Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Subject of the Queen

Buried at the end of the Wall Street Journal article, Bank of Canada boss Mark Carney picked as Bank of England governor, as reprinted in The Australian, was a most interesting quote:
He has links to Britain. He studied at Oxford University in the early 1990s and did a stint in Goldman's London office. His wife is English and his four children have dual British-Canadian citizenship. Mr Osborne noted Monday that as a Canadian, Mr Carney is a subject of Queen Elizabeth II.
I suppose that that makes it all ok then for the UK to appoint a Canadian. I would have been interested to the reaction in the Australian press if a similar comment had been made about an Australian citizen.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Zero Degrees of Empathy

The review by Miriam Cosic of Zero Degrees of Empathy makes me want to go out and buy the book. Her final quote from British historian Ian Kershaw is striking:
The path to Auschwitz was paved with indifference.

Jeff Wall

I enjoyed the Jeff Wall exhibition at the Art Gallery of Western Australia. Took my son, Ben, along and he too was intrigued by the scale and composition of the photographs.

Forget Jesus

In A Universe from Nothing Lawrence Krauss writes:
So, forget Jesus. The stars died so that you could be here today.
Deep, meaningful, and amusing!

Friday, 7 September 2012

Love and the lonely astronaut

Reading the Australian's review of Love had me intrigued. Definitely will have to watch this soon, maybe on AppleTV.

Sunday, 29 July 2012

Update: Australian Contemporary Architecture

One to watch: Andrew Piva of b.e. Architecture, featured in The Weekend Australian of July 28-29, 2012, is designing some very nice houses ...

Tracking Real Estate prices: part 5

Listed at $2.75-2.85 million in February 2011, 3/113 Forrest Street, Peppermint Grove, is now listed as "from $2.4 million".

Thursday, 12 July 2012

High Court rules against Government funding of school chaplains

An update to Practicing atheism: the High Court in Australia rules against Government funding of school chaplains. The most sensible response to this ruling was from Greens Leader Christine Milne, who said
...funding should go instead towards employing counsellors and student support staff. Schools across Australia need the resources to employ properly qualified counsellors, student support officers and other non-teaching staff to help students through difficult times.
Peter James, COE of Scripture Union Queensland said:
Even though that model might be invalid, it does not keep chaplains from supporting school communities. Instead, it means that a new funding model is needed.
to which one of the respondents wrote:
Like maybe the churches/synagogues/mosques paying for their own proselytizing?
Hear, hear!

Update May 2014: It is most disappointing to see that the Abbott Government has removed the funding for counsellors. Sounds like time for another High Court challenge ...

Monday, 18 June 2012

Good Coffee in Paris

In case Sips in the city becomes subscriber only, I've recorded their recommendations for good coffee in Paris:
  • Alto Cafe, a collection of mobile trucks in strategic sites selling surprisingly good Italian-style drinks.
  • Australian-born Arnephy is the star barista at Cafe Lomi.
  • Le Bal Cafe is an Anglo-style cafe in a recently opened exhibition space in the 18th arrondissement devoted to photography and film.
  • At Bistro Volnay, in the 2nd arrondissement, the food, wine, service (and coffee) all meet the same high standards at a reasonable price.
  • Sugarplum Cake Shop on rue du Cardinal Lemoine in the 5th arrondissement, dedicated to American-style cakes, has also chosen Lomi beans for its filtered coffee.
  • Coutume Cafe has made a big splash in the otherwise sedate 7th arrondissement, in a high-ceilinged space, a cross between a Parisian apartment and a coffee laboratory, painted all in white except for walls that have been stripped. Coutume's owners buy the green beans directly from coffee-producing countries and roast them on the premises.
  • KB Cafe Shop (formerly Kooka Boora) on the fashionable rue des Martyrs in the 9th arrondissement.

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Featured mathematicians

Two mathematicians recently featured in The Australian:
  • Alan Joyce from Qantas has a BApplSc(Phy)(Math)(Hons) from Trinity College Dublin;
  • Greek neo-Nazi leader Nikolaos Michaloliakos, described as a "mathematician with a criminal record"

Seven big Australians

Seven big Australians by Michelle Rowe lists some places to try when I'm in London, time permitting.
  • Brett Graham: The Ledbury: Two-Michelin-starred Notting Hill restaurant specialising in French classics with a modern twist
  • Bill Granger, Granger & Co: strong Aussie flavour, with airy interiors and all-day casual dining featuring many of his signature dishes alongside more English fare, such as a Sunday roast beef rib with root vegies
  • David Thompson, Nahm: Thai restaurant located in The Halkin hotel in Belgravia district
  • Greg Malouf, Petersham Nurseries Cafe: Garden centre restaurant at the foot of south London's Richmond Hill. A dirt-floor greenhouse doubles as the main dining room, with guests perched on mismatched chairs around antique tables decorated with potted plants. A stone's throw from Kew Gardens and Hampton Court, Petersham is the perfect lunch spot from which to embark on a scenic afternoon stroll
  • Shelagh Ryan, Salvation Jane: Lantana cafe in Fitzrovia is sister outlet of Salvation Jane in Shoreditch, east London. Offers an Australian cafe-style breakfast and lunch menu, plus share plates, beer, wine and cocktails of an evening. As with Lantana, the coffees are a standout
  • Trish Hilferty, The Canton Arms: Atmospheric pub with quirky menus in Stockwell
  • Paul Merrony, Giaconda Dining Room: No-frills neighbourhood bistro on Denmark Street with its bare wooden tables, bentwood chairs and French-influenced menus reflecting Merrony's classic training
Breakfasts:
  • Granger & Co in Notting Hill for a full Aussie breakfast
  • Princi in Soho, for the green olive bread sticks, pastries and espresso. Try Saturday before shopping in the West End
  • The Wolseley for an impeccable full English breakfast. Try the eggs benedict
  • Tina We Salute You is a quirky, humming little place in Dalston. Fantastic coffee and a simple but excellent menu, with all the cakes made by one of the owners
  • E5 Bakehouse, an artisan bakery and cafe in east London, which has the best sourdough bread.
  • Bar Bruno in Soho for eggs and bacon, and a mug of builder's tea
  • Towpath cafe beside Regent's Canal. Very cool
Casual Lunch:
  • Franco Manca in Chiswick for great pizza [made from slow-rising sourdough]
  • Dock Kitchen for Stevie Parle's global home cooking and outdoor barbecue
  • Tom Pemberton's strictly British Hereford Road with its excellent-value set lunch menu
  • Petersham Nurseries Cafe, now with Greg Malouf, gives you a chance to relax in the summer sun, if it's out
  • Barrafina, a bustling tapas bar in Soho that serves simple dishes like sardines a la plancha and cooked-to-order jamon and spinach tortilla
  • Dock Kitchen, where talented young chef Stevie Parle uses impeccable ingredients with some lovely Middle Eastern touches
  • Morito at Exmouth Market in Clerkenwell: a small tapas bar from the people who run Moro, the more formal Spanish restaurant next door. Best dishes are the pork belly, beetroot humous and homemade sourdough bread
  • Koya Japanese Udon in Frith Street, Soho. Fantastic house-made noodles, and the specials board is genius
  • The original Franco Manca pizza place, just off Electric Avenue, Brixton
Dinner:
  • Zuma in Knightsbridge [for Japanese cuisine]
  • River Cafe in Hammersmith. The food is rigorously seasonal, the ingredients impeccable and the room and service flawless
  • Dinner by Heston Blumenthal in the Mandarin Oriental. The meat fruit, with mandarin, chicken liver parfait and grilled bread, is wonderful
  • The Ledbury. Brett is an Australian chef at his very best
  • Pollen Street Social in Mayfair provides Michelin-starred food without the formality and stuffiness of a fine-dining restaurant
  • Quo Vadis, in Soho: modern British by Jeremy Lee
  • La Petite Maison in Mayfair
To do:
  • Check out Sir John Soane's Museum and Geffrye Museum
  • Walk up Primrose Hill for a London vista
  • An Oyster Card is a must for public transport.
  • Travel the city on a Barclays bike.

Thursday, 31 May 2012

Tracking Real Estate prices: part 4

Following on from part 2, it really is amusing to follow the pricing of a single property over time. Currently the asking price for 66A Excelsior Street is $1,495,000, a drop of 25% in 18 months!

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Who guards the guardians?

Glyn Davis's article Who guards the guardians? makes excellent reading. Actually, it is impressive that this article even appeared in The Australian. Two quotes I enjoyed:
  • The Australian is entitled to express its opinion. It is free to run on consecutive days a tenuous and trivial claim to attack an academic critic. Readers in turn must judge for themselves the credibility of The Australian’s report. They may wonder, as I do, about the fairness of the coverage or the pattern of personal attacks on those who express views unacceptable to editorial writers. It seems a sad irony when media freedom is defended through such means.
  • We should judge the contribution of academic critics by the quality of their analysis and validity of the evidence they provide. One might say the same about editorials in The Australian.
Hear, hear!

Monday, 28 May 2012

The marvels of the Marais

I enjoyed John Baxter's article on The marvels of the Marais. Some highlights:
  • From a wall in tiny Place Igor Stravinsky, a white face six storeys high rolls its eyes and holds a finger to enormous lips. A work by the street artist Jean-Francois Perroy, aka Jef Aerosol;
  • A sign outside the confectionery Les Paris Gourmandes on Rue des Archives says they sell coucougnettes (testicles);
  • The Marais is a mecca of second-hand stores, from designerwear at Coiffeur Vintage and Plus que Parfait to bargain hunting at Kiliwatch and the more chaotic, bazaar-style offering at Aux Comptoirs du Chineurs;
  • Free'p'Star is Paris's most famous stop for vintage lovers. A poster on its door advertises Decors de Bordels, an exhibition of brothel photos, showing opposite the old premises of Le Chabanais, once Paris's most luxurious whorehouse;
  • L'As du Fallafel is supposed to serve the best falafel in Paris;
  • Chez Marianne for taster plates of Moroccan-style falafel, stuffed peppers, hummus, aubergine caviar, tzatziki, tarama and a surprising combination of artichoke heart with orange peel, all served by the actual Marianne.

Monday, 21 May 2012

The Tardis?

Most interesting house, designed by David Smith, at 52 Smyth Road, Shenton Park, just around the corner from my place:




Good Coffee in NYC

Nice article entitled Bright lights, flat whites on Australian-style cafes in NYC. Check out:

  • Cafe Grumpy: 13 Essex St, Lower East Side, Manhattan (and other locations)
  • Glass Shop: 766 Classon Ave, Crown Heights, Brooklyn
  • Laughing Man: 184 Duane St, Tribeca, Manhattan
  • Pie Face: 1691 Broadway, Midtown, Manhattan
  • Toby's Estate: 125 North 6Th St, Williamsburg, Brooklyn

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Good Coffee in Singapore

It used to be difficult to get good coffee in Singapore. Ex-pat Australians are trying to change that. In Sips and the city the following cafes are recommended:
Eight independent cafes (including Smitten, Jimmy Monkey and Oriole), meanwhile, have joined forces to promote their businesses. Their Be Disloyal cards are a play on the loyalty cards usually offered by coffee shops. Sample a coffee from each cafe and you'll get your ninth free. I must try them out on my next visit to Singapore.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Teaching using Computer Algebra Systems

Many academics and researchers get annoyed when students use computer algebra systems (CAS) such as Mathematica to evaluate simple integrals that they maintain should be done by hand. The question I ask is "At what point do you expect your students to switch over to using a computer?". Most mathematical examples are artificial in that closed-form expressions exist. However, in nearly any real problem, this is not the case.

Aside: see Closed-form expressionClosed forms: What they are and why they matter, and What is a Closed-Form Number?

I learnt mathematics using slide rules and tables, then calculators, then computers, then CAS. This is a useful and valid progression, but not one that everyone should have to go through. I feel that the only way true progress in teaching and learning can be made is if not all students have to learn the set of special rules (algorithms) for topics such as integration, that are better done by a CAS anyway. If we had to do calculus using Newton's geometrical constructs then progress would be very slow.

The real question is "what are the essential tools and lessons?". To me, deep understanding of the meaning of differentiation and integration ("mathematically" and "physically") is far more important than knowing how to compute a specific integral, or solving a particular differential equation.

Many people feel that reliance on a CAS means that students can't do calculus by hand and hence the really don't understand what's going on, just how to get the answer by computer. Calculus concepts are subtle. However, just knowing the mechanics of computing an integral or derivative does not imply understanding.

I believe that it is possible to have true understanding without knowing how to do algorithmic computation (see also Linear independence vs determinants), and so proper integration of CAS into mathematics courses is not only advisable, it is essential.

In a future world without computers, if all these human computational skills have been lost then it could take a long time to recover or re-discover them. In 1981, because of my physics background and experience using slide rules and tables, I was asked to navigate on a yacht sailing from Middle Harbour, Sydney, to Lord Howe Island. Learning how to use a sextant and reading GMT tables, with interpolation and hand computation, was straightforward. If there was no global GPS, I could survive again with these instruments, so the skills I learnt were not wasted. However, that still does not mean that everyone needs to have such skills.

Grammar and Style

This morning I had an interesting discussion (argument?) over breakfast with Carlo Margio about the use of an apostrophe in abbreviations. I argued that an apostrophe was not required for plurals of abbreviations, such as CDs, whereas Carlo insisted it was, and that this was a valid style choice.

Carlo considers the NY Times the final word on most style issues and, after breakfast, he looked it up, finding the following FAQ: Why Do Plural Abbreviations Have an Apostrophe?. The key issue here is the use of an apostrophe in the plural of abbreviations that include periods. So, I should use apostrophes for abbreviations that include period; except that I prefer PhD and BSc to Ph.D. and B.Sc. anyway, and I've been doing away with unnecessary periods (and apostrophes) for a long time now.

The "physics convention" for acronyms (e.g. the Phys. Rev. style) includes no punctuation, which I have always liked. However, they permit 's for abbreviations:
To form the plural of numbers add s (1980s), to symbols add 's (A's), and to abbreviations add 's or s (NMR's or NMRs).
I strongly prefer NMRs to NMR's.

I find some style choices to be more sensible than others. Style choice depends upon your favo(u)rite flavo(u)r of English. I strongly prefer the American (Harvard)—and Oxford—use of serial commas to the Times UK (+Australian) convention. And I have always been bothered by the following two style and grammar choices:
  1. The use of an preceding words beginning with h;
  2. The need for a common-gender singular pronoun.
To adress these in turn:

1. The case for a: Consider constructs such as 
"Surprisingly this is an hypothesis..."
"If you are doing a history subject, or tackling a question in any subject that has an historical dimension...".
It should be clear that the use of an to precede words beginning with h is rather clumsy. Surely, if the h is not silent then one should use a instead of an?

Consider the following (taken from The Decline of Grammar by Geoffrey Nunberg):
It should be a source of satisfaction that the grammar books of a hundred years hence will be decrying to good effect the tendency to misuse literally, or to confuse imply and infer.
I do not think that "...an hundred..." would read better. See also the Elegant Variation and All That by Jesse Sheidlower.

2. The case for they: I quote Neville March Hunnings from the (UK) Times of September 17, 1998:
A common-gender singular pronoun now needs an elegant solution. "Him/her" and "s/he" are ugly; "him" or "her" is cumbersome. On the other hand, "they" has a respectable grammatical precedent. We no longer object to an individual being addressed as "you" rather than "thou". Why not "they" instead of "s/he"?
UPDATE: Stephen Fry says it better than me: Kinetic Typography - Language

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Top ten innovative archival documentaries

SBS's list of top ten innovative archival documentaries is interesting and eclectic. When I get some spare time I'll view these ...

The status of teachers

In raise status of teachers, add some authority and watch our students blossom, Frank Furedi argues that
Many of the universities I visit now provide remedial courses for their new intake of undergraduates to compensate for their knowledge deficit.
Certainly this true at UWA. The article is worth reading in full, but here are some selected quotes, with my added emphasis:
The most important cultural influence on children's school performance is the expectation their teachers, parents and communities communicate towards them. The reason East Asian school systems tend to outperform Anglo-American ones is not that they have a superb strategy for mentoring or training teachers, but because they perform within a culture of high expectation. In these societies, schools expect all children to take their studies seriously. As a result, their work rate is significantly higher than those of their peers in Western societies. Not surprisingly, high standards of performance often co-exist with equity.
A serious commitment to the value of education is far more important than any pedagogic system or technique. That is why children from Hong Kong, China and Korea outperform their Western peers even when they attend schools in Australia, the US or Europe.
Anglo-American pedagogy has embraced an anti-academic and anti-intellectual ethos: Accordingly the main objective of schools is to motivate youngsters, rather than drive the acquisition of knowledge. One of the hallmarks of this focus is the devaluation of academic subject-based learning. Opponents of subject-based teaching enthuse about motivating children through engaging them in broad themes and projects. In reality, the shift from academic subject-based teaching is underpinned by a dogma of low expectations that decries such education as elitist and too abstract.
..."compartmentalised" subjects—mathematics, history, biology—are the intellectual foundation for real education. Indeed, one of the symptoms of educational malaise in English-speaking societies is the lack of affirmation for subject-based education.
Occasionally, the Grattan report recognises the key role of subject-based education. For example, it notes that a strong focus on subject content is responsible for Singaporeans' success in mathematics. In Singapore, mathematics university graduates actually teach their subject to young people! Subject-based education is not simply the most effective way of transmitting the intellectual and cultural legacy of a community. It is through mastering an academic subject that a teacher acquires authority in the classroom.
The current trend towards "broadening education" and diminishing the role of academic subjects devalues the professional status of teachers, whose authority rests on their mastery of a particular subject. Without this intellectual foundation they have to rely on gimmicks and a variety of class management skills. But motivational techniques do not compensate for the impact intellectual authority makes on a classroom.
In Australia a regrettable erosion of the professional status of teachers is intimately connected to school performance. It also undermines the appeal the profession has for potential recruits. Is it any surprise that bright young graduates are less inclined to view teaching as their profession of choice? Shortages of properly educated maths and science teachers in Australian schools emphasise the need to enhance the status and authority of this important profession. Raising the status of teachers is the first step towards promoting a culture of high expectations in the classroom. Such a step tells us and our children that we take education very seriously.

Academics v Administrators

In push for academic promotion may cost us more than we gain Peter van Onselen makes the case that
Dean and head of school positions should jettison their administrative responsibilities, instead operating as board positions. This would free those academics to teach and conduct research in a way that they currently cannot. School and faculty managers should take over many of the administrative responsibilities academics currently have, creating a similar splitting up of responsibilities as occurs between the chairman of a board and the company's chief executive. 
With any luck increased responsibilities for such professional administrators would increase the talent pool prepared to embark on such a career. 
A lot more work would need to be done to make such a change of management viable. But it is a worthy restructure to consider.

Monday, 19 March 2012

6 Mitchell Street

In 1964 my family moved from East Cannington to 6 Mitchell Street Maylands (now part of Mount Lawley). Presently for sale, it is described as having a sublime location within walking distance to CBD—a little optimistic, I think—at the "fantastic price" of $1,450,000.





The real estate agents write:
This large double-storey character home set on 1012sqm and located in the sought-after Mt Lawley/East Perth river precinct is the perfect family home. 
Offering a flexible floor- plan with both formal and informal living areas, plus glimpses of both the river and city skyline from the upper level. There is a large, private front verandah on which you can sit with a cup of tea and a large covered terrace at the rear of the home overlooking the lap pool (the pool is a combination of lap and leisure pool). 
It also has wonderful access to the Graham Farmer freeway, CBD and Claisebrook Cove where you will find all manner of restaurants, café’s and bars overlooking the beautiful Swan River. Banks Reserve, beautiful parkland on the river, is a 2 minute walk with cycleways and walkways all along the river. Many local residents take the opportunity to walk to work from here. 
This is a lovely quiet area in which to live.

Sistine Chapel

It takes some time to load, but the Vatican's virtual Sistine Chapel is quite impressive.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Inner-city Sydney galleries

Galleries on the go featured some galleries to visit the next time I'm in Sydney:
The article led me to the Hg2 and their iPhone app, which I ended up buying.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Growler

First saw a 'growler' at the Botannical in Melbourne. They had the Colonial Growler from Colonial Brewing Margaret River, which surprised (and impressed) me. It is disappointing that there is only limited availability in WA.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Linear independence vs determinants

When writing my blog post on threshold concepts I read some interesting comments from Gordon Royle on linear independence versus calculating determinants:
In first year linear algebra (which is the current cross I have to bear), the concept of “linear independence” seems to meet these requirements. Many students struggle for weeks with the definition, but then suddenly (for the lucky ones) “the penny drops” and it all seems totally obvious. Once they have mastered linear independence, suddenly finding bases and calculating dimensions becomes easy and natural. On the other hand, calculating the determinant of a matrix is also something that students struggle with, but it is not a threshold concept. It’s just memorizing the rules and the signs that some students find difficult. Mastering it doesn’t really lead them anywhere except for being able to calculate the determinant of a matrix.
I agree that the mechanical operation of calculating the determinant of a matrix is not a threshold concept. Around 1990 Bruno Buchberger (RISC, Linz) wrote:
Many areas of high school and undergraduate mathematics, by now, are "trivialized" in the sense that their problems can be solved algorithmically by existing mathematical software like Mathematica. Well, if an area of mathematics is trivialized, why should students bother to study the area? Rather, shouldn't we just teach the students how to solve the main problems in the area by applying, in a reasonable way, the appropriate algorithms in, say, Mathematica? There are two dogmatic answers to this question. The puristic answer: Ban math software systems from math education! The pragmatic answer: Don't spend time in class on any trivialized area of mathematics!
Buchberger developed the white-box/black-box principle for math education using math software, which I subscribe to:
The 'white-box' phase is traditional teaching (study of underlying theory together with practice examples). Once a topic is understood, software may be employed as a 'black-box' , and so on recursively as the student progresses through a mathematics course.
So I would argue that little time should be spent on hand calculating determinants. However, I take issue with Gordon's statement that
The trouble with our existing teaching materials (for my first year unit) is that the time and number of pages spent on defining linear independence and calculating determinants is almost exactly the same. Each of them are simply defined and a couple of examples given. No student would have a clue (unless they were told) that one is a peripheral computational technique and the other is a critical conceptual issue.
Understanding what a determinant is, its properties, and how it can be used (applications) is, I think, definitely a threshold concept, not a peripheral computational technique. Examples (from my MATH2200 course):
  • If two rows (or columns) of a matrix are the same (or proportional), or a linear combination of two yields another row then, without any further computation, the determinant vanishes (an example of linear dependence);
  • Swapping a pair of rows or columns changes sign (no computation required); 
  • Learning the Laplace (or cofactor) expansion, along with the above observations, is useful: orthogonal polynomials can be defined as the determinant of simple tridiagonal matrices and properties such as their recurrence relation are easy to deduce from this;
  • The determinant, like the trace, is a matrix invariant equal to the product of the matrix eigenvalues. This is a useful check on the computation of eigenvalues;
  • The matrix invariants of A are generated as powers of x in the expansion of the characteristic equation, |A - x I|;
  • Computation of Wronskians;
  • Determination of equations of conical sections passing through a set of points;
  • Wavefunctions for Fermions in quantum mechanics are antisymmetric under particle interchange and are constructed using the Slater determinant;
  • Using the Levi-Civita symbol and Einstein summation notation is a "simple" way to view the determinant.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

As we may think

As We May Think is an essay by Vannevar Bush (see also his Wikipedia bio) first published in The Atlantic Monthly in July 1945, and republished again as an abridged version in September 1945—before and after the U.S. nuclear attacks on Japan. His essay still makes interesting reading and his theoretical machine—"memex"—is regarded as the pre-cursor of hypertext.

Note that Vannevar Bush is not related to George Bush. To quote from George Bush's presidential archive:
America's tradition of excellence has long been nurtured by a tradition of free inquiry aimed at the simple goal of better understanding ourselves and the world. In the 1945 report that led to the founding of the NSF, the National Science Foundation, Vannevar Bush—no relation—wrote that "As long as scientists are free to pursue the truth wherever it may lead, there will be a flow of new scientific knowledge to those who can apply it to practical problems."

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Threshold Concepts

The School of Engineering at The University of Western Australia has an Engineering Thresholds Project (ETP) for designing curricula for new courses. To me a Threshold Concept (TC) is "common sense"; threshold implying something that you must cross before further progress is possible.

In March 2011 I attended the first UWA ETP workshop. I found the presentation by Jan (Erik) Meyer (now a Professor of Education at UQ) to be opaque, self-serving, and over-reliant on name-dropping; notwithstanding the fact that he edited Threshold Concepts and Transformational Learning with Caroline Baillie. Further, I found his manner to be vague, unhelpful, and condescending. However, not all ETP workshop attendees felt the same way, with John Bamberg writing
Today I attended a fabulous workshop on “Threshold Concepts in Engineering”, organised by Caroline Baillie and Sally Male, and it got me eager to jot down some ideas for pure maths.
John went on to write that
The idea of a threshold concept needs some pinning down, but it is vaguely something that our students need to master in order to progress to other ideas; a competent understanding of a threshold concept opens the door to many other concepts. We also think of it as something that is typically difficult for the student and is transformative. That is, once the student “gets it”, it can change their way of viewing previous notions, it could change the way they approach and do things, and it could change the way they see themselves as students of a particular discipline (i.e., a student of mathematics then regards themselves as a mathematician)
which all sounds like "common sense" to me, well understood by scientists and engineers, and used for over 50 years by writers of good text-books and in the design of tertiary curricula. So what, really, is new?

At the second workshop in December 2011 a list of Engineering TC was proposed. I came away with a feeling of dismay and dissatisfaction; the definition of a TC was too vague and flexible, meaning whatever one wants it to mean. While all of the topics listed on the discussion papers are important, only a few are what I view as TCs. Many are just concepts; some are difficult or "troublesome", some are "transformational", but few are universal. Without a rigorous definition, discussions tend to go round in circles and are dominated by bias and opinion.

When I returned to my office I Googled "a critique of threshold concepts". Many statements in the paper A Critique of the Threshold Concept Hypothesis (TCH) by Professor Rod O’Donnell resonated with me (please contact Rod directly if you would like a preprint of his paper as it is now under review for publication):
The degree of elasticity in interpretation of the hypothesis that followers have allowed themselves, and that the founding figures have sanctioned, is alarming in at least two respects.
Behind the TCH lies a large terrain of tacit, undiscussed assumptions. One key presumption is that a discipline has an established body of fundamental knowledge that is unlikely to change for some time. The aim is then to transform the intellectual perspective of learners in the discipline so that they ‘think like an x’, or are ‘transformed into’ an x, where x is an economist, biologist, engineer, sociologist, doctor, accountant, historian etc. These assumptions have some worrying implications.
Land et al (2010) confidently assert that ‘the empirical evidence for threshold concepts has been substantially increased’ in a multiplicity of disciplines in many countries. A great deal of empirical and applied work is undoubtedly occurring, but such work proceeds on the assumption that investigators have either identified a threshold concept or possess a sound methodology for doing so. Since neither assumption has any foundation, such work presupposes knowledge we do not have.
So, while I am sceptical of the TCH, I do believe in the importance of Threshold Concepts (the "common sense"definition); certainly I am interested in good ways of identifying and teaching TC for a range of fields, especially maths and physics.

It is now 2012 and New Courses at UWA commence on Feb 27. It will be interesting to see how things pan out ...

High school maths incentives don't add up

Some very sensible comments about education in Western Australia by Tertiary Education Minister Chris Evans in High school maths incentives don't add up :
...schools are too focused on getting students high university entrance scores.
...there seemed to be a narrowing of the system which was very dangerous in terms of education.
...too often the systems now are about the ATAR score, not about education
We are encouraging students to take lower level, easier courses in Years 11 and 12, which is actually preventing them from going to university
The state government does, I think, need to act urgently to rebalance those incentives that prevent students taking up maths and science in high school, and continuing that through to university. There is a narrowing at high school that I think is very dangerous in terms of education
Hopefully, someone from the state government is listening. Unfortunately, with the liberal-labor divide, I doubt anything will come of it.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Welcome to the university of the future

Some interesting quotes from Larry Summers in Welcome to the university of the future:
It’s slightly absurd that in the English-speaking world on 15,000 separate occasions each year a lecture is given parroting the basics of capitalism,” he said. “Surely watching a video of the expert on the topic would be better? Technology can be harnessed to create better learning experiences.
In 2008 a survey at Harvard found that students who used video lectures said they learnt subjects faster than by attending lectures in person. There would, too, be cost and times savings: if students watched top experts on a particular topic on video, their own academics would be free to give more time for further discussion.
Summers says universities should place more emphasis on collaboration, rather than perceiving it as a form of cheating. It is all provocative stuff—but then Summers does not always get things right and is no stranger to controversy. In 2006, he quit as head of Harvard after he suggested the paucity of women in science and maths might be down to innate differences in ability between the sexes.
Summers cites an experiment launched by an outfit called The Floating University. The media venture has videoed world-famous scholars including the physicist Michio Kaku, the psychologist Paul Bloom and the cognitive scientist Steven Pinker—and Summers himself—speaking about the newest ideas in their field. The videoed lectures are to be offered at Harvard, Yale and Bard college in New York state, the first time such a course has been presented at all three institutions.
The explosion of knowledge, and our ability to access it through computers, demands change in the way universities operate, Summers says. When facts can be checked rapidly online, individual acquisition of them becomes less important. Indeed, there is so much information available that it becomes difficult for any individual to master more than a fraction.
So what is Summers’s prescription for improvement? In his brave new academic world, universities would ditch lectures from local professors in draughty theatres in favour of the best experts in their fields delivering talks by video, potentially to students anywhere around the globe.
Another of his suggestions is that “international experience should be part of what happens to every college student”. This is not to learn languages, but to discover cultures that work will throw up in a globalised world.
I particularly enjoyed his response to Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss's claim that their classmate, Zuckerberg, had stolen their big idea for Facebook:
One of the things you learn as a college president is that if an undergraduate is wearing a jacket and tie on Thursday afternoon at three o’clock, there are two possibilities. One is that they are looking for a job and have an interview; the other is that they are an asshole. This was the latter case.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Books to Read

  • Wine Grapes—A Complete Guide to 1,368 Vine Varieties including their Origins and Flavours
  • Addiction by design: machine gambling in Las Vegas
  • Shrapnel by William Wharton
  • A Mathematician's Apology
  • Our Final Century
  • Dr Tatiana's Advice to All Creation
  • Interpreter of Maladies
  • The Phantom Tollbooth
  • The Archivist's Story by Travis Holland
  • A beautiful mind
  • The man who loved only numbers
  • The Victorian Internet
    • Fingerprints
  • The Fifth Miracle
  • Mendeleyev's Dream
  • Strange Beauty
  • Koestler by Michael Scamell
  • A Pair of Ragged Claws
  • The Cogwheel Brain
  • J.M. Coetzee: Slow man + Diary of a Bad Year
  • The Cardboard Crown, Boyd
  • The man who loved children, Christina Stead
  • Eucalyptus by Murray Bail
  • The Children's Bach by Helen Garner
  • Poppy by Druisilla Modjeska 
  • Lillian's Story by Kate Grenville
  • Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson
  • The Worry Doll (Graphic novel by Matt Coyle, Tasmania)
  • Authors to watch: James Bradley, Delia Falconer, Julia Leigh, Sonya Hartnett

Places to Eat: Adelaide


  • Vincenzo's Cucina Vera (08) 8271 1000 77 Unley Rd Parkside, 5063
  • The Manse 142 Tynte St North Adelaide 08 8267 4636

Places to Eat: Melbourne

  • Newmarket Hotel 34 Inkerman St, St Kilda (03) 9537 1777
  • Miss Jackson, St Kilda for excellent breakfast
  • Blondie Bar, Southbank
  • Portello Rosso, great tapas and good wine
  • Moroccan Soup Bar 183 St Georges Road Fitzroy North VIC 3068 Phone (03) 9482 4240
  • Ladro 162 Greville Street, Prahran 9510 2233
  • Ladro 224 Gertrude St Fitzroy 9415 7575
  • Rumi 116 Lygon St Brunswick East 9388 8255
  • Cutler and Co 55-57 Gertrude, Fitzroy 9419 4888
  • Cibi (breakfast/lunch) 45 Keele Street Collingwood 9077 3941
  • Sotano Hilton Melbourne South Wharf 2 Convention Centre Place South Wharf 9027 200
  • Melbourne Food and Wine Festival
  • Mae Daya (Isakaya) 400 Bridge, Richmond
  • Mountain Goat Brewery (good pizza), North and Clark, Richmond
  • Bar Lourinha (Portuguese/Spanish share plates)
  • Gigibaba Turkish Tapas 102 Smith St Collingwood 9486 0345
  • Botanical (69 Domain Road South Yarra, 9820 7888)
  • MoVida
  • Cafe di Stasio Mamaganoush (56 Chapel Street, Windsor 95214141)
  • Ginger Boy (cool Asian Hawker style in Crossley Lane)
  • ezard (mod-oz under Adelphi) Meyers place bar (20 Meyers place)
  • Waiters Restaurant (20 Meyers place)
  • Loop (20 Meyers place)
  • Yu-u (Flinders lane/Oliver lane — but book weeks ahead 9639 7073)
  • Cafe Segovia (33 Block place — good for breakfast)
  • Cookie
  • The Deanery (13 Bligh place, med/middle eastern)
  • Nobu (Crown)
  • The Brasserie (Crown)
  • Rockpool Bar & Grill (Crown)
  • Giuseppe, Arnaldo & Sons (Crown, no bookings 9694 7400)
  • Vue De Monde (430 Little Collins, 9691 3888)
  • Attica (74 Glen Eira Rd, Ripponlea, 9530 0111)
  • Sarti (6 Russell Place, 9639 7822)
  • De Bortoli wines, Yarra Valley
  • Il Bacaro (168 Little Collins, 9654 6778)
  • Bella Vedere (Badger's Brook Vineyard, 874 Maroondah Hwy, Coldstream, 5962 6161)

Places to Eat: Sydney


  • Porteño (02) 8399 1440, 358 Cleveland Street Surry Hills, 2010
  • Rosso Pomodoro 91/24 Buchanan St Balmain NSW 2041 (02) 9555 5924
  • bel Mondo, Chef: Andy Ball
  • Marque 4/5 355 Crown Street, Surry Hills 9332 2225
  • New-wave Italian in inner-Sydney: La Sala, Intermezzo, Lo Studio
  • Red Lantern (545 Crown St, Surry Hills, 9698 4355)
  • Yoshii (corner of Harrington and Essex Street, 9247 2566)

Interests, Movies, Music, and Books

As I've moved my blog to Google+, the following lists get removed from my profile. For the record,

Interests: Coffee, Wine, Beer, Cycling, Swimming, Volleyball, Tennis, Travel, Piano, Perth International Arts Festival, Modern dance, Modern Art, Contemporary art, Impressionism, Art history, Photography, Architecture, Design, Rottnest island, Mathematics, Physics, Mathematica

Favorite Movies: Moulin Rouge, Indiana Jones 1 and 3, The Blues Brothers, Trading Places, Casablanca, Thomas Crown Affair (with Steve McQueen), Trainspotting, Goodfellas, The Fugitive, The Mission, The Insider, Once Were Warriors, Movies by Stanley Kubrick, Movies by the Coen brothers 

Favorite Music: Roxy Music, The Corrs, Divinyls, Gipsy Kings, Hunters and Collectors, Ottmar Liebert, Coldplay, The Beatles, Deborah Conway, Depeche Mode, Evermore, Fatboy Slim, Federico Aubele, Fine Young Cannibals, Marianne Faithfull, Paul Kelly, Pink Floyd, The Police, The Pretenders, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Robbie Williams, Simple Minds, Sting, Yes, Tangerine Dream, Tom Petty, U2, A lot of latin, A bit of classical

Favorite Books: Historical novels, Popular science books (e.g. Cosmos, Comet), Catch 22, and books by Robert Hughes, Peter Carey, Louis De Bernieres, Richard Rhodes, Milan Kundera, Simon Winchester, Dava Sobel, Josephine Hart, Jack Kerouac, Iain Pears, Robert Graves

Places to Eat: Singapore

Some restaurants to visit, next time I'm in Singapore:
  • Sin Huat Eating House (659/661 Geylang Road, off Lorong 35; 6744 9755)
  • Makansutra (1-15 Esplanade Mall, 6336 7025)
  • Muthu's Curry (138 Race Course Road 6392 1722)
  • House of Peranakan Cuisine (Meritus Negara Hotel, 10 Claymore Raod 6733 4411)
  • $$$ Iggy's (Level 3, The Regent Hotel, 1 Cuscaden Road 6732 2234)
  • $$$ Au Jardin (EJH corner House, Singapore Botanic Gardens, Cluny Road 6466 8812)
  • $$$ San Marco at the Lighthouse (Fullerton Hotel 6438 4404)
  • East Coast Lagoon Food Village (1220 East Coast Parkway):
    stall 6 cze cha [full-menu Chinese Street Food]
    stall 29 Cheok Kee Eeting House [Teachew soy-braised duck with star anise]
  • Maxwell Road food Center (cnr South Bridge and Maxwell roads):
    stall 10 Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice
    stall 99 Cantonese won ton noodles
    stall 51 stir-fired Hokkein noodles
    stall 71 cha kway teow
    stall 64 ngoh hiang
  • Chinatown Complex Food Centre (335 Smith Street) 02-128 Claypot rice (with Chicken, lup cheong, salt fish)
  • Marine Parade Laksa (59 East Coast Road, Katong)
  • Warung Nasi Pariaman (738 North Bridge Raod 6292 2374, near Sultan Mosque) Nasi Padang, Beef Rendang

Thursday, 26 January 2012

On Elsevier, El-Naschie, and FFCP10

Michael Nielsen's post On Elsevier is very interesting. The link from "publication of what are most kindly described as extraordinarily shoddy journals" takes one to a blog post on El-Naschie's past editorial role in “Chaos, Solitons & Fractals”. Related to this, I am quoted in the El Naschie Watch blog on the Frontiers of Fundamental Physics Symposia as follows:
I have been following El Naschie Watch since the story about CSF first appeared. Independently I'd noticed some "interesting" articles by Iovane in CSF. I was on the program and organising committees for the 10th FFCP Symposium. I became aware of the crackpots involved with previous FFCP conferences and tried to eliminate them from this conference series. In particular, El Naschie was removed from the international panel. The AIP proceedings of FFCP10 are, I think, quite respectable. Also, the 2011 conference looks ok. I see that Journeau is no longer organizing the conference and the listed names seem reputable.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Lure of cold fusion backfires

Today's Australian ran this amusing item: Lure of cold fusion backfires. Particularly the bit about suing Dick Smith for $100,000,000! The Age's article Mullumbimby, helping to save world gives some more background:
If Mr Bryce, who as a member of the Australian Skeptics has experience testing the scientific veracity of all sorts of weird and wacky things, gives the technology the thumbs-up, Dick Smith will give the group $200,000. 
Dr Rossi, who works for the US based Leonardo Corporation, claims his E-cat machine can take a small amount of energy and drive a reaction between atoms of hydrogen and nickel which can, through an unknown process, produce a large amount of energy, far exceeding the initial energy input.
So far, Mr Rossi's invention has been greeted with much cynicism by the scientific community. Mr Bryce is sceptical too, but says the machine has the support of six physicists, including two Swedish professors. ''I'll need to see some more evidence before committing the money,'' he said.
Not sure who the "six physicists" are, but I'm certainly glad to hear that Bryce is skeptical.

Rossi is working with Focardi, a physicist at the University of Bologna. The preliminary report on the Rossi and Focardi patent application notes that
As the invention seems, at least at first, to offend against the generally accepted laws of physics and established theories, the disclosure should be detailed enough to prove to a skilled person conversant with mainstream science and technology that the invention is indeed feasible. … In the present case, the invention does not provide experimental evidence (nor any firm theoretical basis) which would enable the skilled person to assess the viability of the invention. The description is essentially based on general statement and speculations which are not apt to provide a clear and exhaustive technical teaching.
which, to me, seems like a pretty intelligent assessment. This appears to contradict an earlier comment that patent offices do not care for the truth of the claims made by the applicants; it would be interesting to know the real postion on "truth" in patent applications.

Related to this topic—and to related issues like climate change and global warming—there is a very interesting quote from Ugo Bardi, a professor of chemistry at the University of Florence, in the The E-Cat Tribe blog post by Steven B. Krivit:
There is a phenomenon of ‘tribalization’ that is now taking over the whole internet. People tend to form virtual tribes in which they repeat to each other always the same thing, until it becomes self-evident that the ‘thing’ is true. People who deny the ‘thing’ are enemies, the tribes assert, because of their internal evilness or because they are paid by the dark forces of Sauron.

Monday, 2 January 2012

Eye from the Sky

Some beautiful autumnal photos by Kacper Kowalski in the Eye from the Sky (Weekend Australian Magazine, December 3, 2011). His website is worth a visit, as is winter photos, an article on him in the photography blog of The New York Times.

The big whimper

I usually enjoy Phillip Adam's columns, and The big whimper is no exception, especially as I'm currently reading Sean Carroll's From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time (not to be confused with From Eternity to Here, which is Frank Viola's "magnum opus", presenting three remarkable stories spanning from Genesis to Revelation), and Roger Penrose's Cycles of Time: An Extraordinary New View of the Universe.

To quote from Adams, "Where's God in all this? Absolutely nowhere. The facts are in—more than ever He, She or It is a redundant notion. So it's time to dump your shares in religion and to accept these exhilarating facts:
  1. We are not at the centre of the universe.
  2. Our human lives are brief and ultimately inconsequential.
  3. We're free to live our lives without risk of damnation or some religious variation of Frequent Flyer Points.
  4. The only meaning our existence has—or the existence of the entire cosmos—is the meaning(s) we choose to give it. Might I suggest love? And the joys of curiosity?"

Cherry-picking contrarians

Nice to see sensible comments on "Award-winning author" Ian Plimer's claims in Cherry-picking contrarian geologists tend to obscure scientific truth by Mike Sandiford. Checking the reaction on Contrarian websites is interesting; it would be amusing, but unfortunately, it is not. Plimer does not even bother to address the issues that Sandiford raises:
  1. There was not a peak of 6 per cent atmospheric CO2 100 million years ago when the dinosaurs roamed the planet.
  2. Antarctic ice core (Siple) air of age about 1900 has a CO2 content of 295ppm.
To quote from an earlier review of Heaven and Earth by Michael Ashley from UNSW, No science in Plimer's primer:
Plimer has done an enormous disservice to science, and the dedicated scientists who are trying to understand climate and the influence of humans, by publishing this book. It is not "merely" atmospheric scientists that would have to be wrong for Plimer to be right. It would require a rewriting of biology, geology, physics, oceanography, astronomy and statistics. Plimer's book deserves to languish on the shelves along with similar pseudo-science such as the writings of Immanuel Velikovsky and Erich von Daniken.

Refining the art of teaching science

Refining the art of teaching science mentions the Australian Academy of Science's report on The Status and Quality of Year 11 and 12 Science in Australian Schools, which I need to read and digest. It also talks about the University of Adelaide's trial of iPads in 2011—which is something that would work very well with Computable Documents (CDFs)—and the couching of its first-year science curriculum in terms of "10 big questions".