Yesyesyesyesyes - The Boat People
Russell Degnan

Buying albums on the basis of one song is always a dicey business. For every Mylo there is an Oleander [1]. But Unsettle My Heart is, without question, one of the best songs of last year. More dandy than the Dandy Warhols, nice guitar riff, superb chorus, synths and a running length of 2:42. This is what a pop song should sound like.

The rest of the album is not at all like that. Boat People are, for the most part, more like Augie March, except more upbeat, or Rhubarb, but more complex. The only other song that really nails it as a single is Tell Someone Who Cares. Otherwise it is a mix of cool melodies and a lot of randomness, that is good at times, and I'm not quite sure what at others. If the Boat People wanted to, they could probably create the best pop album Australia has ever produced; the good stuff is that good. But this album has too many witty interludes, clever bridges, and discordant syncopation to be that. An excellent album, but too intelligent -- or possibly too impressed by itself -- to be great.

[1] who? exactly!

Track Highlights
Unsettle My Heart - I wasn't kidding. This is an incredible song. That it didn't even make the hottest 100 is a national disgrace.
Irony - A fast, haphazard, mix of guitar scales, synths and vocal melodies. Clever.
Tell Someone Who Cares - A good pop song with an excellent chorus. The odd bit towards the end doesn't really work, but no matter.
If We Hadn't Got Together - A slower song, not dissimilar to A Day in the Life, but less coherent.
Central Station - The song that seems to best pull together the different themes they are always bringing in. A complex mix of piano and guitar that works well.

Finer Things 27th February, 2006 23:55:25   [#] [1 comment] 

Monday Melbourne: CXI, February 2006
Russell Degnan

Tropfest patrons departing. St. Kilda Road. Taken February 2006

Melbourne Town 27th February, 2006 16:36:56   [#] [3 comments] 

Creative Cities, Creative Tourism
Russell Degnan

On the recommendation of BridgeGirl I went along to the Melbourne Conversations series yesterday, to hear four speakers discuss what makes cities creative. Or more specifically, to engage with the unwieldy and overly broad set of questions relating to creativity and the urban form.

How does the design and built form of a city impact upon its public life? What elements contribute to communities and promote cultural interactions. Is it possible to design for sustainability, in the broadest sense of sustainability, to support a creative city? What are the lessons from our heritage? What are the leading examples of innovation in architecture and design for modern cities?

Needless to say, given such a broad brief, each speaker became remarkably adept at turning the topic into to a discussion of their own recent research, and for one, their forthcoming book. Nevertheless, because I think it is an interesting question, and one I have (fairly badly) already attempted to answer; I think it is worthwhile disentangling the various statements from the talks and the mostly decent discussion that followed to try and find an answer.

The most interesting contribution, and one that I think makes the most sense in the context of what governments can or should do to encourage creativity came from Kate Shaw. She identified a contradiction between the way artists improve an area, and the gentrification that raises house prices and eventually forces poor artists to relocate elsewhere. The implication being that creative areas contain the seeds of their own destruction.

On one level this isn't a good argument. As Leon van Shaik pointed out, when house prices rise, the artists merely move to another spot, leaving behind a trail of gentrified neighbourhoods. Because house prices will always operate on a curve related to wealth and income, as long as sufficient housing exists, some of it will be low cost. The question is really whether some low cost housing is unsuitable for artists and the bohemian subset of society that supports them, and therefore, whether some urban design kills creativity.

Needless to say, the underlying context here is anti-suburban, propounded by a group of people devoted to dense, walkable communities propounding their views to a like-minded audience.

The most significant argument in favour of this view is cultural. For van Shaik, who opened his talk by saying that all cities are creative, good design creates a culture that responds, and expects good design. Poor design does the opposite. Thus, the predilection for good design in cities like Milan or Paris, is different to the gross indifference of say, the Gold Coast, or Canberra. For Melbourne, some parts are obviously well designed, and some not. But in a city of this size, and with so much contact with other cities throughout the world, and their own creative impulses, it seems highly unlikely that those influences can be completely killed. Transformed, certainly, but that transformation would be a good thing.

Following the argument of Richard Florida however -- an argument oft-mentioned, but neither properly explained nor refuted -- creativity is not just the artists and their endeavours, but the combination of creative economic start-ups, and other value-adding service providers that Marcus Spiller identified as the main drivers of economic growth. Historically, no really creative city has not also been undergoing extraordinary economic growth -- Athens, Venice, Florence, Amsterdam, London, New York -- and there is little evidence that artists are more important for a creative community than their (mostly young, well educated and high disposable income holding) consumers. Nor that the latter are less attracted to the cheap housing that attracts the artists. However, if cheap housing attracts both, the question becomes what aspects of cheap housing are important. Or rather, why a Carlton slum and not a Broadmeadows one?

Often this is ascribed to immigrants in the inner suburbs, and there is no question they brought great vitality and diversity to the culture of the inner city. But the main reason seems to be simple economics. After World War II, the housing shortage was so great that any sort-of house would do, and would still cost quite a bit. Immigrants being the least financial, they made-do in the suburbs of the inner city in cramped, unsanitary conditions. By the late 1960s, when home-ownership rates peaked and levelled off, this was no longer the case. At this point, housing was cheap enough for the owners of different housing stock to become, and to continue to become self-selecting: families move into the suburbs and young singles and poor artists move into the inner suburbs.

The difference between Broadmeadows and Carlton is space and access to cultural services. In the former you can have a large land-lot, perfect for a young family. In the latter, you have no land, but access to cultural services that for historical reasons, convenience, and by political preference, reside in the CBD and immediate surrounds.

The ability of governments to provide for creativity is limited, but the current focus for events, festivals and venues in the inner city raises house prices in that area, and makes it harder for new creative areas to emerge where housing is cheaper. However, because the housing in the inner city remains smaller than the suburbs, there will always be a tendency for creativity to reside in those houses, even when, as now, the people in that demographic are growing faster than housing to accommodate them.

In a sense then, this is a discussion, not about creative cities so much, but about a demographic, where they live, the type of city they create for themselves, and their size. The trend of the past few decades has been for this demographic to expand, and to create an interesting environment, somewhat regardless of what government does.

But none of that relates to urban design. Urban design itself cannot create a creative class, although it can inspire them, and it does afford different potentials. As I discussed here, Melbourne's laneway culture and relaxed atmosphere would be different with a differently laid out city and different building materials. Leon van Shaik noted the importance of local input to local architecture, the way stories interact with what is built, and the poor quality of buildings done by outsiders in cities like Barcelona. But if the creative class moved elsewhere in Melbourne, they would still be a creative class. They would (and already do) produce different things in a different style.

Passing Fancy 26th February, 2006 19:08:48   [#] [0 comments] 

Satellite Nights - Modern Giant
Russell Degnan

Modern Giant are one of the more interesting bands I've heard in a while. On some superficial level, and in the absence of a better comparsion, they are not dissimilar to The Magic Numbers or maybe the Dearhunters, if anyone but me ever listened to the Dearhunters. They are a band that could only come from Australia, in this case Sydney, combining catchy folk-pop with some hilarious spoken word lyrics from bassist Adam Gibson.

The spoken word is what makes them different, and what makes the album worth seeking out. Rambling, amusing, observations bands, relationships, and life in Sydney combine, generally, with a nice beat to talk to. It is hard to give a good impression of them, but perhaps a couple of samples will suffice. This verse from The Band's Broken Up is amusing:

But sometimes I got it right,
My mates would ring up and say, "ya bastard, ya lucky fuck".
"You're a bastard ya lucky fuck".
And I wanted to say "yeah right",
'Cause I felt that clear.
Because when the girls hadn't rung back by the following Wednesday,
I wanted to call my mates back and say
"You've got no idea"

Or these brilliant lyrics from the closing track Angie Hart:

Angie Hart, made me want to move to Melbourne.
Yeah, and fall in love and drink coffee,
And sit in cafes and drink beer,
And have a genuine use for the many beanies I've collected over the years.

There'd be a bag of hot chips in there somewhere.
Maybe an ice-cream,
But that might have been too cold, because it would always have been cold.
I would have gone to AFL matches,
I would have seen bands,
And I would have taken up,

Not that the tunes can be discounted. The singing doesn't always grab me, but the melodies are generally catchy, and occasionally superb. A few songs seem disjointed, although prior to that they were repetitive; they suprise you and it takes a while to get used to the style. This is a good album though. It takes a few listens, but I really like it.

Track Highlights
I'm Not Broken - The opening track, and the best pop-tune on it. Great layered melodies, but a little repetitive.
The Band's Broken Up - Absolutely superb song. Funny, upbeat, spoken word combined with a nice beat and tune that rolls along through the story.
Heartbeat - A long, complex, funny, combination of overlapped singing and speech that works on many levels.
Count 'Em Up - A slow, lilting but slightly dull song; until the third minute when it suddenly has the coolest little change. Completely out of the blue, but really good anyway.
Angie Hart - The whole premise of this song is brilliant. All spoken to an odd little guitar tune, and hardly an unfunny line.

Finer Things 20th February, 2006 23:45:43   [#] [5 comments] 

Monday Melbourne: CX, February 2006
Russell Degnan

Something different. Slightly suburban Parkville. Taken September 2002

Melbourne Town 20th February, 2006 21:59:03   [#] [2 comments] 

The Gastronomic Pub Crawl of North Melbourne:
Hotel Oz
Russell Degnan

177 Dryburgh St North Melbourne
(Corner Dryburgh and Queensberry Street)

North Melbourne is a much bigger suburb than the cafe dwelling, tree-lined streets on the eastern edge. On the far western side, just before the terrain falls away to the Moonee Ponds creek; where industrial buildings and their shiny new apartment conversions prevail lies the Hotel Oz. I had no idea what to expect from the Oz, because it is so far out of my way I'd never seen it, merely trusting an old internet review that they did meals, and common sense that they'd be doing them at 8pm. Both presumptions were confirmed, because they finish serving meals at 8:30.

This is an atypical inner city pub, with decor more typical of the outer east, and like those including a small selection of poker machines to wile away your time and pension cheque. The single petioned room is open and large; with a central bar, a bistro at the back, the aforementioned pokies at the front, and a lounge area with a pool table and big screen tv to watch Australia's pummeling on Sri Lanka on.

The meals are mid-priced and there is a reasonable choice, plus a cheaper, smaller, bar selection if you smile at the bar staff in a friendly manner. I went with the chicken kiev with vegies. The kiev is a fickle meal, promising much, but occasionally leaking away to leave a bit of heavily buttered chicken, and oil on your plate, when I'd much rather clog my arteries with it. This was the case here, and so while it was a decent meal, in the context of a dozen or more previous contenders it was below par. A friendly pub, but not my kind of place.

The short: For gambling junkies and happy suburbanites

Next week: North Star (corner Abbotsford and Provost Street)

Melbourne Town 19th February, 2006 22:30:42   [#] [1 comment] 

Notes on Traffic Congestion
Russell Degnan

There have been quite a few notewoethy blog posts on traffic congestion the past few days. In particular, Harry Clarke makes several forays into the area on his new blog. In one post he makes reference to several others worth reading: by Gary Becker; Richard Posner; and an older paper by Richard Arnott.

The latter is particularly broad, noting that political opposition to widespread congestion charging makes alternative methods worth considering, then works through them in some detail. It is worth reading in full, but I'll highlight a few points I thought were interesting. One aspect -- the bottle-neck approach to congestion, instead of the capacity approach -- I have covered before so won't again, except as it relates to some other parts.

First, a quote from the conclusion:

Let me start with an obvious point, but one that tends to get overlooked, even by economists and even by myself on occasion. The costs of congestion go hand-in-hand with the benefits of travel; zero congestion could be achieved if there were no travel. The optimal level of congestion has two characteristics. First, for a given level of benefits from travel, the costs of congestion are minimized. Second, when this efficiency condition is satisfied, the optimal level of congestion occurs when the benefits from increased travel are offset by the increase in travel costs induced by the increased travel. The optimal level of congestion could well be very high.

This can be seen easily by looking at a (not necessarily accurate) graph of the congestion costs versus the value (which needless to say looks like a demand-supply curve):

The red line represents the congestion costs as the number of commuters increase. It is well understood in engineering terms, and rises very quickly once a certain threshold is reached. The blue is the benefit each new commuter on the road makes from travelling. Because congestion costs aren't fixed -- they depend on traffic conditions -- the red line will move dramatically and unpredicatably from day to day. Similarly, the blue line refers to a specific time slice of a day; it will move as the time of day changes, and with changes in the weather (more people will benefit from driving on wet days), and from other intangibles. Thus, although it can be depicted prettily, it is not a stable cost, and difficult for individual commuters to optimise themselves to.

What a congestion charge does is shift the red line vertically, adding a fixed (or perhaps a shifting) monetary cost to the commute (without affecting the travel time cost) to reduce the number of commuters. What Arnott correctly notes is that on a highly congested road (which by nature must have a high benefit to the commuter), the benefits conferred by adding road capacity (by shifting the red line to the right) are very high, while a congestion charge needs to be quite high to shift many commuters off the roads.

Unless, as he explains, you can either shift demand onto a different time-slice without congestion problems, or (as was done in London) shift demand onto a different service (such as mass transport).

Two further quotes from this area got my attention:

It is remarkable that economists have such a well-articulated theory of congestion, but such a poorly-integrated body of theory related to the benefits of travel.


Remarkably, second-best transit policy with underpriced auto congestion has not, to my knowledge, been analyzed in the literature. Here is not the appropriate place to analyze it. But let me make a couple of comments. The first is that with constant long-run costs to auto travel and decreasing long-run costs to mass transit, a representative individual, and perfect substitutability between auto trips and mass transit trips, the unrealistic solution is obtained that either all trips should be by car or all trips should be by mass transit. Thus, to obtain a sensible solution, imperfect substitutability between car and mass transit trips should be assumed, which rules out simple geometric analysis. The second is that the problem is intrinsically complex. In the previous section, we analyzed how the plannerís choice of optimal road capacity is affected by the constraint that congestion is unpriced. That problem was complex enough. But now we have two imperfectly substitutable modes and three instruments -- road capacity, the transit fare, and transit capacity -- that the planner can adjust to mitigate the distortion associated with auto congestion being unpriced or underpriced. Thus, it is fair to say that, given the current state of the theory, little can be said about optimal transit policy in the presence of unpriced auto congestion.

This presents all sorts of problems. Even setting a congestion price becomes more difficult because the imperfect substitutability of different modes [1] and different times of travel, means that a price change, will not just shift the congestion curve upwards, but also cause some commuters to jump from the car-based commuting demand curve to the (differently shaped) rail-based curve, or the (differently shaped) car-based curve at another time of day.

In other words, although we can predict reasonably well that a change in the capacity of a road with a given demand will attract demand and justify (or not) the expenditure. The results of changing the inherent costs of existing roads, where alternative travel choices exist, is basically unpredictable.

Nevertheless, I thought the conclusion was excellent:

I have no panacea for traffic congestion; indeed, I think there is none. But there are so many distortions vis-ŗ-vis travel behavior which are so large that there is considerable scope for improvement. Traffic congestion will get worse. But as it does, the political opposition to ameliorative changes will diminish. As well, policy innovations will occur and those policy innovations that are successful will be widely adopted. Our politico-economic system is adaptive and we shall muddle through.

[1] And it should be noted here that none of the authors mentioned cycling or walking as alternative modes, despite their suitablity over short distances of up to 10km. For those wondering, just over one million people live within 10km of Melbourne's CBD, 300,000 of them within 5km walking distance. American cities are different in this respect, but to ignore those modes completely is a serious blind-spot.

Sterner Matters 16th February, 2006 23:40:59   [#] [0 comments] 

An observation
Russell Degnan

This morning I was laying on my bed, looking at my bookcases, when I realised something. If I placed a drop on Perspectives of the World, the cascade backwards through Fernand Braudel's three volume Civilisation and Capitalism series; would break the slender Rice Economies to the right; and then Against the Gods to the left.

They would in turn break the Ascent of Science and Godel, Escher, Bach on the shelf below, simultaneously taking out The Ascent of Man and on the upward trajectory combine with the original shelf to make mince-meat of the historiography shelf towards the center of the bookcase, and probably the architecture and urban design shelf of thick books such as Death and Life of Great American Cities, the Grammar of Architecture and Spiro Kostof's The City Shaped/Assembled.

It was a very satisfying thought.

Then I realised I've got to stop playing that stupid splashing game.

Frivolous Pastimes 14th February, 2006 19:33:20   [#] [2 comments] 

The Joys of Decision-making: A Play in Three Acts
Russell Degnan

Law 36 (Leg before wicket)

1. Out LBW
The striker is out LBW in the circumstances set out below.
(a)The bowler delivers a ball, not being a No ball
and (b) the ball, if it is not intercepted full pitch, pitches in line between wicket and wicket or on the off side of the striker's wicket
and (c) the ball not having previously touched his bat, the striker intercepts the ball, either full pitch or after pitching, with any part of his person
and (d) the point of impact, even if above the level of the bails
either (i) is between wicket and wicket
or (ii) is either between wicket and wicket or outside the line of the off stump, if the striker has made no genuine attempt to play the ball with his bat
and (e) but for the interception, the ball would have hit the wicket.

2. Interception of the ball
(a) In assessing points (c), (d) and (e) in 1 above, only the first interception is to be considered.
(b) In assessing point (e) in 1 above, it is to be assumed that the path of the ball before interception would have continued after interception, irrespective of whether the ball might have pitched subsequently or not.

3. Off side of wicket
The off side of the striker's wicket shall be determined by the striker's stance at the moment the ball comes into play for that delivery.

The Characters:

The UMPIRE: In the lower grades an umpire is never really an umpire but a fellow player of the batting side. While some (mostly bowlers), not particular bothered by the ostracism of aggrieved team-mates, like to give batsmen out LBW, the majority are as conservative as Dicky Bird in his hey-day. Our protagonist gives them but rarely, is well versed in the laws, and can count to six. Despite middling eyesight, mistakes are rare.

The CAPTAIN: The opposition captain is about 35, bulky in a way only lower grade cricketers of middle years can be, still with hair, and surprisingly, without a Boony moustache. He fields at mid-off to the right-handers.

The MID-WICKET: Short mid-wicket is reserved for either very good fieldsman or insane psychopaths. Ours is of the latter variety, in his 40s, and prone to the Jekyll and Hyde approach to sportsmanship, being a nice enough bloke off the field and a right dickhead on it. After suffering each outburst, our umpire can retire to square-leg to hear what a complete arse he is from his team-mates, but not before.

The BOWLER: Our bowler is about 17, sharp-ish, bowling right-arm over the wicket and swinging it in both directions. Having not played at the club for long he is probably still a nice kid.


[The SCENE: a suburban cricket ground surrounded by tall gum-trees. A pleasant day, not too warm with the odd cloud. The grass is green for this time of year but otherwise it is a Saturday afternoon typical of any that occur in Melbourne over summer.

The BOWLER has just taken a wicket, and is bowling to the new BATSMAN: a left-hander. The UMPIRE is new to the field, having replaced a player in need of pads. The bowled ball pitches outside well outside leg and is glanced very fine for a single. The FIELDSMEN appeal for LBW.]

UMPIRE: Not Out.

MID-WICKET: He didn't play a shot at that! Dead ball.

[The UMPIRE - slightly unsurely doesn't signal leg byes]

MID-WICKET: He didn't play a shot.

UMPIRE: Given I've signaled runs I'm pretty sure he played a shot.


UMPIRE: I reckon he hit it.

MID_WICKET: Fucking hell.

UMPIRE: [to LH BATSMAN, quietly] Did you hit that?

LH BATSMAN: Not sure.

UMPIRE: Sounded like it anyway.


[The BOWLER bowls to a Right-Handed Batsman, the non-striker in Act 1. The ball swings in, hitting the batsman on the full on middle and leg. Despite the trajectory of the ball taking it well down the leg-side there is a large appeal.]

UMPIRE: Not Out.

MID-WICKET [ironically, given they'd previously given not out some of the plumbest LBWs in the history of the sport]: Don't even bother appealing, he isn't going to give anything.

CAPTAIN [apparently having picked up the tiniest of knowledge from the television, but not understanding it fully; or perhaps worse, understanding precisely what the commentator meant despite said commentator being wrong]: What? It hit him on the full. That's Out.

UMPIRE [turning]: No it isn't. Learn the rules.

CAPTAIN: When it hits him on the full the ball goes straight on. That's out.

UMPIRE: Yes, straight on in the line the ball was travelling. It was going down the leg-side so it is not out.

CAPTAIN: You're a fucking disgrace.

[The UMPIRE turns back while the BOWLER bowls the next ball without incident.]

UMPIRE: Over [hands the BOWLER his cap] Despite what your captain thinks, the ball was going well down leg.

BOWLER: yeah.

CAPTAIN: Don't listen to him, he has no idea.

UMPIRE [smiles]


[Bowling again to the Left-Handed batsman again, the BOWLER gets the ball to swing back into the batsman's pads. It hits him in line with leg-stump, and was going on to hit middle; however having pitched well outside leg stump it is not out. The FIELDSMEN appeal anyway]

UMPIRE: Not Out.

MID-WICKET [angrily]: What was it missing?

UMPIRE: It pitched outside leg.

MID-WICKET [still angry]: How can that not be out? It was hitting middle!

UMPIRE: Yes, it was going to hit the stumps, but it pitched well outside leg, so it is not out.

MID-WICKET: It's fucking out, you're a fucking disgrace.

UMPIRE: Mate, you can call me a disgrace when you learn the rules. In the meantime it is not out.

MID-WICKET [muttering]: Fuck off.

UMPIRE [smiles]


Idle Summers 13th February, 2006 19:43:35   [#] [5 comments] 

Monday Melbourne: CIX, February 2006
Russell Degnan

Another photo from my grainy summer line. This time from the MSO concert last Wednesday, attended by all and sundry. And nice, except for Rob's correct comments regarding the sound. Taken February 2006

Melbourne Town 13th February, 2006 12:31:00   [#] [2 comments] 

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