30 May 2011

On living in a different world

  1. A little while ago I was helping my son to do some basic DIY involving screws. He's coming up for 30, and I was amazed to find him muttering to himself the the mantra; "Righty-tighty, lefty-loosy" to ensure he screwed them in correctly.
  2. Last year, at a study day for our in-service vocational teaching students about threshold concepts, the engineering special interest group suggested that "Righty-tighty, lefty-loosy" was an important threshold concept for their students to acquire. 
  3. Just now, confronted with a rather odd mixer tap (faucet) in the bathroom where I am staying, and trying to balance the flows, I found myself having to use it, too. (There were two tap heads mounted horizontally opposing each other at the base of a common outlet pipe.)
But where has it come from? Why do students of 16+ years have to be taught it? Isn't it just more complicated than the metaphor we have "always" used--clockwise and anti-clockwise? Yes it is, but I've just realised that these students grew up in a digital era. I read somewhere in the last few days the claim that 60% of people check the time on their mobiles, even after they have just looked at their watches. That struck me as rubbish, but it does suggest that the analogue clock face is no longer the universal trope it once was. (Hey! I finally used that word! Probably never again.)

On the police getting younger...

...but not so young they need to be nannied like this?

Just what goes through the so-called "minds" of the people who devise this rubbish? And do they give a thought to what message it sends to rank-and-file officers about how their seniors view them?

26 May 2011

On a prediction come true...

Harold Camping's response to the failure of his eschatological prediction of the "rapture" (pardon my ignorance, but this is a term which appears only to been used in the past ten or so years, associated with the amazingly/bizarrely successful "Left Behind" series of novels) is exactly as might have been predicted by Festinger et al.

But Mr. Camping said that he's now realized the apocalypse will come five months after May 21, the original date he predicted. He had earlier said Oct. 21 was when the globe would be consumed by a fireball.

Saturday was “an invisible judgment day” in which a spiritual judgment took place, he said. But the timing and the structure is the same as it has always been, he said.

“We've always said May 21 was the day, but we didn't understand altogether the spiritual meaning,” he said. “May 21 is the day that Christ came and put the world under judgment.”
(source here: retrieved 25 May 2011; my emphasis)

But what strikes me most forcibly is that he took the "spiritual/non-empirical" way out. He took the Pauline (Paul-eye-ne) option. Jesus was open to empirical claims and tests. The most important was that he would rise from the dead: even Paul took this on board ( I Cor. 15:14), but it remains unclear about what this meant/means. Jesus claimed a gospel of liberation:
he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised... (Luke 4:18 [AV]) 
But there was precious little evidence of it happening (not his fault: I remember a vox pop interview in South Africa at the time of the first free elections, and the interviewee, who had been queuing for hours to vote, being asked what she expected from the ANC and Nelson Mandela. She recited a long list of perfectly reasonable but utopian aspirations. How long would all this take? asked the interviewer. "I'll grant them three months.")

If you can't deliver what you have promised--promise even more, but in less specific terms...Or those further removed from testable reality... Until no-one can tell whether or not you can deliver.... Prophets and politicians and perhaps pedagogues all do it.

Sometimes--not at all often, I hope--it's the best thing to do. Better than setting yourself up to repeat the same error five months down the line.

20 May 2011

On the rapture--or not...

There's a good piece here on the possibility that the promised eschatological event won't happen.

As it points out, end-of-the-world scenarios have been fruitful research material for social psychologists since the mid-50s. And I have no doubt that there are dozens of research teams already busy this time around.

I've tried to apply the research on cognitive dissonance to less cataclysmic learning situations here.

See you Sunday! Perhaps.

14 May 2011

On the next step beyond wikipedia

Students are routinely warned not to cite wikipedia as a source in their work. However, sometimes it is the quickest and easiest way to get an overview of a subject--if only one could drill down to its sources (some good pages do reference them, but many don't) and evaluate them. They are not as transient as a wikipedia page, and they can be cited (if authoritative enough).

That facility is on its way. A new site--still in beta--seems to have adapted a similar technology to that used in Turnitin (plagiarism detection software) to find phrases and sentences in a Wikipedia article which also appear elsewhere on the web, to highlight and show the resemblances in a pop-up window, and to display the source information as a link so you can go there and check it out. Amazing! Semantic search is effectively here.

The team have not yet incorporated all of Wikipedia, which it why it is still in beta, but it can only get more useful.

I have a few anxieties about what this might do to some desk research--it just pushes the issue of evaluation further back, in that you still have to evaluate the source material rather than the secondary wiki article, but you do still have to evaluate it.

It may encourage a student in a hurry simply to read (and even quote and attribute) a single sentence from a primary source and never read enough of it to get a useful overview, or appreciate the significance of that sentence within an overall argument or body of evidence.

But used with care, it has potential...

Thanks to Amy Cavender at ProfHacker for the tip--read her take at the link.

On the theory and practice of the right to be heard...

I've just been watching Newsnight and a discussion of the privacy/freedom of the press/injunctions issue. The participants were a well-known actor, a lawyer, a magazine editor, and a "former escort"*

Much of the discussion concerned how rich men were able to exploit the present legal provision to cover up their discreditable activities, often to the oppression of others involved who were prohibited from telling their stories.

The discussion was articulate and cut-and-thrust, good TV. For three of the four participants. The chair, Emily Maitlis, did a great job trying to ensure that the former escort had her say. She (the guest) made her points well, but she was out of her depth when the discussion took off, and just sat waiting to be invited to join in.

(And substantively she had the most nuanced case to argue...)

Three confident and assertive professionals in their (more or less) natural habitat. And one not. And her non-participation said more about whose interests are really being served than any of the points being made verbally by the others.

Watch it on iPlayer until 20 May, here.

* All respect to the woman who was prepared to appear on the programme;
(her name appeared on screen so anonymity is not an issue, just irrelevant.) I'm sure it was not a trivial act.

12 May 2011

On e-text books

The heading link is to an interesting piece by Nicholas Carr, on the limitations of the Kindle & co. e-readers as vehicles for text-books.

11 May 2011

On the death of OWK

I'd normally just link to this page from "shared items", but this is worth a direct mention!

Not just because it's an exemplary spoof, but also because of what it says about how news is routinely mediated. (Click in the top-right corner for the original story.)

Thanks to Boing-Boing for the link.

08 May 2011

On managerialism

Fred Inglis in the Times Higher Education this week:
The language of managerialism, as the immortal parodies written every week for these pages by Laurie Taylor assure us, is a language in which it is impossible to tell the truth.
(A fine line and point--even if he is lauding Leavis.)

05 May 2011

On not strutting

This is silly at one (or several) levels. I looked for a forum or comment stream to post it to, but didn't find one, so it's here.... (Oh! missed this!)

I am a great fan of The West Wing; a candidate for the greatest ever TV drama series.

The real world counterpart of their situation room is a little less dramatic, but recognisable:

The decision not to release the pictures of bin Laden's corpse is explained here with another take here.

Or, as Leo McGarry put it in Series 2, ep. 8 in a different context: "We do not strut. Ever".

More deconstruction of the photo here. I'm not going to mention all the photoshopped crap out there.

04 May 2011

On dividing up groups (and other tools)

Being practical for once; a ProfHacker article in the Chronicle of Higher Education (a free US on-line magazine) drew my attention to Malcolm Sparrow's Excel-based tool for creating small groups from large classes taking into account several variables called the GRumbler.

It may be overkill given generally smaller class sizes in the UK even on undergraduate programmes, but nevertheless a useful tool.

And while I'm at it, here are a few more conceivably useful tools I have come across recently--and given that I am a skinflint, they're all free (for Windows--some may have Mac or even Linux versions, but I haven't checked):
  • Teach history, politics, social admin? Then take a look at Dipity. It's an on-line tool to create interactive timelines. At the moment the demo. on the homepage concerns (of course) the history of Al-Qa'eda, but if you have a story to tell and it has been covered on the web, you can see how effective it may be.
  • If you ever need to create screen-shots or screen-casts, then the simplest way has to be Jing, from Techsmith. It sits unobtrusively on your screen ready to grab static images or movies of whatever is going on, from any package. Only reservation; if configured to autorun at startup, it can slow down the boot process.
  • Concept-mapping? When planning teaching, particularly out of one's direct speciality, it's sometimes difficult to relate concepts and ideas and items of information to each other, to see where they fit, and what other material may be important to mention... That is where C-Link comes in. It's another on-line tool: in its basic configuration you simply enter two terms which can be found in a particular knowledge repository (to begin with, Wikipedia serves very well)
  • This is a Jing capture (saved as .swf) of C-Link at work (sorry the sound is fuzzy, but it doesn't add anything) It's almost an instant syllabus/book outline/essay generator.
  • And this:
  • ...is a concept-map exported from the site, and imported into C-Map Tools; which is a concept-mapping package (of course), also free and available from here. Concept-mapping is not the same as mind-mapping, as you can probably tell from the image. C-map Tools is a powerful package, incorporating its own presentation-authoring package--if you can find it--but not particularly friendly, and it insists on storing your files where it wants, not where you want. Nevertheless it does things others can't. (The image was once again captured by Jing in screenshot mode and slightly edited and cropped.)