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?

Round and round we go

After some agonising, comparing, and general research, I took the plunge and got a new turntable — see below.

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Audio Technica LP120 USB

This is actually the fourth turntable I have owned. The first was a Dual. That was a rim drive (a technology I am not sure is still used), and had a fair bit of rumble. That was followed by a Sony direct drive. The Sony was incredibly reliable, as their products tend to be. It had some quite good features like a strobe band around the edge of the platter, so one could see whether the record was spinning at the correct speed or not. The platter itself was carbon fibre, supposedly, with funny little rubber mushrooms to support the record. That deck went through a house fire which buckled its dust cover so severely I had to take it off and throw it away. To my surprise, the deck still worked. It was still working when I reluctantly put it out on the nature strip over forty years later. So why did I get rid of it? I had no room in the stereo cabinet for a turntable.

It was succeeded by a much smaller Akai belt drive deck. This was a modest machine, sourced from Cash Converters for not very much money. I intended to use it just for ripping recordings from my few remaining LPs. I recently liberated the stereo from its cabinet and re-housed it in a new console, where I could now get at the back of it. I also got some LPs from the op shop, and a record cleaning machine. The limitations of the Akai were becoming more obvious as the quality of the vinyl improved. So when I saw the Audio Technica on sale online, I realised it would be a major improvement.

The major feature of this deck is the capacity to record vinyl records directly to a USB stick. However, I bought it for its other features:

  • direct drive (no messing about with drive belts)
  • S shaped tone arm (supposedly better for tracking toward the LP label)
  • prefitted cartridge
  • universal headshell, giving the capability to upgrade the cartridge
  • capacity to use
    • the deck’s inbuilt preamplifier, or
    • an external phono stage, or
    • the one in your amplifier. (The Luxman has a good phono stage with switchable impedance, and it seemed a shame not to use this.)
  • hydraulically damped lift control for the tonearm (although you need to lift the arm at the end of the record).

It even has a dinky little pop-up light so you see where to put the needle at the start of the disc. And, for members of the Illuminati (and the tinfoil hat brigade), one can actually play discs backwards. Yes, subliminal messages encoded onto The Beatles, David Bowie, and other such seemingly inoffensive artists, can be — ah — outed? Revealed? Whatevs.

The handful of Melodiya discs I picked up in a junk shop in St Kilda plays beautifully. I remember asking the assistant what the story was with these. Apparently no-one had picked them up from the dock after they cleared customs. Melodiya is the number one Russian record label; the discs I have date from the Soviet Union era. Material includes the Shostakovich symphony no. 5 (conducted by Maxim Shostakovich), four of the Sibelius symphonies with Rozhdestvensky, the Schumann piano concerto, and Schubert impromptus. The Russian orchestral sound is unique, particularly the brass playing — where else can you hear horns played with vibrato?

Other op shop finds, not all played on the new deck yet, include

  • Brahms: Alto Rhapsody, Wagner Wesendonck Lieder; Strauss orchestral songs, with Janet Baker
  • a Nielsen symphony
  • Debussy: La Mer; Ravel: Daphnis & Chloe suite no. 2, Pavane, with Szell and the Cleveland (extremely well played)
  • Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherezade with Leinsdorf (pristine condition, very good performance, and a great recording — the trifecta)
  • Beethoven: Pastoral symphony with Charles Groves (pretty good, as I recall)
  • Verdi: Don Carlo with Karajan (mono, from Salzburg Festival)
  • Schubert: Unfinished symphony and Rosamunde excerpts, with Paul Kletzki and the Philharmonia Orchestra (from the 1950s, the glory days for that band — how could you go wrong?)
  • Marschner: Hans Heiling and Der Vampyr (a gift from a mate — a terrific discovery of a composer I hadn’t heard of, let alone heard. Private recording.)

Some of the best of this bunch are World Record Club pressings. There is a story worth telling here — if only the business records from this enterprising outfit are still around. I had quite a few of their records in the 70s and 80s. Only two of these old-timers survive; a volume in the complete Haydn string quartets, with the Fine Arts Quartet, and the Sibelius Violin Concerto with a Russian soloist, Tossy Spivakovsky, and the London Symphony Orchestra. The latter is one I liberated from the music department at North Sydney Technical Boys High School. (I would return it, but the school closed down in the late 60s or early 70s.) This was the recording through which I got to know this work. I always liked Spivakovsky’s performance; it made me think of a soul wailing in frozen wastes. After a wash, the disc (although pretty worn) doesn’t sound at all bad on the new deck. I can hear now, however, that the soloist is balanced extremely close. Some things just ain’t the same forty years on!

Advance future planning

Some people are just disgustingly organised. Yes, it’s around this time that the first shame-making batch of Christmas cards starts to appear in the mailbox. (Hand-addressed ones, I mean, from people you actually know, not those ones with the word-processed labels from real estate agents and other hopefuls.) Impressive as this is, some people of Olympian foresight are actually thinking about their new year’s resolutions. Fair crack of the whip! I’m still resting on my laurels from working out which bin to put out last Thursday.

For those who would like to take a mini-meerkat ramble, and peer over the parapet of the present (oh, when you’re hot, you’re hot), there is some pretty interesting stuff to ponder. The Guardian asked its readers for suggestions about how to live in a way that, while it didn’t involve throwing off the whole capitalist yoke, at least brought up some alternatives. The result was this article, From freecycling to Fairphones: 24 ways to lead an anti-capitalist life in a capitalist world . The suggestion that most tickled my fancy, not surprisingly, was the one about using libraries more.

(Strangely, I have just taken a not-a-new-year’s resolution to start using our local library less. This is to support a different NANYR, that is, to re-read In search of lost time. Having turned into a super slowpoke reader, I simply won’t get through this magnum opus in 2019 if I am forever putting books on hold. However, for anyone for whom their library service hasn’t been restructured, corporatised, and had its customer service outcomes optimised out of existence, I say — use it or lose it!)

My personal suggestion to do things differently in 2019? Shop in op shops. I had the most delightful conversation a few weeks ago with the co-owner of our local greengrocer, a Canadian, and a fellow op-shopper. I think I impressed her with my two op shop loyalty cards! (Not everyone would be.) I was able to fill her in about some local outlets, and admire her ability to score a wearable cardigan. Knitwear is definitely the Achilles heel, if I can put it that way, of the op shop. Most jumpers, or even sweat tops, are either stained down the front or worn thin. I have scored a couple of good jumpers, one of which I wear as I write, but the hit rate is definitely lower than for jackets, shirts, or pants. Op shops, though, are a great way to connect with your community, save stuff from landfill, and disconnect from the whole disposable fashion cycle. And obviously they are mega cheap. As the Mitsubishi ads used to say: please consider.