I, me, mine

In New Zealand, the rich are getting richer, according to the latest statistics.

Well, perhaps there's no problem with that.  Certainly, if you listened to our Prime Minister's speech to the National Party in Christchurch today, you'd be forgiven for thinking that everything is fine. According to John Key, "incomes are rising" and he's "proud that National's team is making a positive difference to the lives of New Zealanders". 

press release from Statistics NZ on a Tuesday morning isn't the most exciting thing in the world, and it doesn't come with all the fanfare and self-congratulation of a political party convention. Last Tuesday's release from the government statisticians quietly informed us that "for the year ended June 2015, the top 10 percent [of individuals in New Zealand] owned around 60 percent of total net worth."  That's a lot of wealth, in the hands of a small number of people.

In fact, the wealthiest 10% have seen their wealth increase by 5% in just the last 5 years.  I guess that's a "positive difference to New Zealanders" – but only to some New Zealanders, certainly not to all New Zealanders.  The statisticians point out, "in contrast, the bottom 40 percent held 3 percent of total wealth."

ONE News ran a brief story about this on Wednesday. It contained this graphic, which bothered me because rich and poor are shown as having the same sized money-bag!

So, I made a graphic that actually shows what that statistic means:

I hope you find that as outrageous as I do! What's most concerning is that, according to Statistics NZ's Diane Ramsay, “around 5 percent of households had negative net worth, which means they owe more than they own.”

I suppose there's no ideal level of inequality. Geoff Simmons reckons, "some inequality [...] is to be expected if we want to live in a society where people are rewarded for hard work and good ideas." (It's worth reading this blog post he wrote last year.) But we have to decide what level of inequality we're comfortable with as a society, and realise that government policies have a direct impact on these statistics.

I know I'm not alone in thinking that it's offensive to be living in a society where some people have more than they can possibly need while others have less than nothing.


The Freedom of the Hills

Last weekend, English mountaineer Doug Scott collected his Lifetime Achievement Piolet d'Or in Courmayeur. This award recognises his major stature as an alpinist.

He's done heaps of climbing over his lifetime, including a couple of new routes in the Darrans, in New Zealand. But he probably remains best known for his participation in the 1975 Everest expedition led by Chris Bonnington, which pioneered a new route on the South West face of the world's highest mountain. On 24 September 1975, Doug Scott and Dougal Haston became the first Brits to stand on the very top, more than twenty two years after Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay.
(credit: www.dougscottmountaineering.co.uk)

I think this photograph of Doug on the summit manages to capture something of what it must have felt like to be there. The location is stunning, and the elation at having reached the summit is palpable. But the sun is setting, so the situation is deadly serious. As it is, the two men survived a very cold night out on the South Summit, where they were forced to bivouac on the way down because their head torches stopped working.

In his acceptance speech at Courmayeur, Doug comments on how fortunate we are that we have unrestricted access to the mountains – in this case the European Alps.

There's an obvious humour in the way he say this, but he's also very serious. Because there really is a danger that the "crazy politicians" could prevent, or at least restrict, access to the wild places of the world. Even here in New Zealand.

Last year, Coroner Richard McElrea called for Conservation Minister Kate Wilkinson to "take steps" to create bylaws to restrict or close public access to the terminal face of the Fox Glacier. Anyone who breached the bylaws could be instantly fined, his report said. Practical difficulties mean that this hasn't been implemented and is not likely to ever be. D.O.C. staff I've talked to are clearly opposed to this. I was incredibly surprised by the coroner's report, and deeply disappointed that he could arrive at such a conclusion. Thankfully, I'm not the only person who feels this way, as the ODT reported. Educating members of the public on the dangers of the terminal face seems a much saner approach.

Doug Scott articulates something that I feel very strongly: people should be free to take risks. Anyone who has spent time in the untamed places of the world knows how much there is to be gained from simply being there. Away from the literal safety barriers and figurative safety nets you discover aspects of who you are that you wouldn't otherwise.


My Brief Career as a Rugby Player

To anyone who knows me, the idea of me playing rugby will seem slightly incongruous. Because, although I live in "Fox", I'm certainly no Grant Fox. But for a day, last year, I found myself wearing the number ten jersey worn by the famous five-eighth and playing with the "Cunning Foxes" for the Glacier Country cup. Now, the video's just been uploaded on to youtube.

OK, so it was quite obviously staged! However, there was some genuine competitive spirit, and most of us almost forgot the fact that we were just shooting a little promotional video for our local area. The tackling was not hard, because the snow was so deep, and the landing was very soft. But to say it was a "friendly" wouldn't be quite accurate! Of course, the standard was not particularly high, given that a number of the players had been selected on the basis of their mountain knowledge (for obvious safety reasons) rather than their rugby playing ability. It was surprisingly hard work, too – between takes we were all puffing and panting because of the deep snow and the altitude – and all for less than 4 minutes of film. All in all, it was a fun day, in a beautiful setting.

My rugby playing may not be over yet though. If I practise a bit, I might just get selected for next year's Glacier Country cup!


The Baloney Detection Kit

"Do you believe in global warming?" is a question I sometimes get asked when I'm guiding on the Fox Glacier.

It's a question I find hard to answer because belief (or non-belief) is not really an appropriate response to this issue. It doesn't matter what I believe! What's important are the facts.

For example, my intuition is that it has been wetter in Fox Glacier so far this summer than it was a year ago. But if I tell you, "I believe it's been wetter this summer", it isn't very confidence inspiring, is it? I really need to answer a much simpler question: "Has it rained more this summer than it did last year?" Then, I can dig out the rainfall records from last summer and compare them to this year. You want the facts, not my opinion.

The problem with global climate is that, although the questions may be simple, finding answers is not. To a non-expert, the facts can be confusing and we may not fully understand the methods by which the data has been obtained. So, when we don't know for sure, and even the experts seem to disagree, we frame our question in terms of belief.

How else can we approach issues when we are not sure of the facts?

Here is Michael Shermer, from Skeptic Magazine, outlining his 10 point "Baloney Detection Kit" to help in precisely such situations.

With the specific issue of climate change there are really two simple questions:
  1. "Is the Earth's climate changing?"
  2. "Are humans a causal factor with respect to climate change?"
And the answers to those questions are:
  1. Yes, definitely. The Earth is getting warmer.
  2. Yes, probably. Humans are contributing large volumes of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere and this appears to be driving an increase in the earth's average temperature.
Back in 2007, Skeptic Magazine (volume 14, number 1) featured global warming as its cover story. Two articles from it are worth reading. "How We Know Global Warming is Real – The Science Behind Human-induced Climate Change", by Tapio Schneider, provides a clear overview of the facts, while Patrick Frank's article "A Climate of Belief" argues that "the claim that anthopogenic CO2 is responsible for the current warming of Earth's climate is scientifically insupportable because climate models are unreliable."

Incidentally, I checked the monthly rainfall figures for Fox Glacier.

December 2010: 1016mm *** December 2009: 646mm
J a n u a r y 2011: 596mm *** J a n u a r y 2010: 710mm
This summer total: 1612mm *** Last summer total: 1356mm

So my intuition was correct!


Giving What We Can

Earlier this year, I mentioned the website givingwhatwecan.org, in a post about overseas development assistance.

Earlier this week, the BBC published an article about Tony Orb, who created that website. (Thanks Felicity for sending me the link.)

It's a timely reminder, in this supposed "season of giving", of how well off we are, and of how small sacrifices on our part can make a big difference to the lives of others, who aren't so fortunate.

Watch Tony explain why he has decided to give away a million pounds over his lifetime to help address global poverty.


Changing Education Paradigms

I just saw this fantastic video animation of a talk by Ken Robinson!

I think it's worth sharing further, for its insights into creativity and education, and the uneasy relationship between those two. And also for its cool visual design.

Ruth Bourchier, who forwarded the link to this video, said in her email that Ken Robinson used to flat with Guy Claxton. (I linked to a couple of videos of him in a previous post.) This seems to confirm what Ken Robinson says: "collaboration is the stuff of growth." I can just imagine those two, as students, having conversations about creativity and education; discussions that have shaped their views to this day.

I've always thought that there are "creative hotspots" at various times and places, where a bunch of like-minded individuals encourage each other to develop their ideas. I'm not sure that they can be replicated online. In the era of facebook, I'm still convinced that nothing beats real face-to-face human interaction. So, do the conversations I have with actual people shape me more than the books I read, or than what I view on the Internet?

I'm afraid that Fox Glacier in the early part of the 21st century is not one of the great "creative hotspots" of human history. That means I am relying, more than I'd like to be, on the virtual world of this blog, and its online habitat!


Microact now!

Today, I just came across a new site called ifwerantheworld.com. The idea of it is to turn all those good intentions into actions - "microactions", more specifically!

So, I've started my own "action platform". Check it out:

It's just a bit gimmicky for my liking, and heavy on the buzz words. But does it have potential as a tool for change? The site is only six months old, so I guess it's too early to tell...


Can I Help You?

A new report, out last week, from the CAF (Charities Aid Foundation) puts NZ and Australia at the top of its "world giving index". The report finds, "when giving is thought of as more than just money, a new order of global generosity emerges."

So, yay for New Zealand! (And Australia, of course!)

You can download the report here.

However... last month, John Key said New Zealand will not meet its pledge to donate 0.7 percent of GDP as foreign aid by the United Nations’ 2015 deadline. (See this article.)

This graph (from globalissues.org) shows the figures, for 2009:

It's easy to be cynical about aid, and give up in the face of corruption and mismanagement. William Easterly's The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest have Done So Much Ill and so Little Good (Penguin 2006) is on my wish list. There is certainly plenty of evidence to support his claim. However, Amartya Sen's more moderate response feels truer to me. He thinks Easterly's is an "overblown attack", which "obscures the real point: that aid can work, but only if done right."

So, we could still be doing more...

These websites provide points of departure for responding as an individual:


The Majestic Plastic Bag

Jeremy Irons narrates this fascinating documentary about an under-appreciated element of the modern ecosystem!

It's been a year since supermarkets in New Zealand backtracked on their decision to charge 10 cents per shopping bag. Now, we get them for free, in unlimited quantities ... thus ensuring the continued survival of the 'species'.


Learning to Learn

Several months ago, I was sent a link to a Guy Claxton talk, called "What's the Point of School?" and finally got around to watching it today.

Guy Claxton is a British academic who is interested in how children learn. Teachers are familiar with the ideas he's presenting. In fact, they've almost become clichés: I hear teachers talk a lot about helping children become "confident lifelong learners".So, it's disconcerting to realise how entrenched we teachers are in modes of teaching that simply do not foster children's capacity to learn. Professor Claxton reminds us that there are all sorts of ways that we can improve school results without genuinely increasing children's capacity to learn.

This shorter video, "How Children can Learn Better" (also from dystalk.com), outlines some key ideas of his, and gives suggestions for what parents can do to help their children become better learners.

The challenge for me in teaching is to focus less on their work and more on their learning.


What makes Us Happy?

Now that I have children, I have their happiness to think about as well as my own!

Naturally, Felicity and I think a lot about what we want for our boys.  We'd like them to be happy, well-adjusted individuals.  That's the easy part!  The hard part is working out what it means to be happy and well-adjusted.  And figuring out how success and happiness are linked to each other.  Sometimes, I feel we have divergent opinions on this.  I'm quite happy for my boys to be ski-bums if that's what makes them happy.  Felicity tends to think that would be a waste of their potential, and therefore they'd be less likely to be truly happy.  (I could be misrepresenting her position here!)  External markers of success inevitably shape our lives.  Certainly, it's a rare person who cares not at all for what others think of him or her.  And I'm definitely not one of them.

So, a conversation we'd had prompted me to go online yesterday, in search of answers!  I found a New York Times article by David Brooks, written over a year ago, which led me to a beautiful, long article from the June 2009 Atlantic Magazine, written by Joshua Wolf Shenk.  It describes the longitudinal study conducted since the 1930s on a group of Harvard students that included JFK (often called the "Grant Study") and the story of the man who, for the past 42 years, has been leading the study: George Vaillant.  It's a fascinating insight into the complexity of human life, and the impossibility of pinning happiness down to a simple formula.

On the face of it, these men were all the very picture of success.  Indeed, that was the point of the study when it first began: to extract a kind of recipe for success.  That project went by the wayside fairly quickly, as various "successful" men succumbed to alcoholism, mental illness, or somehow lost their way.

Listen to Dr Vaillant share some thoughts from his involvement with the study:

As David Brooks puts it so beautifully, in the NYT article, "There is a complexity to human affairs before which science and analysis simply stands mute."

It confirmed for me the Aristotelean notion that we can't judge a person's happiness until after their death! 

With my boys, all we can do is offer them love, provide them with as many opportunities as we can, let them choose their own path, and then hope for the best!

Incidentally, Aristotle believed that children couldn't be happy!  Listen to Myles Burnyeat, talking to Nigel Warburton on Philosophy Bites, if you want a short introduction to Aristotle's conception of happiness.

He's a cheerful looking chap, isn't he!


Rien à Dire

This poster perhaps encapsulates blogging better than anything I've seen!

(Image: CUBE

Even when I'm trying to be as honest and relevant as I can, I still have a lurking insecurity that it's all been said before, and better.  So, how can I truly claim to have something to say?

It's a poster by Alan Fletcher, "Britain's Most influential graphic designer".  CUBE (the Centre for the Urban Built Environment) in Manchester just had a retrospective on his work.  Too bad it ended last week.  And too bad it's on the other side of the world from where I live.

This is Alan talking about his book The Art of Looking Sideways.  He was a fascinating and prolific character.


On Being Malleable

It's been a while since I posted anything to this blog.  The new house we moved into, earlier this year, has no telephone line!  So, I've been largely without internet since January.  I can't say that I've missed it all that much!  I've been reading more books, instead of reading online articles.

However, after my (admittedly half-hearted) attempts to get a land line to our property have come to nothing, I've finally signed up a for mobile broadband deal.  This could be a good occasion for a rant about phone companies and the privatisation of public assets: New Zealand now has several inefficient phone utilities when previously it had just one!  But it's my increasing reliance on the internet (and therefore, phone companies) that interests me more.  I'm also just a little worried by the ways that I am shaped by it.

 Image: Doron Meir

Clearly, media shape as well as inform our thinking.  And the internet may be shaping my thinking in ways I don’t particularly like.  I read an article by Nicholas Carr, in The Atlantic, nearly two years ago, which suggested that whereas deep reading (in a traditional medium) equates to deep thinking, the internet encourages skimming and "power browsing".  Also, the internet appears not to foster concentration and contemplation.  I skimmed his article again (conscious of the irony) when I checked the link just a moment ago.  But how can one really criticize the internet?  It provides access (once you've got your connection sorted) to an astounding quantity of information.  Someone like Carr risks sounding like a luddite, but his concern is that information is all the internet makes us care for: the goal is to get lots of it, with no regard for its quality.  Knowledge is an archaism.  Wisdom even more so.

But perhaps it's not about "better" or "worse", just "different".  Perhaps the new technologies are developing an internet generation who simply think differently.  The timespan necessary to evaluate the effects of this new technological mode of exchange may be far longer than the human lifespan.  I'm at an age where I'm becoming aware of my finiteness.  Or rather, I have a sense of the dimensions of my finiteness.  So, I'm aware that, say, ten years is a big percentage of one's life.  The questions I'm asking are: What have I been doing the past ten years?  What has been shaping my thinking? And how much choice do I have about it?

Perhaps what I'm sensing is a need to take greater control over what it is that shapes me.  What do I want to be influenced by?  I don't want to be just drifting along, absorbing whatever comes my way.

That core of idealism still remains...


Small Things

A bit of randomness from the BBC ... 7 months after the fact!

The record has been officially validated by the Guiness Book of World Records: it's the world's smallest street legal vehicle! You can visit the creator Perry Watkins' site for more details!

It really makes no sense to blog about this! It's old news and irrelevant to anything happening in my life at the moment. It's just that it taps into a childhood fascination with records, with cars and with trying to make things really small.

So, here's a more accessible challenge – cheaper, at least, if not less time consuming – than building a tiny automobile: try to make the smallest origami tsuru you can.

I did this as a kid, and was pretty pleased with the results. I stored my best attempts in a Kinder surprise plastic egg! But I remember being staggered when I found out how small they can actually be. And probably, I gave up making them shortly after! Apparently, Assistant Professor Watanabe at Nigata University, in Japan, was able to fold a 1mm by 1mm paper square into a crane, using a microscope and a sewing needle. (Here's my source for that fact.) Could it be this particular Assistant Professor Watanabe, who researches mental health issues? If so, it's like something straight out of a Murakami novel...


Raising the Standard

(Image Source)

John Key's been going on about raising educational achievement for quite some time now. Back in April 2007, well before last year's parliamentary elections, he gave a campaign speech outlining National Party policy on education.

It boiled down to three things:

  1. The introduction of national standards in reading, writing and maths.
  2. National assessment against these standards.
  3. Clear reports to parents on kids' progress against the standards.

Now, I can certainly agree that parents deserve clear reports from schools. Some of what I've seen is pretty confusing, to say the least. John Key's election promises stipulated that reports would be "in plain English", which was beautifully intentioned, if somewhat vague.

There are (at least) 2 problems though:

  1. Where do you draw the line in the sand?
  2. Once you've got your line, how do you actually get kids over it?

High standards won't make kids perform better, any more than Usain Bolt setting a new record makes me run faster.

Anyway, the new National Standards were released last weekend, along with the usual political fanfare and talk of fulfilled election promises. Detailed information about the standards is available here, and more general information can be found on the Ministry of Education website. The response hasn't been all that favourable (see, for example, this editorial from the Herald on Sunday) and it's not a good look when the Principals' Federation and the like boycott your launch!

Anne Tolley, the education minister, spoke to the media. Here she is, on Breakfast talking to Paul Henry.

Source: TVNZ

I find their performances incredibly irritating, especially the minister's.

Of course, she is unable to give an objective rationale for where the line's been drawn. It seems that she's just worked back from NCEA level 2, which is an arbitrary benchmark for school leavers. She does, however, claim that the standards are based on averages. In that case, we can guarantee that half the children in New Zealand will be below standard.

She tries to paint the critics as, “some people [who] might feel challenged by it, as if only teachers who aren’t up to scratch are resistant to the standards. The clear implication of what she's saying is that schools are not teaching effectively if children in them are underperforming. And this is a worry.

Where she gets it really wrong is when she says “good teaching has the most effect on a child’s learning.” The evidence simply does not support this. John Hattie says, “it is what students bring to the table that predicts achievement more than any other variable.” He attributes 50% of the variance of achievement to the child, and a generous 30% to the teacher. (You can download the article here.) Others, such as Marzano, credit the teacher with less influence.

I know what it feels like to mark a test and feel that my students are not performing. I start to feel personally responsible for their shortcomings. Then I mark an able student – not a “gifted” student, just a regular good worker, with supportive parents and some application – and I breathe a sigh of relief. "Thank goodness, someone has learnt something!" I say to myself. There is no way that a teacher’s performance can be rated by the performance of their students. Anyone in athletics can tell you that. You can be the best coach in the world but you will only succeed if you find talented athletes to mentor.

In this beautiful egalitarian society of ours, we cherish the idea of a level playing field. In theory, everyone has a shot at success. And yet we believe that only a very few are talented enough to “make it”. Or lucky enough. I'm pretty sure that teachers and parents know which of their kids are struggling; the standards won't tell us anything we didn't already know. We don't want teachers becoming like talent scouts, who will only mentor those who have potential for "success". We need people who are prepared to nurture the children who will never reach those benchmarks.

Meanwhile, politicians might want to start addressing some of the systemic reasons why many children aren't reaching their full potential.



It's a minute past eight on a Wednesday morning. Sharon Buchanan is working at the checkout of Marsh's supermarket in Troy, Ohio. Perhaps she has blond hair but it could just as well be dark. No doubt you already have a picture in your mind of what a checkout chick looks like. Just imagine that. Chances are she doesn't particularly enjoy her job. "It pays the bills," as they say. A customer approaches with a grocery item. His name is Clyde Dawson. He presents a packet of Wrigley's Juicy Fruit, and Sharon scans it.

The year is 1974, and the occasion is historic. It's the first time anyone's used a barcode in a commercial transaction. Mr Dawson's packet of chewing gum and the receipt for it are now in the Smithsonian Institution!

In just over 35 years, the barcode has become ubiquitous. I have vague childhood memories of religious nut cases warning us about this new technology, which had something to do with the Anti-Christ! We were all going to end up with barcodes tattooed to our foreheads, apparently. Like all apocalyptic predictions (so far!) they turned out to be wrong. It seems absurd now, and the fears certainly didn't stop this ingenuous little invention from gaining pace.

That is my name in barcode! I used this encoder, which is fun! Elsewhere, there's also a decoder, if you wish to find out what a particular barcode symbolises.

Though I've got no time for the apocalyptic prophets of doom, I can sympathise with the technophobes. Does anything represent the number crunching anonymity of our modern world better than the barcode? The image of rows of checkout operators scanning groceries is hard to beat as a symbol of mind-numbing consumerism.



Out There!

I am disturbingly ignorant about what lies beyond our planet.

At least from where I live I can actually see the night sky. But saying that is a bit like Sarah Palin asserting her foreign policy credentials by saying she can see Russia from where she lives! Despite the few street lights, which I am fond of complaining about, the brightness of the stars remains relatively undimmed here. I have had the privilege of peering through my father-in-law's telescope, and through the one at Tekapo, also with my father-in-law. But I recall very little of his explanations. Mostly, what I retain is the sense of being but a small creature in a very vast universe. Perhaps the fact that space is uninhabited (as far as we know!) makes my ignorance a little more forgivable than the ignorance of certain Americans about their foreign neighbours!

This beautiful image of the so-called Butterfly Nebula is from a crop of pictures released on Wednesday, which have been taken by the Hubble telescope since its recent spruce up.

The May service mission was Hubble's last. "The US space agency and its international partners plan now to concentrate their efforts on preparing a bigger and more capable observatory known as the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST)," I read in the BBC article accompanying the images. From there, I had a (very) brief look at the official website. There's lots to explore, which I'll have to save for another day!

The telescope's been up there since 1990, doing its thing, and will probably remain there until 2014. "Among its many discoveries, Hubble has revealed the age of the universe to be about 13 to 14 billion years, much more accurate than the old range of anywhere from 10 to 20 billion years."

Well, I'm glad they've narrowed that down!


1.4 Billion Reasons

It's pretty easy, living here in this beautiful part of the world, to forget that not everyone has it as good as we do.

This term, with the kids at Fox Glacier School, we've been learning about our world. And not all of what we're learning is heart-warming. It came as a shock to some that if our world were a village of 100 people, 60 of the inhabitants would be constantly hungry, and 26 of these severely malnourished, despite the fact that there's no shortage of food in the global village.

It's pretty obvious, that not everyone has access to the same resources but that doesn't make it any less disturbing.

I thought this could be a good time to plug the Global Poverty Project. D'Arcy Lunn put me onto this one. He's cycling up the East Coast of Australia to raise awareness of the project, and posting videos of his trip online. The big message is that 1.4 billion people on our planet are living in poverty and we've got to do something about it. Poverty, meaning they subsist on less than NZ$2 per day.

There's a series of public meetings being held in New Zealand this August.
  • mon 24 Beehive event, Wellington
  • tue 25 Auckland media/VIP event
  • wed 26 - Dunedin at town hall
  • thur 27 - Christchurch, majestic theatre
  • fri 28 - Wellington at The Street venue , city centre
  • sat 29 - Auckland at Beaumont Centre, city centre
  • sun 30 - Tauranga, Holy Trinity
  • mon 31 - Hamilton, Waikato Uni Price Waterhouse lecture theatre.
Get to one if you can!


The Eternal Now

A somewhat dreary, rainy West Coast afternoon seems the perfect opportunity to begin a post with a well-known Susan Ertz quotation.

Millions long for immortality who do not know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon.

I always thought our only chance at immortality was in making an outstanding contribution to humanity. It was in this sense that Ben Jonson was able to declare, in his poetic tribute "To the Memory of My Beloved the Author, Mr. William Shakespeare", that the playwright remained alive even after his death.

Thou art a monument without a tomb,
And art alive still while thy book doth live
And we have wits to read and praise to give.

I'm afraid the possibilities I have of making such a contribution are dwindling by the year. Perhaps a certain maturity has replaced my youthful hubris because I am pretty sure I will be remembered by only a very few people when I'm gone.

But then I come across Aubrey de Grey on TED talks and I discover that I do have a chance at literal (as opposed to literary) immortality. Personally, I think he's a quack. But, supposedly, the science is "not demonstrably wrong"! The amount of discussion generated by this guy's talk is amazing! People really do want to live forever. Forever young, of course, not simply forever!

For now, I think I'll just keep living my life with the assumption (blinkered, if you will!) that I'm going to die. Probably within the next fifty years.

Yikes! That doesn't give me much time!

And that's the point, surely. The fact is that we do not live forever and that is why time matters.

This talk by Philip Zimbardo oulines some thoughts of his in relation to time. He also seems a bit quack-ish to me, although in a different way. He's part of a generation of social scientists who really thought that their insights could improve humanity. These particular insights aren't perhaps as obvious as I'd first thought, and therefore might be worth sharing.

Zimbardo is interesting for other reasons, of course, and I might do another post on him soon.


Natural Language

I took a look at Wolfram|Alpha last night. It's a new "computational knowledge engine" developed by Stephen Wolfram, British child prodigy physicist, mathematician and now entrepeneur.

I must admit I was disappointed: it works well for limited purposes.

Here's a review by cnet's Rafe Needleman:

He got a sneek preview earlier this month, and his comments match well with what I found. I've had the site bookmarked for a while, checking it every now and then to see if it was live. So like many things, the idea was better than the reality.

The idea is nothing new.

The idea is that there's an amazing amount of information on the internet, and it would be wonderful if you could simply ask a question and get an answer! Search engines (for which Google has become the benchmark as well as the shorthand) just give a list of locations that may contain the information you want. Some do it visually and others try to organise sites thematically, but they basically all do the same thing. From the results, you have to find your answer and sometimes it's not easy.

What wiki answers and other similar sites (such as yahoo!Xtra in New Zealand) try to do is link you to people who can answer your question. The answers are as fallible as the humans who provide them but the idea is that as time passes, a big enough database of answers accrues and you can start to sort the wheat from the chaff, helped by a friendly answer rating system. It's darwinian in its simplicity.

But if your question has a factual answer (some do!) surely there's a way of getting a straight answer without the need for a social network. Well, it's not as simple as you might think! Language is complex and this requires the computer to understand your question, not just dredge up locations which contain your phrase. (Read this wikipedia article on natural language processing for a quick overview of some of the difficulties involved.) START, a "natural language question answering system" set up by a crew at MIT, has been online since 1993. START's aim is "to supply users with 'just the right information' instead of merely providing a list of hits." You can ask questions like "What is the population of France?" and it will give a single answer, along with a source. The trouble is Google does pretty much the same thing, and you get to choose your source.

Wolfram|Alpha is in a different league. Take a look at Stephen Wolfram's video intro on the site and have a play around! Nova Spivack took a trial version through its paces a while ago and made extensive comments on it if you're interested in reading those. (He has a site/product called twine, which is one of these web 2.0 things designed to make the web more user-friendly by linking you to new content, based on what your interests are.) Wolfram|Alpha can compare data sets and, in that sense, it can provide answers to questions that have never been asked before.

The impression I'm left with, though, is that there's too strong a human hand in Wolfram|Alpha. The data is curated and, therefore, limited. Instead of taking you straight to the internet, it takes you to a database built up from selected information that's available online (and possibly some that's not available online). The curators will be chasing their tails trying to keep up with everything that users could possibly want to find out about. And the curators' biases inevitably come out strongly. Perhaps I would find it better if I were more mathematically inclined, for example.

Surely, the point is that the internet is a big, free-for-all, self-regulating entity and that's precisely its strength. No one can collate or organise the internet, let alone the sum of human knowledge.


The subversive hope

Several conversations I've had recently have focused my thinking on the role of education.

In particular, I've been thinking about the tension that exists in education between its inherent conservativism – the desire to pass on shared, perhaps traditional, values – and its more radical elements – the sense that learning can open up new possibilities.

I came across an old piece by Andrew Delbanco in the New York Review of Books. It's an article called "The Decline and Fall of Literature". In a sense, it's nothing amazing and I'm not sure that I agree with the overall tone of it. What it did, though, was remind me of the powerful role of education in igniting the soul!

Delbanco argues passionately for what he describes as an Emersonian view of education. Emerson gave up being a preacher and became a lecturer, but he saw the role of educator as essentially the same as that of evangelist. "The whole secret of the teacher's force," he wrote, "lies in the conviction that men are convertible. And they are. They want awakening."

Delbanco, of course, is writing about literary studies. Back in 1999, when the article was published, I was just starting my English degree. (Like most things, it took me rather longer to complete than it should have done!) And while I feel very removed from that world now, the debates that Delbanco refers to seem strangely familiar. A decade on, I still feel that they matter somehow.

What I find energising is the sense that what I learned through university is directly relevant to the kind of teaching I'm doing at the moment. And more important than what I learned at teachers' college, it saddens me to add!

Perhaps a long quote from the article might be the best way of explaining this.

Literary studies, in fact, have their roots in religion. Trilling understood this when he remarked, in [a] gloomy essay about the future of the humanities [contained in his 1979 collection The Last Decade: Essays and Reviews, 1965-75], that "the educated person" had traditionally been conceived as

an initiate who began as a postulant, passed to a higher level of experience, and became worthy of admission into the company of those who are thought to have transcended the mental darkness and inertia in which they were previously immersed.

Such a view of education as illumination and deliverance following what Trilling called "exigent experience" is entirely Emersonian. It has little to do with the positivist idea of education to which the modern research university is chiefly devoted—learning "how to extend, even by minute accretions, the realm of knowledge." This corporate notion of knowledge as a growing sum of discoveries no longer in need of rediscovery once they are recorded, and transmittable to those whose ambition it is to add to them, is a great achievement of our civilization. But except in a very limited sense, it is not the kind of knowledge that is at stake in a literary education.

I can't overstate how much I like this!

The instruction I received at Teachers' College was largely to do with systems. Both in the content and in the method of instruction, it was about ways of delivering content and measuring its accretion. Very little, if any, time was spent discussing the important questions of meaning. No one seemed to ask why, if at all, it was important to learn what we were being taught to teach.

If we believe that school is merely preparing individuals for a function in society, perhaps we'll accept this impoverished view of education. But it doesn't seem outrageous to claim that, in this period of history, although we are replete with (digitised) information and we have more communal knowledge than ever before, our souls are conspicuously malnourished.

It seems important then, vital even, to be unapologetic about a transformative view of education. Whether it be at year 1 or at post doctoral level, what matters is not the accumulation of knowledge, it's the transformation of the individual.

It's only in this transformation that we may discover new possibilities, new ways of thinking, new ways of being. And hope lies clearly in this direction, for us and for our children.


Relax! Procrastinating's Good For You.

I haven't been blogging much lately.

Usually, when I write online, there are several other things I probably should be doing instead!

Like now, for instance: I should be marking schoolwork. Then planning my maths lessons, deciding what to focus on for my recount writing later this term, organising reading materials for reading groups...

So if I haven't been blogging, you might think that's a good thing. I'm obviously focused, non-distracted, task oriented. In other words, getting stuff done.

Well, to a point, that's true.

I have been getting getting stuff done. But I have to face it, getting stuff done isn't that fun!

Going off on tangents is far more rewarding! And in support of this thesis, I find none other than the illustrious Leonardo da Vinci.

He reputedly spent his whole life pursuing tangents, rarely finishing anything. He's even been put forward as an archetypal procrastinator. The suggestion is that he could have done better, if only he had applied his talents in a more focused manner.

So, I was heartened to read this article, yesterday (when I should have been writing unit plans). The author, Bill Pannapacker, says da Vinci's so called procrastination is precisely what made him a genius. "Mediocrity gets perfectly mundane things done on time. But genius is uncontrolled and uncontrollable. You cannot produce a work of genius according to a schedule or an outline."

"Procrastination," he writes, "is a calling away from something that we do against our desires toward something that we do for pleasure."

Next time I'm wading through my big long list of things to do, feeling creatively stultified, I'll remind myself of Leonardo and go where my inspiration leads me, rather than do what I'm supposed to be doing.

I'll be better off for it, and my students might be, too.


Moving On

I've been so busy with the move up to Fox, and preparing for the school year that I haven't had time for blogging. In fact, I've barely had time for anything else.

Moving certainly makes you realise how much stuff you have! Our new house has a caravan parked out the back, which the previous occupants left for us! So, Felicity and I were reminiscing about the summer when we lived in a caravan. Life seemed simpler then. Perhaps memory simplifies things but I'm sure we had less stuff back then!

We joked that we could just move into the caravan and use the house for storage. Less housework, less heating, less hassle...

This New Zealand design, the portabach, could work! Pack everything into a container, sit it on blocks,open it up and, hey presto, you have an instant home!

Perhaps we should just consider moving to the Middle East. This guy doesn't seem too affected by the political vagaries of the region.

(from http://www.exodus.co.uk/picfiles/11516.html)

I can just picture us in a tent – Sebastian would love it!

Ah, the simple life...


Why do I do it?

This time two weeks ago, I was in Plateau hut, resting. I was feeling pretty pleased with myself because Jerm and I had climbed Aoraki, via the East Ridge, the previous day.

Among the various other climbers in the hut, there were 3 Aussie guys, making a documentary about the history of mountaineering on Mt Cook, who interviewed us after our ascent. Their questions were geared towards a lay audience – people who don't know the first thing about climbing. Those sort of questions take you right back to basics. Let's face it, not every one thinks it's perfectly natural to want to get to the top of snowy peaks.

One response is to say that if you have to ask the question, "why do you climb mountains?", you simply won't understand the answer! But my family and friends deserve more than some sort of pseudo-zen evasiveness. It seems to me, the point is that climbing involves an element of risk. Of sports like soccer or golf, the question is different; although they are undeniably futile pursuits in the grand scheme of things, very few people die playing them. So, if you choose one or the other, it's really a matter of no great consequence. "Why do you climb?", on the other hand, is a question that deserves a decent answer.

I felt I wasn't able to articulate a decent on-the-spot answer for the camera. Here, I'll try to share some of the thoughts I've had during the last fortnight.

To say I climbed Aoraki "because it's there" simply isn't sufficient. It's too obviously disingenuous, anyway. In a sense the idea of mountain is there before the mountain itself. It strikes me that I wanted to be a climber before I'd ever set eyes on a mountain! Growing up in France, one of the few television programmes my parents allowed us kids to watch was called, if I remember rightly, "Les Carnets de l'Aventure". Adventurers of various persuasions, and their achievements, were celebrated for the entertainment of television audiences. I think it made quite an impression on me. Bushwalking in Tasmania, with my brothers, I remember us saying "this is just like 'Carnets de l'Aventure'!" We were conscious of the irony, aware of the life/art reversal. But we had an idea of adventure, for better of for worse. We knew what adventure was, and we recognised it when we saw it.

So perhaps climbing is egotistical. Our mediatised culture admires adventurers, and climbing is one way to gain the title. It's a way of simultaneously setting myself apart from the crowd and being validated by it.

I can't completely dismiss that possibility. But although that might have contributed to my initial interest in climbing, the reality of climbing is very far from the romanticised version of it. It actually no longer feels particularly glamourous, heroic, or even adventurous to me. Mostly, I would say that I do it purely because I enjoy doing it. And I think I would enjoy doing it if everyone else thought it a completely foolish thing to do.

My enjoyment is for several reasons:
  • Most of all, it's incredibly beautiful in the mountains. Indescribably so.
  • Climbing is often physically demanding, and I derive tremendous satisfaction from completing difficult tasks.
  • I enjoy the mental focus required.
  • In New Zealand, climbing can involve being away from people. That isolation is attractive to me.
  • I value the friendships I have formed through climbing.
  • I like being methodical, and planning the best way to do something.
This is not an exhaustive list and others would give quite different lists. For me, climbing is not particularly spiritual; the mountains have no monopoly on that domain. However, the stark beauty of the mountain environment gives me a distinct sense of my own finiteness. I am a very small and fragile creature in a very large scale setting. I try to use rhetoric which fits with this perspective. I have certainly not "done" Mt Cook or "conquered" it; I have merely "been up it".

But have I really answered the question? Given the satisfaction I derive from climbing, is the risk involved justifiable? In fact, I think the risk is actually a significant part of the attraction of climbing. To continue the sporting comparison, in soccer or golf, if you make a mistake, you lose the match or the round, or perhaps the ball. In the mountains, a mistake could potentially be fatal. In a culture which seems to be increasingly risk-averse, I think this is very healthy. And it is in this reminder of my own mortality that I find perhaps the most persuasive reason for climbing.


Change & Adaptation

I've always thought my brain was a fairly useful part of my anatomy.

But since my climbing accident last year, I've gained an increased awareness of the ways in which it is quite unreliable.

So, an article in this week's New Zealand Listener grabbed my attention immediately. It was a plug, under the guise of an interview, (and by whom, I don't recall) for a recent book by New York University professor Gary Marcus. The New Scientist reviewed it here earlier this year. The main point seems clear enough: the brain was not so much designed, as cobbled together, using a kiwi "number 8 wire" method, with whatever was at hand.

In a word, the brain is a kluge [rhymes with deluge].

Here's an example of one (from his blog).

Although it isn't elegant, it works – more or less! It certainly isn't the solution you'd come up with if you started from scratch.

It's a word which now seems indispensable!

My life is a bit of a kluge. One bit gets added on to the previous bit and I try to fit it all together with a careful narrative that is flexible enough to accommodate various about-turns!

So, we're moving up to Fox Glacier soon. I decided to apply for a position at Fox Glacier School, equivalent to the one I have here at Jacobs River, and was offered the job last week. It's a sudden change in some ways, but one which has obvious benefits for me professionally, and for us as a family.

Something that surprises me is how, no matter what decision I make, I usually find a way of justifying it to myself. It's one of those unreliable things about the brain!



The stork outside our house attests to the contribution we've made to our small community. The future of the school at Jacobs River is in doubt because of low numbers of children and the next closest school, at Fox Glacier, is hardly bursting at the seams. So, babies are especially celebrated here. And rightly so!

But throughout the world, babies are born every second. About 4 and a quarter babies per second, in fact! Mitigated by deaths, this equates to two and a half extra people on the planet each second. If you need a sobering reminder of just how fast the world's population is increasing, visit this live counter.

Remote as we like to think we are in South Westland, we're certainly not isolated from the rest of the world. Even here, I notice the effects of population growth. People from other parts of the world come here in increasing numbers, hoping to enjoy the natural beauty of the area. As a result, the village of Fox Glacier that I first visited 10 years ago has changed markedly. People I meet continue to wonder how I can possibly live anywhere so small but, to me, some parts of the village have taken on a distinct suburban feel. (I don't dare point out to them that I actually live in another, much smaller, settlement!) The latest, shameful, addition to the village's growing list of motels is a collection of fake Tuscan buildings, which have taken the place of the rainforested "Glow Worm Grotto". The sign outside says "We only look expensive".

This afternoon, I came across this video of my grandfather-in-law at home in Tacoma, Washington, answering a few questions about his book, Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change. He first became sensitised to population pressure when he noticed the increased numbers of visitors to National Parks in Washington state. It's worth listening to him explain some of his thoughts on the matter.

Elsewhere, he makes the point that, although the Earth's human population hasn't reached the astronomical numbers Malthus might have feared, the situation is actually worse than he predicted. Because we consume at a greater rate than Malthus could have envisaged, we're using more resources than billions more of our predecessors might have. Which is why it's wrong to blame the Earth's problems on population growth in developing nations; we in the developed world use far more resources than they do, despite their greater numbers.

Incidentally, World Population Day is 11th July. Be sure to put it in your diary!


Global Philosophy

It turns out it's World Philosophy Day. I discovered this through the BBC, my source of most news.

It also turns out that David Bain lectures in Philosophy at the University of Glasgow. I can't comment on his jersey, but he provided these 4 philosophical brain teasers for the Beeb.

What I want to know is who decides what we celebrate each day of the year. ("I want to know" is rhetorical here; I don't want to know quite enough to be bothered googling it.)

It was World Teachers' Day not that long ago. My only colleague and I congratulated each other on being teachers. And that was it. Not a single card from the kids we teach. No flowers. No "Happy World Teachers' Day Mr Hattrell". We didn't even mention it to them.

I don't quite get the point of a dedicated day for teachers/philosophers/etc. What's it supposed to achieve? It's a bit like mothers' day and fathers' day. Maybe Hallmark will start producing "Happy Philosophy Day" cards! And who really believes that in every country of the world, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, these World [fill in the blank] Days are actually observed?

Now, as an earnest subscriber to the New Internationalist, I realise it's the International Year of Sanitation but who knew it was World Toilet Day on Wednesday (the 19th November)?

The NRDC (don't worry, I don't know what it stands for either) put out a press release about it, on the day, presumably one of many organisations who tried to spread the word. It must have got buried among other items, certainly not making into the "most emailed news stories" on my favourite news provider's website.

But apparently, “more than half of all girls who drop out of primary school in developing countries do so because they lack separate toilets and access to clean water.”

So that was one day I perhaps should have known about. Probably more worthy of global consideration than World Teachers' Day and even World Talk-Like-A-Pirate Day. And perhaps worth thinking about on World Philosophy Day. I'll just have to get one of those "Sorry I'm late" cards for it.


A Better Future...


Though I very much doubt it.

I woke up at 2 a.m. last night to find myself in Sebastian's room. I'd fallen asleep next to him when I was putting him to bed. That's how tired I am at the moment! I got up, crept into the study and checked the computer.

The little coloured icons on the auto-updating website had been shuffling around in a vaguely parliamentary formation since 7 o'clock and had finally settled. There were an awful lot of blue ones. A few more clicks revealed the precise details. I won't bore you with them. (They're here if you're interested.) But even the Labour Party representative for the West Coast had lost to his National Party opponent.

The 8 green icons were good news. That and Winston's demise. But two extra Greens aren't going to have much influence on policy, I'm afraid, despite their best intentions and their genuine concern with the future of our children and the planet we live on.

John Key promised a better future measured by the weight of our back pockets. Reducing taxes doesn't seen particularly visionary to me but it must be what people want. I'm just hoping that it's going to be a case of "plus ca change..."