Saturday, 31 December 2016

Not Here We Don't: Soccer, Prescriptivism and Nationalism

Communication Process Model: Goal = Understanding
A couple of times this year BBC Capital ran articles/posts about the English language skills of native English speakers. The overall argument was that native speakers are particularly hard to understand because (quelle surprise) they use idiomatic English, speak faster and make internal references. This is a problem for international communication because, guess what, the purpose of communication is to convey meaning... and this means that word choice, sentence structure and pacing (among other things) need to be adjusted for the audience. I agree with this (and if you don't, you need to think about describing yourself as a solipsist... disagreement is beyond egoism). Where BBC Capital goes wrong is in suggesting that there is something wrong with idiomatic English's existence. There is nothing wrong with that. And while it is true that international businessmen (a gender neutral term) do need to adjust for their audience, those who don't speak idiomatic English need to try to... it is the end stage of language fluency. Now, I'm monolingual and I'd love to not be so I've got "mad respect" for those who aren't, but it cuts both way... the audience and producer both need to tango.

A Frenchman Playing for Arsenal (an English Club) in a Blog About Soccer''s Name in New Zealand (COYG)
I mention all this because I had a pretty long argument today with my (irritating) cousins. In general I'd describe myself as a descripitivist. Certainly, I'm never going to advocate for widespread English language reform (its teaching is another story). In fact, I consider being kindly disposed to such efforts childish... all that would be achieved is an enormous increase in complexity (and, also, context seems to be to decide that ghoti and goaty always rhyme). Yet, that doesn't mean that I'm not going to say that crumbed chicken is most inaccurately described as "breaded" (*spew up a little*) chicken (as an American might) because the crumbs aren't necessarily associated with bread. In fact, I have very little time for American language... except, you might think, when it comes to soccer. After all, I call soccer, well, soccer. QED. Wrong. The reality is that I call soccer soccer because soccer has been, is and should always be soccer in New Zealand. (Descriptivism is a good for nationalism, don't cha know?) Except there have been concerted prescriptive efforts (much like my "slacktivism" on the behalf of the anti-breading "movement"... perhaps unrelated is my distaste for crumbed chicken in the first place) to change this. And, based on my (quite a bit younger) cousins, it has succeeded.

Do Same Things
That New Zealanders have traditionally called soccer soccer rather than football has absolutely nothing to do with why Americans call soccer soccer. The simple way to understand why the same terms are used is by analogy, hopefully the following works: dolphins look like sharks (broadly) because they have evolved to perform similar functions in similar niches. Soccer is not a particularly old sport. If you've ever read Discworld's Unseen Academicals, you'd know that just because something is called football, that doesn't mean that it's association football... even if it's what soccer evolved from... and this evolution did, indeed, happen in real life. In fact, I think most sports trace their ancestry back to the Victorians (or their contemporaries anyway)... even if they now look different (perhaps substantially so: rule evolution happens). So, then, Americans and NZers use the same word for the same thing because similar things happened in both countries and people in Oxford came up with "soccer" in much the same way "rugger" exists. And for about 150 years, no-one cared if soccer was soccer or football (or so Wikipedia tells me).

Actually, rugby's pretty crap: play soccer, love cricket, follow... tennis
The general objection to soccer that I see is the consequence of some American complaining about the use of the word football to refer to something that isn't American football. (Americans being Americans, what can you do?) Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the argument for football comes down to "it's more accurate" (remember the crumbed chickens?) and that American football should really be given (and this is a twat's argument, and a twattier joke) the name "handegg" (clearly a more accurate description of Aussie Rules and it's strange passing procedure/s). Stupid names aside and internet pissing contests so ignored, my cousins went with the better argument that everywhere else calls it football. Well, stuff them. In much the same way that it is most unfortunate that Americans call soccer soccer too, it is completely irrelevant that football is preferred outside New Zealand, given that we're having a conversation in New Zealand... now consider the obviousness of the nationalist applications of descriptivism. And the truth is, if we want to consider the twat's argument more completely, the accuracy coin actually doesn't support the "you must call it football you morons" side (if we can call it a side).
The Real Problem With Calling Soccer Football
I can't remember how my cousins and I ended up in our argument, but I do know they were not listening to what I was saying. The truth is that I don't call any sport football and I don't think any sport ought to be called football. I will demonstrate this by example and by reason. I'm very keen on handball but it's difficult to talk about handball. Why? Well, there's Olympic/European handball and then there's handball (like kickball or bodyball)... but we've sometimes called handball Australian handball  to create certainty but there's this Wikipedia article that describes something quite different. Four-square is a variant of handball and a substantially different activity/sport itself (and a shop). In other words, it's a mess. And why is a mess? Because there is no clear external context to determine what we mean... unless we know exactly who we're talking too (i.e. a fellow handball enthusiast). The other way to consider things is that what determines accuracy is understanding... and if we're in the UK football means soccer and in the US football means American football (we don't call it gridiron here) so things are fine and dandy. The trouble is that on the internet and in New Zealand, there is no clear cultural context to give "football" a meaning. In other words, if we want to be clear, we should use soccer, American football, rugby union, rugby league and whatever else. If we want to be understood beyond a shadow of a doubt... use soccer etc.

A flag with NZE words would be better but I only saw a National Anthem version
Now, the truth is that descriptivism isn't really all that friendly to nationalism. After all, nationalism has a meaning of New Zealand (or whatever) so it is ultimately prescriptivist... a properly conservative point of view would consider things by making an honest description at time X and keeping things there. Invariably these are not honest appraisals but that's people for you. But I really don't think that it is an honourable endeavour to thrust a meaning at New Zealanders that is done for dubious reasons (i.e. we must be like them, see also flag change) and ultimately achieves nothing more than communication problems (the change has been picked up). It was not so long ago that some dude at a Top Ten Holiday Park tried to tell me about his football match (or one he watched, I don't recall) and I had to clarify that he didn't mean football. I call soccer soccer not because it would be useful if everyone did (and no-one called anything football) but because soccer is part of New Zealand English as much chilly bin, sweet as and haere mai. Communication is many things, and one of those is recognising that you don't have a right to be understood... although American English is stupid and should die (embrace the hypocrisy).

Also, this.

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

A "Light Rail L" for Auckland?

Public Transport should represent, I believe, the backbone of a healthy city. There are many reasons for this. That shouldn't surprise because when you think about it, what is transport about? At its heart, transport is about movement from origin to destination. If it so happens that going from A to B is the best way of doing things, then A to B is how it should happen. But what if things work better if you move from A to B and then arrive at C? And better doesn't necessarily mean faster... it's probably better if it's safer, more predictable and flows better (no fuming, less stress, better health). Maybe the only people who should be in private vehicles are those working?

That last bit might sound a little extreme but extreme is good as a goal. In a perfect world of utterly rational creatures, perhaps that is way things work best. And if that's true, then how on earth do you get there? That's where public transport comes in. People need to have the choice to do things a different way. And that choice needs to be simple to understand, it needs to be plausible and it needs to be real, i.e. a public transport network actually needs to work for people. I think that's easiest when you're dealing with dense environments but proper public transport also enables densification... no-one's going to build a tower block if the residents are never going to be able to get anywhere, right? To this end, you need a spine... and you need to have ribs that come into the spine (even if this means that you end up with transfers).

The trouble with Auckland is that it's a pretty spread out place with a long-term mistrust of public transport among individuals, policy makers and, most importantly, the agencies tasked with transport infrastructure responsibilities. Sometimes this is in the face of data. Sometimes it's reflective of old realities. Sometimes it's both. In any case, I think it's fair to say that more people are open to the idea of public transport and more people are starting to appreciate that you can only build so many roads. Auckland may be spread out, but it's already as spread out East/West as it can be.* And maybe a big reason for this is that enough roads are congested enough, often enough that people are hoping there's another way. And there is. But it involves making decisions now for, at least, five years later... that may clash with local and national agencies and that may pit local government against national government (hopefully not like in GBH). Enter The Light Rail L.

As far as I know, no-one actually talks about a Light Rail L. It's just an idea that I read in the comments of this Transportblog post, written by someone who admits to being poorly informed. But they're right: it's a snappy name. Presumably they've imagined a line (which I know has been talked about on Transportblog before, so probably reflects someone's official thinking somewhere) that extends out towards Manukau and then on to Botany. In truth, Botany's about somewhere between East Tamaki and Howick on the map in the article, so it's more a U but the principle of the name is sound. The Botany line is sort of the natural and obvious extension.

Now, there is some route duplication going on here. After all, that light rail route would run up to Britomart broadly in parallel to the heavy rail line (light rail and heavy rail trains look the same but network-wise the latter is less capable of handling steep gradients and has a little bit less capacity... light rail could be thought of as "modern trams" or "trams on steroids"). Is that two backbones? Well, no. Remember what I said before about real choices? If you've got to dogleg all the way to the southern line (i.e. the existing heavy rail) before heading north you're travelling much further than you need to. Even if the dogleg's (A to B) expected average speed was greater than your car's, it is probably not be with the B to C time added on. The two backbones can, of course, share spines... and possibly should. In fact, the purpose of the L must be considered to be creating two spines.

On Transportblog they talk about a PT Void between the Western and Southern lines. I've always thought that description's ridiculous. Certainly, the busses that serve that area are approaching frequencies which will mean there is nothing but (full) busses running along several of the key roads (you need enough spines so that you're not forced to put too much straw on any one camel), but when I look for a place poorly served by high-capacity transport infrastructure (roads are low capacity), I think of "East" Auckland (it's really the eastern parts of South Auckland... the enormous part of Auckland from which I hail). There's some kind of bus service out there but busses are, well, busses. This is one of the major things that the Light Rail L would do something about.

One of the big stories at the moment relates to Auckland Airport and surrounding congestion. Apparently it gets really bad. All I know is that when we were there in May it took much longer to get to Ellerslie than I thought it would. But when you look at visualisations of travel to the Airport what do you notice? That's right, commuters generally come from the two directions of the L. That's one of the main selling points of the L, I think. It's simple to understand and it makes intuitive sense. Similarly, myself and a lot of other people think it's weird that there is no direct transport link to the Airport. If you've ever read Obelix and Co. (you really should*) this weirdness is "make the neighbours jealous," just expressed differently. The real reasons of course are a bit less clear. After all, we see how people construe the CRL as being all about Central Auckland rather than offering the entire network increased frequency and, so, capacity (plus time improvements). Those reasons are that all these different links and choices are offered. The personal is important... and sometimes this is not missing the forest for the trees (here is an example).

The Light Rail L is far from the key to unlocking Auckland's potential but there's a pithy phrase that explains its role: necessary but not sufficient. I don't know if I've presented the best case for it, but I do know I've presented the best case a quick, theoretical discussion can make. Hopefully I'll knock together a post on choices more generally soon... I think my ideas are interesting (the personal is important... and here we do miss the forest... I'll try and explain these references soon too).

*The Vimes Boot Theory of Socio-Economic Inequality also works with housing because of transport. You can buy/rent a cheaper house, but odds are the savings in living costs don't happen because you're spending so more time, money and energy getting places... because the cheapest houses (in a sprawling city) are those further away. You might live in a house for decades... the cost of buying it spreads over all those years (even if it doesn't appreciate), the transport ones increase with each year (and may or may not outstrip any appreciation because cars depreciate, and congestion worsens over time).

*The entire gamut of human experience can be found in Obelix and Co., Mansions of the Gods, Tintin and the Picaros and Watchmen... comparing the last three is... enlightening. I defy anyone to find an aspect not thus contained.

Sunday, 18 December 2016

American Democracy

I was unusually interested in this year's US election. Certainly, I paid attention to what was happening in 2012 but I didn't bother looking at predictions of who would win, consistently. I guess the differences were twofold. Firstly, Trump has said some pretty insane things and the whole process was, deservedly, a very-concerning laughing stock. Secondly, more people in my IRL life were paying attention. In fact, I told someone back when Bernie Sanders was still a Thing that neither Trump nor Sanders could ever actually win an election. And the thing is, I wasn't actually wrong.

Obviously, the US held elections recently and a whole bunch of people and propositions that I don't really care about were elected and one of them was a man known as Donald Trump. But Trump didn't win an election, because that would imply that American democracy is a democracy rather than a prolonged farce. For starters, a lot of people have made a big deal about how Trump lost the popular vote so that's definitely part of the farce. Yet, it's not fair to judge Trump's electioneering by this, of course (he wasn't trying to), but it is something to bear in mind when people are talking about a new dawn of fascism or whatever (because mandate). If you're an American Democrat who's really struggling with Trump's victory, just remember that the majority of Americans don't like Trump. Further to this dawn-scepticism, I daresay, like many others, that without a certain policy-violating "ex-republican" FBI director Clinton probably would've won. Crucially, the states she needed (Michigan, Pennsylvania,Wisconsin and Florida) were all close defeats (although I believe Florida was a bit wider and Michigan much closer... probably the only state where you can blame Stein-voters, being 5:1 versus Trump's margin), but not "a few missed ballots" close (the recounts must be seen as audits). But I have to stress that the Electoral College is just one aspect of the farce.

The first thing to note is that a lot of Americans have some pretty screwball ideas about what the US is. They will, quite seriously, tell you that the US is a republic... not a democracy. To these idiots, democracy has to mean direct democracy. They are completely unaware of the distinction that is made everywhere else in the world. A republic, to us in NZ, is very simply "not a monarchy" but a lot of theorists (if we can call them that) like to talk from the etymology and arrive at a definition incapable of excluding the UK, NZ or Australia from the republic club (except by mental gymnastics). That's a bit more excusable but it's stupid when you now need to find a new word to mean "not a monarchy" (but the internet seems to think all monarchies are absolute so maybe I need someone to fund a flight to the US for "research"). The root cause of this obsession is, naturally, the unquestioning worship of the Founding Fathers, Framers and American Constitution that wreaks so much damage in the US, because this is how they (those individuals) thought several hundred years ago (it was a different world! learn to understand this America!).

Once you understand that the US is not a democracy, advocates claim, you see that the Electoral College is fine and dandy. Well, that's obviously not true because, you know, maybe the US ought to be a democracy. In fact, because the US is a democracy in reality, it ought to be a better one. Why? What do we expect to gain from a democracy? Basically, if you are a stable, functioning state, democracy is how you stay in a stable, functioning state. People want what they've got and when you allow them self-rule, then they will preserve that. Democracy is like an opt-out. You're not really going to convince people to opt-in to terrible law in good democracies, but you may struggle to get people to move from it. Yet, over time, the way democracy works means that law will line up with the ethos of the age. This may be an old fashioned point of view that sounds a lot like common law and democracy are brothers in spirit, but I'm not sure if that's a view to disagree with anyway. In any case, how do structural and cultural issues pervert the course of American Democracy and turn it into farce?

The place to start is the way Americans choose their candidates. Now, in truth, I am opposed to the concept of electing a Head of State and I also think that there are problems with direct election of the Head of Government as well, but there are more practical reasons given nothing's going to change the inanity of presidential democracy. Firstly, there's the concept of election fatigue. Basically, the primaries and caucuses make the US election go on for far longer than it needs to and with the notion of a "general election" not existing, the campaign season in the US is perpetual. Secondly, while this means even newcomers like Trump gain an opportunity to get some campaign experience prior to the Real Deal (and maybe even allows nobodies to gain some coverage), the process weakens the party. Sure, the Democrats and Republicans are really macro-parties or coalitions, but what the pre-campaigning does is emphasise the differences within them, rather than show voters a coherent message. When voting isn't open to non-members, then you also have self-radicalising echo-chambers. On one hand, the former effect might reduce polarisation but what it actually results in is further entrenchment of the two-party system and reductions in the vision gap because it entrenches the vagueness of the platforms of each party.*

The Democrats and Republicans often end up visiting a lot of the US during these pre-campaign campaigns, but if a clear front-runner emerges then the odds that a decent spread of the US gets visited is lessened. Why? Simply put, this is a natural consequence of not all primaries, caucuses and whatever else happening on one day... a winner can emerge with much of the campaign already done, and maybe they win at this point. This issue of geographic coverage is a big part of the problem with the Electoral College.

At its heart, the Electoral College isn't an absolutely insane idea. After all, the US is not a unitary state so the federal government should recognise that states are important. Well, okay, you got me... I am not convinced that federal states should have powerful states. However, we've also got to recognise that this post would have to be massive to deal with the philosophical objections that underpin scepticism of federal states, presidential systems, republics (in the NZ sense) and, yes, even upper houses. And, in truth, these would need to be tempered by practical realities I don't know that much about. Worryingly, the US is not so good as a democracy even given these aspects (imagine they cannot possibly be any other way) and the Electoral College's distortions enter at this point. Appealing to the federal character of the USA doesn't absolve the College of its sins because that federalism matters in Congress (through the Senate). In other words, federalism is part of the federal government without the Electoral College. Which begs the question of the Senate. Basically, I choose to ignore the Senate's sins because the US President is the flagship of American Democracy. This is all very well and good but what are those sins?

Prior to the 2016 election anyway (I wonder why...), the Electoral College is firstly undemocratic in the sense that most people want/ed to see it gone (about 60%). It is secondly undemocratic in a number of different ways and I list four key ways below:
  • If you live in, say, Wyoming, your vote theoretically means more than that of someone who lives in, say, California. This is because the number of Electoral Votes that each state gets is awarded with their populations in mind, but it is not proportional to the number of people in the state. As a result, the number of Electors per Californian is lower than the number of electors per Wyomingite, i.e. Wyomingites get more bang for their buck vote. This clearly violates the principle of democracy that no-one's voice carries more currency than another's inherently. (If you're confused, this is how the Electoral College reflects the federal nature of the US... that's why it's not strictly proportional: the creators of the College weren't Evil.)
  • In practice, though, people in California and Wyoming don't really matter. In fact, the Electoral College encourages ignoring the vast majority of Americans in favour of the lucky few who live in six (relatively populated) states. This isn't an inherent flaw but it's the inevitable consequence of assuming (as we should) that candidates aren't going to act in ways that clearly hurt their election. That is, why bother racking up votes in "safe seats" like Texas, California or Wyoming when you can go to a swing state like Florida or New Hampshire and get voters who might actually be able to swing the election your way? This is a clear violation of the main point of democracy: the people's rule (not reign). Basically, the Electoral College disassociates campaigning from the majority of Americans. It really is that simple. The song may say, "I'm glad I'm not a Kennedy," but I'm glad I'm not an American. (If you're paying attention, you'll notice that this started from etymology... which I complained about earlier.).
  • The second of these bullet points is all about safe seats. In NZ, the existence of safe seats was recognised to result in "wasted vote". That is, votes that didn't contribute to the election in any way shape or form and may as well never have been cast. While translating wasted vote to an election of one person is a bit trickier, it's very easy in the context of the Electoral College. And sure, demographics and other reasons mean that maybe the safe seats change over time, but they're still there... which is the problem. The Electoral College actually disincentivises political activity among people whose votes for their preferred candidates are wasted. Mandate, or the engagement of the populace, is how democracy works. The Electoral College not only means you don't reach out to Americans but that Americans are incentivised not to "reach in" (as it were). Consequently, the exchange of ideas and confidence in the will of the people from which government should stem (respecting liberty**) is reduced. (Incidentally, this is an easy fix, because all you have to do is make the allocation of Electors proportional rather than winner takes all.)
  • The Electoral College also has a big role in the USA's vision gap problems because it further entrenches the two party system. Sure, you occasionally get someone who people think might be popular enough in one state that they could win that single state and thus end up getting attention because this leads to at least 4 Electoral College votes.*** Realistically, by breaking the US up into 50-ish different electorates, the minor parties have to do so much more to stand any chance of mattering in the election. Sure, the biggest issue is that it's a first past the post (FPP) country, but without the Electoral College, all the Greens and Libertarians in Texas and New York would become part of one single electorate (spanning the entire country). As it is, it's basically a divide and conquer mechanism so you can ignore saying and what they're offering more. This gives the Democrats and Republicans room to muscle in and go "We offer enough of what you want, that you can vote for us." This, then, reinforces voting against the Bad Guys rather than for the Good Guys. Without minimising the vision gap, democracy is unable to represent the right options in the policy space, and we can be suspicious of its abilities to work in the way we want it too. (That is, not only do we not get everyone we need, we don't necessarily get the ideas we need for the theory of democracy to work.)
There are numerous defences of the Electoral College, it is true. This post isn't really concerned with the Electoral College as such but I better address some of them that relate to the above. There will be five different bullet points to align with each above and the first reason.
  • But maybe if you put it to a referendum, Americans would keep the Electoral College based on that poll? It's a logical fallacy to note the suspect timing of the change in opinion... This exposes an issue with democracy: the tyranny of the majority. That is, I have outlined some reasons why the Electoral College hurts groups. And why is there a tyranny of the majority situation? Because of the part of the farce we'll get to in a moment: polarisation is a systemic consequence.
  • It's about states, not people! Well, it's really about whether or not you believe in the USA. It's all very well believing this sentiment (which really does justify the Electoral College in my view), but the harms that College creates and perpetuates for American Democracy will risk the USA's long-term stability. That is, assuming you accept my argument for the benefits of democracy. However, we shall pretty immediately see that this is not a justification for not changing the College (and maybe these changes are sufficient).
  • But the Electoral College gives rural Americans a voice in the President's election! No. That idea is countered twice. Firstly, by the following bullet point... the swing states aren't exactly rural. Secondly, about 20% of Americans are rural inhabitants. That's a huge voting bloc if you put all Americans into a single electorate. In contrast, something like 25% of the population live in the 10 largest urban areas. That's pretty big, it's true, but the largest urban areas drop off pretty quickly in size and, in any case, span a much larger area than just one city. And then's there's this map. All that green shows just how much of the US and how much of every state is tied to a metropolitan or a micropolitan area in an important sense... rural concerns can be unique, but even those ones will be reached out to because they're shared by 20% of the population and because those parts of the population can go to the places that everyone agrees politicians will go to... and those places are linked to the rural environment and don't want to lose those benefits either.
  • Wasted Vote is not a real Thing... it's just the vote that loses. I don't believe so. Wasted Vote happens when the system conspires to artificially rob votes of power. But the thing is, the Electoral College is actually a really good way of getting rid of wasted vote. As I said, you could allocate all Electors proportionately, based on the vote within each state. This does nothing to resolve the issue of the first bullet point but it does mean that there shouldn't really be any wasted vote. In fact, it eliminates the safe seat characteristic because it now matters by how much you win a vote. In other words, if you're a Republican living in Texas, by going out and voting you are contributing more than you were before. Previously you might have stayed home because your candidate is going to win in your state anyway and thus get all the Texan Electors. Now they'll only get the proportion aligned with the number of Republican votes. Similarly, if you're a Democrat in Texas, if you turn out and vote, your candidate will actually get something from the effort. We are now doing this main thing with democracy: engaging people and making their voices have Power.
  • The problem here isn't so much the Electoral College... it's the problematic but not farcical FPP system. Well, yes, I did say that (also, see the disclaimer). But I also said that there's this divide and conquer character to the College. To an extent the adjustment above would help deal with that (but not as much). To help things along, chuck in Single Transferable Vote (STV) like what NZ did with the first part of the Flag Change Referendum. This is a useful way of minimising the vision gap because it doesn't penalise voting for someone who is never going to win the whole thing.
Disclaimer: if you know an objection to the points I raised that I didn't consider, I didn't mean strawman your position... it's just that I didn't think of it as a rebuttal to my positions. Chuck it in the comments section and let's have a conversation.

Thus far we've considered candidate selection and the Electoral College and I think the case for farce looks pretty strong at this point. But the single largest contributor to why everyone laughs at the US Elections (before crying a bit when we think about the issues this causes in such a powerful country) is centred on voting for people, not policy. Now, you might say that this is a feature, not a bug but we've already seen that I don't treat this concept as validating Bad Stuff and have suggested that the issues noted above can be improved on without changing the system dramatically. That's also true here. And, again, I'd prefer it if there was dramatic change, i.e. that the US wasn't a Presidential Democracy, in part because it makes avoiding this problem really difficult (people are weak... which is one explanation for why many of these posts are written in the wee hours). Regrettably, the use of primaries means that this is much more ingrained than it otherwise would be as well. In any case, why is policy more important?

I have previously used this blog to suggest that politics is fundamentally about vision. What politics isn't about is people. Sure, we talk about politics is the sense of "office politics" or whatever, but what we're actually referring to is how to negotiate a world of [whatever]. Politics as vision, is about government, however... and government is very much about people. This is why we have this other sense of politics. The reality is that generally to govern you need to be able to manage personalities and negotiate the clash of vision. In this way we come across politics as what I am going to call power relations theory: power begs negotiation such that the more power you have, the less you need to negotiate. This seems to be a justification for directly electing presidents and whatever. After all, the direct election gives mandate (in theory) and from that comes power. Furthermore, to get elected, a politician must demonstrate that they have the personal skills required to deal with national politics. The reality is, though, that when I say government is about people, what I mean is that it's about the interplay of vision and the populace. I don't mean "office politics" wrought large.

Policy is not something I've studied but it is something that I have thought about (I've also thought about studying it). Policy, to my mind, is the intersection of Vision and Reality. Regardless of what historians might say about, say, 9/11 there was a reality to that: the objective proceedings. And it really doesn't matter that one person's objective experience is different to another's. In fact, the Reality includes their subjective experiences. Accessing this Reality (especially for historians) mustn't be understood as unproblematic... it may even be impossible... but it must be understood that there is a Real World Out There and Real Stuff Happens to Real People. Or, as a British comedy act put it, "We were pretty sure that child brothels would help with arts funding, but does that mean we did it. No. It never got beyond that pilot scheme in Yeovil." That fictional ministry had a vision (arts needs more funding) and they had an idea (child brothels) and then they ran a trial to see what the Real World thought of the policy. This sounds stupid, but in the comedy world of that sketch, it required a trial to figure out that there was a problem with child brothels... the procedure is more sound than the "reality" of the sketch. So, you might think, the clash of vision would thus be decided based on thought experiments and (computer) models/simulations or, if one still doesn't appear better, empirical evidence (perhaps from pilot schemes)? I'm going to say... no.

In the US elections, a lot of the discussion was about the vagueness of what Trump actually wanted to do. In other words, Trump offered Vision not Policy. More to the point, Trump wasn't particularly punished for not offering voters an idea of Government. Even now people are trying to figure out what a Trump-led federal government would actually look and feel like. Part of this is because Trump's not a normal candidate. Part of it's because the US system allows things to run away with the people. It doesn't matter, in America, that Trump's policies aren't policies, just that Trump is able to colour everything Clinton is offering (whether policy or vision) with Clinton. And she tried to do the same with Trump. The deplorables-thing was pretty much the same thing as anyone who argued that fascists and neo-Nazi or otherwise white supremacists were among Trump's supporters. That was meant to be a wake-up call about Trump. The idea being, once you were "woken up" you'd realise how stupid it would be to vote for Trump... for reasons that had nothing to do with either his policies or his visions. Now, I'm not saying that either Trump or Clinton's arguments were right, but I am saying that if you're able to demonise the advocate, you create polarisation because you make it personal. Republicans get behind their man (or even themselves). Democrats get behind their man (or even themselves). And maybe their Man is female but this doesn't matter. Net effect: a polarised society. Polarised societies find it harder to compromise (critics of compromise are generally far too Sith, believing the golden mean fallacy always applies), harder to listen (because facts don't actually convince anyone) and harder to look at alternatives (because if you have the Devil vs Satan, you're hardly going to turn to the Greens or the Libertarians or whoever else for alternative ideas when you're so busy making sure Evil doesn't get into the White House).

That paragraph may be talking around the points a bit so I'll summarise the morals I think it establishes. On first principles, an election system needs to incentivise policy revelation, discussion and criticism. In the US, policy is critiqued based on who is offering it, because the elections are about people not parties. While you can definitely personify parties, coherent, defined and viscous/consistent platforms leaves less room to attack the party as Satan (because this inevitably involves criticising the voters, which only happens in polarised society and even then doesn't work) and the people in the party. At the second level, if policy is light on the ground, then the system needs to reward Vision and offering better Visions rather than condemnation of rival visionaries/policy advocates. This is also true when policy exists because of the facts are not persuasive to people reality of human existence. Style may in fact be able to win over substance in good systems like New Zealand's but it could be argued that people see such campaigns as offering a vision of "pretty much what we've already got" and this is persuasive. At the third level, if you have a system that pits people against people, you have a system that rewards behaviour opposed to these principles and one that creates polarisation. I argued above that polarisation entrenches the two-party system that I earlier condemned**** and reinforces the incentives to attack people, not policy.

It may be a bit ironic to be talking about policy as the intersection of vision and reality with the obvious latent thought that theory is all well and good unless contradicted by reality, and to have not brought any facts to the table. Well, that just demonstrates the point. It is easy to talk theoretically and it takes will to actually find stuff and then incorporate it. Elections should not reward laziness. But this sort of thinking is infinitely better than attacking (as I did earlier) those who disagree with me as morons. And sure, I have basically just spent this entire post outlining why something is farce and used reason based arguments for why my alternatives are better (rather than outlining how they work out to be better) but I am an unpaid blogger with other things I want to be doing. And this post has, quite literally, taken me days to write as I've missed the spark of inspiration to keep going. Which reminds me, now that I've just made you read this pointless paragraph, there's another element of farce... the case of the likes of Puerto Rico.

Believe it or not, but it wasn't that long ago that Americans living in Washington D.C. (the capital city!) had no right to vote in US presidential elections. If that sounds absolutely mental, it's because it absolutely is. Democracy is about the people's rule, and when you exclude people from their rule... well, it's oppression. The thing is, this still happens. Millions of Americans whose only crime is being resident in the likes of Puerto Rico are arbitrarily excluded from having any say in their own president! (By arbitrarily, I mean that if you accept the arguments of this post, it's arbitrary exclusion.) However, I don't know how honestly other nations live up to this standard, (is there a NZ version of Puerto Rico for instance?) they aren't "the leaders of the free world" and they probably aren't lumbered with all the things we've read about above. But things become farcical in a more traditional sense given that both the Democrats and Republicans, according to Wikipedia, involve the likes of Puerto Rico in their primary process. In other words, one of the democratic failings is tempering the biggest failure: that of universal suffrage. But the US doesn't stop here... while Puerto Ricans are allowed to stand and become US president, there are some arbitrary restrictions on that role, which merely serve to underline this terrible farce.

To be honest, arbitrary restrictions doesn't go far enough. If you ask me (although, as this is a blog, I'm answering even if you don't), the US president, as a position, is indefensible from a democratic point of view. Firstly, it's a very restricted role. Do you remember the Birther controversy? You know, the political issue that Trump cut his teeth on? Well, that pack of lies hinged on what it means to be a "natural born" citizen. Generally, it's taken to mean that if you were born to private citizens in, say, North Korea and then immediately left for the US, you could not become US president for having the bad luck to be born overseas. Or, alternatively, if you were born overseas but your family immigrated and you were raised entirely as an American, that your parents weren't citizens at birth and you were born overseas you could never be president. What kind of message does this send? Compare and contrast the Queen. Basically, the next monarch will be Charles, then William and then George (barring deaths). I could never become king of New Zealand. However, this is not a democratic role... I don't think heads of state should be anything more than symbolic, and I think it is a contradiction for them to be elected. There are other ways of achieving this, but the system in place works. Were the Queen head of government we'd have a big issue. The US president is both (an issue as I said before) but its the status as HoG, which matters most. The HoG should be a role that any citizen can aspire to because (notice how much I am stressing this?) democracy is about letting people rule themselves. The US doesn't do this for completely arbitrary reasons. I have no idea why the natural born thing is in there... at least the Electoral College and whatnot have an obvious (if disagreeable) logic to them.

Secondly, we reach the ultimate demonstration of just how farcical Clinton vs Trump was. How many times have you wondered if Trump would be an absolute political nobody if he had been standing against Obama? In fact, aren't you curious as to why Trump wasn't standing against Obama? Well, if you're American you probably aren't because you'd be aware of term limits (boo! hiss!). These are incredibly undemocratic. If people want someone to be in for seven terms in a row, then you should let them do this. The US doesn't do this with its presidents (but allows it lower down the foodchain, i.e. remember this blog probably should label its presidential focus in the title): you're in twice and that's it. Now, there are lots of reasons why this is stupid. Chief among these is that politicians tend not to have top jobs forever. After all, you have to be really popular to just keep on rolling (and/or face bad opposition). You have to still have the will (the electorate should not be able to compel someone to lead them)... which, at this point, seems to be the main reason to think John Key's not going to hit four terms as PM.***** Or, apparently, you can just be really corrupt. Newsflash, term limits don't do anything about corruption. How could they? Once you have power (and especially if you've got there through corrupt means) much of government works on faith... so I would imagine, even with such a stubborn beast as the US constitution, it's not going to do much to give the power to paper, not people. Democracy is about faith, in that it only works if people feel like it can work. If people are broadly sceptical of democracy, you destroy mandate. And I don't see any evidence that people are sceptical of democracy, just that they're sceptical that it's absolutely critical (which is not the same thing). In contrast to the birth BS, you can see why people might be concerned about Presidents for Life but the truth is that term limits were introduced because FDR was too popular, not for any principled belief. I don't know if Obama would have been open to another term, but it's something we need to think about. And we need to think long and hard about the relationship between arbitrary limits to suffrage and arbitrary limits to political agency, because they're the great big principled problems that have nothing to do with the traditions of the US.

So, American Democracy... what have we learnt? It's despicable, it's disgraceful and it's deadly serious. But what makes it even worse is that it's showing no signs of ever changing. Even in Puerto Rico, where they say stuff and start stuff, nothing substantive seems to be going on. Which is a shame... because incorporating Puerto Rico as another State represents the sort of compromise between principled democracy and the entrenched reality that the American political system is How America Is which could evolve the whole thing from farcical to flawed. The difference being, of course, that it matters to be seen to try. (Hell, even the DC solution would help, on the presidential level... but half measures like this depress the impetus for needed more over-arching reform.)

Winston Churchill (who quite aside from being one of the last British Imperialists was also half-American) once said, "The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” He was wrong. The best argument against democracy has nothing to do with the conversation. Rather, it has everything to do with how we listen. If we listen to the average voter, we aren't democratic. In a democracy, we listen to everyone. But not in America. Even now, not in America.

*Vagueness means you can be all things to all people. They are connected (which is why they can radicalise each other) but this prevents the independence of the different wings. I assume, then, that more political parties is better for democracy. 

**By which I mean, "People should have freedom to the extent that their freedom does not impinge another's".

***Does getting some Electors in the Electoral College even mean anything, though? After all, it's treated as a Rubber Stamp and that's before considering this comment from Garrett Epps that I read in a BBC article, "The electors never meet, they don't debate, they vote only once, and they disappear. To me, that's not a deliberative body."

****Ah, the tyranny of choice. It is possible that too many options creates a major problem because people aren't actually able to process more than X options (whatever X is). Thus paralysed, the voter manages to make things worse. In practice, a voter need not be considering all the parties, merely a decent number... what marketers might consider the "consideration set". If there are enough different consideration sets being evaluated and enough people evaluate each unique set, I argue that it is functionally no different to if all parties were evaluated by all voters. The maths there may be a bit dodgy but in practice, NZ seems to work well with a lot of parties so perhaps undone maths achieves the same result as complicated maths that people may or may not already possess the capability to perform. Anyway, this footnote exists to ward off defences of "a few" party system democracies.

*****Weird phrasing, huh? Well, the truth is that I wrote everything above this days after I wrote that in late (25) November as part of my first draft of the post... I kept the phrasing because, obviously, Key resigned for reasons poorly described as "personal reasons" because he seems to honestly have resigned for such reasons.

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Assessment Philosophy: NCEA vs University

I remember back in year eleven, not long after I'd had my first NCEA external exam (or perhaps the first few) and we were at a petrol station we don't normally go to (so this was likely in Pukekohe)  I was talking to my mother about the exams. I'm not exactly sure what I said but I know I commented on the plastic bags. Indeed, looking back, NCEA runs some extremely professional exams. Nasty quibbles about subconscious bias in marking are avoided (because your name isn't on the booklet, just your NSN and some other numbers I don't know the meaning of) and because people have set seats, it is not really possible to angle yourself so maybe, if you squinted, you could read someone else's paper. And when there are resource booklets (e.g. unfamiliar texts, resource interpretation) they are proper booklets that don't fold weirdly. None of these things are true of university exams. Which is the point. Now that everyone is finished their exams, I think I'll compare and contrast how assessment works at university and in NCEA (sorry IB and CIE people, but I think university's philosophy is the same as CIE's anyway).

The first thing to note about uni and NCEA is that NCEA is an assessment system. That is, while NCEA appears to have a syllabus or a curriculum that is studied, it is not a whole programme... it just so happens to be used for one particular curriculum. There is no reason why NZQA couldn't take a curriculum from somewhere else in the world and adjust NCEA to fit that curriculum, and then sell/lease the modified version of NCEA to that education system. This isn't necessarily apparent when you're an NCEA candidate in NZ because the same sorts of thing happen in history and calculus and they're all branded as NCEA assessments. This nature is then further clouded by the extensive online resources that NZQA has on its website (more on this later). The resultant coherency between different subjects is not replicated at university except insofar as they all share the same percentage based philosophy.

I'm not sure how it is at other universities, but I imagine pretty much all of them work in the same way as Auckland. That is, assessment is pretty much the responsibility of the department and/or faculty. In fact, lecturers could well have a lot of control over the means (e.g. to have tests or not, how many etc.) of assessment in addition to being the people in charge of writing all the assessments (and, I believe, the learning outcomes). In some cases this means that courses will be very personal (and, in fact, some history courses at Auckland are departmental and others 'belong' to the lecturers) while others (especially large stage one papers) are team-efforts. In other words, I can't tell you what kinds of assessment bundles you'll face because I've done courses which have online quizzes + assignments + test + exam, courses which consist of an essay + a different kind of essay + third kind of essay and courses that are literally test + exam or just the exam... and I know for a fact that things called 'lab reports' exist but I've never done one myself. But in all strands of these bundles that one philosophy is still there. Percentages are, in fact, the only definitely consistent thing about university assessment. And it's not something compatible with NCEA's philosophy.

Even with Grade Score Marking (GSM), or perhaps because of it, I think most ex-NCEA students will find the transition to uni a bit of a conceptual shift. As you've probably guessed from the description of the above bundles, the workload isn't all that different. You know how all your internals would be due at once towards the end of terms two and three? Well, that still happens, but the meaning of both the assessment and how well you did on it changes between NCEA and uni, even if completing assessments feels pretty much the same. Thinking about it now, it may help to imagine that each course in uni is a different standard in your major. So, if you did history at school, there were the three internals (research, writing, perspectives) and the three externals (resource interpretation, causes and consequences, the other one/trend). And from this you might have E, E, E, M, N and M or whatever. In a history major you might take 103, 106, 219, 217 and some stage III papers and you'll get grades like A-, A, B+, A+ and whatever in your stage III papers. The trouble is that for each of these courses you'll have multiple different assessments, so a course is both equivalent to a standard (from the perspective of a major) and equivalent to a subject but with one overall mark (in that it has several different assessments within it). I don't know if that explanation helps. Say something about it, please.

But I was talking about percentages. In terms of having one single mark per course, each assessment, say, assignment one and test one has a different weight. That weight is expressed as a percentage. Some pretty common weights for assignments are 4% (e.g. 5 assignment stats papers), 5% (e.g. 4 assignment stats papers) and 10% (e.g. assignment 3 in Stats 10x) whereas I think most tests are between 20 and 35% (but I've had 40% tests on several occasions so maybe I should extend that to 40%). But you also get marked in terms of a percentage. (The letter grades don't really get used, except on SSO at Auckland.) We'll use my Stats 10x results as a learning aide here because it's the largest course at the university so you might well end up taking it yourself (or have already done so). For the three assignments (weights of 5, 5 and 10 percent) I got 90%, 100% and 90% (our marks were rounded to the nearest ten), which meant that the contribution of the assignments to my final mark (out of 100) was 18.5 out of a possible 20 (4.5 + 5 + 9). I imagine this wasn't too much more than the average because the individual average marks were 87.4%, 92.3% and 84.4% (i.e. in Semester Two 2014). You might wonder how these percentage grades come to exist (especially when dealing with essays) but the marking schedules so familiar from NCEA generally don't exist... and even when they do, what says that Question 2(b) should be worth 4 points and Question 2(c) 3? With NCEA, an Excellence level question requires different things to a Merit question. That is, there is no way to convert a percentage system to NCEA because E questions aren't just harder, they're different.

Thinking back to my experiences as a first year, you might think it natural to make credit counts and weights equivalents. As an example, you could treat a 20% test as being roughly the same as 5 credits (24 credits in a course, 20% of 24 = 2.4*2 = 4.8 = 5).  I would advise against this. I can remember trying this just the one time (for what I think was my first uni test), but I feel it's useful to explain why such translation isn't helpful. If we take my year eleven English results, I got 7A, 14M and 7E credits altogether (each 7 was a 3 and 4 credit standard, all E's were internal), I was pretty happy with that return (partly because I hated the subject by this point in time) and you might've been too (I don't know). Now, say I get the 7 A credits pretty early on. That's okay, that doesn't stop me from getting the remaining 21 credits because everything is pretty insular in NCEA but university has just the one mark, so assessment isn't independent. If we tried to understand 85-100% as Excellence, 70-85% as Merit and 50-70% as Achieved (in terms of the amount of effort required), and 7/28 credits as a weighting of 25%, if I then got 69% of 25% my weighted return is 17.25 marks. Consequently my maximum possible mark for the course thus becomes 100-25+17.25 = 92.25 because I've dropped 7.75 weighted marks.

Dropped marks? How do you interpret that? Well, if I did get 69% on a 25% test, I'd be thinking I'm lucky. I'd be disappointed but I'm lucky because I can still get an A+, although I now need to get a minimum of (75-2.25)/75 = 97% from all the remaining assessments to do so (which is, in my view, very difficult to do). In other words, it is now harder to get a the "equivalent" of an E* (before I just needed 90% on all assessments), whereas in NCEA to get an M or an E for the remaining credits my level of performance is unchanged by the 7 Achieveds. Also, imagine (even though I've just shown it doesn't really work like this) that I can translate the aforementioned English result into a rank score and then divide it by the maximum possible rank score to reach an approximation of my percentage return from Y11 English. This turns out to be 84/112 = 0.75, whereas I am only satisfied with greater than or equal to 80 marks at uni (a priori... see Maths 150 and 250 where I was happy to pass). Why? Because 20 percentage points is a lot of marks to drop. Indeed, my advice is that the way to think about uni is through dropped marks and the maximum possible final result. Don't get too obsessed about this but this, I feel, is the appropriate conceptual framework to use.

Okay, so that's how to understand assessment. In practice, the way to think about this is to choose a final grade as a target and then try and do better than that level in every single assessment ("shoot for the moon"). If the course has an exam, hopefully you end up with a bit of leeway. For example, I've been trying to raise my GPA so I've been trying to get to A+ in every single one of my courses (I managed 4 from 11 courses this year). In one course, I managed to get 91.93% of the coursework marks (assignments and tests), which just so happened to represent 50% of the final mark (this doesn't always happen, for one of my other courses it was 30% and some courses have no exams so it's 100%). This left the following calculation:

90 (minimum level for A+) - .9193*50 = 44.035
44.035/Exam Weighting = Percentage Mark in Exam Required For A+ = 44.035/50 =  88.07%

As it happened, I didn't get anywhere near that (it was 73%; the top score was 96%, minimum 19% and mean/average 62.9%), but you can see that by doing better than your target mark in the coursework you reduce the burden you must satisfy in the exam. This is good for several reasons. Firstly, it makes the exam less "high stakes" than it could be (which is good for motivation when studying). Secondly, while this can make your semester more demanding, it does mean that you get a fairer idea of your abilities. With Accounting 101's second assignment I was prepared to not do so well in that in order that I could do better in some courses I cared more about. This was a mistake because while I recognised that I did worse than I expected to even slacking off, I didn't really know whether I didn't know the content as well as I thought or if I just hadn't tried hard enough. Thirdly, it may make your semester less demanding because you're motivated to start things as soon as possible. That matters because it's due dates, not release dates, that pile up. In any case, make sure you plot out when things are due in the first week. This will pick out any test clashes that you may have (these happen) and tell you which weeks you can expect to be busier in. This will be a big help because some courses give you a little bit of choice about when things are due (maybe you can pick Week 7 for that presentation or possibly the course has multiple essay questions due at different times: due date flexibility is a rarity). Maybe knowing that Week 6 is going to have lots of things due means you know not to pick up extra work hours because week one was chill or says to you that you can't go to this event but the similar one in Week 7 is fine.

There is one other aspect of assessment at university that doesn't necessarily appear related (indeed, it took me more than a week after making this post "live" to realise this oversight): Grade Point Averages. GPAs are known to, I feel, to most NCEA candidates in that they're a staple of American school-based media, but I certainly wasn't familiar with the GPA prior to university. At first glance, it doesn't have much bearing for assessment purposes to note that your final, holistically derived (from the weighted marks) grades are averaged across all your courses. But the truth is, you really should be listening when the university tells you that GPAs live with you. It's not an inherent part of the assessment philosophy, but it does matter that the assessments are intended to have fairly permanent impacts on a measure which can be used to determine entry to courses, to scholarships (and staying in them) or to new programmes (e.g. switching undergraduate programmes or applying for postgrad stuff). And sure, if you've heard that GPAs are pretty crude, you're right. But they still exist. And what it means for your or me when we're a first year sitting down for a first test is that the results of this test will be living with us in two, three years or whatever. As we say in sports (or I do, anyway), it's not what you do, it's the recovery... if your test performance was terrible and the weighting high enough, you could end up really restricting your GPA because your maximum possible mark goes way down. Don't stress about this too much, though. Firstly, because it's really just an extra thought to attach. Secondly, because if you think too much about Big Things, you risk daunting yourself and making things psychologically tougher than they need to be... focus on the task at hand, only remembering that you these long term concerns. Thirdly, because GPAs are recoverable to some extent. You want a GPA of 7, fine. You get a 6 on one course... that's fine, you need an 8 from another to compensate. But the higher your GPA is, the harder it is to compensate for cock ups... but the bright side is, that's because your GPA is high.

I feel like NCEA and uni feel pretty similar in terms of how the assessment works. After all, coursework and internals are pretty similar... sometimes you've got weeks, sometimes you have days and sometimes you have tests... and exams are exams. But they're fundamentally different philosophically. In fact, I hope I've shown you that you do need to appreciate that one thing should feel different: at university, assessment is holistic, not isolated and modular. In fact, GPAs mean that performance across courses/subjects is more holistic too. I don't know if knowing this makes university better, but it certainly doesn't make it harder... and I wish I'd appreciated many of this post's ideas more when I was a first year. But there's also a snappy takeaway here "think about your maximum possible mark," and that I think definitely helps.

*Confusingly, I am treating an A+ as equivalent to E here but just before it was A and A+. But you can see the calculation for the A inclusive equivalent works out the same way: (desired mark - already gained weighted marks)/(maximum possible mark- already gained weighted marks) = (85-17.25)/(92.25-17.25) = 90.33%, which is more than 85%... which is the lesson being illustrated here.

Saturday, 3 December 2016

Proportionate Representation: Holy Grail?

I'm not a party person and most of the ones I've been to have ended up as All Night Catan sessions. I say this because the one I got back from several hours ago now was one of the other kind... you know, just standing around talking to a bunch of people you know (and maybe eventually ending up talking to someone you don't know, or several someones... which is better). This is a pretty enjoyable way of spending an evening (and, no, it does not need any chemical aids to be so). However, I mention this because it's really just a starting point to ground discussion of indigenous issues.

I'm not a big fan of identity politics. I see it as having cannibalised socio-economic inequality/privilege's place in politics and I blame an overt focus on that as one of the reasons why we muddle along under Teflon John. Now, this is not to say that I think the poor men of Brussels and Brighton are more similar to each other than they are to the rich men of their respective homes, because I quite seriously disagree with that. Think of it like this. One of the flag change rebuttals that was deployed against the "There's a whole lot of history in the current flag" argument/sentiment was, "Well, duh, this would also be true if the design was laser kiwi." I mention this because borders may well start off as being arbitrary (in the sense they have nothing to do with the man on the street) but they end up having meaning for people. That I live on this side and you live on that side has a wealth of meaning that is seen every single time there's a derby in soccer, by way of a simple and accessible example. The point is, that when you want to talk about Maori as an underprivileged group (in New Zealand, obviously) is that it's a blend of these two issues. I might think (and do think) that a great many things are better approached by taking a more "classical" approach and dealing with the socio-economic advantage but that does not mean that there aren't aspects to the issues which are better made sense of through identity politics. But back to the party.

I'm not sure how we ended up talking about it but at one point we were discussing whether or not Taiwan was a country. Someone then referenced the sudden political swing of the conversation and this reminded me of an earlier conversation where I had stumbled across many of the same people talking (probably) about Maori seats. (As an aside, do note that this anecdotes sustains the notion that politics is a central part of the human experience.) The conversation specifically ended up centring on Auckland University's targeted admission scheme for Maori doctors (it's actually got a different name and I can't be arsed checking all the facts here). Now, the point that one of my (Asian) friends raised was that there are 20 reserved places (which are probably for Maori and Pasifika) and this led into the classic "what if they're not good enough line"? Well, as far as I know, you've got to still be doing very well (like, I'd be surprised if you got in with a GPA like mine, which I've recently managed to get to 7.2-ish, maybe 7.1-ish... but that's from totally different courses). However, the tack that one of my other friends took was the sort of standard "indigenous rights" argument. I intervened after he'd finished to note that "Bicultural" New Zealand basically just ignores Pasifika (who, to my knowledge, rarely do better, i.e. lose harder, on all the stats that Maori do* so badly in... i.e. all the stats)... this was then added to (by someone) with the size of New Zealand's Asian population (I have more Asian friends than Pasifika or Maori, actually). We'll ignore the party now, because I don't remember anything else relevant.

When we were having this conversation, I could've brought up my grandfather's conversation with someone important at Grafton (where the med people are based). I don't know how he got in contact with said person or who it is, but my grandfather was very impressed with the scheme. And, why wouldn't he be? Okay, so, yeah, there are a lot of answers to that question. Most of them (the ones that aren't overtly racist, anyway) generally boil down to proportionality. That is, it wouldn't matter if "only" 15% of doctors are Maori (I don't know if this is true: read this) because that's roughly the proportion of New Zealand's population that are Maori (as far as I remember... more signs of this post's dodgy research). However, when talking about med students it is actually a bit more complicated. What base population is now the appropriate comparison? If we're talking about a university in Auckland, should we really be using national figures? But if we used Auckland region figures, then we ignore that students don't just come from Auckland. (We can discount the notion of global proportions because I clearly think that borders aren't arbitrary.) So, it seems to me, that we should probably use the applicants as the base population?

What we're talking about here is a position of merit: you have to earn it and you have to earn it at standard. We've assumed that no-one lets people below scratch in... just made it so that you don't have to be way off the charts (if you are Maori, Pasifika or from a rural area). But there's a problem. There are reasons to believe that your chances to be an applicant are skewed if you belong to certain groups. That is, the applicants should reflect some base population themselves (which is probably best approximated by weighting the Auckland demographics with the country demographics somehow) and that they don't because of all those stats we kinda referred to earlier. Now, a lot of those stats reflect socio-economic issues and should be addressed as such. But I talked about that Brussels and Brighton thing for a reason. It matters that people aren't visible because when you're not visible, you are invisible. And what does that say? Well, I don't know. I do know that it doesn't say, "Look, we're doctors too," whoever that "we" is. And this is, surely, psychologically the same as the opt-in...  you have to actively decide, as a member of that we, to be a doctor in a way that's different to when you do see members of your we as doctors (opt out example). That, right there, is why proportionality is not the Holy Grail of the short-term... because you need to do something that brings something to the foreground.**

Note, if your response to this post is that we need to care about the long-term more I have two responses to you. Firstly, "in the long run we're all dead"*** and secondly that you only get to the long-term state from a short-term situation: they're path-dependent.

*This doesn't really reflect what's going on. For example, a country doesn't actively try and pursue (i.e. do), say, infant mortality... it's a description of something that happens in that country.

**Proportionality is, by definition, not noticeable... it's expectation. (And, note, if it turned out NZ European males are under-represented in the short-term it's okay... but if unaligned representations persist in the long-term and have nothing to do with policy distortions, it suggests there are some stats there working behind the scenes... and that's when you start considering policy, which isn't necessarily going to lead to any policy.)

***That is, what is happening now, to us, matters as well.

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Economic Inequality in East Asia: Issues and Policy Responses


I had an exam recently. I was pretty lazy regarding the study preparation for this exam because I was pretty bad at getting my essay for a different course finished according to my plan... and then even after it was done I took a break for a whole day. As a result, all my preparation for this exam occurred earlier the same day.

Now, you might think that this sounds like a sure fire recipe for disaster and, in some courses, you'd be absolutely right. My next exam (in a couple of days) for example covers the entire course, so there's a huge amount of material to go through. However, for the exam just finished, we were given a list of topics that were guaranteed to be in the exam and told where they'd occur. In other words, because we only needed to answer four questions we only needed to study four topics... and we could answer an exam question that covered the same content as our essays (best educational practice would be not to do this, efficient studying says to do this). Luckily, this was an afternoon exam so all I needed to do was get into uni five hours before my exam (an hour spare to read over my notes, relax a bit before the exam, eat and stuff).

The trouble was that once I was in the exam I pretty much immediately hit that point where your hand is dead and it's a pain to continue. Why? Well, I'd spent two blocks of two hours of pretty solid (and sometimes pretty quick) writing during this ultimate cram. But because I'm me and because of the subject of the topic I was thinking about the potential of turning the topic's study notes into a blog post (this post) as I was writing. We might consider (the thoughts about the blog aside) this an insight into my study process (i.e. what my notes look like). Hopefully I'll eventually type up the answer I gave and add in the mark I got for both the question and the exam for completeness. Anyway, bearing that in mind, here's the post...

I leave it as an exercise to the reader to determine what course this was for.

Why is this via Scribd? Well, firstly, I wasn't strictly expecting it to look like this. Secondly, it was a pain in the arse to format this within an html environment

Some other things to note... I have edited the original handwritten notes somewhat to add a bit of clarity for you, dear reader, but in doing so some of the quirks of the original formatting are lost.

Saturday, 5 November 2016

Marvel, Bor and Unsolicited Opinions on Israel

As you may have guessed from reading my blog-post entitled Fanfiction, I read comics. In fact, I used to be really low down the nerd hierarchy because I pretty much only used to read what I understand to be "X-Men" imprints.* These days I read a greater variety of Marvel comics and "suitably insane"/otherwise interesting ones I see in the library. So, okay, I read graphic novels more than comics. That's important because it means I am generally going to be a long way behind the current set-up. Which is why months after this thread, I am discussing that thread's subject matter.

Now, I disagree with all sorts of recent things that Marvel's done. Firstly, making Iceman gay. That's nuts. Sure, you've got songs like this but people who are actually familiar with Marvel are sitting there trying to count all the characters who are gay (as far as I know, the two we're going to discuss shortly are gay... they're in a same-sex** relationship). This isn't necessarily ideal (a character is a character, shouldn't be provoked into counting exercises), but we're dealing with a character who the last two times I saw involved in relationships were with women. The shortness of these relationships was raised as evidence of homosexuality, but in the older of those examples Iceman seemed legitimately reflective (sober? I'm not quite sure what the word I want is) about the relationship's demise. Make new characters gay or flesh out characters who have always just been in the background a bit (Bling, for example... although Mercury's response, allowing for any intervening development, required some foreshadowing given her views on Wither). But, the more important thing is that young-Jean Grey reveals to young-Iceman that he's gay. Well, no, homosexuality doesn't work like that. Just because young-Iceman thinks about men this way doesn't mean he's gay... he could be bisexual (which, you know, is a more excluded sexual orientation anyway), but young-Jean's convinced her mind-reading resolves any and all inconvenient backstory (and this is the only way she can know any information). I don't think it's a necessary direction, and maybe Scrubs did it first with the Todd, but if you're going to change existing characters, bisexual was the way to go. It just feels like pandering to people whose only engagement with these issues is driven by journalists who have only seen the movies (where that song is spot-on).

Another direction I dislike is/was the Magneto, Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver relationship shift. Now, apparently Magneto hadn't always been their father, but it was a pretty established thing when they decided to change it. Similarly, maybe they've resolved this issue so that a story element that had always been very cool and powerful was restored, but we'll assume it hasn't (maybe some writer has also corrected the above mistake) been even though it's really easy. Seriously, Wanda's got chaos magic and so we can stick with a law of unintended consequences that only hits mitochondrial DNA. In other words, Quicksilver, her mother and many maternal relatives would be affected (by the anti blood of my blood or whatever it was spell) but not any paternal ones. The problem here is that rather than strange storytelling you're choosing to get rid of something powerful in favour of a cheap twist. I really hope it was untwisted.

My final example is the "female Thor" controversy (is it worthy of the name?)/change. In brief, Thor's de-Thoring is abhorrent. I can understand what they did. I thought about this for a long time. I don't know if they've always made the wielder of Mjolnir into Thor, but when Thor initially lost his worthiness and an inverted Loki picked it up during Axis, Loki bloody did look like Thor. See, people behind Iceman? Foreshadowing. The problem here is that Thor somehow ended up losing the rights to his own name. He just decides to call himself something different because someone else is doing Thor stuff. This needed much more attention than it got because... Do you understand, writers, the baggage that comes with that? I think not, because if you did, you'd have never taken it that way. I know lots of Matthews, for instance, it's okay for there to be two Thors in a way that's different to there being, say, two Hobgoblins (which has been established as a sort of bad-guy brand name). And while I don't know if this specific objection has been raised to Marvel, labelling all objections to female Thor as MRA-ist in a panel, as happened, is unfair. And remembering this formed the core of my initial response to the following:

This sort of thing isn't particularly unusual for Marvel. There's an hilarious one where the narration points at a bomb and says, "He's right, it's a bomb". I'm pretty sure that's from a Frogman/Spiderman team-up (Spiderman is best as a team-up/Otto/Miles Morales). The continual fourth wall references are also a big part of what makes people like Deadpool (he was better, I feel, with Slapstick). The trouble is who is saying this, i.e. Bor, and being "censored". Bor is cool, like, really, really cool. And, sure, maybe I missed a whole bunch of comics where it turns out that Bor is a little bit more less cool than where I first encountered him (being killed by Thor, "the original one", because he's been cursed by Loki, twice!), but the point remains (partly because tests of loyalty are totally something that we give leaders leeway for... especially in the past***). But let's pick out some comments from that thread, but you'll have to ctr-f to find them because I don't know how to link to specific posts in that forum (I found it via a Google Search):

Page 1:

"Keep your Language! tumblr political Language! out of my Language! comic books."

As should be clear, one of the things which makes Marvel comics fun to read is that they can often be irreverent, memey and all sorts of other things which often explicitly require this kind of Language (and, maybe, this kind of thing... we'll address whether it works later). That comics are able to comment on the real world is something that people really take from X-Men and, in a different way, Watchmen... I do not think that this... er, hmm, ah... advocacy of censorship is appropriate at all.

"It's all the humor [sic] or attempts at humor [sic] that I dislike which was already present in the previous run which I also found weak."

One of the things that annoys me about the Harry Potter movies that they're just no-where near as funny as the books. Hell, people have issues with the Cursed Child, but I think they've spent too long since they last read the Philosopher's Stone. Anyway, the issue here is that humour has its place and it is an important one. The tyranny of seriousness is alive and well in this world, don't let it claim another domain.

And, naturally, part of this tyranny is making it too risky to try being funny.

"I was just talking about this exact issue in another thread. I was really looking forward to this comic. I thought it had so much potential, but it's just been very confusing and just not good (in my opinion) so far."

I included this here because I agree, this particular graphic novel is confusing. Batman vs Superman (I had an opportunity to watch it for free, I took it)... not confusing. This... confusing.

Page 2:

"Why does Bor care about Israel? Why does he even know what Israel even is?"

This is a particularly important question and thinking about how a character from a pre-racist era (most historians agree that racism is a modern invention... Bor's been dead for at least a thousand years) manages to (a) be racist and (b) have opinions on a state he definitely pre-dates and/or a religion he probably pre-dates (depends on the nature of the opinions) is one of the big reasons why I shifted positions.

"It's a joke and allows readers to get an idea for the personality of Bor by using those things as synonyms."

I think the thread had at least two responses to this theme, such as: "Except the actual character of Bor is nothing like this considering he is worthy of Mjolnir." If you accept their premise (i.e. that Bor's character is like this) then maybe this makes sense, but really the plausibility of this argument is one of the reasons why this storyline is confusing and why the specific episode didn't really work.

"You find lazy and cheap writing that are used as a form of character assassination funny?"

As you can see, someone else who disagrees with the characterisation of Bor. The question of interest, here, is whether or not the writing is lazy and cheap in doing this sort of thing? Of course not. Even if it were a short-cut as argued above, if the short-cut adds value, then it's a good thing. Laziness can be a source of innovation, but thinking of these things (what to satirise) shouldn't be thought of as cheap or lazy.

"I just want to point out that we have no idea if that is even the real Bor. Sera says it basically outright that he could be one of Helas [sic] tricks since he actually should be in Valhalla."

Specifically, what she says is, "this might be one of Hela's tricks" (as can be seen above). However, we can add weight to this interpretation because Heven (where Angela was raised) has a legend about "Bor the Butcher" and misogynist (said loyalty test led to a very long and very disproportionate curse*), a point that sits very nicely among the earlier line "Hel and Hell -- both are memory". But, wait, there's more... even after Angela has made contact with Bor, she herself wonders if he could be an illusion. Also, Angela defeats a character (if dead) that a more powerful than usual Thor had to kill to stop pretty easily, and Angela seems best described as a "slightly weaker, much faster" version of Thor power-wise, so this is suggestive (I think). Most convincingly, there was quite a lot of stuff about family and familial identity in both Bor's lines (makes sense) and the book as a whole, so it has an appropriately psychological power as an illusion.

What I think has happened here is that the writer wanted us to know that Bor was meant to be an illusion but due to the way it was done, and that everyone else we meet seems to be real, they accidentally created doubt about whether it was the real Bor or not. This is not Bor. It was not meant to be Bor. It's just not that well written.

*Which Sera showed little compunction in restoring... "That was pretty mean of me. Poor things. Not their fault, really" is linked to Sera's "I am never going back to prison"-shtick but still seems very insincere given how Angela characterises the curse, "cannibal ghouls".

"It's clearly you that doesn't find it funny. You're obviously not the target audience if you think that making fun of MRA's and meninists is something bad"

While I don't think making fun of MRAs is necessarily helpful (and imagine how you'd be perceived if you called women who disagreed with you fat, as opposed to the old neckbeard attack of MRAs), their ideology is extremely paranoid and unhelpful. The issue is that who else is the target audience of a comic but Marvel's readership? I think that was lost here and if Marvel is trying to sway its readership, subtlety is necessary for any Illusion-Bor-sympathisers out there.

Page 4:

"I just had to point out, Bor isn't worthy of the Hammer."

Their reasons are convincing. However, Marvel Wiki says he catches Mjolnir in his initial fight with Thor but also offers an issue where his reanimated corpse (or something like that) can't lift it. But the strength of the argument is reduced when they later argue that worthiness may not be all that happens with Mjolnir these days. And apparently the fight with Bor damaged Mjolnir and repairing it after that may have been the cause of the funkiness. I don't know, but that wasn't Bor... and I think the lack of clarity on this point (notice he says the really strange stuff after we're introduced to the idea he may be an illusion) is a big cause of the problems people had (but, clearly, there are people who have funky ideas and as convenient as it would be to No True Scotsman them, they're there) with what is pretty standard operating practice.

*I also read fantasy (a little sci-fi, I watch more of that but mostly I'm all about "police procedurals" but since they're all secretly about terrorism I call them cop shows), play Age of Empires and Total War games, watch Digimon (ideally, dubbed) and have dabbled in trying to write my own fantasy themed stuff. I imagine pretty much everyone who has ever heard of the hierarchy is in at least as many of these categories.

**Technically, one's Asgardian and the other is some kind of Angel so it's a bit more complicated than that.

***To quote J. C. Holt, "We may decry the men concerned [those involved with the creation and "signing" of Magna Carta in 1215], but their contemporaries and successors did not do so; the men of this period were prolific in providing subjects for gestes. We may judge them if we like, but first we must understand." From, ‘The Barons and the Great Charter’, English Historical Review 72, 284, 1957, pg. 24.