Melbourne, I love you, but you’re hopeless at winter

Melbourne, we need to talk. Not about your tedious obsession with sport or your own perceived cultural superiority (whatever that is). No, we need to chat about the elephant in the room, the thing that people from other parts of Australia make fun of. Your utterly hopeless approach to winter.

Stop, stop. Don’t argue or protest, you know it’s true. I know Melbourne summers are far worse than the winters in terms of climatic extremes. And I also know that winter in Melbourne is nowhere near as cold as North America, Europe or that big village in the island south of Sorrento. But there’s an issue and we need to tackle it. Admitting you have a problem is the first step.

First thing’s first. Accept the fact that although we’re not in Toronto, winter is cold. It’s rarely freezing, but it’s often that shitty kind of cold weather that makes you perpetually chilly, inside or out. You’re always either under-dressed or over-dressed. Despite the plethora of arctic-grade puffer jackets out on the streets it’s just annoyingly cold rather than actually dangerous. A hundred and fifty ducks worth of coat is one thing, but you’re kidding yourself when you can pair it with black lycra leggings. It’s cold, but it’s not proper cold, so stop whining.

That said, proper building design is a problem. You know the difference between Melbourne and Stockholm? In Stockholm they build for the weather. Everything is double and triple glazed, heating is built in rather than tacked on as an afterthought, and weatherboard will never be an acceptable building material. Build your houses better and they’ll be much nicer to live in, winter or summer. Canada has miles of underground shopping centres because it is simply too inhospitable above ground in winter.

And yes, before you ask, I am sitting here shivering as I write this in a weatherboard house.

The other thing we could learn from the Europeans about winter is that getting the temperature right is only half the problem. The other issue is addressing the perpetual greyness. The gloom of a Melbourne winter is a legitimate downer, and comparable to England. Sure, it doesn’t go on as long, and we’re not sitting in a lukewarm bath cutting ourselves, but months of grey skies and asphalt is bad for the soul. There’s a reason that Scandinavia have high rates of depression, and it’s not because they’ve run out of things to do after designing a just social security system. It’s the grey.

How to fix it? If you’re the kind of person who reads interior design magazines you’ll be familiar with the Danish word hygge. This is loosely translated as “cosiness”, but is probably more accurately described as “how not to kill yourself and others between October and March”. We need to inject a bit of hygge, a bit of winter culture, into how we live our lives. I’m talking candles, blankets, open fires, big pots of stew, whisky, and cuddling. See if you can get lucky too, that’ll help with the endorphins.

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Legitimate therapy

The idea of hygge basically accepts that humans are essentially bald tropical monkeys, and that we need to be kind to ourselves during the cold months. Even Melbourne with it’s scorching, brain-melting summers is cold compared to the cradle of the human species in Africa. Winter hardly bears thinking about. We need to do a better job of acknowledging that winter basically sucks arse and built in some psychological support.

So there you have it Melbourne. I’m not judging you. But you need to get with the program, this has gone on long enough. I’m here to help.

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Why people in cities can’t walk properly

Do you ever get frustrated with people around you in the city who don’t seem to pay attention? People who can’t walk? People with no apparent peripheral vision? This concept from wild navigator Tristan Gooley may illuminate this problem.

“A study by the US Military found that soldiers of equal military experience did not see the world in the same way. Most criticallt, some soldeiers were markedly better at spotting dangers, like improvised explosive devices and other ambushes. The two groups that stood out in this research were those with a hunting background and those who came from tough urban neighbourhood.”

Tristan Gooley, How to Connect with Nature

The hypothesis that he draws is that these soldiers are practiced at paying attention to their environment because their life or next meal may depend on it.

My complementary theory is this: We live in a world that is utterly overloaded with high intensity but low consequence stimulus, and this similarly shapes our behaviour. The problem in a big city is not paying attention, it’s how to filter out all the extraneous information. The car horn two blocks away, thousands of nearby conversations, advertisements, street signs – it all takes cognitive effort to understand. Perhaps the reason that many people seem oblivious in large cities is that it takes all their efforts to stay focussed on what they’re trying to do. Paying attention to and anticipating another person’s needs may be a bridge too far.

I’d even go a step further and say that this may be one reason why so many people wear headphones in the city. They may unconsciously be trying to block out the random, intrusive noise of the city and replacing it with predictable, familiar noise (music that you already know). This reduction of stimulus is also the reason why you turn down the radio in the car when you’re trying to find your way in an unfamiliar neighbourhood.

The human brain can only take so much input. I suspect that the challenge for most people isn’t in the seeing, it’s in the discerning. After all, there’s a lot of worthless input out there, just waiting to distract you and sell you something.

Oh-No Bikes

It’s hard to be opposed to the idea of people cycling more, especially for ordinary urban chores. It’s good for the environment, it’s good for health, it’s good for communities, it helps reduce dependence on cars and it’s generally a virtuous thing to do. So I viewed with interest the appearance on Melbourne’s streets of hundreds of bright yellow shared “O-Bikes”.

O-Bike is a bike-share program originating in Singapore. It’s a competitor to Melbourne’s indigenous blue-painted share program which has been plagued with problems and, I suspect, low utilisation. O-Bike is up and running in several cities around the world and claims impressive utilisation in Singapore itself.

The main selling point of O-Bike is that the bikes self-lock and that you can leave them basically anywhere. There’s no need to find a docking station – just unlock one with your phone, ride it, and then lock it again when you get where you’re going. It saves on infrastructure, and the bikes will tend to follow the movements of the people they are meant to serve.

Naturally I was interested, so I thought I’d give it a try. One day last week I happened to be at one end of the CBD and I needed to get to another. Ten minutes of cycling for $1.99 seemed pretty reasonable. So I downloaded the app and looked for a ride.

I didn’t have to go far. These things are like locusts, but they consume footpaths rather than crops. I didn’t even need to fire up the app to find one because I could see about a dozen from where I stood on a street corner.

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Wheely attractive location

The first one didn’t have a helmet. Victorian law mandates helmet use, and given that I work in emergency medicine, this seems very sensible. The blue bikes have a complicated system where you have to buy a helmet from a shop, but O-Bike have just given up and attached helmets to each bike’s locking mechanism. But not this one – whether someone forgot, or just pinched it, I don’t know.

So I found another. This one seemed to have all the bits intact, so I unlocked it, put on my helmet and prepared to ride.

Melbourne is a fairly flat city, and so should be perfect for cycling. That’s been my experience riding my own bikes – you can get around pretty easily without working too hard.

Sadly O-Bike seem to have done everything in their power to make these bikes difficult to use. I don’t know whether it’s poor quality components, or whether each bike has to be extra robust, or whether there’s a stonking great dynamo inside the frame, but this bike was an absolute nightmare to ride. After one block up a modest hill I was puffing and panting. After two I was ready to take a break. I’m not unfit, and I’m not inexperienced bike-wise, so this seemed very hard.

 

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When your handlebar doesn’t point the same way as your wheels… that’s a problem.

I tried to adjust the seat to give myself a more advantageous riding position. I yanked the quick-release lever. Nothing. Sticky? Welded shut? rusted? I dunno, but I couldn’t shift it. I also confirmed what I’d noticed while riding – that the handlebar was wonky relative to the wheels. I had to turn the handlebar about 15 degrees to the side to go in a straight line. I couldn’t straighten that up either, despite my best efforts.

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Is this a dynamo? A lock? Half a ton of bricks?

I got back on my horribly munted steed and suffered for a few more blocks. By the time I got where I was going, I couldn’t even be bothered crossing the road to get to my destination, so I just locked it and walked away.

I wanted to like O-Bike, I really did. The concept is great and the intention is impeccable. But my god the bikes are shit. There is no way they’re going to attract the casual cyclist looking to run a few errands, they’re just way too hard to ride. And as for getting non-cyclists on board? Forget about it. How on earth do people do this in humid Singapore? They’d combust from the effort inside a block, surely?

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Finished, thank Christ.

I hope O-Bike can improve their gear, because I think their model definitely has promise. Bikes are great, and more people should be riding. But this over-engineered monstrosity isn’t the way.

The day some nuns broke my heart

In the year 2000, I spent two months working on an archaeological dig in Cyprus.

I spent the Millennium (the real one) on a Cypriot hilltop with good friends and bad wine, watching the fireworks 30 km away in Nicosia.

I travelled throughout Spain and loved it. Barcelona to Andalucia, just magic.

I took an impromptu trip to London, then Paris. The weather was terrible but it didn’t matter.

I went to Italy and travelled south from Genoa on rattling old trains. I daytripped to Ravenna, just to see the Roman/Byzantine mosaics.

Then I arrived in Florence.

I’d been taking photos the whole way on my silver Minolta SLR. But this was the old days, and that meant taking photos on film. By the time I made it to Florence, after nearly four months on the road, I had accumulated dozens of rolls of exposed film which I kept in a waterproof bag in my pack.

In Florence I met up with my dad, who offered to subsidise a a diversion to Venice. I hadn’t originally planned on going there, but when there are a couple of hundred thousand lire being passed to me, I tend not to say no. It was going to be a lightning trip and I didn’t want to lug my pack all the way there. I packed two pairs of underwear and two t-shirts. I arranged to leave my main pack in the luggage storage room of the hostel I was staying at. The place was run by nuns. I should have been fine.

Venice was brilliant. Even better was the fact that I lived out of a day pack, a skill which I now embrace. My wardrobe was repetitive and I only had one book, but I didn’t care. I traipsed up and down bridges, got lost, found myself, bought expensive coffee, and wondered why the gondolas were only painted black.

When I got back to Florence, my pack was missing. Not just “I don’t know where it is” missing, but “I don’t know what you’re talking about” missing. Everyone claimed that I had never stored anything with them. It was like my pack had disappeared off the face of the earth… complete with all my exposed film. Shifty bloody nuns.

I went to the police station, but was met with the dumb insolence of the Italian tourist police. Granted, maybe I didn’t smell too good by then. But they were still no bloody help.

I scoured the back streets around the hostel. I scanned the banks of the Po. I cried. I wailed. I felt submerged in panic.

It wasn’t my stuff that I cared about. It’s just stuff, and not very good stuff at that. I was about to go home anyway, so I didn’t need to immediately replace anything. It was the photos. All those memories – gone.

There’s a reason that people rescue their photos from burning houses. You don’t need to see them all the time, it’s just nice to know they’re there. But when you do open up that album, the memories come flooding back. Is there any better way to spend a rainy afternoon than looking through old photos?

Our photos are ourselves – they’re what we found worth recording at the time. It doesn’t really matter whether they’re any good or not. We’re walking collections of memory, and photos are the material proof.

Nearly fifteen years later I’m still upset about those missing photos. I have the memories, but they’re fading over time. What I wouldn’t give to be able to find them again – to help me to remember who I was and what I felt.

Quiet

I recently spent a week in a small Victorian town. On my second day I went to the supermarket to get the week's groceries. As I climbed out of the car I fiddled with the Gordian knot of my earphones when I realised something – I didn't want to plug them in.

I normally wear earphones for a lot of the time that I'm out of the house. I listen to a lot of music, podcasts and audiobooks, and the time spent looking after the trivialities of life might be better used. I get through a lot of books this way.

The thing that stopped me was the quiet. There was some traffic noise, but birdsong was easily audible over it. People had loud conversations but they weren't obnoxious. A knackered old Datsun pulled up into the carpark, but it was an interesting spectacle rather than an annoyance. I looked around. No one else was wearing earphones either.

Without the constant drone of background noise I didn't feel compelled to armour myself against the world. And like an annoying ache, you often don't realise how much noise there is until it's gone. A less frantic place doesn't need insulation.

The US government maintains a list of places in America that are truly quiet – where no human-originated noise can be heard. They are rare, only a couple of dozen in the contiguous 48 states.

How much effort are we unconsciously putting into protecting ourselves from other people's activities? Living in a vast hive of people has its advantages, but we often can't see the down side.

Two short notes

I’m jotting down a few notes here about recent thought processes, mainly so that I can park said thought processes and think about something else.

Nineties music is back! 

In the aftermath of Chris Cornell’s death and the acquisition of a Apple Music account, I’ve been revisiting much of the music of my teenage years. I was a huge Smashing Pumpkins fan in high school and have barely listened to them since then, mainly because I so completely overdid it at the time. I never quite got into Grunge, seeing as my taste in music always tended towards the grandiose rather than self-abnegating. The Pumpkins were a great fit – angry but not nihilistic and with musical talent to spare.

So it is therefore my sad duty to report that what others have known for a long time: Billy Corgan is probably mental, and he hasn’t written a decent album since about 1995. There are good moments in his post-Mellon Collie work but they’re few and far between. Sometimes being enormously productive just means that you produce a lot of crap.

 

I’m not a Puppy but I feel like one!

I have an ongoing project to read all the winners of the Hugo Award for Best Novel, the premier award for science fiction and fantasy. In recent years the award has been controversial due to attempted hijackings and vote stacking by factions of fans called the Sad and Rabid Puppies. This lot object most strenuously to modern speculative writing and it’s inclusion of non-white, non-male people, and wish everyone would just go back to the good old days of Arthur C. Clarke and Robert Heinlein. They’re fringe lunatics, but they’ve come close to derailing the awards process a couple of times recently.

It’s on that background that N.K. Jemisin’s book The Fifth Season won in 2016. It’s a fantasy novel that’s full of genderqueer characters, most of whom aren’t white, strange earth magic and a world with some very angry tectonic plates. In other words, the kind of stuff that the Puppies hate the most.

I wish I didn’t hate it.

I really tried to like it. The race and gender politics stuff doesn’t really interest me to be honest, but try as I might I just didn’t think the book was very well done. The writing was pedestrian at best and deeply irritating at worst, or perhaps just needed a better editor. I have a long-standing complaint against overlong (“epic”) series, and The Fifth Season bothered me due to the lack of story progression over 400 pages. How hard is it to resolve something in that time? The world building was moderately interesting and a bit novel, but everything was signposted so obviously that I felt like I was in kindergarten.

I have a weird kind of guilt about this book. It makes no rational sense, but writing publically that I didn’t enjoy it seems to place me in the same camp as the feral bigots amongst the Puppies. I certainly don’t feel comfortable in that company – it’s a bit like finding out that you share a passion for Italian cooking with Hitler.

 

Fertility fraud; or How to have lots of great grandchildren

A (now deceased) Dutch IVF doctor is presently being accused of having substituted his clients’ sperm with his own a large number of times. This has allegedly resulted in 22 children being conceived in the 1980s via imposter sperm, and who were then brought up by men other than their families in the manner of a cuckoo (“brood parasitism”). DNA tests are currently being arranged in order to confirm this.

There are two main things which I find interesting about this. This first is that we’re now in the situation where some of the children are considering taking legal action against the estate of the doctor in question. Their main concern is of “wrongful birth”; which is to say that living humans are suing the estate of a dead man because they claim that they shouldn’t exist. It sounds like a language puzzle.

The second interesting thing is that from an evolutionary perspective, this doctor has been spectacularly successful. Few men father 22 children in any “natural” context, so already he’s doing better than most. Wrongfully born these children may be, but I rather doubt that it will stop them having children and living their lives like other people. IVF fraud may be one of the most successful evolutionary strategies currently available in our society.

This is shaping up to be a distinctly weird century.

Arabian Knight

Wilfred Thesiger was an Englishman who spent the late 1940s travelling through Arabia. He wrote a book about it, named Arabian Sands, which I have just finished reading, and which is something of a classic in the world of masochistic adventure literature. It’s a fine work, full of little spatterings of detail and interest about the environment he moved through, which help to keep the book moving through several hundred pages of relatively monotonous desert travel.

Thesiger’s travels were really quite remarkable. He traveled across the Empty Quarter desert in Arabia several times with only camels for transport, being one of the first (and only) Europeans to do so. These were journeys of no small hardship – he was hungry and thirsty most of the time, roasted by the sun in the day and frozen overnight, and under constant threat of being shot by Bedouin raiding parties for months on end. He was lonely, frequently frustrated by his improvident Bedouin companions and the need to provide hospitality to passers-by, and probably constantly malnourished.

The interesting thing is that he didn’t have to do any of it. He was under no compulsion whatsoever. He chose that life.

By modern standards Thesiger was quite deranged. He actively sought out this kind of hardship time and again, and spent a lot of effort trying to convince various arms of the British government to fund yet another mission to the desert. He found the settled environment of the coast to be unsatisfactory and Britain to be actively unpleasant, spending most of his life in arid parts of the world.

Why would you do that to yourself? What went into his mental makeup that seemingly compelled him to seek out suffering? I’m sure there’s an argument waiting to be made that Thesiger, like T.E. Lawrence, sought the desert out of sublimated homosexual desire, but I honestly don’t get that feeling from his book.  He reminds me a little bit of some Australians who I met in Papua New Guinea who had found the lifestyle of a wandering jackaroo in central Australia to be too restrictive. They’d gone to PNG because they simply didn’t like living in any strongly regulated environment and could only tolerate personally negotiated restrictions on their activities.

The admirable Alastair Humphreys (@al_humphreys), a modern-day British adventurer, recently followed a similar path across Arabia in tribute to Thesiger. In the splendid film that he and his travelling companion made about the journey he breaks down at one point, berating himself for feeling constantly compelled to make arduous and ultimately pointless journeys.

But I guess that’s the key question. Why do any of us travel anywhere, whether via camel or luxury coach? Why even do anything beyond the necessities of survival?

I guess because we’re human, and we have inherited genes that encourage us to explore. I suspect that everyone has a grain of Thesinger’s unusual personality within them. For some it itches worse than others, and others are driven mad by the constant scratching.

Doing music

The way I “do” music is very different now.

Back in the dim, dark days of the nineties I mainly consumed music via the radio, or by regular visits to the indie section of JB Hi Fi. Triple J was my radio station of choice, as it was for everyone who was a teenager then, so I heard a fairly wide variety of sounds. However it was still barely representative of the range of music that was out there.

Buying a CD cost around $20-25, which was a fairly significant sum at the time. Selection was careful, and buying a CD that I turned out not to like was agonising, since I would have to work several more hours to afford another one. I was conservative in my musical tastes and tended to pick albums that I felt I could listen to over and over again.

The introduction of electronic music storage in the 2000s expanded my horizons somewhat, but it was still limited by bandwidth and storage (1mb/min, 6gb HDD!). I still had to be careful about what I listened to, even with the apparently unlimited options of Napster and Kazaa.

The result was that the music I listened to in the 90s and early 2000s is burned into my brain. It’s also the bulk of the collection of music sitting on my hard drive.

I’ve heard it said that one’s musical tastes tend to fossilise at around age 25, and this happened to me… sort of. I increasingly found myself going back to the music of my youth for comfort and I was less inclined to seek out new music. A big reason for this was because the late 2000s coincided with an explosion in the amount and variety of new music available and I didn’t know where to start. I got quite intimidate by music for a while.

Enter the streaming services. Although I’ve always felt that Steve Jobs was on to something when he stated that people wanted to “own” their music, I tried out Spotify and Rdio in around 2012. I liked the options available but the apps were buggy and unreliable and didn’t interface with my existing library. I was still limited by storage issues too.

However I think that may have all changed. This week I got a new iPhone with a lot of storage space (256 GB) and loads of mobile data. I took the plunge and signed up for a trial of Apple Music, and by Jove I think I may finally have it. The price is cunningly low, so that for the cost of “buying” one album a month (or less) I can have effectively unlimited access to everything on iTunes.

This is liberating in a way I feel uncomfortable admitting. It turns out that there is a huge amount of music that I’d like to “try”, but that I don’t feel would be worth purchasing permanently. This morning alone I’ve tried half a dozen things that I’d ummed and aaahed over – turns out that some are great and some are crap. How like life.

This cornucopia of music has a possible cost though. I strongly suspect that some of the reason that 90s Smashing Pumpkins still resonate for me is that I listened to the albums hundreds, if not thousands of times. The music that I had back then got the chance to seep into my brain and I could really get to know it.

With an endless amount of music available to me from anywhere at any time, will I properly get to know it? Will I give it a chance to impress me? Or will it wash over me? I know that Top 40 music is designed to appeal on the first listen, but it’s rarely the most rewarding thing to listen to. Top 40 temporarily elevates moods, but it doesn’t change lives.

Food is fashion… sort of

If I asked you what “good food” is, I can guarantee that your answers would be different to those of people in other times and places. But human physiology doesn’t vary that much – why would good food for you be bad food for me? Clearly there are some people with allergies or other intolerances who have to avoid certain foods, but that’s a given.

Consider the humble cabbage. Not many people get excited about cabbage, despite it being highly nutritious and very cheap. If you’re an Anglo Australian, there are too many associations with boring old British food, and it smells sort of funny too. Definitely not a cool vegetable, like kale.

However if you ask my Korean friend, she’ll tell you that cabbage is a staple in her diet and is considered to be a foundation of Korean food. It’s important in her culture and highly valued. Her family eats several heads of cabbage per week.

What does she look down on? Potatoes and sweet potatoes! They’re cheap, easy to grow vegetables that fill you up – in other words, poor people’s food. Compare that with the paleo/crossfit crowd who can’t get enough of sweet potatoes in particular due to their relatively dilute carbohydrate component and high micronutrient content.

None of these foods changed from place to place – a Korean potato is much like an Australian potato, just as Korean people and Australian people are basically the same physiologically. The difference is fashion, or as we like to call it, culture. Rich people (us) don’t like to be seen eating “poor people’s food”, and connotations of certain foods vary drastically from culture to culture.

The ultimate irony: kale and cabbage are virtually the same plant and have very similar nutritional profiles having, along with brocolli, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts been bred from an ancient ancestor.

But you can’t go down to Boost juice to get a cabbage smoothie.