Paddling furiously below the surface

Sorry the blog has been so quiet! I swear I have been busy, just elsewhere.

Here’s a little slice of what I’ve been up to.


Why the drugs backstage at music festivals are now for arthritis.

Has Keynes wrested Defence policy from Kissinger?

Why money means more to the poor.


A nice story on the unexpected divergence of underemployment and unemployment.

A controversial piece bashing the idea of high-speed rail.

Some more truth torpedos about submarines.


The rise and rise of the SUV.

The rise and fall of the ATM.

Special bonus photos: 1. me (left) when they invited me on Lateline to talk the Federation; and 2. the blog’s editorial director, Susie Brown, making a few edits.


FOR CLARITY: This post was entirely fabricated for April 1. The joke is apparently indiscernably subtle unless you follow AFL football quite closely.

Geelong Football Club’s league-leading use of big data has led to findings that it hopes will give the club the winning edge in 2016.

In concert with Geelong’s Deakin University and a grant from the Victorian Department of Innovation and Industry, the Club has spent the summer feeding data on team and player performance over the last 100 seasons into a supercomputer capable of running at 100 gigaflops.

The results have been as impressive as they have been influential, according to Geelong General Manager of Football, Steve Hocking.

“This data has really opened our eyes to things you’d never consider pursuing when you’re in the cut and thrust of football operations,” Hocking said.

One of the most important findings relates to factors that have historically led to a win. Hocking was eager not to give too much away. But he was able to describe a few factors the calculations turned up.

“What was really eye-opening from the big data study was the influence of previous games on the next game,” he said. “That came through loud and clear, and in many ways. We’re talking injuries, motivation, six day breaks, suspensions, the impact of travel, etc. While there’s always been anecdotal evidence they mattered, clubs have never really acted on it.”

This has led to a revolution at Geelong against the time-honoured “taking it one week at a time” preparation strategy. The age-old mantra is going the way of a steak and eggs on the morning of the game.

“It was hard to accept at first because it goes against so many years of football thinking, but we had to accept that inter-temporal linkages were a compelling factor in determining on-field success.”

According to Hocking, football season will be rearranged from a football operations perspective.  No longer will the club prepare for each round as it comes, but it will prepare for “blocs” of games.

“The season has been broken down into blocs of games,” he said. Some of those blocs are two games long, some three games, and the longest is a five-game bloc. All as suggested by the outputs of the study.

This is leading to substantial changes in practice for coaching staff, catering staff, and of course the men who wear the club jerseys onto the field on game day.

Preparing in the new big data-approved way has been something of a mental hurdle for the team, explained Geelong Captain Joel Selwood.

“We’ve been operating for so long on the basis of ‘taking it one game at a time’,” the Cats star midfielder said. “It’s actually been really hard to break that habit, and the coaches have had to institute systems to make sure we integrate the, um, intertemporal linkages into all our training.”

That includes media training.  On the side of training, while the rest of the team did skills work, Defender Harry Taylor was practising the new system with a media department intern in a mock post-match interview.

“Yeah, nah, the boys done good tonight and we’re just taking it … three weeks at a time?” said  the key position player and Cats vice-captain.

“Perfect,” said the young intern.

The End of the Share House

I have a real soft spot for the classic sharehouse.

When I started this blog, back in 2010, I was living in a big weird house in Melbourne’s North Fitzroy. Scalding in summer, freezing in winter, the place was enormous, and yet had no street access. You could only get to it from a little cobbled laneway. It was perfect.

That seemed like a rite of passage at the time. The rickety rambling sharehouse is part of our shared culture, immortalised in books like Monkey Grip and films like He Died with a Felafel in his Hand.

But the future of the sharehouse is in doubt. The property market in the inner areas where young people mostly want to live is in flux. Big old houses are almost never just sitting round un-renovated these days. They can be made into multi million dollar luxury homes, their owners are doing so.

Take this home in “gritty” inner-city Fitzroy. I guarantee that if a 2nd-year arts student lives there, it’s at home with mum and dad.

former sharehouse

The decline of the classic sharehouse is only going to accelerate if the apartment market capitulates. And there are plenty of signs that might happen.

Rents in Australia are surprisingly low compared to property prices, meaning the yield on the investment is not especially high.

RBA shows yields are low.

This is largely driven by amazing property price appreciation.  That same inflation has pushed developers to try to increase supply of inner city homes.

Building more houses in the inner city is hard, obviously, so they are building mostly apartments. The number of new apartment developments in Australia at the moment is a source of concern for our central bank. The head of financial stability singled out property developers for special attention just last week.

Apt warningIt seems likely apartment prices are going to stabilise or even fall. And soon.

When they do it will have all sorts of effects, some immediate and calamitous, others longer-term.  Big apartment towers in the inner city will become cheap accommodation. Perhaps even very cheap.

Which will be pretty much spell the end of the classic sharehouse. Why would the young – often working part-time – pay extra to live in a house when they could live in an apartment cheaply?

Ordinarily I would argue the apartment market and the house market are linked. That a fall in the prices of one will lead to a fall in the prices of the other. But the housing stock being produced in apartment buildings is often far different to the many bedroom places that would work as a share house. Many of the apartments produced in the last decade are truly tiny.

The myths and culture of the next generation will probably centre on a lifestyle where young people have no housemates at all.

Class war and cognitive dissonance: do the rich pay enough tax?

In the SMH, Jess Irvine has written a post accusing the rich of not paying enough tax. Strong piece. Very clickable, quite memorable, and in places, very reasonable:

“It is right to think that rich people should pay more tax than the poor. Happiness studies show an extra dollar means a lot more to a poor person than a wealthy person. So, we maximise society’s wellbeing when we raise taxes from the rich, rather than the poor.”

In the AFR, an equally strong reply:

Screen Shot 2016-02-15 at 1.50.33 PMThis was written by the gossip columnist though, which suggests The Fin is passing up the opportunity to really take the bait.

All this has me thinking. Do the rich really pay enough tax?

Instinct says “No!”

There is, however, a bit of cognitive dissonance the average policy wonk faces in answering such a question.

Let’s face it. Most of us consider that question by imagining those richer than us paying more. Few readers interpret it as “should I pay more tax?” even though plenty of you find yourselves in a household making over $100,000 a year.

Secondly, the average policy wonk already knows the facts.  (The graphs that follow come from a terrific Productivity Commission report that is just a few months old.)

Those on higher incomes do pay the most tax in Australia.  The few families making $175,000+ a year contribute more total tax than the (far greater) numbers of households making under $100k.

Screen Shot 2016-02-15 at 2.48.55 PMThe tax burden is squarely aimed at the top of the income distribution curve.Screen Shot 2016-02-15 at 2.36.43 PMWhen you look by assets things get a bit more complicated, but the overall trend is still richer people tend to pay more.

Screen Shot 2016-02-15 at 3.29.19 PM Screen Shot 2016-02-15 at 3.27.41 PMn.b. for whatever reason the data above is by group not decile, and the groups aren’t evenly sized. Sorry. Here’s the distribution of actual households across those groups:

Screen Shot 2016-02-15 at 3.26.42 PMOne technique Jess Irvine uses to support her call for more tax on the rich is raising the spectre of widespread income tax rorting.

I wrote about rorting in Crikey last year after we learned 55 people who earned over a million dollars paid no tax in 2012-13. That fact went viral. But it represents just 0.6 per cent of millionaires.

Most income millionaires seem to pay a lot in tax – 93  per cent of them are in a group with an average tax rate of 42 per cent. Another 6 per cent pay an average rate of 35 per cent.

I reckon tax evasion is far more common in corporate tax than income tax. But Irvine’s article says we can’t do anything about that.

She goes on to argue we should institute a land tax. It’s a good conclusion to what has been a fairly odd argument. I support a land tax. I’ve been pleased recently to see it getting a fair bit of attention.

But it doesn’t really follow from her argument.

It seems to me the rich already pay a lot of tax, are fairly honest about it, and don’t actually complain that much. Is that the end of the argument?

I say no.

This “do the rich pay enough tax?” question is just a proxy – an emotive, perhaps even fun-to-think-about proxy – for a question about whether our society is fair.

So, is Australia fair?

That’s a better question, because it allows that bubbling pot of cognitive dissonance to simmer down for a moment.

The answer is probably a qualified yes. It could be fairer still, if we focus on eliminating disadvantage.

We can hold onto the fact the rich pay most tax, and permit the idea society could still be fairer.

There are many ways to eliminate disadvantage, and make society fairer. Minimum wages and strong public health systems are a big part of it.

When we look at America, we see what can happen without them. That is an economy much less fair than the one we experience.

Transfers are another major way to make a nation fairer. A basic income, or minimum income policy would go a long way to making Australia fairer. But I don’t see arguments for hiking taxes on the rich helping create the sort of consensus necessary for that change.

Screen Shot 2016-02-15 at 2.37.21 PMAmong the many charms of minimum wages, public health and transfers is they don’t discriminate. Everyone has access to them. It’s far harder for a Tory gossip columnist to mock the idea of Medicare than the idea of soaking the rich.

So thinking about areas of disadvantage that are important to eliminate seems to be a better way of looking at fairness in the Australian context. If higher taxes are required for such policies to be afforded, precedent suggests they will fall on those with capacity to pay.

Meanwhile thinking about ways to raise the same amount of tax more efficiently is probably the best argument for land tax.

For these reasons, I’d suggest dialing back instinctively appealing arguments the rich should pay more tax, in favour of more targeted arguments about avoiding corporate tax fraud or eliminating disadvantage.

Will Pedestrians be able to make driverless cars crash to avoid them?

I seem recently to have been reading about systems that can be exploited easily.

  1. A big one is the police. An increasingly common problem for US police is something called Swatting.

I’d not heard of swatting until a few weeks ago, when I read this most incredible article about an online troll who took his trolling to the real world.

He finds out the address of a young woman, then calls the police pretending to have taken hostages at that location.

The police arrive in a hurry, with a SWAT team (hence ‘swatting’). Doors get kicked in. The intent, the troll claims, is to frighten. But sometimes, innocent people die.

Swatting shares some similarities with framing another person for crime, but the difference is the police force does little to no checking before it reacts.

2. Pizza delivery is the same technique at the other end of the seriousness spectrum. The pizza delivery location doesn’t check the address you give them either.

The seriousness comes when you find a powerful system that is forced (or chooses) to reacts very quickly without doing much checking.

3. National governments responding to terrorist attacks are perhaps another example. In the aftermath of the recent terror attacks, dust had barely settled on Paris when French jets took off over Syria, bombing… things.

The attackers wanted that and got it.

Lesson is – we should be careful when we design powerful systems that have to respond quickly, without doing much checking.

4. This makes me think of driverless cars. These will be programmed to react quickly. They’ll (sometimes) be going fast, meaning their reactions could be powerful.

Driverless cars will avoid pedestrians. It is possible they will be extremely good at doing so.

But the more reliable they are at dodging loose humans, the easier the system will be to exploit. I can imagine a future where you can step off the kerb without even looking and be sure the cars will avoid you.

Sounds nice, right? It would be a relief. But I can think of two risks.

The low-level risk is pedestrians frequently step out and cars frequently screech to a halt, traffic gets worse, and eventually the two systems are segregated and pedestrians lose a lot of access.

The bigger risk is when the cars are travelling a bit faster, but a pedestrian can still trust them to react predictably.

If they knew cars would always swerve once they were inside a certain distance, a prankster who knew the right moment to step onto the road could cause five crashes on the way to work.

Much has been written about how driverless cars will have to choose between the lives of their passengers or other potential victims.  If they have a single best strategy they always follow in answering that question, they have a weakness.

There could be ways of behaving on or near the road that reliably make cars swerve into each other or off the road.

One solution I can think of is very low speed limits. Another is programming a random element into the systems so they don’t always react the same way. If they sometimes go left and sometimes go right, the system will be a little harder to predict and a lot less tempting to exploit.

Why do tennis players lie down when they win a tournament?

The Australian Open tennis is on again this summer. I’ve watched a lot of it over the years. I don’t focus much on tennis normally but when everyone else is excited it is fun to get swept along.

One thing I’ve become fascinated by is the invariable conclusion of the final. It ends with the victor flat on their back somewhere near the baseline, seemingly felled by emotion.


It happened last night when Germany’s Kerber beat Williams from the USA in the women’s final. I bet it will happen again tonight when Murray and Djokovic face off in the men’s final.*

Djokovic has form when it comes to touching his shoulderblades to the playing surface.


Where did this peculiar celebration come from? It wasn’t always this way, as this clip of Federer’s 2003 Wimbledon triumph shows.


Collapsing to his knees dates this footage almost as much as the Federer ponytail.

What is it about tennis and collapsing? Prostration is not standard celebration in other sports.

Mostly you get excited leaping, as we see in this other tennis-like sport (go to 11:37 in the video).

But the strange thing about gestures in sports is they are learned behaviours – as tennis players collapse so cricket players throw a caught ball in the air, and motorcyclists pop wheelies.

ESPN has a great history of the most iconic sports gesture, the high-five.

And over at Slate there is a fantastic article about the phenomenon of putting your hands on your head in College Basketball.


It’s a thing. Players do it and so do people in the stands.The journalist did a comprehensive review of the history of the gesture (which he refers to as a ‘disappointment situp’.).

“I decided to review footage from the closing seconds of March Madness games, going back to 1957. I chose 64 examples from among the most exciting games ever played, as determined by a set of lists like this one in USA Today.

Some things never change: As far back as I looked, losing players slumped their shoulders and stared off into space. They shambled from the court. Starting in the 1980s, I saw them huddle up, support-group style, for some mutual consoling. (You can find a hangdog Patrick Ewing in a huddle after Georgetown’s surprise 1985 loss to Villanova.) Also of long standing are the mopey hands-on-hips and the dejected jersey-tug. Fancier displays, which may be of somewhat more recent vintage, include the sad squat, the lean of languish, and the heartsick horizontal.

What about the disappointment situp? The earliest example that I could find comes from 1990, in a losing player’s flit across the screen, after Christian Laettner made a 14-footer to send Duke to victory over UConn. From there, the hands-on-head gesture slowly gains in popularity, showing up several times during the mid- to late-1990s, and much more often in the past few years.”

The weird thing is it happens when teams are losing.  Learned gestures cover the good times as well as the bad.


It makes me think of an iconic image from the end of an AFL Grand Finals. The losing team sits on the ground wherever they were, lonely and inconsolable. This is unique to AFL, as far as I can tell, so it must be learned behaviour too. (video link)

I find this fascinating. We think of raw emotion as real – immune to codification or fads. But actually humans copy each other – even in moments when we feel most affected by our profound emotions. Monkey see, monkey do.

So, from where does the collapse trend in tennis originate?

I think I may have found the answer, and it comes from a likely source – Federer himself, probably the greatest male tennis player ever.

Here, in 2003, when he wins his first US Open, we see a hybrid version of the drop-to-the-knees celebration above. He starts on his knees, then rolls onto his back, seemingly overcome with emotion at winning . (The video below should go straight to 5:19 if things are working correctly.)

That could be the point at which the trend was born.

Has anyone got any clues as to whether this stretches back further? if so, share them below!

*EDIT 10.49pm: Djokovic won the match in straight sets and remained on his feet before shaking the hand of his opponent, selfishly ruining my piece!

After that he briefly came back on court and kneeled down, kissing the playing surface.  I hoped for a moment he might roll over onto his back like a dog seeking a rub on the tummy, but he got up again.

Perhaps the flop down is reserved for hard-fought victories? Djokovic certainly had this one in the bag from the start. I’ll hope for better at the French Open in May!

The right amount of smoking

I’ve recently been watching two social trends, one with fear and one with relief.

Both are about the legality of “vices.”

Screen Shot 2015-12-12 at 3.29.54 PM.png

The first is gambling. I see betting ads everywhere. Gambling is taking over sports. It is also taking over our cities. Poker machines are proliferating across the poorest suburbs, while Sydney’s glittering waterfront is about to get a new casino. Packers new Barangaroo den is ostensibly for high-rollers, but of course will be for everyone within a few years of opening.

Given its corrupting influence and addictive properties, I think gambling’s reach has become too great.

Screen Shot 2015-12-12 at 3.34.41 PM
Found easily on Craigslist

The second “vice” I’ve been paying attention to is drug legalisation. I think we are on the brink of having marijuana made legal across the western world. A big part of the US has done it. Canada just voted for it. The UN itself has released a report saying the war on drugs is a really terrible idea, causing problems like the Mexican cartels.

Prohibition is a proven failed policy when it comes to alcohol – perhaps it will soon be abandoned as a policy for drugs too?

I see people very skeptical of drug control writing in the mainstream press often and I think we’re on the brink of a great relaxation.

That’s great.

But how to reconcile these two conflicting views? Banning is bad but full legalisation is bad too. There could be a slippery slope here. First society legalises a vice, then you get to the point where the industry tbecomes so rich and powerful it ends up controlling society?

There needs to be a middle ground. Smoking is a good example. We can’t ban it. The minute you do, the illegal trade pops up. And for that matter, you can’t even tax it too heavily. I’m actually a bit concerned about Labor’s plan to hike tobacco taxes so sharply.

According to research commissioned by the tobacco companies black market smokes account for 15 per cent of consumption. That research is disputed. Google Trends, however, suggests people searching for “chop chop” (a term for illegal tobacco) has risen, whereas interest in the top cigarette brand has fallen.

Screen Shot 2015-12-12 at 2.44.50 PM.png

The reality is – there has to be an optimal level of smoking. Setting policy to reduce use to zero creates black markets, with all the problems that entails.

We have to set policy – licensing, taxation, behavioural control campaigns, advertising laws, perhaps even government monopolies – to create a certain, appropriate amount of each vice.

With smoking, we’ve controlled it at a few key points – advertising, point of sale, pricing and packaging; and campaigned against it. The policy raises tax and also incurs costs, but is effective at raising money and reducing use, while, (hopefully) keeping the illegal trade at bay.

Would society be better if we legalised and controlled every vice under the sun? It seems crazy – I can imagine an ad break telling us not to bet, then how to quit opiates, and then the risks of starting to smoke methamphetamine, even though they would all be legal and all sources of government revenue.

The costs of so much policy seem high, and the risks of not getting the optimal amount of use right seem high. But policy can be tweaked, whereas an outright ban is a tougher thing to shift.

Figuring out the optimal level of smoking – and of drinking, sports betting, pokie machines, dope smoking and heroin injection – is a delicate question. It means society knowingly sacrifices some people to addictive behaviours that harm them.

But the alternative is to sacrifice people in an act of bad faith. I would rather make things legal and trust our policy-makers to eventually get the settings right.