O'Really?

July 1, 2013

New music? No thanks, we’re stuck in the fifties / sixties / seventies / eighties / nineties / noughties

John Peel comtemplating Drum & Bass by bhikku

John Peel comtemplating Drum & Bass via bhikku on Flickr.

If you’ve filled your boots with the wall-to-wall glastonbury festival coverage, you might find it curious that many people have little or no interest in new music, choosing instead to listen to the artists they liked in their formative years and loyally sticking with them for life. John Peel put it another way:

People do find it curious that a chap of my age* likes the things that I like but I do honestly feel that it’s one of those situations where everyone’s out of step except our John, because in any other area of human activity – theatre, literature or something like that, you’re not supposed to live eternally in the past, you know, you’re supposed to take an interest in what’s happening now and what’s going happening next and this really all that I do, it seems to be a perfectly normal and natural thing to do.

*John Peel was a spritely 50 years of age at the time of the interview where he said that in 1990 [1]. Isn’t it curious that, as Peel said, new music is largely considered to be the exclusive domain of “younger people”, while new theatre, new technology, new art, new science and new anything-else is not? Wonder why that is?

References

  1. Desert Island Discs Archive, Find a castaway (1940 – date)

June 18, 2013

Peter Suber’s Open Access book is now freely available under an open-access license

Peter Suber's Open Access book

Open Access by Peter Suber is now open access

If you never got around to buying Peter Suber’s book about Open Access (OA) publishing [1] “for busy people”, you might be pleased to learn that it’s now freely available under an open-access license.

One year after being published in dead-tree format, you can now get the whole digital book for free. There’s not much point writing yet another review of it [1], see Peter’s extensive collection of reviews at cyber.law.harvard.edu. The book succinctly covers:

  1. What Is Open Access? (and what it is not)
  2. Motivation: OA as solving problems and seizing opportunities
  3. Varieties: Green and Gold, Gratis versus libre 
  4. Policies: Funding mandates (NIH, Wellcome Trust etc)
  5. Scope: Pre-prints and post-prints
  6. Copyright: … or Copyfight?
  7. Economics: Who pays the bills? Publication fees, toll-access paywalls and “author pays”
  8. Casualties: “OA doesn’t threaten publishing; it only threatens existing publishers who do not adapt”
  9. Future: Where next?
  10. Self-Help: DIY publishing

Open Access for MACHINES!

A lot of the (often heated) debate about Open Access misses an important point about open access being for machines as well as humans, or as Suber puts in Chapter 5 on Scope:

We also want access for machines. I don’t mean the futuristic altruism in which kindly humans want to help curious machines answer their own questions. I mean something more selfish. We’re well into the era in which serious research is mediated by sophisticated software. If our machines don’t have access, then we don’t have access. Moreover, if we can’t get access for our machines, then we lose a momentous opportunity to enhance access with processing.

Think about the size of the body of literature to which you have access, online and off. Now think realistically about the subset to which you’d have practical access if you couldn’t use search engines, or if search engines couldn’t index the literature you needed.

Information overload didn’t start with the internet. The internet does vastly increase the volume of work to which we have access, but at the same time it vastly increases our ability to find what we need. We zero in on the pieces that deserve our limited time with the aid of powerful software, or more precisely, powerful software with access. Software helps us learn what exists, what’s new, what’s relevant, what others find relevant, and what others are saying about it. Without these tools, we couldn’t cope with information overload. Or we’d have to redefine “coping” as artificially reducing the range of work we are allowed to consider, investigate, read, or retrieve.

It’s refreshing to see someone making these points that are often ignored, forgotten or missed out of the public debate about Open Access. The book is available in various digital flavours including:

References

  1. Suber, Peter. Open Access (MIT Press Essential Knowledge, The MIT Press, 2012). ISBN:0262517639
  2. Clair, Kevin. (2013). Kevin Michael Clair reviews Open Access by Peter Suber The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 39 (1) DOI: 10.1016/j.acalib.2012.11.017

May 14, 2013

Measuring scientific coverage of @Wikipedia: Fellows of the Wiki Society index 2013

In 2013, 44% of newly elected Fellows of the Royal Society had biography pages on wikipedia.

Earlier this month confusingly-named “Royal Society” announced their new fellows for 2013. The society is made up of (quote):

“…the most eminent scientists, engineers and technologists from the UK and the Commonwealth. Fellows and Foreign Members are elected for life through a peer review process on the basis of excellence in science.”

A quick-and-dirty measure of the scientific coverage of wikipedia is the percentage of these fellows that have a profile on wikipedia at the time of their election to the prestigious Society.  Let’s call it the Fellows of the Wiki Society index (FWSi),  a good score of 100% indicates that wikipedia has excellent coverage of science while 0% indicates the opposite. Last year, that index was 40% because 21 out of 52 fellows were also Fellows of the Wiki Society.

This year the index is slightly better at 44%, with 24 out of 54 fellows having a wiki-biography, see  [1-54]. So as well as more women this year, there’s more wikipedia too, although the difference isn’t particularly big.

If you’d like to improve the content of wikipedia because there’s plenty of good reasons for doing so, why not take a look at the guidelines for biographies of living persons and create or improve a page for one of the people below?

References

  1. Harry Anderson
  2. Judith Armitage
  3. Keith Ball
  4. Michael Bevan
  5. Mervyn Bibb
  6. Stephen R Bloom
  7. Gilles Brassard
  8. Michael Burrows
  9. Jon Crowcroft
  10. Ara Darzi
  11. William Earnshaw
  12. Gerard F Gilmore
  13. Nigel Glover
  14. Raymond E Goldstein
  15. Melvyn Goodale
  16. Martin Green
  17. Gillian Griffiths
  18. Joanna Haigh
  19. Phillip Hawkins
  20. Edith Heard
  21. Gideon Henderson
  22. Guy Lloyd-Jones
  23. Stephen P Long
  24. Nicholas Lydon
  25. Anne Mills
  26. Paul O’Brien
  27. William Richardson
  28. Gareth Roberts
  29. Ronald Rowe
  30. John Savill
  31. Christopher Schofield
  32. Paul M Sharp
  33. Stephen Simpson
  34. Terence Speed
  35. Maria Grazia Spillantini
  36. Douglas W Stephan
  37. Brigitta Stockinger
  38. Alan Turnbull
  39. Jean-Paul Vincent
  40. Andrew Wilkie
  41. Sophie Wilson
  42. Terry Wyatt
  43. Julia Yeomans
  44. Robert Young
  45. Margaret Buckingham
  46. Zhu Chen
  47. John Hutchinson
  48. Eric Kandel
  49. Elliott Lieb
  50. Kyriacos Nicolaou
  51. Randy Schekman
  52. Eli Yablonovitch
  53. Andrew The Duke of York (eh?)
  54. Bill Bryson

April 19, 2013

Will Academic Education ever meet the skills needs of the IT Profession? #BCSDebate

“This house believes that Academic Education will never meet the skills needs of the IT Profession” via #BCSDebate

“This house believes that Academic Education will never meet the skills needs of the IT Profession” via #BCSDebate

Here’s an interesting upcoming event: a debate on the motion: “This house believes that Academic Education will never meet the skills needs of the IT profession

Universities are failing to educate graduates with the skills we need – this is the oft heard complaint by employers of IT graduates. Does the problem start in school with the dire state of ICT teaching and assessment at GCSE and A Level? [1] Should academia be trying to produce graduates with only ‘employable skills’ that have a shelf life of at best a couple of years? Are employers really expecting universities to produce a mature, rounded professional with 20 years experience straight out of university? Is it reasonable to expect Academia to bridge the skills gap when employers are not prepared to provide a robust career path for IT professionals?

Academia and the IT Profession seem to be out of alignment in a way that other more mature professional career paths are not. Medicine, law, accountancy and the teaching profession provide a clear path from university to the highest levels of those careers – not so in IT. The IT Profession’s skills framework (SFIA) is only a decade old, and IT is neither a regulated or statutory profession – perhaps employers ask and expect too much of Academia, when the IT Profession is still in its infancy.”

This deliberately provocative motion conflates Education with Training as well spreading further confusion about the important differences between Computer Science and Information Technology. There’s already been some debate, including this early response from Ian Sommerville at the University of St Andrews:

“Computing systems are now ubiquitous in all areas of our professional and personal lives – which means that are incredibly diverse from personal apps for your phone to remind you to exercise to safety-critical, world-wide air traffic management systems. The notion that there is a single body of practical skills that is applicable to all of these different types of system is ludicrous as is the expectation that university courses should attempt to cover all aspects of computing practice.”

That’s a view from academia, no doubt employers will probably have a different take on the motion. David Evans and Deborah Trayhurn will be supporting the motion, with opposition from Bill Mitchell and Kevin Jones. Whatever your opinion, the debate takes place on Wednesday 12th June 2013 from 6.30pm – 9.00pm at the Armourers’ Hall, 81 Coleman Street, London, EC2R 5BJ. You can book a place at events.bcs.org/book/577, more info on twitter at #BCSDebate.

March 15, 2013

Creating with the Raspberry Pi vs. Consuming Apple Pie at the Manchester Raspberry Jamboree

MiniGirlGeek

Thirteen year old Amy Mather aka @MiniGirlGeek steals the show at Manchester Raspberry Jam 2013

Last Saturday, the first ever Raspberry Jamboree rolled into town, organised by the unstoppable force of nature that is Alan O’Donohoe (aka @teknoteacher). The jamboree looked at the educational value of the Raspberry Pi (a $25 computer) one year on from its launch on the the 29th February 2012. Here are some brief and incomplete notes on some of the things that happened in the main room, aka ‘Jamboree Central’. The workshops and other events have been covered by Jason Barnett @boeeerb.

A key feature of the Raspberry Pi foundation (and the Jamboree) was neatly summed up by Paul Beech (aka @guru) who compared the Raspberry Pi to various Apple iThings. Paul’s view is that when it comes to computing, Apple gives you a “sandy beach, sunbed and cocktail” to passively consume digital content with while the Raspberry Pi gives you a “desert, knife and a bottle” to actively create new things (see his tweet below).

Consuming Apple Pie on a sandy beach, with a sunbed and a cocktail

Engineering evangelist Rob Bishop used Apple Inc. to illustrate what the Raspberry Pi is about in his talk ‘one year on‘. Rob pointed out that a huge amount of effort at Apple Inc. is put into making Computing invisible and seamless. This is great if you’re consuming content on your iPad or iPhone, and what many users want – easy to use, with all the nasty internal gubbins tucked away, out of sight. This is tasty Californian Apple Pie, which many of consume in large amounts.

However, invisible computing is a problem for education, because it is difficult to demonstrate the Wonders of Computer Science (Brian Cox’s next TV series) with a device like the iPad.  Many of the internals of modern devices are completely inaccessible, and it’s non-trivial for budding young engineers to build anything very interesting with it particularly quickly.

In contrast, the Raspberry Pi can be challenging to setup, just getting the Operating System up and running isn’t always straightforward. However, there’s a ton of interesting stuff you can build with it: Nifty robotics, bionic bird boxes, musical hackery, twittering chickens, live train departure boards, internet radiossinging jelly babies and loads of other pideas. Try doing that with your iPad…

Creating with Raspberry Pi in the desert, using a knife and a bottle

Most of the jamboree focussed not on Apple but on the things that can be created with Raspberry Pi: the What and Why and When And How and Where and Who with keynotes from Steve Furber [1] and talks and panel sessions from:

A highlight of the jamboree was the closing keynote given by the thirteen year old Mini Girl Geek on what she’s been doing with her Raspberry Pi. MiniGirlGeek (aka Amy Mather pictured above) stole the show with her demo implementations of Conway’s Game of Life in Python. [update: see video below]

What’s interesting is that Conway’s Game of Life is used as an exercise for first year undergraduates in Computer Science at the University of Cambridge. So it’s great to see teenagers mastering the “knife” of Raspberry Pi, and reminds us that Raspberry Pi is no “sunbed and cocktail” but with a little patience, ambition and talent there’s plenty to capture the imagination of young people about Computing.

References

  1. Steve Furber et al (2012). Computing in Schools: Shut down or restart? Royal Society Report

February 18, 2013

February 4, 2013

On becoming a STEMnet ambassador: What, why and how?

A piece of raspberry pie

Creative Commons licensed picture of a DayGlo Raspberry Pi by @kevinv033 on Flickr

STEMNet is an organisation in the UK which creates opportunities to inspire young people in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). Recently, along with about 15 PhD students from the CDT in Manchester, I became an STEM Ambassador. This post briefly describes what STEMNet is all about, why you would want to get involved and how you can do so.

What is STEMNet?

STEMnet is a network of volunteers (STEM ambassadors) who help schools and teachers by providing extra support in the classroom to teach topics in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Teachers can ask the network for all kinds of help, it might be, for example:

  • role models to do a Day in the Life of… session (e.g. Astronaut, Star Gazer, Genetic Engineer, Roboticist etc)
  • help with a Raspberry Pi workshop
  • support running a Science club
  • demonstrations of interesting technology that might not normally be available in school
  • et cetera

Ambassadors (who have been vetted by the DBS) respond to teacher requests or propose their own ideas. Ambassadors commit to doing at least one education or outreach event per year, and often end of doing more. Interesting and varied learning experiences usually follow.

Why you should get involved

There are plenty of reasons to get involved in STEMnet:

  • It can be great fun working with young people.
  • The world would probably be a BetterPlace™ if we had more scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians. STEMNet is working towards achieving this important goal.
  • Schools and teachers need all the help they can get in the classroom, teaching is a challenging but important job.
  • If you think you’re a nifty communicator, there’s nothing quite like a classroom full of teenagers (or younger) for testing your theory.
  • Join an active and diverse network of around 30,000 ambassadors across the UK

How to get involved

Contact your friendly local STEMnet co-ordinator if you would like to become a STEM Ambassador. For Greater Manchester, that’s the good folk based at the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI): Daniel O’Connell and Donna Johnson (featured in the video below).

We’ve got some exciting new projects planned via STEMNet, in addition to what’s already going on at cs.manchester.ac.uk/schools. Watch this space!

January 18, 2013

How to export, delete and move your Mendeley account and library #mendelete

Deleteme

Delete. Creative Commons licensed picture by Vitor Sá – Virgu via Flickr.com

News that Reed Elsevier is in talks to buy Mendeley.com will have many scientists reaching for their “delete account” button. Mendeley has built an impressive user-base of scientists and other academics since they started, but the possibility of an Elsevier takeover has worried some of its users. Elsevier has a strained relationship with some groups in the scientific community [1,2], so it will be interesting to see how this plays out.

If you’ve built a personal library of scientific papers in Mendeley, you won’t just want to delete all the data, you’ll need to export your library first, delete your account and then import it into a different tool.

Disclaimer: I’m not advocating that you delete your mendeley account (aka #mendelete), just that if you do decide to, here’s how to do it, and some alternatives to consider. Update April 2013, it wasn’t just a rumour.

Exporting your Mendeley library

Open up Mendeley Desktop, on the File menu select Export. You have a choice of three export formats:

  1. BibTeX (*.bib)
  2. RIS – Research Information Systems (*.ris)
  3. EndNote XML (*.xml)

It is probably best to create a backup in all three formats just in case as this will give you more options for importing into whatever you replace Mendeley with. Another possibility is to use the Mendeley API to export your data which will give you more control over how and what you export, or trawl through the Mendeley forums for alternatives. [update: see also comments below from William Gunn on exporting via your local SQLite cache]

Deleting your Mendeley account #mendelete

Login to Mendeley.com, click on the My Account button (top right), Select Account details from the drop down menu and scroll down to the bottom of the page and click on the link delete your account. You’ll be see a message We’re sorry you want to go, but if you must… which you can either cancel or select Delete my account and all my data. [update] To completely delete your account you’ll need to send an email to privacy at mendeley dot com. (Thanks P.Chris for pointing this out in the comments below)

Alternatives to Mendeley

Once you have exported your data, you’ll need an alternative to import your data into. Fortunately, there are quite a few to choose from [3], some of which are shown in the list below. This is not a comprehensive list, so please add suggestions below in the comments if I missed any obvious ones. Wikipedia has an extensive article which compares all the different reference management software which is quite handy (if slightly bewildering). Otherwise you might consider trying the following software:

One last alternative, if you are fed up with trying to manage all those clunky pdf files, you could just switch to Google Scholar which is getting better all the time. If you decide that Mendeley isn’t your cup of tea, now might be a good time to investigate some alternatives, there are plenty of good candidates to choose from. But beware, you may run from the arms of one large publisher (Elsevier) into the arms of another (Springer or Macmillan which own Papers and ReadCube respectively).

References

  1. Whitfield, J. (2012). Elsevier boycott gathers pace Nature DOI: 10.1038/nature.2012.10010
  2. Van Noorden, R. (2013). Mathematicians aim to take publishers out of publishing Nature DOI: 10.1038/nature.2013.12243
  3. Hull, D., Pettifer, S., & Kell, D. (2008). Defrosting the Digital Library: Bibliographic Tools for the Next Generation Web PLoS Computational Biology, 4 (10) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1000204
  4. Attwood, T., Kell, D., McDermott, P., Marsh, J., Pettifer, S., & Thorne, D. (2010). Utopia documents: linking scholarly literature with research data Bioinformatics, 26 (18) DOI: 10.1093/bioinformatics/btq383

January 11, 2013

A joke about teaching and learning via Jason Bangbala

The MOOC

What, if anything, can stop the MOOC? Creative Commons licensed picture via Giulia Forsythe on Flickr.

The debate about Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) is making lots of people think harder about education and how people learn. Are we witnessing Higher Education’s Napster moment, where online services replace physical ones [1] ? Is undergraduate education over-priced [2]? How can education be improved [3]? What is the point of Education anyway? These are all interesting and mostly unanswered questions.

You might hear it said that secondary education is often delivered by excellent teachers, with questionable subject knowledge, whereas higher education is delivered by experts with excellent subject knowledge, but poorer teaching skills.

Jason Bangbala, an educational consultant, puts it another way.

What is the difference between primary, secondary and higher education?

  • In primary education, the teachers love their students.
  • In secondary education, the teachers love their subject.
  • In higher education, the teachers love themselves.

True? Hmmm, I don’t know. But it is funny…

References

  1. Moshe Vardi (2012). Will MOOCs destroy academia? Communications of the ACM, 55 (11), 5-5 DOI: 10.1145/2366316.2366317
  2. Salman Khan (2013). What college could be like Communications of the ACM, 56 (1) DOI: 10.1145/2398356.2398370
  3. Fred Martin (2012). Will massive open online courses change how we teach? Communications of the ACM, 55 (8) DOI: 10.1145/2240236.2240246

December 21, 2012

Happy Christmas Lectures (Merry “Chemist-mas” everyone)

Peter Wothers

Peter Wothers lights the blue touchpaper.

If you hate Chemistry [1] it’s probably because your Chemistry teachers weren’t up to scratch. Peter WothersThe Modern Alchemist, is someone who might rekindle your interest in Chemistry through his delivery of the 2012 Christmas Lectures. Wothers will unpick the chemistry of the world around us, looking at Air, Water and Earth, three of the original Greek ‘elements’ that tantalised alchemists for centuries. He’ll also be exploding and burning things too.

The lectures will be broadcast on BBC Four at 8pm on 26, 27 and 28 December and available online afterwards via iPlayer and RiChannel.org (for those outside the UK). Here’s some more blurb from the R.I.:

Lecture 1: Air: The Elixir of Life

Take a deep breath. Inside your lungs is a mixture of highly reactive and incredibly stable gases. Oxygen is the most reactive constituent. When we eat it’s these O₂ molecules that seize electrons from our food to give our bodies the energy to live. Add a third oxygen atom and we make ozone, a gas so reactive that it’s toxic if we breathe it in, but high up in the stratosphere this gas protects us from the sun’s radiation. Add a carbon atom and we produce carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas responsible for warming the planet. We will unravel the puzzle of how and why these compounds of oxygen hold the key to the viability of life on the planet.

Nitrogen, the most common element in air, is an unreactive gas, but a key atom in every cell in every living thing on Earth.  How can we imitate nature to bring this suffocating gas alive?  Even less reactive are the Noble or inert gases. They’re so stable they are the only elements that exist naturally as individual atoms – but what is it about them that make them so inert? And how can we excite these gases enough to join the chemical party? We’ve come a long way from the days when alchemists thought air was a single element.

Lecture 2: Water: The Fountain of Youth

Water is essential to life since every reaction in our bodies takes place in it.  But what makes this fluid so special?  What happens when you add a lighted splint to a mixture of hydrogen and oxygen? Kaboom! But why? What makes this particular rearrangement of atoms to form water so explosive? Can we tap this energy release to provide environmentally friendly solution to our energy problems?   Plants have the ability to reverse this reaction by using the energy from sunlight to release oxygen from water.  We are starting to learn how to do the same.  In this lecture we unpack how energy lies at the heart of chemistry.

We’ll also look at the salts contained in water. Once again we will see the startling difference between a compound and its constituent elements. Take sodium chloride – aka table salt. Sodium is a soft silvery metal that explodes with water; chlorine a deadly poisonous, choking green gas.  Both elements are lethal to us, but after they have met, a dramatic change takes place.  The sodium and chloride ions that form are essential components in our bodies. They help generate the electrical impulses that make our brains and nerves work. We begin to see how chemistry plays a vital role in our lives.

Lecture 3: Earth: The Philosopher’s Stone

The rocks that form planet Earth have always fascinated alchemists. Deep in the bowels of the Earth they thought the metals literally grew in the rocks and that one metal over time matured into another.  They dreamed of replicating these natural processes turning ‘base metals’ into gold. Today the extraction of minerals and metals from rocks has made fortunes, but not quite in the way the alchemists imagined. We now know many rocks are the result of oxygen combining with different elements – each with individual properties. Breaking the strong bonds between oxygen and these elements has always been a challenge. Humankind learned how to release copper in the Bronze Age, and iron in the Iron Age, through smelting. Now we can extract even more exotic materials.

By understanding the properties of materials, such as the silicon present in computers, or the rare earth magnets generating our electricity in wind turbines, we are entering a new era of chemistry in which we can engineer electrons in new configurations for future technologies. We can now put together the unique cluster of protons, neutrons and electrons that form each of the 80 elements in exciting new ways. If the ancient alchemists were alive today they’d be dazzled by the wonders created by the Modern Alchemist.

The lectures this year have been promoted with a fun Christmas Advent calendar at advent.richannel.org, which included a few star turns from the likes of Jerry Hall and many others, describing their favourite elements:

Whatever your favourite element, have yourself a Happy Chemistmas. If you’ve read stuff here at O’Really? in 2012, thanks for visiting and hope to see you again in 2013.

References

  1. Lippincott, W. (1979). Why Students Hate Chemistry Journal of Chemical Education, 56 (1) DOI: 10.1021/ed056p1
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