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Friday, 22 November 2013

The Foolish Minister

I am playing whack-a-shark today (it's like whack-a-mole, but with shinier teeth), but I set things aside, because something is annoying me.

Yes, Minister, I write history. Do you?
I would like to muse briefly on the concept of educational policy, and the way in which it ought to formulated in the Westminster system. This is brought upon because I am a professional writer, and I write a lot of history. I am no historian, but I am soaked in history, and I know what matters.

History isn't about dates, it isn't about the names of dead white males, it is about ideas and about ideals. It is inspiration, it is about wit and intelligence. It is about methods, and technology, and cleverness, and bravery, grit and determination, wherever it comes from.

At the moment, a preening coxcomb (you point, I'll whistle) has been swaggering around declaring that he is the Minister of Education, and he will decide what is to go in the history syllabus.

The man is a fool, of course, but he also has the cunning of a sewer rat, and he is playing the populist card. Think of somebody talking about ''********-bashing'', given that the missing word is specified as a profession. If I say this form of bashing is a popular sport, what word will you put in place of ''********''?  It won't be sharks or moles...

Nobody would bother singling out dentists, accountants or grocers for extreme abuse (aside from Mr. Chesterton, who had a thing about grocers, that is). Those professions are not seen as worthy targets.

To my way of thinking, there are just three professions that draw down the spite and ire of the general public to the extent that people want to badmouth them and tell jokes about them—and politicians want to join in bashing them. Lawyers probably come first, then doctors, then teachers.

It occurs to me that we really ought to bash pollies first and foremost, but like the schoolyard bullies they undoubtedly were, once upon a time, they see the need to distract their victims by leading them to an attack on somebody else. So lawyers, doctors and teachers cop it from the public—but politicians fear crossing the doctors and lawyers, so teachers are the low-hanging fruit.

Two of these professions are seen as bastions of the rich (as in ''the law is an appropriate study for the avaricious who cannot stand the sight of blood'') and as homes for aloof users of obfuscatory language, but why are teachers in the target range?

Teachers are not well-paid when you look at their training and the hours they work, if you compare them with the other two professions—and they use simple language. While they have professional expertise, teachers describe what they do in simple terms, unlike lawyers and doctors. So why bash teachers?

Some people may be aware that over the years I have worn a mixture of hats, and some years ago, wearing my media hat, I attended a media briefing on genetic modifications, where several CSIRO heavyweights and UTS researchers gave excellent accounts of their work. I have formal training in genetics, and I found their accounts fascinating.

At the end, a well-known television nonentity spoke up (no names, but he liked backyards). ''I used to breed budgerigars, so I understand genetics, and I know that GM is wrong,'' he told the scientists, and those who (he assumed) would be hanging on his every word.

I know very little about the breeding of birds of any sort, but I do understand genetics, and I am well-versed in the many variations of technology.  From this background, I am convinced there is no such thing as a bad or wrong technology, though I realise that many technologies can be misused. The objection was founded on a sadly flawed premise.

Let me put it this way: GM can be used for good or bad purposes, so can a motor vehicle, which may be am armoured personnel carrier, a tank, a Mob getaway car—or an ambulance, a school bus or a fire engine. So would you ban motor vehicles or not?  You should, if you would ban GM because it can be dangerous!

Back to the idiot Don, for some reason, I said nothing at the time, but like the other people present who knew their science, I left the venue wondering how this bloke could be so thick as to think he knew it all. After several purely medicinal applications of diluted carbonated ethanol, we concluded that it was because the idiot knew so little of genetics that he really WAS convinced that he knew it all.

I believe that this is where the teacher-bashers come in. When we stand in front of a class, education, teaching, training, wisdom, knowledge, learning, understanding and erudition are all parts of what we should be transmitting, along with culture, enthusiasm and a few other things.  It is a rich and nourishing meal that we deliver, day in and day out.

But to the simple critics, teaching is what they did when they taught a younger blood-relative to ride a bicycle, or to swim, or to drive. There are no nuances, no finesse, no planning—you just step up to the mark and commence your spiel. No control problems either, because the young'n has volunteered, is alone, motivated, and with a relative.

Because the would-be critics have never stopped to evaluate their respective performances, they are convinced that they achieved perfect results in minimum time. In fact, any decent cost-benefit analysis and standardised pre-test/post-test evaluation would show that in most cases, the driver-teaching was abysmal in terms of productivity, woeful in terms of societal attitudes transmitted, and directed at reaching a pass-mark, not at achieving true excellence.

Why else do we have so many traffic accidents and incidents of road rage? I blame the teachers, you know...

Nonetheless, from their data-free position, the critics of the teaching profession believe themselves well-placed to sit in judgement on those who devote their working lives to trying to broaden the views of their children. It is their self-assigned role to find teachers wanting, because they have taught, and they know what it is all about.  As well might they claim expertise based on breeding budgerigars!

It is my belief, based on my own observations and those of my father before me (he was in the same game), that over the past 50 years, the most amazing disasters among New South Wales ministers of education were mainly those who had teacher training. Like my budgerigar-breeding acquaintance, they thought they knew it all. One of the greatest disasters had been a lecturer in education, another gained a Dip. Ed. as a tertiary teacher, but never faced a school classroom.

A minister of the crown is, by definition, a politician, one versed in doing that which is politic, They need good people skills, and I envy them that—even the poorest back-bencher outshines me on that dimension. Ministers would not be where they are without some sort of brains (Charlie Cutler was an exception), but they are generally not great thinkers, and ministers of any portfolio and political complexion are most certainly not people with expertise in the byways of their department.

No medico, lawyer or teacher is, by virtue of training in that discipline, capable of administering a large system in the area in which they are trained. They lack the necessary experience to lead, and they are far less fitted to play the part of despot.

It is the role of the minister to play the part of a ship's owner and say ''sail to this port", but not to specify the alloy that will be used to cast the propeller, the oil with which the engines will be lubricated, or the frequencies to be used by the radio operator. Any sensible ship's owner would leave that sort of thing to the captain and crew.

It is inappropriate for a minister, any minister, to formulate operational policy in any portfolio, and any minister who does so in the field of education is, to the extent that the ministerial policy is forced upon schools and students, an inept failure.

Ministers are not there to micro-manage: their task is to provide directions at the level of, say, ''we want more excellence''. Ministers are there to be advised, and to make choices between carefully designed policies. Allow them anything more than that, and we have a recipe for disaster.

Allowing ministers to dictate curriculum or to determine daily and operational policy is the equivalent of making somebody transport supremo on the basis that he or she once saw Mulga Bill's bicycle, half a mile off, on a stormy evening, by lightning flashes.

* * * * * * *
This blog covers quite a few different things, so I tag each post. I also blog about history, and I am currently writing a series of books called Not your usual... and the first two have been accepted by Five Mile Press, The offcuts appear here with the tag Not Your Usual... . For a taste of Australian tall tales, try the tags Speewah or Crooked Mick.   For a miscellany of oddities, try the tag temporary obsessions. And language us covered under the tags Descants and Curiosities, while stuff about small life is under Wee beasties.

Thursday, 21 November 2013

All about answers

 I do apologise: I have been off writing a book. I have mentioned before that I am working towards a series of e-books under the series title Not Your Usual... and so I have been looking in other directions than to this blog.

The first batch reflects a cleaning-out of my files and a couple of drafts as well, plus a couple of things that I thought needed to be said. The initial release will include Not Your Usual Bushrangers, Not Your Usual Australian Hero (tall tales about Crooked Mick of the Speewah), Not Your Usual Gold Seekers (some nuts and bolts background to the Australian gold rush), Not Your Usual War Poems (going beyond 'Flanders Fields'), Not Your Usual Quotations (science quotations of a delectable kind), and Not Your Usual Australian Verse (well, it does actually include all the old favourites, but also a great deal of lesser-known stuff. 

For balance, I needed to get one more title to reflect the fact that I really am a science writer. Therein hangs a tale: I was using material previously researched and in most cases drafted, so it was mainly assembly and editing, and it went ahead very fast. I got to 330,000 words, equal to six trade paperbacks, and knew there was a lot more to come, so I rejigged the existing content into four volumes—with at least two more to come, and I have now cleaned up the first volume of Not Your Usual Science.

There is still some technical stuff and some  editing to do, but I am almost there. Anyhow, Not Your Usual Science is mainly about how we found answers to many of our questions, so here are a few musings on answers.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

In Old English, an answer was a reply made to a legal charge, a form of defence. Literally, andswaru was taken from two roots: and, meaning 'against', and swarâ, meaning 'swear', so to an Anglo-Saxon, an answer was a 'swearing against', but these days, we see it as a reply to a question or a response to an examination question.

It can also be a return hit in fencing, while to a musician, an answer is a part of a fugue, the name given to the subject when it is sung by the alto and the bass, but to dive further into this would be to dig into muddy technical waters which is a waste of time, as the holes are unstable.

Returning to crime and legalities, we have also injected a sense of personal responsibility into the word when we talk about somebody being answerable for something.

For the most part, we may answer a description, and we may answer a telephone, but most other answers are only offered in response to a question.

The computer community alone stands out in one sense, publishing lists of answers as FAQs, or frequently asked questions, rather than as FSAs, or frequently-sought answers.

Even in those pre-Norman days, the word was used in the main modern sense, and we will find terms like answaru liðe, literally a lithe answer, but more reliably, a soft or gentle answer, in the sense intended in the book of Proverbs, where we are told that a soft answer, an answaru liðe, turneth away wrath.

The 'and-' prefix is usually considered not to appear in any other words these days, but a trawl through Old English reveals a few interesting parallels, like and-efn which is equivalent to our 'uneven' in the sense of 'not equal'. The term and-git means intellect or understanding, which we might suspect has something to do with the modern English derogatory term 'git'. Certainly andgit-leás means 'foolish, so it may be that, by stripping off the negatives fore and aft, we got to a trimmed-down 'git'.

Some hint of a different sense of 'answer' appears in A Comedy of Errors, where we find this exchange in Act IV, scene i:
My business cannot brook this dalliance.

Good sir, say whe'r you'll answer me or no;
 If not, I'll leave him to the officer.

I answer you! What should I answer you?

The money that you owe me for the chain.
Here, the answer was a payment in response to the delivery of a chain, but this is a Shakespearean comedy, and identical twins are involved, so, well, you get the picture, and I am not answerable for it.

Gertrude Stein, of course, knew that answers are not everything. According to her biography, her last words were "What is the answer?" and after a pause, ". . . In that case, what is the question?"

This was a lesson that Douglas Adams learned well when he first published the answer to life, the universe and everything as "42", and then later published "the question" as "what do you get when you multiply 6 by 9?"

Curiously, the product of 6 and 9 is 42, provided you are counting in base-13 notation, where "42" means, in our more normal base-10 mathematics, 4 x 13 + 2 = 54 (base-10).

Mathematicians around the world are still trying to decide if this use of the tridecimal number system has any real value, perhaps as an indication of the number of digits found in mice when they are viewed in six dimensions.

How far we have come since the days when scholars would debate how many angels could dance on the head of a pin! Now we are more likely to seek the number of pins that can dance on the head of an angel.

Friday, 8 November 2013

Who needs to be right?

Christian Doppler was in Prague in 1842 when he wondered if he might be able to explain the colours of binary stars. He came up with an idea that we now call the Doppler effect, to do with the perceived frequency of a wave and the way the relative velocities of the source and the observer affect the observed frequency.

This picture has nothing to do
with this story: I just fell prey to
the pictorial imperative.

Confused by the opaque prose? Not to worry: think about what happens when a train goes through a level crossing where a bell is clanging: as we pass, we stop approaching the bell and start moving away, the tone of the bell seems to drop.

If somebody drives past sounding their horn, the pitch drops in the same way. It happens with sirens as well, but it's harder to spot, because the siren is varying anyhow.

Well, Doppler thought it might have been the reason why stars appear to have different colours. It was a great theory, but completely wrong.

Then in 1845, a clever young Dutch physicist with the curious (to our eyes) name of Buys Ballot said that it was all a load of old cobblers, but he reckoned there was something in the idea itself, even if it didn't cause the colours of binary stars.

He got some musicians loaded on a train on the Utrecht-Amsterdam line, and as they whizzed through Maarssen station at 70 kph, musicians on the platform listened to the calibrated note being played by the other musicians on the train, and the principle was established.

Sadly, even though Doppler was way off course, he had thought of the effect first, so even today, we refer to Doppler shifts, Doppler radar, Doppler this and that. It plays a big role in ultrasound work, and oddly enough, there is a Dopper effect on star colours, though our eyes can't see it.

Stars that are receding from is show a red shift, and the few objects whizzing our way show a blue shift, but we can only detect that by taking a spectrum with a spectroscope, invented by Kirchhoff and Bunsen. We really only recall Bunsen today by the Bunsen burner, which he didn't even invent! Credit in science can be funny like that.

A few years later, in 1848, nationalist uprisings hunted Doppler out of Prague and back to his native Vienna, where a few years later, he played a part in educating young Gregor Mendel, but that's another story.

Poor old Buys Ballot, who was right, and who proved that the effect existed, is hardly even a footnote, a bit like Maarssen station, which is now closed.

Monday, 4 November 2013

All about earth

Our word 'earth' is from a Germanic root (and here I will use the þ symbol for the 'thorn', the soft 'th') erþa in Old Teutonic and airþa in Gothic, while the Swedes and the Danes have jord, and the Dutch have aarde (to make hard work of it, the aardvark of the Boers is a dirt-pig, or maybe an earth-pork), and in German, the ground is die Erde.

Soil is the tribal patch of ants. Don't knock it!
The Anglo-Saxons used eorþ and had some delightful combinations: the cucumber was an eorþ-æppel or earth-apple (and nothing like a pomme de terre!), a person who was injured and crept on the earth as an earth-creeper was an eorþ-crypel (compare this with our cruel label,  'cripple'), and an earthquake was what we would now call an earth-din (eorþ-dyne) or an earth-shaking (eorþ-beofung), while the things that lived on the earth were eorþ-cyn, or earthkind.

But even in those days, 'earth' also had the idea of element attached to it, as in this Old English phrase: "Seó eorþ is dryge and ceald and ðæt wæter wæt and ceald" — the earth is dry and cold, the water is wet and cold (compare 'Séo' and the German 'sie').

There seem to be about six ideas used in different languages that relate to "earth": in English they are represented by dirt (as in 'dirty'), soil, land, earth, world and planet. In Latin, the main terms are terra, humus and solum, with humus being what we are buried in, according to the student song, Gaudeamus igitur (which means let us rejoice, but seems usually to be sung as a dirge), rather than our more restricted use of the word. I wonder what Latin word was used for earth in the sense of one of the four elements?

Ant lions live in the earth, too. Look out, ants!
At different times, many of these have been used interchangeably. John of Gaunt is made to speak of "This blessed plot, this earth, this Realme, this England" in Richard II, but England is Angleterre to the French, and our Great South Land is Terra Australis.

(Whatever happens to the Great in the Latin version?)

Anyhow, terra which is the soil in the Italian terra rossa is now a land, as it is in Tierra del Fuego, though not yet promoted to the level of terrestrial, which can be either on dry land (terra firma) or something found on our planet, as opposed to extra-terrestrial.

We speak of a man on the land when we mean a farmer of the male persuasion, while those who live off the land are exploiters of the environment in all its forms.

It seems almost as if the word we use depends on our continually widening horizons over the past millennium or so. For example, the Icelandic jörð can mean earth, land or estate, depending on the context.

What began as the garden became the land we lived on, then the tribal patch, the land that the clan lived on, then perhaps a continent, and finally the world.

All the same, the world of the Romans (mundus) was far less than the world of the Italians or French (mondo or le monde). To the Romans, the world was just a small patch around the Mediterranean Sea (which is the sea 'in the middle of the world').

The need for a name for the area larger than one's normal reach and travels came with trade. The Swahili word for 'world' is dunia, and the same word is used in Indonesian.

This is not surprising, as it is an Arabic word, brought in by Arabic-speaking traders in each area, but I have minimal knowledge of Arabic, so I cannot say what precisely it means in Arabic.  All I know for sure is that the same word is also used in Turkish.

I note, in passing, that Frank Herbert apparently had some Arabic, and his planet of Dune was almost certainly cognate with dunia — he uses enough other Arabic-related terms in that novel.

So the short answer is that our word 'earth' is very old Germanic, but the interchange over time of the various words used to mean the stuff under our feet is a much longer story.

Hoist with his own petard

I will studiously not comment on this, much as I would like to: I have just drawn it from the archives to use in the current book.

"Bischoff, one of the leading anatomists of Europe, thrived some 70 years ago. He carefully measured brain weights, and after many years' accumulation of much data he observed that the average weight of a man's brain was 1350 grams, that of a woman only 1250 grams. This at once, he argued, was infallible proof of the mental superiority of men over women. Throughout his life, he defended this hypothesis with the conviction of a zealot. Being the true scientist, he specified in his will that his own brain be added to his impressive collection. The postmortem examination elicited the interesting fact that his own brain weighed only 1245 grams."

Scientific American, March 1992, 8, quoting from an unidentified source in Scientific American, March 1942.