Showing posts from 2017

Facebook is ripping society apart, and other reasons to rethink social media

When Chamath Palihapitiya joined Facebook in 2007, it had 50 million users. By the time he left after four years, it had 800 million. He was its vice-president for user growth.

These days, he feels tremendously guilty.

"I think we all knew in the back of our minds, even though we feigned this whole line that there probably aren't any bad consequences, I think in the deep recesses of our minds we kind of knew something bad could happen," he told the Stanford Business School last month and reported for the first time this week.

"The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we've created are destroying how society works. No civil discourse, no co-operation, misinformation, mistruth, and it's not an American problem - this is not about Russian ads - this is a global problem.

"We curate our lives around this perceived sense of perfection, because we get rewarded with these short-term signals - hearts, likes, thumbs-up -and we conflate that with value …

Let's review the value of school reports

End-of-year school reports are making their way to parents and carers. For many, it's a major contact with the school. Most look forward to the reports, even if their children don't.

But what's their value? Do they actually tell parents anything useful?

Teachers generally hate writing them. They take up a lot of time, and teachers don't believe they are allowed to be as honest as they would like to be. Their reports are censored.

They didn't used to be. Peter Frost (not his real name) teaches in a NSW public high school. "I used to be able to write, for example, that student A had been persistently disruptive, that he didn't follow instructions," he tells me. "Then I was told I couldn't say that. The principal told me not to be negative. But I was trying to be truthful."

Truth wasn't appreciated. His principal told him that if a student was described as disruptive, it reflected badly on the teacher and the school. It was better not t…

School leavers need celebration options that don't include grog

It's the schoolies week season. Not taking any risks, an acquaintance with a 17-year old daughter booked a trip for her and her friend to a tropical island, each with their father. Anything to avoid an underage booze-up.

It's that time of year when there's a rash of parties that provide alcohol to children. The school formals are (meant to be) alcohol-free but the pre and post-formal parties are not.

It's well-established that consuming alcohol early in life, right up to age 21, damages developing brains. Early consumption seems to lead to alcohol-dependence and other problems later in life.

Supervised drinking isn't safe either. Studies show that when parents supply alcohol at children's celebrations, thinking they are teaching them about control, they actually encourage heavier drinking. Exposure to alcohol leads to drinking.

The message seems to be getting through. Official statistics show Australian teenagers are drinking less and start to drink alcohol lat…

The Manus Island horror stains us all

The closure of Australia's detention camp on the poor Papua New Guinea province of Manus Island happened on Halloween, of all days. The symbolism wasn't lost on those of us appalled by what's been an Australian-government-orchestrated horror story.

This fluid crisis could have been avoided well before the PNG Supreme Court ruled the camp was illegal. Hundreds of men, many found to be genuine refugees, are now truly forsaken. Only about 60 have agreed, under some pressure, to move to three incomplete so-called transit centres that will lead to destinations unknown. Many more, about 600, would rather stay in the shell of the detention centre with no electricity, water or food than to "transfer" or walk into the Manus Island community and face violence at the hands of locals or police.

Staying has its own risks. Looters are taking electric fans, plastic chairs, tables and rubbish bins while authorities look on. And the mental fragility of the remaining men is such t…

Finding hope amid the doom of climate change

After another frigid and dry Canberra winter, I've welcomed the warmer weather with joy. Yet it's increasingly too warm to leave a lasting smile. We are told to brace for punishing summers.

In a new book, Plutocene: Blueprints for a Post-Anthropocene Greenhouse Earth, the Australian National University's Dr Andrew Glikson says there's no turning back the greenhouse clock. He foresees mass extinctions and a breakdown of civilisation.

In his book, Defiant Earth, Clive Hamilton of the Canberra-based Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics foresees something even worse: the possibility of our own extinction by an untameable Earth.

Hamilton writes it will probably be hundreds of thousands of years before most of the large reserves of carbon released during the human age can be rendered immobile again. People have rivaled the great forces of nature so much so that we have changed the functions of the planet for an era. The Arctic is vanishing as is the Greenland ice…

Australia's pitiful efforts to aid Rohingya refugees

Imagine the entire population of Canberra driven from their homes in mere weeks. That's the scale of what's happening in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar, once known as Burma. More than 300,000 persecuted Muslim Rohingya were forced to leave their torched villages in the past month.

Australia's response has been a disgrace, all the more so amid our campaign for a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council. We've offered just $5 million to the emergency relief effort, a pittance compared to the $122 million we are spending surveying opinions on whether same sex-couples should be able to marry.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop says she's "deeply concerned" and has called for "restraint".

Australia is the richest kid on the block. This is our region.

The Rohingya have been persecuted for years because of their darker skin and different religion. There have been forced displacements dating back to the 1990s. In February this year, a UN report docume…

'Is she addicted to texting?' Recruiters increasingly ask this question

A true story. A young woman was applying for a job in the Australian Public Service. She needed a security clearance and character references. A friend took the call. It would take 15 minutes. The questions were standard until one of the last: "Is your friend, in your view, addicted to texting?"

The questions that followed were about computer use and phone use more generally.

You can guess there's a problem when questionnaires designed to gauge the suitability of employees ask about texting. While the Community and Public Sector Union tells me it is not standard for candidates to be asked about their device use directly, it is very likely that their acquaintances are asked about it, directly and indirectly. There's no doubt that texting is a relevant consideration for security, but it's probably also relevant for something else: the ability to get on with meaningful work.

While powerful tools that, when used prudently, can help the mind, mobile devices can also g…

Violence in Virginia reflects worldwide national identity debates

Violence in Charlottesville in U.S. Virginia this week between neo-Nazis and anti-racism groups is a symptom of resentment over social change, how history is remembered and the heroes communities decide to celebrate or reject.

In Virginia the clashes were sparked by heated debate about the future of a statue of Confederate General, Robert E Lee. "It was erected at a time when there was this rising myth of the glory of the south, the white nationalist south," says local councillor Kristin Szakos who has sought to move the statue from the public square, prompting outrage from the far-right. "Lee was a symbol of all that was good in pre-war southern society - meaning slavery, white people had dominance and economic power," Szakos told the ABC.

Hours after the Charlottesville violence, anti-racist protesters in North Carolina toppled a Confederate statue there - pulling it to the ground and stomping on it.

White nationalist organisers see themselves as defenders of ol…

Improvised, free-range play a wonderful antidote in the digital age

Suddenly, Canberra appears awash with real play spaces.

One's just opened at my local primary school complete with tunnels, a dry creek bed and undulations that children clamber around, and play games that they create rather than have created for them.

Being an unfenced public school, it shares the space with the neighbourhood after school hours and on the weekends, making the school more secure.

At nearby Ainslie Primary School there are now two so-called 'play pods' - shipping containers packed with things such as milk crates, crutches and loose wheels. The contents are neither entirely safe nor totally dangerous.

With children as young as six about to be subject to national tests on what they've learnt, play has never been more important. Unlike tests in which there are right answers, undirected play is open, not closed. It allows children to develop their own rules and to learn at their own rates. It actually helps them become smart.

Play, unmediated by rules or …

Learning lessons from the London Grenfell Tower fire

The burnt out shell of London's Grenfell Tower is a tragic reminder of the important role of governments in ensuring people are properly housed. Outsourcing or weakly enforcing standards leads to calamity.

Grenfell Tower was clad with highly combustible foam and aluminum, chosen because it was cheaper. The building had no sprinkler system or evacuation plan. The residents were mostly poor.

Under pressure, British Prime Minister Theresa May conceded that "for too long in our country, under governments of both colours, we simply haven't given enough attention to social housing".

"This itself is actually a symptom of an even more fundamental issue," she said. "In this tower just a few miles from the houses of parliament, and in the heart of our great city, people live a fundamentally different life, do not feel the state works for them and are therefore mistrustful of it."

In Australia we are chronically short of public and social housing. We don'…

Left behind? Progressive Australians' reluctant to talk religion

Why is it that the louder a Christian politician talks about their faith the more conservative they seem to be?

Cory Bernardi, who split recently from the Liberal Party, is among those who have come to epitomise the idea of a Christian politician, arguing that Australia is and should remain Christian. One Nation's Pauline Hanson said repeatedly before last year's election that Australia was a "Christian country", although in her maiden speech as a senator she also noted that its government was secular. Bernardi cites the constitution as evidence that Australia is Christian and Nationals senator John Williams wants the Lord's Prayer to be part of the school system.

But there are many more Christian politicians I have been talking to who think very differently.

Recently elected West Australian Liberal MP Andrew Hastie, a former air services officer, says he gets "uncomfortable when people start calling Australia a Christian nation".

"I think the chur…

School is much more than marks

It came as a surprise earlier this year to see a full-page advertisement by a Canberra private girls high school boasting about the academic success of its high achievers.

Each student was shown with her Australian tertiary admission rank score and the name of the university she was accepted into.

(Private schools don't have the field to themselves. A number of public schools have better results, and at least one parades them on its website.)

I know schools have always been competitive, and I know ATAR scores mean something, but in a month in which thousands of Australian students sat their national literacy and numeracy tests, it's worth asking whether more tests and a greater emphasis on test results actually harms us.

An Australian National University lecturer told me recently about a number of first-year students who were so worried about attaining high marks they were paralysed and unable to start assignments. "This is the time of their lives when everything should b…

Booty from an "illegal" war?

In a glass case in the modern conflicts and Middle East galleries at the Australian War Memorial hangs a gold-plated assault rifle, an AK47 issued by Saddam Hussein to one of his personal guards.

It was "discovered" among a cache of gold-plated weapons (the explanatory plaque says) by the United States 101st Airborne Division in Kirkuk, and given to an Australian major-general visiting US headquarters in Northern Iraq.

Patrick O'Hara says it's "war booty". He is a former volunteer guide and before that a long-time education officer at the memorial who has resigned in disgust. "Charles Bean designed the memorial to allow people to try to understand what Australian soldiers went through during war. It was designed to show the ugly reality of war. It wasn't meant to be political, gloating or a trophy cabinet," he tells me.

O'Hara loves and respects the War Memorial "and all that it is meant to represent" but he sees the display of t…

The power of lament and song

The idea of lament feels strange as it is ancient. There are images of it in biblical times, of people wailing and gnashing their teeth.

It feels like the season for wailing now: wailing about the demise of positive politics, about political strategy trumping real solutions and about the early death of human rights. Haven't there always been things to wail about? Yes, but now we live with unceasing streams of media exposing us to the world's pain as never before and an ugly kind of tribal politics that makes resolving differences seem impossible.

Song is a place to go, to sit with lament and to release it.

Canberra's Chorus of Women sprang out of a deep lament in 2003 as prime minister John Howard took Australia to war in Iraq, despite an overwhelming majority of Australians opposing it.

About 150 women, not then a formal group, broke into song in the marble foyer of Parliament House. They cried in unaccompanied song for the people of Iraq, the inevitability of death, and …

Trump a test for Christianity and Christians everywhere

A cartoon about President Donald Trump's America seen on Twitter shows a large Trump-like woman draped in the US flag holding a Bible in one hand while pointing menacingly into the face of a ragged and unconscious coloured child. "All lives matter!" she says. "Now stay the hell out of my country."

A majority of evangelical Christians and Catholics may have backed Trump, but in the wake of the attempt to ban refugees and immigrants from majority Muslim countries, many Christians have swung against him.

"We're a church that welcomes all people and so we will continue to do that. That's who we are," Washington DC pastor Dave Schmidgall told Australia's ABC. His congregation runs a refugee responder team. They are among millions appalled by the ban, stunned by Trump's indifference.

Ann Voskamp, a Christian author with a large conservative audience, boycotted the recent national prayer breakfast to protest against the immigration executive …

Questions of community and connection as Canberra goes high density

With a fraction of the population of truly global cities Sydney and Melbourne, Canberra is suddenly aiming for the sky. International flights to Singapore and Wellington are just part of it.

Every edition of The Canberra Times seems to report a new development that tests expectations of what the city is or should be. The latest controversy is a six-storey apartment block planned to replace the single-storey shops at Curtin, shading the community square.

We're told high-density living is needed if we are to sustainably grow. Besides, it was in Walter Burley Griffin's plan. But the Griffin legacy, as with the vision of Charles Weston (who pioneered the greening of Canberra), means different things to different people.

Let's look at the residential complex that takes its name from the island that houses New York. Manhattan on the Park shadows Civic's Glebe Park. It and other buildings like it in Woden and Belconnen are being sold as designer luxury living "close to e…

Domestic chores: Time-use survey shows equality starts at home

As the media gears up to cover what will be a tumultuous year in federal and international politics, it's worthwhile taking stock to examine what's happening in other very local politics: the one inside our homes.

In the little Australian book Kids' View of the World, five-year old Sam says "mums do cooking for us after a hard day". Six-year old Brooke says "dads just eat junk and are always at work". It's harsh, but not far removed from what happens at my place.

The latest Bureau of Statistics time-use survey (budget cuts mean it actually took place in 2006) found Australian women spent two hours 27 minutes per day on housework and men 43 minutes.

Women spent two hours 39 minutes per day on childcare and men, less than half that (one hour six minutes).

Analysis of a more recent French survey by the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research finds that even where women dedicate themselves to their careers more than their partners, &…