Thursday, November 17, 2011

What do these two have in common?

Anyone know? Please post your answer below as a comment. No idea? I'll tell you in a few days.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Art of Innovative Consumption - Part 2

Continued from here...

The extreme price differences found in the market for computer hardware in Australia are not necessarily shared by other types of products. What, then, can an innovative consumer do when the product they want is universally costly? What about where there is a monopoly or near monopoly? Well, there are still some options. There are always options.

The second hand market is always worth considering. I grew up with most things bought second hand. New items in our home were a rarity. Most were bought from opportunity shops, but sometimes, just for a treat, we would save up and buy something through the trading post. Now, since the advent of computers - available for less than you think, as those who read part 1 will be aware - we can search through extensive classifieds, bid on eBay auctions, contact locals with things for sale through Gumtree and look up vast amounts of information on the item we intend to buy so as not to get ripped off.

Books are a good example of a product that costs significantly less when purchased online than it does over the counter. Though I do love to look through a book shop and sit in its cafe reading books I am considering purchasing and I will miss the many book shops that have closed recently in Melbourne, the fact is, none of us are made of money and not everyone can afford to pay double or triple the price simply to keep over the counter retailers afloat: they're not a charity. By the way, one way you can buy books is by clicking the adds below this article and ordering them online - new or second hand, digital or hard copy.

The reality is, though, not all the items we want are for sale at reasonable prices and not all the ones at reasonable prices are within our budget. Even if they are, further savings can allow us to invest for the future or make our budgeting more rewarding. The next step in creative consumption is to stop viewing an item in its entirety and begin to consider its component parts.

There are a number of reasons why the cost of a complete item may be more than the sum of it's component parts. Key among these are cost of assembly and the desirability of a complete and usable product.

The mere act of assembling the parts must have required resources. More often than not those resources are human resources and human resources cost money, no matter how much that cost can be minimized by outsourcing to countries without minimum wage laws. By completing as much of the assembly process one's self, one can trade one's time for money. Often the relatively small amount of time that this takes can seem grossly disproportionate to the amount of money it would have cost for the already assembled item. Ikea are hinting at this when they sell you flat packed furniture. As their communication team are keen to emphasize, this also makes it easier to carry home on your car roof rack.

Referring back to the example of computers mentioned in part 1, many computer parts suppliers will charge you for an hour or more of labor at a rate far in excess of what they actually pay their employees, for the assembly of the parts you have purchased. However, this is not always the case: some stores such as Yamada Denki in Japan will assemble your computer parts for you for little or no cost. Of course it still pays to do your homework and research the parts you will choose, since this will enable your to purchase a computer that suits your needs based on parts that represent a good balance between reliability, cost effectiveness and performance.

Assembly costs aside, there is another key factor that inflates the price of complete items when compared to the sum or their components. That is, desirability. It is far easier to market an item that looks complete and is ready to perform its function than one that will require work to assemble. Where components or items not yet assembled are marketed, communication usually centers around images representing their potential. Ikea achieve this by placing on display fully assembled items in a setting that demonstrates their usefulness, mutual compatibility and function. Cake mixes are usually sold with a photo on the box not depicting the little white sachets contained within, but rather the cake you could potentially create by adding the right amount of water and baking in the right dish at the right temperature for the right amount of time. The packaging of computer graphics cards often depicts examples of the computer graphics that may potentially be displayed on your monitor after you have installed the card in your computer, as long as you have the right combination of other components, complimented with the right software.

The point of all those examples is this: products' prices have far more to do with the laws of supply and demand than they do with the cost of manufacture. Demand, in the case of non essential items, relates to desirability and desirability increases dramatically once a product is completed. A completed product performs a function and it looks and feels complete.

However, to the innovative consumer, these virtues offer a completed product only a very short term advantage over the components though, since once we purchase and assemble them, they will gain exactly the same properties as the completed item.

We may even make improvements along the way. We can choose the precise components that suit us, rather than settling for the combination a manufacturer chose. This is very important, because many manufacturers choose the components that will slightly out compete a rival product or slightly outlast a warranty. We, on the other hand, can choose the best combination, giving the product exactly the performance and features we need and finding our own balance between cost and longevity.

One final benefit of self assembly is that by gaining knowledge of the components, we are able to replace them individually when they fail, calling on manufactures' warranties while they apply, or choosing second hand parts once they expire. This saves a great deal of inconvenience and potential cost.

As innovative consumers who assemble our possessions from their component parts, we achieve the next level of mastery over our material lives. The process bears rewards that extend well beyond the financial. We learn and develop as people through interaction with the man made artifacts that constitute a large part of our culture. We become increasingly self reliant, able to recombine parts in new and creative ways. We can perform repairs and modifications. These things are highly satisfying and enrich our lives.

To be continued...

In the mean time, please consider the following books/eBooks. Prices start from $0.99. Part of the proceeds will support this blog. 

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

The Art of Innovative Consumption - Part 1

When competition is lacking and prices rise, are there still choices
When competition is lacking and prices rise, are there still choices? Often there are not, certainly not obvious and appealing ones. However, with some creativity and resourcefulness, we as consumers have the ability to move about the market place and fins alternatives in ways business doesn’t factor into its modelling because they are not statistically significant. Doing this can save us a great deal and can enrich our lives in surprising ways. This article will introduce some alternative approaches to being a consumer and discuss some of their merits.

            Being an innovative consumer is a good way to save money. However, other benefits include reducing waste and choosing to support companies and businesses that are good employers and choose environmentally sustainable business models.

            A good first step for many in terms of becoming an innovative consumer is to shop around. Simply calling a few businesses out of the Yellow Pages for quotes is better than nothing, but often the quotes are altogether too similar and the results can be disappointing. Therefore, assuming that one has made a decision to obtain a particular product, one needs to think creatively about alternative ways to obtain it. This means looking beyond the brands and retailers that market directly to one’s own location and demographic and searching further afield.

Though prices are said to be set through supply and demand in the market place, this is slightly misleading because it suggests that there is one marketplace. There are in fact many, and the same product may be competing in several. For example, buying a desk top computer from a major retailer can be a costly business, with retail mark ups in excess of fifty percent and manufacturers using the most basic possible parts in order to keep their profit margins as high as possible. If we compare their prices with some smaller computer shops they may appear reasonable, since many small computer shops aim to compete for the same market segment by keeping prices only slightly lower and offering a similar quality product. It is only when we actively go in search of businesses appealing to a different target market that we are able to see any real difference. For example, if we look for businesses that aim to sell computers to the IT savvy, we see that we are able to obtain a similar system for less than half the price. We may need to wait in line for it and have someone talk to us in high speed jargon with a strong accent, but if we knew what we were after in the first place and did our homework, there it would be. What is more, we would have many options and be able to buy something tailored to our individual needs.
A crucial aspect of innovative consumption that makes the above scenario possible is our ability to do research and know what products will suit us before we approach whomever is selling them. Reading the tech blurbs on the Harvey Norman website it is sometimes difficult to imagine that the products and technologies they offer have anything to do with the jargon and model codes that are used to represent products in the catalogues of IT catalogues. Their language is modified to suit their communication team’s target audience, of whom you may unwittingly find yourself a member if your knowledge of language is restricted to commonly known terminology. To be a truly innovative consumer, you have to learn specialised vocabulary. Learning one or more second language also helps as will be elaborated in part two. Stay tuned.

To be continued…

In the mean time, here is some further reading on the subject. Proceeds appreciated by this blogger. 

Friday, November 04, 2011

Dog Washing, Hair Dressing and the Future of the Australian Economy (In response to a question. Isn't it nice how interactive and multi directional communications media are these days?!

The following comment was posted in response to this post. My response is altogether too verbose to be posted as another comment, so here is is.  

Ann said...
Do you think Australia is becoming a third world country and that the balance of power and wealth will shift worldwide? We export our resources (human and physical) to India and China and dispense with our manufacturing industries. It seems to me that an economy and society based on tourism, dog washing and haircutting is not sustainable. The mining boom is a good example of short-term greed at the cost of sustainability.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Investigative Journalism

The television program 'The Hamster Wheel' recently ran a skit about the sad state of investigative journalism. It showed a journalist standing next to a fax machine, waiting for the morning's stories to be sent in, then calling the numbers at the bottom of the pages to ask a couple of questions.

Sadly, judging by most of the articles in the mainstream media, the comedians have it right. Genuine investigative work by journalists has become a rarity. The reality is that journalists are expected to produce ever increasing outputs in a way that meets the requirements of the twenty four hour news cycle. The media have become better than ever at getting a story published quickly, but they have done so at the expense of analysis, fact checking and investigation. This is bad news for the role of the public sphere in democracy.

So is there any good news? Well, perhaps. Hope comes in many forms, but two of them in this case may be blogs and QandA.

The ABC's panel show where the audience, including viewers using twitter and other forms of communication, ask questions of politicians and other persons of perceived importance. The quality of the questions asked is not exactly Kerry O'Brian standard, but the discussions that ensue are often quite interesting and allow various perspectives to be heard, even if there is little chance of anyone actually changing their mind. The show certainly contributes to democracy. The problem is though, the participants are almost exclusively reliant on other mainstream media for information.

Blogs may go some way toward addressing this. At their best, bloggers can go to some lengths to bring important events and ideas to the attention of their readers. Fellow blogger Mark Glaser has been kind enough to list some historically significant examples in this post, at least in the USA. The blogosphere has further expanded since then, so let us hope that investigative blog journalism has done so with it.

Bloggers may not have as much in the way of funding and resources as mainstream media companies do. However, what they do have, is the time and freedom to do research. Some of us do not have as much as we would like, but certainly more time and freedom than a full time journalist. Ideally, there should be investigative journalists with both resources and time, but they are few (perhaps they all work for the ABC) and in the mean time us bloggers will have to do the best we can. This is more a commentary blog than a news blog, but perhaps I may start a news blog too, since there is clearly a need for one. If I do, I will update it weekly, not daily, so as to allow time for proper investigation.

CEOs and Incentives

CEOs often have little or no incentive to improve. Even in cases of very poor performance by the companies they lead, they continue to receive extremely high pay, often award themselves bonuses and, once they leave, are able to easily find similar work in other companies, no matter how bad they are at it. This is a sad state of affairs.

Qantas CEO Alan Joyce is a prime example of this. Increases in his pay are completely disproportionate both to the company's performance under his leadership and to the working conditions of the majority of Qantas employees. 

When share holders vote on pay increases it is rare for the recommendations of the board to be opposed. Those who cast proxy votes but don't specify any instruction by default allow decisions to be passed. Even if there were a high level of voter engagement it would be hard for small share holders to have much influence, since major share holders in companies tend to belong to the same social elites as the company leaders and share similar ideas. 

This is a serious issue of corporate governance. Companies themselves are unlikely to decide to make changes, as they lack any financial incentive. The interests of companies as a whole, as organisations of people working together to earn a living and achieve something, would be better served by restrictions on pay, share schemes, bonuses and benefits given to company leaders. Bonuses must be conditional if they are to be an effective incentive for improvement and for them to be meaningful, salaries and other benefits must be kept at levels where their recipients, though well off, will still feel a need for more income. 

The only way that restrictions can ever be put in place is through legislation. The chances of it happening are very slim. The most likely outcome is that we will be interminably stuck with poorly performing companies that serve largely as a means of funnelling funds into their CEOs' bank accounts.

Monday, October 31, 2011

What is to Become of Qantas

With flights grounded over industrial disputes and share prices in steady decline for the past year. According to their media release on the 28th of October, which is, for some reason, not listed on their website as of the time this article is published, protests, organised by unions, had by that date cost Qantas 68 million dollars. The costs have no doubt increased further over the past few days. Note that Qantas CEO Alan Joyce compared the costs to those incurred during the grounding of flights during the recent volcanic ash cloud, which were significantly less costly. Perhaps the comparison was for dramatic effect. Joyce certainly seemed at pains to emphasise the costly nature of the protests.

  Using rather more measured language, fund managers from AIF released a brief ASX announcement this morning to the effect that they did not expect revenue from airports to be significantly effected. However, by contrast, The Age, in the coverage linked above, interviewed various airport food service proprietors who complained that their daily takings had reduced by 30 to 80 percent.

  The extent to which the impacts are either downplayed or emphasised appears to depend largely on the party's respective interests. Of course small businesses, with tighter budgets, will suffer indirect consequences of the flight groundings, which were a Qantas decision and not a natural consequence of the protests.

  Joyce's constant reference to the cost of the protests is a very obvious and cliched attempt to shift responsibility for Qantas mismanagement to the unions. Traditionally, such attempts have worked, since companies occupy a higher echelon in western social hierarchy than unions. All he has to do is describe the unions as violence inciting mobs of working class ruffians and the corporate community will pat him on the back and give him another CEO job once he's finished, no matter how badly Qantas does.

(Google images)

  For Qantas share holders, however, the future could be very bleak. In fact Joyce's communication strategy should be making him extremely unpopular with share holders right now. In recent years, Qantas has been a failure. In reaction to the success of budget airlines, it has sacrificed its status as a premium service for futile attempts at compromise. Cutting costs by outsourcing maintenance operations is probably the silliest decision a board ever made. The biggest selling point Qantas ever had was it's reputation for safety. In the past, Qantas pioneered innovations in maintenance and testing and was a world leader. That's gone now and it would take many years and cost a great deal of money to bring it back.

  Qantas's other selling point as a premium service was it's reputation as a good employer with professional pilots and staff. That too is being sacrificed. The unions "unreasonable demands" (Joyce, 2011) are for the kind of decent employment and management practices that have in the past made the company a success.

  Qantas will never be as cheap as Jetstar or Virgin. If it was, it would lack a raison d'être. Shaving a few dollars off the price of an air ticket in panic at falling passenger numbers was never going to help if it came at the expense of quality. The food was never in my experience much good and they didn't have the kind of sexist hiring practices that let other airlines lure passengers with the beauty of their air hostesses. The sad fact of the matter is, Qantas are now a bad airline with little hope of recovery and the most likely outcome is that they will be bought out by another company, probably from somewhere in Asia, at a heavily discounted price. It's a waste. 


  If your interested and would like to read some other ideas about the demise of Qantas or other relevant literature, you could consider this book. A percentage of proceeds will help support my blog.

Aviation in Australia only costs $3.99 and can be downloaded directly to Kindle here: 

Friday, October 28, 2011

Are Australian Living Standards Declining? A Cursory Look.

The OWS protests have brought a lot of new knowledge to light about inequality, greed and corruption in the USA. Not least of these little insights has been the fact that average incomes (those of 'the 99%') peaked relative to the cost of living in the 1970s and Americans have in effect been worse off ever since.

What about my little country then: Australia? Well, a cursory glance at the graph (below) of real household disposable income, would suggest we're doing pretty well. Have a look, then I'll continue. 

Well that one doesn't go back to the 70s, so here's one that does, but doesn't quite cover the little dip in the last few years: 

There. Now there seems to be a reasonably steady trend upwards. That one is in '99/2000 prices. 

However, commentators have argued that women's workplace participation has been a contributing factor to increasing income. Here is a graph showing the increase in workplace participation by gender. The bottom line is dotted (hard to see) and, as may be expected, represents women. 

That's from here. The explanation notes that male participation has declined, but female participation has increased enough to make the overall participation rate increase, which has been extremely beneficial to the economy. 

So, disposable income has about doubled in about the same time that womens' participation in the workforce has not quite doubled. Very well. Each of us must be better off. Right? 

Well, here's another graph from the same document: 

Married women's participation in the workforce is growing much faster than that of non married women. This means there has been a significantly greater increase in the proportion of people living together, married on dual incomes than data manipulators like The Australia Institute would claim. There isn't equivalent data available to show de facto arrangemnts, I'm afraid, or at least I can't find it right now. Young single people often live in share houses to lower costs. There isn't data on this, since the arrangements are often illegal (the landlords don't know) and share houses aren't regarded like families by gatherers of data like the ABS. 

Either way, based on this cursory glance, it looks like we're not much better off than the 1970s. Right wing extremists like the 'Australia Institute' bewilderingly state, in rather sexist and patronising terms, that without women's participation in the workforce, average household disposable income would be higher. This is obviously misleading. There is a need here for more detailed analysis and also for concern. It quite clear that far more of us are working in order to achieve similar living standards to what we had in the 1970s. Whether those standards are in fact slightly higher or slightly lower though, that's something that needs to be investigated further. I'll look into it soon. 

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Bigots' FB Page.

I can't believe people would express senseless views like this publicly. However, I still come across them from time to time. The mainstream media promote racism on a regular basis and contribute a lot to these kinds of views being held by people who don't know any better.

I encourage anyone who uses FB to report this page. It's quite blatant discrimination based on lies.

For what it's worth, the I'd just like to point out that unemployment cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, be linked to immigration, as this page tries to imply. In fact our economy and the jobs we have rely heavily on it.

Political correctness is just derogatory word that racists have begun to use as a defense whenever they are told not to say offensive, idiotic or defamatory things about others in public. This is worrying. Words have consequences. Words can hurt people. If you hurt people physically, of course there are laws to stop you. The same applies if you hurt people with offensive words, for example, by creating stereotypes or misinformation about them.

When these people talk about 'Aussy Pride' what they really mean is that they have the arrogance to say they are better than other people in other parts of the world, no matter how little intelligence they exhibit, simply on the basis that they live in Australia and look something like their ideal image of what it is to be Australian. It's because of this that we need words like racism and bigotry.

Worst of all, the page uses the word 'islamification,' which presumably refers to some kind of conspiracy or agenda on the part of our friends and colleagues who believe in Islam. There is no evidence for any such agenda. All religions aim to encourage people to believe. The white majority from whom the page's creators undoubtedly derive are themselves descended from Christians and their religion has been spread world wide, often (though not always) through coercive means. For them to blame any social problems on those who practice Islam, a religion that values purity and peace, is both hypocritical and disrespectful.

So, dear readers, please take action and report the page to FB admin. The more complaints they receive, the sooner it will be removed. Also, please share this article to send a clear message to bigots everywhere about how wrong these kinds of views are.

Gaddafi On Display

So apparently M Gaddafi is on display in a freezer. Looks like the new regime are really embracing the concept of transparency in government^^

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Allan Jones

"I'm just a father's son..." Allan Jones

Even in trying to appear humble, he is inadvertently sexist. Clearly, he has problems.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

PM Will be Swayed by Party on Gay Marriage

I've argued all along that Julia Gillard would back marriage equality in the end. By the looks of it, her party do already. This is a clear indication that it's only a matter of time. Resisting this kind of progress is futile and altogether silly. 

Note: Censorship has been added to protect the identities of the people posting.

The Highest Tower

Long ago, churches, mosques and temples used to tower over the surrounding towns. At other times it was the castles and palaces of monarchs. 

In Paris, France, the Eiffel tower stood, tall and magnificent, as a symbol of industrialisation. 

Today, we have towers of steel, concrete and glass that make all of those past structures look small and insignificant through their vast height and size. 

The size and height of buildings may reflect the priorities of a society, or at least to the distribution of power and wealth within it. The poor and powerless have traditionally lived at the bottom, in single story structures, overlooked by the wealthy and powerful in their towers. Or perhaps, society places its priority and invests its greatest effort in the areas that really matter? Like the building of pyramids by the ancients or the erection of cathedrals and domes by the pious? Where then is the priority placed in our society today?

What about these then?

Housing commission flats are tall and they are structures dedicated to welfare, to looking after the lives, theoretically at least, of those with the least power and wealth. Do they represent a high priority then? Well, they are designed, quite intentionally, to look cheap and ugly and there aren't many built these days anyway. Those that do exist are not always occupied by genuinely poor people anyway. There are ways around that system apparently. Anyway, really wealthy people want to have their own gardens and tennis courts. It is not at home, but at work that they ascend their towers and their positions of power. 

The tallest buildings in our city, and in many cities, are not for people but for commerce. The tallest are occupied by companies dedicated to the accumulation and moving about of money, closely followed by companies that mine and exploit fossil fuels. 

What's the point of all this though? Surely, for the existence of humanity to have any meaning at all, there should be two priorities held above all else: compassion and study. 

Our housing commission flats are a poor and half hearted effort to elevate (both figuratively and literally) those in poverty above the streets. They don't tackle the problem where it is at its worst, which is in developing nations, war zones and our own country's Northern Territory, though recently, poverty is a growing problem in the USA as well. 

What of study then? Well, we are hardly among the tallest buildings in the city, but the view from this university does look pretty enticing. 

Yes, there is hope here yet that study and it's goals of wisdom, knowledge and understanding, haven't completely been forgotten. We need to do a lot more, of course. Scholars are not respected or taken seriously by many powerful parts of our society. A little help from government wouldn't go astray here, but then, parliament house is so low it's half under ground. 

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Man Swears at Gang of Police

This very evening I was in the Melbourne CBD having dinner at a table out the front of McDolalds when a large group of police in fluoro vests came along. There was a man walking the other way and they stopped him and started asking him questions like what he was doing there and whether he had any identification. The man's only apparent crime was being slightly unshaven.

The man cooperated with them but uttered several profanities in his efforts to question why they had suddenly singled him out. Rather than explain, the police officers berated him for swearing.

Unfortunately, one of the changes made by this new state government, who I consider to be idiotically adverse to the rights and freedoms of the residents they supposedly represent, is to introduce fines for swearing in public. This means that the poor chap could well have been fined.

Of course at this point a middle aged and respectably dressed lady spoke up for him, pointing out that he had clearly been doing no harm and minding his own business. Several other people who had been listening would have done the same, had the police showed the nerve to enforce such an absurd law.

Though I know that it would do me no good at all, I have to admit I would almost certainly have sworn if the police hand randomly accosted me in the street like that. Indeed I have no doubt the only reason they chose him and not me was that I was clean shaven and wearing a clean university employees uniform.

This man was in jeans and a t shirt. His subsequent conversation with the lady who had spoken, once the police had left, revealed that the reason for his unshaven face was that he had only today got off a plane returning from charity work in rural areas of South East Asia.

Why do these young men become police officers in the first place? Shouldn't it have something to do with protecting and upholding the rights and freedoms of everyday people in the street? How does harassing us achieve that?

When a close friend of mine called the police after being threatened with physical violence, they didn't respond at all and when she went directly to the police station they merely explained why there was no point applying for a restraining order because it would take too long. There was no mention of the protection notices they can serve on a perpetrator with some paper work and a phone call. There was no mention of referral to family violence related agencies. It appeared that the police officer's main priorities were to avoid involvement, risk and paper work by any available means.

Why aren't these young employees of Victoria Police taking initiative and being courageous? Why aren't they at least up to date with their own procedures and willing to apply them in places where they will help? Are our laws to be enforced by selfish bureaucrats and gangs of aggressive men in high visibility builders' uniforms? What is needed is courage: the courage to express what is right and stand up for ideals, whether they seem to fit with the exact wording of the procedures of not. Courage has been severely lacking in the police behaviour I've witnessed this week.

Battle of the Electronics Companies

Recently, the papers have covered a series of legal proceedings between Apple and Samsung over patents.

Samsung have long had a reputation for copying everyone else's products while apple have had one for innovation. However, Samsung have recently been competing successfully with Apple in the market for the mobile telecommunications devices with complex operating systems, commonly known as 'smart phones.'

The legal proceedings by Samsung relate largely to some wireless transmission standards. Technologies such as wireless standards need to be shared with other companies at reasonable prices, because if they are specific to a particular brand they are doomed to failure. Consumers require their wireless devices to interact with other brands.

Samsung are no doubt just trying to make Apple's legal action go away by giving themselves something with which to bargain. Most likely they will be successful. However, let us hope that the proceedings don't lead to an outbreak of malicious litigation in their industry, because if that were to happen, the real victims would be the consumers.

Sunday, October 16, 2011


If those people who starve to death or die of preventable or treatable diseases every day were our friends, would we let them suffer and die? Of course not. Your friend is suffering, you help. Where are these people's friends then? Why are we not reaching out and making contact and being their friends? Can't we communicate globally with the click of a mouse now? Can't we socially network with them? Well, not really: they have no computers or Iphones now, as well as having no food. Does that make their problem twice as bad? It may. If we do all our communicating online, then how can they participate? Could we solve the problem of world poverty by setting up a Wifi network and handing out free Iphones instead of handing out food then? Could we run tours where people pay to be shown the reality of poverty and human suffering in the hope that once rendered visible it would no longer be tolerated?

Sadly, people have tried that using photography and television and it didn't work. People got used to seeing poverty. Now it's just another annoyance and we want it to go away. Well? Make it go away. Not just away from us, back to it's forgotten corners of the earth, but away properly so that it's victims can live in peace and have something to eat and a chance to study. 

Friday, October 14, 2011

Russian Audience

This Blog seems to be read by a lot of people in Russia. I was wondering:
  • What do my Russian readers find interesting about my social and political commentary?
  • What would you like to see more of on my blog?
  • Are there any particular issues you would particularly like me to research and write about? 
Please feel free to comment anonymously. Non Russians are also welcome to provide input. 

Conscience Votes for Life and Death Issues

The Star Observer, an important community publication, today published predictions by an anonymous senior Labor MP that prime minister Gillard would call a conscience vote on the issue of marriage equality. It was suggested that this was a political move, designed to minimise any possible damage to her popularity that could be caused by ongoing public debate over the issue and that she would otherwise find her own position at odds with the majority of her party.

The source quoted was apparently concerned that a conscience vote could be used in this way, as normally they are used only for matters concerning 'life of death issues.' Making a distinction of that nature though, is not as straight forward as it may sound. Certainly the prevention of marriage isn't in itself going to kill anybody. However, what is at stake here is the issue of discrimination. Upholding the right to marriage equality will bring about profound cultural change by freeing us from a sticking point that contributes to the perpetuation of socially constructed difference. Discrimination without social structure becomes an obviously unacceptable act of individual aggression and will recede. Discrimination and social stigma are life and death matters, arguably far more significant than the examples the source used, such as abortion. They are, therefore, worthy of a conscience vote. 

The prime minister's motivations in this matter are certainly going to be subject to a great deal of speculation. Political convenience is certainly a possibly, but it would seem out of character. This is a prime minister who has got a huge amount of legislation and reform passed under difficult circumstances. It's worthwhile considering that she in fact hid her support for a price on carbon until it became politically achievable. It is therefore entirely possible that she has done the same in this instance and is playing her hand carefully with the intention of making marriage equality a reality. When the opportunity does arise, change will occur and no doubt the prime minister's actions will be instrumental. The prime minister is obviously no great social conservative and probably isn't all that reverential toward the institution of marriage, since she hasn't pursued it with her partner.

Marriage equality will certainly be brought about within the next couple of years. There is enough public support and there are plenty of MPs beginning to support it. We all have to keep pushing for it in public debate, but we are now at a stage when we can do so with a great deal of confidence. 

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Community Detention; Finally.

In my previous post, 'Immigration Officials Getting it Wrong in Australia,' I pointed out that it would be far more humane, as well as more cost effective, if asylum seekers were to live in the community, rather than being detained, while their claims were processed. Today, finally, the government have announced that at least some of them will now be able to do so. An article in the Australian today read as follows: 

"Under a plan announced by the Prime Minister today, all asylum-seekers will be processed on Australian soil with community detention and bridging visas provided to those unable to be processed within the existing detention centre network." The Australian, 13/10/2011

This will not help the many asylum seekers who do fit in to the current detention facilities, which is a great shame and pity. However, it is certainly a huge step in the right direction and marks a divergence from the government and opposition's 'race to the bottom,' which has consisted to date of each party trying to outdo the other for sheer cruelty and abuse of human humanity's right to flee persecution. Let us hope it is the beginning of a broader rethinking of policy in this area. It is important that we all continue to pursue this issue in the spheres of public debate and to communicate some sense to the politicians. 

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Multiple Intelligences and Fish

Today, I participated in a discussion at the university of Gardener's theory of multiple intelligences in relation to pedagogy. I was enjoying the discussion a lot, until one of the teachers put an end to it by prescribing the exact way in which they should be considered: first decide what your lesson goal is, then think of how to teach in a way that caters to multiple intelligence.

I put is to him that perhaps the learning goal may not be the same, once multiple intelligences had been given proper thought. His response was a flat 'no.' Not wanting to be rude, I didn't pursue the matter further at the time. However, needless to say, I was far from satisfied.

The scenario we had been considering was a school in Papua New Guinea, in a small wooden building on stilts over the sea. The building had no windows, but cracks between floor boards meant that the students could look down and see fish swimming below. Fish were the topic of the unit. One of our lecturers said he had watched the teacher's first class, in which the students had read in silence about fish from a textbook.

The lecturer asked members of our class what advice they might give the teacher. Most of the responses were along the lines of introducing practical interaction with fish, visual representation, song and rhythm and interpersonal interaction through group work, each of which would suit students strong in a different one of Gardner's intelligences. Of course this made a lot of sense and would no doubt have helped the teacher a great deal.

Some students in our class also pointed out that the children being taught, being from a fishing community and having caught, cleaned and gutted fish since an early age, probably knew a great deal about them already. One of my friends suggested that the students should be taught as experts and their knowledge valued and respected by the teacher, he himself being a highlander with little experience of fishing. However, having studied biology, he possessed other kinds of fish related knowledge which he wanted to share with the students.

The point I really wanted to make though, and I don't think I did such a great job of communicating it, was that multiple intelligences have the potential to be used formatively. That is, rather than just asking 'how can students understand this set of facts through the forms of intelligence they posses?' we might also begin to ask 'which forms of intelligence are of the greatest potential value to them?' and 'how can students learn to think in new ways?'

Of course that last question goes a bit beyond gardener. We understand the brain as 'plastic' and able to be changed. We know that people can improve their score on IQ tests through training, for example. This of course brings the whole concept of intelligence as it has traditionally been understood into question. However, Gardener's multiple intelligences were never all that aligned with traditional conceptions of intelligence in the first place. Things like 'musical intelligence,' 'linguistic intelligence' etcetera are seen by many psy' discipline scholars as more like areas of talent than anything so fundamental as intelligence. In any case, it is clear that they can be learned.

What needs to be considered in the case of the class in PNG is whether the types of intelligence in which the students are strong are those which will help them in their future. Any particular culture assigns values to types of intelligence. In the west, linguistic and mathematical in ability are in broad demand because the nature of our economy and education system relies on them to a greater extent than others. There are of course niches for those who posses the other forms of intelligence, such as artists, athletes etcetera, but the relatively small numbers who succeed in these areas are determined by economic and social factors and it is generally only an exceptional few who are able to use these kinds of talents to make a living, either by becoming famous or by going into teaching.

In a fishing community in PNG, spacial intelligence and kinesthetic intelligence are likely to be of great importance for catching fish, while linguistic and mathematical intelligence may carry far less weight, though this is merely a speculation based on the nature of fishing as their primary occupation. Assuming this to be the case, the question any teacher in such a situation must ask is this: for what kind of future am I preparing my students? On the one hand, I can share with them the knowledge created by and for western post industrial society. This may change their lives and give them opportunities of which few fishing village denizens have dreamed. On the other, I can respect their culture and way of life, learn from them and seek to enhance the value of what they already own.

As educators, are we there to spread our culture, or to help students within their own, which is what we would be doing if we were educating at home. Note that the teacher in our example was not a westerner, but he was an outsider to the fishing community and possessed a western style education himself.

It's a difficult question. Perhaps it may be possible to offer both or to find some compromise, but that too would necessarily come with its fair share of drawbacks. A better answer may come in the form of a bilateral cultural exchange between teachers and students in such as context. This would require mutual respect, caution and humility. The greatest achievement of Gardener in terms of education  was, I would argue, his recognition of the value of forms of thought, activity and knowledge outside the traditional academic sphere. Calling them intelligences, controversial though it may be, has helped many to see their value and in some cases change the distribution of intellectual capital.

Mental Illness, Metaphor and Stigma

This BBC article highlights some concerns regarding the use of mental illness related terms in a metaphorical sense, usually in jest. The concern is that in using the terms to describe undesirable properties of people, phenomena (such as the weather) and other such things. It's a very valid concern. Language works powerfully at the level of assumption.

This is an issue that is no doubt going to polarise people into two camps. That will mean that the debate is bipolar, since it will have two poles. On the other hand, perhaps some of us will ourselves be in two minds about it. That would mean that a point of separation or cleavage, also known as a schism, would have occurred in our mind, which in ancient Greek would be phren as in phrenology. One who possessed a schism in his or her phren would no doubt have to be called a schizophrenic even if the term had not been thought up by Paul Eugen Bleuler in the study of hysteria and various related disorders a hundred years ago. The origins of the word are covered here.

The problem is, these mental illnesses have been understood and studied for only a very short time and the language used to describe them has generally been around much longer. The two halves of the word schizophrenia come from ancient Greek and, as I have demonstrated, putting them together makes a lot of sense in some contexts. With words like bipolar, that has been done long before the disorder came to be described by science.

Bleuler's understanding of schizophrenia was no doubt very different to how schizophrenics would like to be perceived today. Though he did argue against the idea that it was a form of dementia, highlighting examples of where intelligence was enhanced, not impeded, in his time the disease was seen as hereditary, leading to the forced sterilisation of sufferers in some places. Because the understanding of the condition to which the term referred at the time of its coinage was so different to what we mean by it today, we could say that the word possesses not one meaning, but many. Each time the meaning of a word changes within the field of study to which it is central, it leaves behind offshoots, because people who heard it, learned its meaning and started to use it as part of their own vocabulary do not necessarily follow the change in meaning or definition. The word doesn't just enter into our language culture once, but many times. Schisms develop between its meaning in popular culture, its meaning in science, its meaning among patients and practitioners. Some groups claim the right to take ownership of it and wrestle over it with others.

The term schizophrenia the latter use of the term as described by the Oxford Dictionary, to which objections are being raised, has been around for quite a while in scholarly literature. It was used by Lacan and by Jameson and many others. Given this, I don't think the dictionary has any choice but to include it. Jameson's 'Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,' for example, uses various condugations of the term

The word bipolar means having two opposite ends or sides. We describe a magnet as a bipolar magnet. Anywhere, human or otherwise, where we wish to describe this property, the word is used. Our BBC article uses the example of calling the weather bipolar. Though there is no evidence one way or another, it is quite possible that people have been calling weather bipolar, because that is sometimes an apt description, since it may alternate between extremes, since a time long before the disorder was recognised.

I have a great deal of sympathy for victims of stigma. When I hear, for example, school children calling something they don't like 'gay' I get very annoyed with them. I accept that there is a need to give language and perception the odd tweak to ensure that discriminatory assumptions are not preserved in its meaning after they have been successfully combated in other spheres of communication. However, the examples in the BBCs are article are less clear cut than that. Perhaps some of these people need to pause a little and think about whether there really is any stigmatisation going on or not.

Just remember: if language had a mind, it would be schizophrenic.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Helicobacter Pylori and Ulcers

I was having an interesting discussion with a microbiology student this morning about ulcers. This is how she explained them to me.

We all have helicobactor pylori in our stomachs. It is the bacterium known to cause stomach ulcers. It also causes ulcers in the duodenum. For some reason, people who get one type of ulcer do not get the other.

Getting stomach ulcers is a risk factor for stomach cancer.

It is not yet understood exactly why some people get ulcers and some don't. The mechanism by which they occur is understood as follows:

The helicobactor pylori rely on stomach acid to activate the enzyme 'urease' which they need in order to digest urea. However, to digest the urea they need an acid free environment. To achieve this, they physically burrow into the mucosa, which is the epithelial lining of the stomach. They use their flagella to propel themselves. The mucosa protects the stomach from it's acidic contents. It is the physical damage caused to it by the burrowing helicobactor pylori that allows the acid to get through this protective layer and cause harm to other tissues, thus causing an ulcer.

That is her explanation as I understood it and I'm pretty sure that it's a well accepted one based on her university textbooks, so  I have no reason to question it, but please comment if you know anything further or if I have misunderstood.

Traditionally people have associated ulcers with stress. In the past, doctors have even advised patients with ulcers to avoid stress. The problem with this is that there is no known correlation between stress and either the thickness of the mucosa or the concentration of helicobactor pylori. This means that stress is unlikely to actually be a contributing factor.

Perhaps there is a competitive relationship between Helicobactor pylori and other microbes that inhabit the stomach. That was the first though that occurred to me. Or perhaps the body's ability to regulate the thickness of the mucosa could be impaired somehow, perhaps, for example, through some form of deficiency? Further research will no doubt be required before ulcers can be fully understood and treated.

Four Corners Mistake

This evening, four corners referred to Taiwan as a province of China. This is obviously wrong and is offensive to the twenty something million people who call it their home and country. The reality is, Taiwan has not been part of China at any time under its currant regime and that before the present period of independent governance it was occupied by the Japanese and before that by several other foreign powers.

Taiwan has its own elections, it's own head of state, it's own system of taxes and welfare, services, decision making processes, legal system and a world class health care system that is an example to other countries such as Australia where we still haven't included dentistry in national health cover.

In order to correct this mistake on the part of what is otherwise a quality currant affairs program, I intend to write to Media Watch. I hope they discuss the issue publicly. I'll be sure to keep you all posted if they do.

Monday, October 10, 2011

This guy missed the point!

This Keating fellow seems to think that pointing out inconsistencies in the narrative of progress somehow undermines people's cause for celebration. He gives a lot of examples. However, it is clear from the comments that by the end of the article the Taiwanese people among his audience are not impressed.

Not everyone in Taiwan particularly likes the KMT (Nationalist party) and yes, there have been periods when their rule has been oppressive. This is part of a complex progression  and struggle that has led to the Taiwan of today. Like the history of many nations, the history of Taiwan is complex and at times regrettable. Of course! What country exists for which the same can't be said?

Like any nation, if the people of Taiwan are to be given a happy future, then their history has to be celebrated in terms of the creation of the beautiful lives they now lead and the home they now inhabit. Whatever happened, this is where we are now. If the past was bad, then we celebrate surviving it. If it was good, we celebrate achieving it. Taiwan today is a happy and beautiful place and 100 years of KMT history has been undeniably significant in shaping it. That's all the cause we need for celebration.

中华民国一百年 *English

Today, many Taiwanese and non Taiwanese and somewhere in between people around the world are celebrating the centenary of the founding of 中华民国 (the republic of China), which is now the official title of Taiwan. There are complexities about this which continue to be debated. Arguably Taiwan was separate from China since about 1680. However, what is clear is that the events of 100 years ago were highly significant in the forming of the amazing and unique country that we know as Taiwan today. 

Being from Australia, it's hard to see why there is so much controversy. Australia is just as new and few Australians look to their British ancestors (many of us don't even have British ancestors) in assessing our identity. We find it extremely hard to relate, I think, even to images and voices of the Australia of the 1950s. People change quickly. Language and culture change, perhaps even more quickly. Clinging to past associations, can bring only suffering.
Somehow I have to reconcile two contradictory urges. On the one hand, I hate nationalism and all it stands for. There is no satisfactory distinction between racism and nationalism, because no universally applicable definition of race exists that can stand independently of either culture or nationality and the phrases 'we are better' and 'they are inferior' ultimately convey exactly the same meaning. 
  On the other hand, I do love Taiwan. When I'm there I feel nothing by joy most of the time and when I meet Taiwanese people, wherever I am in the world, I feel drawn to them as if to my own family. 
  I wish nations didn't exist, I really do. They can't last forever and of course there will be a new world order in the future and probably sooner than we think. Will it be any better? It would be hard to do much worse and the programs of regional cooperation such as the EU are a good start, despite the complexities they involve. However, right now, in the context of how the world is, Taiwan is a bastion of inspiration, creativity, culture, friendship and education in a world where all these things are lacking. 

If new nations like Australia and East Timor can be internationally recognized, then surely Taiwan must also. Most nations are cowardly and two faced, treating Taiwan as a nation state, placing embassies and recognizing its passports while calling it part of China whenever the all powerful PRC happen to be watching. Citizens of the world need to make it clear to their governments that this kind of dishonesty and cowardice is unacceptable. Therefore, I hope that people will make a point by displaying Taiwan's national flag (you can copy and paste the one below) and making this an issue for public debate. 

Sunday, October 09, 2011


The term Ricer is a term used by Australian bogan types to refer to some brands of car in what appears to be a derogatory way. The etymology of the word is probably something to do with the noun 'rice' being made into a verb, then back into a noun, but this time to describe machines that do whatever the verb means. What is it they are doing then? Well, as best I can deduce, they are being associated with countries in North East Asia, usually Japan, where rice is considered a dietary staple.

The term, however, does not appear to be applied universally to all vehicles originating from Japan. For example, I recently overheard a conversation in which a young man was advocating that his friend buy a Subaru, but then, when his friend said he was considering a Nissan, he denounced Nissans as 'Ricer cars.' On another occasion, I heard the same thing, but with Toyota and Mitsubishi substituted respectively.

One possible explanation for this apparent inconsistency is that the bogans wish to emphasise the foreign nature of vehicles which they deem to be in some way inferior. Subaru and Toyota offer exceptional engineering, it's true. However, both Nissan and Mitsubishi have high end models which should be sufficient to dispel any possible perception of inferiority: the Nissan Skyline GTR has an engine manufactured in a laboratory and the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution has driving aids that would make an L player look good round a race track. Anyway, if inferiority was the key, then surely Korean cars and Peugeots would be called Ricers almost universally, which does not appear to be the case.

Another possibility that should not be discounted is that the term is chosen not based so much on the origins of the vehicles, but on the perception that more people from rice staple cultures are likely to own and drive them. This would imply a great deal of racism on the part of the bogans using the term and, as there doesn't seem to be any readily available data linking vehicle manufacturer preference to dietary staple or culture of origin, it would not be fare to level such an accusation without further research.

For now, let us simply consider that the term Ricer is a quirky linguistic anomaly and that, though I have to say it makes me cringe, I have very little idea what it means.


在墨尔本有一间新的餐厅叫做'台湾小吃'。以前曾有一个餐厅用一样的名字, 但是两年以前倒闭了 。这个新的餐厅应该不是一样的人开的。

今天我跟小芳去吃看看。在我们前面约有三十多人等一个桌子。等候的人都不是老外。所以我们要等很久,但是我们那么想吃台湾的料理, 所以我们没办法。再墨尔本很少有台湾风的餐厅。以前有一些,但是都 被大陆人买掉了。 不过大陆人也有不同的, 很好吃的料理。我很喜欢吃他们 正宗的中国菜。但我要说的是台湾小吃有的独特性,所以台湾人以外的厨师, 都不太能做的那么好吃。

小芳说他们的台湾菜 还好。她说在台湾真的有比较好吃的。我说我知道,我有吃过,可是台湾距离墨尔本始终有点远。我觉得比在这里可以买的台湾菜, 这新的‘台湾小吃比较好。所以我会很常吃。

他们 台湾风的香鸡排有很好的味道。可能因为比较松脆。




Saturday, October 08, 2011

Why Guns are Cool

In Australia, funnily enough, we don't seem to have guns.

That's not to say they don't exist at all. Some farmers and people who live out in the country have them. So do the police and the army. Perhaps the security people who protect politicians have them but they must keep them hidden. Also, very occasionally, you do hear of gun crimes. There are underworld gangsters and some motorcycle gang members who somehow come up with an illegal, unregistered firearm. You usually hear about them when they've just been arrested for shooting each other.

Still though, guns in Australia are somewhat of a rarity. If you have them, your not exactly considered normal. If you have one for private use then it's almost certainly of a variety designed for shooting at things that aren't likely to retaliate.

Things weren't always like this here in Australia, of course. I do have dim memories of a time when gun ownership was, though not an everyday pastime, common enough that it probably wouldn't have raised an eyebrow if you heard that someone had a semi automatic or a self loading shotgun. That was before the new gun laws that were introduced after the Port Arthur massacre. You can watch some rather unclear footage of parts of it here, but I must warn you, it's shocking. After that happened, the federal government, with the support of about 85% of the public, bought back guns considered particularly dangerous, such as self loading, semi automatic and pump action weapons, and toughened licensing for all other types of guns. There was an amnesty period during which the guns were to be turned in by their owners to police stations and I remember the newspapers showing photos of the guns laid out on sheets like museum exhibits. Of course some unregistered guns must have escaped the buyback scheme and are still out there somewhere, which is why they sill turn up from time to time.

That was back in 1996/7. It all seems a long time ago now. As I said, guns really are a rarity here. There existence usually seems like a distant phenomenon, like something you see in news stories about other countries but can't imagine ever facing yourself.

I understand that gun ownership is still a very significant and controversial issue in the USA. There seems to be a huge amount of rhetoric on the internet from people, particularly in the southern states, about their 'right to bear arms.' Of course this is hard for me or anyone here in Australia to understand, since I don't think we've ever had such a right and if we did, it was taken away a long time ago. In the cities, we don't even have the right to carry a pocket knife if the blade is more than a few centimeters (I think it's about 3 inches, but don't quote me on that) or if it's the kind of blade that you can flick out quickly.

I do, however, have a Nerf gun. Actually, I have to admit, I have several. Nerf guns are a kind of children's toy that shoots foam darts. They usually don't hurt very much, even when they inevitably get you in the eye. One of mine has laser sight too. I have no idea why, but even as an adult I find these toys absolutely thrilling to play with. When I'm at home alone, I practice sneaking about and surprising imaginary enemies with them or practicing my aim by shooting my reflection in the mirror (the suction cap darts are the best for this).

Why is shooting a Nerf gun so much fun? It doesn't even do anything to whatever it hits. It certainly isn't useful for anything. Somehow though, it get's the heart racing and ignites some sort of warrior instinct in me. It's the same feeling I get when I drive dangerously fast around corners in a car or when I'm sailing a boat on a windy day. It's exhilarating!

There's more, too. I was reading about the traditions of pheasant shooting the other day. An old man who was interviewed proudly showed off his ancient fowling piece. It had shiny polished bits and beautiful timber and looked like something that was made to be held. It had a history. It had been with him all his life since he inherited it from his father. That reminded me of sailing too. The wooden bits were like the tiller of a lovingly crafted timber boat. I love boats. Boats have a tradition and a beautiful, thrilling feeling that goes with them. Boats are part of my 'culture.'

So I get it, I really do. When all those people in America are having their outcries against the lefties (hay, I'm a lefty!) taking their guns away and interfering with their rights, I get it. I have sympathy. I can see how they (or you, if your a gun owner) could love their guns.

I can imagine myself, if i were born in and lived in a culture like that, lovingly cleaning and maintaining my gun, taking it apart and reassembling it with pride, indulging in the satisfying metallic click as each component moved into place. Not many things we come across are well built and strong and mechanical like that. I can see myself going to a range and shooting it and feeling the power and the glory of holding the key to sudden death in my hands. Blasting things to smithereens must be an amazing feeling, too. All very harmless, I'm sure, since I would be a responsible gun owner and never point my weapon at anybody and never leave it loaded or in reach of children. Yes, I could be a gun owner and a very happy one at that. Guns are cool.

I'm not there though. I'm here in Australia. I've never lived with guns or experienced any of those amazing feelings, though once, as a small child, I did hold a rifle that belonged to a friend's father. The point is though, here in Australia, all the guns I see are on TV. Generally they are in the hands of soldiers and are being used to kill people. Then, if I change the channel, there may be a movie of the guns in America. They're usually being used to play cops and robbers: yes, more killing. Of course I know the phrase that's appropriate here: "guns don't kill people, people kill people." Well that may well be true. Yes, people are the ones doing the killing. The thing is though, here in Australia, in my own country that I see every day, is people not killing each other. Just to make sure I'm not living with a false sense of security, I did check: the USA has a murder rate of 5, compared to Australia's 1.3. How do we keep it so low? Well we don't have the death penalty and innocent people don't have any weapon with which to defend ourselves. Perhaps we're good at communicating with each other. Based on this observation, I humbly suggest you modify your saying: guns don't kill people: people with guns kill people. I get where the Americans are coming from, but I'd still much rather live here than there.