Monday Melbourne: LIX, February 2005
Russell Degnan

East from the quiet part of Federation Square over the Yarra.

Melbourne Town 23rd February, 2005 23:16:25   [#] [0 comments] 

News on this year`s big issues
Russell Degnan

Political opportunism and transport seem to go hand in hand.

What exactly was the Federal Labor party thinking with this? Scare-mongering, not really a Federal responsibility, and not something you could stop anyway. But why not attack the government?

Robert Doyle thinks he's backed a winner too. No other party (including the Nats) thinks buying out the toll contract on the Scoresby is a good idea - a fair proportion of the remaining rabble he leads think its a bad idea. But he presses on, and why not?

Meanwhile, they ignore the bigger issues. Namely, that, as we've argued here many a time, a lack of political will - particularly through funding for infrastructure - is killing Melbourne 2030. I haven't commented on the Metropolitan Transport Plan yet; but I had occasion to read it today and it is embarrassingly bad, with little to suggest the government has really thought how to reach its various transportation targets.

Also transport related, the arguments over deepening the bay continue. More testing on the environmental effects is being interpreted despite the panel hearings being completed. However, regardless of the results; you'd be foolish to think the decision will be anything but political, especially with so many groups lobbying the government one way or another.

The arguments over the bay will likely continue for a while yet. For a government with an overwhelming parliamentary majority and no discernable opposition the Bracks government is incredibly weak-willed.

Sterner Matters 23rd February, 2005 23:02:20   [#] [0 comments] 

And the Sea Closed Over Us - Snap! Crakk!
Russell Degnan

I bought this album because the cover looked cool. Not great, but hinting at something worth listening to. Snap! Crakk! are an interesting band, with hints of the Mavis's (what ever happened to them) in the attempted harmonies, bass and keyboards, and occasionally New Order, combined with heavier rythyms and syncopation more reminiscent of Tool. However, unlike those bands, they are lacking in a few fundamental qualities.

The first is someone who can sing. Currently he sounds like Marilyn Manson and it doesn't gel with the music. More crucially, with the exception of Do the Death get Dead, their songs lack direction. The easiest way to get this is to have verses and choruses, and maybe a bridge. The themes are great; every song hints at something really cool, but a minute and a half into most of the songs I was getting bored as everything started to sound the same and wondered when they'd end. Talented, yes; interesting, yes; but badly in need of structure and/or direction.

Track Highlights
On Power Off - A solid opening track, with a great beat, but also, typical of the album's weaknesses.
Do the Death Get Dead - By far the best song, and also the simplest, with a great guitar riff running through it, and a danceable beat.
Slash Burn Cut - The rolling six minute finish to the album, that runs through more themes than a classical overture.

Finer Things 19th February, 2005 00:46:04   [#] [0 comments] 

Monday Melbourne: LVIII, February 2005
Russell Degnan

Yes yes, late again. Another moody post-rain picture to again match our weather. Taken March 2003.

Melbourne Town 17th February, 2005 00:01:22   [#] [0 comments] 

The Inadequacy of High School English
Russell Degnan

In the last week there has been a half a dozen posts on Troppo on the teaching of english in high school and its relationship to po-mo, literary criticism, politics, and culture wars. I don't want to dwell on those areas, though the discussions are well worth looking through. What I do want to do is talk about what I experienced in high school, just over a decade ago, how it affects me now - being back at university - and where I think it failed.

English was always the slack class, the one you turned up to, read a few books, wrote a bad book review, a poor creative piece, and an essay with no discernable structure, logic or ideas. In six years of it the only benefit was a sloppy introduction to critical thinking in year 12 and three books I'd read again: Animal Farm (11), The Crucible (12) and Life of Martin Guerre (12). I gained more from reading Orwell's 'Politics and the English Language' a few years ago than in all the years of teaching that preceded that event. Any appreciation of art came from travelling, and of literature from surfing the web - particularly the cultural gold-mine that is Arts and Letters Daily.

But if I didn't get anything out of it, what about others? One of the odd things about university and school is that you never see other students work. You could be producing relative diamonds or coal; you don't know, the mark is a only a bare guide, mostly meaningless. I have always talked my work down; I can't stand to read it, and I don't feel comfortable with others doing likewise - fortunately noone does, see the sitemeter. Yet my current essays come back with "you write well", or "polished", or some-such I don't truly believe. I can only conclude the worst of others.

Something went wrong, but it isn't the literary criticism elements of year 12. That is useful in its own way - though some of the stuff on show at Troppo is a bit over the top. The inadequacies I perceive in my english predate that year. And they are inadequacies at the most basic level of English, at that level that underlies the teaching of English - even the existence of English as a 'thing'; the need to communicate with others. What I lacked was the following:

1. I didn't read enough Sort of. I read a lot in high school. In year 7 there was a certificate given for every 5 hours of reading done up to 50. I got all mine at the first monthly year-level meeting. But what I read was crap - mostly fantasy books of low merit. There was no diversity of styles, of vintage, or of genres, and no classics. In a different essay, Orwell described one of the four reasons for why he and others write - the others being sheer egoism, historical impulse, and political purpose - as aesthetic enthusiasm. You need to read, a lot, and widely, to appreciate it.

Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact or one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story.

I appreciate these qualities now, but how many people do? It should, like an appreciation of other culturally beautiful things - music, art, movies - be taught.

2. I didn't write enough Until I got email, and overseas friends, I didn't write for pleasure. I estimate my average output in high school at maybe 2000-3000 words a year. It is closer, now, including essays, emails and this blog, to 60,000. As well as reading other writers to learn good ways of turning phrases, you need to practice it yourself. Students should be writing 400-500 words a week. The topic doesn't matter, but the exercise does, and it is so easy to do, once you gain the habit.

3. I didn't learn no proper grammar Not after grade 5 anyway, and not in a way that has helped guide me in my quixotic quest to learn latin. Grammatical rules can be over-rated, because the best rule is normally what sounds good is good - although that is a cultural construct as any non-native speaker of English will tell you. But it helps to know the basics and I don't. What structural grammar I do know comes almost exclusively from doing a Computer Science degree, where structure and grammar are synonymous with working code. Learning another germanic and another latin language would have been good too, they give good insights into the structure of English itself.

4. I didn't learn what an essay was Paul Graham rightly notes that there are two kinds of essays. The type that produces an argument - with an introduction, definitions, argument and conclusion - and the type that explores a question or two. I was taught neither. Not method, nor structure, not meanings nor aims, not what an essay was, nor why I was writing one. The former I was introduced to at University take II - though it has similarities with programming again; the latter, by blogosphere convention. In high school, everything was an assignment, where ideas are pilfered from books, and placed in some order that was either given us or looked good on a poster. I was never told how to explore ideas or argue them out. I am not sure where they expect these important concepts to be learnt if not school. Comments by tutors on the general standard of essays at university would seem to indicate that I wasn't alone.

If english isn't being adequately taught in schools it is in these, more basic, areas that it is failing. The means by which we communicate are not being taught well enough. Neither the love of doing so. It needs, in part, better teachers, but there are other ways of communicating ideas than through teachers. Many of the great text-books are titled the "Art of ..."; on every page of these books carrying such suggestive titles, is a love for their topic that inspires their reader. Reading and writing needs someone to write something similar. Not just for students, but for everyone, to remind us why we do it.

Passing Fancy 16th February, 2005 23:44:32   [#] [2 comments] 

Monday Melbourne: LVII, February 2005
Russell Degnan

A moody picture to match our moody weather. Taken March 2003.

Melbourne Town 12th February, 2005 01:48:22   [#] [0 comments] 

The Sound of White - Missy Higgins
Russell Degnan

Last year saw an interesting change in the Australian music scene. After a decade of dominance by post-grunge pub bands, and at a time when some of those bands were breaking out overseas, the artists I am listening to the most are almost all female. Missy Higgins was in the vanguard, dominating the top of the JJJ Hottest 100, but was joined by Sia, Sarah Blasko, New Buffalo, Little Birdy and soon, hopefully, the returning Angie Hart. There are others too, less well known, and still yet to find their way onto the radio, and into my collection.

Missy Higgins has enough talent that only a hack producer or a marketing guru could destroy it on her. She was smart enough to avoid both though she could do better. She reminds me of Fiona Apple, in the use of the piano, the raw voice, and the slow, jazz influenced melodies; but less angry and with a far simpler sound. The simplicity of the melodies is a curse on some songs, particularly the ballads, Any Day Now, Katie and The Sound of White which would have sounded better stripped down without the backing vocals and strings. I suspect - and have heard - that Missy is substantially better live, and she gives every impression of it. Hopefully on future albums she will dispense with the extras better left to bad pop-ballads. However, that complaint aside, this is a really good album; perfect for relaxing on a typically four-seasoned Melbourne day,

Track Highlights:

Don't Ever - Along with All for Believing this is a slow beginning to the album. Despite the strings, a really strong track.
Ten Days - The second single, made for radio with her most memorable chorus, but smooth and heartfelt as well.
This Is How It Goes - Very deep on the album for an upbeat, syncopated track. The most interesting track, vocally and musically.
They Weren't There - A moving finishing track, for the most part, mercifully left to Missy's vocals and the piano

Finer Things 5th February, 2005 19:31:48   [#] [2 comments] 

Melbourne`s fickle weather
Russell Degnan

It was not quite four seasons in one day. And to date, it has not been windy, but the last 48 hours have been unusual in all kinds of ways.

On Tuesday 1st, at 2pm, the temperature peaked at 35.5 degrees. About a tenth of February days are over 35, so this is high, but normal.

The change then came through, the temperature dropped, and the rain came. At 9am on the 2nd it reached a low of 11.1 and 27mm had fallen. A substantial amount - the median for February is only 32.1 - but not unusual.

What was unusual was Wednesday. The high of 12.7 at 2pm was the lowest February maximum temperature ever. The rain kept falling; by 10pm, 48.4mm had hit the ground in the previous 13 hours.

And then it got heavy!
By 9am the previous daily rain record of 108.0mm had been smashed. 120.2mm falling between 9am on the 2nd, and 9am on the 3rd. Almost a fifth of the yearly average and median. In 2 days, almost five times the February median rainfall! And more likely today.

The good news is the water catchments received substantial rainfall as well. The bad news is my roof leaks - a little, near the wall, in about 20 spots, bringing the NGV water wall into my home, onto my bookshelf (the books are fine), and across my bed. Alas.

Melbourne Town 3rd February, 2005 11:04:59   [#] [0 comments] 

Monday Melbourne: LVI, January 2005
Russell Degnan

The last Yarra picture. Of the area between the boat sheds and the Princes Bridge. Taken January 2003.

Melbourne Town 1st February, 2005 08:15:09   [#] [0 comments] 

From ugly cities to something better?
Russell Degnan

Gary Sauer-Thompson comments on an op-ed by Guy Rundle in The Age last week on ugly cities, noting that

"I do not think that design/aesthetic arguments will work. Economics rules the city. The city is seen as a machine to make money not a place for people to live"

I am not that cynical. People would like to live in nice buildings, and work in nice buildings. For example, corporations spend a lot of money on lobbies to make good impressions. The question on quality comes down to whether the cost of good design is more than people are willing to pay. Sometimes it will, sometimes it won't.

I blame architects and not the wide-spread use of tilt-slab construction for ugly buildings. As noted in this Paul Graham essay (hat-tip 2 Blowhards), good design is simple (and therefore cheap), but also it is hard, and daring. Architects have been given a great opportunity with such a simple and flexible construction material, and all they are producing are what Rundle called "construction[s] so devoid of feature and style as to make the average Holiday Inn look like the Bilbao Guggenheim.". We should expect better, and tell them so (though I might add that not all new buildings are horrendous sins against nature).

The second part of Rundle's article asks for planning legislation to enforce good design. It is an interesting point. As a rule, planning does not concern itself with aesthetics - an area that is highly controversial in any event. The exception is for heritage listings, which are currently done badly, with an all or nothing approach to preservation.

The hope, for any city, is that it will slowly improve. That each generation's icons and classic forms will remain while their featureless piles and cheap ruins are replaced with something better. We don't need to save everything, merely the best. But we do need to keep improving.

Perhaps we should look to something akin to the Native Vegetation legislation, where each demolition is assessed for its aesthetic and heritage value and given a grade. Any building that would replace it must then achieve a better grade of aesthetic worth before it can be built.

This would hopefully give much greater certainty to developers regarding what they could do, though I doubt the legal brawls would cease. Another positive benefit, would be that highly graded buildings would be cheaper to buy and rent - because they are harder to replace - hopefully also making them cheaper to maintain.

Sterner Matters 1st February, 2005 08:09:59   [#] [1 comment]