So I finally got to go to Australia and use those weird slanty bits on my international power adaptors. I also met and ate kangaroo - not the same actual individual, but still. That photo above is taken within shouting distance of the Australian Parliament in Canberra, by the way.

Lovely country, even in the depths of winter. What was truly amazing to me was the contrast between the depths of geological time on show, and how short the human history is.

Let me qualify that statement a little. I live in the heart of Europe, where the landscape has been shaped very actively and extensively by human activity over thousands of years. My hometown was founded 2200 years ago - no typo, that's two thousand two hundred years ago. Actually the date of foundation was 218 BC. Of course the place was inhabited for ages before then, but that is the date of founding of the current town, with the Roman street layout still clearly visible today.

This is to say that I am not discounting Aboriginal cultures, or the terrible impact that European colonisation has had on them. However, the cities are very recent overlays on a landscape that had remained relatively untouched until then. Canberra, as seen in the photo above, makes that very obvious, with huge stretches of primal bush right in the centre of the city. Sydney too makes a great deal of its Big Dig, where they are digging up remains… from the late 18th century. By my hometown's standards, that's yesterday. Much of the housing stock in the centre of town is older than that!

This is why I love travel: experiencing such a different perspective. America is kind of the same, to the point that there is a saying that "in America, a hundred years is a long time; in Europe, a hundred miles is a long way". This kind of builds on my point from yesterday.

People, including many Italians, bemoan the lack of infrastructure around here. The problem is that as soon as you sink a shovel in the ground, you hit a priceless historical artefact. Then you have to spend months digging it out with toothbrushes and tweezers, and then you get to shovel a few more loads before there is another clunk and everything has to stop again. I shudder to think of how many times things have just been quickly reburied so as not to delay work... Here's an example from my home town: this monstrosity was built over the city amphitheatre, and it looks like the replacement will still not allow the ruins to be visited.

This is very much like what happens in established corporations. You can't just sink a shaft or dig a trench, because there are very good chances you will interfere with something that's already there. You also wind up with your brand new shiny thing still relying on thousand-year-old culverts for its drainage. You have to allow for all of these things when you plan what you want to build next.

If you have the advantage of building on an empty plain, it is much easier just to go build whatever it is1 without having to worry about the layers of things that people already built on top of other things that were already in that spot. Startup companies have the advantage that young cities have, of being able to go out with measuring tools and a clean sheet of paper and draw up an ideal system. Those of us with a bit more history have to make messy compromises with our past choices.

Update: Here is the trip report
on my work blog.

  1. Yes, I am papering over the issue of people who might have been roaming that plain before you arrived. The map is not the territory, and the analogy is imperfect.