Archive for September, 2012

Besides being scientifically illiterate, why does Abbot place so much importance on acquiring a foreign tongue?

“Mr Abbott’s goals for Australia’s linguistic future can be achieved only with the express support of state leaders, who must mandate the study of at least one language other than English for all students from Year 4/5 to Year 10.” And “The Leader of the Opposition’s proposal to have 40% of Year 12 students learning a foreign language within a decade is seriously intelligent policy.” Fiona Mueller

More seriously unintelligent thinking from Tony Abbot?

Our children’s study time is limited. What they learn before they move out of the education system and into the rest of their lives is crucial. The most successful people are those who are comfortable with their own existence. We have a responsibility to shape the minds of the young when it is most plastic in a way which will enhance their chances of being at ease with their own existence. In other words, we must ensure that they have the necessary life-philosophy.

In the matter of language, John McCrone, author of The Ape that Spoke,has something of far more substance to say than has Tony Abbot:

We arrive in the world with the naked brain of an animal and through the moulding power of speech, we become equipped with the thought habits which make us human.

What makes us human! Contemplations at that level are seriously intelligent thinking.

Tony Abbot has studied Latin and Ancient Greek. An interesting and probably enjoyable mental exercise, but it did nothing to warn him against making bizarre statements regarding climate change and the national optic fibre rollout.

Besides being scientifically illiterate, why does Abbot place so much importance on acquiring a foreign tongue? It’s the global market place he sees where riches beckon. But the evolution of differing languages was never a barrier to the spread of ideas. In the 21st century, this has never been truer.

Setting the right priorities

In my final two years at school, the question as to what use was a BA majoring in a language going to be to anyone was occasionally asked. The stock answer was that it might lead to a career in the diplomatic service. The clear message was that learning a foreign language was not the means to the making of a living to aim for.

Today the focus is no longer on doing business with Britain. We are on the world stage and, if you can speak  Chinese, a company which does business with China could use you.

However, in the bigger picture, I cannot see much urgency in learning Chinese or Japanese when public signage in China and Japan is becoming bilingual – with that second language being our native tongue. English is the first language of India’s middle class. Indonesia is doing what the rest of South East Asia has been doing for years – which is to use English as the language to do business in. So, why not just sit back and wait for the rest of the word to learn to speak the way we already can?

Besides, English is the world language of science and technology – and that is what really matters.

How important is knowing why we are who we are?

Such knowledge has become increasingly important as society became less religious. Religion built a deep structure into our lives. It was the reference point. It was where we touched base. Scientific revelation can now fulfil this role. An awareness of the process of the acquisition of language is an example.

“Astonishing” hardly seems to be the appropriate word to describe the acquisition of language. At two and one half years my grand-daughter was putting sentences of three or four words together, but her words were difficult to understand. At age five she can now express simple ideas.

While others thought her way of speaking as being cute, as a reader of the new books of revelation, I saw the wonder in it. I was aware that I was observing the results of the neural networks in her speech centres being steadily hardwired – seemingly by the week. This was not cute. This was awesome.

The brain cells of my grand-daughter function very similarly to those of a fish and the structure of her brain is almost the same as an ape. It is social contact which is accelerating the growth and abilities of her frontal cortex in a feedback with the developing speech centres in her brain.

René  Descartes famously said: “I think – therefore I am.” Could Descartes think without using words? No, he could not. You might say that you are not thinking in words about what you are doing when you are driving (e.g. you don’t have to say: “I now have to turn the steering wheel to turn around that corner.”) However, when learning to drive, then talking to yourself is what you did. Now the network of brain cells that was constructed by words holds the program enabling you to drive.

If Descartes was alive today he would be saying: “I speak – therefore I am.”

Abbot fails to see wealth where it really is

The humanities people fear that an increasing emphasis on science and mathematics will desensitise the young mind to the feeling side of human nature – the side which enjoys poetry and music. It would be a very rare scientist who does not have a keen (even passionate) interest in some aspect of life outside of science. And science tells the  human side of history which the history of nations our children study does not.

Imagine a camp fire scene of 50,000 years ago. Those huddled together from the cold and staring into the light are making many sounds that those of 50,000 years earlier were not making. The sounds we now call words are connected into strings we now call sentences. The strings are very short. Linking the names of objects we now call nouns there are action words we now call verbs. The human ear is ready for many more differing words and the human tongue and larynx ready to utter many more differing words. Words we now call adjectives will be added. This will occur around camp fires in the millennia ahead when ideas of increasing complexity will be exchanged and entertaining stories told.

In the above scene stretched over millennia the most important series of events in the history of the planet is occurring. The software and the hardware are developing each other in the brains of our ancestors. One day that brain being shaped around campfires will be composing symphonies, designing 100-story buildings, replacing defunct human organs sending probes to the edge of the solar system.

Science tells other stories which remind us of the other life forms who we should be unselfishly sharing the planet with and not destroying in the pursuit of economic growth. To regain the spiritual that religion once provided, there is a lot to learn from the new books of revelation.

Our children do not have the time to be distracted by Tony Abbot’s interpretation of enlightenment. We don’t need 40% of our senior students ploughing through text books and sitting for exams in some foreign tongue because some politicians believe we need a sales advantage in the world market place more than we need the holistic and nourishing life-philosophy that scientific revelation is waiting there to give all who show an interest in receiving it.

Brian Holden has been retired since 1988. He advises that if you can keep physically and mentally active, retirement can be the best time of your life.

This article was first published online at Online Opinion

Censoring public health in Queensland – a dangerous precedent?

Beyond the recent publicity around cuts to health and other portfolios, something deeply disturbing – even sinister – is occurring in Queensland.

The state government is implementing health policies on the run and cutting health jobs and services. This has happened before around the country and will eventually be turned around, albeit not before a deal of harm has been done.

Even this week, there is news of yet more cuts to prevention programs. But more disturbing still, and a move that should send alarm bells ringing around the country, is the Queensland government’s decision to gag health organisations, health professionals and public debate on health issues.

A number of of Queensland Health’s recent problems – from Bundaberg to payroll disasters – followed historical underfunding of key control processes, and came to light in part because concerned people had the courage to speak out.

There is a long history in public health of measures that were initially resisted or opposed, speedily becoming accepted as part of a modern, civilised society. We would not be one of the world’s longest-lived populations without advances in public health such as sanitation and safe water, safe food, safe environments, immunisation, control of infectious diseases, screening, speed limits, seat belts, random breath testing, and tobacco control.

Each of these advances met initial resistance. None of them – not a single one of the public health advances we now regard as vital – would have been implemented without public health advocacy.

A troubled history

There is nothing new about opposition to public health advocacy. When sanitary reforms were being debated in England in the 1850s, led by the pioneering epidemiologist John Snow, the London Times thundered, “We prefer to take our chances of cholera and the rest than be bullied into health by Mr. Snow”.

But Snow persevered, achieving changes that led the way to advances there and elsewhere. Since then, we have seen a plethora of public health advances because of pressure from health groups, whether professional organisations such as the Australian Medical Association (AMA), or issue-based non-governmental organisations (NGOs), such as the various cancer councils and the Heart Foundation.

These external pressures are often encouraged by health ministers who need help generating support for action in Cabinet and the community: after legislation or other action, they frequently express their appreciation to the organisations concerned.

It is reasonable and normal for governments to expect that public servants follow conventional protocols in relation to public comment. It is also reasonable to expect that NGOs engaged in advocacy do so in a sensible and civilised manner. It is, however, unreasonable and dangerous for governments to gag health NGOs, and to take action that will specifically preclude them from advocating for change.

Gagging order

Health departments traditionally fund large numbers of NGOs to carry out crucial work in the community. Queensland Health Department contracts with these NGOs will now be subject to censorship. Any NGO receiving 50% or more of its funding from the state will be precluded from advocating for state or federal legislative change – even from providing website links to other organisations’ websites that do so.

NGOs justifiably fear that the 50% figure is just a starting point, and that this censorship may ultimately apply to any funding. Many now dare not speak out. Even those not currently in receipt of funding but thinking of applying will feel constrained.

The condition relating to websites means that funded NGOs may not be able to provide links to organisations such as Cancer Council Australia, the Heart Foundation, or even the AMA and the World Health Organization, all of which advocate for legislative change.

Government-funded NGOs are often also funders of research, which may conclude that legislation or regulation is appropriate. The new Queensland Health approach will preclude reputable health organisations from even discussing the implications of such research.

An important 2007 paper showed that there was already cause for concern about suppression of information in the health sector. It noted international precedents where exposure and comment from outside government were crucial in preventing further public health catastrophes, such as the 1980 Black Report in the United Kingdom, the Chernobyl disaster in the Soviet Union, the SARS outbreak in China, and harmful mercury blood levels in the United States.

But why?

So what justification has the Queensland Government offered for its descent into the dark ages?

First, they assert that NGOs should focus on their “core activities”, not advocacy. But seeking action that will protect the health of the community is the most fundamental core activity for public health organisations. Even if they cannot understand this, it is outrageous that a government providing only some of an organisation’s funding should prohibit action carried out with funding from other sources.

Second, they state in relation to funded groups that “we would expect that organisation to conduct itself with the political impartiality of any other government sector.” This verges on the bizarre, given that by definition NGOs are not part of the “government sector”.

A third rationale now offered is that this condition will prevent abuses, such as the “Fake Tahitian Prince” scandal, and funding of NGOs to pursue political agendas. But any concerns in these areas should be addressed by protocols common to all governments (and indeed other funding agencies) about proper, well-monitored use of funds.

The fourth rationale is that the government is seeking “health outcomes, not political outcomes or social engineering outcomes”. The government is entitled to seek health outcomes from activities that it funds: but that is no justification for gagging the non-government sector.

It is desperately depressing that any health minister should use pejorative phrases such as “social engineering” to describe the aims of health organisations, and, by implication, the aims of his own and other health departments around the country.

The Queensland government’s approach has already met with some success. It has created a climate of fear. Beyond the AMA, whose Queensland president, Dr. Alex Markwell, has shown herself to be a true health leader, and some courageous public health academics, few in the state are willing to speak out, lest they be victimised and lose their funding.

These are dark days for public health in Queensland. The public health advocacy that has made our community so healthy will be hard to find. By contrast, commercial interests – in areas such as alcohol, tobacco, gambling, junk food, even firearms – are free to pressure governments at will.

Queensland, of all states, should have learned that gagging people in health from speaking out is a recipe for disaster. Censorship is the hallmark of a totalitarian regime; censorship in health sends out the signal loud and clear that the government neither understands public health nor cares for the future health of the community.

Other governments should condemn the Queensland approach though the Standing Council of Health Ministers; the Federal Government should bring all possible pressure to bear; and health professionals around the nation should use every available opportunity to make clear their distaste for this fundamentally unhealthy approach to public health.

Public health has been described as the conscience of the health system. It should be a matter of great concern for the entire community that any government is seeking to silence our conscience.

Mike Daube is Professor of Health Policy at Curtin University.

This article was first published online at The Conversation

 

R18+ rating added for videogames … but are children protected?

New guidelines for the classification of videogames have been released by Federal Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare and, despite being a step in the right direction, the revisions are largely disappointing and a missed opportunity.

The Guidelines for the Classification of Computer Games – which were revised to account for the introduction of an R18+ classification – are an important step towards the enhanced protection of minors which has been held out as a result of the reform.

Under the existing system, the highest legal classification a game can be given is MA15+. This year the Parliament has amended the law to allow an R18+ classification, in response to community concerns that the strong, contextually justified violence available in MA15+ was not suitable for anybody under 18. However it was necessary to change the guidelines to ensure that level of violence would no longer be available at MA15+.

While the revised guidelines show an obvious intent to meet community expectations about enhanced protection for minors – by tightening up the level of violence permissible at MA15+ – there was a disappointing lack of public consultation during their creation.

Instead the draft guidelines were simply placed on a website, with no proper call for public comment. As the guidelines are more important to the policy aim than the introduction of the new classification, consultation on them should have been at least as widely publicised.

Nor does there appear to have been any proper legislative drafting process; rather the guidelines were passed around for individual ministers to make their own changes and additions.

The result is a patch-up job with minimal substantive changes. Worse, some of the wording is awkward and unclear.

The test for sexual violence at the R18+ level, for instance, stretches logic by distinguishing between “implied sexual violence” which is “visually depicted”, and that which is not visually depicted.

The guidelines go on to state that the classification does not permit implied sexual violence that is visually depicted if it is “interactive, not justified by context or related to incentives or rewards”. I doubt any self-respecting legislative drafter would have mixed up positives and negatives in this way.

The new guidelines also contain a restriction on depictions of “actual” sexual activity, thereby failing to recognise that nothing in a game is “actual”. The word, I imagine, was chosen to make a distinction from depictions of “implied” sexual activity, but if this was the case, a drafter would have known that the appropriate word would have been “explicit”.

Perhaps more importantly, the new guidelines contain more changes on sexual activity, nudity and drug use than they do on violence. It was violence driving the push for an R18+ classification in the first place and violence should have been central to the changes.

Rather, the violence-related changes come across as an afterthought; for example, all classification levels contain changes relating to sex, drugs and nudity but the criteria for non-sexual violence change only at G and MA15+. The dominance of the sex-related changes, in my view, further entrenches the classification system as one based on moralistic concerns rather than the clear evidence about what can influence children’s development in detrimental ways.

I have been disappointed (but not surprised) to see a renewal of claims by the gaming industry of an absence of evidence violent interactive games (by demanding active engagement) can have a stronger influence on users than film (which demands only passive engagement).

Interactive games may not have been around long enough for there to be conclusive evidence about enhanced impact through interactivity, but as this UNICEF Multigrade Teacher’s Handbook reminds us, we do have plenty of evidence that children learn better by doing than by watching, especially through repetition and rewards.

The analogy to interactive and passive media experiences is powerful enough to justify a different approach to the classification of games.

Of course the comments sections of articles and online forums are still full of pundits protesting about an alleged lack of evidence that violent media of any kind can have an influence on its users.

These claims sound strange coming at the end of a lengthy campaign for an R18+ classification that was driven by hand-wringing about all the inappropriate material currently available to minors at MA15+.

I’ve yet to meet anyone who disagrees some games are inappropriate for minors – the problem is that some people are happy to reach that conclusion based on a moralistic assessment of the material, or on gut-feeling and guesswork, or on the intent of the developer, rather than on the weight of the scientific evidence that exists as to how violent media can influence people’s thoughts, attitudes and behaviour.

People who weigh in to the debate over the appropriate role of this evidence in policy formation nearly always presume that the main, or only, question is whether violent media begets violent behaviour. In doing so they overlook the more subtle but potentially widespread influences on thoughts and especially attitudes.

Desensitisation to violence is at least as big a concern for the future of our society as increased tendencies to aggressive behaviour. Possibly more so because, while parents and carers have some opportunity to notice and address behavioural changes, attitudinal ones might go unnoticed and unchecked until it is too late.

The revised guidelines for videogames are another lost opportunity for a root-and-branch, considered review to base the classification system on the science, rather than on guesswork and moral judgment.

If we are going to have a classification system based on the wide recognition that media content can be harmful to minors, it’s imperative that we take seriously the evidence about what is harmful, and build the criteria around that.

Elizabeth Handsley is aProfessor of Law at Flinders University.

This article was originally published online at The Conversation.

You talkin’ to me? Gerry Harvey’s one-man, online retail debate

Gerry Harvey is great media talent. When I first became interested in online retail, I almost immediately became interested in Gerry.

As far back as 2000, Gerry told ninemsn on a live chat forum “that most of the online business will be conducted by traditional retailers and that over 90% of the e-retailers will in fact all go out of business one after the other”.

In 2008, he famously told Smart Company that online retailing “is a complete waste of time”. During his short-lived campaign to have GST applied to all goods bought by Australians from overseas websites he said that online retail was “escalating to proportions that are quite unbelievable” and was threatening to put scores of retailers out of business.

By June 2011, he was sanguine: “We find people will order smaller things online, but for bigger items they’ll mostly come to the store, go home and order online”.

You might think this was Gerry changing his mind over time about the implications of online retail. But then I saw this interview on Lateline. If current affairs television consistently reached this level of rollicking entertainment, I would watch it a lot more often.

Gerry came across as a more avuncular and amusing version of Queensland’s late Joh Bjelke-Petersen. It became obvious watching this interview that there was no evolution to Gerry’s opinions on online retail – he held them all simultaneously.

There’s a popular line of thought that Gerry is a dinosaur, a man out of time who doesn’t get the internet. On the contrary, I think that there a lot of people who don’t get Gerry, or perhaps his business, and its complicated relationship with online retail.

When Gerry talks about the internet he is addressing at least two very different audiences. The first is the investment community who want to know that Harvey Norman has a digital strategy, understands “omnichannelling” and is forward focused.

The second are Gerry’s army of franchisees who want to hear that someday this war will be over. All of Harvey Norman’s Australian stores operate as franchises, aside from the recently acquired Clive Peeters and Rick Hart outlets. In the last financial year, franchisee sales revenue fell by 2% and the fees Harvey Norman Holdings received from their franchisees fell 5%.

Gerry has to walk a tightrope – being seen to embrace or at least understand online retailing while convincing his franchisees that the internet is not going to destroy their livelihood.

The franchisee structure makes it incredibly difficult for Harvey Norman to wholeheartedly embrace online retail. This underscores a very important point about the internet. It’s a disruptive technology. For a lot of businesses, it is not simply a matter of adding another channel. The landscape will change so much that a new business or business model is required. This is something that Fairfax Media and News Limited know only too well.

When Gerry talks about online retailing, most people think they are listening to a retailer. But Harvey Norman is also a major retail property owner and developer. It owns 74 sites across Australia and has a $2 billion property portfolio that includes properties in New Zealand, Malaysia, Singapore and Slovenia.

For retail property owners, online retail is not such a good thing. The investors who want to hear that Harvey Norman has a digital strategy also need to hear that the internet is not going to devalue its retail property portfolio. This is a tricky message to sell.

The strategy of banks and other businesses in the 90s and 2000s to divest themselves of property now looks very sensible. Australian banks have wholeheartedly embraced the internet and their customers have in turn embraced online banking. Banks may be affected by other people’s commercial property devaluing, but mostly they don’t have to worry about their own.

Online retail promises or threatens to greatly change how Australians buy and sell over the next few years. However it works out, I hope that Gerry Harvey is around a fair bit longer, saying things to provoke and amuse us.

Anybody who tells us omni-channelling, a glib and ugly expression if ever there was one, is “bullshit”, deserves an audience.

Scott Ewing is a Senior Research Fellow – The Swinburne Institute for Social Research at Swinburne University of Technology.

This article was original published online at The Conversation

 

The power of control and reducing stress at work

For many, work means stress and as we all know, too much stress can lead to ill health. But research showing that people in positions of power are not very stressed, may hold clues for how workplaces can help reduce stress for all employees.

The difficult economic climate means many of us are being asked to “do more with less”, adding to the costs associated with the stress this creates. A critical challenge facing organisations then, is how to help employees effectively manage their stress, while maintaining optimal levels of performance and engagement.

One key strategy is enhancing psychological resources, such as control, social support, performance feedback, and access to information, which help employees meet their work demands. This issue is highlighted in a study published in the peer-reviewed journal PNAS that focuses specifically on the stress experienced by leaders.

Organisational leaders have demanding roles and face intense scrutiny of their performance. So it’s reasonable to expect them to experience the highest rates of work-related stress. But the authors of the PNAS paper demonstrate that leaders actually report lower levels of stress in comparison to other workers.

And they found this to be the case even after taking into account the sex, age, education, income, and mood of the study participants. Previous research has similarly established this counter-intuitive finding. So, why do organisational leaders report less work-related stress and ill-health?

The power of control

The authors of the study attributed lower levels of leadership stress to the greater capacity of leaders to exercise control over their work. They then conducted another study demonstrating that leaders who report a higher level of authority and have larger numbers of subordinates and direct reports, perceive a higher level of control over their work relationships. This sense of heightened control results in lower levels of stress.

These results are in line with research demonstrating that work-related demands are not uniformly stressful. And that facing more demands doesn’t necessarily equate to more stress. One of the key determining features of whether someone perceives a work demand as stressful or challenging is that person’s access to work-related and psychological resources, such as control, social support, feedback, and self-efficacy.

Indeed, research has consistently demonstrated that the highest levels of work-related stress are experienced by people who don’t have sufficient levels of control at work. In contrast, jobs that provide a positive environment and optimal health outcomes are not those with low demands, but demanding roles with sufficient access to control.

So while leaders undoubtedly face intense work pressure, greater responsibility, and a high-level of scrutiny over their work performance, they simultaneously possess a greater capacity to exercise control over their work environment. And control acts as a buffer against the otherwise adverse effects of high-level demands on work-related stress.

Intervention strategies aiming to increase control over how and when to undertake certain tasks and increase participation in decision-making are likely to reduce stress among workers. But sadly, increasing control and authority is neither possible nor desirable in many workplaces.

Protective forces

There are several other resources that are also beneficial for buffering against the adverse impact of job demands and for promoting positive outcomes, such as employee engagement, learning, and development.

Our research has demonstrated that support from supervisors and colleagues reduces burnout and psychological strain, while career-related support provided by mentors increases employee engagement over time.

People are also happier at work when they feel their organisation cares for and is concerned about its staff. They are more positive when good work by employees is adequately recognised, and when there are positive relationships between managers and staff.

Most significantly, the extent to which workers understand their organisation’s strategic priorities and their awareness of how their job helps the workplace achieve strategic objectives is linked with optimal employee outcomes, regardless of whether that person is a leader.

Leadership positions are naturally imbued with access to greater resources such as authority, control, support, and access to information. And leaders have greater capacity to influence the strategic direction of the workplace and shape their own personal roles to more effectively meet needs and manage demands.

Access to such resources for employees at all levels within an organisation is beneficial for managing work-related stress. And intervention strategies that focus on enhancing such access is likely to reduce the long-term economic and personal costs of work-related stress

Amanda Biggs is Post-doctoral Researcher at Griffith University

Originally published online at The Conversation

 


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