On top of the bottom of the world

Sunday, September 30, 2018

There is a lot to say about Australia and I thoroughly enjoyed my time there. It turns out I’ve got a bit of a network of Aussie friends, many of whom are surprisingly willing to house me in their spare rooms or buy me dinner or chauffeur me around the country for days on end, which is both humbling and excellent. Now that I think about it, I guess I also may have a gang like that in Athens, and in New York City and probably in a few other places I can’t think of right now. This is one of the many fringe benefits of doing the kind of work I do. You end up with a widely scattered network of people you’ve been through the wars with who will almost always be happy to stand you a few drinks and give you a place to lay your head.

There's lots to say about Australia but for today we will concentrate on an iconic symbol of Sydney in particular and Australia in general, and one which Astute Go Stay Work Play Live Readers will be supremely unsurprised to learn captured my attention quite thoroughly: the Sydney Harbour Bridge!

Here it is in twilight, as seen from the very charming Opera Bar, just across Circular Quay at the foot of the equally iconic Sydney Opera House.

There’s now a fairly extensive back-catalogue of bridge blogs, so truly devoted fans should have a troll through the archives for fond remembrances of the Golden Gate, Tower Bridge, the Rolling Bridge, Iron Bridge and the Clifton Suspension Bridge. Ah, bridges. It’s no secret I’m fond of a bit of mechanical or sturctural engineering in general, but bridges in particular are a firm favourite. In buildings and tunnels the engineering is there but it’s mostly hidden. Bridges are where engineers get to show off. It’s like they're shouting, “Look what we can make because we know how stuff works!”

(Standby for mandatory bridge backstory, because I actually bought a book!)

European settlement of Australia started with the arrival of the First Fleet at Sydney Cove on January 26, 1788, and by the time the last convict ship docked in 1840, Sydney was a thriving community on both the north and south sides of the harbour. The more the city grew, the more inconvenient the 50km trip around the harbour, or across by ferry, became. There were many proposals to link Sydney’s two halves, including a pontoon bridge, tram tunnel and even a earthwork causeway. In 1900 the New South Wales government formally advertised for tenders for the design and construction of a bridge but that project was scrapped after a change in government, despite having attracted twelve submissions over two rounds of tenders. It wasn’t until 1922 that legislation was finally passed to enable construction.

In the interim, an Australian engineer named John Bradfield was named Chief Engineer Metropolitan Railway Construction and Sydney Harbour Bridge. Bradfield spent several years traveling the world studying underground railways and long span bridges at the request of the New South Wales government. (It's like we’re we’re soulmates, Bradfield and I, except the government of New South Wales does not pay me to travel the world blogging about tunnels and bridges. I pay for that myself. However, any and all donations are gratefully accepted.) Bradfield's initial inclinations were towards a cantilever bridge design, but during his travels, he visited the gorgeously arched Hell’s Gate Bridge in New York, and the twice-failed cantilever bridge in Quebec and at the last minute allowed submission of arched bridge designs - mostly, I suspect, because he calculated it would cost £400,000 less.

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Tender C1 and C2 are cantilever bridges. The rest are through-arch designs. So-named because the roadway goes through the arch as opposed to passing over it (like this other famous arch bridge).

Whatever the reason, the proposal that eventually won out was the now-iconic design from Dorman Long & Co. from Middlesborough in the UK. Construction began in 1923 and the bridge was finally opened to traffic in 1932. Being an arch, the whole enormous load of the bridge itself (the arch alone weighs 39,00 tons) is supported where the bottoms of the arch rest on giant main bearings on the north and south shores. Each bearing is actually a huge hinge that allows for the expansion and contraction of the arch’s steelwork - in high temperatures the overall height can increase by as much as 180mm. Also, the arch itself was cleverly constructed with no supporting falsework underneath! Moving creeper cranes assembled the sections of the arch ahead of themselves, advancing as each was completed. The whole business was prevented from collapsing into the harbour by 128 heavy restraint cables on each side, which were anchored in tunnels in the sandstone.

Under Construction
Once each side of the arch was complete the cables were gradually loosened over the course of three and a half weeks before the two sides eventually met. And you notice how the granite pylon towers at the ends of the bridge aren’t there yet? That’s because they have no structural purpose - they’re simply to give better visual balance to the bridge. Bradfield was apparently fond of quoting John Ruskin on that score: “Life without industry is guilt, and industry without art is brutality.”

But enough of bridge history - even though I could go on for at least three more posts about the bridge and its construction and the 6,000,000 steel rivets that hold it together, and how I find it disturbing that the top chord of the arch doesn’t appear to anchor into anything very much. (Which prompted a short conversation and series of back-of-the-cocktail napkin sketches while sitting at the aforementioned Opera Bar and almost culminated in an email to one of the two different structural engineers I met on this gig, until Nick and I decided we’d pretty much figured it out.) Nope, no more about the history and engineering of the bridge - let’s get on with my up close and personal encounters with the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

First, I got driven across the bridge, and as a pedestrian I visited the southeast pylon, which now houses a nice little museum and gives you access to the lookout platform at the top of the tower for some pretty impressive views of the harbour.

Mmmm… steel trusses!

Yes, the pylon lookout is a pretty good way to appreciate the harbour and the bridge.

But wait, there’s more! It’s also possible to experience the Sydney Harbour Bridge in a particular and unique way: by climbing right over the top! BridgeClimb has been operating since 1998 and allows visitors to climb up through the structure of the bridge and walk along the top of the arch, right to the highest point. This activity was recommended to me by two (very) different people, so despite the hefty price ($303 Australian for the standard three hour experience!) I decided this was a chance not to be missed.

The BridgeClimb did not disappoint. It was a three-hour experience that I prepared for with a proper Aussie breakfast of smashed avocado and poached egg on toast and a flat white (If you think Hackney is a hotbed of smashed avocado on toast, think again. They can’t even hold Sydney’s coat in that department. It’s inescapable. I’m pretty sure if I’d gone to McDonald’s I could have ordered a McAvoSmash.) Unsurprisingly, there’s a fairly extensive health and safety briefing when you first arrive. This is reassuring, since the summit of the bridge is 134m above sea level and takes you over eight active lanes of traffic and a couple of working rail lines. The potential for mayhem is, shall we say, significant.

Everyone in my group of seven was assigned a fetching grey and blue jumpsuit. The colours are designed to blend in with the bridge and be less distracting to motorists, but I predict they will not be appearing on a fashion runway near you anytime soon. We were also instructed to leave everything in pockets behind: no loose change, no mobile phones, no watches, no cameras. Sunglasses were allowed, but they were tethered to the jumpsuits. We were also assigned a waist harness safety belt with a sliding tether line, a fleece jacket in case it got cold, a handkerchief, a yours-to-keep-just-for-playing Sydney Bridge Climb baseball cap, and a radio headset to be able to hear our guide, whose name might have been Brian.

Brian (or was it Brad?) ran us through a sort of BridgeClimb simulator set of stairs, ladders and catwalks that demonstrated how the continuous safety line worked. (I suspect I was the only one in the group who found the rigging of the safety system just a bit fascinating.) Then we were off to clip in and walk along underside of the roadway and up through the southeast pylon before climbing over the arch itself. Even though the elevation gain was large, it was a comfortable climb. We walked over the actual upper chord of the arch, on catwalks laid on top of the steelwork so the incline was fairly gentle. Brian (possibly Bruce) stopped at key points and chatted to us in the way of experienced tour guides - knowledgeable, peppered with well-worn jokes, slightly world-weary, but still charming. He knew a lot about the bridge, and graciously tolerated my unusual fascination with the stainless steel brackets and anchor system for the continuous safety line that runs throughout the catwalk system.

I said no cameras or phones were allowed, but Brian (Brent?) had a special (tethered) camera and we stopped at several points along the way for photo ops. Naturally, BridgeClimb were happy to take more of my money to have a couple of photos provided at the end of the experience, which is why I can show you this:

Bridge Climb Group
Everyone got this cheesy group photo.

Bridge Climb Top
And here’s me near the top, with Circular Quay and the Opera House in the background. (Can I also add that this photo in the flattering grey jumpsuit makes it look like I’ve eaten at lot more than my fair share of smashed avocado but really it’s just that the jumpsuit was roomy and the wind was at my back. I promise I didn't actually come home from Indonesian looking like the Michelin Man.)

We finally made it to the very top, where there is a very very small platform that occasionally hosts special events like weddings or tiny expensive parties or those annoying segments on local television morning shows.

Bridge Climb Flag
One more photo at the summit before the climb down.

By the time it was all over three hours had elapsed, which coincided neatly with the arrival at a nearby pub of my two hosts for a well-deserved beer and lunch. The Australian Heritage Hotel is another Sydney icon, where I was able to sample the famous Coat of Arms pizza - featuring emu meat on one half and kangaroo meat on the other! This allows me to segue neatly into this fun but utterly unsupported fact I heard somewhere: Australians are the only people that eat both the animals on their coat of arms. Also, it's popularly believed that the reason the kangaroo and the emu are featured on the coat of arms is because neither animal can go backwards, which is supposed to be a metaphor for something noble, though of course if a kangaroo or an emu wants to retreat from something clearly all they need to do is turn around and run away like everything else on the planet.

Good pizza. Though as with most exotic meat, it didn’t really have a distinctive flavour. I am, however, happy to say it didn’t really taste like chicken.

I was feeling pretty smug about my Australia experience by this point - climbed iconic bridge, ate iconic animals, had a nice beer - tick, tick, tick. That was to become the theme for my visit, as you’ll learn in weeks to come. So stay tuned for more kangaroos and associated odd animals, more engineering, more smashed avocado, a surfeit of ridiculously beautiful beaches, and an evening that turned out to be so quintessentially Australian it may as well have been scripted. Advance, Australia Fair!

One app to rule them all

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Hey, it’s been a while! Almost four months, I guess. I’ll admit I didn’t plan to pack in the blogging quite as early as I did on this job but sometimes life gets away from you. For those of you who need a reminder I was in Jakarta, Indonesia for six months working on the Opening and Closing Ceremonies for the Asian Games. In the end it all went pretty well. Opening especially was a triumph, despite a few hiccups backstage that were exhilarating/terrifying at the time and now make for great stories to dine out on. The next time I see you, buy me a beer and I’ll tell you about the Oman flag. Oh, and the torches… you gotta hear about the torches. (For the truly dedicated and Astute Go Stay Work Play Live Reader, here's the official ceremony video, complete with loud and incessant commentary in Bahasa.)

And now it’s all over again. Every prop has been photographed and catalogued and swathed in bubblewrap. The Parties have been had. The farewell dinners have been eaten.

The Props Tent that was once so packed with rolling carts of miscellaneous objects it was difficult to move around looked like this when I finally handed back the keys.

We’re finished a bit earlier than expected so I had a couple days to shop for souvenirs and sort through my apartment and pack before going for two weeks of vacation in Sydney, Australia! I’m actually there now, comfortably ensconced in the central Sydney guest room of a couple of welcoming and generous friends. This is super exciting and I’m enjoying it very much. Now though, with Indonesia fading in the rear view mirror, there’s one thing I’ve just got to tell you about before putting Indonesia to bed, blog-ically speaking: the magic of Go-Jek.

In Indonesia, “ojek” is the word for a motorcycle taxi. It’s a simple concept: you hop on behind a guy on a motorcycle and, for a small fee, he takes you where you’re going. Go-Jek is the 21st century app-based upgrade to the traditional ojek experience and it is simply brilliant. At its heart, Go-Jek is an easy way to order a motorcycle taxi without having to haggle about price or explain where you’re going. It’s the Indonesian equivalent of Uber - a simple but effective ride hailing service. It started in 2010 with 20 drivers and now has more than one million. That’s one million DRIVERS. Not one million users. One million Go-Jek drivers.

Go Jek Driver
The drivers all wear this iconic green jacket, and they all carry a spare green helmet for the passenger.

Getting around by Go-Jek is much much faster than taking a taxi in Jakarta traffic. Motorcycles can weave in and out of the lanes of jammed traffic saving a lot of time. It’s also incredibly cheap. Even a proper taxi is cheap - usually the fare from hotel to stadium was about 20,000 rupiah, roughly £1. For the same ride on a Go-Jek I think you’d pay around 8,000. 40 pence. Sure, you end up breathing in a lot more toxic exhaust fumes than if you were in a car (or probably if you were walking along the sidewalk, if there actually was a sidewalk). And of course even in a more docile environment, motorcycles are just generally dangerous, let alone riding pillion on a motorcycle in the overcrowded and somewhat haphazard nature of vehicular traffic in Jakarta.

There’s also almost always a problem with actually finding your Go-jek once they arrive to pick you up. As with Uber, the app shows you a little map with your location and the location of your driver, which should, in theory, make it simple and easy to find your guy. In reality, both positions on the map are a bit approximate, which usually results in some frustrated wandering around and very often a phone call from the driver in which he’ll speak at length in Bahasa trying to explain where he is, which is irritating and unhelpful. The few times I used a Go-Jek I often had to simply hand my phone to a local colleague, or a security guard at the hotel so that they could explain what was happening, which almost always involved the word “bule” (BOO-lay, meaning Western foreigner.) Nonetheless once you actually connect with your driver, Go-Jek is a handy way of getting around, especially for short trips.

But the brilliance of Go-Jek doesn’t stop there. Oh no. You can also get a Go-Car, which is exactly what it sounds like. You can now even order a Bluebird Taxi - a car from a rival company - through the Go-Jek app. But wait, what if you don’t want to move yourself, but an object? No problem! Go-Jek has you covered. It it’s a small item, you can have it delivered by a Go-Jek driver acting as a courier using Go-Send, also through the app. And what if you need to move a couch? Or a dining room table? Or, say, three truckloads of rehearsal props? (Or is that just me?) Go-Jek has you covered. Simply order a Go-Box, in one of 4 convenient sizes.

In practice, you rarely see a liveried Go-Box truck. Usually they’re pretty beaten-up and generic, open topped flatbeds with high sides. But useful. Very, very useful.

But wait… there’s more! Go-Send has a natural and very useful cousin - Go-Food! Like other food-delivery apps out there, you get a choice of restaurants, order what you want on the app, and it comes. However, where Go-Jek differs is in how the orders are placed and processed. With Deliveroo, Uber Eats and other Western-based apps like that, the order gets sent directly to the restaurant. Not so with Go-Jek. Here’s what happened when, one exceptionally lazy morning, I ordered two coffees and two almond croissants from a nearby Starbucks, using Go-Food:

1. The order was placed in the app and assigned to a driver.
2. The driver physically went to the Starbucks I chose and placed the order at the counter.
3. The driver paid for the order out of his own pocket.
4. The driver waited at the Starbucks while the order was being filled.
5. When the order was filled he brought the coffee and croissants to the office.

Embarrassingly, the Starbucks in question was approximately a 4 minute walk away. But, you know, it was like TWENTY FOUR FLOORS down from the office and then ALL THE WAY TO THE MALL and then TWENTY FOUR FLOORS back up. I didn't have time for that! We had a ceremony to put on!

It’s not unusual to see Go-Jek drivers in their iconic green jackets hanging around at restaurants waiting for orders. Sometimes there are a few at the same place, and some restaurants even designate a place for them to wait. And in the end, it probably would have been quicker to walk to Starbucks and back because when using Go-Food - like when trying to find your Go-Jek motorcycle - there’s almost always a series of texts or phonecalls with the driver, though in this case it’s partly because he wants to make sure you’re the real deal before he forks out his own money for your Grande Vanilla Sweet Cream Iced Latte. However, this too can be mitigated through another Go-Jek service: Go-Pay!

Go-Pay is a digital payment system that you top up (with your Indonesian bank card) and use for any Go-Jek service, meaning payment for your Go-Food order is guaranteed and the poor driver isn't taking on any risk by paying for your lunch. You can can also top up by giving cash to a Go-Jek driver who’ll credit your account. Importantly, you can also transfer Go-Pay credit to other app users so it’s become a kind of default e-wallet for a lot of people. This means that if you’re a bule without an Indonesian bank account but with local staff you can give cash to one of your local kids and they do something with their phones and then you have Go-Pay credit. (This system also works when you need mobile phone credit!) (Or you can use Go-Pay to get mobile phone credit using Go-Pulsa. Of course.)

What else can you do with the Go-Jek app? Well, you can get your grocery shopping delivered through Go-Mart, or buy other items through Go-Shop. Pay your bills through Go-Bills, get tickets for events from Go-Tix, or get medicine delivered by Go-Med. Get you car washed or maintained with Go-Auto and your home cleaned with Go-Clean.

App Choices
All in one app

And then kick back with a relaxing Go-Massage in the comfort of your home. And have your hair and nails done at the same time by Go-Glam. I’m not kidding. Those are all real things. With Go-Glam someone shows up with a kit of tools (probably having arrived on a Go-Jek) and gives you a manicure in your own home.

As you might imagine, this whole Go-Jek universe was a remarkable discovery for me. It’s also completely infiltrated life in Jakarta. I’m truly not sure how we’d have managed those ceremonies without it. On other gigs I’ve had a full-time driver/runner with a van. No need for that in Jakarta when you can just Go-Send or Go-Box something. And I can’t count how often I called out from my desk to one of my lovely local staff and said something like, “Misha! We need another 1,000 tiny cable ties! Can you do that thing with your phone and make there be cable ties?” And then an hour or two later cable ties would appear (or tape or charcoal or fishing reels or turpentine or tubes of acrylic paint or wood chips or… whatever) and Misha would screenshot the receipts and WhatsApp it to me and I would give him pettycash to cover the cost and we’d get on with things. It’s very easy to become totally dependent on the Go-Jek universe, and it’s hard to overstate how thoroughly it seems to have become part of life.

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You can even buy a genuine Go-Jek driver's jacket online and have it delivered by a Go-Jek driver, which is, as the kids say, totally meta. This is Nathan modelling his Go-Jek jacket and Anne showing off her much rarer Ok-Jek jacket. (Ok-Jek is a sit-com on Indonesian TV about the lives of online motorcycle taxi drivers and staff in the fictional Ok-Jek office. You need connections to get one of those!)

As usual, there's a lot more I could tell you about life in Jakarta. Like batik -  there's so much to say about that ancient and beautiful art form - like how every Friday is Batik Friday! Just like Casual Friday in offices in the West, but in Indonesia you wear a batik shirt on Fridays. And like about how when you get served in a traditional Indonesian restaurant you get a fork and a spoon but no knife. And why, the whole time I was in Indonesia did I never find a pencil harder than 2B? And why, in a city where the temperature is normally 33 degrees and humid, did the mall next door have two stores selling down-filled winter jackets? And what is the fascination with "salted egg (yolk)" flavour? And why does everyone walk so slowly? And why are there A&Ws in Jakarta, but if you go there you can't actually get onion rings or a Teen Burger but you can get a fried egg (salted I'm sure) on top of your side of steamed rice?

Yes, there's a lot to say about Indonesia but frankly, I'm pretty much done. It was a long and difficult six months and Jakarta is a hard place to live. The climate, the traffic, the pollution and the chaotic, jumbled and haphazard streets made it a place to be endured rather than enjoyed. That city is tough and I'm ready to be home on my little boat, but not without telling you a few of the amazing things I've been up to here in Sydney, which is many of the things Jakarta is not: clean, open, ordered, temperate, walkable and beautiful.

Then again, the city may not be easy, but the people were amazing.

The Team
For now I'll just be grateful to these lovely people for getting us through some very long days and for smiling the whole time. Thank you Props People!