Learning programming before going to university

Ryan Walmsley has a piece suggesting you shouldn’t learn programming before going to university. It’s worth a read.

Personally, I am not against people learning to code before they get to university. I am, however, not in favour of people who have no coding skills arriving at university and starting with Scratch. Scratch is a superb tool for teaching kids how to program, and a bit about how computers work. It is not a suitable tool for adults on a coding specialist code in my view. While I am not the biggest fan of Java (disclaimer: have yet to review Lambdas in Java 8 and this may make some of my frustration go away), and I recognise that some people have issues with the lack of strong typing in Python, ultimately, once you get as far as university, you should at least start with tools you have a fighting chance of using in the income earning world. And there are a lot of them. Not in the top ten is Scratch.

Like  a lot of things, tools need to be used appropriately and Scratch is an absolute winner in the sector it was designed for. But I have a book on my desk here that teaches kids how to program in Python and if kids can do that, I see no reason why we need kids level languages like Scratch at university level.


I really have a lot of things to catch up on but a couple of weeks ago, a piece on the Business Insider site caught my eyes. In it, it suggested that if you wanted to work for Google, you needed to know Matlab. They attributed the comment to a guy called Jonathon Rosenberg.

This caused some discussion on twitter in the days afterwards. Mostly, people found it difficult to believe, particularly when Google uses a bunch of other tools, including my personal choice for a lot of data analysis, R.

I am not sure that Matlab is a mandatory requirement to work in Google; it doesn’t necessarily turn up on any of their job ads that I might be interesting, but in some respects, I can understand why A N Company might do something like this. It’s a little sorting mechanism. The point which I found most interesting about the piece above was less that Google were looking for Matlab, but that the writers of the piece had never heard of Matlab.

I was once interviewed about modern web technology and how it might benefit the company concerned way back in the early days of the web becoming a consumer sales channel. My view of the discussion ultimately wasn’t that they wanted me to work on their web interfaces (not at that stage anyway), but they wanted to see what my ability to learn about new stuff was. It may well be that if you go to work for Google in some sort of research job, you’ll use Matlab. Or, more probably, you’ll learn a bunch of other things in the area that you are working.

Either way, comments like Rosenberg’s may, or may not be official hiring policy but it’s often worth considering that they are asking a broader question rather than “Can you use Matlab” and more “Can you prove to use that you can develop in whatever direction we throw you”.

And if you haven’t heard of Matlab, the chances are, you may not.

Some comments on Apple’s latest PR

I don’t make a habit of blogging about gadgetry per se but there are a couple of comments I want to make about Apple’s latest lot of shenanigans.

Apple has cancelled the iPod Classic.

In all the screaming and howling about the watch and the iPhone 6 and its variants, and the payments ideas and all that, this is not getting anywhere near enough traction and discussion. I do not expect them to reverse this decisions because notoriously, electronics companies do not actually listen to me.

My first Apple product was an iPod nano which proved to be inadequate on the storage front so was replaced with a Classic forthwith. It probably will not make Apple happy to know that I have had that same device for the last six years, particularly as I am on my third iPhone in the same period.

I like the Classic. It has enough storage. It does exactly what I need it to which is play music. And it does not need to be connected to the internet. The alternatives, the iPod Touch and the iPhone, top out at 64gig. Sure, you can access stuff through the cloud and that’s fine if you’re at home with Wifi, pay next to nothing for data and are not roaming. Maybe in the US this is actually a sane way of doing things and of course, the EU is working on getting rid of data roaming charges anyway but…frankly, there’s a stretch of the rail line between Dublin and Cork, around Tipperary, where the mobile signal is fairly limited. I listen to a lot of music and storage matters to me. But I also want to be able to carry that music around with me in my handbag and that means the 128gig iPad isn’t really a replacement option either.

So I am deeply, deeply unhappy with Apple over this move, and unhappy enough with Apple to look at my contact points with Apple (currently an iPhone, an iPad, the aforementioned iPod Classic and iTunes via a Windows machine) and see about replacing them with non-Apple equivalents. It will take a while, but there are likely to be some benefits, key amongst them, Apple will not be able to deliver music to me which I do not want.

I am not really a fan of free stuff that I don’t want and the latest U2 album is on the list of free stuff which I don’t want and which should not have appeared in my library without me asking for it.

The biggest selling U2 album is the Joshua Tree and it, apparently, has sold twenty five million copies. In no version of this universe is it likely that half a billion iTunes users wanted their new one and yet Apple gave it to us and yes, it’s sitting in my library.

You can look at all the technology stuff that Apple does, and then look at this promotional gimmick and wonder why they did it. Why did Apple feel the need to do this?

I really have no idea. You would have to assume that companies do stuff like this to support the bottom line but ultimately, U2’s last album, released in 2009, sold five million copies. Compared to the Joshua Tree, that is not stellar. Compared to half a billion people who suddenly find themselves with the new album…which they probably did not want…it’s pretty pathetic. On U2’s part, it screams of a need to be loved.

On Apple’s part, it screams of a company which finds itself having to do the sort of PR it has not traditionally needed because the cachet of its own brand was enough and which is demonstrating that it just does not know how to do it. U2 are not cutting edge. They’ve been around for 30 years. Classic rockers. Seriously, if Apple wanted someone which was on what I assume was their brand message, I’d have chosen Daft Punk. Of course, if Apple think that U2 is on their brand message, then I’m inclined to wonder what their future holds.

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.



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


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.


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

Google Glass and Virgin Atlantic. And SITA.

Yesterday, the world learned that Virgin Atlantic were planning to use Google Glass for their customer relations management. The world also learned that Virgin Atlantic were planning to use Sony Smart watches as well but for some reason, that got sort of ignored. I don’t know why.

Virgin’s press release is here. If you do a little reading, you find out they are doing it in cooperation with SITA, whose press release is here.

Needless to mention, it generated a lot of notice, mostly about Google Glass, and not a lot about what Virgin Atlantic were actually doing. So the first question you really have to ask is are they doing anything particularly new on the business process point of view. The answer appears to be no.

Here’s the money quote from the Virgin Atlantic:

Virgin Atlantic, working with air-transport specialist SITA, is the first in the industry to test how the latest wearable technology, including Google Glass, can best be used to enhance customers’ travel experiences and improve efficiency. From the minute Upper Class passengers step out of their chauffeured limousine at Heathrow’s T3 and are greeted by name, Virgin Atlantic staff wearing the technology will start the check-in process. At the same time, staff will be able to update passengers on their latest flight information, weather and local events at their destination and translate any foreign language information. In future, the technology could also tell Virgin Atlantic staff their passengers’ dietary and refreshment preferences – anything that provides a better and more personalised service. During the six week pilot scheme, the benefits to consumers and the business will be evaluated ahead of a potential wider roll-out in the future.

My emphasis. With one possible exception, Virgin staff are doing nothing new here from a business process point of view:

  • Virgin Atlantic has a limo service for their Upper class passengers, so they already know who the passenger is.
  • They typically guide the passenger through check in when they arrive
  • They typically give the passenger flight information (everyone’s favourite, is this flight on time). Possibly they don’t do the weather and events thing at the moment (although it’s not impossible – I’ve never travelled Upper Class with Virgin Atlantic and the information is, in any case, easily obtainable, printable and easy to make available).
  • I have some doubts about the foreign language utility – I would love to see how that works out in practice.

There is nothing really all that special here – if you like, the key difference is the method by which they are managing existing processes. Frankly, I doubt very much whether they are carrying out check ins using Google Glass  – a bit more information from SITA would be nice in that respect because the language of the press release is interesting to say the least “start the check in process”.

But all of this could be done using technology which has been around for a few years – and it is entirely possible that Virgin Atlantic are already doing it – using things like d iPads so again the question, is what is this adding?

SITA Labs have already done a lot of research in this area and some of the applications are nice. They have a press release here and it has some interesting stuff in it. This is an interesting quote in the context of the Virgin Atlantic story:

Travel documents and loyalty cards can be scanned by smart glasses.


Peters added: “Specifically, our research at SITA has shown that for any type of use in the air transport industry the technology needs to be more robust to avoid breakages and the cost will have to come down. The camera quality will also need to be enhanced. Currently it requires near perfect light conditions within the airport for scanning documents to be successful.

This dates from October 2013 by the way and specifically, smart glasses were being looked at in the context of scanning barcodes. And they weren’t, at that time, up to the job on a day to day basis. It may be telling that the Virgin Atlantic trial focusses on a subset of passengers – a very small number.

SITA’s description of what the wearable devices are being used for is interesting:

Airline staff are equipped with either Google Glass or a Sony SmartWatch 2, which is integrated to both a purpose-built dispatch app built by SITA and the Virgin Atlantic passenger service system. The dispatch app manages all task allocation and concierge availability. It pushes individual passenger information directly to the assigned concierge’s smart glasses or watch just as the passenger arrives at the Upper Class Wing.

They really can only do this if they already know who the passenger is before they get to the Upper Class Wing, usually because they arriving in a limo which Virgin Atlantic already know about.

So what do I think about this?

Well, based on all the available information, Google Glass is, at best, replicating existing utility. Now you could ask the question is it really necessary to do that when we’ve got paper and iPads and the like but that is not really the right question. The question is does it make the experience more efficient for both Virgin Atlantic and the passenger. That is open to debate, and it is open to debate for this particular quote (also highlighted above).

In future, the technology could also tell Virgin Atlantic staff their passengers’ dietary and refreshment preferences

Airlines already have to ensure their staff are aware of dietary requirements for passengers, for vegetarians for example. So the interesting thing is right now, Virgin Atlantic’s implementation of Google Glass doesn’t appear to be able to deal with this sort of information. One key reason for this – right now – is that Google Glass is not being implemented in the business processes that involve the need to have that information, which for the most part, is probably cabin service in the aircraft. It is possible that it might well be useful in the lounge service for Upper Class passengers – but this service is not available to all Virgin Atlantic customers. It remains to be seen whether they will implement the hardware in the cabin – my gut feeling is that it will require regulatory agreement so it’s not going to happen soon.

What is happening is they are accessing information already in their possession using a different device. Where once it was a computer, or possibly a tablet, it is now some sort of wearable device.

They are replicating existing processes. Whether there is a gain for them in so doing – their press release talks about the glamour of flying and I don’t see this having an impact on that – is open to debate, and it’s what a 6 week trial is all about.

They are not using the devices to collect new data in the customer interaction zone at this point in time. and this is an important point. And if they do, well there are other considerations to take into account before implementing them.

Right now,, I would take the view that Virgin Atlantic are fully aware of things like data retention legislation and data protection. I certainly would not assume that they are hopping down the road to matching passengers up with their dietary requirements using Google Glass because they already do that using good old fashioned data entry and in any case, they have not implemented a business process with Google Glass applying that type of data at this point in time.

I will be very interested to see how this trial works out – I must make a note to check with SITA’s social media channels in about 8 weeks’ time to know if they will at least provide some sort of feedback given that this caused quite the bit of noise.




Changing times…

Via Damien Mulley’s fluffy links the other day I found myself perusing the Irish Motor Directory and Motor Annual 1911-1912 late last night. The directory itself can be found here, hosted by Lurgan Ancestry and while we’re at it, a shout out to My Kerry Ancestors who are talking about this link too. Okay, that’s the commercials out of the way.

I decided to see from it who was the first person in the “I come from a small, small” town where I grew up to register a car, and glanced down through the list looking at the addresses.

The first owner registered in the town where I grew up was my great grandfather, and it looks like he registered a motorbike. My mother is stunned, but was pretty certain that it was him, so I went to the 1911 census to check who of the relevant surname was living on the street concerned at the time, and by process of very simple elimination confirmed that yes. the named owner in question was her grandfather. In 1911, he was 27.

So I could write a bit about the family background but this is a data/tech blog and actually I’m going to write about changes in society.

If you have a look at the Lurgan website above, it’s actually interesting in the questions it leaves unanswered.

  • The register classifies vehicles by type – car, charabanc, bicycle, tricar, steam car, steam lorry, dogcart, steam plough. It would be enthralling to know who manufactured these things.
  • The register provides the registration numbers and some address information.
  • The addresses are interestingly diverse – for example, because I grew up in Cork, I was looking at the IF register – but a number of the addresses are in Dublin and the UK, for example.
  • in 1911-1912, there are 239 cars and 146 bikes registered in Cork, but the highest registration number is IF 434 as far as I can see. So I’m interested to see what the gaps are.
  • There are county and borough register authorities – I don’t know enough about local government organisation in Ireland in the early 20th century (but then, who does?)
  • this document was a reference handbook for motorists. So it was openly available.

That last bit is the bit that interests me. Any motorist in Ireland could have had a list of all the car owners in Ireland, known their names and where they lived, sorted by registration number. This doesn’t happen today and I don’t know if it could. I just googled my own car reg and Motorcheck came up with a background check for the car – but it will not give any personal details about the owner of the car or the address at which they live.

The Reference book for 1911-1912 suggests that there are 9169 vehicles listed in it, split slightly in favour of cars. Registrations would have started in 1903 when the registration system was implemented first (citation – Wikipedia but I don’t think there’s much arguing here). The series for Cork, IF, started being used in 1903 and eventually ran out in 1935. The number/index letters were reversed and used again later between 1975 and 1976. So the only conclusion that I can draw about my grandfather’s bike is that it was registered at some stage between 1903 and 1911, and the likelihood, I suspect, closer to 1903 than 1911 based on the numbers.

For comparison,  86,932 new cars were registered in Ireland in 2012. (Summary of Statistical Yearbook of Ireland, 2012). The 1911-1912 Reference Book was compiled by Henry G. Tempest and given the available communications options, it’s fair to say that to compile and print that information for over 9,000 vehicles was an achievement but I couldn’t see him doing it for nearly 90,000 new cars, never mind all the cars still on the road from prior to 2012.

And times have changed. We are more concerned about personal data. For years, people have been applying their right not to be listed in the phone directory, and I’m not sure anyone would want their address details along with details about their car in any easily accessible database for various reasons including, no doubt, not wanting to have their movements identified too easily, or not being easy prey for thieves.

Of course, I wouldn’t be me if I wasn’t thinking of ways I could analyse this data in more detail and wondering what other extraneous data sources could be used to enhance it (and not just, for example, the 1911 census).