Wednesday 29 November 2017

You shouldn’t need to tell people to distrust Nazis: a report from the front line

A piece appeared recently on the New York Times’ website about a neo-Nazi living in Ohio.  The newspaper had commissioned the report and sent a journalist out to the Midwest to interview Tony and Maria Hovater. The report garnered adverse reactions on social media and the paper wrote a follow-up piece to engage with its audience but the negative tweets continued to appear.

I noted on Twitter that I found the report “anodyne” and this sparked comments from one respondent, who said, “I think there’s an awful long list to exhaust of people who need to be written about from a position of empathy before you feel the need to write a sympathetic piece on a nazi. The fact that someone felt the need to start there says something in itself.” I had suggested that the Times’ piece was reasonable. Then I said:
The problem that the elites, including the media, have ignored is that the working classes in the developed world are suffering from gross inequality. This chart shows how wages globally have changed since the 1980s.
I attached a chart to the tweet showing how wages have changed across the world over the past 30 years. The chart was presented by Professor John Romalis of the Department of Economics at the University of Sydney on 25 October this year during a talk on globalisation (which I covered on this blog). You can see big increases in wages for low-wage earners in the developing world – for example China and India – but big drops for lower-wage earners in the developed world. Wealth is gradually being moved from wealthy nations and deposited in poorer nations, so that all will eventually look the same in terms of wealth distribution (everything else being equal).

The chart is mirrored by one on Wikipedia’s page on the subject of inequality in the US, which shows how increases in productivity since the late 1970s have not been matched there by wage increases.

Further evidence on how the wages in the developed world have been affected by globalisation appeared yesterday on Twitter in an animated GIF, which I employed to make these images. The animation is based on information derived from the Pew Research Center. The images show how the wealth of the middle classes in the US has been eroded since the 1980s. As in the Romalis chart, these charts show a big increase in the wealth of the very-wealthy in the developed world.

What my interlocutor had ignored was that Nazism arose in Germany in the period between the wars following the great stockmarket crash of 1929, which started in New York and spread globally to cause the Depression. Added to that were crushing war reparations that had been imposed by the victors of WWI at the Treaty of Versailles, which saw Germany forced to pay vast amounts of money to its former enemies. In Germany the result was spiraling inflation, where whole stacks of banknotes were needed just for grocery shopping. In this environment of extreme discontent due to material hardship stemming from the Depression added to the humiliation that was linked to the reparations, the still-living memory of the defeat in WWI, Hitler and the Nazis in the 1930s found fertile soil for their radical ideas about the nature of humanity and the relationship between the government and the governed.

Similarly, in the post-GFC world, Donald Trump and his neo-Nazi, white-supremacist followers have found fertile soil for their ideas among the discontented in America. And Trump even wants to make inequality worse by cutting taxes for the very-wealthy!

But I think there’s another problem at work, and that’s to do with the inability of some people to “read” irony. They want everything richly flavoured and highly coloured and so the Grey Lady – the New York Times – seems too difficult for them. The paper is objective, fair and independent. It lets the reader make up his or her own mind. What many people seem to want is to be told exactly what to think, to have all the buttons pressed for them, to have the whole package presented, complete. Otherwise they don’t “get” what you’re saying. Personally, I prefer to get just the facts and make up my own mind. Not for me the Guardian or Breitbart; I prefer the Sydney Morning Herald. I think there’s a market for this kind of writing, but it’s in a rarefied arena it seems. 

I was looking back at my blog for mid-2008 yesterday when I was writing this blogpost and I found a review from August about Chloe Hooper’s creative nonfiction book The Tall Man, which was published in that year. I had written:
Just prior to reading this book I finished a biography of the literary journalist Martha Gellhorn. The contrast between the 'old school' of Gellhorn - who did a lot of coverage of WWII - and Hooper's equitable method is tonic. 
Gellhorn never didn't take sides. Hooper refuses to, and her book - which in her cover blurb Helen Garner says is "enthralling" and "studded with superbly observed detail" - is all the richer for it.

Tuesday 28 November 2017

‘Mr Eternity’ street art

On Sunday when I was walking to the shopping centre I came across this stencilled design on the pavement outside Channel Ten in Pyrmont. There were other occurrences of the same stencil on Bay Street, Ultimo, near Broadway, and it was also stencilled twice on the pavement on Broadway between Bay Street and Mountain Street. I had written about the ‘Yes’ graffiti that had been written on the pavement on Bay Street in September during the period when Australia was still participating in the same-sex marriage postal survey the coalition government insisted on subjecting us to. That graffiti had been written in the same style as the word ‘Eternity’ that had come to be an icon of Sydney in the middle of last century, when it was written again and again at different places in the city starting in 1930, by Arthur Stace, a reformed alcoholic. There is a Wikipedia entry about Stace, who became known as “Mr Eternity”, and who lived in Pyrmont. He was inspired to write the word after hearing a sermon at St Barnabas Church, on Broadway.

Monday 27 November 2017

How Queensland electors voted this time

At first glance it seemed that minor parties did well in Saturday’s Queensland election, especially the right-wing, nationalist, xenophobic Pauline Hanson’s One Nation (PHON) and the progressive Greens – in other words, parties at the extreme ends of the political spectrum – but so far it is doubtful either will actually get any seats in Parliament. Or if they get any, it will be one each. Minor parties in Queensland do not have the option that is open to minor parties in other states and the Northern Territory, and federally, of holding the balance of power in the upper house (the house of review) because Queensland has only one chamber in its Parliament, where the upper house was abolished in 1932 by popular vote.

The minor party that has actually won seats at this point in time is Katter’s Australia Party, an agrarian-socialist outfit set up in 2011 by oddball conservative and north-Queenslander Bob Katter. The head of the KAP in Queensland is Bob’s son Robbie. The long-winded Bob is the sitting member in the federal Parliament for the north Queensland seat of Kennedy.

With power in the state Parliament so finely-balanced, the way that KAP politicians vote on key issues might turn out to be critical for the Australian Labor Party, which looks likely to form some sort of government this time. Whether the ALP under leader Annastacia Palaszczuk (pronounced “pala-shay”) will be able to form a government in its own right is another question. To have an outright majority, the ALP needs to have 47 seats in the Parliament. At the time of publication it had secured 43 seats, with 13 still undecided.

PHON got 13.7 percent of first preference votes and the Greens got 9.8 percent, and both had swings in favour. KAP got only 2.1 percent of first preference votes but it only ran candidates in a few northern seats, so its result is more focused than those of the other minor parties. The conservative Liberal National Party (LNP) saw its first preference vote drop by 7.9 percent. The ALP lost a little bit, mostly outside the populous south-east corner of the state. (The conservatives in power federally hold the balance of power in Parliament by the slenderest margin. Opinion polls for the federal Coalition are dire and have been dire for a long time.)

Muddying the waters a bit in the weekend’s Queensland election is the fact that the ALP government changed the voting system in 2016 to “instant-runoff voting” (according to Wikipedia). It’s known in Australia as “compulsory preferential voting”. It differs from the “single transferable voting” system used by all states for upper house elections and for the Australian Capital Territory (which has a unicameral parliament), and for the federal Senate, because it makes the voter mark a preference for each candidate listed on the ballot.

Candidates with the lowest totals get rejected and the second preferences on those ballots are allocated to the next eligible candidate, and this happens again if necessary until a single candidate can claim to have at least 50 percent plus one of the votes. Ballots that are not filled in correctly are not tallied and their total number is reported only as “informal”.

In an article published in The Conversation on 13 November this year, James Cook University’s Doug Hunt wrote :
Compulsory, or full preferential, voting requires an elector to number every box beside each candidate on the ballot paper sequentially in order of the voter’s preference. If no candidate achieves a majority of “1” votes on the first count, the candidate with the lowest number of votes is eliminated from the ballot, and their votes allocated to the remaining candidates according to the eliminated candidate’s second preference. 
This process continues until one candidate reaches a majority (50% plus one) of votes. The aim is to elect the most preferred candidate, rather than the simple plurality required under first-past-the-post voting.
In some Australian elections, preferences are decided between parties in deals done on a seat-by-seat basis, so the LNP might swap preferences in a job lot in a seat with PHON in the same seat, but for Queensland this time around the only thing that parties can do is suggest preferences on how-to-vote cards that are handed out by candidates and their flocks of volunteers, who hover around voters entering polling stations. There is no obligation for voters to follow these suggestions.

Because its Parliament is unicameral, the lay of the land democratically in the sunshine state is more like the way it is in the USA, where the major parties always dominate the final outcome at elections.

In addition to the minor parties – which did especially well in the headstrong north – there are several independents in this election, some of whom have a chance of influencing the drafting and passage of legislation in Parliament.

One of these people is Sandy Bolton, who is set to take the seat of Noosa on the Sunshine Coast. The 53-year-old was an independent councillor of the Noosa Shire Council from January 2014 to March 2016 and ran for the post of mayor in 2016 but was beaten by at a poll by independent Tony Wellington. She then decided to throw her hat into the ring for state government representing her area. At the time of publication, it was too early to know which of the lower-ranked candidates would be knocked out in the count, so second preferences had not been allocated for the seat on the Brisbane Times’ election website:

Another regional electorate where the result was still to close to call at the time of publication was Rockhampton in central Queensland. Here, the ALP candidate was ahead of independent Margaret Strelow, the former (ALP) mayor of the town of the same name. Her home page says she is “of a certain age” and notes that she was married in 1978 and has four grown-up children. It was too early to know which of the other candidates would be knocked out, so it was impossible to know at the time of publication how voters’ second preferences would be allocated:

Another central Queensland electorate that was too close to call was Mirani, where the ALP candidate was just ahead of the PHON candidate. It was possible at the time of publication that Mirani would go to PHON, based on expected second preference flows from LNP voters:

Further north, in north Queensland, there were four electorates where it was still too close to call at the time of publication. These included Cook, where the ALP was coming first but it wasn’t clear which of the next-running candidates would be knocked out, so their second preferences could not yet be allocated:

The other close races in the north were Hinchinbrook, where the LNP was ahead of the PHON with 29.9 percent of first preferences, Mundingburra, where the ALP was ahead of the LNP with 31.7 percent of first preferences, and Thuringowa, where the ALP was ahead of the LNP with 32.3 percent of first preferences.

Further south, in Bundaberg, the LNP was ahead of the ALP with 35.7 percent of first preferences.

In the southeast corner, where the bulk of the state’s population is, there were three electorates on the Sunshine Coast with tight races: Caloundra (LNP ahead of ALP with 38.8 percent of first preferences), Noosa (already mentioned), and Pumicestone (ALP ahead of LNP with 36.3 percent of first preferences). Here is the detail for Pumicestone, showing that the seat could go to the LNP on the back of PHON second preferences:

There were also two electorates on the Gold Coast with tight races: Bonney (LNP ahead of ALP with 43.8 percent of first preferences), and Gaven (LNP ahead of ALP with 46.4 percent of first preferences). Here is the detail for Gaven:

The “preference count” shown on the Brisbane Times election website means total votes for each candidate after distribution of second preferences on ballots where first preferences had gone to eliminated candidates, in these cases the ONP’s Greg Fahey (Pumicestone) and the Greens’ Sally Spain (Gaven).

In Brisbane, the seat of Maiwar was a might-win for the Greens, but again the result would depend on where individual voters put their second preferences:

By 11.24am on Sunday, the Brisbane Times reported on its website that ABC psephologist Antony Green had given 48 seats to the ALP. "I think they have a certain 46, and they only need one more vote," Green said. "At the moment we are giving them another two on prediction.” The ALP’s state secretary, Evan Moorhead, publicly claimed victory at 12.59pm on Sunday.

It should be remarked that the advice given to voters by parties regarding preferences was usually predictable, for example the Greens preferencing the ALP ahead of the LNP (as in the case of Gaven, which would become an ALP seat on the back of Greens preferences), and PHON preferencing the LNP ahead of the ALP (as in the case of Pumicestone, which would become an LNP seat on the back of PHON preferences). And because progressives tend to preference progressives, and conservatives conservatives, voters would be naturally inclined to give preferences conforming to the official party advice contained in how-to-vote cards.

The Brisbane Times is a Fairfax-owned news website that was established in 2007. Its editor is Danielle Cronin, who provided information about the new Queensland voting system for this report. The site ended its live election coverage at 6.16pm yesterday with the same 13 seats still to be decided.

Sunday 26 November 2017

Muzak in Darling Harbour

I had noticed these speakers the other day when I was walking through Darling Harbour on my way to Oxford Street to get some lunch. They are positioned on top of marine bollards and they match the new speakers that are positioned on the light poles on Pyrmont Bridge as well. The city council has seen fit to intrude into the neutral space that everybody can enjoy by playing inane muzak in the open air. Currently, the tunes are Christmas tunes but no doubt they will change with the season. It's bureaucracy gone mad, and no doubt part of the surveillance state, with the speakers undoubtedly doubling as a PA system in case of emergencies. Once you get past the stupid music piping out of the speakers and intruding on your personal space, you reach the zone under the motorway where the white noise of cars and trucks and buses passing overhead drowns out the idiocy. On Pyrmont Bridge the senseless noise pursues you all the way to the end of the structure.

Saturday 25 November 2017

Mapplethorpe at the Art Gallery of New South Wales

I wandered up to the AG NSW yesterday and had a look at the Mapplethorpe exhibition that is on. A few weeks ago I had gone to a talk held at the gallery led by curator Isobel Parker Philip with the participation of contemporary Australian photographers Samuel Hodge, Paul Knight and Spence Messih, that was held to complement the exhibition. That talk was interesting but a bit unfocused, but yesterday I saw the actual photos of the famous American photographer on the walls. Here are a few of them (you are able to take photos of the photographs as long as you don’t use a flash).

‘Dominick and Elliot’, 1979. This is a sadomasochistic picture showing a man upside down strapped to a crucifix. Another man has his arm between the restrained man’s legs, his hand cradling the upside-down man’s genitals. The standing man has short hair and a hairy chest, and the hair on the restrained man is also a feature of the work.

A photo of a bruised Catherine Milinaire (1976) is as direct and unadorned as the more famous photos of Patti Smith. This photo has a history behind it. The text accompanying the photo tells the story: During a visit to Paris, Mapplethorpe organised to take photos of the American actor Denis Hopper, who was living with fashion editor Catarine Milinaire. Mapplethorpe socialised with the couple at their apartment and arrived there the next day and found it in disarray. Milinaire was hiding in the bathroom, her face “battered and bruised”. She agreed to have her photograph taken “to expose the reality of violence against women and its prevalence, irrespective of socio-economic status”.

There is also a photo of Mapplethorpe’s mentor John McKendry dated 1975 which is wry, showing a half portrait of the man’s face next to wall sockets. A 1981 photo of Deborah Harry has a severe directness to it as the young rocker looks straight at the camera, unflinchingly. ‘Nick’, 1977, shows a young man with tattoos and a full beard staring at the camera over his shoulder. Over his shoulder the young man holds a leather jacket and he wears a studded belt.

Photo of Marcus Leatherdale, 1978, shows a naked young man, his body facing to the right but his face looking directly at the camera over his left shoulder. Over his shoulder the man has draped a dead rabbit. The corpse’s cotton tail is situated precisely adjacent the man’s nose. Another photo is a photo of Alice Neel, dated 1984, which shows an elderly woman with her eyes closed and her mouth open. Her white wispy hair is not completely in order and you can see the top of her bottom teeth.

‘Calla lily’, 1986 has the flower caught in a bright light that comes from directly above the subject. The flower’s shadow looks like a wisp of smoke trailing away to the shadow of the stem.

‘Ron Simms’, 1980. A naked backside with the man’s hand falling relaxed next to his upper thigh, with the man facing to the left. The sheen and lustre of black skin. The light is coming from the left, so the shadow of the man’s arm falls across his left buttock, incising for the viewer the contour of the gluteus maximus.

‘Grapes’, 1985. The dark fruit hangs from a point outside the frame. There are two light sources. One light source is from in front and above. The second light source is from below. The grapes look like they are carved from granite.

The more risqué photos are kept in a separate room, off to the side of the main gallery that has been set up, and there is a guide stationed at the entrance. I asked her if she was there to keep the kids out and she told me, with a smile, it was to, “Answer any questions people have.” These photos are hung in a different way, all in rows (as shown below), rather than individually, as are the other photos in the exhibition. Along the other wall in this small gallery are examples of the original albums that were used to publish these parts of Mapplethorpe’s opus.

To accompany the exhibition, there is a book available in the gallery shop which was published by the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, which is the source of the photos in the exhibition. The book was published in 2016 with text by Paul Martineau and Britt Salvesen. You can buy the book and read their introduction if you want more information about Mapplethorpe’s life. What comes across in the exhibition of the works, however, is that Mapplethorpe was an artist in a hurry. It only took about 10 years from the mid-70s to the mid-80s for the photographer to cement his legacy, and to take the majority of the photographs that would go on to make him famous. He died in 1989, at the height of the AIDS crisis, after he had achieved material success.

Friday 24 November 2017

Protecting whistleblowers and journalists' sources in the digital age

As well as Paul Farrell from BuzzFeed we had on the panel host Julie Posetti, Peter Tonoli from Electronic Frontiers Australia, and Elise Worthington a journalist at the ABC who works on investigative pieces. The hashtag for the evening was #protectsources.

The Panama Papers release was enabled using encryption, and was unprecedented in history in its scope. But in India they are creating the biggest biometric database in history using iris scans. India’s equivalent of the high court says that privacy should be enshrined in law. In Australia, the government is introducing biometric passports that will mean that you won’t need a paper passport anymore and the authorities will use iris scans at airports. In 2013, after Edward Snowden’s leak the UN started to get worried about the undermining of fundamental human rights, and contracted Posetti’s work unit to study the environment for whistleblowers and journalists’ sources. The UNESCO study took place over a 10-year period covering 121 countries, and involved 134 survey respondents, and made 33 recommendations.

A creeping effect was noticeable, not just dramatic changes. There is a struggle between the right to feel safe and that of free expression. Journalists are now going back to analogue tactics to protect sources. Often discovery occurs at the point of first contact.

Farrell said that we’re lucky in Australia because the potential cost for whistleblowers was not as severe as it was in some parts of the world, but he said we’re still in a precarious position. He said it was increasingly easy for government agencies to go after journalists’ sources. Worthington said that journalism relies on protecting confidential sources. It is the responsibility of journalists to educate the public and sources on the best ways to contact you. Tonoli said that you are only paranoid if they’re not out to get you. Non-anonymity, he went on, is a problem in social media because of Facebook’s true-name policy and Twitter's verification mark. He added that there is a red flag for journalists who use the secure browser Tor.

Worthington said that she had dozens of people contact them for a 4 Corners story and she had gone to the trouble of setting up a separate device without a SIM card that stays in one location: a dumb phone. She had 30 people contact her on Signal and of them 80 percent had never used Signal before. There is an appetite for these methods of communication in the community, she said. Farrell said that using Signal reduces some of the barriers for first contact, and that mobile encryption is easier to achieve therefore better. Tonoli said that Signal is not just used by whistleblowers but also by normal people in the broader community.

The panel then discussed the issue of the different levels of security that belong to sources. Knowing at what level people who want to contact you are working is important. Worthington said you don’t know what level you’re working at and so it is easy to leave a trail. You need a way to find out easily who people are. Tonoli said that Signal is pretty secure but that the organisation that owns it has in the past been subpoenaed by the government.

Posetti went on to say, pointing to the journalism that Farrell had produced, that the Australian government had started to treat offshore refugees with the same sensitivity as subjects that have traditionally been considered to be part of national security. Farrell noted that he had covered a story once about the Australian authorities turning back boats and had found subsequently out that the AFP had launched an investigation into his research. Then, he started writing about this. He discovered that the AFP had illegally accessed his phone records. Worthington said that there is good reason to be paranoid. She added that during the Panama Papers investigation she had found that the encryption that they had to use was quite cumbersome but it was critical otherwise they would never have got access to the information. She worked on the project full time for a month then part time for six months.

Tonoli said you should use method with a small digital footprint. Send a letter, for example, if you are a whistleblower. For journalists, he said you should put your Signal information on your Twitter bio. Farrell noted that law enforcement agencies have finite resources, and are not interested in a lot of these communications, but he added that using Signal is a good starting point. Tonoli said you need all journalists to use encrypted methods to get herd immunity. Worthington noted that the encrypted data deposit method called SecureDrop is very expensive to implement. Farrell said that as a journalist you should make yourself as accessible as possible for the community. He pointed to the Tails operating system that you can boot from USBs and DVDs. Tonoli noted that the Tails operating system has tools that let you anonymise images.

There were some no-shows for the evening hosted by the University of Wollongong at their Sydney Business School at Macquarie Place, next to Circular Quay. Peter Greste was sick and unable to attend, the ABC’s Caro Meldrum-Hanna was on assignment and couldn’t make it, and Gerard Ryle from the ICIJ couldn’t make it because he was just off the plane.

From left: Peter Tonoli, Elise Worthington, Paul Farrell, Julie Posetti.

Thursday 23 November 2017

Homelessness "can happen to anyone"

This is the latest in a series of blogposts about homelessness. For this post, I spoke with Mekonen, who is the CEO of the Station, a drop-in centre at 82 Erskine Street, near Wynyard Station. I had found that people begging on the street in the city often go to the Station for a meal during the day, so I wanted to find out more about it.

MdS: Ok, [the voice recorder is] recording. So, I was interested the other day we talked and you told me a little bit about the history of the Station. Can you just quickly tell me a little bit how it started up and when it started up?

The Station started up in 1978 by a group of people who had an alcohol problem at that time. The centre was at that time closed so they asked the government if they could use the building for their meetings. And they were just using it as a meeting place and it just developed from there to becoming what the Station is at this moment.

MdS: So originally who was funding the Station when it was first started up? Was that the state government?

The state government, yes. The Department of Health in the first instance. But at the moment it’s funded by federal and state governments.

MdS: What type of services do you provide for homeless people?

We don’t claim to do miracle things but we are very good in crisis intervention. The basic things what our rough sleepers and complex-needs clients need, that is a place to come to have a cup of tea, a cup of coffee, breakfast, lunch, laundry facilities, showers. They just come in and rest and watch TV and meet someone. So we are very good at that kind of crisis intervention. On top of that we have a mental health counselling service, drug and alcohol counselling service, housing support workers. And on top of that we have legal advice, the St Vincent mental health team come there once a week, we have stakeholders like Centrelink they come once a week, doctors, psychiatrists. We do the whole lot, almost the whole lot at no cost to the client.

MdS: So how many clients do you see in a day or in a week?

In a day between 100 and 110, 115, it depends.

MdS: There’s about 105,000 homeless people in Australia according to the 2011 Census. The ABS uses different categories to count homelessness including sleeping rough but there are also other categories too. How important do you think it is to use all those different categories to count the homeless?

There are two things in homelessness. One is homelessness: people are homeless, they sleep in the street. And the other one is all homeless people who are sleeping in other agencies, overnight, for three nights or other homeless people who are staying in boarding houses, or there are also clients who don’t have adequate housing. So the number is, I’m not sure what the number is, but I’m just a bit sceptical about the number because it’s really hard to count the number of homeless people because [of] where they have been, where they find them, where do they sleep. There are homeless people sleeping in the train for example, moving from here to Lithgow and sleeping overnight there. People are on the move from Central to Sydney CBD. So really it’s very hard to get the homeless number right. You can’t just leave an application form, [and] say, “Where did you sleep last night?” They move, they are transient. They can move from here to Queensland tomorrow, or they can move from here to Wollongong tomorrow. They are always on the move. They are very transient, so it’s very, very hard to put a number. I would be very careful to put a number on homelessness. I would be very careful, yeah.

MdS: The figures for the 2016 Census will be released later this year, I’ve already been in touch with the Bureau of Statistics. Do you think the number is going to increase compared to 2011?

I don’t know but from what we see on the ground, it’s increasing. It’s not decreasing. I’m talking about the Station. But I wouldn’t have a clue how they put a number, they might have their own method, but from the Station’s point of view it’s increasing. We are getting more clients and younger clients now.

MdS: What are the main reasons that people give for being homeless? Are there any patterns that you can see?

Mostly it’s drug and alcohol, mental health issues, sexual assault. All those multi-issues are the cause of homelessness. Homelessness is something that can happen to anyone, no-one starts [out] to be homeless but something happens on the way and people can’t cope and they become homeless. But there is a combination of all those issues that people … The other [thing] that is very important is the affordable accommodation, also. Rent is expensive, the lack of government housing stock, the waiting list, all those kind of things, you know. Also the budget of people who are unemployed. It’s a combination of those issues.

MdS: What do you think that should be done to help alleviate the problem of homelessness? What types of policies do we need to introduce?

There is a need of more affordable housing and support with it if we are going to reduce homelessness. Affordable housing, governments, and also the outreach work because most of our clients don’t understand about budgeting, living skills and things like that. So it’s not a matter of just putting a homeless person in a house and expect them to live there for longer, or whatever. There has to be support and outreach service supporting them on their needs, whether it’s budgeting, cooking, paying their bills, just to make sure they keep that accommodation for a longer period. Without a roof over your head it’s very hard to work on their personal issues. So, as I said, housing is very important. Outreach support is also very important.

MdS: I think I’ve finished asking questions, is there anything else you think that I should know to tell my readers about homelessness? I’ve been writing about homelessness now for a couple of months on my blog and there’s a lot of interest out there in the community for these blogposts.

The public has to understand that homelessness is not a choice, it can happen to anyone. We have got electricians, plumbers, public servants, welfare workers who are homeless at the moment because something just happened. So we can never be judgemental about the homeless because it can happen to anyone. That’s what I would say to the public. Support the homeless, that’s all.

The Station is located on the corner of Clarence Street and Erskine Street, near Wynyard.

Wednesday 22 November 2017

Getting to be Virgin Australia's group chief advisor just “a whole string of accidents”

Peter Cai holds a senior position at one of Australia’s largest airlines and I was fortunate to be able to hear him talk about his career at the Urban Land Institute’s Young Leader’s Summit earlier this month.

“I started off just like any other diligent, good-natured Asian kid: I did advanced maths, chemistry, physics at high school. My only act of rebellion was I did modern European history on the side.”

When he completed high school in England he tried to get into medical school but was refused.

“The medical school designed an admission test that’s supposed to weed out socially-awkward Asians. So, I didn’t get into medical school, nor dental school. So, I went for kind of the third respectable option: to become an engineer.”

Before starting his tertiary studies, however, he decided to visit Germany with a student exchange program, which turned out to be a life-changing experience.

“I come back, I realise I don’t really want to be an electronic engineer, so I opt for a very bright future in German studies, specialising in the Counterreformation movement in Medieval southern Bavaria.”

At Oxford University, he completed his history studies then enrolled in a postgraduate law degree hoping to get a qualification that might lead to a good job. While his classmates were applying for positions with investment banks, Cai came up against a brick wall and so he took the next-best option and enrolled in a PhD. “I thought, ‘If I’m ok with study, [I’ll] probably just go down that path.’”

While he was attending a conference, someone invited him to Canberra for a research fellowship, and he became the research assistant to an economist there.

“And my background, as you know, is in history, so it was quite a challenge [to] try to even understand what he was talking about,” Cai told the room.

“It was like learning a new language once again in my life. If there’s anything I can draw out of my life up to that point, is this capacity to learn new things is actually quite important. You can be a specialist in Medieval German history but if you have to edit a paper on [the] Asian Development Bank you have to transform yourself into a role quite quickly, too.”

That job led to a position in the Treasury – the Australian government department responsible for economic policy, fiscal policy, market regulation, and the federal budget.

“I was the only historian they recruited that year. I found another Arts graduate in my cohort and she studied French literature, so she ended up in [the] international tax division, so power to her.”

While there, he visited Beijing and met the China correspondent for Fairfax Media – the oldest media company in Australia – whose name was John Garnaut.

“I don’t know why, [but] I said something to him over [a] hotpot meal during a very cold winter. He asked me what I want to do, probably I just tried to flatter him; I said, ‘Actually, I want to be a journalist.’ So he actually remembered what I said. So, about a year-and-a-half later he said, ‘Fairfax [has] got a new position, would you like to give it a go?’”

The company gave him a plane ticket to Melbourne for the interview and he got the job, which suited him because he thought with his history experience at least he knew how to write.

“I was terribly mistaken. When I joined the paper, within a couple of weeks it was quite clear to me I couldn’t write.”

Daily meetings with the subeditor enabled him to get his first story published after two weeks but he was also fortunate to have veteran Fairfax journalist Ross Gittins take him under his wing.

“He really mentored me and sat me down and really changed my copy and told me how to be a good journalist.”

His life took another turn when respected finance journalist Alan Kohler asked him to join a new start-up, The Constant Investor, a subscription website for financial news.

“I did [take] that job and it’s become I think one of the most amazing job experiences in my life. You run a website, you write the editorial – remember, it was only my second year, third year as a journalist – [to] start writing editorial like a columnist usually would take about 15 years. He probably saw something in me, I still don’t know what he saw in me. But I just took the chance.”

Then things changed again when he took a position as a researcher at the Lowy Institute, an Australian think tank he had applied to for a position when he was still back at university. “So I actually get paid to do something I always wanted to do.”

One day the CEO of Virgin Australia phoned him.

“When he called me, I was really surprised because a long time ago I did write a story about Virgin, and that was like 300 words. You don’t usually get a call from the CEO about a 300-word article. And he invited me to have coffee and he just offered me a job.”

Cai told the room that he thinks that having curiosity and an ability to constantly learn was important.

“Nowadays, we just change jobs so often, at least I think. So I think to maintain that curiosity and ability to adapt, to learn I just think is really important.”

But he thinks that maintaining relationships in his new role is what takes up most of his time.

“I just think so far managing relationships is so important because a lot of [the] time what makes or breaks [an] agreement on a very important initiative is not really whether you get a 7.6 percent discount or a 7.7 percent discount, what really bridges the last centimetre is really whether someone will trust you, whether they believe you are a good partner, so [having] an honest face is important.”

Photo by Andrew Bell of Established ID.

Tuesday 21 November 2017

SMH Live: 2017 Year in Review

Lisa Davies, editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, led discussions in front of the large and demonstrative audience of subscribers – who are mainly older Sydneysiders – at a function centre on the roof of the Star Casino yesterday evening. I had bought a ticket and queued and happened to wander into the auditorium at just the right time. I was standing outside with hundreds of others on the roof overlooking the city, but my beer was finished and I decided to get a change of air, so I went indoors. I joined a column of people walking into a hallway. Inside the room, there were hundreds of chairs set up in front of a stage, so I sat down in one.

First up with Davies were Peter Hartcher and Nick O’Malley. Notable in the discussion was Hartcher saying that Trump is the symptom, not the cause, of the disease. He pointed to the fact that the American middle class hasn’t seen an improvement in its standard of living for a generation. Next on the stage with Davies were Michael Bachelard and Kate Geraghty who told some gruesome and touching stories about covering the conflict in Iraq.

Then up with Davies were Ross Gittins and Jessica Irvine. Gittins said that a banking royal commission in Australia is inevitable. Irvine said that intergenerational disadvantage is unfinished business for Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. Davies was up next with Kate McClymont and Sean Nicholls. McClymont agreed that the best case for a federal ICAC is that the politicians in Canberra don’t want one. Davies then went up against Kate McClymont and Malcolm Knox to talk about sport, and lastly the whole lot took to the stage to finish up the evening with a unified front. McClymont won the gong for the evening by predicting that Salim Mehajer and Fadi Ibrahim would set up a botox clinic together.

Monday 20 November 2017

Brutalism eight: Sydney Masonic Centre

This is the eighth post in a series on brutalist architecture in Sydney. The interior shots of the Sydney Masonic Centre were taken during the Sydney Open viewing day that took place earlier this month. Other images were taken, as per usual, from records in the city archives.

In a note from the city engineer to the town clerk dated 10 April 1972, it was noted that the grand secretary, United Grand Lodge of New South Wales of Ancient Free and Accepted Masons, had informed the department that a development application (DA) for 62-88 Goulburn Street and 279-285 Castlereagh Street would be lodged in about four months’ time. A minute from the city engineer dated 5 October 1971 had noted that negotiations respecting the proposed development would not be completed for some time.

The site is shown in a drawing made at the time, above. In the next drawing (below) Carruthers Place, a small laneway at the back of the block, is shown. In correspondence between lawyers John Dick & Co and the city council, it emerges that the laneway had been owned by the masons for “well over 40 years” and a gate had long been in place in the lane at the northern boundary of the building site to stop people from getting in.

The site also fell across the easement for the City Circle Line (as you can see in the drawing below, which shows one of the basement floors cut diagonally across the corner by the easement).

In the DA documentation the section dedicated to describing the current uses of the site is badly damaged and frequently illegible, but it is clear that the nine structures that were on the site at the time were mainly three-storey brick buildings, with the exception of the seven-storey original Grand Lodge. The other buildings were used as shops at ground level with workshops and “sub-standard residential rooms” on the upper floors. The entire site had an area of 29,690 square feet (2758.29 square metres). The pictures below show the original Grand Lodge on the corner of Castlereagh and Goulburn streets.

In the original plans including the council’s consent, the architect was named as T.W. Hodgson & Sons of Hosking House, 84 ½ Pitt Street. The original drawings (which you can see below) show a more conventional structure than was finally achieved for the site. This design has a pyramid-form appearing on the façade as an element of ornamentation whereas in the eventual design the pyramid-form is visible in the structure of the building itself, where it separates the office tower at the top from the podium, where the masonic rooms are located.

A letter to the city council dated 28 September 1973 from architects Joseland, Gilling and Associates Pty Ltd notes that “the prime intention of this building is to provide a monumental temple building for the United Grand Lodge of New South Wales”. This part of the letter referred to a shopping arcade that was also being discussed in relation to the structure. “We are not attempting to provide a shopping complex having maximum customer potential but to provide service facilities for the building and immediate surroundings.” The names Joseland, Gillings and Associates and T.W. Hodgson & Sons appear on the final drawings as “architects in association”.

The two photos below were prepared by the city council to show the effect the building would have on the streetscape.

In the surrounding area was the Railway Institute, as well as commercial buildings, a hotel, and shops. Originally, it was planned to have a vehicle ramp leading to the underground parking garage, situated parallel to Goulburn Street, but this plan was changed before construction took place. The council had wanted access to the parking garage to be controlled by traffic lights but the architects pointed out that since most of the traffic would be at night, with cars entering from 6.30pm to 7.30pm and leaving at the conclusion of meetings from 10pm to midnight, there would be “practically no cross traffic”.

Parking for large new buildings was always a concern for the city council, and in the case of this building the DA documentation includes the designs for a hydraulic machine, the “Archer Double Car Parker” made by a company in Gladesville. The DA file contains documents with different numbers of cars specified at different times for two of the basement levels. There seems to have been plans for about 140 spaces and the masons eventually paid a hefty contribution for off-street parking to the council.

Joseland and Gilling representatives were the ones who were present for a meeting with the influential Height of Buildings Advisory Committee – a state government body that gave assent, or refused consent, to new structures in addition to the city council. In their memo to the town clerk, the State Planning Authority of New South Wales included a pedestrian link under Goulburn Street in their list of wants. They also described “substantial trees” for landscaping on Castlereagh and Goulburn streets.

There is a letter from McConnel Smith & Johnson Pty Ltd, architects and the city’s planning consultants, that address the committee’s list of demands. The letter mentions the planned redevelopment of the Brickfield Hill precinct. The city’s 1971 Strategic Plan had recommended the area’s regeneration “as a predominantly office area”, the architect notes in the letter. As for the underground pedestrian link, the letter says that no plan had been prepared to study such a proposal, and there was no such study in the offing.
No such study is programmed in this year’s brief for the Action Plan and no pedestrian study can proceed without some evaluation of the future structure and land uses now appropriate for the area. Such wider studies would be beyond the present terms of the general brief for the Action Plan.
The city council had also presented the idea of connecting the underground shopping area in the new building with the railway at Museum Station, and Joseland and Gilling told the city planner in a letter that the masons were amenable to the idea of an underground connection. As for the pedestrian link across Goulburn Street, the letter goes on to say:
To incorporate a bridge across the streets would be extremely difficult within the design of the building and would possibly tend to destroy the monumental character of this building which is one of the strict requirements of our client, Untied Grand Lodge.
The cost of the project was estimated at $10 million. By 5 November 1973 all excavation work had been carried out, but no building work commenced. A letter from Rankine & Hill, consulting engineers, dated 3 September 1975, notes that construction of the 30,175.93 square-metre building was underway.

A letter in the DA file from Australian Realty Management Pty Ltd dated 9 February 1979 to the city planner describes plans for a hotel in the new building.

The following images show the design of each floor, starting with the office tower floors. The next drawing is for the third floor, the top floor of the podium, then there are drawings for the second floor, the first floor, the ground floor and the lower-ground floor.

There are five meeting rooms in the podium. The photo below shows the building's second-biggest meeting room. The big chair shown in the photo is for the worshipful master, the small chair for the junior warden. Masons meet in the building every month and there are about 10,000 members in NSW and ACT combined. Contrary to popular ideas about the masons, they don’t accept atheists. They also don’t discuss politics or religion inside. They elect a worshipful master every year, and a grand master every three years. The masons contribute $2 million per day to charity worldwide. Ten of Australia’s prime ministers were masons.

The photo below shows the open space in the podium where the meeting rooms are. The staircase was cordoned off when I was in the building and one of the attendants told me that the stairs had been closed to prevent use due to structural problems.

The photo below shows the café on the ground-floor level that was enclosed by glass in 2005 in a development that cost the masons another $2.24 million. This photo shows the structural detail of the exterior that would have been located on the outside of the building when it was first completed.

The drawing below, from the City of Sydney's records, shows a cross-section of the podium. You can see the twinned staircases in the void and the main meeting room, on the left, with its cantilevered wall fronting Goulburn Street.

The photo below shows the Sydney Masonic Centre from a vantage point across Goulburn Street. You can see the heroic design of the building with its individuated office tower above the plinth, in which the meetings rooms for the United Grand Lodge are situated.

Thursday 16 November 2017

Designing better workplaces

Last night’s talk was organised by the University of Technology, Sydney’s Information and Knowledge Group as part of the seminar series called Information Innovation @ UTS. The subject was activity-based working and the technologies transforming workplaces. There were three speakers. Angela Ferguson is an interior designer with 20 years’ experience who works at Futurespace. Stuart Munro is a workplace change specialist, his clients include Investa and Transport for NSW. James Dellow is a human-centred designer.

Ferguson said she became an interior designer because she loved being outdoors. Her mum thought TV was bad for you and Angela spent most of her childhood outside riding bikes. She had seen offices, so when she became old enough and when people asked her what she wanted to do she realised that she didn’t want to end up in an office. She started to have an inkling about the built environment and how it makes you feel. She believes that people are a product of their environment. She went to RMIT, and since graduating she has been with Futurespace since 2009.

She said, “Workplaces need to be humane.” Futurespace designed the Google offices in Australia between 2007 and 2009. She said their workplaces “are geared toward hiring the best”. They wanted to make spaces where people want to be. They made the first sustainable Google office in the world. They also designed the Microsoft office, “For people to come together to collaborate.” It has three times the number of collaborative settings than any other project they have done. They also did the Jones Lang Lasalle office, which became the Property Council of Australia’s ‘workplace of the year’. Flexibility was built into the design because you could not predict how the workforce would grow over the period time of the office space lease.

Futurespace also did the REA Group ( office, “Aligning the principles of agile software development with the workspace.” Here, the physical environment had to allow the team to be open and flexible. With the office the key driver was aligning the brand with the physical environment, including behaviours and culture. The founders were passionate about travel, so the building was a heritage structure and embodied the ideas of travel and discovery. Futurespace also did the Magellan offices. For the MYOB offices in Melbourne, they brought the development engineers into the same precinct as the rest of the company. Previously, the engineers were outside Melbourne in a shopping centre. They moved the tech people to a warehouse in Richmond, allowing them to be part of a broader tech community.

For the KPMG Innovation Hub in Barangaroo they decided to move away from standard corporate office buildings. Thus, she said, it is an island amid the towers of Barangaroo where people can innovate in a safe space. For the Richard Crooks construction business, a family business, the owners wanted the workspace to feel like home. Futurespace also did the PEXA offices. PEXA software does the conveyancing part of property transactions. Managers wanted a space to support the business as it grows.

“Australia leads world in workplace design worldwide,” said Ferguson. The next frontier, she went on, is spaces where clients will interact with the company. So, physical space is more important than ever. Over the past 18 months her firm has worked with PWC in Sydney and Melbourne to redesign their spaces. Now, clients can collaborate with PWC as if they were back at their own offices. Design, Ferguson said, is more than just the appearance. It is how the thing works. She believes her firm can improve people’s lives.

Stuart Munro, who works at Montlaur, said the focus should be on the people component. Work has changed so much over the years and workplaces have too, he said. For London’s strategic plan for the period from 1900 to 1925, to give an example of how fast things can change, the first item for city managers to address was what to do with horse manure but by 1920 there were no more horses used for transport. Organisations have and will continue to be disrupted, he said, and brought up a slide showing the average length of life for companies over time, as measured by the time spent on the S&P 500 share index in the US.

He said organisations need to work differently to solve tomorrow’s problems. By 2020 66 percent of Australian companies will have adopted an agile work style, and activity-based working, which gives employees a choice to work where they see fit. Sharing space is important within this paradigm. There are also more interactions. You can choose to sit next to different people on different days. You introduce a human scale to the work environment via neighbourhoods, so that you do not have people dispersed over enormous campuses.

There are three things to focus on, Munro said, pulling up a slide: the virtual component, the physical component, and the people component.

But he said that different organisations are more evolved than others. It was about recalibrating the workplace.

He pointed to a leading brand agency that his firm is working with that wants to stay relevant. The company wants to bring people together like threads to form a strong rope.

He said that the employer wanted to use the “bump factor” to bring people together in the workplace, so that they would meet each other during the day in unexpected encounters. Also, mobility would allow you to access different knowledge, he said. The other aspiration for the workplace was that it would be multi-dimensional, where people do not stay at one desk, and where more choice enhances the way they work. He cautioned that commercial office-space leases are normally for 10 years, but workplaces may change a lot in that time.

James Dellow is focused on designing better digital workplaces. He said that you need to deliver something that doesn’t just tick off the functional requirements list, but that rather is inspiring. He said that going to work on the train is still desirable because it is better for networking, and enables employees to find a community. We hold technology firms up as the pinnacle of practitioners when it comes to workspaces, but it is not necessarily the case in reality.

He said that you have to tailor digital workplaces to the company, and technology can change how you work but that virtualisation is a scary concept.

He said that there is still a huge value in physical workplaces, but all people can’t be in the same place all the time. The thing is how to make workplaces perform better. Wordpress shut its head office because no-one was going there. He also pointed to a collaboration between Microsoft and furniture maker Steelecase, which he called, “Nice but not a gamechanger.” The question is how to use technology to nudge and augment and encourage workplaces to be better. You have to engineer serendipity, he said, and help fight social isolation. It is important to create inspiration with technology not just focus on meeting rooms, by putting people at the centre and making the workplace experience-driven. We need to make unconventional choices but that does not necessarily mean workplaces become more expensive. You have to think of offices as platforms for work.

Angela said during the question-and-answer period that there are probably 20 true activity-based workplaces in Australia. Munro said it is cheaper for big banks to have activity-based workspaces because it means less floor space for the same number of employees. Angela emphasised: “First, survey.” All workplaces surveyed were vacated 40 to 60 percent of the time. Dellow said that previously IT came in to fit stuff at the end of the design process but now it is being thought of as more crucial to the process. Angela said that activity-based workspace environments are less about ownership of space, and more about what you have to do. You have a locker, a home base, and a neighbourhood, and you work within those parameters. She said that at Jones Lang Lasalle, 70 percent of people thought that they were more productive after they started working in an activity-based workspace, when surveyed. They are collecting more data than before. Dellow said that corporate culture has changed, and you don’t need to be at your desk between 9 and 5 anymore. Munro pointed to the Leesman index. He also said that redesign projects are not just fixed projects anymore, but they evolve after months or years. He added that you can’t wait 10 years before you make changes. Angela noted that workplaces have protocols so things left in spaces will be collected and kept aside to be collected later.