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.

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

 

7 April 2019, Union road, Surrey Hills, Victoria

In this election season I have been forced to conclude that Clive Palmer’s electoral office are trying to sabotage him.

I mean, look at that poster. Looks like it’s been put together by the year nine work experience kid. Awful Photoshopping, lurid colours, typography that could only be worsened by the addition of WinDings. It’s like the graphic designer hated Palmer’s guts and is playing a gigantic prank on him.

Let’s not forget the slogan. Clearly Clivosaurus wants to be Australia’s Donald Trump, hence the slavish imitation. But in Australia, I don’t think the Cheezel-in-Chief is a sensible role model.

This election may be tragic. It’s already comic.

6 April 2019, Surrey Hills Uniting Church, Victoria

Most churches in Australia give off a strong air of swimming against the tide. The buildings are spic and span, gardens watered and mantels dusted by a committee of keen parishioners. But the demographics are inescapable. There are no young people.

There are twee little poems posted on the bathroom wall about not leaving the lights on. The notice board lists various worthy causes about which the parish should write to the government, with the subtext that what those brown people need is a dose of religion. There is even a magazine extolling the virtues of the church’s youth wing and its members. Yes, they’re exactly the kind of people you’d expect.

Increasingly the church halls are being used for community purposes, just as they always were. But now it’s rehearsal space for the local ballet school, rather than a cake sale or knitting bee. How else to keep the lights on? Money talks.

I wonder whether I’m seeing the last gasp of mass organised Christianity in this country. No doubt many people will still believe. But between child abuse scandals and the even more devastating curse of irrelevance, I suspect that church-going as we know it is fading away, fast.

Public Holidays

Public holidays in Victoria are a confusing mess. They give people an extra day off (which is nice), but strange and contradictory dates have accreted over the years. While no-one would suggest that we have fewer holidays, perhaps we should reorganise them a bit to make them more reflective of contemporary life in this State. Certainly some of the justifications for a holiday are a bit on the nose – we should address that.

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New Year’s Day – Retain. The first day of the year is a good time for a holiday.

Australia Day – Move to a different day. Celebrating the arrival of the First Fleet is understandably offensive to indigenous Australians, for whom the First Fleet was a catastrophe. The culture of Australia day is now one of alcoholism and is a flashpoint for the worst racist tendencies of some Australians. We can probably do better.

Labour Day – Retain. Work is important, and it’s worth celebrating by… not working.

Easter – Retain. The religious side of the holiday is less and less relevant, but it’s a beautiful time of year for a long weekend. And we should make an effort to remember the spirit of the great chocolate bilby that laid eggs for our sins, or something.

ANZAC Day – Retain. Even though the “ANZAC Spirit” is probably overblown as a cultural touchstone, this is a tangible connection to the way Australia was in the formative first half of the 20th century.

Queen’s Birthday – move and rename. She’s the Queen of the Great Britain, and it’s not even her actual birthday. Although I bear her no ill-will this is a pretty silly excuse for a holiday. I suggest we move it to the middle of August when everyone is really depressed by the weather, and celebrate staying indoors with a mug of tea and some biscuits.

Grand Final Eve – Retain. A controversial addition to the roster from a few years ago, Grand Final Eve celebrates the most inclusive and widely-practiced religion in Victoria – AFL Football. Of all the holidays, this one is probably the most in keeping with people’s actual beliefs.

Melbourne Cup Day, AKA Horse Day – Rename. Horse racing is increasingly frowned upon from an animal welfare point of view, and frankly the idea of taking a holiday for it strikes me as very silly. The celebration of Cup Day seems to mostly revolve around dressing up in order to get plastered, lose money gambling, and then fall over in the mud and ruining your nice frock. Oh, and you also either get hypothermia or sunburn. Sometimes both.

Possible substitutes could be Summer’s Back Day in October when people get briefly excited about the return of warm weather, or possibly Daylight Savings Recovery, where we get a holiday after the clocks go forward so that we’re not sleep deprived and confused for days afterwards.

Christmas Day – Retain. It’s Christmas.

Boxing Day – Retain, but rename as “Cleaning Up Day”. Let’s be honest, that’s what we do. That, and sigh with relief that Christmas is over again for a year.

 

The Gold Coast

I came to the Gold Coast like everyone does – because I had some business to attend to and it seemed like a pleasant escape from the gloom of the southern states. “Australia’s Gold Coast” is the claim, a somewhat redundant effort to differentiate between Queensland and Ghana. Actually it’s Queensland’s Gold Coast, judging from the self-promoting hoarding slapped up everywhere. If you can’t advertise to the tourists, advertise to the locals I suppose.

Not that there are too many locals. The GC was always where pallid Victorians escaped to in the 80s and 90s. The goal was economic development and melanin under the rule of a square-jawed fascist. My childhood memories of the place are full of leather-brown men in budgie smugglers and implausibly blonde women who spent their time paying for people’s parking. Everyone is a recent migrant, whether drawn by the climate or repelled by the crush and grind of the big cities.

The 80s were a long time ago though. The relicts from that period are still there, but they’re painted over. A veneer of self-serving “pampering” is overlaid on the beer ads and gold chains. Chinese characters replace Japanese on the street signs. The newer developments are self-contained holiday apartments rather than beige-and-salmon hotel rooms.

Surfer’s Paradise is the epicentre of the “old” Gold Coast. A long, highly surfable beach, high-rise hotel towers, drinking venues with doors and balconies open to the street. The towers create a microclimate where the sweat and beer fumes fester. Young people march around in packs in the evening. The boys wear “casual” beach attire, the girls dressed as if they’re going to a particularly tacky wedding. They are intense and driven, like drunken and confused wolves searching for something to mate with. Partying looks like hard work.

“Hollywood on the Gold Coast!” was the rallying cry for families twenty years ago, and doesn’t seem to have changed. There are four major theme parks in the area, including the aquatically-focused Sea World within the city itself. Well-trained dolphins will entertain visitors at 11:30 and 3:15 daily, along with their psychotically grinning handlers. Well-meaning platitudes about caring for marine life are mouthed from a loudspeaker by a local worthy, but everyone is waiting for the dolphins to do tricks.

 At a different theme park, the catastrophic failure of a ride resulted in several deaths. Business has been, unsurprisingly, slow. The main car park, visible from the highway, is mostly empty.  I have no insight into the other parks, but I wonder about their long-term viability. Maintenance has been neglected, even allowing for the climate. The usual price-gouging is blatant. Nonetheless, the kids love it, right up until their energy gives out after lunch.

Five minutes’ drive out of town and you’re in a different world, a subtropical suburbia. Palm trees and buffalo grass. Electricians’ utes parked on the street. Queenslander houses with boarded-in lower levels. Community centres only accessible by car. Backyard pools and barbeques. Everything is low-rise, casual and narcotic. To the West, some low green hills. To the East, the high-rise towers.

The nest of towers are surrounded by low rise houses on all sides except the beach. There is nothing between two and thirty storeys tall. It feels like a science fiction film where the elite live in the sky and the commoners inhabit the fringes. Maybe the big flood is coming which will sweep away the humidity and decayed concrete. All that will be left is the towers, with their air-conditioned residents and artfully designed succulent beds on their roof gardens.

 

Why people in cities can’t walk properly

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

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

Tristan Gooley, How to Connect with Nature

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

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

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

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

Food is fashion… sort of

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

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

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

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

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

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

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