Category Archives: Uncategorized

What I’ve been reading

I’ve been quiet on this site for a long time, mainly because other things have taken my attention. Council has been engrossing, as usual, especially the preparation for the budget approval.

My day job also demands much of my time and energy. Then there’s the everyday demands of running a household, seeing a daughter through year 12 and sending her off to university, and spending time with friends and family.

The state election earlier in the year took up a fair bit of time, running as a candidate for The Greens, as well as helping and supporting other candidates.

I’ve also been away for some weeks. It was my first trip overseas for many years and a welcome jolt from my normal routine. I really think I see things more clearly and with a broader perspective by getting away. I certainly feel like I’m back with more energy.

What I really want to write about today, though, is what I’ve been reading. Anyone who’s visited me has seen that I like books and that they tend to pile up around the house, in particular next to my bed. (They don’t see all the ones on my Kindle. Adding those would leave no room to sleep.)

I’ve just finished Technically Wrong: Sexist Apps, Biased Algorithms, and Other Threats of Toxic by Sara Wachter-Boettcher. (http://www.sarawb.com/technically-wrong/)

The subtitle was enough to intrigue. My working life has been in tech and I’ve a passion for social justice so this was right up my alley. The book didn’t disappoint. Wachter-Boettcher combines up-to-date anecdotes about today’s big tech companies and how they operate with insight into the narrow demographic who are designing computer software that is influencing our lives. If Facebook has sent you a reminder of something from your past that you’d sooner forget, or personalised ads creep you out then I’d recommend this book.

This leads me to Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy by Cathy O’Neil.(https://weaponsofmathdestructionbook.com/) Although I’m only half-way through this one, I’m loving it. O’Neil spend her childhood calculating prime factors of car number plates during long family drives. Unsurprisingly, she studied mathematics and went on to work on big data for a hedge fund through the GFC. This lead her to question how data is being used and abused to create systems that are increasingly deciding who gets to study, who gets a job, and who goes to jail. She has the inside knowledge, the expertise and the conscious to tell this story. I can’t wait to get back to it.

A few weeks ago I went to the Ferntree Tavern to hear Richard Denniss speak about his Quarterly Essay, Dead Right: How Neoliberalism Ate Itself and What Comes Next. (https://www.quarterlyessay.com.au/author/richard-denniss) Denniss is Chief Economist and former Chief Executive of the Australia Institute and I’ve previously read and enjoyed insightful articles by him in various progressive parts of the Australian media. He was joined on the evening by First Dog on The Moon, who has recently moved to Tasmania. (You can read the details here.)

Denniss’s clear understanding of where or country is going and how we’re being led there is worth a read, if only for the explanation that the Westpac Rescue Helicopter isn’t paid for by Westpac.I haven’t finished this one either, so I’d better stop writing and start reading.

Before I finish, I should include some fiction. The Way of All Flesh by Samuel Butler. I bought it second hand a few years ago and only just picked it up again. It caught my eye because in Room With A View, the Reverend Mr Beebe finds it at the house of the Emersons and says “never heard of it”. First published in 1903, the Introduction to my copy starts with ‘The Way of All Flesh is one of those rare books which are loved as much for their effect on their readers’ lives as for themselves. Since it first appeared over sixty years ago Butler’s novel has seemed to thousands of people peculiarly exciting and liberating.’ I can’t wait.

November

I’d planned this to be a much more detailed post, but time has got away from me, so I’ll summarise and get it out the door. It’s long, dry, and no picture. I’ll try harder next time, promise.

13 November – Community Recycling Network

Community enterprises and recycling are both things that interest me, as is breakfast, so on 13 November I went along to part of Community Recycling Network Australia‘s national forum. The speakers were:

I went away excited and inspired. I like hearing about people getting on with good things.

16 November – Long Term Financial Plan and Council Committees

Monday’s council workshop was on our long-term financial plan and on how our meeting and committees are scheduled – more to come.

18 November – International GIS Day

Geographic Information Systems (GIS to his friends) is my idea of fun. I grew up in a family of map lovers and I work with data in my day job, so GIS is a great fit for me. Wednesday 18 November was International GIS Day, a much-neglected celebration. I dropped in to the Hobart City Council GIS department who were holding an open day, ate their cake and saw some exciting things they’re doing with data about the city. I left with my head buzzing with ideas about how to measure the places we live to make better decisions about land-use, infrastructure maintenance, climate change mitigation, and much more.

18 November – Cycling South AGM

Active transport matters to me. I drive most days of the week, but I dream of a world where we have more choices for how we get around. Cycling South is the organisation that coordinates cycling between the greater Hobart councils (Clarence, Glenorchy, Hobart, Kingborough, and Brighton) and with Bicycle Network and Department of State Growth. We meet every two months and Wednesday was our AGM.

The Cadence Award is Cycling South’s annual award to someone who has made a major contribution to cycling in southern Tasmania and this year it went to Rae Wells of the Bonnet Hill Community Association in recognition of her work advocating for the shoulder widening on the Channel Highway. Rae was the first non-cyclist to receive the award, important because cycling infrastructure is as much about removing cyclists from dangerous roads as it is about providing us with attractive places to ride.

19 November – Southern Tasmania Councils Authority AGM

‘Tis the season for AGMs. Thursday 19 November was the Southern Tasmania Council Authority (STCA) AGM. The guest speaker was Shane Gregory, General Manager State Roads with the Department of State Growth. His presentation was encouraging, including public and active transport in his idea of transport, and talking about maximising value from existing infrastructure, rather than planning to build more roads.

21 November – ALGWA AGM

I joined the Australian Local Government Women’s Association because I want to see more women elected to local government. At our AGM her Excellency Professor the Honourable Kate Warner AM spoke about women in public office, discrimination and all sorts of other interesting things, but you had to be there.

22 November – Diversity Rally

On Sunday there was a rally in Parliament Gardens to promote diversity. It was gentle, fun, and welcoming. The Tasmanian Police did a great job of keeping the small group of unhappy shouty flag-waving types away in the forecourt of PW1, where their shouts were drowned out by the wind.

23 November – Council Meeting

At the council meeting we discussed, amongst other things:

You can read the agenda and minutes for more details.

25 November – Culcha

Wednesday night and Loud Mouth Theatre opened their Hobart season of  Those Who Fall In Love Like Anchors Dropped Upon the Ocean Floor. I’m not going to spoil it, just brilliant. Go and see it if you ever get the chance.

26 November – Landcare and Coastcare

The Kingborough and Huonville Landcare and Coastcare groups had a Christmas function at Peverata Hall. Another humbling event, lots of lovely people who give up their time for the community. Council staff from both councils talked about working with children law and climate change.

26 November – Community Grants

Twice a year Kingborough Council community grants provide up to $5000 to groups for capital works. This round the recipients were:

I enjoy the presentation of these grants; people from a wide range of community groups who are working hard for things they care about, and Council joining in to help build community. Each group told us a little about what they do, perhaps the highlight being hearing that Show Jumping Tasmania welcome anyone “who owns a horse, or can steal a horse”.

28 November – LGAT Planning Workshop

A pleasant drive to Launceston and a day hearing and asking questions about land use and planning approvals, what else would you do on a Saturday? The Local Government Association of Tasmania run training courses for local government elected members and staff from time-to-time and this one seemed important to me as planning is going through some big changes at the moment.

29 November – Climate Change March

To draw attention to the IPCC Conference of the Parties 21 in Paris, many groups around the world organised events. The ‘march’ in Hobart was in Parliament Gardens and was organised by Climate Action Hobart. 4000 people turned out and listened to some interesting speakers, including farmers, wildlife carers, divesting students and a priest.

2 December – Spies

A night off on Wednesday. Bridge of Spies at the State. Well produced cold-war spy exchange story. I went because Bob Ellis recommended it and enjoyed every minute. (I can’t link the review, he’s pulled it down.)

5 December – Community Consultative Forum

Every 3 months, on a Saturday morning, the Council invite community members, mostly from community associations, to a presentation and discussion on what we’ve been up to. This month was another lively discussion about the new planning scheme, the sewerage pipe through Howden. For more, read the agenda and the minutes.

10 December – Bruny Island Advisory Committee

I’ve never had a bad day on Bruny, and last Thursday was no exception. BIAC is a council special committee that brings forward issues of concern to the Bruny Island community to Council. After the meeting the Bruny Island CWA hosted a delicious cooked lunch in the Bruny ISland Community Centre hall at Alonnah. It was a bit disconcerting to be greeted by of the committee members with “you’re Ian’s son and you used to work for Telecom”.

10 December – Infrastructure and Recreational Services

Waste, sport, bikes, road safety, works capital works. Always an interesting meeting with informed and informative staff present. You can read the agenda and minutes (or even listen to the audio) if you want details.

And then…

Apart from that I’ve visited and spoken with some constituents, mainly about planning issues, attended Greens meetings and finally done something about divesting my superannuation and savings into ethical schemes.

 

November Council and Community Events

 

November Council Meeting

Annual General Meeting

November’s Council meeting was preceded by the AGM. Council AGMs are famous for their lack of popularity; in fact there were moves to remove the need to hold a public AGM. Personally I think it’s a good thing that they’re held, although it is disappointing that no one comes. If you missed the Kingborough one, as you almost certainly did, you can listen to the recording, or just read the annual report.

Former Kingston High School

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Former Kingston High School

The former Kingston High School and the Council land at Kingston Beach are two big capital items for Council and they were both on Monday’s agenda.

Anyone who’s been around Kingborough for the past several years would know that the Council has agreed to purchase the former High School site from the State Government. At Monday’s Council meeting there was a report on the agenda covering all the activity that’s taken place up to now. It’s worth a read. Obviously most of the buildings have been demolished. The development plan has been on the Council website for over a year and a few months ago a video went up that flies you through a mock-up of the proposed buildings. Less obvious is the planning and design that’s taking place. The project is being run by Council in a similar way to a commercial development. What’s different is the dependency on other parties. If you or I had the money and had bought to site we’d build whatever we wanted and whatever the Council would let us get away with. Council had to cooperate firstly with the State Health Department and secondly with the community.

Council hasn’t yet paid for the site. Payment will be triggered be the State Government starting work on the Kingston Integrated Health Centre. The delay between a Government project being announced and built is elastic, to say the least.

Things that interest me are how much involvement the Council will have in the residential and commercial developments in the site. At one extreme we could sell off parcels of land and, provided they meet the planning scheme, allow whatever development comes along.  Another way would be to make some specific requirements, enforced through the planning scheme or through covenants on the land. I wonder if we could make the former Kingston High School an excellent case of sustainable development; if we ensured that all building were built to the highest environmental standards to maximise their suitability to a changing environment, not just to make the maximum short term profit.

25A Osborne Avenue

Kingston Beach Shower

Kingston Beach Shower

At Kingston Beach, near the shops, at 25a Osborne Esplanade, the Council has a toilet block. Built of concrete blocks it’s showing its age. I enjoy the way one can watch the beach through the perforated blocks while standing at the concrete urinal and the brutalist style of the change room has a distinct charm reminiscent of Eastern European architecture of a simpler time. It no longer, however, meets community expectations and so will be replaced.

The block of land on which it stands is large and in a prime water-front position. Further, council has purchased the rear of an adjoining block to give access from another street. Council asked, whosoever can come forth and build us a toilet to alleviate the masses, may reap the spoils of this sublime place. Accordingly several people did come forth and Council liked some of what it saw. Council is now developing a memorandum of understanding with the Kingston Beach Surf Club and a group of restaurateurs.

There are still lots of details to be agreed, but at least now the discussions are in the open session of Council so the community can hear what’s going on.

There were several other items that you might find interesting at Monday’s evening, Mayors for Peace, Adventure Bay Toilet block, extension of a permit for a subdivision at Blackmans Bay that doesn’t meet the Interim Planning Scheme, and the Tasmanian Planning Scheme. The agenda, minutes and recording are on the Kingborough Council website.

Colin Russell in conversation with Nick McKim

I want to mention a couple of excellent events I went to this weekend.

Collin and Chrissy Russell speaking with Nick McKim

Collin and Chrissy Russell speaking with Nick McKim

First is the Conversation with Colin Russell, hosted by Senator Nick McKim last Friday evening. Colin was the radio operator on the Arctic Sunrise when it was boarded by the Russian special forces while Greenpeace was protesting against oil exploration in the arctic. He became one of the Arctic 30 and spent 72 days in Russian jail before being finally released. Chrissy, Colin’s wife, was in Woodbridge and only receive intermittent updates on what was happening to her husband on the other side of the world as he negotiated the Russian legal system. This was a fascinating event. If you ever get a chance to hear Russell speak about his ordeal I highly recommend going along.

Sustainable Living Festival

Sustainable Living Tasmania held their annual Sustainable Living Festival on Saturday and Sunday. As always it was a well run event with stalls ranging from the Hobart ‘Tip Shop’ Co-op to environmentally sustainable coffins.

Walk Together

Walk Together, Hobart 2015

Walk Together, Hobart 2015

Walk Together is an annual event held around Australia to celebrate our cultural diversity and to show community acceptance of new migrants. The walk in Hobart this year was from Princes Park to Franklin Square. It was heartwarming to listen to the Governor, State MPs, the Lord Mayor of Hobart and local people both first and fifth generation speak about the warm welcoming place that Tasmania can be.

TasPride Festival

The rainbow flag is raised over Hobart City Hall for TasPride Festival 2015

The rainbow flag is raised over Hobart City Hall for TasPride Festival 2015

This Saturday was the start of the TasPride Festival, the annual LGTBIQ celebration in Tasmania. The Hobart City Council recognised the occasion by flying the rainbow flag over the town hall. I went to hear the Lord Mayor, the Governor and Tasmanian Australian of the Year, Rodney Croome AM, speak about the massive progress that has been made in legal and social recognition of gender and sexual diversity in Tasmania.

And so ends quite a busy week. The other news this week was that the Legislative Council passed the Land Use and Planning Approvals Act with amendments so it will now go back to the House of Assembly. This is the enabling legislation for the new Tasmanian Planning Scheme. More to come.

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.

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 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.