The culture of English sport teams
Russell Degnan

"Only an English team could win from there"

So said the commentators last week after Liverpool's win in the Champions League Final. Milan had been equally shaky against PSV, but then they had been outplayed, winning because that's what Italian teams do.

But Liverpool was something else. It reminded me of the duel on Rob Roy. The sharper, nimbler swordsman weathering the haphazard attacks of his opponent and cutting him to ribbons when countering. Kaka was the key there, running the ball out of midfield into the middle of Liverpool's defence. It was awesome stuff and the half-time lead was no more than they deserved.

Somewhere in the English psyche though lurks the passionate anglo-saxon-celt, and even if Liverpool (like Milan and everybody else) is a team of foreigners, for whatever reason the culture remains.

And yet the passionate Englander is a contradiction. Because in England -- more than anywhere else -- sport is taught by teachers. And even if Wellington's comment that "Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton" is apocryphal; at some point, those same teachers recognized that charging at an army like a maniac is likely to get you impaled on the point of a bayonet. And so, the culture of English sport -- team or otherwise -- is not the passionate maniac; nor is it elegant, cultured, dashing or daring. Instead it is precise, technical, and often, boring.

The typical successful English batsman is a Barrington, a Boycott, an Atherton, or of late, a defender par-excellence in Strauss. The typical bowler is a naggingly accurate medium pacer. In tennis, it is Tim Henman; solid, disciplined and utterly lacking in flamboyance. The football team is built on a solid, rigid, disciplined back-four, and more often that not: long balls to a clinical striker. And as for Rugby...

It is not a bad tactic, nor even something I disagree with. You have to admire the persistent pressure a good English side applies. Holding a defensive position yet pushing inexorably forward, waiting for the cracks to appear so they can carefully prise them open.

Australian teams are similar in a way. England is always Australia's great rival, and so every Australian sportsman or woman imbues a culture of inferiority to the English discipline. Australians always play as underdogs; they thrive on the pressure to play above themselves. So while the Australian cricket team is relentless in applying pressure and waiting for their opportunities, they complement that typically English approach, not with a clinical war of attrition, but by going on the attack the first chance they get. The Australian sportsman that get remembered are mentally tough, passionate and aggressive: Alan Border, Steve Waugh, Pat Rafter, Lleyton Hewitt. Eventually, the football (soccer) team will have similar players.

But back to England. As effective as this approach can be, it is boring. And England fans are always passionate. Out of this comes the other side of English sport: the passionate flawed genius. The player who can't be coached, is infuriating, inconsistent and often trouble; yet provides that something extra. The Gascoigne, Botham, or (Irish but playing in England) George Best.

And so each generation, English teams try and get away from their true gift: their ability to slowly crush the opposition with sustained pressure and a sound defence, and place their faith in a new Messiah. Liverpool fans will remember Steven Gerrard for his drive and energy in those seven minutes that won them an extraordinary final, instead of the team's defensive excellence against Chelsea and Juventus that preceded the final. English cricket fans will place their faith in Freddie Flintoff to inspire them this summer, instead of the rest of the top six. And Tim Henman won't win Wimbledon regardless of how he plays. But that is because of Federer rather than poor Tim.

Idle Summers 30th May, 2005 02:21:21   [#] [0 comments] 

Yet another drought crisis
Russell Degnan

"... the Australian historical reaction to drought has been generally to view its onset with indignant surprise. The denigration of the drought hazard has been implicit in official disaster relief which has always assumed drought to be a temporary and short-lived phenomenon and has not sought to reward those who sought to buffer themselves against drought impacts."
R L Heathcote in 'A Drought Walked Through' - Keating, J. 1992

And so it goes.

Drought is coming, drought is always coming, drought is also always leaving, and always present. But farmers want relief regardless. Anybody familiar with Australia's water history -- which farmers should be, some are, although some don't want to admit it -- will know recognise that drought happens. Often.

To look at the climate charts on the Bureau of Meteorology you wouldn't recognise the drought as being serious. Most of Australia has had typical rainfall in the past 18 months. Although some parts have still not recovered from several years ago. In the book quoted above, a larger problem was identified:

"[...] there has been a persistent and enduring reluctance to recognise drought as a permanent feature of Australian life. Records show that for only twenty years out of every hundred is the whole of Australia 'drought-free'"

Guy Rundle's amusing piece and the Age editorial both make the point that welfare for farmers is pointless over the long term. The problem with the implication of Heathcote above is that many farmers are not bad managers as much as they are uninsurable and unsustainable. Even though giving money to farmers to keep them on the land degrades the land further and wastes money, it is a problem that - often - the State and Federal governments created, then reinforced repeatedly.

But if things are going to change, you have to start somewhere. Acknowledging that drought is inevitable and common is an important start.

In the same week comes news that the same message hasn't percolated through to urban water consumers either. This is something I've argued before when questioning the governments claimed water savings. To summarise, there are two things stopping people from using more water: restrictions on use and fines for ignoring them; and enough rain that people's gardens aren't dying. Until people stop expecting a green garden in a drought water use will continue to cycle upwards, the same as it always has.

In response to the last article I wrote about this, Robert pointed out that people would probably be quite happy to pay the costs of de-salinification plants and grey-water systems if it meant keeping their gardens. I think he is right, but this also means the water authorities should start charging for projected infrastructure needs. As it stands they plan to keep the demand within the current supply limitations. An attitude, which while admirable, is going to cause a lot of angst when people realise what it means for their backyards.

It has been called a 'coming crisis'. My quarterly water bill is only $20. If and when it is a crisis it will be a manufactured one. The lesson of the farmers above is an important warning for what is at stake.

Sterner Matters 29th May, 2005 03:26:49   [#] [0 comments] 

Monday Melbourne: LXXII, May 2005
Russell Degnan

St. Paul's Cathedral, through the gap down to the City Square. Taken May 2005

Melbourne Town 28th May, 2005 15:14:13   [#] [0 comments] 

Speculations on the Legislative Council
Russell Degnan

From 2006 politics in Victoria could be very different. Under changes to the Constitution instituted in 2003 the Legislative Council will have proportional representation. Whether you think it is better depends on your notions of democracy and what you perceive as the outcomes, but it will certainly change a few things. One, the way elections for the Council are conducted. Electioneering for the council will no longer focus on local members - even if those members were often absent from the process. Preference deals, party politics and quotas will, like the Australian Senate decide the makeup of the Legislative Council. Two, the makeup of the Council will change. There is an expectation that minor parties will gain some representation and probably hold the balance of power. I'll discuss the likelihood of that below; suffice to say it may be true. Finally, in addition to the new districts the previous system of double (8 year) terms has been changed to single (4 year) terms. This may in fact be the biggest change, and the most dangerous, but I will get to that later.

Firstly, the boundary changes. There will be 8 new districts consisting of 5 members each. Three of those will be rural, five in metropolitan Melbourne. Because they have yet to be released any further comments are little more than speculation. In addition, because the final makeup of the seats will depend on things happening at the margin -- preferences, the vagaries of distribution, and small differences in the votes -- any prediction about the result of the Legislative Council elections will be at best, very, very rough. However, testing different results gives some interesting results. Not least, who will benefit from the changes to the electoral rules.

In order to make predictions, some sort of distribution is necessary. A good guide to what is likely can be garnered from the VEC website. Most submissions roughly conform with I would come up with personally, namely the three rural areas being: Western District, Riverina, and Gippsland, and the five metropolitan regions being West, North, Central, East and South-East. The splits between the current provinces can be seen in this spreadsheet along with other data pertaining to election results. Despite anomalies such as seats not being contested, and a relatively poor granularity for examining votes, I am using the Legislative Council results for voting data. The main reason is that minor parties record substantially higher votes already in the Council, indicating that people already conceive of it as a house of review and vote accordingly.

The summary table gives the expected votes in each new district based on the last election, and the quota that would afford them. As with the Senate, each full quota gives one member. Fractional quotas are redistributed according to preferences meaning they cannot be predicted with any great accuracy. However, we can make some general assumptions about preferences: namely, that the Liberals and Nationals will preference each other; as will the Greens and the ALP; that Family First will preference the Liberals; and the Democrats will preference the Greens then the ALP. Again though, I am less interested in predicting the end result than the likely effects, so it is not terribly important.

Because there are 5 seats available the quota is 16.6%. This is above the average vote of all but the two major parties, but affords the Greens and the Nationals full quotas in two districts: Central Melbourne for the Greens and Riverina for the Nationals, where their votes are around 20%. By contrast, the two major parties are almost always guaranteed the 33% they need for two seats. The chamber is rigged therefore, in their favour, with the others left to fight for the scraps. A summary of the way the council would look if the last election result was repeated can be seen below:

Summary TableSeatsWestDistRiverinaGippslandWestNorthCentralSouth-EastEast

The ALP would have a clear majority, as it does already. And it could easily be bigger than the one indicated. Two of the Green seats -- Gippsland and West Melbourne -- are dependent on Democrat preferences. The house of review would be no more useful under the new system than it is already. Namely not at all. But is the typical? Looking at the likely results for each party, and for each seat gives a better idea. From here, you'll need to see the spreadsheet to see the calculations made. Note too, that using the spreadsheet you can easily change the assumptions and generate your own tables if you want to check my conclusions.

Party Summary

The number of seats a quotas affords a party seems to operate in a series of tiers. Getting just over or near the quota gives a party the seat. Getting below that range enhances the chances of that party's ideological allies. Hence, for the Greens an Nationals, who get around half to two thirds of a quota, their chances of gaining a seat can actually depend on whether the major parties are near the tier -- and utilising their vote -- or in the middle -- and therefore distributing their preferences across. This makes counting seats for the minor parties more problematic, but some general rules can be formulated.

For the ALP 18 seats is a typical number. They are practically guaranteed three seats in the West and North, and two seats everywhere else. Their vote has to drop precipitously to under 35% before they start to lose seats, but anything over 42% will see them gain, and be near a majority in the Council.

The Liberals strike a similar balance at 14 seats, missing out in the West and North where the ALP is strong. However, this assessment relies on ALP-Green preferencing. If a successful preference deal was struck between the Liberals and Greens several seats would end up in different hands. Like the ALP though, anything over 42% will put them close to a majority.

The Greens are cursed to sit in the middle. In Central Melbourne they are guaranteed one seat, but the others depend on where the other parties sit. If both are around 40% then the Greens can preference off Labor to get between 4 and 6 seats with no geographic predominance. Conversely, when one of the major parties is strong, the Greens run second, dropping to between 1 and 3 seats.

The Nationals are similarly cursed as well as being limited to winning in the three rural seats. They should get one seat regardless, but it is hard to tell. In addition they are difficult to model because their vote is not distributed and an increase of 2% will actually have a much bigger increase on their chance of gaining a seat. Finally, Family First may reduce the Nationals vote, or gain them valuable preferences. Either way, the number of seats they hold in the Legislative Council is set to halve, or worse.

At the very bottom minor parties and independents are being nailed. The 16.6% quota is well beyond their ability to collect, and the Democrats would need to treble their vote and get very good preferencing to get even one seat. Apparently, under a proportional system, all parties are equal, but some are more equal than others.

Seat Summary

So who gets what seats? First, let me repeat, without a proper redistribution, these are rough at best, and some subtle differences will give different results.

Riverina could be the last bastion of the National party in the upper house. Unless the Greens make big inroads it is almost certain to give 2 Labor, 2 Liberals and a National for some time to come.

Western District and Gippsland will also give 2 and 2, but the fifth seat is a lottery, with both major parties, the Greens and the Nationals a chance.

West and North Melbourne are Labor's strongholds. Even a huge Liberal victory will probably still see them win 3 seats, so the real question is whether the Labor surplus can get the Greens over the Liberals or not. Which given the same question applies in most other seats as well, raises an interesting question. Would the major parties be willing to stitch the Greens up by trading preferences with each other?

Central Melbourne is a done deal. Unless there is a big swing to the Liberals the solid Green vote will make this a 2-2-1. As with the lower house, my vote is only worth the money the party who gets it will cream off the government.

South East and East Melbourne are where elections are won or lost. The fifth seat is a lottery again, between the two major parties and the Greens.

For those counting, barring an unusually large victory, or a generational change in the fortunes of our political parties, the following are the base figures: Labor, 18; Liberals, 14; Greens, 1; Nationals, 1. And the most number of seats that could be won would be: Labor, 22; Liberals, 20; Greens, 7; Nationals, 3.

A House of Review?

There was a lovely contradiction in the approach the Labor party took to implementing Legislative Council reform. On the one hand they argued for the council to be a "House of Review", as neatly explained by John Lenders:

One view is that the principle of government mandate comes from the majority in the Legislative Assembly rather than those who win a majority in the Legislative Council, so that implies reviewing the deliberations of the house of government rather than attempting to be the house of government.

On the other, they argued against eight year terms by accusing them of giving a "stale mandate", because the honourable member may not have been required to stand for election during the previous cycle. But, if it is serving as a house of review it has no mandate, nor even the need of one. If it was really a review it would be broadly representative of the electorate and provide continuity from one term to the next. By removing the longer terms, the Bracks Government has removed that continuity. But worse, by setting the quota at 1/6 they have also made the Legislative Council the one thing they argued it shouldn't be: a copy of the Legislative Assembly.

If a government wins a big majority, once, not twice as with longer terms, it will -- possibly in coalition -- have a clear majority in both houses. It may not be a big majority, but unless the Greens become a serious force in Victorian politics -- for which they will need to raise their vote to 12 percent or more -- then the Legislative Council will provide little minor party representation, and a balanced house to be negotiated through only when the government is weak, and presumably cautious.

In addition, it is a system that effectively locks in party seats. Effectively, only 6 seats will be genuine contests in the new Council. The spoils will go to party hacks and the real fight will be the factional brawls leading up to the election. The vast majority of the Council will have little to worry about from electors; good if you want them to get on with the job of "reviewing"; bad if you think they will be little more than drunk time-servers milking the public purse while they divide their time between publicly ridiculing their opponents and ensuring the continuing support of their own party.

Even better, we now need a referendum to change large slabs of the constitution. In short, the new system probably sucks. And we are stuck with it.

Sterner Matters 27th May, 2005 03:56:15   [#] [5 comments] 

Monday Melbourne: LXXI, May 2005
Russell Degnan

The new wood panelling on Melbourne Central. Taken May 2005

Melbourne Town 21st May, 2005 21:29:57   [#] [0 comments] 

Melbourne 2030 - Planning Rhetoric versus Urban Reality
Russell Degnan

Ch. 1 - Looking Back, Looking Forward: Urban Policy for Metropolitan Melbourne

While we had a short discussion of this book when it was released a more in depth look is required. To the extent that Melbourne 2030 is an important document - and that is debatable - this critique is almost the only major analysis of the core assumptions relating to population growth and the changes in dwelling types that the plan would require. For this reason I want to analyse the arguments made properly, chapter by chapter. Some are good, some are bad. Either way, they must be addressed by either the advocates or opponents of Melbourne 2030.

The first chapter has no argument to make. It does, however, lay out the assumptions guiding the book, some explicitly, and others less so. Firstly, the authors identification of Melbourne's liveability as:

"The prevailing streetscape with the predominance of low slung bungalows, dense tree and shrub canopy and resultant green ambience, along with local open space for recreation, gives the city its sense of place and identity"

That is to say, low density is a goal in and of itself, because it makes for better streetscapes.

This informs the second assumption. Namely that infill housing, the type which removes backyards and reduces the overall tree canopy is bad. They are less negative on apartments in activity centres - though no doubt not in their imagined Melbourne - particularly because they see the goal of Melbourne 2030 as directing density into a few areas, and not the suburban streetscape.

Thirdly, that planners have taken on the goals of new urbanism in a way that makes them antagonistic to suburban living:

For many of its proponents, it is a crusade that incorporates into its urban planning objective a social reform agenda which shows little respect for conventional suburban communities"

The problems with these assumptions will tease themselves out in later chapters, but one I want to address now. One of the key arguments put forth in support of the assumption on Melbourne's liveability is that it is a choice by people in suburban areas. Both because of the historical trend towards this type of development, and because of the strong opposition to infill development by residents. Both of these arguments are rubbish. Firstly, because the trend towards infill development, despite the costs to applicants negotiating the planning scheme, is a clear indication of shifting preferences. Secondly because opposition to infill is based on similarly faulty reasoning by existing residents. As we'll see, contrary to the authors arguments, infill, good infill, is not incompatible with good streetscapes. Equating the two is either disingenuous or misguided, and it ignores the myriad of other reasons that people choose to live where they do.

Next: Activity Centres

Finer Things 11th May, 2005 01:28:51   [#] [0 comments] 

Monday Melbourne: LXX, May 2005
Russell Degnan

The Royal Melbourne Hospital. Early morning. Taken May 2005

Melbourne Town 10th May, 2005 00:45:05   [#] [0 comments] 

Artists and their Enemies
Russell Degnan

Last night I attended another of the Alfred Deakin Innovation lectures. Entitled, Imagination and the Audience, it focused on the role of the people pulling the purse strings: artistic directors, patrons, and in particular, the Australia Council. What I learnt was that artists have two great enemies, upon whom they are also entirely dependent: their audience and their patrons [1].

The audience are philistines, inherently conservative, disinterested, uneducated and opinionated on matters they don't undertand. Against that, they also know what they like, refuse to see things they don't, but can be won over through appropriate education, approaches and performances that actually challenge them. More importantly, without them to perceive the art once created it doesn't exist, at least in any way that matters. They are a contradiction that can't be done without.

Patrons, which in this day and age, often means the government, are equally essential because they provide the grease for their operational wheels. But they have their own pressures: from the philistines in the audience, from a wish that the animals they feed refrained from biting them, and because they have broader goals like public education or nation building. None of which are necessarily in the interests of the artist.

The duel themes of the talks were thus: how do you choose projects to be funded? And how do you garner an audience to support them?

Dr. Jean Battersby was refreshing in her assessment of the history and performance of the Australia Council. It has always had two underlying principles - a good summary of which can be found here. That it operates at arms length from the government, and that the assessment of grants comes from experts, the artists' peers. It shouldn't be, but apparently is, surprising that governments do want to pressure the council. The reverse side of being at arms length is the government is not compelled to defend you. The solution arrived at however is bureaucracy. The appalling title to the above link is symptomatic of an organisation that seems overcome with paranoia about its own position and decision making. The losers are artists, and the public, who get less art for their money.

The peer assessment is also problematic for two reasons. First, when it was created the Australia Council was intended to support art. The result of being an organisation by artists is that it has changed to supporting artists. They are not the same. In the latter the audience is marginalised and often ignored. Secondly, committees are not good at assessing the merit of potential works. The assessment process tends towards an average assessment, leaving high risk, potentially great works without support in favour of the bland. Any wonder that the audience turns their back.

The solution proferred by the speakers is to recognise that failure is inevitable when outcomes are uncertain, and that this fact should be recognised. I agree. However, during the questions section another point came out. Namely that often the only way to fund interesting works is to do it when you have effective "autocrat" status such as that given to a festival director.

This suggests another solution. Namely the complete scrapping of grants to individual artists through the council. I have mentioned before the importance of festivals for marginal artistic endeavors, particularly in geographically and economically isolated places. It makes sense for the Australia Council to stop funding individuals and instead fund places: festivals, theatres, halls and galleries. These institutions, attached to their audience and more diverse in output than individual grants could ever be, are much better placed to fund interesting and challenging art, to fulfill the role to educate, and to fill the myriad of niches that a diverse arts scene requires.

In many ways, the problem for artists is not funding. The Australia Countil gets $145 million a year. Barely $7 per Australia. That is incredibly low really, yet increases will not be forthcoming so long as the government and the public are the enemy. When they are, such funds are wasteful and pointless, pandering to elitist wankers. Yet Australians are, by and large, rich. They can afford far more, and on so many activities are willing to pay far more. The problem then, is not funding. It is marketing.

Hence the importance of places and events. Places and events are visible symbols. They are active connections to the audience. Used well, they let the audience take ownership of the art they contain, and more importantly, get that same audience to generate the momentum needed to grow.

By contrast, individual artists, on small budgets, only start with a small audience. Often in fact, only other artists. It is a conversation amongst themselves that never breaks out into something bigger.

Some artists, perhaps many, like that. But it does help their enemies,

[1] As an aside, there is a strict equivalence between these two groups and the bane of a computer programmer's existence: the user and the manager.

Passing Fancy 9th May, 2005 01:12:41   [#] [2 comments] 

Counting Down the Days - Natalie Imbruglia
Russell Degnan

Four years ago I expressed the idea that White Lilies Island would be underappreciated, because it was a mostly serious work being targeted at the wrong demographic. For the most part, Natalie Imbruglia's new album is targeted correctly. Unfortunately, while listenable, lacks depth, and is, if anything, a retreat backwards into pop sensibilities, instead of something interesting.

I'm sure part of the problem is that there are twelve different song writers and ten different producers, leaving the album with no coherency. This makes it hard to judge, because it is neither here nor there, but at least in part I like it. Because there are a few good songs; the sort that remind you of sunshine and lazy days; and because its an honest album.

Track Highlights
Shiver - Reminds me of the stuff by Tara MacLean, if anyone knows who she is. Nice chorus.
Slow Down - Whereas this reminds me of the Corrs (in their later incarnations unfortunately), but a sweet song.
Come on Home - I like the dulcimer and mandolin on what is otherwise a ballad. They give it something different.
Honeycomb Child - A more interesting track, with lots of changes, and slower. More reminiscint of the last album.

Finer Things 8th May, 2005 03:15:16   [#] [0 comments] 

The Look of Architecture - Witold Rybczynski
Russell Degnan

This is a delightful little book, based on a series of lectures, and devoted to exploring the relationships between style, fashion and the users of buildings. Early on it rebukes modern architects for two things. First, for not acknowledging that style has importance to their profession. It is expressed best in a neat passage that the remainder of the book examines in more detail and with copious examples.

"Style is like a feather in a woman's hat, nothing more," sniffed Le Corbusier. Gabrielle Chanel, who knew something about hats, saw things differently. "Fashion passes," she said, "style remains."

Through the second and third parts the differences are worked through. Style, is expressed as the collection of materials, shapes, forms and ideals that guide an architect in creating a coherent whole. It can be classicism, gothic, beaux arts, international, post-modern, or even combinations of those or others. Fashion is the expression of those styles. It comes as both the desire for new, different forms from what came before, and as the point where the social context of the times is expressed in the architecture. Hence, styles go in and out of fashion, but their buildings remain as part of the built heritage of the city.

The heritage aspect is important, because of the first lecture. Here, Rybczynski administered his second rebuke. Quoting Henry Wotton in 1642, "The end is to build well. Well-building hath three conditions: Commoditie, Firmeness, and Delight.", he claims modern architects foxus on delight at the expense of the other elements, that they don't age well, and that they ignore the important fact that buildings are for people. Buildings, he argues are of their time, and their interiors reflect this in a way that ties people, decor and the fashions of both.

Hence buildings change both their function and their audience over time. He briefly cites the museums of Paris as having changed their functions, the Louvre from a Palace, and the Musee d'Orsay from a railway station. But here too, their new function is significant. Both contain the art of their time. Particularly the Orsay with the Impressionist art playing off the 19th century elegance of the railway building. Not all buildings can be so lucky to find a historical niche.

Heritage ideals have two parts: the preservation of objects of historical importance, and the preservation of the best elements of the built form. On both these, Rybczynski's musings provide interesting insights into what we should or shouldn't regard as heritage and how we should treat it.

Historically, the change in form, and the relevance of our own fashions to the interior of buildings means we should be more careful about the way we try and preserve heritage. Ultimately, buildings must be used, lest we seek to preserve delight at the expense of commodity (and to an extent firmness). Locking a building into a permanent stasis for preservation as a museum may occasionally make sense, but more often will just create an anachronism.

Preservation of the best elements is more problematic. If fashion is driving what we think of buildings then many may not be as bad as we now think them, nor others as good. Do we actually need hundreds, if not thousands of terrace houses that were little better than squatters huts in their heyday? Might careful sympathetic changes be better? Are all those buildings from the 60s actually as bad as we think? Are some truly masterpieces just waiting for a revival of the brutalist style?

I'm not sure. But nor do I think we are doing it well in Australia. There is an undercurrent of myth-making and arch-conservatism in the way it is conceived that works against good long term outcomes; by preserving crap, and by making it harder for buildings to be used in a way that secures their future financially.

Finer Things 6th May, 2005 02:24:50   [#] [0 comments] 

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