Reading log for 2019

The end of a year usually brings with it a rash of people reflecting on the past year and planning for the next. Rather than comment on the various aspects of my life which are woven too completely to entirely separate, I thought I’d post the list of books I read in the year, and a few comments. In 2019 I read 62 books, down from the 80-90 that I read most years. I’m not sure why that is, but several of these were quite long and took weeks to finish.

A few themes emerged: The downsides of the tech age, pre-Columbian America, practical philosophy, long-form adventurous travel. But plenty of these books were chosen for random reasons, or because I realised that I don’t know enought about a particular topic.

I hope this is helpful to some people. There were some utter standouts this year, and several that I’d enjoyed so much that I decided to read again.

James Hawes

The shortest history of Germany

Started the year off with a bang. This is an excellent short history of Germany which doesn’t pay undue attention to the events of the 20th century.  Fascinating main thesis, that essentially all of Germany’s woes stem from a geographical line approximating the cold war borders, which divides Germany into two cultural, economic and psychological zones, and which dates back to a division between Romanised and “Barbarian” Germany.
James Le Fanu

Too many pills

Mildly forgettable book about the over-prescription of medication.
Kassia St Clair

The secret lives of colour

A gift from a friend. Gloriously printed in extremely full colour, with a short essay about the history and cultural background of a couple of dozen particularly important shades.
Brendan Leonard

The new American road trip mixtape

I’ve read a lot of Brendan’s writing about outdoorsey things. This is a kind of an autobiography, about a time in his life where he basically drove around America, rock climbing and sleeping on friends’ sofas. Feels a bit like a sophomore effort, because it is. Fairly enjoyable though.
Orlando Soria

Get it together

What? A book about interior design? I saw this in the library and grabbed it, mainly because I loved the author’s super-snarky commentary on various design techniques, woven in with a flamboyantly revealing account of his own personal failures.
Cixin Liu

The Wandering Earth

China’s Hugo award-winning Sci Fi author has written a book of short stories. I found them far more enjoyable than his longer works, and rather grave and fatalistic in places. Unmistakeably not from the West, and all the more interesting for that. Avoid the movie though.
Patrick Nunn

The Edge of Memory

Quite a strange book. The author tries to interpret ancient Aboriginal myths and legends in order to gain an insight into the world at the time of the ice ages, and immediately afterwards. I think he’s probably on to something, but I found it hard to engage with what should be a fascinating topic.
David Armitage

Civil Wars – a history in ideas

Not quite as monumental as it sounds, this relatively short book puts together a policial theory of civil war, particularly in light of why they can be so damaging and destablilising. The main focus is on the Roman Republic
Adrian Goldsworthy

Hadrian’s Wall – Rome and the limits of Empire

Only for the real fans of the ancient world, this one. A short but well-illustrated work about Hadrian’s Wall, the Roman defensive fortification that spans the north of England. Loads of detail. Would make a great handbook for an archaeologically-minded visitor.
G.K. Chesterton

The Man who was Thursday

What a strange book. Originally conceived as an extended Catholic allegory set in a world paralysed by fears of anarchists, it feels much more like a Philip K. Dick hallucination to the modern reader. Quite fun but feels heavy-handed to those not brought up in a world where theology is much thought about.
Cal Newport

Deep work

 I read this one because I felt slightly obliged, due to so many people recommending it. A well-written and clearly expressed plan for how to get real work done and avoid the ephemera that the world seems to want to inject into your working day.
Erica Benner

Be like the fox – Machiavelli’s lifelong quest for freedom

I enjoyed this biography of Machiavelli, and used it as source material for a post on my other blog.It does have the slight tang of special pleading on behalf of deceased people though. Really good on the culture of Florence in the 15th century.
Jim Masselos

The Great Empires of Asia

I mainly read this to try to get a better understanding of the Khmer empire, which is anything but clear to me. Nicely produced but an awkward combination of being too brief to do the topic justice and too academic to be really engaging.
Banana Yoshimoto

Asleep

Japanese fiction is great. There always seems to be an aura of spookiness about it. I first read this years ago, so this was a re-read. Several short stories revolving around the idea of sleeping, and the overlap of the dream world, the real world and death.
Max Hastings

The Korean War

Classic military history. Dry as a chip, but thorough.
Nick Hunt

Walking the woods and the water

Nick Hunt walked the same path in the 2000s that Patrick Leigh Fermor did in the 1930s – Holland to Istanbul by foot. Then they both wrote books about it. It’s very tricky not to compare it with the original, which is a pity because it doesn’t stand up to it, either in quality of writing or insight. But it’s a perfectly fun bit of the modern adventure genre.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb

The bed of Procrustes

The aphorisms here compress Taleb’s thought down into a couple of hundred brief gems. I have re-read this book many, many times and I love it. Some of the aphorisms make absolutely no sense, but on re-reading years later are perfectly clear and very insightful. Taleb’s obsessions with chance and living a heroic life are highly idiosyncratic and on full display, but it’s such a pleasure to read someone who is brilliant and hasn’t been neutered.
Charles Mann

1491 – New revelations of the Americas before Columbus

This is another re-read. A fabulously entertaining treasure chest of knowledge about the people of the pre-Columbian Americas. Mann is a journalist who writes beautifully and has gathered together a vast trove of information that show that the Americas were both far more heavily populated than we used to think, and also far more sophisticated.
Dan John

40 years with whistle

Dan John is a strength coach with quite a reputation for being both a massive beast and also very reasonable in how he does things. This is a reflection on his time doing that job, and worth it for the life lessons, even if the coaching isn’t really your thing.
Timothy R. Pauketat

Cahokia- Ancient America’s great city on the Mississippi

I wanted to like this, really I did. Cahokia is a pre-Columbian city in Minnesota, the only major settlement north of Mexico. Huge earth mounds remain and give us an insight into how these vanished people lived.

Unfortunately this book is dull as dishwater and very hard to read.

Kyoko Nakajima

The little house

Japanese family saga set in the pre-war era. Couldn’t get into it.
Alastair Humphreys

Grand Adventures

Alastair Humphreys once rode a bike around the world, and now spends his time encouraging others to undertake adventures large and small. This is a book about the large ones – major journeys and year-long odysseys, but all undertaken by normal people.
Serghii Plokhy

The last empire – the final days of the Soviet Union

Brilliant. Plokhy writes an utterly gripping book about the last few years of the Soviet Union, and its dissolution into various republics. In his reading Yeltsin is malevolent, Gorbachev is perpetually flat-footed, and the separatist movement in Ukraine is what gave birth to the whole thing.
Alastair Humphreys

My midsummer morning

Alastair Humphreys’ most recent journey is a different sort of trip. Instead of a years-long sufferfest, he busked across Spain playing the violin terribly, as an entirely different kind of challenge. Interwoven with this is a touching story about trying to find a balance between the rugged life of an adventurer and that of a family man with responsibilities.
Cal Newport

Digital Mininimalism

Swearing off social media and phones is very on-trend at the moment. Newport is one of many people who have written about it, but he’s unusually sensible and level headed. Ever the pragmatist he has some very practical methods of trying to reduce Silicon Valley’s hold on you, rather than just abandoning tech entirely.
James C Scott

Against the grain

A really interesting interpretation of how settled civilization arose in Mesopotamia. According to Scott, the area between the rivers was a paradise for hunter gatherers, but they were forced into settling down and growing cereal grains by local warlords as a way of amassing wealth. Naturally many of them tried to escape, indicating that civilization isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Artemis Cooper

Patrick Leigh Fermor – An adventure

Superb. I first read this about five years ago and I thought it was time for a revisit. Patrick Leigh Fermor is about the most interesting person you would ever want to meet. He walked from Holland to Istanbul as an 18 year old man, then got involved in some local wars, fought for the British as a spy/guerrilla in Crete in the Second World War, then settled down as a writer of ornate travel books. This was all possible because of his ferocious intellect, charm beyond compare, and general swashbuckling attitude. I kind of want to be him, or at least bask in his radiance. Artemis Cooper knew him from childhood and has written a tremendously sympathetic and honest biography.
Anna Sherman

The bells of old Tokyo – Travels in Japanese time

I picked this up on a whim at The Paperback Books in the City, thinking it would be an interesting insight into the perennially fascinating topic of Japan. However it fits better in the literary category of “isn’t Japan weird and quirky”, rather than bringing something new to the table. Kind of like Lost in Translation if Scarlett Johanssen’s character were played by Anna Kendrick.
David Epstein

Range

I generally agree with the thesis, that early specialisation in skills to the exclusion of all else is a bad idea, and that in most parts of life it’s better to be a generalist. However this is basically a collection of just-so stories on the theme, and not very convincing about something which should be easy to prove.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Antifragile

Taleb is a fascinating character. Brilliant, iconoclastic, obnoxious and charming in equal measure. I believe that his is his masterwork – basically a book of philosophy dealing with how to live, disguised as a discussion of randomness, interspersed with strange vignettes and moments from the author’s life. I read this at least once a year.
Serghii Plokhy

Chernobyl – history of a tragedy

Another brilliant book by Serghii Plokhy, this time about the days and months following the Chernobyl disaster. The bones of the Soviet state are laid bare. Thrilling.
Patrick Leigh Fermor

Three Letters from the Andes

Leigh Fermor, discussed at length above, went on a trip to the Andes with some friends in the 1970s. They took climbing gear and an awful lot of whisky. He wrote letters back to his wife, and here they are, as baroque as the rest of his work.
Alex Kerr

Another Tokyo

Alex Kerr is an American who has lived in Japan for decades, and famously wrote a book called Lost Japan lamenting the disappearance of old Japanese culture under a sea of concrete and electricity wires. This is not a sequel per se – more like a handbook for visitors to Japan to interpret the art and architecture around them. I wish I’d had it when I visited, it would have saved a lot of shrugging.
Bertrand Russell

The conquest of happiness

Born in the Victorian era, died in the space age, Bertrand Russell was something else. He wrote a lot of very formal philosophy, but this isn’t it. The Conquest of Happiness is basically his handbook for how to live a good life, the most interesting kind of philosophy in my view. If you excuse a few passages that have a distinctly Victorian attitude to them (particularly around family matters), this is eminently sensible and valuable. This time round was a re-read, since I liked it so much.
Bruce Chatwin

The Songlines

Apparently this book made a bit of a splash when it was first published. Chatwin was a rootless English author fascinated with nomads and their life. When he got to Australia he wrote this book about the Aboriginal people and their methods of navigating across huge areas using song. It’s a strange mishmash of styles and fuses memoir with history, but fascinating and an enjoyable read.
Mark Boyle

The way home – Tales from a life without technology

My god this book is obnoxious. The author moves to a block of land in Ireland and lives entirely off it, abandoning all technology more recent than the internal combustion engine, all in the name of utter paranoia around the environment. He drives his girlfriend away halfway through the book, and I sympathised.
Artemis Cooper

Cairo in the war 1939-45

Having read her book on Patrick Leigh Fermor, I thought I’d give this one a crack. Well researched, but for my tastes it leaned a bit towards the political developments of the period rather than portraits of the constellation of highly unusual characters that lived in Cairo.
Evelyn Waugh

Vile bodies

Continuing on with the theme of British aristocrats from the 1920s and 30s, this parody of the romantic novel is wonderfully written, but didn’t quite grab me. I suspect that it’s because enough time has passed that the implicit needs to be made explicit to a modern audience.
Richard C Francis

Domesticated – Evolution in a man made world

The animals that we commonly see around us are not wild – they are domesticated to some degree. This book looks at common farm and domestic animals (dogs, horses, camels, reindeer, etc) and how they came to be the useful creatures that they are now. It turns out that they all have unique biology that humans have found cunning ways to exploit.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Skin in the game

The sequel to Antifragile, it’s a little less punchy and feels a bit padded, but still a great read.
Erling Kagge

Walking – One step at a time

Erling Kagge is an interesting man, having made all sorts of polar and mountain-climbing expeditions. Here he writes a short book of philosophy about walking – how it feels, what it does to you, what it means.  A quick read, but potent if opened in the right mood.
Scott H Young

Ultralearning

A couple of hundred pages of condensed literature on how people learn things, and how to structure your study effectively to take advantage of that information. This book made me want to immediately go out and start another degree just to put it into practice.
Simon Winchester

Bomb, book and compass – Joseph Needham and the great secrets of China

A biography of Joseph Needham, the English academic who spent 50 years writing a definitive and voluminous series of books on Chinese culture – the standard reference in English. This book was written engagingly enough but felt a little padded out and the didn’t really make it clear why Needham was important.
Tim Flannery

Here on earth

I’m not quite sure how to describe this book. A diatribe on human-caused environmental catastrophe? A history of the evolution of scientific thought about evolution? A description of what archaeology and anthropology tell us about early humans? A sociological work about the structures of power in the modern world?

All of these things, probably.

Raoul McLaughlan

The Roman Empire and the Indian Ocean

An academic work, collating what is known about Rome’s contact with the non-Roman east via the Indian ocean. It turns out that trade was rather a big deal, accounting for enormous trade deficits where Roman gold was exchanged for spices and silks. Had the Roman aristocracy not had such an appetite for luxury, they may have had more money to go around for the army.
Robert Twigger

Micromastery

After Ultralearning I was excited to understand more about skills acquisition. I heard about this book on a podcast and thought it might be interesting, but actually it’s just a description of a series of small skills and how to master them – like making an omlette. Not as profound or as transferrable as the author thinks, perhaps.
Luke Benedictus

The Fatherhood

Reading this expensively graphic-designed collection of odds-and-ends about modern fatherhood makes me feel much better about how I parent my own kids. There are some pretty low bars out there.
Simon Winchester

Korea – A walk through the land of miracles

After reading about Joseph Needham I looked back into the other books that Simon Winchester has written (I’ve read several). Turns out that he wrote a book about walking the length of South Korea in the 80s. A really interesting historical artefact, as during this period recovery from the Korean war wasn’t complete and the tech miracle hadn’t happened yet. A very different, rather shittier Korea than the one we’re used to.
Annabel Crabb

Quarterly Essay 75 – Men at work – Australia’s parenthood trap

Annabel Crabb continues her writings on families, child-rearing, and how this creates patterns of work life that seem ineradicable. Her key idea is that modern corporate life demands such dedication, that only people with support staff at home, i.e. wives, can make it happen. Therefore if men are allowed more flexibility from work to look after family life, that is probably the best thing possible for helping women address issues like unequal pay and limited career advancement.
Christina Thompson

Sea Peoples – the puzzle of Polynesia

I read this in anticipation of, and during, a trip to Fiji. An eloquent, lyrical assessment of the ancient seafaring skills of Polynesian navigators, and how they were ridiculed, doubted, tested, and finally accepted by the West.
James Clear

Atomic Habits

One of those books which has been generated from a blog, this is nonetheless a thorough approach to changing and creating habits, the subtle gears on which our days turn. The atomic in the title refers to them being fundamental, not nuclear.
Leon McCarron

The land beyond

Another re-read, this one a travelogue of a walk from Jerusalem, north into the West Bank, then south through Jordan all the way to Sinai in Egypt. McCarron tries hard to be even handed and fair to all parties, but the cruelty and intransigence of some Israelis he met is jaw-dropping. A great adventure, one I’d love to do myself.
Peter Watson

The Great Divide

Fascinating but very strange. Peter Watson is a shockingly, upsettingly erudite man who specialises in absorbing vast amounts of information on a huge topic, then producing a masterful synthesis. In this book he tries to answer the question of why the cultures of the pre-Columbian Americas were so different to those of Eurasia. Along the way he tackles the Toba Eruption, flood mythology, genetic bottlenecks, the American lack of livestock but excess of hallucinogenic plants, and the induction of a trance state by pulling a rope made of thorns through the meat of one’s tongue. Recommended.
Ryan Holiday

Stillness is the key

Ryan Holiday has made a name for himself in internetty silicon valley circles by producing highly readable reformulations of ancient Stoic philosophy, and also by being extremely good at marketing himself. This is a product of both of these talents and is quite good. But I don’t think it’s as fabulous as various podcasters seem to think it is. Still worth a read though.
Laurence Freedman

Strategy – A history

This is an absolute monster of a book. I went into it expecting it to be about military history through the ages, but it is far broader and more abstract than that. Freedman considers strategy in all human endeavours – warfare, politics, the weak against the strong, and every other combination you could think of – and comes up with a truly insightful analysis. There are MANY underlined passages in my copy, even though it took me about three weeks to read.
Erling Kagge

Under Manhattan

Erling Kagge, mentioned about in regard to his book about the philosophy of walking, also wrote a book about exploring the sewers and underground tunnels of Manhattan. Perhaps it’s the translation from Norwegian, but I truly don’t know how he managed to transform such an interesting adventure into such a tedious book.
Art DeVany

The new evolution diet

A quick re-read to remind me of a few things I was trying to look up. Namely, many of the manifestations of modern society are bad, but matching our behaviour to our biological inheritance usually leads to good outcomes. To wit: get plenty of exercise, eat animals and plants but leave out the grains and sugars, get some sun, have some friends, occasionally don’t eat.
Paul Theroux

The pillars of Hercules

I love Paul Theroux’s writing on travel. He undertakes these huge trips, just because, appears to hate a lot of where he goes and who he meets, but crafts these utterly compelling books. So incredibly entertaining and riddled with brilliant observations and witty turns of phrase. Even better he doesn’t try to make his travels mean anything – he just goes.
Jenny Odell

How to do nothing

Expected: Self-help on the topic of working less hard and not being a corporate slave.

Received: A well-written book-length essay on alienation from modern life, finding joy in small things, understanding how our new tech masters are just like our old political masters, and more.

Freya Stark

The Valleys of the Assassins

Freya Stark was yet another of those fascinating Edwardian British people who explored exotic places – except that she was a woman and she mostly went alone, spending forty years travelling through the Middle East. This book recounts several journeys into the hills what today is Iran. She claims it was exploration and archaeology, but what she actually did looks a lot like treasure hunting to modern eyes.
Helen McDonald

H is for Hawk

Woman’s father dies. She is distraught. Having a long interest in falconry and birds of prey, she trains a goshawk to hunt small mammals, and decides to write a book about her experiences. Fearing that it’s not interesting enough, she interweaves vignettes from the life of T.H. White, a far more interesting author and hawk-operator than she, to pad it out. Her book is universally praised, to my mystification.
Nick Hughes

How to be your own bodyguard

Easily the dumbest book I’ve read all year. The author is an ex-French Foreign Legion soldier, and following that, a professional bodyguard. I have no doubt about his bodyguarding skills or expertise with weapons and hand-to-hand combat, but this book is terrible. Could have been fantastic with a halfway decent proof-reader. A strange combination of obvious and paranoid.
Phillip Ball

The water kingdom – a secret history of China

Fascinating. The history of China as seen through the lens of water management. The key thesis is that throughout Chinese history, dynasties rose and fell in accordance with their success in managing floods and droughts, and surviving the wild behaviour of the Yellow and Yangtze rivers. A really unusual way of looking at such a monolithic state, but it makes sense given that Eastern China is basically one huge floodplain.

Algorithms

Software algorithms get a lot of bad press at the moment. They’re accused of forcing us into siloes and echo chambers, of shaping our views and attitudes, and of generally being the earthly manifestation of Lucifer.

But that’s not the real problem. The problem with software recommendation algorithms is that they don’t work very well.

We’ve all had the experience of watching Netflix, watching a couple of episodes of a show, and then being spammed to watch a bunch of similar programs. Or listen to a certain type of music, and then the software decides that it’s all that you want to hear. Or, perhaps most insidiously, interacting with someone on your social media of choice, and then seeing every little comment they ever make appear in your stream.

I don’t know about you, but this actively repels me. I can’t think of the last time I paid the slightest attention to what an algorithm recommended to me. All of my best discoveries have been recommendations from friends or sheer serendipity.

Why? Because (at least for now), algorithms can’t understand why you like what you like. Maybe the reason you like a certain band is the lyrical content, but you can’t stand the synthesisers. An algorithm can’t really determine that, so brace yourself for a lot of New Wave.

As someone with quite varied tastes in music, film, and things generally, this is a source of great frustration. But at least I know that I can’t be pigeonholed by Mark Zuckerberg just yet.

Short cuts and the long way

It’s tempting to take the short cut, to imagine that you’ve found a quicker and easier (painless!) way of achieving something. Everyone else is a stickler for unnecessary rules, or unimaginative, or caught in habit.

What this view doesn’t take into account is that everything has a price. Whether in energy, time, money or emotional labour. Even the short cut.

Why this is important is that the price for the long way is obvious in advance. You know what you have to do to get there. The sticker is on the box.

The price for the short cut is hidden, opaque. You don’t know what it is but you will still have to pay it. More time maybe. Or more money. Or blood-boiling frustration.

Taking this hidden cost into account, the short cut may not be worth it. You might not be such a genius for thinking of it. Perhaps there is a very good reason “it’s always been done this way”.

Strength training for the chronically busy and tired

Sometimes I have to keep learning the same lesson. Over and over again. This month’s lesson in humility has come from the barbell.

I have had some time off work and decided to push up my deadlift a bit. Two weeks later, beaten and sore, with no meaningful progress in sight, I stopped.

I don’t know why, but I seem to be unable to learn the lesson that there is a limit to what I can recover from. With my current life circumstances I’m pretty limited in what I can handle and the recovery strategies I can implement.

Sleep, for example. I hear that it’s good for getting stronger. Unfortunately I have small children and one of them wakes up a minimum of twice a night, every night. I also work shifts, which doesn’t help matters.

I am not genetically gifted. I’m also not young enough to, as my friend Kyle says, live on KFC and cigarettes and still make progress. I also have very little free time, given the demands of work and family.

So, once again I found myself looking at programs that aren’t too demanding. If they make me stronger, all the better.

I kept coming back to Dan John. As far as I can tell he is one of very few writers on strength and conditioning who is not a total meathead. He acknowledges that sometimes less is more, and that no-one has all the answers. Above all, he has some sensible guidance for how people with lives outside the gym should train.

Dan’s 40-day program seems to be a sensible choice. It promises to improve strength by pushing up your middling efforts, rather than your top efforts. This makes for an economical training session, in terms of both time and accumulated fatigue. For someone who is teetering on the edge of crushing fatigue most of the time, this sounds promising.

Dan’s recommendations are this: Pick 5 exercises (barbell or kettlebell), preferably aligned with the fundamental human movements. Perform around ten quality reps per exercise at 40%-80% of your 1RM. Repeat daily, or as close to as possible. It should feel easy. Never miss a rep. Stop after 40 sessions and reassess.

I’ve actually had a crack at this program before, but I made the cardinal error of believing that it was too simple, and turning it into a grind session by using heavier and heavier weights. I aim to avoid that this time because, well, I just have to. I can’t train an hour a day and I can’t tolerate the fatigue.

So, here is what I’m doing.

  • Front squat @60kg (60% 1RM) – Squat movement
  • Overhead press @40kg (57% 1RM) – Push movement
  • Clean and Jerk @50kg (58% 1RM) – Explosive movement/hinge
  • Bent over row @50kg (I dunno. 60%?) – Pull movement
  • Snatch-grip deadlife @60kg (Probably about 50% 1RM) – Hinge

So far I’ve done three sessions and it feels easy. There’s always the possibility that my lifts won’t improve, and I’m ok with that. At the moment, in my current life situation, if I can just keep practicing the movements and not go too far backwards, I’m happy.

I’ll report back when I’m further through the program.

Gambling

I’ve never really warmed to gambling. I understand that it’s one of those things that you’re meant to at least slightly enjoy, especially in Australia where the value of “having a flutter” is a foundational cultural myth. It doesn’t even leave me cold – I find it stressful and mildy boring.

I don’t claim to be particularly virtuous here. I just suspect that my brain is wired slightly differently to many people in this respect. There appears to be a pretty strong correlation between potentially addictive behaviours and particular neural configurations, and I seem to be deficient in the bit that controls impulsive behaviour. This is good and bad. Maybe I’m not as “fun” as the next person.

When there’s something on the line, as in all types of gambling, I immediately become anxious. The process stops being a game to me and suddenly becomes a situation where I have to protect what I have. If by chance I win a hand of poker I become acutely aware of the precariousness of victory and seek to cash out my winnings as quickly as possible. The enjoyment for me is in the “play” aspect – when money is invovled it feels like a school assignment and all the fun is vacuumed up, along with my cash.

Even Australia’s silliest holiday, the Melbourne Cup, means little to me. I attended Cup Day at Flemington once, dutifully bet on horses picked at random, and then lost all my money. My overwhelming feeling was one of relief that I didn’t have to participate any more, having made the token gesture.

No doubt I would be no fun at Vegas. I accept that. But on the up side, I’m not likely to get a pokie addiction either. So there are some benefits.

13 May 2019, Blackburn

I went to vote yesterday. Being an early elector, I forwent the democracy sausage (don’t ask how the sausage is made) in favour of a surprisingly long queue slightly outside of my electorate.

We have a very good-natured democracy, but one still has to run the gauntlet of people handing out flyers. Apart from the ubiquitous redshirts and blueshirts (reminiscent of chariot racing in Byzantium), we were joined by many greens, some aqua, a smattering of yellow placards (although no individuals) and a variety of small-time independents with poor graphic design skills. The only colour not represented seemed to be purple, perhaps because that is the totem of the Australian Electoral Commission and therefore sacrosanct.

Some people take all the how-to-vote cards they’re offered, so as not to offend the rainbow volunteers and to give no hint as to how they intend to vote. I choose to go the opposite path – I accept nothing.  The lower house voting is normally not a problem without a cheat sheet, but the Senate can get quite complicated. I forget whether the Pirate Party are civil libertarians or uncivil buccaneers.

I left with a sense of relief, but with an urgent desire to hear the results. Now! Man’s lot is to be unhappy, and that appears to extend to having to wait for the results of a national popularity contest.

Sunday May 5, 2019, Glen Iris

I spent the afternoon at a trampoline gym with one of my kids. We both had a glorious time, bouncing, flipping, landing awkwardly, trying not to crash into other people.

The place was filled to the brim with kids, being a Sunday. A handful of adults were bouncing too, but the vast majority were patronising the cafe selling overpriced coffee made by teenagers and looking at their phones. Some of them were working on laptops.

I found this all terribly sad.

While I understand that trampolining isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, it should be plenty of people’s. It’s super fun. Judging by the number of non participating adults of child-bearing age, I guessed that probably some of them had a medical (orthopaedic) reason for not joining in, which is sad in itself.

But I suspect that the rest of them had some combination of fears – fear of lack of fitness, fear of looking silly, fear of being not very good, fear of hurting themselves.

I think that these fears are probably rubbish. One of the great gifts of adulthood is understanding that most people don’t care about you, they barely even notice you most of the time. Why not exploit that and have some childlike fun?

I mean, really. Do it now before you get old and die.

Unless there’s something on Facebook that can’t wait.

The e-Reader – I may have been wrong

I sometimes feel like I’m ahead of the curve, in other ways hopelessly behind it. For example there seems to be something of a backlash against social media use at the moment, on the grounds of mental health harms and distraction on demand. I like to feel that I was ahead of that particular fashion, abandoning Twitter in 2016 and having largely done the same for Instagram and Facebook since then.

However sometimes I think I’m forward looking and it turns out that I may have been on the wrong road entirely. I’ve waxed lyrical in the past about my love for my kindle e-readers. I wasn’t being deceitful – I genuinely thought they were brilliant, being small, portable, and able to access new books virtually anywhere. In some ways I still do feel this – there’s no doubt in my mind that an e-reader is a fantastic choice for travel.

But I opened my Kindle the other day after not having used it for a few weeks. It just… didn’t do it for me any more. The software had to update itself a few times. It needed a charge. And, as with all electronics, it started to feel slow. I started to feel nervous about accessing my considerable library of electronic books if my Kindle died. I mean, I could use the phone app, but it’s kind of a pain in the arse. Would they be lost forever? How would I get my notes back if they were sitting on a server somewhere in Oregon?

And why had I stopped using it in the first place? Because I’d fallen back in love with paper books. The delight of an order of a dozen books appearing at my house in 4-5 shipments due to the perverse arrangements of Book Depository. The pleasure of impulse-buying in Readings. And the undeniable sense of triumph when re-shelving a book that I’ve read, written in, manhandled and generally made my own. I came back to paper books, and they were waiting patiently for me all along.

It turns out that the fuddy-duddies were right. Even though they’re not always the most practical, paper books are magical. E-readers are sensible and the online store can be convenient, but it makes the experience somehow more transactional. Reading becomes less like a treat, more like an industrial process. Book 73% complete.

As it happens, I’ve always felt that way about paper notebooks and diaries. Electronic systems have never sat quite right with me, despite trying my best to use them. For years now I’ve carried around a Field Notes notebook wherever I go. They’re not searchable, occasionally I lose them, and when they’re full I just put them on a shelf. But the experience of writing something down commits it to memory better than a thousand keystrokes.

Robert MacFarlane, the British nature writer, has commented on this idea recently. I think he hits it square on the head.

People sometimes ask me why I don’t use a phone to take notes when I’m ‘out’ in the field. The answer is that phones smash, while notebooks bend. I also like the way that notebooks record where they’ve been not just in terms of what’s written in them, but also in terms of the wear they bear as objects.

Robert MacFarlane

Ultimately, perishable paper may end up having better longevity than any of the electronic formats we use. Electrons are forever, but the devices that store them and the machines that interpret them change with alarming rapidity. Try finding a connector for your 2006 iPod now.

I’m an absolutist in few things, and reading matter certainly isn’t one of them. I still use my Kindle, particularly where weight and size are factors. But it seems clear to me now that the experience of a paper book is an ancient love that shall not be supplanted.

Canberra

Canberra gets a lot of bad press. Some of it is deserved, but less that you might think.

Being the capital of Australia, it suffers the same curse which afflicts Washington DC and Brasilia; namely that it is an invented settlement which has been located for reasons of politcs rather than practicality. In the case of Canberra, a political tussle between Sydney and Melbourne at the time of Federation resulted in the capital being placed somewhere between the two.

The site couldn’t be considered to be particularly prime. In a country where all the major settlements are on the coast, Canberra is several hundred kilometres inland. Prior to to being the site of the national capital it was an enormous sheep station, of which remnants are still visible. Far from the moderating influence of the coastal breezes, Canberra is monstrously hot in summer and bitingly cold in winter. Supply of water is an ongoing issue. Even apart from these impairments, Canberra’s relatively small size (around 400,000 people) and location within New South Wales means that it often ends up being an appendage of Sydney, both politically and logistically. The population is pretty much a 50/50 split between working class rural New South Welshpeople and people from other states who have moved to Canberra to work for the Federal Government.

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View across the “Parliamentary Precinct”

Canberra’s crime, in the eyes of the rest of Australia, is twofold. Firstly, as the home of Australia’s government, it is the obvious target of the Australian population, who like nothing better than to whine and snipe about the politicians which they selected to represent them. Pollie-baiting is a national sport, pursued with enthusiasm by the vast majority of the population, most of whom could do a better job. When asked why they don’t volunteer, a common ground for refusal is having to live in Canberra. Circularity ensues.

The second great failing of Canberra, universally agreed upon, is that it is boring.

SO BORING.

CANBERRA IS SO BORING, I COULD NEVER LIVE THERE.

I think this is interesting. What exactly do people feel they lack?

The place is monstrously over-endowed with cultural institutions of the National variety. The population are in general highly educated and interested in such things as art, beauty, and the meaning of life beyond their tragic office potplant. As a result there are no shortage of cultural events happening, seemingly all the time. So it can’t be that, although it must be said that Canberra isn’t exactly edgy, despite the large student population.

Is it the architecture? Perhaps. The Canberra suburbs mostly look like they were constructed in around 1965 and are under a misguided heritage overlay. It’s an ocean of cream brick and tidy front nature strips out there, with the exception of the houses where nanna has clearly gone to seed along with her garden. The government buildings are either grim 1980s brutalist horrors or 1930s faux-Westminster, but they’re not without their charm. As they’re scattered around the city there is no ghetto of particularly terrible architecture.

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The National Library, laterally. 60s civic architecture at its finest.

The city is surrounded on all sides by mountains and a gigantic national park, so there’s clearly no excuse for boredom on the part of the adventurously-inclined. I recall a school camp I went on in said park – I walked for two weeks and had no conception that I was half an hour’s drive from the capital.

I think that when people say that Canberra is boring, they mean that there’s nowere fun to get a drink. I’m not entirely convinced that this is a vital component of a good urban existence, but I may be in the minority here. Nightclubs and late-night drinking venues are thin on the ground. The hidden ones in basements are particularly lacking. And it must be said that Canberra’s cafe culture, although developing, is not quite there yet.

When it comes down to it, I wonder whether it isn’t one of those shorthand terms for a city that perhaps once was true, and is now stuck. Think Paris and romance, New York and excitement, Sydney and traffic.

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The relatively un-maligned National Carillon

If so, it’s become pretty ingrained into the cultural mindset, even for the locals. I went on a boat ride around Lake Burley-Griffin, the artificial lake in the centre of town around which are clustered the major institutions. Surprisingly, the captain drove us round for an hour describing the sights in terms of the utmost cynicism and disdain. For him, the High Court resembles a stack of shipping containers and the National Museum is a hodgepodge of lame symbolism with a crane stuck on the top. Only the National Carillon escaped global condemnation, although there were some acid commets on the choice of music and the closure of the function room within the tower.

I do feel that Canberra is under-appreciated as a destination. Most of the frustrations of major cities are absent and as my friend Tommy says, it’s basically massively over-funded country town. For those who are considering a tree change, you could do worse than move to Our Nation’s Capital.

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Saturday night at 7 PM, Braddon

 

14 April 2019, Canberra

Sometimes I drink instant coffee at work. I joke that I do it because sometimes I need to hurt myself in order to feel something. The truth is really that I just like coffee.

It’s tough to live in Melbourne and not have strong views on espresso style coffee. I mean, I like it, and I can detect a bad cup. But a lifetime of nasal dysfunction and a general lack of interest in culinary culture means than Melbourne’s febrile cafes are mainly interesting for the interior design.

I feel that becoming a connoisseur of something, or any other kind of refined aesthete is a risky business. It’s a radically effective way to reduce your enjoyment of mediocre products and to overall decrease life satisfaction. Why would you create in yourself a need that can never be fulfilled?

Anyway, sometimes you find yourself in a situation where a quality product is simply unavailable. Apartment hotels in Canberra on a Sunday morning are just such a place.