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.

ANAM Quartetthouse: go if you can

3 - MultiThe Australian National Academy of Music (ANAM) lives in the suburb next to mine and is a Good Thing. It’s housed in one of the umpteen magnificent town halls of Melbourne, in this case South Melbourne Town Hall and a lot of its concerts are put on by students, often supplemented by their teachers or some professional musician.

Now apart from liking the idea of listening to students play beautiful music, I can’t really tell the difference between lots of music students and great professional players, so what’s there not to like?

In any event in recent times a mysterious plywood box has been build outside the Town Hall. It’s a Quartetthaus would you believe and there are three concerts a day going on in there for the next week or so. The sound is a bit like being inside a set of headphones. The space is not larger than a largish room of a house. 52 seats are located in two concentric circles around a small circular stage on which four players play string quartets. You become aware after about five minutes that the stage is actually rotating. Which is kind of cool (In your case, owing to this article, you will be aware of this before you go, so please take appropriate precautions).

I went last night and heard a Beethoven string quartet and then a Janácek string quartet. It was very enjoyable, and cheap as such things go ($30 per person).

So I say go. Go Now. Go if you can. While you’re there you can find out why they spell Quartetthaus with a double ‘T’. And why do they speed up the rotation of the stage at the end until the players fly out into the audience (OK, I made that bit up. They don’t – but only because ethics approval would have been so hard to get. Maybe next year.)

TED Talk: Benjamin Zander on Classical Music

This TED talk from 2008 was recommended to me by my piano teacher. If you haven’t already seen it it’s well worth taking a look. If you have seen it, a second look wouldn’t be wasted.

After watching it I realised I had a considerable challenge in front of me – to transform myself from a rigidly centrist two buttock piano player to a more relaxed sometimes left-leaning, sometimes right-leaning one-buttock piano player.

Cover Art

There’s a beauty to cover songs.  The musician, free from obligation to be new, hip commercial or even original, has simply to play homage to the songs that they love. When some people, not big stars, just talented people with some recording gear and the desire to have a crack on their own, put their own little gems on the internet.  I think it’s worth pointing them out.

This, I think, is one of the very best examples.  Do you agree or have you found better?

Singing politicians – a passing fad, we hope

It wasn’t enough that we were all recently exposed to the unbelievably tone-deaf talents of Craig Emerson.

Before that there was former Senator Mary Jo Fisher’s very strange spoken rendition of the Rocky Horror Timewarp number, eerily presaging the instability that eventually segued into serial shoplifting.

Now, God forbid, we have Treasurer Wayne Swan on a Bruce Springsteen kick, although at least he leaves the singing to his daughter who can actually more or less hold a tune.

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Herding Part Two: Superstars

This wasn’t supposed to be the theme of part two (Part One is here) but Jessica Irvine’s recent and timely column on superstardom and One Direction prompted me to add my two cents’ worth – well someone else’s two cents’ worth but at least inserted by me.

First; highlights from Jessica’s column:

US labour market economist Sherwin Rosen in his 1981 paper ”The Economics of Superstars” identified two preconditions that lead to superstardom. First, every customer in the market must want to buy the good supplied by the best producer. The second condition for the birth of a superstar is that the good provided must be able to be distributed cheaply to all customers in the market. You don’t see superstar plumbers, because their services are only available to one geographic area.

Rosen’s theory of superstardom as an efficient outcome of the market was challenged by another US economist, Moshe Adler, who pointed out that whether people preferred one singer over the other was not necessarily determined by how talented they were. There is, after all, no standard unit to measure increments of talent. The key thing about groups like One Direction, according to Adler, is not that they are the most talented – for such a thing can never be measured – but that they are simply the most popular.

According to Adler, consumer desires are not innate preferences – as standard economics assumes – but are influenced strongly by society. We desire the same art, culture and music that is desired by other people.

To which I would only add the graph below which features in Paul Ormerod’s forthcoming book. In a controlled experiment with people listening to music if they were not ‘networked’ which is to say they didn’t know what other people thought was good, there was a fairly big inherent difference between songs. If they were networked, they ‘herded’ strongly.

Typical outcome of the music download experiments; number of each of the 48 songs downloaded over the course of an experiment, participants only know the names of the song and band and can listen to songs before deciding whether or not to download. The average number of downloads is set equal to 100 for comparative purposes

Same experiment as before except the participants know the number of previous downloads of each of the songs before they decide themselves



















Of course the upshot of this is that we’re all madly herding from one place to another, but the extent to which there’s signal in the noise of our herding is greatly attenuated.  Further; large amounts of rent are being expended trying to get people’s attention with marketing to get into people’s headspace and win the battle for the next hit.