Monday, 18 May 2015

the Australian Federation: your open-house guided tour

The Australian Federation is an odd creation.


Much like a rickety old 19th century mansion, this country is divided up into far more rooms than required.

New South Wales, Australia’s oldest state, might well be the kitchen around which the rest of the house is built, where visitors are often taken for a cup of tea and a chat.  Lots of Serious House Discussions occur in the kitchen, most of which end in biscuits disappearing from the biscuit jar when nobody is looking.  


Naturally, the kitchen is a bit busy at times.  When this happens, one must go to another room.  If one wishes to surround themselves with ferns and palms while sweating at a rate so far on the wrong side of comfortable that even doing a crossword becomes a tiresome exercise, then one goes to Queensland, the house’s conservatory, to sit in an old chair and gaze aimlessly out the window.

If, however, one prefers relaxation of the more solemn variety, one can descend the stairs to Victoria, the house’s old coal cellar, now well-stocked with dusty books and obscure artefacts.  There, lit by a single lightbulb from Thomas Edison’s original collection, it is possible to spend one’s entire life in the damp half-light, poring over old leather-bound tomes.  Many a resident has emerged from the cellar on their death bed, wrapped in nothing else but a black overcoat and feverishly proclaiming that the old cellar is the “greatest room in the house, if not the entire street”, before keeling over perfectly dead, without another soul having paid the scantest bit of attention.

But the house is not just an indulgent place.  Real work happens there on a daily basis!  Take, for example, Western Australia—the house’s laundry.  A good working laundry is crucial for the continued day-to-day running of any respectable house.  However, a laundry tends to be noisy. For this reason, the laundry is kept as far away as possible from the house’s other rooms.

Equally unglamorous—but important!—is South Australia, the house’s toilet, where all manner of hazardous substances are unearthed and disposed of for the common good of the house.  The toilet is popular with all comers—occupants of the house often like to disappear there with the weekend paper and a glass of red for some peace and quiet, while on the more lively end of the spectrum, overseas visitors to the house are rumoured to have caused numerous explosions in the toilet from the late 1950s onwards.

One would be remiss to forget Tasmania, the old shed out the back.  Almost as old as the house itself, the shed is often looked upon with scorn for its decaying roof, frequent animal infestations, and rumours of a hideously deformed mutant boy living behind the paint tins.  House residents often question why they must pay for the upkeep of the shed—but quickly change their tune once they venture across the backyard to find that the shed is packed full of whisky and apples.


The house also features a variety of lesser spaces.  There is the Northern Territory, or the house’s attic.  Stifling hot despite being entirely rebuilt in 1974, visitors are told not to attempt the climb up to the attic, despite there being stairs and a handrail installed for that very purpose.

Even smaller in size (and often more properly thought of as part of the kitchen) is the house’s pantry, known as the Australian Capital Territory.  This little room is stocked each week by an expert, self-appointed committee tasked with determining the nutritional needs of the entire house.  Most residents ignore this advice and order take-away.


Finally, what would a charming old mansion be without a variety of crawl-spaces, cat-boxes, and children’s play-houses?  Ferreted away throughout these spaces are a vast array of secrets and follies, including a rumoured 1,000 people crammed into ostensibly the happiest treehouse in the entire suburb, “Christmas Island”.  

The house has an interesting history.  It was not built from scratch, but cobbled together over time by different owners and builders, to the extent that each room in the house now features its own water supply and has its own electricity connection.  Not surprisingly, a small army of tradesmen is required to maintain the house, each contracted to work on a different room, and each paid for out of separate accounts.

These arrangements present many challenges. One year, for instance, it was announced that new electrical sockets and floor lamps were to be installed in the kitchen.  It was agreed that a bulk order should be placed to also allow the cellar and the toilet to benefit, but when the shipment arrived, it emerged that the sockets had been changed at the last minute for the benefit of the kitchen, and the lamps were now inoperable in all the other rooms.


Another year, with the house needing a serious lick of paint, it was determined that the main rooms of the house (and the shed) would be painted in the shade of "uniform off-white".  Accordingly, six different house representatives placed six different orders with six different paint companies supplying six different painters. The results were catastrophic.  

The paint destined for the kitchen disappeared unexpectedly, coinciding with the mysterious nighttime painting of a resident's car in "uniform off-white".  The toilet and the shed were painted, but with drastically varying interpretations of the term "off-white".  The painting of the conservatory caused a major furore, as it was claimed that the shade chosen was much too white, so much so that the extra light reflected off the paint during summertime would prematurely fade the curtains.  The cellar was painted, subsequently stripped of that paint mid-way through the paint job, and then (following a quick vote) painted entirely black.  Those working in the laundry complained that all this painting wouldn't be possible without a laundry there to wash the paintbrushes and the work clothes, and made great agitations to pack up the laundry and move it to a separate block of land unless others bloody well pitched in with the washing-up.


While numerous plans have been drafted to bring the house into the 21st century, for instance, knocking down most of the interior walls to create an open-plan dwelling with more shared, central space, the house is beset by serious planning issues.  The property’s certificate of title (drawn up over a century ago and stored in an old castle some distance away) contains numerous caveats that prohibit any meaningful renovations. 

There are also political challenges.  Sensible proposals to renovate the house are defeated time and time again with the well-worn argument that the house is a grand experiment in finding out which of the house’s eight different styles of light-switch is everybody’s favourite.   Others protest that any renovations would no doubt interfere with the house’s annual backyard cricket competition.


This is not to say that attempts at progress aren’t made.  A couple of years ago, for example, the house agreed to pool its resources and share one high-speed internet connection amongst the entire household.  Unfortunately, the money set aside for the installation of new internet cabling was instead diverted to the expansion of the treehouse, and the house was left to share a wireless dongle.

Then someone in the house signed up to Netflix, and the dongle's bandwidth—much like this post's pained metaphor—was stretched beyond the point of reason.

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

this melbourne tram stop is now somewhat less likely to get someone killed

"Hats off to the City of Melbourne!", cried President Lyndon B. Johnson during his visit of October 1966.  A delighted public, always keen to be told what to do, willingly complied.  Unfortunately, a melancholy President Johnson neglected to retract this order when he returned to Melbourne a year later to oversee the construction of the Harold Holt Memorial Swimming Centre, and Melburnians have remained hatless ever since.


I can therefore only doff my figurative hat (with much gratitude) to the City of Melbourne, for proving that an idiot with a blog really can make a difference in the actual physical world.

Last year, I corresponded with Yarra Trams, VicRoads, and Public Transport Victoria regarding the design of the "easy access" tram stop on Macarthur Street, outside Parliament train station, and published the results here for all to see.  Via (or despite) several pages of nonsense and bluster, I explained how the tram stop's design is horrendously flawed, as it tricks drivers into thinking that there is no need to stop behind the tram for alighting or boarding passengers—which I was sure would soon lead to serious injury.

Failing a complete redesign of the stop, I suggested that, at the very least, adequate warning signs and road markings should be installed to warn approaching drivers to take care.

Having thus led the bureaucratic horse to water, I naturally expected it to subsequently dip its muzzle down and fortify itself on the commonsense that lay underfoot.  But the bureaucratic horse is an obstinate one, and would rather perish of thirst, have its carcass sold to the lowest bidder, and end up in the less scrupulous supermarkets of Europe, than take action on the matter before it.

None of the above parties—despite having designed and built the tram stop—felt like it was necessary to have anything to do with its ongoing safety, and instead suggested I go and harass the City of Melbourne.  Always keen to be told what to do, I promptly did.

In the meantime, others (independently) took up the same cause at different locations across Melbourne.  This fellow appears to have been causing quite the ruckus over a similarly designed tram stop in Bridge Road, Richmond, proving that the principle of diffusion works in respect of malcontents just as it does in respect of solute molecules (see illustration below).


Soon, the City of Melbourne wrote me back.  The City confirmed that the design and installation of the tram stop had been the responsibility of the aforementioned bureaucratic horse, and then proceeded to give me further background information about the stop's design.

Interestingly, this tram stop was officially designated as a "demonstration tram stop"—a test model that preceded the design's unfortunate expansion throughout other parts of Melbourne—similar to how the testing of the Navy's "demonstration submarine" HMAS Collins led to five additional submarines that were also not able to travel underwater or fire torpedoes, or to how "demonstration Prime Minister" Tony Abbott is currently being used to assess the willingness of the Australian public to be governed by a succession of lizard-kings (with rudimentary communication skills).

And then, crucially, the response concluded:
...in the context of your concern, the City of Melbourne is making arrangements to upgrade the existing static warning signs to include two more prominent signs, one on each approach to the tram stop.  These signs will be larger in size and font, and will advise motorists "TRAM STOP AHEAD, PREPARE TO STOP".
Large font!  I could hardly contain myself.  But there was more:
In addition, the City of Melbourne will write to VicRoads requesting that they consider relocation of the electronic advanced warning sign... currently being obstructed by a pole.
Many moons passed, but the long-awaited upgrades did not eventuate.  My excitement began to waver.  By December, it had all but dissipated. 

One day, as I was sulking around the general vicinity of Macarthur Street, I was stopped in my tracks by an unfamiliar sight.  Someone had run a Polish flag up over the tram stop!  Seeing as the idea of asserting sovereignty via the planting of a flag is fundamentally repulsive to all Australians, I resolved to remove the offending banner immediately (unless it marked the location of a pop-up pierogi stall, in which case, it could stay).

But oh, how wrong I was:


This was even more exciting than the time in primary school when the dairy lobby wheeled a giant plastic cow (complete with functioning teats) into our schoolgrounds, allowing us to milk the cow and drink as much milk as we pleased.  The City of Melbourne had installed a sign with a font size so large that it must have been manually typed into the little drop-down font box in Microsoft Word.  The sign at the other end of the tram stop was equally impressive:


You could have built a penny-farthing bicycle from the ratio by which the size of the new tram stop sign eclipsed the old:


The Christmas holidays came and went, and I returned to work in the new year to find that the Miracle on Macarthur Street had continued—painted warnings had now been added to the road surface!


Well, I was mighty chuffed.  I sat down in neighbouring Gordon Reserve to reflect upon this journey, and the good work of the City of Melbourne.  As I gazed out over the melbournesurprise.com memorial easy access tram stop version 2.0, a speeding delivery van provided an appropriate fanfare to my thoughts as it blazed through the tram stop, tooting and swerving past alighting tram passengers.  2014 wasn't so bad after all.


NB: At last check, however, the "electronic advanced warning sign" is still being obstructed by a pole.  Apparently he refuses to go back to Warsaw until things have calmed down in Ukraine. He also quite likes the colour scheme on the new signs.

Monday, 14 April 2014

this Melbourne tram stop is going to get someone killed

Six weeks ago, I sent the following correspondence to Melbourne's fine public transport authorities, concerning the Macarthur Street tram stop at Parliament station.

Although I was promptly thanked for my "very detailed feedback" (chuckle chuckle), I am still yet to receive a reply of any substance.

Impatient for new blog material, and desperate to safeguard the well-being of the Travelling Public, I now throw my usually stoic patience to the wind, and post my letter for all to see.

---

To the team at Yarra Trams,

When I was a boy, I used to love spending hours poring over my Dad's collection of bush survival manuals. Because of these books, my young mind soon became equipped with the foolish notion that I was now well trained to negotiate with wildlife ("chimpanzees can be very bad tempered"), navigate extreme weather ("do not drive in a hurricane"), or fight off a shark ("most sharks are cowards and can be scared off by the jab of a stick, especially on the nose").


But my favourite section of these books was always the chapter on constructing snares. I was fascinated by the myriad ways that various critters could be outsmarted through mere combinations of string, sticks, and rocks!

I mention this because now, thanks to you, I have had the opportunity to observe one of the finest snares ever constructed—the Macarthur Street "easy access" tram stop outside Parliament train station. If there is any creation of man or nature that is more adept at placing life in peril than this tram stop, I am yet to see it.


On a sunny day, I love to spend my lunch breaks sitting with a book in Gordon Reserve, right next to the Macarthur Street stop. But it's hard to get much reading done. Once, usually twice, or sometimes even thrice during the thirty-odd minutes I am there, I hear a cacophony of ding-ding-dings and honk-honks from stopping trams, mixed in with shouts from angry commuters.

The problem? Cars are failing to stop behind the tram for passengers to alight and board. In most instances I've seen, cars are scooting through the tram stop even as the tram doors have opened and passengers are moving onto the road. Here's a video (not mine) of a tame instance of this problem.

Realising that (a) somebody is eventually going to get killed, and (b) I will never finish Don Quixote with all these distractions, I resolved to investigate further.

And my conclusion is this: the design of the "easy access" stop misleads drivers into thinking they don't have to stop when a tram arrives. In other words, the Macarthur Street stop is a perfect snare.

 

As you can see from the book, a well-made snare follows four basic rules. Firstly, you must avoid disturbing the environment, leaving no sign that there is a trap in place.


Here is my photo of the Macarthur street tram stop, taken from the Spring Street intersection.  This is what drivers see as they approach—namely, nothing!  No markings on the road.  No flashing warning lights. No visible signs. Just open road.

"Oh, but we put a sign there!", you say. Yes, you're right. Here it is, circled in red:


Oh, for christ's sake, let's try again. Here it is—this time with the previous red circle circled again with another red circle and some arrows and whatnot and another circle added:


Unfortunately, until everyone starts wearing Google Glass (and listening to what I say), no driver will get to see my red circles when they approach Macarthur Street. Instead, they'll see a clear, empty road.

I've also noticed you've installed an electronic sign for traffic coming in the other direction.  Unfortunately, when I was there taking pictures, it (helpfully) wasn't working:


The second maxim of good snare design is to hide your scent. Macarthur Street does this very well.  Drivers do not smell a tram stop coming.

Coming from the west on Collins Street, car drivers pass tram stops at Spencer, King, William, Queen, Elizabeth, Swanston, Exhibition, and Spring Streets, each and every one of which is segregated from traffic, allowing passengers to wait in the centre of the road while traffic passes freely.

Coming from the east, drivers pass tram stops at Albert Street and St Vincent's Plaza, which again separate passengers from vehicle traffic, allowing cars to keep driving as the tram stops.

But at Macarthur Street, unlike any other stop I can think of in the area, drivers are required to stop on the road behind trams, contradicting the entire setup of the rest of the Melbourne CBD, which (admirably) does its best to keep vast amounts of people and automobiles apart as much as possible.

In fact, your own website agrees, stating that "the new easy access stop on Macarthur Street is different to other stops in Melbourne". That same website then goes on to provide, of all things, a users guide on how to drive through the stop!  Frankly, this is ridiculous—I don't know if Yarra Trams pools its resources with the brains trust behind myki, but when public transport arrangements now require the public to read instruction manuals in order to venture out-of-doors safely, something is amiss.

"Ah, but road conditions change", you say, "so drivers should pay attention appropriately!" Well, this leads me to the third snare design rule—camouflage.

Three things happen to the road as cars approach the Macarthur Street stop. The first, as seen in my "red circles and arrows" picture above, is that a raised plastic yellow dividing line separates tram traffic from vehicle traffic.

Secondly, the road becomes slightly grade-separated from the tram tracks, rising up as a ramp:


And thirdly, as seen above, small reflective dividing markers form a barrier between tramway and roadway.

Taken together, what these three changes in the road do is create the impression amongst motorists that they are entering a dedicated piece of roadway, where neither tram nor pedestrian will stand in their way. After all, CBD motorists are used to this arrangement—as I said earlier, cars approaching most of the new platform "superstops" are funnelled into dedicated roadways as they approach and drive past the stop.

The problem is, while Macarthur Street looks as if it follows this model, providing an express lane for cars to zoot on by, it acts in a completely opposite manner. In essence, the tram stop has become camouflaged.

Even your own copywriter is fooled by this arrangement, with your website stating: "Pedestrians will have safer access to trams as cars will need to enter a dedicated area of road"—a worrying statement, given that we've seen exactly how the road is not dedicated solely to cars!

Finally, we have snare design precept number four: make it strong.  Rest assured, you've done well here; this urban snare is very, very strong. But, if you are thinking about transforming Macarthur Street from a maze of death into a place where people can safely board and alight trams, small measures can still be taken.

If I were in charge of fixing this silly thing, I'd paint TRAM STOP AHEAD (repeatedly!) in large multicoloured letters on the road approaching the stop, throwing in a few rumble strips for good measure, and then at the actual tram stop, clearly mark the area over which people will be walking by way of colourful diagonal stripes, and maybe some murals of sharks and bears and snakes just to reinforce the point that this Macarthur Street "easy access" tram stop is a very dangerous place.

But what do I know?  I've only read a survival manual.

Yours sincerely

Dave

PS: please plug your electronic sign in.

---

Update: In a convenient piece of timing, I received a response from Yarra Trams two days after posting this article.  Although the response did not discuss any of my concerns regarding the design of the tram stop beyond noting that Yarra Trams' engineering department would "consider the matter", it noted that:

"any additional treatment or road markings at this location would be the responsibility of the City of Melbourne. As Yarra Trams’ network is unique in being mostly shared with other road users, areas of responsibility are defined between us and other authorities."

Interestingly, the design of the stop itself was a project by ThinkTram, an entity "managed by VicRoads in partnership with the Department of Transport (now Public Transport Victoria) and Yarra Trams, in consultation with local government and local communities". 

Because of this, I initially addressed the above correspondence to ThinkTram, who then passed the issue onto PTV, who then handed it off again to Yarra Trams.  It therefore appears that although the tram stop was designed and built by ThinkTram, enquiries about it are being handled by Yarra Trams, while present and future responsibility for it now falls to the City of Melbourne.  An odd arrangement!

Next stop: the City of Melbourne.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

summer time blues, or: the next person that shrugs off daylight saving with a mention of "extra sleep" is going to get a stern talking-to

This coming Sunday, the enlightened south-east of Australia (and Tasmania) will glumly set their clocks back one hour, thus ending another year of glorious daylight saving and throwing a symbolic blanket over the birdcage of one of the most generally pleasurable summers in recent Australian memory—apart from the price of avocados, which was extortionate.


But as fastidious clock-owners (and drunkards) prepare to stumble to their clocks in the early hours of Sunday morning, the Office Dullard is licking his or her chops, because for a scant few days, there is something new to say, rather than: 

You: "Hello!"
Dullard: <arched eyebrows, thin smile, vacant brain> "Umm. Busy?"
You: <knows from experience that any answer will be viewed as incorrect> "Mmmnnn."

You see, as clocks are pushed back, the Dullard's repertoire moves ever so slightly forward: 

Dullard: "Umm. Busy?"
You: "Miserable. Daylight saving ends this weekend." 
Dullard: "Umm."
You: "I enjoy a bit of sunlight after work, you see." 
Dullard: "I don't mind. I get an extra hour of sleep!"

The Dullard generally delivers such lines with ruthless insufferability, knowing full well that the ability to make inane quips about daylight saving is a privilege that can easily be taken away. Consider the case of Russia. Had NATO's foreign policy advisers done their homework, or at least sought a second opinion from Switzerland, they would have seen this Crimea business coming from a mile away—in 2011, Messrs Putin and Medvedev stole a swatch of the very fabric of time when they switched to daylight time and then refused to give the hour back, ever.

 

Although I, as a city-dwelling knob, would gladly support pushing the clocks even further forward in winter—allowing me to enjoy sixteen variations on the taco between 5 pm and sunset (even if it meant drinking my morning macchiato in pitch blackness)—I do appreciate that exposing our farmers to mild jetlag may not be good for overall state-wide productivity.

So while I am ready to concede daylight saving as winter approaches, I am not ready to deal with the Dullard's opinion on the matter.  Here are three handy phrases you can write on your hand, right now, so that you may be ready with a retort the next time your very own Dullard speaks.

1. You are a narrow-minded tit.

Winston Churchill is reputed to have said:
"An extra yawn one morning in the springtime, an extra snooze one night in the autumn is all that we ask in return for dazzling gifts. We borrow an hour one night... we pay it back with golden interest five months later."
Compare with:
"I will gladly pay you a winter of darkness, for an extra hour of sleep today!"

Who in their right mind would choose to trumpet the shallow luxury of a single hour of sleep over the delights of almost half a year of pleasant, sunny evenings?  Who thinks in such asinine ways?  Umm.

On second thought, perhaps I shouldn't suggest such strong language—tits are actually far from narrow minded, being (unlike the Dullard) quite adaptable and intelligent, able to open milk bottles and use tools to dig out larvae from trees.

The Dullard, on the other hand, is so inflexible and vapid that it appears unable to even make the simplest of choices for itself.  Which leads me to:

2. Why are you letting the Government tell you when to sleep?

April isn't the only exciting time for the Office Dullard.  Even worse is the first Sunday in October**, where, faced with the looming onset of long, pleasant summer evenings, the Dullard gets whipped up into a miniature frenzy at the thought of "losing an hour of sleep".

But here is the thing—unless you are this man (or this duck), you are able to sleep whenever you want!  Do you want an extra hour of sleep... on any day of your choosing?  Go to bed early!  Take a nap!  Can't bear to "lose" an hour of sleep in the springtime?  Adjust your bedtime earlier by 10-minute increments over six days, and, would you believe it, that stitch in time will save (cloud) nine.

Yet Dullard and friend(s) would have you believe that one's Hours of Sleep are a rigidly controlled affair, to be taken only as decreed by the Governor under the Summer Time Act 1972 (not to be confused with the summertime summertime act of 1972).


Incidentally, I had a read of the Summer Time Act, and it turns out that there are no penalties for refusing to change one's clocks in observance of daylight saving—which bodes extremely well for my family's legacy, particularly my grandfather's unconditional refusal to observe daylight saving time from its introduction in 1971 onwards (unless you count as a penalty my grandmother's bewildered rage at the innocent childhood question: "what time is Papa home for dinner?").

But for those of us without a patient wife or a licence bestowed by old age to set and live in your own time zone, there can really only be one solution within the reach of you, me, and the Dullard:

3. I'm gonna take two weeks, gonna have a fun vacation.

I'm gonna take my problem to the United Nations.

---

** If you have trouble remembering which way the clock goes at what time, I personally am a big fan of the North American mnemonic phrase "spring forward, fall back".  Despite ongoing safety concerns, this has also been adopted in recent years as the motto of the Melbourne Bus & Tram Drivers' Association.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

"play me, I'm yours": a review of Melbourne's street pianos

If I owned a business that had enough spare cash (and sufficiently loose oversight arrangements) to enable me to engage in a series of follies, my first step would be to install a "music room" in the company headquarters, stocked with enough instruments to enable any stressed or uninspired employee to refresh and reinvigorate by banging out some tunes.

I was understandably delighted, then, when I learned that Melbourne was taking a short break from its own series of follies to instead implement my music room scheme at-large across the city, in the form of Play Me, I'm Yours.  This is a travelling two-week exhibition presented by Arts Centre Melbourne, whereby old pianos are fixed up, painted up, and set up on the streets of Melbourne, free for anyone to play as they please.


Ever since my father took an axe to the family piano to provide us with firewood (and materials to fashion weapons to fend off roving bands of cannibals) during the 1998 Longford gas explosion, I have been sans-piano, forced to make do with a procession of secondhand keyboards purchased off eBay that always seem to start with "what a good deal, it only needs minor repairs" and end with "no, electrocution is when you die, that was just a shock".

And so, whenever I get the chance, I love to sit down at a proper piano.  Below are some reviews of the Play Me, I'm Yours street pianos I've encountered over the past week.  Hopefully this helps to explain to people why I've been late a lot in recent days.

Little Collins Street / Swanston Street

Finding this piano locked shut as I approached it on a Wednesday morning (presumably to protect it from the rowdy folk who frequent the Swanston Street opal shops in the wee hours of the night), I nevertheless sat down and put in the performance of my lifetime—a silent concerto à la Adrien Brody in The Pianist.


As I rose to leave, a German backpacker arrived with pliers, and cut the lock.  "Come", he said, nodding toward the piano, "play something".  Timidly, I did as he told me.  Although his nonplussed expression remained frozen for the whole of my piece, I could tell he was impressed.  I now return to play for him every morning, in exchange for a tin of pickles.

Grade: B 

St Paul's Cathedral

This ingeniously disguised piano took quite some time to find—indeed, it was only when I started to bleed from the tips of my fingers that I realised I was sitting three metres too far left.


Sadly, as the piano is perched over the busy intersection of Flinders and Swanston Streets, even the most heavenly playing is drowned out by the noise of traffic, making this location all honky, but no tonky.

Furthermore, the action on this piano has seen better days, meaning that you may struggle to sound many notes if your playing is of the Paul McCartney plonk-plonk-plonk variety—as is mine, having given up classical study as a teenager after my crusty old Italian piano teacher tried to shorten my fingernails with garden shears in between drooling on himself during sonata movements.

Grade: D 

Princes Bridge

I have been particularly fond of Princes Bridge ever since I was doored there in the spring of 2011.

It was horse racing season, and society-at-large had convinced many men that it was "classy" to stand sweating outdoors in a dirty paddock, wearing magical hats that (amazingly) managed to make the wearer feel like Humphrey Bogart, but look like the lead singer from Smash Mouth.

So when one of these anxious race-goers decided to hop out of his taxi in moving traffic to get to the train station four seconds faster, I was duly ejected from my bicycle onto the pavement.  "If only there were a street piano here to calm me down", I mused, in between alternate fits of swearing like a sailor and shaking like an adrenaline-soaked leaf.

These days, thanks to some excellent work from the City of Melbourne, Princes Bridge is now home to a veritable bicycle Champs-ÉlyséesI was riding up this magnificent thoroughfare last week, when, incredibly, I saw a street piano situated adjacent to the exact spot where man and bicycle became separated.


I returned a few days later to play this piano, and found that it put out a powerful, satisfying, manly rumble.  I also had an absurd little chuckle at the concrete block tied to the piano, because any nefarious characters that enter the city with the intent and equipment to steal pianos will obviously be flummoxed by a medium-sized brick.

Grade: B+ 

State Library of Victoria

If any of these pianos were to animate and eat you, it would be this one.


Grade: A 

Bourke Street Mall

As soon as it commenced, Play Me, I'm Yours began making an instant mark upon Melbourne.  Jauntiness shot to new heights, and I firmly believe that if not for the cathartic release offered by the street pianos, Melbourne would have turned upon itself in a fit of heatwave-driven civic unrest not seen since the great banana shortage of 2011.


Sadly, the real loser in all of this has been the pianos themselves.  A curious public and a week of 40+ degree temperatures does not a happy piano make—several of the trusty old goannas are clinging to life solely due to the hard work of travelling repairers and tuners.

This particular instrument was suffering from some serious issues with about half of its D keys.  Mercifully, Yarra Trams' new scheduling system (whereby no trams come for 25 minutes, and then four clatter past all at once) intervened to drown out my aural crimes.

Grade: C+  

Hamer Hall

More pianny than piano, this lovely little find has a classic old-timey sound that wouldn't be out of place accompanying a silent film-era slapstick routine.

I sat down at this (appropriately) rainbow number as an electrical storm rolled in over Melbourne.  Two construction workers carrying a long steel girder sidled over to listen, but began to argue over who would stand closest to the piano.  As they spun around with increasing vigour, the steel beam swished dangerously toward my bobbing head, which was deeply immersed in the playing of The Celebrated Chop Waltz.


My friend ran down to put a stop to this, but was collected by the girder and deposited over the railing, landing on the deck of a steamboat piloted by an oversized half-naked mouse, who had forced an oddly complacent cow's mouth open and was playing its teeth like a xylophone.  "Odd for a Tuesday", my friend said.  As the words left his mouth, I hit the final note in my piece, sending Southbank into a scene of rapturous applause.  The resulting commotion startled the cow, who jumped onto the pier and started to run upstairs to St Kilda Road.

Knowing it would be very difficult to get the cow back down, the mouse grabbed it by the tail, causing the cow to rear up on its hind legs and shoot milk from its udder.  The milk curdled in mid-air due to Melbourne's heatwave, before directly hitting the eyes of the lead nag in a tourist horse-and-coach operation.  The entire team of horses then bolted blindly down towards my piano.

Still carrying their girder, the workmen made a run for it, dispatching human statues into the Yarra faster than tourists could pay them to move.  The horse caught up to the workmen, and the girder was sent flying into an upmarket wine bar, where it lodged at an upright angle in the window.  Lightning promptly struck the girder, blowing out the window and unleashing a torrent of decorative wine barrels that knocked me and the piano into the river.

Six dwarves and a hobbit popped out of the barrels; my imagination promptly apologised to me for confusing matters, and directed me to a towel.

Grade: A+

Thursday, 21 November 2013

"are you happy?": one man's struggle with the Morning Sulk

In contrast to my usual business of travelling for pleasure, I recently had the pleasure of travelling for business.  The upsides of journeying on someone else's dollar were striking: the hotel pool was considerably less fetid than I had ever previously experienced, and I no longer felt compelled to "get my money's worth" by engorging my backpack with as many complimentary soaps and shower caps as possible.

As I awoke after my first night's sleep in the hotel, I started toward the bathroom to commence the most solemn of ceremonies: the removal of the "sanitised for your protection" sash from the toilet, and the accompanying un-sanitisation of said toilet that would duly follow.

But these carefree thoughts were short-lived.  As I rolled out of bed, I spied a small blue card on the bedside table that I hadn't noticed the night before:


I stopped dead in my tracks.  Unwrapping the toilet would have to wait.

"Are you happy?", I read aloud with vexed expression, as I held the thick cardboard stock in my hand.  My mind began to whirl.

"ARE YOU HAPPY?"

Not any more.

Why was this philosopher-hotel putting questions to me at 7 in the morning concerning the human condition?  And why was it doing so by way of this stupid blue card?  The top half of this card—emblazoned with a bold and interrogative "ARE YOU"—gave off the smug air of a World War One recruitment poster, shouting a question at me from the page whilst full well knowing what the sole correct answer was.



The bottom half of the card, meanwhile, was propaganda of a different age, being straight from the Lululemon school of persuasion.  Here, the word "Happy" was written in a wispy, carefree script, accompanied by a stylised goose.  "It's so nice to be happy, isn't it", said this part of the card, "oh, just look how happy this goose in flight is; we should all be happy!"

Like a crooked pharmacist that belts children over the head and then sells them aspirin to relieve the pain, these two contradictory halves of this blue card went after my morning mood in a deadly pincer movement.

But why, you might ask, did my hotel's blunt attempt at sunrise therapy have such a profound effect upon me? Well. This little blue card triggered a chronic affliction that has beset me since the dawn of adulthood—the Morning Sulk.


I coined the term "Morning Sulk" in response to some colleagues of mine, who, unlike their 20-30 minutes, were flabbergasted at my revelation that I often take around 55-60 minutes between waking and leaving the house for work.

"What on earth takes up all that time?", they asked.

"Not what", I replied, "but who".

After awaking, while the practical side of me is preoccupied with thoughts of packing a lunch or ironing some clothes, a morose and pensive personality arises from the depths of my consciousness.  He, or it, is the Morning Sulk, a being that would rather spend 20 minutes standing on the balcony with a pot of coffee in hand staring intently at my herbs and tomato plants than do anything that would aid my daily progress through life.

The relentless heel-dragging of the Morning Sulk is balanced only by the aforementioned get-things-done part of consciousness—or, the Practical Man.  I believe Sigmund Freud came close to these realisations in the early 20th century, but ended up getting the terminology all wrong.


It's a standard morning.  I wake up.  As I walk into the bathroom, I gaze into the mirror.  The Morning Sulk arises.

"What of life?", says the Sulk.

"What of it?", replies Practical Man.

"Why must we work during set hours?  Man in his natural state never did such a thing!"

"Man in his natural state had to contend with being eaten by wolves.  He worked whenever there weren't wolves around.  I personally would prefer to start working at 9am rather than whenever I please, if it meant that I could live without fear of the flesh being torn from my bones."

But the Morning Sulk is persistent.  "Do you realise that we may be nothing more than molecules that got together millions of years ago and decided to move around and eat things?  How outrageous is it that we must now sit in gloomy buildings of our own design and do these arbitrary 'jobs'!  The wild horse doesn't have to do this!"

"The wild horse does have a job.  Its job is to walk around and eat grass and not get hurt or sick.  Because if the wild horse does get hurt or sick, it dies.  It certainly doesn't get paid to stay home and watch Bad Santa."

"Can we do that today?"

"You do realise that the conditions you sulk about are the very conditions that provide the time and luxury to make your sulking possible, don't you?"

"No really, I...uh, I mean we don't feel well today."

"Get in the shower.  Go to work."


But the Morning Sulk is rarely this explicit.  Usually, it will manifest itself in much more subtler ways, foregoing existential questions for a more nuanced approach.  The ultimate goal, however, is the same—to increase the opportunities for further sulking and introspection by preventing me from leaving the house.

Practical Man: "Time for breakfast." 
Morning Sulk: "Let's have pancakes!" 
Practical Man: "No pancakes.  Pancakes take too long to make.  We shall have Oat Flakes instead." 
Morning Sulk: "Pancakes!" 
Stomach (just waking up): "Pancakes!!" 
Practical Man: "Fine, pancakes."
Boss: "Why are you late again?"


Occasionally, the Sulk is particularly insidious, and will try to present its goals as beneficial to all concerned.

Practical Man: "We're riding the bike to work today." 
Morning Sulk: "It's pretty windy out.  Are you sure we want to do that?" 
Practical Man: "I just checked the weather online.  The wind is fine."
Morning Sulk: "That wind reading was taken at 7.00am.  We should wait until the 7.30am reading before we decide for sure.  If it's too windy we'll get cranky.  We hate headwinds."
Legs (in unison): "We hate headwinds!"
Morning Sulk (looks to guitar): "Why don't we have a couple of songs while we wait?  Songs relax us and get us ready for the day ahead."
Ears (in unison): "Songs!!"


Ordinarily, I would be surprised to see the Morning Sulk whilst away from home.  However, "are you happy?" ensured that my trip was far from ordinary.

Practical Man: "Let's see if there's any complimentary UHT milk in the fridge."  
Morning Sulk: "Oh my, look at this little blue card..." 
Practical Man: "And we should probably bring an umbrella today."  
Morning Sulk: "Are we happy?" 
Practical Man: "Hmm, tea or coffee..."  
Morning Sulk: "Are we happy??"
Practical Man: "I reckon we can sneak in a quick dip in the pool before heading off to work."
Morning Sulk: "Are we happy???" 
Practical Man: "Oh, for f***'s sake, yes, we're generally content!!  But don't you think that perhaps the hotel might be better off with a plain white piece of paper with 'GUEST SURVEY' written on it in a boring font?" 
Morning Sulk: "That's a good point.  That's a really good point.  Don't go anywhere—we should draft a blog post on this."

Monday, 7 October 2013

extracts from the diary of someone who pushes to the doors on public transport far sooner than is necessary

Last week, police discovered a body in a scrapyard, sandwiched in between the doors of an abandoned, rusting tram.  Death appeared to have been caused by strangulation.  Although the deceased was wearing a spacious backpack, all personal effects were missing from the body, save for a creased, well-used diary found within a hidden pocket.  Police have agreed to publish excerpts from this diary on melbournesurprise.com in the hope that someone might come forward to identify the body. 

Tuesday, September 17, Flinders Street station: It's a rainy morning and the train is heaving.  "Look, everyone is getting off here", grumbles a woman as I squeeze past her.  I don't believe her.  She's a miserable woman who looks like she hates her job.  A sullen, beaten-down expression.  Early signs of wrinkles.  Not the sort who takes charge of a situation.  I'm right in front of the doors by the time we stop, but I let the guy next to me open them.  It's flu season; I'm not touching anything.  Anyway, I still manage to get past him as the doors slide open.  He might've muttered something under his breath, but frankly I couldn't care less.  Lemmings.

Friday, September 20, Route 86 tram: Scored a window seat today; quite happy about that.  I've noticed the tram is mildly full, so I stand up two stops in advance just to be safe.  As I get up, the two people on the aisle seats swing their legs sideways to let me out.  That's nice of them, but really it's a bit too soon—got to put my coat on first.  Oh, and my scarf, it's cold today.  Right, I should make a move...no, hang on, this is a bumpy section, best to just stand here.  One of the fellows that moved his legs is now glaring at me, apparently he wants to get back to his book.  Sheesh, calm down old sport!  Shouldnt've been so hasty to move your stupid legs, if that's how you're going to be.
 

Sunday, September 22, Route 112 tram: I'm coming home from another delighful solo brunch!  Okay, not totally delighful—the coffee was too cold, but I made sure to tell the barista.  As I get up in preparation for my stop and start walking down the aisle, I start my usual mind-clearing exercise of sorting the world into two groups: the steamships, those who churn their own relentless, ambitious path through life; and the rafts, those content to simply let the current drag them along.  Everyone on this tram is obviously a raft.  Actually, pretty much everyone I see is a raft.  I'm clearly a steamship, as were Christopher Columbus, Henry Ford, the Duke of Wellington, and... well, that's the extent of my list to date.  Anyway, because of all this mental exercise, I'm not paying attention when the tram driver slams on the brakes to avoid a U-turning car.  Caught mid-stride, I'm flung forward into some guy who spills his coffee all over the floor.  Why stand near the doors if you're not getting off?  Idiot.  Luckily, I am unhurt.

Wednesday, September 25, Parliament train station: Looks like we're about 40 seconds away from arriving at the platform.  I've almost managed to push my way though to the door, but there's one last man in front of me.  He was originally facing with his back to the doors, but now he's turned around to face them.  Does this mean he's getting off the train too?  I'm not sure.  What if he just wants to peer out the window?  I better push past him too, just to be safe.  I couldn't bear to be the second person to reach the escalators.


Tuesday, October 1, Route 112 tram: Here I am, trying so hard to recall the last time I missed my stop due to not moving to the doors early enough (oddly, I couldn't recall any such instances) that I almost missed seeing the house with the tall red chimney out of the left-hand window—my marker to start making my way toward the doors.  Bloody hell, it's crowded today.  There's people jammed into every nook on this tram.  "Easy there, mate", says one guy as I push my way down the aisle.  What a goose.  What does he expect me to do?  I'd turn side-on to squeeze through a bit easier, but I'm wearing a massive backpack.

Can you help identify the victim?  Feedback is welcome in the comments box below.  Please note that we will ignore queries about why these extracts were not provided to a reputable media outlet rather than a hackneyed blog—police will not comment on operational matters.

Friday, 6 September 2013

ballots in wonderland: down the Abbott hole

It's a familiar scene.  You walk into a restaurant, be seated, and gaze up at the chalkboard menu on the wall:

Mushroom risotto: $20
Steak (cooked to order): $30
Fish of the day: market price.

"Market price"!!  Oh no.  A cold sweat begins to take hold.  Instinctively, your hand reaches down and slaps your pockets to ensure that your wallet is still in fact firmly ensconced within the fabric of your trousers, and has not been deftly lifted by the interested-disinterested waiter that greeted you upon entry—because "market price", as you have learned from past unfortunate dining events, is shorthand for "order this fish, and you enter a twilight zone of strange and unintended consequences, where you will cop a financial rogering so severe that you will actually be able to turn down Big Issue vendors in good faith".

And so, deciding that "market price" is territory best left to the uninformed buffoon or those with putrid amounts of wealth, you make a wise choice and order the steak.

If only the Australian public were as wise.  For if you believe the polling data, tomorrow, on the 7th of September, millions of Australians will march into polling stations across the nation and order the market price fish by voting in Tony Abbott and the Liberal-National Coalition.


Here is a political party with the audacity to release its (incomplete) policy costings a little over 30 hours before election day—because who would need to know how much this fish costs?

Here is a political party that bangs on about budgetary surpluses but refuses to say when it will deliver one—because who cares if this fish actually arrives for dinner or not?

Here is a political party that has famously ducked questions regarding the extent of its austerity, or "waste reduction" measures—because who cares if you choke just a little as you eat your un-boned fish?

But unlike restaurant fish, which in the end presents well and usually turns out to be quite palatable, the Coalition fish once elected will instead proceed to slap the general populace across the face for the first few months, leaving little else but a slimy, scaly residue over such long-lost dreams as world class broadband, social equality, environmental leadership, and the shared wealth of the mining boom, before settling down in a gentle rot for at least six years of stinking up the nation (I say this because while federal elections are held every three years, Australia has not had a one-term federal government since the Scullin government was ousted in 1931).

Yes, at least six years.  And yet the Coalition's votes are expected to roll in.  Cast your ballots—we're off to Wonderland.


So as Australia begins to stick its collective head down the Abbott-hole, the memory of old Lewis Carroll begins to stir (for a refresher, Wikipedia has a good Alice in Wonderland plot summary here).

What do we see down the Abbott-hole?

We have a shrunken, cowed Alice drowning in a sea of her own tears as shadow treasurer Joe Hockey pops on TV and explains with a straight face how he is going to save money by helping less people.

We have a beautiful yet inaccessible garden that Alice just can't seem to reach, as it turns out Rupert Murdoch and friends have changed the lock on its door.

We have the Mad Hatter's infinite tea party where time stands still and nothing really gets done, as nobody has bothered to build first-rate telecommunications infrastructure.

We have the grinning Cheshire Cat, appearing and disappearing like the Coalition's 11th hour now-you-see-it-now-you-don't internet filter policy, with the upwards, twisted grin always remaining, as if to say "surprise, Australia!  Now we're really gonna mess youse lot up".

We have the Mock Turtle, who is very sad because he used to be a real turtle until Tony decided that the Mock Turtle was just indulging in the "fashion of the moment".

We have live flamingos and hedgehogs (or perhaps brolgas and echidnas) being used in a macabre game of croquet for political ends as the Coalition claws back Australia's conservation and wilderness areas.

We have the very entrance to the Abbott-hole somewhere in Melbourne's Royal Park, down which a White Rabbit scampered holding an unreleased business case for an unwanted and unelected road tunnel, dragging down to hide under the earth the future of public transport in Australia.


And we have schoolyard bully Tony Abbott as the Queen of Hearts.  "Off with his head!", he screams at the slightest provocation, displaying the skill with which he harnessed the Australian public's great reactionary pastime of saying "nahhhh, we're not having that!" to great effect with the Coalition's campaign strategy: "do you see this fella over here?  Do you see the Prime Minister?  Do you want him?  Nahhh!  Nahhhh!"

But the "nahhhh" brigade aren't all bad news.  In 1925, our great land of "do as we say" joined the mandatory voting club (now 10 members strong!) in an attempt to force these folk into action.

And for this, we should be thankful.  Because now, in a few days time—thanks to mandatory voting—you will be able to walk down the street, point with confidence at almost half the people you see, and exclaim:

"you're all a bloody pack of flamin' galahs",

before you stick your head right back down the Abbott-hole.

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

AAMI Park's leaky roof

Author's note: I was hoping to steer this blog away from letters of complaint for a while.  I can actually be quite understanding!  If I go around to a friend's place for a dinner of slow-cooked beef stew, but arrive to find out that the beef has only been stewing for about ten minutes, I say to my friend who is unable to differentiate between a microwave and a slow cooker: "don't stress about it, let's just get take-away".

But companies are another matter.  Following Woolworths' excellent customer service response to the "Chickengate" saga, I thought the below complaint would be met with a grovelling apology that would provide me with some much-needed winter cheer.

Instead, I was met with the oldest trick in the book—total silence.  My (unanswered) correspondence is reproduced below.

---

Dear AAMI Park management

When I was growing up, my Mum bought me a VHS tape of old Donald Duck cartoons.  In vintage Disney style, these cartoons featured Donald getting into all sorts of amusing predicaments—for example, "Donald's Tire Trouble" depicted D. Duck's futile attempt to change multiple flat tyres after driving down an unsealed road.  Sadly, many of the finer points of pneumatic tyre comedy were lost on my eight-year-old self, having only driven dodgem cars at that stage in life.  


Instead, my favourite Donald Duck cartoon on the VHS tape was "Drip Dippy Donald" (please watch this short excerpt before continuing)—a true classic, equally enjoyable by eight- and eighty-year olds.  This brilliant cartoon generates laughs for all ages from a simple premise: a dripping tap makes it impossible for Donald to get to sleep.

I would always laugh, perhaps cruelly, at Donald's drip-fuelled misery, being lucky enough to grow up in a house with sound plumbing and attentive parents.  And even after I had grown up and moved out of the family home, I would still chuckle at memories of that old cartoon, having never been afflicted by drips in the night (at least as far as faucets were concerned).

I had no sympathy.  I didn't understand.

Until now.   


Or, more specifically, until Tuesday 25 June, when I went to AAMI Park to watch the Melbourne Rebels take on the British Lions.

As I made my way to Seat 258, Row F, Aisle 36, Level 1, I noticed the floor beneath the seat was quite damp.  "Odd", I thought, "it hasn't rained recently".  Never mind though—no sooner than I had sat down, the rugby began!

Because of the excitement around the stadium, I barely noticed what I thought was my neighbour spilling a few drops of his drink on my right leg.  About a minute later—plop!—it happened again.  "Not to worry", I thought, "accidents happen".  But, less than 30 seconds later—plop!—I felt a cold splash once again.  My patience had run dry.  Turning toward my neighbour and commencing to politely inform him that it might be best for him to store his beverage at ground level, I only got as far as "if you don't mind, old sport..." before I realised—he did not have a drink at all. 

What he did have, however, was a very damp left leg.

In an effort to distract myself from the increasing awkwardness setting in between us, I drew my delicious mid-strength beer toward my mouth.  If I could not have answers, I could at least have froth.  But barely had my lower jaw begun to unhinge itself when a cold, silver dart dropped down from the sky and—plop!—landed directly in my drink.

My gaze shot up into the cold winter air.  It was a cloudless night.  Glimmering amongst the black sky, another silver dart was falling, radiant in the glow of the stadium's light towers.  Plop!  This one just missed my leg, and instead struck my bag on the floor.  I looked up once again to see—plop! (this one hit my neighbour somewhere around the kneecap)—that a steady stream of cold drips were falling somewhere from the underside of the roof. 

As this roof was very very high, and I was sitting very very much near ground level—plop! (right thigh, mine)—it took a great amount of consistent staring to follow the trail of drips upwards through the air to their source.  This took a while, because if I broke my gaze—plop! (top of head, his)—in order to see where the drops landed and defend accordingly, I would lose the trail of drips.  Not only did I wish to avoid getting wet—plop! (this was mostly unsuccesful)—but there was also the small matter of a rugby match going on right in front of me that I had paid to watch; by nature I find paid sporting events much more interesting to watch than a slow stream of dripping water, with the possible exception of women's tennis.


Eventually I traced the drips to their source—plop-plop! (at times the wind would change and split the drips into two separate warheads, striking both myself and my neighbour with pinpoint Rumsfeld-esque accuracy)—a cylindrical duct attached to the overhanging edge of the stadium roof.  It appeared—plop-chuckle-chuckle-chuckle (by now most people in the vicinity were much more entertained by my own version of "Drip Dippy Donald" than the rugby)—that there was a leak in one of the ducts, causing a new drip to appear every ten seconds or so.

Fuelled by the particularly peevish kind of frustration that only comes through wearing wet denim, I resolved—plop! (back on the right leg again)—to write to AAMI Park to chronicle my ordeal.  While drafting up this letter, I had a look at the AAMI Park website, which is gushing in its praise of the stadium's roof.  One passage states that the roof "has been skinned in a triangular panelised façade that is made up of a combination of glass, metal and louvers, as well as potential for photovoltaic cells and rainwater collection [that] allows the stadium to 'breathe'." 

After reading this piffle, I am wondering: did one of your architects take the "breathing" stadium idea a bit too seriously, and decide to accurately depict the spit and sputum discharged from a breathing individual's mouth and/or nose during wintertime?  Does AAMI Park have the sniffles?

I would have written to you sooner, but—plop! (I realise that this "plop" is out of place seeing as I am no longer recounting the events of the night when your stadium's nose dripped on me all night, regardless, I have decided to leave the "plop" in as an artistic touch, in order to remind you that your stadium still leaks despite significant negative media coverage about the stadium's ill-constructed roof on its opening night over three years ago)—ahem, I would have written to you sooner but since being constantly dripped upon a fortnight ago, I have been beset by a strange desire to commit unscrupulous acts, change my name, flee to France and enlist in the Foreign Legion.  My doctor thinks it's Legionnaires' Disease.

Kind—plop!—regards,

Dave

NB: Given that I am impartial to rugby on the best of days (which this was not), the only real positive to come out of this experience was the admirable job my complimentary Herald Sun did of shielding my leg and bag from further innundation.  Bravo, Herald Sun, for actually preventing the spread of sloppy filth for the first time in your history.