Scoreless draw

My beloved and I went along for my final appointment with Dr Parente for the year. All was as if had been the other times — PSA undetectable — everything good. Of course, this is something we never get tired of hearing! Herself and I had a celebratory coffee in Hawthorn before went to my exercise class.

The week before each appointment, I have a blood test, leaving enough time for the lab work to be done and delivered to Dr P. Around then, I start getting testing anxiety; I am more irritable, although I try not to be, and my sleep is worse. On the morning of the appointment, I feel quite neutral — there is almost a relief that it is here.  On the morning of the appointment, we drive to Box Hill, hoping to get a spot in the practice’s car park. This is quite contested. To keep non-patients out, the practice has had to hand out passes each day to display on the top of their vehicle’s dashboard. If there is a spot, my beloved parks the car while I nick in to grab a pass. I bring this back to her and retrieve my backpack. Necessary things contained therein are my notebook, and a book to read. If I don’t have the notebook, I just don’t remember anything much of what is said in the appointment. I just sit and read my book until my name is called. 

We have found morning appointments are best; I am usually a bit more alert, and there is less chance of the good doctor running behind. Dr P goes through the results from the blood test. This is usually straightforward; everything is over in about five minutes.  It is strange how, after I get this news, I feel a bit scatty and distracted. I never expect the results to be the same as they were last time, even when they have been good all year, or remember how I feel from one time to the next. We have gone through this cycle eight times this year. In saying this, I am very conscious that everything is the best that it can be.

Every other time I see Dr P, all being well, I have another Zolodex. (This is the estrogen treatment that is keeping the cancer quiet. It is delivered in the form of an implant about the size of a grain of rice.) I just walk up the street from the practice to the Epworth Box Hill oncology ward. One of the nurses there checks the dose, and what side it went in on last time. Then they swab the other side of my tummy, and shove it in. This is one of the situations where being a bit rounded is actually quite a good thing! One of the nurses said that they have to hunt around on really lean patients to find enough fat into which to put the implant. Even with my moderate spare tyre, the injection still leaves a fair size bruise.

Dr P told me to keep up the exercise, which I intend to do. I am about half way through the three months of exercise classes I am doing for the university study; three classes a week for the next six weeks, with a break for Christmas. The classes are all supervised by PhD students in exercise physiology. They are lovely young folk, radiating fitness and endorphins, who implacably raise the bar on us old roosters. The aerobic session I do first has gotten longer, and now features high intensity interval training. (This is where you go flat out for a minute, then ease back to the original speed. I do this three or four times, then have a cool-down.) In the resistance training part, the weights have gotten heavier, and the number of sets has gone from two to three. I am feeling better for it all, and even putting on some muscle.  On Sunday, two days after my last class, I felt restless, and found it hard to concentrate. I think I am getting hooked on this exercise caper!

I have been pondering what to do around the end of January, after the study finishes.  I don’t think I will do three sessions a week on my own dime; two, however, is quite a possibility. Meanwhile, Christmas looms into view again. I had the end-of-year party for the Museum last week. This week there is the party for the physio practice I was going to before starting the university program. The same day there is a coffee morning for former RMIT people; everyone kindly rearranged this from its usual day to accommodate my exercise class. This week we will also be getting a visit from an air-conditioning installer, fortunately the day before a heatwave. We will have gone from fifteen to thirty-eight in the same week, an impressive range even for Melbourne. 

It’s here again …

Yes, folks, my most un-favourite time of year has rolled around again. (Is un-favourite a word? It is now.) I went with my beloved to Chadstone last Saturday. Ay caramba! That was it for me for shopping centres this year. With every bit of Christmas muzak at the supermarket, every lame decoration around signposts down the street — those shiny ones which form a kind of skirt around the pole are new to me — and every inescapable catalogue and promotional email, ghosts of Christmases past are crowding around. I thank Old Harry I no longer have to run the gauntlet of the Salvation Army brass bands at Melbourne Central Station, honking out carols to the bleary commuters, the shaken money tins providing an ad libitum percussion obligato.  

Family Christmases in years gone by were mostly pretty OK. We all got along well enough to avoid it becoming the kind of ordeal, thick with recriminations and the airing of ancient grievances, as portrayed in Absurd person singular by Alan Ayckbourn. (In one act of this play, Eva decides to end it all one Christmas Eve. She is repeatedly interrupted in carrying out this project — when she removes the bulb from its socket in order to electrocute herself, a guest thinks she is trying to change the bulb and insists on doing it himself . Eva then tries to gas herself, at which another guest imagines the former is trying to clean the oven, and shoves her aside to do it herself. You get the picture.)

Christmas as an adult is another matter. To give might be more blessed than to receive,  or however the saying goes, but the giving involves a fair amount of getting. What I really detest, apart from the relentless commercialisation, is the way everyone becomes so tense and aggressive in shops and markets, as they hunt down all the extra stuff they somehow just to have. Boxing Day seems a lot more relaxed. The main event is finished with for another year, and one can start in on the leftovers and thinking about how to regift the unwanted stuff. Christmases these days, however, are pretty cruisy. We take a Kris Kringle and dips and nibbly stuff to one or another of the ever-obliging sisters-in-law. They do all the hard work, and it is just an excuse for a family catch-up. Everyone gets on, just as they did in my family of origin.

Okay, so Christmas is a big soft target, affording many easy laughs and satiric scenarios. How about this for a plan? (I am recycling a suggestion made ages ago by a family member, so props to them. They know who they are.) It would be rather hard lines for the kids not to get presents. But what if the adults skip the presents for one year, pool what they would have spent, and make a big donation to a bushfire appeal? Among our lot, I am happy to do the donating. (I am thinking of the Christmas Drought Appeal, via the Commonwealth Bank. But I am happy to donate to other good causes, as requested.) Family members can reimburse me as and when convenient.

Radio

Music is one of the biggest things in my life. I need it as much as love. If I don’t listen to about an hour of music each day I get twitchy, and float loose of my mooring somehow. That listening has to be proper listening — not just having it on in the background while I am reading. (Listening while I am cooking or gardening somehow lets more of the music through.)

After nearly fifty years of listening to classical music, I have about seven hundred CDs, and maybe a dozen DVDs and Blu-rays. At a rough calculation, this equates to about 1,000 hours of listening. As if this were not enough, I have also resumed buying vinyl, mostly from op shops. (I bought some from a record fair recently — I drove most of the way, then walked, to limit what I bought to what I could carry back.) I only have a few dozen LPs, and am trying not to buy too many more. When am I going to get to listen to it all? This is particularly the case, considering that what I switch my amplifier to most often is the FM tuner: ABC Classic or 3MBS.

What is it about radio that I find so addictive? For one thing, I love the unexpectedness of it. ABC Classic, in particular, seems determined to keep listeners in the dark about what is to be broadcast. I have had extensive correspondence with them about this, in which I have also bitched about the shortcomings of their web site. The latter comments were acknowledged, and things improved after a lengthy and no doubt hideously expensive redesign. (This was in progress when I began bothering them. There are still, however, plenty of links that lead nowhere.) From this correspondence I learned that their research indicated — I am paraphrasing — publishing music listings on the web site was not a priority for listeners, at least for breakfast or afternoon programs. ABC Classic conceded that there was interest in having advance access to listings for concerts, which are mostly broadcast around midday. The entire programs of a week’s worth of selected midday concerts can therefore, now, be read on the ABC Classic web site.  3MBS-FM, by contrast, publishes a monthly guide for subscribers, available in hard copy or as a .pdf, for $85 a year — including postage for those who select the hard copy. This guide lists almost everything they broadcast in their daytime programming. (Students, concession card holders, musos, and other impecunious folk can subscribe for about $55 a year.)

Both stations, ABC Classic in particular, post programs on their web sites. These can, for a time, be played back on demand. Being the owner of a vintage stereo, this is not a lot of use to me. (I have tried various Rube Goldberg-type arrangements, which work, but the results sound unpleasantly processed.) However, I have progressed from battling ABC Classic about their inscrutability, to embracing this new and austere universe. I have learned to keep an ear out for hints from the more humane presenters, who actually tell the scattered and huddled listening hordes what is coming up. Audiences Australia wide must be keeping an ear out for a hint of a complete symphony or concerto. Quick — put on a coffee and warm up those valves!

But there is also something about radio broadcasting that I have become really attached to. It is the aural equivalent of seeing a film at the cinema. If you watch the movie at home on the DVD player, you see and hear the same program, but the experience is different. Having everyone who is tuned to a particular station listening to the same program at the same time is similarly different. A radio audience is a kind-of community; a special thing in our fragmented times. Being able to send in SMS comments is a great enhancement to this sense of togetherness. Listening to these comments makes you realise that other people like classical music too, and they tune in while doing their gardening, driving tractors and trucks, walking the dog, or just to listen. 

I also love how radio broadcasts can remind you of music that you know, but has gone off your playlist somehow. ABC Classic has copped some stick in this post, but props to them for playing big chunks of Mahler, Bruckner, Schubert, and even Wagner, amidst the everlasting Mozart. (Just not the Clarinet Concerto again, please! For about six months! And enough of the Mannheim School already.) Further kudos are deserved for giving Australian composers past and present, and local ensembles and performers, a platform. There is more music out there than one can ever hear, just as there is sitting on my study shelves. But the familiar galaxies and constellations are not dimmed by new stars.

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.

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.

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?