Asking interesting questions, not bird-brained ones.

by reestheskin on 30/01/2017

Comments are disabled

Well, not that I do, and in particular not this one. But, after sitting recently working in a coffee shop across the road from a school playground in Berlin, being both disturbed (“I was working!”) and amazed at the racket from all the frantic school children hurtling around a school playground, I do puzzle why it all changes when you ‘grow up’.

This from Science

Anyone who rose morning after morning this week for an exhausting and ache-generating exercise class to fulfill a New Year’s resolution will envy the bar-headed goose. The bird has the strength and endurance to fly 3000 kilometers over the Himalayas between its breeding grounds in Mongolia and wintering grounds in India. Yet a new study indicates that it doesn’t do a lick of exercise to prepare.


In at least some species, extra exercise may even be harmful, studies of captive zebra finches reported at the meeting suggest……… birds getting the extra exercise suffered cellular damage, from oxygen radicals and other charged molecules released by active muscle.

Birdbrain I might be, but not of the goose persuasion.

The technocratic delusion

by reestheskin on 23/01/2017

Comments are disabled

“This may upset some of my students at MIT, but one of my concerns is that it’s been a predominantly male gang of kids, mostly white, who are building the core computer science around AI, and they’re more comfortable talking to computers than to human beings. A lot of them feel that if they could just make that science-fiction, generalized AI, we wouldn’t have to worry about all the messy stuff like politics and society. They think machines will just figure it all out for us.”

Joi Ito, Director of the MIT Media Lab

(Via John Naughton)

Or as I quoted Steven Weinberg in a paper with the title, “The Problem with Academic Medicine: Engineering Our Way into and out of the Mess

“My advice is to go for the messes—that’s where the action is.”

Enclosing not so much the commons, but space itself.

by reestheskin on 19/01/2017

Comments are disabled

I first became ware of the importance of intellectual property law and custom after reading James Boyle’s ‘Shamans, Software and Spleens’. I had been completely unaware of how important the institution of private intellectual property was, and how destructive it frequently was of human advance. Of course, it was not meant to be this way. Boyle’s book is dense but funny, and he lambasts the contradictions in copyright law, the tortured logic in the bizarre attempts to explain why blackmail and insider trading are illegal, and the craziness that surrounded patenting DNA and what you can do with my spleen once you once removed it. As Cory Doctorow commented, about another of Boyle’s books, ‘Bound by Law’, “Copyright, a system that is meant to promote creativity, has been hijacked by a few industrial players and perverted. Today copyright is as likely to suppress new creativity as it is to protect it.” It was reading Boyle that led me to write an essay in the Lancet on how the ease or difficulty of assigning IPR distorted medical advance.

But this takes the ticket, I am quoting from Stephen Downes commenting on this:

This is a funny story with a surprise inside. The funny part is the artwork: an artist created glass blocks exactly the dimensions of a FedEx box and then shipped them in those boxes, producing unique art out of the cracks and breakage that resulted. The surprise is that it turns out that Fed Ex has corporate ownership over that space. “There’s a copyright designating the design of each FedEx box, but there’s also the corporate ownership over that very shape. It’s a proprietary volume of space, distinct from the design of the box.” Now I’m afraid I might accidentally violate FedEx’s ownership over that specific shape should I decide to, I don’t know, create my own mailing box.

Not so much enclosing the commons, but space itself.

“I think the dilemma Brexit poses for Scotland is pretty intolerable,” he says. “If Scotland has to clean out all its universities of European citizens there are really horrible things that are going to happen.”

The economist, Angus Deaton, in the FT

The price of success

by reestheskin on 19/12/2016

Comments are disabled

“David Cameron began 2016 in 10 Downing Street and ended it at DePauw University in a small Indiana town, speaking for a reported £120,000 an hour. The former British prime minister is now paid almost as much for a 60-minute speech as he used to earn in a year, as he tries to make sense of his own historic failure: Brexit.” FT

Medical school 2020, week 8

by reestheskin on 15/12/2016

Comments are disabled

Exams begin next week. Type-A Anita is particularly nervous. Beginning last week she has refused to learn anything that is more in-depth than the NBME questions: “only high-yield.” She interrupts class once per day to complain when a professor gives more detail than the Step 1 exam books do. She also requests clarification about the number of questions per exam topic. She dropped her sweet Midwestern demeanor and submitted a formal complaint to the administration when an older physician said males have to work more to learn patient interviewing because women are more naturally caring.

via Philip Greenspun

Nice turn of phrase that seems apt way beyond its intended target, attributed to the physicist, John Stewart Bell (NYRB 10/11/2016).

” I hesitated to think it might be wrong, but I knew it was rotten”

Why is this online?

by reestheskin on 12/12/2016

Comments are disabled

The annual cost of protecting our digital world from hackers will exceed the benefits of being connected by 2019, according to a study by the Zurich Insurance Group and the Atlantic Council, Here.

Well, I guess it is sensible for Insurance companies to be cautious. But I continue to be amazed by how much sensitive information around health care and university personal data is put online — just because we can. NHS systems have been hacked, and university sites are continually under assault. There is a lot of personal data stored, that could be used against people. This is the spreadsheet obsession of top down management, where data is equated with reality, and surveillance with caring. And that is before people try to sell it.


by reestheskin on 07/12/2016

Comments are disabled

I am just back from OEB16 in Berlin. A really terrific meeting, which I enjoyed more than I anticipated (my philosophy; check out that I wasn’t missing too much: I was wrong). I will write some more later. And although I have been to Berlin many times, on this occasion I had time to see much of the city. Also  to chat  with some bright and talented young people who have left the UK, fed up with Brexit and the State of the UK, aiming to make their life there.

“The contribution of student loans to net government debt is forecast to rise from around 4 per cent of GDP today to over 11 per cent in 2040”. Here

LMS as in management, rather than learning

by reestheskin on 14/10/2016

Comments are disabled

“the state of most learning management systems is verging on embarrassing in the face of the smartphone generation” and that “grainy footage of an hour-long lecture, filmed from the back of the lecture hall, just won’t cut it”.

Simon Nelson of FutureLearn in the THE


Never ever say Uber, Spotify, Netflix……

by reestheskin on 09/10/2016

Comments are disabled

Michael Feldstein writes about ed tech companies and Pearson:

1 Never, ever, say that you want your company to be the Uber of education, the Airbnb of education, the Pokemon GO of education, or the insert name of tech darling of education unless you really enjoy being a recluse (or you are secretly a double agent for your employer’s direct competitor).

2 If you absolutely must say something like the above, then do not say you are the Netflix of education. Honestly, Netflix isn’t even great at being the Netflix of movies. The last time they recommended a movie that I actually wanted to watch was…uh…never.

There is a recurring cultural fantasy that “solving” the education “problem” consists of creating a customized playlist of little content bits. So really, more like the Spotify of education, if you want to play that game. This idea enrages educators because it trivializes what they do. Nobody who has taught believes that proper sequencing of content chunks is the hard part.

“We’re starting to meta-tag all the content so it can be chopped up into component parts and reassembled on the fly for each user,” explained Hitchcock………

Feldstein adds:

We’ve gone from Netflix to Google Ads. Out of the frying pan, into the fire. Can we get a spamming algorithm analogy just for good measure?

Worth a full read.

just a test

by reestheskin on 13/09/2016

Comments are disabled

This is just a test. And thanks to Roslin design.

“No one should use comic sans for lectures in a university.” Student feedback. It wasn’t me!

Louse Richardson on no platforming, and being taught how to iron a man’s shirt.

by reestheskin on 07/06/2016

Comments are disabled

Louise Richardson said a few interesting things talking to Kirsty Young on Desert Island Discs. Anybody who has been taught by (Irish) nuns or Christian brothers, will know some of the terrain.

In response to, ‘The most recent NUS survey says that 63% of students support the view that people with potentially offensive views should be banned from British campuses and from speaking from events’, she replied, ‘Well the first point is that I couldn’t disagree more with than view, I have to say’. No flimflam here, thank God. She pointed out that this is not entirely a new phenomenon, and wondered if young people are now less exposed to alternate views than they once were, and are more ‘cosseted’ by their parents.

I wonder how the for-profits would handle this issue.

Skills gaps? It’s the money, stupid.

by reestheskin on 26/05/2016

Comments are disabled

From Thijs van Rens in the HBR

It is usually taken for granted that the skills gap is a problem of skills supply, and public concerns often focus on a lack of STEM skills and soft skills. So proposed solutions tend to involve reforming education and worker training programs. The most popular approach has been to reduce tuition fees for selective fields of study, usually STEM majors.

However, I argue that this view is not correct. Research that I and my colleagues have conducted suggests that the skills gap persists mainly because employers are unwilling or unable to pay market price for the skills they require…..

Yet the skills gap remains, because the adjustments that workers and firms make will only eliminate the gap if wages reflect the relative supply and demand for various skills across occupations. But our data shows that this is not happening: Many jobs in industries that generate high profits (retail trade, educational services, mining, and forestry) tend to pay low wages and are therefore unattractive to workers, whereas jobs in industries that pay higher wages (finance, computer and electronics manufacturing, paper and printing) are not very profitable.

Via Stephen Downes

The academy and a life beyond the boundaries

by reestheskin on 25/05/2016

Comments are disabled

Nice turn of phrase, from Benedict Anderson’s autobiography, in the Economist. I think it says a lot about the Academy.

“Scholars who feel comfortable with their position in a discipline, department or university will try neither to sail out of harbour nor to look for a wind,” he writes, paraphrasing an expression in Indonesia. “But what is to be cherished is the readiness to look for that wind and the courage to follow it when it blows in your direction.”

Chief ethics officer

by reestheskin on 19/04/2016

Comments are disabled

“In an attempt to clean up, Novartis has appointed a chief ethics officer and is in the process of tightening its rules on relations with doctors”. FT

Martin Wolf awhile back in the FT drew attention to the danger of pharma being viewed in the same light as many of us view Banks. Ethics committees don’t work. It is in  the corridors outside the committee rooms that people act natural. The problem is both with an organisation, and with what organisations are.

Half a colon is worth..

by reestheskin on 27/03/2016

Comments are disabled

Now I know; I think.

Kurt Vonnegut said it best: “Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.”

Quoted by John O’Callaghan in the Economist.

Causes of death

by reestheskin on 06/03/2016

Comments are disabled

Nice graphic over at flowingdata.com. Lots of other great graphics, too.

Not something you see too much these days: analogue innovations

by reestheskin on 17/02/2016

Comments are disabled

But sounds great……MXR analogue

Female organs revealed as weapons in sexual arms race [link]

Isn’t  biology just wonderful?

The three laws of elearning failure

by reestheskin on 22/12/2015

Comments are disabled

I like these from Marc Rosenberg (via Stephen Downes)

  1. Great eLearning technology combined with bad content results in more efficiently delivered bad content.
  2. eLearning that is compensation for bad documentation, tools, processes, or management will ultimately prove to be a waste of time and money.
  3. When great eLearning comes up against a lousy learning culture, the culture wins every time.

Stephen Downes comments: ‘Essentially they are restatements of one of the oldest laws of computing: garbage in, garbage out (GIGO)’.

‘As is natural of an academic’

by reestheskin on 11/12/2015

Comments are disabled

‘Now Weinberg has added another credential to his crowded vita: historian of science. In his past writings, he had mainly concerned himself with the modern era of physics and astronomy, from the late nineteenth century to the present—a time, he says, when “the goals and standards of physical science have not materially changed.” Yet to appreciate how those goals and standards took shape, he realized he would have to dig deeper into the history of science. So, “as is natural for an academic,” he volunteered to teach a course on the subject—in this case, to undergraduates with no special background in science or mathematics. Then he immersed himself in the primary and secondary literature. The result is To Explain the World, which takes us all the way from the first glimmerings of science in ancient Greece, through the medieval world, both Christian and Islamic, and down to the Newtonian revolution and beyond.’

In a review, by Jim Holt,of ‘To Explain the World: The Discovery of Modern Science’, by Steven Weinberg.

The problem is that this is no longer natural or even encouraged of an academic. And if the writings of Weinberg I have read are anything to go by, this course must have been something special. I can remember the late John Ziman telling me that having been appointed to a lectureship in physics at Cambridge, he realised that there was no suitable text for his Cambridge undergraduates in the area that interested him. So, he spent two years writing such a text (which sold well for many years, he added). He observed that no longer would a UK university consider some behaviour appropriate: what about the REF! This tells us something about great thinkers, deep domain expertise, and how explanatory ability is the crux of great teaching. And about universities, and their troubled relation with teaching — and academics.

Rees’ law relating scale to creativity

by reestheskin on 02/12/2015

Comments are disabled

On glancing at Nature Genetics, a journal I used to read (and even publish in).

If two or more authors on a single publication have identical  Christian and surnames, you have left discovery behind.

Humanity, is not as it seems either.

by reestheskin on 30/11/2015

Comments are disabled

Trained as a physicist, I quickly learned that the world is not as it seems. Space and time not only stretch like elastic, but can also morph one into another, and matter and energy can appear out of nothing, like rabbits from a magician’s hat. But the great shock to me in recent years is not simply that the physical world is an illusion, but that so too is the human world, as portrayed by our mainstream media and politicians.

This is from a review by Marcus Chown of ‘The Joy of Tax‘ by Richard Murphy. I haven’t read the book, but readers of this blog might note that I too am ‘new’ to much of this. John Naughton, Larry Lessig and James Boyle educated me that much of the un-natural world was not as self-evident as I had once imagined. This is the real danger of STEM.

Informal language is the athletic clothing of ideas.

Paul Graham  |   [direct link to this aside] 

“Flying in the face of convention, students can delegate some of their PhD work and learn how to become managers.”

Nature |  [direct link to this aside] 

We are doomed.

Professor Brown suggested that supporters of the market view have not addressed the question of “what the higher education market is a market in”, whether it is in “degrees, student outcomes, reputation or student experience”.

Roger Brown quoted in the THE. Indeed. [direct link to this aside

Bad lecturing may be bad, not by accident, but by intention.

by reestheskin on 08/10/2015

Comments are disabled



This post is essentially an excuse to share the sight that greeted me when I was visiting family in Rome last weekend. Taken from my bedroom window at around 9:24am (that is metadata for you…) at a small hotel Ilpostiglione in Campagnano just outside Rome.

Rich DeMillo spent some time in Italy, and one section of his first book on Higher Education, dealt with the issue of how the Jesuits disrupted and dealt with the prevailing civic model of university education in Europe in the 16th century (for more on the Jesuits and higher education see, O’Malley JW (1993) The first Jesuits, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press; and Carlsmith.   DeMillo drew parallels with attitudes around Open CourseWare at MIT in the early 21st century. If the materials you use, are freely available, what value do you add to them in return for fees? Content commoditisation forces you to think sharply about what the value you bring.

The first Jesuit universities realized that they could not possibly produce the quantity of course materials that had been in use for many decades at civic universities. That presented a dilemma to new colleges that wanted to concentrate their meager resources on teaching, not on textbook publishing. “It has been said in town that we do not have a method for teaching,” Father John Paul Nicholas explained in 1558 to the bishop of Perugia, who had asked why Jesuit instructors were reluctant to adopt Latin grammar textbooks. It so happened, said the bishop, that there was an adequate text, written by a professor at the University of Perugia named Christopher Sasso. John Paul replied, “If we use Sasso’s book, they will say what our students have learned, they learned from Sasso, not from us.

When I was a student the only ‘free’ course material were photocopied handouts. Since I didn’t enjoy most undergraduate lectures, I didn’t attend very many(the best bit of advice I received from a lecturer was: ‘perhaps you shouldn’t go to lectures’). I did of course go on the first day, but I remember the apparent disquiet of lecturers who would see me stride in before the lecture, grab the handout, and then walk out. I sympathise with their disquiet, but they needed a reality check. So, in DeMillo’s most recent book this meme is followed up, and it makes me laugh. The scene in not Italy now, but France.

In 1229, the liberal arts faculty members of the University of Paris decided that the lecture was primarily for their own benefit when they enacted the following statute: The masters of philosophy [must] deliver their expositions from their chairs so rapidly that, although the minds of their audience may grasp their meaning, their hands cannot write it down.… Henceforth in any lecture, ordinary or cursory or in any disputation or other manner of teaching, the master is to speak as in delivering a speech, and as if no one were writing in his presence. A lecturer who breaks the new rule is to be suspended for a year. Students had little say in the matter. The statute prescribed a one-year suspension for any student who complained by “shouting, hissing, groaning, or throwing stones.”

So maybe this is the underlying logic of abysmal lecturing (and of Powerpoint)? Of course, it seems to me that we have only moved on a bit. Presently, people claim it is unethical for students to recall — and pass on — exam questions (or in the case of the for profits, possibly illegal). I think this view will soon look as absurd as the views of the ancient French faculty do now.