The Bureaucratic Nightmare at the University of Sydney

Saturday, 25 February 2017
Don't be fooled. This is a portal to hell.

Call centres, waits to get through, queues, byzantine rules, very little appeals process and no hope of actually speaking to a real person, certainly not a person who can solve your issue. Centrelink? No, it's Australia's oldest and most venerable institute of higher learning, the University of Sydney. 

The University of Sydney has gleefully embraced the centralised customer service and efficiency plague which has swept across public agencies worldwide. The university no longer sees us as students, but as clients. In the media, students with queries and appeals actually get to go speak to someone in charge of their faculty. No such luxuries at the University of Sydney. All student enquiries are now directed through a central student enquiries centre, where you take a number relating to your enquiry and wait for it to flash on the overhead screens - they use the same exact numbering system as Service NSW (RTA), right down to the weird noises, which left me with a knot of recognition in the pit of my stomach as if I was going to have to sit my driving test again.

Anyway, once you finally get to talk someone - when I was last there, three weeks before semester started, the wait time to see a customer service officer was forty minutes - you're speaking with a very nice and well meaning (well, the person I spoke to was) but seriously overworked and more critically, generalist member of staff. who can help out with things like Opal card applications but for academic matters like credit applications and special consideration, simply can't have the specialised knowledge of courses needed to provide specific information. 

So isn't that the kind of thing you're supposed to be talking to your faculty about? Well, no - you're not allowed to talk to your faculty any more. (I asked, and was told they're not allowed to refer students to their faculties). The university last year reduced the number of faculties from 16 to six and have gone even further with the cost cutting by removing the administration departments, funnelling all the students through the centralised service centre. (In fact, the cost cutting has extended so far that the University's web site hasn't been updated to reflect the change, still listing the original 16 faculties). 

With the loss of specialised staff and services of course comes an end to rational processes and decision making. Staff and faculties are no longer allowed to use logic, nuance or best judgement when making decisions on matters from credit transfers through to students experiencing illness or bereavement; every decision must be funnelled through central bureaucracy, with university rules strictly applied (you had to fly overseas to attend your brother's funeral? You'd better have that essay in the day you return! You were away for five days so five days' extension is all you're going to get). 

But whilst all this is going on, the university has been embarking on a massive building program. Far from being short of cash, the uni is splashing out on fancy new facilities but not actually employing staff to put in them. The focus is on attracting investment and new overseas students; the uni's existing students are like flies at a picnic - an annoying side effect of running a university, not the core business of university itself. (And the administration woes are only the start. Arrive at either of the main campus libraries after 9am and you'll end up sitting on the floor; there are so few desks to meet the needs of the student body). 

The university paid $1.4 million last year to its Vice Chancellor, Michael Spence, so he could read about Centrelink's service woes and think to himself "that's nothing, have a look at what we can do here.". One imagines they're working on getting things so centralised they can do away with having to provide for undergraduate students altogether. It's all very Weberian - if only I was allowed to talk to someone who knows what that means.

If you've had a similar experience you'd like to share, please leave a comment on the form below. 

Russian Princesses School the Brady Bunch and Anti-Vaxxers

Wednesday, 15 February 2017
Those gosh darn anti-vaxxers will cast their nets far and wide looking for evidence to back up their claims of vaccines being dangerous and unnecessary. The false claims of danger have been covered extensively in the media, but anti-vaxxers state that along with vaccines being full of toxins, heavy metals and the ground up embryos of the cutest baby chickens you can imagine, that we don't even need them. Their argument is that most of the diseases we vaccinate against today were once just normal childhood illnesses, a right of childhood passage that would cause most kids to feel a bit yuck for a few days until they recovered, no harm done and lifelong, natural immunity confirmed.

And as proof of this, they cite the Brady Bunch. Anti-vaxxers are linking to this episode of the Brady Bunch to prove that until recent hysteria, measles was no big deal.

Look at this episode of the Brady Bunch, where the Brady kids, all had the measles and all got over it, that's how it was in those days, everyone got the measles and everyone was okay. Well, if you want to take your medical advice from a four decades old sitcom where a single salary supported six kids, a stay at home wife and a live in maid along with annual trips and plentiful after school activities (I guess they saved a lot of money on clothes, though), and no one ever went to the toilet, then I'm not sure I can convince you of anything in the real world.

But there's also a huge dose of survivor bias. The kids who, back in the old days, did not survive measles - along with the kids who didn't survive riding in the back of Dad's ute, being bullied and flogged at school, playing outside in the hot sun, and whatever else baby boomers like to pontificate about on Facebook, are not here to tell us about it. And just like how hazy memory allows us to think how much better music was in the 90s, whilst forgetting all about the Cotton Eye Joe, 2 Unlimited and Bewitched, so we can forget how horrid measles used to be and the deadly toll it took.

How awful is measles, really? Meet Grand Duchesses Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia, and their brother the Tsarevich Alexei, the children of the last Tsar of Russia.

Maria, Tatiana, Anastasia, Olga and Alexei in 1910. Photo from

Like many people I was fascinated by the Grand Duchesses when I was young; their regal beauty, their deaths at the hands of the Bolsheviks, and especially what was then the mystery of Anastasia; did the Tsar's youngest daughter survive, per the many claimants who popped up across the twentieth century?

Of course we now know that neither Anastasia nor anyone else survived; the entire Imperial family, along with several of their close family servants, were murdered in 1918 at the height of the Russian revolution and Civil War.

But they nearly didn't make it to the cellar in Ekaterinberg where they were shot. The year before, as the Russian Revolution commenced, they all had the measles. History could otherwise have turned out very differently. But I'm not writing this to play what if; but to show that measles is fucking horrible.

At the time the Romanov children contracted measles in early 1917, Olga was 21, Tatiana 19, Maria 17, Anastasia 15 and Alexei 12. Aside from the stresses and strains of World War One, then raging for three years, and the added burden of the nursing work carried out by the older two sisters, the young women were all in good health, robust, well nourished, and with access to the best medical care available. Alexei famously suffered from severe haemophilia; with few treatment options at the time he had already experienced several medical crises where it was feared death was imminent.

Due to his haemophilia, doctors had forbidden Alexei from vigorous physical activity, a great blow to the boy, who loved anything to do with the army; drilling, marching, exercises. And so one day in February 1917, a group of young cadets from the military academy came to play with Alexei at the palace. One of these young men happened to have a flushed face and a bad cough. And a week later, starting with Alexei and his oldest sister Olga, the Imperial children all came down with measles.

Despite the restrictions of his haemophilia, Alexei was otherwise reasonably well in early 1917, and the daughters especially, young healthy and strong, fit the profile of patients for whom it would be expected measles would be a mild illness with a brief recovery.

Instead what we see is the horror show measles actually is. As their mother, the Tsarina Alexandra, and her retinue devoted themselves to round the clock nursing care, Alexei actually fared the best of all the siblings; three weeks after developing a "great ugly rash" across his body, severe cough, headache, sore eyes and a temperature over 39℃, his temperature began to fall and he was deemed to be recovering.

Olga exhibited the same symptoms of fever, rash and pain as her brother; then as he began recovering, she developed ear abscesses, throat pain so severe she completely lost her voice. She then developed encephalitis, a common side effect of measles; it took her weeks to recover, and she remained weak and exhausted for months.

Tatiana, regarded as the strongest and leader of sisters, shared Olga and Alexei's rash, high fever and ear and throat pain. She also developed ear abscesses that required her head to be bandaged; the otitis left her temporarily deaf for several weeks, and she had problems with hearing in her right ear for some time after.

Maria and Anastasia, in their early teens, fared the worst. They quickly developed temperatures of up to 41℃, with Maria developing pneumonia, drifting in and out of delirium. Anastasia required lancing of her eardrums due to the pressure in her ear canals; she also developed pleurisy, suffered from continuous vomiting and was temporarily deaf. Two weeks after the initial infection, the younger sisters were both in critical condition; their mother the Tsarina, with three years of experience as a Red Cross war nurse, believed the girls were dying, with only the oxygen administered by a doctor who arrived at the palace from Petrograd keeping them alive. Eventually the sisters' fevers broke, but they also remained weak and fatigued in recovery.

Whilst all this was going on, the Russian revolution was underway and Tsar Nicholas abdicated; several plans to evacuate the Imperial family from Russia were proposed, but the children were too ill to be moved; by the time they were all recovered sufficiently to be moved, some two months after the initial illness, it was too late.

But the point here is that measles is a really serious and horrible disease, and even fit healthy young people can develop the most terrible complications, and even die.

To which anti-vaxxers might well say "Yes, but that was 100 years ago! Medicine has improved since then."

The short answer to that is, if you've such faith in modern medicine, why not trust them on the vaccination thing? (I'm sure the Tsarina, after two sleepless months caring for her critically ill children, would have lined them up for a vaccine if it were available).

The slightly longer answer is that medicine still hasn't improved that much when it comes to measles. As with whooping cough, there is no specific treatment for the disease. Symptoms can be alleviated through pain relief, intravenous hydration, oxygen, and bacterial infections that arise can be treated with whatever antibiotics still work after a century of over-use, but basically when it comes to measles, it's a virus, and you're on your own. Your unvaccinated child might develop measles, recover and be fine. Or they might develop encephelitis and brain damage, their hearing may be permanently affected, they could develop viral pneumonia, a high temperature, and die, and modern medicine will be powerless to stop it.

And you just don't know. But you do know, you can't pretend that measles isn't a really fucking serious disease. And modern medicine does offer one thing that works - measles vaccine. So just do it, okay?  Get your kids vaccinated, and yourselves too (adults born after 1966 who have not received two doses of a measles containing vaccine need to get the MMR vaccine - if you're not sure get your immunity checked; I did this last year, was a little low, and got a booster. It's not a big deal and took very little time. More info here).

But take measles seriously. Life ain't the Brady Bunch, and trust me, a case of the measles is not A Sunshine Day.

Pauline Hanson, Proud Australian Parasite

Friday, 10 February 2017
A couple of months back, I wrote a blog post about how the Australian alt-right, in their rush to venerate Trump, were betraying the Australians lost on MH-17, shot down with who-knows-what involvement by Trump's Dear Friend Putin, who refuses to allow proper investigation of the massacre. What did he do? What does he know?

So I thought that was as far as they could sink. I am of course wrong.

 Pauline Hanson, arguably a figurehead of the Australian racist right, has come out in support of Vladimir Putin, a "strong leader", whose homophobic, racist, anti-dissident policies are presumably just what she wants for Australia.

And what of MH-17? The plane that was shot down by Russian missiles. Big missiles. Not the sort left lying around. Not the sort you can have a casual go at. The sort of high grade military equipment that is heavily guarded, requires extensive training to use. The sort of missiles a group of rogue fighters couldn't just help themselves to and try out. The sort of equipment and training that must have come, with permission from high up the chain of command, from the Russian army,

The 298 lives lost by a shot-down that if Putin didn't know about then, he certainly knows about now. The lives that Putin won't justify by allowing the perpetrators to be brought to justice.

Well, says Pauline Hanson. Not such a big deal. So what if Putin orchestrated and/or is covering up for the murder of hundreds of innocent people? "Everyone has done something". Everyone has done something bad, come on, we need to look at the big picture here, not the slaughtered civilians, blasted from the sky, lying in fields of sunflowers.

38 of them were Australians.

Pauline Hanson is absolutely disgusting. All Muslims must be barred because terrorism, but 298 innocent people slaughtered by Russians "whoopsie, who amongst us hasn't?". If Hanson really cared about Australians she'd be the loudest voice demanding justice. It's not about protecting Australians, it's about her having a cushy well paid platform for her racism and 38 dead Australians are just an inconvenient side effect. I couldn't hate her more right now.

Celebrating Australia's Break Up With America

Thursday, 2 February 2017
You can love someone for so long. Be there to support them through thick and thin. Maybe you weren't always so close. Maybe you knew they didn't think about you nearly as much as you thought about them. But you were, you know, a partnership; you knew it, the world knew it, and you knew they'd always have your back. We were the wind beneath their wings, the Garfunkel to their Simon, the Buzz Aldrin to their Neil Armstrong, the Marge to their Homer.

And then they let you down, in an unimaginably public and humiliating way. They invite the person they'd been having an affair with to your dinner party, and you realise everyone knew. They gamble away your entire savings, and you don't realise until the sheriff arrives to repossess your house. Or maybe, in what was always going to be basically a public phone call to reestablish and strengthen your bond, they crack the shits at you and hang up.

Now, you can sob and eat a tonne of ice cream then lawyer up, delete Facebook and hit the gym. Or you could celebrate a blessing in a very thin disguise of fake tan and atrocious hair transplant.

Australia, it's tine! We've broken up with America, and we should be absolutely delighted about it.  

The long overdue split came today, with the bombshell report that in a call between new "President" Donald Trump and long-suffering* PM Malcolm Turnbull, Trump went off like a frog in a sock about the agreement that America will take 1,250 refugees currently in Australian custody reached between Turnbull and former President Obama. A furious Trump declared it the worst deal ever, accused Australia of trying to import the next Boston bombers, fumed that this was his worst call of the day - by far! - and ended the expected hour long call after 25 minutes by hanging up on Turnbull in a fit of pique.

There's two astonishing aspects to this. Firstly, it's plainly obvious that Trump had no idea about the refugee deal before Turnbull informed during the phone call:

So who the hell is supposed to be briefing this guy? Does he not do any background or preparation before important calls (or anything else)?

But from our point of view, what the hell is Trump doing kicking America's most loyal and devoted sidekick like this? Trump carrying on with this much lack of respect, anger, disregard for diplomacy?  For Trump doesn't see any of this in terms of the long standing US Australia relationship. He simply views it through the lens of, what is the best deal for me? (And yet more proof he is unfit to be President. even if he was a great businessman, which he wasn't; running a country is not the same as running your own corporation). "I can't stand Turnbull, but fuck Trump for speaking to him like this", is the common refrain. By insulting Turnbull, Trump has by proxy insulted all of Australia.

The alt-right, however, are already circling the wagons. It's amazing how fast these "patriots" will turn on their own country. It's astonishing enough that the American alt-right is just fine with foreign interference in their election (and a president thus beholden to a foreign power), if it helped their guy win. But it's worse here; those fine Australian patriots of the right are actually saying that Trump is right, that Australia is humiliated, that Turnbull should step down because he has lost the respect of the US President.

 The far right imagines that somehow, a Trump presidency will be great for Australia. How? By giving politicians here the motivation to copy his draconian policies? Can we not be authoritarian shit heads who ignore the rule of law and the traditions of democracy and freedom on our own?

But this is exactly where they're wrong, and exactly why the break up with America couldn't have come at a better time for us. Because a Trump presidency could well be an unprecedented disaster for Australia, and the world. Our biggest concern is for our relationship with China - our biggest trading partner. If some form of a new cold war breaks out between China and America, how are we  going to fare if we're still suction-glued to America? That's being optimistic.

Imagine Trump losing his shit over some perceived slight by Xi Jinping, deciding no one talks to him like that, and sending American naval ships to the South China Sea? If you're terrified by the thought of Hilux riding hooligans wreaking havoc in Homs, just imagine an actual war between the world's superpowers, our largest trading partner and our closest ally in our corner of the world. And to put it in terms that will really terrify the right, just think of those beautiful ships full of life-giving, humanity-improving, job-creating, not-at-all-planet-destroying coal. If there was a war between America and China, those poor ships wouldn't be able to get through shipping lanes to Asia, and China wouldn't take our coal if we were allied with America anyway. Poor sad coal, stuck in Australia and not able to go out in the world and make everything better!

So it's time for Turnbull to stand up for Australia (stop sniggering), and say that we are not beholden to the past and those who would take us for granted, and in this time of changing international circumstances, it is time for Australia to look towards Asia as our neighbours and friends to establish even closer ties in the region.

And don't even think about getting a new kitten or any tattoos. Okay, maybe the kitten.

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