The presence of an absence

I have been somewhat absent from the airwaves lately. The last couple of months have been rather busy, which has mostly been great. But the busy-ness has one downside — of which more later.

In the last couple of months I have had a lot of objectives to work towards and interesting things to do. Principal among these is becoming a volunteer at the Melbourne Museum’s Biodiversity Heritage Library project. To get to the Museum, I catch a train to Parliament station, whence it is a lovely walk along Spring Street to Victoria Street, through the Carlton Gardens, past the Exhibition Building. This route takes me through what I think is one of the best parts of Melbourne, with its wonderful Victorian buildings, wide boulevards, and formal gardens with mature trees and herbaceous borders. The trams go dinging past along Nicholson Street; one couldn’t be anywhere else.

Volunteers at the Museum are well supported; there are about 500 of us (of whom only a handful works on BHL). The induction was very thorough, and I now have my entry tag on a lanyard, like one of the cast of Utopia. I am also enjoying the feeling of being part of an enterprise again, the opportunity to learn new things, and the sense of being valued for my skills and experience. So BHL is an all-round winner, combining exercise, mental stimulation, and social interaction.

How does exercise come into it?  To get to the Museum, I catch a train to Parliament station, whence it is a lovely walk along Spring Street to Victoria Street, through the Carlton Gardens, past the Exhibition Building. This route takes me through what I think is one of the best parts of Melbourne, with its wonderful Victorian buildings, wide boulevards, and formal gardens with mature trees and herbaceous borders. The trams go dinging past along Nicholson Street; one couldn’t be anywhere else

I hadn’t heard of the Biodiversity Heritage Library before I stumbled across it at at talk for Rare Books Week. This page gives an idea of what the project is all about. Briefly, it is a worldwide consortium which scans historic biodiversity-related books and other documents and publishes them to the web. These documents are uploaded in full text, described with correct metadata, and publicised on Twitter and other social media. What sorts of things are in there? Charles Darwin’s library is an example; “over 500 of the 1,480 books in Darwin’s library … complemented with fully-indexed transcriptions of Darwin’s annotations”. What else might you find? Who doesn’t love polar bears (ursus maritimus to you)?

These materials are of interest to several communities. Climate change is putting ecosystems all over the world under pressure, with extinctions on the rise. Biologists studying these things need information about plant or animal species’ original discovery, extent, habitats, and appearance. This information is contained in books and scientific journals, but also in periodicals such as proceedings of natural science associations, and archival material like field notes. The latter sources, however, are “grey literature”; things that libraries tend either not to collect, or house in closed access stacks and rare book collections. Many of the documents also feature stunning biological illustration. So this is a site of endless interest to book and design as well as scientific nerds. Discoverability is an emphasis; everything is properly catalogued and described with scientific terminology. What a wonderful project this is — getting these documents out of stacks and rare book collections, into the public domain, for anyone with a web browser to enjoy and learn from.

What else have I been up to? I went to ANAM (another great Melbourne institution) for a number of concerts and master classes. These involve music students nearing graduation, and those visiting Australia to teach them. The standard is high and the ticket prices very low. There are often friends around to have lunch with. Last month there were a few trips to town involved with a couple of prostate cancer-related research studies. (One of these, involving three months of exercise classes, won’t start until November.) I am getting to grips again with Proust, albeit with a certain resistance — I managed to lose volume 1 of the Penguin “In search of lost time”, The way past Swann’s. (I just cursed and ordered another copy from Reading’s.) I spend a lot of time listening to music, either in the kitchen or in the study on my old valve stereo. Now that spring is springing, I will have no excuse but to get outside and beat our little garden into some kind of shape. For the rest of the time there is

  • book group (once a month)
  • the ex-RMIT coffee group (ditto)
  • exercise class followed by lunch (weekly)
  • hauling myself off to the gym (nominally twice a week)
  • going for walks (ditto)
  • food shopping (about three times a week), and
  • cooking (almost every day).

I am still feeling very well, and that is allowing me to keep up this level of activity. The exercise I am doing is a big part of that. I am becoming quite the evangelist (that is, a bore) about movement. My sleeping is better, doubtless partly due also to the exercise. Without this I would not have the energy to do a lot of these fun things. So I have gone from feeling a bit under-engaged to having (literally and metaphorically) lots of pots on the stove. Having many things to do also provides me with distractions. The shopping and cooking have always been my jobs, and I enjoy them both. Everything else I am doing voluntarily, I can schedule my Museum work at times when I can actually get a seat on the train. My book group, exercise, and coffee buddies are retirees; we can all do things when it suits us. Rush hour commutes are a thing of the past.

So what’s the downside? I find myself now a bit short of writing time. Of course, this is a pretty good problem to have! I just need to schedule in some “quality time” for writing. Doris Lessing called one of her books of essays A small, personal voice. Putting the words on a screen helps me focus on that voice, and make sense of things. I see Dr P on the 23rd, and will post the results of that appointment shortly after.

Of a retiring nature

It is now four years since I retired. I don’t remember the exact date of my last day at RMIT, but it was definitely around mid-August, 2015. All the events leading up to that — the appointments with superannuation consultants, haggling with the university over how much I would get in my payout, my farewell morning tea — all seem from another era.

I retired in a way that is probably the least recommended — going from 100% to 0%. I used to call it “jumping off the jetty”. My doing it this way was due to how my retirement came about. My former work group was being transferred to another campus, quite a distance from the city campus where they previously worked. Staff who would have been disadvantaged by that transfer were offered a separation payout; leaving the university was a condition of receiving the payout. At the time, I was happy to accept the conditions and avoid the extra travel. Stopping work overnight, however, did make it a more difficult transition than tapering down my hours gradually.

Of course, paid work involves a lot more than a salary. It is social interaction, the exercise of skills and talents, the feeling of being part of an enterprise. Paid work is a big part of how we define ourselves. When it stops it is easy to feel that you have become a bit peripheral, even useless. To put it another way, retirement can be a loss; dealing with it consequently involves a form of grieving. I did see a therapist with whom to talk the process over. For anyone who hasn’t received any counselling or advice from their employer, super fund, or elsewhere, I recommend it.

Like grief, I found retirement to come in stages. (After I wrote this, I stumbled across a ‘proper’ Six Stages of Retirement article on Investopedia.) Stage One was terrific at first: like being on holiday, but not having to go back to work. In Stage Two, the reality began to sink in that in most days there were a lot of hours to fill. This was quite a setback; I was not having nearly so good a time. In Stage Three, I gradually began to investigate options for taking up those hours. Many of these are not obvious at all — for example, volunteering at the Museum. The reality is that, unless you start a big project like enrolling in a course, restoring a vintage car, or sailing around the world, one new interest won’t be enough. You will need to find a number of things that fit what you have to offer: interests, income, energy levels, and location. It is not just having enough to do; you need enough of the right things to do.

It has taken me quite a while to find a way of being retired that suits me. It has been a matter of trial and error (which is really, as someone said, trial and learning). This has been complicated for me by ill health. As well as having to work out what to do with myself, I have also had to work out two medical diagnoses; first low iron, then prostate cancer. The investigations associated with the former, and the treatments with the latter, have been extensive and thus time-consuming. I have had as well to contend with the effects of chronic acute insomnia. This is something that continues to affect my memory, concentration and energy. (I feel these effects even when, as in recent months, my sleep has improved.) 

How I have dealt with these circumstances comes down to three strategies. (Yes, things do come in threes.) First, I have tried a range of things. Many of them I have liked, a few I haven’t. You never really know what learning a foreign language or volunteering at a community radio station — to name but two — will be like until you try them. Second, it is helpful to ask yourself occasionally how you would like your life to be different. Doing this revealed that I would like more interaction. Identifying this as a goal led me to do things like joining a book club. I also switched my exercise class to a day on which the participants get together for lunch afterwards. I enjoy both these things a lot. Third, I have been adding activities to my schedule gradually. After doing this for a little while, I feel I have enough to do, without being over-scheduled.

Most days involve one or more of the usual domestic suspects: washing, food shopping and cooking, writing and replying to emails, paying bills, and making appointments. Exercise is another priority, being one of the best things that I can do to maintain myself in a well state. Any holes are filled by listening to music, reading (I am having another go at In search of lost time, the Penguin edition), going for a walk, writing, gardening, digitising vinyl records, and handyman stuff. 

So what has my week looked like so far? 

  • Monday: neither of us can actually remember what we did, which is a bit of worry! I think this was a catch-up day after going to a concert on Sunday afternoon.
  • Tuesday: I walked around to the gym, then went into town to pick up my pass for the Museum, where I will soon begin volunteering. I did some food shopping on the way home.
  • Wednesday: had coffee with some former colleagues, then did some more shopping. Our niece was staying with us that night, so there was extra cooking to do.
  • Thursday: did some washing before my exercise class late in the morning, then had lunch with some of the guys.
  • Friday: more washing, then did a bit more food shopping in the morning. I had been volunteered to bake a cake for a family get-together over the weekend — this is baked and just needs frosting.

There was a good balance in all this of time at home and time out. Or as retired GP put it: you need something physical, something mental, and something social. I wish someone had told me this before I retired! Still, I can definitely say I never wanted to turn the clock back.

Nothing to see here …

The main news, and you will forgive me if I repeat myself, is the PSA is still undetectable.

Getting the all-clear from the good Dr P always gives me a bit of a boost. Before we saw him I had made an appointment for the following day (i.e. today) for an induction from the volunteer co-ordinator at the Melbourne Museum. (I will be working there on a project to make digital scans of archival scientific documents, and add metadata to records linked to those digital images.)  Being involved in this enterprise will be a good thing, because manageable. I will be there only a morning a week, breathing those cataloguing muscles back into life after five years of inactivity. I made notes on the train on my way in about how much I am really appreciating Melbourne this winter — the grey days, the European lanes in the CBD, the lovely gardens and Victorian buildings through and past which I walk on my way to the Museum. 

The morning went the deceptive way of days when everything seems to just fit in. I left the GT in a side street and walked back to the station. The train before mine stopped the traffic at the level crossing on Riversdale Road in nice time for me to cross, touch on with my Myki, and get the all-important coffee. I had allowed half an hour to get from Parliament station to the Museum, plenty of time to walk along Spring Street, past the Royal College of Surgeons, through the Carlton Gardens, and, with a slight detour, past the Exhibition Building. (In the course of my Museum induction, I learn that this huge structure, the best preserved of the Victorian era exhibition buildings, is technically part of its 15 million item collection.) 

Of course, when things seem to be going just right, some sand gets thrown in the gears. I had planned to do the food shopping on the way home. In my haste to leave early in order to get the coffee, I had forgotten to bring both the cool brick for the little esky in the car boot, and (disastrously) the shopping list. Rather than have to go home then go out again, I reconstructed the extensive list of comestibles as best I could on my homeward journey from the Museum. I decided to go to the supermarket, then the butcher, so that the meat wouldn’t be sitting in the esky sans cool brick. Of course I promptly forgot about this, arriving at the butcher first. Curses! Should I backtrack to the supermarket? No, I’ll just get the meat, then whiz through the grocery shopping so the meat doesn’t go off. (With ambient temperatures of about 12 degrees, this was never likely, but it is one of the things I am most neurotic about.) Of course, not having a proper list, many things remained annoyingly needing to be purchased in a second excursion tomorrow.

That day I am to have two cooks, the first to make a banana bread for morning tea. One of our neighbours is moving to the inner city; she and her daughter have been clearing the ancestral home. I offered to bring them around coffee and a snack to sustain them in this enterprise. Fortunately, they have no dietary issues for me to consider. (I wouldn’t mind if they did, it just makes things a tad more complex.) Unfortunately, I am not sure that I have enough sugar — this being one of the things left off my reconstructed list. If I don’t, I am going to have to improvise by making up the shortfall with a few spoons of jam. (I have done this once before — one just has to take a guess at quantities — but it worked surprisingly well.) The second cook is dinner for us and our niece. I have all the ingredients for the main course, but not the dessert. So I will have to head out after morning tea and get the things I left off the list. You’ll be sick of hearing about this list! I’m sick of thinking about it! My usual scattiness is being given a turbo boost by the stress of measurement anxiety — bringing me back to the start of this rather ratty blog post.

Still, compared to what they could be, the little niggles and irrits I am having a whinge about here are great problems to have. I do know this. Thank you, universe! You feel you can’t make things too easy for me — in case I get too complacent? Fair enough. You the man.

Wagner isn’t as bad as he sounds

Anyone even faintly interested in opera will have noticed the recent discussion about addressing the racist and sexist elements in grand opera.

There is nothing surprising in this. Opera and theatre companies worldwide don’t just keep rehashing the same productions, but relentlessly re-jig them. This is done for several reasons. They hope to find find new lessons in, and possibly new audiences for, the classics. For this to occur, productions have to be recast for modern tastes. It is easy to sneer at the search for relevance, but modern audiences don’t want to come along and see a museum piece on the stage. They want the works of famous composers and dramatists, and new ones, to speak to them about their lives now.

Grand opera has come under the spotlight recently for several reasons. First, just thinking of a few core repertoire operas — Carmen, Die Walküre, La Traviata, Madame Butterfly, and Tosca — the heroine gets it in the neck every time. Or, as Lindy Hume puts it, ” … opera narratives of rape, murder and abuse, or stereotypes – from Carmen’s “bad girl” to Cinderella’s “good girl” – go unquestioned by creative teams” (Limelight In Depth: Shifting the Opera Gaze). The Conversation article “Opera is stuck in a racist, sexist past” and one in the SMH “Opera’s tragic heroines should remain centre stage” give further perspectives to this discussion. Butterfly has also copped some stick for the “ethnic exoticism” of its Japanese elements and characters, which is being portrayed as cultural appropriation.

Being a Wagner person rather than an opera person, I have no real argument with any of this. Where I do get a bit tetchy is when the old Aunt Sally of Wagner and anti-Semitism gets dragged into the discussion. This happens in The Conversation article, which takes a passing pot shot at “the lightly-veiled anti-Semitism in Wagner’s Ring Cycle”.

Yes, Wagner was an awful anti-Semite — no argument there. One could be forgiven for thinking that these views were unique to Wagner. In fact, of course, anti-Semitism had a huge number of enthusiastic adherents around that time. In nineteenth-century Europe, many nationalists were also anti-Semitic. This isn’t to excuse his views; it is just to suggest that one needs to see them in the context of the time. 

Pointing to Hitler and the Third Reich is the next thing that Wagner antagonists do. Yes, Hitler was Wagner’s number one fan, and made several trips to Bayreuth. (He dragged along many other top Nazis as well, although most of them were bored rigid by the experience.) This all happened in the 1930s, long after The Master fell off the twig. So it seems a bit unsporting to lay this at Wagner’s feet. (And is the fact that someone liked a composer a valid reason for not liking him yourself?)

The other problem for people who blame Wagner for causing the Second World War is that, if he had not written his essay “Judaism in music”, we would not have known that he held these repulsive views. Why do I say this? The fact is that there are no Jewish characters in his operas. There is no discussion of Judaism in his operas. None. It just doesn’t happen.

Ah, the critics say, look at the unsympathetic characters in the operas; Alberich, Mime, Hagen, and Beckmesser. They supposedly display Jewish characteristics. In this argument, Wagner’s anti-Semitism is in his operas, if you only just know where to look. Well, excuse the hell out of me, but what, exactly, are Jewish characteristics? And how, exactly, do those characters display them? I have seen all the last seven operas either live or in the cinema, including two live Ring cycles, and I can’t see that any of the characters is in any way, shape, or form Jewish. (Bryan Magee, author of the fascinating book Wagner and philosophy, dismisses all these covert-racism claims for lack of evidence.) 

Wagner isn’t everyone’s cup of tea; I would never criticise someone for not liking him, any more than if they disliked Delius, or Percy Grainger, or Tchaikovsky. It’s still a free country! Is it asking too much, though, to expect this opinion to be based on the music? Get a Wagner opera out of your local library, grab a libretto (freely available on the web), and pay him the compliment of listening to his music with an open mind. If you still think it isn’t good music, fair enough. But I’m betting you’ll find a lot to like.

Anticipation is half the pleasure

My beloved and I just saw Dr Parente for my regular 6 weekly check-in. Executive summary: the PSA is still undetectable.

Getting the news was almost comically protracted this morning. First there were no parking spots in the car parks at the practice.  So my beloved had to drop me off and go and hunt for a spot outside. She found one, but didn’t have many coins to put into the meter. (Some meters accept credit card, but not those in the City of Whitehorse.)  When I went in, the waiting room was almost empty.  This made the lack of parking somewhat peculiar. There are, admittedly, other doctors’ practices in the building; it is unusual, though, that none of the cars in the carparks should belong to Dr Parente’s patients.

Because of my beloved not having many coins, we didn’t have long to go on the meter. This wouldn’t have mattered had Dr P been on time, but — doubtless for excellent reasons — he was running late. We were chatting to the other patient in the waiting room when I arrived — his chauffeur had had to drop him off, too. And he had an appointment booked at the same time as me! Who would get to go in first? He did, of course. The time ticked away on the waiting room clock.

My turn came. Dr P had to connect his laptop to the practice’s wifi (or something). It was slow to load up with the results of the blood test I’d had on Monday. At least your name’s not in red, he said encouragingly, peering at his screen. Still, the news, when we finally got it, was good. McFate had obviously read the famous advice to writers: make ’em laugh — make ’em cry — make ’em wait.

(PS: I had always thought this advice to have been the work of Wilkie Collins. When checking this, I found that it is now attributed to Charles Reade. Warning — this link points to a Guardian article.)

Small victories

I am now on my second laptop. They have both been Lenovos. I bought the first one while employed at RMIT. This meant I was able to salary sacrifice it, giving me a discount equivalent to my marginal tax rate, about 30%. This old one was much heavier than the present one, and was generally very reliable. (The technician who transferred the data from it to a USB stick said it was built like a tank.) Unfortunately, a couple of years ago, the fan decided to stop working. Because it was about 5 or 6 years old by then, it wasn’t possible to replace this part, and a new laptop was therefore indicated.

I got another Lenovo. Because I was, by then, a gentleman of leisure, this one was entirely on my own dime. All went well for a time, except that, a while ago, I noticed that the battery could only be charged to about 60% capacity. This didn’t matter so much because I kept it plugged in (more on this later). Then the new one stopped working altogether. While on the tram one day, I noticed a computer repair place just up the road. When I got home, I gave them a call.

They first informed me of their charges; $95, I think, for an initial diagnosis. This was rebatable if I got them to work on the machine. They had a look, and called me back. The hard drive was cactus. There were three options for replacing it, in ascending order of cost and desirability:

  1. the same kind of HDD, a mechanical one (the most old-fashioned type);
  2. a less expensive solid state drive; and
  3. a bigger and more expensive, Samsung SSD.

The last two options would have certain advantages, being much faster and more reliable. All options included installation of the drive and Windows 10, and recovery of whatever data was recoverable from the old HDD. (There wasn’t much to recover, as almost all files I create are stored in web-based applications.) I chose the middle option.

I am very happy with that choice. Now, at bootup, I don’t have to enter my password; I just have to click on the Sign in button. The machine starts a lot faster than before. Of course, I perform backups on a regular basis (yeah, right). Actually, I have OneDrive switched on, which allegedly uploads all modified files to a mysterious place in the cloud. (I accidentally wrote “in the clouds”. Is this place Valhalla? Nirvana? Atman? Is the cloud really just an expression of the collective unconscious? Time for another coffee.) 

The really good thing is that I have accidentally fixed the battery. All that was required was to use the laptop unplugged, to the point where the battery saver came on. Then plug it in until fully charged. Repeat the first measure. Now it is back to 100% capacity after charge. This is good because, in this model, a) the battery isn’t removable, so I can’t just buy another one, and b) I forgot to mention it to the technician when getting the HDD replaced.

I have the laptop now sitting on top of a wooden box about the size of a shoebox. I keep the mouse, USB light (for illuminating the keyboard), and memory stick in the box. The laptop sits on top regardless of whether it is being charged or not. The power board that it plugs into is just behind the box. I can reach everything from my chair in the study. These are small things, but it is surprisingly satisfying to have them sorted.

I also now have my power amplifier back from its second visit to the repair shop. This one was entirely my fault. I was baking some bread about a fortnight ago, and needed to raise the yeast mixture. This requires it being exposed to gentle heat for about 15 minutes. The amp gets pretty warm, so I put the bowl of yeast mix on top.  It was on a plate, and covered with glad wrap. However, I reckoned without the fact that, because that I was making two loaves at once, I was using double the quantity. It therefore expanded more, over the top of the bowl and the plate, forced its way through the glad wrap, and some dripped down onto the vacuum tubes. Some unscheduled noises alerted me that all was not right.

Several hundred dollars later, everything is fixed. It actually sounds better than before; I have also solved a minor but annoying issue with the stereo. It was making some intermittent kind of rustling, tinselly sounds through the left channel. I checked all the connections and tried unplugging various bits to see if they were causing interference. Among the bits I unplugged was the antenna — this has a little signal amplifier in it to improve the reception. None of these measures fixed the problem.

When I got the power amp back, I took the opportunity to re-site the transformer, and plug everything into a new power board. I plugged the antenna back in, and used it as intended to boost the signal from the tuner. Now the rustly-tinselly sounds have gone away. I’m not sure exactly what I did to solve the problem, but so far, so good.

Last weekend I went to the 3MBS book and record fair. Fortunately I had decided to leave the car up on Studley Park Road and walk the rest of the way to the Abbotsford Convent, where the station is located. This meant carrying a shoulder bag in which to bring back what I bought. By this means I both got my steps up, and inhibited my purchasing — knowing that whatever I bought, I would have to carry back up the hill.

I got

  • on vinyl:
    • a complete Hansel & Gretel, with Anna Moffo, Christa Ludwig, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Arleen Auger, and Lucia Popp — what a cast!
    • Verdi Requiem
    • Bruckner 7 and Wagner Götterdämmerung suite;
  • on CD:
    • the complete Beethoven symphonies with Harnoncourt,
    • Songs of the Auvergne with Jill Gomez
    • Shostakovich 13 & 15 with Solti, and
    • the complete Debussy orchestral music with Boulez,

all for about $40! The vinyl is in much better condition than LPs from the op shop, some of which are very scratched. So I think I will be restricting my purchases of that format from the fair.

Rules are rules

When I wake up early, like before 5.00 am, and can’t get back to sleep, I think “Oh, OK, coffee with breakfast!”.  It is a small but genuine consolation for a night that was a bit light on. 

The coffee rule which I am invoking is: I have to have two teas before I have a coffee. When I need to get up early, I will make a tea then, and another one when I bring my beloved her coffee at 5.45 am. (This waking time is only on her work days — I wake her at a later time on her days off.) So on the days when I wake up earlyI have therefore had my two teas before I have breakfast, making a coffee with that meal permissible.

Why do I have this rule? It’s complicated. I really prefer coffee to tea. So if I had it all the time, I would have four or five cups of coffee a day, which seems undesirable. Limiting my coffee intake is a hangover from the days when my insomnia was really bad. Then, I used religiously to have only one coffee each day, at 10.30 am. I have since concluded that this doesn’t noticeably improve my sleep, and have thus relaxed the rule somewhat to have two or three coffees each day. Once I have had coffee, I don’t want to go back to having tea. 

This may not be very earth-shattering in itself, but it strikes me as a neat example of the little rules that we like to construct for ourselves. They go by several names: maxims, rules of thumb, heuristics. Many are relics from more leisurely ages: one for each person, and one for the pot. (Does anyone still make leaf tea any more?) Many old saws contain practical advice, like eating shellfish only in months containing the letter “R”, and planting your tomato seeds after Melbourne Cup Day. My beloved said her father put his in earlier, raising another rule: there are exceptions to every rule.

Then there are the proverbs that everyone knows: a stitch in time saves nine; look after the pennies, and the pounds will look after themselves. I remember a few bridge-related ones from Dad; always lead with the third highest of your longest and strongest suit: never trump your partner’s ace. And one, from a bygone era, that he loved to quote: there’s many a man walking the streets of London for not having played out his trumps.

There is a range of these sayings based on superstition: if you give someone a knife, they have to give you a coin, or else you’re symbolically cutting the friendship. Other sayings use rhyme as a mnemonic. In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Thirty days hath September (etc. — I could never remember the bit about the leap year). Everyone will have their own examples — please add as a comment.

I find this plethora of little guideposts to daily life intriguing. How have they come to be so ubiquitous? As usual, I think there are several reasons. One is to do with efficiency. Practical rules do distill some useful experience. If you can’t remember when you changed the battery in your smoke detectors, you may as well do it every Easter. Shellfish apparently can taste different when they are spawning. In the Northern Hemisphere, the months-with-an-R-in-them rule is a handy mnemonic to avoid this season. (In Australia, according to Richard Cornish’s column, this doesn’t apply.) The same with planting your tomato seeds. Rules of this type give a handy mental hook on which to hang a fact that would otherwise swim away. (This, of course, was from a pre-Wikipedia era, when everyone was expected to have “general knowledge”, whatever that was.)

Food is something that is both rule-ridden, and reflective of social change. Mustard with mutton is the sign of a glutton — guilty as charged! Red wine goes with meat, white with chicken or fish. A meal isn’t complete without bread. Mealtimes now are vastly different to when most of us were growing up. There is obviously a much greater range of foods consumed in Australia and New Zealand, and much less of that food is made in-house. It is also consumed in a much more hedonistic way; food is now seen as something interesting and pleasurable. Back in the day, some households operated an immutable seven-day menu. Saturday was roast day. Sunday lunch was leftovers from the roast with salad; dinner was scrambled eggs. Monday was a casserole, and so on. 

These kinds of arrangements reflect the good and bad aspects of rules. Having a rule is reassuring in the same way that habits are. Rules can provide not only useful guidance, but also a sense of continuity in a world that can feel hostile and overwhelming. They can also be boring and constraining. In this way they are a bit like the Queen’s Christmas message. One might like the fact that HMQ is still pegging along and giving us her take on things, but her comments are often so anodyne as to be pretty dull. (Just the thing after a day’s epic consumption!)

Having just finished reading Willpower, by Roy F Baumeister and John Tierney, I have a another explanation for rules. The main function of rules is to simplify the decision making process. Having to make a lot of decisions leads to a state known as decision fatigue(I think this is similar to cognitive overload.) Anyone renovating a house, or who has looked at a number of properties, will have experienced this state. Decision fatigue leads to impulsive decision-making: you just want to get it all over with. This in turn makes bad decisions more likely.

Back to my tea and coffee rule. The obvious question is: why don’t you just have what you feel like? That actually involves more work in that I have to make this decision several times a day. If I do that all day, I’ll spend all my decision-making energy on this little stuff. I’ll have nothing left in the tank when I get to the big decisions.

Sounds fanciful? Baumeister and Tierney’s main contentions are:

  1. You have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it.
  2. You use the same stock of willpower for all manner of tasks.

A large number of experiments have confirmed these statements. One early piece of research is known as the radish experiment. Students, who had been fasting, were assigned to one of two groups. Each group was put into a lab with freshly-baked chocolate biscuits, chocolate, and raw radishes on the table. One group was told they could eat anything, the other group told only to eat the radishes. Both groups were then given a large number of difficult geometry problems to solve. The chocolate biscuit group persevered longer than the radish group. This confirmed the hypothesis that the willpower of the radish group would be eroded by refraining from eating the biscuits and chocolate.

Ever tried to compare phone plans or health insurance? The tasks are so difficult one soon hits decision fatigue. Given that this results in most people staying put, it’s not hard to see how this state of affairs is in the interest of the telco or health insurer. There have recently been reactions against all this complexity. Health insurers have been forced to offer bronze, silver and gold plans. Some telcos offer basic plans, as well as ones with the lot. And in fashion, there is talk of the capsule wardrobe; a collection of garments in a restricted colour palette, all of which go with each other.  One may not take Mark Zuckerberg’s advice in many facets of life, but he has a relevant sartorial rule. He only has T-shirts in one colour: grey marle. This way he gets to leave the house with his decision-making mojo intact. Your time starts now: tea or coffee?