Interview with the Double Disillusionists

So, the good folks at Telum interviewed Dom and I for their media email blast thing, and I thought it entertaining enough to reprint here in not-email form. Enjoy!

Telum Talks To… Andrew P Street and Dominic Knight, Presenters, The Double Disillusionists
What inspired you two to make this election podcast?
APS: I naturally realised that writing a daily column and two books was insufficient for me to say all I had to say on the endlessly-fascinating subject of Australian politics, and that another time-consuming regular commitment would really hit the spot. And I was genuinely excited about Dom no longer being constrained by being employed by our public broadcaster and therefore being free to express political opinions, not least since he’s erudite, articulate and hilarious.
DOM: Aw, shucks! The obvious thing to do after four years of getting paid to talk into microphones is to find a way to keep doing that for free. Mostly I’m just trying to ride APS’ coattails now that he’s the nation’s greatest political commentator (by volume).

How do you know each other and what are your roles within the podcast?
APS: Dom and I met via a mutual friend with whom I worked when I was Music Editor at Time Out Sydney, and we just kinda hit it off when he started inviting me onto 702 ABC to talk about music-related stuff on a semi-regular basis. And Dom’s very much taken on the “Producer” role because he’s got actual broadcasting experience. I’m just some jerk who rambles on about whatever’s at the front of my brain at that moment and is far, FAR better on the page than on mic.
DOM: What he said, only I didn’t really know the mutual friend either, and was basically gatecrashing a party. We’re recording it via Skype because none of us are in the same place, so I try to play the role of traffic cop and interjector with various off-topic witticisms. Also, I generally haven’t been following the campaign as closely as APS and the guest because I’m travelling, so I tend to spend most of my time listening agog.

Most memorable campaign moments either from this campaign, or campaigns gone by?
APS: Has there been a memorable moment yet? It’s the most soporific election campaign in Australian political history, it seems to me. A few mid-debate knife fights would perk things up rapidly, though.
DOM: Nothing willl ever beat Mal Meninga’s political career – but it’s a pity nobody watched the first debate, because it was a true contest of ideas, on topics that mostly mattered, between two leaders who genuinely knew their stuff and engaged with voters. So of course a cable channel during the week’s top-rating football clashes was the ideal place for it.

Dom, you’re in Europe at the moment, so how do you ‘sync’ up for Andrew to tape the podcast?
APS: I am entirely at his mercy.
DOM: Lots of emails, the first seventeen of which say “Nah, let’s do it tomorrow”. Recording across timezones like this with two busy people and one bludging holidaymaker is unnecessarily hard, but APS and I really wanted to do this, and weren’t likely to be constrained by the sheer impracticality.

What are you working on apart from this podcast?
APS: I’m writing a sequel to my book about the Abbott government [The Short and Excruciatingly Embarrassing Reign of Captain Abbott] at the moment – like, literally should be doing that right now instead of this – and writing my “View from the Street” column for Fairfax five days a week, while also doing the odd bit of other writing in all that spare time I have. And occasionally getting abdominal surgery, although hopefully that was more of a one-off.
DOM: I’m trying not to work as much as possible, and editing a podcast feels like a massive failure. I’m also writing a bit for The Drum, Daily Lifeand whoever else will pay me to sling a few words about. I’m also currently pitching a book called The Long and Excruciatingly Prolific Writing Of Admiral P Street, but as yet have no takers.

The ability to download radio programmes is nothing new, so why do you think podcasting is seeing such a surge in popularity?
APS: Is it actually popular? I just figure that podcasts are sort of like official websites were in the early 00s: they’re not especially valuable within themselves, but if you’re any sort of public figure you need to have one in order to appear that you take your career the least bit seriously.
DOM: They are a bit like what the Fauves said about three-pieces – everyone’s getting one together. But coming from broadcast radio, I really like the ability to make audio that people can listen to when it suits them, rather than the other way around. And the freedom involved is really delightful – both in terms of content and the invigorating freedom from getting paid.

Most memorable story / media moment you’ve been involved with?
APS: Zia McCabe of the Dandy Warhols once stripped me down to my underwear and put me in a cow costume. It was backstage at the Big Day Out and it was in order that I might therefore dance on stage with the dozens of other similarly-costumed folks during the Flaming Lips’ set, but I feel that the first bit of the story sounds slightly more exciting without the second bit.
DOM: Probably gatecrashing the stage of John Howard’s election victory in 2004. Instead of pulling a Chaser prank, I definitely should have given him a heartfelt thanks for saving us from Prime Minister Mark Latham.

Coffee, lunch or drinks?
APS: That sounds like the correct order to me.
DOM: Espresso martinis for lunch?

If you could have a superpower, what would it be?
APS: I don’t care for the implication that I don’t already possess superpowers. I’m not necessarily wearing underpants outside my trousers simply because I don’t get how pants work, you know.
DOM: I would like to be able to be able to devour an entire primary school’s worth of sausages and lamingtons without getting a heart attack, because nothing tastes as sweet as democracy.

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The stupid myth of “picking winners”

Dear the Internet,

This has been on my mind for a little bit, and then became a bit of a Facebook rant, and is now a blog post on the prestigious Internet – which I think these days is pretty much the entire writing process in a nutshell. And speaking of which…

Before finally accepting that putting words on pages in some sort of order was the main – or, to put it another way, only – skill for which anyone would ever pay me money, I tried my hand at a few other doomed career alternatives including such can’t-miss wealth creators as “indie rock bassist” and “inner-city stand up comedian”. And much as I failed at them – and failed hard, let’s be clear – they did teach me some valuable lessons about the process of doing stuff.

Just check out that exquisite COMMAND OF THE STAGE!, circa 2013

Just check out that exquisite COMMAND OF THE STAGE!, circa 2013

That method is incredibly straightforward, regardless of the medium, and boils down to this: try things and see what happens.

That’s because, much as we’d like to rely on our own unerring judgement and genius insight, discovering what works isn’t a process that one discovers by any other method than simply trying stuff out.

No band ever consciously sets out to suck, and no stand up ever aspires to be humiliated on stage. The only reliable way to test hypotheses like “this joke is hilarious!” or “this chorus totally rocks!” is to put them in front of an audience and assess the subsequent reactions.

Now, this all seems like an uncontroversial sort of an idea – but perhaps it’s not as widely understood as I’d assumed.

One of the ideas underpinning the continued funding of the CSIRO is that the body tasked with Australia’s most basic scientific research should “pick winners” – that is, concentrate on areas of research that will prove commercially lucrative – rather than dick about doing wasteful, naval gazing “basic research” like mapping genomes or trying to puzzle out dark energy.

The problem is that this idea of picking winners is complete and utter bullshit – and you don’t even need to be a vaccine chemist, crop geneticist or supernova astrophysicist to understand why.

As one particularly awful date once asked to me at the time, “why do you have jokes in your set that no-one laughs at? Why don’t you just have great jokes all the time, one after the other?”

And the answer was obvious: fake an emergency phone call and leave early. But the reason my set was part-killer-mostly-filler was partially because I was pretty lousy at stand up but mainly because there’s absolutely no way to know what jokes work until you tell ‘em.

The thing that seems like a knock-down universal truth in your own head may, in fact, be complete arse – as evidenced by the grim silence that followed quips like “Newtown is Sydney’s most misleadingly named suburb – I’ve lived there for over a year now and haven’t seen a single newt.”

Want more evidence? Ponder for a moment the songs that have been huge, worldwide hits and you’ll realise that most of the biggest sellers over time aren’t the mighty multiple-writer workshopped pop hits. A significant majority of global smashes have one thing in common: they’re generally really, really odd.

They appeared because an artist had an idea and just knocked it out, and then circumstance, timing and decent marketing did the rest. The sales job happened after the work was created, because no record company executive on the planet would ever start a meeting with “You know what would definitely sell millions of records worldwide for decades? A multi-section six minute operatic ballad with no chorus about a nihilistic murderer which vamps on figures from classical Italian commedia dell’arte and Arabic mythology!” And yet chances are you’re humming Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ even as you read this.

People with an idea about the market – one might call them “marketers” – are successful if they are able to see new developments or products and go “hey, this could be popular!” Starting from the premise “here’s a thing people like that they’d like again!” doesn’t get you the iPhone; that’s how you get the Zune (remember them?).

Indeed, the invention for which the CSIRO are most often praised – wifi – didn’t come about because the organisation realised there’d be a global market for wireless communication.

It was a weird byproduct of an ultimately unsuccessful experiment to detect the theorised explosions of mini-black holes, for which the organisation needed to develop a way of unscrambling the radiowaves that such explosions would hypothetically create. In so doing, they inadvertently created a method of “unsmearing” messy data transmissions which – after about a decade of development – turned into a commercial goldmine.

Starting point: explosions of black holes. End point: a worldwide patent.

Trying stuff out can be expensive and messy – you know, like life is in literally all other ways – but it’s also the only way to actually discover things. And if the government’s going to keep making noises about how Australia needs to be innovative and agile, the idea that Australia’s key public research body should sacrifice research in favour of marketing seems an odd one.

Of course, maybe these CSIRO cuts are the equivalent of trying out a joke about amphibians of the inner west and seeing the response.

If so, federal government, learn the lesson I did: if people stand there with their arms folded staring at you with blind, barely-contained hatred, perhaps you need to try something else.

Yours ever,

APS

Election time – and some book/podcast news!

Dear the Internet,

Sure, this page’s less-then-stellar update schedule makes things look like they’ve been quieter than they’ve been. But there’s some stuff to talk about! Honest! No, really!

Podcasts! They're the future (of talking things).

Podcasts! They’re the future (of talking things).

To start with: if you’ve been thinking “I could really do with hearing APS rant straight into my ears” then be advised that m’self and Chaser/ABC radio alumnus Dom Knight have just begun The Double Disillusionists, a weekly election podcast that’s better than all those other weekly election podcasts from less caffeinated people.*

It’s at Soundcloud right now, at PocketCast, and will be up at iTunes shortly!

Also, that Australian music book that got mentioned a little while ago has been gently put aside for a little while in order to focus on a completely new book. Oh, Australian politics: I keep trying to get out, and you just keep sucking me back in.

Yes, there’s going to be a sequel to The Short and Excruciatingly Embarrassing Reign of Captain Abbott, focussing on the Turnbull epoch and taking us up to the election, because I am a sucker for punishment.

And while that’s being written at a rate of knots, View from the Street is still happening five days a week at the Sydney Morning Herald, of course.

It’s going to be a busy election campaign, basically, and I’m going to spend it neck deep in federal politics. What the hell have I signed up for?

Yours ever,

APS

*Probably.