Monday, February 27, 2006

You want to what?

New Zealand First MP Brian Donnelley has drafted a Private members Bill the “Education (Establishment of Universities of Technology) Amendment Bill.

The Bill proposes to establish “Universities of Technology” that will fill the perceived gap between traditional universities and polytechnics.
The problem with the bill as I see it is that it establishes Universities of Technology that are not considered Universities.
So where would AUT (now called AUT University, which is so funny – Auckland University of Technology University) fit into this?
We don’t know and would have to see what the explanation about that is, we can presume this has something to do with Unitec and its annoying, yappy claims that it should be a University.
Brian Donnelly claims that this is normal practise overseas to establish these universities of technology, I challenge him to show the public examples of this practise where it is the norm.
New Zealand does not need new types of university or polytechnic we are in oversupply as it is.

The most annoying thing about the bill, besides being a retarded idea, is that Labour has promised to bring it into the house if it does not get drawn soon as part of an election deal with NZ First. Painful Painful. I will attach a copy of the bill when I can get access to it.

Speaking of painful – what is the story with UCOL and how is this happening? Its not often that I agree with the National Party but this is a rare occasion when Bill English has it right on the button. UCOL is basically getting bailed out by the government – which I agree with in certain circumstances, as regional polytechs are very important- what I don’t agree with is two CEO’s are they stupid? Do they need two people to do one persons job? Couldn’t they just appoint another manager for a smaller cost? I know that this release has a National Party spin on it but whatever way you spin it – its painful. The UCOL council have something to answer for. Duncan Milne a wool research company director and investor – silly, woolly man, chairs the Council. How are they going to get themselves out of the s**t if they spend money on Two CEOs eh? How?

Wednesday, February 22, 2006


Yawn, Booooring.
A bird tells me that Ken Rapson, Mount Roskill Grammar Principal is moving on to the University of Auckland. He will be the director of the schools partnership office which is in charge of school liaison and partnerships.
Ken is a former Auckland (Boys) Grammar School Deputy Principal and I believe he had something to do with the development of the University of Auckland schools leadership centre.

The centre runs professional development workshops and leadership seminars that cost hundreds of dollars to attend. One does not approve, I presume they also do research but I am yet to see anything come out of the centre, the current director is one Ms Dawn Jones. Dawn is a former Diocesan school for girls Principal – 15 years and also co-founded Senior College with University of Auckland former Vice Chancellor and Maxim institute supported John Graham.
I wonder what lofty heights of glory Mr Rapson will take the schools partnership office to? His background is certainly droll and I doubt he will add much more than a smattering of grey to the beige world that is the University of Auckland.

Monday, February 20, 2006


Friday, February 17, 2006

The Fundy Post 20: Whatever Happened To....?

The Fundy Post, for those who know not of it, is the "review of the strange world of the Religious Right," which I produce for the NZ Association of Rationalists and Humanists. Under the banner of "we read this crap, so you don't have to," the Fundy Post comments on the activities of the Maxim Institute, the Society for the Promotion of Community Standards and others. It is copied here, for your amusement and edification.


Dear Fundy Post reader,

we have never before asked you for help, but a matter of serious concern has arisen and we need your assistance. The problem is simple: the Maxim Institute is in trouble. They are too proud to admit it, but a small note at the bottom of last week's Real Issues indicates that a crisis is looming. This is what it says:

Help support Maxim: We currently need visionary people to partner with us as monthly donors. Will you consider becoming a Maxim Partner? Please call us: 09 627 3261, or email us: and we will send you an AP form. Thank you in anticipation of your valuable support.

I don't think I need to say much more. As a Fundy Post reader, you will realise the seriousness of this problem. If Maxim goes under because of financial difficulties, what will there be to write about? After all, Bishop Tamaki has vanished (reports that The Rapture has already happened, but he was the only man good enough to go straight to Heaven, are exaggerated); the Exclusive Brethren are keeping to themselves; the Society for the Promotion of Community Standards have nothing to say but how beastly the Chief Censor is being towards them; even the spankers at Family Integrity can only wail about being mocked on National Radio. We need Maxim, more than they need us. They have given us so much in the past; now is the time to give something back.

Whilst you are at it, if you have any latent prejudices, seething resentments or uninformed opinions, don't keep them to yourself; send them to Maxim as well. Maxim has always had enough of these but a Peak Bile crisis may be just around the corner. For several years now, production has far exceeded supply. Having scapegoated gays, unmarried people, post modernists, neo-marxists, immigrants and many others, Maxim has few targets left. Indeed, in the previous Real Issues, they were reduced to complaining about news readers. The situation is truly dire.

Remember, without Maxim, the prospects for mockery look dismal. A publication like the Fundy Post can only keep going if there are bigots at which we can point and laugh. So dig deep. Please, please, give whatever you can. You don't need to be visionary; you just need cash. Don't do it for the children. Do it for satire.

Thank you in anticipation of your valuable support.

Where are they now?

If you think I am joking, take a look at The People of Maxim page on Maxim's website. Some familiar names are missing. John McNeil has gone and his blog, Canary in the Mine has not been updated since 22nd December. Scott McMurray, Communications Director, has gone, as have several minor parts in the Maxim drama; all trace of Mr Logan has been removed, of course. Others have come in their place. Has Restructuring taken place? Where are these people? What is going on?

Lack of Evidence

It is a lame title I know, but I told you things were bad. This is not the first time Maxim has asked for money. They have been doing it all the while. In fact, if you go to their website, you will find a personal message from Greg Fleming, inviting you to join him and his pals in building a better New Zealand. In return for becoming a Maxim Partner, you will receive a complementary copy of Maxim's Evidence journal each quarter.

Not any more. According to a cursory note tucked away on the publications page, Evidence is no more. The Spring 2005 edition was the last.

I for one will miss it. I never bought a copy, but I always read it. I shall miss the stock photographs of worried middle-class people, whose imaginary marriages were always under threat from homosexualists and the Neo-Marxist State. I shall miss the Philosophy For Dummies articles, which condemned all those heathen Greeks and lauded the godly thinkers ("Augustine is not just a philosopher, he's a Saint!" or something similar). I shall miss the various whinings of Maxim's Teenage FBI, the interns and staffers who always had a heartfelt personal story about how the world is so unfair to the sort of student who wears a suit to lectures.

In particular, I was hoping to to hear more from Tiffany Scrimshaw (yes, really), the intern who was looking forward to a "buffet of body treatment" with her two best girlfriends, but was disappointed when they "were lured away by the promise of better entertainment elsewhere," The fact that the alternative entertainment involved sex and booze, while Ms Scrimshaw would probably dish out lashings of Edmund Burke with the body rubs, was probably the tipping point for both friends. The Spring Issue of Evidence is available at all good bookstores but you can save your money and read Tiffany's gripe on the Maxim site.

Ruth is stranger than Fiction

The good news for Maxim is that they have had something published. Since that little matter with Mr Logan, we have not read much from Maxim in the papers. However, Ruth Porter managed to get an article published a few months ago, in the Education Weekly of 25th October 2005. Here is an excerpt from "What the next three years may hold:"

Despite attempts to avoid haemorrhaging schools to alternative examinations systems, including the PPTA's opposition to the Cambridge International Examinations, the latest stats show that, as long as the NCEA remains in its current form, the haemorrhaging is inevitable.

Parse this sentence at your peril. Our crack team of Semioticians has been working day and night in a futile attempt to understand what Ms Porter means. It is a bit rum that a body which claims to be so concerned about education standards has such a loose grip on grammar, syntax and all that jazz.

Never mind. Perhaps the winner of this year's Maxim Essay Contest, David Griffiths, will be able to translate. His winning entry can be downloaded as a PDF. Mr Griffiths is bothered that it is alright to make fun of religion. He is particularly vexed that "the Auckland Public Library displays a poster of cricketer Daniel Vettori reading a copy of The Da Vinci Code," and not because the book is a load of rubbish. No, it is an attack on Faith. Perhaps somebody at Maxim's Centre for Education needs to explain the difference between fact and fiction; maybe Paul Henderson whose "special interest is in hermeneutics"

Familiar Oddities

The title comes from an article in Real Issues 190, but it will do for my purposes. In said article, a Maxim staffer writes "have you ever stopped to consider why Don Brash's speeches delivered at Orewa, merit the attendance of major news outlets? A strange and implicit understanding now seems to exist that these speeches are more significant than the dozens of others given by Dr Brash throughout the year."

Perhaps that is because they are more significant than the others. Dr Brash said so. He gives a speech at Orewa Rotary Club every January in which he makes major policy statements and offends his colleagues. Doesn't everyone know that? Obviously not.

Perhaps what the staffer is trying to do is downplay the significance of Dr Brash's most recent speech, in which he stressed the values of a "liberal tolerant secular society" Maxim must feel a little hurt about that. Having done all that work to get the Christian vote to turn out for National, with its NZ Votes website and its political forums, Maxim finds that Dr Brash has not changed at all. He is still a godless heathen.

In another article in the same edition of Real Issues, Maxim gets very ornery about Dr Brash going on to say that New Zealand is a "society that embraces the Western Enlightenment ideals of personal liberty, private property and rationality as the basis of decision-making." He really has not been listening, has he? For Maxim, the Enlightenment (you know, that thing which gave us electricity and ended slavery) is anathema. What's more, Dr Brash failed to mention tradition and heritage, of the Judaeo-Christian kind. Maxim takes up the task of educating the Good Doctor about the state of things. We are living in a Postmodern age "where truth is relative rather than universal and reality is little more than one's perspective. As a consequence, the world is stripped of its meaning, making it difficult for people to meaningfully dialogue together about the world." Difficult especially for Maxim, which struggles both to meaningfully dialogue and to form a grammatically correct sentence.
A Critique of Politically Correct Reason

It can't be easy for them. Years of trying to get people to realise that the real enemy is post-modernism, political correctness and Neo-Marxism, and yet even the leader of the Tories will not pay attention. At least Maxim can take some comfort that Dr Brash's sidekick, the Eradicator Wayne Mapp, has been listening. In his speech to the Rotary Club of Eastern Hutt (are these speeches in some way franchised to Rotary clubs?) Dr Mapp expounded on "Why the Debate on Political Correctness Matters" and promised to develop a "substantial paper" on this theme in the next few months.

The Eradicator says "Much of the writing on political correctness refers to its Marxist origins. It was a term used by Leninists in the Soviet Union of the 1920s to denote the correct way to think about politics." I suspect the writing to which he refers is Maxim's own publication "Political Correctness and the Theoretical Struggle" by Dr Frank Ellis, a man so politically incorrect that he is prepared to share a platform with the people in the pointy hoods with the fiery crosses. Not content to be just the PC Finder General, Dr Mapp aims to add to the scholarly corpus on this topic. He revealed to the Eastern Hutt Rotarians that he has discerned the Categories of Political Correctness; we might in future think of him as the Kant of PC.

However, he tells us, we do not need theory to recognise PC, because "like pornography, we know it when we see it."

One wonders what other publications Dr Mapp has been reading.

The Fundy Post is written by Paul Litterick, NZARH Spokesman and is a publication of the NZARH. The views expressed in this publication do not necessarily represent the views of all members of the NZARH.

The Fundy Post is available by email subscription. Write to
If you want to join the NZARH (go on, you know you want to), write to

Cash moves everything around me - $$ bills ya'll

Wellington High School awards $50 to students who turn up to class everyday for the year. This has been met with criticism and fan fare – you can read about it here.

I am personally overwhelmed by education sector news at the moment – it has been a very interesting year so far, and this is another very interesting story.
Personally I believe that this kind of incentive system is flawed. Those students who can come to school everyday being rewarded is placing incentives in the wrong place.
It is highly likely that those students who do turn up everyday would have had the capacity to already- Therefore this would not tackle any truancy issues.

I can see that if you give money to those who turn up there may be some incentive for those ‘once a year waggers’ to not take that day off but I think that the focus on giving money to these students (only 13 last year at the school) is missing the point completely.

Truancy is a problem that must be tackled from four directions; The school, the student, the parents/ whänau and the community. The payment to students only focuses on the student and avoids the root of truancy problem. We should be less concerned about the ‘once a year’ waggers – who I think we have all been at some stage, and more concerned about those who are constantly truanting for those students $50 is not enough of an incentive to keep them at school.

I also have a problem with money being an incentive – it is perverse. I feel that certificates and references are a more appropriate reward for this type of achievement. Firstly because schools have little money and secondly because of the message that this is sending to young adults – that money is the only worthwhile incentive, we should make sure that we teach our young people about responsibility, duties and rights and this is removed from the world of money – otherwise the underlying message that is being sent is that it is not worth doing anything unless there is money attached to it.

I feel that this is another example of a school simplifying a complex issue – like truancy – which must be tackled through a sustained and multi layed set of actions. Offering money to these students avoids the real issue and that is what is going on with those students who do not turn up to school

If you are a born with a learning disability you must pay more, stupid!

Auckland’s Cockle bay school has been charging for specific learning disabilities classes that students attend during school time.
ERO found out that the school were making parents pay for this tuition during a routine review. You can read about it here.

What astonishes me is how the school could interpret the Education Act in a way that condoned the school charging a tuition fee to parents.
Although the school should be commended for providing these classes for students with learning disabilities they must realise that compulsory education is currently still ‘free’ under the law.

It seems to me that it is reasonable to charge parents the standard school fee but an added fee for these classes is clearly against the act.
Children with learning disabilities are entitled to be taught like all other students – there has been no choice made by them to have a learning disability therefore any education they receive must be under the requirements of the education act for all students to receive an education.
The self determination for schools that came in during the Tomorrows schools reforms was certainly exciting but you do get morons like Cockle Bay school chairman David Crawford interpreting he education act and charging students for a basic education. Go figure.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Tangled Bank 47: This is your final boarding call...

Good Evening Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome aboard this flight TB47. The Air Kete Were crew would like to wish you an enjoyable flight. Before we depart, the crew would like to bring to your attention today's inflight entertainment...

Parasite loving passengers will find a discussion by Coturnix on the modus operandus of Ampulex compressa, the Emerald Cockroach Wasp in the seat pocket in front of them, together with an interview by Complex Medium with the parasitologist Robert Desowitz.

Bird lovers among us are in for a special treat during the flight: an account of the recently rediscovered Lost Birds of Paradise of West Papua, prepared by Scientist, Interrupted, as well as an article on the Eurasian Collared Dove from Mike at 10000 Birds

Archaelogist Martin Rundkvist provides three articles for your reading pleasure: a description of An Old Church located over the site of an old Swedish pagan feasting house, determined using ground radar; a discussion on the real function of ancient barrows, and an account of human life on the bottom of the North Sea - 9000 years ago.

The more medically minded will have noticed a number of enticing options on our inflight menu:

A Concerned Scientist presents an appetiser on Stem Cell research, followed up by a discussion on dropping cancer rates. Alternatively, we will be offering Circadiana's Seasonal Affective Disorder with mineral water. Before choosing your option, however, we would advise you to be aware of Centrerion's link between obesity and portion sizes.

Regular passengers will be aware of the link between flying and deep vein thrombosis, and the need for preventative exercises. We would also like refer you to The Other Bloke's post discussing the link between bilingualism and lower rates of Alzheimer's Disease. Accordingly you will find German, Spanish and Chinese dictionaries under your seats, next to the life jackets.

Lazy Journalists will appreciate this post from Political Calculations, allowing them to calculate any statistics for a given time period, in order to prevent any embarassing, published screw ups.

The Lancelet posts Part Three in a three-part series on the concept of "Species" and its manipulation by creationists. Parts One and Two can be found here and here.

Galactic Interactions muses on the concept of Cosmological Fine Tuning, while Anthonares explains why we shouldn't be running the Terrestrial Planet Finder through NASA in its current form.

Frequent fliers with Kete Were Air will be familiar with the impressive work of Pharyngula, and today's piece on the evolution of a polyphenism continues that tradition.

The more philosophical of our passengers may not be entirely satisfied by any of the entertainment options mentioned. As a result, we offer a wide range of philosophical pieces for you: Reb Chaim offers the provocatively-titled "Sin or Die", Ruminating Dude questions How Ethical are Scientists?, while B and B ponders the conundrum of politically active scientists. If you're a youngest child, you'll enjoy Cognitive Daily's post suggesting what you always suspected: you may actually be the smartest of your siblings.

Evolgen takes issue with those who take issue with 'retarded geneticists', Shallow Thoughts discusses the joy of Radioactive Radon in the home, which, along with The Biotech Weblog's report on Phase 3 of clinical trials of an anti-HIV gel among Africal Women is bound to tickle the interest of those interested in the fascinatingly obscure.

Our own crew member, Xavier, would like to share with you his ramblings on Global Warming. Humour him. Go on, you know you want to...

If you're after just a little harmless fun, the Kete Were crew can suggest The Scientific Activist's humourous and scientific take on Valentines Day. This is a far cry from The SA's previous work, exposing the mouthy 24 year old would be censor of NASA George Deutsch as not actually being a journalist at all. The Skwib takes the mickey out of Thomas Malthus, economist, influencer of Darwin and prude extraordinaire, it would seem.

Lovers of the simple things in life will appreciate A Darwinian Cryptic Crossword brought to you by Richard Carter. Due to inflight safety regulations on pointy things, pencils are available only from your friendly Kete Were crew.

We hope you enjoy your flight today, and look forward to seeing you on Flight TB48 in two week's time, departing from Aetiology International Airport on 1 March. Bookings can be made by emailing

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Perception Vs Fact - School zones, competition and choice

Researchers at the London School of Economics, Centre for Economics of Education have conducted some reserach into choice and competition in London primary schools. You can find the research here. There is a brief article about this in the latest education review.

The initial findings did show that pupils did better in schools where competitive markets operated. But - in look further they saw that it was due to the sorting of students and the socio economic area around the school that led to this achievement - not the competition. Many people would argue that the sorting of students is exactly why competition works, but the difficulty with this, is that the students are already 'smarter' than others - it is not the competition that raises the standards. The sorting and choosing of students is just a streaming or class based system.
The research showed that "attainment for pupils... - are unrelated to the choices avalible to the pupils or to the competitive pressures the school faces."
This research is part of the arguement against competition and choice in schooling - I refer back to my previous argument. The demand for choice in schools is not rational and based on achievement, it is grounded in parental hysteria.
Until we build confidence and breakdown stereotypes around schools we will continue to have debate framed by fear of the current system.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Happy Darwin Day!

On this day, February 12, in 1809 a little boy was born in Shrewsbury, England, who would one day write a book (or several, as it turned out) explaining the theory that underpins all of modern biology...

Charles Darwin - the shy, reclusive, persistent, possibly hypochondriac, conflict-avoiding son of doctor, would be clergyman, and amateur geologist, who also discovered that barnacles are actually crustaceans.

Happy 197th Birthday!

Image hosting by Photobucket

UPDATE: YOU HEARD IT HERE FIRST!AJ Chesswas, a.k.a. Allan, a.k.a. Agri-Christian is departing the cyber-narcissitico-blogo-sphere. I swear, I SWEAR! WE HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH IT. Adieu, Allan, It was fun while it lasted, even though I personally disagree with almost every syllable you write. I had a read of Allan's post recounting The Great AJ Chesswas Conceptual Art Project, and couldn't help but get a smile on my dial. Aaahh...those were the days. Some people enjoyed it, others didn't, some even mystically attribute the winding down of About Town to The Project, an inference that is entirely incorrect, but nonetheless speaks volumes to its infamy. Allan, you are a legend, even if wrong most of the time. Good night, and Good Luck.

Wheres the rangatiratanga eh?

About 2 months ago the Principal of Edgewater College was telling me about a proposed website where parents could check on their children’s school grades and attendance records. I was appalled and proceeded to explain how this removed the rights of the students and did not take a youth development approach to improving information for students. About 20 minutes ago TV One News announced the launch of this kind of website at Avondale college.

The way the website works is that parents are given a unique login and they can view the grades and attendance record (per period) of their child(ren). Avondale College’s Principal says that this is about adding value for parents and to encourage parent interest in their child's education.

Although this may mean that parents have more information I would argue that it's not necessarily the right information and also that all student rights are removed by putting this information online, and that parent interest in their child’s education should be encouraged but not through such a perverse method as ‘spying’ on their child.

In an ideal world children would discuss their progress at school with parents including days off and grades. This is not always the case and parents are often moved to spy on their children or find information that their children won't give them in other ways.

This really defeats the purpose, though, because in the end the education of the child is paramount and the child’s ‘buy in’ to their education is vital.

A youth development approach to information would empower the students to come up with a way to communicate with their parents about grades etc.

The information that parents can access through the Avondale site is information they can access from teachers already, but there has always been the understanding that students will tell their parents.

This website is removing them from the picture and encourages parents to take any self-determination that the children had over their education away.

In person I can articulate this argument better but I am opposed to the website for these reasons:

1. Grades and days off are not the only measures of educational success – this information may give parents an skewed idea of where their child is at.

2. Parents may see this as an alternative to talking to their child or their child’s teacher about their progress.

3. Parents may see this as an alternative to attending parents teacher interviews

4. This removed the child’s right to an privacy around this information.

5. This system takes any responsibility and rights away from the student.

6. This system could become more Big Brother-like, as it is developed.

I am very upset that this is in place and the students are viewed without rights in this situation. It is difficult for students to organise and articulate against this system. This system is avoiding the problem that leads to parents needing to get this information from somewhere other than the child. Parent and child communication in an open, honest and mature way can be achieved; this web based system is taking the easy way out to scare and alienate the students from self-determination over their education.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Aussies want to abort at home too!

Helen Clark met with John Howard yesterday but most of the questions from the media at the press conference were for Howard - asking him about where he stood on RU-486.

UPDATE: Voted today 16/02/06 - the upper house passed the bill to remove right of veto over RU-486 from Minister of Health- well done aussies!

Currently the Australian Health Minister has the right of veto over whether Australians will have access to the abortion pill RU-486. The difficulty is is the Health Minister is fundamentally anti-abortion. A cross-party private members bill was put together that removed the Health Minister's right of veto and it has successfully made it through the senate last night. Read about it here!

John Howard is trying to move the debate away from abortion - claiming that it is vital that the Health Minister keep his right to veto. But it's a conscience vote and his party members voted against him in the first round of voting. With some luck the bill will be passed through the House of Representatives - Proud and open anti-abortionists do not good Health Ministers make.

PS- I desperately wanted to call this post something about dingos stealing babies but couldn’t work it in without offending myself.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

I'm in the Zone!

Today (Thursday) John Morris (Principal of ABGS or AGS for you puritans) had a whole column to himself to put forward his views on zoning. You can find it here – or by searching John Morris in the Herald search function.

In tomorrows National Business Review there will also be a piece on school choice by a friend of mine – Page 13. We have utterly different views on this but it still will be a good read.
I want to respond to some of Johns comments and then move the debate a bit to talk about Selwyn college – which I believe the NBR article will touch on.

In his article John Morris is really saying that his school stands above the rest and that the parents who have aspirations for their children will send them there. He is marketing a form of elitism and suggesting that his school out performs all others.
There is not question that ABGS is a good school and that if you are a good rugby player you should go there. The traditional style of teaching works for some but not all. Morris also says that because of ABGS inner Auckland locale they are unfairly discriminated against because of the zoning laws.

So, what to do? Zoning ‘works’ for 99% of schools without complaint and ABGS will not be having legislation just for this school. So we need to
a) Build another school in the ABGS zone
b) Fund ABGS to build more classrooms
c) Crack down on system cheaters
d) Build confidence in those schools who are performing well
e) Identify those schools that are not performing and raise those standards.
f) Stop harping on about property prices – if zoning were removed all those people who paid a premium to live in the Grammar zone property prices would drop overnight. Surely its in those peoples best financial interest to support zoning,

John Morris is advocating for a removal of zoning full stop for reasons that we have visited and it didn’t work. So now we have to look to the future, National is not currently advocating the removal of zoning. They are advocating more ‘choice’ though – whatever that means. I am still yet to see the pragmatic solution that John Morris says that he has – I am willing to suspend my left POV to see something more centrist.

Grammar was given a one-year exemption by the government to begin classes a week early. This exemption was given so that they could adjust for the year after; Morris says that it is impossible to have a week less (actually 4 days due to Auckland Anniversary and Waitangi Day) as they would not reach the gazetted teaching hours for the Cambridge Exams. Unfortunately for Morris his argument is not strong as students are legally entitled to enrol in his school up to the date that school starts – this week – not last week when ABGS started, even with the exemption.

This while issue is more complex, it’s not all based on fact. It’s about attitudes, stereotypes, group think and values. ABGS appeals to some parents solely because of a uniform – or an all boy’s school (that is affordable) or having ‘Grammar Values’ or being a strict place of discipline. These values can be so strong that they defy all else; especially when parents are just trying to do what they think is best for their child.

Which brings be to Selwyn College – unfairly labelled a bad school by white, upper middle class In zone parents of Kohimarama. Why? Because its seen as an arts school, or because they have an immigrant programme, or because it does not have a uniform. Its basic human prejudice. Never mind the fact that your child could attend Selywn and study Maths, English, Science and say History and Geography – go through the system like a kid at Grammar without being called my their last name. Never mind the fact that the academic outcomes are excellent and the NCEA levels are absolutely fine.
What the prejudice is – is against the other course – the focus and fostering of the arts, culture and drama.
And because they are in mufti they must be hoons or wagers.
Although I personally like uniforms because they remove all class boundaries I cannot see how mufti can affect the quality of learning but it sure effects the perception of quality.

What this highlights is that we need to do some serious confidence building in our schools and breaking down of prejudice. Private schools do add value – they can cause you pay for it. ABGS adds value because of the history and its cultural capital but schools like Selwyn certainly add value and those students are just as successful.
It depends just how you define success - but that’s another post for another day.

Update: - 2 letters in the NZHerald today. One that suggests privatising Grammar. Rich also suggests in my columns field - an Auckland Zone drawn by the 'hat method' or turing top decile schools into 6th form colleges. Will examine these options soon. (must work - and so should you - get back to it!)

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Truth, Beauty

I read in The Herald and heard on National Radio about a "lost world" (in fact, previously unfound) of animals and plants that had been discovered in New Guinea.

What the scientists found was extraordinary and beautiful. How they went about finding what they found was also extraordinary and beautiful, as was their ability to distinguish what they had found from what was already known. After all, the beauty of Science is its ability to make distinction, as well as to classify and to decide on the basis of those classifications. In doing so, it describes the beauty of Nature.

And then I speculated, Rationalist that I am and ever so mindful of how Science has been disdained by those who claim to have a better judgement, whether the scientists who found this 'garden of Eden' were in a race with the Creation Scientists (Old Earth and Young Earth) or the Intelligent Design 'theorists' to find and classify these previously unknown species.

Of course they were not: real Science gets on with the work of doing Science; bogus 'science' takes a back seat and criticises. There have been no discoveries made by Creation Scientists, Young or Old, or by Intelligent Designists. Not once, not ever. These bogus scientists have nothing to add, although they will do their best to insinuate that their opinions have some bearing on what has been found. Of course, they are lying.

As a medical student (who died at a ridiculously young age from Consumption) once said:

Beauty is truth, truth beauty, - that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

Where is the la la la la love

St Valentines Day is just around the corner and I have been wondering what this actually means. As one gets older the significance of this day becomes less and less relevant as you get a partner (who hopefully shows you their love everyday) or grow up enough to not rest the success of yourself as a person on your success on this one day. For me I have a long standing love of the day of love. Firstly because I like presents and secondly because I don't want those people who call it a commmercialised holiday to get off scott free - they must show love, and they must do it on Feb 14th. UPDATE : - I got a dozen roses and a t-shirt that says "this is what a socialist looks like." I am so happy.

Over the last 20 something years of my life I have had several painful valentines day experiences - from relationships breaking up (several times on this one day!) to complete denial that the day exisits with stupid excuses like "I show you love all year baby!" and I am thinking "then where the f**k are my flowers?"
So as next Tuesday approaches I feel nervous - will my relationship end? Will I get flowers? Will I be told "its a commercialised holiday - get over it." The pressure is building up and I can't for the life of me think of what to get my partner.
Will they even want a gift if they don't believe in Valentines day? but I can't not get a gift because then how can I assert my right to one."

Can you see, dear reader, my problem.
And how can you not 'believe' in Valentines day anyway - It exisits - the newspaper tells me so (well the advertising sections of glossy magazines at least).

How do you manage this day? Is it pressure, stress? Or am I over analysing this whole thing? but without this day you may never get gifts of love. My best friends boyfriend does not 'buy into' Valentines day and she has been hinting about diamond earrings for years - but does she have them... no she doesn't. Damn you St Valentine - look at what you have done!

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

The zoning debate rages on - in my mind at least

The media has continued to publish articles about zoning and enrolment since my last post about John Morris - principal of ABGS. What strikes me is the lack of analysis and suggestion as to how to solve this situation from within the education sector

Todays Herald highlights the enrolment cheat issue, while the editorial misses the point completely by attacking the egalitarian zoning system by arguing that it raises real estate prices in the area - curiously the National party does this too - Bill English released this inspired press relesase which says absolutely nothing and adds sweet FA to the arguement - its a shame that National seem to be missing this very good oppotunity to attack zoning policy, which they should as a matter of course. National just seem to be happy to have their lackies (ie John Morris) push it like a cracked record for them.

What is worrying me is the lack of leadership here - okay lets suspend reality and say that I accept that zoning does not work (where I think it does) Where is the alternative - vouchers that Maxim institute are supporting? The NZEI have argued here that this is old news.

Choice does not exisit with or without zoning - without zoning choice only really is a consideration for those who have the cultural capital to make it so, for example without zoning good students from South Auckland are still not going to get into ABGS because they don't have a 'hotline' to the principals office.

Those who are complaining about a lack of choice now would be the ones complaining the loudest when they can't drive to take their child from Kohimarama to ABGS because the traffic is gridlocked with other parents in SUVs going to the same place.
If we accept there is a problem we need to talk about viable solutions - and the reality is is that in a publicly funded sector like education there will never be true choice for parents. I don't buy the arguement that we should simulate a market - we want choice without really appreciating what choice actually means.

We have an obligation to make sure that all schools are of high quality and that schools are not made false idols by sheep like parents that dont know any better. This probably won't be the last post about this - as you can see, my arguement is not fully developed and I haven't got down to the nuts and bolts of the issue - But what concerns me is that I can't find anyone doing that and as a democratic society we have an obligation not just to complain but also to suggest solutions.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Snakes and Lizards: Venom

I was blown away by an article I found in Nature this week - an article that has generally escaped the attention of bloggers, or so I thought. It turns out that I am a bit behind the mark - despite only being published in the print version of Nature this week, the article, it seems, is so last year, having appeared at Carl Zimmer's blog The Loom and at Afarensis also, with some discussion.

Nevertheless, whenever the article was published, it seriously impressed me - not so much because of its implications for the evolution of venom systems in snakes and lizards (although there is plenty of that), but more so because of the staggering amount of work that went into drawing some very strong, very detailed conclusions; More so because the research, analysis and communication represents good, nay excellent science.

So many of the articles published in journals (particularly the brevia) discuss the results of a single experiment with a bioactive compound, or a field study of an animal; perhaps a play back experiment in bird song, or a test of olfactory identification by petrels, as two examples I have seen. While these experiments are surely elegant, subtle and well designed, they are inherently limited by their restricted scopes. Too often their validity rests upon their compatibility with the results from other disciplines, and the effect of other variables that may not have been tested concurrently. Their results are statistically significant, for sure, and their conclusions undoubtedly sound, but they are in many cases hamstrung in their subsequent applicability to other phenomena, because the original methodology and execution lacked the robustness of a cross disciplinary approach.

The Nature article is produced by 14 authors, chief among them a chap named Dr Bryan Fry from the Australian Venom Research Unit in Melbourne, and is a sterling example of the power of an holistic, cross-disciplinary approach to resolving scientific questions.

Essentially what the article details is an investigation into the evolution of venom production and delivery in the Squamata, the subgroup of diapsid 'reptiles' containing lizards and snakes. More than that, though, the research challenges a number of major assumptions that we hold about these animals; assumptions about evolutionary relationships, assumptions about which lineages actually produce venom and, perhaps most interestingly, assumptions about how at least one lineage was originally thought to have hunted prey. All of these challenges, these conclusions, gain their power from the combination of extensive research across the disciplines of molecular phylogenetics, histology, molecular modelling, molecular evolution and cDNA library construction, toxicology and pharmacology, all against the backdrop of paleaontological reconstructions of the animals.

The most recent consensus of relationships (phylogeny) between the lineages of the Squamata clade is shown below on the left (from the very excellent Tree Of Life Website). The phylogenetic tree printed in Fry's article is on the right.

[Click to Enlarge]

As you can see, there is a major reshuffling of many of the lineages. Most interestingly, the relationship of the snakes appears to have been confidently resolved, with the phylogram placing them in a single clade with the Iguania and the [Helodermatidae + Anguidae + Varandidae] clade, (collectively the three are known as the Anguimorpha). The new phylogeny also changes the place of the Iguania clade (which includes the Iguana lizards), from being the most ancestral or basal lineage of the squamates to one of the most derived. It also means that Iguanas and anguimorph lizards are more closely related to snakes than they are to other lizards. Lets be clear: this is quite a fundamental shift.

Our understanding of venom systems in the squamates (until this research) basically held that only the Serpentes (snakes) and Helodermatidae (Gila Monster) had venom delivery systems, and that the evolution of venom delivery systems in the Serpentes essentially underscored their massive diversification - it was what made them so successfula as a group of reptiles. If this conclusion were true, then according to either of the phylogenies above, the evolution of these systems happened independently - that is, by convergent evolutionary processes. Analysising the systems would make this a pretty reasonable conclusion: snakes deliver their venom via specialised glands in the upper jaw (maxilla), whereas Gila Monsters produce theirs via a gland on their lower jaw (mandible) which then delivers the venom along grooves in the teeth.

Now comes the beauty of the research: The researchers showed that other squamates possessed gland that produced proteins in a similar fashion; the Iguanas (both upper and lower glands) and the Varanids (lower). 'Libraries' were constructed of the DNA coding for all the active compounds coming from all the glands, upper and lower. All members of the 'Venom' group - the Snakes, the Komodos and Monitors and the Iguanas - were analysed, and the nature of the proteins, and the relationships between them, were investigated.

The article shows that the 'ancestral' state appears to have been a delivery system that incorporated both the upper and lower jaw bones. 9 of the original toxin proteins are today found in both the snakes and lizards, 2 of which are only found in the upper jaw glands of Snakes and Iguanas. It appears that, after the development of these 9 proteins, the early snakes split off and underwent a massive evolution - essentially ceasing production of toxins in the lower jaw (except for a few species), but inventing at least 16 other toxins that they delivered through the upper jaw. The next split was the Iguanians, retaining the ancestral condition both upper and lower jaw venom delivery systems. The remaining Anguimorph lizards went the other way - losing the ability to produce toxin in the upper jaw, but inventing at least 3 new toxins to be delivered through the lower jaw.

These three toxins were originally only thought to have been produced by the Gila monster's group, the Helodermatidae, but the article shows that one of the toxins, PLA2 Type III, is also found in the Varanidae - a group that includes the Komodo Dragon, and the Goanna of Australia.

I'm skimming over a great deal here - work that would have gone into deciphering the relationships between toxin molecules is MASSIVE, work that analysed tissue samples, molecule structure, bioactivity and physical properties, not to mention trying to put all of the molecules together in an evolutionary sense. It is a breathtaking amount of research to do, but the picture it produces is worth it.

We can now see that the evolution of venom systems in snakes and lizards was not an entirely independent process - that many of the conditions which preceded modern the modern systems developed before the first snakes even appeared. We can see that, in each of the lineages, subsequent evolution took its course in a way that led us to believe they were independent, that each lineage 'co-opted' only a part of the ancestral state, producing what appear to be unique systems.

The new picture also has major implications for the predatory behaviour one of the lineages which we thought we understood, and about which we could have been horribly wrong: the lineage of the Komodo Dragon, the Goanna and the extinct Megalania prisca

Conventional wisdom has it that the Varanidae hunt by infection, that is, that the lizards deliver a bite to their prey, injecting it with massive amounts of bacteria (over 50 strains!) that fester in its gums. They wait until the animal is overcome by blood loss, infection and shock and then go in for the kill. It turns out that Fry and his team don't think this is a very good explanation at all - a 'red herring' if you will. Previous work on varanid bites, and the speed at which prey items (or humans!) react to the bite has indicated the presence of an active biological compound (such as venom) rather than a slow, passive bacterial infection.

The article shows that the toxins identified in varanid bites are consistent with the effects seen in human victims, including respiratory problems, intense pain, muscle weakness and increased and irregular heart rates. It appears that there is more to this story, and it definitely needs to be investigated further.

Interestingly enough, this little discovery also influences, or at least affects our ability to accept, a possible model of predatory behaviour in a related but very dead animal: Tyrannosaurus rex. Some paleontologists have attempted to show that Tyrannosaurus jaw, teeth and gum structure was very similar to that of the Komodo Dragon, and that it was possible T. rex may also have hunted by causing infectious bites. If it turns out that the Komodo Dragon doesn't even do that, and instead delivers a venomous bite, we may have to throw that particular explanation out the window.

While I respect Dr Fry's expertise on this matter, I would certainly caution against throwing out the "Infectious Bite" explanation altogether. While it may be that the Varanidae do deliver a bioactive venom in their bites, it is also clear that they do have exceptionally filthy mouths. The two explanations are not mutually exclusive, and I would argue that any bite that ensures death, be it immediately or in a week's time, is likely to be a very useful adaptation.

The article seems small and unassuming, but it's conclusions, and the work behind them, are phenomenal. By combining a whole range of seemingly distinct disciplines, the researchers have been able to produce a robust, profound and clear explanation about some of the most interesting animals and the way that they operate in their own worlds. It's this kind of work that makes me itch to do research. It's this kind of thing that makes me love science and the most profound way, and shows me why there is nothing else I want to do with my life.

And just because it's put me in such a good mood, here is a copy of the Wedge Strategy produced by the Discovery Institute, on how to get Intelligent Design in public schools, Reproduced from the Seattle Weekly, via Pharyngula, the best science blog I've read...Just click to enlarge

Have a Happy Waitangi Day

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Terrorism: in the eye of the beholder?

John Morris: Victim of Injustice?

Auckland Boys Grammar School Principal John Morris has been in the news recently for opening the school a week early and also for denying 80 in zone students the right to enrol at ABGS.

Although legally schools are due to open on the 7th some schools have chosen to open earlier citing the Cambridge exams workload as too large to fit into less time. You can see the article about this here

It always makes me chuckle when I read about Cambridge exams and how some schools insist on offering them even though they are not related to Cambridge University in anyway and the checks and balances on the quality of the exams are dubious at best. The Government and the Ministry of Education must take some of the blame for these exams being offered as they had the opportunity to restrict the use of these exams earlier but probably have missed that boat now.

In reality ABGS and the other schools do not need to go back a week earlier - its really a move to assert authority over the schools a sort of 'my dick is bigger than yours' competition - those are tiresome and the only people that really lose out are the students and there families. More time at school is not a sign of a quality education.

What has me more concerned and upset is the report that AGGS has turned away 80 in zone students who wished to enroll - the story is here.

John Morris is really only playing political football with the education of those 80 students by denying them their rightful place at his school. I bet that he has accepted more than 80 out of zone students to the school this year meaning that those who are in zone do not have a place.

It is not my intention to outline why I believe in school zoning at this stage - it is however my intention to draw attention to the otherside of this story. Not the poor ABGS principal who is a victim of his own success but a story of poor management and a lack of planning.

School principals have an obligation to be smart managers and to plan for school roll increases and decreases. There are several ways that a school can do this with data from years past, family records (to plan for younger brothers) census and stats NZ data. As well as data from MOE. John Morris could have predicted this but he didn't and now he is trying to highlight some kind of injustice that he has come under where really it's those in zone students who have been victims of injustice.

Cartoons, Butt Plugs and Tolerance

It's been somewhat of a posting hiatus at kete were for a wee while now; things seem to go quiet when I go away, it would seem. Not to worry! There's nothing like a Graveyard shift in a very quiet call centre to allow for a nice long catch up post...

I've been quite bemused by the Danish Islamic cartoon furore that has erupted over the last week or so. Perhaps the most surreal aspect of the incident is the fact that it's the Danish that have incurred the wrath of Islam. If I had to predict the flash point of a global cultural conflict between fundamentalist jihadist Islamists and the Western Hegemon it probably wouldn't have involved a small country, essentially as offensive as vanilla icecream and puppy dogs. Even Danish Salami is boring.

Of course, Denmark represents something that is perhaps even more offensive to the hardened jihadist than The Great Satan: secularism. As evil GwB and the invasion of the Yanqui imperialists into The Holy Lands may be perceived to be, at least America believes in something, right? The stable, western, liberal, secular democracies of Continental Europe, and to some extent the United Kingdom, with their stubborn refusal to unite the power of faith with the power of the State surely represent more of an anathema to Islamism than the largest Christian Theocracy of all time.

The whole situation is incredibly worrying because it has illustrated two disturbing trends. Firstly, the absolutely vile, violent and visceral reaction of islamists to any commentary that questions, satirises, mocks and...shock horror...offends their religion. Even more worrying is the handwringing of supposed liberals and the spineless concessions to a paradigm that is alien to all things liberalism holds dear: pluralism, tolerance and freedom.

Below are four images. They depict a Baby Jesus Butt Plug, one of the offending Danish cartoons, a picture of Charles Darwin's head on a Monkey's body and the world with the baubles of the United States and Israel falling and shattering through an hourglass, produced by the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Image hosting by Photobucket

They are all, I'm sure, offensive to some people. As a student of evolutionary biology, I find the Darwin picture mildly offensive. But they are all acceptable images to produce and view in a secular democracy such as ours, or Denmark's or, at a stretch, the United States'. It is a right of a free individual to produce images or say what he or she pleases, as long as whatever is produced or spoken remains within the bounds of libel and/or defamation law. It is the right of a newspaper to publish them. It is the right of individuals to get angry and rant and froth when they see them, and it is the right of the rest of us to tell them to belt up and stop being so precious.

It all seems rather callous and uncaring, doesn't it? A bit of a free for all of ideas and offence being caused, left, right and centre. Well, what do you expect in a society where people exist with almost complete freedom to do and say as they please? Bunny rabbits and fluffy cuddles? Of course, with those rights come the responsibilities to use them wisely. It may not have been a very good idea of the Danish Newspaper to publish them. Similarly, the Dom Post today may not have exercised a great deal of wisdom in their decision to publish the Danish cartoons, but it was their right to do so, regardless of their motivation. I personally think it was just silly sensationalism, but it's their call, just as it is the call of a Muslim Dairy Owner not to sell the Dominion Post on that day. Kofi Annan has said that freedom of the press should not be an excuse for the press to offend religions. This in itself is true; the press should exercise discretion on whether or not what they're publishing, broadcasting or printing really is worth it - that's a responsibility that comes with the freedom to publish that material in the first place. But we also have a responsibility to accept that in a free democracy, where we have the right to say and do essentially what we please, somewhere along the line, someone is going to say something that offends us. It really is a small price to pay.

Chris Carter's response to the Dominion Post's decision was typical from such a feel good portfolio as Ethnic Affairs, labelling the move as "undermining the nation's reputation of tolerance". I personally don't think that that's a very logical interpretation. Tolerance is not censorship motivated solely by maintaining the illusion of a happy united nation Tolerance is more the measure of how we, and the Islamic community in New Zealand specifically, react to the publishing of these cartoons. Tolerance does not mean either forced acceptance of ideas as being equally valid as your own, nor does it mean banning things which might be offensive to some people. Tolerance means that, while you may not like what other people think or say, and you may rant and rave about it as much as you like, you have no right to stop them thinking or saying it. I personally can't stand what Brian Tamaki says or thinks, and I rail against his ignorant homophobia. But it's his right to say it, and I have to accept that as much as it pains me. Tolerance shouldn't be a pleasant experience, but it's a vital artefact of, and safeguard for individual freedoms.

The response of many Islamist groups around the world really does underscore how divorced these people (and by these people I mean fundamentalist islamists, not muslims in general) are from the ideas of democracy. Attacking embassies, chanting 'death to Denmark', threatening violence against western states - the hallmarks of those blinded by raw, unadulterated, self-righteous faith. They have all the respect for democracy as an abortion clinic bomber. This behaviour is not justified, it can not be tolerated, and it is important for secular democracies to make clear in no uncertain terms that they won't have a bar of it.

The response of hand-wringing apologists around the world also shows how perilous our grip on freedom could become. For too long, many secular states around the world have either pandered to foreign religious groups in order to appease and prevent unrest in their own countries - introducing (or at least trying to) hate speech laws that seriously undermine individual freedoms in the interests of 'racial harmony', or imposing dogmatic secular laws that do nothing more than foster resentment and militant fundamentalism among religious and ethnic communities. France, by a stroke of luck available only to the French, has the uncomfortable combination of both a law prohibiting inciting racial hatred and a law that prohibits the wearing of head-dresses in schools - both are anachronistic, dogmatic and don't do a great deal in securing what they intended to - a free, safe and tolerant France.

In our own country, the breath taking hypocritical nature of many Christian groups shows that it's not only hardline islamists that have yet to learn the nuances of a secular democracy.

So many Christian groups railed against the investigations of the 2002 Labour Administration into hate speech law in NZ, labelling it both 'PC Madness' (the phrase du jour) and an assault of free speech, religious freedoms and Christian values. In some ways, at least some of these arguments hold water - individuals have a right to associate and speak freely, even if they're saying that homosexuals shouldn't marry.

What doesn't hold water, though, was that at the very same time, many of these exact same groups were calling for the banning of films (that is, curtailing others' individual freedoms) such as Baise Moi and Irreversible, or more recently, calling for the banning of an exhibition featuring human bodies. According to these people, individual freedoms are only worth protecting if they protect your personal opinion. Other's opinions, it seems, (especially those you explicitly disagree with) are worth banning in the name of public good. The parallels are worrying.

We live in interesting times indeed.