Mar 312014

Susan Bernstein’s Housing Problems: Writing and architecture in Goethe, Walpole, Freud and Heidegger is an attempt at extending literary theory to the realm of architecture, and in particular, housing.

It is a project that largely under-delivers on its promise, in an overly wordy and unnecessarily complicated argument that covers up and confuses the structure of the work. However, there are some worthwhile arguments and links between written works and the physical surroundings of the thinker’s analysed. These are not likely to be of interest to anyone who isn’t specifically looking at the philosophical and theoretical underpinnings of built housing form.

Housing is a particular area of interest for me, so this book was recommended in the context of providing a theoretical framework for conceptualising the analysis of housing problems.

I don’t really see the arguments presented in the book as a way of analysing housing problems. Rather, to me, it seems much more useful in analysing the structure of housing design in areas over time.

For instance, one argument put forward by Bernstein using Derrida is that housing forms a kind of “social archiving” and self-policing or self-censorship. The social archiving for mine is linked to, but not explicitly stated in the text with Heidegger’s position on the true expression of the self, and relation of the self to the external environment, presented in the architecture of housing.

It might seem overly academic (and it is), however it has direct relationship to the way housing construction and design evolves over time. Once upon a time, houses in Mandurah were almost solely the domain of designs maximising their summertime use as beach house getaways. Now, houses in Mandurah are built to cater for the needs of owner occupiers.

In a recent trip to Lancelin, I could see the beginnings of this evolution begin to happen as well, albeit in the early stages. The same can be seen in Darwin housing. Post cyclone Tracy homes have a completely different texture and function to those being built presently for cashed up southern investors, and those looking for a place to crash in between partying and working well paid shifts.

The social history and interactions with the environment contained in the architecture of housing do create ethical dilemmas, policy problems and social angst when housing evolves. This level of housing problems, which is an extension of the arguments presented by Bernstein in Housing Problems, is not articulated. And it is a shame. Because with the link between the thinkers, and their relationship with built form, and the creation of housing problems as places evolve, the project would have overcome the stumbling blocks that stop this book from becoming a worthwhile read.

Mar 262014

Environmental PolicyEnvironmental policy development can be a mystery to many, but it is generally not that difficult to understand. Most environmental policy is developed based on the “extrinsic values” that we place on them. This is a materialist approach, based on human uses, as opposed to “intrinsic values” which are the value of the ecosystem in and of itself.

I’d argue that over the long term, they are actually one and the same. And that it is only over the short term where the immediate extraction and exploitation value are highest that it actually has any tangible meaning. Long term policy is not an area where economics covers itself in glory when it comes to the environment, but I guess that is another debate for another day.

Despite its philosophical failings, valuing human uses of an environment gives us a starting point to be able to develop environmental policy in the most pressing areas. To explain the rationale for environmental policy development, I’ll be using the ‘Securing Western Australia’s Marine Future’s’ report: ‘How We Use and Understand the Marine Environment’ as an example. Hopefully this will illustrate how environmental policy is developed, and the factors that go into making informed environmental policy decisions.

The Requirement for Environmental Policy

The marine environment is an ecosystem, in particular in Australia that is under pressure from multiple uses. These include fishing and boating, recreation activities like surfing and even on shore development for housing, pollution runoff and so on.

As such, human use reports and evaluations at least allow policy makers the option of prioritising the highest value human use above other uses. This does have its own problems however, and if the highest value human use is not sustainable, then it is not good policy.

Methods and Data Collection

Human use reports can assess whether the human activities are sustainable over the long term, what impact they are having and have had, and how use interacts with other activities. Typically, these reports synthesise a substantial amount of pre-existing data – qualitative and quantitative, scientific and social. The range of data used to form conclusions is why these reports and studies are useful for environmental policy formulation. The Marine Futures report collates a substantial amount of data from WA State Government departments to form the basis of many of its topics of investigation.

Through interviews with recreational and commercial fishers, as well as quantitative data from various departments it was concluded that changes in the South West fishery have occurred. These changes led the interviewees to conclude that the current use of the environment was unsustainable. It was only through the collection of both the qualitative and quantitative data that the conclusion that fishing in the South West and Southern zones was unsustainable.

Outcomes in Environmental Policy

The biggest advantage of human use reports for the formulation of environmental policy is that they often provide reasoning behind changes in the environment. In the Marine Futures report, the explanation of changes in technology, demographic changes and policy changes are able to be put together to form a coherent “story” as to why things are the way they are, and what needs to be done.

For environmental policy, a coherent narrative for why something is the case is important (as I have explained previously), when the public requires a full explanation of why something is being done, or is required to be done. If the public is not informed then misinformation is likely to run rife, and interest groups will dominate any policy discussion. But if the public is fully informed, and provided with the available data, it is much less likely to face opposition.

The Economics of Environmental Policy

Economic considerations are also able to be evaluated and this is where the highest value user can be given priority in a policy discussion. But it is also where the greatest rub and greatest debate lies. As I pointed out earlier, it largely depends on what time frame is being analysed. Over the long term, activities and users that are least extractive will produce the greatest economic benefit. But this disregards economic imperatives over the short term. It is another area where human use reports are valuable to try and make decisions which balance these factors. A prime example of policy decisions being out of kilter with human uses and sustainability in favour of a narrow economic and political interest is the shutting out of commercial fishers in the Perth region, without restrictions being applied on recreational fishers.

Education and Social Policy Recommendations

The report also makes clear why an education campaign for certain activities is needed for the sustainable use of the Western Australian environment. According to the report, recreational fishers who were new to fishing attributed environmental changes that were inconsistent with the views of long term users and the available science on these topics. When frictions are occurring in the use of the environment such as these, it is of maximum benefit to provide accurate information to inform this section of the public.

Promoting Environmental Policy

Some human uses and interactions with the environment can actually enhance human amenity, environmental productivity and value. This is the gold standard in environmental policy and protection, and should be the aim of policy makers when making decisions. One such example of this is the Busselton Jetty, where physical infrastructure – the jetty – provides habitat for the surrounding ecosystem (an artificial reef), but also provides a site for human recreation and education which would otherwise not be in place if it weren’t for human intervention.

So What?

As you can see, human use studies and reports provide the basis for developing environmental policy. By matching science with human use and the interaction between people and the environment, environmental policy can be enacted that is least harmful to the environment, or most beneficial to the community. In many parts of the country, Marine Parks have been set aside on the basis of human use studies. Without acknowledging the human uses of the environment, observations and community wishes are often excluded in the environmental policy development process. It is why any policy, such as those looking at pollution reduction, is much harder to justify and provide emphasis without human use studies. It is why one of the policy recommendations in my thesis was to conduct a human use study in the Darwin Harbour region.

If you have any thoughts on the development of environmental policy, or this brief explanation, feel free to let me know below. Point out any of the obvious problems inherent in this approach and I’ll take the time to look at examining these problems down the track.

Further Reading

Davies, A., Tonts, M., Pelusey, H., & Niedzwiadek, M. (2008). Securing Western Australia’s Marine Futures: How We Use and Understand the Marine Environment. Perth, Western Australia: University of Western Australia.

Mar 252014

I came to Steve Keen’s Debunking Economics after dabbling in reading what I would call “alternative economics”. I’m not someone involved in economics as a profession, but pointing out flaws in economic theory has become a personal hobby of mine. I have read much of Joseph Stiglitz and Nicolas Nassim Taleb’s work, and although I adore reading Taleb’s work, I have not found something I could completely relate to. That is until I found Debunking Economics.

Ever since I studied first year economics, I have been a strident critic of the way economics is taught. I guess this is perhaps the product of teaching myself Marxian theory during year 12 maths, and having studied philosophy at university. I remember telling a lecturer, who had commented that I should continue with economics (after a good paper on environmental externalities), that an idiot could spot the logical flaws in what was being presented. It is perhaps somewhat ironic that I now find myself grappling with what could be deemed an “alternative economics” field, in environmental economics or some such.

I was a little reluctant to read Steve Keen’s work, given his partiality to public nudity and attention grabbing statements. But I shouldn’t have been. I found Debunking Economics almost completely sums up the way I feel about how economics is taught at university level. How it has been elevated to a science, and how it holds sway over the other social sciences of which it is most certainly a part, has me scratching my head.

Keen does an excellent job of explaining how the rise of economics in academia has come about. The exploration of the history of economics is enlightening, as well as frightening. Keen’s natural ability to outline historical progression in economics allows him to critique the brain washing tactics initiated by economics departments in a similar fashion to what faith based institutions invoke on their subjects. By providing evidence and tested and defended hypotheses, he contrasts his own positions against those which hold sway in the academic world and amongst central banks.

But mostly, this book is an attack on the prevailing paradigm of neo-classical economics and its sway in the political arena.

Keen invokes a common sense approach to economic critique which will appeal to the layperson. Terms such as “efficient markets” are attacked, as they mean something completely different to those in finance and economics to the layperson. Which Keen quite rightly emphasises is problematic, because economists actually play on this gap in knowledge to manipulate those on the outside to follow what is actually a falsity.

For mine, Keen’s book is a must read for anyone interested in economics, or economic policy. It is a truly enlightening read on the likely future of economics as a worthwhile intellectual endeavour. Anyone that has a natural inclination to be sceptical of economists, or even those that don’t, would be well advised to read this book. I think it’s also a must read for those studying or have studied economics.

I don’t think I can do Debunking Economics justice in such a short space of time. It is actually quite a dense read for something that is actually very accessible. It definitely does add to the appeal of his positions. From time to time I will have to look at individual arguments in Debunking Economics to further the arguments being made in my exploration of market-based instruments.

Mar 202014
Planning Writing to Death
Writing Planned to Death

It appears to me that a strange affliction amongst some of my most diligent students holds them back whenever there is an assessment due, or a deadline for submitting work approaches. I call it planning writing to death and it is a particularly pervasive procrastination technique. It is problematic because one is not aware of it when they are impacted. One may even think they are being productive when in actual fact they are not.

As a procrastination technique, planning is well known to novelists and fiction writers. But it is something that I notice grips academic writers and students especially badly.

It is almost the opposite extreme of unstructured writing which I’ve dealt with in previous posts (headings and so on as a way to organise your writing). This is a disorder where headings, plans and structure inhibit writing altogether.

Symptoms may include excessive note taking, copious amounts of reading, thinking and an absence of words on the screen.

Those most at risk include binge writers and perfectionists.

Treatment includes some of the tips described in ‘How to Write a Lot’.

Most importantly it requires you to realise that your writing sucks. But that it doesn’t matter.

My writing sucks. Most people’s writing sucks. But that’s not the point. It’s there. Starting, doing and finishing something are much more important than doing something perfectly.

Writing is like Golf – the perfect round is never going to happen. Ever. But by starting, getting things down and doing them regularly, you will improve.

I used to be a serial sufferer. It impacted on my own writing greatly. I didn’t know I was doing anything wrong. Not until my line manager (2 weeks into my first Research Assistant job) asked me what I had found out. I explained, this, that and the other. She then asked, “So what have you produced?” The penny dropped and I had to change my ways.

It doesn’t matter what you know, it only matters what you have to show.

So how do you approach this problem? There are a number of things I now prescribe when treating planning writing to death.

Ban yourself from reading any more.

Chances are you’ve already read enough. What is important is getting something down. Set yourself a writing target and don’t read anything else until you’ve met that target.

Read with a pen in hand.

Reading with a pen in your hand will encourage you to read actively, rather than passively. Look for an excuse to write something meaningful if you are devoting large tracts of time to reading.

Write a fully formed paragraph.

Write a paragraph summarising what you have just read before going on to the next article/ book chapter on your list.

Chunk it.

Under each of your headings, spend five minutes writing off the top of your head the thoughts on the topic. Do this without reference to readings and literature etc. Once you have done this, you will have material to begin with.

Get the first sentence out of the way early.

The first sentence of the day, of an article, chapter, report etc is always the most difficult. Smash it as soon as you get to your computer. Get rid of it. You don’t need the weight of it to impede the work you do for the rest of the day.

With these tips, I think your writing may well go on to survive and make a full recovery.

Have you tried these tips?

Do you have any other hints to use when you find yourself planning writing to death?

Mar 192014

Ben Elton’s Gasping is a satirical and poignant play looking at the world of business and free-market economics. It is brilliantly crafted and constructed, analysing what happens when the provision of an environmental service is taken to its extreme.

A fictional company, ‘Lockheart  Corporation’ has invented a product which sucks the oxygen out of buildings, ‘Suck and Blow’, and provides privatised air to the inhabitants of these buildings. The benefits of such for private consumers of air are not made explicit, aside from the marketing of “deserving your own air”.

Inevitably, problems occur. The atmosphere is sucked of its oxygen, and sudden winds result in the suffocation of people as the thin oxygen is removed from the area. In the end, local authorities have to provide oxygen for the local environment, which is conveniently provided by Lockheart.

Africa is pillaged for its natural resource, oxygen, and that is where the greatest hardships occur, as locals begin to run out of their own oxygen. This is contrasted with the African famines that regularly occur, whilst the excess of the west and the wastage of food goes on. It provides a striking comparison with today’s world, in particular the protection of natural and environmental services, and how the burden for this falls on the most disadvantaged in the world, whilst at the same time facing the most pressing, immediate concerns that place the most amount of pressure on the natural environment.

Gasping is just as relevant today as when it was written nearly 25 years ago. With the ongoing policy debate surrounding climate change and global warming, Gasping gives an example of what might happen into the future, if the ownership of carbon sequestration, carbon sinks and other public goods become privatised and monetised.

Unfortunately, property rights over environmental services are a double edged sword. On the one hand, the “the tragedy of the commons” is a problem which results in the pollution and over-fishing of our oceans, for example. On the other, exclusive and unfettered use and rights to the environment can lead to over-exploitation and other serious negative environmental impacts, penalising the societies that rely on them.

More specifically it has relevance to the controversy generated by the former CEO and current Chairman of Nestle Peter Brabeck-Letmathe when he said that “access to water is not a public right” or a human right. It’s a classic case of life imitating art. The problem being, that at some level there is a distinct logic to it. It’s not a basic human right to water the garden with fresh drinking water, but taken to its extreme, it becomes absurd. And policy that interacts with free-markets, finance, the environment and the business world invariably ends up being somewhere in the middle.

I am thrilled that Gasping is being updated and performed later this year. I think it is extremely timely, especially for Australia with current political debates. One theme that I hope is reinvestigated is the reduction in demand of oxygen (in the original Gasping), and the business decisions that result from this. I would like to see the producers of carbon credits and offsets satirised and analysed in a similar way.

Unfortunately, I don’t think it is. In its new iteration Gasp will be taking a crack at mining and excess in the contemporary Australian life. Never the less, I am looking forward to seeing Gasp when it is performed by the Black Swan State Theatre Company later this year. In the meantime, if you are interested in a light hearted humorous read, poking fun at business, I highly recommend Gasping.

Mar 172014

Previously, I have explained the importance of developing headings and consistent contents pages to assist in writing longer pieces of work. In this post, I will explain how to go about doing this, using Microsoft Word 2007, to automatically generate a contents page. But the same can be achieved using later versions of word such as Word 2010, or Word 2013.

The first step in generating automatic contents pages is to become familiar with the ribbon at the top of the page. Under the home tab, on the right hand half of the ribbon, you will see a selection of options for text, including Heading 1, Heading 2, Heading 3 and Title.

Contents Page Headings

Reserve Heading 1 for the names of your chapters as it is much easier to generate an automatic contents page with Heading 1 than it is for the Title setting. Experiment with the characteristics you like and keep them consistent throughout your work.

One you have the layout of the headings that you are happy with, click on the references tab. On the far left of the ribbon, you will see the ‘Table of Contents’ icon. Click the icon and a drop down menu will become available. Choose the layout you prefer. A Table of Contents will automatically be generated, and displayed according to your selection of Headings in the document.

Contents Pages Headings

If you have forgotten something, and add headings later, click anywhere in the table of contents, and click “update table”. This is particularly handy when you are merging multi-chapter documents, and making sure that the formatting of a large manuscript is consistent:

Contents Pages Headings

Any updated or new headings in the document will now be added into the contents page:

Contents Pages Headings

And it really is as simple as that.

Perfect for developing contents pages for reports, theses and other documents which require headings.

Mar 132014

Science of the Unseen / Creative Commons Public DomainOne of the many problems with new scientific endeavours is the inability of the general public to understand them. Much of what is now being discovered in the scientific field is beyond the ability for one single human to be able to perceive, to analyse or to comprehend. It is the science of the unseen. I previously wrote about the development of oceans and how so much is still to be explored. This post follows that up by looking at how and why we can comprehend science related to such huge endeavours.

The inability for people to be able to understand matters from their own perspective leads many to be sceptical, and often invokes incredulous responses that hark back to a previous time where science was pitted against religion. This can result in appeals to erroneous “facts” based on experiences which appear logical or rational but actually make no sense and are not true.

A classic example of this recently is our now Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, battling with his own opinions, up against the weight of evidence of science in relation to human induced climate change. How could a “weightless”, “odourless“, “invisible”, unseen element be the source of so much trouble? After all, we can’t observe it. Not least from our cosy individual position in the universe.

It is only because of multiple observations, multiple experiments and the use of multiple senses that we can make such claims about the impact of carbon pollution. In that sense, our Prime Minister’s claim has absolutely no relevance to the point he was trying to make. Even if his “facts” were true, they are probably irrelevant to the impact of carbon pollution on climate change. But what they do point to is the natural human scepticism of things that are unseen.

This phenomenon can also be seen in the “debates” regarding Darwinian evolution. For anyone with some degree of scientific knowledge or contemporary understanding, they are painful to watch. Richard Dawkins in his book, ‘The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence For Evolution‘, proposes to invoke the mathematical terminology “theorem” to redress this problem – where evidence is overwhelming from a multitude of sources so that it is no longer a theory, but is as proven, or free from disproof, that this ever likely to occur. But once again, it is a scientific endeavour only understood from multiple generations of scientific observation and analysis. It is difficult for the layperson to understand the science without deferral to experts, or trust that multiple viewpoints are correct.

All of these issues came to mind when I began to look at plate tectonics for Oceanography. I hadn’t really thought these actually had any connection previously, but they definitely do.

Plate tectonics is the study of continental drift and other features related to the movement of continents. It is a relatively new area of study, and has been shrouded in much controversy, much like the sciences above that also aren’t immediately visible. However, plate tectonics, seismology and related fields don’t appear to have the same sceptical weight that those involved in climate science and evolutionary biology do.

Why is that? Earthquakes are pretty distinctive to experience, having felt a couple whilst living in Darwin. And I don’t think people doubt the existence of volcanoes. But we also don’t seem to have to debate the causes of these natural phenomena. Despite Earthquakes and Volcanoes and related observations once being attributed to angry gods and other mythologies, I don’t see people invoking these against the science behind and theories of plate tectonics.

One reason for this is the sensory experience of the results of continental drift. These are what Karl Popper would deem to be “inter-sensually” testable. It is not something climate science or evolutionary biology has immediately at its disposal. Plate tectonics has a fossil history, observable sensory experiences, astronomical observations and measurements and data first gathered by military and naval vessels.

It is the last point that really got me thinking. Do you think if the military came out and said that evolution is a fact, and that creationism is complete boloney, that it would make a difference? What about if the defence force said the same thing of anthropogenic global warming, that it was an undeniable fact? How much does this authoritative weight influence public opinion? What if the military-scientific complex and machine actually worked for the betterment of man and understanding, rather than in self interest? Because it is the self interest and competitive advantage that resulted in deep sea mapping that helped provide evidence for continental drift. How could it be used to address our most pressing environmental and scientific concerns?

I don’t profess to know the answers to these questions. All I know is that the way humans understand things is a complicated, often paradoxical process, influenced by social pressures and individual experience. The way politicians battle to interact with and communicate science further complicates matters and it doesn’t further human understanding.

I’d like to know your thoughts on the matter.


Further Reading

Dawkins, R. (2009). The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution: Simon and Schuster.

Popper, K. (2002). The Logic of Scientific Discovery. London: Routledge.

Mar 112014

Carbon Tax/ Price ModelUnless you’ve been living under a rock it has been impossible not to hear of the “Carbon Tax” debate in Australian politics. Given my knowledge of market-based instruments for environmental purposes, I feel compelled to explain many of the issues that confound the Australian public. If you require further detail, you can consult my thesis on the topic.

This post is the first in a series of posts explaining why the “carbon tax” is actually good policy and a different mechanism to what most pundits and voters think it is.


What is a Tax?

A tax is an enforced and unavoidable contribution to an authority.

Income tax for example (unless illegally manipulated) is a fixed contribution, or equivalent to, as a rate of money earned. $100,000 will be taxed the same (accounting for adjustments) as any other $100,000 earned from any other work. The tax is collected regardless of the outcomes of your work or the manner in which your work is done.

Tax revenue is consolidated into a revenue pool and is not set aside for specific purposes or programmes, such as 3rd party insurance.

For environmental purposes, a tax is usually applied to inputs. For example, fertiliser taxes apply a charge as a rate of a specific active ingredient. The resultant outputs and impacts of the fertiliser use are irrelevant to the way the tax is charged and collected.

Environmental taxes apply to what would be considered as the front end rather than to the emissions – or the back end. For this reason, an environmental tax is a blunt instrument and isn’t regarded as an effective policy choice for improved environmental outcomes due to the lack of consideration of outputs, limited influence on changing behaviour and or negative environmental impacts – known as externalities.

However, the “Carbon Tax” does not work in this manner and it has been shown to influence behaviour.


The “Carbon Tax”

Under the Clean Energy Plan the “Carbon Price” or the “Carbon Tax” was set.

This is where the confusion is allowed to reign supreme. The carbon price is a direct pricing instrument (more about this later, or see my thesis). Under which, by definition it is what is known as an Emissions Charge, or an effluent charge.

An emissions charge is a direct pricing mechanism for the outputs – the emissions. Not on the inputs. Not on the coal going to power stations, but on the estimated or measured emissions.

If we refer to the previous example regarding income and income tax, we can use the example of electricity generation to show the difference in how the Carbon Price works. The energy output is equivalent to income earned. And the CO2 emissions are equivalent to the work performed. The price is levied against the work performed – not on energy output.

The charge will vary depending upon the work performed, regardless of energy output. In this way it is avoidable.

And that’s how polluter behaviour is changed. Input choices are left to the polluter; however, it is the outputs and the emissions that are the important component and that which is assessed. So polluters can either reduce their emissions by changing the inputs, or end of pipe emissions reductions. That decision can be based on what achieves the most cost effective outcome, and at the same time, achieving an improved environmental outcome.

The revenue generated from the carbon price, or emissions charge, is recycled to compound emissions reductions. In Australia this is going to various grant schemes, offsets and renewable energy initiatives. It is designed to be an encapsulated system that will continually reduce carbon emissions.

Income tax reduction (tax differentiation) with the estimated revenue generated is directed to those who have a relatively inelastic demand for electricity consumption. I will write about this at another point. But there are multiple elements to the carbon price as a policy and as a mechanism.


What does it mean?

When broken down, and the topic is discussed with correct terminology, the rationale behind the carbon price becomes a lot clearer and the mechanism behind changing behaviour makes much more sense. What people think of as a Carbon Tax is actually at this time a hybrid Emissions Charge and Tax Differentiation Scheme.

I’m not sure why the debate was allowed to be manipulated without an actual understanding of the underlying mechanisms at work. Granted, they appear to be quite complicated policy instruments. But they are not at a fundamental level.

It is similar to the way car registration operates, but not how income tax is collected. It is another failure of our political leaders to get to grips with policy explanation and education of the public in the process, because these mechanisms are not foreign to us.


But now that you are with me, and over the first hurdle, we can progress further into other areas of the policy.

Mar 072014

How to write a lot brands itself as a “practical guide to productive academic writing”, and for the most part this is true. It could also be an exposition in keeping it simple stupid for the academic writing arena. It really is one and the same.

I read this book on the recommendation of some academic writers during #AcWriMo. Paul J. Silvia, an academic psychology specialist in writing, presents the common complaints put forward by academics as to why they don’t write, and why they don’t publish.

For mine, it is just a positive affirmation of what I already do when I’m writing productively, and what others I’ve worked with have espoused previously.  For others, and in particular for students, the book dispels many of the myths surrounding productive writers.

The message is simple – create a routine and prioritise activities that are writing, or will help you write. As the age old saying goes in academia, if you haven’t got five minutes a day to write, no one can help you. By promoting a routine of writing and writing related tasks, it becomes habitual. I notice myself that when I am writing a lot, I am competitive with myself to exceed yesterday’s output, and become agitated when my writing routine is disrupted. I look for any possible opportunity to be writing. But this is a good situation to be in. I wonder how many people do get annoyed when they aren’t writing, or if they’ve just become resigned to not writing and then put up a smokescreen of excuses that Silvia outlines in this book.

Silvia does not just outline the problems inherent in academic writing and for producing academic scholarship. He also outlines strategies and solutions for developing a culture of writing. These I think are very under rated tips. Getting together a writing group – every week or every second week – will reinforce the requirements for writing. I think this is missed by most students and academic staff. Being able to introduce some measure of accountability from a group, rather than relying on deadlines, is a great way to ensure writing becomes habitual and gets done.

Had I been told that I could get through my undergraduate degree rather easily with just writing 50 or 100 words per day during semester, I perhaps would have been much more productive and successful. But this is what the book really amounts to – explaining how to break down writing tasks to manageable sizes that then don’t become overwhelming in totality.

The importance of developing some level of self accountability is also expressed in How to Write a Lot. I think Silvia has stolen my idea of being able to chart success in writing tasks, and output. He gives his results in an SPSS format, which I think is great if you haven’t already attempted to do something similar. At one stage I kept a database of my word output, and noticed that my most productive days for writing were Wednesday and Thursday. This is perhaps one thing that is lacking in this book – the importance of analysing when in the week and during the day you are most productive in writing.

At some point down the track, I’d also like to analyse what type of exercise is the most beneficial for my writing output. I certainly notice that walking and cycling are the most beneficial for my writing output, and that cricket and golf are perhaps the worst – but I have no evidence to support this claim. It may just be the associated alcohol intake that is the problem.

How to Write a Lot addresses my biggest weakness – how to turn writing a lot into writing productively. I write a lot. But I don’t always have much to show for it. Writing sometimes becomes a procrastination tool instead of doing other more important writing. There are simple, focussed tips given in How to Write a Lot to make sure what you are writing is structured, and presented in a way that can later be used for publication. Prioritising productive writing rather than pure output is something I hadn’t given a lot of thought to.

At the same time Silvia explains the importance in depersonalising your own writing. Emotional investment is something students find quite difficult to grapple with. I certainly found this rather difficult whilst writing my thesis, but it is an important trait to be able to develop in order to write more, and write more productively. Hanging off every word becomes pointless when an editor, examiner, lecturer, tutor or boss is going to tear it apart and make you rewrite and review it in any case. Accepting this before you begin writing is probably the biggest lesson that I took out of this book. And this lesson is one that is important for anyone at any stage of their writing.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is looking to increase their writing output, or looking for ideas to tune up something that is not quite right. If you have a colleague or a student that is stuck on one of the many stumbling blocks of writing, I’d suggest leaving this book on their desk.

Mar 062014
Back Beach, Bunbury
Back Beach, Bunbury

So I’ve been tasked with teaching a unit in Oceanography this semester. It’s hard to not to feel that I’m out of my depth, so to speak. As someone versed mainly in water quality management, there is only so much I can bring to the table, personally. But then I realised it doesn’t particularly matter, because almost everyone else involved in this field is in the same boat.

Oceanography is perhaps one of the few remaining “descriptive” sciences which is a collection of other scientific areas, simply because we do not know enough about the topic itself – or because it is too huge an area of investigation to be compartmentalised. In this way, I guess it is much like “climate science” or “climatology” where multiple scientific endeavours have been thrust towards forming a coherent study in an area requiring research and investigation.

We really have only begun to break the surface in our knowledge of the oceans. It is truly in many ways one of our “last frontiers”. The oceans are alien to us, so much so that much of the understanding of oceans comes from our study of the universe.

The cry of many rings out that we should stop spending so much on such far flung ventures as research in astronomy. But it is this research and investigation and its ability to look back through time that has helped us unlock many of the secrets of the formation of the ocean and the history of planet Earth. It is the best example of seemingly obscure scientific endeavour having “real world” application. We have an idea of how our oceans might have formed because we can observe similar processes happening elsewhere in the universe. Medical imaging is being improved because of the advances in space and astronomy research.

Many of our waters, particularly off the coast of Australia are quite literally unchartered. But I didn’t realise exactly how extensive this area is until I read the brilliant book Northern Voyager’s: Australia’s Monsoon Coast, which is a fantastic historical work on the maritime history of Northern Australia.

It is why the oceans are so special – they hold such a significant place in the history and culture of many civilizations. It is why oceans are the nexus of myth and science and where photographers, historians, poets, photographers, film makers, artists, surfers, submariners and a whole host of scientists all have a role to play in the study, representation, understanding and protection of the oceans into the future.

It is also why I feel comfortable about talking about Oceanography and especially in my areas of expertise. There are some pressing issues facing the water quality of our oceans. The impact of changing water quality and in particular salinity levels and ocean currents is something I personally find fascinating. As is the market failure and subsequent lack of responsibility in addressing the great ocean garbage patches. Over the next few months, I look forward to bringing you a series of posts relating to these and other issues in our oceans.

Further Reading

Powell, A. (2010). Northern Voyagers: Australia’s Monsoon Coast in Maritime History. Australian Scholarly Publishing, Melbourne.