O'Really?

January 20, 2015

What is effective teaching? The willing definition via Grant Campbell

teaching large classes

Teaching Large Classes: Discussion. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA image via Giulia Forsythe on Flickr @giuliaforsythe

(This post is part of a series about the New Academics Program (NAP), I’ll be using this blog to scribble notes about the NAP as I work my way through it.)

Ask ten different people what effective teaching is and you’ll get ten different answers. Here’s a handy definition (let’s call it the willing definition for now) from Grant Campbell, currently Professor of Chemical Engineering at the University of Huddersfield. The original source may possibly be from elsewhere. [1]

 “Effective teaching is inclining people to learn willingly what they would otherwise be disinclined to learn.”

So according to this definition, good teachers make you learn things you wouldn’t normally be interested in, or as campbell puts it Teaching easy interesting stuff is easy. Teaching difficult dull stuff is more of a challenge.

Is this definition useful?

This is an unusual definition, but is teaching easy interesting stuff always easy to do? Probably not. It’s also not always obvious to teachers (or students) how hard or easy things are going to be to learn. Appearances can be deceptive.

Imagine trying to teach somebody something they didn’t want to know or poorly understood. Like the Physicist Akram Khan @ProfAkramKhan, who has been trying to teach the novelist Will Self about Particle Physics, that’s hard (especially with a deliberately difficult student like Self) but the results are entertaining. Most students in higher education are considerably more willing than Self, and more motivated to work their way through the inevitable dull hard stuff that comes with every subject, so IMHO, effective teaching is about both the dull and the exciting.

References

  1. Diane Salter (2013) Cases on Quality Teaching Practices in Higher Education ISBN-13: 978-1466636613

December 22, 2014

Makey Christmas and a Hacky New Year!

Christmas lectures by Ben Nuttall

Christmas lectures 2014 by @Ben_Nuttall

Our homes are full of technology that we typically take for granted and understand little. Your average smartphone or tablet, for example, is a “black box”, that deliberately discourages modification by tinkering and hacking. This Christmas, Danielle George takes three technologies we routinely take for granted – the light bulb, the telephone and the motor – and shows you how to hack your home as part of the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures broadcast on BBC Four.

Lecture 1/3 The Light Bulb Moment: First broadcast Monday 29th December

Inspired by Geordie inventor Joseph Swan, Danielle attempts to play a computer game on the windows of a skyscraper using hundreds of light bulbs. Along the way, Danielle will show the next generation how to hack, adapt and transform the technologies found in the home to have fun and make a difference to the world.

This year’s Royal Institution Christmas Lectures have been inspired by the great inventors and the thousands of people playing with technology at their kitchen tables or tinkering in their garden sheds. When Joseph Swan demonstrated the first working light bulb in 1878 he could never have dreamed that in 2014 we’d be surrounded by super-bright LED screens and lights that could be controlled using mobile phones.

In this lecture, Danielle explains how these technologies work and show how they can be adapted to help you realise your own light bulb moments. She shows how to send wireless messages using a barbecue, control a firework display with your laptop and use a torch to browse the internet. (via richannel.org/the-light-bulb-moment)

Lecture 2/3 Making Contact: First broadcast Tuesday 30th December

Inspired by Alexander Graham Bell, Danielle attempts to beam a special guest into the theatre via hologram using the technology found in a mobile phone. Along the way, Danielle shows the next generation how to hack, adapt and transform the electronics found in the home to have fun and make a difference to the world.

This year’s Royal Institution Christmas Lectures have been inspired by the great inventors and the thousands of people playing with technology at their kitchen tables or tinkering in their garden sheds. When Scottish inventor Alexander Graham Bell demonstrated the first telephone in 1876, he could never have dreamed that in 2014 we’d all be carrying wire-free phones in our pockets and be able to video chat in crystal clear HD across the world.

In this lecture, Danielle explains how these technologies work and shows how they can be adapted to help keep you connected to the people around you. She shows how to control paintball guns with a webcam and turn your smartphone into a microscope, whilst also investigating a device that allows you to feel invisible objects in mid-air. (via richannel.org/making-contact)

Lecture 3/3 A New Revolution: First broadcast Wednesday 31st December

Inspired by the Royal Institution’s very own Michael Faraday, Danielle attempts to use simple motors to construct the world’s greatest robot orchestra. Along the way, Danielle shows the next generation how to hack, adapt and transform the electronics found in the home to have fun and make a difference to the world.

This year’s Royal Institution Christmas Lectures have been inspired by the great inventors and the thousands of people playing with technology at their kitchen tables or tinkering in their garden sheds. When Michael Faraday demonstrated the first electric motor in 1822, he could never have dreamed that in 2014 we’d be surrounded by mechanical devices capable of performing nearly every human task.

In this lecture, Danielle explains how these robotic and motor-driven appliances work and shows how they can adapted to help you kick-start a technological revolution. She shows how to turn a washing machine into a wind turbine, how Lego can solve a Rubik’s Cube and how the next Mars rover will traverse an alien world. (via richannel.org/a-new-revolution)

If you miss the television broadcasts, the lectures will also be available on BBC iPlayer for 30 days then at richannel.org/christmas-lectures.

This will (probably) be the last post of the year at O’Really, so if you’ve visited, thanks for reading during 2014. Wherever you are, whatever you’re up to, have a Very Makey Christmas and a Hacky New Year in 2015.

2014 vs. 1964: Numbers speak louder than words

It’s that time of year when people look back at over the year that was 2014 (1-5). The place where I work, celebrated it’s 50th anniversary. Colleagues put together a little booklet of facts and figures with an some accompanying web pages to mark the occasion. My personal favourite factoid compares computing in 2014 with 1964. The Atlas Computer represented the state of the art in computing in 1964, and today that crown is held by SpiNNaker – a very different kind of computer.

fifty years of computing

50 years of computing (and pipe-smoking is lesson common around computers)

Sometimes, numbers speak louder than words, so here is a numerical comparison of Atlas (1964) with SpiNNaker (2014):

Feature (see this) Atlas Computer (1964) SpiNNaker (2014)
Size A very large room 19 millimetres square
Transistors 60,000 1,100,000,000
Instructions per second 700,000 3,600,00,000

One way of looking at this data is to say, based on the the instructions per second, SpiNNaker is around ~5000 times faster than Atlas. But what is probably more interesting is that SpiNNaker (which is due for completion in 2015) is expected to be used by neuroscientists and psychologists, as a platform to study problems such as Alzheimer’s disease – something that would have been impossible (and unthinkable) only fifty years ago [6,7]. Wonder where the next 50 years will take us in 2064?

References

  1. Anon (2014). The most-read Nature news stories of 2014 Nature DOI: 10.1038/nature.2014.16550
  2. Morello, L., Abbott, A., Butler, D., Callaway, E., Cyranoski, D., Reardon, S., Schiermeier, Q., & Witze, A. (2014). 365 days: 2014 in science Nature, 516 (7531), 300-303 DOI: 10.1038/516300a
  3. Anon (2014). 365 days: Nature’s 10, Ten people who mattered this year. Nature, 516 (7531), 311-319 DOI: 10.1038/516311a
  4. Katherine Maher (2014) What did the world make 100 million edits of in 2014? Wikimedia blog
  5. Hand, E. (2014). Comet Breakthrough of the Year + People’s choice Science, 346 (6216), 1442-1443 DOI: 10.1126/science.346.6216.1442
  6. Furber, S., Galluppi, F., Temple, S., & Plana, L. (2014). The SpiNNaker Project Proceedings of the IEEE, 102 (5), 652-665 DOI: 10.1109/JPROC.2014.2304638

October 23, 2014

Two big challenges facing the technology & digital industries (IMHO)

Digital Turing

Alan Turing Binary code, Shoreditch High Street, London by Chris Beckett on Flickr (CC-BY-NC-ND license)

Over at democracy corner, Manchester Digital is interviewing all of its elected council members. Somehow, I got volunteered to be first interviewee. Here’s my two pence on one of the questions asked: “What do you think is biggest challenge we face as an industry?” (with some extra links)

  • Firstly, coding and “computational thinking” [1], needs to be understood as something that isn’t just for developers, geeks, coders, techies, boffins or “whizz kids” – as the Manchester Evening News likes to call them. Computational thinking, the ability to understand problems and provide innovative solutions in software and hardware, is a fundamental skill that everyone can learn, starting in primary school. As well as being fun to learn and practice, it is a crucial skill in a wide range of organisations in digital and beyond. Thankfully, the new computing curriculum in UK schools has recognised and addressed this, but it remains to be seen what the long-term impact of the changes in primary & secondary education will be on employers.
  • Secondly, as an industry, both the digital and technology sectors are seriously hindered by gender imbalance. If only 10-20% of employees are female, then large numbers of talented people are being excluded from the sector – bad news for everyone.

Is that reasonable –  or have I missed the point? Are there more pressing issues facing the technology sector? Either way, you can read the rest of the interview at manchesterdigital.com/democracy-corner which will be supplemented with more interviews of council members every week over the next few months.

References

  1. Wing, J. (2008). Computational thinking and thinking about computing Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences, 366 (1881), 3717-3725 DOI: 10.1098/rsta.2008.0118

September 9, 2014

Punning with the Pub in PubMed: Are there any decent NCBI puns left? #PubMedPuns

PubMedication: do you get your best ideas in the Pub? CC-BY-ND image via trombone65 on Flickr.

Many people claim they get all their best ideas in the pub, but for lots of scientists their best ideas probably come from PubMed.gov – the NCBI’s monster database of biomedical literature. Consequently, the database has spawned a whole slew of tools that riff off the PubMed name, with many puns and portmanteaus (aka “PubManteaus”), and the pub-based wordplays are very common. [1,2]

All of this might make you wonder, are there any decent PubMed puns left? Here’s an incomplete collection:

  • PubCrawler pubcrawler.ie “goes to the library while you go to the pub…” [3,4]
  • PubChase pubchase.com is a “life sciences and medical literature recommendations engine. Search smarter, organize, and discover the articles most important to you.” [5]
  • PubCast scivee.tv/pubcasts allow users to “enliven articles and help drive more views” (to PubMed) [6]
  • PubFig nothing to do with PubMed, but research done on face and image recognition that happens to be indexed by PubMed. [7]
  • PubGet pubget.com is a “comprehensive source for science PDFs, including everything you’d find in Medline.” [8]
  • PubLons publons.com OK, not much to do with PubMed directly but PubLons helps you “you record, showcase, and verify all your peer review activity.”
  • PubMine “supports intelligent knowledge discovery” [9]
  • PubNet pubnet.gersteinlab.org is a “web-based tool that extracts several types of relationships returned by PubMed queries and maps them into networks” aka a publication network graph utility. [10]
  • GastroPub repackages and re-sells ordinary PubMed content disguised as high-end luxury data at a higher premium, similar to a Gastropub.
  • PubQuiz is either the new name for NCBI database search www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/gquery or a quiz where you’re only allowed to use PubMed to answer questions.
  • PubSearch & PubFetch allows users to “store literature, keyword, and gene information in a relational database, index the literature with keywords and gene names, and provide a Web user interface for annotating the genes from experimental data found in the associated literature” [11]
  • PubScience is either “peer-reviewed drinking” courtesy of pubsci.co.uk or an ambitious publishing project tragically axed by the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE). [12,13]
  • PubSub is anything that makes use of the publish–subscribe pattern, such as NCBI feeds. [14]
  • PubLick as far as I can see, hasn’t been used yet, unless you count this @publick on twitter. If anyone was launching a startup, working in the area of “licking” the tastiest data out of PubMed, that could be a great name for their data-mining business. Alternatively, it could be a catchy new nickname for PubMedCentral (PMC) or Europe PubMedCentral (EuropePMC) [15] – names which don’t exactly trip off the tongue. Since PMC is a free digital archive of publicly accessible full-text scholarly articles, PubLick seems like a appropriate moniker.

PubLick Cat got all the PubMed cream. CC-BY image via dizznbonn on flickr.

There’s probably lots more PubMed puns and portmanteaus out there just waiting to be used. Pubby, Pubsy, PubLican, Pubble, Pubbit, Publy, PubSoft, PubSort, PubBrawl, PubMatch, PubGames, PubGuide, PubWisdom, PubTalk, PubChat, PubShare, PubGrub, PubSnacks and PubLunch could all work. If you’ve know of any other decent (or dodgy) PubMed puns, leave them in the comments below and go and build a scientific twitterbot or cool tool using the same name — if you haven’t already.

References

  1. Lu Z. (2011). PubMed and beyond: a survey of web tools for searching biomedical literature., Database: The Journal of Biological Databases and Curation, http://pubmed.gov/21245076
  2. Hull D., Pettifer S.R. & Kell D.B. (2008). Defrosting the digital library: bibliographic tools for the next generation web., PLOS Computational Biology, PMID: http://pubmed.gov/18974831
  3. Hokamp K. & Wolfe K.H. (2004) PubCrawler: keeping up comfortably with PubMed and GenBank., Nucleic acids research, http://pubmed.gov/15215341
  4. Hokamp K. & Wolfe K. (1999) What’s new in the library? What’s new in GenBank? let PubCrawler tell you., Trends in Genetics, http://pubmed.gov/10529811
  5. Gibney E. (2014). How to tame the flood of literature., Nature, 513 (7516) http://pubmed.gov/25186906
  6. Bourne P. & Chalupa L. (2008). A new approach to scientific dissemination, Materials Today, 11 (6) 48-48. DOI:10.1016/s1369-7021(08)70131-7
  7. Kumar N., Berg A., Belhumeur P.N. & Nayar S. (2011). Describable Visual Attributes for Face Verification and Image Search., IEEE Transactions on Pattern Analysis and Machine Intelligence, http://pubmed.gov/21383395
  8. Featherstone R. & Hersey D. (2010). The quest for full text: an in-depth examination of Pubget for medical searchers., Medical Reference Services Quarterly, 29 (4) 307-319. http://pubmed.gov/21058175
  9. Kim T.K., Wan-Sup Cho, Gun Hwan Ko, Sanghyuk Lee & Bo Kyeng Hou (2011). PubMine: An Ontology-Based Text Mining System for Deducing Relationships among Biological Entities, Interdisciplinary Bio Central, 3 (2) 1-6. DOI:10.4051/ibc.2011.3.2.0007
  10. Douglas S.M., Montelione G.T. & Gerstein M. (2005). PubNet: a flexible system for visualizing literature derived networks., Genome Biology, http://pubmed.gov/16168087
  11. Yoo D., Xu I., Berardini T.Z., Rhee S.Y., Narayanasamy V. & Twigger S. (2006). PubSearch and PubFetch: a simple management system for semiautomated retrieval and annotation of biological information from the literature., Current Protocols in Bioinformatics , http://pubmed.gov/18428773
  12. Seife C. (2002). Electronic publishing. DOE cites competition in killing PubSCIENCE., Science (New York, N.Y.), 297 (5585) 1257-1259. http://pubmed.gov/12193762
  13. Jensen M. (2003). Another loss in the privatisation war: PubScience., Lancet, 361 (9354) 274. http://pubmed.gov/12559859
  14. Dubuque E.M. (2011). Automating academic literature searches with RSS Feeds and Google Reader(™)., Behavior Analysis in Practice, 4 (1) http://pubmed.gov/22532905
  15. McEntyre J.R., Ananiadou S., Andrews S., Black W.J., Boulderstone R., Buttery P., Chaplin D., Chevuru S., Cobley N. & Coleman L.A. & (2010). UKPMC: a full text article resource for the life sciences., Nucleic Acids Research, http://pubmed.gov/21062818

July 29, 2014

A simple and useable classification of software by Aral Balkan via Wuthering Bytes

Three kinds of Software: Enthusiast, Enterprise & Consumer by Aral Balkan

Three kinds of Software: Enthusiast, Enterprise & Consumer by Aral Balkan

It’s getting pretty hard to do anything these days that doesn’t involve software. Our governments, businesses, laboratories, personal lives and entertainment would look very different without the software that makes them tick. How can we classify all this software to make sense of it all? The likes of this huge list of software categories on wikipedia are pretty bewildering, and projects such as the Software Ontology (SWO) [1] are attempting to make sense of swathes of software too. There’s lots of software out there.

Aral Balkan, one of the people behind the Indie Phone, has proposed a simpler classification which will appeal to many people. In his classification, there are three kinds of software (see picture top right), as follows:

  1. Enthusiast software: like a classic car. We tinker with enthusiast software, in the same way motoring enthusiasts tinker with their classic cars. To the enthusiast, it is a joy when the software breaks, because that’s part of the fun, fixing it and getting it back on the road. However, you wouldn’t drive your classic car during your day job, or commute to work. Like a classic car, enthusiast software, is largely for weekends and evenings only. Raspberry Pi software is a classic example of enthusiast software made in garages by hobbyists.
  2. Enterprise software: like a juggernaut truck. We use enterprise software, because our employers mandate that we do so. It might not be fun to drive, or work particularly quickly, but enterprise software is often a necessary evil to get work done on an industrial scale. Cynics will tell you enterprisey software is slow because the engineers have:

    “…added a delay of 3 seconds to every action and now users are feeling it’s enterprisey”.

    Cynics will also tell you, enterprise software has been made by architecture astronauts, purchased by clueless decision-makers who don’t have actually have to use the software themselves, but have been hoodwinked in notorious“vendor meetings” which could explain the unpopularity of some enterprise software. But that’s another story…

  3. Consumer software: like a family saloon car. We rely on consumer software to get the job done, it is purely functional, does the job in a reliable (and boring) way on a daily basis, just like the vehicle you commute in. Consumer software can be found on your mobile phone and most consumer software is Application Software aka “Apps”.

I came across Aral’s classification at Wuthering Bytes last summer, a small and friendly festival of technology in the Pennines. Wuthering Bytes is running again next month, August 15th -17th and is well worth attending if you’re in the North of England and fancy having your bytes wuthered [2]. It’s a great mix of talks by the likes of Sophie Wilson and many others combined with hands-on activities in beautiful Happy-Hippy-Hacky Hebden Bridge for a bargain £10 per day. It’s software (and hardware) for enthusiasts (not enterprises or consumers). What’s not to like?

References

  1. Malone, J., Brown, A., Lister, A., Ison, J., Hull, D., Parkinson, H., & Stevens, R. (2014). The Software Ontology (SWO): a resource for reproducibility in biomedical data analysis, curation and digital preservation Journal of Biomedical Semantics, 5 (1) DOI: 10.1186/2041-1480-5-25
  2. Brontë, Emily (1847) Wuthering Heights

June 12, 2014

A passion for England: Suffering at the Brazil WorldCup in 2014

How to Win the World Cup: Step One: Dream on, Dreamer

Are you passionate about your football team? When I say passion I mean passion as in suffering, from the Latin verb patī meaning to suffer. World cups are passionate milestones for many people, they leave indelible marks on the psyche, you remember who you were with, where you were and how your team suffered.

Like many England supporters I’ve suffered as the english media whips up false hope about the prospects of the squad every four years. “This year could be our chance”, and “we’ve got some really good players”, “remember 1966?”, “thirty years of hurt never stopped me dreaming” bla bla bla….

Passionate English suffering at the World Cup (1982-2014)

All this hope, passionately flies in the face of reason, cold facts and history:

So if history [2,3] and mathematics (via predictwise) are anything to go by, there is (at the time of writing) a 96.5% chance that English suffering will continue and a 60% chance that the suffering will occur in the latter stages of the competition…

Wherever you are, whoever you support and whatever their chances, enjoy the inevitable suffering that comes with being passionate about zero-sum games like football. Life would be very boring without passion and suffering…

References

  1. Clemente FM, Couceiro MS, Martins FM, Ivanova MO, & Mendes R (2013). Activity profiles of soccer players during the 2010 World Cup. Journal of Human Kinetics, 38, 201-11 PMID: 24235995
  2. Graham McColl (2010) How to win the World Cup Bantam Press, ISBN: 0593066227
  3. Alex Bellos (2014) Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life Bloomsbury Paperback ISBN: 0747561796

June 10, 2014

Weasel Words of Weather Forecasters: Will it rain today?

Sunny intervals? Really?

According to the urban myth, the eskimos have hundreds of words for snow. But meteorologists, especially British weather forecasters, have just as many words for rain. Take this typical forecast for example:

TODAY: Showers will continue in the north and west, but become more lighter and more isolated as the night progresses. Remaining dry elsewhere with clear spells and light winds.

TOMORROW: Largely dry and bright with sunny spells, the best of the sunshine in the south. A few light showers are likely for Scotland and Northern Ireland. Warm with light winds.

Many people just want to know will it rain today and should I take a brolly? Deciphering the weasel words above can be frustrating, in case you find this confusing, here’s a quick (and incomplete) translation into plain words [1].

Weasel Weather Words Will it rain? Actual meaning in plain english
stormy yes (lots)
showers yes
becoming wetter yes
low pressure moving in from the west yes
sunshine with showers yes
showery intervals yes
unsettled yes
wet patches yes
sunny intervals yes
blustery yes (probably)
mainly dry yes
becoming brighter later yes
sunny spells yes
humid yes
brighter elsewhere yes (where you are)
thundery downpours yes (lots)

I hope this clears things up a bit.

References

  1. Ernest Gowers (1954) Plain Words: A Guide to the use of English revised and updated by Rebecca Gowers ISBN: 0141975539

April 1, 2014

The Serene Scientists Serenity Prayer via Jon Butterworth

banksy church

The Church of Banksy

Whatever your religous preferences, the Serenity Prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr captures a certain wisdom about life in general. So it is good to see that physicist Jon Butterworth at UCL has adapted it [1] for scientists:

“Give me grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be understood,

Data to investigate the things which can be understood,

And the Wisdom to know the difference.”

Amen!

References

  1. Jon Butterworth (2014) Giles Fraser says scientists are replacing theologians. Some thoughts on that The Gruaniad, 2014-03-31

March 4, 2014

CoderDojo, CodingDojo or CodeJo?

CC-BY licensed picture of a Hacker Dojo by Mitch Altman.

A dojo (or a dōjō) is an event where people train to perform a given task. So for example, software engineers organise code dojos to hone their skills in making software. The term has become widely adopted, so much so, that you’ll often find many flavours of dojo in your local area. In Manchester, there are at least three variants and these often get confused, usually by me. So here’s a quick explanation of what the different dojos do and how they are different.

CoderDojo: @coderdojo & @mcrcoderdojo etc

CoderDojo.com is an open source, volunteer led, global movement of free coding clubs for young people. You’ll find Coder Dojos all over the world, the Manchester Coder Dojo meets once a month in The Sharp Project, and like many coder dojos is very popular and frequently over-subscribed.

CodingDojo: @uomcodingdojo & @codingdojodotco

A group of students at the University of Manchester organise a Coding Dojo @uomcodingdojo see fb.com/uomcodingdojo. They practise problems in TopCoder and other puzzles [1-5] in order to compete in the ACM International Collegiate Programming Contest. They do this because it’s fun, improves their skill and prepares them for the kind’s of problems that are commonly found in a Coding Interviews  – a variant of the infamous Microsoft / Amazon / Google / Apple / Facebook / Twitter interviews. [6,7]

(The Manchester Coding Dojo are nothing to do with codingdojo.com  an outfit in Seattle and Silly Valley who claim to “teach you programming in 2 weeks” see @codingdojodotco.)

Codejo: @manc_codejo

The Manchester Codejo is monthly coding meetup in Manchester, where developers improve their skills by performing Katas – exercises designed to improve coding ability through repetition. So at their last meeting for example, Gemma Cameron @ruby_gem recently ran a Codejo session on the Class-responsibility-collaboration card at manchester.techhub.com.

In other words…

So @coderdojo ≠ @uomcodingdojo ≠ @manc_codejo ≠ @McrCoderDojo etc. Hope this clears up some confusion…

References

  1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dining Philosophers
  2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eight queens puzzle
  3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tower of Hanoi
  4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Travelling salesman problem
  5. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Two Generals’ problem
  6. McDowell, Gayle Laakman (2011) Cracking the Coding Interview: 150 Programming Questions and Solutions Career Cup ISBN:098478280X
  7. Poundstone, William (2013) Are You Smart Enough to Work at Google? Fiendish Puzzles And Impossible Interview Questions From The World’s Top Companies Oneworld Publications ISBN:1851689559
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