Thursday, March 27, 2008

Hand Models Wanted

While I was strolling down the street on my way to Uni last week, I noticed a couple of very attractive pieces of hard-rubbish lying on the nature strip - two 51cm x 60cm MDF offcuts. If I clean them up and put a couple of coats of that gesso stuff on them, they'll provide very suitable surfaces for painting on.

I already have one drawing that I want to paint up, but as I was thinking about it, I inevitably came up with the idea of elaborating it (bloody subconscious) so now I'm stuck with finding eight volunteers - four male, four female - who're prepared to sit around for an hour or two while I draw various sketches of their hands.

Some token remuneration, in the form of tea (or coffee) and Tim Tams, might be offered. It will give your right hand something to do while I draw the left, and vice versa.

Why not just use my own hands, you ask? Well, the only one of those I can draw with any facility is the right one, since I'm left handed. I think that a painting of a lot of allegedly different pairs of hands which are all, in fact, the one hand variously misrepresented would lack a bit of verisimilitude.

Environmental Movements in pre-History

It all started with a bunch of proto-human hominids living those rift valleys on the east coast of Africa. The rift valleys provided a fairly substantial slab of environment but, as the number of proto-hominids increased, they noted that for some reason, there was getting to be less and less environment to go around as time went on.

Eventually things declined to the point where there was a lot of proto-bickering about who should get to use which bits of the limited supply of the environment, and how often, and so on and so forth. The end result of this proto-political process was most likely that the upstarts who were demanding more of the environment(the proto-progressives) were kicked out of the rift valleys by those who already held the territory (the proto-conservatives). This was a proto-win-win-solution; the proto-conservatives were rid of the unwanted disruptive element, while the proto-progressives discovered that there was a lot more environment outside the rift valleys. This event was the beginning of the prehistoric era of environmental movements.

During this prehistoric era, the initial experience of kicking those disruptive proto-progressives out the clan or tribal territory to go off and find a new bit of environment where they could fulfil their proto-utopian fantasies (or perhaps their utopian proto-fantasies - in the absence of more information on prehistoric human psychology, it could be either) was repeated over tens of thousands of years as humanities ancestors spread first through Africa, then into Europe.

The pre-historic era of environmental movements ended roughly 40,000 years ago when a group of human settled a large, rather arid island continent that would later be dubbed Terra Nullius. From that point onwards, the option of taking off to find a new hitherto unused slab of environment when you found yourself with not enough environment to go round was no longer available.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

"As Clever as It Gets"

Crikey (which I don't receive) and The Australian have both reported on recent changes to the Antarctic Ice sheets which have left one - the Wilkins Ice Shelf - at risk of breaking free from the rest. The reports are most likely based on this British Antarctic Survey (BAS) press release.

But don't be fooled by any of it, particularly statements from self-styled scientists:

Professor [David] Vaughan, who in 1993 predicted that the northern part of Wilkins Ice Shelf was likely to be lost within 30 years if climate warming on the Peninsula were to continue at the same rate, says,

"Wilkins is the largest ice shelf on the Antarctic Peninsula yet to be threatened. I didn't expect to see things happen this quickly. The ice shelf is hanging by a thread – we'll know in the next few days or weeks what its fate will be."

If the Wilkins shelf does detach, Professor Vaughn would be well advised to stop and consider this before he claims an "I told you so" - despite the impressive size of the Wilkins shelf there's plenty more Antarctic ice where that came from. And while the BAS gets its knickers in a knot because "Several ice shelves have retreated in the past 30 years - six of them collapsing completely (Prince Gustav Channel, Larsen Inlet, Larsen A, Larsen B, Wordie, Muller and the Jones Ice Shelf.)", wiser folk, like Jennifer Marohasy are keeping their sang-froid. Because at a mere 0.3% of the total ice sheet, the Wilkins sheet is an insignificant fraction of all the ice that would have to be melted before the sheet is gone completely. As long as the rest stays put, we evidently have nothing to worry about, because anthropogenic global warming can't be happening. Stands to reason, dunnit?


He keeps himself well-informed and up-to-date on the latest developments in evolutionary psychology; she hasn't grown out of reading her daily horoscope.

Education Revolution? Pull the Other One.

It's going to be interesting to see how Kevin Rudd's "education revolution" progresses over the next couple of years. My prediction is that there isn't going to be any education revolution.

Granted, a lot of parents might get tax rebates on the price of lap-tops that they have bought to further their children's education - an initiative no more misguided than One Laptop Per Child's efforts to provide a free lap-top for every child in the world, and no less effectual in improving their educational prospects. There will be a lot of sound and fury about educational standards - from the Liberals we'll once again hear about the malign legacy of the Maoist long-march through our educational institutions, Kevin Donnelly and others will get on their high horses about the importance of the literary canon and we'll all have a lot of ideological fun raising a thoroughly discordant racket on our own trumpets, while we try to manage the tricky feat of pushing our own barrows at the same time.

In the end there will be a few marginal changes to the education systems of the individual states and territories, the brouhaha will end and we'll all find something else to have equally pointless arguments about. Finally, in at least a decade, the Coalition, or whatever effectual opposition replaces it, will sweep the ALP out of office State by State, and perhaps Federally too. One of its major campaign promises will be to do something once and for all to get the appalling state of our education system sorted. Then we'll have the whole futile debate again, because that's the way we do things in this country.

All of this kerfuffle will be quite beside the point because the outcome of the debate and hence the direction of the "education revolution" has already been determined. Not by any secret conspiracy of the Socialist Left of the ALP, or some coterie of cultural conservatives who have the ear of Kevin Rudd, but by the language which is habitually used when we debate the subject of education and our habit of surrendering education debates to institutional and economic interests. So that what's hyped as revolution turns out a mere tinkering around the edges of the status quo.

I haven't been following Andrew Leigh's writing avidly enough to know whether he's an "education revolutionary", but the evidence of his latest AFR article suggests not. So, in fairness to Andrew, it's worth noting that most of the preceding four paragraphs were written a couple of months ago; they've been sitting around the hard-drive since then, while I waited for either the inspiration to develop the ideas further or a convenient excuse to wheel them out. Nonetheless, his article follows roughly the same rhetorical course that leads from revolutionary hype to bathetic tinkering.

Andrew suggests that the way to make progress on the issue of education funding, is to agree to four basic principles. The first is a motherhood declaration that you'd have a hard time arguing against:

First, the wellbeing of children is more important than anyone else. Teachers and school administrators matter, but the top priority of education policies is to help kids, not adults.

Even teachers and school administrators would have to agree with that one, wouldn't they? Parents - for whom teachers and school administrators are often the natural enemy when it comes to arguments over their kids' education would be especially inclined to agree. Of course Leigh here is constrained by the limitations of the op-ed format - a full catalogue of all the adults whose interests, and perceived interests, need to be discounted in order to focus on the wellbeing of children might well exhaust his word limit. They include politicians and political lobbyists, business proprietors and managers, corporate stockholders, progressive educational theorists, regressive educational theorists and, in some notable instances, parents. On examination, the entire adult community consists of people who are, on occasion, apt to confuse their own professional and personal interests with those of children - theirs, or more usually someone else's - so there's little point in singling out any one social or professional group on that score - be they teachers and educationists or economists.

Andrew's second principle is formally independent of the first but it's a nice rhetorical follow-through:

Second, we should not penalise parents for spending more on their children’s education. To the extent that education has ‘positive externalities’ (higher productivity, more social capital, better civic engagement), we should encourage it. There is a real difference between a policy that says ‘the richer you are, the less the government should give your child’ and one that says ‘the more you spend on your child’s education, the less the government should give you’. The former targets resources to those who need them most, while the latter operates like an education expenditure tax.

This argument is nonsense. How, for example, would an economist suggest that we encourage parents to spend money on their childrens' education? The obvious answer, is a tax rebate on educational expenditures, such as private school fees. How do we avoid directing money to the children of the rich for services that the rich have demonstrated they will pay for themselves anyway - such as the positional good of a privately funded education at one of those elite private schools? By withholding government funding from those services. The proposal here is that instead of funding private education directly, through subsidies to schools, governments sling the money to parents and achieve the same result indirectly. The real difference, in terms that matter to economists? Zero per cent of bugger all.

Third, schools should be judged on outputs, not just inputs. At present, the federal government allocates billions of dollars to private schools, but asks little in return. Taxpayers who fund these schools have a right to demand that they provide empirical data such as test scores, dropout rates, or parental satisfaction surveys.

Excuse me, but what was that first principle again? "First, the wellbeing of children is more important than anyone else." Before we give the taxpayer the right to demand data such as test scores, dropout rates and the results of parental satisfaction surveys, perhaps we should establish that these measures accurately reflect schools' capacity to care for and foster the wellbeing of the child.

Fourth, funding should be transparent. Parents should know precisely how much government funding they bring to their child’s school.

I've got nothing agains transparency in the funding of education but once again, we've lost track of that first principle.

In fact, at no stage in Leigh's article has he examined that issue of the "wellbeing of children". Instead, it's been used a springboard for Leigh to launch into an argument on how education should be funded, not on how schools are to achieve the difficult task of educating children.

And that's why there ain't going to be an education revolution any time soon. Because until we're prepared to tackle that question, looking at what education kids need to prepare themselves for life, and not just a guaranteed place of standing in the labour market and the status hierarchy, a lifetime of usefulness to the nation and the economy, we'll continue to miss the point.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Word of the Day: Portage

Q: How does the navy move a boat across land?


(Naval architecture buffs, and other pedants will no doubt carp and complain that the vessel in the illustration - a hastily drawn aircraft carrier - is a ship, rather than a boat)

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Troll? Moi?

I try to avoid visiting Andrew Bolt's blog, but sometimes it has the same morbid fascination as a pool of red wine vomit on the pavement. You don't really want to look at it to check if Billy Connolly was right about the diced carrot, but you just can't help taking that sidelong glance - and then you wish you hadn't.

Today I made the mistake of not only taking the sidelong glance, but dipping my finger in to push the bits around a little, with a comment on one of Andy's posts - this post. That got me named "Mr Troll" by the man himself - and it didn't affect the loyal acolytes and disciples who prostrate themselves before Mr Bolt's callipygian features, waiting for oracle to trumpet forth another revealed truth.

Tha "Mr Troll" bit is a bit rich, since I rarely do comment on Bolt's blog and in one comment I made last year (on a post about the Trevorrow case) I inadvertently ghost wrote a whole column for him:

Before you make a scapegoat of the hapless Mrs Angas, Andrew, perhaps you should have a careful read of sections 90 and 91 of the judgement:

90 It is relevant to observe that a departmental officer with the Aborigines Department, Mrs Angas, who had been appointed as a welfare officer in the Department for less than nine months, apparently took on responsibilities with regard to the removal of the plaintiff. At that time, as earlier observed, it was the practice of the APB and the Aborigines Department to act to remove children thought to be neglected, and to do so with the state of mind that they lacked the legal authority or power to so act. Mrs Angas’ conduct would appear to be consistent with this practice.

91 Although precise findings cannot be made, it would appear that this practice of deliberately and knowingly acting beyond legal authority and power – as it was understood – ceased by the end of the 1950s when the Aborigines Department openly and publicly acknowledged that it had no power to remove neglected Aboriginal children from their parents, and the departmental approach had been altered to an attempt to persuade rather than to remove without approval.

It might be wise to check that she’s actually deceased too, before you hang all the blame for this on her.
It's all a bit galling really. Where's the gratitude?

Just Getting My Hand In

As Ken Parish has announced in this comment at Club Troppo, I'll be joining the Missing Link team on a mutually probationary basis (I'll get an "I told you so" from Ziggy Stellenstaub, my personal head care specialist when I tell him about this). I figure it won't do any harm to put in a little practice before I actually have to start producing those snippy little notes about who's hot, and who's not. Here goes...

The knives are out for Petro Georgiou again, with ex-Howard-staffer Joshua Frydenberg making another bid for preselection. The former Mr Lefty is all for it because narrowing the Liberal Party church is "the way back to government, after all". The ever truthful Andrew Bolt is for it too, because "safe seats aren't for keeping warm".

Ironically, the bid is sponsored by the Costello/Kroger forces within the Victorian Liberal party and Costello's made his position on his political future quite clear on the night of the last Federal Election - he was only going to stay in Parliament to keep the seat of Higgins warm, while he sought opportunities in the private sector. Perhaps they're keeping Higgins as a back up, in case Frydenberg's bid for preselection in Kooyong fails yet again.