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.

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.

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.

The Year of Code in the UK

Before I start into this piece properly, I want to make the following point absolutely crystal clear. None of what I say applies until we handle some primary skillsets adequately. They are as follows:

  1. Reading and comprehension
  2. Numeracy and logic
  3. Writing

In other words, these three skill sets are the foundation for the education system.

Now. Back with the Year of Code.

The powers that be in the UK have decided to put in place an initiative called The Year of Code. You’ll find a few details here, so happy reading. The key motivation, apparently, is to fill a coding skills gap.

This bit, I thought, was interesting:

Such endeavours mark the build up to September, when computer coding will become a compulsory part of the curriculum for every child over five.

I am sure someone thinks this is a very good idea. I am not one of them. I do honestly think you’d get a lot further with teaching people to code – kids aged five – if you made sure they could read and write first. And count. Coding without some numeracy skills just isn’t going to happen. And this is from someone who has been pushing Scratch for 10 years. Scratch – by the way – is a computer programming language developed by MIT to help children to learn to program.

So. There have been comments about the Year of Code. Its public face did not do very well on BBC Newsnight during the week. She cannot program. And the discussion is full of comments about how easy it is to code. It is very easy to code when you are typing what is in front of you.

I bang on, from time to time, about data in itself being pointless if you don’t sit down and work out what questions you want to ask it. Programming has a similar dimension. Anyone can write – environment set up aside:

print(“Hello World”)

and that’s a program.

But I don’t spend my day whiling around writing strings to a screen. I use it – for example – to automate calculations I do frequently. I use it to run statistical analysis. In my entire life I have never spent one Saturday developing an application that answered a question I did not have. Some of those questions have been assignments, some of them are things for myself (there is a nice little R script under production to pull the figures for property sales in Cork apart). Some things have been websites. Programming and writing code has always had a planned output.

So I don’t necessarily think focussing on code is the primary thing you should be doing here. Focussing on problems people can solve, that’s a far more important skill. And you need elite communication skills to be able to do that.

Not a lot of people remember now, as they wander around with their iPhones and Androids, that 60 years ago, there wasn’t much in the way of computering power outside the government. The first commercial computer to come into Ireland was, as far as I am aware, bought for Aer Lingus, and in fact, one of the first commercial problems to be solved using computers was the whole airline reservation thing in America. Legend has it that issues in the manual process in booking tickets led to the boss of IBM and the boss of American Airlines winding up bumped off a flight due to overbooking caused by failures to keep records in several airports aligned and so, over coffee, in a position to have a chat about how this could possibly be made more efficient leading to fewer people getting bumped off. We think we have it bad now.

Anyway, the point of that story was here is a problem – chaotic air ticket bookings getting lost, duplicated, overbooked – and there is a man with a vision, a bunch of highly paid computer geniuses and some money – who allowed the problem to get (reasonably) resolved. Every day, someone has a problem, and someone fixes it.

When we focus on the response, and not the recognition of the problem first, we are not really teaching people to code. We’re teaching them to regurgitate. So being honest, focussing on code rather than problem analysis is probably a bad way to go. Doing it at age 5 when you’ve not fully covered literacy and numeracy, that’s not ideal either.

Moving back to the year of code, I don’t like what is essentially a PR initiative. The assertion that, for example, we can teach teachers to code in a day, is wildly inaccurate. You can’t. And yet, there are going to be courses doing just that.

I learned to code when I was 13 years old. A bit, that is. I learned some basic from a massively inspirational maths teacher who swiped a week out of his schedule to teach 29 13 year old girls to write some basic and again, to work out how you might break down a problem. I stopped when I was 14 for some reason and I started again when I was 27. I do honestly believe that children should learn to write programs but that this is not really practical without the supporting skills of reading, writing, numeracy and breaking problems.

So the objective of this is to plead – in Ireland – please do not implement a PR exercise like this. Do something a bit more indepth. Talk to the people who run with Coderdojo in Ireland – we are getting hundresd if not thousands of kids up and down the country into schools and halls on Saturdays – ie outside school hours – and identify what drives this; what makes them enthusiastic to do it. When you put money into getting 30 Raspberry Pis into a school, learn how to use them creatively. Treat the computer lab a bit like a woodwork lab, where things get tried and tested. Raspberry Pis are not expensive, and if one gets fried the odd time, so be it. They can very often be fixed by formatting the SD card holding their operating system. Load the lab up with stuff from Adafruit. IT and programming covers a multitude between messing around with hardware (program up those Christmas lights and motion controlled webcams). They are not typically expensive – not in the way that Apple iPads are – but from a technical and programming point of view are enormously learner friendly. And teach kids the wider skills of recognising the computer equivalent of “I want to make a table, how do I achieve this”. Focus on the steps they make to do this rather than the end result.

This is a skill more valuable than anything. The one that doesn’t make you give up at the first hurdle.

Make this a general education policy. Not a PR push. And make it inspirational.

I see a lot of commentary about how some people aren’t talented for programming skills, and, indeed for language skills. We don’t tend to tolerate this from reading any more (although we still do for basic numeracy and in this country, foreign languages).

The simple truth is society changes and reading and writing become universal.

This can be true for analytic thinking and problem breakdown. And programming.

In the meantime, I’d favour teaching 15 year olds how to use Python to do maths calculations rather than a calculator but that’s just because that’s the way I do it. And Scratch. Don’t forget Scratch

Book Review: The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver

Over the semester break I spent some time ploughing through books which were on my to read list. One of them was The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver.

I kind of like Nate Silver’s writing, and I especially like his analysis but I had started the book, gotten half way through, got distracted and only picked it up again in January. So the review is more or less “I seem to remember this was fascinating” and “the content of this book should be fascinating but I’m not really sure I like it any more.

I like numbers. I like playing with them. I like manipulating them. I’m not very good at them; I don’t have many regrets in life but a maths and languages course up front might have been a better choice when I was 17 rather than pure maths.

I like that there is an increasing recognition that there is meaning in numbers and that the meaning needs to be interpreted. In many respects, that’s not that different to languages anyway. There is meaning in words; it has to be extracted; interpreted.

So to Nate Silver. Yes, he got the polls right in the last few US elections, and yes, he’s doing the start up thing with Five Thirty Eight now.

The focus of the book, to some extent, was the art of prediction, and his dependency on Bayes. It featured some case studies – baseball and gambling are included (although I really do suggest that you have a look at MoneyBall if you’ve any interest in the application of statistical inference and prediction to the baseball numbers as it’s a better read on that front). There was a section meteorology which was fascinating. A key point which he raises is perception and what people want from a weather forecast. Is it a weather forecast, or some entertainment?

One of the stories in it which fascinated me related to Deep Blue and the chess match with Garry Kasparov. What particularly interested me there was the idea that the computer behaved in a specific way, based on a bug. But the way it behaved rattled Kasparov and  caused some investigation as to what the long term outcome of that move could be.

I’m interested in machine learning so this is something which would catch my attention in a lateral way. We train computers to make decisions; sometimes it is not clear whether a given decision is based on a bug or some aspect of the training.

However, a couple of things annoyed me about the book. The Kindle edition has a frustrating number of typos. I can understand this in a scanned book I just think it’s a bit unforgivable now. And there are a lot of elements of the book where Nate Silver assumes he is writing for a uniquely US based audience. I don’t think this was ever going to be a safe assumption for him.

A couple of sections of the book fascinated me in a way that led me back to subject specific books of which one is earthquake prediction – we just aren’t good at it at all at the moment. As it is, I have a more than passing interest in earthquakes, volcanoes and rogue waves so which I finished this, you can make an approximate guess what other books were on my reading list.

I’m inclined to say that The Signal and the Noise is a fascinating book and well worth reading. But it’s difficult to grade in terms of is this a five star read, is it four or is it just average. I’m inclined to classify it as a book you should read, but be aware that it’s not a perfect reading book; there are elements of it which might annoy you. And you could skip it if you were so inclined. It is the sort of book that should help your Trivial Pursuit score and will open your mind. Oh and you’ll probably be left with the impression that Nate Silver is brighter than you are which isn’t always the most edifiying either.

Analytics Club – data analytics in Dublin on a Tuesday night

I found out quite by accident a week or two ago that there were occasional data analytics meet ups in Dublin city centre so I resolved to go along to the next one and found myself downstairs in a city center bar I’d never noticed before. The evening is run under the auspices of CeADAR and the DIT data analytics course with a few blowins like myself. It was quite an interesting event. There were three talks – one on PowerPivot which may or may not be interesting to you; one on datamining Dail questions since independence and specifically a comparison between local questions and national policy questions which raised a few comments, and then one final piece on the question of public policy and big data. It was followed up briefly by a panel discussion.

What surprised me about the event is that it was quite well attended for something which I figure can be quite esoteric, until I realised it was supported by a specific data analytics course in Dublin Institute of Technology. Input from CeADAR guaranteed some presence from UCD as well.

CeADAR is quite new in Ireland – it was launched on 15 March and it’s driven pretty much by UCD with some partnership from UCC and DIT. Looking at their education page is quite interesting…I would be hoping to see more datascience courses coming on stream. I know, for example that DCU has an analytics major coming with one of their Masters courses next year.

Back with the bash on Tuesday night, they are listed on Meetup and the next one will probably be in September. If you’re interested in data analytics or data science in Dublin, it may be worth a look.

Great scientists don’t need maths, apparently.

Seriously. This from a professor emeritus in Harvard.

I speak as an authority on this subject because I myself am an extreme case.

An outlier, in other words.

I have problems with this piece, not least because in discussions about mathematical ability most people are not so worried about the lack of access to seriously high level mathematics, but the basic stuff that a) makes it easier to survive modern life without being ripped off and b) makes it easier to find higher paying jobs. But this guy is talking about the higher level stuff required to support leaps forward in science, not the every day sort of stuff.

Extreme cases are not generally applicable and if he is such a great scientist, regardless of what his field of study, he should be aware of this.


Catching my eye…what is your job exactly…

Jeff Leek over at Simply Statistics interviewed one of Google’s statisticians there a little while ago, Nick Chamandy. You’ll find the interview here. He had an interesting comment on describing what it is he did, and more to the point, ensuring more people got access to his kind of role by recognising that different field use different languages.

When posting job opportunities, we are cognizant that people from different academic fields tend to use different language, and we don’t want to miss out on a great candidate because he or she comes from a non-statistics background and doesn’t search for the right keyword. On my team alone, we have had successful “statisticians” with degrees in statistics, electrical engineering, econometrics, mathematics, computer science, and even physics. All are passionate about data and about tackling challenging inference problems.

I thought this was quite interesting because it represented a certain amount of out of the box thinking about what it is you want people to do. I can say this of course because I’m a language graduate working in IT – sometimes the talent isn’t roundly sorted by academia for you.

I think this tends to get forgotten now and again.