Archive for February, 2011

The interesting website “You Are Not So Smart” published a couple of days ago a post on the hivemind: the one leading to deindividuation in groups. Deindividuation makes people shout at someones standing on top of a building to jump and then filming the death fall or tweeting the action. Three ingredients lead to deindividuation: anonymity, group size and arousal (being aroused by the environment and feeling aroused).

The Misconception: People who riot and loot are scum who were just looking for an excuse to steal and be violent.

The Truth: You are are prone to losing your individuality and becoming absorbed into a hivemind under the right conditions.

Source: Improv Everywhere

When a crowd gathers near a suicidal jumper something terrible is unleashed.

In Seattle in 2001, a 26-year-old woman who had recently ended a relationship held up traffic for a little too long as she considered the implications of leaping to her death. As motorists began to back-up on the bridge and become irate, they started yelling “Jump, bitch, jump!” until she did.

Cases like this aren’t unusual. …

Psychologists call this phenomenon deindividuation …. In certain situations, you can expect to be de-individualized. Unlike conformity, in which you adopt the ideas and behaviors of others for acceptance and inclusion, deindividuation is mostly unconscious and more likely to lead to mischief. As psychologist David G. Myers said, it is “doing together what you would not do alone.”

Read the whole post

The simple and pointed answer is: stupidity, ignorance and commercial interests. Stupidity on the side of bureaucracy, ignorance amongst the populous (and a lack of ability to collectively force change), and politicians beholden to the powerful interests of the fossil fuel industry. That’s my incredulous headshake argument.

Christine Rau in her The Age opinion piece doesn’t elaborate on these aspects (although she mentions the bureaucrats), but she nevertheless puts forward a passionate argument for installing solar panels in a sunburned country content with burning coal.

Put solar panels on every large rooftop
Christine Rau (February 8, 2011)

Sydney’s geography favours the wealthy. Nothing new there. But last week’s heatwave exacerbated the division between east and west and raised concerns about energy consumption.

With ocean glimpses unaffordable, most of us live away from ocean breezes in the demographic heartland near Liverpool or Parramatta. Our eastern Sydney cousins may complain about 35-degree “heatwaves” but for us, anything less than 40 degrees in the summer is mild. After six days of 42-degree heat, the fridge went on strike and the kids’ paddle pops turned to mush. Technology doesn’t like extremes.

The cheapest and most-populated Sydney housing is in the north and south-west, and it’s the city’s most unsustainable and energy-guzzling.

Which bureaucrat decided it was OK to release land in shrinking blocks to hold bloated castles without eaves or trees and with only minuscule backyards? When the neighbouring bricks of jostling houses are only metres apart, there’s only room for radiant heat, and none for cooling.

Few neighbourhoods in western Sydney have enough large shade trees. Natural shade, backyards and privacy have been sacrificed on the altar of the affordable sprawling McMansion with few people in it.

The modern castle has no protection from the sun. It can only stay liveable with ”climate-control” blocking out the real world.

Such planning mistakes have compounded with every land release, burdening the community with higher electricity loads and confining individuals to what was once the province of a sterile office. We increasingly live in a claustrophobic, windows-closed environment, in our cars and in our homes.

In any extreme weather, summer or winter, we get energy spikes. The obscene waste leads to rolling blackouts – ironically in the areas which are more sustainable – and ultimately those on modest incomes face crippling electricity bills.

Australia is one of the most scientifically literate cultures on Earth – the number of our science Nobel laureates is out of proportion to our population – yet we are lacking in logic and our complex tiers of government stymies coherent housing and sustainability plans. We get planning paralysis masked by pretence of action.

To get back to the science: it’s simple. What energy resource do we have above all else? The sun.

Yet those who can least afford roof-top solar panels are those with the most amount of sun and heat in the western suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne and in the regions.

Professor Andrew Blakers, the director of the centre for sustainable energy and solar energy systems at the Australian National University, says Germany does it better, and it has only 60 per cent of our sunshine.

“Roughly speaking, Australia installed about 200 megawatts of photo-voltaic solar cells in 2010 at a cost of about $1.2 billion,” he says. “Germany did about 5000 megawatts at a cost of about $25 billion.”

He says in Adelaide and Alice Springs the power from solar panels on roofs is cheaper than getting it from the grid, and that will be the case for everyone by 2014.

We should install solar panels at government expense on all rooftops where air-conditioning and heating systems overload the power grid. We should put them on every school, shopping centre and car park – anywhere with a large roof.

After centuries of dealing with climate extremes, we have lost the art of cooling ourselves and our houses naturally.

Our grandparents understood the basics of airflow, radiant heat and opening warm or cold parts of the house, depending on the season. They could cope with the heat and the cold; external louvres or shutters helped in the summer, and in winter they stuck to one warm room.

Now, unless it’s at the push of a button, people are bereft of ideas. Just as the GPS has the potential to kill navigation skills, air-conditioning can kill an experienced attitude to the weather rather than a fearful one.

Sydney has a desalination plant; surely it can do something with solar. All the unending waffle about the carbon emissions tax and the ephemeral idea of carbon credits seems hypocritical when we have the solution beaming down, and not only being wasted but making us burn coal to cope with it.

Christine Rau is a freelance journalist.

James Blake – The Wilhelm Scream

Posted: February 5, 2011 in creativity

James Blake is quite an amazing guy – he’s apparently only 18 or 19 years old, a classically trained musician and dubstep producer. And this video work is awesome. Here’s the Allmusic blurb on him:

Influenced by the likes of D’Angelo and Stevie Wonder along withBurial and Mount KimbieJames Blake is known for injecting some soul into the genre of dubstep. The London-based producer first gave the world a taste of his quirky, R&B-sampling strain of dubstep in 2009 when his Air & Lack Thereof 12” appeared on the Hemlock label. Blake received quite the endorsement when the heralded Soul Jazz label picked the track up for their Steppas’ Delight 2 compilation that same year. Blake raised his profile every few months during 2010 — something of a breakout year for him — with a succession of warmly received 12″ releases: The Bells Sketch(Hessle Audio, March), CMYK (R&S, June), Klavierwerke (R&S, October), and the single-sided “Limit to Your Love” (Atlas, November). The last of the series — a cover of a song by Feist, in which Blake‘s heartfelt vocal was placed front and center — served as a precursor to his first full-length, issued the following February.

Unfortunately for copyright reasons the above video redirects to Youtube, which is unfortunate but worthwhile nevertheless. And not as an alternative but complementing the clip above, here’s another version of the same song; a BBC live recording.

Rupert Murdoch geography

Crooks and Liars

Andrew Sullivan (The Atlantic)

Banksy, of course

Posted: February 5, 2011 in creativity

It’s been years that I’ve posted something of Banksy’s work; stumbling across some of his stuff today though, I couldn’t resist – I just love his subtle satirical style :). There’s more at Best Bookmarks!

What atheists really care about

Posted: February 5, 2011 in reflections

Prisons are no deterrent

Posted: February 4, 2011 in society

AFRa Front Page News republished a sound National Times opinion piece by Cynthis Banham on the futility of simply increasing the lock-up rates of people caught in the criminal justice system. Criminalisation rather than rehabilitation is the catch cry of law-and-order politicians and stakeholders in the prison industry, despite growing evidence that higher imprisonment rates do not lead to lower crime rates. Haven’t we learned anything from the many successful rehabilitation strategies in the 1970s?

A long, hard look inside our jails would benefit all of us

One of the most telling commentaries on all that is wrong with prisons was made recently by American law professor David Cole. ”We commit offenders to such places precisely so we will not have to pay attention to them,” he wrote in an article for the New York Review of Books.

In Australia since the 1980s, state – and sometimes federal – politicians have campaigned relentlessly on simplistic ”tough on crime” platforms. They would have you believe that locking up criminals is the answer to all society’s ills.

It is precisely this ”out of sight, out of mind” approach that Cole is talking about in regard to the US prison system, but politicians have distorted expectations and understandings of what imprisoning people can achieve. 

While there is no argument that society needs prisons to protect it from violent criminals, there is a growing realisation here, and in the US and Britain, that for other offenders it isn’t really working.

In all three countries prison populations are expanding and public expenditure on corrections is rising. Crime rates, however, are not falling. In fact, many people increasingly believe this over-reliance on incarceration is having the opposite effect.

In the US, it is business leaders who have been speaking out on the need for a new approach.

Locking up huge numbers of offenders is damaging the economy, a group of executives from five states argued in a Pew report last year. It is draining the public purse of money that should be spent on education and training that would help keep people out of jail, and is denying state economies valuable human capital.

A British government green paper on prison reform in December recommended a reduction in prison populations, noting: ”Despite a 50 per cent increase in the budget for prisons and managing offenders in the last 10 years, almost half of all adult offenders released from custody reoffend within a year. It is also not acceptable that 75 per cent of offenders sentenced to youth custody reoffend within a year.”

Australian taxpayers spent $2.9 billion on corrections last year, the Productivity Commission says – a 4.5 per cent increase on the previous year. The national incarceration rate rose from 165 per 100,000 adults to 169 per 100,00 adults in that time. In the Northern Territory, where 30 per cent of the population is indigenous, and the incarceration rate is the highest in the country by a mile, the government is building a new $300 million prison.

There is no starker illustration of the failure of corrections policy than indigenous incarceration rates, which are 19 times higher than for the rest of the population.

Australia faced questions from 19 countries last week at a United Nations human rights hearing in Geneva about inequities in the situation and treatment of Aborigines, including incarceration rates. But confronting this reality is not so much about shaming Australians into feeling a collective guilt about the issue, as it is a call for an honest admission that there is a massive problem.

The first time I saw the inside of a jail was 15 years ago. I was a young insurance lawyer, working on a case brought by a prison guard who had fallen on a step. I had to take an expert witness to the jail to assess the suspect stair, and I was very curious to get my first glimpse of life behind bars.

This was a totally foreign world, one that as a child I’d had nothing to do with, and apart from these professional insights, I never wanted to as an adult, either.

It’s a very different situation for indigenous children, one in five of whom has a parent or carer in jail. It’s a staggering figure: 20 per cent of Aboriginal children are growing up today with the person they look to as a role model, or authority figure in life, in jail.

Ponder this for a moment and it begins to make sense that a quarter of all young indigenous men are being processed through the criminal justice system every year. The effect, says Emeritus Professor David Brown of the University of NSW, is that incarceration has become ”normalised”. Prison is more of an expectation than a deterrent; for some it is even a rite of passage.

Discussing these issues in a paper published last year, The Limited Benefit of Prison in Controlling Crime, Brown wrote about the concept of a ”tipping point” – the idea that once incarceration reaches a certain level in a particular community, crime levels actually begin to rise. That tipping point has been reached in some particularly vulnerable Aboriginal communities, Brown says.

It is time we started rethinking our approach to criminal justice and sentencing. One idea that has yet to be embraced by governments here is ”justice reinvestment”: taking money that would be spent on incarcerating people and spending it on programs to address social issues in vulnerable communities where most offenders come from, and inevitably return to.

It’s the sort of thinking that might just get us to pay attention to who’s in our jails and whether it’s the best place for them.

The Age published an interesting article this morning by Vern Hughes on how our big not-for-profit organisation have succumbed over the years to corporatisation, and in the process have lost an important function they once add: to build social capital (which of course is not just an Australian phenomenon).

Non-profits lose sight of volunteer heritage

The Australian of the Year, Simon McKeon, has urged Australians to volunteer in community organisations and become involved in the non-profit sector. Both are easier said than done.

Australia’s voluntary, charitable and community organisations have changed over the past three decades, almost beyond recognition. Such transformation of the non-profit sector has attracted little public debate.

Many organisations that began life as voluntary associations have become corporatised instruments of government service delivery and no longer need, or even want, volunteers. Those that still have a place for volunteers are often trapped in a web of regulations and risk-management protocols that reduce volunteering to narrow, mechanistic and unsatisfying tasks.

Most found it easier to seek and obtain public contracts for their operations and to tailor their mission to the delivery of these contracts, than to rely on private fund-raising or commercial income generation.

In the process, their programs and operations came to reflect the silo structure of government, and their internal cultures mirrored the government’s risk-averse culture. They became accountable, not to their clients or founders, but to their funding departments.

A generation of non-profit managers rose to ride this service-delivery train, replacing their organisations’ once colourful and idiosyncratic cultures with a bland managerialism.

The result is a third sector in deep confusion, torn between its voluntary heritage and its managerialism. Most organisations with a history of more than three decades are unrecognisable from the groups that formed in church halls and around kitchen tables in a previous era.

Disability service organisations are a case in point. Most of the disability agencies now headed by chief executive officers, complete with a raft of risk-management, regulatory-compliance and brand-protection policies, were formed by parents of people with disabilities. These parents knew they needed to create, from scratch, the supports and services required by their sons and daughters.

They usually began around a kitchen table. Everyone was a volunteer. Consultants were unheard of. The only resources on tap were goodwill and a willingness to work together for no reward apart from securing something in the future for their loved ones.

Today many such parents find themselves referred to, in the annual reports of the bodies they created, as ”stakeholders” in the welfare of their sons and daughters. They appear alongside key stakeholders such local governments, suppliers and corporate partners. Many shake their heads in disbelief at the entity they unknowingly created. ”We gave birth to a monster,” some say.

Managerialism – in public, private and community sectors – is the prevailing ideology of our time. It has trumped entrepreneurship in the private sector, and perverted notions of service in the public sector. But in the non-profit sector it has swept all before it.

The news, then, that McKeon, a Macquarie Bank manager who has been immersed in these processes, plans to use his appointment as Australian of the Year to raise the profile of the non-profit sector, heralds an opportunity for Australians to look closely at the sector. Critical scrutiny of what has happened in the past 30 years is needed, not a fund-raising sales pitch on behalf of the large charities.

The managerial focus on ”outcomes” has been a two-edged sword for non-profits. It has been embraced with a passion by their chief executives and boards determined to prove their value for money for funders and donors.

But it has simultaneously subverted the generation of social capital – the capacity of people to associate voluntarily along horizontal rather than vertical axes for mutual benefit and service to others, independent of managerial prerogatives and directives, and government programs.

Voluntary association is an art, and if not practised, is lost. The instinct for, and the practice of, voluntary association is being choked all around us by managerialism. It is to be hoped that McKeon’s tenure as Australian of the Year will lead to a thoughtful, critical and wide-ranging public debate about the importance of nurturing the non-profit sector and the capacity of each of us for voluntary association.

Vern Hughes is the director of the Centre for Civil Society.

Clive Hamilton, professor of public ethics at Charles Sturt University wrote the following opinion piece on a new political strategy to silence protestors by making them pay compensation to large coal companies, running into hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Tackle Big Coal at your own risk

As alarm among scientists about runaway global warming intensifies so do efforts by the coal industry and its backers in government to stifle citizen protests.

This week in Newcastle campaigners from the Rising Tide group face prosecution for a protest last September that shut down for a day the city’s two coal export terminals operated by Port Waratah Coal Services. PWCS is a company owned by mining giants Rio Tinto and Xstrata.

Those who engage in civil disobedience expect to face the legal consequences. But PWCS has upped the ante by asking the police to prosecute seven activists under victims-of-crime laws, demanding they hand over hundreds of thousands of dollars. 

In an Orwellian inversion of the meaning of words, corporate goliaths whose activities threaten the conditions of life on earth – whose daily business is already, according to the World Health Organisation, contributing to tens of thousands of deaths around the world each year – claim they are being victimised.

The coal industry’s action is designed to have a chilling effect on protests against burning and exporting coal. PWCS’s action has all the hallmarks of a SLAPP, a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation.

The purpose of a SLAPP is to frighten citizens with the loss of their houses and get them bogged down for years in court proceedings. Legal costs can amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars, chickenfeed for a big corporation but bankruptcy for ordinary citizens.

The intimidatory effect can be paralysing. One favourite tactic is to deliver writs on Christmas Eve so those who receive them have to sweat for a fortnight before they can get legal advice that may allay their fears.

A pattern is emerging in efforts to deter protests against Australia’s coal industry. After meeting with state attorneys-general in December 2008, Martin Ferguson, the federal Energy Minister (and climate science denier), urged state governments to toughen up laws to impede protests against ”energy infrastructure”.

Ferguson seems to have been spooked by opposition to the Hazelwood power plant in Victoria (the dirtiest in the country) and by the acquittal of six Greenpeace activists over a protest at Kingsnorth power station in Britain. The jury accepted they acted to prevent greater harm. Since the meeting with Ferguson, state governments have begun passing draconian legislation aimed specifically at deterring protests against the coal industry.

The Labor government in Victoria introduced harsh new laws against climate change protests, with up to one year’s jail merely for standing in the grounds of a coal-fired power plant, and two years for anyone painting a slogan on a smokestack. The Kingsnorth defence of ”lawful excuse” can no longer be made in Victoria, no matter how much damage Hazelwood is causing to the climate.

In Queensland, the Labor government is considering similar laws. NSW has not yet followed the Victorian example, but since the meeting between Ferguson and the attorneys-general, climate activists have several times been threatened with victims’ compensation claims.

An adverse court decision in Newcastle this week would set an alarming precedent not just for climate activism but for all protests in NSW. A corporation experiencing any disruption due to protests would be emboldened to go after the assets of protesters.

A democracy in which citizens are afraid of going to jail for peacefully protesting or losing their homes because of intimidatory lawsuits is no democracy at all. Yet Labor governments have been as willing as the Howard government was to silence dissenting voices, especially in defence of the energy industries.

Victims’ support legislation was designed to compensate victims of violent crimes, including families of homicide victims, not to provide global corporations with a stick to beat their critics.

The average amount received by a victim of crime in NSW is $12,300. For having its coal loader shut down for a few hours, PWCS is demanding the courts award the company $525,000.

Big Coal has taken the gloves off and has signalled it will use every device available to defend its continued profitability. Its attitude seems to be that if the rights of citizens are collateral damage, then so be it.