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Too much spin at the spinoff


I try to bring some facts to a very poor post at a site that I typically very much enjoy reading and supporting.

I very strongly believe that nearly all teachers have the best interests of students at heart, and that the same is true for nearly all employees of the Ministry of Education. I also believe that the various Ministers of Education are, at minimum, not opposed to improving outcomes for students.

To the detriment of our children, these groups cannot get along. All of them have made poor decisions in the past, and none of them seem able to get past it. It’s far past time for this to be remedied, so that everyone is able to agreeably work together to improve education in New Zealand. Teachers need to realise that the Ministry isn’t always out to get them, and the Ministry needs to realise that teachers have much to contribute to guiding how education is shaped.

Communication is particularly a problem. When honestly examined, much of what is presented by teacher unions is propaganda, often filled with misunderstanding, half-truths, and paranoia. On the other side, the Ministry’s messaging is so bad that many people believe that this is deliberately so – to distract from some dastardly plan. Personally, I think that Hanlon’s razor applies.

(It’s ironic that Communities of Learning are designed to encourage collaboration between schools, when nearly all schools were already engaged in such collaboration, and it’s collaboration between the policy section of the Ministry and schools that is lacking).

First, some things that this post is not about, to get them out of the way:

It’s incredibly difficult to run a school on the funding that they get from the Ministry; schools are extremely dependant on donations (both time and money) from parents and other fundraising, and doing more than the bare minimum is nearly impossible relying solely on a school’s operations grant.

I do believe that there are improvements that could be made in how the funding that is available is distributed. I don’t pretend to know what the answers are.

There are seven (3 main, 4 supplementary) proposed changes to how education is funded, and the “global budget” is only one of those (and only a supplementary one). I do have concerns about some of the others, and it’s not entirely clear what the impact of them all will be. The Ministry is also pushing a very large amount of change in a very short period of time, which I don’t think is ever wise.

A rough guide to how teaching staffing currently works in NZ (for state, non-Partnership, schools)

Each school is allocated an amount of staffing, based on a formula that’s mostly to do with the number of students expected to be attending the school as of July 1st, which is expressed in full-time teacher equivalents (FTTEs).

Schools are permitted to “bank” staffing. This allows flexibility in when during the year the staffing entitlement is used – for example, if you have an entitlement of 5.5 full-time staff, you could have 5 full-time staff and one half-time staff member for the whole year, or 5 full-time staff for half the year, and 6 full-time staff for the other half.

Schools may also elect to not employ as many (equivalent full time) staff as they are entitled to, and get a refund of actual cash, or (far more commonly) employ more staff than they are entitled to, and pay for those staff from their other funds. There are limits around how much can be “banked”, and you may only overuse or underuse by 10% of your entitlement in a year.

In the school’s accounts, there’s a total amount of money that was spent on the teaching staff (for example, this was $358,570 at Ahuroa School in 2015), and a grant of exactly the same amount of money from the Ministry. Although this shows in the accounts, the school never actually comes into contact with this money, other than with staffing over or under use. For banked staffing, if you have underused you are paid out at $54,500 per FTTE, but if you have overused, you need to pay back at $68,500 per FTTE (2016 rates).

For example, if you’ve been allocated 3.9 staff members, but you decide to top that up to 4.0, then you’ll need to pay from your other funds $6,850. If you’ve been allocated 4.1 staff members, and you only employ 4.0, then you’ll be given $5,450 in additional operational funding.

Schools have no control over how much any teacher is paid, and, for the most part, it makes no difference to a school how much their teachers are paid. You can have all your staff at the top of the pay scale and you consume the same number of FTTE as a school whose staff are all at the bottom of the pay scale.

Where this gets particularly complicated is that Boards can decide (subject to various conditions) to employ staff directly from their operational funding. When this is done, the school still has no control over how much the staff member is paid, but pays the real cost of that staff member’s employment.

The lowest pay for a full-time primary teacher is currently $47,039 per year, and the highest (other than ‘units’ and other additional payments) is $74,460.

Going back to the example where you were entitled to 3.9 FTTE and employed 4.0 – if you have a teacher at the bottom of the pay scale, and employ them (for 0.1 of their time) from your operations grant, this will cost you $4,703 (plus various other incidental costs).

This is around $2,000 less than if you simply overused your staffing entitlement, so all around the country principals employ this technique – as long as you have staff that earn less than approximately $68,500 (which is quite high on the pay scale) you pay them via the operations funding (it makes no difference to the teacher) and balance your staffing entitlement to zero.

If you don’t have any staff earning less than that then you can overuse your staffing (up to the 10% limit) and pay less than you would need to otherwise.

This is all rather complicated (and it doesn’t even go into paying for other types of staff, casual staff, units, holiday pay, study grants, or anything else like that). One of the reasons that Novopay was such a mess was that the system is overly complex.

The “global budget” proposal in reality

The intention is to simplify the system, so that instead of having staff paid from both a staffing entitlement and from operational funding, there’s a single staffing credit system.

Schools would be allocated a number of staffing credits each year. There’s no more or less money available, and the formula for credits would be (other than changes from the other 6 proposals) essentially the same formula as for FTTE.

A staffing credit would be valued at the national average teacher salary. For example, if the average was $70,000, then rather than 3.9 FTTE, the school would receive $273,000 in staffing credits. It’s important to note that it’s irrelevant what the teachers at the school are paid – only the national average matters.

Schools would still never touch any of this money. When teachers are paid, schools would be charged at a rate equal to the national average teacher salary. So if your school employed 3.9 equivalent full-time staff, then the school would be charged $273,000.

You can see that this balances in exactly the same way that FTTE does. From the Ministry’s point of view, the amount of money that they are paying stays exactly the same. They also don’t care whether any individual school has low-paid teachers or high-paid teachers, because it’s only the national average that makes any difference.

If all the high-paid teachers in the country were replaced with low-paid teachers, that would save the Ministry money (and make no difference to the cost to any individual school), but there’s an admirable separation (both now and in the proposed system) between the people that decide to hire someone and the organisation that bears the cost of that decision.

A “banking” system would still be available, so that you can spread your staffing credit usage throughout the year. There would still be limits on how many credits can be banked, and how much of your credits could be turned into cash if not used for employing teachers. You could “purchase” additional credits to employ extra teachers, just as you can overuse your staffing entitlement or employ staff from the operational funding.

There are two key differences:

  1. Support staff get incorporated into the same staffing credits system. Schools still determine what these staff are paid, and would “purchase” enough staffing credits to cover whatever is required.
  2. The complex system where all the principals share with each other the trick about making sure you have the right staff paid by the operational funding and by your staffing entitlement goes away. This is cleaner, but will cost most schools a small amount more, because most schools overuse rather than underuse, and most schools have enough teachers earning less than the national average that they can currently save through this loophole.

Realistically, the Ministry could decide at any time to close this loophole by just adjusting the rules around banked staffing. The Ministry could also decide to improve the funding proposal by charging instead at a much lower rate, to encourage employing more teachers (just as they currently discourage underuse of the staffing entitlement by refunding at a low rate).

In the existing system, you’re able to employ the most “expensive” teachers you want, and as long as you have enough “cheap” teachers to cover your employment beyond the staffing entitlement, you “win”. In the new system, you’d be able to employ the most “expensive” teachers you want, without needing to have those “cheap” teachers as a balance. However, this does come at some additional cost.

(For what it’s worth, all the principals I have worked with believe that there are benefits to employing teachers at all positions along the pay scale).

Theoretically, a school could employ many support staff instead of teaching staff, but it’s likely that there would be limits around this (just as there are with everything else).

ERO are still going to be reviewing that schools are using their staffing entitlement appropriately, principals (and their management teams) are still going to be the ones deciding how the staffing entitlement is used, and boards (who have a majority of members elected by parents) will still be monitoring and approving what management does in terms of staffing.

There’s a reason that this is only a supplementary proposal, and not one of the main ones. It changes very little. It’s basically just intended to clean things up.

A rebuttal of the spinoff article

Firstly, this is not bulk funding, and the Ministry is very explicit about that. The fundamental aspects of bulk funding are that it matters how much each of your teachers are paid and that if you employ fewer teachers you have money available that you can spend elsewhere. Neither of those are true under the proposal “global budget” system – you are funded and charged at a national average regardless of the true cost of employing the staff member, and you cannot simply convert your staffing credit into operational grant funds (other than in the limited way that you can already with FTTE).

Eden says that the proposal will result in fewer teachers (and therefore larger class sizes and everything that goes with that). There is no evidence to support this. The same amount of funding will be provided for staffing and schools cannot simply take the cash instead.

There is evidence that counters this. Right now, schools can choose to understaff by 10% and use that additional money for whatever other purposes they wish. Almost no-one regularly does this (you can ask if you want current numbers), and in reality boards are doing exactly the opposite.

Eden says that there will be fewer teacher aide hours. Teacher aides are (generally) not paid from the staffing entitlement, but from operational funding (typically provided by grants from various organisations). The global budget proposal contains no suggestions that the funding amount for teacher aides would change in any way (other proposals could result in changes). The amount spent on teacher aides would not be impacted by this proposal in any way.

Eden claims that it would likely mean untrained teachers in the classroom, because they would be cheaper. Firstly, schools cannot employ untrained teachers – there are strict regulations about teacher registration, and there are requirements for beginning teachers to demonstrate not only that they are trained but are qualified and meet all of the expected standards. Assuming that she is disparaging trained, qualified, beginning teachers instead, this is also untrue. There is no benefit to a school to employ a beginning (‘cheap’) teacher over an experienced (‘expensive’) teacher, because the school pays the same for them either way, just as they do now. The opposite is actually possible, because the need to have ‘cheap’ teachers to use for paying for staffing overuse will be removed.

The section “So what is the Ministry of Education’s proposal” is flatly wrong. So is the idea that there are “caps to class sizes” (staffing is based on a class size that the Ministry believes is appropriate, but it’s up to each individual school to decide how the staffing is actually utilised).

There will be no decision about whether to pay for power (which is funded separately and adequately in the heat, light, and water component of the operations grant) or a teacher. Her points around property funding changes are to do with one of the other funding proposals (supporting #2), not the global budget. Changing the decile system is also an entirely different proposal (core #2). The rest of the post then devolves into a rant about how education is insufficiently funded, which is true, but nothing to do with the global budget proposal, since that does not change the amount of money available in any way.

It’s great to discuss how we can improve education in New Zealand, including how funding works. But let’s do it with carefully researched facts, not something that you’ve half-heard in a union meeting.

My background: I taught in the tertiary education section for a while, my father was a teacher, my mother and sister are teachers, and many other family members are teachers or work in some sort of education role. I have been on the Board of Trustees at Ahuroa School for around 7 years, as chair for around half that time (including currently). The facts above are sourced either from publicly available information directly from the Ministry, or directly from the Ministry staff that are overseeing the funding review, at one of the workshops that was held in July 2016.

This post is not a statement from Ahuroa School; please contact if you would like to have one that is.

Ahuroa School BoT Candidate Statement

For the third time (once in a by-election, the previous triennial election, and now), I’m standing for the Board of Trustees at Ahuroa School.  For anyone that’s interested, here’s my statement:

My son, Samuel (Year 5), and I have lived on the Puhoi/Ahuroa border for a year now, but have been members of the school community since 2011. I’m self-employed and work from home, doing software management, design, and development (in security and organisational management).

I’ve been a board member since February 2012, was associate chair in 2013, and have been chair since February 2014. I enjoy learning and have completed multiple board professional development sessions every year since joining the board, and have endeavoured to continually build relationships with board members at other schools.

Much of my life has focused on education in some way: my parents, grandparents, sister, and various other family members are or were teachers and I’ve spent over a decade teaching, primarily at Massey University, Lifeway College, and Northtec.

I strongly believe that a passion for learning is the most important gift that a school can give to a student. We also have a duty to make sure that the basics of learning are covered, and that students know how to learn, and understand their learning.

There is immense value in all of the contributions that parents/community members make to the school, and serving as a board member is where I feel my skill-set is most useful. I believe I’m well placed to provide continuity and guidance to the incoming board.

The next year is critical for Ahuroa School – we’re due for extensive community consultation again and a thorough review of the school charter, ensuring that we have a common vision for the school going forward. We also need to figure out what the community wants for Year 7 and 8 students, and whether that’s at Ahuroa School. We’ve got a great principal that’s now familiar with the school and community, and the board needs to support her and the rest of the staff in implementing the vision that we create.

If you’d like to know anything else, feel free to email me (, find me on Facebook ( or Twitter (, or find me at school (I’m usually at whānau time).

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Copyright of IP created by school employees

The June issue (paywalled, also looks awful online for some reason) of STA News (the NZSTA periodical) included an article “Collaborative Copyright”, regarding the ownership of intellectual property created by teachers and other school employees.  This topic has been getting a lot of attention (on Twitter, anyway) for a while now.

To be clear, I’m a big fan of Creative Commons (and have released things I’ve created under CC licenses for a decade now), of collaboration, and of giving education employees control over intellectual property that they create.  In 2012, not long after I joined the Board at Ahuroa School, I made sure that the board considered this issue, and suggested Creative Commons licenses as one possible way forward (the board decided to go with another option I suggested, of gifting the property to the staff in exchange for a permanent license to use it).

However, there are parts of the article that bug me.  The worst part is in “setting the scene”:

Under New Zealand law, like many other countries, anything that is created by an employee in the course of their work for their employer is regarded as belonging to the employer. This makes absolute sense in the context where, for example, the employee is producing biscuits or cereal at a factory – the factory and its output logically belong to the person or company.

It all makes rather less sense though when the work being done is “knowledge work” that depends on the employee’s own personal skills and experience to create something unique or to provide professional services – like an inventor, a painter, a professional sportsperson, a surgeon or lawyer or teacher.

I am one of these “knowledge workers”, and employ others, providing professional services (software development, design, management, research).  Just because I’m not producing a biscuit that you can eat, doesn’t mean that my employer should be required to give me ownership of what they pay me to make.  The same applies to these other jobs – if a sportsperson develops some sort of innovative gameplay, then the employer is just as entitled to the product of their paid work as of the surgeon that develops a new technique or the software that I write.

It’s great to share – e.g. I contribute work as open-source projects when I can, and encourage people that pay me to produce work to do the same.  However, that choice belongs to the person that is paying for the work to be done, not the person who does the work.  The biscuit isn’t owned by the employer just because they provided the raw ingredients, but because they provided (by paying for it) the labour it took to make it.  If you take away all the ingredients except for the labour, that doesn’t mean that the ownership should suddenly transfer.

I realise that there are people who disagree with this, and have fairly extreme views about all knowledge being free.  However, I don’t believe that NZSTA are fairly representing boards by espousing that view.

There are much better reasons for intellectual property that is created by school employees to be ‘naturally’ something that should be shared.  In particular:

  • Although the board is the employer, the vast majority of employees are funded via the government (a few will be funded via some other source of income that a board has, but I’ll ignore that for now).  The government’s money comes from (approximately) the people of the country, and so it’s reasonable to expect that anything that the government produces should be available at reasonable cost to the people of the country.  For example, this is the same argument that says that government-funded research findings should be freely available.  I absolutely agree with this, and it is a convincing argument for making teacher output freely available.
  • Most of what these employees are making is incidental to their primary work, educating our children.  I am specifically employed to create intellectual property; teachers are not.  A painter is specifically employed to create intellectual property – a sportsperson possibly not.  I don’t think that being incidental is a compelling argument for sharing on its own, but it adds weight to an argument.
  • The majority of the intellectual property that these employees are making is of low or no monetary value (which is not to say that it is worthless).  Those blog posts, tweets, and Facebook posts that teachers are writing are most likely not going to be a source of income for the school.  The worksheets, assignment outlines, and plot summaries are fairly unlikely to generate any income either.  If you can share something at no cost to yourself, then that’s also a compelling argument to do it.

If you are going to try and convince someone to make a positive change, then it works much better if you start from a balanced, accurate, position.

Note that these are my views, not necessarily those of Ahuroa School.  IANAL.

More pitching (

The elevator pitch discussion died down, but I’ve been thinking about this over the last few weeks.  As I noted earlier, I’m not a great pitcher, but perhaps I can get something good enough together that others can then work on.

DVD extras meets user generated content.

I like the idea of starting the pitch with a mashup of something that the pitchee is likely to be familar with (harking back to Donaldson’s thought that all good ideas come from the collision of two separate ideas).  In addition, “user generated content” is fairly buzzword-y, which I generally dislike, but is probably appropriate for a pitch.  I’m referring only to the best DVD extras, of course, but I think that is implied (also the best of user generated content), and “Book extras” if there was such a thing, as well.

Imagine if you could set the questions on the DVD extras for your favourite TV show or movie – or if you had extras for your favourite book.  You get answers about whathow and why things happened both in-universe, and in reality, from people who are intimately familiar with not just that one work, but the entire science fiction and fantasy genres – people that can pull together expert and interesting answers about how this work relates to other genre fiction and to the world. They’ll even explain what stories you should move to next if you loved particular aspects of this one.

This doesn’t include story identification – but the pitch doesn’t need to include every topic, and it doesn’t fit with the “DVD extras” analogy.  It hits some marks that I think are particularly important:

  • It’s not just about focusing in on one universe – it’s about having knowledge across the entire genre/genres.
  • It’s about the in-universe world, but also about how the fiction impacts reality.
  • It punches the question words “what”, “how”, and “why” (“who” is probably better answered by IMDB, “where” probably by Wikipedia, and “which” could cover too many things).  This emphases (subtlety) that this is a Q&A site (as does “answers” later on), but also what sort of questions are most appropriate: especially “why”.
  • DVD extras are generally narrated by experts (cast, crew, authors).  The site isn’t necessarily going to have the foremost expert (e.g. the author) for every question, but it is about getting expert opinion.

It does include recommendations (although I try to make it clear that they need to be very specific).  My opinion follows the original meta discussion: as long as they are specific enough to invite good (subjective) answers, then they’re ok.  Actually, they’re not just ok, but the type of question that users will really love the site for.  I’m sure many people will add books to their reading lists by reading interesting, detailed, answers on the site – not just these ones, but certainly including them.

Figuring FAQ (

The community (or more accurately, the community) is still trying to figure out what’s on-topic, even though it doesn’t appear that the meta consensus directly influences the actual reality of the site.

When I last left the search for an elevator pitch, I wondered whether the FAQs of the other (launched) sites would be a fertile ground for inspiration. So, here goes – this is the same list of sites as last time:

Web apps is fairly straightforward (although they interestingly single out “adult content” sites as off-topic).  Gaming is nice and short, with an all-inclusive policy (with two exceptions: recommendations and shopping).  Ubuntu’s FAQ barely says anything about what’s ok – I guess the implication is that anything related to Ubuntu is on-topic.  Webmasters is similarly short, with no exclusions.  Game development has a brief list of sub-topics that are considered acceptable, and an explanation of how to choose between StackOverflow and that site.

The three that I think do the best job (in terms of something that can emulate) are photography, cooking, and mathematics.

Photography is an interesting case – they link to a few meta discussions, and they have some off-topic examples that seem obvious (programming, website development, graphic design) but must have caused problems at some point.

Cooking reads very nicely – there are clear examples of what’s on-topic, and some examples of what’s not on topic.  There’s a link to questions tagged “faq” on meta ( has used “on-topic-discussion” for the same purposes I think).

Mathematics doesn’t just have on-topic and off-topic suggestions, but also suggestions for topics that are on-topic but might get better answers elsewhere.  I think this is a great addition.  The off-topic examples are quite limited, but it’s probably quite obvious what’s ok on the site.

Does this help with figuring things out for  Not as much as I hoped.  The results of the ‘on topic – off-topic’ meta-meta discussion can probably be turned into the on/off topic bullet points that are common; we should try and include a link to an appropriate meta tag as well, and links to other sites (like for some examples would be great too.

    Pitching (

    There are currently 15 StackExchange sites that have launched (i.e. made it past beta), excluding the original trilogy. The “elevator pitch” questions on their meta sites are:

    I hoped to find some inspiration for the elevator pitch by examining these successful sites.  Unfortunately (or perhaps not?) the majority of these questions focus on “taglines” rather than pitches – i.e. single sentences or sentence fragments that would take under a second to “pitch” (perhaps elevators are much faster in the US! – the blog post does say single-sentence).

    It seems like this is mostly because of the history of StackExchange around this time – a decision was made to change from unique domains for each site (e.g. to generic subdomains of (e.g. with unique branding.  As a result, the focus is typically on the branding – and in some cases is filled with complaints about that decision (maths, for some reason, has a bunch of answers concerned about commercialisation of the site in their elevator pitch question).

    So Apple, Unix/Linux, CS-theory, English, TeX/LaTeX, photography, game development, webmasters, Ubuntu, and web applications aren’t really of any inspirational use.  There are some short pitches at, but not very many.

    I’m guessing that another reason that the pitches are so short is that it’s more clear what the site is.  If you’re familiar with StackOverflow, then it seems reasonably obvious what is.  This isn’t always the case – for example, is only for professionals? (No).

    So my hunt must continue. In the meantime, interest in this question on has died down a little – which is probably bad, not good.  I’m thinking now that the best way to get this resolved is to indeed answer it myself (but community wiki, so that others can improve and especially shorten!), with perhaps one sentence and one paragraph versions.

    Perhaps the FAQ’s of the launched sites will be more inspiring – that’s where I’m heading next (I’m also reading through several of the other meta sites, so that might also offer some illumination).

    Dealing with recommendations (

    One of the problems that faces that isn’t unique to that site is “recommendation” questions. These are a specific type of list question (which are generally ill-suited to the sites), where each answer offers one possible recommendation, and the votes cast are not just “that’s a good answer” or “that’s a bad answer”, but votes for (and less often, against) a suggestion. StackOverflow has a long history of problems with these sorts of questions (e.g. “favourite programming cartoon” and “great programming quotes“).  With few exceptions, these questions are closed, often not before they gather huge numbers of votes, answers, and answer votes.

    I don’t really see a huge problem with these questions myself – if they are “community wiki” then they aren’t just a way to gather huge amounts of reputation, the voting has merit (if something is popular, it is likely for a reason), and the format does fit (unlike discussions, for example).  I can understand that a specific site might choose to disallow them (e.g. StackOverflow), but others (e.g. could allow them.  I don’t think that having the majority (or even just a non-small percentage) of a site’s questions be ones of this type would do much for the quality, but in moderation they seem ok.

    I doubt this would ever be allowed by the powers that be at StackExchange, but I think the following would be a great system for

    • Once a month a new question is opened that asks what this month’s recommendation (or perhaps more generally, poll) question should be.  People make suggestions and up/down vote the ideas that they like (yes, a poll about a poll – however, poll questions seem to be acceptable on meta sites).
    • One a month, the most popular answer of the previous month’s meta question is created (e.g. by a moderator, ensuring that the question is community wiki).

    I think this strikes a great middle-ground.  These types of questions are generally incredibly popular, and that would help get people coming to the site (something that needs, but others, e.g. StackOverflow, do not, since it’s already at near saturation).  Since there would only be one of these each month (others would be close-voted, with comments pointing to the relevant meta discussion) they wouldn’t dominate the site (even one a week would presumably be only noise compared to the number of other questions).  Many more users would find themselves interacting with the meta site – hopefully some of these would explore more than just the one question they came for, and end up participating in community building, support, moderation, and so forth – perhaps these users would otherwise not have ever visited the meta site.

    Other arguments against these types of questions tend to be: they age badly (this could still be true, but hopefully the pre-asking meta stage would assist with that, and there’s always down-votes), they provoke discussion (discussion answers/comments can be flagged, discussion in chat is a good thing), and they don’t provide interesting answers (I totally disagree – especially in the context of a Q&A site dedicated to fiction).

    The Internet was built by sci-fi fans ( progress report) has been in beta for a couple of weeks now, and has gone through quite a few struggles.  Although I’ve been a StackOverflow user since the very early days (2 years, 4 months now), this is my first experience with a StackExchange site in the beta stage – it’s possible that all of the sites have these troubles, although it does seem like they are particular to a topic like “science fiction” more than more concrete topics like mathematics, cooking, or theoretical computer science.

    Most of the issues boil down to two: how should the moderators interact with the site, and exactly what is on-topic.

    In an effort to save the site from its community, the (SE employee) moderators have chosen to take a very hard line.  Rather than let the community police itself, they’ve decided that it’s better to act as quickly as possible to remove any questions that aren’t suitable (in their opinion) and hope that if there’s any disagreement that it will be take up on meta.  This policy does appear to be working, so perhaps that’s enough validation.  In my opinion, letting the community close the bad questions would be better in the long term (and only slightly slower in the short), and the moderators’ time would be better spent educating the community leaders in the meta site.  Hopefully, this will become less of an issue as the more major question of what’s on topic is answered, and pro tem moderators are elected from the community.

    I’m not sure exactly how much of the graduation of a site from definition to commitment to beta in the Area51 system is automated.  It’s possible that no human was involved in the progress.  I think if there was, that would help – the majority of the example “on topic” questions for the site are, in fact, deemed off topic, and it seems likely (given their comments) that the StackExchange staff would have been able to point that out before the site opened.  Perhaps the 5 “on topic” examples for each site could be examined when “commitment” is reached, and if the StackExchange staff can see questions that just won’t be acceptable in the StackExchange model, the proposal can be bounced back into definition (with an explanation).

    The much more pressing issue is to decide what’s on topic for the site.  There seem to be some clear-cut decisions: questions about writing are out, questions that could be answered by a basic check of IMDB are out.  There are many more that are unclear.  There’s a meta question asking to define the “elevator pitch” for the site, which will help a lot.  Unfortunately, the answer that’s voted highest at present isn’t one that I think would make an interesting site (and it’s certainly not one that I’d be interested in spending much time on).  There’s another answer that’s much closed to a good site – I think one of the main weaknesses of that answer is that it’s not “pitchy” enough.  I’ve considered having a go at a pitch myself, but the pitch has to be concise (by definition), and conciseness isn’t a strength of mine, which means that even if I got the topics right, it wouldn’t be a good pitch.

    What I’m hoping to see become involves these sorts of questions:

    Story identification. These have gone through a rough ride: one of the (SE employee) moderators mistakenly thought that these were outright-banned, when in fact they are merely held to a higher standard than average questions.  This lead to a lot of confusion that was only resolved in the last couple of days.  It’s clear now that the community can choose to allow them (again, assuming they are well asked), although it’s not clear whether everyone agrees that they should be.  I think they will form an invaluable and essential part of the site.  Reading the questions and the answers is an excellent way to find new material (without opening up poll/recommendation questions), and is the way to entice new users into the site/community.  Once these questions are indexed, identifying the material will be simple via a search engine, as well.

    “Trivia”. The problem is that it’s hard to define “trivia”; literally it’s something of small importance – this is of course, extremely subjective (the majority of StackExchange questions are probably of small importance to most people – that’s what addressing the long tail is all about).  Questions that only allow for uninteresting answers clearly aren’t of value (although uninteresting is again subjective).  The voting system provides a good mechanism of determining this – especially combined with reputation and tags.  A good metric is that good answers are generally long answers.  I do think it’s possible to have something that some people would call “trivia”, but be long and interesting.

    Answers found elsewhere: one of the reasons that StackOverflow was such a success was that there was a huge vacuum that it filled.  This isn’t so much the case with a science fiction Q&A site (although hopefully there is some vacuum).  Practically every Science Fiction TV show, movie, or popular book series has some sort of wiki site dedicated to it, usually filled with encyclopedic quantities of information about everything to do with that series.  For those few that don’t have their own site – and those that do – there’s Wikipedia entries on everything as well.  The Internet was built by scifi fans – this shouldn’t be a surprise.  I hope that the eventual consensus is that there’s no way to draw a line here, and questions have to be judged on their own merit.  If you can figure out the answer to your question with a single Google search and skimming a wiki page, then there’s no real value duplicating that content.  If you have to read through a lot of wiki pages, or they’re really hard to find, or if you need more conjecture or opinion than a wiki page allows, then that should be ok.  I would like to see these questions left alone, and (e.g.) if they get go below -1 votes, then vote to close.

    Something in the source material: related to the previous, obviously. Here you can’t find the answer online (or at least it’s very difficult to), but if you had the source material (the book, the TV episode, the movie), then you’d be able to figure it out.  I think these are borderline, too.  What if the book is out of print (or otherwise rare), or the TV episode isn’t available on DVD (or purchasable online)?  Not everyone keeps everything that they watch/read.  I think that makes it too hard to create a blanket rule about this sort of question.  If the question’s not good, then it’ll get voted down (e.g. if anyone that has every read the book would easily remember and could explain in a sentence).  If it is good, then it’ll get voted up.

    Real world: questions that relate sci-fi to the real world are interesting, but to be useful I think they need to be very specific, otherwise it’ll just degenerate into discussion/argument.

    Sci-fi for dummies: not what I’d call it on the site, but face it – sometimes the science in the science fiction is complex (especially in ‘hard’ sci-fi).  Getting a bit of help figuring a plot point or allusion out seems like a great use of the site.

    Industry information: questions about writing are apparently out (go ask on  However, there’s still industry specific questions that could be useful – although it’ll be hard to ask a truly interesting question (e.g. “how do I contact author X” is answerable by a single link to a website generally, and “what convention is good” is considered bad form on StackExchange sites).  I haven’t seen any questions like this yet, but I suspect they will turn up eventually, and perhaps be rare gems.

    I think a good elevator pitch would start with: a place for fans of all science fiction, not just one series, to help each other out, with … Perhaps I’ll manage to figure out the rest of that and submit it as an answer in the next few days.

    The Science Fiction StackExchange site came out of private beta today.  It’s not the first proposal that I committed to that has made it to beta (that was Card/Board games), I’ve found it more interesting (so far) – Card/Board games has so far focused on a lot of games that I have no interest in (and I’m not so interested or have enough time to ask a lot of questions myself).

    Awesome looking stuff.  Go buy some :)

    The current state of scifi.stackexchange is a little worrying – as might be expected, there are a lot of list/opinion/subjective/discussion questions, which aren’t really a good fit for a SE site.  A lot of questions are “community wiki”, which reflects this, and that means that reputation is hard to come by for many users.  It seems like there might already be a lot of ‘definitive’ factbook-type sites for many of the major scifi stories (e.g. wookiepedia for Star Wars), and there’s little point just duplicating that information (even Wikipedia has a lot of data, presumably because of a sci-fi bias among many of the editors).

    However, there does seem to be a lot of potential for the “long tail” type of questions that SE is designed to address.  There’s certainly a lot of lesser-known scifi novels/TV shows that don’t have a lot of information about them online.  It looks like “identify this book” type questions will be acceptable as well, which definitely seems like it would be valuable (even when coming from a Google search).  Overall, I’m hopeful – so go check it out!

    I’m still waiting for the Parenting StackExchange site to reach the beta phase.  It might end up being a huge mess of subjective opinion, but it might also end up being a truly valuable resource.  If you’re interested, commit!

    Sleep Cycle Alarms for Two

    My body clock works well – I almost always wake up each morning on time, feeling refreshed and well rested.  I only use an alarm when there’s something I absolutely can’t be late for, and even then I set the time to be the last possible moment because I’ll always wake up before it goes off [1].

    If this was also true for Olyvia, there would be no problem.  If I wake up before her, she doesn’t wake up – I quietly spend 30 minutes or so going over email, news, FaceBook, Twitter, work, etc in bed, and even if I get up before her it’s unlikely to wake her up.  Unfortunately, Olyvia does not wake up well naturally, and so she does use an alarm whenever she needs to get up at a particular time (which is often at the moment).

    Recently, she has started using an iOS app to wake her (with an alarm) at the ideal point in her sleep cycle (i.e. the app is helping her do what I do naturally).  She says that this works extremely well for her.  Unfortunately, I believe it does work, because it’s waking me up too and I feel terrible (I’m clearly not in the right state to be waking up).

    It seems a significant flaw in these sorts of applications – whenever you wake up the user, it’s quite likely to be a poor time to wake up whoever they are sleeping with (unless there’s some sort of odd synchronising of sleep cycles that I am unaware of).

    However, this seems easy to solve (and if anyone can take this idea and implement it, please do so – free! – so that I can sleep well again).  iOS provides simple-to-use APIs for communicating with other local iOS devices.  I, like many people, have many iOS devices lying around.  If you can solve the “when to wake” problem given a fixed point and a sleep state, it seems likely that solving the problem given two sleep states (presumably overlapping somewhat at times) and a fixed point cannot be too difficult (probably less optimal, but better two near-winners than a winner and a loser).

    This would be simple to use – you set the alarm to coordinate with another local device, and when it is ready to wake you up, it confirms with that device first.  They negotiate the ideal time given the two sleepers, and the alarms go off simultaneously (I’d set my alarm to silent since I don’t need it).  They can communicate with Bluetooth or WiFi, whichever is less likely to fry my brain by having it under the pillow.