27/5/2008

Something I’ve never seen before

Filed under: — Bravus @ 1:56 pm

This musing was prompted by seeing the movie ‘Southland Tales’. It’s odd and weird, and was booed at Cannes when it premiered. It was recut after that, but it’s still a pretty complex and confusing movie. I think part of the key to enjoying it (as I did) is to let go of strict logic and operate on dream logic, where things have rich layers of symbolic meaning beyond their obvious surface meaning.

Since then I’ve also been (re)reading China Mieville’s novel ‘Iron Council’ and watching a Canadian-German science fiction series called LEXX. Both, in one way or another, are something I’ve never seen before. Like Iain M Banks and Clive Barker, Mieville is a master of prodigious invention, and any of his book is likely to show you a hundred things you’ve never seen before, not just one. And LEXX too is odd and strange and sometimes disturbing, but very interesting and completely new.

Of course, sometimes I’m also in the mood to just sink into something that’s familiar and that I know I’ll enjoy. I’m off to the new Indiana Jones movie this afternoon, and that will be the case for that movie – nothing I haven’t seen before, but very enjoyable and competently done.

I don’t even know what the distinction is useful for, and I’m not placing a value judgement on which is better, but some people are much more likely to stick almost entirely with the things that are familiar and that they already know they will like. Mills and Boon novels, for example, are written to a template. If you like one, you’ll like them all. There’s always a risk when you try the new dish at the restaurant that you’ll hate it… but there are very few books I’ve read that I’ve hated. Most often I just really enjoy reading something new… but in some cases I’ll seek out more and in others I won’t.

How about you? Do you like to see something you’ve never seen before? If so, who is your favourite source? If not, what’s your favourite flavour?

23/5/2008

Busy

Filed under: — Bravus @ 8:49 am

Had a few decent ideas for posts lately, but with a grant application due today, a major workshop for my research project to organise, a syllabus writing job on, chapter due (done and sent, yay!), students’ work to be edited and confirmation meetings to attend… the time to write thoughtful blog posts has been hard to find. But things should settle down a bit after today, and I’ll get back into it.

15/5/2008

Interesting Discussion

Filed under: — Bravus @ 4:44 pm

This letter-to-the-editor is kinda annoying, but I think the response by Cary Tennis is excellent:

http://www.salon.com/mwt/col/tenn/2008/05/15/creationism/

14/5/2008

What is science and what is it good for?

Filed under: — Bravus @ 11:17 am

I’m working on a project at the moment, with two colleagues here at UQ, that includes trying to write a short statement (400 words or so) about what science is and why students should learn it.

Issues include:

  • the idea that I believe school science – i.e. the subject we call Science – shares some features with science itself (as scientists do it and know it) but also has some unique features. We’re writing for a syllabus document, so really what we’re talking about is school science – but the way we use the word ‘science’ can blur those meanings
  • In terms of discussing why students should learn science, I would like to get beyond the instrumentalist ‘because they will use it in their jobs’ motivations – they’re important, but only part of the picture. We also need to look at the ‘science education for citizenship’ side of things – what do students need to know and be able to do in order to participate as fully informed citizens in a society where science and technology are leading to rapid change? What do they need to know to be able to vote intelligently and participate in public conversations on issues like biotechnology, genetic engineering, nanotechnology, climate change and artificial intelligence?
  • But I’d like to go beyond even the citizenship thing, because that’s still an instrumentalist kind of view of the value of learning science. What about the value of learning science for the way it expands a person’s world view and understanding of life and the universe? How about the way it helps people think about important philosophical questions and learn to respect and evaluate evidence and arguments? This too is part of the rationale for learning science, and particularly for why all students should learn science until at least the end of Year 10

The statement is meant to be written for a general lay audience, although the specific target group is teachers. This includes science teachers in junior high school but also generalist teachers in primary and middle schools, many of whom don;t have strong backgrounds in science, so part of the challenge is to express some quite sophisticated ideas in clear and simple language.

So, trying to keep all those things in mind, here’s a first bash at a statement. Any feedback is very welcome, but I have to admit that as much as anything else I’m just throwing this up here because this blog is a way for me to ‘think aloud’ and crystallise my own thoughts.

Science is a field of human endeavour that is focused on understanding the natural and physical world. It includes:

  • a body of theories and laws that have been developed over time through scientific work,
  • a set of methods used for observing the world and creating and testing theories, and
  • values relating to ethical inquiry and respect for evidence.

Science is typically divided into several subdisciplines, including:

  • physics – the study of the physical world at all levels from the subatomic to the universal, including the study of forces, motion and energy,
  • chemistry – the study of substances and materials and their properties,
  • life sciences (including biology) – the study of living things from viruses to whales and forests, including ecology – and
  • earth and space sciences – the study of earth and the stars and solar system – geology and astronomy.

The science subdisciplines have some areas of overlap, but each is focused on a particular part of the natural world, and uses particular tools, methods and approaches. A thorough understanding of science includes knowledge and skills in each of these fields.

The study of science at school is an essential part of preparing the informed citizens of tomorrow. Science enables us to predict the behaviour of materials and systems under particular sets of conditions, and informs the processes of developing technological solutions that improve standards of living and sustainability. The relationship of science with technology is complex, with each discipline serving and advancing the other. Technological changes such as biotechnology, genetic engineering, nanotechnology and artificial intelligence present significant challenges to society.

Science includes the study of ecosystems and the natural and built environments, and can help to understand the impacts of human activities on the natural world. Science is an essential part of equipping Australians with the knowledge and skills to enhance sustainable development and economic growth.

Scientific understanding includes knowledge, skills and attitudes and values. Students of science develop skills in safely manipulating materials and conducting experiments, and in the methods of science. They also develop skills in using evidence to construct and critically evaluate arguments. They develop attitudes and values relating to respect for evidence, scientific integrity and ethical practice.

Hmm – I think it still reads more like a series of notes than a coherent statement, but hopefully at least it’s a place to start. What’s missing?

13/5/2008

Character comes through

Filed under: — Bravus @ 11:26 am

Australia currently has a Labor (left of centre) government federally and in every state. The highest ranking Liberal (right) politician in Australia is the Mayor of Brisbane.

Federally I think there are a few reasons, including a backlash against the perceived arrogance and out-of-touchness of the Howard Liberal government that we’d had for the past 11 years or so until last November. I think Kevin Rudd also seemed to present a credible alternative, and he has made a good start. Much of what has been done so far has been symbolic – crucial symbols that had to be done. But tonight is the first federal budget for the new government – the first policy flesh on the rhetorical bones. It’ll be interesting to see what happens.

But at the state level, the Liberals really do have no-one but themselves to blame for being in the political wilderness:

  • In Queensland recently there was a highly public deadlock for a week or so with a leadership1 challenge. There are only 4 Liberal members of parliament (the other right wing party in Australia, the Nationals, is particularly strong in Queensland), and there was a 2/2 split in terms of who should be the parliamentary leader. They publicly mentioned the possibility of drawing a name out of a hat to resolve the situation.
  • In Western Australia the parliamentary leader of the Liberal Party is in trouble for sniffing the chair of a female staffer after she rose from it. It was in search of a laugh, but going there speaks to character and respect, IMO.
  • And now in Victoria two staffers have been fired for disloyalty over running a blog attacking the leader, and in retaliation released an e-mail from a party official calling a sitting Member a ‘greedy f^&*ing Jew’. She has now been fired too.

I’m happy with Labor governments governing us at federal and state level, but I also believe two-party (or two-plus as we have in Australia) democracies only really work well in the presence of a strong, focused and credible opposition to keep the government accountable. I hope the Liberal party in Australia takes a good hard look at itself.

  1. a term which here means ‘lack of anything resembling leadership’

10/5/2008

Education/Learning – Coins or Filters?

Filed under: — Bravus @ 7:09 am

A concept of what we’re doing in education, and what counts as learning, that I often hear when I’m talking to people is ‘the teacher (or the textbook or whatever) tells you a whole bunch of facts, and you try to memorise as many as possible, and then you have a test to see how many you remembered’. I use the metaphor of a bunch of coins to think about that one – the teacher gives you a handful of coins, and you try to catch as many as you can. In the test you show how many you caught and managed to hold onto. (And later on you get to spend those coins, i.e. use those facts, in your life (but maybe some of them are in old currencies that are no longer useful, and others are for countries you never go to, metaphorically speaking)).

I think a lot of education can be like that, particularly in primary and high school, and more so in the ‘olden days’ when people my age where going to school than now. But I don’t think that’s a particularly useful form of education these days. Google (or the search engine of your choice) basically means that any fact you might need is at your fingertips almost instantly any time you might need it. In that situation, memorising facts is one of the most useless things you can do with your time. Rather, what you need is skills in judging the quality of the information you find. To continue the metaphor above, there’s essentially a never-ending ATM with all the coins you could ever need… but the catch is that some of them are counterfeit. In that situation, carrying coins is not a particularly useful skill, but being able to distinguish the real from the fake is crucial.

(There’s another reason the memorisation idea of schooling is not particularly good: it means that those who succeed in school are basically those with good memories. But memory is not the same as intelligence or creativity or hard work – and those latter three things are much better predictors of success in life than a good memory.)

So the image I often use instead is of a photographic filter – a coloured (or smoked, or polarised, or star-filtered, or…) piece of glass that is placed in front of the lens and changes the view. Using the filter allows you to see things about the world that were there all along, but that you couldn’t see before, in the same way that wearing Polaroid sunglasses will allow you to see fish beneath the surface of a river that you couldn’t see without the glasses on because of the glare off the surface of the water. If you really understand Newton’s Laws of Motion, for example, the way you understand and interpret the motion of a car (or any other object) will be different compared to if you’re not looking at the world through that filter. Similarly, a particular political or religious viewpoint will filter the way you see the world. Every new filter brings some things into sharp focus – like the fish – but forces other things out of our awareness – like the sparkle of the sun on the water. So each new filter is a trade-off, and one of the important skills is to be able to use several different filters, taking them on and off, in order to be able to see more features of a particular situation1.

How would thinking about education in this way – as gaining new filters and skills in their use, rather than as collecting coins – change your ideas and assumptions?

  1. Postmodernism’s ‘suspicion of grand narratives’ can then be redescribed as ‘suspicion of using only one filter for everything’, but that’s another conversation for another day.

8/5/2008

Oops – moderation!

Filed under: — Bravus @ 9:59 am

Messages used to seldom get trapped in moderation, but I made a few changes to the filters recently. That meant you guys actually responded well to the ‘Yo’ post, but your messages got caught in the holding pen, and I didn’t check until Mark told me what had happened. So sorry about that, but your comments have now all been branded and released into the paddock.

Middle Places

Filed under: — Bravus @ 9:57 am

Looking for somewhere to eat out the other night, we realised we were missing the ‘middle places’ that we enjoyed in Canada. Let me explain: we really only had a choice between fast food – McDonalds, KFC, Red Rooster (roast chicken), Hungry Jacks (the Oz rebranding of Burger King) and so on – and quite expensive restaurants. The kinds of places we liked to go in Edmonton – Red Robin, Chillis, Tony Romas, Cheesecake Cafe, and so on – really just seem not to exist here: it’s cheap and nasty or nice and expensive, with few middle places. Ended up going to Sizzler, which was OK, but still a hundred bucks for the 4 of us, which is a lot of money for a buffet, IMO. Apparently there is one Chillis restaurant in western Sydney – will have to hit it next time we’re down there.

7/5/2008

Kittens and a Coke Box

Filed under: — Bravus @ 8:20 am

Too cute, too funny:


Kittens-Coca Cola Box – video powered by Metacafe

5/5/2008

Lone Wolf Ride Report

Filed under: — Bravus @ 5:10 pm

(sorry ’bout the rather over-bikey flavor of the blog at the moment: just not a lot else going on in my brain right now. This will change, given time.)

So with today being the Labor Day holiday (tip of the hat to those who got us the working conditions we enjoy, tip of the middle finger to those trying to erode them), I sat around the house in the morning, posted on Netrider, worked on building a web site for the wife’s budding MS Office training business and then had a nap because I was feeling a bit crook – just a headache and a fever. Got up and went to get back into the web development, but it was *another* magic Queensland autumn day, so I fired up the big Bandit and went out for a ride.

Headed east from home along Moggill Road – nice to not be held up by the roadworks at Pullenvale for a change – then south down Centenary Highway. Being a public holiday the police presence was massive everywhere, but I was basically just out for a sunny afternoon cruise, and going easy, so I just nodded and smiled at each of the half-dozen hairdryer-pointers I passed in the course of the ride.

Headed on down Centenary as far as Springfield, then onto the Augusta Parkway up toward Ipswich. This is normally a lovely curvy little bit of road through the bush, but unbeknown to me they’ve decided to duplicate it, which meant it was 60 and 40 limits for roadworks along its whole length.

I’d intended to just come through Ipswich and then back around Mt Crosby Road and Moggill Road to close the loop, but sitting on 60 for all those ks (behind another bike out for a ride as it happened) had given me the need for speed, so I took a left at the Cunningham Highway instead and cruised out to Yamanto. Stopped at Maccas for some nuggets and a large Diet Coke then headed back in to Ipswich and home.

Got one small scare on the roundabout off the Warrego Highway going toward Karalee there – took it at what I thought was a reasonable pace, forgetting how crappy and bumpy it is. A big bump tossed me off my line and into the gravel that had been swept to the outside of the roundabout. Not really where you want to be on a 340 kg bike + rider package well heeled over… but I just swore quietly to myself inside the helmet and remained very calm. No sudden braking, leaning, throttle roll-offs or anything else, just kept it smooth and rode it out and all was good.

Truly, there’s no such thing as a bad day out on the bike. And at less than half a tank of juice, it’s cheaper than a movie, and way more fun and healthy. Add plenty of good sunlight and outdoor air to combat depression, and why would you spend your holiday afternoon doing anything else?

3/5/2008

Back to 1 bike

Filed under: — Bravus @ 12:01 am

The little GSX400F sold today, for 3 grand, so I’m back to just the one bike, thank goodness. The money from the sale was meant to go back into our sharemarket account, where the money for the new Bandit came from, but will probably have to be used to just catch up on a few other things and provide a bit of a buffer for our investment property, which is chewing a big hole in our disposable income at the moment.

I’d paid $2,500 for the 400, so I guess you could say I made a profit on it – except that i also spent $1700 fixing it while I owned it! And the best part of $500 getting it ready to sell. My own silly fault for buying something on eBay without getting it mechanically checked before plunking the money down. Didn’t make that mistake this time and should do a lot better with the new bike over the course of its life.

I was pretty impressed with myself yesterday, actually. The roadworthiness inspection for the sale found that the rear brake disc was worn too thin and had to be replaced. Despite the dire warnings on the packaging of the replacement disc about not installing it unless you were a qualified mechanic, I managed to pull the back wheel off and replace the disc and pads and get it all back together and working perfectly in well under an hour.

1/5/2008

Ssshhh, don’t tell Suzie

Filed under: — Bravus @ 7:43 am

As I was wandering toward the train station yesterday morning I passed another bike shop, and saw one of these in the flesh for the first time:

It’s a KTM 990 Superduke, and it looks even wilder and more future/cyberpunk in the metal than in the photo. Drooolll…

Of course, I’d be in big trouble with The Boss if I even hinted at looking at another bike so soon after buying the Bandit – and the Bandit is absolutely awesome and still the best possible bike for everything I need.

So don’t tell the girls, but just ‘cos we’re married doesn’t mean we don’t sometimes check out a nice swingarm… 😉