Teachers strike as much about conditions as pay


As New Zealand braces for another wave of teacher strikes, we are getting mixed messages about what is driving the strikes. Some are saying it is wages. Others are saying it is working conditions. The Ministers of Education and Children are saying they have done their best.

Teachers have to be a range of things that they were never trained to do and should not be attempting to do. Among these roles are being de facto parents, part time social workers, and nurses. In other words being made to do – by circumstance – things that they simply should not.

So, I find it a bit disingenuous that the Minister of Education Chris Hipkins and the Minister for Children Tracey Martin can somehow believe that the teachers are simply striking to get as much money as they can.

A teacher, whilst reasonably expected to discipline children when they are naughty or refuse to follow instructions, should not expect to have to put up with the range of behaviours that they are being subject to. These include physical assault, things being thrown at them, inappropriate behaviour such as groping. All of this is not only totally improper has anyone considered the disruption and upset that it must cause students to be witness to this?

When I was at intermediate in 1993 we had a relief teacher one time. She was covering for two days and on the first day, a student was being particularly disruptive. His desk had already been separated and pushed up against a wall by the regular teacher because of his behaviour. On this particular day he was not having a bar of the relief teacher. At some point he had been asked to get on with his work and stubbornly refused. When the teacher came around to tell him off, he leaped out of his chair and pushed her up against the wall. The class captain ran next door to get a teacher to assist. It took about three staff to restrain him and the class had to be sent outside whilst he was calmed down. Then after a meeting with the Principal which saw him suspended on the spot he came back in grabbed his books, dumped them on the floor and slammed the desk lid so hard it broke its hinge.

Things have moved on since 1993. But I think the ability of teachers to sort out unruly students has not improved. There will always be a disruptive core of students in any school who might come from homes where there is no parental guidance. None of the teachers I had reacted excessively to the behaviour of the students in their classes.

But more recently they have also had to be parents of sorts. Some have said that they have children in their classes still wetting themselves; children who have not learnt basic table manners. Some have had to go so far as to take children into their own homes, which creates ethical issues about the limitations of a teachers responsibility and where the State, parents or other body must take charge.

Teachers are also concerned about the lack of help they are getting on children with special needs. Whilst assistance has been provided, concerns linger over the quality of the training, how many hours the teacher aides will be able to do. Special needs students range greatly in terms of needs and dependency. Some are quite high functioning whilst others will have behavioural and language impairments and some will be non verbal.

When one considers these issues individually and collectively, should we really be surprise that teachers are going on strike. The expectations on them have become unrealistic and the resourcing has not kept up. Now we are paying the price.

Pike River mine re-entry decision a victory for justice


Yesterday, nearly 8 years to the day since Pike River coal mine exploded, the decision was announced to re-enter the mine. The decision, which whilst a long time coming and delayed numerous times is a step in the right direction for the families of the dead and for New Zealand.

Pike River exploded on 19 November 2010 trapping 29 miners in the mine. Five days later anyone who had survived the first explosion in the mine would have been killed by a second significantly more powerful explosion. Since the explosion the decision whether or not to enter the mine has been fraught with difficulty and controversy.

The previous National-led Government believed it was too dangerous to try to re-enter the mine and opted for it to be sealed off with the deceased permanently entombed in it. They pointed to the high risk of another explosion if attempts were made to establish another entry point, or go down the existing drift.

Suggestions were made that a robot should be sent down the drift to see how far it is actually possible to go before determining whether or not humans can be sent down. Numerous robots were sent down and they had mixed results. Two army robots stopped working 800 metres into the tunnel and 1050 metres respectively. A video of a third robot going down was withheld by the police, and shows that the robot starts to overheat, but does not explode or catch fire because the atmosphere is inert – to have a flame there needs to be oxygen, and the fact that it fails to suggests it was 100% methane. The third robot got 1570 metres down the tunnel before stopping because its way was blocked by a loader that one of the miners had been operating when it exploded.

Despite the video, the then National led Government continued to insist that it was too dangerous, that the methane meant the risk of explosion is too high. This suggests to me either a deliberate ignorance of how explosions work.

For the families this wait would have been long, painful and mentally exhausting. For years now whilst politicians have fiddled over the Pike River mine they have had to go through life in some ways in a state of pause whilst they wait and hope for their men folk for whom this should have been just another day working in the mine. Instead it turned into New Zealand’s worst mining disaster since the Brunner Mine disaster where 65 miners were killed in March 1896, which was caused by a similar mechanism to that in the Pike River disaster.

So, I welcome the decision to go back into the mine and see if the recovery of the bodies is possible. I hope this makes people realize that unless experts say it is impracticable or physically impossible, that such events as this are explored as far as physically possible before anyone deceased as a result is written off as permanently missing.

The problems facing science


How many of you have been to a scientific lecture about research that has been done or done a course in science at school or at university? Did you get to throw little chunks of sodium into water and wait for the explosion, or dissect a mouse to see what its interior looked like? What about going on field trips to look at fault lines or volcanoes; fossil beds with trilobites and cephalopods and so forth?

Did it inspire you to find out more? Did it completely turn you off and make you wish you were doing a Bachelor of Arts instead of a Bachelor of Science?

I see recurring problems with how people receive science as a discipline. They range from teachers being frustrated at the restrictions on what and how they can impart it to their students; from people turning away from science degrees at Universities because they do not think it will justify itself in terms of their job prospects; members of the public – who might have never seriously engaged with any credible scientific papers, presentations or otherwise – criticizing scientists for altering predictions or theories. Among other issues.

But perhaps the worst is the fear that policy makers seem to have of it. Perhaps law makers do not realize they are giving off negative signals when they talk about it. Perhaps they are deliberately giving off bad vibes because the science on issues such as climate change goes against their beliefs. It is nevertheless shown in the lack of investment into research, science and technology with the percentage of our G.D.P. invested into it staying at about 1.0%, which is where it has been the last 20 years.

The range of issues where science has been controversial is diverse. Environmental science, technology, medicine, energy, natural hazards among others are just a few of the range that courts public controversy.

One example that has saddened me is the tendency of members of the public – not all, and possibly just a vocal few – who think that scientists are playing Russian roulette with people’s lives by doing things such as drilling into the Alpine Fault. The purpose of the drilling was to understand how geophysical conditions around the fault change with time. It sought to determine heat flow, the rate of underground movement of the fault and how the rock strata was deforming in response to the heat and pressure around it. The idea behind this is to build up a picture of stresses along the fault and hopefully eventually give an idea as to how long we have before it all comes unstuck at 20,000km/h.

It saddens me because this research is essential in a quake prone country like New Zealand where we are racing the fault to be as ready as we can for the eventual Alpine Fault rupture. This research is going to be the basis on which scientists make recommendations to policy makers who are then going to have to give legal effect to them. The moves around New Zealand to make the owners of buildings that are considered quake prone either bring them up to a building code standard where it will survive an earthquake and let the occupants out safely are for good reasons.

Definitely the most controversial is climate change. From out right denial by well known figures such as Donald Trump, to some believing that we only have a couple of decades left before the man made component becomes irreversible no matter what happens, science has its critics. There are energy companies believing for sake of profit margins and their corporate shareholders believing it is a hoax. And there is Greenpeace and other environmental organizations being certain that only a “carbon neutral” world can check the effects of human activity on the climate.

We will not fully know whether a 1°C or 2°C change in the planets temperature will have terminal consequences, major consequences or just mild consequences. Climate scientists have given compelling reasoning to believe it is the former. Yet by the same token the particles per million (P.P.M.) of carbon in the atmosphere have risen to 400+ for the first time in millions of years and the rate of increase suggests it is going to climb further yet. These changes will affect things such as ocean temperatures with flow on effects to marine life, those species that live of marine life and ultimately, humans.

But we will not know how or what unless we invest in the science. We will not know the impact on the ecosystem unless we invest in the science.

And the same goes for funding a credible cure for cancer. Unless we invest in the sciences and have a broad discussion about its purpose, its strengths and its weaknesses, we will not know what that cure is.

Autonomous robots pose undue risk


Autonomous robots pose an undue risk to humans and human activity.

To see what is meant by this statement, an autonomous robot helping to perform an operation contributed to the death of a patient on an operating table in Britain when it knocked the hand of an assisting medic at a critical phase in the surgery. Whilst the robot did not make the fatal moves that ultimately led to the patients death a few days later, it was considered to have contributed.

I believe that medical procedures being done on humans are too valuable to have robotic assistance for a number of reasons, the one above being just one:

  1. Could a robot be programmed to tell minute differences in what is being operated on, such as for example the space between a piece of embeded shrapnel and something important like an artery
  2. Would robots have a broad enough understand of human language and interactions to not misinterpret something and subsequently behave in a way surgeons or other specialists might not anticipate
  3. In a time pressured situation such as someone losing much blood and the bleeding needing to be quickly stemmed, could a robot react in time or understand the urgency

The medical profession would be wary of any robot technology that cannot be over ridden by a human being since artificial intelligence is not (yet!) able to distinguish situational issues with the clarity that would be necessary to be an effective tool. But there is a bigger problem. Da Vinci – as the one in the article was known – and like robots will only be as good as the humans who designed them and work with them.

Another example of dangerous autonomous robots are the development of military robots. These will have the ability to determine themselves who to kill. Britain is thought to be funding the development of such weapons.

Both ethically and legally this raises very serious and immediately potent questions about the sort of military weapons that should be developed. Legally it enters a part of the Geneva conventions that is very grey and which has not been a priority for politicians in terms of overhauling. Ethically weapons that develop an operational mind of their own is highly improper at best.

Even if the drones are securely controlled and operated under strict parameters, there is also always the risk that cyber hacking could break into the drone and make it go rogue. In a politically charged environment where cyber attacks are frequent there is no such thing as a cast iron guarantee that such technology will be secure.

New Zealand politicians are perhaps 15-20 years behind on their understanding of technology and the ethical and legal challenges its applications pose. This is a rather broad statement, but also one that has serious truth to it. Therefore it is highly unlikely that they have given thought to the potential hazards of killer drones and the short comings of robots in a surgery environment – though admittedly in the latter, the robot is clearly supposed to be helping in a procedure that ultimately makes the human better.

Will our politicians get with the times before technological best practices in New Zealand start involving robots in situations where the human is not necessarily in control?

Changes to terrorism control laws?


A review of the laws that govern how New Zealand deals with terrorism has been announced by the Minister for the Government Communications Security Bureau (G.C.S.B.) and the Security Intelligence Service (S.I.S.).The Minister of Justice, Andrew Little, announced the review whilst saying that the 2007 Urewera raids where Police swooped on Tuhoe. Those raids, which generated nation wide controversy were seen as a test of the Terrorism Supression Act 2002 and the more recent Counter Terrorism Act.

The Urewera raids are widely viewed as a failure. The Police handling of them was poor and nearly all of the charges laid in the aftermath wound up being dropped because they were not admissible in court.

The Police now say that they would be reluctant to use the laws if there were grounds for doing so.

I have reservations myself. On one hand the law needs to be strong enough to prove a worthwhile deterrent – the sentences for terrorist related activities I believe need to be strengthened. On the other hand it needs to respect human rights and civil rights law – detainees need to be charged with something quickly or released; property should not be able to be searched without a warrant.

I agree with the need to review the law and believe that a review clause should be inserted, with a recommendation for legislative change if the review panel deems this necessary. But to add another piece of legislation to the existing mix, is not something I believe is necessary.

The countries in New Zealand’s neighbourhood where Islamic fighters are returning in a radicalized state have a different set of problems to what we face here. Those countries – Australia exempt – do not have as strong judicial processes as we do here. Malaysia and Singapore, as well as Indonesia are predominantly Muslim countries and therefore have strong Islamic influence. The radicalization that is happening would be taking place in Mosques. Most of the Muslim population who have come to New Zealand did so to get away from war, famine and civil instability in their home countries. Some may have come as migrants.

New Zealand also does not participate in military actions going on in Middle East countries to the same extent that Australia or its allies, the United States and Britain do. Whilst these are nations that are significant friends of New Zealand, they have a more America-centric orientation in terms of geopolitical priorities. New Zealand’s are more focussed on the Southwest Pacific.

This is not to say we should ignore the Muslim population. We should not give exceptional treatment to any group and they, like any others who are deemed a hazard, should be monitored accordingly. Whilst New Zealand has mosques, Islamic fighters are only a part of the small number of people who are thought to be a concern to the Security Intelligence Service (S.I.S.). A total of 30-40 people are thought to be of interest to the S.I.S.