Vale Jane Jacobs
Russell Degnan

Every time you read something it changes your life a little. Jane Jacobs greatest work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities changed the way the public thinks about planning; unfortunately, I am not sure we can really say it changed the way all planners do. But it is still a seminal work, and the widespread mentioning of her passing on blogs I read is proof that, hopefully, her simple, but deep, message will someday percolate through.

I had the good fortune to read this work at a time when I was particularly receptive to it. It not only changed my life a little, it changed it a lot.

I bought Death and Life at the Technical Bookshop, formerly on Swanston Street, and began reading it on a United flight from Sydney to San Francisco. That was the start of a five month overseas trip, with time in the United States, United Kingdom, Belgium France, Italy and the Netherlands. I had chosen those countries because, even before reading Jane Jacob's books, I was interested in the economies of cities, and if you want to see where it all began, then northern Italy, the Low Countries and Champagne is the place you need to go. I had been interested in urban issues as well, which is why I'd bought the book. The confluence of three things -- interest, time to reflect, and travel -- was perfect.

I think all good books start with a rant. It shows the author cares, and that the topic is important. Most books don't sustain the passion, but Death and Life does. From beginning to end it gets at you, explaining why things are happening, why current thinking is hurting those things. And always, in a way that appeals to my liberal/libertarian sensibility and post-Artificial Intelligence cynicism of our ability to model dynamic systems, it focused on individual people first, not collections.

I didn't put down Death and Life and say: I want to be a planner. Nothing is ever so simple. But it put me on the path to planning, because it made me think about the very real problem of cities; an insoluble one perhaps, but endlessly interesting problem. After a few months of these problems, I was safely in the zone of a mid-20s crisis. The problems I was working on in IT had lost their lustre. By the time I returned home I was seriously contemplating a change of fields, and within 12 months I was back at university. Not all the result of one book, but it was certainly a catalyst for my change of state.

Ultimately though, Jane Jacobs' work wasn't really about cities. They were just one problem that she looked at, in some depth, but never as comprehensively as other people, some of whom concluded similar ideas. What she was about was a way of approaching problems generally, that emphasised that many things are self organised and unpredictable; and therefore, that we should be guiding, not leading, encouraging, not restrictive, and amenable to dynamic change.

Planning, for the most part, is none of those things; and rarely tries. Jane Jacobs' legacy is a slightly blurry, cynical, but optimistic, vision of what planning, and society in general, can be, and often is. She was probably wrong on a lot of the particulars, but that won't matter. Her work will outlive her long life by some margin. And for that, I and many others, am very glad.

Passing Fancy 30th April, 2006 03:51:22   [#] [2 comments] 

Useless statistical indicator alert
Russell Degnan

In the past few years statistics have got a real jump in cricket. While we lag behind baseball by some margin, coverages are now full of interesting (albeit sometimes pointless) graphics, and articles abound on this or that statistical artifact. Unfortunately, some of them are complete crap.

The Numbers Game is like that. I like to read it a lot, it often produces interesting numbers, like the contribution by the last 5 wickets or the series on individual strokes (although all of them have their flaws). But it has an annoying tendency to produce figures that are clearly no more than luck, as some sort of keen insight into the game.

I mentioned above that baseball is well beyond cricket in terms of statistics, and there is a simple reason for it. They understand error, and distributions, and the all important difference between transient and persistent phenomena. You never see an error estimation in the Numbers Game. If there was he would soon realize that cricketers play so few games, and have such variable results that seemingly sensible statistics like "the difference between performances on the sub-continent and away" are only valid for a few players with dozens of games on each. He clearly has no sense of distribution, for reasons we'll see shortly. And the consistency with which figures are presented that were the result of a few lucky innings, rather than a season-by-season result is phenomenal.

Baseball understands this. And still they make mistakes. But to see what I mean, I highly recommend this article by Bill James. It lays out some of the problems in great detail, concluding in part, that many things can't be measured -- either there or not there -- because the errors in baseball are too large.

Cricket, if anything is more so. Take this table of differences between the performances of left and right hand batsmen against different sides. It looks plausible but the figures won't show it. The measure that should be looked at here, is not, the difference between the two, but whether the performances match what you would expect. When you look at those numbers, all sides are well within 4 runs or 10% of expectation (based on projecting the linear correlation with r-squared: 0.8968). Yet the averages themselves are so variable (it only takes a double-hundred or a half-dozen cheap wickets to shift it a run or so), that any difference is probably just luck.

The difference between first and second innings performances is a little different. The correlation is much lower, so there is more going on than just standard variation. But here, the time-frame (since 1990) is so long, that you can't say anything useful about current sides, or even a side from the mid-90s. What should be plotted, is the difference between the expected second innings averages, and the actual second innings averages, for each side, for each year. Then we would either see a trend, or a lot of natural variation, or somethign in between.

But neither of those has anything on this week's effort. The use of standard deviation in this case is hopelessly misguided. For many reasons. The distribution of a batsman's scores is heavily skewed, with over a third (as a rule) less than 20. Standard deviation is not only more likely to measure the ability of a batsman to score big centuries (ie. Lara, Attapatu, Zaheer Abbas, Bradman), but more likely to be low when the median is near the mean (ie. when the average is low, as for Pollock, Marsh, and Hadlee).

But he didn't just use standard deviation, he created an index of average/st_dev. But look at what that is:

( runs / (innings - notouts))

sqrt( ( sum ( diff_means ^ 2 )) / innings )

Which means several things:
- Not outs provide an arbitrary cap on the potential runs, and therefore affect the average less than the standard deviation. This is why there is an arbitrary 5000 run limit. Without that, you get Pollock (1.33), Brett Lee (1.21) and other useful lower end batsmen in the top 10.
- A high score affects an average much less than it affects the standard deviation (try it and see). Players without big knocks (Mark Waugh, Chanderpaul, Ranatunga) do better.
- The number of innings increases your index by the square root of that number. Hence a player with the same score distribution, but quadruple the number of knocks will have double the index.

It is an interesting figure, and consistency is in the mix, but so are lots of other factors you don't want, and do nothing but skew the figures.

There are at least two better ways to measure consistency. One is the median, that will give the central knock, and is a reasonable way of telling how often a player gets a start. Another would be to remove the innings bias by dividing the current index by the square root of the number of innings (unsuprisingly, Bradman dominates given this measure).

Regardless, a more than cursory examination of the statistics being produced would also help. Just because it is constructed to say something doesn't mean it necessarily does.

Idle Summers 29th April, 2006 19:09:44   [#] [3 comments] 

Monday Melbourne: CXIX, April 2006
Russell Degnan

Fake facades and screwy sculptures. Taken April 2004

Melbourne Town 24th April, 2006 19:37:48   [#] [0 comments] 

A Triumph for Medical Science
Russell Degnan

Yesterday I woke up with an amazingly sore left elbow.

It hurt to bend it.
It hurt to straighten it.
It hurt, less, but it still hurt, to keep it still, regardless of whether it was bent or straight.
It especially hurt to bang it.
And to some extent, to prod it.
And to a greater extent, to put weight on it.

The symptoms were that it was sore, and swollen, but not noticeably dented or bruised. Was I coming down with RSI, from repeatedly leaning on it at my desk, while I read innumerable blog posts and articles? Or from a similarly poor use of it on the bars at pubs?

I was pondering this while I didn't sleep last night, since sleeping involved many of the things that made it hurt, when it occured to me that, since I might need to make a doctor prod it and hurt it, I may as well get the jump on them, so to speak, and prod it and hurt it while I lay there.

My medical knowledge is pretty scant, confined for the most part, to simple remedies for King's Eye and Affright, plus the application of leeches. But one thing I do know is that the body is, for the most part, symmetrical, and that therefore, protusions and bumps on one side tend to be abnormal if they don't appear on the other.

What I noticed, in the dark, feeling my way around my sore elbow and its swollen lumps, was that the bones were intact, and the swollen mess, while full of cracks and dead skin, was not so different to the cracks and dead skin on the other, not sore, not swollen elbow.

But one thing was different. On the tip of the humerus at the inside of my elbow (what Wikipedia charmingly refers to as the medial epicondyle) there was something over my left, that didn't exist at all on the right. With a little flick I pushed it aside, whereby whatever it recoiled into my arm like the vacuum cleaner cord does after it's become unlodged from under a chair.

And lo, my arm was suddenly not as sore, nor as swollen. And it didn't hurt to move it, nor lean on it, which meant I could sleep.

Which was good, because whatever I did to it friggin' hurt.

Passing Fancy 23rd April, 2006 17:23:19   [#] [2 comments] 

Gravity Won't Get You High - The Grates
Russell Degnan

Commenting on an album when it is being hyped across the spectrum of half-decent radio and the best-selling stacks of half-decent record stores is probably a bad idea. Unless I was spruiking for a bigger audience, of course. Because, on the back of some overseas success and deserved local popularity, The Grates new album is going gang-busters. With only a few years of dodgy pub gigs behind them, their jump to respectability on the American and UK indie scenes is less graft and more the product of one thing: they can bang out an outstanding pop ditty in a little under three minutes.

And it is some ability. A three-piece consisting of their manic female singer Patience, Alana on drums and guitarist John, there have been inevitable comparisons with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, but like all good Australian bands, they are happier, faster and have fewer pretensions, giving their sound a bit of a White Stripes/Magic Dirt feel to it (or perhaps the Divinyls). Perhaps the best aspect though is the production (often a weakness of Australian releases). Done in Chicago, it maintains a tight, clean sound throughout, and while a few songs drift into cliched pop, for the most part this album is all fun.

Track Highlights
19 20 20 - Nothing but gold. Great beat, short, but wonderfully constructed.
Rock Boys - Patience's best vocal effort. Slower, but nice.
Feels Like Pain - An excellent groove to this song, but with a typically belted out chorus full of thrash.
Inside Outside - A great demonstration of the band's skill at changing the pace of a song, while keeping it short and sharp.
Sukkafish - The best song on the album. Full of suprises for a band with so few members including a banjo which is always a winner.

Finer Things 23rd April, 2006 16:56:31   [#] [0 comments] 

Broken Expectations
Russell Degnan

There was an interesting article in The Age about the effect of petrol prices on public transport use. It begins with the rather spurious claim that large numbers of people will change when the price hits $1.32, which it has again this week. Not that large numbers of people won't change their habit at that price -- as a percentage of public transport users, not cars users -- but rather that it implies that commuters are rational maximizers of cost and time, when they are not.

There was a more subtle discussion of habits and economics by Becker and Posner a fortnight ago. As indicated towards the end of the first article, the supposed rapid switch to public transport occured, not because public transport became marginally better, but because it became rapidly better; and more importantly, because it strained household budgets. In other words, the expectation of relatively inexpensive motor transport was broken, and a choice had to be made.

The problem, as countless articles since have noted, is that public transport is not positioned to take advantage of an increase in customers. The trains rapidly filled with disgruntled commuters and consistently ran late or not at all. Many people would have quickly returned to their old car habit, with a reduction in other spending.

This is the biggest problem with a non-marketised public transport system. If the operators had their profits tied to consumers then the rise in customers could have been offset by a combination of higher ticket prices, and more services. Instead we got a lot of complaints and no change, either to service provision, or to most peoples' long-term travel choices.

With another rise in oil prices going on, and the likelihood of a long-term price increase to around the $1.50 mark, we can expect more people to break with habit and explore different ways of travelling to work, school and the shops. It is therefore, important to consider, now, what sort of choices people might want to make, and should make, and how to accomodate them. As Becker noted on habits:

"At first, habitual behavior is usually slow to change since past behavior exercises enormous influences over current behavior that is "habitual". But the initially slow changes induce further and more rapid changes in later behavior, so that the cumulative change may eventually be quite big."

To draw an analogy. Making a change in the area of transport choice is like pushing a coal-cart up a hill. All the policies in the past have been ineffective pushing against a full cart that wanted to stay where it was at the bottom of the hill. In the next decade though, people, not policies, will take the cart to the top of the hill, before it rapidly rolls into another gully of habit. It will do so ahead of the policy-makers though; once it is rolling it won't stop. We need to line up the wheels to ensure it goes somewhere sensible, and that means first, considering all the possible changes that could occur, if given sufficient latitude to do so.

I know where I stand here, as would any regular reader, but I'll state it again, plainly: Firstly, I think we should aim to make walking and cycling (or buggies for the elderly) the first two choices of travel for all trips, for many reasons including health, the envionment and overall cost. Secondly, we should make an efficient, and preferably cost-neutral public transport, the third choice, for trips longer than 5-10km.

This doesn't necessitate grand schemes, so much as attitude shifts and appropriate prioritising of road space to favour these modes. The change in habits, and then travel culture that will initially be brought on by a gradual but significant rise in oil prices will (hopefully) do the rest.

Sterner Matters 19th April, 2006 17:18:01   [#] [0 comments] 

Monday Melbourne: CXVIII, April 2006
Russell Degnan

A restored St. Pauls and the colours of Fed Square. Taken March 2006

Melbourne Town 19th April, 2006 00:21:16   [#] [0 comments] 

Moo, You Bloody Choir - Augie March
Russell Degnan

Enigmatic, is perhaps the best word to describe Augie March. Their first album was a brilliant bolt from the blue, their second, no more than a little distant rumbling, before they seemed to disappear. Earlier this year, they returned again, with a typically well wrought album of full of depth and subtlety. But this shouldn't suprise, really. They are not a band of young kids belting out tunes for fun, but highly talented, if slightly sentimental musicians. Although they do seem to do what they do at random times, when they they do it, they do it well.

While Augie March do follow the tradition of other Melbourne folk-pub-rock bands -- the more famous types being Crowded House and Paul Kelly -- they also bring to it a high-brow literary streak and the sort of esoteric subject matter normally found in the Melbourne blogosphere. Few, if any bands, after all, reference so many of Melbourne's lesser places and history, like 19th century figures, Redmond Barry and Marcus Clarke, or of waking up under the talking statues of Dustan and Bolte after drinking too much at the Exford.

The bad side of all this is that this side of Melbourne is not disparaged for tedium for nothing. While Augie March paint a rich tapestry, it is better experienced in the confines of a pub, the songs interspersed with the band's banter, than through a CD better suited to the sedation of small infants. Don't get me wrong, it is a good album; just slow.

Track Highlights
Mother Greer - Smooth, grooving little song that is for rocking to. Back and forth that is.
Thin Captain Crackers - Funky little song of indeterminate meaning, but the most reminiscint of their first album.
Bottle Baby - Slow, dreamy song with minimal instrumentation but great heart.
Bolte and Dunstan Talk Youth - Perhaps I'm just a sucker for scales, perhaps for statuary, or perhaps for drunks. Good song though.

Finer Things 19th April, 2006 00:14:56   [#] [0 comments] 

Monday Melbourne: CXVII, April 2006
Russell Degnan

As the winter cold sets in we also get the best time of year for photo-toing. I haven't had a chance to, though, so this is from the archive.

Melbourne Town 10th April, 2006 20:41:24   [#] [1 comment] 

The Future of Australia`s Attack
Russell Degnan

Australia's bowling stocks are not unusually low, but the turnover has been. Players who would normally have been picked years ago have been kept out by the solidity of Warne, McGrath, Gillespie, Lee, MacGill and Kasprowicz. This will change sooner rather than later, and probably in the next two years. Here is how I see it. The good news for Australia is that there do seem to be some good players available in the near and long term. The question is how to manage the transition.

The incumbents:

Warne remains a genuine competitor, and I hope he stays till he's 40, but unfortunately for everyone except opposition batsmen, he also might not. Retirement looms ever closer.

McGrath is probably gone. Even when he comes back, if he comes back, it won't be for long. The Ashes at most. Then to replace the irreplacable.

Lee is the current spearhead, but not so long ago he was dropped for form. Form, that since then has had one good series (away to South Africa) against quality (with due respect to the Windies) opposition (albeit with 12 of 17 wickets against tail-enders). The good news is his economy rate is dropping, but he needs to stay on it. An average in the low 30s won't be good enough.

Kasprowicz showed nothing of particular worth against South Africa. In a young bowler you might persist, but his age (34) tells against him, and he should be dropped sooner rather than later.

Clark had the best debut by a bowler in a long time, and looked pretty solid doing it. He is almost 31 though and a first-class average near 30 makes him, at best, a two-year stop gap, and at worst, a one series wonder.

MacGill is another on the wrong side of 35, can't field and can't bat. He might be tempted to play till Warne retires, but a successor he isn't. Australia needs another spinner, and getting someone in to learn from the current master should be the strategy.

The pace prospects:

Bracken was unlucky to get dropped, given his recent record and first-class form. But the selectors picked Clark right, even if Kaspa was wrong. On the right side of 30, he should be playing.

Gillespie for me, unlike most commentators, is not finished. Not quite 31, he has at least three seasons in him, and remains the best line-and-length bowler Australia has after McGrath. It will be the Australian teams' loss if he spends his last days knocking over Shield sides for not many.

Tait has injured himself again, but frankly doesn't need to be playing Tests for a couple of years if we can avoid it. As Lee is finally learning, accuracy counts at the top level and Tait needs some before he plays again.

Johnson is another young player with big raps on him. Performed well in the Shield final but averaged 30 over the season. Like Tait, remains more of a prospect than an option.

Hopes has the advantage of being an all-rounder and the disadvantage of noone being sure of what. Needs to do one thing really well before he'll get a Test look-in.

Watson is a better prospect than Hopes. Still young, but unfortunately more of a batsman than a bowler. A reasonable bet if Australia plays two spinners, but not otherwise.

Dorey seems to have an alright record given his limited experience. His one-dayer experience was a let-down, but he will probably be back.

Griffith isn't mentioned much, but was the highest wicket-taker in the Shield this season. Seven five-fors in 30 matches speaks well of him, although, like Dorey, he'll be 30 in a couple of seasons.

And the spin prospects:

Cullen is very young and a spinner. Both rare commodities. Picked for Bangladesh, but struggled this season. Probably a decade from his best cricket.

White, as the only young leg-spinner around, must consider himself a chance, but like Watson, his batting is stronger than his bowling. Might come on, but lacks the unnatural spin or drift a top-class spinner would have.

With Symonds or Clarke in the side Australia has no need for a second spinner except on real turners (if Watson or Hopes were picked then this would depend on the venue). With that in mind, Warne is a certainty for as long as he plays, with MacGill as no more than backup. For those odd tests though, I'm inclined to go with Cullen, to give him a chance in favourable conditions, and because in three or four years he is likely to be our only real spin option.

The pace bowling lineup needs balance above all -- something lacking in the last Ashes debacle. If three bowlers are to be picked, then two need to be capable of bowling tight lines, to support Warne, each other and the more attacking third option. For the next two years, this means picking two of McGrath, Gillespie, Clark, and Bracken. For preference, one of the first two, and one of the second; although Gillespie is closer in age to the others I fear injury has taken a greater toll on his body. If three of them are unavailable then Johnson, Dorey or Griffith.

The attacking comes from Lee, who like the other hs probably four years in him at most. If form or injury intervenes then Johnson, then Tait. Lee is so smooth, injuries are rare, but Tait seems to be plagued by them, which means the likely long-term option is Johnson.

Form and injuries are variable, class remains unjudged, but some rough predictions can be made for the next two series that count. Likely substitutes for injury/form/retirement in (parenthesese), less likely backups in [brackets].

Ashes 2006-07
Too near now to predict the team will change much. Based on the South African performance, probably a reasonable lineup. More than anything there are players who can restrict and frustrate England's free scorers.
McGrath (Gillespie), Lee, Clark (Bracken), Warne [Cullen, Johnson]

Ashes 2009
Far enough away that its hard to predict, but not so far that names noone has heard of yet will emerge, unless they are genuine superstars. McGrath will be gone for sure, Gillespie and Clark almost certainly as well. Warne we can hope, but it might be in vain; perhaps he'll want 1000 wickets. Lee will be 33 by then as well, but should be there. I mark Tait down because I fear he'll never be accurate enough to survive at test level, but unless Dorey or Watson improve markedly he is the most likely successor to Lee. Note, however, the possibility that we'll have three left-armers, and none of last year's team.
Lee (Tait), Johnson (Watson), Bracken (Dorey), Warne (Cullen) [Griffith, White]

Update: I wrote this before the team to play Bangladesh was selected, and therefore before Australia's decision to pick five bowlers. I think this policy is a grave mistake. Bowlers may win games, but batsmen lose them. The advantage of having a fifth bolwer doesn't come near offsetting the extra runs of a sixth bat. And not just in raw averages. Batsmen rarely score their average, it is a skewed distribution with a few scores at the high end and lots of low ones. The more of them you have, the closer the team will get to its expected value -- ie. the more stable your totals will be and the less likely a collapse for not many will put you out of the game.

Idle Summers 9th April, 2006 11:04:50   [#] [2 comments] 

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