The Value of Stereotypes

Filed under: — Bravus @ 5:55 am

A few different things have had me thinking lately about how and why we create stereotypes. One of them was a ‘look out for these kinds of cars’ thread on a bike forum: the consensus seemed to be that, in general, large four wheel drive vehicles (SUVs) should be treated with caution, since their drivers seem to feel invulnerable and are sometimes oblivious to the risk they pose to other road users. They also have limited visibility.

Some SUV drivers on the forum (i.e. people who both ride bikes and drive 4x4s) protested that the stereotype is unfair: they are very careful, very aware drivers.


The old stereotypes about Asian drivers and women drivers reared their ugly heads too.

So part of how stereotypes form is because of an identifiable characteristic, often a difference. If an Asian driver pulls out in front of someone, they will notice the carelessness as well as the Asianness, and may falsely generalise to all Asian drivers. Whereas if a Caucasian driver pulls out in front, it’s much more likely that the person will ascribe the action to that individual – “you idiot!” – than to all Caucasians. The same applies for any kind of behaviour, such as crime or certain attitudes, or…

RobW at Trenchant Lemmings currently has a post discussing this process by which we ascribe characteristics differently to the individual or the group, depending on whether it’s a group to which we ourselves belong: http://trenchantlemmings.blogspot.com/2006/09/evolving-self-deception.html

Rob’s post was another of the things that got me thinking about this issue. Sterotyping of all Muslims as violent extremists based on the actions of a few, while characters such as the Unabomber and Timothy McVeigh and Martin Bryant and school shooters are seen as individual whackos is yet another.

But it can be argued that stereotypes do serve a valid function. Sure, not every Pajero driver is dangerous and thoughtless, but if we observe that many are (and recognise that the size and weight of a Pajero magnifies the potential consequences of that), then treating every Pajero we see on the road with care – and perhaps more care than we treat other vehicles – is probably not dangerous. It probably doesn’t hurt the feelings of the Pajeros either, though it may hurt their owners’ feelings if we talk about it.

So stereotypes can have a survival function, if they’re applied with thought rather than reflexively, and if we realise that they are useful generalisations rather than universally true. Sadly, it may be sensible to treat individuals of a certain race with a little more care on a dark night in the city: even if it may not be fair to a particular individual. (And it should be possible to do that in a way that’s not offensive or obvious.)

I think the key is to continually challenge ourselves to get to know and to view each individual person as an individual, rather than a member of a race or other category. Then we don’t have to use the simplifying mechanism of stereotypes, because we know that person and how they will behave. It’s also important to keep challenging our stereotypes and checking their fairness and reality.

But on my ride home, I’ll be keeping a particularly close eye on the Pajeros.


On Relinquishing The Quest For Perfection

Filed under: — Bravus @ 7:56 am

Just musing as I was washing the car yesterday, imperfectly… I may have already quoted this here, because I like it a lot:

The search for perfection
Is all very well
But to look for Heaven
Is to live here in Hell
– Sting

Note that I’m not making any statement about the existence or desirability of a real Heaven or afterlife. The point is that right here, right now, in this imperfect world, seeking perfection can be harmful.

In relationships in particular, but also in work and other parts of life, perfection is unattainable, and seeking it is going to lead to disappointment. That doesn’t mean accepting mediocrity or not striving to do things well1, but it does mean recognising that there really is such a thing as ‘good enough’, and that the solutions to most problems are not simple and perfect, but are optimisations within the existing constraints.

There’s a big billboard I sometimes see beside the highway. Not even sure what it’s advertising (so I guess it’s failed), but the slogan is ‘because compromise is not in your nature’. I always think to myself ‘What a sad life that guy must have’.

  1. One step we often forget, though, is considering ‘Is this thing worth doing at all, and if so, is it worth doing well’.


It’s not a(n un)Holy War… yet

Filed under: — Bravus @ 7:31 am

The current ‘War on Terror’ is supposedly about specifically focusing on terrorist groups and organisations. It is not supposed to be a war between Christianity and Islam… but I’m finding that an increasing number of the people I talk to, particularly right wing Christians, are imagining it in exactly those terms. They make broad and prejudiced statements about Islam as a religion of violence, and defend the Americans’ illegal war in Iraq as part of a global ‘fight for civilisation’ (the words are George Bush’s)1.

If more and more people see the struggle in those terms – the billion or so Muslims versus the billion or so Christians – we will see an endless global war and millions of deaths. Whichever version of God you believe in, pray hard that that doesn’t happen… and if you don’t believe in any god (or if you do), vote and organise and educate as hard as you can to avert it.

And read 1984 again.

  1. Well, that’s when they’re not saying ‘no, there’s complete separation of church and state in the US, and the war has nothing to do with Christianity’… depends which way the wind is blowing and what point they’re trying to argue.


Bravus’ Wild Life

Filed under: — Bravus @ 8:35 am

No doubt one of the reasons the blog has gone a bit quiet lately is the energy that has been going into this thread at the William Gibson Board. Enjoy.

Problems of Scale

Filed under: — Bravus @ 8:19 am

One fearsome predator:


I encountered this guy on our morning wander in the bush behind or place, and was terrified to realise that we have slavering monsters there!

OK, I really wasn’t that terrified – no doubt you can tell from the fact that he’s sitting between two of my fingers that, although fearsome, he’s unlikely to hurt me or mine very much.

But I’d already been thinking about issues of scale: if you’re an ant, the antlion is pretty terrifying1 (or at least, lethal – I’m not sure ants have the capacity for terror). On the other hand, an actual lion is pretty much irrelevant to an ant, fearwise: the lion might step on the ant, but they have soft paws and the ant would likely survive. A lion is a problem on a human scale.

There are whole worlds going on at both larger and smaller scales than ours, with all the power, pathos and (arguably) meaning of our own lives, but we seldom even notice.

  1. If you don’t know, these guys dig steep-sided conical pits and hide at the bottom of them. Ants fall in, can’t climb out, and then this rears up from under the sand and grabs them!


Salon on ‘The Wire’ on ‘No Child Left Behind’

Filed under: — Bravus @ 2:59 pm

Read it

Quiet Period

Filed under: — Bravus @ 10:50 am

Just haven’t had a lot to say lately… I’m sure the muse will strike again soon, but a heap of grant applications and other related shenanigans, and just a bit of a mental lull, means I haven’t had anything to post about… and I vowed not to force it when there’s nothing going on in my head!


Types of Questions

Filed under: — Bravus @ 6:45 am

My buddy Lorne (and this is definitely not having a go at you, mate, it’s just trying to explain something I think might be interesting to you and everyone else who reads here) tends to talk about tests of all kinds as though they’re all about memorising facts and returning them in the test… and indeed, as if education is mostly about that kind of factual information. I thought I’d just spend a couple of minutes talking about different kinds of questions that can be written and answered, in addition to factual ones, just as a way of broadening the concept of learning and of testing.

One useful way of thinking about it is using Benjamin Bloom’s ‘Taxonomy of Educational Objectives’. Forget the complicated title for a minute – all it says is that there are lots of different goals of education, and lots of ways of meeting those goals and testing that they’ve been met. It’s really more like a list than a hierarchy, but we do tend in education to talk about ‘lower order’ and ‘higher order’ questions, in terms of the questions’ difficulty and the kinds of knowledge, skill and ability needed to answer them.

Bloom’s list is described nicely here, including lists of the kinds of words that you might find in a question of each kind. The categories, in increasing order of abstraction and therefore difficulty, are knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis and evaluation.

OK, that’s probably still a bit abstract, so we’ll do it with examples in a minute. But you can see that ‘knowledge’ questions – the kind of factual recall ones that we sometimes tend to default to when talking about education – are only one of the six possible kinds. They’re necessary but not sufficient for a real education and a real test.

Let’s use a piece of text I wrote for another purpose this morning as a prompt:

South-east Queensland, where I live, is currently in the grip of a drought, with severe water restrictions that are on the verge of becoming more severe. Brisbane has Level Three water restrictions, which means plants and gardens can only be watered with a bucket, not a hose, and cars can likewise not be washed with a hose. Prisoners in the city’s jails have had the length of their showers reduced. A city 100 km or so further inland, Toowoomba, has Level Four restrictions, with no watering of gardens allowed at all and other restrictions on personal water use, and is about to have to go beyond even those to very tight restrictions.
A few weeks ago the citizens of Toowoomba voted in a referendum on whether to recycle treated waste water back into the dam from which the town draws its drinking water. The treatment process yields water cleaner than that already in the dam on every chemical and biological measure, so opposition to the recycling is essentially emotive (‘drinking sewage’) rather than scientifically informed. And there’s no alternative source of water available. Nonetheless the motion to recycle water was defeated at the referendum, leaving the town in a desperate situation.

So a knowledge question about this section might be: ‘What level of water restrictions is currently in place in Toowoomba?’ It just tests the straight facts as found in the story.

A comprehension question might be something like: ‘Why have the prisoners’ showers been made shorter?’ It requires actual understanding of what has been read, in this case linking the water restrictions in general with this specific example.

An application question might be: ‘How would you vote if the same referendum was happening in your town? Why?’ Requires the person to apply their new knowledge to a different context from the one they learned it in – maybe their own context but maybe not.

Analysis question: ‘Why do you think Brisbane is on Level Three restrictions but Toowoomba is on Level Four?’ Requires going deeper into the information, possibly seeking more information elsewhere or making (and stating) assumptions – goes beyond the surface factual level.

Synthesis question: ‘What did you learn in geography and in science about the climate patterns in this region and the reasons for the drought? Is the drought likely to break soon or will water shortages continue in this region with its growing population?’ Requires bringing evidence from a number of lessons or a number of subjects, along with ideas from the person’s own life, together in new ways.

Evaluation question: ‘Do you think the citizens of Toowoomba made a wise decision? Why or why not?’ Requires the person to make a value judgement, based on evidence, about whether something is good or bad, right or wrong, or just better or worse than some other alternative.

Good, well written test questions require more than factual recall and memorising of information. They should be able to test deep understanding and the skills of using evidence to construct an argument.


What the ‘Left Behind’ books are really about

Filed under: — Bravus @ 10:22 am


The guy is a bit vitriolic, and maybe overstates the case… but a form of Christianity that gloats, rather than grieves, at the death of non-Christians is (a) unChristian and (b) deeply scary when it’s dominant in the world’s sole superpower.

Jury Duty

Filed under: — Bravus @ 10:20 am

Got called for jury duty, in Canada, today. One of the possible ways to be excused is that you live too far away from the court. Think I qualify?


Leunig on 9/11

Filed under: — Bravus @ 1:30 pm

As usual, Michael Leunig has the wisdom and compassion that says what needs to be said about the sadness of the world we’re living in:


If I’d had a bike in Canada…

Filed under: — Bravus @ 11:21 am

…I still wouldn’t have been able to do this – fun, though.



Filed under: — Bravus @ 8:27 am

Queensland re-elected the Beattie Labor government yesterday. (We arrived too late to be on the electoral role.) They’ve had a few crises, around water and health, but still looked like a much better option than the squabbling and disorganised Liberal/National coalition that was opposing them. This really is one more election in which the lack of a credible opposition hamstrings the democratic process. But having said that, one other advantage of having a Labor state government is as at least a bit of a curb on the excesses of the federal Liberal/National government. In other words, it seems to me like the best possible outcome from the election… but I still think a quality opposition is crucial at all levels.


Work, Life and Kids

Filed under: — Bravus @ 2:44 pm

One of my friends from the William Gibson board, José, wrote this description of life in his city in Spain:

Envision a society where it is forbidden to work before turning 16, where there are no jobs for students anyway after 16, where University is cheap, people keep living with their parents till they marry and they marry around 30…

Put them in a highly dense city. The kind where you have 3000 bars, 300 restaurants and 1000 shops (and some 30 cinemas) within walking distance. Where living in the periphery means a twenty minute walk to the city centre.

With all those students (half the young people start university studies, and do not work) and people with income living with their parents, it is no surprise 100,000 people (out of 600,000) party on Friday and Saturday (and half the number on Thursdays, as they are university students that spend the week end with their families). Three fourths of the people go to sleep after midnight anyway, so with nice weather there are more people on the streets at midnight than at noon.

Although not yet fully a welfare state, people usually have five weeks paid holidays and spread around them three extra weeks of sick leave every year. Visiting your doctor is the favorite morning activity of many retired people, having replaced the traditional bar or the fishmonger’s as the top gossiping and socializing point.

We eat almost as much fish as pork, and half that of veal. Lamb, but no mutton. And half a kilogram of vegetables (mostly fruit) a day, most of it grown within 100 km.

When I was young, buying alcohol required you to be 12. Even now, the drinking age is 16 while the driving age is 18.

I live in a condo appartment, as do most of my compatriots. So did my parents and one half of my grandparents… Lawn is an alien concept.

The only weapons I have fired have been in the USA, and in my drafted military service. The only two people I know with weapons at home are an avid (and rich) hunter and a judge (allowed for self defence).

I get up at 7, get to work at 8, go back home at 13:30, have lunch, back to work at 15:30, leave work around 19 (should be 18:30), go shopping or hanging out with friends, wife, family, dinner around 22, sleep around 1.

Does it resemble your life? I doubt it unless you are Spanish. Or some Mediterranean Urban citizen.

By way of contrast, a poster at Salon in the discussion about homework said this:

Educators in the United States are torn between disciplining noisy kids and wanting to make learning more “fun.” We forget that learning, most of the time, is not supposed to be fun. Do you think that anyone, given the choice, would actually want to stay inside and memorize the multiplication table instead of going outside and diving into piles of leaves with friends? No, but we do it because it’s necessary. Because if you don’t learn the multiplication table, you’d be the idiot adult who doesn’t know that 6×7 is 42.
I’m sorry, but some Americans can be such morons when it comes to education! I mean, think about when you’re trying to advance in your career as an adult, or when you’re trying to learn a difficult hobby. There’s ALWAYS homework when you want to learn anything! You can’t just put in time at work or put in time at the dance studio or music studio. You have to go home, take the charts and graphs from the company reports and try to understand them. You have to go into your living room or garage and practice those dance moves or piano pieces.
It’s that work ethic that we’re trying to instill in our kids when we make them do homework.

Which seems like the saner, healthier, more humane way of life? The one with a couple of hours break in the middle of the day and dinner with wife and friends in the evening, or the one taking home the graphs and charts from the office and putting in another few hours? Which would you prefer? This is something that we can consciously make choices about, rather than let a neurotic and out of control, unbalanced ‘work ethic’ force us into giving more and more of our lives to work at the expense of family, friends and just plain having a life.

Kinda Freaky

Filed under: — Bravus @ 8:11 am

I made my first attempt at an animated gif yesterday. It’s pretty wild, so I didn’t include it on this page, but included a link: avoid it if you suffer from epilepsy caused by flashing lights.



How Homework Hurts Our Kids

Filed under: — Bravus @ 2:34 pm


I think I’ve talked before about how Alfie Kohn suggests talking about ‘school work’ and ‘home work’ is the wrong metaphor, because kids and parents think of school as being about work instead of about learning. The book review on Salon, linked above, explores other facets of the homework issue.

Marriage Considered As Legal Prostitution

Filed under: — Bravus @ 6:00 am

I’ve seen the argument put forward a number of times, in a number of contexts, that marriage is basically a form of legalised prostitution, a social sanctioning of the trading of sex for money (in various forms). It always annoys me, so I thought I’d spend a couple of minutes on it.

Firstly, the allegation really only makes sense with three assumptions:

1. That sex is a service that women provide to men.

2. That the provision of sex is the sole (or major) purpose of marriage.

3. That women are the net beneficiaries in the financial arrangements in most homes.

I’d argue that, if you’re doing it right, number 1 is nonsense: a couple’s sex life should be, on balance, something that’s mutual, shared and enjoyed by both partners. I suspect there are nearly as many married women who feel they get too little sex as there are men, but even that’s not the point… it’s not so much whether you both want sex on a particular night as whether, on balance, your sex life is something you both enjoy and that brings you closer together. Seeing sex as purely a service industry just robs women, IMO.

Sex is certainly one of the significant benefits of marriage, and marriage as a legal contract can be seen as society’s way of licensing and controlling sexual expression. But a marriage founded only on sex is going to be a pretty sterile one. A marriage that is based on love, mutual liking, some shared interested and some interesting differences, companionship, shared values and attraction is going to last a lot longer and be a lot more fun than a purely sexual one: and probably have more and better sex in it too.

And number 3 may have been true in the past, and may still be true to the extent that women still tend to be systematically underpaid, but in general women are working these days, unless they have small children, and are really not receiving the kind of financial benefits and security that would make prostituting themselves worthwhile…

But I think it’s more insidious even than the kinds of underlying assumptions listed above about men and women and roles and sex: it’s a manifestation of the attitude that everything in life is about markets and deals and exchanges. Contrary to what our neo-liberal friends might tell us, the entire world is not a market, in which there are finite and limited resources whose price is established by laws of supply and demand. Love just doesn’t fit those rules, and in many ways neither does sex. When we reduce our human relationships to the level of the stockmarket (or the slave market), we lose something crucial about what it means to be human.


Moving House

Filed under: — Bravus @ 10:04 am

I’ve been threatening to do it for a while, but I think I really will be moving this blog to a new server soon. I’ll let you know in plenty of time to update your bookmarks, and there’ll be a forward from here, of course, but the recent outages and server issues have made me think more seriously again about putting in the few hours required to move it.

It’ll likely happen in the next week or so, but I have a grant application to complete and hand in today, then an ethics application to complete for another grant that I did get (can’t buy the toys ’til I get the ethics clearance), then possibly another grant… and our furniture is finally arriving today. So maybe this week, maybe next… I’ll keep you posted.


A Cup Of Joe

Filed under: — Bravus @ 4:02 pm

My mate Lithos had complained that just plain filter coffee had vanished from the menu in Brisbane. Given that in Canada it’s an absolute staple, with a whole franchise (Tim Hortons) built on it, that seemed hard to even imagine: in Canada, it’s pretty much served in buckets, and pretty much everywhere you can just ask for ‘coffee’, and get it.

But he’s right: you can get a long black, a flat white, a cappucino, a latte… but not just a coffee. And it’ll always be made on a hissing espresso machine, not poured from a pot, and cost 3 or 4 bucks.

We went to Sizzler this morning for a Father’s Day breakfast (which was lovely, and I’m the luckiest father in the world for all sorts of reasons). For breakfast, coffee is an essential, but all that was available was a self-serve espresso machine, which takes a lot longer than just pouring a mug from a pot, so there was a massive line-up at all times for coffee. And it’s not as though it was even good coffee… no baristas involved, just really bad foam.

If they’d kept that machine for everyone who wanted those kind of coffees, but just added a pot or two of good, plain, strong filter coffee, it would have got rid of the queue, and made for at least one much happier customer. Wonder whether any Brisbane eateries will get that message some time soon. Or are Lithos and me just out of step with the (new Aussie) world?

Every Ride Is A Good Ride

Filed under: — Bravus @ 7:43 am

…although I was kinda doubting that the other night, riding home from work in solid rain, in the dark, with a less than optimally clean visor. Basically, when an oncoming car’s headlights were full in my eyes, I’d lose all sight of the road, which can be unnerving on a corner at speed in the wet!

The ride in that morning was in warm sun, and was pretty exhillarating because I was running late and going quick. (I’m normally very safe and, um, reasonably law abiding, but let’s just say if I’d ridden past any cops that morning I’d have been running a lot later.) I’d actually forgotten, until 10 minutes before it was meant to start, and with a 40 minute ride still in front of me, that there was a morning tea organised to welcome me (among a couple of other new staff) to the department, so I raced in as fast as possible but was still way late…

I hadn’t been looking forward to the ride home, because it was dark and rainy, and the first half kinda lived down to expectations, compounded by heavy traffic. But halfway home the rain dried up, I raised my visor, and the traffic evaporated, and it was smooth corners all by myself, with high beam on and plenty of visibility. And I was enjoying myself again.