Obsessions listed here, in more or less detail, are :

The dates attached to the articles are correct if after 2003 September, but earlier dates are the earliest for which I have any evidence; most are certainly a lot too late.

At one stage in the growth of my obsessions, the initial letters of that list were an anagram of TRUE. This is not necessarily significant. Next we had ERUPT - or TUERP, which isn't a word as such but has a familiar sound to it. After that we could choose from TROUPE, or POUTER, or, at a pinch, TORE UP; none of these had much to commend it.

At this point, I became concerned lest the next two initials turned out to be C and M. Fortunately, it was not so.

Instead, we got O TROUPE, or OO ERUPT, perhaps PORE OUT, and a couple of even less appealing candidates. ( I reject TOO PURE as intrinsically improbable. ) The superabundance of awkward vowels is a problem; we can only wait to see what might turn up next.

- and it's C and S ! Given up. I can't find an interesting example. Left as an exercise for the reader. Don't tell me.

The Countryside.

This one surprised me by getting published. That wasn't the intention; I was moved to write it down as a sort of reflection by an article in the paper, and sent it to the columnist ( Philippa Stevenson ) in case she might find it useful for further articles. She decided to offer it as an article in its own right. I wasn't so sure, but the next day an article on the front page told us about the government's giving up on an attempt to get better access to the "Queen's chain". This exchange of messages summarises the transaction :

> Could I send that on to John Gardner, the Perspectives editor?
> I have no idea what he will think but I thought it might make a good article
> for the Perspectives pages and would like him to take a look.
> Please let me know,

My reaction was "no, thank you". As I said, it wasn't written for publication, I'd want to tidy it up a bit before exposing it to public view, and I haven't time to do that.

But now I've read this morning's front page. Send it on by all means. I still haven't time to do the job properly ....

This is my original; the published article ( New Zealand Herald, 2005 June 30, page A13 ) was somewhat abbreviated by the newspaper.

Because of its origins, the article is less than balanced. For a taste of another side, look at my ramblings on safety below.

I grew up in England, where we lived in Scholes, a village in mainly agricultural country on the edge of the city of Leeds. Despite the closeness of the city, my environment was one of farms, lanes, footpaths, streams, fields, animals, crops, and so on. I was a bookish child, but grew to enjoy the countryside a great deal, and as I grew older I became very fond of country walks. As I grew older still, the walks grew too, and half-day and day walks became, and still are, a valued part of my life.

Most of these walks were on footpaths across farmland. I naturally grew up knowing the rules. They were the obvious rules, derived from a few obvious ideas such as not destroying things, not interfering with the farm activities or property, and so on. They add up to behaving responsibly. Most other people understood that too. There were a few idiots - but there always are.

Then we came to New Zealand ( in 1973 ). It was an exciting prospect. I was aware that it was a beautiful country, inhabited by pretty sound people, with a strong bias towards the outdoor life; obviously the footpaths would be even better than those in England.

Then we arrived. The country was beautiful beyond my imaginings; the people were friendly, helpful, open, and so honest that you could leave your car open and it would still be there when you came back. The outdoors was highly regarded - but there were essentially no footpaths. Instead, there were notices of a sort that I'd rarely seen before; they didn't quite say "anyone who steps off the road will be shot", but the message was there. It was a nasty shock. There were a few parks, but most of the incredibly beautiful countryside was out of bounds.

And it still is. We drive through kilometre after kilometre of glorious countryside with world-beating views to get to somewhere we're permitted to walk - in a forest, where we can't see anything but trees. I like the trees and the forests, but I like the views as well. For example, in the last few months there have been photographs in newspapers of the countryside behind Waiwera. It is beautiful; it is inaccessible; the photographs were there because it will shortly be destroyed to build a motorway.

Some of the Auckland Regional parks give us views ( notably Shakespear, Mahurangi, Tawharanui, Duder ), but the Waitakere park, with the biggest collection of walks, is mostly forest. North Shore City does its best, but most of their walks are in bush reserves, or public parks which aren't very country.

The subject is topical because there is talk of opening access to the "Queen's Chain", a notional strip of land at each side of every body of water in the country ( I think; it's close enough for this discussion, anyway ). The farmers are not pleased.

( The waterways argument is here as an example; it isn't really what I'm talking about. Access to waterways is all very well, but in fact I don't specially want to go to waterways. They're pleasant enough, but I've no interest in fishing or boating or swimming, and I'd rather have sweeping views. Waterways would be better than nothing, but still don't get me to the world-beating views which I see in glimpses from the road, but would like to see better from the top of the hill. )

The farmers claim that the proposal will open their properties to unrestricted access, letting in criminals. It is not obvious that restricting access is keeping out the criminals; anyone with criminal intent is unlikely to worry too much about the legality of access. The only people kept out are honest and law-abiding people like me.

And indeed we read regularly of theft, vandalism, and murder on remote farms. In the same articles, we read that there were no witnesses. Perhaps if they were less diligent in keeping honest witnesses away, there might be more people about.

They claim that most farmers are happy to let people onto their land if they ask nicely; that misses the point entirely. Unless I know that a path is there and available, I'm not likely to plan to go there. If the paths aren't there, known, and published, I can't plan to walk on them. ( Anyway, if I do see a pretty hill I'd like to climb when I'm driving through the countryside far away from home, how do I find who I have to ask ? By the time I've found the right place, it's time to go home. )

Is it really true that the proportion of vandals, thieves, and murderers in New Zealand is enormously higher than it is in England ? It certainly wasn't true in 1973, when the New Zealand countryside was if anything even more closed than it is now. If it's true now, then we have problems that are a lot bigger than footpaths.

The network of footpaths in England is a treasure, which grew arbitrarily over centuries, and has got itself built into enough English law to be fairly protected. It is true that not everyone who uses the paths observes the rules as carefully as I ( and most other people ) do, and there is some misbehaviour and consequent destruction. A lot of farmers would be very happy to get rid of the paths, but they can't, so they manage. Both sides have to compromise, so they do. We've been back to England a couple of times since 1973; it is wonderful, in that comparatively highly industrialised and overpopulated country, to be able to get into the countryside far more easily that we can in New Zealand. And almost all of the access is to farmland.

There's a story which comes in several slightly different versions, but they all end with the punchline "I went to New Zealand, but it was closed". It still is.

2005 June 24

UP to the TOP


My obsession with English concerns the language, not the nationality. I like it a lot, and believe that I'm good at it. That leads me to have strong opinions about how it should be used. ( Nevertheless, despite persistent rumours to the contrary, during my active lecturing period I never gave marks for grammar or spelling. ) If I see poor spelling, and am in a position to make any difference, I correct it, because if no one ever points it out you might never know.

And I spell "programme" like that, for all sorts of programme. Computer programmes used to be spelt that way in England until people started buying computers instead of building their own, and there was an influx of ( mainly ) IBM manuals. Not surprisingly, these manuals were written in American, a perfectly respectable language in which the spelling "program" is used. Exposure to this usage persuaded some people who probably couldn't spell too well anyway that there was something undignified about the "me" at the end for computer programmes, but not for others, so a quite unnecessary second spelling was introduced into what had been English. Its defenders then contrived to discern some fundamental difference between computer programmes and other sorts which they quoted in support of their choice. It's a difference I have never been able to understand; presumably the Americans either haven't noticed it or don't think it's important, because they use "program" consistently for all sorts; and if it really is something different, then it would surely be more sensible to use a different word rather than to complicate English spelling even more.

Computists are not the only people to mangle their English, but they do it a lot. In recent years newspapers have taken to it as well, but as I am the only one left who can spell I don't suppose there's much to be done about it.

A currently active manifestation of this obsession manifests itself as a determination to use "may" and "might" to denote permission and possibility respectively, and not to mix the meanings. I shall probably take it to extremes.

2001 March 23

UP to the TOP

Order and disorder.

( These thoughts were originally written as a reply to an article ( R.W. Lucky : "Order and disorder" ( IEEE Spectrum 40#7 ( 2003 July ), 52 ) in which the author asserted that disorder would, according to the second law of thermodynamics, naturally increase indefinitely. He offered his granddaughter as an example, explaining that her first act on entering a room was busily to open all accessible cupboards and throw all the contents onto the floor. It is an interesting coincidence that earlier on the day on which I wrote this I was presented with devices to render cupboards child-proof, and required to install them. )

In the early 1960s, I was a chemist, and held a research fellowship at a British not-quite-university-but-hoping. Our department's research laboratory was a large barn-like room in which eight or nine of us coexisted amicably. There was enough space to spread out a bit, and equipment not at the moment in use was often left on a vacant area of bench until it was required again.

Our head of department was occasionally moved by an urge to be seen to take action, and on one such occasion he had a tidy fit. This was focussed on the research laboratory. It was made known that the research laboratory was a disgrace to the department, and distinguished from a pigsty only by the inferior intelligence and morals of its inhabitants. Henceforth, we would all clear up our benches each night before leaving, or else.

Nothing happened - not even else. In fact, we were quite careful about putting away things when we'd finished with them, and much of what looked like a mess was what you get with half-done experiments - work in progress. We explained this; it made no difference.

Shortly after, a very tidily typed notice appeared attached to the refrigerator. It read :

A tidy bench is a tidy mind

. That made no difference either - but the next morning the notice had been extended by the addition of a handwritten addendum. It now read :

A tidy bench is a tidy mind.

A tidy bench is an empty bench.

A tidy mind ....

We heard no more of the virtues of tidiness. I don't know who wrote the addendum; I was suspected of it, which I took as a compliment.

I think that the point isn't the inevitable increase of disorder; the second law also gives us the notion of equilibrium. If everything is perfectly ordered you spend all your life getting it out and putting it back; if nothing is ordered you spend all your life looking for it. The optimum degree of ( apparent ) disorder is that which you can match precisely with a mental structure which describes it, so that YOU know - or can quickly work out - just where to find the things you want.

It is admittedly unfortunate that the essential mental structure is both fragile and degradable. If overexercised by too frequent changes, it breaks; if neglected, it disintegrates. Then the apparent disorder becomes real disorder, and all is lost.

If the value of disorder management is significant, perhaps evolutionary pressures would sort out the problem in due course. Unfortunately, it seems much more likely that someone will do it with computers : a personal device which observes everything you do and stores it in a few terabytes of memory could conduct a rapid search for anything you wanted and tell you just where you left it. That should fit on an implantable chip in a couple of years or so.

I admit that I cannot see how your granddaughter fits into this, except perhaps ( as indeed you suggest ) as a primary agent of disorder - Brownian motion embodied, the eternal foe of Maxwell's demon. I have this year acquired my first two granddaughters, who are not yet autonomously mobile. I shall observe their development over the next two years with interest and trepidation.

2003 November 2

UP to the TOP


I sometimes wonder how we would get along if our institutions were run by people who liked their jobs. The institutions I have in mind are typically government agencies, overseeing the administration of services such as health, welfare, education, and so on. And perhaps we could add universities, though that wasn't the original focus of my thoughts.

Once upon a time, these jobs were done by people who could be described, at least approximately, as exalted civil servants. ( I suspect that the vice-chancellors would not have been too keen on that description, but that doesn't make it wrong. ) I do not mean that in any derogatory sense; the dedicated civil servants of yesteryear were experts at their jobs, devoted to their departments, and concerned above all else that their departments should do the jobs for which they were set up honourably, impartially, and as efficiently as possible. Because of that, they occasionally came into conflict with government ministers who were officially their masters, but in fact were ill-versed in the business of the department, with no experience, strong party bias, and commonly a good deal less intelligence and dedication than themselves. Often, this conflict manifested itself as a reluctance to change, which the politicians could represent as evidence of living in the past; in fact, it was a valuable guard against precipitate swings from one extreme to another as the government changed, and the slow pace of change - which happened, because part of the civil servant's job is to carry out government policy however misguided they believe it to be - was a fair guarantee that matters would not get out of control.

The politicians didn't like that. They were eager for precipitate change, and there's little evidence that they understood, or understand, the consequences, so - obviously - the senior civil servants had to go, and be replaced by people with more sympathy towards the current party bias - from which it follows that after the next election they had to go, and be replaced by people with more sympathy towards the current party bias, and less experience of running large and complex government departments. Continuity, stability, and expertise were lost.

The people who run them now are typically appointed for comparatively short terms, during which they have very little time to understand the function of the department, and - as the corporate memory of the departments has been long destroyed by the constant organisational changes imposed by the new leaders - nowhere to learn it from anyway. They might well be experts at management, which, of course, automatically means that they can understand the infinite complexities of anything at all.

They have one thing in common. They all detest the jobs, or they wouldn't have to be paid so much to do them, and once employed they certainly wouldn't have to be bribed by "performance bonuses" to do the jobs properly. ( "So much", in New Zealand nowish, is typically at least four times what my salary was at the top of the Senior Lecturers' scale, and we lived quite reasonably well on that; a typical bonus might be around the same as my salary. And I would have been fairly offended if it had been suggested that I would do my job better if given more money. It is only fair to state that not all academics hold such enlightened views. )

Could it be that absolutely no one with the requisite qualifications actually wants to do the job ? I suppose it's possible, but it seems to me to be very unlikely. Certainly many of the jobs - in health, welfare, education, for example - offer opportunities for bringing real benefits to large numbers of people, and I am surely not alone in deriving enormous satisfaction from a worthwhile job well done. Of course, it might be that the jobs really are so dreadful that nobody wants them, but in that case it's hard to see how more money would help. Wouldn't it be better to appoint three or four qualified people at ordinary high salaries and let them share the load ?

A common response to questions such as mine is "If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys". There is never any attempt to justify the implications of this drivel, and no mention of the rather direct insult to teachers, nurses, policemen, and legions of other honest and diligent workers, many of whom are doing jobs that are far more useful to the community than the overpaid clowns who say things like that. It is the sort of insult that could only be produced by a businessman, or someone else who is so morally and spiritually retarded that he can see nothing but money. ( I am not particularly down on businessmen; it is simply a matter of my observation that the really crass statements seem to come from business sources. They can leave the politicians standing. )

Offence aside, it's a two-edged argument. Rephrasing it, I think reasonably and a good deal less objectionably, one might say "If all you offer is peanuts, you are likely to get peanut-obsessed applicants". That seems not too unreasonable. So does "If all you offer is money, you are likely to get money-obsessed applicants". If you offer enough money to tempt people whose goal is money, that's what you'll get - and, my word, we have an explanation of the "performance bonuses" ! Rephrasing that, we get "Right, now you've got me, and I can do the job; but if you don't give me a lot more, I'll just sit around doing nothing". Could it be that tempting people with too much money is a bad thing ?

But why offer big rewards at all ? Are the needs of the people who get them any greater than mine ? Do they need more food, clothes, houses, warmth, than I ? If they're sick, perhaps they do, but I don't recall chronic disease as being among the necessary qualifications for having too much money. If they don't need it, what do they do with it ? Well, look at them. They just waste it. To be fair, they waste it efficiently. For example, when they buy cars, they buy cars which are stupidly big, and thereby waste raw materials. The cars are heavy, too, which guarantees that they'll waste far more fuel than they really need. I won't even mention boats and aeroplanes.

There is an alternative. What about offering a reasonable amount of money and a rewarding job ? Then you might get people who see their reward as the job, and are therefore likely to take a real interest in it and do it well. If you're interested in the job and adequately provided for, then you can get on with the job and enjoy yourself. That's a lot better than someone who sees the reward as the money.

"It won't work", they say. Who say ? Could it be the overpaid lobby ? It won't work for them - the big salaries won't be there. So they'll go away, to - USA, Europe, Japan .... Good - let them go. We don't need people who are too greedy to do their jobs for human-scale pay.

Do we care if they go ? Well, if we're losing irreplaceable abilities or skills, perhaps we do. That will be so, unless there are other people around who would enjoy doing the jobs, and would therefore be content to do them for ordinary salaries. I think that there will be such people. In fact, I think that there are such people, who are probably doing reasonably well at the moment in other jobs, which they probably find satisfying because that's the sort of people they are.

At least, I hope there are such people. If we have no one left who will do a worthwhile and satisfying job for a reasonable salary without believing himself to be so much better than the common folk as to deserve salaries ten times as big, then we are in a very sorry state.

2002 October 23

UP to the TOP

The Privy Council.

PLEASE NOTE that I have described the current position as I understand it. My description might well be wrong in detail, as I'm not particularly interested in the detail. I don't think that's important; the principle isn't affected by the details of the current state of affairs.

At the moment, the highest court of appeal for New Zealand is the Privy Council, which happens to sit in London. It is there because it came with New Zealand's membership of the Commonwealth, and it survives because no one has bothered to change it. It is composed of appointed legal geniuses ( Judges, I suspect, but I'm not absolutely sure ), most of whom are from the British legal system, though there are one or two others ( I think ).

Its task - so far as New Zealand is concerned - is to inspect any case which has not been settled to the satisfaction of the appellant by the New Zealand court of appeal, provided that someone in New Zealand gives permission, and the appellant is rich. It does not hear new evidence, but decides whether the judgment given was justified given the evidence available, and the relevant laws and precedent.

There is widespread concern about what is seen as an unfortunate relic of a colonial past, now quite unnecessary, and a reflection on the maturity of the New Zealand judicial system. Many people want to get rid of the link with the Privy Council, so that the New Zealand court of appeal would become the highest appellate court in New Zealand law. This is seen as part of the natural development of the country from a dependent outpost of Britain to a respectable independent nation; it is pointed out that most other Commonwealth countries have already severed their links with the Privy Council.

This is all drivel. If the New Zealand sense of nationhood is so fragile that it's threatened by a useful link with another country, then it's not worth having - and this link is not obviously useless. Indeed, I contend that it could be far more useful than it is at present, to the extent that the surprise is not that New Zealand maintains such a link, but that most other countries do not.

Start by getting rid of the emotional rubbish. The Privy Council is not a foreign power overruling our right to dispense justice as we see fit; the tiny proportion of cases that get to the Privy Council ensure that. It is an independent group of experts examining the logical processes of our judicial system and making sure that they are sound. They don't make the laws; their function is simply to ensure that the laws are properly applied. Don't we want the laws to be properly applied ?

A significant moan among the objectors to the Privy Council's role is that they are not in touch with New Zealand "culture", so they can't understand why some of the judgments are made. But that's the whole point of an independent assessor : to be able to see a question unaffected by current fads and fancies, and influenced only by the factors which should be influencing the result. They can understand English, which means that they can understand the laws, the court proceedings, the judgments, and so on. ( If laws are to be written primarily in Maori, and judicial processes conducted in Maori, then there will have to be some safeguards, but so far I don't think that is part of the argument. ) If the interpretation of the English is to be guided by accidents of contemporary New Zealand life in matters other than the weight of the sentence and such, then the laws are badly written and should be changed. ( I observe that this is particularly important as the community within New Zealand becomes more diverse, and as more overseas people come here for trade or tourism or whatever. )

And if they're puzzled, they can ask, and I imagine that they do - but they can surely understand legal reasoning, and if New Zealand judges are capable of explaining why they arrive at their conclusions then the members of the Privy Council are surely capable of understanding the explanations. And if the New Zealand judges can't explain their judgments satisfactorily, then the judgments should be overturned.

The notion of an independent external body ( it doesn't have to be the Privy Council, but that's not a bad start ) which can comment on the reliability of our judicial processes seems to me to be an excellent idea. We can probably not do it for ourselves; we are too close and too involved. There are good reasons why medical practitioners shouldn't treat their families, and much the same reasons apply. Universities appoint external examiners in various ways to carry out much the same task; they are not necessarily popular, but in discharging their task they give us some sort of guarantee that standards are maintained, that processes used are fair and conscientiously applied, and so on. The principle of the Privy Council is surely the same.

Why doesn't everybody want one ? Are the other countries afraid that independent inspection of their judicial systems might be embarrassing ? Of what are they ashamed ?

2001 March 23

( Added later. )

So now they've got rid of the Privy Council. The arguments in favour of doing so were puerile, centred mainly on emotional references to "going it alone", "standing on our own two feet", "cutting the apron-strings", "decolonisation". If that's what this "Labour" government think, they've got much worse problems than the Privy Council. Perhaps they could begin by growing up a bit.

And I voted for them. What am I going to do at the next election ?

2003 October 15

UP to the TOP


Reason, in the abstract, is of the utmost importance, both in the university and in life at large.

I try to live in a rational way. I like to have reasons for doing things, and become uncomfortable if I don't. For example, I can find only one reason for wearing a tie : as a means of preventing the loop attached to the gown of my academic regalia from strangling me while parading to the graduation ceremony. Apart from that, a tie has no useful function whatever that I can discern, so I avoid wearing one, and become uncomfortable in places where a tie is expected.

You might wonder whether I have a good reason for wishing to wear academic regalia at all.

Perhaps more significant, I expected my students to be rational too. I always wanted to know why things happen, not merely that they happen, and expected that information to be provided in examination answers ( unless it's clearly not appropriate ), assignment answers, project reports, theses, and doubtless other documents which I don't remember just now.

Nevertheless, reason cannot stand alone. Reason can only be exercised if there is some material on which it can operate. We must therefore have axioms, which are inevitably to some degree arbitrary. Because of that, people cannot always agree, however careful their arguments. ( That was one of my reasons for being interested in debate moderation; I hoped that by careful analysis one could find the reasons for disagreement. This would certainly be a new idea, and might or might not be preferable to the current practice of waffling vaguely on in disagreement for ever, or coming to blows. ) Observation suggests that rather few people have taken the trouble to define their axioms.

It is my regard for reason which leads me to be a Christian. I make the point because there are people who believe otherwise ( which is their business ) but then mysteriously call themselves "Rationalists" ( which is at least potentially misleading ).

2001 March 23

UP to the TOP


OSH is the New Zealand government's "Occupational Safety and Health" organisation, intended to make the workplace, not to say the world, safe for we lucky inhabitants, guarding us particularly from any risk of choosing to do things that the government doesn't like. ( It is probably one of our rights to be so protected. It is not clear who determines that it is one of my rights to be forbidden to do many things which I can do in perfect safety, but perhaps this is not the best place to expand on that reflection. )

Here are two anecdotes, exploring my experience with consequences of OSH's strange activities. The first is amusing, if you share my questionable sense of humour; the second is not so amusing, and I think it's sad. Both items are extracted in part from a family newsletter, which accounts for their tone; they are nonetheless meant seriously.

OSH hurt my toe.

Early in 2002, I was putting hinges on some doors beneath the stage in our church hall. During this activity, as a direct result of OSH's regulations, I hurt my right big toe. I shall, inevitably, explain.

OSH is involved in the story because St Augustine's church is defined as a workplace. So is the church hall, where the connection with any sort of work of interest to the government is tenuous in the extreme, but I think OSH gets in because people assemble there from time to time. Of course, real work does go on in both church and hall, but as no one is paid for it OSH doesn't count it. ( I think. Do not search my website for reliable statements on law. )

At the time in question, which was early January, real work was going on in the church hall, and I was doing it. In the course of my activities I had to remove the steps from the stage. The steps are short flights of stairs, self-contained so that they can be moved about as required, and reasonably enough of such a height as to reach from the floor to the level of the stage - or, more precisely, to one step below the level of the stage. That makes them all of 60cm high ( 2', if you don't speak centimetres ). They have been there since before we turned up, and probably since the stage was put in, which could have been any time in the last seventy-odd years. There are two such flights, comfortably wide. So far as I know, they have given no trouble.

But OSH says they are dangerous, and must each have a handrail on one side. So now they have handrails. The main function of the handrails, in my experience, is to make it exceedingly difficult to carry heavy and awkward objects up the stairs, which is the only occasion on which I need them. ( The stage is so low that I can comfortably get up and down without stairs. It's true that I have long legs, and am reasonably agile. ) Instead of simply carrying tricky things comfortably with arms extended, you now have to lift one side awkwardly up to avoid the handrail, thereby shifting the balance and compromising your grip. This is certainly a great deal more dangerous than it was before. Presumably one is supposed to place each load on the stage first, climb the steps, then stoop down to lift it again, risking strain to the back. No, I have come to no harm ( "yet", he added, darkly ) in carrying things up the augmented steps, but it seems to me not to be an improvement. It also looks stupid, but people who live in glass houses should not throw stones.

But that is not how they hurt my foot. I remarked that I had to remove the steps. That used to be easy; one picked up the steps, carried them to their destination, and put them down. They are solidly built, and not light, but that was better than dragging them over the floor. Why is it no longer easy ? - because the single handrail has destroyed the symmetry. What was a heavy but well balanced lift is now a slightly heavier, but unbalanced, and quite awkward lift. I have tried it, and it isn't a good idea, so it's back to dragging. The handrail does offer something to drag, which wasn't there before, so I dragged it in what seemed like the obvious direction.

But I had not taken into account the unbalancedness, and at my firm tug the steps reared up on one of the corners, which had perhaps come into contact with an irregularity in the floor, the steps pivoted around this centre, and landed firmly on my big toe. No permanent harm ensued, but I had a somewhat uncomfortable foot for some days.

No, it wasn't very serious. But it wouldn't have happened at all if OSH hadn't insisted on the ridiculous handrails.

OSH denies me a pleasant walk.

In 2003, we spent two weeks at Mahinepua. We were able to find a good number of satisfactory walks in the area. We did not find the Kerikeri Walkway, though it was in our book of walkways, where it looked good; we looked for it where the map said it should be, but found no trace; information centre staff ( at Russell, as I remember ) knew not of it.

I found out later that it had closed because of my old friend OSH. The path went across a farm; a farm is a workplace ( as is St Augustine's, you will recall ); the proprietor of a workplace is absolutely responsible for the safety of anyone therein; the farmer was perfectly happy for people to walk along the path, but was unwilling to accept responsibility for idiots who might enrage his bulls and be damaged in consequence; so the walk had closed. OSH strikes again.

I am not usually an idiot.

Both of these stories happened because OSH is concerned for my safety. I'm concerned for my safety too, which is why I take care. I am happy to have assurances that things I use and places I go are not going to jump up and bite me in surprising ways. ( - which I wrote before reflecting that it's exactly what the steps did in the hall, because of OSH's interference. )

On the other hand, the world is not intrinsically a safe place. If I want to stay in one piece ( which I do ), it's up to me to take sensible precautions. People who don't take such precautions are called idiots. It was a bit idiotic of me to drag the steps without taking care, and my injury - fortunately minor - was my own silly fault. ( Incidentally, if I didn't think so, who would I sue ? The church, or OSH ? )

A country path can be potentially dangerous in many ways. It can be slippery or boggy; it can be close to a steep slope; it can go through areas occupied by stock; it can be subject to flooding, or washed out; etc., etc.. I like to know about such conditions, and to decide whether or not to attempt the walk. I prefer that to be my decision, not OSH's. If I am stupid, then the consequences are my fault; stupidity is like that. It is certainly not the landowner's fault, and the landowner should not be held responsible for the actions of idiots.

In the case of the Kerikeri walkway, the walk is closed not because the landowner is unreasonably against people walking across the property, but because the landowner, entirely reasonably, refuses to be held responsible for other people's idiocy.

Ideally, perhaps, there might be ways of preserving the rest of us from the consequences of other people's idiocy without penalising the non-idiots. The unlikeliness of such a possibility might be assessed by pondering this question : what can be done to keep us safe from the antics of idiots who get into parliament ?

2005 July 3

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This is really about universities ( see below ), and should probably follow the bit about universities, but T precedes U, and these are, after all, obsessions.

Teaching is one of the most honourable of professions. I greatly admire good teachers, and I know that I can't do it. That's why I'm in a university rather than a school.

The function of a university is not to teach; it is to provide an environment where people can learn. It operates at a level where I think that teaching is impossible. I cannot teach a student - I cannot do something to him which will cause him to learn. If the student is not ready to learn, I can do little enough. Schools exist to teach people, which is why they have pupils : pupils go to school to be taught, while students go to university to learn.

Elsie Bradley, a teacher at Westlake Girls' High School, was presented with a National Excellence in Teaching Award ( New Zealand Herald, 5 June 1997 ). ( That's what the Herald called it; I would rather call it the National Award for Excellence in Teaching ( see English ), but you can't tell these days. ) I am indebted to her for this lucid statement, taken from the newspaper article, of the point I'm clumsily trying to make :

"When I was five I told my mother I was going to be a teacher. It was a calling, really". Teaching, she said, is all about motivating students to want to learn.

Brilliantly put. I am not called to teach; students come to university because they want to learn, so shouldn't need motivating. Another relevant quotation which turns up from time to time is attributed to Oscar Wilde :

Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.

I would add that if you want to know anything worth knowing, then you have to find it out for yourself. You have to search for it, and you have to work at it until it becomes part of you. No one else can do that for you.

So what's a lecturer's job ? I think it's learning, and helping other people to learn. I don't think it's telling other people to do things, particularly to waste their time doing arbitrary assignments; they have to work it out for themselves. ( Yes, I did tell my students that. I presented it as a philosophical principle to students of the operating systems course which I used to offer. I preserve it here, though I no longer have any connection with the course, because I'm rather pleased with it. )

2001 March 23;
slightly extended 2004 November 17

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I think that universities are very important establishments. It's a pity that there don't seem to be many these days.

The task of a university is not teaching ( see Teaching ), nor is it learning, nor ( despite a great deal of highly publicised huffing and puffing ) is it research, except in a very general sense. The task of a university is scholarship.

That is not a very precise definition, and it is not intended to be one. A precise definition would be likely to rule out certain sorts of activity, and that might interfere with the task of scholarship. One might attempt to enlarge on the definition by suggesting that scholarship entails thinking about things and trying to discern relationships between them, and structures within which they can usefully be placed. The aim is better understanding of anything whatever, and the formulation of that understanding in such a way that it can be conveyed to other people and therefore be cumulative.

If that enlargement is accepted, then it becomes clear that one could engage in any activity in a scholarly way, using the experience gained in the activity as raw material for thinking, analysis, or whatever. Such activities are quite likely to extend to teaching, learning, and research, but they are not essential components.

And publication ? Ah, publication. That comes under the heading of "the formulation of that understanding in such a way that it can be conveyed to other people", but the same heading also implies a condition : that which is to be conveyed should embody some new understanding. A publication which amounts to "look, I can do this !" does not automatically qualify. In both fields which I have come to know reasonably well - chemistry and computing - a high proportion of publications add little or nothing to our understanding, and have not much to do with scholarship.

( That is not to say that they are unworthy; the fact that "I can do this", or the value of some property of a compound, or the observation of some new phenomenon, might well be worth recording. My claim is merely that it doesn't amount to scholarship. )

It used to be claimed that the function of a university was "to teach people to think". I don't know whether anyone took that seriously, for in fact we have never known how to teach people to think, and to the best of my understanding we still don't. Nevertheless, to some extent it worked. The technique used was a sort of osmosis. Young people who had shown some interest in and aptitude for thinking were placed in an environment in which highly regarded people were conspicuously engaged in thinking, were honoured for thinking, and were ( not necessarily financially ) rewarded for thinking. By the establishment of colleges where they not only studied but lived, they were to some extent isolated from the distractions of the world and their attention was directed strongly inwards to the university society where they mixed almost exclusively with others of their own kind. The young people were placed under little or no constraint ( because no one knew what sort of constraint would do the trick ), but were led to believe that the honours and rewards could be theirs too if they could in their turn demonstrate that they were engaged in thinking. And it worked.

No, not everyone passed. There were many who went to university for reasons other than a devotion to scholarship. They went for the social life, the cachet of a degree, the sports, the freedom. Some scraped through, and some perhaps performed very well in the examinations - we still don't know how to assess scholarship. That wasn't very important; what was important was that the tradition of scholarship was passed on.

What do we do now ? We take impressionable young people and place them for short periods of time in an environment where their every move is constrained by continuous pressure to complete assignments, revise lecture notes, succeed in tests ( which are more and more multiple-choice tests ), and pass examinations. We don't give them any time to think. There are so many of them that few ever come into anything resembling close contact with the academics, who themselves are at least as likely to be conspicuous publishers as conspicuous thinkers, because that's to a great extent what determines their professional progress. Students are not encouraged to think; they are encouraged to study strategic examination techniques and to plan their time to gain most in-course assessment credit. What they do is determined by how many marks it will return, not whether it's interesting. Thinking ? - later ( perhaps ).

This is not a university. Perhaps it's useful, or necessary ( not even closely related terms ). It seems that successive "governments" have believed it is sufficiently valuable to allocate it increasingly insufficient money to carry on. That's a matter of politics, which is commonly more concerned with expediency than value. Current political attitudes ( which I shall not dignify by the name of "thinking" ) are dominated by considerations of "market forces", which is a sure way of reaching the cheapest, easiest, just sufficient immediate solution, but does nothing for long-term development. Students trained to manage Microsoft Windows are comparatively cheap and easy to produce, and will get useful jobs straight away; students who understand the nature of what they're doing well enough to achieve much more are comparatively expensive, and unlikely to make a profit in the next year or two.

So universities are out of fashion. That's not my decision, but there's not much that I can do about it. We have a number of university-like entities which - despite the efforts of the many dedicated and genuine academics who still do their best to maintain standards - are overwhelmed with the magnitude of a task for which they are neither prepared nor given adequate support. That is clearly what the "government" wants, and as the universities are for the most part dependent on "government" support, that's what it will get.

But who is doing the work of the real university ? Might there be room for a small one somewhere ?

It is not the task of a university to be at the forefront of technology, so it doesn't need a lot of money. That's just as well, because the "government" isn't likely to give it much, and neither is anyone else. It is not the task of a university to be useful in any direct practical sense, so there won't be many students. ( It will probably give degrees, but, as they won't be particularly practical, they won't be very highly regarded. ) As there will be little exciting equipment, and not much money for salaries, there won't be that many academics either.

But those who are there, academics and students, will be there because they want to think about the fundamentals of their subjects. And they will have a wonderful time.

Until they starve.

2001 March 23
slightly amended 2004 November 17

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Alan Creak,
2005 June.

Go to me;