The Zeitgest page comprises a selection of  interesting writing, videos and images, about tertiary education and other things.

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MH17, Gaza and the value of human life

27 July 2014


“In Gaza there is nowhere to run, nowhere to hide… As usual in Gaza, it’s the children and civilians who suffer most.”  (John Lyons, The Australian).  Over a thousand civilians have died and  thousands injured – a great many of them children.   In this article, Waleed Ali reflects on the universal value that should attach to human life.






The face of grief

24 July 2014


Children in Eynesbury, Victoria, attend a memorial service for a local family of five killed in the destruction of MH17 .

MH17 memorial


29 April 2014

Spam turns 20


We recently passed an Internet milestone: 12 April marked the 20-year anniversary of commercialised spam when two US immigration lawyers broadcast unsolicited messages promising Green Cards.



But even with two decades and trillions of unsolicited messages behind us, it seems there is still no end in sight. According to analysts, spam makes up nearly 70% of all email sent. That means, roughly speaking, that if you were to receive 100 emails today, there’s a good chance that 70 of them would be unwanted solicitations. Fortunately most of them are blocked by Internet Service Providers and firewalls.


Uncivil discourse

Keating unplugged

8 November 2013 | On Tuesday 12 November, the ABC will broadcast the first of four one hour interviews of Paul Keating by Kerry O’Brien. It ought to be great oral history. This piece from The Scan archive explores Keating’s often excoriating use of language. He’ll come across as a “political brawler” and, as Michelle Grattan once described him, a “bit mad” (“Look Ma, downhill, one ski, no poles”) – as undoubtedly he was – but the “real” Keating is also quite reserved, very polite (in the right circumstances) and “cultured”, down to his rather magnificent copperplate handwriting (rendered, of course, with a Mont Blanc fountain pen).

pjk-redfernOne of the great disher outers in Australian politics was Paul John Keating, ALP Prime Minister of Australia from 1991 to 1996 and before that the Treasurer (Finance Minister) from 1983. “PJ”, as he was affectionately known to his admirers (of which I am one), was truly a masterful exponent of the pithy put down, the scathing metaphorical thrust, the three or four word depiction of his point (it did occasionally bring him undone as with “the recession we had to have”).

A favourite illustration of Keating’s use of “crude, offensive language” is that he once told the Parliament that those opposite (the Opposition, in Australian parliamentary terms) were “like dogs returning to their own vomit” because they had no new insights or ideas into or about public policy.

Except Keating was quoting from the Bible – Proverbs 26:11

Like a dog that returns to his vomit is a fool who repeats his folly.

Apposite? Probably……



Can we accept imperfection and still strive for a better society?

In a response to Alecia Simmonds (Why Australia hates thinkers), John Armstrong (University of Melbourne) suggests that in a manifestly imperfect world we might do worse than instutitionalise Jamie Oliver’s approach to life, working from sympathy rather than disdain.

Jamie3We can readily be forgiven for thinking that these are the worst of times: our collective institutions seem feeble in the face of our needs and hopes.

The Christian churches – which were once powerful and noble in intent, look deranged and broken. Government seems preoccupied by short term advantage and factional squabbling; the capitalist economy is (in many parts of the world) in disrepair; the media is fragmenting, in financial trouble and driven downmarket.

These troubles share an underlying logic. It is easy to imagine things going better, yet all plans to make them better run into the same obstacle.

Starting from low expectations – rather than from ideal hopes – changes the picture. The modern world, with all its defects, is a tremendous achievement. Australia is astonishingly decent and sane, in comparison with what might have been.


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quote marks Jamie Oliver shows how to combine friendship with our ordinary selves and the longing for noble ideals. He wants people to be healthy, eat organic produce, work hard, care about quality. But he does not hate, or look down on, people who are not like this.


28 May 2013

A slogan can encapsulate some real meaning or it can be utterly meaningless. As The Age’s production editor Michael Coulter reflects in this recent opinion piece, sometimes – most of the time, you’d think – the impossible is just that: impossible. “Just do it”? Do what and why – what of the consequences of being self-indulgent or thoughtless? And Google’s three word code of conduct – “Don’t be evil” – means exactly what? Not avoiding taxes, for starters, argues British Labour leader Ed Milliband. Whatever it was in its start-up days, Google is now very much big business and moral compromise is just the cost of doing big business.

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If it sounds good, think it: how attitude lost the fight to platitude

Jana PitmanAbout the time of the Athens Olympics, there was an ad campaign that featured a steely-looking Jana Pittman and the slogan ”Impossible is nothing”. Unfortunately for all, not least Pittman herself, the champion hurdler had wrecked her knee and was struggling to make the starting line. Impossible, it turned out, wasn’t nothing. It was a medical reality.

As well as being a cruel irony, it seemed a perfect illustration of why we should be suspicious of any philosophy that can be expressed in 100 words or less: they invariably sound great, but more often than not fail the reality test. It’s an impression borne out by the quote on which the campaign was based: ”Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It’s an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It’s a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing.”

That was said by Muhammad Ali, a man who beat people up better than almost anyone in history. He was also inspiring, principled and astonishingly articulate, until he succumbed to his own set of impossibilities.

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edXpress is the subscription based monthly e-bulletin from the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) with news and views on what’s happening on campuses around the country.

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7 February 2013

BatmanThe economics of Batman

Mike Pottenger, an economics lecturer at The University of Melbourne, has performed a study on the economics of Batman and found that he costs approximately $900,000 US per year. He believes that for the same sum the city could afford approximately 30 Spidermen. Pottenger also believes that removing Victoria Police and replacing them with Batman would not be a viable alternative for solving real-world crime.



Creativity under “short-sighted assault” in Australia

20 November 2012


“Why as a society we think it’s legitimate to spend huge amounts on our sportsmen and women, but seemingly don’t think the relative pittance we spend on developing a potential Cate Blanchett or Geoffrey Rush is as justifiable, has to say something about our national and political priorities.”


Playwright David Williamson says that creativity, the single most important driver of both economic growth and a rich and interesting life, is under short-sighted assault by both sides of the political divide in Australia.

Williamson, the creator of more than 40 plays, studied Mechanical Engineering, which led to a lectureship in engineering at Swinburne Institute (now University) of Technology in Melbourne.

“I once heard myself being used as an argument against funding for creative training. This kind of attitude stems from a belief that some of us are born with great creative talent that will flower under any circumstances, that the creative act is spontaneous, a divine spark that has to be expressed, and will appear fully formed as an inevitable consequence of inborn genius,” he said.

“Looking at the history of creative writing, nothing could be further from the truth. Some people may be more innately gifted than others but without a testing ground and lots and lots of feedback and mentoring, that talent will find it hard to develop.

The foreshadowed royal commission into the sexual abuse of children in various forms of institutional care will be with us for a number of years and, from what we already know, it’s going to lead to truly dreadful revelations. Waleed Ali, a Melbourne academic, broadcaster and writer, says it’s important at the outset to not be diverted by marginal issues.

Choir of dissent off-key on the sanctity of confession

19 November 2012

You can’t legislate away people’s religious convictions, however much you might want to. And you can’t ignore them simply because you hold them in contempt. What matters here is the stuff outside the confessional box: the lame responses to abuse that seem calculated to protect paedophile priests rather than their victims; the legal manoeuvring to avoid paying compensation; the failure of police to follow through on investigations. These are the things we should be pursuing relentlessly. This should be the focus of our desire for justice. Let’s not dilute that by getting lost on some doctrinal excursion it’s clear we don’t understand.



It was time

Most readers of The Scan – and indeed the parents of some readers – are too young to remember the balmy evening of 13 November 1972 when Gough Whitlam declared at the Blacktown Civic Centre, before 1500 supporters and a television audience of millions:

Men and Women of Australia!

The decision we will make for our country on 2 December is a choice between the past and the future, between the habits and fears of the past, and the demands and opportunities of the future.

There are moments in history when the whole fate and future of nations can be decided by a single decision. For Australia, this is such a time.

It’s time for a new team, a new program, a new drive for equality of opportunities: it’s time to create new opportunities for Australians, time for a new vision of what we can achieve in this generation for our nation and the region in which we live. It’s time for a new government – a Labor Government.


Inside the secret world of the data crunchers

9 November 2012

They know where you live, they know what you think: Obama’s winning edge as data replaces instinct

From the very beginning, Obama campaign manager Jim Messina promised a totally different, metric-driven kind of campaign in which politics was the goal but political instincts might not be the means. “We are going to measure every single thing in this campaign,” he said after taking the job. He hired an analytics department five times as large as that of the 2008 operation, with an official “chief scientist” for the Chicago headquarters named Rayid Ghani, who in a previous life crunched huge data sets to, among other things, maximize the efficiency of supermarket sales promotions.

Around the office, data-mining experiments were given mysterious code names such as Narwhal and Dreamcatcher. The team even worked at a remove from the rest of the campaign staff, setting up shop in a windowless room at the north end of the vast headquarters office. The “scientists” created regular briefings on their work for the President and top aides in the White House’s Roosevelt Room, but public details were in short supply as the campaign guarded what it believed to be its biggest institutional advantage over Mitt Romney’s campaign: its data.


 No, you’re not necessarily entitled to an opinion…

The Conversation    |     8 October 2012

An article by Deakin University philosopher Patrick Stokes, published by The Conversation on 5 October, has been read by more than 124,000 people globally, making it The Conversation’s most read item.  Simply, he suggested not all opinions are created equal:  that evidence matters and some of the shrill views we encounter in public debate aren’t worth a jot – and should not be given credence – as long as they remain unsupported by facts or convincing argument.   He tells his students:

I’m sure you’ve heard the expression ‘everyone is entitled to their opinion.’  Perhaps you’ve even said it yourself, maybe to head off an argument or bring one to a close. Well, as soon as you walk into this [lecture theatre], it’s no longer true.  You are not entitled to your opinion.  You are only entitled to what you can argue for.

[Continue reading]….


Uncivil discourse

5 October 2012

The increasingly rancorous nature of public discourse in Australia has been brought into sharp focus with comments by Sydney shock jock Alan Jones concerning Prime Minister Julia Gillard’ s recently deceased father.

Apologists for Jones have been pointing out all week that “his comments were offensive but I support his right to say them”.  Jones can apparently say something that by most standards is offensive and that’s “free speech”.  But to criticise him is an “attack on free speech”.  How do you figure that out?

Part of the argument is that Australian Labor Party luminaries are pretty good at dishing it out too.  One of the great disher outers was, of course, Paul Keating, Prime Minister from 1991 to 1996.  Keating was truly a masterful exponent of the pithy put down, the scathing metaphorical thrust,  the five or six word depiction of his point (it did occasionally bring him undone as with “the recession we had to have”).

[Continue reading]….


Toilet paper: a history

23 August 2012

Toilet paper has a history. Of course it has a history. But who thinks of it? We take most of our technology for granted. Of course, we pay a lot of attention to certain technologies, usually the newest and most innovative. But we don’t think too much about those other technologies that have become more or less part of our natural environment, the refrigerator for example. But these very mundane technologies have, in fact, carried rather significant consequences when you think about it. The refrigerator significantly reordered our relationship to food and dining, and consequently impacted household labor, the rhythms of daily life, and nutrition and health. These are no small things, but for all of this the refrigerator is hardly thought of as a revolutionary technology. Instead, the arrangements it facilitated are now more or less taken for granted.


The university of the future

4 July 2012

In what seems remarkably consistent with Deakin University’s wholehearted embrace of “learning in the cloud”, Microsoft founder and education philanthropist Bill Gates talks about his vision for how universities can be transformed through technology.  His approach is not simply to drop in tablet computers or other gadgets and hope change happens—a model he said has a “really horrible track record.” Instead, The Bill and Melissa Gates Foundation awards grants to reformers working to fix “inefficiencies” in the current model of higher education that keep many students from graduating on time, or at all.  [Continue Reading]…


Wicked problems

29 June 2012

In a recent article in New Matilda, Ben Eltham suggested asylum seeker policy is an example of what is called a wicked problem .  Wicked problems, writes Eltham,

…are complex and difficult to define.  They often have multiple causes but no single solution or quick fix. They are unstable, shifting and morphing in ways that frustrate a coherent response, and are social by nature, involving many different individuals and agencies, across organisational boundaries, national borders and social divides.

An article in The Conversation (16 May 2012) by Danielle Logue (UTS) explores the concept in greater detail:


High stakes: can publicly funded journalism fill the gap?

23 June 2012

The continuing contraction of the news gathering resources of the print media in Australia has led to some focus on the role of publicly funded broadcasters as bastions of “quality journalism”.  Recent initiatives of the ABC in establishing two new services – 24 Hour TV News and The Drum – have drawn criticism that these services further undermine the viability of independent, privately held news organisations, such as News Ltd and Fairfax Media.  The Drum attracts particular attention because it is unabashedly a news commentary and opinion site (but equally that could be said of TV shows such as Insiders and, quite often, the venerable 4 Corners – that is, news commentary is not a particularly novel activity on the ABC).

In this article in The Conversation, University of Melbourne v-c Glyn Davis acknowledges that “it is not easy to reconcile competition and pluralism with the traditional organisational form of public broadcasting”’ but concludes:

Only the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) and the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) retain the resources and mandate to pursue independent quality journalism on a national scale.  It is essential they do so.


Good at gardening, hopeless at engineering

Restless innovation saved Australian schools from their structural problems, writes Dean Ashenden in Inside Story. But now the strains are well and truly showing.

If recent and widely publicised comparisons of Australian schools’ performance are the canary, then something is seriously wrong deep in the mine.  It is not just that the gaps – between the performance of different kinds of Australian schools and students, or between them and their counterparts in other Western countries, or between our schools and schools not too far to the north – are all growing.  The real frightener is that our schools were probably doing better a decade ago. Our best hope is that we are going nowhere. It is likely that we’re going backwards.


Computer programming for all: a new kind of literacy?

ReadWriteWeb  13 June 2012

Everyone ought to be able to read and write; few people within the global mainstream would argue with that statement.  But should everyone be able to program computers?  The question is becoming critically important as digital technology plays an ever more central role in daily life.  The movement to make code literacy a basic tenet of education is gaining momentum, and its success or failure will have a huge impact on our society.  Not everyone in the programming community agrees.    StackOverflow.com creator Jeff Atwood argues that verbal literacy is a different kind of skill, and more fundamental:

Literacy is the new literacy.  As much as I love code, if my fellow programmers could communicate with other human beings one-tenth as well as they communicate with their interpreters and compilers, they’d have vastly more successful careers.


THE 100 under 50: from zero to hero

Times Higher Education   31 May 2012

Achieving world-class status is a marathon, not a sprint, but notes Jamil Salmi, rapid progress can be made with the right regimen – particularly when starting from scratch.

About eighty-five institutions in the Western world established by 1520 still exist in recognisable forms, with similar functions and with unbroken histories, including the Catholic Church, the parliaments of the Isle of Man, of Ireland and of Great Britain, several Swiss cantons, and seventy universities.  Kings that rule, feudal lords with vassals, and guilds with monopolies are all gone. These seventy universities, however, are still in the same locations with some of the same buildings, with professors and students doing much the same things, and with governance carried on in much the same ways


Big Society | How the UK Government is Dismantling the State and What it Means for Australia

Centre for Policy Development     |     30 May 2012

“Bush declared war on terror, Blair declared war on crime and it’s like Cameron has declared war on the public sector.”

It’s just over two years since David Cameron was elected as British Prime Minister.  Since his election, Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ policies that have ‘redefined the role of the state’.  By commissioning ‘any willing provider’, the UK Government has contracted corporations to play a dominant role in delivering a wide range of services that were previously managed by public servants or community groups. Other ‘Big Society’ changes have diminished the capacity of the public and community sectors.

InAustralia, ‘Big Society’ ideas are generating interest and support amongst conservative think tanks and politicians. A report by the Centre for Policy Development presents a comprehensive analysis of theUK’s ‘Big Society’ policies and programs and examines their potential impact if adopted and implemented inAustralia.

We hope the report contributes to an informed debate about the merits of ‘small government’ ideologies and policies that often receive less than critical media and political commentary.


So, more than 50% of us want all immigration stopped

The Vine    |   22 May 2012

I know it’s a poll for the Daily Telegraph, so probably has all the objective veracity of Hitler’s memoirs, but there remains something deeply, profoundly disturbing about the fact that 51% of us were willing to tell a researcher that we wanted all immigration to come to a halt.  Not some.  Not the dirty stinking reffos.  All immigration. 51%.  That’s over half. A majority.  I may have over-explained that, but I’m really keen to drive this point home.

Right now, 52% of us were either born overseas or have a parent who was. …………………..

Right now, 52% of us have foreign origins.  More if you go back over a generation.  Next best thing to 100% if you go back seven.  Together, we have reaped every wondrous thing this country has to offer.  Overall, this small, insignificant, island-bound cluster of 23 million souls has a better life than the other 7 billion that we share the Earth with.  And we’re here because of immigration.  We owe much of what we have to the people that have come here over the years, who have chosen to try and build a life for themselves and their families on Australian soil – and to the way in which they’ve been welcomed by those already in residence. We are an immigrant nation.  It would be nice if we were a little more willing to acknowledge it.


Carbon dioxide ended last Ice Age: study

5 April 2012

According to a study of ice core data from around the world, reported in the current edition of the journal Nature, carbon dioxide was the big driver that ended the last Ice Age.  The study refutes theories by sceptics that natural changes in Earth’s orbit, bringing the planet closer to the Sun, caused the warming, not a rise in CO2.  According to lead author Jeremy Shakun of Harvard University:

CO2 was a big part of bringing the world out of the last Ice Age and it took about 10,000 years to do it. Now CO2 levels are rising again, but this time an equivalent increase in CO2 has occurred in only about 200 years, and there are clear signs that the planet is already beginning to respond.


Insight into how pharma manipulates research evidence:  case study

5 April 2012

The Conversation has been running a series on Transparency & Medicine examining issues from ethics to the evidence in evidence-based medicine, the influence of medical journals to the role of Big Pharma in our present and future health.  Here Jon Jureidini (Professor of Psychiatry – University of Adelaide) explains what he encountered while examining internal documents as an expert witness in a case against a pharmaceutical company.


The getting of wisdom

There is nothing wrong with vocational training; a fulfilling career is an important part of a good life…..Yes, [universities] must prepare graduates for what they will do in life but [they] also have a duty to help them to at least think about what kind of people they want to be. Indeed, these two educational goals—doing and being—are actually inextricable.


Steven Schwartz is the Vice – Chancellor of Macquarie University.


An idea whose time has come?

Mainstream economics is beginning to recognise the opportunities alongside the climate threat

Are we witnessing the birth of a new Big Idea?   Fat reports from the staid and determinedly respectable Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the economic think tank of the developed countries, don’t generally merit that label.  But the publication in May of Towards Green Growth, the OECD’s comprehensive study of how environmental policy can be good for the economy, may mark a significant moment.


Michael Jacobs has been a visiting researcher at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment (London School of Economics) since July 2010, and was appointed Visiting Professor in January 2011.   He is a consultant on climate change and energy policy, and a writer, academic and commentator on social democratic thought and British politics.


A university of the world: Harvard turns 375

Harvard will turn 375 this fall, ready to celebrate its vibrant present and promising future. But every anniversary is predicated on a past — often a faraway time that in retrospect seems humble.  The Harvard of the dim past was small, insular, and guardedly parochial. Now it is a university of the world. Some historians say Harvard finally assumed that role in 1936, when it decided to celebrate its 300th birthday on a bright stage presented to the world. Everything about the 1936 celebration was grand and represented “a seismic shift in institutional weight and presence,” wrote authors Morton and Phyllis Keller in “Making Harvard Modern” (2001).


Public intellectuals a real community benefit

Every now and then, we are reminded that intellectual power is capable of serving public purposes and can rightly assume partisan forms. Think of the impact Milton Friedman had on Ronald Reagan, or the impact Friedrich von Hayek had on Margaret Thatcher.  Intellectuals implicated in the affairs of state? It will always be thus. We gain little from precious lamentations about scholars losing their political virginity.  Politics, after all, is nothing if not a contest of ideas. It would be enriched if more men and women of ideas proved capable of entering the public conversation.”


Dr Tim Soutphommasane is a political theorist/philosopher and commentator.  A research fellow at Monash University’s National Centre for Australian Studies, a senior project leader at the Per Capita think tank, and a fellow of the St James Ethics Centre, Tim writes the “Ask the Philosopher” column in The Weekend Australian, which offers a philosophical take on politics, society and public policy.


University of the future is here

3 June 2011

The way Bill Gates sees it, the university as we know it is an endangered species. Five years from now – on the web for free – you’ll be able to find the best lectures in the world, the Microsoft billionaire said last year.   And in Gates’s opinion this constantly expanding digital smorgasbord of educational choices will be better than any single university in the world. Another giant of the global digital communications revolution has a different spin.   In his blog, Sergey Brin, the 36-year-old co-founder of Google, proposes bypassing centuries of scientific epistemology to close the time lag between research breakthroughs in academe and their real-world application. Brin’s particular interest is in accelerating research into Parkinson’s disease: he carries the high-risk LRRK2 genetic mutation. His model, extensively detailed in Wired magazine last year, proposes mining huge data sets using vast amounts of computer power and analytical algorithms, in much the same way Google can build detailed consumer trends by extracting patterns from mass online behaviour.   Gates and Brin enjoy a unique perspective when it comes to understanding the impacts – and exceptional opportunities – of new technology: they are steering change from the top. Whether this translates into a keen insight into the future of higher education is a more contentious question.


Louise Williams is a partner with Sydney consultancy Write Media and is a writer, editor and consultant in the education sector.  This article originally appeared in Uniken, the flagship publication of the University of NSW.