We’ve lost sight of the journey

If you walk along the aisles of any major super market nowadays, you get a glimpse of our priorities. All the labels boast quickness and results. Two minute noodles, cup soup, instant coffee, microwavable popcorn, quick oats. Schnell schnell schnell. Descriptors of taste and joy are subordinate. Whatever the results are, we want them fast. There’s no savouring the process, enjoying or learning from the journey. It’s about getting a quick hit.


I’ve been thinking about this for a couple of weeks now, ever since my local supermarket stopped selling my favourite kind of oats – replaced on the shelves by myriad “quick” varieties. I really like making oats. I dump butter, water, milk and steel cut oats into a saucepan, stirring them over a low heat for about an hour – my former deskmate has a gorgeous recipe. The whole thing is a production, and, it’s a beautiful one. It’s therapeutic.

I watch the bubbles form and burst. I worry about it all sticking to the bottom of the pan. I spill half of it on the counter while I ladle it out. It’s great. Granted, I probably couldn’t pick my oats out of a lineup. But that’s not the point. Of course a bowl of oats shorn the context of an hour’s labour is exactly like any other – it’s the hour that makes it special.

The journey is part of the experience, not something to be wished away.

I’ll give you another example – coffee. I’ve recently started experimenting with coffee. I’m trying to learn exactly how the interplay between grind, heat and extraction creates a nice cup. Down the road from my house is a coffee roaster, and I recently walked down to pick up a grinder and a bag of beans. Upon my return, I was immediately confronted with a telling question – “why didn’t you get an electric grinder? It’s much faster.”

Of course it is. My hand grinder takes forever. So I pop a handful of beans in the top, walk out onto my balcony and start whirring away. It takes many, many minutes. It’s great.

The moment the beans come in contact with the porcelain blades they release the most beautiful smell. The slow, sharp crunching noises bleed together, becoming a low roar. The wind brushes my face, the morning light hits my eyes, my muscles are working. These are sensations just not available at a push of a button. All of it together is what makes it special – not the caffeine hit in isolation. It’s the same reason your coffee is better sitting in the cafe than when you’re skulling it on the train.

Over the last few decades we’ve slowly been learning to take a more wholistic view of the world. Centuries of monocropping left us with dwindling soil quality and a buildup of pests. A lack of top-level diversity left Facebook shut out of India. We need to extend this lesson to food.

Food is fuel, yes. But when we move beyond basic survival it is so much more than that. By reducing it to banal results, and how fast we achieve them, we lose most of the magic.

Why China is pantsing us when it comes to education

I’ve been writing a lot about education recently. Rants about our stupid industrial model, on how we need something that more conforms with the needs of the modern day – curiosity, critical thinking, and research over rote.

But even within our terrible model there are inequities to address. Some states are far better at turning out widget-people than others. Countries like Australia are falling behind in international rankings. And the way we approach teachers and teaching may be a big reason why.

I’m about halfway through Free Schools by David Gillespie. It’s essentially an examination of the Australian education system, from the point of view of a parent trying to decide whether to send his children to a government or “private” school. Gillespie scrutinises a lot of factors – class and school size, religion, gender and age segregation, government schools, charter schools, unions etc. etc.

There’s a lot of stuff to unpack here, which I hope to get to eventually. But something I read on the train this morning has stuck. A lot of the countries that are succeeding in our broken system have a great approach to teachers and teaching. They emphasise it as a craft and provide a method for constant finessing.

“A Shanghai teacher with less than five years’ experience is assigned two mentors, one for classroom management and one for subject-specific guidance. The mentors are teachers with five to ten years’ experience.”

According to Gillespie, teachers in Shanghai have enormous space and resources to improve their craft. They are given a three-year development plan, and mentors to act both as examples (they spend days observing their mentors’ classes), as well as to provide feedback on their own teaching practices (the mentors sit in classes and give them advice on teaching plans and delivery). As teachers progress through their career they are given increasingly experienced mentors, and they themselves become mentors. They aren’t promoted out of the classroom, their talent and expertise isn’t incentivised to leave the system.

The teacher’s are also leaned upon to help improve the system from within. To critically analyse it from the front line. They join groups aimed at improving student results, to research, evaluate and apply strategies to make schools and education more effective. They conduct their own original research, submitting papers to academic journals. They are, in other words, treated in a similar fashion to lawyers, doctors or any other knowledge professional.

This is all after they have graduated, and continues well into their careers.

“[in Shanghai] teachers are expected to learn following the cycle of study–practise–analyse then start again.”

“There’s a constant and pervasive culture of teacher-performance mentoring – not monitoring, mentoring. Teachers are treated like the professionals they are.”

This is the complete opposite to how Australia has tackled improving education – playing on the margins by focusing on superficial gains like reducing class size (this has not proven effective). As Gillespie points out, painfully, over and over, the concept of teaching as a skill is absent in our discourse. We leave our teachers alone, on an island with their students. We don’t support them the way Shanghai does, or encourage them to improve the system. And education largely ends at uni. What little further training they get is spotty, and largely centred around things they might need to teach – not teaching itself.

“Australian teachers reported that they received little or no constructive feedback from the programs, it was rarely based on classroom observation and, as a result, it was disconnected from student learning. Most teacher professional development consisted of attendance at one-off courses and wasn’t part of any longer term collaborative research program.”

There is a big caveat here. The countries Gillespie namedrops are different to ours in fundamental ways. Age and governance-wise yes, but also culturally. Many of these well-performing countries are what’s known as collectivist cultures, while we are individualist. Collectivist cultures, like that of China and Japan, emphasize group goals above individual needs or desire. See if you can catch a hint of that in this quote:

“Asian and Finnish school teachers are not compensated based on their students’ performance, they work together as professionals to ensure they’re all more effective teachers. That students perform better is an outcome of better teaching, not a means of calculating the teachers’ weekly salary.”

I would assume our emphasis on incentive structure and individuals probably has a lot to do with our individualist culture. Although don’t quote me on that. The main point is, countries like China obviously have a much healthier take on how to treat and train teachers.

Humanity is being thingified

Marcie Bianco has an absolutely fantastic essay over at Quartz, looking at the tension between feminism and social media. She borrows/quotes from work done by Nancy Jo Sales, interviewing hundreds of teenage girls about their online experiences.

Bianco’s essay is about selfies, especially nude selfies, and how they clash with the goals of Feminism – equality and respect. Bianco argues that selfies, especially the transactional kind, lead to the commodification of the female body. The “thingification” of ourselves. It is particularly noxious when it comes to teenage girls.

“By thingification, I mean the making of ourselves into “things”–commodities for others’ consumption. By turning our lives into a series of images, and attempting to be desired or “liked” by everyone, we end up in a state of alienation–both from others and from ourselves.”

I don’t profess expertise in how teenagers interact on new social media platforms. But this trend was already obvious a decade ago, when my friends and I would jump on MSN and Myspace. We didn’t have selfies, but let’s say that the sharing of certain images was already prevalent.

There are two big differences from when I was a teenager – the platforms we used were closed (we weren’t broadcasting), and smartphones weren’t yet ubiquitous. In other words the stakes are higher, pressure to conform greater. Considering the amount of social pressure we all now feel to share more of ourselves, or, rather, to project a certain vision of ourselves, I can imagine this burden falls on certain groups in more insidious ways.

“Why give up your power to others to validate you? Why ask others, ‘Here I am, tell me how great I am, please? Like me, please?’ You’re giving others the power to say whether or not you are worthwhile, and very often it’s based on what you look like in a picture, because it’s all image-driven. It’s a false valuation of self-worth that I think girls are being drawn into.””

The only (very minor) quibble I have with Bianco’s argument is that it should be extended. She is concentrating on selfies and teenage girls. But it could and should apply across the board, whether its selfies or tweets, men or women. We are all being thingified, our lives bent in the pursuit of likes and views. The mad rush to be noticed, the endorphin rush when it happens, are found across social media platforms.

We’ve all become the producers of our own reality shows.

Go read the entire essay. You won’t be disappointed.

Data empowers bad governments too

For a little while at least, social media seemed to be a great emancipator – fomenting revolutions and eliminating gatekeepers.

Data purports to a similar impact. Evangelists describe a world with better decision making, less lumping us in together. Over the past year I’ve interviewed a tonne of Australian data startups, using their datasets for everything from appraising creditworthiness to offering location-based deals and fine-tuning product. That the previously uncreditworthy could get relief through new data is great.

But there’s another side to this coin.

The Economist recently had a superb special report on how data is changing politics. There was the usual stuff about campaigns using data to fine tune messaging, and directly target voters. More alarming was the new tools governments are getting in prediction and analysis.

“In the case of protest movements, the waves of collective action leave a big digital footprint. Using ever more sophisticated algorithms, governments can mine these data. That is changing the balance of power. In the event of another Arab spring, autocrats would not be caught off guard again because they are now able to monitor protests and intervene when they consider it necessary.”

There’s been a lot of hype about meta data and governments breaking encryption. And this is serious. As researchers have shown, just the meta data on the envelopes of American revolutionaries could have helped the British round up Paul Revere.

But imagine what malicious governments can get up to with real-time data mining of what we put out on social media. Would the Arab Spring or Occupy ever have surfaced if the government was monitoring sentiment, just waiting to crush?

“Governments that were digitally blind when the internet first took off in the mid–1990s now have both a telescope and a microscope.”

I really recommend reading the entire special report.

A utopian plan to tackle tax evasion

The hidden wealth of nations by Gabriel Zucman lays a great foundation for understanding the origins of tax havens and profit shifting, what drives them, and a possible solution.

I’ve talked a bit about what makes it possible, and the coverage of the Panama Papers has addressed the second point, but we still need more discussion about a solution. And Zucman’s is interesting.

Zucman’s plan comes in two parts – the creation of a global register of financial instruments, and a tax levied on the lot. The combination of the two would negate the benefit of profit shifting – the tax is global, and of secrecy – in order to claim deductions or benefit from lower local taxes you would need to file a return.

“imagine a global tax of 0.1% on the stock of wealth withheld at the source. This means that each year tax authorities, drawing on the information in the register, would deduct 0.1% of the value of all financial securities, bank accounts, and so on.”
“In order to recover what has been taken from them, US taxpayers, for example, would have only one solution: declare their holdings on their IRS tax returns. Subject to this declaration, they would receive a credit for any taxes that remain due—or see themselves reimbursed if they owe no taxes at all.”

It is the combination of these two ideas, really, that is the breakthrough. A global financial register alone won’t achieve much – we will have a comprehensive list of “owners” of financial instruments, but much of it will remain opaque as shell corporations and tax havens muddy the waters. By leveraging a tax, even if net revenue is zero, we gain. We force opacity.

“Without a wealth tax, there is a risk that even a global register might fail to identify who exactly owns what. Despite anti-laundering legislation that requires financial institutions to know who the owners of the wealth that they have in their accounts truly are, a not negligible portion of the securities could continue to be recorded in a register as belonging to trusts without a well-identified owner.”

It’s throughout this explanation of the solution, that you really see the hole in the plan. Zucman is constantly at pain to justify himself, that his ideas aren’t utopian – in fact, they are all currently in play on a smaller scale. Constantly referenced, the word utopia makes its presence uncomfortable.

What’s stopping us tackling tax evasion isn’t a lack of ideas – even if you don’t appreciate Zucman’s. It isn’t even sovereignty, as something like Zucman’s tax allows for states to set and differ in their policies. It’s that the people in power, many of whom benefit from the status quo, need to be convinced to do something. That’s the utopia.