Monthly Archives: August 2009

What’s age got to do with it?

It seems rather a lot, given the huge reaction the Dutch authorities have to prevent 13-year old Laura Dekker‘s quest to sail solo around the world.

We all know that kids mature at different ages. Some are high achieving while still very young. A good example is 15-year old tennis player Laura Robson, winner of junior Wimbledon as age 14, runner of the Junior Australian championship at age 15. Others take longer, a lot longer in some cases, to figure out who they are and what they would like to achieve. Some drift through life without ever achieving anything momentous at all.

Are there limits as to what someone should or could achieve by a particular age? Apparently we are at our physical peak in our mid-20s. Thus, is mid-teens a good age to start making a name for oneself in ones chosen sport? Singers say their voices peak in the 40s, and they are often well into their 20s before they feel their voice is anyway worthy of a top stage. Are there / should there be rules for different domains of expertise?

Taking a different angle, it seems to me that society has very strong views on teens excelling in an adult world. We seem to have this idea that teens need to be protected from much of the negative aspects of the world. In many cases, that seems logical. After all, the average teen has little world experience and many have not the required cognitive and social sophistication to cope with life’s more unusual obstacles.  In the Western we world have evolved teenagehood as a protected space where parents gradually let go of their offspring, hoping they are moving fast enough so that the youngster develops sufficient maturity and coping skills but not so so slowly the teen feels stifled.

The age of 18 is considered adulthood and our young folks are considered capable of getting on in the adult world on their 18th birthday. Why age 18? I’m sure we all know or have known 18-year olds who are well able to make their way in the world and others who have some or a lot more learning to do.  Some teens amaze and humble us with their apparent maturity.  Some grapple badly with the horrors of sexting, cyber-bullying, the leaving cert points race, etc, others are able to take these in their stride.  Perhaps, we should put more effort into researching why there is such a gap between these 2 groups.

Having said all that, what is your view on Laura Dekker’s quest to sail the world solo as a 13 year old? If BBC’s Have-your-say is anything to go by, it seems we have strong opinions indeed. Some of the comments (from over 1000) I found interesting are as follows –

  • What on earth are her parents thinking of
  • Stepping outside the accepted social structure because you have become independent faster than your peers, you are regarded as odd and in this instance, are taken into state custody. ae we getting a little mixed up?
  • I hope the girl sues them when she is older for denying her this opportunity
  • Perhaps if Laura survives this trip and one day comes to her senses, she may decide to sue her parents for denying her the opportunity to mix with other teenagers at a crucial age, as well as missing so much education that she cannot go to university or get a job
  • Why is there such a rush to force adulthood onto children?
  • a child of 13 is not sufficiently developed mentally, physically or psychologically to undertake such an endeavor entirely alone
  • 13 year old boy can be a father, 15 year old lady can be a mother? But they are stopped form sailing around the world
  • Nanny should allow her to do the trip if she is fit!
  • Sending a 13-yr old girl to sea on solo is tantamount to a death sentence.
  • maturity, experience,knowledge,support systems,mental abilities in stressful times, physical abilities when stressed or challenged, emotional abilities and capabilities to cope.All these factors need consideration and not just age.
  • The government has too much say in what is absolutely none of their business.
  • My dad had to leave school at 14 to earn a crust as the family was short of cash, where were the do-gooders then.
  • what sort of psychological impact will stopping her do this create, resentment and anger for sure, rather than the feeling of achievement that allowing her to attempt it will create even if she failed.
  • What next? Child wants to dye hair red and get nose pierced, so gets taken into state care… Child wants to cook own dinner on hot stove, so gets taken into state care… If the state no longer agrees with one parenting methodology, does that mean the children will be taken into care???
  • Does anyone really sail solo apart from being the only one in the boat. There is always someone following and state-of-the-art communications.
  • Each case is different. Some children are mature beyond their age whereas some are immature for their age.
  • Is there any activity more utterly pointless than sailing solo around the world?
  • Children need to experience life in all it’s facets and if one is younger than the norm so be it, that is not an excuse for heavy-handed authorities to step in
  • At 13 she should be at home studying algebra, not sailing the high seas.
  • She is 13 years old. Is her life going to be so utterly ruined and violated if she has to wait until she finishes school?

It seems there are as many viewpoints as there are commentators. Are they all valid? Do you agree with them?  Could you have done this trip when you were 13? Were you born on a boat, did you spend the first 4 years of your life sailing, did you sail solo at age 6, spend the last 3 years preparing for a round-the-world sail, already have crossed the North Sea solo?

As a sailor, Laura is clearly not a typical 13 year old. She is far beyond that.


Whose money are you spending?

Money makes the world go around – or so we’re told.  But where does it come from and where does it go to? How come some of us have considerably more of it than others?

Take for example, Charlie McCrevy. Page 2 of today’s Irish Independent tells us about his payout when he leaves his EU office:

  • Resettlement allowance of €19,909.89
  • Transitional allowance of €358,378 payable over 3 years, working out at €119,459.50 per year
  • Lifelong pension of €50,000 per year
  • Moving costs to pack up and fly his family back to dear ole Ireland, business class

This is on top of an Oireachtas pension of €52,213 and a ministerial pension of €75,003 for his stint as finance and enterprise minster.

Whether he has done a good / bad / indifferent job is irrelevant given how massive this payout is. Can anyone possibly do a wonderful enough job to justify a payout that is as enormous as this. As a point of comparison consider that one year of the transitional allowance and one year of the lifelong pension would pay off in one swoop they mortgage that I will require the next 20+ years to pay off.

Where does this money that Charlie will be paid from come from?  Who decided that he is worth this amount of money? Who decides that his position merits this level of financial reward?

An example closer to home where the Irish taxpayer can really feel it, concerns our Ceann Comhairle (chairperson of our Parliament) John O’Donoghue and his extravagance with tax-payers hard earned tax.  The official Government jet was used to jet off to Cannes, the Heineken Cup final and the Ryder Cup event – all costing the taxpayer a cool €32,450.

The O’Donoghue expense that really caught the public’s attention, however, was the €472 limo ride to go from terminal 3 to terminal 1 in a London airport. The sheer extravagance of paying so much for a service that can be obtained for free via airport shuttle buses is just too much in these recessionary times.

As a point of comparison, consider the salary that drivers of such shuttle buses might be paid. While such information is not publicly available it’s fair to say that they would not reach far enough to even contemplate paying €472 for a service that can be obtained for free.  Would you pay €472 of your own money for a service that is obtainable for free? Would you pay €472 of someone else’s money for this service?

Spare a further thought for the shuttle bus driver. On a trip to London recently, I wandered around the Science Museum. On show was a prototype of the new driverless taxi, a series of which are soon to be deployed in Heathrow airport to ferry passengers around various destinations within the airport. Passengers tap in their requires destination to an onboard console and off the taxi goes on its merry track to that location. I wonder how much the airport is saving by not having to pay drivers.

Driverless Taxi

Some nice folks getting their pic taken beside the driverless taxi

As I am on the subject of money and whose money is being used for what. I’ll leave the last word to the very contentious issue of third level fees. Our minister for finance indicates that students should be responsible for their own college fees.  Whether right or wrong, there is negative reaction to this from certain quarters.  Have these quarters asked themselves where the money is coming from to fund their currently “free” fees?

Nothing is ever really free. Even if the students themselves (or their parents) aren’t paying the fees, someone is.  Everyone who pays taxes is funding these fees. Is this a good thing, a bad thing, or does it matter?  There seems to be mixed reaction to this, much of it arising from how directly people feel the fees are coming out of their own pocket. It all comes down to whose money is being spent – your own or some mysterious others? The aggregate of the tax of a very large number of people loses all personal meaning and, put simply, is meaningless in comparison with ones own earnings and how that is spent.

The questions children ask?

Young children have an interesting view of the world and their process of figuring it out has always fascinated me. They seem to pick up so much with apparently limited language and cognitive skills.  How many words are in the vocabulary of a typical 7 or 8 or 9 year old? Yet, they come up with really interesting questions about the world around them that often challenge adults.

My 7-year old niece recently stumped me. She wanted to know how come her Daddy and my good self are from Limerick. I simply could not come up with a suitable answer fast enough. I couldn’t come up with a good answer at all. What was she getting at? Was it a question of geography, the origins of life, accidents of birth, the Pale vs. life outside thereof, being trounced in GAA by a neighbouring county, or something else?

Kids asking questions that their parents can’t answer is nothing new. At the risk of going out on a limb here, I wonder if this lack of answers is a contributor to lack of interest in science in later life. It requires a formal campaign of time and effort to encourage students to study science at third level at least in this country. Would this be needed if the little ones had their questions answered and talked about in a fun and informative way?

A recent study of childrens’ questions is food for thought.   4 out of 5 parents couldn’t help their offspring with questions like this lot.  Thinking caps at the ready, what answer would you give to the following 10 questions posed by the young folk. Googling the answer is not allowed. All answers have to be “child-friendly”? You have to answer right-away.


How did you get on?

Not easy, are they?

In my opinion these aren’t just very intelligent questions, they are profound and deep ones.

My big question is where does this beautiful curiosity about the world, its creatures and environment disappear to as children grow up?  How did this enthusiatic questioning and wondering get replaced by rote memorisation and passive acceptance of facts for far too many of our young folks?

Risky life not so risky

My latest reading is Dan Gardner’s Risk.  It’s in the “popular science” category, meaning that everything is not specifically referenced and many serious social scientists are likely to dismiss it without turning the first page. Nonetheless, I found it engaging.

The essence of Risk is that we’ve never had it so good yet we’re so scared. Fear is a significant part of our day-to-day lives and yet there’s no rational reason for much of this. What exactly are we afraid of?  Who or what is making us so fearful? Are we right to be scared? What are we basing our fear on exactly?

Dan quotes from numerous studies to illustrate his points. The main output seems to be that our gut or instinctive reaction can get things wrong or distorted. This flies against the oft quoted “go with your gut”, or “what is your instinct telling you”. But based on lack of concrete information, the rational “head” part of our brain might not get much of a look in and so we accept instinct. It could be faulty, but knowing nothing else we accept it as truth.

Take for example nuclear energy. If asked for their first reaction when they hear those two words, most will probably shudder and mention Chernobyl or Sellafield. Their reaction is negative. Nuclear power is a bad thing in their books. Ask them exactly what’s bad about it, how likely is another fallout, what exactly was the extent of existing fallouts relative to other catastrophes, what’s good about it, etc, and it’s likely that they cannot give a well-informed answer. This begs the question; where does instinct get its information from to form the negative reaction given?

The answer: half stories, news reports half read, sensationalisednews reports that make us sit up and listen, films that aren’t real, creative marketing activities, etc, etc.

The problem is that most of us are experts in only a few domains or even in no domain at all. When we hear a story that’s not in our area of expertise, we typically do not hear enough to put it in a realistic perspective. Our news sources feed us what the author termed the “relative” risk as opposed to the absolute risk.

Here’s an example: In 2006 the US FDA issued a warning about a particular brand of birth control pill.  The newspapers (even respectable ones) presented this warning along the lines of women using this pill are twice as likely to have blood clots as those using another brand. Gut reaction is to freak out. Cue worried customers demanding a refund and a health check. But what does the risk actually mean? What is being doubled? How big a risk is it?  Most newspaper reports omitted the absolute risk. Apparently it’s approximately 6 out of 10,000 women developing a clot. That’s 0.0006 chance, a tiny tiny fraction of 1%. Doubling, even trebling that is still a very negligible risk. But many reports didn’t explain this. A little information is truly a dangerous thing. This shows that we need to question what our media gives us. We cannot accept things at face value.

There are now so many media outlets competing for our attention that they have to do whatever is required to grab that attention. Even well respected media outlets will tweak a headline if it means the reader / viewer will take note. Here’s one from the BBC: “Kenyan renews Chelsea goat offer – A Kenyan man has told the BBC how happy he is that US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has agreed to renew his marriage offer to her daughter”. The initial reaction is “Eh!”. Reading down the article, Hilary Clinton’s exact words were “My daughter is her own person. I will convey this very kind offer”. It’s not quite the same as the headline yet it’s not an obvious lie either. It’s more a bending of the truth to garner the reader’s attention.

The media also have the problem of needing to present us with jargon-free information that a non-expert in a particular domain can understand. The problem then is one of lost-in-translation. Getting the point across without seemingly extraneous or complex details in an eye-catching way can cause distortions. Nothing bugs scientists more than reading the “abbreviated” “popularised” version of their research, the version that omits the ifs / buts / maybes / known limitations that they have published in more official sources. Next time you see a headline that says something like “GN foods are good / bad / indifferent for our health”, don’t take it at face value, ask yourself where the research might have come from, who sponsored it, do they have a financial stake in the results, how big was the study, what type of data analysis was carried out on it. If answer cannot be found, then an open mind needs to be kept.

As another example take the newspaper headline concerning paedophiles quoted in the book – “Pervs running riot in our schools”. The aim is to freak out parents. They see the headline, gut reacts dramatically to a threat to the well-being of an offspring, they feel the need to buy the newspaper to read all about it, newspaper sales go up. Yet the number of hard core violent paedophiles out there is minuscule. There are many other threats out there to worry about (e.g. falling down the stairs) that are far more likely to occur.

Marketing will happily fudge the truth.  It’s not in their interests to do otherwise. Step one is creating the climate, step 2 is filling the gap with the product / service in question. Step one could be nourishing the fear, the loss, the gap, whatever might be missing that this product / service might sort out. For the marketing to work, it needs to be presented in a way that appeals to people, raising and magnifying the fear or loss or whatever it might be. If this step fails, then the marketing fails. Plenty of examples are given in the book – a poster in a doctor’s waiting room emphasising the problem of high cholesterol as a dramatic health problem. A closer look in the ‘fine print’ reveals that the poster is sponsored by an organisation creating anti-cholesterol pills. George Bush’s Presidential campaign emphasised the threat of terrorism, magnifying it out of realistic proportions. Then came the message; vote for us and you’ll be safe from this terrorism. Are these “products” that should be marketed using traditional marketing techniques? I’m not so sure.

The ultimate message is to get out there and live your life. Yes, there are risks but keep them in proportion – how likely are they to happen, what’s the worst thing that could result if they did actually happen? Being realistic, my biggest risk factor is getting whacked on the head by a Dublin Bus wing mirror, and it probably wouldn’t even kill me. Actually, it’s highly unlikely to ever happen!

Rising grades back in the news again

UK politicians wonder how / why the number of 1:1 degrees awarded in the UK has almost doubled in a decade. Read about it here and here. Yesterday’s Observer also carried the story, garnering 250+ comments.  There seems to be suggestion that different institutions require different levels of effort from students to achieve their degree classification. The conclusion seems to be that the watchdog overseeing standards isn’t doing its job right.

I wonder how they could possibly consider that standards are and / or should be the same across the entire gamut of universities. It’s absurd to think that that there can be equality. It would be like comparing the proverbial apples and oranges. Yes, they are both fruit but so vastly different.

The only way equality and direct comparisons across institutions could be made is if marking were centralised ala the leaving certificate in this country, and all students sit the same unseen papers.  That’s not going to happen. The administration nightmare for a start puts a limit on it. Even if that obstacle was overcome, such an approach would merely strait-jacket third-level education, preventing any flexibility and innovation, let alone eating into much-valued (from everyone’s point of view) academic freedom. Third level would become a continuation of the second-level spoon feeding exercise, and that’s not even useful at second-level.

The politicians argue that employers have a right to know whether they should employ person A with a degree from university A or person B with the “same” degree from university B.  I don’t think it is as straight-forward as that.  An employee brings a lot more than their degree parchment to a job. Indeed, that degree parchment is just one indicator of their abilities for the particulars of a given job. I have heard of employers not taking 1:1 students believing that they tend to be one-dimensional and not as rounded personalities as those with lower honours. Consider as another example the most successful graduate of my undergraduate degree. This person is now one of the country’s foremost business people but didn’t come top of the class or achieve a first class honours qualification.  Yet, he achieved the grounding required to proceed to his very impressive achievements.

In Ireland we have a much smaller number of universities and colleges than in the UK. As such it should be easier to ascertain what is a “good” college and what is not. The definition of “good”, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. It differs for everyone.  If a potential student is interested in studying a precise area of engineering then their definition of good is limited down to the few institutions offering this course. If they have a strong location preference then it is likely that their choice is very much reduced, particularly if they live outside of Dublin.  Students need to work out what is important to them, rank and weight those criteria, attending as many open days for different institutions as they can. In this way, they can choose the institution that best fits their definition of “good”.

A problem is that far too many students don’t do this. Their decisions can be made on flimsy criteria such as: “my boy/girlfriend is going to _______ so I’m going there too”, or “my daddy wants me to study ______ at ________ so that’s what I’m doing”, or “that college give too many / few first class honours degrees”, and for older students “I don’t know how I will juggle in studying with the job and family life but I feel obliged to obtain a masters”.  A student’s goal on entering college is likely to effect the award classification they get on leaving. If entry goals are so varied and in some cases, shallow, what can we really expect?

This looks like a debate that will run and run.


Update: Jobless graduate sues her college

I couldnt even begin to comment.