Thursday, August 24, 2006

Callgirl enters Einfeld fray

The legal fallout from Marcus Einfeld's speeding ticket now threatens to engulf his solicitor, Michael Ryan, after a spurned prostitute gave police a suitcase full of documents. The papers were handed over by Marie Christos, a former legal secretary who claims she was regularly paid for sex by Mr Ryan.

She said she became involved in the Einfeld affair during the bitter break-up of her six-year relationship with Mr Ryan, a partner in McClellands Lawyers. The relationship allegedly started soon after Ms Christos left a secretarial position with a top Sydney silk. She said she met Mr Ryan in a brothel and had begun a relationship with him in which he paid her up to $500 for sex. To seek retribution against Mr Ryan after they broke up, Ms Christos said she rifled through his garbage looking for information to use against him.

She has since been quizzed by police about a draft statement she said she found, which appeared to have been prepared on behalf of Mr Einfeld. The statement was believed to have been about who was driving Mr Einfeld's silver Lexus on the night the luxury car was picked up for speeding in January. Ms Christos said yesterday that police had told her that when they interviewed Mr Ryan last week he had denied any connection with the draft statement, which Ms Christos later supplied to The Daily Telegraph newspaper in Sydney. "He has told police it was a set-up," she said.

Mr Ryan has refused to respond to a number of requests for comment from The Australian. Ms Christos said yesterday that she has since given police other versions of the draft statement that she had had found in Mr Ryan's garbage. Those extra documents, while torn and crumpled, had been placed in plastic bags by police and taken away for finger-printing, she said. Daily Telegraph editor David Penberthy said last night that his newspaper had made a formal statement to police on Monday.

Ms Christos's involvement in the Einfeld inquiry is the latest twist in the bizarre chain of events that was triggered by Mr Einfeld's decision to fight a $77 speeding ticket. Mr Einfeld, a former Federal Court judge, is facing a fraud squad investigation into evidence he gave to Sydney's Downing Centre Local Court that allowed him to avoid the speeding fine. He told the court that at the time of the offence in January this year, he had lent his car to Teresa Brennan, a professor who had been visiting from the US. After the court proceedings it emerged that Brennan had died in 2003, and that two doctorates held by Mr Einfeld had been conferred by institutions which some claim are little more than "diploma mills".

This follows complaints last year that, before he left Federal Court, one of his judgments had failed to acknowledge material that was identical to work by Sydney University academic John Carter. Mr Carter said this week that the material had been identical to that contained in one of his books. "I recognised my own work," he said. Mr Carter had put the matter in the hands of his publisher, and Mr Einfeld later said that a footnote had been accidentally omitted from the judgment.

Mr Einfeld was a Federal Court judge at the time his two postgraduate degrees were awarded. The Californian university that gave Mr Einfeld a PhD - which cost $3413 at the time it was awarded - has since conceded that it is trying to rise above claims it was a "diploma mill" in the past and become an accredited academic institution. Pacific Western president Ronald Detrick admitted the university's chequered history was a stumbling block in its efforts to win federal accreditation. He said Pacific Western's reputation was so bad that he recommended to the new owner, Florida-based chiropractor Steven Warfield, that it be closed down.


States' stand against history teaching weakens

The states' opposition to teaching history as a stand-alone subject faltered yesterday with Queensland Premier Peter Beattie pledging to introduce a compulsory Australian history subject if re-elected. The West Australian and Tasmanian governments also indicated they would look at how history was taught in schools, with the Carpenter Government not opposed to teaching Australian history as a separate, compulsory subject in years 9 and 10. But West Australian Education Minister Ljiljanna Ravlich dismissed the importance of students knowing historical dates, saying they could use the internet.

The history summit last Thursday, attended by 23 distinguished historians and commentators, urged the states to replace the subject Studies of Society and its Environment, under which history is now taught, with a traditional teaching of history, including making Australian history compulsory in years 9 and 10. Only NSW and, from this year, Victoria teach history as a stand-alone subject, with the remaining states teaching it under SOSE ["studies of society and environment"] with geography, environment, political and other social studies.

Mr Beattie's support for a separate Australian history subject overruled his Education Minister, Rod Welford, who is strongly opposed to the idea. On the campaign trail yesterday, Mr Beattie said he believed Australian history should be taught more thoroughly in schools, with particular emphasis on Aboriginal history before white settlement. "If re-elected, I want to ensure that there is a stand-alone compulsory unit on Australian history," he said. "When I went to school, I was taught lots about British history, German, Russian, but so little about Australian history, which I picked up by reading after I left school and when I went to uni."

After the summit, Mr Welford said it would be "educational vandalism" for the federal Government to force the separate study of history on the states. "To talk about history as a stand-alone subject, as a list of events, is an educational absurdity," he said. But a spokeswoman for Mr Welford yesterday said Mr Beattie's support for the subject was under the umbrella of SOSE. The spokeswoman said not all teachers taught Australian history under SOSE and Mr Beattie wanted to ensure it was a compulsory unit not separate to SOSE.

Ms Ravlich dismissed the knowledge of key historical dates as unimportant and was reported yesterday as saying it was akin to not knowing "the internal workings of a computer". She said the advent of the internet and search engines, such as Google, meant students had those dates at their fingertips. But Ms Ravlich went on to say that in terms of making Australian history a compulsory subject in years 9 and 10, "I don't have a problem with that necessarily". Tasmanian Education Minister David Bartlett did not rule out reinstating history as a separate subject but said it had been taught as part of SOSE for 25 years. "I'm happy to look at how we go about teaching in all our curriculum areas. We always want to continue to improve our curriculum framework and therefore what's taught," he said.


A wonderful story

And a testimony to the desirability of accelerated education

Terry Tao was just two when he stunned a family gathering at home in Adelaide by giving a maths and spelling lesson to friends' children who were up to five years his senior. Using blocks, and knowledge he had gleaned from television, Tao showed the children how to add up and to make words.

Tao's father, Billy, an Adelaide pediatrician, remembers his son's party-stopper. "The children were playing and the adults were talking ... suddenly, we found the children had gone very quiet," Billy Tao says. "We found that Terry was teaching them numbers and the alphabet. The other kids were a lot older. He was showing them how to add and so on. I said 'how do you know all these numbers and alphabet?' and he said 'From watching Sesame Street'."

It was an early indication that the boy would become a world-beating genius with a 221 IQ: he had two university degrees by the age of 17, was made a professor of mathematics at 24 and, last night, the 31-year-old Tao was presented with the world's highest prize in mathematics, the Fields Medal, regarded as the discipline's Nobel prize. He is Australia's first winner.

The International Mathematical Union, which bestows the award, cites Tao as "a supreme problem-solver whose spectacular work has had an impact across several mathematical areas". "He combines sheer technical power, an other-worldly ingenuity for hitting upon new ideas and a startlingly natural point of view that leaves other mathematicians wondering, 'Why didn't anyone see that before?'."

Tao himself is modest about the honour: "I don't really know how it will affect my career. I haven't had an award like this before. I'm trying to focus on continuing my research and other work, such as advising graduate students."

An early mentor and academic supervisor, the director of the International Centre of Excellence for Education in Mathematics, Garth Gaudry, says Tao is a phenomenon. While most leading research mathematicians work on two or three projects at a time with collaborators, Tao juggles 10 to 15, Gaudry says. When Gaudry took on the 12-year-old Tao at Billy Tao's behest, the youngster had already exhausted several private tutors. Then a maths professor at Flinders University, Adelaide, Gaudry taught Tao on Wednesday afternoons. He remembers "a tiny little boy, a delightful kid" with staggering "insight and brilliance", who was "completely off the scale". "By age 14 he was doing very advanced mathematics, the sort of thing in US first-year graduate study, and I gave him the hardest stuff," Gaudry says. "He was just so creative. I'd give him some really esoteric problems and he would just invent things and he was absolutely spot on. The creativity was like flashes of lightning in front of my eyes. I've never had a student like this." Gaudry says they both loved the sessions. "He was just such a happy person who enjoyed every moment of what he was doing. It was a great relationship from the beginning and that has continued to this day," he says. Gaudry was in Madrid last night to witness Tao's investiture into the maths hall of fame.

With backgrounds in pediatrics and maths teaching, Tao's parents, Hong Kong Chinese who came to Australia in 1972, were well-placed to plan their first born's schooling. After a premature start at primary school, Tao went back to Bellevue Heights Primary School in the Adelaide hills at age four. His parents and principal Keith Lomax designed a staggered schooling for him. At age six, Tao was studying some classes in grades two and three, and maths at grade six and seven level. His father says: "Some education people think that accelerated education is the way to go with all gifted children. But my concept is you have to design courses according to people. Don't accelerate beyond what is good for the child."

Tao started classes at Blackwood High School at Eden Hills in Adelaide at age seven but he remained in some classes at Bellevue Heights. By eight he had finished primary school and, while he was studying such subjects as geography, biology and chemistry at Year 7 and 8 level, Tao was already devouring Year 11 and 12 maths and physics. "His subjects were never strictly according to the timetable of the curriculum. It was always very loose," Billy Tao says. "This allows him to develop academically according to his intellectual ability but kept him normal socially."

Tao was always in good company. Parents Billy and Grace produced three nodes of extreme intelligence. Brother Trevor, 29, is an autistic music savant and chess champion with degrees in music who last year earned a PhD in applied mathematics from the University of Adelaide. He works for the Defence Science Technology Organisation. Youngest brother Nigel, 27, has degrees in computer science and economics and works for the internet search company Google in Sydney.

Tao's next step into higher education was also a mixed one. He was enrolled at Flinders at the age of nine while still studying at Blackwood High. By 16 he had completed a bachelor of science degree and the following year he wrapped up a masters of science degree with honours. A PhD in maths at Princeton University in the US followed at 21 and, at 24, Tao was made professor of mathematics at the University of California, Los Angeles. Apart from stints at the University of NSW in 1999 and 2000 and the Australian National University in Canberra from 2001 to 2003, Tao has lived full-time in the US since starting his PhD. It was Gaudry who encouraged Tao to leave Australia.

"It worked out well for me as I was exposed to different types of mathematics that I didn't encounter in Australia," says Tao. "I think I am going to stay over here (in the US) more or less permanently, though I do plan to visit Australia about once a year." He lives in LA where he is married to Laura, an American of Korean background, and they have a son, three-year-old William, whom Billy says is "very smart, reading by himself".

Tao's work, like that of many mathematicians, is esoteric, understood and appreciated by very few, although its applications power the hi-tech modern world. He works in a theoretical field called harmonic analysis - an advanced form of calculus that uses equations from physics - as well as non-linear partial differential equations, algebraic geometry, number theory and combinatorics. He has also made mathematical descriptions of wave motions of light in fibre-optic cables. His latest breakthrough, in a collaboration with Ben Green of Cambridge University, is to show that it is possible to compile any sequence of evenly spaced prime numbers. This is called number theory and it has challenged, confounded and entertained mathematicians for centuries. Euclid in 300BC was the first to prove that there are infinitely many prime numbers. Number theory is at the heart of the encryption codes that organisations such as banks use to protect electronic information from hackers.

But Tao and Green's work is so new and so advanced that even they don't know what its uses might be. "Ben and I are investigating these tools further and it looks like they are going to have many applications though of course it's hard to say at this point," Tao explains. The under-appreciation of maths is not lost on Gaudry. "People don't appreciate that there is an enormous amount of maths research going on," he says. "The problem for maths is that some of the most famous and wonderful advances in our subject are hidden inside the technology that we enjoy." Compact discs, mobile phones, MP3 players and special effects in movies are all products driven by maths research.

But under-appreciation of maths is not limited to the uninitiated. Maths is struggling in our universities. A recent survey by the Australian Mathematical Science Institute of job ads in The Australian's Higher Education Supplement found that in an 18-month period, 70 mathematicians had quit academic posts but only 18 ads had called for replacements. "It's a disaster (but) the effects are not immediate," says ANU professor of mathematics Neil Trudinger. "In time they'll be translated into disadvantages in the whole scientific, technological effort in keeping up with the rest of the world."

Earlier this year, the maths department at the University of New England in northern NSW was cut from seven positions to four. "There's an expectation that four faculty members can deliver an entire academic program ... at a place that calls itself a university; it's pathetic," Trudinger says. AMSI director Philip Broadbridge says Tao was fortunate to have studied when he did. "The time when Tao was taught and mentored you could go to virtually any university in Australia and think you could receive an education of that quality," he says. "These days, I'm not so sure."


Bad food coverup in Sydney

They are made public in New York, London, Toronto, Copenhagen, Los Angeles and dozens of other cities, but Sydney has ruled that the addresses of restaurants caught breaching food safety regulations must remain secret. Clover Moore, the independent MP and the Lord Mayor of Sydney, has long fought for stronger laws to protect the public's right to know, but her chief executive, Monica Barone, has refused a Herald appeal filed under freedom of information laws for access to the addresses where staff issued 78 fines over the past year. The council has released a list with the date and amount of fines imposed, but has blacked out names and street numbers, defying a worldwide trend towards disclosing such information.

In customer-focused New York, a website carries the results of inspections and will send you for free the results of any five restaurants you nominate. In Toronto restaurants must display a sticker in the window that reveals the results of health inspections with similar systems operating across the US and increasingly in Britain. Ms Barone dismissed any relevance such overseas practices might have for Sydney on the grounds that any publication of results was done "presumably in accordance with legislation which is applicable in those places". In NSW, she said, the Privacy Act prohibited her from revealing the names of the individuals fined.

While the street address of restaurants are in the phone book and available to passers-by, they remain secret on the grounds they are "information concerning the commercial or business affairs of a person". Revealing them could "reasonably be expected to have an unreasonable adverse effect", she said.

Similar fears were expressed in Europe and North America before the names of offending restaurants were published, but there have since been reports that many restaurants now prefer these details to be public as it becomes another way they can distinguish themselves from competitors and attract customers.

But Ms Barone said she could not release the information as it would be "reasonable to expect that advertising of the locations of these food premises may give a false representation of the condition of each of the premises, which could lead to a downturn in custom, thus reducing income and causing possible hardship for the proprietors". [But would that not be deserved?]

Besides, the imposition of fines had fixed the problems permanently in a way that did not seem to happen overseas. 'I am informed that following the issue of a [fine], City [of Sydney] staff return to the premises to ensure hygiene standards are being complied with," Ms Barone said. "I am also informed . all premises were complying [with one exception, which was then prosecuted]."


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