Monday Melbourne: XLVII, September 2004
Russell Degnan

101 Collins, from the south. Taken March 2003

Melbourne Town 27th September, 2004 19:50:38   [#] [1 comment] 

Writing about travel
Russell Degnan

Quite recently I booked a ticket to go overseas again, more or less to the same place I went last time, more or less three years after. The timing is because of expendiency rather than any particular fondness for Europe in mid December. The places because I missed stuff last time - actually you always do, but that is perhaps another story.

Discussions of my last trip always seem to revolve around when and where I went. The diary I did for the first two months was similarly constrained, which is why I got terribly bored with it. Once you find a groove the days tend to be much the same. Woke up (probably late by most travellers standards), walked into the city through the modern residential suburbs of [insert famous city name here] saw a church or six, a museum, a lovely urban landscape, took copious numbers of pictures, walked back to the hostel.

But oddly, the places I really liked and remembered when I got back were rarely - though not always - great as places. Rather, it was the places where I met interesting people at assorted hostels and wandered around the cities with, or did something else that was particularly interesting.

To that end the "Days Spent Away" section was designed to put up assorted stories and observations. Since it would be unbecoming to travel again without talking about the last trip I'm going to mix the two together, and hopefully write at least oen thing a we^H^Hmonth.

Lest I be accused of haphazardly jumping through time and space, or of leaving the country without saying anything. No, I haven't, not till mid November.

Days Spent Away 25th September, 2004 23:31:00   [#] [0 comments] 

Monday Melbourne: XLVI, September 2004
Russell Degnan

The statue of Burke and Wills, St. Pauls Cathedral and the Arts Centre. Taken September 2004

Melbourne Town 21st September, 2004 00:31:15   [#] [0 comments] 

The Changing Face of Swanston St. - Part I
Russell Degnan

Slightly less than ten years ago, when I first moved to Melbourne, the entire length of Swanston St. was relatively squalid. Full of empty lots, ugly service stations, or run-down businesses. It is now around halfway through the most rapid change of almost any street you could name in Melbourne. More interestingly however is that it is rarely commented on; despite it being the best example of the potential streetscape that the wailing objectors to high-rise apartment buildings are trying to prevent.

This post - and the followup - are an attempt to address that problem. In particular I want to assess three points: whether the buildings built are sympathetic to the area; whether the street is better for pedestrians as a result of the developments; and what this says about land-use planning (if anything). I will start by looking at the changes north of Victoria St.

Almost every change in the past decade has been on eastern side of the street. On the west the brewery site remains undeveloped, although the Sidney Myer Centre has been built at Melbourne University (bottom photo). What has been built are apartments, modern in style, set against the street, very square, and austere but for the splashes of colour, with small balconies. Almost all of them are 10 storeys high, but - particularly interestingly - no higher.

The height is very important in making the apartments sympathetic to the street. They don't dominate the remaining few buildings of interest - particularly the Canada Hotel and the old fire station. They are tall, and making good use of the land but don't overwhelm you as a pedestrian. In this way it is a similar sensation to that given by the buildings built under the 40 metre height restrictions in Melbourne, or to buildings in Europe that by-and-large conform to similar standards.

Aesthetically I am less convinced. When they were going up I thought the street was being over-run with the worst kind of cheap, drab concrete-box architecture (second picture). While the finished product is better, I fear for their condition in ten or twenty years time. They are certainly not inspiring, and in many cases they are downright dull. But that is an argument that could be made against most housing.

For pedestrians nothing much has changed. Well, almost. In years gone by you just wouldn't walk down that side of the street. It was not pleasant at all. Now, it is still not pleasant - none of Swanston St. is although Melbourne University is improving - but it is walkable. What hasn't improved is the amount of cover, the amount of greenery is very sparse, particularly in winter; the footpaths are still narrow, and the buildings don't address the street very well, producing a dull experience.

More generally, the urban design elements seem to be checked off a list of minimum requirements rather than actually trying to improve the space. To some extent it is council responsibility, but it is in the best interests of the owners to improve these spaces. The lack of attention to these elements says to me that neither the developers or the approving planners actually addressed the underlying goals of good urban design when they did these projects.

I think both of the questions I addressed above go to the heart of the system of land use and development controls we have in place. In almost no way could you point to these developments and say they are markedly inferior. Their height is well controlled, and they don't reduce the amenity of pedestrians, or other buildings, they are reasonable aesthetically, and produce a reasonable street frontage. But in no way do they exceed what you could expect from the controls either. The spirit is not there, the urban spaces are still drab and meaningless, they are just meaningless in a new and slightly less obnoxious way.

Swanston St. has changed a lot, but it doesn't inspire at all. Not in the way the Parisien end of Collins St. does, or in an entirely different way: nearby Lygon St. or even Drummond St. In a way that might not matter, because a street doesn't have to have character, and it may grow it over time. But I also think we need to better address what gives them character so we can maintain it when it exists, and find it when it doesn't.

Passing Fancy 20th September, 2004 01:36:46   [#] [1 comment] 

On Light Feet
Russell Degnan

And he started up the hill, moving quite rapidly but maming absolutely no sound as he went. Garion floundered along behind him, his feet cracking the dead twigs underfoot embarrassingly until he began catch the secret of it. Silk nodded approvingly once, but said nothing.

I seem to be apologising to people a lot for scaring them. Jumpy housemates, gallery attendants, shopkeepers. "Sorry", I say, "I have quiet feet".

It is all in the walk, I practised a bit when I was younger, but it really came about from the combination of two things. One, being only a light weight in general. And two, an attempt about five years ago to try and curb cramping my my calves by walking on my toes.

That worked actually, although I still get cramps occasionally they are not near as frequent as they were before, but it has meant that I creep around without thinking about it. Moreover, the appearance of a relatively tall, often trench coat wearing young man, right in front, or perhaps beside some people seems to startle them.

So I'd like to put this on the public record:

It is not my fault. Relax a little.

Passing Fancy 16th September, 2004 00:56:04   [#] [0 comments] 

Monday Melbourne: XLV, September 2004
Russell Degnan

From the corner of Queen and Bourke Sts. Taken June 2004

Melbourne Town 14th September, 2004 13:44:52   [#] [3 comments] 

The Things we Take for Granted: Stormwater and Roads
Russell Degnan

In January 1992, along with thousands of other boys, I went to the scout jamboree in Ballarat. Naturally, because it is Ballarat, it rained the whole time we were there. Rain and thousands of people in a large park creates a remarkable amount of mud. Mud stinks. We traipsed around the goldfields of Ballarat and Bendigo wallowing in filth, hand-washing our clothes in cold water, and eating nothing but sausages and potatoes. It was as close to the 19th century as I ever plan to get.

In January 1852 all of Melbourne's streets were mud. Or, if it was dry: dirt. They were unsurfaced and dusty, horses were the principal means of transport, and they left their leavings everywhere. A few poorly paid scavengers were supposed to keep them clean, but they would never be in sufficient numbers to make a difference. Melbourne was a filthy colonial outpost, with bad drainage, and a horrific smell.

But it was also rich.

In her novel set in the goldrush period, The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, Henry Handel Richardson (a pen-name, hence the 'her') describes the changing face of Melbourne's streets.

In the heart of the city men were everywhere at work, laying gas and drain-pipes, macadamising, paving, kerbing: no longer would the old wives; tale be credited of the infant drowned in the deeps of Swanston Street, or of the bullock which sank, inch by inch, before its owner's eyes in the Elizabeth Street bog.

Writing in the years prior to the Great Depression, the author was far too generous with both the roads of 1854 and those of her childhood in the 1870s. Macadamised roads - constructed with successive layers of compacted broken stone - needed constant upkeep. Council neglect meant that muddy streets were common until the 20th century when modern asphalt became the norm.

The drainage system was the biggest problem for the roads - and Elizabeth St. in particular. The impermeable surfaces of the city created a large outflow of water when it rained. Until the large underground drain was built Elizabeth St. was regularly a quagmire or worse; in 1840 it "was seriously proposed to put on a punt or two for the transit of goods and passengers". Deep open gutters were built along the streets to improve drainage, but low-lying areas were still often under-water: Flinders St., Swanston St. and Elizabeth St. being the worst affected, and residents took to referring to the streets as "creeks".

Such flooding also extended to the river, which flooded every few years. The plaque on an 1890 painting by Aby Alston in the National Gallery of Victoria refers to the flooding as "tragic, if it were not so common". By then they had made substantial improvements to the river and more followed, particularly after the MMBW was given control over drainage in 1924; but floods in South Melbourne and Richmond still occured until after the Second World War.

Other techniques were tried on the roads themselves. Large stones - still commonly found in laneways and the gutters of the inner suburbs proved to wear too quickly, leaving a rough, slippery and dangerous surface. Wood blocks - made with Australian hardwoods and lain in concrete were used after 1880; starting with just the new tram-tracks, these were found to be quite suitable, and by 1897 roughly 18km of Melbourne's roads were wooden.

The streets of Melbourne in the late 19th century were often an encumbrance to its citizens: wretched in smell, often flooded, and if not that, dusty, with large potholes and poorly lit. A visitor from those days could only be struck by our streets cleanliness and drainage, by the low level of pollution in the air, on the ground, and in the rivers. That they could be improved further is no doubt true, but, its a start.

Melbourne Town 8th September, 2004 13:04:06   [#] [0 comments] 

Monday Melbourne: XLIV, September 2004
Russell Degnan

The improved Driver Lane. Taken August 2004

Melbourne Town 8th September, 2004 12:44:46   [#] [1 comment] 

A tribute to Sensible Soccer
Russell Degnan

By contrast with board games, or card games, the great failing of the vast majority of computer games is the longevity test. It is an area barely commented on; in most cases it is taken for granted that a player won't want to keep going with a game that has poor graphics or sound. That lacks the flash of a newer, brighter game. But I don't think it should happen - except from a marketing viewpoint - even though it is hard to pinpoint what makes a game that you'll return to indefinitely, and therefore, truly great.

Rd 3 (H) Bolton Wanderers 5-1
Unfancied third division side, Doncaster Rovers thrashed Bolton Wanderers in the third round of the FA Cup. New Japanese signing Masauki Kanno putting away four goals in a dominant performance. Manager Degnan was pleased, saying, "We've had a few injuries, which cost us against West Ham in the League Cup. So for Kanno to come in and play as he did and as we did is fantastic."

A few (non-multiplayer) games stand out in this way. Elite, with it's almost endless dimensions, Sun Tzu's Ancient Art of War because there is no clear strategy, and the pre-3d versions of Sensible Soccer.

Rd 4 (H) Cambridge United 3-0
Doncaster Rovers league form continued against a hapless Cambridge United, easing to a three nil win in the fourth round. Kanno scored twice again to take his tally to six goals in two games, but manager Degnan is looking to the next round against Coventry, "this is where it starts"

Sensible Soccer has average graphics, even for its time. The view is simple but it works because it enhances playability - as opposed to the isometric or perspective views that don't. As often as not I play without sound. And I have played enough that it is not that difficult to win any more - though it could be with some tactical enhancements. And yet, almost a decade after release I still play it constantly.

Rd 5 (H) Coventry City 1-0
Doncaster Rovers furthered enhanced their reputation with a shock one nil win against Conventry City. Never in any danger, Coventry were lucky not to lose by more, having only two shots on goal for the game, both from distance. "This gives us a lot of confidence, Coventry are a good side and we outplayed them today", manager Degnan said.

The true beauty of the game is that - like a good card game - it is easy to learn, and difficult to master. The controls are deceptively simple: one button, and the arrow keys. You control the kick with how hard you press the fire button, and the curve by pressing the arrow as you kick it. It is a difficult skill - integral to the game - and it takes hundreds of hours of playing to master.

QF (A) Liverpool 2-1
With their biggest scalp yet, Doncaster Rovers dominated Liverpool, with Kanno scoring twice to take his cup tally to nine. Liverpool had the best of it early, and were rewarded with a goal by Fowler. Doncaster responded with the confidence of a team that has won 29 straight games, pinning Liverpool into their own half. The winning goal in the 74th minute coming from a penalty, as they advance to the semi-final.

Similarly, tactics and player movements are simple but it takes time to master the timing that makes all the difference between a loss and a win. The simple graphics no longer matter. You become immersed in the game because the fast play means everything has to happen on instinct.

SF Newcastle United 1-1 (Lucas 76)
A thrilling late goal from makeshift striker John Lucas against Newcastle United has forced a replay in the FA Cup semi-final. Newcastle United might have the busier schedule, but Doncaster are struggling with a depleted squad, losing Le Grix and Kanno before the game, and top-scorer and the sensation of the season, Mark Moncur to an injury in a torrid affair. Newcastle opened the scoring, as Shearer glided through the defence and hammered home the shot. Rovers controlled possession but couldn't get the goal they needed without Kanno's striking prowess, until Lucas hit sweetly from the top of the box after replacing the injured Moncur. Both managers praised the opposition play, Degnan saying "Newcastle are one of the best sides in the world, so it was never going to be an easy game. Hopefully we can get our players back for the replay next week."

It is the learned behaviour that makes the game great. It is a rewarding game to play because, more than any other game, it takes skill, and practice, and never completely reveals itself such that the challenge goes. In some ways it is like learning to play music, with the difficulty of execution and the reward for successful completion being the most enjoying part.

SF Rep. Newcastle United 2-1 (AET) (Kanno 9, Dixon 114)
Newcastle United have crashed out of the FA Cup in a thrilling tussle at Old Trafford. In the same week they surrendered the league title to Manchester United, Newcastle were beaten by a Doncaster side that for the most part outplayed them. Doncaster entered the match with both Kanno and Buhagier carrying injuries but it didn't seem to matter as Kanno shot brilliantly after Dixon chipped the defence to put him into the box. But, "ten minutes of madness", Degnan called it, as Kanno and Moncur were injured again, and a brilliant long pass by Ginola split the Doncaster defence and Ferdinand skipped a tackle to score. Rovers dominated from then on though, playing out of their skins and it was Kanno and Lucas who were the hero again. At the death of first half extra-tome, a neat pass from Kanno collecting a goal kick found Lucas on the edge of the box. His shot was parried but Dixon slid in for the follow-up to put them in front. Degnan was thrilled, "this is as good a game as you'll see, the players were brilliant today"

The game is not perfect. No game is. But they don't need to be. Sensible Soccer is brilliant because it allows the player of the game the framework to play it. Any changes to it would not in any way change the way it is played. I'd merely tweak it to make it harder to score, or to make the managers smarter and more pro-active in career mode. In terms of pure playability, it is the game. And that is why it still has people playing it years after other games are seen as "completed".

F Manchester United 1-0 (Kanno 63)
Manchester United's treble dream lies in tatters, as Doncaster Rovers pulled off the greatest upset in FA Cup history. A second half strike by Masauki Kanno - his eleventh of the cup - was the difference in a dour defensive game. United started brightly, Beckham heading a ball goalwards, but the brilliant central line of Buhagier, Utley and Le Grix shut down the game to the extent that United didn't have a shot after the 30th minute. Indeed, United was playing so deep that Keane was to be seen mopping up attacks on the edge of the box, and it took a brilliant goal from Kanno to break the deadlock, hitting it on the angle from outside the box. the one moment for United came in the 76th minute, when Cantona was brought down 30 metres from goal. Buhagier escaped a card, and the free kick hit the wall leaving Doncaster to run out the last 10 minutes for a brilliant win. Manager Degnan was ecstatic, "this was our best game of the season, no question. How often do you see Manchester United defending from the box?". Ferguson agreed with the assessment, "We were outplayed today. We have the European Cup next week. We are looking to that".

Frivolous Pastimes 7th September, 2004 12:35:52   [#] [0 comments] 

On Movement
Russell Degnan

Busy weekend, the one past, as I changed my abode after two and a bit years to North Melbourne from Brunswick. I moved a reasonable amount when I was younger, and especially when I was at university and tripping back and forth from my parents to my Grandma's from semester to holidays. Oddly I rather enjoy it, though I suspect I might be the only one involved in the process who does.

This one wasn't too bad though. One trip to fetch furniture I had in storage and a reed organ I'd purchased that morning. One trip for boxes and things I had and was using. And a short trip or three to grab bits and pieces that didn't fit. Four and a half hours all up. Far short of the record; a mammoth thirteen hours involving a small truck, a small lane, a fourth storey apartment with no lift, assorted detours and more boxes than I ever hope to see again (book buying obsession aside).

The internet isn't up yet, but I'll survive (perhaps).

While I wait, I need to get some shelves, and a powerpoint or ten.

Passing Fancy 6th September, 2004 12:35:52   [#] [0 comments]