David McWilliams and teachers

David McWilliams has a piece in today’s Irish Independent which basically suggests the problem with teachers is with teachers themselves, mainly, they are too stuck in the mud.

Debate on education in Ireland  is rarely if ever balanced and the current hassle causing discussion is linked to changes to the Junior cycle assessment. However, when you see people contributing to debate in a manner that includes “why don’t you leave it, oh yeah, you’d lose your three months’ holidays”, and “Overpaid, jobs for life”, my soul fades away a little people. Arguments of this nature are ignorant. In Ireland, probably led on by the UK, we don’t trust teachers.

We don’t trust teachers.

We devalue their work, reject their contributions to debate on their industry and suggest their sole motivation is for the easy life of three years holidays.

And then we throw Finland at them.

In not one column discussion changes locally and citing Finland as an example, do we highlight core features of the Finnish system that made it special. It is a highly equal system and its core objective was social equality. Becoming best in literacy and numeracy was a fringe benefit.

So here are some features of the Finnish system which perhaps Irish people should want to take on board.

There are practically no private schools. 

All those rugby playing schools who populate the elite in Ireland? Gone. Nothing. I personally have no objection to this  – I think it’s a good idea. What private schools exist in Finland are subject to a few rules which I don’t think would go down well here:

However, even in private schools, the use of tuition fees is strictly prohibited, and selective admission is prohibited, as well: private schools must admit all its pupils on the same basis as the corresponding municipal school.

Source:

Teachers have a great deal of autonomy.

Teachers are highly valued members of society and their contribution is recognised as valued. Certainly the Finns pay their teaching staff less than we do, but only ignorant people would fail to see that this is part of a whole. Living conditions in Finland tend to be better across the board and the last time I was there, it was also a noticeably less expensive place to live in. Comparing purely in monetary terms is something we really should learn not to do. However, one of the key things which they do not do in Finland is treat their teachers as leeches on the system. We could learn a lot from how the Finns in general treat their teachers. We are not anywhere close.

University education is free

If you are arguing that we should follow the Finnish method, then you can’t do it on a pick and mix basis. Our universities want to charge fees.

When David McWilliams suggests that teachers should be open to change, he is missing the point. They are interested in change. They are interested in change which they can effectively implement, which gives them autonomy. We don’t respect teachers in this country and we certainly don’t listen to them.

If I wanted to give an example, it’s worth looking at the respect rugby referees get from their players versus the respect, or lack of it, football referees get from their players. We, in Ireland, play football with our teachers, and not rugby.

Most of the debates on education in Ireland do not focus on the core objective of education. Nowhere, in any of the pieces I have read recently, does anyone advocating Finland, highlight the core objective of the Finnish system was to reduce social inequality. We want to emulate their numeracy and literacy and be the same as them without taking the hard decisions that they did. You could argue that yes, the Junior Certificate could be marked locally by teachers. But that doesn’t magically make us perform like Finland. It’s a cargo cult approach to education.

In the same respect, you cannot honestly claim to respect teachers if you 1) insist they’re only in it for the holidays 2) suggest they quit if it’s not all that and 3) impose change on them without understanding where their objections are coming from. They deal with the every day price of teaching and the every day challenges of it.

We also need a wider discussion on what we expect from our education system. We have tech companies complaining that our university grads are not skilled enough. We have business people screaming that we don’t have enough language skills while paying absolutely nothing for those skills which are apparently in short supply. We get fashionable demands like “every child must learn to code” and “we should be teaching kids foreign languages from the age of 4″. These are fads.

There are a bunch of core skills on which every other part of learning is built. We need to identify them and focus on them. Reading, writing and basic numeracy are amongst them. Critical thinking is another one which is sadly absent in a lot of discourse on education.

When I look at the education debate in Ireland, it strikes me as poverty stricken.

This article – which may or may not have formed some of McWilliams’ research for the piece linked above is more nuanced.

Even in Finland, the reforms have met objections from teachers and heads – many of whom have spent their lives focusing on a particular subject only to be told to change their approach.

Finnish schools are obliged to introduce a period of “phenomenon-based teaching” at least once a year. These projects can last several weeks. In Helsinki, they are pushing the reforms at a faster pace with schools encouraged to set aside two periods during the year for adopting the new approach.

I honestly believe that we need to re-assess how we consider education. I’m not sure that doing it within the framework of criticising teachers for blocking reform is the most effective way of doing so.

Mercer Quality of Living Survey 2015

Much was made in Ireland, this morning, of the news that Dublin had rated highly in the annual Mercer Quality of Living Survey. This survey is carried out to provide some guidance for companies who are expatriating staff in terms of cost of living, suitable salaries for staff being relocated, and related matters. I have generally relocated myself so this is not something I have ever worried about but I had a look at the reports anyway.

Dublin came in joint 34th place with Boston. This placed it higher than London and New York, and depending on which reports you read, outranking either London or New York was the hook most of the media went with.

You can, with a little cooperating with Mercer, have a look at the data by clicking on “See Full List” on this page. So I did that because I wanted to have a closer look at the list and perhaps think a little more about whether, in fact, 34th place was good for Dublin or not. The only other Irish city on the list was Belfast and it came in at 63rd place.

One of the single most interesting things that struck me about the top end of the list was the prevalence of German speaking cities. The highest ranked English speaking city is Auckland. There are only two other English speaking cities in the top ten, namely Vancouver and Sydney which squeaks in at 10. Five cities are German speaking and of those five, three are in Germany and Switzerland.

No other country has more than one city in the top 10. Even if you stretch that out to the top 20 cities, Germany is still looking good.

Top 20 cities by country

Basically, a quarter of the top 20 cities ranked by quality of living, are in Germany. After that, if you stretch it out to include the top 50, the US squeezes in 8 cities. Germany still has 7. Australia has 6 which has to include pretty much all their major cities when you think about it.

Top50citiesbycountry

Once I was done being surprised at the prevalence of German cities in the top ten, and Australian cities in the top 50, the other thing which caught my interest was that realistically, none of the top ranked cities were particularly big.

Here’s how they rank, left to right, in terms of population.

Top 50 cities by population

and here’s how they rank, left to right, in terms of population density.

Top 50 cities by density

There is a point to be noted about the population figures. If you look up population figures for most of these cities, you will find a number of figures, namely the figures for the city’s administrative area, and a metropolitan area figure. Taking Paris as an example, its population is 2.273 million inhabitants. The Paris metropolitan area, however, includes around 10 million people. For Tokyo, the difference is even more extreme: its population is given as around 13 million inhabitants; its metro area as 35 million.

That being said, Paris and Tokyo are two of only 6 cities in the top fifty cities in this ranking whose populations exceed two million. After you come to terms with the idea that the best quality of living standards are basically in Germanic speaking countries, the next point to be picked up is that the best quality of living is in comparatively low population cities. The highest ranked city with a population greater than 2 million is Sydney which comes in at 10th place; the next highest is Melbourne.

An interesting feature about Sydney, and Melbourne, and in fact, other English speaking new world cities (so Auckland, Ottowa and Brisbane as well) is compared to most of the other cities around them in the rankings, they have very low population densities. In terms of population densities, the three high hitters are Geneva, Paris which is way, way out in front in terms of population density, and Barcelona.

So while you could suggest that there is a quality of living premium to be gained from living in comparatively small cities by population, the same pattern doesn’t exist in terms of population density. The vast majority of cities come in with a population density below 5000 inhabitants per square kilometre and above 1000. There are notable outliers either side of that band. All six Australian cities come in below 500 inhabitants per square kilometre including both Sydney and Melbourne, the two biggest Australian cities featuring in the list.

What I do not have access to at this point is a detailed description of the features on which this ranking is calculated and that is a pity as I would be interested to see what those features were, and how weighted they were, and more to the point, whether all of them were necessary.

I would also be interested to see on what basis cities were selected for review. The populations for Bern and Geneva, for example, are below 200,000. The lowest ranked city is Baghdad. Manchester does not feature which is surprising bearing in mind that Aberdeen does and it has less than half the population. Of the five UK cities in the list as a whole (not just the top 50), two are in Scotland. Only two cities from France feature. It is hard to argue that quality of living wise, Nice comes in somewhere below Baghdad. It is clear that the choice of cities is not on the basis of population but given Mercer’s primary business, it may well be in terms of the cities they get inquiries about.

From an Irish point of view, you could ask whether Dublin is doing well coming in at 34th place. Coming in ahead of London and New York City might look good except both London and New York are large cities and as already noted, larger cities are not ranking very highly here. Without knowing what the basic criteria for the survey were, it is, to some extent, guess work, to identify where the gaps are in terms of improvement. I would suggest that arguably, the following items could be addressed:

  • public transport
  • health system
  • cost of rental accommodation

Connection wise, Dublin is well connected with most of Europe and some key locations in North America. Culturally, it is reasonably well served, if not as well as some of the other cities on the list. Shopping wise it isn’t terrible. But then, this is true of cities ranked more highly on the list, like Brussels in 23rd place. Admittedly, accommodation and public transport, in my view, almost certainly should rate Brussels higher than Dublin.

If I were somewhere in Dublin City Council where policies get made and implemented, what would I want to do with this, if anything? Is it something useful to have under random news or is there anything to be learned. Given the audience of Mercer reports, ie, companies relocating staff, and Ireland’s heavy dependency on foreign direct investment, is there anything to be noted here?

___________________________________________________

Ranking data available from Mercer

City and density data from Wikipedia

Density data not available for Kobe, Japan

 

Uber, Github and You’ve got to be kidding me

In major goof, Uber stored sensive database key on public Github page.

via Ars Technica.

Disclosure: I have a Github account, on which I have stored very little. However, I do have a project going in the background to build a terminology database which will be mega simple (I like command lines) and which will have a MySQL database and an interactive Python script to get at the contents of the MySQL database. However, one thing which has exercised my mind is a reminder to myself that when I promote all this to Github (as I might in case anyone else wants a simple terminology database) to ensure that I remove my own database keys.

But this is not a corporate product, or any sort of corporate code. Nobody’s personal data will be impacted if I forget (which I won’t).

In the meantime, Uber, which is probably the highest profile start up, which has money being flung at it right left and centre by venture capitalists, managed to put a database key up on Github.

I don’t understand this. Why is Uber database related information anywhere near Github anyway? If they are planning to sell this as a product, why would you put anything related to it on an open repository?

I like the idea of an online repository for my own stuff. I don’t actually love Github but it’s easy enough to work with and, a bit like Facebook, everyone uses it. But that doesn’t mean any corporate site should allow access to unless they are open sourcing some code and even then, any such code really should be checked to ensure it doesn’t present any risk to the corporate security of the company.

Database keys in an open repo: there really is no excuse for this regardless of whether you’re a corporate or an individual.

 

Language skills.

The Economist is shouting about lack of language skills in the UK again. Their basic thesis is that the lack of language skills amongst UK workers costs in economic growth. I’m not sure how much we can stand over that assertion – the Economist admits as much –

This lack of language skills also lowers growth. By exactly how much is hard to say, but one estimate, by James Foreman-Peck of Cardiff University, puts the “gross language effect” (the income foregone because language barriers alter and reduce international trade) in 2012 as high as £59 billion ($90 billion), or 3.5% of GDP.

which suggests it’s basically educated guesswork.

For unrelated reasons, I had a look at CPL’s language vacancies yesterday and the one thing that interested me is how low the salaries are on average.

The simple issue is this: if we do not value language skills economically, people will not study to acquire those skills.

Comparatively, we value programming skills more highly although they are significantly easier to come by. Put simply, the amount of time required to get usefully acquainted with a programming language (including assembler) is significantly less than the amount of time required to get usefully acquainted with a foreign language.

Put simply, the return on effort in acquiring foreign language skills to a high level, is low compared to the return on effort in acquiring programming skills.

I might have more sympathy for the idea that the economy was suffering by a supposed lack of foreign language skills if foreign language skills related salaries were increasing. The truth is they aren’t, really, because the skills are being imported.

A Magna Carta for Big Data

I need first to provide a disclaimer: I did my MSc in CompSci at University College Dublin which is one of the universities providing a home to the Insight Centre. And LinkedIn sent me the vacancy for Oliver Daniels’ job several times as a vacancy for which I was suitable. I know some of the Insight people and I have a particular amount of respect for the senior ones I know both in UCD and UCC.

With that out of the way, Oliver Daniels wrote a piece for the Huffington Post which I have some reservations about.

The data industry has to stop seeing itself as Big Data. The term is loaded. When people are talking about Big Pharma, they are talking about the pharmaceutical industry acting in its best interests (and not yours), and when they talk about Big Ag, they are talking about the agricultural-industrial complex acting in its best interests, not yours and not the environments. Big X is never a positive label for X. It implies a behemoth which really has no interest in your interests. I hate the term Big Data for this reason. It has never really meant serious data analytics, only a marketing tool for people who genuinely aren’t interest in data, but in buzzwords. Big Data is turning toxic.

If you read Oliver Daniels’ piece about a Magna Carta for Big Data, it is obvious that he is not looking for a Magna Carta for you or me, but for the right of large scale data analytics companies to have access to and use your data. There are a lot of benefits to large scale analytics but it is a stretch to call it a charter of rights when you have to give them access to your data, and they promise not to sell it to AN Other Company. The example in the Daniels piece relates to health data specifically, and the risk of sale of same to insurance companies.

Unlike Oliver Daniels, I have always known my mother’s age, and indeed, my father’s age and so I won’t be using either as an emotional hook on which to demand that people make their data available. What I would like to see Insight, and organisations attempting to be active in the health analytics side do is recognise that the vast majority of people, while not analytics experts, are not necessarily stupid. And I have issues with statements like this:

Healthcare has always been about data analytics, only now we have access to so much more data.

The thing is we don’t. We can certainly generate more data, but we don’t necessarily have the right to use it. When Oliver Daniels is talking about a Magna Carta for big data, he is looking for the right to use it, framed in a way that suggests my rights are protected. This might be viable if the data industry – and hardly any company is not a data company at this stage – had an even remotely sane record on not losing data.

There is no point in saying “and we promise your data won’t be released to AN Company you don’t approve of” when all over the world, vendors are getting hacked, losing data, losing laptops, spending a small fortune writing to customers suggesting they get their credit cards reissued, re-enacting U2 videos by beating their chests and being sorry. Really Sorry. Very, really sorry. We lost your data.

I have already written about the cost of messing up individuals in the quest of getting access to their health data in the past.

Oliver Daniels writes:

We need the public to feel trust when they hand over details about their health.

Even if we were to take the view that of course you can have everything you want, we trust you completely not to misuse the data, the simple truth is that we already know that large scale data sites have been hacked in highly public manners. I have correspondence from Adobe apologising for losing a lot of data. I have correspondence from any number of online data centric companies explaining that they have allowed their perimeters to be breached. The data industry has simply not earned the right to respect in terms of practically protecting data.

It would be an overarching, policy-led document that describes what we want, and don’t want, from Big Data. It is a document that would put citizens at the centre of the Big Data age, and ensure that the technology develops with democracy and human rights as guiding principles.

The Magna Carta was a document of rights, not a policy document. What Oliver Daniels wants is not so much a charter of rights for humanity but a bill of rights for Big Data – he uses the term; I think he should move away from it to have access to humanity’s data. The regulatory framework at the moment, piecemeal as it might be, in Europe, in particular, errs on the side of the individual, not the gathering of large datasets.

You know this is what he is looking for with this:

A Magna Carta for Data would not be a list of protectionist rules about privacy triggered by court cases and data infractions.

A Magna Carta for Data is not a Magna Carta for owners of data.

You know this when he says this:

The Magna Carta would not enshrine privacy measures that risk bringing enlightened data research to a standstill.

The core objective of this measure is not to balance the rights of humans who generate data and companies and organisations which want to exploit that data. It is to make it easier to get access to that data. And it uses the argument that privacy concerns are already left behind by big data.

I have a couple of issues with this. At this stage, I’d like senior managers who genuinely believe in the benefits of large scale data analytics to stop calling it Big Data. It is a toxic term with strongly negative connotations.

I also take issue with describing this as a Magna Carta for Data. This is a marketing metaphor and nothing else. It is not even appropriate in the context of trying to get people to give up some existing privacy rights – rights which are not negated just because you claim they are.

I would like the data industry to understand that to date, they have already made demonstrable screw ups, both in the private sector (Target and Adobe as two examples) and the public sector (the NHS mess with attempting to sell care.data to the public).

I have a lot of time for data analytics and in particular, the machine learning side of things. I honestly believe there is a lot of insight to be gained from it. But equally, I believe that there is no god given right for access to this data, and I’d like practitioners of big data to pay more attention to the fact that a lot of what they are trying to do has been done by statisticians who recognise underlying problems with large scale analytics. The fact that you’ve 10 billion records does not automatically infer you have a wholly representative sample or, indeed, a viable model. Tim Harford has an illustrative piece here.

I’ve done some work with large datasets. I’m fully aware of the benefits of being able to get a picture of the behaviour of system components over time – such as buses running ahead of or behind schedule. But I’m also aware of the risk of assuming technology gives us more exact pictures of reality. The garbage in garbage out principle will always exist, and the cartoon I saw more than twenty years which had the tagline “The beauty of computers is that you can screw up so much more precisely”.

More than anything, I want people in the industry to stop playing with marketing tags like Magna Carta for data and Big Data. Neither of these instil much confidence. I’d hate to see the benefits of health analytics killed by pretending these things can be simplified down to a Universal Declaration of Data Rights.

 

Landscape changes in Analytics

Microsoft has bought Revolution Analytics. It’s possible, if you are not in the R space or the analytics space, that the significance of this in terms of data manipulation and exploitation will have passed you by but it’s big, both in terms of an announcement of Microsoft’s intentions, and in terms of the tools they are targeting.

I use R as a primary statistical programming tool and prefer it over SPSS and Minitab for most things.

Technical debt and the bazaar

Over the festive period, one of my friends posted this to his twitter feed. I found it interesting for several reasons, not least because I’ve been wondering about things like minimum viable products, lack of direction, code bloat and how computer science and programming seems to be full of decisions to be made lately.

I am not a Unix systems expert per se – I run my own Linux desktops from time to time – but I can identify what some of the comments in this regarding quality, dependencies which aren’t really dependencies from a functional point of view. I wonder sometimes if we need to take a step back and just….clean up programming.

If that resistance/ignorance of code reuse had resulted in self-contained and independent packages of software, the price of the code duplication might actually have been a good tradeoff for ease of package management. But that was not the case: the packages form a tangled web of haphazard dependencies that results in much code duplication and waste.

I’m not necessarily talking about refactoring (although that does help sometimes) but our outlook on how we get things done.

It is part of wider thoughts I have about technology.

 

And I would walk 10,000 hours

Once, there was a study, involving professional violinists, the outcome of which resulted in the world being told that if you wanted to get really good at something, you need to do it for 10,000 hours.

The internet is full of productivity and professionality tips and every once in a while, I come across this “and you need to do something for at least 10,000 hours before you get good at it”. As the original study related specifically to a very small proportion of people talented in a very specific skill, I’ve never felt happy about it being generalised to, for example, programming, Linux administration.

I want to live in a world where the driving force underpinning people’s work is an attachment to that world, and not the ticking off of hours. You can do something for 10,000 hours and tick off those hours but if you don’t do it with passion, you’ll get limited benefit from those 10,000 hours.

 

Nanodegrees and Udacity

A few days ago, an email dropped into my box from support at Udacity, from Sebastian Thrun, talking about the new sort of university and credentials Udacity have put together for industry. The credentials, if you haven’t heard of them, are called nanodegrees. I have no idea who came up with this idea and having looked at the work required for one or two of them, I don’t see what “diploma” wasn’t good enough for them, or “certificate”.

There’s an ongoing debate on the subject of industry and university and the fact that the former doesn’t seem to think the latter does enough to prepare graduates for work. I don’t think it’s quite that simple, and I don’t think that Udacity’s nanodegrees fix the problem.

I graduated for the first time in 1994. At that stage, it was accepted, pretty much across the board, that graduates, regardless of their discipline need what the Germans would probably call an Einarbeitungsphase; a period of time to get someone up to speed. This is reality for everyone, not just graduates. No one is immediately useful in the grand scheme of things.

The technology industry (in particular) seems to have a problem with this and they tend not to look for people who are broadly educated, but people who have a highly narrow skillset. If you look at any of the software engineering ads that float around, there tends to be  a focus on particular programming languages when in all honesty, what the average tech company should be looking for is someone who thinks programmatically and solves problems. At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter what languages they program in because just about every programming shop has or should have some sort of local style guide that – oh wait – you need a bit of time to get up to. Programming languages are, for any competent programmer, easy to learn.

If you are hiring someone and focusing not on their broader outlook in terms of their industry, you aren’t really hiring for the future. If you’re not looking at the value you can add to a candidate, but only what they offer in the short term, this suggests your long term future is a problem.

What I’ve seen of the Udacity Nanodegrees (and I really do hate that term) is that they are skills based and a bit narrow in focus. The fact that a few of Udacity’s customers offer them to their staff is a good thing. The idea that they replace a broadbased university qualification is not.

Sebastian mentioned in his email that the skills gap is broadening faster leaving people on the sidelines. I don’t think that this is untrue per se, but I do also think that part of the problem is that employers are not addressing the problem effectively. To some extent, ongoing professional development is a desirable thing; with that, you need to recognise that staff need to be supported in doing it (and Udacity is good in this respect) but that this also means that there are very few ready made hit the ground running candidates anywhere.

In IT support, it’s absolutely critical and here’s why. A lot of the skills in support are vendor specific. Tasks in IT can be quite general – keep a network running, keep security in place – but the skill set required can be vendor specific and not immediately transferable from the systems run by one vendor to the systems run by another vendor, for example.

There was a time when having a degree in computer science covered a multitude of possible jobs because it covered a multitude of related subjects. Those days are gone, and they are gone because technology employers no longer filter on the basis of knowledge, but on the basis of limited skills. Alternative qualifications may deal with the skills issue, but not necessarily the broader picture issue. I’ve seen it with people who learn to program in – for want of an example – Java – but not in the context of what computers actually do.

Learning to program in a specific language is an easily acquired skill for someone who actually understands the broader picture. Industry needs to focus on identifying these people and recognise that they provide a lot more value than someone whose only skillset is they learned to program in one specific programming language. It means recognising that the learning phase does not end at the date of graduation. In many respects, it starts.

 

Migratory programmers

I don’t live in the US and nor have I any desire to do so. But Paul Graham has written a piece called “Let the other 95% of Great Programmers In“.

It is another call which can be loosely translated as “Let the Tech Industry Do What it Likes”. The logic on which it is built is, however, questionable. He assumes being a great programmer is an innate talent. It isn’t. It is far more a question of experience, conversation and training than innate talent.

Paul’s logic rests on the fact that the US has ca 5% of the world’s population and therefore must only have 5% of the great programmers in the world. This might be attractive logic if it wasn’t already clear that the tech industry in the US already rules out a lot of programmers by having a very different ethnic demographic break down in the US technology industry compared to the rest of the population as a whole. It’s possible that the US has identified very few of its own great programmers and let their talents go elsewhere in industry.

What the US technology industry appears to be poor at is identifying promising talent and nurturing it if it is not white or Asian male. Possibly they might have an argument about letting in the other 95% of great programmers when their diversity figures match the general population but right now they don’t.

For me, one of the core problems with Graham’s piece is he never really identifies a great programmer and how you’d actually identify getting them into the US technology industry. What if great programmers don’t want to go to the US? This is assuming someone can identify them correctly – but that being said I don’t think that’s guaranteed either.

I’m not sure what a great programmer can easily defined as – which is why I am wary of pieces like Paul’s. Many things are context dependent. It’s entirely possible that the vast majority of great US based programmers aren’t even in California but working somewhere else because they have a different set of priorities to Paul Graham. Being blunt about it, I’ve no desire to go to the US, and certainly not to Silicon Valley. I’m not interested in 2 hour commutes and horrifically high rents. Silicon Valley is all about money, and a lot of people – including great programmers – are all about life.

I think Paul Graham is trying to solve the wrong problem. If he wants access to more talent, he may have to move to it rather than trying to get it to move to him. The US is not the sole target for great programmers after all; great programmers can set up more or less where they want to and often do. It’s what I’d do. The great programmers of the world need the US less than the US needs them; and the US’s ability to identify them is already clearly questionable.

The issue is maybe the technology industry is just not attracting the right people in the US from within the US at the moment. Not everyone wants to cram into California either. Silicon Valley’s issues in attracting talent may have little to do with the lack of immigrants that they are allowed and a lot more to do with Silicon Valley itself.

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