Monday, 10 November 2014

Teaching training?

In her opinion piece When it comes to education, people who count are kids, Cassandra Wilkinson writes:
Several inquiries, reviews and reports are under way to address the problem of getting kids to learn STEM subjects, but so far there is no clear strategy to address the problem from federal or state education ministers. The national curriculum review has concluded the science curriculum is basically sound. Analysis undertaken by the John Monash Science School in Victoria notes that there are areas for improvement, but says on the whole the science curriculum is “robust, balanced and flexible”. 
Igor Bray from Curtin University’s physics department reports the primary science curriculum is adequate to ensure secondary school children “have an understanding of science and technology through knowledge of specific scientific content, the history and philosophy of science as well as how science and technology is being applied”. 
As a parent of two keen science students, I find these reports grim reading. If the curriculum needed changing that would be pretty straightforward. What seems increasingly clear is that the problem lies with the quality of education that teachers are receiving before they enter a classroom to teach STEM.
There appears to be disconnect between the first two paragraphs, which both indicate that the science curriculum is sound, and the last which talks about "grim reading" and some (implied) problem with the quality of teacher training.

Cassandra goes on to state that
The Australian Academy of Science submission to the national curriculum review makes the critical point: “To be an effective teacher of science you need to understand the science that you teach.”
with which I agree unreservedly. However, I do take issue with the inference drawn in the next two paragraphs:
The submission is made carefully but strongly implies the present system has delivered an oversupply of lower-skilled teachers such as PE instructors and an undersupply of teachers equipped to instruct students of advanced science and maths.
The academy is polite, but the implication seems to be strongly that, like their high school student counterparts, student teachers are not taking the tough courses they need to excel in their professions. “Universities therefore need to prepare pre-service teachers to a level by which they can make a meaningful contribution in a classroom with students,” the academy’s submission says.
My view is that this is nonsense. It is very difficult to "transform" student teachers with weak STEM backgrounds into high quality STEM teachers. The fundamental problem is that the majority of students who study STEM subjects at University, and achieve a high level of understanding, do not view teaching—especially primary teaching—as an attractive or interesting career option. The extra time and effort to get a teaching qualification is "rewarded" by the hard work of coping with disinterested students, all for a lower salary and lesser prestige than a STEM job provides. Simply put, the problem that needs to be addressed is to "make teaching an attractive career for the high achieving STEM students." Over the last few years I have followed developments in Canada, Switzerland, Estonia, Finland, Singapore, Korea and China. In these countries, high quality teachers are well paid and teaching is a prestigious job, with entry into teaching courses restricted to high achievers.

There are, of course, some striking exceptions. My good friend Simon Tyler, who did his PhD in Physics at the University of Western Australia, then undertook a Master of Education and is presently teaching at the John Monash Science School. However, exceptions do not make the rule.

Finally, the vital question of how many STEM graduates Australia requires is not addressed. Is there really an undersupply? The answer is probably no (see here), which is not the answer that advocates for expanding STEM want to hear.

Disclosure: the author is an employee of the University of Western Australia, and the views expressed are those of the author and not those of the University.

Monday, 3 November 2014

Egyptian rock and roll

The latest edition of PhysicsWorld includes an item entitled Egyptian rock and roll:
The pyramids at Giza are one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. But we still do not know for sure how the ancient Egyptians built the giant structures in the first place, or how they moved millions of huge limestone blocks each weighing about 2500 kg. Joseph West from Indiana State University and colleagues have now put their own pet theory to the test. They attached three wooden dowels to each side of a 30 kg concrete block – in effect turning it into a 12-sided polygon that could be rolled instead of dragged. “On the surfaces we tested the block on, we could roll the block with about the same amount of work as would be used in dragging the block over moistened sand,” West reveals. The researchers now plans to scale up their work to test the idea with a 900 kg block and to use fence posts as the rods. But was it likely that the ancient Egyptians used their method? West thinks it “could have been used”, but cautions that “the archeological evidence does not strongly support the idea”. The mystery deepens.
Personally, I think the "mystery" was resolved a long time ago. For example, see Building the pyramids from quarried stone blocks:
Dr R H G Parry[3] has suggested a method for rolling the stones, using a cradle-like machine that had been excavated in various new kingdom temples. Four of those objects could be fitted around a block so it could be rolled easily. Experiments done by the Obayashi Corporation, with concrete blocks 0.8 m square by 1.6 m long and weighing 2.5 tons, showed how 18 men could drag the block over a 1-in-4 incline ramp, at a rate of 18 meters per minute. This idea was previously described by John Bush in 1977 [4], and is mentioned in the "Closing Remarks" section of Parry's book. 
About 20 years ago I attended a seminar by Dick Parry at the University of Western Australia on exactly this topic. His book Engineering the Pyramids includes the material presented in his seminar and describes a simple and elegant solution involving four re-usable cradles. Even earlier, in 1977, the same idea was outlined by John Bush in his delightful one page engineering analysis entitled The Rolling Stones, where he explains how four cradles could used to parbuckle the blocks.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Sexification of online learning

In his column Sexpo and university open days have a lot in common, Philip Gerrans (department of philosophy at the University of Adelaide) is both amusing and too close to the truth. Some quotes:
It’s that time of year again: vast concourses lined with tubs of spring blossoms, coffee carts, stalls selling T-shirts and memorabilia, food stands, DJs, demonstrations, talks and performances. Amid the slightly contrived fun and bustle, the public queues for information that might change their life, for a chance to meet face-to-face with a performer, perhaps even a selfie with them. Perhaps just to browse and fill their showbag with freebies, to be tossed into a corner of the bedroom and forgotten.I’m not talking about univer­sity open day but Sexpo, where the sex industry markets itself to a public that has come to expect instant gratification through endless online encounters with simulacra of the real thing.
The problems are business problems, however, not educational ones. The apprentice model works, and is likely the only one that does given the way we evolved. But it is not financially viable for univer­sities forced to treat students as an income stream.
To persuade kids that the product they are being offered (“learn physiotherapy on your phone”; “tweet your way to the High Court Bench”; “present your thesis in three minutes”. Why, for god’s sake?) is not just as good as but actually superior to the old-fashioned one. No one who teaches face-to-face believes this, ...
This is why universities employ whole faculties (education) and even divisions (marketing, student experience) devoted to online satisfaction of the client’s desires.
When you see the venerable professor of classics or physics wearing the company T-shirt and standing by their stall pitching, the potential customers being shepherded past by their parents, the industry leaders shaking hands like electioneering politicians, it’s hard not to feel dirty. But Michel Houllebecq (“who she?” asks the online French studies facilitator) provides the consolation of a philosophy customised for modern life. He reminds us that people will accept, and even embrace, any humiliation in the domain of sex “as long as it is sanctified by commerce”. Why not education?
Disclosure: the author is an employee of the University of Western Australia, and the views expressed are those of the author and not those of the University.

Friday, 27 June 2014

Risky Business

Not the movie starring Tom Cruise, but the realisation by business groups that Climate Change will cost them big, and formation of Risky Business.

As I wrote in Some sceptics make it a habit to be wrong:
Perhaps what is required in the climate change "debate" is for people most directly and immediately affected by rising sea levels to start legal action. The US government may be dismissive of the effect of their contribution to global warming on Bangladesh or Tuvulu, but if Florida or North Carolina were to sue the Federal government, perhaps the situation could change.
In a recent WSJ article—not usually the place to read fair and balanced coverage on Climate Change—entitled 'Risky Business' Report Aims to Frame Climate Change as Economic Issue, Alicia Mundy writes:
The report, which says climate change could cost the country billions of dollars over the next two decades, is the product of a bipartisan group of former cabinet officers, lawmakers, corporate leaders and scientists. In an interview, Mr. Paulson said the goal is to depoliticize the climate-change debate and instead focus on how it poses an economic risk to U.S. businesses. "The whole point was to have a bipartisan group who agreed on the nature of the problem, which is that climate change is a huge economic risk," said Mr. Paulson, who served under President George W. Bush. The study concludes that within the next 15 years, higher sea levels, storm surges and hurricanes could raise the annual price tag for coastal damage along the East Coast and the Gulf of Mexico to $35 billion. Some Midwestern and Southern agricultural areas could see a decline in yields of more than 10% over the next five to 25 years due to increased drought and flooding, unless farmers adapt their crops, according to the study.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Why the Kouk is plain right?

In Why the Kouk is plain wrong Ergas argues unconvincingly that plain packaging laws are a failure. In particular, he writes that
An econometric analysis by researchers at the University of Zurich is a case in point. Using a broad range of methods, the researchers conclude that plain packaging has not reduced the incidence of teenage smoking in Australia. True, the study was funded by Philip Morris; however, it is methodologically rigorous, and its results are consistent with those of earlier research.
I'll leave it to others to examine the rigorous methodology, but any research funded by big tobacco is unlikely to be objective.

It was interesting and informative to see some of the responses to Ergas—and previous columns The Australian is running—in this beat-up:
The Australian's agenda here is two-fold: Defend big tobacco's right to make money, and individual civil liberty. However, as I wrote in Some sceptics make it a habit to be wrong, these aims are misguided; society as a whole benefits from laws that are enacted to the benefit of the majority of its citizens.

Friday, 20 June 2014

Keys to success?

I see several of the 30 causes of failure listed by Napoleon Hill, author of Think and Grow Rich, in myself and my colleagues, namely:
  • Lack of well defined purpose in life
  • Lack of ambition to rise above mediocrity
  • Insufficient education
  • Lack of self discipline
  • Procrastination
  • Lack of persistence
  • Wrong selection of vocation
  • Lack of concentration of effort 
Those that particularly apply to me are italicised.

I agree with Hill's views that "no man can succeed in a line of endeavor which he does not like" and that "one of the keys to success is therefore identifying your passion and life-career purpose."

Interesting views on Quantum Mechanics

Two interesting articles from 2009:
I have not been able to find anything further about whether Valentini's ideas can be used to explain the lack of large-scale fluctuations seen in the Planck data, which would be very interesting.

My colleague Kevin Judd reviewed a draft of Palmer's paper and wrote to me as follows:
My main criticism is that [Palmer] stresses this hypothesis that reality must live on the invariant set, but I see no reason for requiring this. If phase space volumes are shrinking then any initial state asymptotically approaches the invariant set I. After sufficient time, the evolution and properties of almost all states are essentially indistinguishable from those in I. Unless your observation machines are extremely good, one cannot tell. The characteristics of I would appear to dominate the universe regardless of what the initial condition is. 

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Seven Wonders of the Kimberley

Some interesting places listed in the Seven Wonders of the Kimberley:
  • The 80m cascade of King George Falls, King Cascade, and the Horizontal Waterfalls
  • The enigmatic Bradshaw or Gwion Gwion art
  • El Questro Wilderness Park includes camping, air-conditioned bungalows, upmarket tented cabins, to the cliff-hanging Chamberlain Suite at the Homestead. Excursions to Zebedee hot springs, Emma Gorge, and the Pentecost River
  • Fly from Kununurra over Lake Argyle, the Ord River and Osmond Range to the Bungle Bungle
  • Cruise between Wyndham and Broome with daily shore excursions to sites such as Mermaid Tree and the water-falls on the Kimberley Quest II
  • Visit Montgomery Reef to see Australia’s largest inshore reef
  • Stay at Berkeley River Lodge, a short helicopter or plane ride from Kununurra

Saturday, 14 June 2014

Untrue and unfair?

In The Australian letters to the editor of June 11, Arthur Sinodinos (senator for NSW) writes
I reject the assertions about me made in the untrue and unfair opinion piece (“AWU a gift not to be wasted”, 7-8/6) commenting on the ICAC inquiry in which I was a witness. Editorialising relies on an author being sure of the facts. In this instance, there’s no sign of that being the case. 
I reaffirm my evidence to the ICAC and my statement to the Senate and look forward to being vindicated when the commission hands down its report
I'm wondering to which evidence he is referring? According to SBS, his responses to ICAC questioning comprised "I don't recollect" and "I don't recall". For variety, perhaps he should have tried the Hans Schultz response to interrogation: "I know nothing" or "I see nothing, I wasn't here, I didn't even wake up this morning!"

Disclosure: ICAC Commissioner Megan Latham is an in-law.

Friday, 23 May 2014

Choice and competition in higher education?

In Importing US model will be a ‘recipe for disaster’, Thomas Adams makes a compelling case for not following the US. Some nice quotes:
[A]ny notion that Australian universities can mimic the US model of endowment funding is particularly absurd. The largest endowments at Australian universities are about $1.2 billion. That number would place schools like Monash, the University of Melbourne, and ANU on par with Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, the 71st highest endowment in the US. All are excellent universities that attract bright students and have brilliant faculty.
The problem is, while a school like Monash has 55,000 students, Lehigh has 7000. This means the per student endowment, the number that really matters when it comes undergraduate education and faculty research, is roughly eight times higher at Lehigh than at Monash.
What should be done? Adams writes:
Australia is already doing quite well in world university rankings at the per capita level and the way to improve what is already a world-class university system is not to adopt an American ­approach but to do the opposite. Subsidise tuition so students do not have to go into debt to follow their dreams. Expand staff so that students can develop closer relationships with their professors. Fund research so that Australian faculty can continue to make groundbreaking contributions across all fields of inquiry. These are the proven ways to build an equitable higher education system that would be the envy of the world. 
And to conclude,
Buzzwords like choice and competition only serve to mask the fact that Abbott and Pyne’s plan will send Australia down a one-way street towards a US system that is broken and increasingly unfixable.

Nice clothes

In Dress to Profess: What Should Scientists Wear? Adam Ruben writes
But for many scientists, dressing well is not just something that fails to interest us. It's something we actively shun because it might broadcast the wrong priority. Nice clothing says, "I'm someone who cares about appearances, which means I can't be someone who understands Maxwell's equations."
This says something about my dress sense and my understanding of Maxwell's equations.

A new look at how to teach and learn

Two interesting recent articles in Campus Review:
The comment from Igor Bray on the second article demanded a response.

The 2014 PNAS article Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics is most relevant to this topic, as it proves that "chalk-and-talk" is ineffective. Discussion on this meta-analysis in Science quotes Eric Mazur—a physicist at Harvard University who has campaigned against stale lecturing techniques for 27 years—and the article by John Ross in The Australian's Higher Education section this week quotes the Physics Nobel laureate Carl Wieman who says 
Although more effective teaching methods have been overwhelmingly demonstrated, most STEM (science, technology, ­engineering and mathematics) courses are taught by lectures.
It is clear that high profile physicists are well aware of the failings of "chalk-and-talk" and are promoting active learning instead.

Update: Active learning helps students more than lectures by John Ross reprises this theme and cites Teaching methods comparison in a large calculus class by Code et al.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Faculty Teaching Award: Excellence in Coursework Teaching

I have just won a Faculty Teaching Award for Excellence in Coursework Teaching. Here is my edited and abridged nomination.


All my courses, from first year to graduate level, make extensive use of Mathematica, which has broad application to physics, engineering, mathematics, mathematical modelling, and simulation, and for which UWA has a site license. This general and very powerful software enhances existing mathematical skills, teaches new skills, increases confidence, and inspires students to learn more through tackling real-world computational problems. In my courses:
  • At first year, Mathematica is primarily used as an interactive presentation tool through the use of Computable Document Format (CDF) documents
  • At second year, students learn the basics of Mathematica and use it to solve non-trivial problems in Applied Mathematics and Electromagnetism
  • By third year, students now have considerable expertise in the use of Mathematica and start applying it to research-level problems
The video Teaching Real-World Problems with Mathematica provides a good overview, indicating the power and novelty of my approach.

Approaches to learning and teaching that influence, motivate and inspire students to learn

Q: What innovative methods do you use in your teaching to engage students?

A: I use tightly integrated and immersive use of the best technology for teaching and learning in science and engineering. Many courses integrate current research problems; my courses analyse and investigate research problems in a way that is immediately accessible to students, evidenced by the following student quotes: 
The effective use of Mathematica in assisting teaching. The graphs, pictures, formulas, etc. were highly accessible in this form. 
He uses Mathematica which allows him to visualise abstract concepts. Powerpoint should be banned in physics for all topics because Mathematica is so much more effective and functional. 
Really like the use of the software in the lectures, Mathematica. Explain concepts that reach ahead and makes one think. 
Paul is very enthusiastic and knowledgeable! He has a great love for his subject and this was quite infectious. The use of Mathematica was excellent!”
Q: How do you develop students' critical thinking skills?

A: It is impossible to solve Physics problems without excellent critical thinking skills. Most students already arrive in first year with well-developed skills. My goal is to leverage these existing skills, and to further develop them. The problems I ask are non-trivial; by combining numerical, symbolic (analytic), and graphical approaches, the students find that they can tackle them and, at the same time, enhance their critical thinking skills, as evidenced by the following student quotes:
Paul’s lectures are very inspiring. I have always been enlightened by his way of logic and thinking. 
I found he really explains key concepts well, and makes lectures interesting, I liked how he related what we were learning to real life examples.
Q: How do you motivate students through your teaching?

A: Best answered by student quotes:
You often gave indications of how deep concepts have profound applications generally (and also for more advanced studies) while providing enough information regarding where to hunt down more information. 
Paul Abbott is an enthusiastic lecturer whose passion for the subject encourages all students to commit their fullest. His in-depth knowledge of the subject material allows him to answer all student queries. 
Often relates concepts we’re learning to current research in other areas of physics; helps [us] see the use of seemingly strange concepts. 
Paul Abbott goes above and beyond what is required for a lecturer. Students respond positively to his enthusiasm. 
I really enjoy his lectures because he always tells us why. I constantly ask why we want to know, or what application various physics concepts have, but Paul is always telling us and it is very refreshing to learn from him. 
He explains concepts in a really interesting and easy to understand manner. I think he has been the best physics lecturer yet, as he keeps my interest, and I come out of the lecture understanding what has been said.
Q: Is there any other information related to this heading that you would like to supply in support of your application?

One more student quote:
The methodical way in which we worked through the material and linked it all to the aspects e.g. linking resonance in electrical and mechanical systems. Mathematica was a good tool and all of the demonstrations were helpful. I like the way we worked through the material as it was on the screen, rather than discussing material unrelated to the screen.
Of course, one cannot always be successful in motivating students to enjoy the topic at hand:
He was a brilliant teacher. I’m just not interested in the topic

Development of curricula and resources that reflect a command of the field 

Over the last 10 years, I have been responsible for developing novel and contemporary curriculum materials for the following courses, or parts of courses, all using Mathematica:
  • PHYS1001 (Electricity)
  • PHYS1002 (Magnetism and Resonance)
  • PHYS2001 (Electromagnetism)
  • CITS2401 (CS Course on Matlab and Excel, including 6 lectures on Mathematica)
  • PHYS3011 (Computational laboratory projects)
  • MATH2200 (level 2 Applied Mathematics course)
In particular, the Computational Labs and Applied Mathematics course make immersive use of Mathematica, so the students learn how to use a research tool to solve real-world problems.

Q: What innovative teaching resources have you developed?

A: My lecture notes for PHYS1001, PHYS1002, MATH2200 and PHYS2001, and the lab classes for PHYS3011 have all been developed (or updated) in the last 3 years, e.g.,
Q: Have you undertaken formal evaluation of your teaching innovations?

A: My teaching innovations have been recognised internationally by an Undergraduate Computational Science Award (UGCSA) from the Undergraduate Computational Engineering and Science (UCES) Project (Ames Laboratory, Ames,  Iowa, USA).

Approaches to assessment and feedback that foster independent learning

Q: How do you foster student's independence in learning?

A: My goal is to make each student capable of solving real-world and non-trivial problems. In the two hour computational laboratory sessions, students get immediate feedback from Mathematica, and are encouraged to do a wide range of self-consistency checks; numerically, symbolically, and graphically. 
Independent learning is fostered by research-based questions using a research tool, which is widely used by scientists. See the student exam solution to the MATH2200 exam.

Q: How do you outline the objectives and anticipated student learning outcomes of the unit and expectations of students?

A: The objectives and required learning outcomes of my units are embedded in the interactive lecture notes, and emphasised during the associated laboratory sessions. Student comments show that the objectives and outcomes are clear to students:  
Everything was well explained. Lecture notes were very helpful. Assignments were helpful for better understanding the material. Lecturer was enthusiastic.
He explains concepts in chronological order so that learning one concept helps to understand the next concept. 
Explains important concepts well. Does not assume knowledge. Uses demonstrations as an aid for teaching. 
Great slides and lecture notes, very easy to follow and you actually understand and learn as you go, not always the case for other topics. Good presenter–explains well, interesting, easy to understand and follow.
Q: How do you provide feedback to students?

A: Mathematica encourages the addition of comments—including interactive comments—on student solutions. During lab sessions I work with students, commenting on their progress, questioning their understanding, and giving them hints to get them back on track if they are struggling—but never just giving the answer. Full worked interactive solutions are also provided.

Scholarly activities and innovations that have influenced and enhanced learning and teaching

Q: Have you published in respect to your teaching or presented at science education conferences?

A: At the 2010 Australian Conference on Science and Mathematics Education: Creating ACTIVE Minds in our Science and Mathematics students, I presented a talk entitled Reflections on Teaching Computational Physics and Applied Mathematics.

I gave an invited plenary speech at the 2013 Asian Technology Conference in Mathematics: Addressing Challenges of New Technology in Mathematics Instruction, held at the Korea National University of Education, on Sums, Products, and the Zeta Function: Visualizing a $1,000,000 Problem.

Friday, 11 April 2014

AC Grayling

I have to admit that, while I'd heard of AC Grayling and was aware that he was an author, I've read none of his books. As an atheist and humanist, thinker, therefore by Miriam Cosic opened my eyes to a philosopher whose works I need to read. Cosic writes:
In fact, Grayling has been annoying people for years. Mostly it has been with his indefatigable arguments against religion: more polite than his fellow travellers, but sustained nonetheless. In the past decade, his writing has veered from the purely technical towards meditations on how ethics can be practised in a “disenchanted’’ world, one that no longer believes in gods.  
A book that came out less than a year ago, The God Argument, makes a calm argument against the existence of gods from the philosophical position of scepticism. It is a bravura performance, designed to make the reader think hard about the bases of religious faith.
On humanism and ethics:
“Humanism is an attitude,’’ Grayling explains. “When you think about the values you live by, and the relationships you have, you must begin with your best, most generous, most sympathetic understanding of human nature and the human condition. 
He embraces the corollaries of humanism, which resets the moral radar away from a higher power towards human beings as self-legislating moral agents. The result is a gamut of freedoms usually proscribed by religion, including the right of ownership over one’s body. Grayling is a patron of the British organisation that advocates for voluntary euthanasia, Dying in Dignity, for example (alongside some surprising fellow patrons, including Hugh Grant, Jasper Conran, Kim Cattrall, Ian McEwan, Jonathan Miller, Bernard Lewis, Prue Leith and the odd minister and rabbi). 
“Ethical reflection is very subversive of morality,’’ Grayling says pleasantly. “Many years ago I wrote a little book called The Future of Moral Values, and somebody said, ‘Your book Moral Values should be called Immoral Values.’ Especially on things like drugs and sex work and marriage and so on, it can be very subversive of ordinary moral thinking.’’
And I'll have to read more about his university:
In 2012, he found a novel way to annoy people: by establishing a private university on an American endowment model. Being a “man of the Left’’, as he says somewhat wryly, he was hurt by the attack on his university as an astronomically priced institution with a star-studded faculty designed to attract the wealthy. 
“Education is the last great opportunity for creating social justice; that is, for helping people to move out of relative deprivation, or backgrounds that are inimical to success in a competitive world. We’ve always thought that a society should invest fully in all levels of education in order to try to level the playing field for people,’’ he says. 
As more and more young people enrol in universities, however, higher education can no longer be funded from the public purse, he says. What’s more, student debt is crippling and spiralling. What he is trying to do is to create a university funded by alumni and other well-wishers so that anyone, rich or poor, can attend. “My aim in the long term is to have a means-blind admission policy, so you don’t bother about whether people can pay or not, you just take the best people,’’ he says.
I agree with his views on the Booker prize:
“Personally I’m delighted because I think keeping the Americans out of it is just an act of timidity really,’’ he says, and it takes a moment for the sting to emerge from the mildness of tone. “I think people are anxious because American fiction is very strong, it has a very strong tradition, and it is a big country. It has a powerful publishing industry, and American authors are a force to be reckoned with.’’
And I agree with his cheerful acceptance of social media:
“I don’t think that things like Facebook and Twitter and LinkedIn have changed the nature of friendship,’’ he says. “All they have done, like the invention of the clay tablet and the postage stamp and the telephone, is widen the possibilities for friends to contact one another. And I don’t think anyone is fool enough to think that if you have 500 friends on Facebook that they really are all friends.’’ 
He applies the 2am test: who could you ring at two o’clock in the morning if you’re in trouble? The answer will sort our your true friends from the background chatter. 
All in all, Grayling sounds like an interesting character.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

The Dawesville "cut"

The Australian is in full attack mode on Union corruption. On the weekend of March 22 it ran two closely related articles:
Early 1992: The WA government entered contractual agreements directly with Thiess to build the channel at a fixed price of $56.7m.
June 24, 1992: The AWU WRA Inc was officially incorporated. It continued to issue monthly invoices for work purportedly performed at the Dawesville site. No such work was ever performed. Thiess continued to pay the invoices.
April 1994: Liberal premier Richard Court opened the Dawesville Channel from a boat on the waterway. The worksite was inundated according to plan on April 4, 1994, and Thiess closed the project in its books, eight months ahead of schedule.
August 1994: Thiess continued to pay the AWU WRA invoices for “workplace reform” at the now-closed Dawesville worksite. Payments in respect of Dawesville totalled just more than $300,000 to the association.
Why was there no public tender as originally promised for such a significant project? Why did the WA government enter into a contract directly with Thiess? And what did Thiess get in return for the $300,000 it paid to Wilson?
On November 28, 1991 transport minister Pam Beggs told the WA parliament that cabinet had decided to abandon plans to seek competitive tenders for the construction work, instead opting to accept a “turnkey” contract proposal from the landowner.
Beggs: “The estimated cost of the government’s building the channel had been $76.8m, and the major reason for the lower cost (almost $60m) under the total construction package stems from having a single contractor responsible for all site works. This introduces an economy of scale and enables the significant construction risk to be spread over a wider scope or work. The agreement between the government and Wannunup has widespread support, including, I understand, even the member for Mandurah.”
But with no competitive tender, the government was guessing. The major reason for Thiess getting the job, according to Wilson’s AWU sidekick Ralph Blewitt, was that Wilson demanded it.
I'm no fan of corruption. However, what amazes me is actually that the government's guess of the costs was so cheap—the cut and bridge together are a huge and complex engineering project that I visit several times a year—as I expected that it would have cost well over $100m, even back in 1992:
Even when the winds roar in from the ocean, it’s easy to forget that the 2.5km, 200m wide waterway was dry land just 20 years ago—part of a continuous strip of coastal land that ran south from Mandurah for about 50 unbroken kilometres.
In return for the $300,000 it paid to Wilson, Thiess closed the project in its books on budget (I assume; not mentioned in either article), and eight months ahead of schedule! If we could get industrial peace and on-time, on-budget completion for other infrastructure projects, for such a nominal sum—which, perhaps, could be considered as a "success fee"—then it seems like very good value.

Such a fee pales into insignificance compared to Arthur Sinodinos’ $200k salary for 100 hours work or the $1 million success fee that that Senator Sinodinos negotiated with Liberal Party lobbyist Michael Photios to get a public-private partnership with the NSW Government, as shown by the board minutes of Australian Water Holdings.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

The STEM Crisis?

Two quite similar articles on the STEM crisis have appeared in the last year:
  • The STEM Crisis Is a Myth: A nice side-bar shows the STEM "crisis" through the decades. The author Robert N. Charette, also cites the research of Michael S. Teitelbaum, the author of the following article, which appeared in The Atlantic. The bottom line:
[E]veryone needs a solid grounding in science, engineering, and math. In that sense, there is indeed a shortage—a STEM knowledge shortage. To fill that shortage, you don’t necessarily need a college or university degree in a STEM discipline, but you do need to learn those subjects, and learn them well, from childhood until you head off to college or get a job. Improving everyone’s STEM skills would clearly be good for the workforce and for people’s employment prospects, for public policy debates, and for everyday tasks like balancing checkbooks and calculating risks. And, of course, when science, math, and engineering are taught well, they engage students’ intellectual curiosity about the world and how it works.
Many children born today are likely to live to be 100 and to have not just one distinct career but two or three by the time they retire at 80. Rather than spending our scarce resources on ending a mythical STEM shortage, we should figure out how to make all children literate in the sciences, technology, and the arts to give them the best foundation to pursue a career and then transition to new ones. And instead of continuing our current global obsession with STEM shortages, industry and government should focus on creating more STEM jobs that are enduring and satisfying as well.
Every high school graduate should be competent in science and mathematics—essential to success in almost any 21st century occupation and to informed citizenship as well. 
The evidence all points to high levels of student interest, high-performance levels among the students most likely to pursue majors and careers in science and engineering, and large numbers of graduates in these fields.
The repeated past cycles of “alarm/boom/bust” have misallocated public and private resources by periodically expanding higher education in science and engineering beyond levels for which there were attractive career opportunities. In so doing they produced large unintended costs for those talented students who devoted many years of advanced education to prepare for careers that turned out to be unattractive by the time they graduated, or who later experienced massive layoffs in mid-career with few prospects to be rehired.
UPDATE February 2016: The following Nature article Physics: Post-PhD job stability headlines with "Fewer than one-third of physics PhD graduates take permanent jobs, and that is a record high." That doesn't sound like evidence of a STEM shortage to me!

Thursday, 6 March 2014

The rich don't pay a 'fair share' of tax ...

In his article No, the rich don't pay a 'fair share' of tax—just most of it, Adam Creighton, Economics Correspondent for The Australian writes
...only the top fifth of households paid any tax. The bottom 6.9 million households got more in cash welfare and services than they paid in.
Interesting. Perhaps I should strive to be poorer so that I become richer!

According to his Centre for Independent Studies bio, Creighton started his career at the RBA and for six years was an (award winning) checkout operator at Woolworths. Perhaps that was where he developed his economic outlook? Some more quotes:
Only the top fifth of households ranked by their income—those with incomes of more than $200,000 a year in the financial year ending June 2012—pay anything into the system net of the value of social security in cash and kind received, according to data from the latest Australian Bureau of Statistics survey of household income. The distribution of personal income tax—the federal government’s biggest source of revenue, raising about 45 per cent of the total ($165 billion this year)—is far more progressive than headline marginal tax rates suggest. Including the 1.5 per cent Medicare levy, Australia’s income tax rates range from 19 per cent for every dollar of income above $18,200 to 46.5 per cent for every dollar above $180,000. Most taxpayers face a 34.5 per cent marginal rate. But average income tax rates on households’ privately generated income (ordinarily wages and salaries, but dividends and rental income too) ranged from 1.5 per cent for the bottom fifth of households in 2012 to 22 per cent for the top fifth.
There is no explanation of how this is possible. How do these ‘‘rich’’ households pay only 22 per cent tax?
In the financial year ending June 2010, what one might call ‘‘holistic average tax rates’’ (including indirect and direct taxes and net of social security in cash and kind) ranged from -64 per cent for the bottom quintile, to -22 per cent for median households and 13 per cent for the top fifth of households. Put simply, only the top fifth of households paid any tax. 
Even more interesting; how do these ‘‘rich’’ households pay only 13 per cent average tax?
It is absurd to claim the ‘‘rich’’—assuming incomes rather than wealth are the defining criterion—aren’t paying their ‘‘fair share’’ of tax when they in fact pay all of it. 
Really?  Curiously, the elephant in the room is not mentioned; how can an article about salary and tax not mention salary packaging?

The note at the bottom of the (unattractive) figure in the article, mentions imputed rent, stating that homeowners enjoy (untaxed) income from not having to pay rent. Sounds reasonable. However, there is no mention of the additional benefit that selling your own home is not subject to CGT.
[I]ncome tax becomes more progressive every year without any deliberate change because of what economists call ‘‘fiscal drag’’. Because the income tax thresholds are fixed in nominal terms and prices tend to rise, every year more taxpayers are pushed into ever-higher tax brackets and larger portions of their real incomes are taxed at higher rates.
True. But this could easily be solved by indexing the tax thresholds, which neither of the main parties want.
The massive disparity between gross and net payments of tax—12.6 million people lodged income tax returns in 2010-11—suggests ‘‘churn’’ is rampant and an immensely complex system is rife for rationalisation: we have more than 100 different taxes across three tiers of government interacting with a multitude of social security services in cash and kind. The administrative costs of collecting taxes—especially income tax—are large, not to mention the damage they cause to enterprise and effort.
While questioning the numbers, and the framework of the analysis, it is hard to disagree with this observation. One solution would be to increase the GST rate, reduce income tax, raise the thresholds, and eliminate all deductions. But careful modelling is required to determine the true impact of all these changes (see e.g. here), and ensure that the changes are fair to everyone. There's a contradiction here though: if we change the rates there must be winners and losers—and the losers are unlikely to be happy.
While the scope and size of governments have soared since then, the price of civilisation still, rightly, falls disproportionately on the richest.
So now he's saying the ‘‘rich’’ should pay more? Seems reasonable ...
The distribution of tax is not the problem but its growth as a share of national income is (along with undue focus on income rather than wealth as the determinant of someone’s capacity to pay).
Surely he's not proposing a wealth tax! So what is he suggesting? I think that Rupert didn't read this paragraph carefully enough prior to publication.
The moral case for fixed, reasonable taxes may resonate more than the pure economic one. Arbitrary increases in taxes to pay for services the market can and should provide offend the rule of law and erode individual property rights.
If there was one set of immutable tax rates that was truly fair to everyone then that's what should apply from now to eternity. Now try to get all Australians to agree on those rates ...

As Greg Jericho (who also makes no mention of salary packaging) writes:
Always remember when someone starts talking to you about how there should be just one flat tax rate for everyone, who really will be winning out of the change? Unless you happen to be one of Creighton’s barristers or chief financial officers, it most likely is not going to be you.

Monday, 3 March 2014

Network diagram of Physics formulas

Here is an interesting interactive CDF demonstration of the network of formulas based on related physical quantities, produced using Wolfram | Alpha.

Hold your mouse over a node to see a formula, and the physical quantities it contains, and follow the edges to related formulas. The interactive CDF is, unfortunately, a little slow.

Friday, 28 February 2014

Hvar, Croatia

Sarina Bratton's insider tips on Hvar, Croatia in The Australian made me want to visit:
  • Arrive by yacht at the bustling waterfront
  • Eat at Chef Ivan Buzolic’s Slow Food Zlatna Koljka (Golden Shell) restaurant
  • Buy stone and shell necklaces at Noche Azul near the cathedral on Petar Hektorovic Street
  • Watch the sun go down at Carpe Diem
  • Have breakfast at Cafe Pjaca
  • Visit The Arsenal
  • Cruise around the nearby Pakleni islands

Monday, 17 February 2014

Mindfulness Meditation

A number of my cycling buddies work for IBM Australia. So many, in fact, that I think IBM could actually be a front for an illegal cycling organisation. So I was amused to see a recent column in The Australian entitled App stress buster:
Technology giant IBM has found that a web-based not-for-profit app is reducing stress among its employees, after 200 staff undertook a trial late let year. At a time when many staff were most stressed, the company worked with Mindfulness Meditation, encouraging workers to undertake 10 minutes of "mindfulness" three times a week for six weeks.
One reason that many staff were stressed could be that, like many companies, last year IBM rationalised some areas of its Australian workforce, reducing staff numbers and reviewing its operations, increasing the stress levels of those remaining.

The article goes on to say that
The Melbourne-designed app was created by psychologists to tailor the program to corporate life. An IBM spokeswomen said preliminary results showed a reduction in participants' perceived stress levels by helping people clear the mind and improve focus and performance by mastering thoughts.
Does indeed sound very "zen". Also very useful for cycling.
The program was designed to increase levels of attention, focus and subsequent productivity, to improve awareness of cognition and emotions, to enable people to make better decisions under pressure, to increase resilience, general health, and to increase wellbeing and self-care.
Not sure about the emotions, and no explicit mention of cycling there—but all of these skills sound like they've been designed with cycling in mind.

According to the article, more details are are available here. See also the post by Leith Mitchell, IBM’s Growth Markets Diversity Recruitment Leader.

Monday, 3 February 2014

Follow the money

Further to my blog post Some sceptics make it a habit to be wrong, I was interested to read When Skepticism Becomes Denial: The Unholy Alliance Between Science Denial Movements. Two quotes:
Many have observed that these various science denial and pseudoscience movements appear to have a common strategy and frequently have common funders. As Prothero notes, alluding to the famous line from the movie All the President's Men, "Follow the money," since these different types of denialism are "heavily funded by wealthy entities with vested interests that further their causes.” 
What is not as well appreciated, however, is the extent to which several of the science denial movements mentioned above were promoted by the same cast of characters, a fact that Naomi Oreskes makes clear in her book Merchants of Doubt. Fred Seitz, a retired physicist who is one of the leading questioners of the consensus regarding global warming, once campaigned against the consensus on tobacco smoke. Fred Singer, a retired rocket scientist, has opposed the scientific consensus on tobacco, acid rain, the ozone hole and, yes, global warming.
What I found most interesting about Seitz et al (sometimes it is embarrassing to be a physicist) is that their opposition has little to do with money, but is actually due to their opposition to communism (due to their Eastern European background, WWII and the Iron Curtain) and their fundamentalist libertarian viewpoint.