Monday, February 27, 2006

Australian values - Anyone ?

I spent a considerable part of my Saturday reading newspaper editorials, and reports on Peter Costello's speech. Still haven't read exactly what he said, but I think I have got the gist of it now. One phrase that seems to be getting a fair amount of use in the wake of Cronulla, and now Pete's speech, is this notion of "Australian values".

Just one question. What the hell are Australian values ? More to the point, what are values we as Australians apparently hold that are so unique from the rest of society that we need to label them Aussie. I myself do put considerable value on the quality of the local bakery's "Beef and Burgundy" pie, but I am not entirely sure whether deporting people for preferring a kebab is really in the spirit of things. I may be cynical, but I am starting to get the feeling this phrase may just have been invented by anti-multiculturists, looking for a phrase that sounds completely reasonable, invokes feelings of patriotism, but means absolutely nothing in real terms.

I detest the abuse of such phrases and symbols (like the Aussie flag during the Cronulla riots), because it manipulates our pride in who we are. It uses our national identity as a means to motivate fear and prejudice for all those who are different. It is ironic that a phrase like "Australian values" should in fact unite people, yet here it is being used to divide by virtue of its arbitrarily determined definition.

Friday, February 24, 2006

How to rubbish an opinion

I was just reading the ABC's reporting of Peter Costello's comments demanding immigrants to Australia adopt Australian values, or get the hell out. This has of course, provoked harsh criticism from Muslim groups, among others. I am not going to say anything about the comments themselves, I have not really heard or read exactly what he said. I have no doubt though, that this is yet another attempt by Costello to lead the debate on a divisive issue, as a means of raising his profile. I would, however, like to talk about the ABC's reporting of Costello's comments, which I found significantly more interesting.

What I find interesting in this report, is that the ABC has got straight on the phone to Pauline Hanson, and asked for her opinion of Costello's comments.

Now that's clever!

If you're a somewhat left-leaning news service reporting about a fairly right-wing opinion that has been expressed, then what better way to discredit such populist comments than to get Pauline Hanson to endorse them! Its even better than this. According to the ABC report, Pauline is "delighted" Mr Costello has "woken up" to the views she expressed for years and was condemned for.

Being myself a left-of-centre pro multiculturalist, I can't help but admire the subtlety of the ABC's bias on that one. No doubt equally (though perhaps less subtle) games are being played in other news papers and online news. If I had time, I'd give them a look too.

Here is more of what Hanson had to say:

"If Peter Costello is wanting to be a future prime minister of this country, he needs to take a tough stand on this, he needs to deal with it harshly, he needs to throw these people out of the country who do not embrace Australia."

"I'm delighted that he's finally woken up to commonsense and is listening to the Australian people, what's actually happening in our community"

The ABC then reminds us about a few facts:

In her 1996 maiden speech to Federal Parliament, Ms Hanson said Australia was in danger of being swamped by Asians. She said they formed ghettos and did not assimilate and called for Australia's immigration policy to be radically reviewed.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

O'week hits the ANU, and students hit the turps

Yes, a week early by at least Victorian standards, but the ACT is in full O'week (Orientation Week) mode as a new bunch of fresh faced first years begin the unenviable task of locating things like the student admin office, the book shop, the dodgy campus bakery, the ANU bar, and most importantly, the local dope dealer. Make no mistake, the first years have their work cut out for them on this gigantic sheep station the ANU calls a campus. From my own observations, it appears the ANU bar has been the easiest thing to find so far. While taking nothing away from the youngens, the ANU's O'week is pretty tame by national standards, a fact that can be easily attributed to the lack of undergraduate students at the ANU. To be fair, universities like Melbourne, for which O'week is quite a large - almost intimidating - event, take in something like 40,000 students. The ANU, by contrast, only accepts around a quarter of this number of undergrads, so it is quite unfair to compare. When it comes to postgraduate students though, the ANU leads the way, at least on percentage, and quite possibly on numbers as well. But lets be honest, a university that fosters large numbers of over educated academic wannabees is not not exactly conducive to toga parties, boat races, and naked twister.

Since finishing my undergrad, O'week has largely passed me by without much thought. This year, however, my involvement with the Postgraduate Association (PARSA) has meant I have been right in the thick of things. Generally, research postgraduates like me do not adhere to the usual semester-based university schedule. This is because we don't attend classes, thereby alleviating any need to begin our degrees at a certain time. Coursework postgraduate students, on the other hand, do attend classes, and because of this, follow a semester-based schedule. So this week sees hundreds of new coursework postgraduate students starting their various Masters degrees, and graduate diplomas. PARSA is, of course, pretty keen to let them all know who we are, and what we do. Being the Social and Outreach chair, I have been quite the politician this week, meeting and greeting students at various functions.

First was the international students orientation day, on Thursday last week. PARSA had an information booth which I setup and helped with early in the piece. Then, on Monday night this week, I attended a "cocktail party" (for which only beer and wine was available ??), an event organised by student admin to welcome all coursework postgraduate students. Brett, PARSA's president, gave his usual slick 10 minute talk about PARSA, which is always impressive to hear (he is an impressive guy!). I then took hold of my security blanket (i.e. a glass of red), and worked the room handing out brochures and flyers about PARSA, and our welcome BBQ scheduled for Wednesday (i.e today).

As I have admitted previously on this blog, I am not a natural socialite. Quite frankly, going up to groups of four or five strangers and interrupting their established conversation to talk about something they probably care little about scares the shit out of me. However, after one or two successful hand shakes and brochure exchanges, I was working the room like I'd been doing it all my life. By the end of the evening I was giving serious consideration to an invitation to join a group on a pub crawl they were about to embark upon. It was a very satisfying night, which to be honest, was exactly what I needed given my waning enthusiasm these last few months.

While Monday night was indeed satisfying, today's "Welcome BBQ" for all postgraduate students capped off a great week of rejuvenation. Firstly, the turn out was quite large, which was a great relief given the O'week schedule was not exactly helping us. Best of all, however, was that many of the people I had met on the Monday night, came along to the BBQ, and all of them came up to chat with me. It was a very "warm and fuzzy" BBQ for me, and just what I needed at this time of the year. I guess, when it comes to volunteer work, it is most often these warm and fuzzy moments that justify the time spent. I hope I get more of these as the year progresses.

As for the rest of the week, PARSA has no role to play, so my only concern now is not stumbling over some 18 year old couple having sex by Sullivan's creek, or stepping in undergrad vomit. Ahh O'Week .. its class all the way.

Friday, February 10, 2006

It's a matter of conscience

When you take away the party politics, it is interesting to see how the voting can change. The RU486 'conscience' vote in the Senate yesterday demonstrated just how different the vote can be when you take away party loyalties. Of course, we have a party-based parliamentary system, and I am not suggesting that conscience votes are the way forward. The fact is, come election time, it is most often the party that people vote for, and to a lesser extent, the candidate. It would, however, be nice to see more use of this conscience vote they speak over, as a means of allowing completely independent consideration of important moral questions, with very significant implications. For many issues that arise, party ideology is just not relevant.

Just to satisfy my curiosity, I would love to see a comparison between votes counted for a normal party-based vote, and a count taken from an anonymous conscience vote on the same issue. I wonder what the outcome of issues like IR, Telstra, anti-terror laws and VSU would be under a conscience vote. Again, I am not suggesting the conscience vote is necessarily the ground truth for these issues. Having politicians vote with their conscience does not necessarily imply better representation of the public's wishes. In fact, it could be argued that conscience voting is less representative, given it places the opinion of one person, rather than an elected body, on an entire electorate. Of course, each electorate can loby their member, write letters and demonstrate their view - they can even vote them out come next election. Ultimately though, it is one person's assessment of an issue being taken as that of the whole, and this may not always be the most representative, or robust way to vote on issues.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about a conscience vote is the insight you get into where a particular politician places themselves in the political spectrum. The Senate's vote on RU486 yesterday certainly drew a different line to the usual party-lines on a Senate vote. Senator Andrew Bartlett provides a complete break down of the Senate vote.

Regardless of the pros and cons of conscience voting, I am personally just glad to see our politicians actually have a conscience, and that it can be called upon every now and then to sort things out when the parties would prefer not to.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Cycle Sense

Having been in Canberra for close to a year now, which let's be honest, is getting close to the average given the national capital's highly transient population, I feel I am now in a position to start making rash, unfair generalisations. So here it goes..

Canberra is full of crazy drivers!

It is truly astonishing just how badly people can drive in this town. Sure, everyone (with the possible exception of Aff) speeds at times, and we all get a little frustrated when traffic doesn't move as fast as we would like, but Canberra is something else, particularly given the luxuriously wide, well made roads, and the relatively free-flowing traffic conditions.

Tail-gating is probably the worst of it. It is almost an accepted norm when driving along one of Canberra's many excessively wide roads, particularly if you're in the right lane and not traveling at least 10km over the speed limit, to have the car behind jammed almost half way up your arse. All it takes is one kangaroo to jump out from the road side, and its all over.

My other major gripe about Canberra driving is the apparent anti-cycling culture that pervades the mentality of many Canberra drivers. Despite the width of Canberra's streets, some drivers appear to enjoy driving as close as possible to the cyclist, often accelerating as they come up next to, as some sort of gesture of their territorial rights to this road. I estimate that about once every two weeks, a car will honk its horn at me as it passes. I assume this is not because I am in their way, because I am riding on the shoulder of the road, which is also a designated bike lane, and am therefore no hindrance to them. Its pure intimidation, and its bloody dangerous (though admittedly, not as dangerous as Canberra's swooping magpies).

And then I read this! Three cyclist accidents within 24 hours! In a city of 300,000 people, sparsely spread out over thousands of square kilometres, this is just ridiculous. And apparently its the cyclists that need to change their ways. What a load of crap. The fact is, the number of people riding bikes has increased dramatically over the last few years. To cope with this, most major roads now have cycling lanes, thanks to lobbying by cycling groups like Pedal Power in the ACT, and Bicycle Victoria, of which I am, and have been a member respectively. Riders, on the overwhelming whole, ride in these lanes, equip their bikes with night lights, wear bright clothing, and generally do everything they can to make themselves visible. The onus is thererfore on the drivers of the ACT to accept that they are sharing the road with cyclists, and that they have a responsibility to look out for riders, just like they have a responsibility look out for any potential hazards on the road. Basically, all it takes is common sense driving - but I get the feeling that for some of these drivers, this might be asking a bit too much.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Career musings

While I generally give a lot of thought to my career path choices and options, fresh thoughts were sparked the other day while reading Jame's comments about his choice, at least for the moment, to abandon his chosen academic/science career path.

Certainly one of the best, and scariest, aspects of my life at the moment is the complete uncertainty of just where my career is heading. I have written before, about my dislike of career advice that focuses on the "where do want to be in 10 years?" philosophy. My current answer, in short, would be "not dead!", which probably wouldn't give the careers counselor much to work with. Of course, I have ambition, and a desire to move forward in life, but at this stage, these ambitions and desires have not converged on a specific career path to facilitate this.

I am somewhat fortunate to already be on a "default" academic path of sorts, which ensures that I am not simply treading water, waiting for something to drop into my lap from above. In many ways, being a full-time PhD student on a scholarship that keeps me from starving, is the perfect way to explore just what interests me. Since quitting my full-time teaching position at Melbourne uni, and entering the significantly less structured world of the PhD student, I have sort to explore other potential avenues that may interest me. This is not to say that I am against a research and academic career. In fact, more often than not, my wanderings into other potential areas appears to be re-affirming my choice of an academic path. However, even if this is the case, there is stil great value in constantly challenging the choice, if only to remind myself that I am never completely trapped.

Exploring what it is I like, and dislike, is an infinitely fascinating hobby. If you're an obsessive list writer, then I recommend sitting down and writing what gets you motivated and what you detest about your current line of work. If your experience is anything like mine, then it will undoubtedly become quite a deep and philosophical exploration of not just your career choice, but of your quality of life as a whole.

To give you some idea of how much my mind has been ticking over this issue, here is a list of career paths I have considered in the last 8 months (no particular order):

- academic/researcher (robotics and computer vision) <-- the default.
- academic/researcher (vision - biology and robotics)
- academic/teaching (i.e. don't worry about a research career too much, just lecture comp sci at a less research intensive university.

- science communication (i.e. promoting science through media - newspapers, radio, or even TV)
- teaching (high school)
- writing (humour, travel or just plain creative)
- politics.
- public service (science policy development)
- town planning
- architecture
- train driver (always on the cards!)

Of course, some of these are a little more far fetched than others, but I dare not say which ones just in case they end up happening. I should also re-iterate that many of these have been passing thoughts over the course of the last 8 or so months (some over many years), and so my enthusiasm for some has since subsided. I am not even sure I have covered everything with this list.

What I do find interesting is that despite having a Bachelors and Masters degree in computer science, I have little to no interest in pursuing any sort of software engineering/computer programming career, which just goes to show how futile it is making a career choice half way through year 12, when you're filling out those Tertiary Entrance forms.

I am in no great rush to make any big decisions at the moment. I have 2.5/3 years of a PhD left, and so that allows me some time to think seriously about all these options (and others), and to continue to explore opportunities when they arise. It really is quite exciting, and yes, just a little scary.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Johnny says - "improve your manners! ... Please"

John Howard yesterday, echoing comments made by the NSW Chief Justice, claimed Australia's manners are deteriorating, and this, according to the PM, has got to stop!

The fact is, this is probably true. I have noticed significant changes in how people interact with each other over the last few years. While Howard focuses on the use of offensive language, putting the blame largely on the television networks for airing programs that use "vulgarisms", I think it is the context in which such language is used that is really important.

So we say "F#%$" a little more than we used to. So what ? Sure, its perhaps not a word we want to hear being worked into every sentence, but the increasing use of the word itself is not what should be concerning us. Rather, Howard should be far more concerned about the deteriorating reputation of Australians being a fair and tolerant people. This form of much more serious rudeness that is increasingly becoming evident in Australian culture, is the real problem. The blame for this cannot be placed on the media networks alone, for a large chunk of the blame must be squarely aimed at the Howard government, for fostering a climate of intolerance and fear, which inevitably leads to a territorial mentality, where each is out to protect their own. The Cronulla riots are perhaps the most illustrative example of this, but also the smaller, day-to-day examples of blatant racism that continue to invade our once proud culture of tolerance and acceptance.

And anyway, I find it a bit rich that Johnny can ask us all to say please and thankyou more often, when he can't even say "sorry" to indigenous Australians!