A protest

Crowd outside of State LibraryI joined today’s Palm Sunday Walk (a.k.a. Walk for Justice for Refugees), and I was asked why I bothered, since governments have a long tradition of ignoring protest marches. This post is meant to briefly explain why.

Firstly, while some protests have a long list of vague things that those involved are against, this march at least had a clear message about what it was for: justice for refugees.

I have to accept that the current government was elected fairly under a reasonable democratic system. Also, I have to accept that they are strong believers in a policy of deterrent to reduce the number of refugees arriving here by boat.

However, I cannot accept that any type of deterrent be used in the implementation of this policy. Breaches of human rights, including conditions akin to torture, cross a line. Australia is a civilised nation, we follow the rule of law, and we treat people humanely.

While I wasn’t happy with the policies of either our previous Prime Minster or the current PM, I wouldn’t have marched in protest against those policies. (I rarely march in protest against anything.) However, the recent events of Manus Island, including the circumstances that led to a death of a refugee, are not consistent with how we treat people in this country.

I was there today to be counted. I don’t expect our current government to immediately change anything, but I don’t want to let the current implementation of their policies be silently accepted. They will likely do what they feel they have the power to do, but they shouldn’t think that it’s acceptable to the wider community.

Australian institutions are accountable to the standards of the community that they operate in.

Cheaper than treadmills at the gym

I’m unlike 99% of other Melbourne residents because I’ve used the city’s bike share scheme. In fact, I’ve used it four times now, and I’m a happy customer.

The scheme’s mission is to establish an alternative transport system to things like taxis and trams, but it hasn’t exactly been a raging success. A recent article in The New York Times on bike sharing reported that the Melbourne Bike Share gets about 150 rides a day, and since the scheme offers 600 bikes, at least 75% remain stationary on a given day. That article blames Australia’s helmet laws, but I think bike sharing just hasn’t found the killer application yet.

I don’t use Melbourne Bike Share for transport reasons – I use it for exercise. Instead of paying, say, $19 / week to go to the gym and use a treadmill, I jump on a bike for $2.60 a session, whenever I want. There is an additional cost for a helmet, but that’s just $5 from the nearby 7-Eleven convenience store, so hardly counts in the scheme of things. The whole arrangement seems to be fantastic value.

However, when I’ve been out riding at lunchtime, I haven’t seen another soul using Bike Share bikes. The idea of using them for casual exercise doesn’t seem to have caught on yet. I’m thinking it’ll be like boot-camps in the parks – suddenly all the exercise junkies will realise the value of this public resource and it will be difficult to get in for normal uses.

I know that no-one reads my blog, so I’m not worried about tipping off the world, and hence preventing my own use of the bikes. This is more establishing the evidence of my own use now, so later I can prove that I was in front of this trend. Yes, it’s all about me.

But in case someone is reading this, I thought I’d share some other observations.

Firstly, the 30 min “free” trip length that you get with a $2.60 day pass is not really enough for a good exercise, since down-hill and flat roads plus traffic lights mean I get, at best, two-thirds of the time doing productive up-hill riding. Also, half the time I’ve been a couple of minutes late, meaning I’ve been charged an extra $2 as a result. So, I’m thinking of paying the $52 for an annual pass, which gives you 45 min “free”  trips. (I note that the corporate plan at $100 provides for 60 min “free” trips along with the ability to share it between people, so this option may be better still.) In theory, you could also plan an exercise route that took you past multiple bike stations, where you could swap your bike, starting the clock again.

There are some annoying glitches in the set-up that suggest to me hardly anyone uses this, or they would’ve gotten fixed. For instance, I found when I reached a bike station for the first time that the helmet I got from 7-Eleven had packaging that needs scissors to remove. Also it turned out I’d gotten the wrong size helmet and had to exchange it. The instructions at the bike station terminal when you enter your credit card for a day pass has the message “insert card” on the screen when in fact you need to remove the card to continue. You need to accept a long legal agreement (80 screens at seven lines per screen) each time you rent the bike. My bike code print-out has gotten stuck inside the machine, and I’ve needed to get it to print me another receipt in order to push it out. As a result, people who plan to use the Bike Share just the once, like tourists, may find this all too hard.

As someone who hasn’t owned a bike for something like 20 years, the irony isn’t lost on me that I’m enthusing about bike riding, but as I’ve given the Melbourne Bike Share a go over the last couple of weeks, I’ve come to appreciate it. Melbourne has some rather pretty streets and paths, and my experience riding around in the scenic outdoors sure beats the time I spent pounding on treadmills.

Touch on, Sod off

I was one of the early adopters of Myki for my public transport ticketing, and it wasn’t the best of experiences. I went back to using Metcard shortly afterwards, and it was only once Myki was fully deployed across trams and buses did I go back to it.

I’ve been using the Myki Money approach, which in theory is cheaper than the Myki Pass approach, but requires the user to “touch on” before travel and “touch off” afterwards. I’ve been using it for over six months now, but recently I’ve suspected that it hasn’t been operating quite as it should.

Although I’m well trained now in “touching off” at the train platform, I find it hard to remember to do it when jumping off a tram. In one instance, leaving a tram to catch a train, my Myki failed to be recognised at the train station turnstiles (no error message – nothing), probably due to the card thinking I’d only recently “touched on” to a tram, so how could I possibly be touching on to a train. How helpful. Not.

Failing to “touch off” on trams has also meant that I’ve been charged extra, as the system assumes I might have traveled into Zone 2, while in fact I’ve remained in Zone 1. This is as-designed, but is highly annoying. Given that I don’t catch trams often enough to reprogram my habit of leaving the tram without touching off, it’s probably sufficient to motivate me to stop using Myki Money.

However, there’s another problem I’m experiencing that’s not meant to happen: sometimes, I’m charged more than the official fare. If I travel more than two trips – more than a train to work and then a train home – it seems I get charged for those extra trips, even though Myki Money is not meant to cost more than a standard daily rate (which is equivalent to two trips). All it takes is to use the tram twice on a normal day to be overcharged by 100%.

Luckily, there’s a free online tool that can help spot these overcharges: Mykileaks. It takes your Myki transaction statement, analyses it, and provides you with clear advice on exactly where you’ve been overcharged. The process is:

  1. Log in to “My Myki” and download a PDF statement of “My transactions”. Set the filter options to include as much as the last six months, then press the “View and Print Statement” button.
  2. Visit Mykileaks, specify the file for the PDF statement, and press the “Submit your statement for analysis” button.
  3. Read the resulting report, and confirm that it makes sense.
  4. Go back to “My Myki” and open the Refund and Reimbursement Form. Fill it in, print and post to Myki.

Ok, so it’s a bit laborious, but it really irks me that they still run this system with overcharging bugs in it. Mykileaks found that I had a case for being overcharged $14.66 over the last five months. According to a Herald Sun article, around 300,000 people used Myki in March, which if my level of overcharges is typical, would equate to $10.5M in unjustified charges over the course of a year.

I’m going to send in my reimbursement claim, and once it’s used up, Myki Money can “sod off”.

Getting back into flute

I think the last time I sung in a concert (where people paid actual money to hear it) was back in 2005, when we lived on the opposite side of the planet. I had begun to really miss having a musical outlet, and somehow I had managed not to end up in a choir, so what to do …

Start playing the flute again?

I learned the flute when I was at school, from year 6 through to year 12. During those 7 years, apparently I got to a half-decent level, since I received a music bursary to cover the payment of my music tuition (although, in hindsight, it might’ve been a scam to try to get more students into the choir and orchestra). But, in any case, putting in hours of practice every week for that many years must lodge some of it in the brain. Maybe even if it is about twenty years later.

So, in June, a friend mentioned that her orchestra might be interested in having another flautist around while one of theirs was on an overseas tour, and would I be interested in trying out for that. Would I? Yes!

It was to my astonishment and continual surprise that I was allowed to rehearse with the great bunch of people that is the Napier Community Orchestra all the way up to the concert that we performed today. Thank you to my fellow flutes (Belinda, Naomi) and oboe (Anne) for allowing me to come along, as rusty as I was.

It’s not like I hadn’t been doing anything musical for the last twenty years, and performing with choirs in the intervening time turned out to have really helped my sight-reading. Also, never underestimate the advantage a “mature age student” has over young students in self-directed learning.

Still, it was with a lot of excitement and perhaps even more terror, I sat down on stage this afternoon and played in a concert where, for the first time ever, I was the accompaniment to a choir. It was great, and I hope I get the opportunity to continue with it. Having a musical outlet is very satisfying.

If others out there in Internet-land are interested in opening that dusty flute case that they’ve had stashed under the bed and getting some music on, then I hope the information below will be of some use and encourage you to try getting into the flute again.

Playing the old instrument

If you’re like me, you’ll probably discover that your flute doesn’t quite hit all the notes as well as it used to, at least not without a lot of pressure on the keys. Unfortunately, while the metal parts of the flute are likely to survive well, the cork and pads can degrade. In particular, the pads can go hard over the years and then no longer seal the holes when you press on the keys. To fix this, I had to get my flute serviced, at a cost of a couple of hundred dollars.

You can get flute services at places like Wombat Woodwind & Brass or The Music Place. You can also speak to a flute teacher or the like for their recommendations.

Another thing I found was that, compared to when I was learning flute at high school, electronic tuners are now widely available at reasonable prices. I found it incredibly useful to practice my long notes with one in front of me to help me learn which notes I needed to adjust to keep in pitch. It was a real eye-opener.

You should be able to find something like the Temby Smart Tuner or Korg CA-1 in most music shops for $20-$30.

Another thing that I didn’t expect when I picked up the flute again is that my ability to assume the traditional flute playing posture (flute held out straight to the right) was not what it used to be. This made it harder to keep in pitch at the beginning.

You may also want to check out Jennifer Cluff who has some helpful info on returning to the flute.

Playing with a group

One of the things that Jennifer recommends in her link is finding a reason to play regularly, such as with a partner, with a teacher, or in a group. Since my opportunity to resume playing was based on playing with a group, that clearly helped me.

I had forgotten many aspects of playing in an orchestra. It was strange and interesting to rediscover them.

Firstly, there was the counting. In a choir, I had the music for other parts (or at least the accompaniment) to look at when I wasn’t singing. However, orchestral parts are full of rests. So, I had to learn to count again.

It reminded me of dancing, where you need to really learn the basic steps for your feet, so that they could unconsciously go at it while you focus on all the leading-following stuff. For the orchestra, I needed to be always tracking the beat and my count through the rests. It was something I’ve been working hard at, and can still improve.

Secondly, there was tuning. Again, I worked hard at this and can still improve. Learning how the different notes on my instrument needed to be adjusted up or down as I played them was extremely helpful. I also found marking that info on my score to remind me was also good for when the playing got intense.

I’ve come across some fascinating information on the physics of flutes by the University of NSW that helped me understand the finer aspects of flute tuning. I’m not sure if it was helpful, but I like to have the background knowledge.

Lastly, it was amazing when all the different parts came in together, but it was also very distracting and made it difficult to hear if the instrument was behaving (over/underblowing, etc.). I think the brass section knows exactly how distracting and loud they are, but what can they do – they’re brass. This, in particular, made playing in a rehearsal (or performance) very different to playing at home for practice. I really had forgotten this. Practicing against a recording of the piece helped me deal with this somewhat. I think repeated exposure at rehearsals will help more.

However, playing your flute with a group is only possible if you can find a group. It sounds like there aren’t so many in the northern / western suburbs of Melbourne, so here are the ones that I have heard about. Of course, they require different levels of proficiency to join, but may be a useful place to start. In no particular order:

If you give it a go, all the best!

Housing Boom or Blame Boom?

There’s talk again of the house price boom (or even bubble). I know people who are looking to buy at the moment, and I feel so lucky that I’m not having to find a first home in the current market.

However, stories I read in the media suggest to me that we’re also in the midst of a blame game, where various bogeymen are out there pushing up prices to the detriment of everyone else. If you believe everything you read, we can blame:

  • First-home buyers – whose free cash from the government in the form of the FHOG (First Home Owners Grant) is making it hard for others to compete.
  • Overseas investors – who are apparently making the most of relaxed rules from the FIRB (Foreign Investment Review Board) to invest in Australia when other international markets are looking shaky and depressed.
  • Local investors (in particular Baby Boomers and Gen X) – whose access to the tax deduction of negative gearing enables them to sustain larger holding costs of property than non-investors.
  • Developers – who have been slowly releasing lots from their land banks rather than supplying enough to the market to meet the demand
  • Immigrants – who have been coming here in increasing numbers because it has a promising way of life but are now competing with the locals for somewhere to stay.
  • Governments – for allowing all of the above to occur.

Is there anyone left?

What is good in this debate is the recognition that it is supply and demand that is driving the prices in the market. However, the purpose of this finger-pointing seems to be to blame everybody else for the problem. I’m not convinced that any of the above factors are at the heart of the matter:

  • First-home buyers – the demand from these guys doesn’t explain why an unrenovated house in Richmond sells for more than $2m (as I read in yesterday’s paper). The whole market is booming, not just the cheaper end.
  • Overseas investors – although they are active, they are still a minority. I don’t think they could underpin the entire boom.
  • Local investors – negative gearing also results in lower rents than would otherwise occur, which should in turn reduce the demand for home ownership.
  • Developers – their land is generally at the fringe, and there is heavy demand in the centre.
  • Immigrants – these are a net benefit to a society, since they generate taxes and jobs, but have always been an easy target.
  • Governments – there is some truth to the saying that in a democracy, we get the government that we deserve. If governments continue to follow policies that we don’t agree with, we can only blame ourselves for voting them in.

On the other hand, a factor that I don’t think has gotten enough attention is our culture. In particular, the “Australia dream” of owning a house on a block of land.

I worry that it is the pursuit of this goal, more than any single segment of society, that is driving the demand for houses in the suburbs of our capital cities. We need to give up on this dream if we are to achieve sufficient densities in the inner ring of suburbs where most people wish to live.

Rather than blaming other people, I can fess-up to being as guilty as everybody else on this one. A couple of years back, Kate and I bought a house together that would’ve housed a family of five when it was designed and built around 1900 in Kensington. This is a typical, gentrified, ex-working-class neighborhood of Melbourne that probably has lower densities now than when it was new. We moved out after we had our first child, because it was too small for us (!).

In the same way that governments around the world have influenced the cultural desires for a certain family size, it ought to be possible to embark on a campaign to change our cultural expectations and change this demand factor. Make living in high-density accommodation the trendy option. Guilt people out of their large houses with empty rooms and private back yards. (Other countries have a higher density of living than us, hence why many immigrants are willing to live in apartment blocks that locals would avoid; another reason why immigrants aren’t contributing as much to the problem.)

At the same time, there needs to be more direct incentive to motivate people to embark on such a change. Make subdivision easier. Make building apartments on new land easier. Ensure that apartment blocks are built well (good climate control and sound/smell proofing) and there is provision for common outdoor areas.

I’ve spent most of my years since I left home living in higher density accommodation such as apartments and townhouses. Although I’m currently living in a house, I think I’d be willing to share walls again.

Myki mystery

Hong Kong Subway
Image by mikeleeorg via Flickr

I’ve spent a couple of weeks in Hong Kong, and am familiar with the Octopus card. I’ve lived in London, and traveling on the Tube to work every day, clocked up a lot of experience with the Oyster card. So, I was interested to see how Victoria’s own Myki would fare, and I was willing to be an early adopter.

The stories in the press haven’t been pretty. My personal experience was varied, but comes down on the side of bad.

I normally use a Zone 1 weekly ticket, so I decided to simply transition over to a Myki with a weekly ticket on it, rather than risk using the new Myki money system. However, it appears that you can’t escape the latter system, as I found out the hard way.

It started off well. I ordered my new Myki ticket for free (offer extended now to the end of January) and it arrived in the post a few days later, with my name spelled correctly, and the right letter (!) accompanying it.

I went to the train station to put a weekly ticket on it. It was a little unintuitive to load it up, but I’m sure next time it will be quicker.

Arriving at the exit barriers at Parliament station, I encountered my first problem. I wasn’t sure where the Myki had to be put in order to be scanned. As people banked up behind me, and I tried attempt after attempt, eventually I found the right spot. It’s on the side of the barrier (rather than the front or top), on right side of the passenger using it, and at about their knee level. When you scan properly, a message “CSC PASS” appears on the display at the top of the barrier and the gate opens.

Heading home, I knew where to scan, so went through okay. But getting off at my station (in Zone 1) to head home, I was engrossed in my podcasts and I really can’t tell you if I “touched off” at the station or whether the machine didn’t read the card correctly.

The next day, mysteriously, the Myki card didn’t appear to scan correctly when I got on the train, and when I again got to the barriers at Parliament station (confident in my ability to get Myki to scan correctly) they didn’t open. There was no error message, no beep. The Myki card simply wasn’t recognised.

Luckily I was carrying around my receipt for the weekly pass, which I showed the barrier attendants, as there was no other way to indicate to them that the Myki card was valid. They let me through then, and again in the afternoon when I experienced the same problem trying to get home.

Here’s what I learned later: even if you aren’t using the Myki money system, you still need to touch off, as it turns out that Myki will assume that you’ve travelled to the end of the line if you don’t, which means you get charged the difference between a Zone 1 trip and a Zone 2 trip. In my case, this difference was $2.02, so my Myki money balance went from zero to negative $2.02. If you have a negative balance, the card won’t work.

That evening, I rang Myki to complain about my card not working, and spoke to a helpful person called Vinh. After several periods of clarifying what happened, punctuated by long periods on hold, he explained that I’ll be getting a credit for $2.02 to get the card working again. He wasn’t sure if $2.02 was the right amount, because he couldn’t see the negative balance on his system.

Despite the positive news from Vinh, my card continued to be ignored by the barriers for the rest of the week, and the balance stayed at -$2.02. Hopefully next week it will be working, but by this point, I don’t expect it to.

Lessons learned:

  • Always keep the receipt handy for the weekly pass, since this is the only way to prove that I’ve actually got the right to travel on the train.
  • Always remember to touch on and off, even if I’m not using the Myki money system, and even if there isn’t a barrier at the station that forces me to scan the card to get out.
  • Keep using the old system for as long as possible, since the weekly passes cost exactly the same and I don’t need to keep a separate receipt nor remember to touch on and off.
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Melbourne Chocolate

Melburnians seem to take their chocolate heritage for granted. I still find it amazing, and while I still do, I want to jot it down here.

Both Melbourne citizens and Australians in general are fans of chocolate. According to IBISWorld, chocolate and confectionery in Australia is a $2.5b per year industry. If we look at Nielsen’s list of the top confectionery sold in convenience stores during the year to February 2009 by share of value, the top chocolate bars (candy bars, for US readers) were:

  1. Mars 2Pak 80g
  2. Snickers 2Pak 80g
  3. Cherry Ripe 85g
  4. Mars Bar 65g
  5. Twirl Bar Kingsize 63g
  6. Snickers 60g
  7. Kit Kat 45g
  8. Boost 80g
  9. Turkish Delight Twin 76g
  10. Cherry Ripe 55g

I’m listing these to highlight an interesting fact. However, we need to examine where each of these chocolate bars were invented:

Yep, the Cherry Ripe holds two of the top ten places for chocolate bar sales, and it was invented in Melbourne. (All the rest come from three places: US, UK and Ireland.)

Noted Melburnian Sir Macpherson Robertson (1859 – 1945) founded the MacRobertson’s chocolate company which, according to Wikipedia, was responsible for the Cherry Ripe, Freddo Frog, Bertie Beetle and Snack. The chocolate company was sold to Cadbury-Schweppes, and the Ringwood-based factory continues to this day. Sadly, they don’t offer any public tours.

The MacRobertson name no longer appears on the Cherry Ripe wrapper, but it does live on in Melbourne through a highschool, a bridge, and the building of the National Herbarium of Victoria.

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My pet hate

Packed TrainOr, my current pet hate, I should say, is commuters who don’t sit down.

Let me expain.

Melbourne public transport is currently extraordinarily popular. And when I say popular, I don’t mean people like it, but they do have to use it. The Herald Sun reports that one in five Melburnians are using it to get to work, and there are now 30% more people riding it than three years ago.

When I catch the train in the morning, there are usually something like twenty people crowded near the doors on each carriage, and everyone at my platform has to push to get on. So, when I do manage to actually get on, and I’m crushed nose-to-armpit with the morning mosh-pit, how am I supposed to feel when I see empty seats?

Unbelievably, most mornings there is at least one seat free. However, there is a strange ethic that means people don’t want to sit down. There is some kind of pride in standing. Sitting might deprive some other hypothetical traveller of a seat who is more entitled to it. Sitting down seems to be a greater evil than causing people to be crushed half to death.

Please! People! If there’s a seat near you, then sit in it! I’d rather watch you enjoying a seat than have you contribute to my discomfort.

Maybe this whole rant qualifies me for Grumpy Old Men, but the crowding on public transport is only going to get worse, and we need to change seating etiquette if we are to cope.

Misled by the Kensington Association?

When we moved to Kensington, over a year ago now, we were aware that we were joining a suburb that had something rather unique: its own lobby group. This group, the Kensington Association, was working hard to reunite the suburb of Kensington which, under Jeff Kennett, had half its region assigned to the Melbourne City Council for management, and the other half to the Moonee Valley City Council. This was an odd state of affairs and, in December last year, they succeeded in getting it corrected, with the whole suburb to move under the Melbourne City Council on the 1st July 2008 – i.e. next week.

Of course, there were two broad options for reuniting Kensington – everyone goes to Melbourne, or everyone goes to Moonee Valley. The Kensington Association was vocal in encouraging the Melbourne option, and one of the key reasons promoted was around waste services. A person set up at our local shops to promote their agenda promised me, since I was currently under Moonee Valley, that a shift to Melbourne would result in better street sweeping and the recycling bin being collected twice as frequently. Accordingly, I was convinced that shifting to Melbourne was the way to go.

Except this week, the Moonee Valley City Council took away our green waste bin. It turns out that all is not better with Melbourne City Council, as they don’t offer a regular, kerb-side garden waste collection service in any of their suburbs. Their option is for residents to store the garden waste somewhere, book a garden waste pick-up on a particular weekend per month, and when the council turns up, you need to help them load the waste onto their truck. Hmmm. In all of the Kensington Association’s research and publications on the merger, this little implication was strangely missing.

(And in Melbourne’s recent waste and recycling FAQ, it states that weekly recycling collection will not begin until October 2009, so this potential benefit touted by the Kensington Association is still a long way away.)

What makes the issue of green waste so relevant is that Kensington has a disproportionately large number of houses for an inner city suburb. Based on the data from a popular real estate website, we can construct the following table of suburbs that fall under Melbourne City Council’s management:

Suburb Separate Houses Semi/Terraces Flats
Kensington 28% 24% 44%
North Melbourne 8% 33% 52%
Parkville 7% 34% 53%
West Melbourne 5% 60% 21%
East Melbourne 5% 24% 62%
Carlton 1% 34% 54%
Southbank 1% 2% 85%
CBD 0% 8% 75%
St Kilda Rd 0% 0% 87%

And yes, I know that none of those rows add up to 100%, but that’s the way the numbers came. *shrug*

So, it’s clear that the Melbourne City Council’s not going to have much of an interest in providing a useful green waste service unless they do a special favour for Kensington ratepayers (and maybe those West Melbourne residents in their numerous terrace houses). Or maybe, our local lobby group (if you’re listening) can take a few minutes from their current campaign to save a park and help out those people you misinformed in your last campaign.

Earth Hour vs. Daylight Savings

Next weekend the world will follow an Australian initiative called Earth Hour. At 8pm, on March 29, many cities (including Australia’s mainland capitals) will turn off lights in order to raise awareness for energy conservation. An hour’s worth of energy will be saved.

Ironically, the following weekend, most of those same mainland capitals (including Melbourne) will follow a world initiative called Daylight Savings. At 3am, on April 6, the same hour will be repeated. An hour’s worth of extra energy will be spent.

Of course, different hours equate to different amounts of energy, but Earth Hour is primarily a symbolic activity. It’s about sending “a powerful message about the the need for action on global warming”.

I think it’s a nice gesture, and encourages candlelight dining, which improves the taste of food. But the timing is delicious also.