Thursday, 30 December 2010

of droughts and flooding rains

On the morning of Friday I played golf with Dad. It was a pleasant morning, and the weather, which over the previous month had been inclement by Toowoomba standards, held off, making for an enjoyable walk. In the afternoon, it began to rain.

All through Christmas day the rain continued, never thundering down in the way to which I had become accustomed growing up in the tropics, but unrelenting nonetheless. Boxing day was, if anything, more inclement, with the rain at times increasing in intensity. I love the rain, but come the 27th, I was becoming itchy with being trapped inside. I have the tendency while visiting my parents towards the sendentary lifestyle, reading books, watching cricket (a function of the times of year at which I tend to visit), and tapping away on my computer (the latter a vice not specific to Toowoomba, it has to be said).

By the afternoon of the 27th, though, the rain had eased, and we ventured out to inspect the consequences. Gowrie Creek was brown and angry and running at speed, but did not seem to have broken its banks, or at least not with consequence for drivers. Further out towards Meringandan, the waters encroached further and further onto the roads, until we turned around as the rain began to fall.

Later in the day, we headed west, out towards Biddeston, along roads flanked by natural gutters awash with rushing brown water, bursting out to flow across the road every few hundred meters in its rush to find lower ground. After a while we stopped at a what had once been a small creek, that had exploded into a great sea of water, more than a hundred metres across. The bridge, guarded by a police car, had a great roaring brown race of water rushing under it, emerging out the other side in great waves that wrapped viciously around a hapless telephone pole. There was an old four-wheel drive in the middle of the torrent, washed half of the road and pinned against a railing, clearly abandoned.

Two days later, and under the bright sun and brisk wind that I have always associated with Toowoomba, we headed out for another drive, starting along the same route. The water was gone, the impromptu creeks that had appeared were gone. The evidence of the flood was there, though, in the crevasses carved by the water, in the crops laid down by the rush and covered in with silt and debris. The wide and raging creek had receded to its more habitual 4m width, although water still rushed through. For hundreds of meters beyond, one could see the debris and distressed crops where the water had spread, but it was still hard to believe that less than 48 hours earlier it had been a rushing lake.

We drove on, down to Brookstead. We had hoped to see the mighty Condamine in full force, but we were stopped several kilometres short, behind a Victorian family towing a car, and a barrier blocking further access. After a few minutes a police car pulled up, and told us that the bridge was out, and that they were stopping traffic at Brookstead to prevent further damage to the road. I have to say I was disappointed. I have always heard of these great Queensland rivers - Condamine, Bulloo, Paroo, Coopers Creek - that terrorise the west as they alternate between trickling or even buried rivers during droughts, and great rushing, sprawling inland seas that isolate and inundate towns during floods, but I haven't seen them, or if I have it has been at their most unspectacular. It would have been nice to see one of the giants at its most angry, even just to say I've seen it.

So, thwarted, we turned and drove back. Like wandering tourists we picked small backroads to wend our way back north-east, driving through fields of cotton and grain sorghum showing the recent layers of silt and debris, the silt at times stacked in strata like slate. Out in the fields the water still rushed along beside the road, giving a lie to the impression of the land being flat. Every now and then we would slow, as the sunlit mirages floating on the road refused to give way to approach, and revealed themselves as swathes of water moving across the road. Once we sent Mum out as a scout to test the depth of a 50m stretch of water, but she walked across it Jesus-like, and never got more than ankle-deep. So we pressed on, past a field of sunflowers, not staring up gleefully at the sun, but gazing mournfully down at the gathered silt at their feet, and their dying lower leaves.

They say that the floods were the worst for some time. It is with a little guilt that I say that I enjoyed them - I feel reinvigorated in my Australianness having seen in flood lands that 2 years ago I saw in drought. I know, though, full well, that the reason for my enjoyment was that I saw them only as a spectator. Others were not so lucky, including in some ways, people I know. I can only hope that when the time comes for me to confront one of Australia's great natural disasters, I can show the fortitude and resourcefulness that they have.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

thinking about soccer

My friend and erstwhile colleague Ricky called me out today on twitter, making reference to my past needling of him on the merits of soccer and its position in the Australian landscape. Its a timely nudge. This week in Switzerland, FIFA are (as I understand it) voting on the venues for the 2018 and 2022 soccer world cups, with Australia having thrown its hat in the ring for the latter.

I'm conflicted on this.

On one hand, I'm a nationalist, and for pure parochial reasons it might be nice to see Australia "win". From an objective point of view, the events we've held in recent times - the Sydney Olympics, the 2003 rugby world cup, the Melbourne Commonwealth Games - have gone well, in terms of getting very good attendance and generating a good atmosphere amongst fans. I have no doubt the same would be true for a soccer world cup. Also, I know that there are soccer fans in Australia, and I don't begrudge them the opportunity to see the best soccer nations in the world competing here.

Of course, I should make it clear that I'd be unlikely to attend any games. I've dabbled in following soccer - I've seen the Serie A at the San Siro, I saw France play Bosnia in an international friendly, I've seen the French Ligue 1, I've seen the Socceroos play, and during the 2006 world cup I followed a lot of games on television, in bars, at friends' houses, and in public squares. There were enjoyable moments, although for me they sprang from the company rather than the game. In terms of the game itself, I tend to come away frustrated. The tendency of the players to play the umpire rather than the ball feels dishonest, especially when I compare it with the way I like to see my preferred code, Australian Football, played. And I get bored by the comparative lack of adventure and aggression in most games, even by sides like Brazil and Holland, reputed for their attacking football. I should stress that these criticisms are of the game at its so-called highest level. I've found that the further you move away from professional soccer, the more honestly and earnestly the players play, and the more entertaining the game becomes.

My biggest concern, though, is about the impact that the event might have on the Australian sporting landscape. My biggest criticism of soccer as a culture is that in a lot of countries where it takes root, it comes to monopolise the sporting landscape. In France, I lived in such a country, where year-round (with the exception of a short summer break during which sport seemed to be ignored altogether), soccer is the only sport with any real currency in the street. I feel like the battle over the word "football", which we are told by some people can only be used for soccer, is illustrative of this "there can be only one" inclination. By comparison, in Australia, we have this beautiful phenomenon of the changing seasons of sport, from the football season (by which I mean the big three football codes in this country - Australian Football, Rugby League and Rugby Union, with netball and growing and commendable addition, even if I have little taste for the game myself), to the "cricket season", during which we also get a healthy helping of golf and tennis. There's even that strange month of October when some parts of the country obsess about horseracing (whose appeal I find much more inexplicable than soccer). For much of Australia, the changing of the sporting season is a much more significant and distinct transition than any climatic cycle.

All told, we have a wonderful diversity of sports, that cycles through seasons and offer choice to the fan as to which code they can follow. If the impact of the world cup is to raise the profile of soccer closer to the other football codes, then I'm fine with that. But I know the power of soccer and its international links. Even if I don't understand what it is that they like in the game itself, I understand the appeal of having a huge array of leagues and nations playing the game around the world. And I fear that these links, fuelled by the Australian sporting fan's parochialism, might eventually lead to a reduction in the diversity of our sporting landscape, which would be a tremendous shame.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

like old times, only better

Its amazing how one conversation, albeit a prolonged one, can have a big impact on how one approaches things. In what has been a very active last week and a half, I've rediscovered a bunch of activities that, at various points in my past, have been very regular parts of my life, but that in recent times have been neglected or entirely absent.

I had been making very little progress on the book I'm reading, Jack Kerouac's Lonesome Traveler (I have neglected to write a little review for The Beach, which I read in between Love in the Time of Cholera, and this one). This past week, though, I made more an effort to make time for it, and as a consequence, I got into it, enjoyed it, and finished it. In my defense, I still think it starts slowly. His style is somewhat stream-of-consciousness throughout, but early on, as he is traveling through Mexico and working on the railway in northern California, it seemed less coherent. As the book and its author moved on, to New York, the Seattle Mountains and Tangiers, I thought the prose got much clearer, and I enjoyed the book a lot more. Its a strange style with which he writes. The narrator is the central, often only, character, but at no point is he developed, which gives the book a certain sense of a travel diary, albeit one that is eloquently and interestingly written and paints a vivid picture of the places through which it travels.

The next book on the pile was Breath, by Tim Winton. There was no slow starting for me on this book. I read a third of it in the first sitting, and I finished in about a day and a half. The story is a kind of coming of age story for a young boy who takes up with a group of surfers during his upbringing in a small town. Winton's prose style is just so familiar and easy to read, and the plot just slides so by very comfortably. Like Cloudstreet (the only other Winton I've read thus far), the book is set in Western Australia, in this case around the late 70s, and like the other, it has a very strong sense of place. I have never been to the town where the book is set, or even spent any meaningful (i.e. as an adult) time in the state, but for some reason the setting and characters feel very true. If I had a criticism, I thought the dénouément was a bit drawn out; the book might have worked better for me had it been topped and tailed and presented as a novella.

In addition to doing a lot more reading, I've also been getting more exercise this week. In addition to my usual Monday night volleyball, I got out for 3 runs, which is a lot more than I have been doing in recent months. My leg is starting to hurt from them, which is worrying - I might have to curb my enthusiasm a little.

I also went for a bike ride. In Rennes, a 20-40km ride out along the canal was a fairly common activity on my weekends, but other than organised charity rides and commutes to work or tennis, and excluding one ride up Mt Coot-tha a while ago, I haven't been doing social rides in Brisbane. Yesterday afternoon, though, I just jumped on the bike and rode out past the city, around the river past Toowong and out along the freeway to where it intersects Moggill Road, and back again. It was a nice little 35km route, and it reminded me of what I used to enjoy about riding out of Rennes (although i would trade Brisbane's Western Freeway for Rennes' Canal St Martin any day of the week).

This afternoon, frustrated by Australia's stagnation in the cricket, I rode down to New Farm park and threw a basketball around for an hour or so. This was something I used to quite often while I was living in St Lucia and Toowong, and it was good to try my hand again, even if I quickly realised that the shortcomings I had as a basketballer before my knee operation were not excised with the torn ligament.

I also found a little time for new activities, going with some friends for a night of pickup ultimate disc. I threw a lot of frisbee as a kid, and realised playing social games of ultimate at college that it was something at which I might be reasonably capable. This proved to be true enough, although after a while I fell into the trap of playing dumb, expending a lot of energy without getting my hands on the disc. This, combined with playing almost non-stop for two hours without substitutes, meant that I was well and truly spent by the time the night was finished. It probably took 3 or 4 days for my hip flexors, groin muscles and quadriceps to stop hurting, but I'll be back for more this week, I think.

I also managed to squeeze in an extremely pleasant night at the movies, seeing Gainsbourg, a biopic about the French chanteur from the 60s and 70s. The performance of the lead, Eric Elmosnino, was very strong, convincing in both likeness and style. Although he came across as a flawed character, especially in his relationship to women (at least, from my perspective he did), it was a very interesting film, and nice too as a means of exercising/refreshing my French language comprehension.

I even got out to a concert. My friend Kylie's band Laïque (the haven't been putting the trema on the 'i', which is a little vexing) had the launch for their album "Cravin' just a little misbehavin'", at the Old Museum last night. There was a good crowd in, which was reassuring for their sakes, and everyone seemed to have a good time.

Its tempting to ask what it was that I sacrificed from my previous routine in order to make room for these things, but to be honest, nothing sprung to mind. I watched less TV, which is a boon rather than a price, as was playing less computer games (I am rapidly losing enthusiasm for the games I have been playing of late). I even squeezed in a visit from my parents, a screening of Cinema Paradiso (it had been too long since I'd seen it), and got plenty done at work. I need to be this aggressive about getting off my bum and doing things more often.

Monday, 22 November 2010

The to-read pile, and the on-hold pile, as at November 22 2010

In recent days I've been having a wonderful time talking with various people about books. One of the topics I seem to keep mentioning, along with my poor record in terms of what/whom I've read, has been the pile of books that sit metaphorically and, for the sake of this photo, physically, on my bedside table ready to be read. Unmentioned, so far, is the other pile, on the same bedside table, of books that I have started reading and put aside for one reason or another.

So, here they are, my two piles. First, the to-read pile, starting from the top:

  • Lonesome Traveler - Jack Kerouac (currently reading). Kerouac is one of the many conspicuous absences in the list of 20th century authors whose works I have sampled. I found this one in the remaining collection of my late uncle, nominally housed with my grandmother but slowly working its way to other homes in the family.
  • Breath - Tim Winton. I've read one Winton - Cloudstreet, probably his most famous book - and enjoyed it a lot. I picked this one up at the Library on my most recent scavenging expedition.
  • Bike Snob: Systematically and Mercilessly Realigning the World of Cycling - Bike Snob NYC. I was recommended the blog from whence this book has sprung, and have been enjoying it for a few weeks now. I have yet to read a blog-to-book adaptation that I haven't liked (sample size: 1), so I have high hopes.
  • The Tree Of Man - Patrick White. As Australia's only winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, another embarrassing omission from my reading resumé. Also another pickup from my grandmother's library, although I suspect not from my uncle.
  • The Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History - FreeDarko. The second book to emerge from the FreeDarko collective. Truth be told, I feel like the freedarko blog itself has waned a little in terms of the frequency of its really high-quality contributions, but I suspect this is because Shoals and his co-conspirators have been devoting more of their attention to commercial writing and to this book. Also another blog-to-book adapation, so almost certain to be good. Bought online, with ...
  • The Breaks of the Game - David Halberstam. Widely cited as one of the best books yet written on basketball, following the 1979-80 Portland Trailblazers. Bought online.
  • Hitchcock/Truffaut - Francois Truffaut. I bought this book years ago on Amazon, on a whim, being super-impressed by the idea of an extended interview of one of the era's great directors, conducted by another of the era's great directors.
  • Down Under - Bill Bryson. A 20th century author that I don't feel especially embarrassed about not having read, but nonetheless one who people I trust have said is an entertaining read. I think I picked this book up from my father.
  • The Sentimental Bloke - CJ Dennis. To be honest, I'm not sure I'll get to this one anytime soon (the pile has a tendency to grow from the top, or sometimes from the middle, leaving scant chance for entries near the base). I just noticed it on my bookshelf as a nicely presented book, that I don't believe I've read. On the inside cover it has a sticker identifying itself as the 1994 year 11 prize for Chemistry from Mareeba State High School.
  • A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters - Julian Barnes. I have no idea what this book is about. I picked it up from my grandmother's library for precisely that reason. There is a high probability it will hold up this pile for a long time.

And the other pile, including some not pictured:

  • Claudius the God - Robert Graves. To be honest, I quite enjoyed I, Claudius, and I was enjoying this sequel until I put it aside. The only thing that prompted the interregnum was the somewhat fragile condition of the book itself, which makes it impossible to take it anywhere without fear of losing pages.
  • Thus Spake Zarathustra - Friedrich Nietzsche. I was aware before starting this book that it would be challenging, not only in its content, but in its presentation. However, after only a few dozen pages I found the style too much of an impediment to the ideas, and I put it down. I will probably pick it up again at some point, though, when I am feeling brave.
  • A Thousand Plateaus - Deleuze & Guattari. A colleague at work is an ardent admirer of Deleuze's work, and recommended this to me. I lasted 5 pages before becoming infuriated by the pretentiousness of the prose style, and the obstacle it represented to understanding whatever ideas the authors were trying to communicate. I will almost certainly return this without reading another page.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010


I was almost home. We had lost at volleyball, but had played well and enjoyed ourselves. Chad had again been kind enough to give me a lift home, and we had talked about manners and architecture. All was good in my world.

We pulled up outside my building, and I got out and said goodbye and thanks to Chad. Looking down in the dim light, I noticed what looked like an old tennis ball, a "dog ball", lying on the road next to the car. I gave it a nudge with my foot, and started walking towards my gate. To my surprise, the ball did not roll, but hopped uncomfortably and began a distressed chirping. I quickly realised that this was not a ball, but a bird, and an infant at that.

When I was in high school, our house had a garden planted to attract birds, but was flanked on two sides by cats. I have a distinct memory of coming home from school one day to find a baby miner bird shivering and crying helplessly under a tree, its wings torn and broken. I had no special sympathies for the miner, but it was impossible not to pity such a small creature in obvious distress. The predatory instincts of the cat had been enough for it to hunt and corner the bird, but years of domestication had taken away the killing blow and the need to devour its prey, leaving the bird helpless. I had put the bird in a tree, where it might be safe from cats for a while, but I knew then that it would not survive.

The cries of that bird were echoed now in my mind by those of this small bird on the road. For a brief moment I fancied that it too had been the victim of some neighbour's pet seeking an outlet for long-lost hunting instincts. This time, though, I was not crouched with open hands, but looming over it having delivered a blow. Quite rightly, it struggled to flee the foot of its inadvertent assailant, but alas, this only took it further into the road, and into the path of an oncoming car. It had scarcely waddled a metre when, with a cruel, precise timing, it crossed the wheel line of the car. There was a small crunch as the unwitting vehicle ended its life.

Powerless to help, I thought to attend to the bird, or body, but instead turned away. There was nothing more to be done. The baby bird lived on only as a troubled image in my mind. And neither of us are happy about that.

Friday, 29 October 2010

Juvenal Urbino's hat

Two things happened at the beginning of last week. First, I visited the library and reacquired two books that I'd borrowed but not finished earlier in the year. Secondly, fresh in the realisation that last week's wedding (which merits its own post) was to be held on a Queensland beach in a Queensland summer, I resolved to buy a hat.

Hats are back, or so the story goes, and I was fortunate to have a friend who I knew had bought a hat not that long ago, so I leant on him to give me a lead on where I might find a hat that could be worn with a suit. He supplied me with such, and on the Wednesday I swung by said vendor, knowing that my unrefined requirements would be insufficient but hoping for the grace of a helpful salesman. I found one, who directed me not towards the trilbies and fedoras that I expected, but towards a bewildering range of panamas. After a lengthy discussion of the why, which and how much of his selection, I walked away with a black-banded white number, which time would paint as either dapper-cool, or gangster-pretentious.

So what on earth does all this have to do with books? Well, one of the neglected-but-revisited borrowings from earlier in the year was Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera. The story, vividly painted by presumably both the author and his very adept translator, is set on the Caribbean coast of Colombia in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Its three characters are Dr Juvenal Urbino, a very civilised and socially elevated type, Florentino Ariza, a socially awkward romantic who flickers between unrequited love and wild promiscuity, and Fermina Daza, a sketchily drawn parvenue who is pursued by Ariza as a girl, but finds social respectability by marrying Urbino.

As far as the story itself goes, I could take it or leave it. What I did like was the romantic combination of the place and time, which came through so vividly for me. This was most true, I think, in the early part of the book, with Dr Urbino tripping around the city dressed up to the nines with his suits and carriage. And, in my mind anyway, in his hat. My hat. Whenever I get dressed up and wear it, I shall think of myself of Juvenal Urbino. At some point, I may get myself a cane. Of course, he's also a devout catholic who dies falling out of a mango tree, but we get to pick and choose what we like in a character.

Talking with friends, its probable that the book has, in the relationships between its central characters, symbolism for the nature of love in changing times, with Florentino the romantic impractical and Urbino the stable and practical, but I really didn't feel the need to break down the prose to extract drier meaning. I focussed on hats.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Heart of Darkness

I just finished a book, for the first time in what seems ages.

When I got my iPad, one of the things I was looking forward to was trying it as an e-reader. I had tried this briefly on my laptop years ago (I read some Cory Doctorow, and Kipling's Kim), but it didn't really stick, and I went back to paper (aided by the added adventure of having my reading guided by whatever was available in Rennes' bouquineries). The iPad's screen, and Apple's iBooks app, represents an opportunity to re-explore the medium. For now, iBooks only has copyright-free books available (I am taking this up with Apple as we speak, actually), but given my sketchy experience with the english-language "canon", this leaves plenty of scope. I grabbed a bunch of books, by Dickens, Defoe, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Joyce, and Conrad (as well as some "big" french names, although I expect to struggle mightily with those, and might wait until Apple add a french dictionary to the iBooks app). My first attempt was Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.

My experience with Conrad has been limited. I think it was last year (ed: 2 years; time flies) I bought and read Lord Jim. I enjoyed it (and find myself relating to it from time to time), perhaps more in hindsight than at the time; it took a long time to read. That story was about a young man's journey to Sulawesi (not explicitly, but I like to think of it as Sulawesi) in order to seek redemption, and for me was a lot about the difference between a person's intrinsic character or potential as perceived by others, and a person's actions, and how one influences the other.

Heart of Darkness, again from my perspective, was also a lot about intrinsic character and how it interacts with one's environment. The story is told by an old seaman, about his trip on a steamer up a river in the Congo (I believe; again, never made clear), to retrieve ivory from a colonial trader named Kurtz, who has been left alone deep in the wild for, apparently, too long. When the steamer reaches Kurtz' camp, they find him at death's door, and driven by overlong exposure to the wildnerness into a kind of madness. The book does a lovely job of building anticipation of Kurtz; he probably only features in person for a dozen pages. The other 100 pages (this is a novella, not a novel), though, all revolve around him, and his relationships with and effects on others, as a man of immense charisma and promise, but stripped raw from living too long away from civilisastion.

The book at times comes across perhaps not as racist per se, but with a note in its discussion of the native tribes that would not be palatable from a modern author. Even the central theme, that a white man in this "heart of darkness" cannot sustain without losing his sanity, has an overtone that today perhaps isn't a widely accepted view. (Having said that, I suspect one could write a very interesting book today about the Congo as a heart of a very different kind of darkness).

One of my reasons for choosing this, of all Conrad's short stories, was because it was returned to prominence through its adaptation by Coppola from a British ivory trader in colonial central Africa to an American commando in war-torn Indochina, in Apocalypse Now. It's been a long time since I watched the film, and less than 24 hours since I finished reading the book, but it actually feels to me like the adaptation was remarkably faithful. The same air of mystique, the same suspense by talking about but never meeting Kurtz, the same almost indifferent relationship between narrator and Kurtz. My appreciation for the film has grown.

I'm not sure what my next book will be. I've started reading A Thousand Plateaus, by Deleuze and Guattari, based on a recommendation from someone at work, but after a few pages, I'm already getting a little fed up by the pretentious prose style, so I'm not sure if I'll get through it.

Monday, 11 October 2010

papering over cracks

My academic publication record in recent years has not been what I would have liked it to be. Still, last week was a good week. Our paper "Model Interoperability in Building Information Modeling" went up on the SoSyM journal web site. It had been almost 3 years since my previous journal paper. I don't normally blog about work stuff here (I have another rarely-used blog for that), but its something that made me happy, and assuaged, however fleetingly, my concerns about my job.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

nostalgia again

My last blog post was long, so here's a short one.

When I was in France, my stories always seemed to start with "In Australia...".

Now I'm back in Australia, my stories always seem to start with "When I was in France..."

What's up with that? This isn't a rhetorical question - the comments section is there for a reason :)

Trying CityCycle

While I was living in Rennes (a lot of my stories seem to start this way nowadays), the local council had a city-wide bicycle hire scheme, called Velo a la Carte, run by a large advertising company (Clear Channel). I never used it, but the parking stations were everywhere, and I saw people riding the clunky bikes around town fairly often, and trucks moving them around balancing load across stations. It turns out (and perhaps someone will correct me on this) that this was one of the first cities to have such a scheme in recent times, in many cases bankrolled by advertising companies. Since it launched in 1998, there have been dozens of cities, among them Paris, Dublin, Vienna, and this year Melbourne, the first in Australia. Last week, Brisbane joined them.

Australia offers some challenges for this kind of system, as does Brisbane. Australian cities are much, much sparser than European cities, where apartment living is much more common. Our climate is much warmer. Most significantly, we are the first country to implement this kind of system in conjunction with mandatory helmet laws. I've read that Melbourne has had significant teething problems. In Brisbane, which has the additional problem of being much hillier than Melbourne, the city council and JC Decaux (the French company running the scheme) have gone in boots and all. Walking around the city and my neighbourhood, there are bike ranks every block or two, and construction sites for more springing up all the time. If it fails here, its going to fail spectacularly.

I mostly live and circulate in the inner suburbs of Brisbane to which the scheme presently limits itself, presumably for reasons of population density and demographics. I'm not, however, its idea target. I already own a bike, and I already use it for commuting (albeit not as much as I should) and for getting around to visit friends. However, I can see situations - one way or mixed mode trips - where it would be nice to not have to find somewhere to park a bike. So, although I didn't sign up at launch, I did sign up pretty quickly (actually, the only thing that stopped me signing up at launch was probably that the parking station nearest me wasn't open at launch).

I tried it this morning to get into work. The machine to hire a bike is a little clunky; it took me two attempts to get the bike (timeout), and there were some vestiges of french language on the machine, which was cute. Once I did get the bike I was struck by how heavy it was - at a guess at least 3 or 4 times the weight of my bike. I adjusted the seat up as high as it would go, but it was still a bit too short for me. The basket got me some looks as I was riding, but not having a backpack sweating onto my back was worth it.

My route was problematic. I have two routes I can cycle to work. The first is 7km, and flat, but has a few traffic lights, and takes me about 20 minutes on my normal bike. The second is 5km but quite hilly, and takes me about 15 minutes on my bike, but is more tiring. With CityCycle, journeys over 30 minutes cost money so, being worried that a 20 minute trip could well turn out longer, I opted for the hilly route. I regretted it almost immediately. Having three gears instead of 18 is fine, until you need to up a hill (Kent street, in my case). Being in the wrong gear, combined with the great weight of the bike, meant I was pretty tired after the first hill. Still, I got to work (there is a station about 50m from my building) in about 20 minutes, and returning the bike was pretty easy.

I'm not sure how much I'll end up using the scheme. The 30 minute limit is a real nuisance - if I'm visiting friends in West End, then it will probably take me more than 30 minutes on those bikes, depending on traffic. At $2.20 for the second half hour, I'm better off on a bus. I'll probably try it for popping down the shops though, where I don't want to take my bike because I'm coming back loaded up with groceries.

Thursday, 29 July 2010

blowing my own trumpet

There have probably been a dozen or so occasions over the last dozen or so years that I have resolved to get back into playing music.

Throughout primary and high school, I was basically never not involved in some sort of musical group, mostly on trumpet, but with brief forays into french horn and even tuba. I was never going to make a career of it - I was good at some things like sight reading and time, but my tone and range were never up to snuff - but I wasn't bad. Probably my high point was playing Handel's trumpet concerto near the end of high school (although I also have fond memories of my french horn stuff).

Anyway, since then I basically haven't played. Every 6 months or year, I pick up the trumpet and practice, but then I get discouraged by my lack of range and endurance (trumpet is very demanding on the condition of the player's lip), and put it away again.

Well, I practiced Monday, and Tuesday, and again last night, and enjoyed it. I've transcribed a (bad) arrangement of Alfonsina y El Mar, and I've been trying to get that sounding OK. I've been playing lots of scales. I even pulled out my sheets from the Handel concerto and gave that a try, although I'm still a way off having a lip capable of doing it any sort of justice. We'll see if this lasts longer than my previous attempts.

Monday, 19 July 2010

an early look at candidates

In past years I've gone into some detail on the candidates available to me for the federal election. I'll probably do the same this year. I may be somewhat less engaged in the politics this time around (or maybe not), but the choice I have in my local electorate is much, much more interesting than it has been in the past. The official list of candidates won't be out for a couple of weeks, but there are three significant candidates each with more than 10 years experience as elected representatives in federal politics.

Arch Bevis has been the sitting ALP member for 20 years, but was marginalised at the last election being demoted from a high-profile shadow cabinet post to a minor role as a subcommittee chair.

Teresa Gambaro was the Liberal member for Petrie between 1996 and 2000, and was an assistant minister when she lost her seat.

Andrew Bartlett took the Queensland Democrats seat in 1997, then won it in his own right in 2001, before being defeated in 2007 when the party was wiped out. He is running this year for the Greens.

Last time around, Bevis grabbed 45%, the Libs 39%, and the Greens polled 12%, with Bevis winning the 2PP by 6.8%. Redistribution has narrowed that to 4.6%, and both the Libs and Greens are (in my opinion) fielding much stronger candidates than last time, so the seat promises to be very interesting in the primary. Having said that, I would expect a bump for the Greens, which might actually make Bevis safer on 2PP, even if his primary drops).

My first instinct is to go for Bartlett (West Wing indoctrination?). I don't like the Greens as a party - I think they're unconstructive - but I do like him as a candidate. I will have to look more closely at policy positions, though.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

charity ride

I'm doing a charity ride this weekend, 50km out to the beach and back with a few friends. If you haven't made your annual donation to the MS people, feel free to use me as an excuse to do so.

Friday, 28 May 2010

The Quiet American

It was a long time between novels this time. I've said that before, right?

The other day I finished reading The Quiet American, the first novel I've read by Graham Greene. Its a story set in the latter days of French colonial Vietnam, just as the US started getting involved. The central characters, the English reporter Fowler, the eponymous American Pyle, and the Vietnamese Phuong, feel very much like metaphors for the old colonial powers, for the US, and for Vietnam itself, although I was never very sure whether this analogy was intended as an analogy or just the way the whole scene was seen by Pyle.

The story, which isn't very long (it could probably be classed as a novella), is fairly simple, and well-told. Although I haven't been to southeast Asia (one of the conspicuous holes in my travel experience), it felt evocative of the place and time in which the story is set, although it really doesn't explore or even expose the French point of view. I get the feeling, too, that the book, which was written before the real buildup of US involvement in the country, has proven more prophetic than the author could possibly have imagined.

After finishing the book, I watched Philip Noyce's 2002 adaptation, with Michael Caine as Fowler and Brendan Fraser in a very subdued mode as Pyle. The movie was faithful in its adaptation (other than conflating Fowler's Indian assistant with his local Communist contact/s, in order to reduce the number of characters), but lacked a spark. I certainly enjoyed the book more, and felt the movie would have been a bit bland seen in ignorance of the book.

Friday, 7 May 2010

The NBN and latency

I blogged some thoughts about latency and the NBN over at my other blog. Having separate work and personal blogs made more sense 5 years ago, when I wanted to separate boring technical stuff from whining about being homesick (for the benefit of both sets of readers). Now it seems kind of redundant. Especially since I hardly post to either of them any more :)

Monday, 29 March 2010


I went for a run on Sunday afternoon. I covered 5.38km in 30 minutes, which is a little slower than I'd like to be going, but I hope a good start to running more often.

On the same day, the Australian leader of the opposition, who more than 20 years my senior, completed an iron man triathlon. That's a 3.8km swim, followed by a 180km bike ride, followed by a 42.2km run. In my life, the most I've ever managed of each, on separate days, is I reckon a 2km swim, a 110km bike ride, and a 10km run. Doing them on the same day is just crazy.

I disagree pretty vehemently with most of Tony Abbott's politics (and have been known to describe him as "dangerous"), and there's no way in hell I'd ever vote for him (and I don't get to), but I respect and admire him for getting out and doing the Iron Man. It was very disappointing to see at least one Labor politician (Roxon) using it to score political points..

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

adapting books to films

I was just browsing the TV tonight, and stumbled on a special edition of the First Tuesday Book Club, talking about adapting books to films. I found myself trying very hard to participate in the panel, but somewhat frustrated that they didn't respond to what I was saying. So, I thought I'd write down some of my thoughts here about 5 of the books whose adaptations I've found interesting. I've done it in a roughly chronological order.

Perhaps one of my first experiences with adaptation was with what remains one of my favourite films, The Sweet Hereafter. I saw the film in my second year of university, and I have no hesitation in admitting that I teared up. Atom Egoyan's film is stark, and paints its characters so viscerally. After I'd seen the film, I chased up a copy of Russell Banks' book, from which it was made. I can only imagine that the task of adapting the book must have been extremely daunting. The book is atmospheric, very slow moving (as is the way of Russell Banks) as it tries to paint an impression of the community. Watching the film and liking it before reading the book makes it very hard to assess the adaptation objectively, but this was a fine book that I think was made into a better film, that did a great job of capturing the stark desperation of the town.

The next adaptation was another where I saw the film before reading the book. Mary Harron's American Psycho was a black, black comedy that I really enjoyed, and indeed bought on DVD. Years after I'd seen it, someone (I can't remember who) gave me a copy of the book, which I suspect was actually banned in Queensland at the time (and may still be). I read it slowly, and have to say that I didn't care for it. I found that the book really belaboured the stylistic elements that were its signature, and that I had liked in the film. The lasting impression that I gained was the whoever adapted the book to film did a great job of summarizing the stylistic elements of the book to a point where they didn't grate.

The third adaptation was the first in this list where I read the book before seeing the film. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas remains one of my favourite books - its first chapter might be the best first chapter ever written - and surely loomed as an enormous task for adaptation, with its extravagant writing style and madcap storylines. Terry Gilliam might have been the perfect choice as director (one suspects that given his career since then he would no longer be given the opportunity), with his flare for style in telling unconventional stories. The film, which isn't a great film (in my opinion), does an admirable job of staying faithful to Thompson's book, in a way that works on the screen.

The Constant Gardener was a book that I read closely, and discussed with a number of friends who had read it at the same time. In this case I don't come to praise the film, but just to note the impact that having very recently read the book (I think I finished the book the week before I saw the film in the cinema) had on my experience watching the film. I found myself thinking more about the choices that the adaptation made in adapting the story (which roams much too wide in the book to reproduced in a film), than immersing myself in the film in the way I normally would. That perspective forever changed my experience of that film, which I did nonetheless like a lot.

Perhaps the most disappointing adaptation (in keeping with the structure of the Jennifer Byrne show) for me was Watchmen. I read the graphic novel and greatly admired it as the best I'd seen of the genre, and was intrigued to see how it would be adapted to the screen. Visually, a graphic novel offers some advantages - it has already been made visual, for one. The parallel threads that had been used to build the story in the printed form were lost, as they had to be, and I missed that. More problematically, though, I think the director was much too faithful to the original story elements, and as a result made a film which was too long, in which too much happened, and that really failed to capture the essence of the book.

Monday, 18 January 2010

The Sound of One Hand Clapping

So my reading effort of the year has its first milestone. A week ago I finished reading The Sound of One Hand Clapping, by Richard Flanagan. I got this on a whim, based on author name recognition, during a trip to the library, although when I visited Mum in Toowoomba, I remembered that she had recommended him to me a while back, partly on the historical links between her family history and his interest in Tasmania. That he is an Australian author also fits with my goal of reading more of my country's literature.

Unfortunately though, I can't really say that I loved this book. I found, especially in the first half of the book, that he really wallowed in the misery of the characters, without any sense of balance or, I suspect, realism. It felt like stacks on, and I wasn't into it. To an extent the first of these gripes was mitigated by the redemptive second half and conclusion of the book, but even so I never really developed any great affinity for or empathy with the characters. I also felt like his writing style was at times contrived and laboured. Perhaps that is partly a consequence of coming to the book having read Vonnegut, whose style is quite the opposite, but I didn't enjoy it as much. That all sounds very negative, which perhaps isn't a fair representation, since at times I did really enjoy the book, and some of the moments near the end are evocative and even emotional. I guess, though, that I had hoped for more.

Monday, 11 January 2010

2009, I hardly read you

One of my resolutions for 2009 was to read more than I had in the preceding year. Looking back now, I think I accomplished that, albeit marginally (I think I read maybe one or two more books), although it bears mentioning that I did achieve the difficult constituent ambition of reading a novel in French. I'm a little unsure as to which books I had read by the end of 2008 and which I read in 2009, but a best estimate puts the list as follows:
  • I, Claudius (Robert Graves). This historical dramatisation/embellishment was recommended (and indeed given) to me many years ago by either or both of my mother and my sister, but it took me a long time to get around to it. I am glad I did - the characters, though numerous, are interesting, the research impressive, and the stories captivating.
  • Underground (Andrew McGahan). This book was given to me when I left NICTA at the end of 2007. The story and writing are diverting enough, although not of the standard of some of the other books I read this year. Significantly, it reminded me how few Australian novels I have read.
  • Le Lion (Joseph Kessel). This book, en francais, was given to me by a french girl from a french conversation group that I was going along to. Although not particularly long, it took me many months and countless hours to read. I read it assiduously, trying to understand every word, dictionary in hand. This attention probably detracted from my opinions of the characterisation, but the setting of the story was interesting, and it is by far the best french-language novel I have read ;-)
  • FreeDarko Presents the Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac (The FreeDarko Collective). I have been a FreeDarko reader for many years now, and although my enthusiasm for the blog waxes and wanes over time, my opinion of their significance in what might be a new age for sports writing, does not. The book is a lovely distillation of their manifesto, and beautifully presented. Anyone with a love of ambitious writing, and of the zen of sport, should read this, if for no other reason than to reassure themselves that these two can be reconciled.
  • Cloudstreet (Tim Winton). I suspect this might be the first significant adult Australian novel I had read in my life. I got it from Lee, and have since passed it on to Mum. Winton's evocation of place and time reminded me of Steinbeck, and the quality of his writing and storytelling has given me a desire to better explore my country's body of literature.
  • Great Expectations (Charles Dickens). I have a strong skepticism of things both British (courtesy in no small part of my national broadcaster's infatuation with British content) and of writing more than, say, 150 years old. I refuse to read Austen, for example; I find her characterisation of both men and women to be infuriating, even if it was an accurate reflection of the times. Dickens, though, holds a stature only a rung down from the Bard in english literature, and my exposure to his works through film adaptations had given me faith that he dealt with bigger and more timeless issues. This book, of which I had seen 2 adaptations (by Mills and by Cuaron), vindicated that faith.
  • All the Pretty Horses (Cormac McCarthy). Lee lent me this book, too. I am considerably less skeptical about both American 20th century "classics", and I greatly enjoyed this one. Again, I had seen a film adaptation of this (by Billy Bob Thornton), which probably makes for a different reading experience (I knew what was going to happen), but like Cloudstreet, the writing was very good, and it had a very strong sense of place and time.
  • Anathem (Neal Stephenson). I've been a Stephenson fan for a while now, so I bought this before heading to NZ for a holiday. While it is neither as ambitious nor as good as Stephenson's preceding books (The Baroque Cycle, and Cryptonomicon), he does a pretty good job of both spinning a good fantasy yarn, and of imparting to the reader his enthusiasm for the philosophical and mathematical history that he analogizes.
  • Mother Night (Kurt Vonnegut). I am rapidly becoming a Vonnegut fan. I read one of his more recent books many years ago, but reading Cat's Cradle, this book, and more recently Slaughterhouse 5, I am learning to appreciate his succinctness, the humanity of his characters (including his remarkably passive "protagonists"), and his lightness of touch in dealing with weighty issues. I have hopes, too, that I will succeed in introducing his writing to my sisters.
  • Of The Farm (John Updike). This was one of a pile of books I borrowed from the library for the summer holiday. Updike is a big name to which I had no associations of style or subject. Although I did enjoy this novella (a format I'm coming to like), I will look for more of his stuff not because I found this a great book, but because I did not.
  • Slaughterhouse 5 (Kurt Vonnegut). What a great way to end the year. We unearthed this (among other books) from our late uncle's remarkable collection, while visiting Mullum, and I can see why it has its reputation as Vonnegut's most significant book. It is a remarkable story that led him to write this, and it is equally remarkable that the story lead to this book, which deals with Dresden in a truly unexpected, and yet very genuine way. I really like the way he can tell such strange yet very telling stories, in so few pages of seemingly very simple writing.
A good year's reading. I hope to read more novels again in 2009, and will hopefully blog about the first of them soon.