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Why I voted Yes in the Same-Sex Marriage Plebiscite

15 November 2017

As the self-proclaimed defender of freedom, democracy and true equality, it was a simple decision to vote Yes in Australia’s Same-Sex Marriage Postal Survey. There were issues surrounding the vote, notably the bullying and abuse from the totalitarian left, the general erosion of both freedom of thought and personal values, and the increasing bigotry towards certain religions, notably Christianity. It’s quite fascinating that Muslims and the aboriginal community hold far more stricter and entrenched views on marriage than Christians, yet they are never torn to shreds by the ever increasing elitist and pompous national media. Important as those issues are, they can be dealt with later, and it would be unfair to entwine them with gay marriage because, as totally separate issues, they actually have a far greater reach into our lives than the minor detail of government recognising your personal relationship.

ssm-ballot2

Freedom

Despite the quaint slogan “Marriage Equality”, the true issue about changing our marriage laws is freedom. The freedom to marry anyone you like. Marriage Equality technically would be about equality within the institution of marriage, particular that each partner get equal rights. In truth, they often don’t, particularly with the likes custody of children, distribution of assets and alimony – all skewed heavily towards the female. Of course, with a gay couple, gender can’t really play a role, so it will be interesting to see if precedents and principles set by the courts when deciding same-sex divorces extends into all divorces. The “slippery slope” argument that gay marriage would open the door to polygamous and polyamorous marriages, while technically should be allowed in the strict definition of “freedom”, was nonsense because such marriages have never been seen as socially acceptable in Western societies, nor has there been a serious movement to allow them.

Democracy

Marriage is a social issue that’s been entwined in human culture for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. The people own it, not government, so it was absolutely the right thing to do to officially survey the nation. While we may hyperventilate about the reported $120 million in costs, it’s quite ironic that most of these people doing this whinging have zero concern that the nation blows 10 times that much every single month simply paying interest on our national debt. Also nonsense is that gay people will suffer extreme psychological trauma, even suicide, from “the debate” when it’s the Yes campaign full of vitriol, hate and nastiness towards anyone that might even remotely consider a reason marriage should be kept traditional. The truth is that these totalitarians, particularly those in the Labor and Greens parties, hate democracy. They also recently spent 6 years in power debasing gay marriage into a wedge issue. Political bigotry at its worst! If it wasn’t bad enough that the centre-right Liberals are about to legalise gay marriage, the totalitarians are further riled at the prospect that the people would force the issue. How dare they! Suck it up, snivelling politicians. You had your chance many times and blew it.

As it proved, at ground level, people were excited to campaign for their cause and to vote, and the tears at the overwhelming 61.6% vote for Yes was out of jubilation of the national embrace of gay couples, not sorrow from the undue stressed of voting, and it will serve as a shining mark on our nation’s history. It’s also good to see that the No campaign has respected the democratic outcome, not resort to protest and riots like juvenile delinquents as the totalitarian left is prone to do when democracy doesn’t go their way (eg: Brexit, Donald Trump). The only real error was the government should have attached the question at the last election, not mess around trying to pass a compulsory plebiscite through a hostile senate, before ultimately settling on an optional postal vote. Speaking of an optional vote, the 79.7% response shows Australians don’t need the threat of a fine to vote. Compulsory voting is a blight on our democracy, and despite our conceited belief it’s the best voting system, we’re actually in the severe minority with not only compulsory voting, also compulsory preferential voting that means we’re forced to vote for parties we hate.

True Equality

This area was always my main quibble. In truth, there’s no true equality. Typically with a discriminatory law, you repeal it, not extend it by adding a new definition or clause. The government shouldn’t really have any say in how you live your life. Except, we as people, over the years, have conferred upon government to be the arbiters of this social institution of marriage. This is where the No campaign missed their moment. Gay marriage was inevitable so there should have been a petition long ago to separate the legal framework of marriage from the ceremonial one. The official government recognition would be a “civil union”, with “marriage” the ceremony. The ceremony, even in a church, would have no legal ramifications. Only the civil union, either at at town hall or in front of a justice of the peace, would – and it would involve a prenuptial agreement, or “civil contract”, of sorts. At present, the worst part of marriage is that to obtain some rights important to your relationship exposes you to many rights you don’t want. Not to forget the hassle and stress caused by the uncertainty and expense with the courts when handling your divorce. That actually is far more likely to see people traumatised, and even commit suicide, than the debate to recognise their relationships in the first place. Ultimately the Same-Sex Marriage Plebiscite has ended in happy and celebratory ending, and I’m for one am glad I’ll be able to look back in years time and be proud of my role in changing the marriage laws. Australia, well done.

Australia rejoices at the resounding Yes vote in the Same-Sex Marriage Postal Survey

Australia rejoices at the resounding Yes vote in the Same-Sex Marriage Postal Survey

ssm-joy3

Australia rejoices at the resounding Yes vote in the Same-Sex Marriage Postal Survey

Australia rejoices at the resounding Yes vote in the Same-Sex Marriage Postal Survey

Australia rejoices at the resounding Yes vote in the Same-Sex Marriage Plebiscite. Top is Senator Penny Wong, and second is Christine Forster, Sydney councillor and sister of former Prime Minister Tony Abbott. All images courtesy of news.com.au.

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Melbourne Cup 2017 – Preview and Review!

6 November 2017

With Winx such the dominant headline maker throughout the spring, the Melbourne Cup has suddenly crept up on us. There hasn’t been much thought about it – until now with the final jostling for positions in the race. On first inspection of the field, it was a case of “who” for about half the field. After a few preview shows and reading the newspaper,  suddenly the horses are like old friends and excitement is mounting.

Almandin out-lasts Heartbreak City to win the 2016 Melbourne Cup

Almandin out-lasts Heartbreak City to win the 2016 Melbourne Cup

Time for my annual selections, and hopefully they’re much better since I started posting them on this blog. Ironically they’ve been poor, even despite a few outsiders winning like Green Moon in 2012 and Prince of Penzance in 2015. My last two big wins were 2010 and 2011 with Americain and Dunaden. When I say big, I mean BIG!

Also, the Melbourne Cup is evolving. The international horses have firmly taken hold, whereas before 2010, they’d be regarded as scratchings. Even then, 2010 and 2011 were both French horses, while Protectionist in 2014 was German, so it’s fair enough to be skeptical of British horses. Even the Irish ones are in a significant drought, with Media Puzzle in 2002 the last winner. Also it’s worthwhile to be skeptical of international horses that haven’t had a preparation run in Australia. Since Vintage Crop in 1993, almost 100 first-timers have run and failed, mostly abysmally. Fifteen placings by 12 individual horses is the closest they’ve come.

Speaking of skepticism, the Caulfield Cup continues its poor guide to the Cup. Whereas once it was a pivotal guide, now it’s almost useless. The last Melbourne Cup winner to even run in it was Delta Blues in 2006, who finished third. It’s become almost a b-grade race full of horses that can’t get into the Melbourne Cup (due to proliferation of international runners), while horses targeting the Melbourne Cup don’t want to risk a penalty for winning the Caulfield Cup. Consequently organisers are removing that condition, and will raise prize money to make it a stronger stand-alone race of its own. It’s only possible value these days is noting the preparation run of any international horses.

The Field & Current Odds

1) Hartnell $26

Third last year when in much better form so easy to ignore. He’s a class horse, and they’re trying a new approach to run him fresher in the Cup, so a win wouldn’t surprise.

Result: Didn’t quite run it out last year, and in weaker form this year, was beaten a long way out. 20th

2) Almandin $9

Last year’s winner and returned to the spring with a solid win, then a poor run. Also up 5.5kg on his original handicap weight last year (4.5kg up on race weight). Repeat winners are rare so will risk it.

Result: The weight and history told. 12th

3) Humidor $10

Second to Winx in the Cox Plate and the class local horse. Running the 3200 metres is a query and he’s very temperamental and prone to over-racing. That’s enough to ignore him.

Result: Failed at distance as expected. 19th

4) Tiberian $26

The son of a “teaser”. These are horses that get mares “into the mood” before the stallion arrives to do his job. Studs give the teasers a few shots at the end of the season to keep them interested, and occasionally something is produced than can run. It would be remarkable if that could be a Melbourne Cup winner. Tiberian has solid form so I might have something “small” on him. Otherwise, as an international that hasn’t run here, better to ignore.

Result: Started a long run 1400 metres from home, cruised up heading into the straight and only battled to the line. Disappointing. 7th

5) Marmelo $8

An international than ran home well in the Caulfield Cup. That proves he’s settled in, and with his obvious class and Hugh Bowman, Australia’s best jockey on board, is one of the ones to beat.

Result: A nice run just off the lead and then could only battle to the line. Another disappointment. 9th

6) Red Cardinal $18

Last start flopped; before that great. Had he a preparation run here, he’d be favourite. Do you want to risk it? He could be the one that finally breaks the fist-timer international hoodoo. Has last year’s winning jockey Kerrin McEvoy on board. He should cope with the widest barrier of 24, having done so (if I recall accurately) in 2000 with Brew. The widest is not too bad as it gives you a choice to drop back. If you’re a few horses in, then those out wide can dictate your settling position.

Result: Got into a good position and then, like Tiberian and Marmelo, battle to the line. 11th

7) Johannes Vermeer $10

I always liked this until a few others overtook him. I might still return. Third in the Caulfield Cup if that matters and solid in previous runs, with his only doubt being untested over the distance. These days, a distance doubt is a big doubt.

Result: Sprinted clear and looked the winner to be pipped 50 metres out. The jockey said the horse was going so fast he was surprised anything else could go better. 2nd

8) Bondi Beach $61

Previous Melboune Cup runs 16th and 13th. Says it all.

Result: Failed twice before, failed again. 22nd

9) Max Dynamite $15

Second two years ago and arguably should have won. Was then injured and has only run 4 times, in low grade races, since. He’s a leap of faith.

Result: Couldn’t sprint with the other two. A fabulous effort nonetheless for such a horse light on runs and up in age. 3rd

10) Ventura Storm $34

Disappointing in the Caulfield Cup. Pass.

Result: Disappointing in the Melbourne Cup. Couldn’t run the distance and out-classed. 21st

11) Who Shot Thebarman

Scratched

12) Wicklow Brave $61

Failed last year and in poorer form.

Result: Got some money this time by sneaking into the top 10. Again it proves one of the golden Melbourne Cup rules of failed before means fail again. 10th

13) Big Duke $19

Probably out-classed.

Result: Over-achieved. Class did tell ultimately. 4th

14) US Army Ranger $61

International runner in poor recent form and no preparation run. No.

Result: Never a factor as expected. 18th

15) Boom Time $31

Caulfield Cup winner at $31. Says a lot about the horse and the race.

Result: Failed to run the trip and out-classed. 15th

16) Gallante $101

Previous Cup failure and out-classed.

Result: The first one beaten. 23rd

17) Libran $41

Seems out-classed. A place hope at absolute best.

Result: Ran well enough to grab some prize money. 8th

18) Nakeeta $34

A Scottish horse, so would be a great irony if it could win for Britain before an English horse does. Won “Britain’s Melbourne Cup” – the Ebor in York – which only rarely is a good guide to the Melbourne, and that’s when the winner wins impressively. Not this year. Nakeeta only snuck in. Because the Ebor is a handicap, it’s often regarded as a poor race and good horses generally ignore it.

Result: Ran on late after being left behind in the sprint. A good result overall. 5th

19) Single Gaze $41

A mare that stuck on well for second in the Caulfield Cup. Wary of both mares and the Caulfield Cup, so will pass.

Result: The jockey said the horse was flattened, was shuffled back four pairs than preferred, and never recovered. That’s always the fear with mares. 17th

20) Wall Of Fire $12

With unsuccessful attempts at both of his 3200 races, only a doubt at the distance here. An international that finished second in his preparation run in the Herbert Power, and drops 5kg for the Melbourne Cup. It’s the pattern Protectionist’s year in 2014, except he was German and Wall Of Fire is English. If it’s a slower pace, I can imagine Wall Of Fire sprinting clear, otherwise his run will end 200 metres out, or sooner.

Result: Even though he clearly didn’t run the trip, a bit better was expected. 16th

21) Thomas Hobson $20

An international without a preparation run and seems a plodder with recent runs up 4355 metres. These types typically get out-sprinted.

Result: From the same stable as Max Dynamite and Wicklow Brave, so the trainer definitely knows his stuff, and collectively the three horses won over $700,000 in prize money. Otherwise, he was always a plodder and got left behind in the sprint. Another 800 metres and he might just catch them. 6th

22) Rekindling $14

Another international without a preparation run, and he’s a 3yo too. They often struggle with the big field and hustle and bustle of a Melbourne Cup. In fact, many internationals do, which is why a preparation run is so important.

Rekindling (pink cap) wins the 2017 Melbourne Cup ahead of stablemate Johannes Vermeer.

Rekindling (pink cap) wins the 2017 Melbourne Cup ahead of stablemate Johannes Vermeer.

Result: Obviously coped with the big field and the weight difference to the older horses told in the end. In retrospect, with his good form in Europe and the lower weight, was obviously up there as one of the leading internationals. The problem is you don’t know. No preparation run and a 3yo, historically it means failure. 1st

23) Amelie’s Star $21

A mare that ran poorly in the Caulfied Cup. Yes, despite the heroics of Makybe Diva between 2003 and 2005, mares have a poor record in the Cup.

Result: Failed at distance and out-classed. 14th

24) Cismontane $51

Or “kiss my arse” as always hearing the name evokes. Yes, kiss my arse for its chances too. A Gai Waterhouse horse, and she’ll tell you it will win in a canter. Will most likely lead until being swamped heading into the straight.

Result: Despite being out-classsed, stuck on well enough. 13th

Summary

I’m locked into Marmelo. Although, if it fails, I’ll swear off the Caulfield Cup as any sort of a guide. Then it’s a toss up between Red Cardinal and Wall Of Fire. The former arguably has the best credentials and is an international without a preparation run, while the latter is only just behind on credentials and has a distance doubt. Red Cardinal will be at juicier odds so that most likely will sway me. In fourth I’ll stick with Johannes Vermeer. For an outsider, I’ll go Libran.

Remember, it’s only gambling if you lose!


Result

So an international horse without a preparation run in Australia wins the Melbourne Cup. It’s only the second time since the first time in 1993. Overall, it was a sterile, bland Cup. Rekindling wasn’t heavily favoured even by those “in the know”, while conspicuously quiet post race. If the second and third placed horses, Johannes Vermeer or Max Dynamite, had won, things might have been different. Without trainer Joseph O’Brien beating his father Aidan O’Brien to winning the Cup, there wasn’t even an interesting story from this year’s race. The only Cup more underwhelming than this one was 2012 with Green Moon.

Melbourne Cup 2017 Race Results

Melbourne Cup 2017 Race Results. Image: news.com.au

Despite a first-up international winning, the lesson still is to largely ignore such horses. While Max Dynamite followed his second from 2 years ago, the rest mostly failed, with the next best Nakeeta in fifth. Favoured horses such as Red Cardinal and Wall Of Fire finished 11th and 16th respectively. Each year, while one or two will race well, it’s a lottery to know the exact one. The second lesson is distance. At least half the field failed to run it out. Third lesson is class. Other than Big Duke in fourth, the outsiders ran as expected. Then there’s the Caulfield Cup. While Johannes Vermeer finished third in it, again it failed to produce the winner… nor the third placed horse, nor fourth, nor fifth… all the way up to eighth. Marmelo was the next best in ninth.

Johannes Vermeer will be one to watch next year. Near winners do have a good record the following year as they are often a bit stronger and tougher and haven’t suffered a weight penalty. Unlike the winner, in this case Almandin, which is typically penalised around 4 kgs for the following year The question for Johannes Vermeer is whether a precocious lightweight will emerge. That’s why he was beaten this year.

mc17-03a

Often the more interesting fillies are the two-legged variety. Image: news.com.au

Personally it was a wipeout. Johannes Vermeer needed to win for me as I never bet place. With the likes of Marmelo, Red Cardinal, Tiberian and Wall Of Fire all failing, all my multiples went up in flames. Oh well, there’s always next year… and the year after… and the year after!

 

Baltic Bicycling – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania

08 October 2017

In May of this year, I took a trip to the former Soviet countries of Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. The three Baltic countries of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia have all moved on from their past to forge themselves as distinctive, unique and modern independent countries, with all three in the European Union, using the Euro as currency and very friendly for tourists. Parts of Ukraine have aspirations of that, notably the region around the capital of Kyiv. In the south-west, as we’ve seen with the situation in Crimea, the large Russian populations in those areas are highly resistant to it. Even without that, Ukraine still has a long journey to EU status – particularly with its visa requirements and lower standard of living. Belarus is much more proudly Russian – at least culturally – while beginning to make moves for better integration into Europe. Visa requirements are tougher than Ukraine in the sense they need to be obtained before travel whereas Ukraine allows visa-on-arrival for short term visits for certain countries like Australia. Very few people speak English in Belarus, and they don’t want to learn, while the young in Ukraine are generally proficient. Neither are friendly for tourists in terms of basic city maps and tourist offices, and the Cyrillic alphabet in use doesn’t make things easier either. Eventually, as with any foreign city, you quickly learn to get by and get around, and many of these traits become one of their charms.

TALLINN – Estonia

Viru Gate - Tallinn Estonia

Viru Gate – Tallinn, Estonia

I’ve been to Estonia 7 times on 5 different trips and I can’t stop going back. There’s truly something magical about this “modern day fairytale” that is the capital Tallinn, and the adorable little country as a whole. I was lured there for the first time in 2008 primarily to see a band called Vanilla Ninja, and never could I believe that Tallinn would leave almost an equally indelible memory as the band did – especially since this was my first ever trip to Europe and I expected the real highlights to be cities like Paris and Berlin. It’s Tallinn’s medieval charm, technologically advanced society, ease to get around and beautiful Estonian people that makes it such a winning combination. Obviously it’s my favourite European city with the Old Town the perpetual highlight. I never tire of walking the winding cobbled streets, and now, after so many visits, I can proudly say I can do so without getting lost.

Culture

With its compact size, small population of 450,000 people, and abundance of buses, trolley-buses and trams, it’s a city not in great need of cycling. There are two exceptions: 1) Estonians are an active people so there’s a good deal of recreational cycling, particularly along Pirita Beach and nearby national parks, and typically riders are in full cycling garb of lycra and helmets; 2) Going through the Old Town is the quickest way from one side of the city to the other, and the bicycle is the best and most convenient method for that. Overall, most cycling is general utility type, and mostly on footpaths in the city centre. The roads that circumnavigate the city lack space for bicycles and are quite busy so Estonians will hop onto the footpath in these cases. Footpaths are good and are often wide enough to be marked with a bike lane. Motorists, while seemingly always in a hurry, are considerate to both cyclists and pedestrians. Numbers of riders are good, at easily 5 times as many as you see in Australia, and gender split was even, if not slightly in favour of women.

Cycling in Tallinn Estonia

Bike Share

Only a small network with stations accommodating about 10 bikes. Most locals use their own bikes, while tourists can easily walk, or take a bus to the more distant sites, notably the Tallinn TV Tower and the adjacent Soviet Era Museum. Bike touring is popular, and there you’d use a specialised rental service.

Cycling in Tallinn Estonia

Helmet Use

For general utility cycling, barely any. On sports bikes for exercising, mostly helmets. Helmets are compulsory for children under 16. When I hired a bike, I made it known I didn’t want a helmet. They said they could lend me one if I wanted one. I recoiled in horror and said no way. When I explained I was from Australia wanting to escape helmet tyranny, again I was asked whether I wanted a helmet.

Rating

4/5

PÄRNU – Estonia

Old Town - Parnu

Old Town – Pärnu, Estonia

A small seaside town of 40,000 people in southern Estonia, the only reason for a stop there was to see Lenna Kuurmaa, the former lead singer of Vanilla Ninja, in concert. “Concert” might be an exaggeration because it was actually an intimate setting in a 100 year old barn 20km out of town. That actually made it all the more special! This concert was scheduled after plans for this trip were done so it was great fortune I could be there at the right time. Pärnu’s main claim to fame is its huge beaches, resorts and spas. Estonians (and Finns) flock there during the summer.

Culture

Typical for most small towns, cycling is so easy and convenient to get around, and that’s no different here. Numbers are about double than Tallinn and the gender split is even.

Cycling in Parnu Estonia

Bike Share

None

Helmet Use

None

Rating

4/5

RIGA – Latvia

Freedom Monument - Riga, Latvia

Freedom Monument – Riga, Latvia

Situated on the Daugava River, Riga is another pearl of the Baltic, and this was my third visit. While not as picturesque or alluring as Tallinn, it’s not without its charms, especially the huge market housed in former zeppelin hangars, the quaint canal running through the city, and its Old Town. Although, unlike Tallinn’s mostly original Old Town, much of Riga’s was rebuilt after being flattened in World War 2. There’s more of a Russian feel to the city, with a greater percentage of Russians (45% compared to 30%), a hint of a Russian sound to the language and dilapidated sections. Estonia is more a Nordic nation, with better roads and more modern buildings, while the Estonian language is closely related to Finnish. Population is about 50% more than Tallinn at 650,000 and you can definitely feel Riga is a much busier city than its Baltic neighbours.

Culture

There seems as many buses and trolley-buses as there are cars at times, so again, like Tallinn, not much need for bicycles in the city centre. Also similar to Tallinn, mostly you’ll see riders cruising through the Old Town, and the banks of the river take the place of Tallinn’s Pirita Beach. Latvians are really into extreme sports, so you’re more likely to see BMX bikes than the sporty road and mountain bikes of the Estonians. While the gender split was even, numbers riding seemed a bit less than Tallinn. Age-wise, it favours the young, just as it did in Tallinn. Older people stick with public transport.

Cycling in Riga Latvia

Bike Share

Probably a bit bigger than Tallinn’s, and has a bit more use, particularly by tourists.

Helmets

Barely any. According to wikipedia, only those under 12 are required to wear them.

Rating

3/5

VILNIUS – Lithuania

Neris River - Vilnius, Lithuania

Neris River – Vilnius, Lithuania

The third of the Baltic countries, this was my first visit and a really pleasant surprise. Despite being in the region so often before, I never came across anyone to recommend Vilnius, and I knew little about Lithuania either. The one exception was that with Lithuania being in the European Union, I expected it to be quite tourist friendly. So it proved! My best description of Vilnius is the “Paris of the North”. There’s so many cafes around, so much variety of restaurants, quaint side streets everywhere, and the supermarkets were overflowing with options. I’d just been in Belarus and Ukraine prior, so seeing the variety – and a familiar alphabet to help identify stuff – it was like heaven. In fact, the supermarkets in all three countries were superb. They have so many fresh options. Australia is only now catching up. To top it off, Vilnius is a wonderfully functional city and has the best bicycling scene in the region. It was the inspiration for this blog post and the point I began to take photos of cyclists. The city’s population is about 550,000.

Culture

Cycling seems ingrained in the people, as there’s all sorts of people getting around on bikes. The city, with its small streets and low speed limits, obvious facilitates as much bike use as possible. Mostly, the citizens of Vilnius want to cycle. They seem so happy on their bikes, and proud too. Vilnius even has the most courteous behaviour I’ve ever witnessed towards cyclists. A car decided to double-park on Gedimimas Avenue and did so about about 2 metres from the curb so not to block the bike lane. Yep, his attitude was, “If I’m to inconvenience someone, it will be a motorist”. The second astonishing act was a woman riding along the footpath to a bus, get off the bike, and then carry the bike into the bus. No bother! The only thing you could nitpick in Vilnius – as in all these countries – is it does lack separated bike lanes. Mostly they are painted lines. With the streets quite small and without the sheer population volume like in Copenhagen, it’s not really practical for anything more anyway. Considering the bike lanes are all quite wide and connected, and with speed limits low and with a full deference to cyclists on display, and with footpath cycling allowed, it also proves quite sufficient.

Cycling in Vilnius Lithuania

Bike Share

Flourishing. Plenty of bikes and plenty of stations. There’s also good rental opportunities for cycling along the river, which is also well used by locals for transport purposes.

Bike-share cycling in Vilnius Lithuania

Helmet Use

Barely any. There could be a law for those under 18. If it does exist, it’s obviously not enforced because I saw plenty of younger people going without.

Cycling in Vilnius Lithuania

Top right: this woman took her bike into a bus. Bottom right: this car is double-parked wide enough so not to block the bike lane.

Rating

Cycling in Vilnius Lithuania

5/5

Elsewhere…

MINSK – Belarus

Independence Square - Minsk, Belarus

Independence Square – Minsk, Belarus

Minsk is a very interesting city. Flattened during World War 2, it was rebuilt in a communist utopian style. It’s very clean and tidy and, despite a population of 2 million people, uncrowded. Unlike the countries to the north, Belarusians aren’t intent on purging their Soviet history so there’s plenty of remnants, particularly symbols, throughout the city and in subway stations. Roads and footpaths are wide, and there’s plenty of walking spaces in general. Consequently it’s easy and safe to get around by bicycle. Intersections on main roads have underpasses for pedestrians, which helps keep traffic flowing and pedestrians don’t need to wait at lights. That means riders must dismount and wheel their bikes underneath to get across. That’s a not a great concern as there are ramps along one side of the stairwell for wheeling bikes, prams or shopping carts.

Culture

For general bicycle use, there’s two distinct types of riders. Belarusians are a sports-minded people, and consequently many ride around on flashy mountain or road bikes, and typically with full cycling garb and helmets. Possibly they’ve come on longer commutes or are riding recreationally along the Svislach River and it’s only the sections closer to the city centre they are on the footpaths. Most of these are men. Given the vast boulevards in the city, most cycling in the city centre is on footpaths. The other class, which would be about 70% of all riders, are in normal clothes on basic bikes and no helmets, with gender favouring women slightly. Minsk is well served with a metro system and buses, so cycling numbers are at the lower end compared to other European nations.

Helmets

On expensive bikes, yes. On basic bikes, no. Legal requirements: none. Curiously, I saw this sign in Gorky Park warning cyclists not to ride down stairs.

Cycling in Minsk, Belarus

Rating

4/5

KYIV – Ukraine

Kyiv, Ukraine during the Eurovision Song Contest of 2017

Kyiv, Ukraine, during the Eurovision Song Contest

Kyiv was the start of the trip before moving north. It’s a tired city, with bumpy roads, crumbling footpaths and many, many old and ugly buildings. Clearly it’s a legacy of the Soviet era, and being a large city of 3 million people, it will take time and considerable money to transform things. That’s not to say the city doesn’t function well. It’s easy to get around on the metro and the many bus and trolley-bus options, and most of the city’s key attractions are within walking distance or a few stops away on the metro. Key retail centres are within walking distance too. Everything is so cheap, at about 20% the cost of something in Australia. A subway ride is 20c, a fast-food meal is $2 and a 600ml coke between 50c and 80c. In US dollars that would be about 15c, $1.50 and between 40c and 60c. As you go north, prices rice. Minsk is about double while Estonia and Lithuania are double again. Latvia is a bit cheaper than its two neighbours. Overall, all three Baltic countries are still quite cheaper than other European destinations, especially if you compare across the Baltic Sea to the Nordic countries.

Culture

In the busy city centre, there’s not much. Parts of the city are quite hilly so that makes it more difficult. Once you get a few kilometres out and into the residential areas, while not in prolific quantities, there are plenty of old bikes and people of all types cruising about doing their stuff. Even though there’s almost zero infrastructure or bike lanes to speak of, these local urban roads are quiet and safe. Occasionally, particularly along the Dnipro River, you’ll see more sporty types.

Helmets

Other than a few sporty type of cyclists around, none. No legal requirement for anyone either.

Bike Share

A small one and only moderately used. There’s simply better transport options about for most people.

Rating

2/5

Conclusion…

The lesson from all these countries is that if you want more people cycling, you need to remove all barriers to cycling, change your attitude to cycling, and be accommodating to cycling. You don’t need to go crazy with Copenhagen-style separate bike-lanes to get people cycling. Cheap and simple things like lower speed limits in urban areas, bike lanes where possible and allow people to ride on footpaths is enough to send the right message. Most of all it’s to treat cycling as a distinct class of transport and creating the right image so that the instinct for people to go somewhere is to get on a bike. It should be second nature, not an exercise of helmets, special clothes, special bikes and wrestling with traffic.

Cycling in Tallinn Estonia

Yours truly after experiencing a day of cycling in Tallinn, Estonia, free of helmet tyranny.

For the curious, Lenna Kuurmaa, ironically with a band called Traffic, with her most recent song, Varjud:

Bicycle Network’s utter hypocrisy about cycling safety

01 August 2017

Bicycle Network, one of the leading bicycle lobby groups in Australia, has released a report of crash data among its members and revealed what all rational bicycle advocates already knew: cycling is very safe.

Bicycle Network Crash Report 2012-2016

Their key findings:

* Most crashes happen when the weather is fine (81.4%) and the road is flat (70.7%)

* October and January are the two most common months for crashes, with the fewest recorded during winter months

* Crashes are most common during peak hour, with the number of crashes in the morning peak almost double those of the afternoon peak

* Intersections are the highest risk area, where 42.8% of crashes occur

* Only 20.9% of crashes occur in environments where there are no motor vehicles

* 13.8% of crashes occur when the rider is travelling at less than 11km/h, and 46.1% when the rider is travelling at less than 21km/h

* The chance of a bike rider crashing are just 0.003% on any day, and 0.99% in a year. The chance of having a crash that requires hospitalisation on any day is just 0.001%

It’s important to note the percentages are of crashes reported to BN by their 50,000 members over 5 years (2012 to 2016), and include a total of 2480 crashes (or 496 per year), of which 1162 (or 232 per year) required hospital treatment. It seems to presume every one of those 50,0000 members uses a bicycle once per day. If you consider commuters would ride at least twice per day and BN members would be quite active anyway, it’s probably about right, and a fair illustration about the safety of cycling.

That most crashes happen on flat roads in fine conditions should not be a surprise since most riding is done on flat roads in fine conditions. That 80% of crashes involve a motor vehicle is, again, no surprise since Australians are forced to ride among motor vehicles and that most crashes involving motorists are caused by motorists. It’s not even a surprise that many crashes happen at low speed, with 4% even stationary, given that a cyclist’s speed is irrelevant if the motorist doesn’t see them or take proper care when passing. Of the 54% of crashes that occurred at speeds over 20kph, it would be interesting to know how many of these fit into the fast-riding sports cycling group. It’s curious that speeds are even known since most cyclists don’t carry a speedometer. Most would be estimates.

The most stunning revelation from the report was from Bicycle Network’s introduction to section 7 about the crash percentages: “Sensationalised media reporting have led many to believe that riding a bike is a dangerous activity, where the risk of injury is high.” BN then reveal in section 8 that one in four people had a negative experience with police when reporting a crash.

Wait! Bicycle Network is the organisation actually most responsible for the sensationalism. They’re responsible for the hysterical campaign to wear helmets and the legislation to punish riders with massive fines that go without a helmet. In 2010, they encouraged the Victorian state government to triple helmet fines and raise ALL other fines to the same level of motorists, saying cyclists must be “prepared to cop equivalent fines to other road users if it means we are accorded the full rights we are entitled to under the law”. This has fed the narrative that the media, police and general population have picked up. There were no excuses or exemptions with their helmet campaigns, not even exemptions for separate paths where statistics already showed it was incredibly safe, while the harsh penalties empowered police to enact an extreme enforcement policy against cyclists. It wasn’t long before New South Wales followed Victoria’s lead with even higher penalties and tougher enforcement.

The fact cycling is perceived as so dangerous to most Australians is due to Bicycle Network’s own actions, and yet here they are trying to undo the damage with a few statistics and a stylish report. Unimaginable hypocrites! You can’t blame the police either after the way BN have “promoted” cycling. The police, like most Australians, perceive cyclists as a menace to themselves and others, and believe they are probably responsible for all their crashes, and causing an enormous cost on the health system. If you think reporting a crash to the police is an unpleasant experience, try being chased down with sirens blazing and persecuted over the lack of a helmet, or a bell!

If Bicycle Network passionately believe cycling is safe (which it is) then it’s time for real action. While separation from traffic is critical, that will take years to facilitate throughout the cities. In the meantime cycling must be shown to be easy, fun and safe if it’s to have any chance to grow from its stagnant and oppressed status in this country. The first step is to make helmet optional riding legal again – just like it is in 99% of the world.

https://www.bicyclenetwork.com.au/general/media/4983/

Living under a mandatory bicycle helmet law regime

Mario Kart 8 Deluxe Review – Pros & Cons

30 April 2017

Is Mario Kart 8 Deluxe for Nintendo Switch the definitive version of Mario Kart yet? The simple answer is yes. Forty eight tracks, four speed classes, oodles of characters and kart options, four-player split screen gaming, online gaming for up to two players split screen, time trials, and a fully fledged Battle Mode. Yes, it’s the most definitive version yet. So the real question here is whether there’s room for improvement, especially for seasoned players.

Mario Kart 8 Deluxe - Review - Pros & Cons

I never owned a Wii U, upon which Mario Kart 8 was originally released, along with its DLC that now comprises the Deluxe version on the Switch. The Wii U was a disaster in the pantheon of Nintendo systems by being its worst seller and possessing the weakest game library. Nintendo loyalists consequently deserted it in droves – including myself – while it couldn’t redeem itself by gaining new fans. The big problem was the gimmick controls of the game-pad in a market that had grown long tired of such novelties on previous systems, notably the Wii (which I also boycotted). While the game-pad was far more conventional than the Wii’s Wii Remote, it was perception that Nintendo were still messing around with gimmicks instead of getting back to basics of quality games on interesting systems. In the Switch, and by extension games like The Legend of Zelda: Breadth of the Wild and Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, Nintendo has done exactly that, and rewarded those once disenfranchised fans with immediate releases of pinnacle versions of games from those series.

While I never owned a Wii U, I certainly played plenty of Mario Kart 8, thanks to several associates owning it on the Wii U. So that usual expectation of learning and mastering brand new tracks you get from a new Mario Kart does not apply to me. In that sense, I’m an experienced Mario Kart 8 player, and an experienced Mario Kart player in general, and with Deluxe now the fourth iteration of the same driving model – of holding the shoulder button to build up boost when power-sliding – I don’t even have a new technique to learn. I’d say most Mario Kart players would fall into that latter category, so potentially will find much of in Deluxe to be familiar – possibly too familiar.

PROS

Battle Mode: After the Wii U only offered a superficial experience on regular courses, Deluxe has a fully implemented version with specific courses and with 5 battle types.

Boosting: There’s a third stage when drifting now – purple. Known as an “Ultra Mini-Turbo”, it’s rare to activate it on normal corners because of the long duration of sliding required. Mostly I’ve activated it in anti-gravity mode after a speed boost from bumping into objects and other racers puts you into a stage 2 boost range, so it’s only one step up to purple.

Slipstreaming: It seems far more easier to attain, and the speed reward seems really large. I can’t know for sure because I can’t compare directly to the Wii U. Suffice to say, it is a fast activation and a really juicy speed boost!

Speed Classes: All four are open from the start, including the super fast novelty 200cc mode as first seen in the Mario Kart 8 DLC on the Wii U.

Time Trials: One of the most under-valued modes in the game, and again it’s complete with online leaderboards and ghost racing options, and is extremely addictive.

Ghost Item: Gone since Mario Kart 7 on 3DS, it should never have been removed from the game. Stealing items from other players and then using them against them is one of the most satisfying parts of Mario Kart. Generally speaking about items, the allocation is quite balanced too. You need to be near the back of the field to get the really powerful items like Bullets, Stars, Lightnings, and Lucky 8s.

Online Mode: While it’s basic in its standard form, that’s designed to constantly keep you in the action. Players are offered a choice of three tracks or a random choice, and then the computer picks randomly one of those options. Battle Mode is similar with the addition the battle type is random too. In my four tries I played Balloon Battle, Renegade Roundup, Coin Runner and Balloon Battle. If you want more control, there are plenty of custom races and Cups set up by others players, or can be set up yourself and invite friends. Compare to that to Mario Kart DS, the first online Mario Kart, that was fixed at a four race Cup and people would often quit before the championship ended. As a rule, online gamers are morons so the basic options will satisfy most players.

Fire Hopping: The exploit in the Wii U version that allowed you to extend the duration of boosts by hopping left to right, is gone. Good!

The Switch: Nintendo have nailed this device. Nothing beats whipping it out on the couch and playing a few online races while you can still monitor the TV or ignore someone wanting to talk to you. Oh, and the graphics are gorgeous and fast, both on TV and in handheld mode. More here

CONS

Single Player Mode: There’s none! While the 48 courses are divided into 12 Cups and therefore 12 mini championships to win, for seasoned players, they’re a joke. There’s no challenge! This is a perennial problem for Mario Kart, especially on home systems. Even hitting a new game of unfamiliar tracks, most experienced players rarely have any trouble breezing through “the game”. It’s only in split-screen or online multi-player modes that you can truly experience Mario Kart at its exhilarating best. Of course, new players to the series will have a challenge. Hand the controls to a novice or a child, and they will struggle through even 50cc. Still, we’re in a era now where some people have been playing videogames for 30 years, so even if they lack specific skills, they will adapt fast. I raced a few Cups on bikes – which was a new skill to learn – and still adapted quickly to win easily. At best, the CPU opponents may bombard you near the finish line or you fall off the track in error, which will cost you several places and potentially a championship. Otherwise it’s on your merry way. There is simply zero challenge in the game. I repeat: zero challenge!

I even raced the first Cup on 200cc, which is an unnatural speed for the game, and won it with three wins and a second. While the option of trying to earn a 3-star rank on each Cup is somewhat a challenge, all you’re doing is trying to annihilate the field as much as possible. Hardly ideal and, again, like the rare losses in a 150cc Cup, missing the 3-star rank mostly comes down to bad luck or your own silly errors. Chasing coins to unlock all the kart options is really the game’s only aim, and that’s only achieved through tedious persistence, not reward for supreme effort. It’s farcical.

There’s absolutely no excuse for Nintendo not to include some sort of serious single player mode in the game – whether that be an insane difficulty mode where CPU opponents race super fast lines or are super fiendish with items. It can be done simply too. Note that Diddy Kong Racing on the N64 had an Adventure Mode, where you gradually unlocked courses and even had boss races. Even on Nintendo’s own Mario Kart DS, it had had a mission. This could be returned, and expanded, where you might race a fiendish team Donkey Kongs constantly attacking you with bananas. Most basic of all, Nintendo only needs to do is ramp up the AI – possibly via “Master Cup”, and offer it as a Super Championship over all 48 courses. Fix it for Mario Kart 9, damn it!

Kart Selection: There should be an option to randomly assign a driver and a kart configuration, or at least the latter. Why? As with any Mario Kart, certain combinations prove the fastest so everyone gravitates to those. It makes for the same old racing styles, less inclination to experiment, less fun and less longevity. On Mario Kart Double Dash on N64, there was a random option, and we always used it. It really livened up the racing, and would offer true bragging rights for the most versatile racer out there. For something so simple to add, it’s staggering it’s only been seen in one version of the game. To think, playing online could have a fully fledged random option, where instead of seeing half the field of Metal Marios, you could be racing anyone and anything. The single player mode would also benefit from such options, where you must beat the Cups with a light, medium and heavy type of configuration. Or there’s a Random Cup that will switch everyone to another configuration after each race.

Mirror Mode: A perennial inclusion since the N64 and a perennial waste of time. Who cares if left corners are now right? A far better idea would be Reverse Mode. Yes, you race the tracks in the opposite direction, as is common in many car racing games, and would therefore give you 96 courses all up. For those people that will immediately whinge “what about those sections of courses that you can’t reach if going in reverse”, you simply place a cannon on the course to shoot racers back up. It’s not rocket science! Or, at least, it shouldn’t be.

Balloon Battle: The main Battle Mode, it would be nice if it had an elimination option. Lose your five balloons means you are out of the game. Currently you are restored with three balloons and a few wins removed from your tally. It would be nice if there was a mode of last kart standing.

Twelve Racers: That’s the default number in the game and with so many it can get chaotic. I’ve found 8 to be optimum, which was the standard until the Wii, and is still the standard on dedicated handhelds like the 3DS. At present your only options in split screen modes are CPU opponents on or off. Even in single player, it would be nice if it could be changed too so the focus bends more to racing and less on chaos. Here’s an idea. Why not make a championship mode of only four racers where you would race 3 fiendishly difficult CPU opponents? Come on! It really shouldn’t be so difficult.

Holding Items: A “feature” that’s been around for a few iterations, both humans and CPU races love holding shells or bananas behind their kart for protection. While I don’t mind it in principle, there should be a downside to it, like losing speed or unable to slide and boost around corners. After all, you have one hand off the wheel and holding something out the back, so that must compromise your driving ability somehow! Otherwise, a good racer that gets to the lead is basically invulnerable to everything other than a blue shell. The other solution is the item drops automatically after 5 seconds.

Custom Mii: This representation of yourself that hangs out in the online lobbys cannot be updated once created. Mine is slightly too tall and I can’t make the adjustment.

SUMMARY

Yes, while Mario Kart 8 Deluxe is the best Mario Kart ever, it’s not the best possible Mario Kart. Not by a long shot. For that we must wait for Mario Kart 9. Off to unlock the Blue Falcon…

 

Nintendo Switch – Hardware Review

06 March 2017

It wasn’t meant to be, buying a Nintendo Switch on day 1. After all, I was critical of its high cost and, especially, its lack of games on launch, with only The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild the only premium title. While I’m a fan of the Zelda series, I’m not a rabid fan, and have only owned three games, they being Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask (both on N64), and A Link Between Worlds on 3DS. So it was wait for other games to make the Switch a more compelling purchase, which I estimated would be by the end of 2017.

Nintendo Switch Box - Hardware Review

Then something mysterious happened. In the lead up to the launch on 3 March, Fast RMX – a racing game in the mould of F-Zero and Wipeout – was announced as a release title, and Blaster Master Zero – a remake of the classic NES game Blaster Master – was announced as second week release. I was more interested, without being committed. The next piece of titillation was seeing Big W offering a bundle of the system and Zelda for $519, which was $40 off RRP, or $30 off the cheapest price elsewhere. They also had the Pro Controller at $15 cheaper than anywhere else I saw. Not that any of that prompted a change of mind.

Late on Thursday night, the day before its release, I’m on youtube, and I figured reviews should be out for Zelda. They were all 10/10 at the three most reputable sites I checked. I thought then and there, stuff it, I’ll buy one. I could wait 6 months and maybe save another $20 or so, or enjoy the thing now. The price was roughly only $80 more than a PS4 when you consider respective discounts, so it was off to Big W’s website to see if I could reserve or pre-order online. Nope. So I figured I’d sleep on the decision. I awoke without any change of mind, so drove to Southland to make a purchase, and suddenly I’m an owner of a Nintendo Switch, the first Nintendo home console I’ve bought since the GameCube in 2002. Banzai!

WHAT’S IT LIKE?

Impressive. Most impressive. Initially feeling quite small, the screen and joy-cons materialise into an impressive beast once all integrated as a single unit. Going through the set-up phase, instructions were to remove the joy-cons, and I found myself for the next 30 minutes or so using them in separate hands to complete the process, log into the eshop, buy Fast RMX, and then play the game. They really work nicely holding them separately. Then I attached them to the device, and that proved really comfortable too. It would be remiss not to say at this point that the screen is stunning! It’s one glorious device as a handheld and I’ll probably find myself using it this way most often, particularly since my main gaming these is on the 3DS.

Next step was to attach the joy-cons to the grip and try that with the device placed into the TV dock. There’s no compromises in the design here; it’s a quality controller, and as good as anything out there. While the buttons and control sticks are smaller than standard controllers, adjusting to them is fast, and if you can handle the setup on the 3DS handheld, then the grip and joy-con combination won’t be a problem. The buttons and control sticks are the same size, and combined with the grip the whole thing is more comfortable.

Nintendo Switch - Box contents - Hardware Review

Graphically, the biggest difference was that the large TV screen made Fast RMX seem even faster. That’s a function of the much closer perspective, not that it was actually faster. Everything remained crisp and super smooth too, with the only flaw I saw was lack of, or no, anti-aliasing or other technique to reduce jagged edges. Whether that’s Fast RMX itself or a limitation of the system, we won’t know until we see more games. Reviews of Zelda cited occasional slowdown as the only concern. Not that this affects gameplay for either title and, besides, the Switch is not supposed to be a system to satiate graphics whores. That’s the domain of PC gaming where continually pumping thousands of dollars into hardware is necessary to support their insecure geekwank tendencies and pretend they’re getting a better gaming experience.

Note that there’s no conventional d-pad with the standard Switch controller, only a four-button replacement on the left joy-con. While I quickly adjusted to that when flicking through the Switch menus and inputting information, how they would work in something like a fighting game remains to be seen. I’d have preferred a d-pad as I said in the preview, especially as I believe the 2-player tabletop mode will be the least utilised of the playing modes, and the points of a d-pad could have easily doubled for a button when using a single joy-con as a controller. They also need the supplied wrist strap attachment to make the alternate shoulder buttons bigger and the controller more comfortable in general, and it’s doubtful people will be carrying those around for the odd chance of 2-player tabletop gaming.

Finally, the Pro Controller, a separate, though not a necessary, purchase. Believe the hype, it’s probably the best controller ever designed. It feels so huge after coming from the joy-cons, with bigger buttons, a bigger spread between buttons, a bigger throw of the control sticks, and a beautiful feel. Again, with Fast RMX, there was a 5-minute adjustment period to it. Ergonomically, all the control options that the Switch offers are superb. That Nintendo could nail the design and quality while retaining this flexibility is astounding. They are back to their best days of the GameCube and SNES with their controllers. They were the best ever, until now.

Nintendo Switch Pro Controller - Review

STORAGE

Internal storage has actually been the biggest gripe about the system, with only 32gb on board. I don’t see the fuss. People are again in the PC or the latest console mindset of needing large drives to download games or support massive day one patches. Nintendo operates entirely differently by releasing only complete and fully tested games, and they expect you to buy hard copies for major releases. Those hard copies are also cheaper, where you can find Zelda for $80 easily in stores compared to $90 in the eshop. The only advantage of digital downloads is they remove the need to carry around game cards. In regard to game sizes, Zelda is 13.4gb, whereas Fast RMX is less than 1gb. Snipperclips is 1.6gb, while retro titles will be 100mb or less. Unless your plan is buying from the eshop only, then the most you’ll ever need to do is add a 64gb SD card for about $30.

HOME CONSOLE OR HANDHELD?

Nintendo have made a big deal that the Switch is a home console first, a portable one second. Technical specifications, using a mobile computing chip and limited storage capacity, suggests portable first, home console second. It doesn’t really matter. It will depend on the user. Personally, my favourite mode is a pseudo home/tabletop hybrid. I plonk it on the table next to me, lie back on the couch, and use either the grip or Pro Controller to play, while monitoring something on TV. The beauty of it is that everything synchronises so seamlessly. All controllers are immediately recognised and it’s just a matter of activating your preferred mode once turning the system on. Nintendo have done a stellar job with it that sense. The next test is the games. That is something that will require waiting until the end of the year before a proper evaluation.

Nintendo Switch Presentation – Hits and Misses

Warrior’s Video Games of 2016 & Nintendo Switch Preview

Star Wars: The Last Jedi – who is the last Jedi?

24 January 2017

The Last Jedi, that’s the title of Episode 8, the next movie in the Star Wars saga, so let the speculation begin. The title has such a finality to it that I couldn’t immediately rationalise it as relating to the latest trilogy, so thoughts were of a new stand-alone movie or TV series. No, it will follow from 2015’s Episode 7: The Force Awakens.

Star Wars: Episode 8: The Last Jedi

If it’s about the last Jedi, who could that last Jedi be? Given the events of The Force Awakens, that would be Rey, which means Luke Skywalker dies. Hooray! Wait, forgive me for lapsing into the moment of “the first transport is away” during Empire Strikes Back when the Rebels evacuated Hoth and I yelled “hooray” at the cinema during the re-release of the original trilogy. Anyway, Luke dying is all too easy, so we must explore further. Time to harness the force.

Rey is not a Jedi yet, and if she becomes one, why would she be the last? Even if she couldn’t discover anyone else powerful with the Force, she could easily spit out some quadruplets with the help of the midi-chlorians. The last Jedi is Luke! He needs a dignified ending, so Episode 8 will mostly be about him. After Luke trains and mentors Rey, he will retire to his remote mountain as Rey goes to save the galaxy. While the force will be with her, she’ll start her own movement. The Jedi become extinct.

To support this theory, note that the Sith are already extinct. In place now is the First Order, and the threat to them is a new force – a force that will become more powerful than you could possibly imagine. Second, The Force Awakens was much a retelling of the very first Star Wars movie, A New Hope, so expect The Last Jedi to fill a similar role in the current trilogy as Empire Strikes Back did back in the original. The First Order will rebound, Luke is the new Yoda, and Rey becomes the sole hope of the Resistance.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – The Complete Review

Star Wars: The Force Awakens – Review (No Spoilers)

Ranking the Star Wars Movies – Episodes 1 to 6