Archive for April, 2011

Open letter to car designers

April 25, 2011

Car Designers:

I have been looking for a replacement for our aging family car.  As I have browsed the showrooms (I thought we’d probably buy near-new secondhand in a couple of years from the start of my search)  I have found no cars meeting my preferences.  I have asked at several dealers “Is there a standard way of giving feedback to the designers?  Some way to say what I was looking for that you don’t have?”  – and the answer is “What we get is what we sell – maybe you could write to the manufacturer.”

What are they teaching them in Business School?  Is this the outcome of the MBA courses?

For your information:  How I will assess candidates for “our new car”

The car will probably be used by newly qualified drivers, so I want their input – but they may be seduced by fashionable styling.  I have figured out how I will do the final selection process:

  1. With a tall teenager, the likely next user,  go to the car-yard on a 25 – 28 degree Celsius day.  Bring cardboard cutouts of high kerb and letter-box
  2. Have the car put in a sunny spot for the teenager to examine it.
  3. Check official fuel consumption.
  4. Check for manual window winding – Don’t listen to their “It’s a five year warranty!”: I have had a two-year old car electric window die, and, two hundred K from a dealer, that is not good.   The window which was repaired had serious rust start just after the warranty expired, too.  Secondly, for a student-car, out of warranty, we want something home-servicable – and as a student, I fixed my window winder when it broke.  Thirdly, what if the car gets dropped in deep water?  Electric systems stop onewinding the window down, making it harder to escape,
  5. Check for manual gear option – as a learner, it is best to get the full licence.
  6. Have the tall teenager sit in the driver seat, and check for leg fit and adjustment of steering wheel and seat.  How easy is it to re-set for other drivers?
  7. Have the teenager check for blind areas.  How big are the blind spots as things approach?  How far from the car do the letter-box and kerb become invisible?  Can the ve guess when the cutouts (held by me, so the vertical dimension is known) are about to touch the car?  Don’t use remote image systems – they’ll break down when you have become dependant on them, making more repairs income for the car manufacturer.
  8. Test for vision:  Can ve rest ves elbow on the window ledge?  Are the rear side windows higher again?  Would a toddler be able to watch the scenery from the rear seat?  When the driver looks over the rear seat, does the rear glass go down to the line of sight over the shoulder of the rear seat, or is there a lot of solid metal instead?  Can the driver see the bonnet’s front curve, or is the dashboard moulding raised so high that one can’t see even the top of the bonnet even when one’s head hits the roof?  Does the sun visor fold down to block vision at the right height to cut glare while allowing one to see the road ahead, or will the driver need a cap ?  (Many cars have the visor so high that it is ineffective – of which more later.)
  9. If the side windows slope in towards the roof, are there side shields, so that the windows can be opened to let out steam on cold, rainy days?  If not, we will need to run the aircon to stop the car fogging up.  That uses more fuel.
  10. We are likely to visit friends who live up five K’s of gravel road.  It’s not off-road driving – but rough.  We don’t need four-wheel drive, but is the car designed only for tarmac – for example, light-weight wheel bearings?  Expert drivers report that “safety” features which override the driver’s breaking and steering decisions are not good in some situations – including gravel.  Can these features, if present, be turned off in this car?
  11. Where is the spare tyre?  Is it one of those horrid “space saver” spares?
  12. Check the ANCAP safety rating and the RAC estimated repair/maintenance costs.
  13. After having the car in the sun for over half an hour, check the change in temperature:  most new cars have glass slopes which act as extreme greenhouses, making driving on even moderate days difficult without running the airconditioner, which brings fuel efficiency way down.  (Remember the Toyota Prius? )  For some reason, having reduced the glass below the driver’s shoulders the “designers” have increased the  glass above the line of sight.  Maybe the Japanese, Americans, and Europeans need to keep an eye out for low-flying aeroplanes?  This height of glass raises the attachment point for the visors, so they have to be clumsily large to reach far enough to be useful.
  14. Have the tall teenager sit in the back seat.  Does ves head cone within bump-distance of the roof?  Is there room for ves legs?  (Most “style” nowadays involves a tear-drop shape which assumes dwarves or under-twelves in the rear.)

Why do so few  cars pass this test?

I have been browsing for years.

I have been wondering whether the design of the rear of modern cars is driven by the desire to fit the corpse of the “average American” – the boot-space certainly is increasing as that standard changes.  Or maybe the stylists took clay models of reasonable vehicles, then booted them up the rear.

Now I think it may be a reaction to financial / environmental /emotional insecurity: turning it into a tank-like environment, with firing-slits for windows near the precious rear cargo (who are watching DVDs  – not the outside world), with only the top two-thirds of the driver’s head exposed to fire from oncoming vehicles, and with the chest protected above heart-high at the sides.  Paranoid styling – but really bad for driving.  Me, I think the cars look squinty from the side, and from the front the drivers look swallowed up by the cars

A new approach

Let’s have a car for the brave, sunlit, and capable lands:  with open views to the world around; near-vertical glass or heat -and UV- resistant glass;  manual windows; driver assistance technology which can be turned off; bearings and suspension able to take gravel roads; rear seats to fit our young adults (taller on average than their parents’ generation);  and no “sunroof” to rust and leak and let in sunlight.  Maybe make a concertina/ratchet sun visor, for better glare control.   Make more of the components user-serviceable,  and improve overall build to make the car the “student car” of twenty years’ time.   Save non-renewable resources by increasing the time to scrapping the car.  (Despite below-average family income I seriously considered the Prius early  on – until I found that the 12 year-old didn’t fit in the rear seat – so the increased price might not be as much of a bar as you’d think.)

Design a car like my cars from the 1970s and early 1980s:  tough cars which did not need air conditioning beyond 4/60 (4 windows down at 60 kph).  You can market it as “Environmentally aware: designed for vision, designed for hot climates, designed to last.”

Then I might buy a car.

In praise of pedantry

April 15, 2011

ped·ant  (pdnt)
1. One who pays undue attention to book learning and formal rules.
2. One who exhibits one’s learning or scholarship ostentatiously.
3. Obsolete A schoolmaster.
[French pédant or Italian pedante (French, from Italian), possibly from Vulgar Latin *paedns, *paedent-, present participle of *paedere, to instruct, probably from Greek paideuein, from pais, paid-, child; see pedo-2.]
(   06.04.2011)

Many years ago I read an anthropologist/linguist’s report of an island where, if the incorrect word was used, one of the hearers would say “You mean _____” and the speaker would not be considered to have said anything until ve repeated the section in the correct form.  I could live with that …

When I question the choice of words in a piece – even a serious news article – I am often told “Oh, that’s a pedantic distinction – you know what they mean, really”.  If I complain that the sentences are in poor order, that the third-last paragraph on the page  should be rewritten and put in the middle of the second – the same result.

I suspect that this is partly a result of teaching literacy with a heavy  emphasis on  overall communication, avoiding the hack-work of teaching correct usage.  Supported by a combination of postmodernism and an uncritical application of the anthropological perspective, many people now feel that “near enough is good enough”.

Me, I feel incorrect usage is very dangerous.  I am glad that the proposed Australian Curriculum includes the distinctions between casual and formal use of langauge, and between dialects and Standard English.

I have observed this sequence:

  1. The correct form has  a precise meaning.
  2. A form with a different meaning becomes commonly, incorrectly, used for that other meaning.
  3. People who have experienced the common form do not understand a serious work using the correct form:  “Transpire”, in the 19th century creative use of “the truth gradually seeping out” – per plant transpiration,  is a case in point, as many people now think it means “happen”, and do not understand its use in relation to many modern government lie scandals.  Even worse, they may not understand the incorrect form in its correct use: consider “reticent”, often used for “reluctant” .  “Reluctant” hardly fits the traditional bush Australian: reticent, even reserved, but very  willing to comment in marvelously compact and acid quips.  Their laconic speech style is easily explained with the aspect of reticent as the converse of verbal diarrhoea, and the connotations of reticence fit the cultural dislike of “big-noting yourself”.
  4. In addition, the incorrect usage can obliterate a range of synonyms.  I recently suffered through a hundred pages where “decimated” was used to mean devastated (a farming region), almost exterminated (a cultural group), winnowed (an army), routed, reduced to rubble, depopulated, slaughtered, overwhelmed, restricted (trade), … 17 times in that section.  I will save the author’s blushes by not adding the reference.
  5. Even worse, in important legal documents words are and must be used with their precise meanings – to the extent of having the particular meanings defined in the preamble to a piece of legislation or a contract.  Those used to “flexible” use of language are challenged by this.
  6. Finally, and to my mind worst of all, accepting incorrect forms makes it harder for the learner to find the deep meaning patterns within the language, meaning they have more details to remember as solitary aspects rather than as examples of a family of related patterns.  This makes difficult  the acquisition of a wide vocabulary, one  accurately, poetically,  and creatively applied.  Orient (East) , orientation (finding East) , disoriented (lost track of East), disorientation (the process of losing track of East) – all fit with the proper application of affixes to roots.   If you use “disorientated”,  either the link to The Orient is weakened, or the pattern of application of “-ate, -ed / -ion” is lost. (1)  Similarly, where poorly sequenced texts prevail, how are the students to develop a feeling for good structure?

I propose:

I think that newspapers and  supermarkets should have a monthly prize draw for people who suggest improvements to  their written work, and publish the best alongside the original:  every public text affects the understanding and expectations of inexperienced users.

I believe that teachers have a duty to ask their students to correct public text – to edit and produce a better version.  I believe that teachers more often should assess written work twice: once for content, then for correct form.  (Yes, the “correct form” assessment could be done over several iterations:  “Yesterday we looked at spelling, today we do punctuation.” )  I also believe that the teacher should teach students the correct forms for what they want to say, regardless of the curriculum:  I was saddened to hear a student who speaks with colons, dashes, parentheses, and ellipses (and who naturally tried to write that way) say “No, we don’t use those yet.”  Ve would be a much better writer if ve were liberated from the simple structures the basic punctuation signs allow.

I am at heart a teacher.  I am intensely interested in science, where precise meaning is important.  I am a chronic word-player – a condition where a sentence with three meanings, all simultaneously true, is a deep delight.    I am also, inevitably, a pedant.  I think I’ll get a badge to declare it publicly.

Anyone else want to come out of the closet?


(1) With the decrease in the use of etymologies in school dictionaries, and in their provision of pronunciation guides (How, then, can they be called Dictionaries?)  it is even more difficult for the learner surrounded by non-Standard forms to track the deep links between form change, meaning change, and pronunciation change.

Literacy, Numeracy, unfilled vacancies and classroom realities

April 4, 2011

There is a burst of interest in the number of Australians lacking the degree of literacy/numeracy required for understanding the training they require.  There is also the suggestion that unemployment benefits might be stopped in areas where unskilled vacancies exist.

Primary Education
From my children’s primary school years, I know that – for a class of thirty – there will be three who have some specific learning disability or are severely academically limited.  The latter have difficulty remembering new work the next week, and usually cannot find or remember patterns in information, or  generalise from one situation to another.  This means they find it difficult to use a method learned for one situation in another situation – even to the extent of understanding that the place value relationship from units to tens is the same as the patterns from tens to hundreds and from hundreds to thousands,  They have to learn these groups separately, and may never get beyond just doing them the way they are shown,  Similarly, they struggle with the pattern recognition tasks needed for reading beyond the basics, and the idea-pattern making needed for understanding science and society/environment lessons after age 9.

In addition, there will be somewhere between three and twenty who are not interested in school-learning, or who have some difficulty with the way the school system requires them to work.  Depending on the families and local culture they may merely do the minimum to keep the teacher quiet, and gossip or daydream as much as they can without being disciplined;  some are actively disruptive.  Some of them have chemical difficulties – undiagnosed attention or psychiatric disorders or frequent use of marijuana, for example.  Some of them may be classed with the first group, but shine academically in very small group environments.

These are the ones who could follow instructions, and might even excel, if the teacher has the gifts to capture their attention or if they find their own passion and follow it.  Or if the medical system gets the treatment right.

The former group will not all always struggle. Many will find ways to work to their strengths, or may suddenly “get it” as they mature, but chances are that one in each kindergarten class will be chronically unemployed because they are so hard to train.

The latter group has a larger proportion who learn what they want to when they need to, and can really benefit from adult access to primary school content.  However, it also includes the subset who will damage their brains through licit or illicit drugs, ending up unable to learn when they choose, and those who have deep emotional scars blocking formal learning.

A group not covered in thinking of the primary class is the normal or gifted who have later damage from illness or accident which reduces their memory, judgement, emotional control and/or ability to learn.

According to Centrelink contacts, there is a pool of adults, not officially unfit to work, not officially intellectually impaired, needing extensive one-on-one training to be fit for even theoretically “unskilled” work.  It’s not that they won’t do the jobs, or that they can’t work.  It’s just that there are very few of the undemanding jobs left, and even fewer who are willing to train people for them. This is inevitable in this age of high productivity (= use machines / dangerous chemicals = need to learn safety routines; also = less supervision time per worker = desire to employ quick learners).  Centrelink workers (anonymous for obvious reasons)  figure that, between congenital limitations and later damage, about 3% of the workforce will always struggle to get and keep an unskilled job.  In some areas, the percentage is higher. For a workforce of 10 million , that is about 300 000 people.

These would-be workers also have more difficulty meeting bureaucratic requirements – filling in forms, getting to appointments, understanding the written or verbal advice, and so take up more of the agency worker’s time per client.  Unfortunately, at the time of the peak in unemployment the funding for Centrelink’s unemployment workers was based  on the number of clients, so that when the easy customers got jobs the staff hours were cut, even though the number of time-consuming clients had not reduced much.  Please be patient with them.

Back to the chronically  unemployed and stopping benefits.

Remembering the employers who have “jobs no-one will take” which are so badly paid or harshly run that only the brain-damaged would take them (see the underpayment of Toys-R-Us employees), there will always be doubt as to the wisdom of stopping benefits purely because there are vacant positions.  Adding to this the well-recognised percentage of effectively unemployable, the doubt becomes stronger.  Adding to this the vision of a sympathetic but overworked Centrelink officer seeing a client who doesn’t understand the forms* for a special exemption from loss of benefits, and who doesn’t see verself as “unemployable” – the matter is certain.

Well, that deals with the learning side of chronic unemployment.

Learning in employment.

Now, looking at the expected distribution of abilities, consider those who can get work. We can expect that the normal distribution of abilities will apply – so that if 3% don’t meet the bottom limit, another 10% will be very close to it – and there you have over a million who will have difficulty with the training required to meet changes to their work.  Add to this those who are employed at their functional limit (inevitable: The Peter Principle,, and you get easily one-fifth of the workforce restricted in their ability to benefit from the training they require.

The scary part is that improving educational outcomes as measured by tests probably won’t change this much: the limit factor is really capacity to learn new stuff, and improved outcomes in tests are most easily reached by training in taking the type of tests used.   Consider the New York  experience  as reported by Radio National :  improved performance did not generalise.

Time to go away and consider our options.

Maybe it is time to explore  “the physical sensation of learning new stuff”, and condition more  children to find that sensation enjoyable.   Maybe it is time to use the asessment tools from Special Needs areas and apply them to the “at Benchmark” students, so that their limitations can be recognised by the Unemployment specialists.  (Unfortunately, that would take expensive staff, and have the emotional weight of labelling.)  Maybe it’s time to rename “Benchmarks” as “At Risk Levels”, so parents aren’t surprised when the child who made the benchmark struggles in high school, and so they encourage their children to work harder “to be more safe”.  Maybe it’s time to insist the schools help these children learn the skills to live on the dole when they have to.   Maybe it’s time to give cash incentives for additional  offspring to families whose children learn rapidly.  (Imagine the ads:  Don’t be an elderly primagravida  – Have your first child before you are 24,  so you have more time to prove your child’s gifted and thus get a bonus for your later children.)

If society wants to have a smaller proportion of the workforce struggling with the learning demands of their chosen employment, something must be changed.

*I made that up, I think they’d have to be invented.