The Music of Science

Over the past few months, a collaboration has progressed to a degree of substance that I am excited to start talking about it. For a long time I have been thinking about a creative way to make a contribution to STEM education, as someone who is passionate about education, but also science and engineering. There are plenty of people thinking about better content, more dynamic education strategies and more robust curriculum development. I have wanted to find a way to deliver a supportive but often elusive element, namely inspiration. I want young people who are imagining their future, to be as intrigued and amazed about science as I am… and I have always imagined doing this through the power of music.

But first I needed to be inspired myself, and that happened through a chance meeting about 18 months ago with Prof. Mary Finsterer, who – at the time – was also a Professorial Fellow at Monash University. She is now the Chamber Music Australia Chair of Composition, Sir Zelman Cowen School of Music, Monash University. I’ve always liked “musos” but I particularly liked Mary’s brilliant and unconventional style of thinking and communication. Slowly, over time, a collaboration began to take shape in the form of Scientifica.

Scientifica is a modern symphonic arrangement with four movements, composed by Mary. Each movement is framed around a “sound of science”, designed to capture and communicate the magic of those sounds. Three of those movements have been based on some really exciting sounds and have been developed as far as composition “samples” that you can actually hear performed on the Scientifica website. The first movement is inspired by the ethereal oscillations of stars – expanding the mind out beyond our planet through wonderful robotic instruments that are telling us all kinds of new things about the universe. The second movement brings us back to the Earth’s atmosphere with the eerie and fragile sounds of solar radiation striking our planet’s protective atmosphere, an extraordinary defense system that we can only detect with special electronic equipment. The final composition is based on the percussive beats of an MRI scanner, representing mankind’s inquiry and control of the biological world.

The fourth movement of Scientifica, as well as the exact order of the movements, has yet to be finalised. This is because we plan to open it up as a competition in early July. We want scientists, engineers, mathematicians, physicians and researchers everywhere to send us the audible incarnations of science that move, mesmerise and inspire them. We then plan to select the best sound – and story – and build the fourth movement around it. We hope that the final product will be a performing arts experience that will weave Mary’s stunning composition with an audiovisual presentation of the actual science itself. Uniquely, our vision is that during this performance, the scientists creating these sounds will join their musical colleagues as an actual performer, hopefully projecting the creativity and passion that is an often poorly understood but fundamental part of scientific progress.

Please visit the project website for Scientifica to learn more. Be sure to listen to Mary’s incredible work.

Academics should not be too smug about Udacity’s failure

I’ve been following the recent commentary around Sebastian Thrun’s revalations that maybe Udacity didn’t deliver the goods. I for one grudgingly admire Silicon Valley’s vaguely arrogant but persistant belief that “they” (the tech Good and Great) can transform and re-imagine every part of our lives, including education. It also makes me happy that this is getting a fair amount of attention because it least it means that education is perhaps important enough to think about in the context of innovation. Overall, it is an under-innovated area.

But there is altogether too much smugness around Thurn’s self-assessment and we possibly shouldn’t make it out to be anything more than a good entrepreneur’s periodic critical review of his product. Moreover, there is a pretty highly positive spin on all of this from a stakeholder engagement vantage – sometimes saying you’re “wrong” is powerful. Especially to Academics. Thurn knows this and has capitalized on it well.

The plain reality is that many universities and colleges are close to having – or are already having – extinction events. The fact is that many of our higher education institutions are struggling, are insufficiently differentiated and poor quality. In parallel, governments are not taking a forward view on growing the investment in education – indeed funding is, in general, being cut. Let’s face it, there is a lot of budgetary competition from healthcare, from immigration & defense and measures to keep our economies propped up. Education – unfortunately – seldom fares well in times such as these. This is a pity because it’s probably one of the most important things to really ensure our prosperity in the longer-term.

My prediction is that in the future, we’ll abandon the “classic” idea of an undergraduate degree. We have already lost vocational training and “associates” type programs that once upon a time enabled people to get trained for specific employement roles and make a decent living. Fact is, the most important employee attributes are critical reasoning, problem solving, team skills and communication. A 3 or 4 year undergraduate degree isn’t required to teach these things – arguably most undergraduate degrees don’t tech these things. We need to know how to communicate, research and understand concepts – we don’t need to store facts or manually crunch complex numbers anymore.

Therefore open universities, MOOCs and various online platforms are almost certainly the future of education. The whole proposition and opportunity cost of tertiary education doesn’t fit with our societal needs anymore. Youth, in particular, need to be able to earn a living while obtaining those vital skills but the same also applies to those who need to be re-skilled mid-career. The cost of education needs to be recoverable, commensurate with the benefits that it imparts to employment – and self-sustainable. Yes, there will always people (myself included) who love to learn for the sake of learning, and will pay a premium to do so. But this should not be the mission of education, it should be the aspiration of educators – that the quality of their offerings are such that we are compelled to come back, breathless, for more.

Alas, this is not typically the case. Despite over a decade of university and several degrees, I can count on one hand the number of lecturers that were worth really listening to. Education is already more of a commodity than we probably realize.

Actually, Udacity is spot on as a concept. The initial product construction may not be right, but academics should certainly not get cocky. In fact, universities would do well to start asking the question – how do we transition to the product, operating and cultural model of life-long learning? How do we transition to a world where instead of simply monetizing a student for 3 or 4 years, that we become a partner to those students – and their families – for life? When this question is critically considered, universities will finally reinvent themselves in an exciting way and likely repair – or even augment – their balance sheets in the process.

In this light, Udacity doesn’t seem to be all that … well… Udacious, does it?

Protection of Native Culture is a Human Right

This post is about a confluence of things I believe are important – but I only just connected the dots and realized that they are part of the same bigger picture. So now I am writing about it…

A couple of weeks ago I was pleased to have sponsored a Global Dignity Day event at the NSW Parliament. It was a perfect situation because I got to feel nice about doing something good without having to do much at all (yes, sometimes I am lazy). Instead the fabulous Jane McAdam and the Hon Michael Kirby did the heavy lifting and invited a couple of hundred school kids to think about social dignity and human rights.

You can find an extract of Kirby’s speech on the Kaldor Centre web site.

I took a course on human rights law in law school once upon a time… I thought it was interesting enough but despite the fascinatingly horiffic case studies that tend to make up the body of law in the area (Kosovo, African war crime tribunals, Khmer Rouge, Nazi Germany… the list goes on) it never really resonated with me as being anything more than just “important” and the domain of deep-thinking, slightly nerdy and bespectacled law students.

Perhaps I am just too superficial…

In Kirby’s speech, he mentions Aboriginal rights – that we have not respected their culture and ways. It’s true – when Australia was first settled by the British, it was conveniently deemed Terra Nullius so that the colonial masters could take what they wished. It was only in last 25 years or so that we have been able to marginally reconcile our imperial view of “ownership” of land with the accordance of Native Rights. In Australia (and I guess some other countries – though not New Zealand because the Maoris actually got their act together, ganged up and negotiated with the British) native title to land is extinguished when the people who inhabited those lands can no longer demonstrate that they have a cultural connection to the land.

So what happens if the modern world takes over, people forget their language and customs, and then “lose” their native culture?  Well, it’s simple. They lose their title and rights to their homeland… they lose the right to their heritage.

Another cause I occasionally support is the Yubulyawan Dreaming Project (YDP). Paul Taylor, who along with Yidumduma Bill Harney is trying to use technology and multimedia to create a digital respository of language, music and folklore of the Wardaman People in the Victoria River area of the Nothern Territories. Paul is a beautiful and exceptional human being who passionately believes in the importance of preserving the culture of the Yubulyawan Clan for future generations.

But it’s only by intersecting these two clusters of events in my life, that I realize the hypocrisy of Indigenous Rights. You see, if we our allow our culture to dominate and erode – as it inevitably will – the culture of our Aboriginal peoples, then we simply take their rights away indirectly and eventually over time. Sure it may take a bit longer but the effect is essentially the same – to extinguish those rights that are so tenuously “granted.” If we make no effort to preserve the culture, then we are simply not serious about Indigenous Rights in the first place.

Paul and YDP is running an Indiegogo campaign – it’s worth checking out. All Australians, if you care about indigenous heritage, you should support it.



Before the next election, can someone PLEASE teach Abbott basic accounting

I don’t normally blog back-to-back on successive days but I got a lot of Liberal party propaganda emails this morning from friends in response to yesterday’s blog, egging me on to dig a deeper hole for myself … and so I want to appease the fans with a response. I might even eventually post those emails on my blog – they’re really entertaining! (permission pending, of course). I guarantee you’ll be laughing at me, not with me…

I want to make two comments.

Firstly, I will probably vote Liberal in the next election. Shocking news! Not because I believe in the party policy sphere and certainly not because I admire Abbott (though there is talent in the Liberal party) but because Australia needs a change of government. I do, in many ways, admire Julia Gillard and it’s wonderful that the political glass ceiling has been broken in Australia. Unfortunately it’s clear to everyone that the Labour party has lost itself. When a quote from Kevin Rudd even vaguely smacks of gravitas, I know party leadership is in the toilet. By the way, it makes me sad to say this because I genuinely think Rudd is a really bright guy, just a lousy politician. There is no place for public servants that put their own agenda ahead of civic duty- though I do miss fresh YouTube material.

We can be honest with each other and agree that the centrist nature of politics in Australia basically means that there is no ideological difference between parties anyhow – it’s merely “opposition.” It’s not like in America where constitutional and religious stakeholders polarise basic political ideology, or in the UK where it is very constituent-driven (i.e. London/SE England or not). As someone whose political ideologies are slightly left-ish of the centre (read, closet socialist … yeah, I know, odd for a capitalist…) I almost lament the days when we had a Labour Party.

Secondly, Abbott can’t add. If his public statements and sentiments really are reflective of some Excel spreadsheets stashed somewhere in the party file servers, we are in deep poo.

I’ll give you an example.

I watched Abbott’s address to the NSW State Council general meeting last weekend. He was good – actually, he has some talent as an orator-to-the-common-man. He knows how to rile a crowd, for sure. But my jaw dropped when, mid-speech, he started attacking (once again) the Carbon Tax. He said (and I paraphrase) – “If my government is elected, we will drop the carbon tax but keep the incentives in place for ordinary Australians – I want to do this.”

So let me get this straight. We have a budget deficit that we are unlikely to repair before 2016. We see no compelling indications of orderly budget restructuring – indeed, there is bold talk of yet further corporate tax cuts (yes, because it is government policy that should enable competitive businesses to make a profit… sigh…) and then the multi-$Bn incentive structure that was precisely funded by the Carbon Tax, is now going to be kept in place – but with the source of the revenue removed.

Why is the relevant to my last posting?

Well, I was reminded that the Liberal party election platform is based on improving Australian business climate (in a world with no Carbon Tax, please pardon the pun), investing innovation, and beefing up R&D and education – all things that I agree need overhaul if the economy is to continue to perform in the face of Asian slow down. Not all changes will be bad and a psychological reversal in AUD/USD benchmarking is, in my opinion, already happening. There is little doubt that a weaker Australian dollar would be good for just about everyone. Besides, we’ve already purchased our new TVs, laptops and cars (a Jeep is only $25k, drive away!) and Ford is shutting down anyhow… so the dollar is allowed to make imports pricier again.

[ Incidentally – I love those Jeep Cherokee commercials, especially the one where the little kid sombrely says to his friend “Mum bought a jeep” and then his mate jumps up and triumphantly tells the whole playground “Harry’s Mum bought a Jeep.” I also like the one with the polo pony guys speaking in Brasilian or whatever. It’s a great dub. I wish I could read their lips – I’m sure he said “I shagged Silvia last night” not “I bought a jeep” but it’s entertaining anyhow… ]

But what I can’t get my head around is Liberal party mathematics? How are we going to pay for all of it, if we don’t garner revenues from targeted taxation like mining and the Carbon Tax (always in capital letters, please)???

Can someone explain this to me?

Abbott needs to learn to stop using the word “I” and start using the word “We”. He’s got some bright people in his party and maybe when they figure out that he’s out electioneering on promises that they’re all going to have to deliver on, someone will sit him down and explain that if revenues are not greater than expenditures, the hole only gets deeper.

P&L doesn’t stand for “Promises and Lies” – it stands for Profit and Loss, Tony…

Apparently, the future is “Monoversities”

Last week I was back in Melbourne and in between catching up with my home life (playing with my little boy!), taking a breather from a brutal April travel schedule and trying to reconquer a mountain of unfinished work that tends to accumulate during travel, I made a trip down to Monash University to listen to the Hon Christopher Pyne MP talk about the “coalition” government’s vision for education.

As many readers will be aware, I care deeply about education. I think it is the cornerstone of building a better a world. It can lead to improvements in child mortality and health. It links to environmental sustainability. It is the driving force behind innovation and economic productivity. I’m a big fan of HSBC bank’s “in the future” advertisement series (genius) – one of the best and truest captions goes something like “In the future, education will be the best investment.” Profound stuff… and utterly true.

…but I digress.

Australia is heading into an election cycle and so I have been trying to understand what rubbish our politicians are trying to serve up this time around. By the way, I’ll throw out there that Australia has the WORST politicians in the world. It’s not that they’re particularly corrupt (though, Craig Thomson’s fraud and sex scandal suggests otherwise), it’s not that they’re xenophobic (though, according to Cory Bernardi, gay marriage is a slippery slope to bestiality); it’s just that they are mostly underwhelming, white and a bit liver-lipped. Our Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, deserves much kudos for being the first woman PM but I don’t have much positive to say about her or her party’s politics.

My mother always told me, if you can’t say anything nice – say nothing at all.

Sometimes lawyers tell me the same thing.

I will say one thing, however, and that is Tony Abbott is a buffoon. I can’t believe he’s Oxford-educated. His party seemingly has no policy other than to slander the Labour government. His budgetary ruminations don’t make sense (either in economic terms or basic accounting), his stance on climate change is irresponsible and he has no game plan for how to build a financial reserve to support Australia’s future infrastruture and economic diversification needs, other than “we can’t tax mining.”


I’d like to say, however, Mr. Pyne is a very polished guy. Charming. Gave a great speech, dammit I liked him… But to my dismay he reiterated a lot of opposition government mantras that I didn’t really want to hear (and don’t really believe) and he certainly upheld the party dogma of simply attacking existing policy, rather than formulating and proposing bold and clever new ideas. It’s also clear that an important facet of the party rubric is to wistfully hark back to the days of Howard government, obviously the last time that the country could have possibly been responsibly run…

But, what of education?

Well, the good news is that the coalition government acknowledges that education and R&D is important to the economy. They believe that there have been too many cuts to education and research and that this needs to be addressed. I’m not sure which money pot they were thinking of pulling it from, but this was a fairly consistent theme in the speech. It’s clear that their policy wonks have recognised some of the problems with the allocation mechanisms of research grants and that it’s not very “egalitarian.” There was some waffle and rubbish about the fact that with only a 20% chance of getting a grant funded, academics waste too much time writing grants … whatever. Let’s just hope that whatever the more “efficient” system is that they come up with that our stellar politicians at least still make it a competitive, peer-reviewed process.

However, there were two issues in the Minister’s speech that slightly concerned me.

The first is that Mr Pyne suggested that it was ok for universities to become “segregated” into institutions that excel at research, and institutions that excel at teaching. Now, to some extent, I agree this is true. Or rather, I do believe that there are many vocationally-directed courses that don’t need to be taught by people with strong research backgrounds. However, we need to be very careful about the degree of separation between the two. There is no doubt that unless you have people who are aware of “best practice”, teaching loses efficacy. Similarly, if you have great research institutions but don’t inspire and develop the next generation, you also get stagnation. Considering the pace of knowledge, is it really wise to separate the two? Should we be forgetting that “University” is short for universitas magistrorum et scholarium – a “community” of teachers and scholars? Will we stop educating great people if we separate the two?

This issue reflects, at its heart, growing political momentum behind the idea that universities are just there to create a trained workforce. This is certainly an important deliverable to society, but it is far from the only one. The problem is that politicians see universities as either a consumer of public R&D budget, or a headcount allocation for tertiary education – and nothing else. This gross simplification helps to propagate the argument for instilling the teaching/research divide. Unfortunately, it fails to consider a very important part of our modern world, namely the interdisciplinary nature of knowledge and the equal (in my view) importance of teaching and research to enabling innovation. There is no doubt that our universities are ripe for systemic and conceptual overhaul, and disruptors (i.e. MOOCs, immigration/population movement) are going to drive completely redefine the university environment in the next decade, but I am not sure this is the redefinition it needs.

However, what is going to become ever more important is that universities are places where truly interdisciplinary thinking can be nurtured. Mr Pyne talked about eradicating universities that offer “everything”, creating institutions with a focused and limited repertoire rather than the whole “smorgasbord.” Instead, he’d welcome universities that choose to excel in particular areas, to build centres of excellence where resources around a particular discipline are concentrated. In concept this sounds like a nice, efficient idea – but is it really practical? As a fairly small country, I don’t mind if we only build one “cracking” petroleum engineering school or mining department. I don’t mind if we only have once “Institute for Advanced Energy Research.” In a way, it probably also makes sense to try and distribute these centres around as much as possible otherwise only one or two universities are going to end up getting the monopoly on public funding and that will lead to a lack of competition.

Unfortunately, I think that if a university is going to have an engineering school, it probably wants a law school, a medical school, education and arts… and vice-versa. Why? Thinking no longer happens in silos. We live in an interdisciplinary age. We don’t innovate in traditional “fields” anymore, we innovate where fields bump into each other and blend ideas from disparate areas of intellectual endeavour. From an intellectual hygiene vantage, I couldn’t imagine a university not being a place where people from diverse disciplines couldn’t readily interact. Replicating an MIT or a Caltech in science/technology MIGHT work, but even those institutions thrive through diverse research and teaching collaborations with other universities – usually proximal.

I’m not sure I want our universities to become “monoversities” quite yet…

So, despite the fact that I am now encouraged by my (new) belief that not everyone in opposition government is as underwhelming as their leader, for now there is nothing really apparent in coalition education policy that makes me think that there are refreshing new ideas just waiting to transform our university system.

Ho hum.

MBA rankings are bogus for a very simple reason

Ah, it’s that time of year again. US News EMBA rankings have come out and it’s really interesting to watch the discussion, debate, accusations, the scorn, the wringing of hands… Sheer entertainment, really.

Someone inevitably loses out, someone else gains a notch or two.

But the truth is that MBA rankings are completely pointless because they depend quite heavily on metrics based on either starting salary or, in some cases (i.e. for the executive programs), change in salary.

This is dumb for three reasons:

1) Although most of the top-tier business schools have a fairly broad student catchment, they are not all equal. Therefore, to an extent, relative salary ranges are somewhat weighted by either geographic labour market characteristics or sector dynamics (i.e. some schools have stronger recruitment from particular business segments). Especially certain programs like evening/weekend EMBA programs.

2) If your employer is sponsoring your MBA, salaries don’t tend to dramatically increase before/after B-School. In fact, that’s usually the whole point. You sponsor someone for business school, you put in some kind of a lock-in/payback obligation and you keep the salary as flat as you can (perhaps inflation adjustment only). Maybe even for a couple of years. If you have shucked out the best part of somewhere between $60,000 and $100,000 for an employee to get an MBA – that investment is part training and development, and part “holistic view of compensation.” Especially in this day in age where balance sheets are being run in conservation mode and plenty of firms are saying no to big education investments.

3) A lot of people take MBAs to try and get a better pay check (and we all know that this is mostly a false hope). A lot of people pursue an MBA to get into “richer” industries in the hope that long-term, they’ll have a more financially lucrative career. Whatever… However, I personally believe that a lot of people take MBAs simply to change industry, at least this is my experience of business school both as a student and as a ‘professor’. In this scenario, the diploma may be the key to resume reinvention or repositioning yourself, but you might still take a pay cut or a fairly flat salary adjustment in order to move to a new industry even with your shiny new Boy Scout (or Girl Guide) “business survival” badge. This is obviously going to impact the numbers.

The bottom line is that education is not just about getting a bigger pay check but this is ultimately how we substantially (not entirely, but certainly significantly) benchmark the impact factor of an MBA. My question is this – how are business schools ever going to transform into more powerful, creative and diversified learning environments that embrace design, human factors, social entrepreneurship and philanthropy if the thing that matters most is the pay check students get at the end?