Our ABC: some great Radio National listening

Scales of JusticeI drove for the best part of 11 hours over the last few days giving a Do Lecture (would you believe?) which was fun. In any event I listened to some seriously great radio.

Inside the drug court I was riveted by three 50 minute docos on the NSW Drug Court. It really is a tragedy that our media overlords have decided that this innovation is ‘soft’ on crime compared with the traditional system. I think it’s much better understood as simply breaking down the interface between prison and out of prison in a more thoughtful way than the traditional system does.

The traditional system exercises various sentencing and post-sentencing discretions. All the NSW Drug Court does is design a system of discretion and resources so that the incentives in the prison system actually work in the short term – where we know from research (and commonsense) that stimulus-response mechanisms work much more effectively.

The NSW Drug Court operates by suspending the sentences of prisoners and bringing them into a regime where their progress and their liberty is reassessed every week in a court hearing before a judge. This is combined with some counselling resources and drug tests three times weekly. They must attend all appointments on time, and they must self-declare all breaches of their conditions in their weekly court hearing. When they acquire 14 ‘sanctions’ or recorded failures to meet these conditions (and with their chaotic lives they often they acquire several in a single week) they are sent back to prison detox unit for 14 days and so the process goes on until they either graduate to stages two and three which involve progressively less intense supervision after which they graduate altogether. The alternative throughout is that they simply lose their place in the program and complete their prison sentence.

As you can see, it’s hardly ‘soft’. Just a sensible adaptation of the prison system and its resources to the challenge which the radio programs show you is an immense one, of rebuilding the life of a person who’s leant on drugs to get them through their life for often at least one, and frequently two or more decades, while their life has fallen further and further apart, while what semblance there was of order in their lives has been thoroughly white-anted, whose whole identity and social network is built on their life on drugs and outside the law. So it’s pretty much out of the fire of prison and into the frying pan of a Skinner box of active operant conditioning.

It still struck me how legally based the program still was. I have no problem with the legal architecture. A court hearing once a week might make a lot of sense, but it seemed to me the program, as good as it seemed to be was still crying out for more peer support mechanisms such as those we build in TACSI, in addition to – and probably in replacement of some of - the professional support. The three programs were made over 14 months and take you inside the process and into the lives of four or five people who go through the process. If you don’t have three hours, take just one and listen to one of the programs. (This is an order from Troppo Headquarters - your internet address has been logged). I found them gripping. You’ll love and despair at some of the characters. The programs, in order are here, here and here.

The vagabond Fascinating story of an eccentric Melbourne man who set himself up as The Vagabond, (presumably) Australia’s first ‘embedded’ journalist reporting from the front-line of various institutions of Melbourne that would have been, without him, out of sight out of mind. Here’s the link.

Peter Sculthorpe I’m not much of a fan of modern ‘serious’ music and so have not listened to Peter Sculthorpe.  Indeed, after listening to him being interviewed and loving doing so, I’m curious to listen to some of his music which I will, though I don’t have any strong expectation that I’ll even like it. But the moment you hear his voice you can hear that he’s a certain kind of older person. Centred, thoughtful, humble, insightful about his life and the world around him. I love listening to such people. His music wafts beautifully mostly in the background. Here’s the link.

Note: All these programs other than the last are on a new program called Earshot which seems to simply scoop up all sorts of docos on just the kinds of subjects that interest me. It also seems to have absorbed the ABC’s religious program Encounter, which I’ve always liked, though some of the programs I listened to on my drive were pretty disappointing. One on Volunteer Tourism took an awfully long time to get to the point of what was wrong with it beyond vague generalities and the second program in three on Faith, reason and the three Abrahamic religions – on Islam which let radical Islamic spokespeople off way too lightly IMO.  They all claimed to be non-violent and I presume they were, but the scene was set with references to Australian Muslims demonstrating with signs calling for the death of those who ridicule the prophet. The Muslims in the program were not even asked to say what our attitude or policy should be to such conduct or required to confront it as a problem.

The episode on Christianity interviewed some very interesting people – like poet Christian Wyman. It offered a reasonable alternative view to schoolboy atheism, but having set up the dichotomy between atheism and belief drifted into a comfortable “we’re among Christians here” mood offering the alternative view without going to the trouble of offering anything that would have any chance of at least slightly unsettling the schoolboy atheists they’d framed the program around (many of whom are readers of this site).

Postscript: the audio of the audio.

Why is Infant Mortality Higher in the US than in Europe? (Hint: it’s what you guessed it was)

maternal mortality nigeriaby Alice Chen, Emily Oster, Heidi Williams – #20525 (AG CH HC HE PE)


The US has a substantial – and poorly understood – infant mortality disadvantage relative to peer countries. We combine comprehensive micro-data on births and infant deaths in the US from 2000 to 2005 with comparable data from Austria and Finland to investigate this disadvantage. Differential reporting of births near the threshold of viability can explain up to 40% of the US infant mortality disadvantage. Worse conditions at birth account for 75% of the remaining gap relative to Finland, but only 30% relative to Austria. Most striking, the US has similar neonatal mortality but a substantial disadvantage in postneonatal mortality. This postneonatal mortality disadvantage is driven almost exclusively by excess inequality in the US: infants born to white, college-educated, married US mothers have similar mortality to advantaged women in Europe. Our results suggest that high mortality in less advantaged groups in the postneonatal period is an important contributor to the US infant mortality disadvantage.

Full paper here.

Medical Marijuana Laws and Teen Marijuana Use

Amazing that this is such a big deal, that we can administer morphine but not medical marijuana to alleviate pain. The paper is here.


While at least a dozen state legislatures in the United States have
recently considered bills to allow the consumption of marijuana for
medicinal purposes, the federal government is intensifying its
efforts to close medical marijuana dispensaries. Federal officials
contend that the legalization of medical marijuana encourages
teenagers to use marijuana and have targeted dispensaries operating
within 1,000 feet of schools, parks and playgrounds. Using data from
the national and state Youth Risk Behavior Surveys, the National
Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997 and the Treatment Episode Data Set,
we estimate the relationship between medical marijuana laws and
marijuana use. Our results are not consistent with the hypothesis
that legalization leads to increased use of marijuana by teenagers.

by D. Mark Anderson, Benjamin Hansen, Daniel I. Rees – #20332 (CH HE LE)

Operation 2770: TACSI’s Family by Family expands to Mt Druitt

(For the full 27 minute video from which this 6 minute video has been extracted, click here.)
Family by Family about which you’ve heard before is spreading its wings. We’ve started in Mt Druitt where we’ve scoped the program investigating how it should be changed to optimise it to the local community. Here’s the Scoping Report which I think makes interesting reading.

Anyway we launched the scoping report with the Minister who’d commissioned us to establish the program – Pru Goward. And here are notes for my speech at the function. One thing that got my attention was the fact that, according to the scoping report, quite a few people from the area have tattooed their postcode – 2770 – to themselves. And the supporters of Greater Western Sydney take signs of their postcodes to fixtures against Sydney Football Club – which is now more explicitly the team from the leafy suburbs.  I’m thinking that that pride about their postcode has the same kind of glorious defiance in it that Nicky Winmar showed one day at Victoria Park, when he pulled up his jumper and pointed to the colour his own skin to insist that it wasn’t his problem – it was the Collingwood outer’s problem.

Here also is the audio of a recent interview on this by Alex Sloan.

Notes for a Speech by Nicholas Gruen, Chairman of the Australian Centre for Social Innovation at the launch of the Family by Family Scoping Report for Mt Druitt, 12th March, 2014


Welcome to our modest function at Postcode 2770

Still, I’m reliably informed that from little things big things grow.

These are the words of Mystic (pronounced Mystique). She’s 21 now but was in out of home care since she was 3.

It happened so quickly. Once I turned 18, they sort of kicked me on my arse. They said ‘here’s $750, see you later, thank you’. And I’m just like ‘what the hell?’. A book and $750. That’s for being in care all your life.

Actually it makes you feel like an outsider. It makes you feel non existent on this earth. Like you are an alien. It does. It affects when you go to school too. You’re so used to being called ‘client’ and stuff that you start looking at yourself different to everyone else.

This example is not from NSW, but it’s not such an extreme example for those who know the system. And this is after what must be a decade, perhaps two of talking about “citizen centric services”!


Family by Family is different.

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Who’s oppressing women? Royal baby edition

I recall going to a lecture by Naomi Wolf at the Australian National Gallery in Canberra when she burst onto the scene as the author of The Beauty Myth which seemed to promise some new beginning after the sixties’ and seventies’ ‘second wave’ feminism.

The obsession with women’s beauty and body image was certainly a good thing to be talking about – then as now. But I remember reading the book and liking it but being very disappointed in the ‘explanation’ for what was going on, which, as I recall was a ‘male backlash’ explanation. Men occupying the various Commanding Heights of Our Culture were threatened by feminism and from this sprang their attraction to beauty aesthetics which infantalised women, and associated beauty with androgynous physical qualities of female pre-pubescence. It wasn’t very well explained how so few men foisted this on so many women, but there you go.

This is all from memory so may be somewhat shaky. Feel free to correct me below.

However I wondered why the images which posited anorectic norms were just as strong, (my guess would be stronger!) in women’s fashion mags than they were in magazines for the male gaze. And what’s the ideological significance of this for gender issues in our culture? I don’t want to promote the idea that one gender is more to blame than the other. We’re all part of the culture. But it did seem to me that the female gaze – on other females – was a big part of the story – and since it was inconvenient for Wolf and lots of other feminists of the time to acknowledge it, it received short shrift.

Anyway, when I saw this article on the media coverage of Kate M’s ‘Mummy Tummy’, I thought it was a good exhibit for my argument.  Here’s an assertion which I’ve not researched. There are very few men gazing at Kate holding her baby thinking critically about her still somewhat swollen tum. But it does seem to be a subject of interest to plenty of women. I doubt you’d see much on Kate’s inability to unswell her tummy within 12 hours of giving birth in any men’s mag, but I’m thinking that the coverage on this topic is receiving coverage in women’s mags (though of course also in general reading newspapers what with their readership being fifty odd per cent women - I’m guessing mostly tabloids).

Am I right? If I am I wonder why the facts are as I’ve described and what their significance is?


Nobel Prizes: the hard way

I didn’t know this – until my son told me. From this website.

Sometimes it is necessary for doctors to get access to the heart either for diagnosis or treatment. The simplest way to do this might seem to be to hack open the chest and have a look at the organ itself. Obviously this has massive risks and while even today opening the chest is risky, in the 1930s it would have been almost certainly fatal. Werner Forssman studied corpses and decided it would be possible to pass a thin tube, or catheter, along blood vessels and directly into the heart. Needing to discover whether this would be possible in still living humans he decided an experiment would be in order. He cut open his arm and threaded the tube up and into his heart. A small slip could have torn a major vessel and led to his death but he still needed to prove he had reached the heart. So, with the tube dangling from his arm, he walked from the operating room to an x-ray machine, and took the pictures which showed he had been successful. For this bit of scientific derring-do he shared the Nobel Prize in medicine in 1956.

Naturally two thirds of the current Troppo garage – both the Merc sports and “Rooter” – will be made available over some mutually convenient weekend to any Troppodillian who is able to earn a Nobel Prize in similar fashion.

Medicalising ADHD

Do Stimulant Medications Improve Educational and Behavioral
Outcomes for Children with ADHD?
by Janet Currie, Mark Stabile, Lauren E. Jones



We examine the effects of a policy change in the province of Quebec, Canada which greatly expanded insurance coverage for prescription
medications. We show that the change was associated with a sharp increase in the use of Ritalin, a medication commonly prescribed for
ADHD, relative to the rest of Canada. We ask whether this increase in medication use was associated with improvements in emotional
functioning and short- and long-run academic outcomes among children with ADHD. We find evidence of increases in emotional problems among girls, and reductions in educational attainment among boys. Our results are silent on the effects on optimal use of medication for ADHD, but suggest that expanding medication use can have negative consequences given the average way these drugs are used in the community.

Just Another (Almost) Routine Mental Health Crisis

Prelude: Lento

It’s after midnight and the other members of the household are either asleep or pursuing their own consolations in the silence of their own rooms. So, much as I might desire the consolation of recorded orchestral music played at concert hall volume, it just wouldn’t be fitting so I shall have to settle for the consolation of writing eloquent prose. Well it pleases me to think it eloquent and, right now at the time of writing, mine is the only opinion that matters.

Part I: Andante Moderato

On Monday (27th May) I finally, after several weeks of procrastination, contacted Centrelink to organise and advance on my DSP so that later in the week I could take a stroll down to the local music store and buy myself an electric piano. Even my maximum available advance wasn’t going to get me a concert grand and there’s no room in the house for such a monster piece of furniture so an electric piano would just have to do. And so begins the story of how an apparently simple consumeristic self-indulgence and the desire to resume a pianistic career that was cut short a little under 5 decades ago unleashed an emotional tsunami that led to a depressive crisis. I have to tell you, this one totally blindsided me; usually I know a bit in advance when I’ve got one coming because I know what stressors to watch out for.

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This week’s column: the corruption of our intellectual culture

Illustration: Rocco Fazzari
ASIDE from war, corruption is probably the biggest obstacle to economic and social development in poor countries. But it’s best we see ourselves as being on a continuum with them, rather than as having solved the problem. Even if no law was broken, Wall Street financiers imposed vast costs on us all by corrupting the financial system – while they walked away with billions.

The way I see it, all social and economic institutions are an ecology of private and public goods – of private and public motives. If I’m right, our penchant for ideological trench warfare between those arguing for the primacy of the private over the public or vice versa is a sideshow. What matters is making the ecology of public and private as healthy as possible.

Let me explain.

In a market, people pursue their own interests. That’s the point of markets. But that self-seeking is according to rules. In addition to pervasive social norms, there’s also the law. But whereas traders are self-interested (mostly within the rules) those enforcing the rules – such as police and judges – represent collective interests and must reflect that in their work, rather than their self-interest. Market failure arises where such public standards cannot be delivered – so traders must waste their time and resources checking to ensure they’re not being cheated and fighting for their share.

And this same ecology of public and private goods, of competitive and public spirited endeavour, is just as crucial in the market for knowledge. Continue reading