazon.com

One of the discoveries I made in Australia is the story of Ludwig Leichhardt, early Australian explorer, botanist, and legend. Without realizing it, I had been roughly following the path of the first of Leichhardt's three forays into the bush...the difference being, that I was riding in an air-conditioned Toyota, and he was really walking it, back in the 1840's.

I had successfully reached the way-station of Barkly Homestead in Tablelands, Northern Territory after a drive of about five hours from Camooweal, Queensland. I only remember that particular leg because it was the most lonesome stretch of the trip...there is literally no sign of humanity between the two places. I had filled up with gas at Camooweal, Queensland, which is on the border with the Northern Territory, and the signs warned me that the next stop, Barkly Homestead, was a long ways away. I went back in the store and grabbed a large bottle of water, just in case.


That drive of 267 kilometers was the most memorable of my trip, just because it was soooo long and quiet. I think only three vehicles passed me in five hours, and two of them were road trains. I stopped several times to walk off the road, to check out the landscape and vegetation.

Just like this, pretty much the whole way from Camooweal to Tablelands...
...and they want to keep it that way.

Good grazing, if you're an Australian steer with your own personal 100 acres.
The soil is thin...
...but the termites love it.
The king of the Northern Territory savannah, the Ghost Gum, Corymbia aparrerinja.
I shot a short piece of video looking at this tree...just the tree, the sky, and the wind. Possibly my best moment in Australia.


I eventually arrived at the Barkly Homestead, and stopped for a late lunch...a huge, delicious burger and fries, icy-cold Coca-Cola, and a shining clean bathroom. Not what I expected for the middle of the Australian outback.

It was at Barkly Homestead that I happened to pick up the book at the top of this post, threw it in the back of the car, and forgot about it until I got home. It was then, while reading of the travels and travails of Ludwig Leichhardt, I realized how incredibly fortunate we are to live in the 21st century, instead of the 19th.

Leichhardt had undertaken nearly the same trip as I, from Sydney up into Queensland (before it was Queensland) and over across to the Northern Territory. He was a botanist with a desire to explore the interior of the continent, to find that magnificent river that all Australians of the time were sure existed...a mighty "Mississippi" that flowed from the center of the continent and drained on one of the coasts. From 1842 to 1848(?) he roamed the Australian outback, collecting and naming plants, rivers, and mountain ranges as he came across them. He took three official expeditions to find the great interior river, and therein is his lasting legacy.

His first trip, from August 1844 to December of 1845, was the best documented and productive. He drove his expedition from Sydney inland for about 150 miles, then turned north and west, roughly parallel to the Northeastern coast of the continent.

By Public domain map from Project Gutenberg Australia, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2118309
This long trip was intended to find a route by which Australians could reasonably make an inland trip from the southeastern settlements of Sydney and Moreton Bay to the northern outpost of Port Essington, and thereby open up the continent to settling and development. Along the way, though, the expedition endured floods, attacks from the natives, and near starvation, before finally arriving in Port Essington, emaciated ghosts of the hearty men that left fourteen months earlier.

The whole way, their path was driven by the need for water. Wherever water might be, that's where they went. Wrote Leichhardt:
"The detection of isolated waterholes in a wooded country, where there is nothing visible to indicate its presence, is quite a matter of chance, We have often unconsciously passed well-filled waterholes, at less than a hundred yards distant, whilst we were suffering severely from thirst. Our horses and bullocks never showed that instinctive faculty of detecting water, so often mentioned by other travelers; and I remember instances, in which the bullocks have remained the whole night, not 50 yards from the waterholes, without finding them; and, indeed, whenever we came to small waterholes, we had to drive the cattle down to them, or they would have strayed off to find water elsewhere. On several occasions I followed their tracks, and observed they were influenced entirely by their sight when in search of it; at times attracted by a distant patch of deeper verdure, at others following a down a hollow or a watercourse, but I do not recall a single instance where they found water for themselves....
In looking for water, my search was first made in the neighborhood of hills, ridges, and ranges, which from their extent and elevation were most likely to lead me to it, either in beds of creeks, or rivers, or in waterholes, parallel to them. In an open country, there are many indications which a practised eye will readily spot: a cluster of trees of a greener foliage, hollows of luxuriant grass, eagles circling in the air, crows, cockatoos, pigeons (especially before sunset), and the call of Grallina australis and flocks of little finches, would always attract our attention.
...
Much, indeed the greater portion, of my journey had been occupied in long reconnoitering rides; and he who is thus occupied is in a continued state of excitement, now buoyant with hope, as he urges on his horse toward some distant range or blue mountain, as he follows the favourable bend of a river; now all despairing and miserable, as he approaches the foot of the range without finding water from which he could start again with renewed strength, or as the river turns in an unfavourable direction, and slips out of his course. Evening approaches; the sun has sunk below the horizon for some time, but still he strains his eye through the gloom for the dark verdure of a creek, or strives to follow the arrow-like flight of a pigeon, the flapping of those wings has filled him with a sudden hope, from which he relapses again into a still greater sadness; with a sickened heart he drops his head to a broken and interrupted rest, whilst his horse is hobbled by his side, unwilling from excessive thirst to feed on the dry grass. How often I have found myself in these different states of the brightest hope and the deepest misery, riding along, thirsty, almost lifeless, and ready to drop from my saddle with fatigue; the poor horse tired like his rider, footsore, stumbling over every stone, running heedlessly against the trees, and wounding my knees! These were the hours of deepest despair on this long expedition, accompanying the men on their every step. But suddenly, the note of Grallina australis, the call of cockatoos, or the croaking of frogs is heard, and hopes are bright again; water is certainly at hand; the spur is applied to the flank of the tired beast, which already partakes in his rider's anticipations, and quickens his pace - and a lagoon, a creek, or a river is before him. The horse is soon unsaddled, hobbled, and well-washed; a fire is made, the teapot is put to the fire, the meat is dressed, the enjoyment of the poor reconnoiterer is perfect."
Now, if you think that sounds pretty rough, let me tell you, those are some of the rosiest passages of Leichhardt's memoirs. His first venture was counted as a brilliant success, considering that all but one of his party of nine emerged safely from the bush at their intended destination. But his second venture didn't go so well...
"Leichhardt's second expedition, undertaken with a government grant and substantial private subscriptions, started in December 1846. It was supposed to take him from the Darling Downs to the west coast of Australia and ultimately to the Swan River and Perth. However, after covering only 800 km the expedition team was forced to return in June 1847 due to heavy rain, malarial fever and famine."
-Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ludwig_Leichhardt
That description of the second expedition glosses over one of the most excruciating journeys you're ever likely to read about. Here are a couple of the "highlights"...
"When we first came to Erythrina creek, a great number of blowflies suddenly appeared which not only blowed with maggots our sheepskins, but all our blankets, our shirts, and tarpawlings. These nasty insects were equally frequent...during the last 3 days and as the moist weather allowed the maggots to live, we scarcely could defend ourselves against their numbers. My poncho for instance had a piece of opossum cloak round the slit. This was blown and as it commenced to rain and I put my head through the slit, thousands came into the hair of my head and beard and I was teeming with maggots all over my body which, worse than lice, tried my substance, boring most eagerly into my skin. I washed, I combed, I brushed  and with the latter I tolerably succeeded in cleaning myself, most terribly disgusted with the filthy things."
"I cannot record all the miseries, all the anxieties of the last week. By God's mercy we are out of them in part and are out of a camp, where we had to stop from the 20th of April to the 2nd of May. I myself got very ill, a severe attack of fever took hold of me in consequence of eating too much of the broth of the young tainted meat and shook me most mercifully for several days. My feet were swollen in the ankles and a dark transparent spot formed within my left eye. Mr. Bunce, Mr. Turnbull, Perry, Hely, Mann, Brown all got worse and Wommai crawled only slowly along. In such a state, how could we attend to our rambling horses and cattle, how find our last 3 horses!" 
Somehow, after losing all their livestock and most of their horses, they managed to stumble back to an outpost, and thereby survive the ordeal. Not one to be so easily dissuaded of his dream of finding the promising heaven of the interior of Australia, Leichhardt rested a short while, recruited a new bunch of "explorers", and headed out once more. As author Hans Wilhem Finger describes it...
"In the early morning of 5 or 6 April 1848, when the meat from their first slaughter had dried sufficiently to be stored, the long procession left to follow the Cogoon to the north Leichhardt rode ahead, reins in one hand, compass in the other, followed by Classen, leading the most amenable mule laden with essential equipment. Nineteen mules followed in a row, accompanied by one or two men or horseback; the cattle brought up the rear surrounded by the remaining mounted men and dogs scurried in between. A thick cloud of dust enveloped them all.
Unknown land stretched far in front and the convoy disappeared into a wilderness that devoured it for good." 
Neither Leichhardt nor any of his men of this third and final expedition were ever heard from again. After about three or four years, Australians began to wonder about them, and finally to assume they were lost forever. The legend of Ludwig Leichhardt was cemented in history, and Australians have spent the succeeding century and a half looking for any trace of them. A few small finds have been made, but none that could be confirmed and linked definitively to the party.

I hope they never do.