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  • Mark Selby
  • October 18, 2018 05:28:01 AM
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My Dossier and Blog is the personal site of Dr Mark Selby. I'm a STEM Educator with 25+ years of experience, EDUTECH specialist and Freelancer. I write about Science and STEM education and highlight my own creations and examples of the use of EDUTECH in STEM education at high school, college and university levels.

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The Game of Thrones Finale!

There are spoilers ahead if you haven’t caught up with GOT season 8 episode 5 as yet. I speculated about the (then) upcoming HBO Game of Thrones final season in a previous article. Turns out that I was right that episode 3 would contain the epic Battle for Winterfell against the Army of the Dead. … Continue reading "The Game of...

There are spoilers ahead if you haven’t caught up with GOT season 8 episode 5 as yet.

I speculated about the (then) upcoming HBO Game of Thrones final season in a previous article. Turns out that I was right that episode 3 would contain the epic Battle for Winterfell against the Army of the Dead. I was wrong in that I didn’t predict that the Night King would be defeated and the threat from the north tied up in that same episode.

From my speculation, the other thing I did get right was that there would be treachery and betrayal from Varys and Tyrion. As Tyrion says: “thoughts aren’t treason” so he hasn’t, in his view, crossed the line yet. Though, after the apocalyptic-scale destruction of King’s Landing that Daenerys instigated in episode 5, it remains to be seen if Tyrion will continue to side with her.

Paiting, Death on a Pale Horse
Benjamin West, Death on the Pale Horse, 1796, from the Detroit Institute of Arts.

At the beginning of episode 5, Daenerys told Jon that if she couldn’t have love then she would settle for fear instead.  She certainly achieved that in her rape of King’s Landing through her dragon Drogon. Too bad the Iron Throne is left under tons of rubble from the fallen Red Keep. What was she thinking? Rule from Dragonstone until King’s Landing can be rebuilt and the Iron Throne recovered? Is that even possible? Set up a grand tent in the rubble and ashes of King’s Landing, to rule from there? She’d better hope that Drogon’s fire-breathing abilities don’t wane from overuse if that’s what she hopes for.

Daenerys better not be thinking of ruling from Riverrun or Highgarden because those properties have been promised to Ser Bronn by Tyrion in exchange for Jaime’s (now deceased by other causes) and Tyrion’s lives.

It’s unlikely to come to that of course, letters from the deceased Varys about Jon’s claim to the now buried Iron Throne are out there. Surely even Jon is reconsidering his view on not wanting to rule Westeros after what he witnessed in the rape of King’s Landing?

Then there is that white horse that Arya was seen riding at the end of episode 5. That must be the most heavy-handed metaphor in TV history. Not much subtlety there: Arya is going to ride back on a white horse to conquer anyone who stands in her way, and to be given a crown.

Then I saw when the Lamb broke one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures saying as with a voice of thunder, “Come.” I looked, and behold, a white horse, and he who sat on it had a bow; and a crown was given to him, and he went out conquering and to conquer. Revelation 6:1-2 NAS [1].

After all, the heroine of the Battle of Winterfell Arya has become a legendary figure of the stature of the ‘Hero’ from the stories that Old Nan told Bran back when Game of Thrones started; or the heroine princess Nymeria who led the Rhoynar people to Dorne centuries past.

In case you forgot,  Arya has a direwolf living wild somewhere in the forests of the Riverlands called “Nymeria’. So very likely we’l be seeing Arya return as a legendary heroine, riding a white horse with her direwolf, Nymeria [2]. The symbolism of a heroine princess risen from the ashes of King’s Landing is too strong for anyone to ignore. Will Jon/Aegon and Arya decide to rule together as King and Queen [3] and rebuild Westeros? Will Sansa continue to rule as Queen of the North?

When the snows fall and the white winds blow, the lone wolf dies, but the pack survives Sansa quoting her father Eddard Stark

Before this can occur, of course, there is the matter of Queen Daenerys, what remains of her armies and her dragon to deal with: Queen of the Andals, the Rhoynar and the First Men, Protector of the Realm, Queen of Meereen, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, Mother of Dragons, The Unburnt, Breaker of Chains, Lady of Dragonstone and Destroyer of King’s Landing.

Jon/Aegon has shown that he is a dragonrider with the now deceased Rhaegal. Can he command the living dragon Drogon as well? In any case, things are not looking good for Daenerys: she’s set for meetings with judgement, vengeance and hell. Will Jon/Aegon carry out that judgment upon her in the way that he was taught by Eddard Stark? Will the sight of Arya, her white horse and direwolf, stir the smallfolk to rise up and tear Daenerys and her armies to pieces?

My questions are rhetorical with regard to what I think but only next week’s episode will tell.

_________________

[1] The exact interpretation hinges somewhat on whether you consider the horse to be a white or a pale one. In the apocalyptic visions in Revelation, there is a vision of a white horse, as given here. There is also a vision for a pale (or ashen) horse:
“I looked, and behold, an ashen horse; and he who sat on it had the name Death; and Hades was following with him. Authority was given to them over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by the wild beasts of the earth.” – Rev 6: 6-8.

To me the horse was white but covered with reddish dust and ash from the fall of the Red Keep. It may have been the same white horse that Harry Strickland was seen riding earlier in the episode, see the article by Eljana Dockterman in Time magazine, for more details.

[2] I’m speculating that the prospective reunion between Arya and her direwolf, Nymeria, in the final episode, is why the showrunners Benioff and Weiss had Jon’s direwolf, Ghost, travelling north with Tormund Giantsbane to The Wall.

[3] My thinking up until the last episode was that since Games of Thrones is loosely-based upon The War of the Roses, that Daenerys would wed Jon Snow/Aegon Targaryen similarly to the way Henry Tudor (who became Henry VII ) returned from across the English Channel (=Narrow Sea) to marry Elizabeth of York – but with the gender roles reversed (i.e., Daenerys = Henry Tudor). However, after episode 5 it’s clear Daenerys is unfit to rule.

My thinking now is that GRRM may skip ahead in history to coregents Wiiliam and Mary, also first cousins, similarly to Arya Stark and Jon Snow/Aegon Targaryen. A marriage that established a new dynastic order in England. Nevertheless, I don’t think that Benioff and Weiss feel bound by historical parallels. So it probably won’t happen – Arya is too much of a free spirit. But who knows?


Speculation About Game of Thrones Season 8

In my former life as an academic, I used to joke to my colleagues that Game of Thrones was essential reading as a standard operations manual for working in universities nowadays. GOT as a manual for negotiating the world of research grants, where, figuratively, you either win the game or die and of navigating a … Continue reading "Speculation About Game of Thrones...

In my former life as an academic, I used to joke to my colleagues that Game of Thrones was essential reading as a standard operations manual for working in universities nowadays.

GOT as a manual for negotiating the world of research grants, where, figuratively, you either win the game or die and of navigating a path between the wheeling and dealing of the big-time professors, administrators, bean-counters, health and safety officers (hey, don’t underestimate their power). On many occasions, the internal and external politics between all of the players seemed to operate on a GOT-like scale. There were times I must admit that I felt no better than a denizen of the “Flea Bottom” in King’s Landing.

Given that internal politics in most organisations of more than a handful of people can feel a bit like GOT, from time-to-time, why not distract yourself with a little idle speculation about the upcoming Game of Thrones Season 8? I’m hoping to speculate on enough topics that I’ll be able to make a random hit and be able to say “I told you so!” The truth is that my speculation is unlikely to be any better than anyone else. But its fun isn’t it? [March 7: I’ve added new updates in notes at the end]

The Battle for Winterfell

The fate of Arya, from the recently released trailer above, would appear to be central to the fate of the North. We see through Arya’s eyes the wonder of dragons and the immense size of the Army of the North replete with Grey Worm and the Unsullied. Such a mighty force to fight the Battle for Winterfell! There are several indications that the battle doesn’t go the way you might hope. Arya is running scared from something. Is she running through the crypts of Winterfell? Trying to find safety? Bran and Rickon found safety in the crypts when Theon Greyjoy attacks and briefly takes over Winterfell in Season 2

Another indication that the outcome of the Battle may not be favourable to the living is that clues from cast members indicate that the battle occurs at a central point of the season (during episode 3). This is a departure from previously where the climactic battle is second from the last episode of the season. This might indicate that the battle is either inconclusive or lost.

If this is the case, survivors would likely retreat to the strategic narrow pass at the Neck. The ancient fortress at Moat Cailin. would be an obvious place for the last stand. In my opinion, this is too good a plot point for the show writers to ignore since it would resonate strongly with the idea of 300 Spartans holding the pass at Thermopylae. It’s also close to Greywater Watch, the seat of House Reed where they might be reinforced and supplied by Howland Reed’s crannogmen [1].

If there is a retreat to the Moat, then its possible that Arya is running through tunnels under the ruined fortress and not through the crypts of Winterfell. There is a possible clue that underground tunnels in the trailer appear to be much narrower than what we’ve seen of the Winterfell crypts, in previous seasons or in the teaser trailer? Perhaps Arya is not so much scared as desperate? Is she desperately searching for something or someone? Will Arya survive to the end? I hope so.

Does Arya get her revenge on Queen Cersei? She’s had a change of direction and heart since meeting with her wild direwolf, Nymeria, and Ed Sheeran and the group of Lannister minstrels in season 7. If the Battle for Winterfell goes the way I suggested, then you might not be so keen to see an end of Cersei since she’ll be the last best hope of the living.

Queen Cersei and the South

The trailer shows Cersei looking so confident and self-satisfied that you just want to reach into your device screen and slap her. Whatever it is, she thinks she’s winning? What has she got up her sleeve?

Quite a few things I believe. Firstly, with Maester Qyburn she believes that she can create her own army of undead. She already counts the undead Gregor Cleagane as her knight. She has other undead knights as well. Judging from Maester Qyburn’s fascination with the arm hacked from captured wight last season, they likely believe they can create their own army of the undead (I’m sure the details will be horrifying). What’s better than to have the undead fight the dead?

Furthermore, Cersei is likely to send her undead army to the Neck to hold off the army of the Night King at the same strategic point that the King in the North and the Mother of Dragons are occupying (assuming they both survive the Battle for Winterfell).  Whatever remains of Jon and Daenerys’ army and Dragons will then be fighting wights and undead on two fronts with little hope for escape [1, 2].

Second, Cersei has apparently gained the confidence of the Iron Bank of Braavos as the legitimate ruler of Westeros, i.e., the person most likely to pay back the massive debts owed to them. Remember that the Iron Bank has previously sent Tycho Nestoris to meet with Stannis (season 4) and then Mace Tyrell (season 5) and have most recently met with Cersei (season 7).

Last season also revealed that Cersei secured a loan from the Iron Bank to hire the service of the mercenary Golden Company. In addition, to defending King’s Landing, I suspect the Golden Company will be sent to ensure that the South will bend the knee to her. No doubt there is still hostility between Cersei and Dorne for what happened both to her daughter Myrcella and for the defection of the Dornish fleet to Daenerys side in early season 7. Cersei will want to bring the Dornish bannermen, the only Westerosi land forces remaining largely intact, under her control ASAP. All good jobs for her mercenaries. Not a good time to be a proud Dornish man or woman, I’d say [3].

The third thing in Cersei’s favour is Euron and his navy. Most recently, Euron was sailing to Essos to deliver the Golden Company to Cersei. In the book series: “A Song of Ice and Fire“, Euron “Crow’s Eye” has a Dragonbinder horn that he seized from the ruins of the smoking islands of Valyria while he was in exile. He has said to the Ironborn (A Feast for Crows) that this horn can bind dragons to his will. However, Cragon, the man who Euron has to blow the horn, dies with his lips and lungs burning.

winds-of-winter-cover
The Dragonbinder horn from a possible cover for The Winds of Winter [5].
The plot device of a Dragonbinder horn is just too good for the writers to ignore. I strongly suspect that the horn will show up early during season 8 when Euron returns with the Golden Company, or soon afterwards. Is Euron still interested in marriage to Cersei? Will Cersei offer her hand in marriage to Euron in exchange for a Dragonbinder horn? Weddings are always so colourful [4] and eventful in GOT! I can’t wait!

Will Theon free Asha and both of them escape to take on Euron? It would make for an intriguing wedding crashing [2].

Does Cersi (and Euron, if he survives the wedding) gain control of Daenerys’ dragons through the Dragonbinder horn? Does a Dragonbinder horn bind ice dragons as well as regular ones? Which poor bastard does Cersei order to blow the horn?

Treachery

If my speculation is anywhere near the mark, then Jon and Daenerys will be having a very bad time of it in the middle part of the next season. Who knows, maybe they won’t both survive? Kit Harington hinted in an interview that his character was going to have a sledgehammer blow applied during season 8. The “sledgehammer” he’s referring to could be from Cersei double-crossing Jon Snow or any of the other points that I’ve speculated above, or they could be from treachery. What’s a season of GOT without a liberal dose of treachery?

The worse treachery is from someone close to you. This time Varys, or Varys through Tyrion are the most likely suspects. Tyrion has been doing a lot of lurking about and talking with the ex-master of whispers (from the Small Council of Robert Baratheon). In particular, Tyrion was lurking when Jon and Daenerys had their liaison during the shipboard voyage to White Harbour at the end of season 7. What was that expression on Tyrion’s face?

I suspect his expression was not prurient interest or because he suspected that the liaison might have been incestuous. At the end of season 7, very few people suspect Jon’s true heritage. My opinion is that Tyrion has been too long in the company of Varys and is starting to see the worse in everyone and plots around every corner.

I think Tyrion respects Daenerys greatly, maybe he has a crush on her, but no real hope of realising anything more. I think he also respects Jon for his unwavering but sometimes inappropriate honesty. What I think worries him is that together they become very powerful. Perhaps too powerful for their own good.  Combine this with what Varys “The Spider” has been saying about looking after the smallfolk and protecting the powerful from the worst of themselves, then you have a recipe for treachery.

Bran

Bran has supernatural powers that make him central to season 8. He’s a warg (a person with the ability to enter the minds of animals and perceive the world through their senses) and a greenseer (a person who possesses the magical ability to perceive future, past or distant events in dreams).

These powers allow him to serve as the “three-eyed crow“. Bran has the ability to greensee with Weirwood trees that are centuries old: he can greensee whatever events happened in the presence of the tree during its long history.

Bran can warg into animals such as crows and ravens and see whatever the animal can see. His warging ability can also control the animal under some circumstances; such as being able to send a flock of ravens to look for the Army of the Dead and the Night King. However, the Night King can also sense Bran and “touch” him so that he knows where Bran is at the point that they come into contact.

At the end of season 6, Bran showed the ability to greensee using the mind of Hodor in the present and connect with him in the past by bringing Hodor’s current mind into contact with a past mind (Willis, the young Hodor). It seems that this can only be done for someone with a damaged “simple” mind, such as Hodor and then only for a one-word vocabulary (Hodor for hold-the-door),

Furthermore, greenseeing in this way damages the brain of the subject (Hodor’s brain was damaged but this was not the case for his younger self, Willis). Greenseeing with a human presents a serious problem because of the paradox created by bringing a person’s mind in the past into contact with their future mind is disastrous for them.

It is widely rumoured by internet fan groups that season 8 will see magical combat between the supernatural abilities of Bran and the Night King. Whoever wins this contest decides the fate of Westeros. Many fan groups also believe that Bran and the Night King have warged into each other and have become, or are becoming, one and the same.

I’m hoping that magical powers are played with a soft-touch in the ending to GOT. The last thing I want to see is the contrivance of a deus ex machina ending after all these years of reading the books and watching the HBO series.

Tell me what you think in the comments below.

______________

Notes added 7 March:

[1] There would seem to be two possibilities for escape: the crannogmen of the Greywater know of secret pathways through the swamps and marshes. It is also said that Greywater Watch has no fixed location and moves from place-to-place. However, as the actress that played Meera Reed (Ellie Kendrick) in previous seasons, hasn’t been contracted for season 8, this possibility now seems farfetched.

[2] Another possibility is that Theon frees Asha and they together rescue the encircled remnants of the Army of the North by sea. As I reflect on it, this possibility seems more likely. For this to occur, Theon and Asha would need to defeat Euron first and then seize the Ironborn fleet. This scenario would be reminiscent of Hardhome, the climactic episode in season 5. In addition, Jon and/or Daenerys, with survivors from their Northern Army, would be presented with both redemption and a second chance.

[3] With the assassination of Doran Martell and the death of Prince Trystane, House Martell is officially at an end. However, Ellaria Sands and her daughters, the “Sand Snakes,” continued to use the Martell sigil and represented themselves as House Martell and Dorne (the Sand Snakes carry Martell blood through the deceased Prince Oberyn). At the beginning of season 7, Ellaria Sands aligned herself with Daenerys but now finds herself imprisoned at King’s Landing and the oldest 3 Sand Snakes are dead (the existence of Sarella and the younger 4 Sand Snakes hasn’t been acknowledged in the HBO series). 

[4] Who could forget the Red Wedding? The penultimate episode in season 3. At the end of season 2, the wedding of Joffrey to Margaery Tyrell is sometimes called Purple Wedding because of the colour of the amethyst, in the hairnet worn by Sansa, that was used to smuggle the poison into the proceedings. Purple is also the colour of Joffrey’s face when the poison takes effect,

[5] A possible cover for the forthcoming book “The Winds of Winter” featuring either the horn of Jormun or the Dragonbinder horn. From Dan Selcke, in Fansided, available online; published 2016; accessed 7 March.


Update — Careful to Whom You Hand the Keys for Encryption

There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system … It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. George Orwell, Part 1, Chapter 1, in 1984 In an earlier post Careful to Whom You Hand the Keys for Encryption … Continue reading "Update — Careful to Whom You Hand the Keys...

There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system … It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. George Orwell, Part 1, Chapter 1, in 1984

3041590472_69bb8e8ba9_z
Source: Flickr by walknboston

In an earlier post Careful to Whom You Hand the Keys for Encryption I described the extraordinary events of 6 Dec when the so-called “encryption busting” Access and Assistance Act passed into law on the last hours of the last sitting day of  Federal Parliament before the end of 2018.

It passed after the Labor Party opposition, who had been opposing the AA Bill (Shadow Attorney General Mark Dreyfuss described it as being “obviously dangerous”) gained a promise from the Government that amendments to the Bill would be considered when Parliament reconvened in February. Well that’s now and it occurred last week on the 13 and 14 Feb in a Bill introduced as the Telecommunications and Other Legislation Amendment (Miscellaneous Amendments) Bill 2019 [1].

The new bill at its first reading introduced new powers to Federal and State anticorruption agencies on the basis that these agencies need the same powers as the agencies that they might be called upon to investigate. Previously. the Australian Federal Police, Australian Crime Commission and state and territory police forces were the only agencies afforded the use of interception powers as the Act.

This makes some sense [2] but raises the age-old question of how do you ensure that these new powers will be held to account? Who watches the watchers? As in the fictional town of Hawtch-Hawtcher by Dr Seuss, the answer to this question often leads to an ever-growing proliferation of watchers [3].

Watching the Watchers

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who watches the watchers? Juvenal from his Satires

In this case, new the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity and state crime and corruption commissions in NSW, Victoria, Queensland, SA and WA were all added to the list. Making the tally 17 Federal and State agencies that can use the Access and Assistance interception laws — assuming the new amendments are enacted.

The full list of agencies can be viewed in the pdf document below [4].

Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act 1979 Annual Report 2016-17 – telecommunications-interception-access-act-1979-annual-report-16-17

Systematic Weaknesses and Vulnerabilities

The amendments introduced by the opposition Labor Party were aimed at tying down the definition of “systemic weakness” and  “systemic vulnerability” in the AA Act [5].

The idea of a “systematic vulnerability” in the original Bill, was intended, I presume, to limit technical assistance requests that could weaken internet infrastructure. But the definition given is an incomprehensible “Bullpitism” it reads:

systemic vulnerability means a vulnerability that affects a whole class of technology but does not include a vulnerability that is selectively introduced to one or more target technologies that are connected with a particular person.

A further indication of the confusion introduced into the Act with these two-terms: the definition of a “systemic weakness” is identical, except the word vulnerability is substituted by weakness.

The Labor Party amendment, passed by the Senate on 14 February, was to repeal the problematic definitions of systematic weaknesses or vulnerabilities in a new Section 317ZG that will prohibit:

  • preventing a known vulnerability from being rectified;
  • implementing or creating a new decryption capability;
  • taking actions that would render systemic methods of authentication or encryption less effective;
  • any act or thing that would cause otherwise secure information to be compromised by an unauthorised third-party;
  • revealing otherwise secure information for any person who is not the subject, or is not communicating directly with the subject of the technical request or notice.

The full text of the proposed Labour Party amendments can be found in the pdf document below:

8642 Telecommunications and Other Leg Amd (Miscellaneous Amendments) Bill 2019 McAllister

Meanwhile, Big Brother is Watching

Overall these amendments are a significant tightening of controls on the way that the AA Act can be applied. This is important because under Act it is the law enforcement and intelligence agencies themselves that decide how it will be applied, not an independent judge.

That the amendments gave the agencies a lot less room in deciding what they can and can’t do is probably why the Government tried to vote it down. But they failed by 37 votes to 28.

Labor Senator Jenny McAllister who proposed the amendments said: “[w]e have been forced to prioritise.” As a result, this Bill and Labor’s amendments don’t yet deal with all of the potential issues that have been identified in the legislation passed at the end of last year. Senator Jordan Steele-John of the Australian Greens said that the amendments only made a bad Bill “slightly better” [6].

Further discussion was postponed until the next parliamentary sitting day which is 2 April. At this stage, amendments have been passed by the Senate but have not been passed into law. The police and intelligence agencies are free to use the laws as they exist now, without any of the proposed amendments.

There are only 5 more sitting days for parliament from 2 April so there is no guarantee that the amendments will be further considered before the Federal election to be held in May. In any case, Home Affairs minister Peter Dutton has said that the Government is not obliged to accept any of the opposition amendments.

The Government have agreed to accept, with a very tight timeframe, further public input to Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS) by 22 February. Further, the PJCIS will table its recommendations to parliament by 2 April.

Potted History of the Bullpit Effect (see the previous article)

The Bullpit effect is where a politician, or other public figures, open their mouth to speak but the only words that come out make the speaker appear to be an ignorant and irrelevant stuck-in-the-mud from a time long past.

Senator Brandis trying to explain metadata (unsuccessfully).

What Ted Bullpit would have said if he were in Senator Brandis’ position: “Pickle me, Grandma! Metadata?” followed by “Metadata? Strike me Catholic!”

Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnball trying to explain how the laws of mathematics don’t apply in Australia (yes, really).

What Ted Bullpit would have said if he were in the Prime Minister’s position: “someone should blow mathematicians up!

Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton refused to say very much of any substance by stonewalling and deflecting. As a result, he didn’t fall into the trap of saying something that would reveal him as a dinosaur from a long-past age. By doing so, he left the trap for the Tech Industry.

Protestations by the Tech Industry were full of technical details about encryption and cybersecurity. Such technical details failed to make much impact upon the public at large in Australia. As a result, the tables were turned and the Tech Industry started to look like Ted Bullpit.

What Ted Bullpit would have said if he’d been in the position of the Australian Tech Industry: “The Kingswood! You’re not taking the Kingswood! I’ve just Mr Sheened the number-plate!

_________________

[1] Parliament of Australia, Telecommunications and Other Legislation Amendment (Miscellaneous Amendments) Bill 2019, available online, published: 14 February; accessed 18 February.

[2] It brings the definition of ‘interception agency’ into line with the definition under the Telecommunications (Intercept and Access) Act 1979.

[3] Theodor Geisel (Dr Seuss), “Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are?” Random House, 1973. The whole town of Hawtch-Hawtcher become watchers watching over other watchers leading to the first watcher who is watching the “lazy town bee” so it will work harder.

[4] Department of Home Affairs, Commonwealth of Australia, “Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act 1979, Annual Report 2016–17”,  Appendix B, available online, published 2018; accessed 18 February.

[5] See the article by Rohan Pearce “More law enforcement agencies to get access to ‘anti-encryption’ powers” in Computerworld; published 13 February; accessed 18 February.

[6] By for The Full Tilt,”Duelling ghosts battle over encryption laws in a dying Parliament” published in ZDNet on 14 February, available online; assessed 18 February.

 


The Unfairness of Measuring Teaching Performance – Revisited

Last year I posted an article on The Unfairness of Measuring Teaching Performance concerning anonymous student comments that said that the teacher was “too old” [1]. An article published on the online site Phys.org [2] found that male teachers were most likely to be evaluated the highest by students and female teachers from a non-English background … Continue reading "The Unfairness of Measuring Teaching Performance...

A women of a minority group teaching at a whiteboard
A survey of student evaluations of teaching shows that men rate higher.

Last year I posted an article on The Unfairness of Measuring Teaching Performance concerning anonymous student comments that said that the teacher was “too old” [1]. An article published on the online site Phys.org [2] found that male teachers were most likely to be evaluated the highest by students and female teachers from a non-English background the lowest. Further, the bias showed up most in student surveys in Science and Business and was largely absent from students surveys from Engineering and other disciplines.

This study was based upon 500,000 student surveys of teaching at the University of NSW, Sydney between 2010 and 2016. It involved more than 3000 teachers over 2000 courses. across 5 Faculties.

In my previous article, I strongly supported teaching surveys as a tool for professional teacher development using tailored questions that are teacher selectable. It was my belief that problems arise because of

… the impersonal nature of the survey, as well as the fact that it is exclusively university, administered, that is the heart of the problem.

The use of institution-centric and standardised teaching surveys promote sameness of approach to teaching. Nowadays, completion rates of such surveys are often very low, suggesting that students tend to complete them out of a sense of obligation. The example given in my earlier article, shows 30 completions for the teacher-initiated survey I used in 1998 (100% of the students attending the lecture at which the  survey was administered and ∼95% of the enrolled students) compared with 4 completions (24% of the enrolled students) for the standardised institutional survey in 2015.

In saying this I’m not expressing a desire to turn back technology — I’m expressing a desire for teachers to have more control over the way that the survey technology is used and integrated into the classroom experience, even if that classroom experience is more virtual space than physical. In my opinion, this is the answer to the question I posed in my earlier article:

This raises an even more pertinent question: why after 17 years, with all the intervening developments in information technology, do we have less fairness in evaluating the quality of teaching in the university system in 2018 than we had in 1998?

What’s to be done?

The article in phys.org states that the use of student evaluations of teaching is fallible as a measure of teacher performance because of the bias that this study demonstrates. This implies that the use of such data in formal staff evaluations is therefore also fallible.

Given the demonstrated bias found in this study, students survey data have no place being used to assess the performance of teachers nor to help decide questions of whether a given academic should be re-hired, promoted or fired. To do so, can only further entrench the bias towards male leadership into the university sector.

Does this mean that we can expect to see less use of student survey metrics in higher education? This is highly unlikely given the Australian Government’s commitment to “Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching” (QILT) initiative and similar measures by other Governments such as the European Commission’s U-Multirank [3].

Indeed, in its conclusions, the article in Phys.org goes on to say that universities need to reduce the sources of bias by better-educating students and staff; as well as encouraging more women and members of minorities to work at universities at all levels. Of course, these are admirable objectives, but disappointing as a conclusion because they add nothing to what universities have already declared to be their goals and responsibilities.

The article on bias in Phys.org sidesteps how the use of quality metrics, based upon student surveys of the learning experience, could be improved. The underlying assumption seems to be that quality metrics are sacrosanct and beyond our reach to improve.

This is very disappointing for reasons I’ll outline in the next section.

Gaming the System

It is my conjecture that the evidence of bias from the statistics presented in the Phys.org article reflects that men who rate higher in the student outcomes metrics are simply better at gaming the system than are women and members of other minorities. Furthermore, those men game the system to exclude others.

I can’t prove this of course, but it follows from Goodhart’s Law, named after the British economist who formulated it. Marilyn Strathern’s rephrasing Goodhart’s Law states:

“When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.” Marilyn Strathern

This occurs when individuals try to anticipate the outcome of policy changes by taking actions that change the outcomes. To put it another way, anything that can be measured and rewarded will be gamed. In the university sector, the gaming that has received the most attention is the lowering of the standards required to pass [4].

In my experience, I’ve seen academics make runs to the supermarket or candy store prior to their lectures to stock up on wrapped sweets that they then throw out to students who answer their questions correctly in the lecture hall. Usually, these academics do well in student evaluations. They might argue that this is an effective engagement technique but I say that it displays either a discredited form of operant conditioning or worse, gaming the system of student evaluations.

There are other more subtle forms of gaming the system. Because students tend to view surveys as a fill-in-the-form exercise they tend to rank teachers according to their ranking in the university hierarchy: Dean of Faculty higher than Head of School higher than Professor higher than lecturer higher than casual tutor — a kind of donkey vote when you can’t remember much about the teacher concerned. This effect alone could explain some of the bias observed. This behaviour might be reinforced in a class by the senior academic in the way they speak to students, a subtle form of gaming.

Conclusions

The data reported by Phys.org [2] shows a statistically significant bias towards males rating higher in student surveys of teaching based upon a large sample size of 500,000 evaluations, several thousand teachers and courses. You can either choose to treat these findings dismissively, say that they are a problem that we’re trying to deal with — as the article itself tends to do — or you can say that these findings reveal a dark and ugly side of academic behaviour that should be exposed to the very scrutiny and accountability that teaching quality metrics claims to bring about. In this case, the quality metrics, or the system of implementation, have been found wanting.

Perhaps a little more trust between university administrators and academics would go a long way towards improving quality of teaching and reduce the desire by some (mostly male) players in the academic sector to game the system and thereby excluding others from gaining recognition by merit.

Acknowledgement:  I’d like to thank Jillian Rowe from Griffith University for reading over this article and helping me to sharpen its focus, trim the wordage and generally save me from embarrassing typos and grammatical errors.

____________

[1] By “unfairness” I’m referring to comments that are fiercely critical of the person (in my earlier post) or bias based upon gender, race or sexuality (this post).

[2] Merlin Crossley, Emma Johnston And Yanan Fan, “Male teachers are most likely to rate highly in university student feedback” Phys.org, available online; published 14 Feb; accessed 15 Feb.

[3] Le Hoa Phan and Kristin Childs, “Student surveys of teaching & learning quality” Institute for Teaching and Learning Innovation (ITaLI), The University of Queensland, available online, published: Jan 2017; accessed: 15 Feb.

[4] Jerry Muller, “The Tyranny of Metrics” Princeton University Press (2018).


Burke and Wills Expedition — Forensic Analysis of the Death of Charlie Gray

Charlie Gray (? – 1861 ) is the forgotten man of the Burke and Wills Expedition of 1860-1. Burke and Wills are credited with the first crossing of Australia from south to north and then south to Cooper’s Creek [1] again. That they were accompanied by John King (1841 – 72) is commonly remembered because … Continue reading "Burke and Wills Expedition — Forensic Analysis of the Death of...

Arrival of Burke, Wills at Cooper's Creek on their return
The arrival of Burke, Wills and King at the deserted camp at Cooper’s Creek. Painted by John Longstaff in 1907. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

Charlie Gray (? – 1861 ) is the forgotten man of the Burke and Wills Expedition of 1860-1. Burke and Wills are credited with the first crossing of Australia from south to north and then south to Cooper’s Creek [1] again. That they were accompanied by John King (1841 – 72) is commonly remembered because he was the only member of the crossing party to survive. Charlie Gray is often only remembered as a footnote: that he crossed the continent with Burke and Wills but died on the return from the Gulf of Carpentaria, the day that the crossing party spent burying his body, was instrumental in the tragedy that was to follow.

The death of Charlie Gray has attracted a good deal of controversy, as I’ll examine in this article.

It is my belief that this article is the first time that the events leading up to his death have been subjected to a detailed forensic scientific examination.

My conclusions show that the likely cause of Gray’s death was from a parasitic disease that compounded his generally poor health and malnutrition. Furthermore, this same parasitic disease affected the other members of the party, hastened their worsening malnutrition, leading indirectly to the deaths of Burke and Wills some months later. John King was also close to death but was fortunate in finding the native Yandruwandha people who showed him kindness and made him part of their tribe until the Victorian Relief Expedition was able to rescue him.

The Burke and Wills Expedition

What is most remembered of the Burke and Wills expedition is depicted in the painting above: Burke, Wills and King returned to Cooper’s Creek, after crossing the continent, bone-weary and debilitated from malnutrition,  They found that the depot party had departed that very morning. So near had a reunion been that the campfire ashes were still hot. The depot party had buried what supplies they could spare under a tree on which they famously inscribed the word “DIG”.

Gray is conspicuously missing from the Longstaff painting above after having passed away at Camp 58R, Lignum Lake on the 16 April. On 17 April they spent the entire day burying Gray’s body, before setting off for and reaching the Dig tree on Cooper’s Creek in the late afternoon of 21 April.

The depot party consisting of William Brahe, Tom McDonough, William Patten and their camel driver Dost Mahomed had left the morning of 21 April. William Patten, who was desperately ill, perished on the return to Menindee. He had initially suffered from a knee injury when kicked from a horse, but his injury was slow to recover, likely because of the effects of scurvy. His condition worsened as the scurvy took hold of his body.

As a side note, the expedition had originally carried some 20 gallons of lime juice with them to prevent scurvy. This was left behind on 15 Sept ’60 at Balranald when Burke, frustrated by slow progress, decides to leave half of their supplies and equipment behind.

Despite being only several hours behind Brahe and his party, Robert O’Hara Burke reckons that owing to their poor condition and the knocked up state of the two remaining camels, that his party would be unlikely to make up the distance to Brahe’s party. Instead, he decides to head for the sheep station at Mount Hopeless in South Australia and thence return to Adelaide. Burke was remembering that contemporary explorer Augustus C. Gregory had been saved on his 1858 expedition when he had first found this route.

Mount Hopeless

On this occasion the name Mount Hopeless was apropos; for the party were unable to find the crossing between Cooper’s Creek and Strzelecki Creek, that Gregory had found, both Creeks were mostly dried out river beds at this time. Unfortunately, the party are without navigational instruments excepting for a simple compass carried by Wills.

Wills had abandoned most of his belongings when they were only a few days from the Depot Camp, thinking that he would be able to return for them once resupplied at the Depot. Later, on the upstream part of Cooper’s Creek, without knowing exactly where they were and without maps, they perished in the attempt to reach Mount Hopeless, excepting for King who only survived through good luck, as mentioned above.

Nardoo (Marsilea) produces special structures called sporocarps, where spores are produced
Nardoo (Marsilea) produces structures called sporocarps, where spores are produced [3].
Much has been made of the food source nardoo (Marsilea drummondii) that the Burke and Wills party prepared to sustain themselves in their last dying weeks on Cooper’s Creek [2]. They had learnt from the Yandruwandha people that sporocarps from the aquatic fern called “nardoo” (see photograph) could be ground into a thin porridge with water or baked into a flatbread. Wills had written that the nardoo had made him feel satisfied even though it provided little or no nutrition and he continued to starve despite consuming nardoo:

Starvation on nardoo is by no means very unpleasant, but for the weakness one feels, and the utter inability to move oneself, for as far as appetite is concerned, it gives the greatest satisfaction.William Wills, 26 June ’61

Many believe that Burke and Wills failed to learn from the indigenous people how to properly prepare the nardoo, which contains Thiaminase if prepared incorrectly. Thiaminase depletes the body of Thiamine (Vitamin B1) leading to beriberi and death.

Death of Charlie Gray

It’s the author’s contention that the nardoo was irrelevant to the deaths of Burke and Wills because the underlying cause of their malnutrition and debilitation were laid down earlier in their return trip when members of the party, including Charlie Gray, had become sick with what the author has research findings to show was likely a parasitic disease. All 4 members of the party became infected with the disease but only Charlie Gray became seriously ill and subsequently died.

Charlie Gray had been ailing since they had left the Gulf country and continually complained of weakness, dizziness, pain in his legs and back and suffered severe headaches. In late March ’61, Burke told Wills and King that he thought that Gray was “shamming” by feigning illness, hoping to avoid work and perhaps gain sympathy from the others so that he would be fed more food. A few days later John King is also feeling weak and starting to complain of the same symptoms.

Then Wills discovers Gray hiding behind a tree and eating skilligolee, a thin porridge made from flour he had stolen from the expedition supplies. Gray tries to explain that he needed the extra rations of flour to try to relieve him of dysentery that he was suffering from. When Burke was informed he became angry and disciplined him severely,. Wills notes this as a “good thrashing” in his journal. In Gray’s weakened state this would have exacerbated his failing health. Nevertheless, the later Royal Commission on the expedition absolved Burke from any blame over the death of Charlie Gray.

The other point of controversy concerning the death of Charlie Gray is the finding of bones from a European man, presumed to be that of Gray, by the South Australian Burke Relief expedition lead by John McKinlay. McKinlay found a skull with scars that been detached and placed head facing downwards. The scars, some thought, could have been from deep wounds from sabre cuts before death.  Some days later, McKinlay also found other remains and erroneously believed that the entire Burke and Wills expedition had been massacred there, so he called the place Lake Massacre. It is still called by the same name, even though the supposed massacre was erroneous.

Stature to Burke and Wills in Melbourne.
Stature to Burke and Wills at the corner Swanston St and Collins St, Melbourne.

The remains identified by McKinlay have never been satisfactorily resolved. nor have they been recovered since the time they were reburied deeper at the same location by McKinlay. Alfred Howitt was commissioned to return to Cooper’s Creek to exhume (for a second time) the remains of Burke and Wills and bring them to Melbourne for a State Funeral at the Melbourne Cemetary. However,  he was not given instructions about Gray nor did Howitt search for Gray’s remains.

Sales Pitch

As no remains are known to be in existence for Charlie Gray, the best way to examine the cause of death of Gray is to examine the events that led up to it, an ailment that was shared by at least one other member of the party in John King who complained of similar symptoms to Gray. Though he may not have complained or kept records about it, Robert O’Hara Burke also suffered obvious signs of dysentery at the same time as Gray.

From these evident facts, I conclude that there is a yet untold story about the Burke and Wills expedition that needs to be made known.

A story waiting to be told about a debilitating infection, that the author believes to be parasitic, that travelled with the members of the crossing party on their return journey to Cooper’s Creek.

The story deserves to be told more widely than I can reach with this blog on its own. As yet, I don’t use advertisements to fund this blog. I rely on income from selling freelance articles and eLearning pieces (coming soon).

At some point, I hope the conclusion of my research into Charlie Gray and the Victorian Exploring Expedition will appear at this website but for now, I’m seeking a commercial publisher who can promote the story to as wide an audience as possible.

My PhD is in Analytical Chemistry from the University of NSW (1985) and I’ve conducted research and teaching in Forensic Science for 25+ years at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT).

Recommended Reading

I highly recommend the book by Peter Fitzsimons, “Burke and Wills: The Triumph and Tragedy of Australia’s Most Famous Explorers” published by Hachette Australia (2017).

The PhD Thesis by David Gary Phoenix, “More Like a Picnic Party”: Burke and Wills: an analysis of the Victorian Exploring Expedition 1860-1861, PhD Thesis, James Cook University (2017); available online, published: 5 Feb 2018; accessed 10 January 2019.

___________________

[1] Cooper’s Creek as it was known at the time of Burke and Wills, is now known as Cooper Creek, is a river in Queensland and South Australia.

[2] Bush Telegraph, “Burke and Wills’ fatal error” ABC Radio RN, produced by Belinda Tromp, presented by Cameron Wilson, available online, published: 7 August 2013; accessed: 10 January.

[3] The photograph of Marsilea drummondii is obtained from the Australian National Botanic Gardens, Centre for Australian National Biodiversity Research, available online, accessed 11 January. This image is copyright by the ANBG and CANBR website, owned by those organisations and used here under a public access license.


Andy Weir — My Geek Hero

  Do I just sit back and allow a portrayal of events that, claim to be scientifically factual, to be made to be made into a feature movie, when I know, and can show by basic chemistry and toxicology, that the events portrayed are wrong? If you’ve followed The Dossier you may have read the … Continue reading "Andy Weir — My...

 
Do I just sit back and allow a portrayal of events that, claim to be scientifically factual, to be made to be made into a feature movie, when I know, and can show by basic chemistry and toxicology, that the events portrayed are wrong?

Andy at the JPL
Andy Weir at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in 2015.

If you’ve followed The Dossier you may have read the article: “Artemis” by Andy Weir — Blame it on the Moon. At the time I wrote this I was concerned that “Artemis” the movie might be in the pipeline. Andy has impeccable connections in this regard after having his earlier book The Martian made into a movie, directed by one of the most celebrated directors around in Ridley Scott.

For these reasons, I shouldn’t have been surprised that a feature film adaption has been in the works since even before the book itself was published according to Wikipedia.  Since I wrote my article, I had been struggling with the thought: what is my responsibility? Do I just sit back and allow a portrayal of events that, claim to be scientifically factual, to be made into a feature movie, when I know, and can show by basic chemistry and toxicology, that the events portrayed are wrong? Furthermore, the depicted events could mislead the public if made into a feature-length movie. Being a former science academic (who still considers himself to be in the STEM education business) these things matter to me.

Pondering these matters I sent off an email to Andy Weir. To my complete surprise, I received a response within about 30 minutes: “Ah, bummer. I never checked the total amount …” he wrote. In the short time that it had taken him to reply, Andy had worked through my article and had checked the calculations, he was able to tell me that actually, it is worse than I had calculated because the domes that makeup Artemis are full spheres, half of which are buried under the surface. Using the information from Andy’s email, and allowing for the fact that part of the volume will be made up of the structural thickness of the domes, walls, floors, plant, machinery and filled storage space — say 30% of the total volume. We get the following amount of chloroform in mg/m3 (or ppmv, i.e., ppm by volume) over the whole moon city of Artemis produced from the scenario I described previously (using MathCad software by PTC).
2019-01-25_13-22-27
A moon city of 1.5 million m3 is a lot of volume for the chloroform to disperse into, especially when you consider that there is only one cylinder of chlorine and that the mechanism for producing chloroform from methane and chlorine is a 4-step chain reaction (only 1 of 4 steps produces chloroform). In addition, you get HCl vapour at each step. The important point is that for every 8 atoms of chlorine you only get 1 molecule of chloroform (plus 3 molecules of other methyl chlorides and 4 molecules of HCl) [1].   Taking all this into account gives us the following airborne concentration of chloroform produced from a reasonably-sized cylinder of compressed liquid chlorine.
2019-01-25_13-23-59
A mere 5 mg/m3, not nearly enough to produce anything like the mass anaesthesia of the lunar population, as described in the book Artemis. Since this is a major plot point, it’s likely to appear in a feature movie based upon the book as well.  I asked Andy about some minor, more realistic, plot changes. he says in his reply: “I don’t do retcon” that is, retroactive continuity. He might have misunderstood my question, I wasn’t asking about the book Artemis, but about the proposed movie. However, I expect that the final responsibility lies with the producers of that movie and not with Andy.

This other problem I have is with the plot device of writers using chloroform as a knock-out gas: it’s’ never a good idea as I pointed out in my original article. Writers always underestimate the amount of chloroform required: you would need an amount of chloroform close to the saturation point of chloroform in the air at 25 °C, about 25,000 mg/m3,  to induce anaesthesia. This is 5000-fold more than the 5 mg/m3 that could be produced in the scenario described in the book Artemis.

Putting aside the shortfall of chloroform for the moment. Imagine if an amount of 25,000 mg/mchloroform were available. In order to induce anaesthesia, this level would need to be maintained for several minutes. Then you would need to ensure that the chloroform is immediately removed or greatly reduced. The timing here is crucial, too long and the good inhabitants of the moon colony would stop breathing, collapse and die. Too little and they won’t undergo anaesthesia — but they might undergo a range of symptoms, such as feeling groggy and disoriented, perhaps enough to fall and injure themselves; or possibly, suffer cardiac arrhythmias, transient hepatic and renal toxicity and acute breathing difficulties [2]. Longer term it is a probable carcinogen. Overall, it’s not something that I would feel good about seeing promoted in a major movie.

An article called “Chloroform Among Thieves” in the medical journal The Lancet of 1865 [3] suggests, with acerbic satirical wit, that the actual mechanism involved — with highwaymen inducing anaesthesia with the barest whiff from a rag soaked in chloroform — might involve “moonbeams extracted from cucumbers.”  In other words, a very impractical kind of science that involves the suspension of belief and wishful or magical thinking, for it to work.

How do you feel about the scenario of mass anaesthesia of the population of the moon being used as a plot device? Do sci-fi writers have a responsibility to educate about science? Do they have a responsibility to promote ethical behaviour, such as not trying to use chloroform as a knock-out gas? Please write your comments below.

Andy Weir read my original article and was so casual and friendly in his email replies. He really does deserve his reputation for being one of the nicest guys around. I felt for him, so I removed some of the sharper comments from my original article. In reply he just said:

No worries about the sharp comments. All’s fair in book reviews. And I invite strong scientific criticism by claiming my books are scientifically accurate. So I bring that on myself. 🙂   Andy Weir.

Andy, you’re my Geek hero! As for getting satisfaction for the scientifically faulty plot points, I need to follow this up with the director.

_______________

[1] That doesn’t even take into account that radical chain reactions are known for producing unwanted by-products. Also, the conditions, as described, have oxygen present. Any explosion would simply combust the chloroform produced to carbon dioxide, water and HCl vapour. Though traces of highly-toxic phosgene would result as well.

[2] Chelsea Donovant, “Chloroform toxicity: What is it and why did it kill Mariah Woods?“WECT 6 News,  available online; published 25 January 2018; accessed  23 November 2018.

[3] Medical Annotations, The Lancet, 86, 2200, p 490-3; 1865. Available online accessed: 18th November 2018.


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