Wednesday, April 22, 2009

the death of j.g. ballard

Crash. Until I'd read Ballard's book, I had no idea twisted metal, burning plastic and shattered bones could be considered by anybody to be erotic. I remember diving into the text on a flight home from Canada 15 years ago. The air hostess thought I was reading about aeroplane crashes... "Ahhh. Ummm. No. Actually the book is about sex in car accidents." I think that stunned her. She didn't pose any more questions apart from those she was paid to ask. "Tea or coffee?"

"J.G. Ballard died of cancer on the 19th August, aged 78", I read over my morning toast. The first thing that sprang to mind was Crash. Then by chance my eyes fell upon the water level indicator on the front page of the paper and a vague memory of The Drought returned... people travelling miles across barren salt plains created by desalination plants to capture sea-water with paddles and sweep it homewards... it has been a long time since I read this book. Concrete Island is fresher in my mind... an architect becomes trapped in a concrete space between freeway lanes. Unable to escape, he spends days, then weeks in the company of a couple of other outcasts who call the tiny island in urban hell their home. Shades here of one of my favourite books, Kobo Abe's The Woman in the Dunes. Ballard was that kind of writer.

I only know a half dozen of Ballard's books, but of those, I'd call Crash and Concrete Island "great" works of disturbing fiction. His comments on human psychology, the bizarre but believable views he takes towards humankind's future and that of our planet, all ensure I am saddened by his passing.

Friday, April 17, 2009

compact gearing

Not that long ago (well, maybe 20 years ago), the default pair of chainrings on a road crankset was 52T x 42T. Of course there have always been variations made depending on the application. I've got a pile of rings ranging around that general vicinity from the 80s. Come what must have been the mid 90s, I was convinced by the thought of the Victorian Alps that I ought to have a 39 onboard. 39 with 21 on the back got me up Tawonga Gap, Falls Creek, Tawonga Gap again in the opposite (steeper) direction and then up Buffalo. 21T — what was I thinking!?

Late 90s and along comes a 9 speed rear cassette with the luxury of a 23T cog. Up front a trusty 39 spun me up and a 53 geared me down the hills in the Tour of Bright. I've not been back to Bright to ride now for more than 10 years. Time flies! But when I do get out that way again...

I will be sporting a new combination, 50T x 34T and 11-25 on the rear. I am a recent convert to compact gearing, having been lucky enough to secure an 11 speed Campag. groupset in Australia last year (thanks to the guys at Mascot). At first I was unconvinced. I seemed to spend a lot of time fidgetting with the gears, fumbling over the little ring paired with the little cogs, or the big ring with the big cogs. Things fell into place like the chain onto the little ring of my new groupset. Now I wonder if I'll ever love the 53 x 39 combination again. On the compact cranks I can spin up the steepest slopes with ease, faster and with much less effort than on my 39 x 23. With the 50 x 11 I can tear down the steepest slopes, passing more inches per stroke than on my old 53 x 12.

Long live compact gearing and wide cassettes. I can go slowly pedalling quickly, and I can go quickly pedalling slowly. What's not to like about that?

Thursday, April 16, 2009

green contractors

Monash University used to have a bunch of green-clad grounds staff. They were a friendly lot who could always be found around the university with their rakes, brooms and wheel-barrows. They cared for the trees, bushes, grasses and ponds. On a number of occasions they took the time to answer my enquiries about various native plants around the place. I knew them by face and a couple knew me also. We would exchange simple smiles of greeting as I encountered them at lunch or on my way to and from lectures and my office.

They are gone, having been replaced by a number of green contractors who blow dust and leaves around with leaf blowers. These contractors remove garden leaf litter to make the place "neater", thereby ensuring the lizards, spiders and other critters have nowhere to live. I don't know these people although they wear green uniforms with a company name emblazoned across the back. Their leaf blowers are noisy and make them unapproachable. They use petrol-powered line trimmers around the cafe whilst the academics are trying to chat about philosophy, chemistry, maths or important things.

A couple of years ago, a garden of native plants used by the aborigines was destroyed to make way for a new building. This had been tended by some senior academics, in particular an elderly woman who was most distraught about the loss of her contribution to Monash's gardens. Did anybody care besides her? I did! I bet the old grounds staff did too. My favourite quiet lunch spot, the botanical specimen garden by the pond, had occasional oddities — such as the foul-smelling Dead-horse lily and the glorious, Triffidesque sunflowers — has been partly demolished by building works.

I am getting old and grumpy. Some changes are clearly not for the better.