Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Links of the week

This week Ross Garnaut released an update to his climate change review. If you don't feel like reading the whole thing there's an excellent summary (and he pulls no punches on what the coalition should be doing) on The Drum.

Someone has made me a search engine. (Alright - it's for all nerdy types out there but it is way cool)

Massimo Pigliucci on Rationallyspeaking.org asks some questions about the US Prison system and why we lock people up. This is despite violent crime in the US going down - which could have interesting causes as Kevin Drum writes on Mother Jones. Do we need to be asking the same questions in Australia? There are currently about 30,000 people in Australian gaols. That's only 0.1% of the population but the number of people in gaol is growing at almost double the speed of population growth, even though in Australia violent crime is also down.

I often forget living in the city with its bright lights and pollution how beautiful the nights sky can be. As an example I've come across this video of time lapse photography at the Very Large Telescope in Chile. It's pretty amazing. Check out Phil Plait's blog for some commentary.
And if you've ever wandered what it would be like to be on a starship tumbling through space you can stop - because we are, as this edited version shows wonderfully.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Why I like Lindy Hop

Today would have been Frankie Manning's birthday. For those that don't know, Frankie was one of the key inventors of the Lindy Hop (he invented the air step and choreographed the famous Hellzapoppin' routine) and the key figures of the revival. He was still dancing at 94. Check out this short documentary "Never Stop Swinging" for more. Frankie continues to be an inspiration to lindy hoppers everywhere.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Review: Where to buy music in Australia

I've had a lot of people asking me lately where to buy swing music from so I thought I'd put together a post outlining the best places to purchase music from. I'll cover physical stores and buying CDs online as well as digital downloads. This is written from the Australian viewpoint - noting that many of the large online stores (for digital downloads) have geographic restrictions.

Props to Jesse and Spuds for starting this conversation on 'Hey Mr Jesse' and to various Australian listeners for their feedback to the show which pointed me in some good directions. If you're interested in swing music their show is a must listen. For the international readers Spuds put together a brief review of digital download sites that are available in various locations.

Bricks and Mortar
For briefness I'll stick to Sydney, but there are plenty of retailers out there around the traps. If anyone wants to send me info about other cities in Oz I'll include them.

Fish Fine Music - QVB, King St, Balmain and Newtown
Fish has a good selection and breaks it up into a couple of categories (usually blues, jazz and nostalgia). They also tend to stock decent box sets. They are also more than happy to order stuff in (and it's generally much quicker than trying to buy off amazon). Their bargain bins generally have quite a lot of cheap compilations of jazz stuff. Good if you're looking to start a collection.

Birdland - George Street, Sydney
This is pretty much the only speciality jazz retailer in Sydney (they also run a website and mail order business). They're also only open Thursday, Friday and Saturday. They have a lot of Australian content and also stock a lot of vinyl and SACDs (for the audiophiles out there).

JB Hi Fi
The big ugly yellow retailer, but the only one with a decent variety of jazz CDs. Many of their stores do have separate jazz and blues sections, but the selection tends towards post 50's material and contemporary jazz. Their bargain bins are not worth going through. They can order stuff in, but if I'm doing that I'd rather go local.

2MBS Book and Record Bazaar - Moves Around
This second hand fair moves around town every couple of months and has books, sheet music, records and CDs. They've starting having a 'jazz' section, but it pays to check pop music and classical for the occasional gem that goes astray. You can often get good out-of-print stuff here if you're prepared to spend the time leafing through the bins. Make sure you check the CDs though, some of them can be scratched or not in the case at all.

Plastic and Aluminium
I'm listing sellers with large catalogues here, but many artists sell their own and other CDs direct through their own websites. There's also many specialist labels and other niche distributors out there as well which are worth seeking out for stuff that's more off the beaten path.

This is usually my first go-to for old stuff. They have a huge catalogue and also act as a distributor for many other resellers. You may even be able to find out-of-print stuff there through the resellers. However most out-of-print CDs and many emerging and unsigned artists are not available.
Unfortunately Amazon Mp3 is not yet available in Australia.

Though there's only a handful of CDs of old swing music here but this site is very popular with new musicians, particularly independents. If I'm looking for contemporary stuff this is my go-to. They also do digital downloads for many of the releases they carry.

Louisiana Music Factory
This store specialises in New Orleans and Louisiana music. They also carry a lot of trad jazz and all sorts of other stuff (Cajun, Zydeco etc.) If the artist is from New Orleans this store has it. The interface isn't as slick as Amazon or CDBaby but you can find it if you know what you're looking for. I like to make my New Orleans purchases from this store as I know more money is going back to the local community that way.

Mosaic Records
The store for high quality, complete box sets. They also do smaller compilations of particular artists. The audio quality is the best you will get and liner notes thoroughly researched and discographies complete with alternate takes. It's expensive and the releases are limited, but well worth it. Sign up to their mail list to find out what's coming up.

Jazz By Mail
Specialises in Trad Jazz and other early jazz (including the various revivals). It also stocks the catalogues of a number of specialist re-issuers including Arbors Records. They are also gearing up to do some digital downloads.

These guys are based in California and have three huge stores of music new and used. I found a tonne of out-of-print stuff when I was there. Although their online purchasing is fairly limited they do run a service where you can fill out a form on their website and they'll try and track down the CD or LP in store and send it to you.

Ones and Zeros
Now before I start this section I must profess that I buy all my music on CD. I like doing so because I get the liner notes with good pictures, prose and complete details. It's also an additional back-up if my electronic files fail. And even though you need specialised equipment to read them (a record can be played with a paper cone) I like having the physical product in my hand. As such I don't have any personal experience with these services. Many of them have a variety of payment options (credit card or store bought cards) and all offer discounts for buying a whole album.

There's really only 4 large online stores that have a good range of both contemporary and old stuff. I'm going to take my cue from Spuds on Hey Mr Jesse and test each by the availability of three artists: Count Basie, Billy Kyle and Nikki Yanofsky. To that I'm going to add a couple of Australian artists: James Morrison as the popular one and Pugsley Buzzard as the less common. I've also listed a couple of other sites - Bandcamp which focussing on indie artists is not directly comparable and emusic for completeness.

iTunes comes out on top, as it has by far the largest collection. They're all fairly comparable on price (most tracks being about $1.69 across all services) and naturally the local sites largely fail on the local musicians (ie. buy it from the musician direct).

Apple - biggest collection, but you need to download iTunes to use it.
Total Collection: 14 million songs
General Price: $1.19-$2.19 per track
Count Basie: Lots (100s of albums)
Billy Kyle: Some (about 15 albums)
Nikki Yanofsky: Yes (1 album - only release)
James Morrison: Lots (about 15 albums)
Pugsley Buzzard:Yes (2 out of 3 albums)

Primarily tracks on the Sony label (includes vintage jazz labels Columbia, RCA Victor, RCA, Okeh) and bits and pieces from other labels. It's web-based.
Total Collection: 2 million songs
General Price: $1.69-$2.20 per track
Count Basie: 189 tracks
Billy Kyle: Nil
Nikki Yanofsky: Yes (1 album - only release)
James Morrison: Nil
Pugsley Buzzard: Yes (1 out of 3 albums)

Big Pond Music
You don't need to be a 'bog pond' customer to access this service and it's web-based.
Total Collection: 1 million songs
General Price: $1.10-$2.05 per track
Count Basie: 150 Tracks
Billy Kyle: Nil
Nikki Yanofsky: Yes (1 album - only release)
James Morrison: 2 albums
Pugsley Buzzard: Yes (1 out of 3 albums)

Optus Music Store
Likewise you don't need to be an Optus customer to buy. It's also web-based.
Total Collection: Unknown
General Price: $1.69 per track
Count Basie: Lots (maybe 100 or so)
Billy Kyle: Nil
Nikki Yanofsky: Yes (1 album - only release)
James Morrison: Nil
Pugsley Buzzard: Nil

This falls into a similar camp to CDBaby as it is all about independent artists. In addition to showcasing independent artists this website allows you to listen to the entire album before you download it (no 30 second samples here) and you can download in a range of formats (including a number of lossless formats like FLAC).

If you've got it, you'll know about it. If you don't have it you can't get it.

Friday, 20 May 2011

Swing dancing analogies: A chocolate teapot

I've observed with interest the recent multiplication of swing dancing analogies. Perhaps it's the rise of the swing dancing blog, or there's more people thinking about dancing but I'm beginning to think that it's getting a bit much. Some of them are cute, some of them show the nerdiness of Lindy Hoppers and yet others can get the user into hot water.

Don't get me wrong, I like analogies and they have their uses. But that's the problem. An analogy is a comparison used to explain a difficult concept, by stripping out the complexity and comparing it to something within the bounds of common experience. Back when I did science and math tutoring they came in handy to take concepts and ideas beyond experience (like electricity - electrons flow around a circuit like water in a pipe) and make them easier to understand.

But here's the catch. Dancing is something that is within the bounds of regular experience. You can see it and feel it. Even though some things can be difficult to get I can't see how trying to wrap your head around something involving boxes, springs or flashlights helps the matter. The concept being proposed can be more complex than what it's trying to explain. A writer will then spend more of their time trying to explain the analogy than they devote to the original concept.

Much of the time I feel that analogies are being used to make a point and fair enough. It can be hard to get heard in the lindysphere these days so anything to get your point across is a plus in this marketplace of ideas.

Remember, though, that analogies will always fail. There's only so far they can be stretched. This is the opportunity for real understanding. When my student asked "what happens when all the electrons (ie water) runs out of the pipe?" they can learn that the electrons don't "run out" but are conserved in the system.

That's where the true success of an analogy is: its failure.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Links of the week

Chris Moody in Mother Jones talks about how ideology trumps facts. He explains how people deny facts when they are in conflict with their beliefs. It's no wonder then that climate sceptics don't change their minds, but it does happen as Brian Merchant finds out at Slate.com. The key? They need to change their minds on the politics first; the facts second.

The anti-intellectual attitudes evident in the climate change debate may have a root in working class 'boganism' in our public schools as Geoff Strong explains in the National Times.

Dan Cass examines on The Drum the culture of hate speech in climate politics how this could both shut down legitimate debate and pose real physical dangers to green activists and politicians.

And ever fancied telecommuting by blimp? Tobita Hiroaki and colleagues at Sony Computer Science Laboratories in Tokyo have made it possible:
I want one.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

What is the new 'Middle Class'?

The post-budget articles in the newspapers are making me sick. Making out families on $150,000 a year as though they're on struggle street is pretty dirty, when folk in that situation are better off than most of us.

Matt Cowgill has written an excellent piece trying to find out what the middle class (middle meaning median, not average) actually is. It's been picked up by ABC's The Drum as well.

I've looked at how big the supposed 'working families' demographic is before, but let's explore what this 'middle class', that Government budget savings will affect, is really like.

My source - "Household Wealth and Wealth Distribution, Australia, 2005-06" from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (I know it's a little old but it's the latest issue of the product).

I'll be looking at the top 20% of households by gross income. These are households making more than $100,000 a year -  including plenty of families making substantially less than those examined in the papers.

Share of Wealth and Income
Now this top 20% of households controls 45% of the income in Australia and 60% of the wealth. This is nearly double the income and triple the wealth of the next highest 20% and 10 times the income and 60 times the wealth of the lowest 20% of households. This may sound bad but it's better than the US where the top 20% controls 61% of the income and a whopping 85% of the wealth (and the top 1% of households 34% of the wealth).

The median income of this group is $130K a year, more than double the median income for all households and nearly 10 times that of the lowest group.

The median net worth of this group is $635K, double the median for all households and three times that of the lowest group.

Income Source
This group is fairly similar to the next highest 20% in that they both get their primary income from wages and salaries, although there appears to be a very small number that claim their primary source of income is government pensions and allowances - perhaps The Australian found them. However about a quarter of this group gets 1-20% of their income from pensions and allowances. Unfortunately the stats don't break down further but I'll assume the contribution will mostly be closer to 1% than 20%.

Tenure Type
Most of this group, 57%, has a mortgage the highest proportion of any income group. Makes sense - mortgages are expensive so the highest income bracket will be able to have more of them.

Family Type
Nearly half of this group (and more than twice the average) have kids under 15, the highest proportion for all income groups. Makes sense - kids are expensive so the highest income bracket will be able to have more of them.

Also less than 4% of this group are lone person households, close to seven times less than the average. To get into this income bracket you need a combined income. This is also borne out in the stats - these households have an average of 2.3 employed persons and one child under 15 (again, almost twice the average).

Three quarters of these households live in capital cities which is higher than the average (about 63%).

So this group of top 20% in household earnings does fit the postcard. They're likely to have a mortgage and kids with both parents in work, get the majority of their income from work and live in a capital city. But this is a group that as a whole controls a majority of the household wealth and close to a majority of the household income.

This group does get some government benefits, less than that of the next highest income bracket, but their biggest advantage is that they earn more and possess more. If this group actually depends on government assistance then the rest of us are screwed.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

The Canadian Election: Why they need preferential voting

I like Canada and I like elections (it's my largest tag word at the moment, which I should really do something about). Canada had an election a couple of days ago hence I shall discuss.

For a country considered fairly liberal the political system is somewhat backward. The Senate is not elected (and there have been some moves to abolish it) and they use a first-past-the-post voting system. In a country with three main parties on the left and one on the right (at the moment anyway) this is a rather daft way to go about things. I have long maintained that the Canadian electoral system gives the Conservative party more seats (or ridings as they are known) than they deserve.

This election gave me an opportunity to put that theory to the test. At the time I scraped the data off Elections Canada most of the vote had been counted and this was the results:

BQ 4
Conservatives 167
Liberals 34
NDP 102
Greens 1
Total 308

(A note on parties. BQ is the Bloc Québécois who campaign only in Quebec on a secessionist agenda with left leaning policies otherwise, the Liberals are liberals with a little l and formerly Canada's primary left leaning party. The NDP are the New Democrat Party, social democrats and the new opposition. The Greens also won their first seat)

This has given the Conservatives a majority government for the first time in a while (they went into the election with a minority government). This is also something a lot of my Canadian friends are unhappy about.

So would preferential voting have made a difference? I spent a couple of nights crunching numbers to find out. I'm going to assume the introduction of the Alternative Vote (AV), a form of preferential voting. There is currently a referendum on this in the UK on which there is excellent Australian coverage.

The alternative vote is also known as optional preferential voting which is used in most Australian states and territories. The BBC explains it well here. It aims to elect the most preferred candidate. Basically it works by allowing voters to express preferences for more than one candidate. You mark 1 on the ballot paper to vote for your most preferred candidate and then you can add as many more numbers as you wish (or just leave it at one).

The papers are counted on the one votes. If a candidate has more than 50% of the vote they are elected. If not then the candidate with the least number of votes is eliminated and their papers redistributed according to preferences (if no further preferences are indicated then those votes 'exhaust'). If a candidate still doesn't have 50% of the remaining votes (the exhausted votes are not counted in this total) then then next lowest candidate is excluded and so on.

Most of the time AV will elect the same candidate as FPTP. Where it can have an impact is where votes are split between two similar candidates, as is the case in many ridings in Canada between the NDP and Liberals. Using the data I undertook a simulated distribution of preferences. First I counted up all those ridings where the candidate had won with more than 50% of the vote. In these ridings AV would not make any difference.

BQ 0
Conservatives 107
Liberals 2
NDP 36
Greens 0
Total 145

For the remaining 163 ridings I distributed preferences on the following assumptions:
  1. Roughly 50% of the votes would exhaust (which is the usual rate in Australia)
  2. Preferences from the Greens would flow to the NDP
  3. Preferences from the Liberals would flow to the NDP and vice versa
  4. Preferences from the Conservatives would flow to the Liberals
  5. Preferences from the BQ would flow to either the NDP or the Liberals.
For 112 of these ridings the use of AV would not make a difference to the result. However for 51 ridings there could be. The results of my simulated distribution are below:

BQ 0
Conservatives 129
Liberals 50
NDP 104
Greens 1
Uncertain 2
Total 308

Under AV the conservatives would only get 129 ridings with a further 12 possible. The Liberals and NDP would have at least 160 between them. 4 ridings could go to either the BQ, Libs or NDP and would be decided on Conservative preferences. 2 ridings were influenced by high polling minor parties or independents making them impossible to predict. The 24 uncertain ridings would depend on the rate preferences are exhausted (particularly in the left vs right contests) and how preferences from the Conservatives or BQ flow to the Liberals and NDP.

Under AV the Conservatives would not have won a majority. They could still have governed from minority, however unlike in the previous parliament the NDP and Liberals would have the numbers to form a coalition. Here's a list of the ridings I've predicted that would be different under AV:

Riding Province FPTP AV
Edmonton - Sherwood Park AB CON ?
Vancouver South BC CON ?CON/LIB
Nanaimo - Alberni BC CON ?CON/NDP
Newton - North Delta BC NDP LIB
Vancouver Island North BC CON ?CON/NDP
Elmwood - Transcona MB CON NDP
Winnipeg North MB LIB ?LIB/NDP
Winnipeg South Centre MB CON LIB
Madawaska - Restigouche NB CON LIB
Moncton - Riverview - Dieppe NB CON LIB
Labrador NL CON LIB
Dartmouth - Cole Harbour NS NDP LIB
South Shore - St. Margaret's NS CON NDP
Ajax--Pickering Ontario CON LIB
Bramalea--Gore--Malton Ontario CON NDP
Brampton West Ontario CON ?CON/LIB
Don Valley East Ontario CON LIB
Don Valley West Ontario CON LIB
Eglinton - Lawrence Ontario CON ?CON/LIB
Kitchener Centre Ontario CON ?CON/LIB
Etobicoke - Lakeshore Ontario CON LIB
Etobicoke Centre Ontario CON LIB
Mississauga - Brampton South Ontario CON ?CON/LIB
Mississauga - Streetsville Ontario CON ?CON/LIB
Kitchener - Waterloo Ontario CON LIB
Richmond Hill Ontario CON ?CON/LIB
London North Centre Ontario CON LIB
Mississauga East - Cooksville Ontario CON LIB
Nipissing - Timiskaming Ontario CON LIB
Ottawa - Orléans Ontario CON LIB
Pickering - Scarborough East Ontario CON LIB
Sault Ste. Marie Ontario CON NDP
Scarborough Centre Ontario CON LIB
Willowdale Ontario CON LIB
Portneuf - Jacques-Cartier Quebec NDP ?
Ahuntsic Quebec BQ ?BQ/LIB/NDP
Lotbinière - Chutes-de-la-Chaudière Quebec CON NDP
Lévis - Bellechasse Quebec CON ?CON/NDP
Montmagny - L'Islet - Kamouraska - Rivière-du-Loup Quebec CON NDP
Haute-Gaspésie - La Mitis - Matane - Matapédia Quebec BQ ?LIB/BQ
Honoré - Mercier Quebec NDP ?LIB/NDP
Lac-Saint-Louis Quebec LIB ?LIB/NDP
Papineau Quebec LIB ?LIB/NDP
Pierrefonds - Dollard Quebec NDP ?LIB/NDP
Westmount - Ville-Marie Quebec LIB ?LIB/NDP
Bas-Richelieu--Nicolet--Bécancour Quebec BQ ?NDP/BQ
Richmond - Arthabaska Quebec BQ ?NDP/BQ
Desnethé - Missinippi - Churchill River SK CON ?CON/NDP
Saskatoon - Rosetown - Biggar SK CON ?CON/NDP
Palliser SK CON NDP

Would this have been the actual result? It's very hard to predict what would have happened in reality. It's likely that the rate of exhausted votes would be higher for Conservatives and lower for voters on the left, depending on the how-to-vote campaigns of the parties. The reduction in strategic voting would also have different consequences (the Greens and other minor parties would probably have gotten higher votes) and could have led to an increase in votes for the left as these candidates would have been less concerned about vote splitting.

What does seem to be the case is that the Liberals should have the most interest in AV given the numbers of seats they'd pick up. First Past the Post would seem to be preferred by the Conservatives, while there's still only one party on the right.

What are the prospects for AV in Canada?

Some of the provinces used it in the period between 1920s-1950s, however none have used it since.  British Columbia tried twice to introduce a complicated form of preferential voting similar to what is used in Tasmania, but the referenda weren't successful.

There will certainly be some discussion about it after this election but the reformists argument will be split between some form of AV and some form of proportional representation. Just like the vote on the left....