Paul Little at large
Paul Little is a Herald on Sunday columnist

Paul Little: Knee jerk somewhat needless


I've been trying to feel personally demeaned by the allegedly scandalous libel of my country and its dealings with the US hostages in Iran in 1979 as described in the film Argo. But I just can't seem to muster the necessary umbrage.

One of the few things most people know about dramatised versions of real events is that they mess with facts to get their story told. It's been that way since Shakespeare screwed Richard III.

Events shown in Argo depart from reality in many ways - the six hostages, for instance, never objected to posing as film-makers; there was no tension-filled visit to a bazaar; no questioning at the airport; no car chase on the runway.

With public expressions of dismay and demands for an apology from senior politicians, we're acting not like a grown-up country but like North Korea looking for an excuse to drop the big one.

Our behaviour in Tehran in 1979 was nobler than that described during roughly three seconds of a two-hour love letter to the CIA, but our reaction in 2013 will merely confirm another widespread belief about us: that we are naive and desperate for the world's approval.

It's hard to recall a more dismal record than that of Education Minister Hekia Parata. So when she was quoted as saying that just possibly it wouldn't be a very bad idea if she were to consider maybe looking into doing something to improve the ability of primary school children to perform basic arithmetic, the sound of knees jerking echoed across the land.

The subject came up because we did badly in an international test. International rankings on educational matters need always to be taken with a large dose of scepticism.

That any maths is learned at all is miraculous - it's among the least popular compulsory subjects with all students. The rarefied mysteries of trigonometry, algebra and calculus soon sort the architects and engineers from most of us.

Unlike most of the maths syllabus, though, mental arithmetic continues to be useful for the rest of your life. It will let you calculate distances and times using road signs and a watch; work out how to hang a picture so that it is level; calculate a tip at 12.5 per cent before deciding not to leave one; gauge at which point to turn down the temperature on roast pork for optimum crackling. And so on.

Many of the traditional subjects seem to be there because, well, you've got to teach the little buggers something. So let's teach them something for which they will thank us forever.

Exciting news from the cutting edge of entrepreneurialism this week: we're going to Mars. The plan is not to put a man on Mars but to send a married couple on a round trip around the red planet. Initial funding is coming from Dennis Tito, a rocket scientist-turned-investment adviser.

"This is very symbolic and we need it to represent humanity with a man and a woman," said a mission spokesman, explaining why the lucky couple will be a married pair.

It's not clear to whom they will be representing humanity - Mars and the space between it and us being uninhabited - but the married members of the world's 1.3 billion Han Chinese must be pretty excited.

Obviously, if we want to send two people most representative of our planet's inhabitants, we will be picking them from the largest single ethnic group.

- Herald on Sunday

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