November 2003


When I was a lad I got a guitar. It was mine for the princely sum of $10 (if my memory serves correctly). It was clunky, but there wasn't a whole heap of cash to be frittered away on frivolous things like guitars. (Now pianos - well, they were different, weren't they?) I still have that old acoustic guitar, but not for long. If I thought it would encourage someone to learn to play I'd give it away, but I fear it would permanently scar any aspiring musician. I'm in the process of forming some devastating plans for its demise. Let the plans brew for the moment.

During my university years I bought an electric guitar. My primary purpose for it was experimentation. Now before you start dialing up your local guitar humane society, please remember I was young and foolish then (yeah - bring on the witty one-line responses). It was back at a time when acts of brutality against musical instruments were even acceptable as live entertainment. I was a budding electronics geek. It seemed cool to design and build electronic implants and surgically implant them in a live guitar. I managed to convince myself that it felt no pain - or at least wouldn't remember the pain for long.

Over the past few years I've often thought I'd like to have a "decent" acoustic guitar i.e. one that isn't better suited for use as an industrial-sized soup stirrer. Since my birthday was nearing and WifeOfVirge was wondering what to get me, I voiced my desire. Here it is:

Guitar picture.

Another guitar picture.

My Precious

I got a birthday present today. :) I know it's not my birthday yet, but you can't leave shopping for birthday presents till the last minute, can you? (Okay, I know. I know.) And when you've helped select your own present, you can't pretend it's going to be a surprise, so there's no point in having it wrapped up and saved till the exact date.

I'll take some pictures of it tomorrow.


Sometimes I want to unleash my imagination's dog in the park.

I should set him loose to chase after the seagulls and raise a cloud of panicked wings. He should be free to cock his leg at trees, signing his name on their rooted rigidity. Let him squat and squeeze his abstract art in the middle of the path - another flag for the rollerblade slalom. Let the sun shine and the breeze whiffle his shaggy ears as he bounds after balls and unselfconsciously joins the children's games. He should be free to frighten protective parents with his excited, drool-spraying yelps and unstable exuberance.

Rolling, wriggling and indulging the senses - what other uses could there be for beds of pea straw and chicken shit? Wasn't that flicking sprinkler designed to turn mouthfuls of cold water into frightened game? I want to let him roam out of sight, beyond hearing, open to the distractions of urban environs.

But I won't. I'm too reserved.

Too many pics. Not enough words.

I did snap a few pictures while I was away.

The deer wasn't camera-shy.



Seen the Light

My company's 2003 offsite conference started on Friday with a full day of Lean training. Lean manufacturing is the current flavouring for the bitter pill of productivity. It rolls quality improvement, customer focus, employee empowerment, the thinking organisation and probably quite a few other business narcotics into a smooth blend that can be sold to minors and managers at a premium price.

During the course of Friday's Lean training I was reintroduced to the buzzwords that pepper the gruel:
Muda - waste effort or clutter; non-value-adding activities.
Kanban - a card system for reordering stock in a JIT (just in time) stock system.
Poka Yoke - mistake proofing - the challenge of idiot-proofing grows harder with each passing year.
Value Stream - all the actions that a product goes through as it is made - from raw materials to customer delivery.
VAM - value adding management.

The buzz-word barrage was sufficient to cause me to pen a little sarcastic filk, but more of that later. This Lean movement was not just a production management philosophy. It was a full blown religion. It had efficacious medicaments for any business ailment from flaccid profit figures to market penetration failure. It all made sense. The upper management team had "got religion" and we were all to be converted - at sword point if necessary - for the sake of our eternal souls.

Did I groan at the prospect of being proselytized? No. I saw the possibilities. I had my pad and pencil. I had my sense of humour. For a whole weekend I had a melting pot of zealots and cynics locked away at a country retreat. This was reality TV material being played out in real time.

The highlight of that first day was a simulation of a production line using corks as the product, desks in the training room as the production work-stations, and a fork to carry tiny pallets of corks around. The Cork & Fork game could possibly have been educational if it wasn't for the fact that the "astounding" improvements that Lean brought to this simulation were bleedin' obvious to anyone with half a brain and no leaning to Lean.

It was at this stage that I realised how vast was the gap between Lean production systems and software development. The changes we were already in the process of introducing held far more promise than Lean, so I wrote some notes in my pad:

We learnt how to process a cork
By trucking around with a fork
I still fail to see
how we'll fix R&D
matching cheesy processes with chalk.

The planning meetings on Saturday did modify my view on Lean. There were areas in which our R&D work environment and processes could be improved by applying its precepts. They lay at the periphery - in the inter-departmental interactions. I won't bore you with details here. Even business religions start with good intentions.

On Sunday night, after much scribbling of notes and manipulating words I decided to add some unplanned value to the conference...

[Enter the bard, posing as a passionate priest with a white paper liturgical dog-collar under his black fleecy round-neck top. The 40-odd managers have eaten dinner after partaking in a few rounds of pre-dinner drinks and imbibing a few glasses of local produce during the meal. They have just started some lethargic after-dinner drinking.]

Priest: [with considerable gusto]
Brothers (and sister), is your process saved?
Are you still mired in muda, a slave to the sin of stagnant standards and sloppy systems? You've come to the right place. This is the all-new, customer focused, value streamed Liturgy of Lean.
[mutters about not being able to find his notes among the mass of papers.]
Brethren (and sisteren) let me share with you a little personal testimony.
[humbly] I too was lost. I was blind but I didn't know it.

[adopts a rhythmic partially-singsong voice (not obviously a filk at this stage)]
I though our production lines were doing well.
Shipments now were higher than before.
But, we needed more - faster than before
so I stepped into the Church of Lean.

[breaks into full song]
Then I saw the waste
Now I'm a believer.
Things were out of place
and slowing my line.
Now I've seen the waste - oooh
I'm a believer
Lean is the lever
to make us shine.

[pauses during general hubbub]
Folks, I'd like you to welcome brother K. He would like to share with us a little of what the Lean training has meant to him.

[Brother K sings the song he'd prepared during Friday's training]
Hello Muda, hello fadda,
Adding value, working harda.
Camp is very entertaining.
We must all start having fun and stop complaining.

Take me home from Muda Fadda.
Take me home from working harda.
Don't leave me out of the process
where I might get even more grey hair.

All the managers hate the workers
and the benchmarks always hurt us.
You remember Edward Demming
He created fads that always keep returning.

Priest: [waits for laughter to subside]
The Gospel according to Value Stream is a religion that'll put a smile on your face. It's fun! Help me out with this next song. There are only six words you need to remember. The first three are "muda", "muda" and "muda". The remaining three are "value", "value" and...
"value". Just watch my hand for when to come in.

[raises hand and starts a filk of YMCA]
Muda! It's a Japanese noun.
I mean Muda! Things that slow your line down.
I said Muda! It's the stuff that you do
that you've done the same way always.
Value! in the customer's mind
is the Value! that we're hoping to find,
and that's Value! that will pay its own way
if we have the faith to find out.

[stomp stomp stomp stomp stomp]
It's fun to chuck out the M.U.D.A.
such fun eliminating M.U.D.A.
Trash the things that annoy.
It's a job full of joy.
It'll help us to stay employed!
We're happy throwing out the M.U.D.A.
No, it's never a bore -
not a difficult chore.
It'll stop us from going off-shore.

[pauses for eruption]
You don't have to be a genius to convert to a lean life. There are lots of easy initials to help you remember the creed e.g. the Five S's - how easy is that? Just count on your fingers... 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 - oh, and if you're Tasmanian we have an extra S. That's S for safety. When you have the "sixth S" you don't have to worry about "I see dead people."
[pauses to allow film allusion to penetrate... no response... carries on regardless]

Don't worry too much about the acronyms and Japanese words. You'll pick it up as we go. It's easy:
[breaks into song with hand actions]
You put your value in.
You throw your muda out.
You put your Kanban in

[adds a little pelvic thrust]
and you VAM it all about!
You do your Poka Yoke
and your turns abound.
That's what it's all about

[dives into the next song before the laughter ceases]
Priest: You ready Steve?
K: a-ha
Priest: Craig?
K: a-ha
Priest: John?
K: ok!
Priest: Alright fellas! Let's go!

Oh life's been getting so hard
working with the goals you set for me.
[plays air guitar and sings the riff]"ba ba ba--ba ba, ba ba ba--ba ba"
The way the bar keeps rising -
dashing any hope of victory.
[guitar riff]"ba ba ba--ba ba, ba ba ba--ba ba"

There's a team at the back and they're ready to crack
'cause the odds are a million to one.
And the time keeps a-slipping despite all the whipping
'cause they've flown the project too close to the sun.

Ohhh, Yeah!
It was so humbling.
Everybody was grumbling
as the deadlines were flying
and the bonus was dying.
So we tried other courses
using all the resources
then with some hesitation
changed specification.
Yeah! - Yeah, yeah, yeha, yeah

And the man with the spec. said damn it to heck
we're gonna turn it to a deadline blitz.
And the man in accounts said we're losing huge amounts -
gotta make it through the deadline blitz.
[fades on blitz blitz blitz]

[bows and exits]

Health and Wellbeing Secrets

Some of you will probably already know that WifeOfVirge and I designed our own house. My engineering background can be blamed for the "this can't be too difficult" approach. What none of you would have known is that this house design embodies a number of arcane arts for increasing the health and wellbeing of the house dwellers.
Since it has become obvious that I can't use these secret techniques to make trailer-loads of cash (because of all the charlatans who have pedalled their bogus new-age novelties and feng shui fictions), I have decided to reveal my gnosis for the benefit of the world at absolutely no cost. You, the intelligent reader, would understand that what I am about to say must be true, since I stand to gain nothing by the revelation. The gift I offer is for purely philanthropic purposes. (Now that I've pumped up the warm and fuzzy feelings I can cope with the shoulder pain that comes from trying to pat one's self on the back.)

Secret 1: Complete Crystal Coverage
I guess you would all be aware that gypsum crystals promote mental focus, growth, luck and immunity. The research already done leaves very little room for doubt of its efficacy. It was with this in mind that we decided to line the inside of our house with gypsum impregnated board. The best way we could think of to reap the mystic crystal benefits was to completely surround ourselves with gypsum - while we eat, while we sleep, and even more so in the smallest room while we meditate on spiritual matters.

Secret 2: Aging like the Ancients
The care needed in designing our roofing angles cannot be underestimated. The roof pitch has been set to exactly Pi/5 times the pitch of Khufu's Great Pyramid at Giza. It was during my study of hieroglyphs in the late 80's that I discovered the mathematical error in the Egyptians' biological time-dilation equations. I nearly missed the slip myself until I tried to reconcile their convergence factors with my Sumerian records. (Their design wasn't a complete waste. The pitch they used turned out to be extremely close to the second harmonic of the tomb's wave equation. The resonance they achieved was sufficient to extend a pharaoh's life expectancy by many years.)

Secret 3: Mansion of Memories
In today's society, nobody can afford to neglect the effects of magnetic fields. Magnetite harmonises the ying and yang poles in our bodies. It strengthens the circulatory system and promotes faster healing. What most scholars have overlooked is the effects magnets can have on memory. In our house design we allocated a special alcove in the kitchen for an array of small but strong magnets attached to a 520 litre metal container. The magnetic grid has proven to be an invaluable aid for recalling appointments, council waste collection schedules, and even postcards. This white-enamelled box with its attractive assortment of colourful magnets has become the magnetic pole of the house. The field lines surrounding the magnets draw us at all hours of day and night.

If you're considering building a new home you owe it yourself to explore the design rules. You need not be locked into the tedious status quo of house-building. Just a little care will mean the difference between a dated, draining, tired accomodation and a timeless, balanced, healthy and enlightened home.


I had no idea they existed. You hear about these mutants in urban myths and camp-fire fantasy stories and, if you're like me, just ignore them. Sure, there's a lot of people think they're werewolves, vampires, aliens, and various other fantastic freaks, but you never expect to meet one that isn't acting or deluded.

Earlier tonight I found out otherwise. I discovered that someone I had known for many years was really a hybrid organism with twice as much genetic material as you or I possess.

Of course there were signs. I was too accepting of differences, unwilling to observe the obvious markers, too politically correct back in the years before political correctness became a media cudgel for beating office workers. It was tolerant people like me who allowed her to insinuate herself into our normal human society.

She was charming and effervescent, witty and talented. How was I to know she was an amalgam of two individuals? I knew her eyes were completely different colours but the significance of the mismatch eluded me. If she had sat down and told me "Virge, I am actually a chimera. I'm a fusion of two humans who lost themselves when they became me," I would have just laughed at her colourful imagination.

She is still alive even as I write this journal entry. There is nothing that I can legally do about it. There is nothing at all that I want to do about it. It's time for me to stand up and be counted. One of my friends is a chimera.


I dream of the day when the mass media can publish common sense information about risks and how to deal with them, rather than pedal the panic machine. Surviving Nuclear, Chemical and Biological Attacks has a no-nonsense view.

Cuteness: Teddybear Pyramid.

"We have found a way to cure so many diseases and a way to look like you are 17 years old. There will be six to nine months demonstrating and then we will be showing everything," - Dr Brigitte Boisselier. It sounds impressive until you hear who is making the claims. This has been another great step forward in "credible" science brought to you by the Raelians.


It was just another morning until I got to my office and found two envelopes addressed to me. They were the worst kind of envelopes - not the "have we got a deal for you?" kind that can be safely filed in the bin without opening, nor the handwritten address kind sent by a human with a brain. These were intransigent, bureaucratic missive-delivery facilitators, and they seemed to bark "Open me now. You have twenty seconds to comply."

I opened the first - $125 fine for being photogenic while travelling at 68km/h in a 60km/h zone. I looked at the alleged location and date. Yes, that was where I was on November 3rd and the speed measurement is possibly correct although I did keep a pretty close eye on my speed. I don't think I was speeding on that day but there are plenty of other occasions when I've deserved infringement notices but remained undetected. It's a fair cop. There goes 1 demerit point from my driver's licence.

I looked at the second envelope. It looked identical. "Oh, no! Not another one," I pleaded as I opened it. It wasn't another speeding fine. It was worse. It was a $500 fine for driving an unregistered vehicle.


The new registration sticker was delivered to me at work. Admittedly I was slow to stick it on the car window, but I had the registration. Then I wondered if my work's finance department had been a little tardy in paying bills. The previous year's registration expired on October 28th. Maybe the payment hadn't been made by November 3rd.

It was time to face the phone system of a large government department. I can design software. I can solve calculus problems. I can even count to 1023 on my fingers and thumbs. Yet I still shudder when faced with such ingenious defence systems as those erected to guard government bureaucracies.

I was pleasantly surprised. The automatic answering system was easy to navigate. I selected the option to check my demerit point total... type in licence number... type in date of birth... you have entered blah blah blah is this correct? type 1 for yes... etc.
"Your demerit point total is zero."
That's what it said. Zero. But the infringement notice said I'd just lost a point. I guess their system is slow. I decided to ignore that and get help from an operator on the lack of registration payment. A further surprise left me a little off balance. There was no waiting time for the next available customer service representative. I was in like a thing in another thing.

The rep was helpful. I'll call him Melvyn to avoid admitting that I don't remember his real name. He listened. He understood. He went to check if the payment had been received but placed under suspense for some reason.
Melvyn said: "It looks like the payment was made at the end of September but it's the wrong amount. We received an amount of $523.30 while the registration bill was only for $522.20, so the payment is held at the moment."
"So my car really should be registered? The bill has been overpaid? Does that mean I can have the $500 fine cancelled?" I was relieved. This was obviously their problem, not mine.
"I'll have to put you through to another department for that. Just hold on while I transfer your call."

The next rep was ready to help and I didn't even have to repeat all my details. Should I have pinched myself? Was this too good for any government system? She looked at my case. Oops. Melvyn had mistyped my car's registration number. No, there was no record of any payment for my car's registration. Not a sausage.

My investigation turned back to the company's finance department. I went upstairs into the land of bean-numeracy. Their message was clear. If I'd got the registration sticker, then the bill must have been paid. These people work their systems like bean-machines. The registration sticker doesn't get delivered to the driver until after the bill has been paid. It's a foolproof system. The only problem was that I had the sticker and they couldn't find any record of having paid the bill.

At this stage, old Virge was starting to feel better. There was a slip-up. They hadn't paid the bill. They'll search again and find it accidentally stapled to the back of another bill, or pinned to the new graduate accountant's back for a little wacky-as initiation joke. The company would pay the $500 fine or plead with VicRoads for clemency. It would be out of my hands. See Virge relax.

I left them to look further for the payment records.

Later in the morning I got an e-mail from the financial controller. In a nutshell it said "The company has a policy of not paying for employee fines. Discuss it with your manager. Present your registration notice to finance so they can pay the annual registration. Don't drive your car until you have the registration receipt."

See Virge tense. I went to see my manager. He didn't want to discuss the fine at all. I'd have to see the personnel manager or the director for that. I left Pontius washing his hands to further follow my via dolorosa.

I'd better stop hammering the keyboard about this. You don't want to hear more details of Virge gettin' grumpy with it. The crux of the screw up was that a change in the car leasing scheme done last year meant that the registration sticker did get sent to the company, but not via the finance department. After about 10 years of having a registration sticker sent to me already paid by the company, this year the finance department didn't get to see it because it was addressed directly to me, but still sent to the company's street address. Therefore, it was supposed to be up to me to detach the notice and send it to Finance to be paid.

The saga isn't over. I haven't written off the $500 yet. It's a huge fine for an innocent paper-work mistake. I may be able to sweet-talk VicRoads into cancelling or reducing the fine. Wish me luck.

Something special

There is something special about coming to work on a spring morning, when the air is cleaner than an obsessive compulsive's toothbrush, the birds are broadcasting their conversations like histrionic teenagers on a fan forum, and the sun has either had an earlier night last night or has bought itself a new alarm clock. I punch my plastic key into the complementary slot to unlock the door, thinking back to the valuable life lessons taught by shape-matching toddler-toys. How would I have survived this high-tech environment if not for the square pegs of childhood?

Through the door and round the corner walks the feeling-special engineer. I swipe my bar-coded name tag down the (again complementary) time clock channel. It beeps reassuringly - one staccato pip. I, Virge, am in and the machine knows it. There is a bounce in my step. No dragging feet. I don't want to leave nasty black marks on the lino, do I?

Two more corners take me to the start of "the carpet". Ordinarily this carpet's spectre would loom up before me and wail its mournful cry that I may have bitched about in former journal entries. It normally whispers to me as I tread its rotting threads. Its theme is a repetitive nasal chant of just one word: "neglect". Does it haunt me this morning? No way. My first view of "the carpet" this morning reveals change. The splits in its threadbare ruts had in the past been covered with strips of bright yellow adhesive tape and even that tape had been peeling. Today there was a difference that brought a jaunt to my pre-existing bounce.

Before I tell you about the difference, you need to know why anyone would cover the carpet gashes with bright yellow tape. The holes could not be allowed to stay - they represented a tripping danger. Employee safety is extremely high on the director's agenda. It's not that he cares so much for us, otherwise he might actually approve the renovation budgets and we might get floor coverings that cover the floor. No, it's high in priority because of the new proactive workplace safety regulations (translated as "big fines if you don't preempt any ridiculously vague potential threat"). So why use canary colouring? Why have the carpet patches chirp at the corners of your vision? Because the engineers were pissed off with nothing being done about the carpet and wanted to draw attention to its state of decay.

Now, the difference that added the scoop of icecream to my effervescent mood lay in the solution to the problem of the peeling yellow tape. What do you do when your bright yellow "hey boss, I really need replacing" bandage has been in place for six months and itself is succumbing to the infection? You don't just replace the tape - you apply a different coloured tape to the edges of the peeling yellow tape to hold it down.

I chuckled onwards to my office. It doesn't take very much to make a day special.


A colleague of mine brought in a cut peony rose from his garden. (It is huge. The hand in the picture is not petite.) I must remember to take my camera when I visit.

Just some links

Here's some links that made me chuckle.

For those of you with some experience in software development, here is a heart-warming story: ".NET Saves Boy Down Well".

For Magic: The Gathering fans, you know you want the Mormonism deck. "Mormonism: The Gathering".

Do you enjoy your work? Check out the worst jobs in science.