Thursday, December 8, 2011

Google Currents

Google Currents: This is as another cool tool from the google stable. We are used to the sequence now. Some new piece of web wizadry comes out from google and after playing with it, you bookmark it to explore in detail later and by the time you get to it, google have already depreciated it and its. gone.(body, wave, code...)
I sincerly hope this doesn't happen with currents which hit the net a couple of hours ago. This is a verry nice new thing for Christmas.I want you to go play with it now so as to ensure that we get to keep this one.
On the face of it is simply an app for android or apple platforms which gathers together online magazine and blog subscriptions into one simple tool. This underwhelming description belies its genius.
Its like walking up to a newstand where all your favorite magizines are being displayed, and someone says take a free copy.  Its hard to pin down what precisly is so cool about this except that the interface is exceptionaly well designed. Its like the magic of the iphone all over again.
Dont take my word for it, go play!
More here:

Friday, September 30, 2011

Rethinking further education!

The argument in favor of government funding of education, is that an educated population is for the general benefit of the citizenry.
The argument in favor of doing this via a loan provision rather than by direct subsidy is that this provides a handle whereby market mechanisms can dictate subject choices.
The idea of a liberal education is a worthy one, and one of relevance to me where some of my adult courses are offered to the long term unemployed via a back to education initiative. 
On this program we have been instructed that it is no longer considered appropriate to enroll post retirement individuals, as they are unlikely to re-enter the workforce.
This restriction arises because the money comes from the European Social Fund which was set up to reduce differences in prosperity and living standards across the EU and is devoted to promoting employment.
The model here is clearly two fold.
 1) Education impacts on society primarily by increasing the amount and quality of employment. This argument is suspect when you consider the high levels of education and unemployment in some of the countries involved in the Arab spring.
2) Differences in prosperity in the EU can be reduced by making Germany pay for the rest of us. This may work, but may not have been what the politicians were thinking of when they framed the legislation. 
It may be time to rethink this program as EU funding is getting tight.
it may now be the right time to give all such students a good background in the Stioc philosophy, rather than waving the chimera of "wonderful hi tech jobs waiting" in front of them.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Relativity and how we do science: Some first thoughts.

Last Friday, I heard the tail end of a news item indicating that scientists had observed particles travelling faster than light.  This refutes Einstein’s theory of special relativity, and is not the first time that one or other piece of scientific work has come out punching holes in this classic reformulation of how the universe works.  The last time I read such claims it was Al Kelly, who published something in an Irish engineering journal, and the time before that I think it was someone who had two box shaped areas deep underground in Greenland where it was predicted to fail for about three milliseconds twice a year.
As someone claiming to be a scientist, we are used to such things, and treat them with the same sense of intelligent enquiry with which we approach a stage magician. We look carefully and try to work out what the trick is.
This is part of our natural defences. Our belief in science builds in filters which allow to concentrate on the significant changes which move theory forward and filer out all the noise of magnets purifying water, anti gravity and alien visitations.
Later that morning I heard that it was scientist from CERN, and that they had seen something like 15,000 such particles.
This moves it from being a silly season story to something that needs more attention.  I now started chasing up more information, read the preprint and noted that the author list seemed to have around 100 scientists, who are operating within their field, and all of whom have a lot to lose if they have got this wrong. (Scientists are classily good at getting things wrong once they get away from their speciality, Pons and Fleischmann and Pauling on mega doses of vitamin C being examples of this.) I go back and chase up what I know of superluminal activity. Cherenkoff radiation happens when particles exceed the speed of light in a medium, Loci i.e. non material things such as the point where a rotating light beam hits a wall if far enough away from it, or the scan point of the electron beam hitting an oscilloscope screen can travel faster than the speed of light too. And there is a whole theory of faster than light particles, Tachyons, which come out of second solution set to the equations, and which can be imagined as slowing down as you add energy to them.
I’m not going to comment on the truth or otherwise of the claims. My physics is not sharp enough to punch holes in the paper as presented. What interests me is how I evaluate the claims.  My initial reaction was a time worn and healthy scientific scepticism.
When the evidence was re presented with a powerful ad hominum argument (CERN) I then go to evaluate the argument on its internal consistency by examining the paper, and look to my network of knowledge to see where this new piece of evidence fits in.
This is, I think, how most of us do science.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Starting into a new MOOC I was pleased to encounter an old friend, who I never met, now dead, Richard Feynman.

I’ve signed up for a MOOC on creativity or maybe connectionism (actually Creativity and Multicultural Communication) and one of the readings for this week was a memoir by Daniel Hill on Richard Feynman and The Connection Machine.
Richard Feynman is one of my greats.
 In this memoir we see him in what has to be his greatest role, as a communicator.  Feynman diagrams for physicists are a way of making some very complicated mathematics seem simple. This was Richards great gift: to communicate across cultural divides and explore strange areas of science, often showing the natives things they were unaware of.  In exploring other territories he sometimes found the obvious, but he also often saw things that local practitioners were to close to see, such as the reduction of risk assessments as they went up the NASA management chain in the challenger crash, where he was a key player in discovering the cause of the disaster.

I think this is probably why this reading was included, as an example of a practitioner of multicultural communication.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Education is not science!

This piece evolved from a comment on a blog piece here 

As some one moving from a background as a computational chemist into education there has been a very significant culture change.
Within science, we are used to a solution space with one of a few optimal solutions. We believe in the concept of an objective truth which can, in priciple, for the most part, be established by a series of reproducable experimental tests.
Education is different, its like art:  There is no best picture, there are a load of different pictures, some of which need a lot of theory to make them work, some of which just look good.  No picture appeals to every one, though some of them can be condemned by just about every one as being a load of crap.  And, at the high end there's a specialized group of art critics and artists who practice in little specialized bubbles where they play glass bead games with each other. 

Its not a science, and we don't have educational engineering as a specialty yet.


Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Practical aspects of the LMS

A variable should be defined in one place in a program. It should be clear to the programmer where that should be. This makes it easy to change.
Now in Blackboard, a learning management system (LMS), say I want to set a mid term.
Where should the date for that reside? In the syllabus? in the online submission system? in the course calendar? In the course modules? In an announcement? In an email sent to all participants? on a discussion board?
Now there is a good case to be made for putting it in a number of these places, and most instructors will do so.
Now the fun comes when the course is bundled up and redeployed the following year. Ideally you change the date in one place and it propagates to all the target documents, but in practice.... dream on.  These are issues which have been tackled in Computer Science. they are solved problems, but in LMS world we seem to be back at the point where RPGIII and Cobol ruled the world. Typically you have to track through your course and find every place where you placed a date and change it.  This is fine until some student comes up and tells you that the missed the midterm because the date was wrong, and can show you one that you missed.

What I’d like would be a scheduler which would allow me to roll back the course to the start each time I present it, and then present me with a calendar of proposed changes, based on how I built the course last time, and allow me to customize these changes as they go in.
It doesn’t give me a unique point for inputting the mid term date, but it would prompt me with each of the places I inputted it the first time.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Make her play computer games!

This post arose from an online discussion on the gender difference's in mental abilities, and its potential impact on online learning tools. I am arguing for a cultural explanation, but am faced with  this article citing fMRI evidence for the existence of sex based difference's.

Disclaimer: In reading this article I am trying not to let my predisposition not to believe in hardwired gender difference's get in the way of the facts.
Looking at Sarah L. Levin's article (2005), the link above, which is, to my mind, a nice piece of exploratory work, but no more than that. We have data for twelve subjects, We have twelve further subjects whose data was not included because of technical difficulties experienced with data collection software, and we have a further 6 subjects removed from the data because they gave the wrong answers.

In part 2 of the experiment the number of valid data sets came down to 11. So its a nice suggestive pilot study, but hardly conclusive.
We next (in the quick and dirty department) hit Google Scholar and look at the articles citing this one.
I come across this:
Which is "Explaining Map reading performance"
Authors: Lloyd, Robert Earl; Bunch, Rick L.
This one is interesting because it says that the observed differences are are best explained by gender not sex differences, which is, to my mind, culture, not biology.
Where else is the research going? Well the next exhibit from the list of documents citing this research is this:
Again abstract only, but it seems as if this research may be used to support a test for choosing Naval Aviators.

The next reference was cool:
This paper is Looking at the spatial task and musical thinking and looking for ability correlations.  It claims there is something there, but the stats are weak. At best R values of around 0.3, and a key phrase, which I love "approaching significance".
Abandoning Levin, I cut to the chase and search for "mental rotation cultural differences" in Google scholar.
I find this abstract:
Canada, Germany and Japan.

No work on culture in the abstract, but we find that Academic Program that the students are enrolled in is now a significant variable.
Finally a last abstract:
The Journal of Genetic Psychology
  Issue:  Volume 163, Number 3 / September 2002
  Pages:  272 - 282
  URL:  Linking Options
  DOI:  10.1080/00221320209598683
Improving Children's Mental Rotation Accuracy With Computer Game Playing

Richard De Lisi A1 and Jennifer L. Wolford A1
The title says it all.  Take a bunch of kids,24 boys 23 girls, Test them, The girls are not as good at mental rotation.
Make them play computer games involving mental rotation, test again and the difference goes away.
Educational conclusion. Ask your students if they play computer games and if they don't sign them up for an appropriate class.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The third explosion.

It seems cautious optimism may have been out of order. Reactor 2 just had an explosion described as being significantly larger than the other two, this suggests that it was a steam explosion within the containment vessel.  They have been having problems with the pressure relief valves on this plant, and such an explosion would be consistent with this.  Early reports suggest that there is some dispersion of radioactive material across the site as a result.

This raises the possibility that the site becomes not merely unsafe, but unworkable.  Not a pleasant thought with a significant number of other reactors in need of supervision, as well as fuel storage pools requiring cooling etc.

There may be some very significant technical challenges ahead.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Thoughts on Fukushima, 14th Mar.

Comments on “Why I am not worried about Japan’s nuclear reactors”

re-blogged at

This very well written account of the possible causes and consequences of the nuclear accidents in Japan at fukushima has stormed to the top of Google search and has already garnered over 220,000 readers. The author is not a nuclear engineer, although he is clearly quite familiar with the technology involved and seems to have a very pragmatic approach to the risks involved.

The arguments and reassurances put forward are based in general on sound science, and do not need the backing of an appropriately qualified authority to back them up. The science is straight forward and is in general un-contentious.

There are a number of points in the account which I would like to comment on.

1) Fukushima reactor 1 does not have a core catcher assembly. This issue has come up in the comments to the post and means that if the core did melt the result would be less controlled than as described in the post. Having said that, this scenario seems unlikely as the core is cooling and is being moderated effectively by boron containing seawater.

2) It has been reported that radioactive Iodine and Caesium are contained in the released products. This is worrying as it may imply that the cladding on some of the fuel elements has been breached. Radioactive Iodine is taken up by the thyroid gland and can lead to cancer of the thyroid. Prompt Administration of Iodine to the affected population is an effective preventative measure at the levels which one would expect given current information. I don’t know about the health consequences of Caesium.

3) Some of the terminology used in the article is not standard. Thus as described in the article there are four levels of containment. It is more normal to describe the “stainless steel kettle” with its concrete surround as the primary containment.

Events have moved on, and we have seen what appears to be a further hydrogen explosion in Fukushima 3. Fukushima 3 is a later version of the same boiling water design and this version seems to have a “suppression pool” underneath the main reactor vessel.

My conclusion is be cautiously optimistic. The picture changes if it turns out that either of the reactors is leaking cooling water, or if significant amounts of the core becomes exposed and heat up in either reactor. One issue which has not been discussed extensively is the status of any spent or irradiated fuel which may be stored on site. Issues surround this have to potential to cause more widespread site contamination, jeopardising continuing operation of the other reactors present.

Selected references:

A trailmeme with some more technical documents is here

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Through a glass darkly metrics and modalities

Metrics for blogging.

Any form of measurement for which there is a preferred outcome creates distortions, whether its school completions, or listings of the best performing schools in terms of students proceeding to college or any other thing. For the two school based metrics mentioned above: in one case we retain students when their time might be better spent elsewhere, in the other case we teach to the interview or teach to the test depending on the college entry requirements in the country concerned. This distorts the system and moves us away from a well rounded education appropriate for the entire educational cohort concerned.

It’s the same in the blog-o-sphere. The search for traffic whether the numbers are important for cash or self esteem reasons distorts the medium.

Distortion is not all bad, the classic Haiku or the sonnet are literary forms where a very constricted format leads to great art.

Stephen Downes in this post describes  describes many of the tricks Bloggers use to drive traffic to their sites. He is deeply critical. giving out that the result is neither deep, well aruged or authentic. These are all good points, but may misrepresent how many of us use blogs.
Often we are not looking for a long and deeply intellectual discourse which will leave us pondering for the rest of the day, we are looking for the short “edu bite”, fast food for thinkers on the run trying to clear the in-stack on their Google reader page.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

A standard VLE for Ireland?

We are at an interesting point in Irish education, where many secondary schools are moving their school systems towards VLE’s or content management systems.
Why do I use both terms, when these are clearly very different pieces of computer kit?
It’s how they are used. I’m listening to discussions in various teaching fora on the web, looking on as a parent, and for my sins trying to teach. And through all these channels I see many very different views of what computers have to do in the classroom.
At one end we have the apple tribe, with students making Imovies, engaging with apps and hitting each other over the head with ipads when they’re not texting on their iphones.
Its creative, anarchic and probably reflects a true vision of the future with these students lounging around as adults listening to their ipods and sending updates to their e-friends on facebook 2.3.
At the other end I see SCORM compliant transpositions of our traditional teaching modes “Listen to it, learn it, pass the exam and forget it”, where the computer turns into a vertically mounted examination paper with a slightly stricter method of enforcing the “Times up! Stop writing now" imperative moment.

The problem with making a national VLE recommendation as I see it is this.
We need a VLE where a class can have a discussion, where they can write a newspaper. Where they can collaborate on a movie. Where they can write a class blog, sit an exam or play serious games. We need somewhere where teachers can do everything from just putting up the homework for the class, to running a virtual classroom for housebound students whom they have never met in person.

Many teachers will be in the just put up the homework camp.  They have been teaching their course for many years, are good at it and it works. These are the easy people to satisfy.  The problem is with the rest. Moodler’s and Sakai’s BB’rs Frogs and angels. Together with the vast array of teachers who have found tools like Voki and Voice thread, Youtube an Vimeo. Trailmeme or eTwinning. 
For these there may be only one real VLE, and its called the world wide web.

This piece was written after reading a truly excellent post on the history of the VLE which is linked from this blog page by Ray Tolley:

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

From the Irish Times:Free online course materials will revolutionise third-level education

This is a reaction to the above article by Brian Mooney writing in the Irish times today, the First of February 2011. In the article he extolled the virtues of MIT opencourseware.
MIT is great, and I love the open course ware initiative, but its only one small shelf in a very big open-source learning bookstore! Have you looked at whats available through ItunesU? This has all of the MIT stuff + Berkley +Harvard, +....hundreds of universities, and Museums and other such.  Its a great resource for the learner.
Here is another source of such materials, this came up on the CESI list in response to the Irish times article: 
The second interesting trend is the emergence of degree replacements such as "Microsoft Certified", where it doesn't matter where you get the learning, once you sit the exams and pass, you get the piece of paper.  In this way we see the learning and the certification being de-coupled with the later being given the imprimatur of an internationally accepted (albeit commercial) standard.
City and Guilds in London used to do something like this, and The university of London also had a very early distance education program with a good reputation.  This is a field where we will see more players entering in the near future.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Are we Scholars or Teachers?

I have just finished reading this interesting piece
written by Robert Martn and Andrew Gillen in "Inside higher Ed"
They raise the point that there is no efficient market for excellent teachers, rather there is an efficient market for scholars of higher education. Thus rather than training people to teach effectively, we train them to be effective scholars in the field of education.
This is not unique to education, and comes from the inbuilt reflexive bias in higher ed, whereby course givers are by and large working for academic institutions.
The article also identifies another source of this bias which is that in the hiring process employers have the external publishing record of the lecturer/researcher to go on, and that the reference mechanism is in many markets broke. (An excellent reference may indicate an employer’s unwillingness to be sued, or their enthusiasm for getting rid of the individual in question, rather than a deep-seated conviction that this is an individual of truly above average ability!)
When I think of the coursework in the course I am now pursuing, I find that much of it is aimed fairly and squarely at scholarly research, which is very valid considering that that is going to be a significant hiring criteria. It does however beg the question has this emphasis on scholarship led to less time being spent on delivering material pertinent to the development and delivery of content to students, which may be what teaching is about.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The semantic Web

This is in response to a discussion in #LAK11
The semantic web is an umbrella term for an initiative to make the web richer by attempting to tag large data collections with tags conveying their meanings and knowledge content.  In some sense I see it as being an outgrowth of the AI community's effort to encode knowledge into semantic maps.
I think its a wonderful project, but perhaps a little too ambitious, and I'll tell you why. Humans love to re-purpose things in unexpected ways, and I cant see a set of tags which would be broad enough to encompass all possible uses, yet retain enough specificity to be useful. As an example:
Once upon a time there was an astronomer who was looking at galaxies, and after two years of looking at galaxies everyday they asked for help:
and currently
Whats interesting in all of this is that:
1) These are collections of big data which still need many thousands of people to generate knowledge, and
2) A specific tool for a specific task, (deciding whether galaxies were spirals or not) is now looking for space junk on the moon, examining solar storms, and reading old ships logs to find out about global warming.
This is a very human thing to do, other examples, a website set up for selling Pez dispensers turned into Ebay, and a piece of software set up to help an academic keep track of references, turned into Google.
This is human.
At our best we look above and beyond.
 The second problem is the one alluded to in the old joke about the British and the Americans being two nations divided by a common language.
As a chemist I once studied a set of small molecules each containing 4 atoms.
I was talking to another computational chemist and they recommended a particular piece of software as being good for small molecules.
I tried it, and it failed.
When I met them again, I asked about it. It turned out that they were doing computational biochemistry, and small for them was around 10,000 or so atoms big. 
Even in very closely related fields terms can have very different meanings.
My 2c.
Laurence Cuffe

Monday, January 10, 2011

Meta Analysis

Great claims have been made for Meta analysis. The principle seems sound, that by combining the results of numerous smaller studies you can generate results which are both more authoritative and more general than any of the individual papers which go to make up the study. 
Professor John Hattie is a practitioner (
I remain to be convinced by Hattie's Meta analysis. For me its a purely numeric argument. I assume that for a study to make a valid contribution to a meta analysis, the author of the Meta analysis must have read the paper. 

Hattie's meta analysis is claimed to be  a synthesis of 50,000 previous studies (This number varies in some papers on his website its as high as 180,000). If the original papers were used that would be reading 50 papers a week for about twenty years.
However Hattie does not claim to have read these studies, but to have read a much smaller number of studies summarizing previous work.  At this point one has to ask how it was possible to ensure that the literature used as input in those studies was distinct, i.e. that each of those studies did not include many of the same papers.
If you cant do this then determining just how many studies contributed to the eventual conclusion becomes problematic.

Just to make this reservation clear, I would like to state that this comment is based on over 100,000 research studies, because it is based on at least two reviews of Hattie's work, each of which were based on his work, which included the results of over 50,000....

Much of what Hattie  says is very sensible, in particular his argument that as educationalist we must move away from "it works for me"(Hattie, 1999) and take a more objective approach to educational research and model building. Statistics can be one approach to such a project. However showing that two factors are correlated is a very long way from showing that there is a causal relationship between them, and its hard to see how Hatties approach of combining Meta analysis can drill down deeply enough into the nuts and bolts of what goes on  in a classroom environment to provide us with reliable information as to what will work for us.
my 2c.
Hattie 1999

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Game Based learning

This very brief article on game based learning highlights a game called the healing blade, where the lord of pestilence is pitted against the apothecary. This is a card based game for teaching medical students what does and what does not work in fighting infectious disease.  The take home of this is that Game based learning does not necessarily involve computers, and the second take home is that profits from the game are used to support a pediatric charity.
This takes me back to “life and death 2” which was a video game in the eighties based on learning how to do brain surgery. I’ve played the game, but I’m not sure that I’m equipped with the skills needed for the task.  However in this case its not me but thee subject matter which is likely to query my competence once I detail the source of my online training.
Now: Anyone for a game of Hangman?