Monday, March 23, 2015

The economic problem

Back when I was a kid in the 1960's and 70's, we were a lot poorer than we are now.  Houses were smaller.  Most families had one car.  Hardly anyone had air conditioning.  We used to get take away food once a week, and rarely ate in restaurants.  An overseas holiday was a rarity, as were swimming pools.  Most of my clothes were second hand.  And we were a middle class family.

And yet, we are now poorer.  My father retired in in 1985, in his mid fifties, from his job as a school social worker.  Thirty years later he is still paid a pension from that job.  If he was 55 today, and had he had the same career path, there is no way he could retire.

Many more jobs are now part time or casual.  This means that we don't have the security that we once did.  And home ownership rates are falling, which means that housing is less secure for a lot of people.  This uncertainty can be very stressful, taking its toll on relationships and mental health.

So while we are richer, we are poorer.

And as we look to the future, even as we have an army of unemployed, we are told that there aren't enough workers to look after the elderly.  Joe Hockey tries to implement a budget that would make the poorest even poorer.

So given we are so much richer, why are we poorer?

The answer, I think, is international competition.  In Australia, we are aware that we need to be internationally competitive.  Many formerly Australian jobs have moved offshore, to China, India, Bangladesh, The Philippines etc. A computer programmer I know doesn't bother to ask for pay rises, as he knows that could send his job to India.  The Australian government feels under pressure to lower company taxes, for fear large companies will shut their Australian operations.

Don't get me wrong, I love competition.  As a consumer, competing companies give me cheaper prices and better products.  And I love this.  But on the other hand, it means we can't afford to look after pensioners, sick people, the unemployed etc.

So what do we do?  Do we just throw up our hands and say that its all too hard?

I don't think so.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Well behaved students - again!

My ongoing search for why todays uni students are better behaved than their parents were at uni.

Thinking about it, there may be an epigenetic reason.  Their parents were born from the mid 1950's on.  If you had to choose a time to grow up, this was a good one.  It was a good time to be a parent too.  So the parents of todays students didn't have much stress growing up.  And their parents were not subject to too much stress around the time of procreation.

Contrast this with the previous generation.  They lived through the great depression and the second world war.

So just maybe, we were all ratbags at uni because of the stresses our parents experienced as children.

Thus far, I favour lead exposure.  But I don't know much about epigenetics.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

University education policy in Australia

The rich and ambitious need to see some reward for their ambition.  Fast cars, skiing holidays in exotic places, 5 star hotels, fantastic clothes, mansions...

But there are some things that should be more equal.  Like education.

In Australia we have an interesting system.  In primary school, most kids go to government schools.  Catholics go to Catholic schools, and some rich kids go to expensive private schools.  In high school a lot more kids go to expensive private schools and Catholic schools (even non-Catholics try to get in), and fewer kids go to government schools.

Then in the old days (like when I was young), all the very smart kids left high school and went to the local university.  There only was one, and that was where you went.  But not that many people followed this path.  In my day a fair few students finished school the day they turned 15.  Most finished at the end of their 12th year of education, and only a few went on to uni.

When I got to uni, Gough, the great man, had made university education free.

In the intervening years university fees have been re-introduced, a move largely made necessary because of a huge increase in the number of kids going on to uni from school.  However the fees at uni are the same whether you attend Melbourne uni or Edith Cowan uni.  Despite the fact that a Melbourne uni degree is worth a lot more than an Edith Cowan uni degree.

Our current government wants this changed.  Melbourne uni and its ilk would charge a shitload for their degrees, while Edith Cowan would charge a lot less.

To understand where our government is coming from you need to look at high schools.  Many parents make significant sacrifices to send their kids to a private school.  The teachers will be better, the facilities will be better, and perhaps most importantly, the kids will make contacts that will be very useful later in life.  In the old days, this school network could kick in immediately you finished school and entered the workforce.  But these days you are likely not to need it until you've done between 3 and 7 years at uni.

And the families who send their kids to private school realise that the educational dichotomy between private and government schools needs to be extended to universities.  So that their kids will be mixing with "the right sort of people" at university, and getting superior degrees.  And since these people have money, the proper way to discriminate is not on academic ability, but on the ability to pay.  Which is why our wonderful government want universities to set their own fees.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Interesting data...

I recently started losing weight.  And I've been tired.  So I worried about the symptom "unexpected weight loss", which so often seems part of serious illness.  However my weight loss wasn't unintended, as for the first time in my life I'd started a diet.

Its a simple diet.  When I finish dinner, I don't eat any more, or drink anything other than water until the next morning.  This is also supposed to be good for oesophageal reflux.  Its precisely this sort of diet I can stick to.  So I'm happy to be losing weight, but a little bit worried none the less.

I weigh myself nearly every morning, and make a graph.  Its been going for just over 3 montsh, and looks like this:

The diet started about the same time as the weight loss.  A bout of gastro coincided with the first time my weight dropped below 93kg.

At the same time, I've started on Strava, a great app that tracks my cycling (and other people's running).  So some time in the not too distant future, I'll have a time series of my cycling performance, particularly on hills.

One would expect my climbing speed to increase as my weight falls.  So I can choose a particular hill, and plot my times on that hill.  However, cycling times are highly variable.  The wind is a huge factor.  So you'll need lots of data over a long time to identify any trend.

Here are my times on Stock Road hill since I started Strava at the beginning of January.

As you can see, there is no discernable trend, or if there is one, it looks as though I'm getting slightly slower (the time axis is inverted, so that the higher a dot, the shorter the time).

Anyway, if lots of people start keeping records, then medical researchers will have much more data.  They may be able to identify patterns corresponding to particular illnesses.  Maybe in the future, your phone will be suggesting its time to see a doctor...

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Well behaved uni students - yet again

In a previous post, I hypothesised why uni students today are better behaved than their parents were back in the 1970's.

I came up with two ideas.  Firstly, that the abandonment of corporal punishment in schools was responsible.  Secondly, that the change was due to smaller families.

But right now on Catalyst on ABC tv, they have put forward the hypothesis that lead exposure may be the cause.  And it seems like a compelling case.

My son was born in 1993, and I recall that at that time new parents were very aware that lead was bad for children.  Leaded petrol was phased out from the mid 1980's.

I have a friend who teaches at a "good" private high school.  He's been there since the mid 1990's, and he noted that when he got there, there were still some "ratbag" kids, but that within a few years these had vanished.

OK, it is compelling, but there is more work to be done.

Can I say, right now, that the right wing will hate this, and will fight it.  The idea that some effort to improve the environment actually led to improvements will piss them off something chronic.  But thye are dickheads, so pay them no mind.

Now to find out what caused the rise in ADHD and autism.

Monday, February 9, 2015

What conservatives want

When I looked at Tony Abbott and his conservative government in Australia, I used to wonder what was the guiding light for their policies.  Mostly it just seemed like reduced government spending, usually at the expense of the poor.  And quite frankly, that just didn't make sense.  These were nasty, unpopular policies.  Surely there was more driving them than simple budget balancing.

Anyway, after a while it twigged.  Basically, Tone and the Libs were helping big business.  Lets take a few of their measures.

They argued that health costs were out of control, and that Australians should have to pay more to visit a GP.  This doesn't even make sense, because the government subsidy for people visiting a GP is not the rapidly growing area of health costs.  That area is medical specialists, who through their closed shop policy, earn a fortune.  The government has not even suggested tackling specialists and forcing them to allow more people to work as specialists.  No, they've gone after the relationship between poor people and GP's.  Why?  I can only think they want to build a two tier health system, where you either get Rolls Royce treatment for a kings ransom, or you get Holden Kingswood treatment for nearly free.  And that Rolls Royce system will be run by the big private health companies.  And if you want to be part of that Rolls Royce system, be prepared to pay an arm and a leg.

With universities, they reduced the subsidy that students got, and allowed universities to set their own fees.  But they went one step further, paying a subsidy to students at private education providers.  And some of them are big multinational companies.  So the Libs are paving the way for big companies to start granting degrees.  And they'll be targeting the poor, getting them into debt by enrolling them into useless courses - a temptation that even the traditional universities find hard to resist.  Just ask Open Universities Australia.

Tone deaf Tone wanted to change regulations for financial advisers.  He wanted people who gave financial advice to not have to be fair, and actually recommend the best product.  He wanted them to be able to receive commissions on the products they recommended, without telling the customers that they were.  Where do you think most of these financial advisers work?  For our big four banks.  So Tone was under pressure from the banks to increase their profits - at the expense of the elderly, whose retirement savings the banks wanted to get at.

So you see, Tone is really just Vladimir Putin in disguise.  He wants to create a lot of wealthy oligarchs who owe their success to him.  Tone may not even know this.   This isn't Russia, and Tone won't actually be able to call in any favours from these guys.  They just want him to turn them into the new aristocracy.  And that means giving them open access to the wallets of the little people.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

The Weight

So I regularly drive this little street to the shops.  Often there are cars parked on both sides, and it is difficult for two cars travelling in opposite directions to get past each other.  And I'm usually kind, and pull into gaps between parked cars to let the other driver past.  But other times I'm more assertive.  Anyway, today I feel almost fully recovered from a bout of gastro, and I'm heading down this street, and there is a car at the other end, and I find myself looking for spots to pull over.

But suddenly on the radio, comes The Band, singing The Weight.  And I just drove straight down the street letting other drivers figure out how they wanted to cope.  I swear, I would have made a Mack truck reverse.

Just goes to show the power of good music.