A quick hello and goodbye Tuesday, Dec 26 2006 

We’ve made it through Midsummer and through Christmas Day (a Merry Christmas to those in parts of the world where it is still going on). Now today we are off to visit family, first in the nation’s capital and then in coastal New South Wales. Plenty of driving in the next few days, and then we’re back on the 30th. Best wishes to all for a safe and relaxing holiday period.


Random Bullets of Summer Solstice Fun Friday, Dec 22 2006 

It’s taking us all a while to get going this morning, so I’m just sitting around in the office and waiting for my brain to move. In the meanwhile:

  • TBH is reading Harry Potter to our little girl (6 y.o.), who shall hereafter be called Miss Serious. They have finally made it past the Goblet of Fire, which means she is finally up to a story that she has not seen in motion picture form. Throughout the other books she has become more attentive whenever it’s something that was not in the films, so the reading should be a lot more rewarding now.
  • I have been listening to music while catching up on blogs. I keep coming back to Augie March. I never tire of their music – it’s beautiful and timeless, unlike anything else I have listened to. I must have played One Crowded Hour at least five times this morning.
  • I have just installed the Scrapbook extension for Firefox, just to try it out. I’m finding the number of software options overwhelming at the moment. For any task I want to perform, there seem to be at least three options – a desktop app, an online service, and a Firefox extension. Do I want something that is a fairly powerful stand-alone app but bound to one computer (e.g., OneNote), integrated with the browser but still has data that is bound to one system (e.g., Scrapbook), or Web-based so I can access it anywhere but with a bit less power (e.g., Google Notebook)? I want it all, but the last thing I want is to have notes stored in multiple applications.
  • The thing about listening to FatBoy Slim’s “Weapon of Choice” is that it creates in me an immediate need to watch the video (that’s the Bruce Dickinson dancing, baby!) I cannot put this song onto my MP3 player until I get one that plays video.
  • Christmas pudding truffles – my contribution to our Midsummer’s dinner tonight.

Style vs substance Friday, Dec 22 2006 

I just need to say one thing about the presentations I saw from the high-level candidates, and the responses from the audience when the selection panel took feedback. Why is it that if someone presents a grand and inspiring vision for how they are going to transform the institution, nobody raises concerns about their knowledge of practical and financial realities, yet if someone presents a plan that is lighter on metaphors and has proposals for specific funding initiatives, etc., folks get concerned that they are not going to be able to make it work? I was a bit dismayed at how easily a bunch of vague and sometimes contradictory notions of how we can be innovative swept a room full of senior academics off their feet and drove any thoughts of reality from their mind.

Unbloggable Thursday, Dec 21 2006 

I am aware that I haven’t been blogging as regularly as I intended, and the simple fact is that it’s because I don’t feel I can at the moment. I’ve also been incredibly busy trying to wrap things up (and no, not just presents) before TLU closes down for a week.

In recent weeks, my work situation has included:

  • Death (of a colleague)
  • Political intrigue (over teaching duties for next year)
  • A selection process for a high-level position, in which we can see the likely outcome and can do nothing to avert it
  • An ongoing stream of questions, ranging from the important to the trivial, from students (former, current, incoming, and potential)
  • Insufficient time spent with my family and insufficient planning for the upcoming holidays
  • Other forms of administedium that has kept me from getting on with my core work

Those first three are the ones that I feel uncomfortable blogging about. Maybe I’ll get to them later, if I can find an appropriate way to discuss the issues. In the meanwhile, I’ll continue to feel guilty about neglecting to blog and will also wish that I could say more.

Not in the Easter spirit Wednesday, Dec 20 2006 

So, I’m planning my syllabus for next year’s research methods subject and I have run into the same problem that has affected me for the past couple of years – Easter.

TLU starts its mid-semester break on Good Friday. Because I have scheduled my lectures for the subject on Fridays for the past couple of years (because it’s the easiest day to get a good lecture room), I have to cancel a lecture. So far, no big deal – the same thing used to happen when I had Monday lectures. What makes Easter more of a problem is that it moves every year. The semester starts at roughly the same time each year, but Easter and the break can come after anything between from four and nine weeks of classes.

This is especially difficult for the research subject, because the topics follow a step-by-step progression and lead the students through doing the work on their major assignment. Because Easter is in early April next year, we’ll break a couple of weeks earlier than this year. This is making it very difficult to find a way that I can (i) set extra reading to make up for the week without lectures, and (ii) get them to a point where I can say I expect them to make progress on their research report over the break. I am trying to find a way to move some topics around, but I have to avoid rushing through the concepts that are the foundation for everything that comes after.

So while Midsummer and the Christmas holidays are just a few days away, it’s Easter that’s on my mind at the moment.

I win Monday, Dec 18 2006 

And so do you.

The cost of an education Monday, Dec 11 2006 

Okay, I’m going to talk a bit about my family in this entry, even though I (still) have an unfinished draft entry introducing them sitting here waiting for me to get around to completing and publishing it*.

My wife (who shall be known as The Better Half) is a student who is about to enter the final year of her undergrad degree. She is studying at TLU – hardly surprising, since it’s the only game in town. Today, she started doing some work for the department she is studying with. Her job involves calling school-leavers who have applied to do one of their courses to advise them. Working from a script, she gives them some basic information (including ensuring that they do not interpret the call as a sign that they are going to receive an offer from TLU), checks whether they have any questions, and then responds to their questions or arranges contact from an appropriate staff member of the university.

I just picked TBH up from doing the after-dinner calls and she has found it rewarding yet demoralising. The kids (her word – I should mention that my wife has returned to study after having four children, the oldest being born 22 years ago) she has been speaking to are sweet, naive, and hopeful. However, what’s getting her (and, consequently, me) down is that even if they receive an offer, half of them won’t be coming to TLU next year.

Now, let me start by saying that in the grand scheme of things, I know that social welfare in Australia is better than many places in the world and that I am thankful to be raising my family in this country. At the same time, I feel there are problems with the way we look after our young people, and particularly our students, that make education less accessible than it should be.

The way our social security system (administered by Centrelink, a government agency) works, people under 25 may be eligible to receive a payment called Youth Allowance, subject to rules about other income and provided they are either seeking full-time work or undertaking full-time study.

Among young people, Centrelink distinguishes between those who are dependent (i.e., those receiving support from their families) and independent. The Youth Allowance payment rate for independents is higher. So far, everything is fine.

The problem comes through the way that independence is defined. There are several ways in which a person can be declared independent. These include being married, having children, or being unable to live at home. It is also possible to be declared independent through earning sufficient income or working sufficient hours over a period of at least 18 months – in other words, by demonstrating that you are working to support yourself.

Unfortunately, these rules do not take into account the situation of students who live away from home for most of the year but are still dependent on their parents. At TLU, most of our school-leaving students live on-campus while they study. A small proportion are locals, but most come from surrounding areas, or may come from major cities (which usually means that they did not gain a place at one of their local universities).

This means that they have considerable costs for accommodation and food compared to students who are living at home. But the rules mean that if they enter university directly after leaving school, they will be considered dependent and will receive less support than most people who have to pay for their own lodgings.

So what happens in reality? For some families, the cost of sending a child away to university is out of reach. The child can’t begin studying if they will be treated as a dependent. So, students are forced to put study on hold and work in an unskilled job for two years to “earn” their independence. Once they reach that point, they can apply to study again.

It’s a hinky system, and it affects TLU and similar universities, as well as the communities we serve, to a greater extent than those in the big cities studying at the major institutions. City kids who get into a city university can live at home. On the other hand, rural kids generally have to leave home to study, and city kids who receive places at rural universities also have to travel. Those rural kids who gain a place at a city university may be in the worst situation, as the accommodation charges at city universities are normally higher. Each of these groups is disadvantaged by a system that defines independence based on history (by the way, the timeframe was once 12 months but has grown longer, assing an extra year to the interval between high school and uni).

So, TBH is aggravated that many of the applicants she has been speaking to will be forced to defer their studies. We can add to that a personal factor – we have a daughter (to be named later) who will be finishing high school next year. She may end up at TLU, but we want to encourage her to find the programme that best suits her, even if that is interstate. If she does that, we’re going to have to find some cash to help out, or she risks being left in the same situation.

Wouldn’t it be nice if the most important thing that determines whether someone studies at university was their academic potential? I know that many of these kids will make it in the end, but they waste two years of their life earning a low wage when they could be getting on with their degree, and in that time some of them may end up moving away from a plan that involves further study. And the sooner they graduate, the sooner they start earning graduate-level salaries and paying graduate-level taxes to offset any extra assistance they received. It seems to me that the best thing a society can do is to invest in the education of its population to maximise their potential. But maybe I’m just wacky.

* You want to know the reason for the delay? I am hopeless at coming up with pseudonyms. As will become clear, I have a reasonably large and complex family structure, and I just can’t finish off the list of names-that-are-not-names. Seriously, that’s the weak excuse I have for not talking about my family. It’s not that I don’t love them, that my life doesn’t revolve around them, and that I don’t think of them as I go through every day. I just don’t know what to call them.

Shiny! Monday, Dec 11 2006 

A Firefly MMORPG could be seriously good – of course, it could also be seriously bad, but let’s assume for now that the glass is 50% full. And the fact that it’s a Firefly license (from FOX) means they can draw on all of the content from the TV series. Okay, so the Serenity table-top RPG got around the limitations of having their licensing arrangement with Universal pretty easily (“no names mentioned” examples that were eerily familiar to viewers of the TV show), but this will just be more straightforward. The concept of Multiverse also looks interesting, and I suspect this will boost their profile outside of the core MMO community.

Breaking the Ice Sunday, Dec 10 2006 

While spending some time reading role-playing forums on a lazy Sunday afternoon, I just discovered what seems like an incredibly cool game. It’s called Breaking the Ice, and I love the premise of it.

The game is designed for two players, who take on the roles of two people who have just met and are going on up to three dates. Essentially, it’s a story-telling game about the (potential) development of a romantic relationship.

It seems to me that it could be an awful lot of fun, but also a great way to examine issues surrounding social interactions and especially romantic connections – what makes them work and what doesn’t. I’m fascinated by the concept and can see all sorts of things to explore. For instance, how does playing it with one’s own partner work in comparison to playing with a non-romantic friend? I can also see that it’s a really neat framework that people could take in whatever direction they would like to go.

As much as anything else, this entry is a reminder to myself to follow up on this game. I always tend to find something cool and then get distracted by a bumblebee and never come back to it.

LiLo: Voice of her generation? Sunday, Dec 10 2006 

Apparently, Lindsay Lohan can write – at least in the sense that she has fingers and can apply them to the keypad of her Blackberry. Unfortunately, she seems to run into trouble when it comes to the thinking and spelling.

Fortunately, Heather at Go Fug Yourself has already marked the young celebrity’s work, so I don’t need to worry. However, after reading it I think I would have had to include the old stalwart comment that “clarity of expression could be improved”.

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