Archive | Original Features

Mind the Gap

What can public transport tell us about a city’s character? Danu makes an unlikely comparison of the public transport experiences in Melbourne and Singapore and thinks through how to make sense of the differences.

Melbourne-Singapore Transport

I have what many would consider to be a peculiar fondness for public transport. Sometimes I will catch trains and buses just to see where they go. The logic and layout of a city’s public transport network, it seems to me, reveals a lot about the character of a place. Thus, whenever I find myself in a new city, I make a point of getting to grips with its public transport system.

In the course of my travels I asked myself an innocent question. Why is it that in Singapore (one of my favourite cities) I can get from the airport to anywhere in the entire city in a clean and comfortable train that leaves every 6 minutes, for less than $2, while in Melbourne (also one of my favourite cities, and where I live) I have to get a $17 bus that connects to an unreliable, expensive and often filthy train network where I have to spend another $3.70 using a different ticket that may or may not work? Melbourne is, after all, the second most populous city in one of the richest countries in the world. Singapore is now a rich and developed country also, but this is a comparatively recent development. To put the comparison another way, Melbourne’s last new suburban train line (Glen Waverley) opened in 1930. The last major work was the city loop, completed in 1985, whereas Singapore’s entire 150km island-wide rail network was constructed since then.

Without quite doing so consciously, I now realise I have spent a considerable amount of time and effort trying to find good ways to make sense of this. Among other things, this has included taking a course in contemporary planning issues as part of my postgraduate policy studies, as well as relocating to Singapore and working for a time as a researcher inside the country’s Land Transport Authority to get an inside perspective. Not to mention a lot of time riding road and rail in both places.

A large part of this search for answers has consisted in deciding what terms of understanding are appropriate to the situation. Many people would reject a comparison between Melbourne and Singapore out of hand, given that one is a city and one is a nation in its own right, or on the basis that one is a liberal democracy while the other is perceived as an authoritarian state. Would it not make more sense to compare Melbourne to somewhere like Berlin?

Rather than rejecting the comparison on such a basis, this to me seems an excellent reason to pursue the question. What if the different political arrangements are not merely incidental factors, but part of the explanation? What would be the implications of this? In any event, the comparison I want to make is based on experience and conceptual rationality rather than demographics, so I have deliberately chosen Singapore as an extreme, or limiting, case. That is to say, I am mostly interested in what it is like to experience public transport in Melbourne and Singapore as someone who uses it, and how the city’s respective attitudes towards public transport result in that kind of experience. Continue Reading →

Guilty Acts and Bad Minds

What is the relation between a criminal justice system and the society of which it is a part? Danu asks what Breivik, James Bulger and Bastøy can tell us about ourselves.

Guilty Acts and Bad Minds

“A man’s character is most evident by how he treats those who are not in a position either to retaliate or reciprocate.” – Paul Eldridge

The way a society treats its criminals can be thought of as a reflection of its character. It seems banal to observe that a society’s criminal justice system reflects the broader values of that society, so allow me to unpack what I mean by that and why it is of some interest.

This begins with an acknowledgement of the essentially constructed nature of the phenomena we are describing. We may say things like ‘society’, ‘justice’ or indeed ‘criminal’ and assume we can agree on what they mean, but such categories are far from fixed — indeed, like most categories, upon closer examination they turn out to be quite fuzzy.

For instance, it is hardly novel to point out that a criminal only exists because of the law that created him. To observe this is only to remind ourselves of von Feuerbach’s maxim nullum crimen sine lege — there can be no crime without laws. We have thus already established the political nature of law and crime — it is part of the apparatus of state. Let us leave aside for our present purposes considerations of natural law and focus instead on the positive law made by states.

That such laws are a reflection of a society’s values and preoccupations is evidenced by the way they change over time. Alcohol was prohibited entirely in the US for a time, heroin was dispensed as an over-the-counter children’s medicine before it became an illicit substance and gambling was at various times outlawed before it became a major source of government taxation revenue.

Although these examples should be sufficient to make the point, it is important to note that frequently the categories of activity and people they describe are themselves social constructions. If bigamy is to be a crime, then we must first have some understanding of what we mean by ‘marriage’. If it is a crime to outrage a woman’s modesty, we must first have constructed an idea of modesty and linked it to certain social actions which are themselves placed somewhere on a related continuum of acceptable behaviour. It would be a grave (though common) mistake to assume that these terms behave as labels we can simply pin on concepts that exist ‘out there’. With Ian Hacking, we could ask, rhetorically:

Were there any perverts before the latter part of the nineteenth century? According to Arnold Davidson [1990], “the answer is no … Perversion was not a disease that lurked about in nature, waiting for a psychiatrist with especially acute powers of observation to discover it hiding somewhere. It was a disease created by a new [functional] understanding of disease.” Davidson is not denying that there have been odd people at all times. He is asserting that perversion, as a disease, and the pervert, as a diseased person, was created in the nineteenth century. Davidson’s claim, one of many now in circulation, illustrates what I call making up people.1

This ‘making up’ of people is an essential part of how a society understands and regulates itself. The social structures and power relations by which this process occurs make for fruitful and fascinating study. Continue Reading →

Too Much Reason

In this instalment I continue my exploration of our public character by asking is there such a thing as too much reason?


Regular readers will be familiar with the quotation by Tony Judt that I like to roll out from time to time, as I feel it captures succinctly something of our current state of affairs, how this came to be and what’s at stake. Let’s revisit it:

Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today … We know what things cost but have no idea what they are worth. We no longer ask of a judicial ruling or a legislative act: Is it good? Is it fair? Is it just? Is it right? Will it help bring about a better society or a better world? Those used to be the political questions, even if they invited no easy answers. We must learn once again to pose them.1

There are a constellation of factors and forces that have led us to the picture Judt describes; in this piece I’d like to continue the process of examining one small patch of sky at at time. As usual it will necessarily be an abridged discussion — a full treatment would take at least a couple of bookshelves.

The essence of the argument is that over the years, there have been things — an increasingly large number of things — we have decided are not important, and in some cases have forgotten how to see. The tools that we now use to craft our societies, though as sophisticated as ever, are brittle and incomplete. We have simply become blind to certain things that matter, and worse, we do not know that we are blind.

Much of the problem has to do with an over-reliance on reason. As Jonathan Haidt argues:

Western philosophy has been worshipping reason and distrusting the passions for thousands of years. There’s a direct line from Plato through Immanuel Kant to Lawrence Kohlberg. I’ll refer to this worshipful attitude … as the rationalist delusion. I call it a delusion because when a group of people make something sacred, the members of the cult lose the ability to think clearly about it.2 (emphasis in original)

For many, this will be an odd proposition. Surely reason is an unqualified good — a gold standard which we should strive to attain and by whose marker we shall know we have become fully enlightened, whether it be by the rule of philosopher kings or our arrival in the kingdom of ends. Continue Reading →

The Price of Everything: Neoliberalism and its blind spots

Neoliberalism is among the most influential social, political and economic forces of our time. Danu describes the neoliberal project and examines its effects upon higher education in Australia by beginning with a simple question — does it produce good social outcomes?

The Price of Everything

Have the economic reforms pursued in Australia since the early 1980s produced positive social outcomes?

To give this question proper consideration, we shall need to do a number of things, beginning of course with an explanation of what economic reforms are in question. To do this, I will focus on one particular policy area — higher education policy. This is an area of policy to which the sort of economic reforms we will be discussing have been applied visibly and purposively; it is also a policy area in which we can comfortably discuss social outcomes. We will also need to tackle the more difficult issue of evaluating what constitutes a positive social outcome and how we might recognise one.

Let us turn first to the discussion of the economic reform itself. ‘Since the 1980s’ is code for a number of related and complementary notions and assumptions about economics, society and human behaviour that became widely influential and accepted around this time — the sort of constellation of ideas that we might best describe as a movement. The movement in question has been variously described as ‘neoliberalism’, ‘economic rationalism’, ‘free-market’, ‘Friedmanite’, ‘lassez-faire’, ‘small government’ and even ‘Reaganomics’. These labels all emphasise different aspects of the movement and are largely interchangeable, though my preferred term is neoliberalism, which I will use hereafter.

Attempting a precise definition of such a fuzzy category as neoliberalism is a futile exercise, so let me instead lay out some of the core principles that underwrite it. At heart, neoliberalism combines a libertarian political philosophy with an economic world-view. That is to say, it invokes an image of humanity as a collection of rational individuals each acting in their own self-interest — the role of public policy on this view is to ensure each individual has freedom to exercise his or her rational choices as efficiently as possible. Efficiency here means with as much information (price signals) and as little interference (government) as possible. Neoliberals believe that in this state of affairs, the sum of each individual’s rational, self-interested choices in a perfect market will secure the best possible outcome for all. Free markets, free people. (In that order.)

By valuing education wholly on economic terms, we begin to deprive ourselves as a society of the capacity to comprehend our own folly in doing so.

When former US President Ronald Reagan famously said, ‘government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem’, we can see what he was getting at. Similarly, when former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher more ominously said ‘there is no such thing as society’, we see she was appealing to a vision of homo economicusEconomic Man. Continue Reading →

Going Nowhere

Public transportation is a complicated business. Liam examines Melbourne’s much-maligned network, stepping past the anger and obfuscation to think clearly about the shape of the problem.

Going Nowhere

A lot of things have been said about Melbourne’s public transport. Whether you think it’s good or atrocious depends on what you compare it to and what sort of criteria of quality you want to apply. It is, in a lot of ways, good. A lot of people have also gone to great pains to diagnose and describe problems with the network. The main newspapers in Melbourne, The Age and The Herald Sun, have run a lot of articles highlighting the notable service failures, the mistreatment of commuters by ticket inspectors and the minimal government response.

The tone of the discussion reminds me of a cheap perfume bought on sale — sharp, shallow and repugnant whilst ostensibly respectable. This is a fact that is in many ways more interesting than the object of the outrage. It’s the shape of the problem that I’m interested in discussing here, rather than the ‘substance’ of horserace-like commentary. I’ll do that by setting out a few aspects of the state of affairs and then attempting to formulate some questions with which to ask what can be done about it.

Continue Reading →

The Education Revolution

Big changes are afoot in education — humanities departments continue to close around the world while online courses are all the rage. Gerhard takes us through these developments and explains the thinking behind another increasingly popular phenomenon — the free university.

The Education Revolution

The internet is awash with talk of online education revolutions. Let’s take a quick world tour of some of the most interesting revolutionary ideas out there. Not long ago the Khan Academy made headlines for its innovative marrying of youtube and tutoring into an ever-expanding resource of short clips that teach people anything from art history to venture capitalism, with a strong focus on mathematics related subjects.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has provided open courseware to select courses since 2002. These are materials, lecture notes and videos which can be downloaded and read/listened/watched to simulate attending a course. MIT has been joined by an illustrious list of mainly American universities that offer entire or parts of university courses online for free.

Continue Reading →

Virtuoso Performance

It’s been said that a wise man knows when to make the exception to every rule. Danu considers what we miss out on when we take rules and rationality too seriously, and examines why for some people, bending the rules seems so effortless.

Virtuoso Performance

Here are three short video clips. Each shows someone practising a capability with incredible high-level skill. These practitioners all display breathtaking ability that we recognise is far beyond mere competence or proficiency — it is instant, effortless expertise.

Wayne Rooney | Football

Damien Walters | Parkour

Mnozil Brass | Brass Ensemble

What kind of knowledge is it that these practitioners possess? More interestingly, how does one acquire it?

Continue Reading →

Zero Day

In recent years, the world of espionage has changed so much even James Bond has had to adapt. Anthony takes us deep inside a world most of us know almost nothing about — cyber espionage — to give us a detailed and dramatic account of the darker side of the internet.

Zero Day


“2009-06-07, 14:25 – Mission Log: I’m in!”

You’ve passed the first hurdle, effortlessly, thanks to a forged master key stolen from a locksmith with lax security. After years of training and preparation, your work finally begins.

You walk around the facility, calmly, systematically, drawing a map and surveying each room and noting who works in it, meticulously itemising every piece of hardware and software installed on every computer, effortlessly bypassing the security measures designed to block your access. Then you find it, your Primary Target: several Windows PCs with Siemens Step 7 SCADA Control System installed. Carefully, silently, you take copies of the custom-designed programs that are installed on the Programmable Logic Controllers (PLCs) that drive the machinery of this facility, and bundle them up, ready to be exfiltrated to a team of fellow operatives back at home anxiously awaiting your data.

If you catch an infosec specialist in a weaker moment, they’ll often confide that we’re losing the battle to keep our IT systems secure.

“2009-06-07, 14:56 – Mission Log: Preliminary survey & payload attached. More to come.”

While you’re at it, you take pictures of people, rooms, doors, signs, equipment — copies of documents, photos, diaries and address books on every computer and cell-phone you can touch — eavesdrop and record conversations and phone calls, and peer over the shoulders of staff as they enter login credentials to various systems. They might come in handy later. You do all of this with almost complete impunity, because no one can see you — you are virtually invisible, thanks to a special gadget cooked up by the boffins in the lab back home, bestowed upon you in the best 007 tradition.

You collect all of your reconnaissance and stolen data, place it into a tidy little box wrapped in birthday gift wrapping paper, and drop it into the mail trolley, addressed from the facility’s Chief Of Operations, to his great aunt who is apparently holidaying in Malaysia. No one notices anything wrong, and your package is sent.

Continue Reading →

Through the Cracks: Identity, Culture and Deviance

In the second part of this series on mental health, Phill continues his first-hand account of what it means to ‘be yourself’ inside a psychiatric facility.

Through the Cracks: Home... Sweet Home

This feature is Part 2 of a series.

Who am I? In some ways a psychiatric facility is the ideal place to encounter this question, but I personally haven’t broken step with sanity – a statement which you’ll have to take at my word. I maintain that the question is lucid and indeed I asked it long before I was admitted here. Perhaps it is fair to say that it is my protracted inability to answer the question which has delivered me this latest opportunity to again consider my identity. Though this time I’m in a place where identity and culture exist principally as pathology – sources for interpretation, rather than celebrations of individuality.

I am supposed to be sick. I can understand this much from having been admitted to hospital and, before that, through being diagnosed and medicated. But is this who I am? I don’t feel sick, apart from the side effects of medications. Sick, then, to mean somehow disordered, or dysfunctional. What does that look like? Is it supposed to look like anything? If not, then why – how, even – should I ‘be’ that (or myself, if the two are different)?

In here, reality unites all of us who for whatever reason can’t hold our issues at arm’s length to see their place in a bigger picture.

Such surmising is considered unhealthy here. I’ve been told it is not the content of ‘normal‘ thought — that it suggests disorder. I did ask what I should be thinking, but clearly that wasn’t it either, because my query was met with a blank stare and written in my notes. Obviously there are norms here to deviate from. I wonder, then, if the norm is my identity from which my behaviour deviates, or if there are social norms which my identity is deviating from. Perhaps it is both. Or neither.

Continue Reading →

Between You and Me

Except for a lucky few, it’s hard to make a living in the arts world. But if not for fame or profit, why do so many people choose a life in the arts? Myles, a struggling (if not starving) actor, explains what’s in it for him.

I live two lives. By day I work as a sales assistant or ‘consultant’ for a rather large company that produces some wonderful products. By night however, I have been many things… a chained patient in the dim cells of a bygone French mental institution, a Machiavellian nobleman driven by ambition, an Australian soldier caught in the grips of a fearful wheat-induced trip. People often ask what it is I do for work. I certainly wouldn’t call myself a jack of all trades, but my profession is split fairly evenly between the creative world of performance and the service world of retail IT (another kind of performance, some might say). In fewer words, I’m an actor.

A short phrase, easy to say. For many years I wasn’t quite sure whether I lived up to it. Surely one has to be doing the thing they say they are for it to be true. Yet for many people in the Arts, doing that thing, whether it be acting, music or dance, is difficult. Often arts practitioners are working less than admirable jobs and receiving less than ideal income so that they can keep themselves available for work. The real work that they constantly seek to do — the work that defines them. Not only is the work hard to come by, the practice of that art is crucial and time consuming. Despite the difficulties, there are thousands of other people who crave a creative life, who earnestly study an art with bright eyes and hopeful hearts that their life may be like the people’s on stage or screen that inspire them to chase their dreams. For the lucky few the dream becomes real, but for the rest of us, we just keep carrying on.

Continue Reading →