Review: Inside Central Station

This post was originally written in November 2021 for Hemispheric News; subscribe at the Patreon site One Prime Plus to receive this monthly newsletter and other benefits that are linked to the Hemispheric Views podcast.

In my previous role, I travelled to Sydney from Monday to Friday; this is hardly uncommon for someone who lives in Wollongong, as many more job opportunities are available up the road. The trip by car from my home to Sydney CBD is approximately one hour and 40 minutes, however at peak hour and particularly if you involve a train, this can blow out to over two hours. Once you add the return trip, this is up to four hours of travel per day.

At first, I travelled the whole way by rail, driving only to the local station to catch a service on the T4 (Illawarra) line, arriving at my final stop of Wynyard Station. Although the winding trip between our escarpment and the Tasman Sea is gorgeous before continuing on to Sydney, I found this overall to be a maddening, exhausting experience. As time went on, I optimised my commute by driving 40 minutes to then walk and catch a train at Sutherland Station in South Sydney, which shook things up a bit and made whole the trip shorter; still, I depended on the Sydney Trains network to go the rest of the way, as driving to and parking in the city every day is ridiculously expensive. Trains were always packed and uncomfortable, delays were frequent and railway stations became disgustingly hot and overcrowded (indoors and outdoors) during the warmer months. I have numerous awkward stories and memories from my train trips, including interactions with (somewhat friendly) drug addicts, lecturing someone who was drinking alcohol in a vestibule, telling off people who ran through closing doors, witnessing displays of projectile urination and observing the creative placement of earwax when the offender thought no one was watching.

In the time that I commuted to Sydney, I often looked at the people who worked for Sydney Trains and the broader NSW network and wondered: Why would you want to do this job? All that I saw were packed platforms and frustrated customers; it seemed odd that someone would willingly enter this environment.

After watching the new show Inside Central Station on Australia’s SBS On Demand service, I have a new appreciation for Sydney Trains and the people and technology that keep the network running. The show is a documentary series with episodes of around 45 minutes in duration, with each instalment focusing on a certain theme, collection of people or major event that has an effect on the network—all the while displaying the ongoing of interaction of staff and customers during the COVID-19 pandemic. As suggested by the name, Sydney’s Central Station is the focal point, however the show includes a range of other stations and sites, such as maintenance facilities, underground tunnels and the Rail Operations Centre that oversees the entire network—lovingly known as the ‘ROC’.

Narrated by Shane Jacobsen, who is known widely for playing the lead role in the Australian comedy film Kenny, the structure of the show cleverly weaves in and out of stories, which leaves you wanting to see the resolution of each one without feeling impatient.

Two highlights of the series include the first episode’s unbelievable insight into the replacement of all the ageing rails and sleepers along the entire Sydney Harbour Bridge, and seeing the effects of 300 millimetres of rain in 48 hours on public transport across the state. You also catch a glimpse of various places and people whom you would never notice, such as rail incident commanders who attend all manner of crime scenes with police, engineers resolving derailments, a historian who looks after the network’s expansive collection of clocks and a night-shift service attendant who kindly mops up drunken passengers’ vomit with a special powder mixture, all the while maintaining the smile on his face and greeting visitors on his platform. I find it unacceptable that he should have to do that, but I admire his dedication and perseverance.

While I was grateful for and respected the work of people in the network, I was often guilty of frustration and impatience when commuting. (You can be sure that I fired an angry tweet or two at their accounts whenever there weren’t enough carriages for what was known to be a busy service—of course, they even introduce the network’s social media person, so I feel bad about that now!) Inside Central Station, however, has heightened my appreciation for this form of public transport and the people who keep it running. The show is well-made and engaging, striking an enjoyable balance between genuine information and human-interest stories, even if certain introductions become repetitive or tedious in the episodic format, to facilitate drop-in-drop-out viewing.

Perhaps I’m biased as a resident of New South Wales and a once regular customer of Sydney Trains, but I think the value here for everyone is this: take a step back and look at something that is a part of your everyday life—whether transport or a place that you visit or depend upon—and think about the unseen effort that goes into making it work for the relatively brief time that you’re present with it.

You can find Inside Central Station here on SBS on Demand.

Review: A Score Resurrected

This post was originally written in October 2021 for Hemispheric News; subscribe at the Patreon site One Prime Plus to receive this monthly newsletter and other benefits that are linked to the Hemispheric Views podcast.

It’s funny how quickly you fall into certain roles or personas when you co-host a podcast. Since starting Hemispheric Views with Andrew and Jason—now a year ago!—we’re certainly recognised for different things by our listeners and friends online. Andrew ‘The Business’ Canion knows a lot about spreadsheets, air conditioning and Toyota’s famous lean manufacturing; Jason loves games, recommends anime and genuinely networks and maintains the tech in his home more comprehensively and reliably than a multinational corporation does for its own offices.

I’ve come to realise that on this podcast, I’ve become known for being:

  • the ‘Feld Foot’ — a somewhat dictatorial orchestrator who prefers predictability and rules, but pretends that he doesn’t;
  • ‘Mr. Default’ — someone who, apart from using Tot, iA Writer and occasionally SwitchGlass, prefers to stick with default apps; and
  • the iPod guy — an old man who walks around with an old iPod Video and spends too much time talking about music and its nostalgic importance.

It’s on this third point that I’m going to concentrate in this edition of Hemispheric News. Although I’m not a musician, I think and talk about music a lot. I love a variety of music, but quite often I listen to a lot of instrumental albums as a way to really escape—especially soundtracks. My favourite soundtrack of all time would have to be The Matrix (Original Motion Picture Score) (1999) by Don Davis. The Matrix is my absolute favourite movie and I talk about it way too much, so it makes sense that it would also be my favourite soundtrack.

Image credit: Don Davis and Varèse Sarabande

One of the most thoughtful things that I’ve ever received as a gift was tickets from Natasha to see The Matrix in the Concert Hall at the Sydney Opera House, with the soundtrack played live (in sync) with the film by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. I’ve been to classical concerts and other such shows but my goodness, that was unbeatable.

The orchestra files in to prepare for the show back in 2014.

I’m so nuts about that movie and its soundtrack (along with the other two films) that I c/an generally picture (fairly precisely) what is happening at various points in the story according to different parts of the music. Back in episode four of my Lounge Ruminator podcast, titled Immediate Recognition, I spoke about how our old neighbours once watched The Matrix with the volume up so loud that I stood up and performed the motion of the scene in front of Natasha in our lounge room, roughly in sync with what I could hear. (For your interest, it was the final scene with an orchestral track, titled Anything Is Possible).

You can imagine my excitement when I heard that The Matrix Resurrections (the fourth movie in the franchise) would be released this year. Well, concentrating on soundtracks, you can imagine my extra excitement when I learnt very recently that a new version of the original motion picture score was released this year: The Matrix (The Complete Score).

You see, for whatever reason, the original score that was released in 1999 has ten tracks, running for a total of 30 minutes. Every time that I’ve listened to it, I’ve loved it but thought, I know that there’s a lot of the film that doesn’t have music, or there are parts that have music that isn’t orchestral, but I can sure think of a lot of musical segments that weren’t included in this score on the album. I was correct: this ‘complete score’ that they’ve released has 44 tracks, which run for a total of one hour and 40 minutes! (This is even longer than a 78-minute version with limited release in 2008.)

Whereas the original score from 1999 felt like a wonderful collection of film music, this feels like you’re essentially watching (most of) the movie, albeit in your head. Some are long, some are short and some parts have been renamed but boy, is it altogether excellent. With a few tracks only lasting a minute, I can understand why they perhaps thought it wasn’t worth releasing it all; there is a pleasure in this though, as it feels like a blending of digital fragments among longer sequences and stories.

Favourites such as the persistently named Ontological Shock remain in the list, capturing the excitement of Neo, Trinity and Morpheus flying in a helicopter over the rooftops of Sydney CBD away from Agents Brown, Smith and Jones. Other newer inclusions, such as Ignorance Is Bliss / Cypher Cybernetic, offer beautiful but unsettling moments of juxtaposition with the album’s otherwise frenetic, atonal style, such as when Cypher meets with Agent Smith over a piece of virtual steak. By including more tracks, no matter how long or short, the movie is expressed fully in its aural form, allowing us to imagine its action purely in our heads, in a way that is reminiscent of the characters’ mental projection of their own world.

I know that I’m not the only one who loves The Matrix and its music, and I know that there are others out there who enjoy other great soundtracks. Turning to you, what is a movie soundtrack that has had a profound impact on you? Is there a soundtrack that fills your head with images of the film to which it belongs, or even carries connotations or brings images of faraway people and places? Let us know on Twitter @HemisphericPod, on Micro.blog @HemisphericViews or in the #mediacorner chat in our Discord group. I’d sure love to hear about it!

Satisfactions

This post was originally written in September 2021 for Hemispheric News; subscribe at the Patreon site One Prime Plus to receive this monthly newsletter and other benefits that are linked to the Hemispheric Views podcast.

Even if you’re not into media studies like I am, you might have heard of someone by the name of Marshall McLuhan. If you haven’t, then at the very least you may be familiar with some of the famous aphorisms and terms that he coined as a media scholar, such as the medium is the message and global village.

During the 1960s and 70s, Marshall McLuhan was an unusual kind of academic, in the sense that he didn’t really follow the academic tradition. He was (in)famous for it. Rather than keeping information within the institution, he made a point of talking directly to the public, sharing myriad ideas that enthralled audiences about media as environments and the effects of technology (or the ‘electric age’, as he called it) on society. He avoided making conclusions or holding convictions. Instead, he emphasised the importance of exploring, probing and being open and willing to change your mind.

Appearing on television and radio around the world, he was, in essence, a kind of academic rock star, the likes of which had never been seen before. It’s hard even to name a contemporary equivalent.

McLuhan died before the advent of the personal computer, and while some of his ideas have become outdated, most of them remain very relevant and some even seem prescient.

Recently, one such prescient idea came up in The Massage podcast by the McLuhan Institute, which is run by his grandson, Andrew McLuhan. The episode, titled ‘Marshall McLuhan on Environments and Advertisements with Barbara Walters (1966)’, featured an excerpt of Marshall McLuhan’s appearance on the Today Show with Barbara Walters and Hugh Downs. Around the beginning of the conversation, McLuhan makes this statement:

Advertising is really part of the information service industries and increasingly, the ad becomes a substitute for the product. … All the satisfactions now come from the ads, not the products.

At the time, this seemed odd to Walters and Downs: how could the ad be the product when it’s attempting to sell you the product? Ask most people today what they think about this and they will probably answer in a similar way to people from the 1960s: ‘Well, I don’t really care about the chocolate ad… I just want to buy and eat the chocolate’. Satisfaction comes from the taste of the chocolate, not the ad!

The thing is, McLuhan was actually right and it has only become a more obvious and powerful idea as we have pushed further and further into the age of digital information.

Perhaps the perfect example is the Apple keynote, along with all similar tech presentations that have copied its format. The keynote, like the many smaller product ads on TV and the Web, is a vehicle for making you enthusiastic about buying into new hardware, software and services, albeit extended. Increasingly, however, it has become an event and product in itself.

Last year, following Apple’s first-ever virtual WWDC, I wrote a piece on Lounge Ruminator that featured McLuhan’s tetrad for understanding media and their effects. The tetrad is a diagrammatic tool that asks you to think about what any given medium or technology enhancesretrievesobsolesces and reverses into as it enters an already mediated environment. Whether you’re thinking of a table, an audiobook, an iPhone or a fighter jet, you can apply the tetrad to to it. While I appreciated and traced the changes that came with a virtual (rather than live) presentation, what I had not considered until now is that the keynote is an Apple product, much like its hardware devices, apps and services.

The keynote, which is an advertisement, is advertised itself. Look at the website and you’ll see that following an announcement, the next big one is generally there, alongside priced products. People share the same enthusiasm for the keynote that they do for the products that follow the event. Bloggers, podcasters and news journalists pour over and review the experience, scripting and production value of the keynote and compare and contrast it with those of earlier years. These are product features. Furthermore, they are kept for on-demand entertainment in an archive, to be browsed and enjoyed as one would flick through a catalogue.

The second key point that McLuhan raises in the excerpt on the podcast, which brings all of this home, is the following:

The ones who read and pay attention to the ads are the ones who already own the products.

If we are already convinced of the quality of branded devices and therefore have chosen to buy and own them, then why do we anticipate and enjoy keynotes?

The answer: we unknowingly accept and use these advertisements as products and extensions of the branded ecosystem.

I love to watch Apple keynotes and generally, when I finish watching them, I feel positive and excited about what is on the horizon. Still, it’s important to remain critical, whether about product features, implications for user behaviour and privacy or potential effects on the natural environment.

As tech fans who happily watch these extended ads, which are just products that link to yet more to-be-released products, what does that say about us as consumers? Have we decided that we’re going to buy something before we even see or know what it is?

If the keynote is a product, then yes, we have already bought it.