Facebook and that study

Just briefly, given the general response to the Facebook empathy contagion article on PNAS a while back (an hour is a long time on the internet, let’s face it), the question I would have to ask is this: is everyone in Facebook so attached to what they can do with their dataset that they no longer remember to ask whether they should be doing that stuff with their dataset?

A while back, I met a guy doing a PhD in data visualisation or something related and he spoke at length about how amazing it was, what could be done with health data and how the data had to be freed up because it would benefit society so much. I’ve never really bought that idea because the first thing you have to ask is this: do individuals get messed up if we release a whole pile of health data, and if so, to what extent are you willing to have people messed up?

What I’m leading to here is the question of group think and yesmenery. Ultimately, there comes a point where people are so convinced that they should do what they want, that they are unwilling to listen to dissent. The outcry over Facebook’s study has been rather loud and yet, it doesn’t appear to have occurred to anyone who had anything to do with the study that people might find it a bit creepy, to say the least. It’s not even a question of “oh, you know, our terms and conditions” or “oh, you know, we checked with Cornell’s review board”, it’s just straight up “is it creepy that we’re trying to manipulate people’s feelings here? Without telling them?”

I mean, I can’t ever imagine a case in which the answer to that question is anything other than Yes, yes it is creepy and eugh. And yet, it doesn’t seem to have occurred to anyone connected with it that it was kind of creepy and gross.

Once we get past that, what’s being focussed on is the datascience aspect and I have a hard time swallowing that too. This was a psychological experiment, not a datascience on. I mean, if you did a similar study with 40 people, you wouldn’t call it a statistical experiment, would you? In many respects, the datascience aspect is pretty irrelevant; it’s a tool to analyse the data and not the core of the experiment in and of itself. A datascience experiment might involve identifying the differences in outcome between using a dataset with 10,000 records and a dataset with 10 million records for example. Or identifying the the scale of difference in processor speeds between running a data analysis on one machine versus another.

Anyway, the two main issues I want to take away from this is that a) it wasn’t really a datascience experiment and b) sometimes you need to find people who are willing to tell you that what you are doing is ick, and you need to listen to them.

Thing is – and this is where we run into fun – what have they done that they haven’t told us about?


People don’t fear change that enhances their lives

I have spent a lot of the last 24 hours reading discussions on the subject of Ubuntu and Unity in particular. I had (and have again) Linux Mint install but following issues linked to the screen lock with processes running in a Python window, I temporarily switched over to Ubuntu.

In the time that it was installed, I discovered user interface design decisions which appeared to be made with no consideration of users, and it crashed a couple of times. It’s gone and I have gone back to Mint, reconfigured screen savers (ie, switched them and screen sleep completely off) and the issues which I had previously do not appear to have (yet) remanifested themselves.

But Ubuntu…Someone in Canonical thought it was a good idea to a) remove the application menu from the application window and b) put it on the global menu at the top of the screen and c) hide it.

The first time this charade manifested itself was with Sublime Text – my text editor of choice for most serious work – and I could not find the menu. It’s one thing to take it away from the application window – unwise in my view but not unknown and probably tolerable. Hiding it was not.

I know that Canonical have done something about this with 14.04 which released very recently. But this fiasco has been reality for a few years now and a lot of people screamed blue murder about it. It may be a small and cosmetic thing but it interferes with usability. It may seem overdramatic but it is the one single feature of Ubuntu that made me decide that the desktop environment was unusable for me. Its key outcome was to make software I wanted to use and was reasonably familiar with much, much harder to use. The fact that it took nearly 3 years for some sort of a fix isn’t really that edifying to be honest and few people are going to put the very newest version of a piece of software on when a) they know it’s about a week or two in release and b) they need some form of stability.

I’m aware that Ubuntu’s response to criticisms of Unity has been to recommend other distros. When I come to Ubuntu as a new user, that doesn’t really make me feel that Ubuntu is particularly interested in dialogue with your users. No matter how free your stuff is, no one is going to want to use it if they think they are being stomped on.

The other thing which someone decided was that no one really needed any sort of a reasonable hierarchical application menu. Up front, if you wanted to get at your applications, you had to search for them either through the general lens or the application lens. There are some benefits to being able to do a search like this. However, there are wholesale user disadvantages to not having a reasonable hierarchical and catogorisable view of your software as well. For all the world’s complaints about it, even Windows 8’s Metro UI allows you the option of arranging your applications in a logical set of groups. Linux Mint gives you a menu.

Ubuntu gives you a search field. That’s fine for documents and for email in my gmail account. It is utterly frustrating for managing applications and more specifically, launchers for your applications.

There is only so much real estate in the not-movable launcher on the left handside, and anyway, the first thing you have to do on installing Ubuntu is to get rid of the – I was going to say junk – but shall we say “stuff you don’t need” before you can do anything. The default install size of the launcher is too big (but at least that can be customised) and it comes with a lot of Libre Office stuff and a direct link to Amazon.

I remember when Windows machines used to come preloaded with all sorts of commercial launchers on the desktop. I didn’t like it then and I don’t like it now. And yes, I know Ubuntu is free.

And this is its big problem. It’s possible that if it wasn’t free and easily replaceable with other free things, I’d spend two or three days getting rid of Unity, installing a more functional desktop but of course I have to go and test a bunch of them before hoping there are no stability issues. The great beauty of Linux is that you can do a lot of customisation (although some of that is seriously limited within Unity). The great disadvantage for Linux is that sometimes, people don’t have enough time to do this. They have tasks they want to achieve, they know that in theory they are easier to achieve in Linux than they are on Windows (viz some Python related stuff and running a few other open source applications like R). Ultimately, there is a lot to be said for ensuring that when they open a basic, high profile distro, it works.

Most of what I’ve seen written about Unity by users – viz people who comment on blogs as opposed to people who write blogs – is that they’ve gotten used to it. It seems to be more a resigned tolerance than anything. A lot of people have switched over to Linux Mint. A lot have switched back to Debian. A lot have looked for ways of making other desktop environments usable. And a lot complain that it’s only a vocal minority whinging, who don’t like change. Most people, in my experience, don’t mind change which enhances their lives. When it is utterly disruptive and makes their lives harder, that’s an entirely different kettle of fish.

I’m not a long term Linux user. It’s unlikely that I will ever again go near Ubuntu. Unity was unusable and when I looked into it any any detail, it was obvious that Canonical didn’t want to take on board any negative feedback, and it took three years for them to fix – sort of – one of the more annoying interface issues. I know some people find the whole keyboard centric search options fine. But I don’t see it as an OS for people who are superuser keyboarders. I see it as an OS to be avoided by people who are interested in structuring the information and assets they have on their computer. It’s all fine having search to find everything for you, except the few things you squash onto the Launcher. Everything I tried to do with it up front was a struggle. It’s possible that tinkering around with Linux is a hobby and a game for some people. Other people actually need it to function.

In my view, if you want to try Linux, Ubuntu really isn’t the best choice. Stick with Mint for now.



If I had your data: Job Bridge

Yesterday I read a piece that suggested that the Department of Social and Family Affairs weren’t about to release the names of companies which used the Job Bridge service. So I decided to have a closer look at it with a view to doing some data analysis on the subject.

There are a couple of things I’d like to have a look at in terms of the current vacancies (around 2500 per the Job Bridge site) but I haven’t yet figured out how I am going to pull down all that data (webscraping isn’t something I am prone to do too often). Having looked at a couple of pages of internships I am struck by a few things.

  1. lot of hairdressing and beauty spa
  2. lot of “administration”
  3. lot of comment about “formal/informal” training
  4. lot of boilerplate text.

And that’s just the start of it.

Job Bridge itself provides “Job Bridge Data“. This is not data. This is a summary of aggregated data. I have seen a claim that 60% of Job Bridge participants go on to obtain work after the program but there is no information on that in the “Job Bridge Data” for example. What would be interesting out of that data is where those participants are getting jobs. Are they getting jobs in their host companies and is it pretty much the case that the state is effectively paying for 6 to 9 months of a probationary period? Having done internships myself in a previous life, my experience regarding full time internships is that if companies tended to need them, they paid for them. I know for example that a few of the technical companies here still do, for example.

I have a couple of data projects on the go at the moment, plus some work for my own college course right now and unfortunately, I don’t see a quick and obvious way of getting the current Job Bridge vacancies down to me, even in an unstructured manner. This is regrettable. I know there is ongoing a lot of controversy about the Job Bridge program and to some extent, understandably so – I saw at least one teaching position “must commit for the nine months” and one farm labourer position. These, in my book, are jobs rather than internships. I’m not really that interested in picking out the odd job here and there, however, to make that point. I’m interested to see what sectors are using the program, whether there’s any way that internships can be classified as jobs rather than internships. Some sort of structured data that I can pull into R would be nice. I’d also like to do some spatial analysis on where these are and again, the structure of the site is not lending itself to that because of the odd things like Tipp North, Tipp South, all the Dublin vacancies dumped into one bucket, but the city and county listings being separate for Cork, Galway, Limerick and Waterford. What would be nice is a structured dump of the data.

One can wish, I suppose.

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence

As of yesterday evening sometime, my twitter feed has lit up with claims that a computer has passed the Turing test for the first time. These claims have their roots in this press release from Reading University.

The details of the test and how it was carried out are thin on the ground. We do know from Reading’s press release that one of the judges was an actor and that in 33% of cases, the computer could not be distinguished from a human.

I have a couple of key questions.

  1. What language did the humans interact with the bot in? This is important because the bot is defined as a 13 year old boy from the Ukraine. If the interaction was in English then for me, all bets are off.
  2. Where is the peer reviewed paper?

The Turing Test is, in many respects, iconic. If someone claims to pass it, a press release is going to be nowhere near adequate to support that claim. We need to know a lot more about the system concerned, how it works and how it operates.


University isn’t a finishing school, you know

There has been some discussion lately about Jackie Lavin’s contribution to Prime Time on Tuesday 3 June when the subject under discussion was third level education. Amongst her assertions were that some graduates didn’t have a clue and you could cut a year at least off most university degrees.

I have trouble with those two assertions for various reasons. But I have a much bigger problem with all this and that is, other than seeing her complaints about how her banks have treated her, I really have no idea why Jackie Lavin has the media profile she has in terms of business. I mean, I’m aware there was a hotel in Kerry that may not have been completely successful as it were, but otherwise, apart from being Bill Cullen’s partner, I’m not actually sure what her achievements are, and certainly, cannot see what qualifies her to come on national television and claim that some of the graduates she worked with on The Apprentice didn’t have a clue.

Of course they don’t. Common sense is something you get from experience, from trying and failing. Lavin’s comments on this subject are not common sense, in that respect. They are detached from reality. Not only that, the cohort of graduates which might apply to go on The Apprentice cannot be held to be representative of graduates as a whole. It is a self selecting cohort, and if I had a business idea, I cannot say that I’d necessarily consider The Apprentice the best place to be pitching it. In fact, bearing in mind that television is in the business of entertainment and not in the business of business support (except if you are paying for advertising) arguably, there’s a good reason for staying away from the whole exercise altogether. It probably is even, dare I say it, common sense to focus on the needs of your business which may not, almost certainly won’t, align with the needs of an entertainment medium.

With respect to the idea of chopping the length of undergraduate degrees, again, I’m not sure that you can a) generalise and b) comment if you’re not sure what the purpose of an undergraduate degree is. Brian Lucey has provided some commentary here and it is more detailed than I can provide at this point in time. I recommend reading it. That being said, the breadth of options on the undergraduate degree supply side is such that it would be highly unwise to suggest a generalised change to all of them.

There are other issues of course – Paddy Cosgrave already made rather unpopular comments about the standards of degrees between different awarding institutions, and then there is the ongoing suggestion that universities should act as supplier belts to the employers. In truth, it’s not that simple and never has been. It seems to me that what employers value has changed over time; 20-25 years ago there was less of a specialised focus on particular skillsets such as programming a specific language, and more of a focus on understanding how things worked in general.

There are massive, massive cost issues on the academic and government side to tailoring university courses exactly to what any particular employer wants. A key example of this has floated straight to the top in programming languages; Apple have announced a new one, Swift, which, over time, is near guaranteed to replace Objective-C. So the question is, do you want someone who is an Objective-C expert, or someone who can take the handbook for Swift and hit the ground running? The truth is, you’re more likely to get the latter if you haven’t rammed all your efforts into training Objective-C programmers because that’s what the iOS application market was demanding.

Good employers understand this. Good employers understand that there are generalised skill sets they need, and specialised skill sets they may have to arrange for new hires to get themselves. This is true of most employers and this is why continuing professional development matters. It is a recognition that learning is an ongoing activity and you don’t pop out of university aged 22, finished. University is less a finishing school for employment and more a starting school.

There is a wider debate to be had on identifying what we need to focus our educational efforts on but, as anyone who has ever actually discussed this with me in the real world will know, this is not something that we can discuss in terms of any part of the education system in isolation. When we have issues with language learning and mathematics at leaving certificate level, the problems did not start when those students reached the age of 16, but probably when they were 7 or 8.

So I am in favour of a general reframing of our discussion of education in a coherent manner covering the whole, rather than some little details. When you have someone who is famous for – I’m not exactly sure what – in the business world popping up suggesting that we should shorten undergraduate degrees, I don’t think we get that discussion.

When RTE run these discussions, I would like them to consider their speakers a little more carefully. I am not sure what sector Jackie Lavin was supposed to be representing but if she was representing the employers side, then I don’t think she was the best choice. I would like it if, for example, RTE took a serious look at our middle industry and got senior people in from the likes of Kerry Foods, any of our home grown agri-industrials, any of our home grown pharmaceuticals. They tend to need a broader skillset, in certain cases they tend to need to get people to come to less popular locations with the indirect costs that can bring, but above all, they are dealing with different challenges, different realities.

And they are the sector we need to hear much much more from. I would love to see what, for example, Colm Lyons of Realex or Eoghan McCabe of Intercom, or Edmond Harty of DairyMaster or someone from Perrigo might have had to say about the constraints they work under given the current focuses in the third level education sector. I think it might be a lot more nuanced.

Storytelling at the cost of accuracy

It is entirely possible that this story has passed you by, but the French train operating company SNCF has ordered a number of new trains. Reports will tell you that they’ve ordered 2000 new trains but that is not, strictly speaking correct; they have ordered a little over 400. The order is in the news not because every person in Europe is a trainspotter and madly excited by NEW TRAINS ZOMG, but because the trains are marginally too wide for a number of regional train stations in France, the sort of stations, in fact, that they will be serving.

So far, so funny, at least it’s not us, cue discussions online about dataquality. However, most of the people I see discussing this only speak English, none of them seem to have read any source material in French. So here’s the issue. While it is true, in fact, that some of the new trains are marginally too wide for some of the stations, the SNCF and their colleagues in the RFF who specified the requirements for the new trains, actually have known about this for a few years. The trains were specified to be used in stations which are in compliance with new-ish (in this internet world, anything older than 5 seconds probably isn’t very new any more) international standards. So in tandem with ordering trains, there is also a program of work, currently budgeted at 50 million and in planning since 2011 (that’s 3 years ago) to bring the stations up to international standards, a program of work which has to be done anyway.

If you were to read the stories as they appeared initially, they would seem to imply that the trains are arriving and now the French are discovering that they are too wide. Some of the French reports suggest that the trains are 20cm wider than their predecessors (the BBC helpfully reports them as too fat), but the truth is, it’s not that actually true that this has been sprung on the SNCF as a total complete shock, oh dear moment.

According to Les Echos, which is a French business paper, 1300 of the 8700 railway stations in France have platforms which do not accommodate the new trains (this is also mentioned in the RFF press release linked below). 300 of those 1300 stations have already been fixed and six hundred more will be done by the end of the year. The trains in question are gradually coming into service by the end of 2016 by the way. The work is currently being paid for by money from the RFF’s 4 billion euro infrastructure budget.

So the question is, why is this news now? And why is it staying news? The answer, as can often be the case, is politics. The RFF is reportedly – and they have not confirmed this – considering looking for funding support from the regions for the purposes of bringing the train stations up to international standards.

« Nous refusons de verser un seul centime sur cette réparation. On ne va pas, quand même, être à la fois pigeon et financeurs. Les régions ne sont pas des pigeons », a déclaré hier dans la cour de l’Elysée, Alain Rousset président de la région Aquitaine et de l’ARF avant un rendez-vous avec François Hollande.

So the regions don’t want to pay for the platform works.

The trains, however, are paid for by the regions and they’d like not to have to have the SNCF and the RFF involved either – they’d like full control over the TERs thank you very much.

However, the other issue which is keeping this in the news is the separation of the RFF and the SNCF 17 years ago.

The question of rail industry reform is on the table in France at the moment, so it is, if you want to change your relationship with the rail operating and the rail infrastructure companies, not a bad time to be discussing what can go wrong and looking for greater autonomy.

Le responsable  est à chercher du côté de « celles et ceux qui ont fait la commande, » a ajouté Alain Rousset. Ce navrant épisode procure enfin aux régions, qui financent les TER et voudraient acheter leur matériel roulant sans passer par la SNCF , une nouvelle occasion de revendiquer davantage d’indépendance vis-à-vis du tandem en charge des opérations ferroviaires. « C’est pour ça que nous on veut reprendre en main ces commandes. On paie 100% des TER, c’est à nous d’en assurer la commande, la propriété . Il faut que les régions s oient vraiment des autorités organisatrices, qu’elles aient la capacité de déterminer le tarif, les services, la maintenance», a poursuivi Alain Rousset.

(Both of Alain Rousset’s quotes are from the Les Echos piece linked above)

Basically, the regions, who finance the regional trains, want the SNCF out of the picture, they want independence in terms of the rail operations, they should be the organising authorities, should be able to set the fares, the service levels and the maintenance.

So what is the real story here? The French rail company ordered trains  which conformed to international platform standards, when 1300 of their railway stations did not actually conform to those standards. By the end of 2014, 900 of those stations will have been upgraded to cater for those trains. Those trains will progressively go into service by end of 2016 by which time you’d expect they could manage to have the remaining 400 stations sorted out.

The issues appear to be:

  • whether the budget set aside for this work is adequate and if not, should the regions perhaps contribute some money towards bringing the railway stations in their area up to international standard
  • whether communications between the SNCF and the RFF and the ARF (the umbrella group for the regions) are all that they could be
  • whether rail reform done 17 years ago was helpful or not
  • whether further rail reform is required.

The RFF suggests that they only started looking at this problem in 2011 although the trains were ordered in 2009 and that this maybe was a little late. I’m not sure, however, that that this is the biggest issue here – time wise, they are well on their way to having the stations sorted out; the French have done this kind of thing in the past to cater for the TGVs when they were brought in and, you would have thought, upgrading railway stations to modern standards, is the kind of thing that should be happening anyway.

I don’t see this as a data quality issue au fond. Ultimately the platforms have to be updated anyway. French bloggers writing on the subject see it as issues relating to communication issues between the ARF, the RFF and the SNCF which is probably part of it with added soupcon of rail industry reform past and present. More than anything, right now, we are talking about a story which isn’t quite true in all its ZOMG They Ordered Trains That Were TOO BIG glory, which is now being used as a political football.

It seems to be to somewhat unfair to approach things using what Terry Pratchett calls narritivium rather than actual reality.

For further information read:



Le Monde

RFF Press release

All those links are in French by the way

Language skills and the need for them

The Guardian has lately been running pieces on the subject of language studies and language learning both outside and inside the university structure. The UK has a particular problem in this respect; the number of universities offering language courses is dropping more or less off a cliff; the UK government removed the need for a language at GSCE levels a few years ago. There is currently a shortage of English translators within the European Union structures and for the most part, those that they hire have fewer languages than other languages. The EU is running translation and interpreting competitions at the moment; out of more than 120 applicants for interpreting last year, just 3 have made the final stage of the competition Out of 1330 applications for translation, 60 have made the final round.

I have an interest in discussions of this nature because my original degree was in French and German, and I’ve trained as both a translator and an interpreter. I’ve worked as both in the past although more as a translator than as an interpreter.  I have worked in information technology for most of the past 15 years however, and I’m currently studying for a Masters in Computer Science. One of the key issues I have, especially in Ireland, is that while there is a refrain that we need language skils, the simple truth is historically, we just don’t pay for them.

One of the driving forces for the attraction of any given field of study tends – often – to be a trade off between how hard and how likely you are to earn a lot of money. You can see this with trends in the popularity of courses on the CAO forms in Ireland. And at the moment, there is a big push on STEM subjects for the knowledge economy.

Belinda Parmar of Little Miss Geek wrote a piece in the Guardian last August decrying the waste of time that was her language degree.

I spent a semester learning about Spanish chivalric literature, wrote a dissertation about surrealist images, fell in love with the poetry of Federico García Lorca and, in short, wasted four years of my life. My degree in French and Spanish – despite being a decent grade from a good university – is not worth the paper it’s written on.

I found this utterly depressing but I sort of understand the logic that drove her to that assessment. The skills are not valued economically; it’s as simple as that. I know translators who will tell you on the freelance market, they are getting crushed. Much of the job is automated, and quality requirements are changing. If you want to make a living as a translator, you really need to be off the freelance market. But these are not the only jobs which language graduates can do and it never has been. Nor are they limited to teaching, nor are they limited to bilingual secretarial jobs. At a certain level – and it’s not the lowest level – it doesn’t really matter what you studied at university, you’re not working in your specialisation. Most people I know who studied computer science at university are managers, not techies. Bridging into that gap is difficult though and I don’t know how you make it happen and people who study for language degrees don’t find much flexibility in terms of bringing them on board in the way that other more vocationalised graduates are.

In the meantime, there is a recognition in the UK that language learning has hit a crisis point. Katrin Kohl has a piece in today’s Guardian which highlights the problem. The number of available courses is dropping because they aren’t popular. She notes that getting high marks in language courses can be harder at A-level than it is for STEM subjects. If I were to summarise the problem, it is that the return on effort is too low.

It’s as simple as that. You can put all the effort you like into learning to speak fluent French but very few employers care about it and none of them want to pay for it. In the meantime, an increasing number of people think that Google Translate means that translation skills aren’t that necessary any more, and that games like Duolingo make it easy to learn languages.


One of the joys of being back at university is the unexpected bits of inspiration that pop up. Today was one of those days when…well…

NaoThis is Nao.

Nao came in to visit today, with one of the PhD students who is doing some research on robot-human interaction. I’ve never seen anything quite like him/her (decision to be made really).

I mean, how can you not love something like this:

IMG_1589_cropNao can dance, can walk, can talk and can interact with you. He/she plays this sports game where he/she mimes the sport and you guess.

Nao gets to know you. “Look at my eyes until they turn green”. And they do.

It is fair to say that every single student who met Nao was utterly entranced by him. I would love a Nao of my every own. Nao has five thousand brothers and sisters dotted around the world. Surely there could be one for me?

Here is Nao dancing:

And Gangam style thanks to the University of Canterbury

This is the promo video from Nao’s parents, Aldebaran Robotics.

Here’s what I would do if I wanted to get more people into information technology, computer science and related cutting edge technology. I would acquire a couple of these robots, and I would hand them over to school outreach programs. And I would send them into primary schools and junior cycle secondary and I would say “Look at what you can do if you study work on maths and related.”

This is the stuff of dreams and inspiration. We’re behind the game, I think, if we’re putting iPads into school. If we put Nao into schools, we are putting the future into schools.

Very few schools have the funds to fund a robot like this. It is something that needs to be done at a national level, or possibly by the universities.

Eben Upton at UCD

Eben Upton came to UCD to have a chat about the Raspberry Pi today. Actually, he was accompanied by Alan Lund from RS – whom I should mention spoke very eloquently about the challenges involved in the Raspberry Pi and why it was such a ground breaker for them.

I love the Raspberry Pi. I bought mine last November as a birthday present and one of the key attractions for me at the time was the arrival of Mathematica and Wolfram Alpha. I have a lot of time for Stephen Wolfram. But one of the key reasons that I love the Raspberry Pi is that I’m a child of the home computing era. I have been that trooper typing in the code from Atari XL Magazine to try and guide that frog across the road. I have a great respect for anyone else I ever meet who’s had a go at it. Bloody typos.

So I was never going to miss Eben’s talk today.

Eben’s point of view is fairly straightforward but it’s illustrative of other aspects of society which is that we tend not to notice problems coming down the line, not en masse anyway (cf property and stock bubbles the world over). Eben caught a decline in the numbers of students applying for computer science in Cambridge, and a corresponding decline in their experience. His hypothesis is – and I think it’s a reasonable one – that children from a certain era basically had locked down computers rather than the liberty of shoving a tape in the cassette deck and hoping that the thing would boot for a change so that we could attempt to play Flight SImulator again.

Children – to a great extent – had handheld consoles and PlayStations and the PC in the corner, to a greater extent, was probably Mum and Dad’s. So the landscape changed and became a little less free.

We’re screaming now about the lack of qualified technical people. Eben caught this vibe in 2006 and started looking at causes for it. That takes vision.

So, today, he spoke at UCD courtesy of the Mature Students Society and the School of Library and Information Science and he had a lot of interesting things to say.

He went into the history of the idea behind the Raspberry Pi in some detail in an utterly engaging manner, and talked about the difference between their original expectations around it – maybe build 1000 units and ship them out to schools and hope they fell into the right hands – and the reality which is well over two and a half million of them have been sold. Because rather than just being computers for kids. they have appealed to a far broader range of people. This was entirely unexpected.

I’m a bridge hopper on the geek front. I started programming when I was 12 or 13 – I thought it was fantastic what you could do with them, maybe wasn’t the 1% brilliant and sank rather than swam although I typed up some nice graphic thingies into the Atari and regularly beat my brother’s high score in Jet Boot Jack and Flight Apocolyse. And I liked maths a lot.

However, for various reasons, I wound up studying modern languages at university. I probably could have done computer science at the time but I didn’t, at the age of 17, operate in that zone. So I speak fluent French and German. And a smattering of Spanish. I’ve a degree in translation and a diploma in interpreting. And when I was 27. I got hired as a programmer.

Most of my working life, I have worked with IBM assembler. I have worked on Big Iron. I really want to say this because I sometimes find the technological world a bit divisive between us and non-us. I’m not a classical geek but I have done a lot of bare metal programming.

(so I told Eben that we had to get rid of this geek/non geek division).

Anyway, my experience with the Raspberry Pi is this. I bought one. Went into Maplins, bought one, instant gratificationn, the morning of my most recent birthday and then prepared to tell people. Interestingly, my mother’s response was highly positive. She’s not a technical person (although she will have a Raspberry Pi when I eventually sort out her entertainment centre, sometime after I get through the May exams) but she understood completely what Eben was trying to do. She had done it herself 30 years earlier when she went to my cousin and asked his advice about getting a computer for her two youngest children. Her only proviso is that when I make her entertainment centre work, it must be simple to operate.

I fully get that.

One of my friends who has typically fallen squarely into the Users category when it comes to computers is fascinated and wants, again, to look into the idea of an entertainment centre. This time though, she wants me to write the instructions and let her do it herself. She doesn’t at this point want to write code and isn’t really sure if there’s anything else she’d want to do.

I get that too. But more than that, I get the curiosity.

Curiosity matters a whole pile in this game and one of the factors which was most discussed today was the question of computers in education. The UK has just implemented a massive change to their computer science curriculum at EBac level which is Junior Cert level. It has gone from being a user centric process to a developer centric process. There are lots of doubts in terms of how it will be implemented and while this formed no part of Eben’s talk, I am aware that there are serious concerns about the structure put in place to support this. My main concern about this is that it is over ambition and misdirected. I got computers because they were a game, an exploration. When they become a duty, there is a very real risk that people lose a certain amount of interest. I’ve seen this over the year with mathematics and while it is important that people are mathematically literate, the simple truth is that mostly, they are not.

Eben gets this. and the Raspberry Pi Foundation get this so a lot of effort is going into professional development to support teachers and the recognition that there is a communications ask here.

The question and answer session afterwards was interesting; one of the key comments which was made related specifically to the failure of some people to bridge the divide on passing on programming skills. I think this is very important, and I also think that the idea of one true way needs to go. While maths skills are important, programming is very much a creative skill (and this is why I don’t particularly enjoy programming in Java – a lot of elements of creativity are taken out of it for me) and creativity is not a skill limited to people who self identify as geeks.

In the main, if you get a chance to hear Eben speak, I’d grab it. He is utterly engaging, he believes absolutely in what the Raspberry Pi Foundation are doing, and recognises the random steps that have changed things here and there for him – in particular relating to getting the Raspberry Pi manufactured in the UK.

He also mentioned one story which I thought was fantastic and it related to the person who invented the designs for one of the Lego based cases for the Raspberry Pi. She was 11 years old and she negotiated her royalty payment in Lego

I think that is absolutely fantastic and if that’s what it takes to get more kids looking at this, fantastic.

(the other story which I loved involved sending a teddy bear up to the edge of space. I would like to do the same with a Barbie doll – I feel it would be symbolic on a lot of levels plus an interesting technical challenge).

All in all, a fantastic couple of hours.


Putting a value on desired skills

I have an eye on the jobs market on an ongoing basis and this morning, a temporary vacancy dropped into my inbox for a data analyst role, requiring fluent French.

I tick these boxes. I speak fluent French; lived in France for one year, Belgium for 2. Added to that I have very good German as well. I’ve never felt, however, that language skills have been particularly valued. They are nice to haves but the jobs they are considered for are often low paid jobs. In 1999 – which is a long time ago – I laughed at a recruitment agent who told me that I was on to a good thing with two fluent languages and recent experience living in countries with both language, that oooh, I could be earning up to £14000 pounds as I would get two language premia.

That was ten thousand pounds a year less than I had been earning as a secretary in Belgium before I came back to Ireland. It was also less than I was learning as a contract secretary in jobs where all they cared about was my ability to answer the phone and type at more than 65wpm.

So, I rocked up in a job in IT that didn’t involve much of a need to speak languages. I’m now interested in data analytics anyway – more possibly interested in numeracy as well – and am following a university course which features analytics as a core skill.

This ad had an hourly rate attached. It also talked about a possibility of earning up to a particular level for very hard work.

The level was not very high. Being frank, there are a lot of secretarial roles out there which have higher salaries.

This suggests to me that language skills are not particularly valued in Ireland, and nor are data analytical roles; or at least a lot of people looking for data analysts don’t value skills enough.

I don’t have a lot of free time at the moment, but I’m inclined to see if I can possibly figure out a way of identifying the economic premium paid for perceived desirable skills. I’m inclined to wonder if we hear skills are desired simply because people don’t want to pay for them sometimes.

this is about data and technology and where I interact with both