What I’ve been doing – 19 Oct 15

Kingston Beach Sunrise

  • Spoke with a resident about issues with wood smoke and controls on passive solar design in the planning scheme.
  • Various emails and phone call with another Councillor.
  • Submitted 2 motions for next week’s Council meeting.
  • Attended a council workshop for two-and-a-half hours on community resilience, ground water and inundation modelling.

What I’ve been doing – 18 Oct 15

 

Channel Heritage Memorial Wall Opening

Channel Heritage Memorial Wall Opening

A lovely sunny afternoon. I went down to the Channel Heritage Centre at Margate where Premier Will Hodgman and Kingborough Mayor Steve Wass opened the Channel Heritage Memorial Wall.

I also picked up some tomato seedlings, thank goodness, as I haven’t been organised enough to plant any this year.

 

Food Growing Workshop with Rosalie

Food Growing Workshop with Rosalie

 

 

 

 

After that it was down to Rosalie Gorton-Lee’s house for the tail end of her workshop on how to grow your own food. Cups of tea, scones and some good conversation with residents about all sorts of community issues.

Are Tasmanians Illiterate?

This post is quite long, so I’ll summarise:

  • The PIAAC 2011-2012 statistics do not give enough information to say if Tasmanians are more or less literate then the Australian average.
  • The definition often quoted of functional illiteracy is vague and possibly misleading.
  • The figures were widely misrepresented (directly before the Tasmanian state election) and used to incorrectly imply a failing of the Tasmanian education system.

The story hit the headlines

The ABC broke the news in September 2013:

One in two Tasmanians aged 15 to 74 are functionally illiterate, and more than half are functionally innumerate.

No source for the figure here, but the next report gave a bit more information; Background Briefing 22 September 2013:

A report by the Australian Bureau of Statistics for 2011-2012 shows half of all Tasmanians aged 15 to 74 are functionally illiterate, and more than half are functionally innumerate—meaning they don’t have the skills needed to get by in the modern world, like filling out forms, or reading the instructions on their prescription.

The Guardian were soon onto it:

To those mainlanders whose notions of Tasmania conjure boutique wineries, posh B&Bs and MONA weekends, recent news that half of adult Tasmanians are functionally illiterate and innumerate was an enormous shock.

SBS picked up the story too, from AAP:

Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show half of adult Tasmanians don’t have the basic literacy and numeracy skills needed to get by in the modern world.

It even made it overseas:

New research has revealed shocking statistics on literacy and numeracy levels in Tasmania.

Half of all Tasmanians are functionally illiterate and innumerate.

Then it became folklore:

The moronic, overpaid, subhuman animals running Australian education seem to be consistent. Recent findings indicate that about half of the state of Tasmania is functionally illiterate and innumerate, and the rest of the country’s not much better.

And since then I’ve heard it repeated over and over. Usually with a look of quiet desperation – as a reason for simplifying wording on a sign, or an explanation as to why we can’t expect the masses to vote with any sense.

The bad news

So, I went searching for the data. What I found on the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) website was the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC). The ABS give an excellent explanation – basically they survey a sample of people testing their literacy, numeracy and problem solving in technology-rich environments (PSTRE). This is then combined with demographic information about the participant and their score is used to place them into one of 5 levels.

The ABS site has overall figures and breakdown by sex, age, and state or territory.

Ah, now I was getting somewhere, and there was the grim graph with Tasmania’s shame in black and white (or purple and orange).

Proportion at literacy Level 3 or above, By state or territory of usual residence and sex—2011–12

Australian literacy by state from ABS

It certainly looks like 50% of us are illiterate.

Hard data

Now time to download the data. The ABS provide a series of Excel spreadsheets with the cold hard numbers, broken down in more ways than I needed, but it was all there.

Tasmania:

Literacy Proportion (%)
Level 1 and below 15.3
Level 2 33.5
Level 3 35.9
Level 4/5 13.9

So, looking at this if we combine anything less than level 3 we get 48.8%. That’s near enough to half for a headline.

How do we stack up against our smarter cousins to the North? Looking at the Australia wide figures:

Literacy Proportion (%)
Level 1 and below 14.1
Level 2 30.6
Level 3 37.9
Level 4/5 15.6

So for the whole country we have 44.7% below level 3. Clearly we’re under-performing.

PIAAC Australian and Tasmanian literacy levels

Statistics 101

There are some other numbers amongst all those ABS spreadsheets too, though. These things called RSE of Proportion (%) and 95% MOE of Proportion (± percentage points). What do they tell us? Luckily the ABS explain this all very clearly too. I refer the reader to the ABS site for the full explanation, but here are some juicy bits:

Two types of error are possible in an estimate based on a sample survey: sampling error and non-sampling error. Since the estimates in this publication are based on information obtained from a sample, they are subject to sampling variability. That is, due to randomness in the composition of the sample, the estimates may differ from those population values that would have been produced if all dwellings had been included in the survey. One measure of the likely difference is given by the standard error (SE). There are about two chances in three (67%) that a sample estimate will differ by less than one SE from the number that would have been obtained if all dwellings had been included, and about 19 chances in 20 (95%) that the difference will be less than two SEs. […]

In contrast to most other Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) surveys, PIAAC estimates also include significant imputation variability, due to the use of multiple possible assessment tasks and the complex scaling procedures. The effect of this on the estimation can be reliably estimated and is included in the calculated SEs.

To cut a long story short, the MOE gives us the range of values that we can be 95% sure the real figure falls between.

When we plot the literacy percentages with the MOE shown as error bars, we get a slightly different picture:

PIAAC Australian and Tasmanian literacy levels with margin of error.Now we can see that in every case the Tasmanian figure brackets the Australian figure. That is, we don’t know exactly where either figure lies, but the Tasmanian and Australian figure may well be the same, or either may be higher than the other.

Conclusion

If we once again look at the scores for less than level 3, we can say with 95% certainty:

  • Tasmania 41.9% to 55.7%
  • Australia 40.1% to 49.3%

And that’s all I can derive from these figures. No assuming one is higher than the other, or taking the middle of the range. The point of these margins of error is that they tell us 95% certainty. If we want to be less certain, then we can reduce the margins, but we can’t have it both ways. One chance in 20 that we’re wrong is reasonably certain, although not definite.

More hope

I’m not going to delve into the figures more deeply here, but I did note that in some age groups the Tasmania percentage is higher than the Australian one. Where Tasmania performs well is in the 15 to 19-year-old and 55 to 64-year-old groups. These might be statistical anomalies or they might be to do with the demographic mix of the Tasmanian population, with some young people going interstate to work.

I hope that the 15 to 19-year-old figure shows that our education system is working well and that all this was a lot of media hype, coincidentally just before the state election.

Functional illiteracy

Before I close, I couldn’t find a reference to ‘functionally illiterate’ on the ABS site. I did find the descriptions of each level. As they’re lengthy, I’ll only quote level 2 and level 3, as this is the cut-off I’ve focussed on. You decide whether this is the point of functional illiteracy.

Level 2 (226 to 275)

At this level, the medium of texts may be digital or printed, and texts may comprise continuous, non-continuous, or mixed types. Tasks at this level require respondents to make matches between the text and information, and may require paraphrasing or low-level inferences. Some competing pieces of information may be present. Some tasks require the respondent to:

  • cycle through or integrate two or more pieces of information based on criteria;
  • compare and contrast or reason about information requested in the question; or
  • navigate within digital texts to access-and-identify information from various parts of a document.

Level 3 (276 to 325)

Texts at this level are often dense or lengthy, and include continuous, non-continuous, mixed, or multiple pages of text. Understanding text and rhetorical structures become more central to successfully completing tasks, especially navigating complex digital texts. Tasks require the respondent to identify, interpret, or evaluate one or more pieces of information, and often require varying levels of inference. Many tasks require the respondent to construct meaning across larger chunks of text or perform multi-step operations in order to identify and formulate responses. Often tasks also demand that the respondent disregard irrelevant or inappropriate content to answer accurately. Competing information is often present, but it is not more prominent than the correct information.

Footnote

I have intentionally not looked at some other sources of data mentioned in some articles. I have also focussed on the literacy figure rather than numeracy, as this is the one I have heard quoted. If someone with stronger statistical skills than me would like to correct my analysis I’m most happy to hear from you.

Council meeting 10 November 2014

Tonight was my first Kingborough council meeting. I spent most some of the weekend reading over 200 pages of agenda for the planning meeting feels on the same night.

It didn’t feel all that strange walking in, as I’ve been in the room plenty of times before to watch meetings. The other councillors were welcoming and one of them showed me around, which I appreciated as I had no idea where the biscuits were. I knew I had a pigeon hole somewhere do it was a relief to have it pointed out to me.

The meeting itself was mostly procedural, setting starting times and nominating for committees. As I’d hoped, I’m on the Infrastructure and Recreational Services Committee and the Community, Arts and Environment Committee. I’m also now Deputy Chair of Community, Arts and Environment. All councillors are also on Planning and Development.

The Planning Meeting was intimidating, but not as trying as I anticipated. My main concern was that I hadn’t been to a planning meeting, so want sure of the format. To make it worse there as a ‘sealed plan’to deal with, whatever that meant. I as glad I’d done nearly all the reading.

The sealed plan was about removing a covenant on a block of land. This part of the meeting had the applicant and the appellant both having a chance to present their cases and be questioned by council and one another. As is apparently the tradition with these thing, the decision was deferred until the officers prepare a report.

The rest of the Planning Meeting was falling with Development Applications. There were two huge ones regarding Bruny Island Cruises new visitor centre and continuation of their current arrangements until it’s built. These were both passed with only slight alterations such as adding bicycle parking.

There was one unusual application from the Council itself to build a was at Woodbridge cemetery. The debate was around whether there were any graves under the proposed wall site. Although we were assured that Council has plans of the grave sites, several councillors (and me, because I watched the meeting) remembered quite clearly that they were previously told the plans were destroyed in the 67 bushfires and that ground penetrating radar was needed to be sure of the grave locations. The DA was pissed with an additional provision that it must be ensured there are no human remains under the wall site.

And that’s about it for my first official duties. Perhaps it doesn’t sound much, but it’s a huge milestone for me.

Drab Streets

John StreetPlenty of songs have been written about walking in the rain. Butch rode around to Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head; Gene Kelly went Singing in the Rain; Creedence Clearwater Revival asked Have You Ever Seen the Rain;  Milli Vanilli  mimed to Blame it on the Rain; Prince crooned about the Purple Rain; Eddie Rabbit bounced to I love a Rainy Night.Southern Outlet

On the streets down my way rain isn’t so romantic. I went for a walk around the civic heart of Kingston, looking for meaning.

Somewhere along the way we forgot that streets need character and built buildings that focus inward, their exteriors luring us with brash announcements of the retail treasures that they hold.

What went wrong? When did we forget that streets should be something more than a utilitarian wasteland to move cars as smoothly as possible from one place to another? When did the destination become so much more important than the journey?
Hutchins Street
I walked the streets, wondering why there was no one about. It wasn’t just the rain, although it certainly didn’t help. There was nothing welcoming here. Certainly there were token efforts; pretence at street-scaping: a seat with a view of the cars; a massive chessboard in a courtyard, devoid of pieces but with a glorious view of a purveyor of franchise doughnuts; a few sad trees forced into Channel Courtconcrete prisons.

We must be able to do better than this. Civic streets are intrinsic to community. We need places for informal interaction; places to share ideas, exchange trivialities, discover common experience. If all that’s on offer is car parks and supermarkets our society is poorer for it.

I’d love to meet you in the street, let’s plan for it to be a pleasant place.

The Collapse of Globalism

The Collapse of Globalism - CoverI’ve just finished reading The Collapse of Globalism and the Reinvention of the World by John Ralston Saul.

I wasn’t familiar with his works until I went to a public lecture at the University of Tasmania entitled It’s Broke: How can we fix it? on 3 September 2012. The lecture not only inspired me to read his books, but to join a political party (but that’s another story).

I’m intrigued and repelled by economics. I feel too uniformed to question what has become the natural order – that free trade is good, that internationalisation is good, that privatisation is good. All these things have been talked about through my adult life as if they are self-evident. I wondered of my experience, working for large organisations, both public and private was atypical. What I saw was that they had much more in common than different. They had the same balance of dedicated employees and free-loaders. The same bureaucracy;  many levels of management, some justified, some being exploited for self-aggrandisement.

Reading The Collapse of Globalism was refreshing; not only did it give me some insight into how we got where we are, but it gave me hope that there are other ways of living. It’s beyond me to try to summarise such a thoughtful work, so I’ll leave it to you to go and read it for yourself.

The two-thirds Monty

goatLet’s Make a Deal isn’t part of my childhood, but I’ve heard of Monty Hall. I suspect that of the small percentage of internet traffic that isn’t pornography a fair proportion is devoted to arguments about the Monty Hall problem. If you don’t know the puzzle, it goes like this:

The contestant picks one of three doors. Behind one door is a prize, behind each of the other two there is a goat. Once you’ve chosen Monty opens one of the other doors to reveal a goat. He then invites you to change your choice if you’d like to. What should you do?

The mathematics says you should change. If you stick with your choice you only have a one-in-three chance of being correct, if you change your odds go up to two-in-three. At first glance most people say that your odds of winning the prize with either door is one-in-two. This leads to a lot of discussion, I mean a lot of discussion. Some of the comments run along the lines that ‘the two-in-three answer assumes you have lots of attempts but you only have one go and what if you got it right first time?’ This sort of comment display a lack of understanding of what probability means.

People aren’t good at probability. It’s nothing personal, no one is. It’s certainly not generally intuitive. There a loads of examples around.

When climate scientists talk of highly likely, they mean 95% likely. “Why can’t they be sure?” comes the cry. “It’s still not certain.” Well, no, and very little is. What they are saying is a very specific estimation of the likelihood of something being true; the problem is that only a small fraction of the population has the training to think like this.

The chances of picking 6 numbers in Tattslotto are 8 145 060:1. Ozlotto is even worse at 45 379 620:1. So at one ticket an hour Tattslotto would take over 929 years to win and Ozlotto would take 5180 years. But still thousands of people play because they might get lucky. And they play poker machines where the house has a clear advantage and they believe that they sometimes win, even though the maths shows that the more they play the more sure they are to lose. Don’t they wonder where the money for the free food and the bright lifts comes from?

People are not rational. Perhaps it’s the thrill of believing they’ll get lucky, a belief in divine providence, submission to the opiate of the masses.

The Monty Hall problem, and the endless arguments, have been around for decades now, but perhaps this problem will become archaic. Quite soon, with the coming of peak oil, a car might not be a desirable prize. (Although we can’t be quite sure of this.) One thing’s for sure, my daughter would dearly love to own a goat.

 

Rage Against Age

Something happened and I’m not sure quite when. Sometime in the past ten or so years I started counting my years left rather than my years passed. There was a time where I would look at the few things I had achieved in life and run through how much else I wanted to do. Then, sneakily and without any warning, life turned around and I felt there was only just enough time left to do some of those things.

The other day I read an article about where we die. I’d never really thought about this. I knew a few people who are now dead. Some were around my age at the time, and died suddenly, in one case violently, others from the sudden onset of illness. Most have been older relatives. Some of these died at home from heart attacks, some died from illness in hospital or palliative care. I’ve never really thought about the options of where we die.

That’s not to say I haven’t thought about death. Someone very close to me has a chronic illness and I’ve thought about her death in an abstract sense, mostly around the the idea of my loss but also about her acceptance of her situation. I’ve thought a lot about whether someone should have the choice to bring on their own death; why suicide is such a taboo subject; the mere idea that it is acceptable stirs such strong emotions. And then that corollary to suicide, euthanasia; once again a subject that can cause extreme reaction.

What I’ve never thought about is where we die. What options do we have? We all know that death is coming one day, perhaps not with a scythe and a black hood (although I have a weakness for scythes and quite like Death in Terry Pratchett novels), but nevertheless inevitably. I suspect that the question isn’t so much where we die, but where do we wait for death, if we wait at all. What options does our society offer and what could be done differently?

We all know someone who seems to have resigned from life, and is marking time until death comes. They behave as if they’re old, they have no drive, no plans, no aspirations. I’m sure I’ve been unfairly judgemental of people I know like this. Who am I to say that their choices are the wrong ones? I haven’t lived their life, I can’t be inside their heads. Maybe in their situation I would behave the same, maybe I will at some time.

Is it the duty of others to try to distract someone from their impending end? Is it our responsibility to discuss it? Does talking of death lead to preoccupation? I don’t expect simple or general answer to any of these questions. Perhaps all I should consider is the personal and specific. I want to continue to live until I die. I want control of my environment and familiarity if I know my death is imminent. I want the choice to end my life if I am convinced that it is no longer worth living.

I’m sure I’ll think more about the end of life. Perhaps age will bring depth to my understanding. For now I feel very alive. I know that I ache more than I did ten or twenty years ago, I see age spots, wrinkles and grey hairs that catch me by surprise. Equally importantly, I enjoy the perspective that experience is bringing. My reactions are becoming more measured, I feel with passion tempered by familiarity.

Age is inevitable. Death will catch me one day. I’m not going to rush it, though. I see so many people much older than me doing wonderful and constructive things, sharing their experience and taking on new challenges. One of the things that I’ll take on is gaining an understanding of what those who are travelling before me are discovering, and hopefully contributing to increasing the options available to myself and others.