Friday, June 29, 2012
The journey starts with a peice by a chap going by the name of Tom Steinberg, in which he implores governments, regional and national, to stop treating people like idiots. The basic theory goes that governments are still in paper mode - in that sharing of information is difficult and limited, when in fact there is a huge opportunity to share not just the decisions but the rationale behind decisions. So a council might put something on it's website about rubbish collection being fortnightly now rather than weekly. And miss the opportunity to get a random member of the public more involved/informed by linking to the reasons for the decision, explaining the costs involved, linking further on to a budget sheet showing where the rubbish collection sits in the greater scheme of the council finances. It's an idea that makes enourmous amounts of sense to me. People are not dumb (a large majority of them aren't anyway) and you might have less people pissed off with the way things are running if it's explained in context. Numbers often get bandied about in the news, but rarely do I see them compared. Which can lead to people not really understanding how everything fits together.
So people have to have access to data - which brings us to the open government project, which I talked about a few days ago. There is a wealth of data that our various governments generate. It's good to have a central point which makes access easier - at the same time it's rather disappointing that we have to. The open government data is a goldmine for data driven journalists (the best of which that we have being Keith Ng atm) and for that reason alone it should exist. A lot of this information should incorporated into the fabric of government though. You shouldn't have to go searching through an archive to figure out how much money is being spent on anti-smoking measures this year. It should be linked in from district health boards alongside information on how much each smoker costs, how much getting them to stop costs and how much that is going to save us in the long term. With the option of clicking through somewhere to see how anti-smoking measures compare with other preventative programs in place.
Which brings me to a piece by Ben Goldacre. Or rather a report for the UK cabinet office that he co-wrote on randomised controlled trials. Through the use of numerous examples and some very plain language, they explain why randomised trials are good - you can find out what actually works and how well it works rather than just guessing or relying on biased analysis. They explain how to go about setting up randomised, controlled trials. They show why they don't always cost a huge amount more - the data is often already being collected. And get around the old chestnut of it being unetthical to offer something you will improve outcomes to one bunch of people and not another - the thing that you think might be improving outcomes could be hurting outcomes and RCT's can often be done as part of a staggered rollout, amongst other things. They suggest using the expertise of academics who know how to do the stats, which is a bonus, academics become more invovled in the policy process without taking it over and possibly get a paper or two out of it, properly managed, I don't really see a downside to this.
This then is where I get all utopian and dreamy eyed. Imagine a government that integrated it's data, made it people to access and attached it to relevant information on the web - so that you could easily go to whatever level you liked to see where it fit in with the rest of what the government is spending/doing. Not only that though, but instead of rocking on into government, loudly announcing that they going to implement their policy X, that policy X was going to fix everything and just steam rolled through, imagine a government that came into power with a bunch of trials they wanted to run over varying time frames and that based on the outcomes, those policies would be implemented. And to top it off, there's a decent chance that it would result in continually better outcomes such that the world of 2032 would be a better place for everyone than 2012 is.
I don't think this is necessarily the method to electoral death. If a party could build itself a reputation for building polices with properly collected data to back them up they could portray the other parties as ideologues with no interest in improving the lot of the average citizen. A position that I would like to think would at least win some respect.
Wednesday, June 27, 2012
"Statistical thinking will one day be as necessary for efficient citizenship as the ability to read and write." – H.G. Wells
Tuesday, June 26, 2012
So having been given an offical blessing by the Nernite overlords, the next step is finding a venue. Then some speakers. Obviously. I've got a few people to contact. Remains to be seen how well it goes. FIngers crossed. He said nerviously.
Monday, June 25, 2012
It's quite refreshing to wander in on a Monday morning, sort of awake-ish (even though the coffee machine is broken) and right off the bat have a couple of well laid out posts that immediately get the brain going.
The immediate thing that leapt to my mind was the misdirection on class sizes. This is another case of evidence being used, if not deceitfully, then at the very least, not being used well. We have continually heard from those pushing the increase in class sizes as a good thing, that none of the research shows that increases in class sizes hurts student performance. Not only is this a little hard to believe, since it implies that you could continually increase class size without restriction, but it's not actually what the research suggests. The research that Hattie uses suggests that there's no significant difference between class sizes of 25 and 15. This is very much one of those cases where making the distinction is important. The research does not show that increasing class sizes from 25 to 27/28 is not harmful. The research has no opinion to offer on the subject. It may be neutral, it may be negative, we don't know. This, as Danyl says down the bottom of the post - sufficient cause to run a trial. Try it on a small scale in a few classrooms at a dozen schools round the country, compare them other classes at the same schools and see what the result is. You don't get call an extrapolation evidence though.
The relevance of the proposed charter schools is also bought into question. If you're relying on Hattie's research to justify increases in class sizes (despite it not actually supporting the argument) then why would you dismiss the relevance his assessments of things that do make a difference to educational success. In proposing charter schools, the government have done just that, ignored the fact that charter schools have a 0.2 effect (on a scale of 1 to -1) on achievement, with any proposed measure having an effectiveness of 0.5 being deemed somewhat pointless. Why not try some of the 66 very effective measures (>0.5) that Hattie suggests first.
As icing on the cake has anyone else noticed how when the idea of league tables are brought up, those who are opposed to the idea acknowledge that league tables might better inform parents but then worry that it will encourage schools to turn away under performing students (those who need the most help) and to teach to the test, narrowing educations focus - neither of which are good things. Those people who are pro league tables always seem to miss the second half? They only ever talk about how it will better inform parents, never about the legitimate concerns that have been raised by educators both here and overseas in systems where league tables are present?
More and more it looks like cherry picking on a massive scale on the part of the government. They use evidence for one thing to support another sort of related thing, then ignore the fact that the evidence they just misused actually supports more effective measures than the one they want to implement. And when people raise concerns about a (related but slightly different) issue, they ignore the more complex, damaging concerns and answer only the points that are trivially true.
Friday, June 22, 2012
Even better, the GE crop is not owned by a large corporation - it's owned by the industry association.
There's a couple of take away points though, from the designer of the resistant plant, the first being:
Genetic engineering technology is not the same thing as Monsanto/Big Ag policy. It’s a tool. And like all tools, it can be used for good or bad ends.Which is something I think I have also said. On numerous occasions. It's not just me who thinks this. The other is right at the end when the interview is summed up.
After all, it’s impossible to anticipate the full impact of any of our actions, including a technology as complex and powerful as genetic engineering. I also think it’s fair to check up on the facts Dr. Gonsalves provides and to insist on published articles in peer-reviewed science journals. But after reading these articles and listening to arguments on both sides, I’m persuaded that the Rainbow was an appropriate and, yes, ethical use of genetic engineering that has had more benefits than drawbacks. This doesn’t mean I’m pro-GMO or pro-Monsanto. I’m pro asking questions and looking at situations on a case-by-case basis.It's noted that this resistant plant works well for the Hawaiian version of the virus, but that overseas there's some versions that breakdown resistance. Very rarely do we find a perfect tool that solves all our problems. Some weeds are resistant to pesticides, some insect resistant to some insecticides. Species evolve, the pests included, and our methods of controlling them will always be evolving. We should be aiming for the methods of control that do the least harm.
Wednesday, June 20, 2012
The idea being bandied about that those damaging the environment have large cheque books and thus the only tool that the environmentalists have is the emotional appeal. This is at worst a strawman. At best, misguided. Having a large bank account and being in possession of evidence backing up your claims are not synonymous.
Personally, I think having claims backed up by evidence would be enable more people to come forward and not be picked on (if indeed people claiming to be greenies are being picked on as Toki suggests). Being able to back up your claims would tend to indicate that you're not being a bit of a loonie.
Monday, June 18, 2012
In Wellington for the evening. And that, ladies and gentleman, was the first time in a long, long time that I have paid $2.50 for a long black. Not a bad one either.
That aside, I've been wandering the streets, sans coat (large seam given way, at the menders). One of the things my significant other has noted on the odd occaision that she's in Auckland is that, on average, it's shinier. As I wander the streets here, I see a couple of really cool, old school, 1920's art deco buildings, sure with awful paint jobs - though ones got a nice but faded mural. And on their sides - large billboards proclaiming large character-less glass and steel apartments. Which, coming from a city with large amounts of character-less glass and steel, I can only describe as sad.
Saturday, June 16, 2012
Thing is, the message is bang on. Norman Bourlag saved millions upon millions of lives in the 70's and 80's. He didn't do it to seek fame, but even still, I think it's a little raw that 99% of the world hasn't even heard of him. The first (serious) response included this:
" clearly well-intended, pushing the boundaries of the creaking-at-the-seams, soil-exhausting, monoculture methods of the past might not prove to be the best idea... "
Which is fair enough, he did push the boundaries of a creaking system. In doing so though, he gave us breathing time to sort out our looming population/supply problems and saved the lives of millions of people. The fact that the opportunity to solve these problems has been squandered is beside the point - he did what he was able to do at the time with the tools available in order to save lives. Something we should aspire to.
So now we are left with a world that, if we are really really lucky/organised(ha!), will have another 2 billion people in it. Having pushed the boundaries already, there's not a lot more we can wring out of the system.
As we approach the limit of what we can do in agricultural terms, we are beginning to look towards sustainability. If growing more is to mean anything, we have to control population growth at the same time as improving our distribution systems and varying the crops we grow - the monoculture system has been pushed to the limit and is now beginning to fall over. Whatever advantages we were able to wring out of it, people like Borlaug have already done it. PSA is destroying kiwifruit so easily becuase kiwifruit is a monoculture. Banana is another monoculture crop having difficulties along with citrus in Florida. Rein in Monsanto by all means, for destructive business practices, but throwing a tool like genetic engineering out of the toolbox is shortsighted. It's not a tool to be used in all circumstances just because we can, where appropriate though, I think it should be used. There are going to be hiccups along the way. Some bugs will evolve resistance. We'll find another way to fight them. It's what happened when we started using pesticides. It's what happened when we started farming. We are never going to have a perfect system of pest control, it's a running battle. Crops that use less pesticide/herbicide though, need to be sprayed less, the soil is disturbed less, which is better for growing bigger crops. Crops that fix their own nitrogen could reduce the need for rotational planting. GE is a tool.
The choice we face is between a Malthusian solution or some sort of humane transition to a sustainable system of agriculture for a sustainable population level - and it's a choice yet to be made.
For a dash of optimism after all the negativity, watch this:
Friday, June 15, 2012
PZ wrote a piece last week, that's been reposted on the Panda's Thumb. A good one. Two points. 1) The title: "A well informed citizenry is the only true repository of the public will". And 2) the Thomas Jefferson quote at the end:
"I think by far the most important bill in our whole code is that for the diffusion of knowledge among the people. No other sure foundation can be devised, for the preservation of freedom and happiness...Preach, my dear Sir, a crusade against ignorance; establish & improve the law for educating the common people. Let our countrymen know that the people alone can protect us against these evils [tyranny, oppression, etc.] and that the tax which will be paid for this purpose is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests and nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance."Both reinforce the importance of the idea of education, not just for the children of the rich, but for everyone. In the end, it is the educated (by whatever means) who have the greatest ease in manipulating the world. It follows that if education is restricted to the children of the rich, then the world eventually dances to their tune. The best defense against this is education, not just for the rich, not just for those who choose to attend university, but for everyone.
I'll stop harping on about this sort of thing (for a bit) shortly, I promise.
Thursday, June 14, 2012
George Takei's facebook stream (superb btw, the man's come a long way since Sulu). It's not the best quote I've seen illustrating the concept, the general gist of which is that education is more than just preparing another batch of drones who will supply the workforce with labour. It's only floating round the edges, and I think is far from mainstream thought. I get the impression that large numbers of people would read this, agree with it and congratulate themselves for being enlightened. then when the next round of cuts comes to universities and technical institutes, when another round of debt is heaped on students, they will have forgotten the sentiment and be quietly thinking the students should stop complaining and just get on with it. I'll consider it mainstream when the next round of cuts the tertiary sector has to face gathers the same level of opposition as the recent class size debacle.
Again this harks back to the University Without Conditions piece that I've linked to several times now. Mass education started out as a means to educate the workforce so that they could work the new machines of the industrial age. The idea of education to create a citizen rather than a drone was reserved for the sons of the rich. We've come a long way from there, but over the last couple of decades, that's where higher education is heading back to.
It's nice to see the idea that education is about more than creating a work force beginning to take hold. One can only hope it continues.
Tuesday, June 12, 2012
Not just a political position, but an ideological one as well, a whole approach to understanding society and its institutions. That is often the case with statements about education, seeing as schools are a model of society, and the student a model of the citizen. But in the area of education there is a peculiar view that still prevails, according to which these models should be better than the societies that we have, better than the idea of citizenship that we have settled for.There was a post from on the University without Conditions site a month or so back that I linked to on re-framing the defence of the university. We shouldn't be attempting to defend a model of universities that never really existed as much as we should be pro-actively pushing higher education as the ideal towards we as a society should be aiming. I suspect this is not quite the context within which Giovanni's line should sit, but it fits well. As he goes on to say, those who do see schools as a model of society usually also acknowledge that education is more than just churning out employable workers, an idea with which I fully concur. The life of a citizen the is devoted to nothing other than their economic well being is not the life of a citizen, it's the life of a drone.
And even then. I think there is a disconnect somewhere between what business want, what the education system says it wants to produce and what it actually provides. I suspect the business world would operate a little better if those involved in it are capable of looking outside their immediate concerns. Someone who has been trained for a specific task is of use to a business. Someone who has been educated properly should be able to draw inspiration from many places and be of use for many tasks. This flexibility is something parroted in the aspirational goals of our education systems, yet when you look at what is delivered, a different mindset prevails. Tighter budgets, fewer academic staff, more work for those that there currently are, bigger classes, cuts in services, getting rid of departments that don't obviously contribute to a students ability be a good little drone when they leave the education system. They do little to foster critical thinking or impart a well rounded education. This mindset, the antithesis of the one Giovanni talks of is most obvious at the tertiary education level in New Zealand. Performance based pay and charter schools appear to me at the moment as the beginnings of a similar mindset flowing onto our secondary schools. If I'm right and it becomes fully established, it would be horrific, only 10% or so of our population ever actually gets to university. The only education we can pretty much guarantee that everyone gets access to is secondary.
The tertiary sector is delivering the rhetoric that the business world wants to hear, but it's actions indicate that they have no intention of providing the flexible, well rounded, educated minds of tomorrow. Failing both business and students alike. Be a pity if that became the norm for secondary education as well.
Monday, June 11, 2012
I really don't get the people who advocate performance based pay for teachers. The good teachers are already there. Already in the sector, because they love teaching. Paying them more isn't going to magically appear new teachers. The argument that new, better teachers will come through the system as well is ... suspect. New and better teachers will come through the system when the profession as a whole is well paid and respected, as it should be. I don't see prospective teachers looking at the pay scales and going all gushy at the prospect of getting slightly more than their colleagues. If money were a factor, they would look at the profession as a whole, see how much money there was sloshing around and look to see how well it compares with other prospective careers. I think it would still loose. Which leads me to think that teachers, the good ones, do it because they love doing it.
Those entering teaching for which money isn't the primary motivator, who love teaching might be more inclined to choose it as a career if they looked at the support systems in place and saw a highly rewarding (not necessarily financial) working environment, at teachers place in society and saw them as well regarded rather than the eternal whipping boy of governments both left and right.
Saturday, June 9, 2012
This afternoon I've been flicking through some old Anthony Bourdain shows, the No Reservations ones. He spends a bit of time in London town, talking to chef called Fergus Henderson. Fergus is big on eating the entire animal. The observation was made that a lot of offal, which used to be the food the poor eat, kidney's, liver, marrow, blood, are no longer generally eaten by society at large. It's the posh restaurants that are taking it all. I see that happening here, there's a bistro in town called depot, which is the first place in a long long time that I've seen serve marrow bones. And they're not cheap. Which quite nicely supports Greta's thesis.
I'm not complaining mind, at the butcher shop, offal and the various other throwaway cuts are still cheap. I'm quite fond of liver and bacon (my grandad used to cook a superb liver and bacon), steak and kidney pies. I've taken to rendering the fat out of the marrow and using them to fry chips in, all of which, with a little bit of time makes for some tasty, tasty meals.
Friday, June 8, 2012
Artisanal isn't automatically a positive thing for me though, I can make my own bread pretty much as well as any artisanal baker. I can put together a decent cocktail - there much to be said for the simple classics. I make my own jam and pickle. Occasionally my own cheese. I buy the cheap cuts of meat and try and turn them into something good. I bake (not badly according to some). I only do all that because I get a kick out of it, it's fun. I don't mind the people who go rushing off after uber exclusive ingredients, it's just not for me. I don't think they necessary to get really good flavours. And I whole heartedly concur with the sentiment she expresses here though:
“If there’s a local speciality, I’d like to try it. If there’s a great local barbecue joint, a local diner that’s been here for decades, something along those lines… I’d love to go there.”I like places that are a little worn around the edges, it often indicates that they've been there a while. And most places that survive for quite a while, survive because there's something good about them.
The point she makes at the end of the post is an interesting one though. Many a year ago, making your own preserves, baking your own bread etc, were respected values. Then for the most part, they got ... lost. In New Zealand at least, I don't think it's these acts are respected any more, but it has certainly become something unusual. Which is, imho, a sad thing. I get a kick out doing these things, I wonder how many other people would if they had the knowledge? And it's not as if it's difficult as a lot of people believe, it just takes a little time.
Seriously. I know the herald doesn't really constitute serious journalism but this just makes me want to go find whoever was in charge of putting this article up and poor beer down their throat. Until they drown.
Thursday, June 7, 2012
"she has written a load of lazy tosh clearly formed from the valuable insights she gained whilst interviewing herself during her morning shower."It could also be summed up as don't disturb our rush hour traffic with protests you silly students because we will all hate you. This idiotic argument is dragged out time and time again against protests. People protest because no one is listening. If enough people protest, then at least the things being protested get talked about. If you leave to the lazy arsed media in this country, a lot of important things don't get talked about because there's a large proportion of them (the media) that falls time and time and time again for "The Paula Bennett Diversionary Sideshow". Telling protesters to go home because they are inconveniencing you is a lazy, contemptuous answer from people who don't want to engage with the topic being protested. Protesters would go home if all was well. The fact that there are sufficient protesters to cause a disturbance to society as a whole is an indicator that all is not well and those obliviously going about their lives should be stopping and thinking about more than just getting home in a timely fashion.
So a couple of things from the herald this morning. Firstly, they've been "surveying public opinion". In true herald fashion, this isn't a meaningful survey in any way. Though that's not what's getting me about it. All of the responses that are in agreement with the governments plans to reduce teacher numbers (there aren't many) enter into some kind of logical fallacy world.
“I’m 81 and my teacher had 30 kids in each of her two classes. My education was fine.”
So? Maybe he had a spectacular teacher. Maybe his education wasn't as good as he thought it was. Either way, the "it didn't hurt me" argument is ... pathetic at best.
“I quite agree with the Government. We have 600 more teachers than we had 10 years ago. We definitely need better teachers and to pay them more. You can throw all the money you want at education but if there are not decent teachers, you are wasting money.”
We've got 600 more teachers! Oh noes! How many more students have we got? Seriously, how can someone be this oblivious? that's why we talk about a teacher to student ratio, not total numbers.
“If the quality of teaching is improved as a result, it’s the prerogative of the Government to cut their cloth to suit. I think that teacher unions need to stop being precious about performance assessment.”
Talk about answering a completely different question.
“It’s fine. I had an awesome letter from my principal, and my child will not be affected. It has been blown out of proportion.”
Seriously. Seriously? Rebcca Kennedy from Auckland gets the prize for "I'm fine, fuck the rest of you". Not someone I would want to have as part of a community. All of the pro-government answers that I've seen fall along these lines, I'm fine, didn't do me any harm or completely missing the point turning their comment into complete bollocks.
Wednesday, June 6, 2012
Not that I'm complaining mind. The talks look interesting. The first one, the angry bird talk just looks gloriously all over the place. The medical words talk, I'm not sure what I'll be getting out of that, there's got to be something interesting in there. And the third one looks suspiciously like a talk that I would like to be able to give. Fingers crossed I'll be able to put together such a line up when I try and get the Auckland night underway.
Tuesday, June 5, 2012
In the meantime, off to find something to cheer me up. This did. Not the book sadly. The review though. Seriously:
"If there is one thing I hate, it is the traditional view of science. No one proposes a hypothesis, does a set of experiments that proves or disproves said hypothesis, and communicates the results to an approving and appreciative audience. That cliché is boring and wrong. Science proceeds by inspiration, ruthless pursuit, and not a small amount of vindictiveness"
Sounds fun. And, I suspect, passably accurate. Added to my reading list.
Monday, June 4, 2012
I'm hoping, sometime in the next couple of months, to start a version of Nerdnite in Auckland, for which I'm going to have to brush up on my public speaking skills. So we talked about both the general principles of science and the work that I'm doing at the moment. With Elizabeth's expert modeling of my wild ramblings, something coherent actually emerged. So I think I've got the basics of two talks down. Much work to do polishing them, but I've got a couple of months to prepare. <small amounts of glee> hoping they'll do the trick.
Friday, June 1, 2012
While the current government likes to think it is best represented by John Key, he is so often only the fix-it guy who comes around afterwards. On a day to day basis, McCullyism is the real modus operandi of this administration.
at the end of short, yet superb piece about the current incompetence being flung around the halls of government like badly behaved monkeys.