– Is this the NBN’s grandmother?

Click to go to video

Here’s a possible pointer to the glorious future the NBN will bring to country Australia.

Made in 1992, this Telecom Australia (former name of Telstra) promotional video touts the huge benefits broadband will create for business in Australia. Seems to get it right on most things despite the lousy acting, lousy script, lousy props and big glasses. My memory’s hazy about what you could do and couldn’t do in those days but I do recall at a meeting in 1991 seeing a portable projector attached to a laptop for the first time (worked liked an epidiascope IIRC).

So far as the period is concerned, I notice the boss doesn’t say please, blokes can’t touch type, the Japanese take laser copies and workers seem to be a trifle more physically familiar with their colleagues than would probably be acceptable today. Oh, and billion dollar investments were won on a night’s work, a few nods and some pretty pictures. My favourite bit is the map of the Red Water Creek plant that’s being printed in part 3 — do you recognize it? The biggest advances since 1992 have probably been made in the quality of corporate videos!

Note there are three parts to the video but they’re pretty short. BTW the video’s at Paleofuture, which is certainly one of the most interesting sites I’ve seen in a while.


– What concept is most useful for thinking?

Is congestion pricing fair?

This is one of the most interesting things I’ve read in a while. According to Princeton University Professor of Psychology and Nobel Laureate, Daniel Kahneman, nothing in life is as important as you think it is. He gives these examples:

Education is an important determinant of income — one of the most important — but it is less important than most people think. If everyone had the same education, the inequality of income would be reduced by less than 10%. When you focus on education you neglect the myriad other factors that determine income. The differences of income among people who have the same education are huge.

Income is an important determinant of people’s satisfaction with their lives, but it is far less important than most people think. If everyone had the same income, the differences among people in life satisfaction would be reduced by less than 5%.

I find these insights astonishing and I suspect they throw light on key urban issues too. If nothing else, they emphasise the dangers of focussing on single causes and hence on single solutions. Professor Kahneman is one of 159 contributors who responded to the question: “What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive tool kit?” at Edge.Org. This site has been setting an annual question and inviting brief responses from thinkers since 1998.

The vast majority of contributors are from prestigious universities and institutions. Many are intellectuals of international stature, including Richard Dawkins (who nominates the double-blind, controlled experiment), Richard Thaler (aether), Jonah Lehrer (strategic allocation of attention), Paul Kedrosky (shifting baseline syndrome), Clay Shirky (the Pareto principle) and Matt Ridley (collective intelligence). This year’s question was set by Harvard psychologist, Steve Pinker, who also makes an interesting nomination (positive-sum games). This is the New York Time’s summary of some of the key contributions. You can read the rest of Professor Kahneman’s short piece here.

I didn’t see anything that was specifically on urbanism (there are contributions by three architects – Stefan Boeri, Neri Oxman and Richard Saul Wurman – although for my money the real value is in the scientists) however there is one by Brian Eno (ecology) and, in particular, another by Matt Ridley that should be interesting to anyone concerned with how and why cities work:

Brilliant people, be they anthropologists, psychologists or economists, assume that brilliance is the key to human achievement. They vote for the cleverest people to run governments, they ask the cleverest experts to devise plans for the economy, they credit the cleverest scientists with discoveries, and they speculate on how human intelligence evolved in the first place. Read the rest of this entry »


Does the Grand Prix have to be so effin’ loud?

There’s an important debate going on about the net economic benefits of the Australian Grand Prix, but what I can’t get over is the noise.

The nearest point of Albert Park is 9 km as the crow flies from my house yet today I can hear it inside. It’s not loud enough to be annoying – just part of the background hum really – but I’m astounded that I hear it at all.

That makes me wonder why F1 has to be so extremely, incredibly loud. According to the cost benefit analysis published by the Victorian Auditor General on the 2005 race, the estimated peak noise level trackside reaches 125 dB(A) and 105 dB(A) at 100 metres. The report says above 70 db (A) is annoying and 115 dB (A) can cause hearing damage, although this depends on the duration and the vulnerability of the listener.

I’ve only visited Albert Park once but that was enough – I found the noise excruciating. Ditto the Gold Coast Indycar. Even with foam ear pads plus a set of those external headphone-type sound dampeners it was still plenty loud enough. At some events the organisers also send an air force jet over at low altitude, presumably to show what real noise is!

The Auditor General reckons the impact of noise from the 2005 event ‘cost’ 12,500 neighbouring households a combined $415,000 (not that they were actually compensated!).  Households within the 70 dB (A) contour suffered an estimated disamenity of $50 per week and those within the 80 dB (A) contour – where the noise level is generally regarded as intolerable – suffered $100 per week.

I’d debate the methodology but there’s some relief coming in the 2013 season when a new ‘green’ four cylinder turbo charged engine has been mandated by the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA). It will be significantly quieter than the current eight cylinder engine but it seems noise is in the DNA of the sport. F1 boss Bernie Eccelstone is at loggerheads with the FIA over the change. This week he said:

I meet people worldwide in all different walks of life – sponsors, promoters and journalists – and I think there are two things that are really important for Formula One. One is Ferrari, and second is the noise. People get excited about the noise. People who have never been to a Formula One race, when they leave you ask them what they liked, and they say ‘the noise.’ It’s incredible, it really gets to you.

With serious questions being raised about the viability of the Grand Prix in Melbourne, it’s time for Bernie to embrace this change. The Auditor General found that the costs of the event exceed the economic benefits, let alone the cash outlay. Reducing the impact on residents affected by the noise footprint might help fans retain the race. In fact the sport should go further to embrace ‘green’ thinking as I argued this time last year.


-Is youth wasted on the young?

No way! If it weren’t for students we wouldn’t have flashmobs. I don’t know why, but they make me well up a bit. Here’s a collection of flashmobs dating from 2006 to last week. There’s even this one at Bondi Beach in 2009.

Ontario, Food Court, Christmas, 2010

Central Station, Antwerp, 2009

Rail station, Prague, 2010

London, Liverpool St Station, 2009

Berlin Hauptbahnhof, last week

Grand Central Station, New York, 2008

University of Florida, 2006

Manchester, supermarket, 2007

Ohio State University, cafe, 2010


Can Coles and Woolies be more sustainable?

Traffic on Lisbon's main 'arteries'

Giant US department store chain Wal-Mart has some interesting initatives to promote sustainability and public health that the likes of Coles, Woolworths and Bunnings should be taking note of.

My interest in Wal-Mart was piqued by a large number of hits The Melbourne Urbanist received last month from the US on a piece I wrote about the value of ‘food miles’. The hits were generated by an article published in The Huffington Post and the Harvard Business Review.

Written by Andrew Winston, the article looked at Wal-Mart’s efforts to green its supply chain and linked to the analysis of whether or not ‘local food’ is more sustainable that I posted here back in July.

Andrew Winston says there are three initiatives in particular that demonstrate Wal-Mart’s strategic focus on sustainability.

First, it’s doubling the quantity of locally sourced food on its shelves; second, it’s reducing the amount of saturated fat, sugar and salt in its house brand products; and third, its donating $2 million to 16 food banks to help them lower their energy costs (food banks are non profits that distribute surplus food to the hungry).

I doubt there’s any sustainability dividend from buying locally (the point of my earlier piece on ‘food miles’), but apparently Wal-Mart believes it will lower supply costs. It should also help the company create a friendlier image with local communities.

The second initiative is the key one. It could potentially provide a better public health outcome for customers as well as reduce the environmental impact associated with complex inputs like saturated fat and sugar. It should improve Wal-Mart’s standing on health and environmental issues and thereby give it a continuing commercial incentive to keep up the good work. Read the rest of this entry »


The distribution of wealth: perception vs reality

Chart from Mother Jones. And here’s a link to the paper this chart came from, Building a Better America – One Wealth Quintile at a Time (it’s quite short).


Is Melbourne the 2nd most liveable city in the world?

The Economist Intelligence Unit’s (EIU) 2011 Global Liveability Report says Melbourne is the 2nd most liveable city in the world, just behind Vancouver and up one place from 3rd last year. Sydney ranks 7th.

But any elation is likely to be short-lived. The Mercer Annual Quality of Living survey for 2011, due in late May, will very probably put Melbourne much further down the list. In Mercer’s 2009 and 2010 surveys, Melbourne slipped from 17th place to 18th place. Sydney ranked 10th in both years.

As I’ve pointed out before, these sorts of surveys shouldn’t be taken seriously as a guide to how liveable our cities really are. They have a number of shortcomings. Read the rest of this entry »


Is this one of the coolest things you’ve ever seen?

YES!!! This astounding video comes via The Atlantic. Coolest thing I’ve seen in a long time.

There’s more on Theo Jansen’s work here. He doesn’t seem to be an adherant of Charles Darwin, but his stuff is brilliant anyway.

H/T Nick Bastow


Does it pay to be the first-born if you’re a girl?

Revisiting Donald Appleyard's liveable streets project in San Francisco in the early 70s

I’m gob-smacked by the findings of this paper, The Demand for Sons. No, it doesn’t pay to be the first-born in the family if you’re a girl, at least not in the US. Preference for sons is not limited to China and India.

The paper is by Gordon Dahl and Enrico Moretti from the University of California and was published in 2008 in The Review of Economic Studies.

They find that “first-born girls and their siblings are more likely to live in families where income is lower, the poverty rate is higher, welfare participation is higher, home ownership is lower, and child support payments following a divorce are lower”.

The authors ask this question: do parents in the US have preferences regarding the gender of their children and, if so, does this have negative consequences for daughters versus sons? Read the rest of this entry »


How liveable are our major cities?

How residents of our five largest cities (combined) see liveability

Adelaide is the most liveable capital city in Australia and Sydney is the least, according to a study released earlier this month by the Property Council of Australia.

The Australian reports that Sydney might have the harbour, Opera House and Bondi, but most Sydneysiders live a long way from these attractions in less salubrious places like Liverpool, Strathfield and Penrith.

The Property Council’s study is based on a national sample of 4,072 respondents in the nation’s eight capital cities (with around 600 in each of the four largest cities). They were given 17 attributes of liveability and asked, firstly, to rate them by importance and, secondly, to rate how well their cities perform on each of them. These two dimensions were then combined to produce a ‘liveability score’ for each city.

I’ve taken quite an interest in “liveability” in the past, especially as it relates to Sydney/Melbourne rivalry (e.g. here, here and here), so naturally I had a look at the study.

These sorts of surveys are often problematic and this one is no exception. For example, information on the representativeness of those who actually responded to the survey is scant and some of the attributes are sloppily conceptualised and poorly worded.

So with that caveat, let’s look at what the study found. The aggregate liveability scores of the eight capitals are probably the least useful aspect because the differences are small – Adelaide does best with 63.4 and Sydney does worst with 55.1. Third ranking Melbourne scores 60.9 but sixth ranking Brisbane scores 60.2. Put Sydney aside and there’s not enough in it to be useful.

What’s more interesting is how respondents define liveability. I’ve put the accompanying chart together to show how the five largest capital cities perform in aggregate i.e. Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide (you won’t see this table in the Property Council’s report because I had to correct the figures in the Appendix to the report. Also, make sure to have a look at the full text of the questions).

The first column shows how important respondents think each attribute is for liveability (smaller is better). The second shows what proportion of respondents agree that their city exhibits this attribute. Read the rest of this entry »


A ‘best of the year’ list

Melbourne - then and now (click)

The end of the year is always a great time for lists. As I’m not in a position this week to write anything more thoughtful than a drinks order, I’m just linking to interesting material. And there’s nothing more interesting than this great list, My blogs of the year, by the esteemed Sam Roggeveen, editor of The Interpreter at the Lowy Institute for International Policy. The first one’s a curious choice but the others look outstanding.

Speaking of curious, Gillian at Melbourne Curious has an interesting historical video of Melbourne as it used to be and as it is now. While you’re there, have a look around at items like this one on Melbourne’s old laneways and this one on Flinders Street station (gorgeous photo!).

O.K. I’ve turned on the snow flakes and the pilot’s honkin’ the horn. All the  best  for the Season!


How to make your PowerPoints really interesting

Swedish international health researcher, Professor Hans Rosling, is famous for presenting data “with the drama and urgency of a sportcaster”. His reputation is built on extraordinary presentations like this one.

Now the BBC has produced a hologram version of one of his renowned presentations. It plots how life expectancy has improved in 200 countries over the last 200 years. The world’s not perfect but the improvement in average life span since 1810 is truly remarkable.

Click picture to view video.


Portland, OR – “where young people go to retire”

They know a bit about city branding in Portland, Oregon, one of the darlings of new urbanism and one of my favourite places. This video is for a new TV comedy series, Portlandia, starting in January 2011 (in the US). It takes the mickey out of Portland and takes its name from a sculpture at the front of The Portland Building designed by Michael Graves.

Favourite quote: “Portland – where all the hot girls wear glasses”.

Click on picture to see video, Portlandia – Dream of the 90s.


Google Ngram for: ‘Sydney’ vs ‘Melbourne’

Melbourne almost rivalled Sydney circa 1890 – click to insert your own search terms. More on Ngram here.


Why do bankers make $squillions (and you don’t)?

Road pricing in London in the 18th century

There’s an interesting discussion going on in the blogosphere right now about how Wall St made and lost so much money in the noughties.

It started yesterday our time when George Mason University economist and ‘the world’s most read economics blogger’, Tyler Cowen, announced that he’d written an essay on inequality in The American Interest.

He makes some interesting points – for example, Americans are more likely to be envious of their better paid colleague or their slightly wealthier brother in law than they are of billionaires and financial high rollers. Nevertheless, he focuses on “the pernicious role that big finance plays in modern political economy”.

As I interpret it, his thesis is that the finance sector takes big but self-enriching risks in the good times because it relies on government bailing it out on the odd occasion when real disaster strikes. As Ross Douthat from the New York Times puts it:

The “bust” part of the cycle tends to make taxpayers suffer more than the Wall Street investors themselves, thus incentivizing further recklessness and still worse crack-ups down the road

By this morning (Thursday), the debate has been joined by an army of influential pundits, including Ross Douthat, Ryan Avent from The Economist, Kevin Drum from Mother Jones and political blogger Matthew Yglesias. By the time you read this it is likely there will be many more. Read the rest of this entry »


Merry Xmas (and some reflections on the blog)

Irish finance expert explains (robustly!) where the Celtic Tiger went wrong

It’s time for The Melbourne Urbanist to start winding down for the holiday season. After this week, posts will flow to a trickle or even peter out while I take a holiday.

The Melbourne Urbanist has now been going for over nine months so it’s timely to pause for a moment and take stock.

The blog now gets around 2,500 ‘views’ each week. WordPress, who provide the blogging platform, say this count excludes automated searches. The busiest month was November, with 10,721 views and the trend continues upwards. That’s not quite up there with the likes of NineMSN, but I think it’s pretty respectable for a blog with a defined topic and relatively narrow geographic ambit.

It compares well with some other blogs – for example, former ANU economics professor (and now Federal MP) Andrew Leigh, who’s been blogging daily since 2004, says he gets similar numbers. It seems many of the topics addressed by The Melbourne Urbanist “travel well” – they have a reasonably broad appeal.

About a third of views are of the home page where visitors presumably scroll down and scan the first part of each post. However I measure the popularity of each individual post by the number of  ‘reads’ i.e. the number of readers who click through to “read the rest of this entry”. I interpret this to mean the reader was interested enough to keep going.  Read the rest of this entry »


Did Peter Garrett get it right after all?

Click to see how many Bixis are currently rented out and compare in real time with other world cities like London and Barcelona

Peter Garrett copped a lot of flak over the Rudd Government’s Home Insulation Program earlier this year.

There was widespread rorting and mismanagement, four workers died installing insulation and, up to 18 October 2010, almost 200 house fires have been linked to the program.

Did the program achieve anything positive?

According to this report, Tony O’Dwyer from the National Institute of Economic and Industry Research (NIEIR) reckons the scheme saved 1 to 1.5 petajoules of energy (gas) in Victoria this winter.

That’s even better than it looks because the ‘low hanging fruit’ had very likely already been picked in Victoria, given that around 87% of homes in the state were insulated when the program started. Nevertheless, the thermal efficiency of nearly 300,000 more homes across the state was improved under the program.

Now ace blogger Possum Comitatus has been burning the midnight oil to analyse the numbers. He concludes that the fire risk associated with home insulation is much safer now than it was before Peter Garrett introduced the Home Insulation Program.

Prior to this initiative, the industry did 65,000 installations per year and experienced 85 fires per year. However under the program, there were over 1.2 million installs per year and 197 fires. Read the rest of this entry »


How to charge for the Big Day Out?

World's tallest buildings in 1884

47,000 tickets for the Big Day Out at Flemington race course sold out within minutes of going on sale at 9am on Friday. Tickets for the Sydney and Gold Coast events also sold out in record time. The organisers have arranged an additional event in Sydney (tickets on sale October 11).

The issue of how to deal with excess demand is a common one in cities, whether it’s concerts, road congestion or the (until recently unfamiliar) problem of public transport congestion.

As I went through the stressful process of buying tickets for the Big Day Out for my son (successfully as it turns out), I got wondering if ‘first-in, first served’ is really the ideal way to go about selling tickets for such a high-demand event. The organisers appear to think it isn’t.

They made a decision on Friday, apparently on the fly, to hold back 3,000 tickets for the Melbourne event. These will now be made available via a randomly drawn online ballot conducted once a week for ten weeks. Prices will be the same as they were for the original sale.

The organisers quite clearly could charge more than $164 per ticket (including booking fee), so why don’t they? It could be that they’re simply not very good at estimating people’s willingness to pay for a particular set of bands, or perhaps it’s such a black art that they’re not prepared to take too many risks. Or it might be that they’re in it for the long haul and don’t want to alienate concert-goers from returning in future years – they might want to protect the “brand”. Read the rest of this entry »


Historic short films of early Melbourne, 1910-1947

Melbourne Today 1931

There’s a wonderful video of Melbourne in 1931, Melbourne Today, put up by Gillian over at Melbourne Curious. This inspired me to track its original source to the Screen Australia web site where there are literally hundreds of films on diverse aspects of Australian life dating from the end of the nineteenth century.

I went looking for films with a specifically Melbourne urban perspective and picked out these four:

Marvellous Melbourne, circa 1910

City traffic in variable moods, circa 1920

Melbourne Today, 1931

Beautiful Melbourne, 1947

Melbourne Today was made by F.W. Thring, renowned Melbourne film maker and father of Aussie film legend Frank Thring (who memorably appeared as Pontius Pilate in the 50s sword and sandals epic, Ben Hur). More over the leaf….. Read the rest of this entry »


Is water priced to encourage conservation?

There have been some quite spectacular reductions in Melbourne’s water consumption in recent years. The latest invoice from my water company proclaims that total water consumed by customers has fallen 36% since 1997.

Most of this gain is undoubtedly due to water restrictions and jaw boning. Pricing doesn’t seem to have been a big influence, even though most economists would suggest that it is one of the most efficient ways to moderate demand.

I just got my water bill for the last three months. Average daily use by my household is 495 litres, or 124 litres per person. That’s not bad compared to the Government’s daily target of 155 litres per person (although admittedly it’s been a pretty wet winter).

What surprises me however is the relatively low profile given to pricing as a mechanism for dampening demand (pun intended). My Consumption Charges only amount to 24.4% of my total bill. The other key items are Parks Charges, Drainage Charges, Service Charges and Sewage Charges. Read the rest of this entry »