Weekend Reading & Selected Links

6 min read

Happy weekend! Here are some links to things I've been reading or watching that you might also enjoy:

  1. My new podcast episode, with Lucy Turnbull. Different to my usual format, it's a recording of a live event held recently in Sydney. Three excerpts from the conversation below.
  2. My correspondence on Alan Kohler's Quarterly Essay.
  3. Brian Potter's review of Nuclear Politics: Energy and the State in the United States, Sweden, and France.
  4. Robin Sloan on Tolkien's muddling through. His other notes on influence are similarly good.
  5. Daylight's new computer. And a mini-documentary about it here.
  6. Cristina Cordova's note on how to think about startup equity compensation.
  7. Steven F. Hayward on his personal library.
  8. Fun FAA fact.
  9. Helen Toner and Matthew Burtell explain LLMs.
  10. 'Scraping training data for your mind', a blog post by Henrik Karlsson.

Have a great weekend,‌

Excerpts from my podcast with Lucy Turnbull

1. On the differences between Sydney and Melbourne

TURNBULL: They were settled in completely different times. So, Sydney... when the colony arrived in 1788, that was still in the pre-industrial era, that was in the Georgian era. And that was actually, in terms of town planning and the shape of cities, exactly the same kind of basic principles applied as applied in Renaissance times.

So I know it's a really funny thing to say, but actually Florence and Sydney's initial urban grain, like The Rocks and Millers Point and going down to the Town Hall and down indeed to Central, you know, originally had a lot more in common with Georgian England, I guess, the Enlightenment period and before that back to the Renaissance, than Melbourne did, which was very much established after industrialisation had set in and after I guess orderly town planning had set in with wide streets and common urban forms and setbacks, etcetera. So they were settled at very different times.

And it actually plays into what it's like now. Sydney, possibly less so than before, but Sydney always had a sort of a raffish, sort of disorderly, messy streak of libertarianism and individual naughtiness. And that might be our original convict, settler origins. And Melbourne was always slightly more serious and I would say kind of Presbyterian. And you see that. You see that actually in the character of each city, I think, still. So the DNA is still there, right?

WALKER: So you can almost trace those cultural differences back to their topography and when they were founded.

TURNBULL: So Sydney's topography is, we all know – because at least if we don't live here, we visit here (because you’re all here) – it's kind of bumpy and a bit disorderly too. And I think that – and the constraints around the edges – plays into the way it's kind of organised into the east, the south, the north, and the west. 

And before the property boom really got cracking, back in 2003, when I was in the town hall, actually, Maxine McHugh, who was then a journalist, I think on The Bulletin or somewhere, asked me a question, “What do I think of the differences between Sydney and Melbourne?” And I said, well, in Sydney, people ask you where you live; whereas in Melbourne, they ask you where you went to school.

And there are two differences there. If you're asked where you live, you could have moved into where you live, like, last week, the week before, two minutes ago, or you could have been living there for 50 years. Whereas if you ask where you went to school, you can never change that. You are kind of a product of your school.

2. On how Australia used to be good at medium density, and why we stopped

WALKER: I was in New York a couple of weeks ago, staying in Brooklyn Heights, and I had this strange experience walking down the street, where everything felt very unfamiliar and kind of foreign. And it wasn't the fact that the cars were on the wrong side of the road, or there were metro stops everywhere. But it struck me that what it was I was walking through just continuous blocks of four to six story apartments, and then we just don't have that in Australia. We don't have that kind of medium density, the classic sort of six to eight story apartment blocks, the kind of apartment blocks you see in Paris and Barcelona and parts of London.


WALKER: Rome. 


WALKER: Why don't we have that here?

TURNBULL: Well, this is the funny thing, which I've actually conjured with for decades now. We were really good at doing medium density, maybe not six to eight stories, but three to six in the interwar period, when we were building the tram lines (which became the suburban bus network when they pulled out the trams – which is another story – because the trams were so slow, but that was unfortunate that they did that). 

But if you go, say, around Bondi Beach, not just on the beach, but a couple of blocks back, and around, say, Plumer Road in Rose Bay, another example, even a lot of Point Piper where we live, and even, not so much Double Bay now – well, there are bits in Double Bay – but the Lower North Shore, too, there is a huge amount of three and four story brick, dark brick, apartment buildings. And they've been there since the 1920s, the 1930s. There was a building boom at that time. 

Then suddenly the depression hit in the early thirties, and that all stopped. But that was actually a really good urban form, which I wish we'd done a lot more of. 

And then what happened is we had the Great Depression, which really knocked Australia sideways and knocked the property market sideways and building sideways. So when we came out of the Second World War, we had this massive housing crisis, and there was a kind of like a “build anything, we have an emergency.” And there were high levels of immigration, post-war immigration, there was bipartisan support around the idea of “populate or perish” (which doesn't exist now), but you had huge waves of immigration and a housing crisis. 

So the response was to borrow the modernist idea and principles, which, you know, the Bauhaus espoused, which is, you know, modernism – I don't need to tell you what modernism is, look it up if you don't know, but it's basically very sort of simplified design and construction, very concrete and masonry driven, mostly concrete and glass. And that actually was a good response. 

But because of the crisis, the modernist idea could just get built up and built up and built up. So it did get built up in places like in the towers in Darling Point, which led to a huge revolt, say, of Woollahra council against density. The whole political complexion changed in Woollahra Council. 

There was a similar kind of revolt in North Sydney, where there was a lot of high density going up. There was this huge local political pushback, which, combined with the idea of the huge movement to support heritage, like the green bans movement to save Victoria Street in Potts Point and Hunters Hill – the combination of the revolt against modernism plus the need to preserve heritage actually led to a reaction against modernism and height and density, which led to I guess, the NIMBY movement. There were two forces driving the NIMBY movement: heritage and anti-modernism.

3. On bringing back pattern books

WALKER: If we wanted to enable template approvals for mid-rise apartments, what would it take to create a style book of approved designs for each suburb or local government area? Is that a complicated task? Has that been tried before?

TURNBULL: That's how Paddington and Glebe and around here, that's how all the inner suburbs that we all value so highly now, were actually built. They weren't built by professional builders, they were built by people who borrowed pattern books, who used pattern books and got the elements, say, of the wrought iron balconies, they bought them from a pattern book in the UK. 

You can see it particularly in Paddington, because it's hilly, you can see three or four terraces in a row which are obviously built by the same person with the same wrought iron. But they, Paddington, Glebe, etcetera, were built with pattern books.

And that's another thing that makes me worry, because it's like with the revolt against the medium density we used to do so well in the twenties and the early thirties, it's as if we had our brain sucked out and we forgot how to do pattern books and standard planning, urban forms, and everybody had to do their very own starting from scratch. And it's really frustrating because it adds to time and to cost and complexity, whereas if you can say, okay, this is a Type A medium to high density apartment block or a Type B or a Type C, and if it's standardised and it's not going to fall over because it's built on sand, et cetera, the geotech's okay, you should be able to build it, because we need to get going quickly.

And I think the government architect is trying, Abbie Galvin is trying, really hard to get these pattern books underway. 

Strangely enough, I spoke to her just before she got appointed, and I said, “Abbie, you've got to do pattern books. Like, we've got to speed this whole thing up.” 

So I think that's where we should be going back to. We've got to go back to where we were, truthfully, in the late 19th century and the early 20th century. We've got to go back because we've been making a lot of mistakes and making things way too complicated.