January 2012

A good alternative to de Botton’s position:

If this doesn’t work, this link goes straight to the website.

See Guardian article.

I can’t decide whether he has lost it or is having a lend, or is actually making a serious point! It is certainly a more intelligent contribution than that of Richard Dawkins (a very graceless polemicist). Actually, it is a good insight into the role of religion in social life, but – like all of them – there is a cheap dismissal of the importance of spirituality as opposed to religion.

See also the Digested Version.


Direct link to TED here.

This clipping is from the January 30 issue of The Sydney Morning Herald Digital Edition. To subscribe for $4.50 a week, visit http://smh.com.au/digitaledition.

Allah willing, Indonesia may one day become an egalitarian society SMH – Monday, 30 Jan 2012 – Page 7

For a self-styled nonpractising atheist, I was surprised to find one of the great pleasures of living in Jakarta was the call to prayer.

Like most homes in the city, mine was just 100 metres or so from the local mosque, a labyrinthine whitewashed building with a towering minaret where the muezzin sings praises to Allah five times a day.

Even at 4.30am, the smooth and melodious voice of Tata, the mosque’s main singer, enchants, wafting across the warm tropical pre-dawn to herald the new day.

The chattering congregations for Friday prayers and the quiet meditations of business owners, workers and street vendors as they pause for the salat has endeared me to a faith that is too often maligned.

Most of all though, I have been impressed and inspired by the programs and projects run by worshippers to help the poor.

There has been a steady diet of news from Indonesia for the best part of a decade about a tiny minority of Islamic extremists and their destructive deeds but most Muslims here are like those at the Jami Assa’adah mosque.

While polling consistently shows that Australians are lukewarm , at best, about Indonesia and its people, Indonesians of all religious persuasions are almost uniformly generous and polite.

They adore and indulge children , and there is a deep strain of communitarianism where the extended family supports each other, as does the wider village or neighbourhood.

For a developing country where 100 million of its 240 million people survive on less than $2.50 a day, and there is not much of a social safety net, there is little begging and those looking for spare change will invariably offer a service: help with parking, an umbrella on a rainy day or a song.

From the scavengers at the gigantic Bantar Gebang rubbish dump outside Jakarta to the farmers eking out existence in remote Sumba, the grace, ingenuity and kindness of poor Indonesians has never ceased to amaze me.

The Indonesian masses have lived precariously for decades but, amid widespread acclaim that Indonesia is on the cusp of rapid development, will the promise of economic progress translate into lasting improvement for them?

Certainly, the macroeconomic outlook for Indonesia is highly encouraging. The economy has grown at between 6 and 7 per cent for the past three years, and the country’s credit rating has been raised to investment grade for the first time since the crippling financial crisis on 1997. Capital is flooding in from abroad as investors race to tap into Indonesia’s resource riches and burgeoning consumer market.

Even now, Indonesia’s per capita income of $US3000 ($2800) a year outstrips India’s . But it masks an astounding gulf in income disparity.

The economy is dominated by a relatively small group of families and almost all of them beneficiaries of the crony capitalism of the Suharto dictatorship.

Jeffrey Winters, the American Indonesianist, calculated that the wealthiest 500 Indonesians are 600,000 times richer than the average Indonesian.

Indonesia’s transition from dictatorship to democracy has rightly earned plaudits but the smooth changeover from authoritarianism was built on something of a Faustian bargain. The old elites retained control of the economy and they have since used that wealth to dominate most of the country’s major political parties and to promote and protect their interests.

The influence of money in Indonesian politics is pervasive and extends from local elections to the national parliament, one of the country’s most corrupt institutions. Candidates pay local party apparatchiks to get preselected and frequently offer financial inducements to voters for their support.

Party bosses pay even greater sums to regional political leaders to get senior positions within parties. Once elected to parliament or organisational posts, successful candidates seek a return from their investments.

This system of patronage, with Indonesia’s oligarchs at its apex, ensnares the bureaucracy and judiciary, curtails effective policy-making and resource allocation and underpins Indonesia’s pervasive culture of graft and bribery.

Indonesia has an independent corruption body with wide powers and has convicted scores of people, but it is poorly resourced and, as Indonesia’s President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has acknowledged, corruption remains endemic and a brake on economic development . The defective political culture and the level of graft certainly partly explains why too little of the benefits of Indonesia’s economic expansion is finding its way to the masses.

But there is another explanation : until the mid-1960 s, Indonesia had a flourishing movement for the advancement of workers and peasants that coalesced around the Indonesian communist party, the thirdlargest in the world until it was destroyed in one of the worst massacres of the 20th century.

Between 500,000 and 1 million people were killed in a brutal putsch led by Suharto in the aftermath of the assassination of six senior generals by the socalled September 30 movement.

The legacy of that decimation of the organised left is still felt today. The union movement, for example, has been highly fragmented and weak. Indonesia has some of the lowest wages in Asia at about $150 to $200 a month for a typical factory worker.

Interestingly though, in the past six months, there has been a rise in industrial activity. A series of strikes at the US-owned Freeport mine in Papua, the world’s most profitable gold and copper concession, led to a substantial increase in wages.

Industrial action in factories around Jakarta also has spiked.

And, as the Australian National University scholar Edward Aspinall observes, notions of social justice are embedded in the country’s vibrant civil society , the dazzling array of nongovernment groups and activists who thrive in Indonesia’s democracy . Through them, it feeds into the political culture, albeit at a mostly rhetorical level.

While the elites remain entrenched in Indonesia, these are positive signs, however nascent , that Indonesia’s prosperity may for once be shared among the many.

Tom Allard has just completed a three-year posting in Indonesia for the Herald. Michael Bachelard will be the new correspondent.

Copyright © 2012 The Sydney Morning Herald

This clipping is from the January 30 issue of The Sydney Morning Herald Digital Edition. To subscribe for $4.50 a week, visit http://smh.com.au/digitaledition.

State claims education reforms do not work

No worries when he’s a trunk call away from a serious flood

More power for ATO, police to catch offshore tax cheats
SMH – Monday, 30 Jan 2012 – Page 5

THERE is no way of knowing if programs aimed at improving the literacy and numeracy skills of struggling students have worked, the state government says.

The former NSW directorgeneral of education Ken Boston was commissioned last year to carry out a review of up to 30 programs used in schools to help underperforming children improve.

But the state Minister for Education , Adrian Piccoli, said the taskforce had discovered that little is actually known about what works in improving numeracy and literacy in NSW.

‘‘ One of its purposes was to look at the different programs, like Multilit and Reading Recovery ,’’ Mr Piccoli said. ‘‘ But there is surprisingly little evidence around about what works and what doesn’t work.’’ Mr Boston, who also headed the curriculum authority in England, said learning difficulties should be diagnosed from the age of five, not in year 3, when students sat their first NAPLAN tests.

His report, which is due to be released later this year, would also look at whether programs were delivering value for money.

‘‘ We are looking at whether they are really doing what it says on the side of the tin,’’ Mr Boston said. ‘‘ We are looking at what evidence there is in NSW, not overseas. Just because it works in Wisconsin doesn’t mean it is working in Gunnedah.

‘‘ Is the child turned around in the long term, or are they just given a quick fix?’’

Mr Piccoli said the federal government’s education policies had failed to improve literacy and numeracy performance.

The Prime Minister, Julia Gillard , said last week that Australia needed to ‘‘ win the education race’ ’ and be highly skilled to compete with its Asian neighbours in a century of rapid economic growth.

She said students in countries such as China, South Korea and Japan were outperforming Australian students.

Mr Piccoli said the federal government had adopted education policies from Britain and the US where they had failed.

‘‘ Despite the money they have poured into education which has been great, the policies that have gone with it haven’t worked,’’ he said. ‘‘ It is the reforms that divide classrooms that don’t work – paying teachers bonuses based on test results or publishing NAPLAN results on the My School website that pit school against school.’’

Instead, Mr Piccoli said he wanted education policies that encouraged staff and schools to work together.

‘‘ What does make a difference is systemic change. That is what we are trying to do with devolution : empowering schools to make their own decisions,’’ he said. ‘‘ With devolution you are giving school principals and their staff the power to make changes that work for the entire school.’’

From this year, the state government would also focus on trying to improve teacher quality, he said. This would involve discussions with universities about training and professional development . ‘‘ We are conscious to make sure we don’t pitch teacher against teacher,’’ he said.

Mr Piccoli foreshadowed an overhaul of the bureaucracy when principals are given greater responsibility for managing their budgets this year.

Results of a wide-ranging review of state government funding for early childhood education , headed by Deb Brennan, from the University of NSW, will also be detailed later this year.

A replacement credential for the year 10 School Certificate, which was scrapped last year, will also be unveiled later this year.

Copyright © 2012 The Sydney Morning Herald
RAY SEAWARD sat on his balcony overlooking the swollen Bellinger River reading a book on Australia Day with little concern for the ‘‘ 4 1/2 tree flood’’ .

Over nine years, the owner of the Old Butter Factory – a century-old network of buildings housing workshops and stores nestled on low-lying land alongside the river – has developed a strong stomach for floods in his waterlogged patch of the state.

In the drenching rain, he took the Herald to the water line lapping metres from his cafe to show the river was, indeed, hovering between the fourth and fifth trees closest to the building.

‘‘ I came up here from Sydney nine years ago,’’ he said, ‘‘ and my tenants, who’ve been here for 25 years, look at the river and they say: ‘Looks like a four-tree-er to me’ . And I’ll be damned if they’re not right.’’

And despite the devastating and fatal Queensland floods only a year ago and Bellingen’s own disastrous floods in 2009, this is largely the attitude of rural and beachside residents who have inherited a state colonised along waterways prone to burst their banks in rain.

The pay-off for having a town sliced in two by a bridge engulfed for days on end by the river – as occurred in Bellingen last week – is living in enviable natural beauty that attracts wealthy tourists, artists and holidaymakers .

Floods are Australia’s most expensive natural disaster types – they cost more than $300 million a year, according to 2002 figures – and they accounted for almost one-third of all natural disaster costs nationwide between the late 1960s and the turn of the century.

In the last financial year, the State Emergency Service performed 540 flood rescues and clocked up 97,321 volunteer hours on flood work. In the same period, NSW spent almost $32 million on natural disaster relief funding in addition to flood mitigation, risk management and education.

‘‘ The biggest problem for local government is the ongoing repair bills,’’ the Bellingen shire mayor, Mark Troy, said last week as the more than 650 millimetres of rain the area received over just seven days continued.

‘‘ We still have here in our area outstanding repairs from the 2009 floods where we had a series of five severe weather events in one year,’’ he said.

Mr Troy said the natural disaster relief system was flawed because it acted as a Band-Aid and only funded work to restore infrastructure to the status quo before the most recent flood.

And it did little to prevent the isolation of rural properties during heavy rain. Yesterday afternoon , there were still about 2000 people isolated by floodwaters on the mid-north and far north coast and the SES had 11 helicopters ferrying food and medical supplies to homesteads trapped by water.

Keith Rhoades, president of the Local Government Association and mayor of Coffs Harbour where flash flooding swamped streets and homes last week, said his town was more likely today to receive 25 centimetres of rain in 10 hours, rather than 10 days, as might have been the case a decade ago.

He shied away from suggesting people should quit floodprone areas altogether, as has begun along beaches slipping into the sea.

‘‘ But nothing should be taken off the table,’’ he said.

Copyright © 2012 The Sydney Morning Herald
THE Australian Taxation Office and federal law enforcement agencies want to intensify their campaign against offshore tax evasion, with increased penalties and greater powers for investigators expected to be considered by the federal government this year.

Documents released under freedom-of-information laws reveal the Tax Office and other agencies participating in the long-running Project Wickenby, an inter-agency task force targeting offshore tax evasion, have been developing a comprehensive range of measures to combat abuse of “secrecy havens” – countries with secretive tax or financial systems and which offer minimal taxes for non-residents .

The ATO is seeking the introduction of measures to stem tax evasion before funding for Project Wickenby expires next year.

Documents released by the Attorney-General’s Department show the ATO has convened a series of meetings and workshops to develop tax reform proposals with the Australian Crime Commission, the Australian Federal Police, the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions, the Australian Securities and Investments Commission, the anti-money laundering agency AUSTRAC, the Treasury and the departments of the Attorney-General , and Immigration and Citizenship.

New anti-tax avoidance measures being developed include improved information flows between Australian government agencies such as better sharing of information obtained through the use of coercive powers like those exercised by the Australian Crime Commission; greater use of telecommunications interception powers; expanding the definition of money in antimoney laundering laws; greater information exchanges with foreign governments; strengthened international debt recovery measures and reciprocal recognition of foreign tax debts.

The Project Wickenby agencies have also been considering increased penalties for offshore tax evasion; measures aimed at “addressing delays around legal professional privilege” ; amendments to immigration requirements to ‘‘ consider failure to comply with tax obligations’’ , and greater regulation of trusts.

A number of “defensive measures ” were canvassed in a submission by Treasury to federal cabinet on May 16 last year. Further reform proposals were forecast for submission to cabinet late last year or early this year, with the Treasury and Attorney-General’s Department potentially making a joint submission.

However, the Attorney-General’s Department has declined to release the detailed policy proposals, saying: “The finer details of these law reform proposals have not yet been put to ministers; there have been no major public announcements on this subject, and the issues are still at the very preliminary stages of policy development … Full disclosure would … run contrary to the interests of good government.”

Since 2006, Project Wickenby has resulted in 62 people being charged with serious tax avoidance , money laundering and fraud. Twenty-one people have been convicted, although the taskforce has had setbacks, including the abortive legal pursuit of the actor Paul Hogan.

Nearly $594 million in outstanding tax revenue has been recovered, while $1.18 billion in tax liabilities has been raised.

Since 2007-08 there has been a 22 per cent reduction, about $22 billion, in funds flowing from Australia to 13 overseas “secrecy havens” .

There has been a decline in fund flows of 50 per cent to Vanuatu , 80 per cent to Liechtenstein , and 22 per cent to Switzerland.

By 2012-13 , Project Wickenby operations will have cost $430.9 million.

The Assistant Treasurer, Mark Arbib, confirmed yesterday that a “multi-agency working group” was working on further measures aimed at cracking down on illegal offshore tax evasion.

Copyright © 2012 The Sydney Morning Herald

This clipping is from the January 28 issue of The Sydney Morning Herald Digital Edition. To subscribe for $4.50 a week, visit http://smh.com.au/digitaledition.

Chapter one: a booklover’s lament
SMH – Saturday, 28 Jan 2012 – Page 41

The Kindle is like the sensible man your mother wanted you to marry.

Next week I shall make my last trip to a bookstore to buy myself a book. The house may sink into the soft Sydney sands. The house cannot really accommodate another book.

The shelves are full. Teetering piles of books stand like drunken sentries on the dressing table in the spare room. Books festoon my bedside table and clutter the space beneath it.

There are two boxes of books I have never opened since a dear departed friend bequeathed his personal library to me. People know I love books, so this was not the first dear departed friend to have left books to me. I do not want to seem ungrateful but if any other friends are making their wills …

So I have been learning to love the Kindle.

But frankly I am surprised at how the affair is going; not nearly as well as I had expected.

This was a piece of new technology I was determined to embrace wholeheartedly. Who didn’t love their Kindle or its cousins? Even the hold-outs I knew had become converts, and then proselytisers.

And really, I had run out of options. My decades as a bookworm were catching up on me. For the past 20 years I’ve been a member of a book group that reads contemporary fiction – novels so hot off the press they are often not readily available in libraries.

But the tipping point came when my partner joined a book group a couple of years ago, and also started buying books every month. I knew we could not go on like this.

And so the Kindle arrived at our house in September (as luck would have it just before the new, even cheaper, version came out). And since then I’ve been trying hard to love it.

But this is what I have concluded. The Kindle is like the sensible man your mother wanted you to marry. She can list a dozen reasons why this man is good for you. But she omits the crucial ingredient: chemistry. The man doesn’t excite you.

It’s easy to turn the Kindle on. But I have found the Kindle doesn’t turn me on. The thrill is gone: the thrill of anticipation as I toy with a printed book, turn the first page to read the author’s dedication or bits of poetry; the list of his/her other books, the reprints from reviews; and then the flip to the back page to ponder the author’s photo, and skim the acknowledgments.

All these preliminaries, a kind of foreplay to the act of reading itself, just aren’t the same with a Kindle.

With a printed book, there is a palpable sense of excitement in starting the journey of reading, the adventure of entering a new world and wondering where it will take me that I can’t quite recapture.

I don’t really understand why the burst of serotonin felt when turning a page is missing, and why that deep sense of satisfaction is not quite the same as when I close the back cover on a wonderful book.

I know that beautiful, emotional or funny words are the same whatever the medium that delivers them. And yet …

As others have noted, the smell and tactile pleasures of a paper book are missing, too, with these e-readers . This is a loss but not, for me, grave. What is much worse is that you can’t flip pages. You can bookmark and make notes but the random backtracking possible in a book – that is maybe not so random because I intuitively know where to find things – is harder to do.

I feel I am on a fast-forward trajectory with my Kindle, speeding through to the end as the percentage bar that has replaced page numbers urges me on.

Yet mother is always right. How sensible the Kindle is. How good for me it is. I can change the font, and read in bed without disturbing a sleeping partner. When travelling I don’t need a suitcase full of books. Books are downloadable on my Kindle wherever I am – so that, caught short on a holiday in a foreign city with one English-language bookstore, I don’t have to buy The Outsider again.

Instead, I can download The Stranger’s Child, Alan Hollinghurst’s follow-up to his scintillating The Line of Beauty, and live to regret every moment. Surely a dreary book is no drearier on a Kindle – or is it?

Dreary or marvellous, e-books are much cheaper and so I tend to buy more and ones I might not think worth the splurge in a bookshop. For Alan Bennett’s wonderful Smut, really two short novellas, that I could read in a couple of nights, I would pay $9.50 to read on my Kindle but not the bookshop price of $24.99.

For the past two or three years I’ve been aware the book world was having a nervous breakdown about the future of the printed book. Bookshops in particular were staring into the abyss. They reportedly had a good Christmas. But I’m afraid they can’t rely on me any more.

In my campaign to convert the world into book-lovers , I shall continue to buy books for people who don’t read much. This next book for me, though – the one I’ll take to the beach shack for my week’s traditional summer readin – must be my last.

I want to feel the thrill one last time. But sense has won out over sensibility.

Copyright © 2012 The Sydney Morning Herald

This clipping is from the January 28 issue of The Sydney Morning Herald Digital Edition. To subscribe for $4.50 a week, visit http://smh.com.au/digitaledition.

Trailing, can do better: report needs answers
SMH – Saturday, 28 Jan 2012 – Page 35

High-performing countries recruit high-calibre teachers.

When Julia Gillard was in Sydney this week to announce extra schools funding for students with disabilities, she stressed the need for Australia to win the ‘‘ education race’ ’ against its Asian neighbours.

The call followed the lament by her Minister for School Education, Peter Garrett, over disappointing results from last year’s national literacy and numeracy tests. There has been no marked improvement, and performance of top students is going backwards.

Tests from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, the equivalent to the local tests, show a consistent downward slide in the performance of Australia’s 15-year-olds over the past decade.

The Prime Minister’s remarks were setting the tone for the government’s response to the national review of schools funding it commissioned from Sydney businessman David Gonski, which is about to be released. She expressed a vision for a ‘‘ highwage , high-skilled society’ ’ amid rapid economic growth in Asia.

‘‘ We can win as a nation in this century but, in order to do that, we’ve got to win the education race,’’ she said. ‘‘ Our competitors are continuing to invest and improve the quality of their school systems, and four out of the five top performing school systems in the world now are in countries in our region.’’

A separate report commissioned by Gonski notes schools in Shanghai,

Hong Kong, South Korea and Japan

are beating Australia in OECD


Student performance has fallen behind in absolute terms in reading, writing and arithmetic. It falls behind compared to other countries in the numbers completing year 12. The tail end of student performance is falling and the top students are also lagging, raising questions about the quality of curriculum and teaching standards, and entrenched inequity.

Government policies have offered parents greater choice in schools and schools a greater choice in selecting students.

Australia invests 3.5 per cent of gross domestic product in education , compared with the OECD average of 4.2 per cent, and stands relatively alone in the level of public funding it provides private schools – more than $27 billion over four years. The brightest and most socioeconomically advantaged children are concentrated in independent and public selective schools; the disadvantaged and poorest academic performers are in the public system. For 10 years under the Howard government, Australia suppressed data comparing the performance of independent and public schools.

Sue Thomson, from the Australian Council for Educational Research, says the latest OECD snapshot revealed, for the first time, no significant differences in test scores from public and private schools after they were adjusted for the socio-economic background of students and their school peers. This confirmed the performance of Australian students is linked to the family background of students and their peers – not the school they attend.

The data, collected from 15,000 students, had never been reported because Australia refused to provide it to the OECD for the 2000, 2003 and 2006 reporting periods.

Data from other OECD countries consistently showed public schools performed as well or better than independent schools after socioeconomic factors were accounted for. The Australian private schools lobby rejects the research as flawed.

Professor Richard Sweet, from Melbourne University’s graduate school of education, helped compile a report commissioned by the Gonski review. The Nous Group review is a blunt assessment of government policies that provided greater choice for families and schools.

Sweet, an OECD education analyst until 2005, said greater choice was associated with lower performance because it resulted in a concentration of weaker students in disadvantaged schools.

‘‘ Any supposed performance advantage from going to a private school is entirely due to the fact they come from advantaged backgrounds and are concentrated together.’’

Sweet said that if the Gonski review did not tackle the issue of school choice, ‘‘ then the only avenue available to it is a resourcing one. You have to spend a lot more money on the weaker kids.’’

But money will not solve all the problems. High-performing countries recruit high-calibre teachers with masters degrees. They do not focus on standardised testing and ‘‘ teaching to the test’’ , which teachers complain of in Australia.

‘‘ What goes on in Chinese classrooms , for example, is a process of teaching kids to think and not a process of just drumming in facts,’’ Sweet said.

Barry McGaw, who heads the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority, is concerned schools are not stretching the top students.

He believes there has been too much focus on developing basic skills to meet minimum standards.

The authority looked at maths curriculums in Singapore, Hong Kong and Finland to shape its national curriculum. ‘‘ We have upped the ante in mathematics,’’ he said.

He found students in south-west Sydney were studying lower levels of mathematics and English than those in northern Sydney, despite being of similar ability, because ‘‘ southwestern Sydney schools weren’t offering the higher level courses’’ .

Copyright © 2012 The Sydney Morning Herald

This clipping is from the January 29 issue of The Sydney Morning Herald Digital Edition. To subscribe for $4.50 a week, visit http://smh.com.au/digitaledition.

Low GI diet bears fruit in classroom
SMH – Sunday, 29 Jan 2012 – Page 14

AMIR ZANDI admits he was a typical teenager when it came to his diet – regular trips to fast-food restaurants and lots of soft drinks.

But when the 17-year-old HSC student from Gordon became so fatigued he could barely drag himself out of bed, was losing concentration in the classroom and sleeping up to 15 hours a night, he knew something was wrong.

Amir was diagnosed with insulin resistance – which reduces uptake of energy-producing glucose in the body – and put on a low GI (glycemic index) diet. The GI is a measure of the effect of sugars and starches on blood glucose levels. He now has a low GI/high carbohydrate breakfast , eating either wholegrain cereals , multigrain breads, natural muesli, baked beans, poached eggs, fruit and plain or diet yoghurt.

Now an increasing body of research linking low GI and academic performance is prompting doctors to urge parents to consider changing their children’s diets.

Alan Barclay, chief scientific officer at the Glycemic Index Foundation, a partnership between the University of Sydney and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation , said parents wanting to improve their childrens’ school performance should give them a breakfast with about 35 to 40 grams of carbohydrate with a low GI.

‘‘ That should translate into improved performance in various tasks at school which ultimately should lead to better marks at the end of the year,’’ Dr Barclay said.

‘‘ Glucose is the primary fuel for our brain. If we don’t have enough in the right amounts over the right period of time we basically can’t think properly and can’t remember things.’’

Research by British academics published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2010 found a low GI/high carbohydrate breakfast improved the cognition and attentiveness of children and helped them complete maths tasks more quickly and accurately.

Amir said his his concentration levels had massively improved and he no longer felt tired during the day. He also lost about 15 kilograms in seven months.

‘‘ My parents thought I was just being a lazy teenager, but I was just so, so tired,’’ he said. ‘‘ It was a bit scary actually, not knowing what was wrong with me.’’

Healthy Habits — Page 22

Copyright © 2012 The Sydney Morning Herald

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