30/9/2010

Meet the Neighbours?

Filed under: — Bravus @ 10:37 am

News of the discovery of a planet that could potentially support life (Jim, but not as we know it), a mere 20 lightyears from us:

http://www.couriermail.com.au/news/world/potentially-habitable-earth-like-planet-caleld-gliese-581g-found-20-light-years-away/story-e6freoox-1225932084944

28/9/2010

And while we’re talking about the damage caused by testing…

Filed under: — Bravus @ 9:00 am

… here’s an extreme case from the US: http://www.salon.com/wires/us/2010/09/27/D9IGHK8G0_us_teacher_found_dead/index.html

27/9/2010

Gramsci on Life and Learning

Filed under: — Bravus @ 10:04 pm

Thanks to my friend Juan Semo Groman for pointing me to this from Antonio Gramsci:

We must rid ourselves of the habit of conceiving culture as encyclopedic knowledge; a concept in which man is regarded as a mere receptacle to be stuffed full with empirical data and disconnected brute facts…. culture is something quite different. It is organization, discipline of one’s inner self, a coming to terms with one’s personality; it is the attainment of a higher consciousness by means of which one succeeds in understanding one’s own historical value, one’s own function in life, one’s own rights and duties.

Would you?

Filed under: — Bravus @ 2:41 pm

Ethics dilemma. There were some very good presentations at a conference this weekend on the disasters wrought in schools by NAPLAN (National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy) testing. It is clear, based on the research evidence, that NAPLAN leads to ‘teaching to the test’ and impoverishes education, particularly for the most vulnerable students, and that it’s riddled with rorting. Not too dissimilar to the US ‘No Child Left Behind’ program.

Inevitably, testing in science is also on the agenda – the NAPSL (National Assessment Program – Scientific Literacy). It hasn’t been rolled out nationally yet, but I’ve already been required, in writing my most recent textbook chapter, to develop half a dozen ‘NAPSL-style’ questions for the chapter.

Now, here’s the dilemma: it’s not that hard to make those kinds of questions. And there’s a lot of money to be made in creating test-prep booklets for the NAPSL tests. But I’m fundamentally opposed to the testing and its effects on education in this country.

My personal decision is to walk away from the money because I just can’t square it with my values.

24/9/2010

I got yer dystopian near-future right here

Filed under: — Bravus @ 7:28 am

Night view of 11-day Chinese traffic jam

Image is from Day 11 of a 60-mile traffic jam in China that officials say could last weeks more. There’s a lively culture of vendors and card-players developing around all those near-stationary trucks.

23/9/2010

The 7-Lesson Teacher

Filed under: — Bravus @ 2:17 pm

Very harsh, but very enlightening. If we could find a way to put Mr Gatto, and all other teachers, out of the business of teaching these 7 lessons, we’d have made a start on fixing education:

http://www.newciv.org/whole/schoolteacher.txt

I disagree profoundly with his proposed free-market solution, however: all that would do is further entrench the existing inequities in society. No, I really do believe there are ways to address these 7 lessons within schooling: but it will require radical thinking, commitment and – yep, sorry – money.

Saving US Public Education

Filed under: — Bravus @ 1:31 pm

Davis Guggenheim, director of ‘An Inconvenient Truth’, has turned his attention to education in America, and made a movie called “Waiting for ‘Superman'”. Here’s Andrew O’Hehir’s (mixed) review from Salon: http://www.salon.com/entertainment/movies/our_picks/index.html?story=/ent/movies/andrew_ohehir/2010/09/22/waiting_for_superman

Strange Attractors

Filed under: — Bravus @ 11:09 am

In chaos theory, ‘strange attractors‘ are positions toward which a dynamical system converges over time, but that are not easy to analyse or predict. I guess I’m just using that notion, pretty non-technically, to talk about the kinds of topics in online discussion toward which discussions tend to naturally converge, no matter where they start. Things like Godwin’s Law are basically patterns of this kind that people have observed.

It’s pretty easy to list a few of these – creationism and its alternatives is one, and its power of strange attraction means that it tends to kill off a whole lot of potentially interesting arguments all over the web. Religion in general is another – and as I predicted, comments on my ‘novelty’ post yesterday tended to be attracted to that element of it rather than other elements. Politics similarly can act as a strange attractor, in this case a binary one, in which arguments suddenly converge to two polls rather than remaining more complex and nuanced than that.

I guess the challenge, if we seek to have really interesting conversations, is to be smart enough and strong enough to resist the strange attractors.

22/9/2010

Kuhn, Popper, Pirsig, Jesus and addiction to novelty

Filed under: — Bravus @ 12:06 pm

I’ve been reading Steve Fuller’s ‘Kuhn vs Popper’ over the past few days. He uses a debate between Thomas Kuhn (author of ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’) and Sir Karl Popper (author of ‘The Logic of Scientific Discovery, among other things) in London in 1965 as a way to look at the legacies within the philosophy of science of both men, and to claim that they have largely both been misunderstood. It’s a very interesting book – at least for us philosophy-of-science geeks.

I got to thinking about Kuhn’s view, in which long periods of ‘normal science’ in which scientists all work in quite conservatives ways within a particular paradigm are interrupted by short and quite dramatic ‘scientific revolutions’ (his ‘paradigm case’ is the Copernican revolution when the sun replaced the earth as centre of the solar system). In my mind it linked up with Robert Pirsig’s notions of static quality and Dynamic Quality (his capitalisation). Pirsig suggests that society proceeds with long periods of quite conservative thinking and practice interspersed with the actions of radical individuals whose actions possess Dynamic Quality.

In an example that particularly caught my attention (and that I may have talked about here before – heh, yes, 6 years ago) he says Jesus is an example of such a person. The Judeo-Christian line of faith had become stultified and Jesus shook it up. The church since then has largely been about maintaining those new insights, though in the process it has also become about maintaining the institutional power of the church. I guess it could be argued that Luther and perhaps Aquinas were similar radicals who shook things up – maybe even Paul, although probably he was within the same fluid period as Jesus though in slightly different directions.

Pirsig argues that both tendencies are necessary – and so does Kuhn. Dynamic Quality creates progress and static quality ‘ratchets’ it so that it is not lost and society moves forward. Scientific revolutions create progress, but science can’t operate effectively in an environment of constant revolution – normal science makes huge amounts of progress possible.

I suspect, since it is both more politically volatile and also something more people will feel qualified to comment on, that the role of Jesus and the church might dominate the discussion, but I hope people will also focus on my main point, which is coming:

It makes me wonder whether the fact that change has adopted such a rapid pace during the past couple of decades has blinded us to this necessary balance. Whether we’re addicted to novelty, to revolution, to Dynamic Change. And whether, given that, we might actually be holding back our potential in the very desire to accelerate it. A powerful engine is a heap of fun, but it’s fairly short-lived (pun intended) fun without great brakes.

I know – hard to believe it’s me calling for what sounds suspiciously like conservatism. On the other hand, calling for balance is pretty much ‘what I do’.

There’s a whole other strand of thinking about how Popper’s approach is actually much more radical than it is given credit for, and about different notions of progress under Popper’s ‘falsificationist’ view of the nature of science, but maybe that’s a discussion for another day.

Loud Music and ‘A Teenager’

Filed under: — Bravus @ 10:21 am

Two roughly related happenings. I came in on the bus this morning – too rainy to ride – and was listening to music loudly on my iPhone (using earphones). I was thinking that loud music is like super-sinful desserts: pleasurable on special occasions but unhealthy as a daily diet. But it’s definitely fun to at least have it loud enough to hear all of the complexity of what’s going on…

Then, yesterday, my phone rang in a meeting with colleagues. My ring tone is a very heavy little riff from Opeth (clickety to get the gist), and one of the people present said ‘Oh, you obviously have a teenager at home who has been messing with your phone!’ Was too busy answering it at the time to rebut that, but nup, it’s all me…

Really Excellent Article from Ross Gittins

Filed under: — Bravus @ 10:09 am

…on education, economy and politics in Australia. Hope the PM is reading…

http://www.nationaltimes.com.au/opinion/politics/the-word-we-ignore-at-our-peril-20100921-15l7o.html

School Holiday Traffic

Filed under: — Bravus @ 9:46 am

Driving in to work this morning, the traffic was blissfully sane. As it always is during school holidays. It occurred to me that, rather than spending billions on new roadworks to ease traffic congestion, simply getting the majority of the ‘school run’ off the road would make a very dramatic difference to Brisbane’s traffic flows.

There are two parts to a solution:

One is a massive public education campaign to get more kids travelling to school on foot, bicycle and public transport. It *is* safe in Brisbane, but many parents seem to think it’s not, so they drive them to school. An associated piece of this puzzle is reinstating lockers at school so kids don’t have to carry all their books to and fro each day – something that would also have significant spinal health benefits.

Another is to separate the two morning traffic ‘bubbles’ – the morning peak hour as those who need to be in the office at 9 am head to work and the parallel rush with school starting at 8:30 or 9. If school started at 10 or 10:30 and went a bit later students would learn as much (or more – recent research shows that teens learn better when they get to sleep in in the morning) but the traffic congestion would be eased considerably.

The latter step would also to some extent ‘force’ the former, since parents would be at work already and unable to drive kids to work.

I reckon the whole proposal has a lot of things going for it.

18/9/2010

Where’s the climate change?

Filed under: — Bravus @ 9:50 am

Well, it’s where it always was: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yDTUuckNHgc (YouTube video, about 9 min)

I’ve posted one of these ‘Climate Change Crocks of the Week’ before, and this one – from January 2010 – is just as informative. By way of update, 2010 is on track to be the warmest year ever, globally. Yes, even if today is cold where you are.

17/9/2010

Discussion is on-going…

Filed under: — Bravus @ 4:05 pm

… at this post from last week, so I thought I’d bump it to the top: http://www.bravus.com/blog/?p=1994

Should be an interesting summer

Filed under: — Bravus @ 3:52 pm

A long-range weather forecaster who has form on being correct is predicting 5 cyclones for Queensland this summer, with some coming further south than usual:

http://www.goldcoast.com.au/article/2010/09/17/256255_gold-coast-news.html

He uses sunspot activity as his data, but the weather bureau is also noting that we’re in a La Nina pattern which leads to warmer oceans and therefore more energy to form cyclones. Add that to 2010 being on track to be the warmest year ever, and the prediction is unsurprising.

Of course, it doesn’t really matter if it’s exactly 5 – any more than 1 is worrying. Guess it should make sure all the dams are overflowing and we avoid drought for a while longer, though…

16/9/2010

Awesome

Filed under: — Bravus @ 9:11 pm

http://www.theage.com.au/national/family-firsts-steve-fielding-loses-senate-seat-20100916-15ebv.html

Even BHP gets it, Tony

Filed under: — Bravus @ 9:44 am

http://www.theage.com.au/business/move-on-climate-bhp-billiton-urges-20100915-15cn4.html?autostart=1

13/9/2010

Good study habits – not what you’d think

Filed under: — Bravus @ 9:31 am

My good friend Mark pointed me in the direction of this interesting article on tips for studying:

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/07/health/views/07mind.html?_r=2

9/9/2010

Coming Out

Filed under: — Bravus @ 4:27 pm

I’ve been variously described as Christian and post-Christian by those who tell the truth, and as atheist by those who lie about me, but none of those labels really fit comfortably.

The best and most informative label about me is ‘postmodernist’, particularly in terms of Lyotard’s description of that disposition as ‘suspicion of grand narratives’. Grand narratives are stories that claim to contain the whole truth and to give meaning to everything in life. They can be religions or ideologies – Christianity is often presented as a grand narrative, and certainly something like Stalinism or Maoism is a grand narrative, but so are the stronger forms of laissez-faire capitalism, for example.

Postmodernism is the understanding that no narrative is complete, and that therefore their claims to completeness are false. Multiple narratives provide richer, more powerful, ‘truer’ descriptions of reality than single perspective, because every light you shine on reality throws shadows. Every direction you look from means there are parts you can’t see.

I believe in God, but God is the ultimate Reality, and is greater and deeper and wider than mere physical reality, so it’s even more true that any attempt to understand God requires multiple narratives rather than a single narrative. God is infinite, our knowledge is finite, and therefore our knowledge is a negligible fraction of the infinite reality of God. How dare we, then, claim that our knowledge is complete and correct enough to damn others whose knowledge is different?

Postmodernism for me, coupled with a sense of the sheer scope of the universe, which is also finite within the infinity of God, leads to both very humble claims on the part of my own narratives and a profound suspicion of the narratives offered by others. The more certain and absolute they claim their narratives to be, the more sure I am that those claims are false, since I believe all narratives are by necessity partial. (That last, yes, is a statement of faith, though based in logic and experience – don’t even try to claim that I’m making a grand narrative of it.)

It’s not a satisfying position for others, because it makes me very difficult to pigeonhole. Those who cannot conceive of living without exclusive allegiance to one specific grand narrative often project that onto me, and assume that I *really* subscribe to one, but am hiding that for rhetorical purposes. But I really, really don’t: all narratives can be deconstructed in terms of their own internal logic.

Jimi

Filed under: — Bravus @ 1:43 pm

One part of my job is serving on the panels at the ‘confirmation’ sessions for PhD and MPhil students. After they’ve been here for about a third of their time and planned their study, they present an outline of the research, and a panel of 3 academics gives them feedback and support on it, and decides whether they’re ready to proceed with their research. It’s enjoyable because I learn about lots of interesting research projects from lots of interesting people.

Jimi Bursaw’s confirmation for his MPhil is today, and he made these cool posters to promote it: