Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Tuesday, February 17: Teens, computers, "weed", and mad science

When teens go bad: Just when you thought our country couldn't get any more like Ricki Lake, here comes boot camp! The government has announced changes in the youth justice system, which will lead to youth offenders on their 'last chance' attending a military-style course where, according to the pictures I have seen, they will pick up heavy poles, carry them for a while, and put them down again. Presumably, weapons training will be left out of the syllabus. Now, as I see it, there are two different sorts of objection one might have here: a) it's wrong to force young people to do this, and b) it won't work. The first one doesn't really wash with me. Although, I suppose, I wish it weren't necessary to take kids when they should be at school and socialising normally and make them carry poles around, the reality is that that is a false dilemma. If it's a choice between sending them to a youth prison and a reasonably progressive (by which I mean something less like Full Metal Jacket and more like Police Academy) boot camp, then surely the latter is an improvement.

Whether it works - by which I assume we mean stopping recidivism - is another question. A sidebar column mentions a similar project in Counties-Manukau that claims a 58 percent reduction in total offending from graduates, but Labour warns that boot camps have "previously been found to have a 92 percent reoffending rate", so who really knows. But again, imprisoning kids is hardly known for reducing recidivism, so maybe it's worth a shot. On a lighter note, Labour also warn that boot camps will merely produce "better, faster criminals". Well, if the footage I have seen so far is anything to go by, they will certainly be better and faster at carrying poles - possibly a future boon for the construction industry.

Computers in schools: I've always been slightly suspicious of the use of computers in schools. I imagine this is largely because, as far as I can remember, I have never learned anything at school on a computer. Classes where computers were used were more of an excuse for playing games (Oregon Trail! I still can't believe that they thought we would learn anything other than how to play Oregon Trail) or watching videos (caesium exploding in water, over and over again). Nonetheless, the principal of Blockhouse Bay primary school is claiming that increased access to computers is the reason behind a significant drop in truancy. I don't have any access to figures, so I can't really dispute that finding - although one could always wonder what the causal relationships really are. In some sense it is clearly better that kids are in class, even if they are not really learning anything, rather than roaming the streets. But I'm not exactly delighted if getting kids to school is our foremost goal, after which we engage in a hearty round of backslapping and go back to playing Minesweeper and watching Youtube.

Adding insult to insult: The stakes have been raised over the funding of the drug policy conference by the Open Society Institute (see yesterday's post) - Patrick Gower, political reporter, has decided to take on international drug kingpin George Soros. To be fair, he is only taking up a rather ridiculous remark from PM John Key, who has "now learnt of his [Soros's] desire to have everyone smoking weed", but whether this throwaway remark justifies the headline, "'Weed' advocate can sponsor drug event" is questionable. Whether the OSI is actually advocating mandatory marijuana smoking for all, or whether it is pointing out the tremendous economic and social costs involved in pursuing the 'war on drugs' is a question Mr Gower does not care to investigate. Then again, when the prime minister doesn't care, why should he, am I right? It's not like journalists have a critical role to play in questioning the political class. Perhaps I can take some heart from the fact that, this time, Gower's article is stuck down in 'Goff corner', hemmed in fittingly by a large ad for that addictive and harmful, but legal (and delicious), drug, alcohol.

Mad science: If you haven't been keeping up with your peer-reviewed scientific journals, you may not have heard of the field of geo-engineering - basically, massive engineering projects that alter the way the planet's processes function. The primary objective at the moment seems to be halting or, at least, minimising the effect of climate change, a worthy goal in anyone's book. Some of the projects geo-engineers have suggested include:
  • wrapping Greenland in a giant blanket to slow melting ice
  • mixing seawater with "huge, wave-powered pumps" to help absorb carbon dioxide
  • placing a giant sun shield in space to reduce the strength of the sun's rays (an idea originally devised by Mr Burns)
  • an "orbital power plant"
Naturally, science types have a massive hard-on for such ideas. But some pessimists are worried that these crazy, untested ideas are 'crazy' and 'untested'. Frankly, most of mankind's fiddling with ecosystems hasn't worked that well; are we really sure we know what will happen if we start churning up the world's oceans like a giant spa pool? I honestly wouldn't be surprised if one day we discovered 'Oops, all the fish have died of sea-sickness.' Sorry for being a negative Nelly,
but I'm concerned that schemes directly modelled on ideas of a mad scientist aren't the best approach - not least because they don't exactly encourage us to change the habits that got us into this mess in the first place.

The secret of happiness: From the 'Massey University study' casefiles, a study (actually in Britain) has 'discovered', following a survey of 154 students, that people who spend money on 'experiences' are happier than people who spend money on 'things'. Yes, it sounds bogus, but what I found interesting was that the newspaper (originally the Telegraph) seemingly tried to verify this by contacting celebrities, an approach that dovetails nicely with that of the Herald. Michael Palin loves sitting in a cafe. Well, I guess that's an experience - although surely the coffee is a 'thing'. Feminist-turned-Celebrity Big Brother-contestant Germaine Greer has also revealed "the secret of [her] contentment" - her dishwasher. Also a thing, although apparently it allows her more time "to do enjoyable things" - which are experiences, not things. Richard Branson also likes a thing - a moleskin notebook and ballpoint pen - although we might be sceptical that the secret of his contentment is in fact his notebook and not his collection of luxury homes and bevy of beautiful women. Although, seeing women aren't things, they clearly count as experiences as well. All in all, then, this article was definitely not a waste of anyone's time. Including, thanks to me, yours.

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