Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Reviewing the 2017 Eurovision B̶a̶l̶l̶a̶d̶s̶ Entries

I've been at this idiocy for nearly a decade wow. Here's my past year's reviews: 2016 2015 2014 2013 2012 2011 2010 2008


Robin Bengtsson - I Can't Go On (Sweden) - The Swedes have built a robotic Cillian Murphy and he's singing a song about being overcome by the urge to fuck. C

Tako Gachechiladze - Keep The Faith (Georgia) - Power ballad with a backdrop of images of war and newspaper headlines including one about Russia invading Georgia. Probably the only performance this year to feature images of ISIS. B-

Isaiah - Don't Come Easy (Australia) - I think we've finally put up a stinker. The prettiest boy in Australia pouts through a pretty flat ballad. D+

Lindita - World (Albania) - Man the new Doctor Who got weird D+

Blanche - City Lights (Belgium) - Probably our best chance to find out if a London Grammar track can win Eurovision. B

Slavko Kalezić - Space (Montenegro) - Finally some fun from the Balkans.

Angular shirtless dude with a braid down past his waste launches into a disco song about (safe) gay sex just explicit enough that a former Warsaw Pact broadcaster will probably complain. A

Norma John - Blackbird (Finland) - This is very sad and minimalist for Eurovision, possibly the purest downer I've ever heard from this contest. Among all the ballads it is the bleakest and the saddest. Um. Maybe it will capture the mood of the continent? C+

Dihaj - Skeletons (Azerbaijan) - This is pretty much what I'd expect if you put a gun to Grimes' head do a Swedish Eurovision powerballad. Quite like it. A-

Salvador Sobral - Amar Pelos Dois (Portugal) - Portuguese Kermit the Frog could be singing this sitting on a fucking log and you will want to pinch his grotty little cheek.

All I ever really want from Eurovision is Portugal delivering something overwhelmingly uncool and out of step with the times, and this dorky hairy dude doing a quiet prewar jazz sort of thing fits that bill to a tee. A

Demy - This Is Love (Greece) - Starts out ballad, goes full banger after a minute or so. This is solid Eurovision bombast and cheese by committee and is probably destined for a pretty high finish.

Zorba content: zero. C

Kasia Moś - Flashlight (Poland) - One of the better powerballads this year, and certainly the only one about the terror of being hunted for sport.

Somehow I doubt the live staging will all be projected on her naked body like in this video, but you never can be sure with Eurovision. B

SunStroke Project - Hey Mamma! (Moldova) - The version of a joke entry where the intent is to laugh with the artist rather than at them.

The music video is a sex farce about a cockblocking mother, and I reeeally want to see them try translate that live. Unfortunately I think we'll just play up the dude with the sax thrusting around and guy with the violin cracking stupid grins. B+

Svala - Paper (Iceland) - I mean, this is a mess and there's zero reason anyone will vote for this instead of something else Scandinavian and vaguely electronic, but on the other hand she's blue and the line "I fish for you, I wish for you!" is kind of adorable. D+

Martina Bárta - My Turn (Czech Republic) - Vaguely jazzy ballad about wanting to help you be less sad because you helped her less be sad before. Serious bonus points for a defined, identifiable subject matter which isn't also so common it's a cliche. B+

Hovig - Gravity (Cyprus) - This fucking sucks. D-

Artsvik - Fly With Me (Armenia) - Sort of a very deconstructed ethnoballad. Builds quite slowly, gets where it's going. Kind of intriguing, even if the visuals seem to suggest period Chinese movie for some reason. B

Omar Naber - On My Way (Slovenia) - Half of these reviews are just defining microgenres of powerballad at this point. So here is a whispery sad defiant guy ballad. D+

Triana Park - Line (Latvia) - I'm not sure that MDMA is popular enough among the Eurovision audience for this to get anywhere. C+

O.Torvald - Time (Ukraine) - Really lacklustre rock entry, everything is supposed to be gritty and bombasty and it just falls utterly, embarassingly flat. The clock isn't gimmicky enough staging to get them anywhere. I'm not sure silver nazis would even do it. D

Alma - Requiem (France) - Starts out as a pretty decent French language pop song but then the awkward as fuck English language chorus is sort of a cut-price J-Lo bit. C

Levina - Perfect Life (Germany) - This is the musical equivalent of aspartame. D

Francesco Gabbani - Occidentali's Karma (Italy) - Italy bringing its A-game is almost unfair on the other countries. The song, about unfulfilled westerners seeking easy answers from eastern philosophy, sweeps through Hamlet, Fromm's To Have Or To Be, The Naked Ape, Heraclitis, Karl Marx, Gene Kelly.

Like, it's still a fuckin pop song but this is a level above what we have any reasonable right to expect here. A+

Manel Navarro - Do It For Your Lover (Spain) - Some dickhead with an accoustic guitar trying to be tropical and carefree. The effect is the repulsive sort of feeling you get from a robot child stuck deep in the uncanny valley. D-

Lucie Jones - Never Give Up On You (United Kingdom) - As overwrought ballads go, this is certainly one of them. C-

Tijana Bogićević - In Too Deep (Serbia) - How many fucking ways can I say this is another not-very-good shouty powerballad. C-

Nathan Trent - Running On Air (Austria) - An upbeat and perfectly serviceable plinky happy thing which is a really really welcome variation at this point. Also I'm pretty sure he sings "I can't stand land tacos" at one point, which is something we can all relate to.

Nobody is going to vote for this. B-

Julia Samoylova - Flame Is Burning (Russia) - Might not end up performing because she violated Ukraine law by entering Crimea to perform and they've banned her.

There's various conspiracy theories about this, eg Russia engineered a situation where they chose an artist with a disability who had been to Ukraine and thus violated the law, in order to embarass Ukraine.

Last I read, Ukraine faced expulsion from future contests if they follow through with the ban. It's all about what we should have expected from a contest held in Ukraine right now.

Also? The song is bad. D

Jana Burčeska - Dance Alone (F.Y.R. Macedonia) - I'm having a hard time telling if the genuinely uptempo electronic tracks are good or if it's just like a drink of water after being lost in the ballad desert. This one has a chorus which leans a bit on 'Running Up That Hill' by Kate Bush and is basically fine I guess. B-

Claudia Faniello - Breathlessly (Malta) - Dreary ballad, you won't see it in the final. D+

Ilinca ft. Alex Florea - Yodel It! - *looks at title*

Oh no.

*Sees a guy come out like he's about to rap*

Oh, no. No.

*Rapping and a yodelling call-and-response starts happening*


OG3NE - Lights And Shadows (The Netherlands) - The song basically exists to showcase the three women's harmonies. That makes it the musical equivalent of polishing a turd, because the song is really dull but even someone relatively unmusical such as myself can hear that they'd sell the shit out of better material. C-

Joci Pápai - Origo (Hungary) - FUCK YES ETHNOPOP. Then there's rapping over it but it kinda works. B+

Anja - Where I Am (Denmark) - An Australian woman screams for three minutes. C

Brendan Murray - Dying To Try (Ireland) - Is his mum gonna let him stay up late enough to perform? What if his voice breaks? D

Valentina Monetta & Jimmie Wilson - Spirit Of The Night (San Marino) - This is Monetta's fourth entry, which um, yeah. It's a retro dance sort of thing with at least four key changes, so it's a good one if you have key changes in your drinking game (I know I do).  D

Jacques Houdek - My Friend (Croatia) - What the actual fuck is this. Is this all one guy? Starts out like a Savage Garden album track, then an Italian language tenor comes in, then it turns into at least two different power ballads? A/B/C/D

JOWST - Grab The Moment (Norway) - So that's what Barenaked Ladies are up to these days. C

Timebelle - Apollo (Switzerland) - I guess she's having fun at least. D

NAVIBAND - Historyja Majho Zyccia (Belarus) - Tom Baker and some lady walking joyously through an ugly forest with a backing of vaguely celtic folk music and a tribal chanting. Obviously what you expect from the last remaining Stalinist republic in Europe. Hey! Hey! B+

Kristian Kostov - Beautiful Mess (Bulgaria) - Another technically proficient ballad. It might be the one which grabs the voters who make those fucking things so popular.

In this one, child accompanied by ravens sings angstily about a love one assumes he has never experienced. C-

Fusedmarc - Rain of Revolution (Lithuania) - Woman shouts over somebody else's synth-brassy pop song from the mid-1980s. D

Koit Toome and Laura - Verona (Estonia) - It's a straight-up duet ballad about difficult love, but the Verona metaphor is confused as fuck.

Verona here of course refers to the story of Romeo and Juliet, but at different points Verona seems to metaphorically mean a formerly ideal state of love (we have lost our Verona) instead of the suicidal shitty teenage one more sensibly referred to at other points (we are lost in Verona).

I'm overthinking this. C

IMRI - I Feel Alive (Israel) - Mostly a by-the-numbers dance track, though there's about 10 promising seconds of ETHNOPOP about 2 and a half minutes in. Nowhere near good enough. C

Monday, May 9, 2016

Reviewing the 2016 Eurovision entries

So I've been reviewing Eurovision tracks since 2008 on Facebook, but this is the year they have finally destroyed basic HTML support. Thus I've moved it over to this moribund blog instead.

Here's my past year's reviews: 2014 2013 2012 2011 2010 2008

Here we go:

Frans - If I Were Sorry (Sweden) - This is an entire song whose lyrical content is describing how sorry this mopey bloke would be, if he were sorry, but he's not. Which is not something I've ever heard covered in a song before, most likely because it's exceedingly stupid. C+

Jamie-Lee - Ghost (Germany) - Forest fairy Rita Repulsa performing what I think is a Lana Del Rey cover. C-

Amir - J'ai cherché (France) - This is pretty jammin TBH. I don’t have much else to observe except that apparently I know a surprising amount of French given that I don’t know a single word of French.

If anti-Russian sentiment is still high enough in Europe this might even win. A

Francesca Michielin - No Degree of Separation (Italy) - Sort of a weak vaguely operatic power ballad and I'm about 80% sure it only sounds vaguely operatic because it's mostly in Italian. C

Barei - Say Yay! (Spain) - There's "uptempo" and then there's "trying to bludgeon everyone into sheer submission shouting positivity over a vaguely house track". I suspect it'll have a huge fuckin stage show. It'll want to. C

Joe and Jake - You're Not Alone (United Kingdom) - This is bad, but you don't need me to tell you that. Or even to listen to the song, really.

It's time for the UK to give Wales independence so that an oppressed but musical people can strike out on their own in this contest. D

Sandhja - Sing It Away (Finland) - This is the opposite of Finland. D+

Argo - Utopian Land (Greece) - YESSSS IT'S ZORBA TIME.

Oh christ they're rapping in Greek.

And now.. oh. Uhhh.

Oh Greece, this is terrible. Did you forget to mix this? Um, watch it now cos it's not making the final. D-

Lidia Isac - Falling Stars (Moldova) - Did shouting over EDM ever work? Next. D

Freddie - Pioneer (Hungary) - What the fuck is this oh my god fuck his voice is he choking. D-

Nina Kraljić - Lighthouse (Croatia) - This is quite subtle and plinky and pretty and Balkan and really there should be more of it. B

Douwe Bob - Slow Down (The Netherlands) - I think I liked this better when it was "It never Rains in Southern California". C

Iveta Mukuchyan - LoveWave (Armenia) - A spoken word intro that sounds a bit Tori Amos. That's a really strange place to start a Eurovision track. Then there's a 10 second building buzzing angry machine noise because of course there is. Then it rocks out carried by a really powerful voice and we go a bit ethnopop at the back end. Unexpected and superb. A+

Serhat - I Didn't Know (San Marino) - So San Marino is entering a noir disco song with some guy rasping over it. Obviously. C-

Sergey Lazarev - You Are The Only One (Russia) - Holy shit was this created in a lab somewhere for the express purpose of winning Eurovision? It's almost unfair. I'm surprised something this camp isn't illegal in Russia, but it’s going to win. B+

Gabriela Gunčíková - I Stand (Czech Republic) - Power ballad about standing in a place either metaphorically or literally. Meh. C-

Minus One - Alter Ego (Cyprus) - This is our rockish entry, and more or less directly rips off the Killers' Somebody Told Me. There's also a growly bald lead singer who tries to mind meld with a wolf before letting off a howl. C+

ZOË - Loin d’ici (Austria) - This is an honest to god *ditty*. And she's singing in French, because I assume even German speakers recognise how much cuter French is for singing. B-

Jüri Pootsmann - Play (Estonia) - I think this is shooting for suave and seductive, maybe a bit Bond track or a bit of a smoky jazz vibe. But it's Draco Malfoy performing under the name Juri Pootsmann so you can see how that's a fairly large problem. D+

Samra - Miracle (Azerbaijan) - This could have been rattled off by whatever factory produces Swedish entries on their lunchbreak. It's a pretty standard bit of uptempo slightly shouty Eurovision empowerfulment and a really underwhelming singer struggling to stay perceptible above the glitzy din. C-

Highway - The Real Thing (Montenegro) - In case you're wondering if we're still doing dubstep? Yeah. Kind of. But now with a mopey dude in a hoodie fronting a rock band as well? D

Greta Salóme - Hear Them Calling (Iceland) - I guess an Icelandic track that sounds exactly like it was written by Of Monsters and Men was probably inevitable. B-

Dalal & Deen feat. Ana Rucner and Jala - Ljubav Je (Bosnia & Herzegovina) - Will somebody just COMMIT to a Balkan ballad or other ethnic pop thing? The super folky cello riff is the best bit about this but Who on earth thought it needed someone rapping in Bosnian-Croatian-Montenegrin-Serbian in the middle? Also it's a bad song, but even so, can't you fuckers at least commit? D+

Ira Losco - Walk on Water (Malta) - Here's your overwrought multi-vocal tracked diva doing her thing over what I think is drum and bass. C

Justs - Heartbeat (Latvia) - Bloke's about 90% cheekbone. This is very boring. Next. C-

Michał Szpak - Color Of Your Life (Poland) - I'm pretty sure what's going on here is it's a terrible song, but the very squinty and hairy singer dude is very good, but he just can't save it no matter how much he pouts. Maybe he should shimmy his hair and run a hand through it more. D+

Rykka - The Last Of Our Kind (Switzerland) -"Stronger than water" is an excellent lyric mostly because the sheer power of water doesn't get namechecked enough in songs... but otherwise the only interesting aspect is how a woman with no lower vocal range was given a song probably best sing entirely there. D

Hovi Star - Made of Stars (Israel) - This is half finished but thinks its a slowburner. Two minutes of the same piano thing then 45 seconds of soaring anthem that are just too little too late. C+

IVAN - Help You Fly (Belarus) - Martin Bryant singing like Nickelback might if Nickelback were ever to enter one of the worst songs that there are. D-

ZAA Sanja Vučić - Goodbye (Shelter) (Serbia) - Bond theme fodder, but one of the bad Brosnan ones. D+

Nicky Byrne - Sunlight (Ireland) - The Irish are entering one of the guys from Westlife (this is actually a truefact) and he's singing about how great sunlight is which is ironic because the song slips spluttering into the deep ocean waves without a trace not a soul to miss it. C-

Kaliopi - Dona (F.Y.R. Macedonia) - The biggest problem I have with this Balkan ballad sort of thing is that in the chorus she keeps shouting "dona dona dona dona dona" and doesn't follow up with "chameleon" B-

Donny Montell - I‘ve been waiting for this night (Lithuania) - Fuck off. D

Dami Im - Sound Of Silence (Australia) - The chorus is cringingly weak around the word "silence" in particular. Maybe it's one of the better quiet-loud-quiet-loud ballads? Her voice is good and poorly used.

It should probably do better than the UK, which should be the only objective for Australia as long as SBS keeps buying our way into Eurovision. C+

ManuElla - Blue and Red (Slovenia) - Can early period Taylor Swift win Eurovison? Nope. C-

Poli Genova - If Love Was A Crime (Bulgaria) - This is a thumping dance pop thing with a main refrain in Bulgarian (that I assume is not saying "I"m a looser") and I really fuckin like it really. A

Lighthouse X - Soldiers Of Love (Denmark) - Three boyband dudes with no personality who might have gone okay 15 years ago. Incidentally, "soldiers of love" is an incredibly creepy concept when you think about it. C-

Jamala - 1944 (Ukraine) - Jesus fuck this is about the Soviet reprisals and forced deportations against the Crimean Tatars for alleged collaboration with the Nazis after the Soviet reconquest. It's also pretty good I guess? If a mood piece rather than a song? B

Agnete - Icebreaker (Norway) - Competently produced Scandinavian lady power ballad. C-

Nika Kocharov and Young Georgian Lolitaz - Midnight Gold (Georgia) - This wants to be the quirky alt-rock thing bringing some sort of new wave sensibility to the contest. But it's just extremely shit I'm afraid. D-

Eneda Tarifa - Fairytale (Albania) - How many ways can I say "mediocre shouty lady powerballad"? This one is slightly grumpier I guess? C-

Laura Tesoro - What's The Pressure (Belgium) - Apparently we get a funk track this year. This is fairly inoffensive on its own. But oh Jesus... is this the first little inkling that Uptown Funk style pop-funk monstrosities might be the next new trend at Eurovision now that dubstep is essentially dead? B

Thursday, August 28, 2014

What constitutes a "first class" Australian football premiership?

The occasional call by Essendon or Geelong to count VFA premierships alongside their AFL/VFL tally brings into focus the fact that we're currently treating the administrative history of the body which runs the the game of Australian Rules football as equivalent to the history of our sport as a whole. The AFL tends to blur its two functions as running the league and being the top level guardian and representative of the sport.
My view is that this creates an unrepresentative history of the pre-1980s era not only through the omission of the old VFA records, but also through the total exclusion of other big state leagues.

AFL fans like to look at their premiership counts and compare their clubs, Bombers and Blues fans for example hoping they'll be the first to a 17th flag and the top of the tree. Sure, why should Essendon's 1897 VFL flag count for more than its four flags from 1891 to 1894 in the VFA? But equally, why should Essendon's 1897 flag count for more than Port Adelaide's 1897 flag?
Unlike sport in many other countries, Australian football had state-based competitions for most of its history, due to vast distances and a small population. Foremost among them in Australian football were the VFL, SANFL, and WAFL in Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia.
The three state leagues were all originally close enough in standard to compete with each other in at representative footy level. Until 1976, WAFL, SANFL and VFL teams played each other as equals with players selected from among the best in their clubs. Despite the population difference, when teams from these leagues played each other, the result wasn't a foregone conclusion (for example, Victoria usually won the periodic representative carnivals, but WA won the 1961 Carnival).
At an individual club level the gulf was smaller, "Championship of Australia" matches were held between SANFL and VFL premiers in the early 1900s with Port Adelaide, West Adelaide and Norwood all winning titles. If that concept had have continued for longer, perhaps we'd have a better picture of the relative strength of peak league teams, but we do know that in the 1900s era at least, they could beat each other. When the concept was revived in 1968, VFL teams usually won, but North Adelaide still triumphed over Carlton in 1972.

Defining and qualifying the VFL's superiority
The history of state league football is that the VFL, always stronger based on population, moved to a gradual position of greater dominance. This became very marked from the 1970s onward. Clubs recognised this. East Perth, Norwood, a merged South and East Freo, Port Adelaide, all considered or proposed joining the VFL. Power clubs saw the writing on the wall by the 1980s - hemorrhaging players and knowing where the money was. The VFL, based in the largest football state, was a richer league and pulled in more and more players from South Australia and Western Australia. The VFL then gradually expanded to become the AFL we know today. First South Melbourne were forcibly relocated to Sydney in 1982, then teams from Western Australia (West Coast Eagles - 1987) and South Australia (Adelaide Crows - 1991) were added to the VFL and it became the AFL.
Current practice is to present the VFL as direct predecessor to the AFL, which creates the impression that the VFL was always the premier league in the country. If we take AFL administrative history as the history of top level competition in our sport, it runs something like "top level competition began in 1897 when 8 clubs broke away from the VFA to form a new elite league, the VFL. For most of the century the sole top level league in Australia continued being a Victorian league before eventually adding teams from other states."
This, however, rings false and incomplete. The question is not whether the VFL was generally a stronger league but whether the gulf is such to justify it being in a category all of its own - the sole "first class" league in Australia during the 20th century.
What we do know is that at some point the VFL/AFL became the clearly dominant national league by virtue of professionalisation concentrating resources in the richest clubs and biggest footy state. That point was probably not 1897. We know that at least until 1972, the difference between clubs was a relatively small one compared to what came later. We know from Championship of Australia records that clubs from the different leagues could beat each other and the result between the two premiers of a given year would not have been a foregone conclusion. This, to me, is the argument one needs to make to place the VFL as the exclusive holder of "top level competition" status in a context where the football dominant states all had a state-based league of part time platers.

Population difference means less in a pre-professional era
Thinking about what sport was like in the pre-fulltime athlete era, it makes intuitive sense that a 3:1 population ratio between Victoria and either South Australia or Western Australia should mean less than it does now.

We know that professionalisation and financial expansion increased the dominance of rich VFL clubs, necessitating a draft. More money and better talent identification means a larger resource base can be more effectively utilised. We know that money amplifies a club and a league's existing advantage. After all, generally speaking, the history of professionalisation in a sport is a history of rationalisation, teams with smaller resource bases stop being capable of competitiveness (see: Fitzroy, South Melbourne, Newtown Jets, etc).

It should follow then, that without these things, the competitive gap should be less. Without the recruitment and training resources to magnify differences in gene pool size, relative population should have mattered less to the standard of football played as long as there was some minimum amount of pretty good players (which interestate competition suggests there was for SA and WA, but not Tasmania or Queensland).

Power clubs recognised what was happening in the 1980s - East Perth, East Fremantle, South Fremantle, Norwood and Port Adelaide all investigated or attempted to enter the VFL between 1980 and 1990, seeing where the money and power was going. They also must have thought they could make the jump successfully at this point.
I think Ireland's still-amateur GAA sports provide more context for this claim. In sports such as Hurling and Gaelic Football, smaller counties are often still competitive with larger ones. Kerry is the 14th largest county, but has won the most Gaelic football championships ahead of Dublin (1st) and Galway (5th), while in Hurling, Kilkenny (21st) and Tipperary (13th) only have a fraction of the people of Cork (4th) but remain competitive with them. Part of this can be explained by cultural difference probably, but all of it?

That's not to say that larger population confers no advantage in terms of raw athletic material, of course it does. It's just that on a player by player, club by club, year by year basis, it seems that it doesn't make an insurmountable difference without the amplification effects that come with professionalisation.

Compare also the fact that NSW and Victoria never completely monopolised Sheffield Shield in the era when teams were all basically state-based.
To me, everything suggests that while the VFL was recognised as generally the strongest of the leagues, the difference was not a category difference, not such a gulf that makes it justifiable to label the early VFL as the sole standard bearer of elite competition over the state league era of football history.
Quantifying history
As the only entity to transfer directly from another state league Port Adelaide serve to bring the "administrative history vs elite competition history" tension into sharp focus. Clearly Port Adelaide are an entity that existed and were elite and successful before 1997. It's really just plain ahistorical to keep a history of top level Australian football that does not acknowledge their historical success at all. Current allegedly top-level history keeping presents them as a team formed in 1997 which has won one grand final and lost another by a hilariously large margin. It's a bit awkward.
Similarly, it would be farcical to suggest Port Adelaide's 1995 SANFL premiership should be counted equal with Carlton's AFL one. But what about their 1910 flag when they went on to win the Championship of Australia match against Collingwood?
So what if we want to take a view which is more holistic in its view of the sport, and include the"first class" level of our game over its entire organised history? There are similar situations in other sports. The present day NFL peak league of American football, only came into existence in 1970 when the AFL and NFL rivals merged to form the modern NFL (the two conferences AFC and NFc are the legacy of that). The Super Bowl only started in 1967.
To claim that there were no top level champions prior to the 1967 Super Bowl would obviously be silly. Instead, discussion of the pre-merger era counts both AFL and NFL titles as league championships (as distinct from Conference titles and from Super Bowls). For example, it's often said that the Browns have a championship drought back to 1964 and the Chargers back to 1963, even though the Sueprbowl didn't start til 1967. At that time, there were two leagues with realistic claims to be the pinnacle of the sport. To win either was the highest achievement a team could have.
In our context there's no clear line to draw. Unlike the NFL/AFL which were roughly co-equal elite leagues until they started playing Super Bowls on a neatly defined date, in Australian football we don't have a clear point where we went from relative parity to one elite league. We had a long transition period when clubs attempted to jump to the ascendent VFL and we had piecemeal acceptance of the new situation that some would argue the SANFL and WAFL are still coming to terms with. At some point, the WAFL, VFL and SANFL were all basically first class leagues in different places. Then at another later point the VFL/AFL was clearly the top competition. This makes drawing a line a bit messy.
Drawing lines
In terms of quantifying premiership success and what counts as "elite" I can think of three or four obvious cut-off points to draw through the story of vaguely increasing Victorian league ascendency:
  1. 1977. The first State of Origin match, between WA and Victoria. State of Origin replaced inter-league play at this point. Recognising that the WAFL could no longer compete against the VFL since a critical mass of the best WA players were on the Victorian team, inter-league play gave way to "state of origin". This had players playing for their home state, regardless of what league they played in.
  2.  1982, 1987, 1990, 1991. 1982 was first year the VFL had a team based outside Victoria - the South Melbourne Swans were relocated forcibly to Sydney. 1987 was when Western Australia entered a team. 1990 was when the VFL changed its name to the AFL. 1991 is when it got its first team from South Australia.
  3.  For each state league, the point at which VFL/AFL football became the highest level football played in that state. So that would be 1897 for Victoria, 1987 for WA, 1991 for the SANFL.
  4.  Nothing counts in any state before 1987 when the competition became truly national.
I favour number 1, the advent of the State of Origin era. Adopting State of Origin rules rather than interleague play represents a fundamental change in the way the leagues related to each other - it meant admitting that the people playing in those leagues were no longer of a close enough parity to be competitive with each other. This strikes me as a good marker of the point at which the SANFL and WAFL were clearly no longer equal with the VFL.
Number 2 is a series of milestones on a road, marking a transformation, and there's no obvious reason to pick one over another. Varying by state seems elegant, but we have the problem that by 1986 with the increasing professionalisation, the VFL was clearly substantially higher level than the other two leagues in a way it doesn't seem to have been in, say, 1960. Number 4 is also quite clear-cut and rational, but far less interesting, and we're probably a generation or two away from "nothing before the AFL counts" being a close to dominant view.
So what does a premiership table look like for "first class" football as a whole, if we consider all pre-1977 top leagues in the three dominant football states as "first class" leagues?
 (VFA titles pre 1897 count, on the basis that it was the top level league at the time. Neatly, also, no VFA club won a flag which didn't then transfer over to the VFL in 1897).
This, to me, gives a truer picture of first class football in Australia over much of the 20th century. Two historically dominant clubs in South Australia playing in a league with a bit less depth than Victoria. Four or five very winning clubs in Victoria preventing any single one from winning as many flags as Norwood or Port Adelaide. And a more even spread in Western Australia aside from a generally dominant East Fremantle.
The thing I really like about this is we've managed to let Port Adelaide win the argument for counting state level premierships without being clearly on top of the pile.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Why isn't doping allowed in sport?

This is actually a surprisingly difficult question to answer - why don't we allow doping in sport?

The immediately obvious answers like "it's cheating" or "it's unfair" are circular. That's just saying it's against the rules because it's against the rules. Yet at the same time, for most of us, that's enough. Of course taking drugs is cheating. Right?

In any sporting contest there are arbitrary rules about what can and cannot be done. Why can't they take a car in the marathon? Why can't they pick up the ball in soccer? Use twenty guys at once in a game of rugby league? Why? That's the rules. Sport is circular and self-justifying.

Simply put, a sport is a contest to see who can gain the most fair advantage at achieving a pointless goal within an arbitrary framework of restrictions.

There are rules against doping, but what about the massive amount of training and expensive equipment and sports science used by teams to gain an edge in the Olympics or professional sport? That's entirely allowed. Both are using money and science to get an edge, one is allowed, the other isn't.

However I don't think merely pointing out the existence of inconstencies is a terribly important point. You can't have a contest without rules and a framework within which to operate and since sport is a meaningless pursuit and we all die anyway, all the rules are silly and baseless. The question of why doping is banned is sort of the same as asking why we don't have multi-ball in the AFL. It basically boils down to "why does sport have rules?" or even "why is sport?" So it isn't the arbitrariness itself which is the issue

Nor is it that doping "destroys the fair contest" because in a fully doped-up world there'd still be a contest among people with arguably similar advantages. Doping wouldn't work if everyone did it.

So how do we justify having some things arbitrarily allowed and some things arbitrarily not allowed?

I'd argue two things. First, the very important issue of athlete safety. A world of legal doping is a world where being an athlete involves the compulsory imposition of a regime of potentially harmful drug use. That's kind of terrible, and while, yeah, they choose to become athletes I don't think that's a good enough reason to impose extra unnecessary risk.

Beyond that though (since I assume there's safe doping), I'd argue that if sport is competition within a made-up domain of "fair competition", you need pretty good reasons to expand or alter that competition space.

My possibly unsatisfactory answer is that doping is banned as unfair pretty much because most of us intuit that it's unfair. Why is that? Personally I think it's the ease of doping which creates a strong feeling that it's an unfair advantage as opposed to a fair one. Being an athlete is supposed to be hard... you've gotta earn your competitive advantages, and the idea that a simple chemical supplement can massively improve you without much effort just seems against the spirit of competition. At least with conventional sports science, it still takes time and effort.

Once upon a time, professionalism was considered a similar unfair advantage, with a split in the world of Rugby driven by it, and great athletes banned from early Olympics due to that same idea. Training regimens were considered suspect, as they got away from the idea of a pure body-to-body contest.

Clearly we don't think that any more.

I think the illustrative case about the flexibility of the rules of sport, and the resilience of sport, is to compare sports with salary caps, drafts and player recruitment restrictions to sports with no such rules. Both the Major LEague Baseball and the English Premier League and the AFL and NFL work and thrive despite diametrically opposed views about what is fair and legitimate grounds for competition. Some sports think money should be removed as an influence, others don't. Neither is right, both can work.

The only question of sport should be what is the best set of restrictions to create a good and enjoyable contest. What constitutes "a good contest" is inherently subjective.

Clearly the content of the restrictions that make a sport possible can vary as long as people accept the new playing field as legitimate. So basically until someone can mount an argument that performance enhancing drugs improve the sporting contest and defeat the existing general intuition that they're unfair, doping is banned because intuition.

Maybe at some point we'll end up with a world where people think doping to help do sport better is fine, and I'm sure sport will survive that just like it has survived professionalism, commercialisation and all the back and forth about contract freedom. But I don't think we're in a rush to get there - there's not much of a pro-doping lobby making that case.

The future of robotic body parts and chest-mounted basketball cannons, on the other hand, is quite bright.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

On the limits of the power of refugee policy

What is to be done about refugee policy? I guess "do what a normal country does" would be my preference. We have to accept that despite our wealth and effective government, that we're not omipotent. As long as there's conflict and people fleeing persecution, they will attempt hazardous means of movement to obtain security when that seems the best option.

People walk across deserts, over mountain ranges, through jungles to escape war and persecution. They cram into the back of trucks, they sneak through border fences, they dodge corrupt and violent authorities in countries where they have no rights and often get beaten, extorted or deported. And yes, they attempt hazardous boat trips over open ocean. Australia is not a uniquely risky destination. I think we need to respect that one corollary of the right to asylum is the right to take risks to reach safety and that people have taken plenty of risks to even get near to Australia in order to attempt the final marine trip.

Furthermore I am fairly certain the attempts at "deterrence" push people to more dangerous and risky routes, in less seaworthy boats, and toward trying to avoid detection by Australian authorities (ie, the would-be-rescuers). I bet we could save lives by changing practise regarding those who facilitate the movement of people wishing to seek asylum. Excising the mainland pushed people towards Christmas Island, how many lives would reversing that decision have saved?

But at any rate, you never see people say America has Cuban people's "blood on their hands" for the way they give automatic residency to Cubans who reach Florida by boat. Does anybody say Spain or Italy have a responsibility to stop asylum seekers from Africa attempting the Mediterranean journey across the Straits of Gibraltar or to Lampedusa. Sure they have issues with racism, but does the "protect these people from drowning" narrative even make sense in Miami or Malaga?

Why do we have such a different discourse here? Why don't those countries attempt anything like what Australia does? Is it because they recognise that this is a thing which happens, and that no policy is maximalist enough to stop asylum seekers from deciding moving is more of a risk than not moving? Do such countries see their role as simply being a place where asylum can be sought?

By framing our entire policy around "stopping the boats", the main interest seems to be avoiding sad and politically charged images of shipwrecks on our doorstep, images which which impact elections and make people uncomfortable about the cruelty of the world and our own luck and privilege.

By making impossible the boat journey to Australia, we're eliminating both one risk and one opportunity, and closing off options for already desperate people. Unfortunately, with that focus, we're actually fairly literally just wishing refugees would just go somewhere else so we don't have to deal with them.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Privatisation of electricity does not mean loss of government control

I occasionally hear elements of the left getting very upset by the prospect of electricity privatisation. I understand the impulse. In most parts of the economy, selling off assets means you lose control of those assets (see also Qantas, Telstra). And electricity is an essential service for which universal access is a very big concern, which means it would surely make us feel safer and more secure for the government to have a tight grip on it.

However, I've come around to the view that the angst is actually misguided for two reasons.

The first is basically empirical. It turns out that if your goal is the cheapest and most reliable power for people within a given system, electricity markets actually do do roughly what boosters say they're supposed to. Generation markets do use the price mechanism to more efficiently generate and supply power. At the retail end, the experience in Victoria is that contestability (ie retail competition) does seem to bring retail margins down a bit compared to regulated tarrifs.

Private sector transmission and distribution grid operators, at least in Australia, actually do seem to result in cheaper grid costs in a natural monopoly environment. As an illustration, let's compare the revenue growth of the currently private and currently public grid operators in Australia. This comes from the Australian Energy Regulator with colouring added by me for emphasis.

As you can see, grid costs are going up everywhere (because we use shitloads more power than we used to). However, as a general rule the blue privately owned natural monopolies are clearly not going up in percentage terms more than the yellow public ones.

The actual reasons are a complex mess of issues and this isn't to say private good public bad (it might be possible to say certain state governments are shit, however...). I just wanted to demonstrate that existing private network operators clearly aren't price gouging relative to public ones. If anything it looks like the reverse, at least in Australia.


The second reason, though, is that the quibbles about who owns generation or does retail are actually really secondary to the question of how things are structured and how the rules work. You can dispute the details of a specific asset sell-off, whether there's fair value, whether it's being done alongside other shitty measures, and so forth.

However in a properly run system it should make basically no difference who owns electricity assets because regardless, the people making the rules and running things remain the same.

I think the biggest misconception in the minds of a lot of opponents to privatisation is that privatisation means the absence of control. However, the fact is that our whole electricity market system can only exist by the fiat of government and under its ongoing control.

Even in a fully contestable market with no price regulations on generation or retail, even if every single entity within an electricity system is privately owned, the government is still calling the shots and setting the rules. This must definitionally be the case, because physics.

Yep, physics. An electricity grid isn't like a road network or system of internet tubes. It is essentially a single giant alternating current circuit, meaning the electrons shoot back and forth 50 times a second (you can read more about this at Evan's excellent blog). Since there's no unidirectional flow of stuff, and a circuit must be complete to function, the physics of a grid dictates that it absolutely must be managed by a single entity with a clear set of rules and and the power to tell everyone what to do. Markets are a fiction created to enable the controlling entity to run the system better by ensuring everyone has a monetary interest in doing a thing, but the underlying physics dictate a monopoly of control must remain.

At the very least, the correct term of abuse over privatisation should be ordoliberalism rather than neoliberalism.


I don't think this is a trivial point. Because what it means is that in electricity production, a lot of ordinary market concepts become very utilitarian things. Having been conjured into being by government rules, features of the market are harnessed by the operator of the system as tools of coordination. That's why the idea was proposed in the first place.

The allocative efficiency of the price mechanism, for example, is here not just a principled argument for the superiority of free markets compared to command and control economies. Instead, the price mechanism is literally the principle which dictates what power generation occurs. Like, as in, a computer does all the allocation according to the price mechanism.

Price signals are obtained each day and sorted by the central operator (ie a government agency, in our case AEMO) and then as the day goes on, those prices are matched with the amount of  need at that moment. Then the operator tells all the power plants whether to generate or not (this is called "dispatch"). And they do what they're told. And then they get their money from the operator.

(The market operator's magical computers also factor in wind and solar movements in their telling everyone what to do, since the sun and atmosphere refuse to obey the orders of technocrats.)

The price mechanism is thus a tool for centrally coordinating and allocating power generation effectively. Ownership of the generators is actually irrelevant, as long as they're separate and blind and numerous enough to avoid market power. In such situations it's actually impossible for a generator to price gouge in this market. It's a market created and sustained by government which is pretty close to perfect competition.

This point becomes even clearer with the concepts of supply and demand. In the case of an electricity grid, they're not just abstractions. They're actually visible things, measured and tracked from moment to moment, because they need to match up. Not for economic reasons (though that's important for efficiency and thus keeping costs and emissions down), but literally so that the system doesn't blow up. In an electricity system, over-supply or over-demand trashes everything by throwing out the frequency from what it's built to carry (50 hz), causing damage and blackouts. So it's kind of important that physical supply moves to meet physical demand and the best way to match them up is to use a market.


I'm not talking much about electricity retail because basically it's not as interesting as the generation market, all they're doing is competing on the rights to bill you, trying to minimise their overhead and cut margins. The justifications or nonjustifications there are basically the same as having more than one telco retailer, so fill in your own blanks there. The biggest danger is either contracts becoming unfathomably complex a la mobile phones, and private companies having greater latitude to screw their workers.


So why are prices rising? Some of our problems in the electricity sector with price rises are to do with bad regulation (the so-called gold-plating problem with public network owners would be largely a product of dumb ministers and inexperienced regulators being bamboozled by natural monopoly grid operators).

Some problems are actually to do with incomplete market creation (for instance, we'd have less peak load and therefore cheaper networks if it were possible for customers to get a bill discount in exchange for someone having the power to remotely switch off air conditioning in 15 minute bursts during extreme demand days).

However, a lot of the price rise is just the inevitable consequence of our demand for air-conditioning.
But to blame privatisation of generation, networks or retail for power rises in Australia is pretty much wrong.

There's plenty more detail to go into, but this is basically why I think the fight over privatisation is misguided. The important issue is where control and coordination sits and how that control is used. In other words, the main game is the very unsexy work of making sure the rules work to do what they're supposed to - produce and deliver power reliably, as efficiently and therefore cheaply as possible.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Could Australia settle all the local refugees?

My question is simple: could Australia feasibly settle all the current refugees in the UN's South East Asian area over a period of, say, the next five years?

(First up, I'm not an expert in the field, there's almost certainly things I'm missing, and my method for translating DIAC's current budget into a costing for an expanded intake is simplistic to put it mildly. This is an exercise in back of the napkin estimates, except the napkin is a Google spreadsheet.)

There's precedent for far greater generosity in times of refugee crisis. Australia's intake has been a lot bigger than it is now. In 1980 our population was 14.5 million, our refugee quota was 22,000. That's roughly the equivalent of 35000 per year today, compared with total population. If you chucked in an adjustment for the assumption that our higher real GDP (we're not far off twice as rich as in 1980) means we can afford to support more refugees compared to total population, the possible quota goes even higher.

So, what does a refugee cost to process and settle? Let's go straight to the Department of Immigration's own budget statement. The DIAC's budget is handily divided 6 outcomes which are the different functions of DIAC:

1. Managed migration
2. Reffos
3. Borders
4. Visa compliance, status resolution detention, etc
5. Settlement services
6. Multicultural feelgoodery. Also citizenship decisions.

In addition there's also the Migration and Refugee tribunal, part of DIAC's ambit but with a separate budget.

By my maths and assumptions about these items, it turns out the direct cost, per settled refugee is roughly $43000 a year. Here's a link to the spreadsheet with my figures.

Just an explanation on my assumptions:

In addition to the obvious entirity of Outcome 2, Outcome 5 is settlement services, so needed to be apportioned. Half the entire budget item is free English classes, so I took a a stab at splitting that between refugees and family visa recipients. I came up with 35% being refugees, assuming 80% of our 13750 refugee placements needed classes (found a reference which said 64% needed interpretors) and a complete guess at 50% of the 40000 or so on family visas from non-English speaking countries (DIAC figures, table 1-18) needing classes.

For other some big items around settlement grants and schemes, I assumed 100% refugees and then split the remaining budget 50:50 because why the fuck not. Details in the spreadsheet.

The biggest dilemma is how to account for current offshore detention and its replacement under the new policy. It was $700m in 2010-11, for about 5000 asylum seekers, which is firstly insane when you think about it, and secondly you could somewhat spuriously say cost $137,000 per detainee. But that wouldn't scale or translate to the situation of a radically expanded intake. The Red Cross estimates it costs them $11,000 for community based aslyum seekers. I bumped that up a bit and called it $15000, since government is inefficient or whatever.

However that fairly obviously skirts the question of how the fuck people are to get here. Are overseas processing and transport costs already included in Outcome 2? Quite possibly. But maybe not. Maybe the UN pays that stuff but would be unable to pay for the expanded intake places. That'd be the biggest caveat I put on this guess - it might not cover the costs to the Australian government at the point of origin.

SO! $43000 per refugee, apparently! Plus getting people to Australia. That obviously excludes a bunch of other stuff from the napkin. Within the departmental budgets, does each refugee make the per-refugee cost higher or lower? Are there economies of scale as refugee numbers expand or greater bureaucratic overhead? What the fuck does it cost ASIO to do security checks anyway?

What I DO know is that there's about yay many refugees locally:

To accept every one of these 478000 refugees would cost about $21 billion, with the earlier discussed assumptions. Do it over 5 years (so a bit under 100 000 a year) and we're looking at $4.2b a year in direct settlement expenses.

That's just the direct costs of course. What about the costs for building accommodation? (Could $40 000 shipping container houses be the new fibro shacks?) What is the cost of laying down infrastructure to basically build a new Hobart over a few years? What about the the flow on effects to welfare or education or health of bringing many refugees here? Would it be an idea to cut other areas of migration for a while to keep population growth down. Who knows! But here's a starting point!

On the other hand, this is an upper bound estimate of the direct costs if every single one of these refugees was to be settled in Australia. But an undertaking like this would almost certainly be intended to be regional, and surely by showing some leadership Australia could drag some other countries into taking some refugee settlers. Skive a quarter off on New Zealand for a start, and see if "we'll take 75% of your refugees if you settle the other 25%" works on the government of Thailand or Malaysia.

But the huge wildcard here is those massive numbers on the borders of Myanmar. The UN says there are 400 000 Myanmar refugees in other countries. If they're all in Southeast Asia that's 4 out of every 5 regional refugee being from Myanmar. Essentially all of the refugees in Bangladesh are Burmese, as are most in Thailand. As fucked as the place is, would they all qualify as fearing persecution? I don't really know. And of course there's no reason to assume Myanmar would stay fucked forever - many refugees ultimately return and if the situation changes in Myanmar we might see that in this case.

Furthermore, there's also the argument that Australia doesn't need to take all the refugees. I think I've satisfied myself that it's vaguely feasible (we're talking what, half an NBN here?), but the current obsession is with stopping the boats. And I don't think we'd need to take every refugee currently residing in Bangladesh to do that. We could and probably would focus just on the 240 000 in Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand and that drops us to $10 billion. Over 5 years, starting with the longest-exiled refugees first, that 2 billion a year to save lives and stop locking children up indefinitely starts to look pretty reasonable. (Also that gets us down close to an intake proportionately comparable to the early 1980s.)

Could such a policy cause Australia to be "swamped" by the desperate hordes? I really actually don't think so. Remember that not everyone can be a refugee just because they live in a poor or unstable country. There's two key limitations - the first is the fear of persecution has to be proven. Right now, Burma's our biggest regional arsehole government, and surely just about everyone who's going to flee there has probably done so, especially with things maybe starting to open up slightly over there. And there's no wars of note elsewhere locally. Numbers coming from further afield to seek asylum directly are inherently limited by geographical distance.

Just about the only situation which would result in a literally overwhelming swamping by refugees is something seriously fucked happening in Indonesia. And if that happens all the mandatory detention and tough rhetoric in the world won't stop the human tide. There are a million Afghan refugees in Iran right now. Several hundred thousand Vietnamese and North Koreans in China. You think they're a soft touch and just let them in? Didn't have tough enough borders or strong enough deterrents? Yeah right.

So in summary, I think it would cost about $10bn in direct settlement costs to settle all the refugees currently in Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia and $21bn to take every one from here to Bangladesh.