Archive for October, 2013

Doing maths on public broadcaster costs: terrible increase turns into major cost-cutting.

October 27, 2013

Further to my comments on the gruesome appeal of the newspaper, after noting that Ms Devine once again is writing without fact-checking (ask any early childhood teacher in any of the six schools I know), I was inspired by David Penberthy to use basic (Year 7) maths.

I have included my calculations below, as they might be useful in provoking class discussion on the real uses of Maths Literacy.

Mr Penberthy’s position high in News Limited ensures that his column pops up in many places around Australia, with the title changed to fit the locale.  If you can stomach the incredible number of cookie requests, the one that caught me is online  via the Herald Sun website, though with a different title to the one I read.  This effort is worthy of Mediawatch attention.

Mr Penberthy says

Those of us on the wrong side of 40 can still remember those ads for the ABC which reassured taxpayers that the national broadcaster cost each of us just eight cents a day.

Even allowing for inflation, the cost of funding Aunty is now well beyond that. It has now emerged that for the first time in our history the ABC is receiving more than $1 billion from the taxpayers.

In the past four years government funding has risen by more than $165 million, or 20 per cent, to a record $1024 million.

Whichever way you slice it, that is a whole lot of dough, and well beyond the eight cents of yesteryear. And the internal running of the organisation confirms the belief that the easiest type of money to spend is someone else’s money.

Wow! from eight cents to $1024 million!

Mental Maths time :

ABS says we have about 23 million Australian population as at 27 October 2013.

Take off the millions from both figures:  23 of us pay $1024 per year.

Estimate:  $1000 between 25 people is $40 each.  (A slight underestimate)

Estimate again:  365 days, between 300 and 400 .

$40 over 300 days : divide both by 10, $4 over 30 days,  or 400 cents over 30 days.  Divide by 10 again, 40 cents over 3 days. 40 divided by 3 is 13-and-a-bit, round up to 14 because underestimated base estimate.

$40 over 400 days:  same process as above, 400 cents over 40 days, 40 over 4 days, 10 cents per day.

Between 10 and 14 – call it 12 cents a day.  (I was surprised.)

Really?  Calculator check: 

1024/23*100/365 = 12.1977

How much should it have gone up since the “eight cents a day” figure was given?

The eight cents a day figure comes from around 1987.  Using the Reserve Bank of Australia’s Inflation calculator that comes to 17.41 cents in 2012 dollars.

What is the percentage cost reduction?  (17.41 – 12.20) / 17.41 * 100 = 29.925 %.

So, the figures Mr Penberthy writes up as a terrible increase  shows almost a 30% saving.


Mr Penberthy’s quote said

Those of us on the wrong side of 40 can still remember those ads for the ABC which reassured taxpayers that the national broadcaster cost each of us just eight cents a day.

Even allowing for inflation, the cost of funding Aunty is now well beyond that.  (My emphasis.)

This implies that he had checked the figures for inflation – given the context is a Per Person figure, inflation of both the dollar and the population.

This is bad journalism – either he has misled us about his checking the figures, or he has misled us about the results, or he can’t do year 7 maths and should get a high-school student to do it for him.

Given the infamously tense relationship between News Limited and the ABC, Mr Penberthy should be more careful of perceived bias when writing about the ABC.

“… all the gruesome fascination of something that fell or jumped from the thirtieth floor and lit on a picket fence.“ Indeed.

When common usage leads to poor transmission of ideas

October 25, 2013

When I was learning English, “Substitute X for Y” meant that Y was the standard and X would be the substitute.   About ten years ago, newspaper cooking columns started to use it to mean the opposite – in a brandy cake you could “substitute brandy for your favourite liqueur.”   They ignored pedantic attempts to get them to change their ways.  (Hey, I teach small children: pedant by definition…)

Now a spokesman says that the National Heart Foundation guidelines recommend that we “substitute saturated for polyunsaturated…”  From context, I am sure that he meant the opposite.  (27.30 on )


Many dictionary-linguists have trained through Anthropology, and use its emphasis on cultural relativism – report what is done, do not make value judgements on others’ ways of being.  They  push for dictionary definitions and grammatical texts to reflect current usage (“…it means just what I choose it to mean,” said Humpty.) 

We teach literacy with concern for the transmission and reception of ideas.  How do we balance the push to Humpty with the need to transmit thought clearly across age groups, nations, and centuries?

Should we intervene when chemical weapons are used, if we don’t when guns and bombs are used?

October 7, 2013

At one point, listening to Tim Minchin’s address to a University ceremony reminded me of – among many things, as he is a thoughtful comedian –   an argument I observed continuing on the web.

That reminder leads me to write about the train of thought which followed my observations.

The point Tim Minchin made was that extremist positions lead to false dichotomies, and that good decision-making is difficult if we forget that reality is complex.  It was enhanced by his advice to learn as much as you can about everything, not be limited to a goal-driven life.

 The argument is about the “correct” response to the use of chemical weapons.  If we don’t intervene if a government is shooting or bombing its citizens, why should we suddenly do so if chemical weapons are used?

The train of thought which followed my observation of the argument follows:

The responses I observed seemed limited by the limited vision of most of those taking part: they seemed to see any death or injury as equivalent to any other,  they seemed to think that the question could be considered without considering the opinions of those who had experienced both sorts of weapons, and they had little knowledge of history.

The situation  reminded me of the distinction scientists make between different ways of being wrong: for example,  considering only one of a number of equally valid theories to explain a result; “experimental error” – we are not perfect, and random elements are inevitable; “not even wrong” in the sense of a theory being not a testable hypothesis; “totally wrong“, in the sense of having an appalling flaw in reasoning; and “bad science” in the sense that someone is lying about what the figures show, taking some belief system as being correct even when measurements contradict it, or ignoring agreed basic measurements which have repeatedly been found to be accurate without strong proof that the measurements are affected by a confounding factor.  Scientists see the last one as a distinctly different and morally reprehensible type of error.   The crunch is that  followers of science assert that assuming that all wrong theories are equally wrong is “wronger than wrong.”  

Similarly, I feel that those who discuss interventions by equating conventional  and chemical  weapons  are “wronger than wrong.”

Just as scientists are the ones to consult about different ways of being wrong in science, soldiers and the health workers dealing with the injuries resulting from war are the ones to consult about different forms of warfare.  In World Wars I and II the soldiers knew what it was to be shelled, hit by machine gun fire, cross barbed wire, be taken prisoner … and they saw the opposing forces have the same experiences.  They knew what the horrors of modern warfare could bring, and hated them while believing that they sometimes had to be faced.

However, soldiers saw a difference in type between classes of weapons of war, just as they saw a difference in type between “proper” prisoner-of-war camps and  Andersonville  (American history – Confederates imprisoning Union soldiers)  , Stalag III-C  etc. (German history – Soviet soldiers and other non-influential people),  and the Thai-Burma railway labour camps (Japanese history – Allied soldiers).  For example, I have heard old men who served in WW II speak of enemy flamethrower-operators in the same way as they speak of the people who authorised napalm bombings – with plain disgust, and quite unlike the respect with which they spoke of the other soldiers.

Similarly, in WW I the experience of chemical weapons proved profoundly different from the experience of the other horrors experienced – so different that it was felt to be of a significantly different type, and so deeply horrible that the deployment of such weapons was felt to be morally reprehensible.  After WW I it was the horror experienced by soldiers and medical workers which led to the push to have certain weapons outlawed, and for their first use to be stated, internationally, to be a war crime.  (You know before you use them that you will be in deep trouble… except for the slimy exceptional cases which the diplomats put into the treaty, so that the major powers keep developing the weapons…)  Despite the disgust at flamethrowers, they were not hated with the deep passion which led to the continuing and developing agreement to stop the use of chemical weapons.

(Me, I’m draconic, and the parent of twins.  From this background I would say that I don’t care who did it, as soon as chemical weapons are used “the rest of the world” should arrive in force and disarm both sides.  Completely.  No guns or tanks or warplanes left, just household implements.  Maybe get the Chinese army to sweep step-by-step across the whole country.  And then all go and leave them to it.)

So, from this thought, and remembering the Rwandan and Bosnian Genocides,   I found myself wanting to start a different discussion:

How do we get our peoples to discuss these questions outside of the context of a specific instance of  oppression:

  • What sorts of oppressions should warrant intervention in another country – ethnic, religious, gender, political…?
  • Does it matter whether it is oppression by a government or an influential group?  (The government denies all responsibility…)
  • Does a democracy have the right to elect a tyrant – and if they do, are they allowed to complain about and resist tyranny?
  • If we object to other religions trying to make us follow their laws, but they get democratically elected to govern another country, do we have the right to stop them using their religious laws to oppress their citizens who are of their religion? Of other religions? To oppress travellers?  What do we do if they call for their co-religious to force other countries to accept their rules?  How is that different from us calling for intervention in their country?
  • When does resistance against oppression become terrorism?
  • How oppressive must the treatment be before other countries intervene?
  • How should they intervene?  What effective interventions are available?
  • If we intervene, how do we arrange to leave the country if the divisions are profound and the culture favours violent retribution?

Only after we have thought about these seriously can we start on the next batch – for example:

  • If a major power unreasonably blocks United Nations approval, under what circumstances should our country intervene without it?
  • What penalties should there be for unjustified (by whose standards?) intervention in the internal affairs of another country?

So, that was my train of thought.

However, it wasn’t my discussion – I was kibbitzing on someone else’s interests – so I said nothing and put it aside until the thoughtful entertainer made me think.  And that thought was  that I should make some effort to raise the questions, recognising the complexity of the problem.

So, if you’ve read this far, how about talking about those questions with your friends?