UNSW vs NTEU dispute becomes ugly as students turned into political prawns

Yesterday morning I found out that members of the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) would be refusing to release student end of semester course marks as part of their ongoing dispute over pay and conditions with the University of New South Wales. Yesterday afternoon UNSW responded by issuing a refusal to pay any staff member who takes part it the ban on exam results. The Sydney Morning Herald reports on the issue here.

The biggest problem with refusing to release marks is that the main impact of this action will affect students far more than it effects the university. This step has seen students become political prawns in a petty dispute. While I support the right for members of the union to strike, and I certainly believe in their cause I do not see how bringing students into the crossfire is going to get the staff onside with anyone. However, I believe the actions in response by University management will only seek to inflame the situation further. Tit for tat is never a good way to resolve conflict.

If the staff really wanted to force the university’s hand they would place a ban on submitting papers and attending conferences. This would see a far bigger impact on the university’s reputation, standing and income. I do not believe that the NTEU would even consider this course of action because more than any lost income the action would directly affect the standing of its own members within the global academic community. But surely that is what industrial action is about, standing up for what you believe in, putting your reputation and standing on the line? Rather than using students as cheap political ammo the NTEU should focus on where it hurts, research output.

A Relaxing Day Out – Pindar Cave Hike

On Sunday I went with the University Outdoor’s Club on a hike to Pindar Cave in the Brisbane Water National Park just south of Gosford.

There are some good notes about the track here.

Overall the walk was not too challenging, it is 14km and we completed the hike in 5 hours 40 minutes which included three stops for morning tea, an extra long lunch, and me being smacked in the eye by a swinging tree branch. With the exception of a 100 vertical metre climb at the start of the track the route is relatively flat and easy going. The only caveat to this is in places the track is very narrow and almost overgrown which just adds to the fun.

Problems with NCEA continue eight years after its introduction

Last week the Otago Daily Times ran an opinion piece on the problems of using NCEA results to rank students for entrance to university programmes.

Here lies a peculiar problem relating to assessment in our schools. Assessment under NCEA is standards-based. Student attainment is measured against objective standards rather than against each other.

For those of us who teach NCEA, it is obvious there are major anomalies in the results generated under this system. The pass rates for work marked internally are usually much higher than for external assessments, usually done under exam conditions. There are also significant discrepancies in pass rates for different subjects and for different units within a subject.

Any use of NCEA marks for entrance to university will need to come from externally assessed units only. This is the only way to guarantee a fair comparison between students.

It is ridiculous to try to equate a unit of knowledge in physics with a unit of knowledge in economics or graphics, in terms of difficulty. Yet the results this system generates are going to become very important in determining whether a student gains entry to a tertiary course.

This problem is not an issue with NCEA, it is a factor in any education system with different subjects. The easiest way to deal with this is have prerequisites for programmes that require certain subjects. For instance to get into a Bachelor of Science you would need a certain number of credits from 3 of the following subjects: Calculus, Statistics, Biology, Chemistry, Physics. Furthermore to get into a major in biology you would need a minimum number of credits in year 13 biology. This is very similar to how the old Bursary system used to work and can be easily reintroduced.

To rank students a system similar to that of a grade point average can be used where Achieved = 1, Merit = 2, Excellence = 3 this is summed and then divided by the total number of credits available for that subject – typically 24, but if you excluded internal assessments it will be less. Using this system would encourage all students and schools to teach the full course load to students rather than selectively excluding some units of work like they currently do.

The ODT article continues with this example:

Here’s a simple illustration of the problem faced by a university admissions officer. Two prospective students apply for entry to a degree. One candidate has 2 excellences, 2 merits, 10 achieved and 6 not achieved in his final results. The other pupil has 3 merits and 17 achieved in her results. Who is the superior candidate?

Under a simple GPA system the first student would score:

(2 * 3 + 2 * 2+ 10)/20 = 20/20 = 1

The second student would score:

(3 * 2 + 17)/20 = 23/20 = 1.15

Under this simple GPA system the second student would be ranked superior to the first student. I believe that this is a fair system, even though on initial look the first student had scored two excellence marks they had also failed 6 credits which is over 25% of the marks available, whereas the second student had passed all units of credits just not with any form of distinction.

NCEA is fundamentally flawed in that it does not allocate marks to students and instead just consists of four buckets that students are classified into. This means that any form of ranking among these buckets will be controversial and there will always been anomalies where one very good student will miss out and another not so good one will scrape through. But this is the unfortunate nature of the beast that is NCEA and until someone has the vision and the willingness to fix the madness these problems will continue.

Sydney Biennale

Today I went to the 17th Biennale of Sydney. I had planned to go when it opened but I kept on putting it off when I got to the weekend as I was lazy, or the weather was bad or I was busy with other events. But this morning I woke up and instead of being lazy I forced myself down to Circular Quay and onto the ferry to Cockatoo Island.

Arriving at Cockatoo Island on an overcast day brings with it an even greater feeling of mystery. In the past Cockatoo Island has been used as a prison and as a naval shipyard. It is said to have ghosts on it and that is something you can certainly feel in the air as you step onto the land. The exhibitions of the Biennale have been set up within the hundred or so buildings scattered about the island. There is a map in the guidebook of where each piece of art is but there is no set route around the island you are left to your own devices to explore both the art work and the Island.

A lot of the art is audio/visual consisting of short (and some long) films or a combination of sculpture and projected video. The best installation of this type was a circular room with video projected in 360 degrees. In addition to these installations there was also your more traditional modern art consisting of sculpture and a combination of post-modern objects mixed with everyday life.

In addition to Cockatoo Island there are a number of other galleries around the city with installations as part of the Biennale. I got off the ferry back into the city at Shed 2/3 and after that I walked through to the Museum of Contemporary Art. Sometime before the event ends I will need to head through the Opera House and the rest of galleries to see the rest of exhibition.

Replacing Kevin Rudd as Australian PM a bad move for the long term of the ALP

In a little over an hour it is about 95% likely that Australian PM Kevin Rudd will be replaced by deputy Julia Gillard. This will see Julia Gillard becoming Australia’s first female Prime Minister.

While it is a historic moment for Australia to have its first female Prime Minister it is a terrible move for democracy and for the reputation of the ALP in general.

Firstly, Democracy. Kevin Rudd was elected by the people as the leader of the country. Sure technically he was elected by members of the Labor Party to be their leader and then Labor was elected, but the reality of it is at the election he put his face forward as Kevin 07 and the election became a cult of personality which the voters endorsed. So as much as the election in 2007 was a Labor win it was also a Kevin Rudd win. If anyone should have the ability to vote out Labor and Kevin Rudd it should be the voters not just the caucus MPs.

Second, the reputation of the ALP. For the last few years Kevin Rudd has been the most popular Prime Minister in Australia’s history only in the last few months and weeks has things start to go wrong. All governments experience moments of popularity and moments of dislike by the general population. However, the instant that the gloss has come off Kevin 07 factions within the ALP have moved to get him dumped and this has completely undermined his leadership. The worst thing about Julia Gillard becoming the Prime Minister is time and again she has said that she does not want the role. This is not her saying that for political stability it has been clear that she genuinely meant it, even last night she did not look happy that she was contesting the spill this morning rather that she had been forced into it.

What this all shows is that the internal workings of the ALP have absolute contempt for the general population. They believe that because Kevin Rudd is not pushing their agenda to the letter of what they expect they can replace him with a puppet who will. Furthermore this sets a very bad precedent for the leadership of the ALP, essentially what this move is showing is in order to lead the ALP you must be popular and the instant you begin to hit a storm you will be rolled. This isn’t going to bring stability to the party or seek out the right kind of candidates for the top job.

Finally whatever the outcome of this mornings vote I hope that the Liberal Party moves a vote of confidence against the government and the government loses confidence and election is forced immediately. Julia Gillard needs to face the voters of the general public, not MPs and background lobbyists.

The Chaser’s The Blow Parade

I have just finished listening to the five episodes of The Chaser’s new radio show The Blow Parade. While the short series is now finished you can buy the episodes and additional disk of full length songs from the ABC Shop.

I sure hope The Chaser boys do another series, these days radio is a rather dead medium with the exception of being stuck in traffic. However, this series shows that you can still have a lot of fun with comedy without needing visuals. The whole premise of the series is based on a mockumentary of various bands and ages of music.  Each episode focuses on the life of a different fake band which is styled on an actual real band.

The Five Episodes/Bands were:

  • Luke Deuteronomy – Pink Floyd
  • Egg Zagar – Led Zeppelin
  • The Fatcocks – The Clash
  • Me Me Me – U2
  • Funkalicious – The Jackson Five

I have no real clear winner for favourite episode, the first episode Luke  Deuteronomy was great, however Egg Zagar being killed by a beached whale was rather fantastic as well, not to mention Me Me Me’s Tuesday Slightly Inconvenient Tuesday.

The video clip from Good News Week below shows just how brilliant The Chaser are at good comedy.

Racism has no place in modern society

Over the last week and a bit racism has been a key theme in the Australian media after Andrew Johns called a league player a “black c***” followed a few days later by an AFL coach calling aboriginal players “cannibals”.

On Friday morning’s Sunrise TV show there was a discussion about racism and they gave the dictionary definition of racism as:

“The belief that each race has distinct and intrinsic attributes; The belief that one race is superior to all others”

Now I am not of the politically correct belief that any comments about any race is instantly racism. In fact I believe there are differences between races, these have developed as cultural differences in some cases genetic differences based on the local world in which people have lived over a long period of time (a good study of this is Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs and Steel). However, these differences do not make one race superior to another instead it makes us different, in exactly the same way that as humans we are all unique and special just like everyone else.

What is more interesting is looking at the excuses people make for making racist remarks. In the case of Andrew Johns his excuse was that he was merely rallying the troops with a pep talk. In the ARL case it was brushed aside as merely being an in-joke.

Closer to home someone I know wrote a blog post the other day in which they referred to “gweilous”. I have been around enough south east asian friends to recognise that as an extremely offensive racist comment towards “white people”, in fact Urban Dictionary* defines it as this:

Gweilo is Cantonese. It translates as ‘Ghost Man’ and is used to describe a Caucasian foreigner.
Although most of China is familiar with this word only Cantonese speakers use it as a derogative way of describing a white person.
It is considered highly offensive in Mandarin China and with some white people.

When I asked the author of the blog if they knew the meaning of that word they replied that they did and the reason why they had chosen to use it was because they were in a bad mood. That begs a question, is a bad mood a good enough excuse to use foul language? I think not.

There are always times when we lose our cool and say things that we regret at a later date but there are certain words that no matter how bad a mood you are in you are fully aware of the meaning of and there is simply no excuse for the use of.

In the case of Andrew Johns he lost two coaching jobs as a fall out from his comments, so far the ARL coach has kept their job, and the blog post was taken down – with me being accused of over analysing things.

Is taking offensive at racist comments an overreaction? Or should we take offence more often to stamp out racism?

*I know Urban Dictionary is not a real dictionary but it was the clearest, simplest and best definition I could find.

Money is more important that freedom

A gem of a comment from NZ Prime Minister John Key:

“We fully believe in the freedom of speech and freedom of rights in this country. I’d hate to see that overshadow what has been a growing and developing relationship.”

The comment was made in response to a protest by Green Party leader Dr Russel Norman where a Chinese Security Detail took a Tibetan Flag from him and roughed him up a little. The reality if Russel Norman probably did get a little close for comfort of some of the security guards.

However, to make a statement that we care about our own rights and freedoms but not enough to let it overshadow the money we are making through economic relationships with a dictatorship is rather concerning. I recognise it is not our place to dictate policy in other countries and we would not expect other countries to dictate policy to us, but, to completely ignore and not mention the extreme human rights abuses that occur in China in the name of ensuring free trade is rather concerning. Good treatment of workers, fair pay, and respecting human rights should be a condition of any free trade agreement not something to ignore as they could overshadow it.

The importance of being correctly prepared for the bush

Two weekends ago I was hiking with two friends in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. The route we had planned to do was Katoomba to Mt Solitary to Wentworth Falls a little over 20km and two days. Unfortunately a member of our party was bitten by a Red Back Spider late on Saturday afternoon and went into anaphylactic shock and had to be helicopter lifted out of the bush on Sunday morning.

Mt Solitary we were camped on ridge in right of this photo

In the past I have at times been criticised for carrying too much first aid and related emergency gear into the bush making my pack often a few kilograms heaver than others. This was the first time I have ever been in serious strife and I am so thankful for having that extra gear with me.

Going into the bush on Saturday had been the same routine as almost every other hike I have done. We started a little later than I had hoped and this cut into the amount of time we had to stop for food and photos. By late Saturday afternoon we had about 1.5 hours of track to cover in a little over an hour before we lost the light unfortunately as we made our final push towards the top of Mt Solitary we began to rapidly lose light and it was looking touch and go if we would make the camp site before sunset. At around this time one of my mates rapidly had all the colour drop from their face and became very fatigued. Unaware of any spider bite and thinking that they had exhaustion setting in we decided to turn back from the summit and go back to a camp site back up the track.

Once we arrived at the camp site we set up camp and cooked dinner as my friend had their condition worsen – they went freezing cold and at this stage we were thinking they had someone contracted a mild dose of hypothermia – nothing more than some hot food and a little bit of sleep could cure. Things worsened around 5am when I was awoken by my ill friend who was shaking and had begun vomiting – hardly a nice situation to be woken to in the dark of a tent in the middle of nowhere. Once daylight hit they also realised that they could hardly see (everything was spinning), couldn’t walk and was going downhill very fast.

It was a very tough decision deciding to call 000 and request a helicopter but I am so thankful in hindsight that I did (at the time we were still thinking that it was hypothermia). I walked a few meters up the side of the hill to get signal and called. Having to explain where you are exactly in the bush is a very hard task. First the operator kept asking me where the nearest suburb and road was so they could send an ambulance. Finally I managed to get the message across that we were in the bush over 6km as the crow flies from the nearest road and there was no way my mate could be walked or carried out.

From there it was a case of explaining exactly where in a mountain range of over 1 million square kilometers we were. I was thankful that I had a map of the track we were on and was able to explain that we were at the eastern end of the ridge between ruined castle and the knife edge (around 1km square area). At this point another group of hikers passed by with a gps and was able to give the exact location (within 200m). From there the helicopter took under an hour to find us and saw us on their second pass thanks to a genius idea from the passing hikers to use our emergency blanket as a very large flag to wave at the passing helicopter. From there my friend was airlifted to hospital and the remaining party had to carry out their gear in addition to our own. We were in such a hurry that we managed to cover 4 hours of track in a little over 1.5 hours.

The good news two weeks on is my friend has recovered well, it has taken some time for them to come completely right but in hindsight I am so glad that they are alive. In addition to this I am so glad that I had an emergency blanket with me to signal the helicopter with, maps to narrow down exactly where we were, the gps of the passing group of hikers, warm clothes to wrap around my friend to lift their core body temperature. For me I feel vindicated in carrying the extra kilo or so of weight and it also is a timely reminder of even experienced people can rapidly find themselves in trouble when things out of your control take over the situation. It is a situation I hope to never find myself in again, but has not halted my love of the bush for one second.

Katoomba Falls – early on in the hike

The Three Sisters - early on in the hike

Three Sisters – early on in the hike

We were located on this ridge line here, zoom out to see how far from civilization we were:

View Larger Map

Australian Ministry of Truth Continues Feeble Attempts to Censor the Internet

The SMH today is reporting that Inner Party member Conroy is secretly pushing on with plans to filter the Australian internet.

The federal government is hiding controversial plans to force ISPs to store internet activity of all Australian internet users – regardless of whether they have been suspected of wrongdoing – for law-enforcement agencies to access.

The next thing they will try is for everyone in the country to wear a GPS tracker so we always know where people walk, drive, train or cycle so that we can fine them when they jaywalk or fail to indicate.

As every day goes by it seems the Rudd government is becoming more and more successful at achieving the impossible – losing the next election. For me being a computer geek all it means is that I am much more aware of my actions online and wherever possible I am using encryption for data transfer. It is not an argument about having nothing to hide and therefore needing no privacy. It is a matter that the government wants to data mine our every single action, watch our every single step and monitor every little thing we do in our lives.

I have no issue with sharing my browsing habits with people who I opt to share it with; more often than not I opt into anonymous data sharing of software usage. However, this is not what the government intends, what the government intends is complete mind control of its population. This is not censorship, censorship is a public list of banned material and the reason why they are banned which is debatable in court, this is well beyond censorship and amounts of thought control. The government is not telling you what is blocked, why it is blocked, or any way of being able to appeal sites being blocked. All in all it is a very scary idea that you would expect from a mad dictator not a democratically elected government.