The People's Republic of the LHoC Blog

Thank you Mr Jobs

There aren't too many people who get into a position where they can change the world, and most of the ones who arrive at that point manage to stuff things up, usually because they end up listening to the conventional wisdom as the nay-sayers start gathering around, pointing out what's not actually possible and making helpful suggestions about ways things could be done better.

Whatever other character quirks and personal foibles Steve Jobs may have had, paying attention to the conventional wisdom wasn't one of them.

Over the past week there have been enough column inches filled to make another narrative approach unnecessary, and, in any case, this particular Apple fan boy would rather reflect on Mr Jobs' iconoclastic approach than run through another chronology of achievements.

With the Apple II among the vanguard of the wave of personal computers that appeared on the market in the early eighties you'd have thought the way to go was to conform to emerging industry standards. After all, no one was sure what these things were going to be able to do, so collaboration would have to be better than competition, and you'd want to keep the programmers on side.

Computer programming was, after all, a pretty sophisticated skill back then in the days of the command line interface.

Since I've been on board the personal computer bandwagon for the best part of thirty years I can remember the command line interface. If you weren't around at the time, trust me.

It might have worked, but it wasn't easy to use and definitely wasn't pretty.

Steve Jobs, sighting an alternative in the Rank Xerox laboratory at Palo Alto, went that way, and while the first point and click graphic user interface on the $9,995 Apple Lisa didn't set the world on fire it definitely sounded interesting. I wish I'd kept those magazines to point to the articles...

While Lisa wasn't the actual breakthrough, the first Macintosh was, and from the earliest days of the Mac era there were plenty of conventional wisdom nay-sayers out there trying to convince the public that it wouldn't work.

It's a toy. If you want to get some real work done, you need a PC. That sort of bullshit.

What was undeniable from the start was that there was a substantial section of the market that liked the interface and wanted things to work that way. Jobs was pushed off the board at Apple when the conventional wisdom started taking over (we're talking early days, after all) and for a while there it looked like Apple was on the way out.

Things were, in fact, so serious that Jobs returned to the fold in a sort of welcome back, Steve, everything is forgiven. That involved a buyout of his NeXt project and recognition that he'd need to devote some time to looking after his interests at Pixar.

Things started to change with the iMac, though the conventional wisdom suggested a computer without a floppy disk drive was doomed to failure.

Fifteen years later you'd be flat out finding a program that would fit on a floppy disk. 

Actually, you'd be flat out finding software that'll fit on a single CD-ROM...

The iMac bounce, however, was only the first of the iQuartet that ended up putting Apple in the dominant market position the company enjoys today, and it'd be fascinating to find out how far back some of the foresight went.

Take, for instance, the decision to buy out an existing MP3 program, that was relaunched as iTunes. It was out there, and people were ripping their CD collections onto computer hard drives well before the iPod appeared, and when it duly arrived on the market sniffy comments about the majority of music on people's iPods being stolen was probably true, at least up to a point.

There certainly wasn't an easy avenue to buy content for the iPod at the time, and I can't help thinking part of the negotiating strategy as the iTunes Music Store was set up involved reminding unconvinced record company executives that here was a way to make people pay for some of the content they were consuming.

The iMac to iPod/iTunes nexus pointed out another area where Apple was running against the stream. You needed, in the conventional wisdom, to adhere to industry standards that could be run across platforms coming from a number of different manufacturers.

Well, they would say that, wouldn't they? Those voices you were hearing were the voices of people who wanted things to run on their industry standard platforms.

From iPod to iPhone wasn't, when you look back on it, anything major in the quantum leap department, and neither was the step from iPhone to iPad. Each was a logical extension of existing technology delivered on a tightly controlled platform where there weren't major issues with compatibility.

Yes, you could go somewhere else, get something cheaper, maybe even find something that looked nearly as good, but when it came to getting the different bits and prices to play nicely together...

Now, there's been a bit of discussion in various sections of the interweb as to whether wwhat Jobs and Apple have delivered us amounts to a revolution, with subsequent sidetracks into whether this was A Good Thing, but from where I'm sitting the response to those questions is fairly clear.

Revolution? Certainly.

The last twenty years have created a completely new avenue of instantaneous communication and while the process of change is nowhere near complete already we're looking at a telecommunications landscape that's very different from what we had twenty years ago.

Admittedly, we're possibly looking at the sort of landscape that might have happened anyway, but I'd question whether you'd have anything like the interwebs as we know them in a command line environment.

While Jobs and Apple didn't invent the point and click graphic user environment, they saw it and spotted where it might lead.

There's also a strong argument that suggests that we wouldn't be where we are today without a little piece of software called Hypercard, which delivered content with hyperlinks in much the same manner as we click our way through websites today.

Hypercard may not have been the first the first hypermedia application, but it was bundled with all new Macs sold after 1987 until Mr Jobs withdrew support for the program, a move that created a number of very pissed off users at the time.

I had a largish Hypercard project that was nowhere near complete and had absorbed a lot of time and effort which was, effectively, wasted, but I'm convinced that what I learned in the process was valuable once I started playing around with my website and blogs etc.

The decision to kill Hypercard, along with the lack of a floppy drive on the iMac and the impending demise of MobileMe are all examples of the way some of us have been taken, in many cases yelling and screaming in the direction that these dudes had planned. At the time these things seemed like major upsets, but I suspect that they got jettisoned because they'd only slow down progress in the predetermined direction.

Now, you might have reservations about the changes, but you have to admit that they happened. You might not need then right now, but they're there if you want them. MobileMe might be going, and I'm not surec what that means for my old website, but I'll have a gander at the iCloud while I'm looking at the options. It may well be a case of the free blogging environment handling much of that content, so why do you need a website?

As to the question of whether all of this has been A Good Thing, it depends on where you're at, doesn't it?

I spend a good twelve hours a day hunkered down in the Command Bunker, interacting with iMac, iPad and various print materials with an accompanying soundtrack delivered by iTunes drawn from slightly less than thirty thousand tracks that represent the vast bulk of the commercial CD releases I've bought over twenty-plus years.

Yes, it's not the same as having the album's gatefold sleeve there, or being able to read the CD booklet, but then again when I buy something through iTunes there's often the equivalent of the booklet in the digitally-delivered bundle, and, in any case, how much time do you spend reading liner notes while you're working?

Reading a book on your iPad (or, for that matter, a Kindle or equivalent e-reader) isn't the same as reading a hard copy, but when was the last time you took your bookshelves with you when you went on holiday?

And since when (talking the iPad here) were you able to use your bookshelf as a motel room sound system, a photo album and GPS-enabled satnav device?

As for the Good Thing or Bad Thing question, I guess it all comes down to Dominance versus Delivery.

You can look at price, compatibility issues, and every other charge that's been levelled at Jobs and his acolytes over the years, and agree that, yes, they've been at least a little excessive in most departments and there are serious issues in some areas.

On the other hand I spent just under twenty dollars on a hard copy of Ry Cooder's book of Los Angeles Stories just over a month ago. I just hopped over to the seller's website to check in and got a Los Angeles Stories has been delayed. Our staff are currently checking this with the supplier and will update your order within the next 24-48 hours.

And, yes, while it's not lurking among the books in the iTunes Store, there it is over at Amazon's Kindle shop for $9.99, immediate digital delivery. Should've looked there first, shouldn't I?

No, your mileage may, and quite possibly will, vary but some of us owe Steve Jobs a lot.

Thanks, Steve...

A Plague On Both Their Houses

Given the fact that Hughesy's ruminations tend to become lengthy, rambling and unfocussed I try to refrain from political content, but after three days where the current federal election has diverted my thoughts from other, more positive matters, the chance to vent might expunge those thoughts from the mindset and we can pursue other directions as July rolls into August.

Frankly, I find it difficult to describe my despair and disillusionment at the way political discourse in this country has been hijacked. Hunter s. Thompson wrote about Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail. 

Fear and loathing doesn't begin to describe it.

It's hard to describe which prospect holds the greater horror. A Coalition victory and an Abbott government would be bad enough, but even if the current government is returned the margin's hardly likely to be sufficient to dislodge the current leadership group in the Coalition, and the prospect of three more years of Mr Abbott just saying No is almost as devastating as the thought of the man assuming the reins of power and deciding that this historic turnaround is justification for grandstanding on issues that really need considered and thoughtful dialogue.

Political discourse in this country needs to be about policy and ideas rather than negativity and electoral bribery.

There's a largish chunk of the Australian electorate that voted the way they did and maintained Mr Rudd's incredible run of positive polling because they thought they were voting for somebody who would actually do something.

Preferably, something along the lines he'd spruiked on the campaign trail.

So if I seem to be negative about Mr Abbott, don't get me started on Kevin Rudd. Electoral defeat by a Green candidate after a swing large enough to lose his deposit wouldn't even begin to even up the ledger of disillusion.

Actually, looking at these things after a very deep breath, it's obvious that there's no prospect of anything approaching meaningful change on the horizon. 

There are any number of matters where there are very obvious issues that need to be addressed and most of them end up running into obstacles in the form of an Australian Constitution that needs significant revision, which is only possible through the Referendum process, so you'd hardly expect the current situation to produce anything meaningful in the way of bipartisan support for a referendum question about the Murray-Darling system, for example.

Health, urban infrastructure, education, regional planning, public transport, the list of areas that need careful and considered attention just goes on and on, and that's without mentioning the continuing disastrous mess that constitutes Indigenous policy.

All those issues have significant constitutional implications, yet as soon as someone raises the question of a review of a document that was cobbled together over a century ago to get through a referendum what response will we more than likely get from Mr Abbott and his cohorts?

Constitutional change? Oh, you mean the Republic. We had a vote on that a while back. Your mob lost. Get over it.

It's a pity one can't use the same argument against those who'd propound it

Teaching Australian History

An article in last weekend’s Weekend Australian Magazine has revealed (Shock!) (Horror!) tAustralian high school students find Australian history boring.

Yea, verily. Shock and, indeed, horror....

Mind you Australian history was boring in my school days, and has probably been boring over most of the period between the late fifties and the early noughties, though the reasons have probably varied at different points in time.

On my way through school, Australian history was comprised largely of the First Fleet, valiant British explorers, Federation and the Anzacs for a bit of patriotic excitement.

When I got to Teachers’ College, my brief exposure to something called Social Studies Method introduced me to the concept of the spiral curriculum which was, at the time, the very latest trend in up to date pedagogy.

In this curriculum model, students studies the same strands at a very basic level in the early years, and then revisited the strand repeatedly. In 1975 Bruner, one of the chief advocates of the concept described it as a:

“...metaphoric spiral in which at some simple level a set of ideas or operations were introduced in a rather intuitive way and, once mastered in that spirit, were then revisited and reconstrued in a more formal or operational way, then being connected with other knowledge, the mastery at this stage then being carried one step higher to a new level of formal or operational rigour and to a broader level of abstraction and comprehensiveness.”

Which is all very well in theory, but in practice, when the Social Studies syllabus for Year Five indicated it was time to turn our attention to Australia’s indigenous inhabitants, the introductory activity was frequently met with Aborigines again? But we did them last year. And the year before...

Those cries weren’t helped by the fact that the school’s library resources at the time meant that the kids were looking at the same books year after year.

Point #1: If you want to maintain student interest, you need to present new resources each time they revisit a topic.

In the thirty years since I heard those comments, we’ve seen changes in syllabus design from the old prescriptive model, through the source book era into the integrated unit phase.

When I started teaching, we had a Social Studies syllabus that had, if I recall correctly, basic units with standardised content - except at the start of Year Five where you kicked off  with a Local Study where the content varied from place to place, though there was a fairly prescriptive structure and strong indications of the sort of content that was appropriate.

Over time, that metamorphosed into the Source book approach where each unit had a number of ready made activities for teachers to choose from, along with the possibility of individual teachers creating their own activities should they feel so inclined.

From there Social Studies disappeared into something called Studies of Society and the Environment which was to be taught through integrated units with content drawn from a variety of disciplines.

Some time in the middle eighties I encountered the statement that Nothing matters very much and very few things matter at all which I felt was a reasonably sane approach to the slings and arrows of life’s outrageous fortunes.

Unfortunately, during the nineties, there seemed to be a strong push to apply a perfectly reasonable attitude to life’s misfortunes as a model of curriculum development. I’d like a dollar for every time I’ve heard comments suggesting that we since we don’t know which facts kids will need in later life we don’t need to teach them any facts at all.

Point #2: If you’re going to teach Australian History, or any other content, the overall approach as well as actual content of the subject needs careful consideration.

That, of course, lands us smack bang in the middle of what have been termed the History Wars and here the Weekend Australian Magazine has further Shock! Horror! content.

Quite simply, it seems students are equally turned off by content influenced by so-called Black Armband historians and the study of topics favoured by their ideological opposites. Now I don’t find this particularly surprising. There’s a pile of ideological baggage that needs to be discarded while the actual content of a course in Australian History is being considered.

I wouldn’t deny for a moment that I’d fit, more or less, on the Black Armband side of the fence. That’s hardly surprising given the academic environment that I found myself in during the early seventies.

1971 was my second year of Teachers’ College, and I was also studying at James Cook, majoring in History. The previous year I’d tried combining the two and had scraped through. I liked History and I needed to work smarter.

Fortunately, the Teachers’ College second year History subject was Australian History, and JCU had a second year Honours subject called Problems In Australian History. Equally fortunately, I found that I was down for the College subject in second semester.

The JCU subject was a weekly seminar to discuss a particular issue in Australian History, with participants producing a couple of papers each until the while twenty-something topics had been covered. It wasn’t, in other words, a narrative approach. Unsurprisingly the College version of the same subject had weekly seminars covering more or less the same topics, though the expectations were nowhere near as high. So, in effect, I was going to be studying the same content, more or less, in each course.

Prior to the start of the academic year I bought a couple of general histories of Australia, including one by Russel Ward which started, if I recall correctly, with the statement that the settlement of Australia was more or less peaceful.

Half way through the year the supervision of the JCU subject changed. Jean Farnfield, a lovely old Englishwoman whose husband had been one of the Few in the Battle of Britain was replaced by Henry Reynolds. 

Significantly, at the same time the marks I was getting for my seminar papers went up by about fifteen percent without any significant difference in my approach or the amount of effort expended, which suggests that I was, more or less, operating in friendly academic territory.

Over the next few years Henry Reynolds went on to become one of the leading authorities on frontier violence and other related issues. For a while I was involved in researching some of the same areas.

If you asked me today why that happened, I’d have to reply that I was appalled by the discovery of these extremely unsavoury parts of my country’s history, and I wanted to know, to paraphrase the title of one of Henry’s books why we weren’t told about all this.

Prior to the early seventies we were peddled the furphy that, barring the aforementioned First Fleet, valiant British explorers, Federation and the Anzacs Australia didn’t really have anything much in the way of history and if we were interested in the subject, we’d be better off heading overseas where they had something more exciting.

Any attempt to limit the Australian History curriculum to First Fleet, valiant British explorers, Federation and the Anzacs is likely to generate a Black Armband backlash down the track.

When ex-PM John Howard was spruiking the importance of kids studying Australian history I couldn’t help feeling certain aspects of the subject were going to be swept back under the carpet.

Point #3: If you’re going to teach Australian History, you’ve got to teach all of it. Not just the bits that you like or are comfortable with (see comments about curriculum changes above). And if you’re wondering about the preceding comments about Hughesy’s academic background, they’re there to point out that I have, at some point in the distant past, studied the subject in some detail, and if some of the following content sounds like something Mr Howard would have liked, I’m actually coming from the other side of what has, at times, been a yawning ideological divide.

So what should be in the Australian History curriculum if we’re going to address the view that the subject is boring?

First up, there should be formal standardised assessment. Every time a kids turns around and points out that this subject or this bit of this subject is boring the presence of a test on the horizon permits the response Yeah, I know, but you need to pass the exam and I know they’re going to be asking you something about this.

Second, there should be dates. Like it or not, history has a sequential element to it and getting things in order can be important. In the test, students should be expected to correlate significant events and dates and to place events in the correct chronological sequence.

Third, there should be people. If you’re looking the subject as our national story there are characters you can’t leave out and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect kids to be able to identify the significant players on the national stage and to indicate some awareness of why they’re important.

Fourth, there should be conflict. One of the kids quoted in the Weekend Australian Magazine lamented our lack of a civil war. There are plenty of themes running right through Australia’s national story that can be discussed in terms of a clash of interests...

Aboriginal Australia v the environment

European explorers v the environment (which also raises the issue of why one group of people did so well in an environment where others starved)

“Exclusives” (would-be aristocrats) v “Emancipists” (ex-convicts)

“Stirling” (British born) v “Currency (locally born)

Squatters v Selectors

Employers v Unionists

That’s half a dozen off the top of my head, without going into the Conscription referenda or the White Australia policy.

Fifth, there should be plenty of Why. If it looks like I’m hung up on things like dates and people, I’d counter that being able to place events in chronological sequence and being able to identify important personalities are very helpful if you’re looking at explaining why things turned out as they did. And in the test, students should be expected to supply the generally accepted explanation for some events as well as their own opinions about others.

Sixth, there should be extensive use of primary sources (official documents, newspaper reports, diaries, letters) throughout the curriculum, and these items should not be endlessly repeated as kids travel through their school years. The need to generate this content might, by the way, provide an impetus for preserving archival material that would otherwise be lost.

But surely, Hughesy, I hear you suggest, the presence of assessment would mean that teachers would teach to the test?

Yes. Certainly. They would. 

If you were to start from a defined set of themes and content and the test asked a variety of different types of questions the authorities would be able to deliver a detailed list of what would be covered in the test and, if you were a conscientious teacher you’d have to cover ALL the content - otherwise your students aren’t going to pass.

And the content?

Over the course of twelve years of formal schooling, kids should end up with a working knowledge of the history and development of their local area and their state and of the major themes that run through Australian history. That’s it.

And if they move from place to place? 

Within the same state, that wouldn’t mean a change in anything beyond the local details, which would include details like the traditional owners, the reason why the settlement was established, significant early settlers (whose identities are often preserved in street and locality names) and important events over the years. Given the fact that it wouldn’t be anything more than an overview, it shouldn’t be too hard for a kid to “swot up on” and complete a short multiple choice test.

So that’s my blueprint for the Australian History revolution. 

Boring? Doesn’t have to be. 

If you tell the whole story, there should be enough good bits in there to intrigue any student, regardless of where their interests lie.

And for the other bits. Easy, Yes. I know. Actually, I agree. But there’s this test you need to pass, so let’s get on with it.

© Ian L Hughes 2021