Monday, February 27, 2006


I'm in a new role which (in my small industry) means I'm running across a whole lot of people that I last saw 5-10 years ago. I'm constantly having to remind myself that just because they weren't particularly helpful/good/on top of things (insert negative adjective here) doesn't mean that they aren't now. In fact, some/ many of them have proved to be very impressive with the passage of time. One I saw at a meeting today was very earnest, junior and prone to repeating his bosses (fairly inane) comments 8 years ago. Now he's making constructive suggestions that bring the meeting back into usefulness.

My reminder to myself about keeping an open mind usually comes with a simultaneous internal reminder of what I was like, professionally, 5-10 years ago and a hope that their memory is less vivid than mine.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Book Review - The Weather Makers

This week's book review is The Weather Makers by Tim Flannery. I decided, when choosing my books for the Christmas holidays, that I really should find out what was really going on with global warming. I was sick of reading the carefully set out pro- and anti- columns in the Sydney Morning Herald. I wanted to know some facts.

I remembered, quickly, after starting the book, that Tim Flannery, while an entertaining and insightful reader, has never been known for a careful weighing up of the evidence on both sides. While he accumulates evidence carefully and scientifically for his own side, the other side usually gets short shrift. Among other things, Tim Flannery is on record as saying that Australian can only support 8 million people, which I do find hard to believe. He's definitely on one side. Global warming exists, and most of his book describes the mechanisms carefully, and how different scientists have figured out those mechanisms. It's only getting towards the middle of the book that he starts setting out some evidence for why you should believe the (many) scientists who say so as opposed to the (few) scientists who don't.

Nevertheless, even reading with a sceptical hat on, it's an excellent book. The most convincing part, to me, of the reality of global warming, was the section about quaint journals. There are many private journals of natural phenomena - for example one English family recorded the dates of the first frog and toad croaks they heard on their estate every year between 1736 and 1947. Two researches (Parmesan and Yohe) created a huge study of as many of these observations as they could find. They asked two questions - is there any underlying trend evident in all of the regions, habitats and organisms documented? And if so, is that in the general direction one would expect? They found that there is little evidence of a trend before 1950, but since then there is a poleward shift in species' distribution, of around 6 kms per decade, and an advance of sprint activity of 2.3 days per decade. One of the most remarkable examples is a shift in habitat of 35 Northern Hemisphere butterflies. This kind of evidence is convincing to me, as it is the natural world responding in sensible, selfish gene, ways, to climate change in ways that improve their likelihood of survival.

The other aspect of the politics of climate change that is only briefly mentioned in this book is how the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Flannery points out that given the level of consensus required for this panel to write a report, the fact that the IPCC's assessment reports are pretty strongly pointing out that global warming is going to happen:

"There is new and stronger evidence that most of the warming observed over
the last 50 years is attributable to human activities.... Projections using the SRES emissions scenarios in a range of climate models result in an increase in globally averaged surface temperature of 1.4 to 5.8°C over the period 1990 to 2100. "
After reading the book, I found myself very angry at the way my local press (SMH and the Australian) had managed, using lazy journalistic methods of choosing opinions from each side for "balance", to keep me thinking for far too long that global warming wasn't as bad as the doomsayers were saying.

In this case, the media underplays, rather than sensationalises, the issue. Rather than doing its job of digging up the real facts, or at least weight of evidence to provide information to its readers, the media just finds an expert from each side to make a case every now and again and implies, without saying so, that each side is equally valid. I see through that strategy for intelligent design vs evolution - why didn't I see through it for this issue, which is far more important?

Not, of course that there is much I can do about this. But if I get the time, I will be researching solar electricity for our house. We'll need to replace our roof some time in the next few years. If we can make ourselves 70-80% self-sufficient, that would at least do something. It would also insulate us against what are likely to be sharply rising electricity prices, once governments do start taking this seriously.

Interesting further reading:

John Quiggin debates this issue with some hard core anti-global warming people
Real Climate is a commentary site on climate science by working climate scientists for the interested public and journalists.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006


After a recent bout of illness I realised a bit more why some chronically ill people don't get medical care for cost reasons. In two days I've been to the doctor twice, had an X-ray, and got 2 prescriptions - $230 in round numbers. I'll get about $120 back, but if I had any financial issues, the cashflow would be quite tricky. If I was badly off, I could have gone to emergency, I suppose, but people doing that is one of the reasons Sydney's hospital system struggles to cope through every winter.

My doctor will bulk bill for low income chronically ill people. He's very nice, too. But I would hate to have to throw myself on my doctor's mercy - open my lack of money to him just to get treated.

Of course, reading Moreena's story about how after her daughter Annika has had a million dollars this year of health care, she's faced with ruinous insurance premiums, despite having as good a health insurance policy as it is possible to get in the US, I have absolutely nothing to complain about (if you want to help, have a look at this page). Our health funding system is wonderful by comparison. But I can see how ours is creeping from being good for everything except very elective conditions (e.g. plastic surgery) to redefining elective quite a long way up the spectrum of sickness.

My illness, plus starting a new job last week (great timing!) is why I haven't posted for a while. My apologies, to anyone who reads regularly!

Sunday, February 12, 2006


We've kept a diary for our two boys since they were born. I love looking back on it and reading, but it does facilitate comparisons between the two of them. I usually find that when I think D is drastically behind C in some developmental milestone he's actually at about the same point, it's just that my memory has failed to go back longer than a year (there are 20 months between them). But occasionally, I will find that one of them has mastered something way earlier than the other (e.g. jumping off the sofa, to use an example that most people don't worry about too much).

I'm sometimes not sure that I want that information. If I'm not careful, one will become the sporty one, and one will become the mathematical one etc. etc. in my head, and it will be a short step from my head to being a family truism, bought into by all members, including the boys.

It's impossible not to compare them sometimes, but I'd like to make sure I don't put them each in a box they find it hard to get out of. And comparison seems to make that more likely.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Water policy

Today's SMH has an article comparing the water that has been saved from water restrictions in Sydney (78 billion litres pa) with the amount that would be available from a de-salination plant (45 billion litres pa), or the new miracle cure, groundwater (30 billion litres for three years).

While you can't get a new 78 billion litres pa as easily as the first 78 billion, it does show that the simple measures are often the best. If Sydney-siders were seriously encouraged with the simple things that could save water inside the house (dual flush toilets, low flow showers), I imagine there would be more savings available.

Instead, the government seems to have decided that groundwater (renewable every thousand years or so) is the solution. On current projections, it will tide us over to 2015, so that's OK then. I'm sure most current NSW ministers expect to be living in Sydney then. It's less than 10 years away! Don't they have any thought for the future? Instead, the Utilities Minister, Carl Scully, said this week he would consider easing water restrictions from level 3 to level 2 if dam levels reached 50 per cent of their capacity.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Why we need women in parliament

I was really happy to see that the RU 486 bill had passed the senate. This was the Bill to end the Health Minister's veto over the approval of RU 486 as an abortion drug. It passed 45 to 28, so I was suprised to see the commentary that it was expected to be a close vote in the House of Representatives. Then I had a closer look at the votes. The female senators voted 23-3 for the bill. The male senators voted 25 to 22 against.

I doubt that this is the only issue that a conscience vote would give such a huge gender split for. But even without an explicit conscience vote (which happens rarely - the last one was in 2002), having women in parliament changes the complexion of the issues that get airtime (as witness the recent statements by a number of senior Liberal women on the inadequacy of childcare in this country).

Unfortunately, the proportion of women in the House of Representatives is much lower than the Senate. So we're not out of the woods yet.

For my own future reference (in case I can be bothered voting below the line in the senate next time) here are the NSW senators who voted against:

Concetta Fierravanti-Wells (Liberal), Michael Forshaw (ALP), Bill Heffernan (Liberal), Steve Hutchins (ALP), Sandy Macdonald (Nationals), Ursula Stevens (ALP).

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Back to blaming the parents

There was an article in the SMH yesterday about how we are wired for aggression.

Richard Tremblay, professor of pediatrics, psychology and psychiatry at the
University of Montreal, says children are never more violent than between the
ages of two and four. But with the help of their parents most learn how to
control their natural aggression by the time they start school. "The question is
not how adolescents learn to be bad, it's how they learn not to be bad."

But by age four, despite greater exposure to potentially violent media, he said, aggression in children waned. The self-control, and social and emotional skills children learned in the preschool years were vital, he said.
"By the time children are school age, the frequency of use of physical aggression depends almost entirely on the environment they have been brought up in."

So we're back to blaming the parents for the bad behaviour of their children entirely. The expert calls for more early intervention in the form of helping parents through the toddler years. But it seems to me that this kind of research is just another example of the "society has nothing to do with it" school of childraising. An aggressive child at any age is deemed to be due to early parental shortcomings, not other factors that bear on their lives at older ages.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006


For what feels like the 50th time today, I got a letter addressed solely to me from one of the boys' activities. This one was from the music classes they both went to last term. It really annoys me. Every single one of their activities (swimming, playgroup, music etc etc) was set up by E. He did the research, called them up, filled out the forms, and took them along. Occasionally I go along if I happen to be on holidays at the time. So who do they send the letter to? Me! In the case of one of the activities, I have literally never been there, or spoken to anyone involved.

It's laziness, and if I complained, I'm sure they would think I was being petty, but it's not petty at all. It should be possible for a man to be the primary carer without having to fight for the status with every single service provider.


I've been home on holidays for the past two weeks, and trying to sort out a few things. Yesterday, I tackled books. I read a book a few years ago talking about the ideal to organise books. One of the (all very sensible) things it said was "always leave room for expansion. Put some ornaments in between books, so that you can fill them in later".

Well in our house, for probably the last 10 years, the problem is figuring out which category can now safely be put in a box in the loft or (even harder) given away to Lifeline. We had quite a good period for 2-3 years after we went from the more-money-than-sense-no-kids phase to the single-income-with-a-mortgage-and-two-kids phase, but we're back to our old book buying habits as we gradually figure out which of the things we gave up we really still like (actually that's mostly my fault - E is still much more sensible). This time, I managed (just) to get things more sorted out by putting some toys away in the playroom that had been occupying valuable bookshelf space.

I really need to get into the habit of using the library. The trouble is I'm a sucker for good book marketing, as done by good bookshops (easy categorisation, shop recommendations, latest releases highlighted etc) and libraries just aren't as good at that. I know I can learn how to use a library and find my favourite kinds of books (I got quite good at it when I lived across the road from one 15 years ago), but it takes more effort than I can be bothered with these days.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Book Review - Kidding Ourselves: Breadwinning, Babies, and Bargaining Power

This week's book review is Kidding Ourselves: Breadwinning, Babies, and Bargaining Power, by Rhona Mahoney. I first read about this book on Half Changed World, and then it was one of the main sources sited by Linda Hirshman in her recent controversial piece on the failures of feminism, and lastly Bitch PhD reviewed it in her blog.

Well thanks to Half Changed World, I put it in my Christmas holiday reading list, and loved it. Unlike other feminist books I've read lately it's chock full of actual research and actual statistics, rather than anecdotes (although she's got a few of those too).

It's a comprehensive analysis of the root causes of why women tend to end up doing most of the housework and childcare in most couples, even two-income ones, even if they started out with fairly equal expectations pre-kids.

The bulk of her book boils down to the argument that at the point when most couples have children, the dice is loaded against the woman in the couple when it comes to sharing responsibility for the child, and usually by extension, the housework.

This is because fundamentally few women really, deep down expect to be the breadwinner, and don't make choices that will help them be in that position. They will tend to:
  • choose courses at school that they like, rather than ones that are economically good ones (e.g. mathematics and science)
  • marry up - even if they have done a hard course, they will marry someone a bit older. That person will then be almost certainly making more money than them (by virtue of being in the labour force longer) at the point when they have children
  • within their career, choose options that they know will later be easier to do part-time (e.g. many female doctors becoming GPs)

So once you get to the point of children, you have a couple where the man earns a bit more than the woman, and the woman is more likely to have the kind of job that she can fit around children. So in a couple like that, the woman becomes the primary carer by default, because it makes sense.

The book is framed in economic language, and has a great chapter on negotiation, in particular, talking about the best alternative to a negotiated agreement (BATNA). Basically, this is what happens to each person in a negotiation if they fail to agree. For example, if nobody can agree who will clean the bathroom, one person's BATNA might be a dirty bathroom, where another's might be that they clean it.

Once a baby is born, a woman's BATNA suddenly becomes an awful lot worse than it was before. Suddenly they are attached to the child (on average a woman is more attached to a baby at birth than men - biology is good for something) and their earning power is reduced. And many decisions get made in that context, such as the amount of external childcare needed, and who is going to take primary responsibility for the baby outside childcare, that once set in stone are hard to undo.

So this book is very clear on why we are still where we are after quite a long period (say 30 years?) when overt discrimination against women was not allowed.

It is less strong on what can be done to fix it. Mahoney's preferred solution is to move to a situation where women and men are equally likely to be primary carers. To get to that point, she thinks that it has to start at the top (as it is easier to live a good life on one income at high incomes, and men are less likely to make the necessary sacrifices at the beginning than women) and gradually filter through generational change. Things that will need to change include women making educational and career choices that acknowledge the chance of being a primary breadwinner, and high earning women respecting men who would like to look after children.

My preferred solution (in my own family at least) would be high status part-time jobs, so that a couple can live on one income that is earned by two people, but that seems even more pie-in-the-sky than Mahoney's solution (even though it is, ironically, how Mahoney's family works). The world of work doesn't have to change as much in Mahoney's solution (although it does some - fewer female primary breadwinners are willing to work 80 hour weeks than male primary breadwinners in my experience).

As I was reading the book, I was thinking smugly at various points "well I didn't make that mistake" - for which I think I can thank my parents, and innate competitiveness, mostly. But I realised at the end that I had never, until I got there, internalised the possibility that I could be the primary breadwinner for a family. I had always assumed I would support myself, but there is a whole extra level of stress that comes with supporting a family that most men don't even notice, because they've always assumed that they will be doing it.

If I, who has been very career focused from an early age, can find being a breadwinner stressful, there's a fair bit of culture change needed before we get to Mahoney's preferred world. But I'd really like to see it happen.

The dog ate my post

Honest, I did have a post between the 2nd and 5th of February. But blogger ate it. It was about John Howard and whether he knew about the wheat farmers, so if I was a conspiracy theorist, I would be convinced it was his fault. But blogger has been having problems, so that's probably what it was.

The content was pretty much the same as this from the AFR (quoted in Crikey today):

"In contrast, the kickbacks from AWB did exist, as demonstrated in the current enquiry by Terry Cole QC. And what has been the reaction of the government? Has anyone been sacked in the intelligence agencies or DFAT? The answer is no. Instead, the Office of National Assessments has been rewarded with a doubling of its staff under a director general who publicly insisted it did a good job on WMD.

Obviously, no heads should roll in DFAT until the Cole enquiry has to opportunity to establish who knew what and when. To date, Cole has focused on the “culture” of corruption within AWB. But what about the level of gullibility, or the extent of any cover-up, within DFAT? Alternatively, have ministers quietly let it be known there are some things they don't want to be told about?"

It's hard to believe that this government is as innocent and in the dark as it says it is, when it hasn't done anything about it now that it knows the awful truth.

Private education

There was an opinion piece on private education in the SMH in Spectrum on the weekend, which I can't find online. Unfortunately, I've thrown out the paper, too, so you'll just have to cope with my rantings informed by unreliable memory.

The author starts by saying that private education in this country is now unquestionably superior to state education. She doesn't believe that that was the case in her generation. She proves this with a few anecdotes about her children's and her own education (I hate anecdote formed analysis - here is a link that would have made the point much more strongly - in NSW over four years 93- 96, the average HSC mark for government schools in english, maths and science was 5% lower than the average mark for the state as a whole*).

She then goes on to blame a few things for the gap. Her main culprits are

  • feminism (implied, not stated) - now that women can access lots of good careers, and not just teaching or nursing, all those women who would have become teachers 30 years ago have gone off for better paying careers
  • the state sector's overwhelming beauracracy that makes it impossible to reward good teachers (examples given were of an acting deputy principal who couldn't be confirmed even though the school wanted him because it wasn't yet his turn, and a very good maths teacher who got made head of her private school department while still in her 20s).

I think she has a point about careers for women (although I now know quite a few women with school age children who have decided to retrain as teachers as the career has a comparatively good work life balance), which would suggest that the answer is to pay teachers more to make it a more prestigious career for women and men. Of course there are so many teachers that this would be very expensive and difficult politically.

To me a major issue is the number of children who have been taken out of the state system. There is quite a lot more being spent on education, but it's being spent privately rather than publicly. Certainly the people who have taken their children out of the state system want to have more control over how their money is spent, but this means that politically, those who care most about the education system and their childrens' education and have the political and financial resources to do something about it are, on average, in the private system. So the people who are left are the ones who don't campaign enough to get the state school system fixed up well enough to give parents more say in how their educational dollar is spent.

The Economist had an article a week or so again arguing, in effect, that it was snobbish to imply that only middle class cared about their children, and so school vouchers would work for everyone because everyone would take the time to choose the best school for their child. This ignores the very real issue that not every parent has the english language skills (particularly here in NSW), let alone the bureaucracy-navigation skills to find the right school for their child. I'm sure every parent cares about the education their child is getting, but many don't have the sense of entitlement or skills to try and achieve the best education possible.

It does seem very big-brother-esque to force people to stay in the state system to keep their political clout. But Australia does seem to be one of the few countries which funds the private system to such a large extent. Most other countries, if you want a private education, you have to fund it all yourself. I would rather that we tried to capture the dollars that people are spending privately and use them to improve the whole system.

For myself though, just like many of my well-off, state educated peers, I will not sacrifice my children to ideology. I would much rather use the state system if possible, but if it becomes clear that my children would get a better education privately, I would move them privately in a heartbeat. I can afford it, and I wouldn't hesitate.

* Yes, I know that this analysis ignores the possibility that it's only the kids who would have done well anyway go to private schools, and the state schools are left with the ones that are never going to succeed in the first place. Nevertheless, it's better than an anecdote about one child, and 5% is a very big gap, particularly when it's a gap against the whole state (including state school), so the actual gap with private schools is more like 10%.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Educational equality

There's been a bit of a storm recently about how boys are falling behind at school. So, being the mathematical type, I went on a search for some statistics about how girls are doing at maths these days. After all, if boys are falling behind, girls must be doing better at everything right?

I had a look at the NSW records for who was doing 4 unit (the highest level) maths these days. In 2004, it was 60% boys, and 40% girls. In 1991 (the earliest I could find statistics) it was 65% boys, 35% girls.

For the highest level of english, in 2004 it was 66% girls, 34% boys. In 1991 it was 73% girls, 27% boys.

So for both english and maths, the proportion of each gender at the highest level has become more even (albeit not far enough, in my view). Actually, I was quite astounded by the maths proportions, as I'm sure it was a lot less even in my day (mid 80s).

What I have read about this so far (and I'm interested now, so I'll come back to it) suggests that broadly what has happened in NSW is that high socio-economic girls have started to reach equality with the equivalent boys, because the education for the high achievers has got better at understanding the individual. And you can see that in the statistics above (not that high achievement always corresponds with high socio-economic, but there is a correlation). And low socio-economic boys have slipped behind. So if there is a problem, it tends to be at the bottom end, with those who have low socio-economic status to start with.

Which tends to mean that all those hand-wringing commentators are worrying about the wrong issue. The boys whose educational impoverishment they are bewailing are at the high socio-economic end of the spectrum, most of the time.

I don't have a conclusion yet, but I'm sure I will be paying a lot more attention to it, as the mother of two boys.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Naked self interest

The SMH a couple of days ago had a story about Australian Business Limited's suggestion of how the NSW state government should cut spending, improve efficiency and cut business taxes. OK so far, so good. I tend to agree that the NSW state government hasn't exactly spent its money wisely in the last few years - just look at our train system, and our education results. So I wouldn't be surprised to see a business proposal to spend the money more wisely on (say) infrastructure or better training for apprentices, that kind of thing.

But this proposal appears to be naked self interest. They've gone through the NSW budget with a fine tooth comb for cuts to things that won't hurt businesses - "under the plan, students would pay an $80-a-year levy for school travel passes, Sydney Water pensioner concessions would be halved and public housing rents would rise. The group wants the $50-per-child back-to-school allowance abolished along with the program to reduce class sizes for children in kindergarten, year 1 and year 2, pending an evaluation... It also proposes cutting disability services, TAFE spending and road maintenance, and abolishing the NSW Film and Television Office, the Privacy Commission and the Office of Women."

And what do they propose to spend the money on? Snuck into the end of the story is "It also proposes cutting payroll tax in NSW from 6 per cent to 5.25 per cent by 2008-09 ($1.5 billion)."

To me, this would have a lot more credibility if it spend valuable analytical time on the things the state government does badly that create headaches for business. My examples would be things like improving the TAFE system to help employers train employees, improving the public transport system so that employers wouldn't have employees being late for meetings all the time (and could actually use trains instead of taxis to get to meetings), facilitating the provision of childcare places where they are needed instead of in areas that tend to have lots of stay at home parents...

But all these are complex, require complex solutions, and might even require funding in the short term. But instead the ABL proposes cutting TAFE spending and road maintenance, the kinds of things that are an investment in our future and would improve the balance sheet of the state. Much easier just to ask for a reduction in payroll tax, and continue to run down the infrastructure of NSW so that future generations of taxpayers will have to pay for our lack of maintenance.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Gender and children

Jody at Raising WEG has a fascinating post about boys and the toys they choose. She has much better comparison points than me (she has triplets - two girls and a boy), and has posted about her boy's toy choices, and his peers' reaction to them. One thing she said which I found interesting was that "The little girls are far more flexible than the little boys, there's just no question about that one." In her examples, it certainly seems true. And yet...

My boys, particularly C, the four year old, seem more able to exercise their femininity than their female friends. C's four year old girl friends tend to play princesses and fairies, and like to draw, and dance and sing. C, while he loves trains, and rockets, also loves the colour pink and dressing up in crowns and using a magic wand. Of course, I know C better than I know his friends. He tends to do the feminine things in the comfort of his own home rather than with his friends (although we have a great picture of him playing dress-ups at playgroup). Maybe the others (most of whom have older brothers) secretly play with trains and rockets at home.

Before I had kids, I was pretty convinced by my feminist reading that gender was pretty much 95% nurture. I saw a great example of that on a BBC program about childhood development where they gave a baby dressed alternately in pink and blue to people to play with. The pink baby got cuddled, and told how beautiful "she" was. The blue baby got stood up and told how strong "his" legs were. It was a striking difference.

And I could go on and on about behaviours that are described one way or the other depending on whether boys or girls do them. My favourite example is when two kids say to another one "you're not our friend". When girls do it, it's sad how early girls these days start bitchy behaviour. When boys do it, it's just an individual example of bad manners, and treated accordingly.

But there are more subtle differences that I find hard to explain with nurture. I've certainly increased my proportion that comes from nature rather than nuture after parenthood and watching them develop (I'm not sure how far, though...) My boys do seem to need to run around more than their girl friends. There does seem to be a drift to only have friends of the same gender. And is the fact that both my boys only role play with trains as characters, rather than dolls or teddy bears, just because they are interested in trains, or because they have never been interested in nurturing behaviour?