Weekend competition: Yes folks it’s on again

Troppo is getting ready for the singularity. That’s the period during which Ken, Don, David and I put our feet up and Troppo just runs itself with KenBot, DonBot, DavidBot and MeBot doing all the work. Commenters put their feet up too and just pig out on scones, cream and zero calorie jam. Conrad gets his comments accepted by the system without going automatically into moderation for no apparent reason and things just get better and better until they are #AsGoodAsTheyCanGet. This is the well known pre-singularity phase after which the good vibe cannot escape and we are all sucked into the Singularity.

Anyway, we’re not sitting around here, we’re not afraid of the future. In fact, to coin a phrase, we’re embracing it. Why just today I embraced Jess the Jestar Robot as you can see from the screen shot to your right. So this weekend, by order of the Troppo collective (it was mainly me – the others sent alpha distributions of their bots) we’re hosting a competition for the best conversations with robots. Just head down to some bot and have a conversation of literary merit exceeding my own with Jess and all the other contestants (imaginary bots are OK) and the (imaginary) prize is yours.

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Latest ACMA research on kids’ TV brings no comfort to Australian Producers: By Patricia and Don Edgar

Image result for children's tv quotas

B1 and B2, or as they’re known here at Troppo, T1 and T2 “Are you thinking what I’m thinking T2?”

The contentious issue of obligatory quotas for commercial children’s television is now under review and has polarised the industry. The commercial networks say the quotas are no longer valid as children aren’t watching and they can no longer afford them, and the production industry argues that without these programs children will be denied stories that are essential to their cultural development. But, does available research show that Australian children still want to watch the programs made specifically for them under the regulations that have been in force since the 1980’s? It does not seem so.

The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) is charged with regulating television content to ensure children ‘have access to quality TV programming’ and are ‘protected from the possible harmful effects of television’. One could therefore expect that ACMA’s Report on Children’s television viewing and multi-screen behaviour released in August 2017 would assist the review that’s underway. That review aims to evaluate the efficacy of current regulations in achieving their stated cultural objectives but the ACMA report fails abysmally to properly inform that inquiry.

The report offers no analysis of quality or harm, and only an indirect assessment of children’s TV quotas (for P and C classified programs including Australian C drama). The study does show clearly that kids now spend more time online than they do watching television, but the research is so poorly designed and reported that it is misleading. It claims at the outset – a claim producers have seized upon – that ‘broadcast TV viewing remains an important part of the way Australian children and families access children’s programming’; that the decline in viewing is ‘slow’ and ‘they (children) are still watching programs specifically made for them’ as ‘a regular part of daily life’.

A lay person could therefore assume ACMA’s regulations are achieving their aim. But dig into the data and a different, confused picture, emerges. Continue reading

Posted in Education, Films and TV, Innovation | 10 Comments

Leadership without careerism: is it possible?

Cross-posted from The Mandarin:

Our world has been optimised to within an inch of its life. Usually from the top down. With the economic, social and organisational prizes accumulating more and more to those at the top, there’s growing anxiety to get on – not to be left behind. Kids going for scholarships are advised to craft a ‘TED talk’ style mission they’re ‘passionate’ about and a CV to match.

Careerism is rife. And that’s bad news for the culture of our institutions and organisations – both public and private – which should function as collective entities first and as vehicles for individual careers second. The more workplaces must cultivate a network of creative collaboration, the more intrinsic motivation in doing the job itself matters, the more careerism is a threat. Even more so for in the public and third sector which can’t easily benchmark their performance against competitors and can’t gauge the value of their output by how much customers pay.      

With these things on my mind I recently discovered a simple mechanism that might help resist the cancer of careerism. It’s easily engineered, and yet we’ve rarely had the wit to even consider it. It’s a form of ‘roundabout’ production just like markets are. Let me explain. Continue reading

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How will shared autonomous electric vehicles change our cities? A Troppo challenge

Driverless cars

Artist’s incorrect impression, from the film “Minority Report”. In the real future, these autonomous cars would be travelling much closer together, and there would be more of them.

This month’s print and online editions of The CEO Magazine include a piece by me on carmakers’ concerns about SAEVs – shared autonomous electric vehicles.

Short version: the carmakers all believe that SAEVs will happen, and perhaps quite soon, probably sometime in the 2020s. And they fear the arrival of SAEVs may essentially destroy them, by turning them into commodity producers of hardware for “mobility services firms”. In this world, you won’t own a car; you’ll just tap the mobility firm’s app whenever you need to go somewhere.

This will puts a huge hole in the business model of “The Ultimate Driving Machine” and all those other car brands:

Are the industry leaders scared? “Oh, yeah,” says Sam Abuelsamid, co-author of a major report on the evolution of SAEVs published in April by technology research firm Navigant Research. “The industry has been doing business in the same way for more than 100 years. This is a huge transformation … everybody’s terrified.”

Writing the piece was a lot of fun: you don’t often get to write up an industry contemplating its imminent extinction. These guys have been thinking for a long time about how SAEVs will change their world.

SAEVs and the city

Thinking about the full range of second-order effects of SAEVs is limited by the reality that we really don’t see any self-driving cars yet.

But one obvious key to all this is the Jevons effect, named after the world’s first great resource economist, William Stanley Jevons. He noted in 1865 that technological improvements that burnt coal more efficiently did not cut coal consumption. “The very contrary is the truth,” he declared; cheaper coal meant more coal-burning. He was, of course, exactly right. Our entire modern world is shaped (as they say in the pop history business) by the Jevons effect.

When we think about the effects of SAEVs, we can say that they do several things. But all of those things together add up to a huge fall in the monetary and time costs of travel:

  • SAEVs will be far cheaper than the car in your garage: they will have less moving parts, lower insurance premiums, lower energy costs and far, far higher utilisation rates.
  • They will put you in a private cocoon where you can work or relax, combining the best features of cars and public transport. My guess is that a lot of SAEVs will come with big screens and surround sound.
  • By enabling cars to be packed together in giant convoys, they will reduce congestion.
  • Because they will be so much safer at a given speed, speed limits will be raised – probably first on certain freeway lanes, where they will be separated from the human-driven traffic.

And the Jevons effect predicts that cheaper travel – easier on the hip pocket, quicker, and nicer for you – will mean more travel.

Or looking at it another way, SAEVs will do much the same thing that building freeways will do: attract more traffic onto the roads, except at a higher average speed than we’re used to today. A corollary of this is that people will take more, longer trips.

And particularly, people will be willing to accept living further away from their work, because the commute will still take no more time than they’re spending on it now.

What half an hour gets you

If you doubt this could happen, be aware that there’s a thing in the world of urban transport called Marchetti’s constant, which is the average amount of time people reserve for their daily commute. It’s about an hour, or half an hour each way. Marchetti’s original paper, which still seems to be held in some esteem, argues that this has dictated the shape of cities back to Athenian times.

If all of this is right, SAEVs could well give us cities sprawling on a scale we have never seen before. Melbourne’s boundaries could extend to Bendigo, and Sydney could become one continuous city from Newcastle to Nowra. After all, for most of the city’s history, most people have wanted more space.

This is just one possible and fairly obvious second-order effect of the move to SAEVs. There are dozens of others. My favorite so far is Benedict Evans’ suggestion that SAEVs could lower smoking rates: a substantial proportion of cigarettes are purchased at service stations as an impulse buy, and that won’t happen when no-one stops to get petrol any more.

I’m inviting Tropodillians’ speculation on possible holes in my scenario above, and on ideas for other second-order and even third-order effects. For instance, will public transport survive? I’m starting to think not. And if it does, how long can the unions hold out against the removal of train drivers?

Extra: A few reports.

Posted in Economics and public policy, Uncategorized | 13 Comments

Where Game of Thrones misunderstands politics and religion

I am a big fan of the GOT books and series, loving Season 7 and salivating at Season 8 to come. Great escapism and fantastic acting and camerawork. Part of what I love about GOT is how it far more ruthlessly than, say, Lord of the Rings, describes blind ambition, lust, treachery, human frailties, and the game of alliances. Where LOR has lofty being holding fast on their course for whole lifetimes, GOT has bumbling killers whose moments of goodness get them killed.

Ever since reading the first book though, I did not think of GOT as a serious attempt to describe or analyse human politics and religion. My gripe was not with the existence of magic in this fantasy world, or even various plot-twists that made no sense. There were three far more fundamental aspects of the books that told me the author either did not understand humanity or had no ambition to truly describe how human conflicts might go in an environment that has some supernatural elements but is otherwise ‘realistically human’:

  1. The existence of Noble Houses that have lasted for thousands of years  in a situation where they are lords of their regions but the local religion is not about them. This simply is naive when it comes to how religions develop. The Roman emperors started to be thought of like gods within about about 100 years. The Chinese emperors and the Japanese similarly needed far less than thousands of years of dominance to become central figures in the religion of their regions. The fact that the same is not true in Westeros tells you that GOT does not have religion as humans know it and hence does not have humans as we know them. Indeed, even in the 7 Seasons of GOT, new religions have come from outside of the game of power, without its contents worshipping power itself.
  2. The longevity of noble houses for thousands of years that are constantly at war, but without constantly being wiped out and replaced by others. That is just ‘fantastical’. It has taken GOT merely 7 seasons to wipe out several ancient families that supposedly survived for thousands of years, but we’re supposed to buy into the idea that the starting line up had all these houses surviving warfare unscathed hitherto? This means GOT lacks believable history for the preceding 8000 years, whilst trying to create a believable history for 7 seasons.
  3. The existence of an independent guild of ‘Maesters’ whose institutions and roles have not been usurped by those in power. That is not how power works: such an easy source of influence would not be allowed to remain independent in any realistic game of power. Like religion hence, the independent trajectory of the Maesters and their citadel before and during the 7 Seasons belies how power games leave no avenue of influence alone.

So GOT is supposedly about the game of power, but it has left several realms of the human mind outside of it (history, religion, science). As such, it is mentally romantic escapism. I am tempted to speculate that the author left those realms alone because he couldn’t bare corrupting the realms he himself feels closest to: Tyrion could have said “If we truly love it, we lie about it.” And lie about it GRR Martin has. Deliberately, who knows?

And who cares? Long may the Games continue!

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Patricia Edgar on Children’s TV: Part Two

Continued from Part One.

The ABC and Children’s Programming – The Highs, Lows and Power-plays

Image result for children's TVThe promise of the early years

When ABC television first aired, on November 5, 1956, children’s programs presented a dilemma. There was no Australian film production industry, and video tape was yet to be invented. The highly successful radio program The Argonauts was not suited to visual adaptation so the public broadcaster settled on a studio-based Children’s TV Club, featuring paintings, photography and puppets. The program could not compete with The Happy Show and The Tarax Show on the commercial stations which lured children with giveaways. But Mr Squiggle did. A puppet with a pencil for a nose made drawings out of squiggly lines sent in by young viewers, and developed as an imaginative and successful children’s entertainment screened on the ABC for a quarter of a century.

During the first two television decades the ABC excelled with its educational programs, and by the mid-seventies more than 80 percent of schools carried ABC broadcasts. Adventure Island, for 3-9 year olds, produced by an independent production house, was also a creative and engaging program airing from 1967 to 1972.

Play School began its life on the BBC in 1964 and was sold to Australia, Canada and New Zealand before production began locally in July 1966. The BBC kept a proprietorial eye on its progeny and their producers claimed then (and the Australian producers have consistently claimed since) that they held the holy-grail for pre-schoolers. However the program derives from an English middle-class model for conforming children, which does not challenge their thinking. Although it is now lauded as an icon, the tenacity with which the Play School team have defended their enterprise has undermined the potential of ABC children’s programming and production in Australia for decades. What we have learned about child development in more than fifty years has gone largely ignored by the program. Continue reading

Posted in Economics and public policy, Ethics, Films and TV, Literature, Media, Parenting | 5 Comments

Patricia Edgar on Children’s TV: Part One

Image result for round the twistMany readers will have heard of Patricia Edgar who was a giant force in Australian cultural life from the 1970s. She more than anyone else was responsible for lifting the tone of children’s TV in Australia. In any event I was talking to her recently about the current woes of children’s TV and out of our conversation came a three part essay from Tricia the first part of which is below: Nicholas Gruen

Commercial Networks Versus Producers – Quotas for Children’s Television

On May 6, 2017, the Minister for Communications, Mitch Fifield announced ‘a broad ranging and comprehensive review of Australian and children’s content’ within a broader media reform package aimed at assisting free-to-air networks to remain viable in the highly competitive digital era. At the same time, the House Standing Committee on Communications and the Arts is inquiring into the ‘factors contributing to the growth and sustainability of the Australian film and television industry’. These enquiries have come about because of the impact of digital technology on the free-to-air networks and have triggered off a battle royal between the networks and the producers with both groups acting from positions of self interest.

For forty years the networks have been opposed to children’s television quotas. They’ve employed every tactic in the book to subvert successful programming. But for the first time they have a legitimate case as the child audience is now deserting scheduled television in droves for the Pied Piper of social media; the networks claim child audiences have gone down as low as 2000 viewers for a program.

The producers, who have enjoyed the most effectively regulated production system for children’s programs anywhere in the world, are understandably, wanting to cling to the quotas and subsidies that have allowed some of them to establish profitable businesses. They want them expanded to include the ABC and pay television platforms. However they have shown few signs of adapting to the new technologies.

The rhetoric on both sides of the argument is extravagant and misleading with little attention given to the needs and interests of the audience they claim to serve. Continue reading

Posted in Economics and public policy, Media, Public and Private Goods | 12 Comments