Hitler and earworms

I found myself whistling this morning, one of those annoying earworms that the night’s revolutions dredged up from my slumber.  The tune turned out to be the theme song from Bridge over the River Kwai, which as it turns out is a song called Colonel Bogey’s March, dating from the First World War.

What I thought was interesting was that as I whistled it, my brain returned some alternative lyrics which I learned as a child

Hitler has only got one ball.

That one, is very very small.

Himmler has something similar

And Goebbels has no balls at all.

As it happens, I know exactly where I learned these lyrics – in the school playground in Carlton in the 1980s. That’s pretty strange when you think about it – a primary school aged child learning a dirty song from two generations earlier, regarding a man who lived and died on the other side of the world.

Given the distance in time and space, it’s interesting how prominent the Second World War was in people’s thinking back then.  It had finished forty years earlier, but it was always “the war”, as if none of the others that had occurred since then were important. This was even true of my parents, who were of the Vietnam War generation – for them their parents’ war was the key conflict defining the world.

It makes me a little sad to think that the last few people who lived through that time are now dying. When I started working as a paramedic ten years ago it was common to treat old soldiers or their wives.  I’d often ask them about where they served and their wartime experiences and they were generally immensely proud of what they’d done and keen to talk.  But there are few left these days, and those who are still with us are in their 90s.

For my children, I certainly hope that war becomes more of an abstract concept (although I rather doubt it). But in a way it’s sad that the good things about the War, which in many cases have outlasted the bad, are almost gone.  My children will never know the story of that song unless they have an interest in ancient films, although they’ll probably know the tune. That’s the nature of earworms.


Civil Australia

At the time of writing the outcome of yesterday’s Australian federal election was yet to be decided. This lack of clear result has provided huge amounts of material for political speculators, but what struck me yesterday was something quite different – the utter civility of our electoral process.

Granted, some politicians can be less than complimentary than others (although few will reach the heights of Paul Keating), but in general the worst we can say about them is that they were a bit surly in their concession speeches. We complain about the political tone, but really it’s fine.  A little robust, but far better than many other forms of public discourse.

Think about the voting process itself. We stand in line for a while, generally good-naturedly, identify ourselves, then write our choices on some pieces of paper.  Then we all eat a sausage! There is no conflict between voters of rival persuasions, very few conversations even. The most combative things we do are push past the people handing out how-to-vote cards. And it’s all held at the local primary school!  Could it possibly be less dangerous or complicated?

Consider the authority administering the election, the AEC. They’re independent from government, generally very competent, and utterly impartial. An administrative stuff-up is front page news, they’re that good. Voting is compulsory – how else could we achieve fair representation of the electorate.  I have utterly no time or patience for people who complain about compulsory voting. If standing in line for half an hour once every couple of years is such a burden for you, you must have a very difficult life.

Imagine this situation in, well, much of the rest of the world. We are so incredibly lucky to be able to vote at all, and to be able to do so without fear of violence or recrimination, to be lucky enough to whinge about it – well, we are privileged indeed.

Urban Love Affair

I love a good urban environment. I’ve been trying to think about what makes my favourite cities appealing to me and I’m still stuck.  Tokyo makes the grade but Sydney does not. Hong Kong is a definite yes but Kuala Lumpur is a definite no. Bangkok and New York are so-so.
Bangkok.  No.
Density is one of the big drawcards.  I’m a fairly low-stimulus kind of person, so going to a big city that is thronging with people and noise is a pleasant kind of overload for me.  I have to go somewhere quiet after a while though.
Hong Kong apartment towers
Basically a Transformer. Hong Kong
Verticality is mesmerising to me.  One of the things that I love about Hong Kong is that it’s built into the side of a series of mountains, so that one has to think about the space in three dimensions.  Giant bridges join buildings at the fifth or sixth storeys. The third dimension is intoxicating. Compare that to flat, grid-like Melbourne.

A friend suggested that maybe it’s all the straight lines, that somehow they appeal to my brain, but I don’t think that’s it.  If anything a really dense city has so many straight lines that they blur and mesh into a messy whole that resembles a natural environment.
Brutalist nightmare. New York.
Jane Jacobs, the renowned American-Canadian writer on urban studies has stated that vibrant cities need four things: Multi-function districts, small blocks with dense intersections, a diversity of age and form, and sufficient density of people and buildings.  By these criteria the post-war Soviet reconstructions of Eastern Europe are among the worst examples of urban planning ever seen. Canberra isn’t too crash hot either.
I think that Tokyo might be my favourite, and it fits all of the Jacobs criteria. It’s dense, vertical, and busy. But added to that everything has a strangely human feel about it. The streets twist and turn in unpredictable ways and dwellings are mixed in with small shops and small shrines or parks. Few things are deliberately monumental. It feels like a place that people could actually live.


Mansplaining” is usually understood as the phenomenon of men earnestly holding forth to women about a topic which they are already aware of, possibly even expert in.  It’s patronising, infantilising, and generally off-putting. It also fails to take into account the fact that the woman in question may be extremely well informed on the topic, but far too polite to interrupt the man and challenge him, which he would probably take with singularly bad grace anyway.  Mansplaining is, by all reasonable standards, not a very nice thing.


That said, it occurred to me the other night that it’s just sort of the way that men communicate, even with other men.  I was having a chat with a male friend and I noticed that we tended to hold forth on a topic, then wait, and the other person would then agree or seek further information.  It was a little like a Socratic dialogue but with far fewer straw men.


That pattern of conversation is pretty common actually.  It seems to me that this monologue-response-monologue pattern is standard for many of my interactions with men.  I can’t explain why this is, but for me I often don’t feel that I understand something unless I’ve spoken about it, so having the clear air to be able to monologue for a few minutes about my pet topic actually helps me understand myself better. I don’t intend any offence by doing it, but it can be difficult for me to fully understand what I think without talking (or writing) about it


So while mansplaining may be taken as patronising by many women, which it clearly is, it is also the default conversation style for many men, even amongst themselves.

The job interview


“So, what’s your biggest weakness?”


“Firstly, that’s a stupid fucking question.

Secondly, my biggest weakness is the weakness that I’m not aware of, and that I can’t compensate for. The weakness that I know about is a weakness that I’m probably already doing something to rectify, even if it’s subconsciously. The second I become aware of a weakness, it stops being such a weakness and becomes something more like a project.  I have plenty of those, but they’re not really weaknesses, perhaps more like future strengths.

Anyway, why are we even talking about this?  Do you think that I am likely to give away the secret that I’m a child molester or a terrorist or something in a job interview? Surely your processes would have weeded me out before then?  Or is that a comment on the inadequacy of your screening that you need to ask me directly whether I’m a criminal, rather than rely on your HR department to do the right thing.  What kind of an organisation is this, anyway?”


“… We’ll call you.”

“Sensible people advise against drinking on an empty stomach, but to my mind it is the best sort of drinking. There is a sublime magic to that first drink of the evening. The cocktail, beer or wine goes straight to the nervous system, unblocked by food. There is really nothing to beat it. It marks the end of the working day, when you put worldly cares to one side and embrace good cheer and company. It is when the soul opens and we are seized by the need to chat. We are liberated. After spending the day either living in the past (regrets, reports) or in the future (anxieties, Powerpoint presentations), the first drink of the day brings us into the present moment: we become Buddhists.”


How To Be Idle by Tom Hodgkinson

Hospital – the least fun way to spend a week

I’ve had the misfortune to spend a lot of time in hospital as a patient in my life, and have also had my fair share of visits as a dad of young kids. Everyone thinks that the worst thing about hospital is the pain and suffering, and I suppose that if you’re severely injured or unwell that might be true.  However for most people, for whom a hospital visit is mainly about stabilising a condition, the worst thing about hospital is the boredom.

Sure, it seems like a holiday – time off work or school, no responsibilities, mushy food on a plate.  But it begins to pall surprisingly quickly.

The bed isn’t as comfy as your one at home.  There is constant noise, even at night. Light seeps in around the doorways and under curtains. Other patients are unworthy jerks with unwholesome personal hygiene.

And the boredom! No Netflix. No video games.  No sports or outdoor entertainments.  Books are much less interesting without the option to get up and make a cup of coffee.  One day may be a semi-pleasant disruption to normal life.  A week is torture.

It would (and I know I sound insane here) almost be preferable to be really really sick.  That way you have a project – getting better. If all I’m doing is hanging around, I’d much prefer to do that at home thank you.

Semi-free FitBit

I recently got a FitBit.  I have something of a weakness for technology (even frivolous technology), and I sometimes do Sporting, so this was a good match.  Even better was that I effectively got it for free after trading in some old games at JB Hi Fi.

Leaving aside for a moment the fact that most of the things that this device does are also done by my phone, and the fact that it’s only of marginal utility as a wristwatch, it’s quite cool.  It feels like very new and basic tech though, I expect much flashier and smoother versions will be out soon. Some of the software is distinctly wonky, which really shouldn’t be the case in something that costs $150+.

The most useful part for me is the sleep monitoring function.  It uses silent, vibrating alarms to wake you, so that your loved ones don’t have to suffer through your perky ring tone at 0530. Even better for the Quantified Self nerd in me, you then can access a log of exactly how badly you slept during the night on your phone.  It’s been honestly enlightening. I’ve always gone to sleep really easily (too easily), but two weeks of data shows me that I usually average around 30 minutes of restless sleep per night. If I want to feel good the next day I need to plan for around 9 hours in bed.

The device tries to convince you that you should get into competitions with your friends to see how many steps you each can take, but frankly that’s not going to happen.

Overall, a decent device.  Probably not worth paying for though unless you’re into endurance sports (especially running) or have a morbid interest in your own sleep.

“It is a failing of human nature to detest anything that young people do just because older people are not used to it or have trouble learning it.  So I am wary of the ‘young people suck’ school of social criticism”

– Stephen Pinker

Things to know when taking up powerlifting

  1. It’s hard physically.

Lifting heavy things off the ground is really hard. Especially when you get up to multiples of your bodyweight. Especially when you have to train first thing in the morning. It grinds you down and wears you out and makes you ache most of the time. Powerlifting will find every physical weakness you have and explain it to you in exquisite detail.


  1. It’s hard mentally.

I have been close to tears at the end of a heavy set of squats. The only thing harder was going back to do another set. Once you get reasonably strong, every training weight is enough to cause you permanent damage if you screw it up, and your body knows it. Finding the grit to go back and do it again and again can be impossibly difficult some days, especially when you’re underslept/underfed/stressed/cranky/over it.


  1. Eating a lot of food is hard.

You scoff now, but training only takes three hours a week.  Eating takes about three hours per day. Past a certain point of strength it takes an unholy amount of food to support further improvement. Shifting the weight on the scale upwards usually takes serious, concerted effort, especially for more lightly-built lifters. Eating is work and it stops being fun.


  1. You will never be as good as you were in the first few months.

There is a thing called the novice progression.  Basically it means that for the first 3-6 months of your serious lifting life you will gain strength very rapidly, possibly doubling or tripling it. This is exhilarating – one month you’re squatting the empty bar and a couple of months later you’re squatting 150% of your bodyweight.

And then it stops.  You spend the remainder of your career trying to push your weights upwards by a few kilos. And those few kilos are really hard work and rely on you getting the rest of your eating/sleeping schedule worked out. You will never regain that feeling of rapidly increasing competence.


  1. It’s ugly to look at.

Have you even seen a good powerlifter? Most of them are really fat, those that aren’t tend to be ugly.  The movements themselves look ugly and uncomfortable and tend to make the lifter look like they’re about to either have a stroke or shit themselves. Ugh.


  1. You will need a high tolerance for boredom.

There are only three lifts in powerlifting and they’re not too technically difficult. As a result, there’s not a lot of variety in training. There may be some assistance work that resembles what the bodybuilders do in the gym, but powerlifters will always squat, bench press or deadlift as the main training. You need to be ok with this.


  1. It brings a new set of social norms with it.

Once you’ve been seriously lifting for a while you’ll start to form opinions about other styles of lifting which you never would have considered in the past.  Powerlifters think bodybuilders are vain and look ridiculous. Bodybuilders think powerlifters are fat brutes. Olympic lifters think their style of lifting is magical and superior. Everyone hates Crossfit except the Crossfit people who LOVE it.

You will take on one or more of these views and be ok with it.




  1. Dieting is a thing of the past.
  2. You can’t beat the sense of achievement from a deadlift PR.
  3. Who wants to live an ordinary life anyway?