Friday, 28 June 2013

Why Gove should be less conviction and start listening

Michael Gove is not my favourite person. For me he is set on destroying 50 years of progress in Education, but according to him I must be one of those Marxist opponents. I certainly am to the left of Gove, along with Ghenghis Khan, but I am not very keen on Marx or even unions. Anyway I don't want to present my convictions I want to present those of others who might be more credible than Gove.

An excellent book is Education a Very Short Introduction. It argues very clearly and concisely with evidence and not convictions as to why "progressive" education is the way forward. It also shows that "progressive" is at least 3000 years old and the origins on the disciplinarian drilling of "traditional" teaching.

Now Gove is trying to take us back into the traditional teaching method as this will improve standards. So lets look at what someone who studied under that method said about it.

"To me the worst thing seems to be a school principally to work with methods of fear, force and artificial authority. Such treatment destroys the sound sentiments, the sincerity and the self-confidence of pupils and produces a subservient subject."

"One should guard against preaching to young people success in the customary form as the main aim in life. The most important motive for work in school and in life is pleasure in work, pleasure in its result, and the knowledge of the value of the result to the community."

"Education is what you have left after one has forgotten what one has learned in school."

The person who said this was a bit of a slouch at school and he was a late developer who did not speak until he was four. It was Albert Einstein and Gove is certainly no Einstein.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

No 10 Porn Summit or Why politicians don't understand cause and effect

Today is going to be a rant about why politicians are stupid opportunistic thugs who try to bully the rest of us with rhetoric. Now you cannot blame them for using rhetoric and not actual evidence based argument as that is the definition of a politician. Plato hated politicians for exactly that reason, because they are sophists with made up arguments that are not based on any reasoning or evidence.

Even if they do use evidence they get the reasoning backwards. Today they announced that there will be a number 10 porn summit. This is happening because of the two recent terrible murders of children by paedophiles and the finding that they both had violent child pornography on their computers. The argument is that this violent pornography caused them to carry out their terrible crimes. Sadly for their argument there is no evidence that this is the right direction for causality. Paedophiles like seeing images of paedophilia. It does not cause them to becomes paedophiles it is a consequence of them being paedophiles. The same backwards arguments were used over violence and video games and is used against pornography in general. If you look at the Williams Report they found no link between porn and violence against women, neither did the Howett and Cumberbatch report and it was not until the previous government that any link was proven and this was based on two discredited reports from Australia and the US that were methodologically flawed.

What you are talking about if you force ISPs to block porn is massive state censorship on the same level as that in China or Iran. First it is hardly practical without serious consequences for service and speeds. Secondly it will block a large amount of non pornographic material while letting a lot of porn through. For example this blog article might be banned because I say porn so often but explicit sexual images will be hard to filter from twitter, tumblr and other social media. Unless they have associated meta-data or they are reported then it will not work. The reporting system will be horrendous to implement and enforce, just look at the current problems Facebook has. So we are going to allow the government to censor and force us to opt in to porn. What will they censor next? Will we all be forced to swallow a Daily Mail view of the world or we have to opt in to get the Guardian or the Independent?

Anyway as is usual with politicians it is just distraction from real issues that affect real people, like the NHS, the economy, tax cheats, education etc. All the things that affect everybody.

PS I just read this comment

 I find so many of the comments very depressing. It is good that the government is taking the issue of the internet being used to circulate child abuse images and the proliferation and wide availability of pornography, seriously. Perhaps some of the writers would do well to read the report by Dr Linda Papdopoulos, which establishes a "clear link" between sexual imagery and violence against women.

We could do but the Papadopoulos report is a pile of unsubstantiated nonsense written by the Big Brother Psychologist. It has largely been debunked and is based on no empirical evidence. There is no clear link and it has not been shown ever by anyone. 

This one is even better. Showing that regardless of the evidence convictions matter more in making decisions. This person would get on well with Michael Gove.

 491. Ernie
"Societies with easy availability of porn suffer from less rape and assault, suggesting it is actually a positive."
I'm sorry, but I can't accept that. I've seen first hand the heartache that can be caused by casual attitudes towards pornography (and sex in general). Addictions can easily develop and families can be torn apart through lack of trust.

Monday, 17 June 2013

Social mobility and the Russell Group

The BBC published an article about a think tank investigation that showed that the number of state educated students going to Russell Group universities has declined in the last ten years and this is reflecting an increasing lack of social mobility.

Now I first have to say that I was from a state school and that I was educated at and have taught at two Russell Group universities (one is less Russell Group than the other). So I have been there and done that as well as being the son of divorced parents and of a family where I was the first to stay at school beyond 16.

Anyway this made me think back on something that happened when I was a lecturer at Oxford and I was interviewing for a teaching assistant post. We had three candidates of which one of them was from Exeter and the others were from Oxford and a London University. I was interviewing with another Oxford lecturer who had done their doctorate at Cambridge. After the interview two candidates were quite similar in performance but one was obviously not as good, and this was the one from Exeter. So we talked it over and finally the Oxford candidate got the post. What stunned me was my colleague's comment about the candidate from Exeter. They apologised that we could not give the teaching assistantship to them. Now why was there a need to apologise? They were not the best candidate, so why did the fact we had been to the same university matter?

That is the point, and why social mobility and the composition of the Russell Group intake matters. It is because to Oxbridge graduates and this can be extended to other institutions in the Russell Group, where someone comes from matters. It is the old school tie problem. This is what you get from graduating at those institutions. You do not necessarily better teaching (although one to two tutorials like those in Oxbridge are something other universities can only dream of), or even better qualifications (studies show that students at top universities in the US make little progress at university). What you get is a network of social contacts that will serve you for life. If we exclude certain social groups then this will maintain or exacerbate levels of inequality in society and this is why it matters that we try to promote social diversity in the elite universities.

Women and computing

My son has been invited to take part in a schools challenge for year 6 students using the Raspberry Pi called 7 Segments of Pi. There were 9 children who were offered the chance, 6 boys and three girls. After the first session the pupils had to sign up for the competition and although one of the girls said it was fun experimenting she did not want to continue. Out of the boys there is a group of 4 that are fairly geeky and they wanted to continue but two found the programming too boring. I do not know for sure but I don't think any of the girls signed up.

For my son having the support group of his friends around him made him keen on signing up. For the girls there were fewer to start with and I don't think they relate to the boys enough to make a group. But one comment my wife made when I was wondering out loud why the girls were not interested in computers was "But they don't talk". To her computers seem alien and un-emotional, they are machines that you cannot relate to. Is this a real barrier to women in computing or is this part of my wife's background and something personal to her experience?

I have just been reading Mark Pagel's book Wired for Culture where he gives the evolutionary reasons for speech and how this has driven our development as a social species. Without speech we cannot negotiate (we also cannot cheat as well) and we need it to create commerce and systems based on reputation. My wife's comment made me think about this as an important contribution from women in history. Are women more likely to be fair? Are they more likely to root out the unfair, cheating lying men? Are they more likely to smooth over arguments between different male groups and to prevent conflict? Is there any role of gender in the evolution of speech at all?

Monday, 10 June 2013

Prism, the NSA, GCHQ and privacy

The NSA and GCHQ are watching everything you do. They have all your phone calls, all your e-mails and all your social media posts. You should be very afraid and it is all Obama's fault. This is what the media want you to think.

This story unites the left and the right. The right because that "Liberal" Obama signed the order and this is another example of big government and big brother. The state is out to get you. Well actually EVERY president since Truman has been signing these orders, including Reagan and both the Bushes, you rhetorical he headline making GOP liar. Then the left talk about this invasion of privacy and civil liberties. The liberals are worried that NSA knows what they bought from Amazon last week, who they are having an affair with, that they go to swingers clubs at the weekends and which way they vote. Yes but I don't care and probably neither do the people who collected it. Your lives no matter how interesting they might be to the tabloids are irrelevant in the big picture of national security. You have more to fear from journalists intercepting your mobile phone calls and voice mail.

Reality is they have been collecting data in large amounts since world war two. What makes a difference now is the ability to collect much more much faster and that they have enough computer power to do something with the intercepts - although not much. Films and spy novels have been talking about this level of intelligence gathering for decades. Just watch Jason Bourne or Enemy of the State and see what they suggested the NSA could do a decade ago. That is fictional exaggeration but there are some elements of truth.

Imagine the daily grind of analysing petabytes of data for something interesting. You need a lot of analysts and a lot of computer power. Most of it is irrelevant and unimportant and among all this noise is the real intelligence. So if there were rogue agents or departments they could single out innocent individuals and make their lives miserable. The question you have to ask is why would they? What benefit is it to them? Apart from showing everyone they have this capability, which is the big secret they want to keep it is not something they come in to the office to do. First of all they don't want the enemies to know what they can find out. Apart from the odd nut (like Peter Wright and those who aided Senator McCarthy) who tries to misuse the data for their own personal agendas we are safe from big brother.

We are safe because in general the military and intelligence services are not interested in our lives and they are not interested in abusing their power. I have more faith in the integrity of the intelligence agencies than I do in the politicians and journalists who seek to expose them. Those who want to ban the wide-spread collection of data are those in whose minds its improper exploitation is a certainty. They imagine others doing the things that they would do if they had access to that data and so they feel we need protection. We do need protection, but only from them getting access. The reality is there are very few cases where this data, that has been available for decades, has been misused because most of the people involved have integrity and it is this integrity that we have to maintain. We have to be aware that the information we are given is never the whole story and we have to always question the motives of those involved and so long as we do this we have nothing to fear.

For a more humorous view here is a nice Tumblr of Obama checking our e-mail.