Older blog entries for hypatia (starting at number 331)

Product review: GoGet carsharing

We’ve been non-car owners again for a few weeks and members of GoGet car sharing for a month or so. These are my initial impressions.

This is against a background of our car being primarily used for occasional errands, and weekend excursions either locally (to the beach etc) or to regional cities. We also used to use our car for our son’s daily childcare run, but since we moved, his new childcare is in walking distance. I wouldn’t recommend GoGet to anyone who has a daily errand, this review is largely comparing it to having an occasional-use personal car.

Good things compared to car ownership:

  1. most areas where there is a car at all, there’s more than one. An out-of-action car does not mean “no car use at all until car repaired”
  2. they take care of on-road costs and insurance. Of course, this is bundled into subscriber fees, but it both flattens them over the year and works out cheaper for our usage. I think in theory they aim for a car for every 10 subscribers or so? We’re on the Frequent member plan, so I guess you could say our on-road costs are $360 a year.
  3. they take care of repairs. Again, bundled in, but flattened and so on.
  4. they take care of having a free parking spot by paying the council for guaranteed spots.
  5. (maybe arguably good) they turn the fleet over far more often than most people I know replace their cars.

Good things compared to car rental:

  1. the cars are just sitting there, in our case quite close by. You just get online, book, and walk up and take one. You only sign away your life in triplicate once. You don’t have to budget in a trip to the car rental place, a wait in a queue, a briefing on the terms and conditions and an inspection of the car.
  2. the insurance is reasonable rather than the typical car rental deal with a $3500+ excess unless you pay them 1/2 the rental cost again. With GoGet, if you can wear a $1500 excess it’s built in to the base pricing, or you can pay about $18 per day to bring it down to $300.
  3. you have to return the car with at least 1/4 of a tank of fuel, which is a lot easier to achieve than the full tank rental companies require.
  4. both the possibility of hourly bookings and the hour saving in pickup time make them way more useful for errands and so on.
  5. close to instantaneous bookings, subject to availability, whereas rental companies often struggle with sub-24-hours-notice requests

Bad things:

  1. Bookings start and finish on the hour. In pathological cases (say you need a car from 1245 to 1315) you pay for two or three hours of use in order to use the car for an hour or so.
  2. They’re for-profit, presumably this could be done cheaper not-for-profit. This is a bad thing-asterisk though: as I know very well, NFPs don’t magically appear out of thin air. Someone would still have to set up an entire car sharing company except with only a salary to motivate them.
  3. GoGet’s big thing is “we pay for fuel”. And they do pay in the sense of providing fuel cards, but they also have a 39c per kilometre usage charge for bookings that aren’t a day long booking. 40c per kilometre adds up fast!
    In theory the day booking rate (24 hours and 150km free for $68) kicks in as soon as your per-hour spend exceeds the day rate, for most cross-metro trips you’re probably going to nearly hit that.
  4. (potentially) GoGet does not accept any member who has a major traffic offence in the last 10 years of driving, and all applications for membership are at the discretion of their insurer. This contributes to the cheaper insurance compared to car rental, but it obviously disadvantages people who do have a traffic record or a history of at-fault accidents.
  5. not an enormous amount of choice wrt make and model, less than many larger rental centres. Really your choice boils down to little-medium-big in whichever make and model are nearby. (For us little == Toyota Yaris, medium == Hyundai i30s and i30 wagons, and big == Hyundai iMax.)
  6. some contention for them. Our experience is that with weekends, we really need to plan our trip the day before to have a good chance of a single car in Glebe being free over the entire block of time we need, and it’s probably worse in suburbs with less cars (Glebe has at least 10, and Pyrmont and Ultimo another 15 or so). Long weekends are worse because people take them away, and the iMaxes get booked really early most weekends.
  7. lack of flexibility with end time. That is, if we want to go somewhere and book a car accordingly but then someone invites us to dinner or whatever, we may not be able to stay because the car needs to be back. We haven’t had to try for last-minute use extensions yet, so we don’t know how often we will find that the car has 3 hours free just after our booking.
  8. if something goes wrong with your booking, they give you a $25 credit on your account, which unless the error is very minor is really not enough. To be fair, they do shift the booking to another car if they can, but on weekends this would be hard, see 6.
  9. fitting children’s car seats is a pain in the neck.
  10. their setup has an annoying feature whereby if it is the very first time that you in particular have used a given car in the fleet, the booking needs to take place about 15 minutes before your slot, so that the car can download your access data. Less important once you’ve used the car nearest to you for the first time.

In the medium term, this is likely to be a sufficiently good replacement for our occasional-use car.

Syndicated 2012-03-27 22:00:47 from lecta

Nannies and flexibility

Liam Hogan tweeted:

Further on rebates for nannies: if they’re a response to family-unfriendly working hours, flexible childcare is solving the wrong problem.

Here’s some systemic problems with childcare as it currently stands that one might hire a nanny as a possible solution to:

availability (strong form) For under 2s in Sydney, you simply might not get a childcare place accessible to you, by your scheduled return to work. Full-stop.

availability (weaker form) You have 2 or 3 children under 5, not uncommon. If you do get childcare places for them all, they (a) start to approach the price of a nanny and (b) are often not at the same daycare centre. So you can add 2 to 3 drop-offs to your commute run, 2 to 3 infection sources to your health problems, and when your children do all end up at the same daycare centre, you can enjoy four to six weeks of emotionally resettling them with the new centre. Or hire a nanny.

commuting in general Family unfriendly work hours are common. Family unfriendly commute hours are even more common: either a really tight schedule where you hope for no breakdowns/signals failures, or just total impossibility of getting to the centre in time. (Or you can have your kids in care near your work, and have them commute with you. Fun for the whole family. Plus you cannot use the centre when you are sick, which is one of the times when you really want to.)

illness I had four bouts of gastro and eight respiratory infections in the four months after my son began daycare. A nanny is an expensive way to avoid this, but that night I considered calling the police because we couldn’t lift him up to feed him? Maybe that’s worth $200 a day to people who can pay to avoid it.

throughout the day contact a privilege of (partial) telecommuters and (partially) at-home business people, and in theory daycare centres allow drop-ins if children are well-settled there and can handle two separations in a day (so, probably not in the first several months of care). For these people, a nanny may be one way of allowing the parent and child to have throughout-the-day contact without the parent needing to be first contact point for the child’s needs.

Now, I fully agree that funding nannies is less good ultimately than, say, free and freely available childcare, predictable work hours, widespread onsite/neighbourhood childcare with liberal allowance for parent drop-in, redesigning work and cities so that 1+ hour commutes aren’t the usual case, or… I don’t even know what you do about the illnesses, because I once saw my 9 month old licking another baby’s face and getting a good licking back. But there’s a raft of reasons why nannies are attractive. We may turn to one after our next child on cost alone. So that’s the context of nannies, for me.

Syndicated 2012-03-27 02:30:09 from lecta

Product review: Shoeboxed

I’ve been using Shoeboxed now for long enough to review it, I think.

Problem: as with every adult household, we have lots of incoming documents like bills and super statements and similar, and the high initial overhead on deciding whether and where to store them, plus re-sorting them later and so on has never been something we’ve been on top of. Come tax time, in particular, we were usually opening piles of envelopes and hoping for the best.

In 2007 or 2008 we started scanning and shredding a lot of things, but that still left going through and labelling the scans as a problem, plus when I went on maternity leave in 2010 we didn’t have access to a sheet-feed scanner anymore and got behind and never caught up. Back to the “giant unsorted pile of paper” solution.

There are a few services that accept mail on behalf of people and send scans (Pass the Post, Keeping You Posted) but these tend to be quite expensive if you want them to handle all your mail, and also there’s still a time-critical decision step (scan it or send it to me). It tends to be aimed at travellers or businesses. It was annoying enough though that every few months I hit the search engines and eventually lit on Shoeboxed.

What Shoeboxed does:

  1. accepts documents either sent by mail (not one at a time, many in a big envelope) to a US or AU postal address, or uploaded
  2. scans the physical document if any
  3. does data entry for the major data within (for bills, say, the sender and the total)
  4. makes them available after logging in on their website
  5. makes them available over an API to other services like bookkeeping websites

What Shoeboxed doesn’t do:

  1. directly accept individual physical mail on your behalf (they do have a service where you can get online receipts sent to them, I haven’t used it)
  2. full OCR of the scanned documents

There’s a very very limited Free plan involving uploading (not mailing) up to 5 documents a month for OCR plus unlimited uploads if you do your own data entry. The next plan up in Australia, which we’re on, is $20 a month, and includes all the features I listed

Impressions:

  1. overall, it pretty much does what we want: gets paper out of our house and into an easily searchable online form with scans available
  2. because it isn’t fully OCRed I still have to go through non-bills in order to note what they are, eg, a mail from childcare could be a fee change or a newsletter or a note about illness and if I need to find it in a year I’d have to search on the name and look through them all
  3. the processing speed on the Lite plan (contents of envelopes appear on the website in 3–5 days) has been a bit annoying on occasion, I’ve found myself scanning really time-critical documents and uploading them
  4. the processing speed on uploaded scans is great, the data entry is usually done within the hour
  5. the usage reporting doesn’t incorporate the bonus scans one gets by doing things like signing up for an annual plan, or answering demographic surveys. Very annoying!

For our needs, it’s definitely an improvement over our home-rolled solution. We’re scrambling to get 250 documents to them before our annual purchase bonus expires.

Syndicated 2012-03-26 07:13:08 from lecta

So yeah, that happened (Wikimania 2012, Washington DC)

On Friday, I was announced as the keynote speaker for Wikimania in Washington DC in July.

Ada Initiative:

We’re proud to announce that Ada Initiative co-founder Mary Gardiner has been chosen to give the opening keynote at Wikimania 2012! Wikimania is the world’s top conference for Wikipedia and related Wikimedia projects, held this year from July 12 – 15 in Washington, D.C. “Mary has been a strong advocate for open source and has worked extensively to elevate the role of women and increase their participation in open source and open culture,” says James Hare, Wikimania 2012 coordinator.

I basked in my glory for all of about two hours before coming down with some horrible illness my toddler picked up at daycare. Talk about crashing to earth.

Anyway, so, I am Wikimania’s keynote! My plan, loosely, is this:

  1. arrive DC on July 8 or 9
  2. AdaCamp DC on July 10 and 11
  3. Wikimania on July 12–14
  4. (possibly/probably) San Francsico on July 15 onwards, probably departing on the 18th or 19th (due to the dateline, add 2 days for my Sydney arrival)

Since I am unlikely to bring my son, I’m trying to limit my time away and am unlikely to add another city. If I do, it will probably be Montreal (where my sister-in-law lives).

If we know each other and you want to get in touch about meeting up in the States, email me at the usual places. If you’re a journalist wanting to talk to me, email me via the Ada Initiative press@adainitiative.org.

Syndicated 2012-03-26 05:21:11 from lecta

The practical reality of contraception, Australian edition

Background the first: The practical reality of contraception: A guide for men, by Valerie Aurora, about contraception in the US

Background the second: A layperson’s intro to paying for healthcare in Australia which I wrote as specific background to this post.

Things that are the same in Australia

Contraception works the same way! The side-effect risks are the same:

Let’s start with estrogen-based hormonal birth control and health. I know women who get life-threatening blood clots on estrogen birth control (if the clot gets lodged in a blood vessel, effects range from loss of a limb to death). Others have mood swings so bad that their partners threaten to break up with them and their boss calls them into their office to ask why they’re so mean and bitchy all of a sudden. Don’t laugh – losing your partner or your job is serious shit, and many women decide to risk pregnancy and an abortion rather than the certainty of being abandoned and broke. Another side effect is feeling like you’re going to barf, which usually goes away after a few weeks, but not for everyone. More side effects and health problems abound, but those are the ones I know about offhand.

The mechanism is the same:

Now let’s talk failure rates. You have to take the birth control pill every single day, within a few hours of the same time, to get that 98% or 99% effective rate. Big whoop, you may think. I take my blood pressure medicine every day. Usually. Actually, it’s pretty hard, even with those little day-of-the-week labels on the pills.

Those are specific to the combined pill, but there is no special magical Australian version of contraception. Same risks, same side-effects, same administration, same failure rate.

Valerie’s description of providers withholding prescriptions to force a patient to have a pelvic exams is also true here, although they usually aren’t called pelvic exams: they’re called Pap smears, even though the bimanual exam is often performed too. However, they’re done slightly less often: every 2 years in Australia for low-risk women.

I believe doctors and pharmacists in Australia can refuse the prescription and the supply based on personal moral considerations, and that really sucks. However, it doesn’t seem as common except for the (sometimes publicly-funded!) Catholic hospitals, ew. (See Lauredhel’s “Pro-life” Archbishop Hart’s murderous misogyny and Catholic Church says “Thalidomide-analogue cancer trial? No contraceptive advice for you!”)

Things that are different

Cost

Very important! Many many many brands of the pill are PBS medications, and cost about $30 for 4 months’ supply, so, getting close to Valerie’s mythical $8 a month mark.

Moreover, other contraceptive mechanisms (except condoms, which probably cost about the same) are cheaper too. For example, in the US I understand that I would be out of pocket at least $500 to have a Mirena IUD. In Australia, I had the insertion performed in a public hospital (being elective, I had to wait about 10 weeks), and bought the device from a pharmacy for $35 as it is a PBS medication. Total cost: $35! Length of contraceptive effectiveness: 5 years! (Downside: needs to be shoved into uterus. However, this is easier to do if you’ve shoved a baby the other way.)

Trouble at the doctor

As in Valerie’s entry, scripts for regular hormonal contraception do need to be re-done once a year or so, and given the side-effect profile of the Pill, I can see why. (If your blood pressure is up, you probably won’t notice, but you should be off the Pill.) At least in major metro areas, getting a non-essential appointment to get a script re-issued seems less of a pain though: a few days notice and your clinic will get you in for the required 15 minutes. Also, most doctors will prescribe the Pill to a brand-new patient after a short verbal medical history (at least, if you mention a Pap smear within the last two years) and a blood pressure check, so you can pop into a bulk billing clinic if you have one handy.

In addition, very recent law changes apparently will allow pharmacists to directly supply a small amount of contraceptives (and blood pressure meds) to patients to tide them over to their next doctor’s appointment. (I heard this on the radio, so, sadly, no citation.)

Trouble at the pharmacy

Like other meds in Australia, this just isn’t as much of a pain. The PBS contribution, if any (Nuvaring isn’t covered, say), goes on before you ever go anywhere near the pharmacy, you pay the remainder yourself usually. So the fighting with one’s insurer step is gone. Moreover, while pharmacies do only fill scripts towards the end of the previous supply, the “towards the end” test is more generous: you have two to three weeks at least.

Summary

I think Australia really wins here, especially on cost.

Syndicated 2012-03-08 01:32:28 from lecta

A layperson’s intro to paying for healthcare in Australia

I wanted to write a comparison post to Valerie’s The practical reality of contraception: A guide for men about the Australian equivalents. However, I realised a background in the Australian healthcare system might be needed. Hence this post.

Caution: I am not a medical professional or health administrator. There are plenty of details of healthcare payment in Australia I am blissfully unaware of. This is a guide to what it is like to pay for healthcare in Australia as a relatively healthy younger woman.

Summary

In Australia, many people in cities can see doctors mostly for free, and get free hospital treatment and pretty cheap pharmaceuticals. Yay. It isn’t the magical land of totally free though. Boo.

Medicare

Australia has government funded healthcare, called Medicare. Medicare is available to all Australian citizens and permanent residents living in the country. It is funded through the Medicare levy, a federal tax applied to people on moderate incomes and up.

To prove your eligibility for Medicare you have a Medicare card listing your name (often families are combined onto one card of which each adult gets a copy). In the absense of this card Medicare can verify coverage directly to health care services, I believe, but that’s more hassle. Most people carry their Medicare card in their wallet.

Further reading: overview of Medicare, tax guide to the Medicare levy.

Medicare pays for medical services: that is, (a fixed amount of) doctors’ fees and, for public hospitals, other costs associated with hospitalisation. That is, in Australia, you can for most conditions go to a public hospital, be admitted, and be operated on, x-rayed, diagnosed, etc, for free. Hooray!

The Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS)

The PBS provides government subsidised pharmaceuticals to Medicare card holders. Basically, almost all common drugs are bought in huge numbers by the government at agreed prices and then sold in pharmacies to patients. No matter what the government paid, the patient will pay something in the order of $20 to $50 for PBS medication. Low income people can obtain a health care card entitling them to medication prices on the order of $5 or so.

Private health insurers (see below) may provide partial reimbursements for some non-PBS drugs.

People who have unusual drug needs (for example, some types of chemotherapy and painkillers, or a drug for which there are several PBS alternatives that for some reason you personally can’t take) can still end up paying huge amounts for medications.

Further reading: About the PBS, Health Care Card

Bulk billing, private billing, and gaps

Doctors’ fees are an important thing to understand here. A doctor in a public hosptial will bill the government for their fixed fee only (or rather, the hospital will bill the government, and pay the doctor a salary). A doctor working outside a public hospital has a choice, they can bulk bill, which is the jargon for billing the government directly, and which from the point of view of the patient is a free consultation. Or they can privately bill, and they can bill any fee they like. The patient can claim the fixed government contribution from Medicare. The difference between the doctor’s bill and the government scheduled fee is called a gap (not a “co-pay”, that’s American jargon) and it is often paid by the patient themselves, especially if the doctor was seen in their own clinic rather than in a private hospital.

The same can be true of other medical services like X-Rays and scans, or blood tests. There are some practitioners or clinics that bulk bill and some that don’t.

There are also some procedures that Medicare flat-out doesn’t cover. I mostly encounter this with unusual blood tests.

Availability of bulk billing

As above, public hospitals do it, and there are a lot of public hospitals. For non-emergency treatment or care for which there is contention, such as childbirth, the hospital usually has a defined catchment area, and will only treat in-area patients. So you have an assigned hospital, essentially, that will admit you and treat you under Medicare.

Outside hospitals, in major metropolitan areas it is often possible to find bulk-billing general practitioners, and, in some specialties, even bulk-billing specialists with their own practice. (This can have downsides such as shorter appointments or high practitioner turnover, but some private billing clinics have these problems too!) In smaller cities and regional and rural areas on the other hand, there is usually a shortage of medical practitioners and private billing can be near-universal. And underserved specialties often have near-universal enormous gap fees for out-of-hospital consultations.

There is some protection against enormous gaps. Some private insurers (below) have some coverage, and the Medicare Safety Net starts paying part of many gaps after you spend about $500 in a year on gaps.

Private insurance

Now, there is private health insurance, which you take out in addition to (not instead of) Medicare. What this gets you is:

  1. coverage of many expenses associated with choosing a private hospital (accommodation, operating theatre fees) and so on, and on some policies partial coverage of the gap amount on the doctors who treated you at the hospital
  2. coverage of some non- or partly-Medicare covered expenses, like dental, optical and physiotherapy fees (for example, Medicare covers eye exams to prescribe glasses, but not the actual glasses themselves), the jargon for that here is extras cover
  3. coverage of ambulance expenses in states where the state government doesn’t pay for them (NSW is one of the states where you pay for your own ambulance)
  4. coverage of a (usually pretty limited) range of non-PBS drugs

You can usually buy pieces of this too: eg, just hospital, or just ambulance.

As an indication as regards cost, private premiums presently start at about $150 for a family for a month, and a super-kickarse policy with huge yearly limits on extras and private obstetric care (this, psychiatric care and dialysis are often excluded from cheap policies) included starts around $350 a month for a family with adults my age. They actually have to get the federal government to approve their rate of premium rises.

Why use the private system?

Here, the private system is anything where the patient may be billed. This includes:

  1. being admitted to a public hospital as a private patient, which is a choice they offer you, and the hospital bills you/your private insurer rather than Medicare
  2. being admitted to a privately funded hospital
  3. seeing a doctor or visiting a clinic that does not bulk bill

One major reason is that, as above, out of a hospital you simply may not have a local bulk billing practitioner. Or, if you are wealthy, you might, but you may have a personal preference for a particular practitioner who doesn’t bulk bill.

The other is to avoid the downsides of the public system:

  1. for some treatments, especially elective surgery (tangent, in Australian medical jargon, that means all surgery that isn’t urgent, it does not only mean “surgery for which there isn’t a medical need”) public hospitals may have long waiting lists, whereas you could get your treatment more swiftly in the private system, which may be considerably more pleasant for you!
  2. in the public system, you are not entitled to a choice of doctor. You get treated by the rostered doctor (often a registrar, ie, specialist-in-training in the appropriate specialty). In the private system (including a privately-paying patient in a public hospital) you appoint your doctor.
  3. public hospitals tend to have a lower standard of accommodation than private ones, ie, shared rooms, less light in rooms and similar. So, a class thing.
  4. quite a number of public hosptials are actually Catholic, and refuse proscribed services like abortion, tubal ligation, and prescribing or supplyin contraception (whether publicly funded hospitals should be allowed to do this is an interesting question, but not really live, politically)

Nevertheless, as you can imagine, Medicare coverage suffices for many Australians even if they can afford private premiums. There are a couple of financial carrots and sticks used to encourage taking it up and, in theory, reduce the cost burden on Medicare.

Employers sometimes, but by no means always, offer private health cover. It’s usually a benefit associated with US-owned companies. (Google presently pays for my family’s private cover.) It’s not a tax-exempt benefit.

Further reading: the Medicare levy surcharge tax on wealthy people who don’t take up private insurance, and lifetime health cover premiums in which your premium is locked to the age that you first bought private insurance at.

Comparisons with the US system

Improvements on the US system, based on my (very imperfect!) understanding of that system:

  1. the most obvious one is that when you lose your job you do not lose Medicare coverage if you are unemployed, or earn too much money, or earn it the wrong way, or are too old, too young, too healthy or too sick.
  2. likewise, you cannot end up with a health history that makes it impossible for you to be insured: private insurers cannot, by law, discriminate on anything other than age (higher age is higher premiums) or medical history, and the only permissable medical history discrimination is that they can (and always do) refuse to pay for treatment related to a “pre-existing condition” for the first 12 months of cover. Medicare does not discriminate other than on nationality and visa status.
  3. insurers don’t get involved in the details of your medical decisions. It’s fairly plain when something is covered and when it isn’t. There seems to be far fewer problems with “and then I presented my script in a month with a blue moon and it turns out that clause 197c2 subsection b means that I now pay for my medication myself this year”. Generally you and your treating professional make a decision, stuff happens, and Medicare, PBS and you collectively pay the same amount for it no matter who billed what when and who sacrificed which mammal to the gods.
  4. even privately billed stuff seems cheaper, probably because the giant single-payer forces all the prices down, and the fact that for things that Medicare doesn’t cover, you tend to see the entire bill, which seems to be more price transparency than the US has.

    As a price difference example, Valerie states that she had a USD 40 co-pay on Nuvaring. Nuvaring is not a PBS medication here and my private insurer didn’t cover it either. But I paid AUD 30 a month for it and that was the entire cost, not just a portion of it.

Syndicated 2012-03-08 00:56:25 from lecta

Book review: Steve Jobs

Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs.

It is the day in Australia to be thinking about poor leadership and its sequelae. And coincidentally I’ve just finished up everyone’s favourite summer hardback brick (all hail the Kindle), the authorised Steve Jobs biography, and I just read this today too:

However, sometimes really smart employees develop agendas other than improving the company. Rather than identifying weaknesses, so that he can fix them, he looks for faults to build his case. Specifically, he builds his case that the company is hopeless and run by a bunch of morons. The smarter the employee, the more destructive this type of behavior can be. Simply put, it takes a really smart person to be maximally destructive, because otherwise nobody else will listen to him.

Why would a smart person try to destroy the company that he works for?… He is fundamentally a rebel—She will not be happy unless she is rebelling; this can be a deep personality trait. Sometimes these people actually make better CEOs than employees.

When Smart People are Bad Employees

Well, good to see that someone understands Jobs better than me.

One major thing that struck me about this book is that Isaacson is really quite flattering about… Bill Gates. It is, however, fairly easy to do this in a biography of Jobs, because Gates was really one of the fairly few people with both power and emotional and financial distance to assess Jobs relatively dispassionately and to go on the record about it. He also never had a intense and short-lived mutual admiration relationship with him in the way that Jobs had with many men he worked more closely with. Gates and Jobs apparently always considered each other a little bit of a despicable miracle: astonishingly good work with your little company over there, Bill/Steve, I would never have considered it believed with your deluded pragmatic/uncompromising approach to software aesthetics.

I read these books mostly for the leadership and corporate governance insights at the moment: unfortunately there’s not a lot here. There is of course a lot of unreplicatable information about Jobs personally: I doubt a firm belief that vegans don’t need to wear deodorant is essential to building a massive IT company. Likewise, if your boss is uncompromising and divides the world into shitheads and geniuses, the solution turns out to (in this book) “be Jony Ive or John Lasseter”. Not really a repeatable result.

It shouldn’t (and didn’t!) really come as a surprise, but if you want to know more about Jobs personally, read this book. If you want to know a great deal about the successes and failures of Apple’s corporate strategy, you’ll largely see them through a Jobs-shaped lens. Which probably isn’t the worst lens for it, but not the only one. In any case, it’s a nice flowing read (I read it in a couple of days) and is ever so full of those “oh goodness he did WHAT?” anecdotes you can subject your patient housemates to, if you like.

Syndicated 2012-02-27 21:00:24 from lecta

Sunday spam: watered-down gruel

Mmm, yum.

I’ve been thinking more intensely about schooling my son since, well, he was born and also since I began reading Rivka’s homeschooling blog (she began homeschooling her then five-year-old year old daughter in June 2010, when my own son was about four months old).

I probably, frankly, wouldn’t know the first thing about homeschooling otherwise, but as it is, I can bring you several links. The first couple are a defence of homeschooling from a self-identified liberal point of view, in the US sense of progressive. In fact, all of this is about the US school system.

Does homeschooling violate liberal values?

Do we have a responsibility to work towards equal educational opportunity for all children, and if so, do we violate it by removing our family from the public system? Even liberal homeschoolers don’t really seem to engage with this question much. Partly I think it’s because there’s such a strong libertarian streak in homeschooling communities, even on the left wing. But also, liberal philosophical arguments for homeschooling tend to be based on a critique of schools as rigid and stifling institutions…

Are liberal homeschoolers hypocrites?

… I’m not a homeschooler, and I don’t particularly care whether anyone thinks I’m sufficiently liberal. But I certainly don’t judge anyone who chooses to take their kids out of these schools. There’s no one right answer to how to make this world a more humane place, and the homeschoolers’ answer seems at least as wise as Goldstein’s. If anything, I instinctively distrust the idea that we can create a more liberal and humane society by putting our kids into less liberal and humane environments. By treating kids as instruments for social improvement, that argument mirrors the very same instrumental treatment of children that I object to when it’s practiced by “reformers” who treat kids as soldiers in the battle for global competitiveness.

And that last point about soldiers in the battle for global competitiveness neatly brings me to Got Dough? How Billionaires Rule Our Schools:

Hundreds of private philanthropies together spend almost $4 billion annually to support or transform K–12 education, most of it directed to schools that serve low-income children (only religious organizations receive more money). But three funders—the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Eli and Edythe Broad (rhymes with road) Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation—working in sync, command the field. Whatever nuances differentiate the motivations of the Big Three, their market-based goals for overhauling public education coincide: choice, competition, deregulation, accountability, and data-based decision-making. And they fund the same vehicles to achieve their goals: charter schools, high-stakes standardized testing for students, merit pay for teachers whose students improve their test scores, firing teachers and closing schools when scores don’t rise adequately, and longitudinal data collection on the performance of every student and teacher…

Every day, dozens of reporters and bloggers cover the Big Three’s reform campaign, but critical in-depth investigations have been scarce (for reasons I’ll explain further on). Meanwhile, evidence is mounting that the reforms are not working…

Syndicated 2012-02-25 21:00:09 from lecta

Talking about his generation: you too can be a bad futurist

The X or Y posts (Gen X or Y?, On being X-ish) reminded me of something I wrote about my son, who was born in 2010, not long before he was born:

I was looking at one of those “the kids of today” lists and thinking about V. What will the world of the 2010 baby look like? I came up with:

  • September 11 will be something that happened when his parents were young, roughly equivalent to the Vietnam War for me, a bit nearer than the moon landing or Harold Holt drowning
  • in fact by the time he’s a teenager everyone or nearly everyone who walked on the moon will have died
  • he may not ever learn to read a paper map or street directory unless he gets heavily into bushwalking or something
  • by the time he’s grown up, I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s really unusual to own many paper books, perhaps as uncommon as people my age who own vinyl (yeah, I do know a few, but…)
  • there will be a few veterans of WWII and people who experienced the Holocaust (other than as little babies) around in his childhood and even teens, but they’ll be like I remember WWI veterans: very elderly

If anyone wants to play: can you come up with things that aren’t true of children born in 2000, say? Things like “your parents have always had mobile phones” are going to be true of children 10 or even 15 years older than V will be. (Of my list, the paper map stuff probably fails that test, so might the WWII stuff.)

I’m a terrible futurist, that already reads badly to me. For example, I didn’t own a GPS device at the time: that’s why I thought that bushwalking would rely on paper maps in 2030. (Since they don’t run out of charge, presumably they’ll be useful as backups for a long time, at least for the type of folks who are wary enough to take backup maps anywhere.)

But the question stands: there’s a lot of difference already between me and someone born in, say, 1995. But what’s the difference between that child’s life, and that of my son born in 2010?

Syndicated 2012-02-14 23:54:56 from lecta

On being X-ish

Now that I have described how I graduated into Generation X, I have a secret to confess: I’m starting to think that that might not be entirely wrong.

Let’s stick to cohort effects here, since it’s supposed to be a cohort term. And I should add that this is all very trivial stuff, I’m focussing on media, pop culture and technology experiences.

One of the major temptations of identifying as Generation Y had to do with pop culture. My teenage years were just past the wave of slackers and grunge and Seattle. I probably heard Nirvana’s music during Kurt Cobain’s lifetime, but I didn’t know of them as a thing until about a year after he died. I’ve never even seen Reality Bites, but Ethan Hawke and Winona Ryder are both 10 years older than I am, and their movies weren’t about my cohort.

I am, frankly, Spice Girls age: not the pre-teen thrilled girls waving things to be signed, but the teenagers who actually paid for the albums with their own money. (I didn’t, for reference. We were a Garbage family.) Britney Spears was born in the same year as me, and her biggest year career-wise was my first year of university. And obviously, when the term “Generation Y” was coined, the stereotypes of late university/early career certainly fit my friends better than the Generation X tags with managerial aspirations. The return of cool people listening to cheesy pop: Y-ish. So that was where I felt I fell. (In case anyone I knew at high school drops by: I realise I wasn’t cool. But you may have been, and don’t think I didn’t notice you danced to the Spice Girls.)

But then, there’s certainly a few small societal boundaries between me and people who were born in 1986. (I have a sister born in 1986, and thinking about the five years between us is often telling.) Starting at a global level, I was reading Tony Judt’s Postwar recently (recommended, I’ll come back to it here at some point), and I was struck because I remember 1989.

To be fair, that’s more important if one lives in Europe, which I never have, but most of my first detailed memories of newsworthy events have to do with the revolutions of 1989 and the 1990 Gulf War. I remember the USSR, again, from the perspective of a young child who was growing up in Australia, but still. I can read the science fiction people smirk about now, the fiction with the USA and USSR facing off in 2150, and remember, a little bit, what that was actually about. This is, well, frankly, more than a little X-ish.

While we’re talking about defining events, I recall that quite a lot of people talked about the children who won’t remember 9/11. (And by children, I now mean 15 year olds, of course.) Obviously this is more important in the USA, perhaps a little like the European children (by which I mean 25 year olds) who don’t remember 1989 in Europe. I obviously remember 2001, and moreover remember the geopolitical situation in the years before it quite vividly too, and that latter is again, more than a touch X-ish.

Turning to technology, which is fairly defining for me, we’ll start with Douglas Adams:

Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.

Leaving aside the age effect where shortly everything cool will be against the natural order of things, it’s noticeable to me that the Web and email and so on fall in the “can probably get a career in it” bracket for me. Well, obviously not truly (the first version of the SMTP specification, which still more or less describes how email works today, was published in 1982), but my late teenage years were exactly the years when suddenly a lot of Australian consumers were on the ‘net. Hotmail was founded when I was 15 and I got an address there the following year. (icekween@, the address has been gone since 1999 and I’ve never used that handle since, partly because even in 98/99 it was always taken. But, actually, for a 16 year old’s user name I still think that was fairly OK considering some of the alternatives.)

In short, it was all happening in prime “get a career in it” time for me, and not coincidentally I am at the tail end of the huge boom in computer science enrolments and graduates that came to a giant sudden stop about two years after I finished. Frankly, X-ish. My youngest sister and her friends didn’t get excited about how they were going to become IT managers and have luxury yachts as a matter of course. (Well, partly age and partly not being jerks, there.) It’s a lot harder to get the “just a natural part of the way the world works” people excited about it.

Diagnosis: tailing X.

Syndicated 2012-02-14 23:29:58 from lecta

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