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.