Saturday, 10 January 2009

The Bitch of Fear......

From time to time I read Michael Yon's blog.

Yon is an independent writer who has spent a great deal of time embedded with American troops in Iraq. He is ex-military, which adds credibility to his work which is written very much from a soldier's viewpoint. He comes across as honest, with no axe to grind.

One of his recent posts deals with the detaining at Orlando (Florida) by Homeland Security of a Thai friend who had flown from Bangkok to visit him in the US. (The fact that he was stateside was a little unusual – he's mostly in a trouble spot somewhere).

She was a 40 year-old bank officer, with all documents in order, but was detained for a lengthy period, and not allowed to speak to anyone. She subsequently missed connecting flights, which ended up costing her a great deal of money. She was questioned in a very hostile fashion, forced to reveal log-ins and passwords for her personal email, and generally harassed and intimidated.

Yon (unsurprisingly) became a little steamed up about this –


"I had intended to show Aew a bit of my country. But it's taking a little while for her to get over her discomfort at being in America. She was treated better in China. So was I."

The episode reminded me of the treatment of Mohamed Haneef - here

There seems to be something that happens to petty bureaucracy when operating under a policy framework driven by fear. I've seen it in a range of applications besides security including educational administration, health care and policing.

I guess the bureaucrat involved is so desperately afraid that he/she would be pilloried if a security breach occurred that logic and common sense flew out the window.

In the end, the practical result is precisely the same draconian treatment of individuals as is par for the cause in totalitarian states. Sad stuff.

Friday, 9 January 2009

What's it Worth?

This article appeared in today's Courier Mail -

As teaching becomes more complex, David Campbell ponders just what a caring parent would pay for a child's education –

It's school holiday time. Parents all over Queensland are scanning lists of holiday programs, eagerly seeking new and interesting ways to keep their children occupied. And probably complaining about what a soft job teaching is, with all those holidays.

So it's timely to ask: what's a teacher worth? In other words, how much an hour should a qualified professional be paid to care for and educate your child? Oh, you might say, I'm not going to get caught by that! There are lots of children in each class, so it's not like paying a plumber or an electrician. II would have to be a small amount. Say, $5 an hour.

That seems reasonable. OK, so let's lake a very conservative situation. In a small class of 20 students, that means $100 an hour. I've just had a plumber clear a stormwater drain at $308 an hour, so the teaching rate is pretty cheap by comparison. And let's say a teacher works only for five hours each day. Teachers will scoff at that because they are effectively on duty between the hours of 8.30am and 4pm, and that ignores meetings and sporting activities that will occupy time well beyond those limits. Plus, of course, correction and preparation that is done at home in the evenings. But we'll leave all that out. That means a teacher is worth $500 a day. So how many days a year do they work?

Well, you might say, I'm certainly not paying for the holidays. I don't see why I should foot the bill while a teacher is lolling about on some beach soaking up the sun. All right. Although correction and reports are common holiday chores, we'll take out the 12 weeks of holidays. And, despite the fact that teachers regularly work at home on weekends, we'll omit them too.

That means, in summary, that a teacher works five hours a day, five days a week, for 40 weeks of the year at a rate of $5 a student an hour. Fair enough? That works out to, let's see, $500 a day for 200 days. Hang on! That's $100,000! Can't be right. Must be a mistake somewhere. No, there isn't.

Then remember that most classes are larger than 20, and that the work of teachers extends well beyond five hours in a day and 200 days in a year. Now consider the type of work involved. At some stage during the holidays many parents will start wishing the kids were back at school. They'll be struggling to cope with their own children, let alone having to deal with a group of 20 or more.

That group inevitably includes children from broken homes and some with learning difficulties and behavioural problems. And those problems are compounded in a classroom. Yet each parent expects his or her child will receive sufficient individual attention from the teacher to overcome any difficulties and produce a well-rounded, socially adept and academically successful student for much less than $5 an hour.

You might argue that teaching is a vocation that can't be broken down into hourly rates. It's one of the caring professions. Teachers work for the love of the job, for the intangible reward of seeing children develop and succeed.

True. But during the past three decades teachers have watched their salaries drop markedly in comparison with average weekly earnings, while the job of teaching has become much more complex as it is subjected to the pressures of an increasingly fractured society and unrealistic parental and government expectations.

No wonder we're confronted with a shortage of teachers.

(David Campbell is a former teacher)

No doubt this is written with tongue fairly planted in cheek, but I defy you to find a hole in his logic. How we think about an individual's contribution is generally governed by how much that individual earns.

As a continuing teacher (admittedly part-time these days, because of "retirement"), I agree completely, and believe that this logic should also be applied to those who work in the childcare industry.

Thursday, 8 January 2009

What if.....

I have watched the recent events in Gaza with a sense of despair and resignation.

The state of Israel is exactly the same age as I am, and I can't remember a stage in my life which didn't have some aspect of the conflict being played out in the background.

Israel was involved in the Suez crisis when I was nine, the six-day war was fought the year I turned twenty and the Yom Kippur war when I was twenty-six.
We lost a baby in 1982, the year of the first Lebanon War, and our youngest was born in 1991, the year of the first Gulf War.

Through all of this, I've never really understood the depth of hatred and fear which has fed this most vicious of conflicts during my lifetime.
I wonder what would be possible if in some miraculous way, the sad history could be completely obliterated. With all these old wounds healed, or if you like denied, I wonder would it be possible to move on.

In an equally miraculous manner, the following principles could be set out and agreed upon –

Both Israel and Palestine have the right to exist as free and independent states.
Both states should have a right to choose their own governments in a secure environment.
There would have to an acceptance of Israel’s existence and a renunciation of terror.
These two states should share equally the scarce resources of the region - water and arable land.
There should be no general right of return for either Israelis or Arabs.

There are many other issues to be resolved, including the status of Jerusalem, but I believe that any solution hinges on this notion of historical amnesia. There is just too much fear, hate and despair chronicled in that history.

It reminds me of the one major obstacle that was successfully overcome in the negotiations that finally put an end to the sectarian violence in Northern Ireland. The participants in the power-sharing agreement knew they were making progress, when they stopped saying "but what about…." in reference to the historical litany of fear hate and despair that had characterised 200 years of conflict.

It's time for "But what about…." to be dropped from discussion about Palestine and Israel, to be substituted by "What if…."

Update - Both Hamas and Israel have rejected a ceasefire - here

Maybe they deserve each other.

God help the civilians in both places.

Wednesday, 7 January 2009


The following is published on the front page of today's Australian -

(Justine Ferrari & Samantha Maiden)

The man who accused fellow histor­ians of fabricating accounts of colo­nial settlers massacring indigenous Australians has unwittingly pub­lished scientific nonsense in the respected right-wing journal Quadrant.

An unrepentant Quadrant editor Keith Windschuttle, a leading antag­onist against the cultural Left and black armband brigade in the history wars, yesterday admitted being "tricked" into publishing an article on biotechnology scares.

A blog titled "Diary of a Hoax", with entries dating back to Novem­ber 2007, details a plan to target Windschuttle with a pseudoscience article that agreed with his ideologi­cal views. The mystery hoaxer — published under the fictional author's name of Sharon Gould, was revealed in the internet newsletter Crikey — which has been a merciless Windschuttle critic.

Crikey admits it had been aware of the plot for the past three weeks but agreed to stay silent until Quadrant went to print.
Windschuttle yesterday said the Sharon Gould article in Quadrant was not a "genuine hoax" but an example of "fraudulent journalism submitted under false pretences". "There's only a very small num­ber of untruths in it," he said. "The great majority of what the article says, 85 per cent of what it says, is perfectly legitimate points based on real footnotes, real sources and factual information.

But Mr Windschuttle admitted the article was unsolicited from an unknown author, and had failed to even Google the author's name or check easily validated facts, such as the claim that the paper was first presented at the 19th International Conference on Genome Informatics in Brisbane last year.

A check of the program on the internet by The Australian yesterday revealed there was no such paper or author listed.
Windschuttle said his practices were the same as any editor of a publication, and checking every fact and quotation in an article was impractical.

"I guess I could have done more to investigate the author but the content was something I did investi­gate because I was interested in some of the sources," he said.

The latest entry on the hoax blog says, "So neatly did my essay conform with reactionary ideology that Quadrant, it seems, didn't even check the putative author's creden­tials". "Nor it seems did they get the piece peer-reviewed. Nor did they check the facts; nor the footnotes. Nor were they alerted by the clues. Nor it seems did they get the piece peer-reviewed. Nor did they check the facts; nor the footnotes. Nor were they alerted by the clues. I'm almost embarrassed for you."

"Windschuttle. Just look at you above, a pea in a pod alongside those other culture warriors."

More here.

The point of this is that Windschuttle has been well and truly shown up as guilty of exactly what he rails against.

No further comment is necessary.

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Reviewing "The Costello Memoirs"

This was a Christmas gift, so I felt obliged to review it. It's a good read, but reveals nothing new about the Howard era, and its demise.

Its release was so comprehensively covered in the media that there are no surprises. What it does is to give Costello's interpretation of the significant events. Essentially, it's a well-written rationalization.

As I read it, I could hear Peter Costello talking, and most of it reminded me of the series of sketches that John Clarke and Bryan Dawe presented on the 7.30 Report (ABC TV). They often returned to the theme of conversations with private schoolboys (Alexander Downer was always head prefect). The tone and language is very much that of middle class Melbourne. Peter Costello inhabits a very different Australia from the one I'm familiar with.

It is certainly not written with detachment, after the event, as a genuine memoir would be. I get the feeling that Costello is not finished with politics, if the text of this book is any indication. He toes the party line with consistency and passion.

It is peppered with slightly amusing anecdotes, but each of them serves to put Costello in a good light. He doesn't seem to be able to write with detachment when he writes about himself and his motives. There are no jokes on Peter. There's a fair degree of shameless name-dropping –

It did not affect my relationship with Alan Greenspan, who is an extraordinary intellect and a charming and lively conversationalist. We met many times. I always enjoyed these occasions. He apparently enjoyed them too, judging from the reference he made to our meetings in his memoirs. (p 109).

Reading this, I couldn't help thinking about the criticism of Kevin Rudd's name-dropping. Throughout, he promotes his own economic credentials and over and over again paints Labor as completely incompetent when it comes to economic management. It is difficult to tell whether this is a personal conviction, or political spin.

If there had been much less polemic, and much more narrative, the book would have worked better as a piece of literature. I found it an interesting (if not engaging read), and worth a look.

It's expensive, but if you look around, particularly in the large chain stores, you can buy it for 2/3 of the listed price.


I've reviewed a book or two on this blog, so will attempt the same with a movie.

The film is Ron Howard's "Frost/Nixon", a dramatic retelling of the post-Watergate television interviews between British talk-show host David Frost and former president Richard Nixon.

I remember the original interviews, and watching them on a small black and white TV in our newly-purchased home, the first year of our marriage. It seems a long time ago.

The screenplay is excellent, and despite the limited opportunity for visual impact, (the interview situation) it engages and entertains from beginning to end. The characterisations of both Frost and Nixon are also engaging. I felt that I understood the motivations and actions of both very well, and was gently led into this understanding as a viewer by a thorough and careful preparation, which the storyline neatly paralleled with its lead-up narrative.

Howard also used an interesting in-camera interview technique as a device to provide the audience with the background it needed to understand exactly what was going on. Because I've always been interested in this time in American political history, I didn't need the backgrounding, but didn't find it intrusive.

Nixon's decisions leading to the bombing of Cambodia were covered in the narrative of the interviews, and this held particular resonance for me, as I was in the north of Phuoc Tuy in March/April 1970; close enough to the B-52 bombing to hear it. There is a school of thought that his decisions back then led to the savagery of the Killing Fields, as it effectively radicalised Cambodians behind Pol Pot.

What was new to me in all of this was an interpretation of Richard Nixon, the man. I left the movie feeling a vague sense of sympathy for Nixon. He was obviously a deeply-flawed individual, but he had an enormous drive and determination, and a master of the art of the application of political power. In this, he resembled Mao Zedong, and it appears the two understood and respected each other.

The detail touches add impact to the screenplay, and it seems that the production was researched very carefully. I'm one of those annoying people who watches very closely for anachronistic bloopers and didn't see any in this offering.

I'd recommend it strongly, even if you have no interest in political history. If you do, it's a must-see.

Dog Bytes

Pictured is my daughter's dog, anticipating the likelihood that my (other) daughter and I are about to take her walking. We were.

She belongs to my 17 year-old daughter who is at work – that's why other family members are walking her (the dog). Her owner is furiously earning money to get set up for student living in Brisbane next year. She objects strongly to poverty, unlike her older sibling who seems almost content to wear it as a badge of honour, believing that it is set in stone that students are always broke.

This older sister and I walked the dog, and the ensuing conversation led to discussion of holiday jobs. Daughter No. 1 had worked at MacDonald's for a while and hadn't enjoyed it much. I shared my reminiscences of experiences in less complex times in holiday jobs.

One of them was working on a tobacco farm near Beerwah in the late sixties. At the time I had just completed teachers' college, and was due to begin my teaching career at Inglewood. In those days, there were lots of tobacco farms in the area (Beerwah-Landsborough), and their owners were always looking for labour. We worked from dawn to dusk, with a long (1 hour) break in the hottest part of the day.

They looked after us, with a ute turning up three times a day (morning tea, lunch and afternoon tea) equipped with hot and cold drinks, sandwiches and fruit to feed the workers. There were a number of different jobs the holiday workers were able to do, including topping and stacking. We didn't do any picking or stringing, because we weren't experienced enough. This was in the days before backpackers.

Topping was snipping the tops off the tobacco plants and injecting a chemical into the cut to prevent the plant from seeding. This had the effect of ensuring maximum leaf development. This was an easy, if boring, task. Stacking was loading the tobacco leaf, which was strung on metre-long poles, on to racks in the curing barns. This was fairly difficult as the leaf was heavy, and the racks were built into the curing sheds from floor to ceiling. To reach the uppermost racks, you had to stand, legs apart, with one foot on each side of the rack. Bending over, taking the heavy sling from the person below and locating on the rack at the top of the barn was not easy. Juice seeped out of the leaf and made everything slippery.

In the last week of my stint, I slipped from a rack, and fell on to the steel stove in the corner of the curing shed. Because I was silly enough to be working in bare feet (my shoes and socks had become sodden with tobacco juice, and I had kicked them off) I snagged the toenail of my big toe on the top of the stove, and ripped it off as I fell. This hurt more than somewhat, and I had to stop work and get the foot attended to. To make matters worse, in a day or two a fairly nasty infection took hold, and I needed medical treatment.

The costs of this effectively used up a fairly significant fraction of my wages (which at $70 per day in 1967 weren't to be sneezed at). The worst part of it was turning up to my new teaching job on crutches. My new principal, who thought he was a bit of a comedian, greeted me with – "I'm sorry to see you starting off on the wrong foot".

I lasted only three weeks at Inglewood, as the school lost pupils, and I was transferred, as the most recently-appointed teacher (on 24 hours notice) to Goondiwindi. I went from a class of 25 year threes to 45 year fives literally overnight. The worst of it was the change in teaching partners. At Inglewood it was a 20 year-old graduate (female) of Italian heritage who bore a striking resemblance (in my mind) to Gina Lollobrigida. In Goondiwindi, it was a forty year-old married mother of three.

But back to the dog. She was a 10th birthday gift to my youngest, so that makes her (the dog) seven, as my daughter is seventeen. She (the dog) is certifiable. If outside, wanting someone to let her in, she rakes the glass pane at the bottom of the door with her teeth, producing a sound so excruciating that it has the desired effect very quickly.

Hugh White - Without America

Hugh White is always provocative, and doesn't pull any punches when it comes to criticising current defence policy. In 1995, he was appo...