Slaughtering Pixies

Well, it’s been quite an interesting couple of weeks. One of the things I am doing this week is to close down the Scottish Physics Teaching Resources site (sptr.net), which for the past few years has provided a vehicle for Physics teachers in Scotland to share all kinds of teaching resources. It has been useful in a time of badly conceived and implemented curriculum change in Scotland.

Why close it down? Two reasons. Until very recently, I was intending to leave the country and work overseas and I was uncertain that I could sustain the required commitment to keep the site functioning well. Plans have changed (and continue to do so on a daily basis) but the community of teachers needs something reliable to help them deliver a workable curriculum. The second reason is that I need to remove as many distractions as possible to enable me to pick up a project I have been trying to progress for the past two years, without having the time to do so satisfactorily. Like the overseas project, it may yet come to nothing but a learning experience, but I have to give it my best shot.

Scottish Education: the best in the world?

Keir Bloomer, in an article for Reform Scotland, notices what many of us in Scottish Education already know – it’s not as good an education system as it thinks it is. One aspect that has exercised me in the most recent few years is the blind, stupid, and patronising denial of the existence of problems when they are raised by the only people who really know how good the education system is – the teachers. These denials come from the politicians and the various agencies that are responsible for aspects of our educational infrastructure, most notably the SQA and the ironically named Education Scotland. Over a decade after its launch, Curriculum for Excellence is still not working, let alone “embedded”. The Secondary part of CfE is still a seven-year programme that school leaders and teachers are trying to make fit the six years available. Weaker managers, notably in certain parts of our Primary system, continue to use bullying and intimidation to drive teachers to deliver a curriculum that has been reduced ad absurdum to an impenetrable administrative ticky-box tangle. Unions have utterly failed to even recognise the challenges and abuses, let alone tackle them. The resulting damage to teacher morale, the quality of teaching and learning, and the consequences for life chances of our children and the prosperity of the country has been incalculable.

For reasons that some readers will be aware of, I have had cause recently to look at other curricular models and find their clarity, principle and self-consistent feasibility to stand in very stark contrast to the gibberish that is the current curriculum in Scotland. If you want an executive overview of an example, check out the Cambridge International Curriculum. It will show you what’s possible.

Short sentences

On a Delta Airlines flight a number of years ago, I was lucky enough to be sat next to the author Richard Ford. This must have been shortly before he picked up a Pulitzer for his novel, The Sportswriter. Neither of us probably recall the conversation during the flight but what I do remember is that (unlike me) he made no excuse of the environment and got on with writing: scribbling in a little notebook, staring out of the window, scribbling some more, in a cycle of what I have always presumed to have been the creative process.

Personally, I find it too easy to make excuses for not writing. Wrong environment. Too noisy. Any time slot less than an hour is not enough. Must check email. Need a biscuit. Text message. Look at that dust.

I was remembering Richard’s brilliant short story collection, Rock Springs, dug it out to read again and looked him up on the web to see what he was doing. I came across a short work that he had reviewed called Several Short Sentences About Writing by Verlyn Klinkenborg. This is a little treasure of advice for the writer: you dip in and pick up some important little nugget that will make you feel better about yourself and gently encourage you to get back to the task you’ve quite possibly been avoiding.

At least, that’s how it worked out for me.

Learn code

codeOver fifty years ago, my father was a US Air Force signals operator: he, like any other professional in communication, had to learn the languages of communication, command and control. I still have the LP (long-playing record, what the kids call “vinyl” now, although these weren’t vinyl) record set that he listened to as he learned Morse Code.

Today’s young people live in a world of communication and it is increasingly important for them – and all users – to at least have an appreciation of the languages used by the systems that pervade our modern lives. Learning to code – and the computational thinking that goes with it – is fun and interesting as well as being intellectually good for you. It’s also potentially lucrative: coding skills are at a premium, wherever you are in the world. While there is still a need for certain people to know Morse Code, there are many other languages to know about: from the languages of data to the logic of a sick (sic) 3D immersive games experience.

I have carried a link to CodeCademy on this site for some time because they offer some excellent resources and courses for people to learn how to code. I have used some of them myself and recommend them highly. If you’re not sure where to start, there is  a visual overview of the main programming languages and possible benefits of learning each one to help you make an informed decision. You can find it here: http://wiht.link/learncodeguide.

DISCLAIMER: I am not connected with Codecademy and have received no financial or other incentive to write this post. The infographic is not Codecademy’s and includes links to other free online places where you can learn. It’s just a good idea and a good place to get started. Get on with it!

GNU PSPP on OSX Yosemite

I have a project I’m working on that requires the use of a data analysis tool like IBM’s SPSS but at about six thousand dollars per year, it’s a little out of reach. There is an open source project, fortunately, that provides all the functionality I need for a lot less.

PSPP is, according to the project website:

“…designed as a Free replacement for SPSS. That is to say, it behaves as experienced SPSS users would expect, and their system files and syntax files can be used in PSPP with little or no modification, and will produce similar results (the actual numbers should be identical). The number of variables and cases is limited only by the computer architecture.”

There are a number of ways of getting PSPP depending on your operating system: I am a Mac OSX user running 10.10.5 Yosemite so installed it using MacPorts. As this is a brand new machine I’m installing it on, I needed to install MacPorts first: download and run the install package from the download page, update and then run the install (you need super user privilege):

$ sudo port selfupdate
$ sudo port install pspp

This will give you a working PSPP from the command line. If you want to use the graphical user interface over PSPP, known as PSPPIRE, you’ll need to update your X11 DISPLAY driver by downloading and installing XQuartz which is a community produced X-window server assisted but not supported by Apple. Once you’ve installed Quartz, you’ll need to log out and in again to update the DISPLAY environment. Once this is done you can launch the GUI version of PSPP from the command line:

$ sudo psppire

This allows you to work with your SPSS data sets and command files almost without modification.

The Scottish Academy

I had intended to offer a short talk at Teachmeet – Scottish Learning Festival 2015 this week but had to cancel due to work commitments. Instead, and so as to still put it “out there”, I recorded a podcast of the talk which you can find over at AudioBoom:

The presentation text can be found on Evernote. What do you think? Comments welcome.

Hello, World! Nice HAT.

Hello World!
Hello World!
Hello World!

For those of you trying to get to grips with the Raspberry Pi’s Astro-Pi Sense HAT… wait, what?

The Raspberry Pi is the amazing, powerful and compact computer-on-a-board that has got children of all ages around the world coding and investigating computational thinking. For less than fifty bucks, this machine includes a fast processor, a decent amount of RAM and USB, Ethernet and HDMI interfaces that let you connect it up to a TV and keyboard and do almost anything you can do on machines twenty times the price (like write this post, for example). If, like me, you like things tidy, you can add a box to put it in and if, like me, you’re a physics teacher, you can add on a sense HAT (Hardware Attached on Top) that is exactly the same as the kit to be used by Astronaut Tim Peake on the International Space Station to conduct experiments in space using the many sensors on board the HAT.

The whole kit cost me £75 including power supply and SD card with operating system (Raspbian – a version of Debian Linux) software pre-installed.

The setting up is simple and step-by-step, I got it working as a stand-alone machine before installing the Sense HAT. I had to take a knife to the official Raspberry Pi box once the HAT was added to the Pi board – it almost fits but just needs a little adjustment near the corner of the lid to make it snap into place. There are plenty of resources on the web to help you get started but development has taken place at such a pace that some of the guides don’t quite match the installed software. The Getting Started with the Sense Hat page at raspberrypi.org is no exception. There is a simple “Hello World!” program:

from sense_hat import SenseHat
sense=SenseHat()
sense.show_message("Hello, World!")

On my Pi 3B, I got an error at this point:

Traceback (most recent call last):
 File "/home/pi/hw.py", line 1, in <module>
 from sense_hat import SenseHat
 File "/usr/lib/python3/dist-packages/sense_hat/__init__.py", line 2, in <module>
 from .sense_hat import SenseHat, SenseHat as AstroPi
 File "/usr/lib/python3/dist-packages/sense_hat/sense_hat.py", line 14, in <module>
 from PIL import Image # pillow
ImportError: No module named PIL

This was because there was a step missing from the sense-HAT installation instructions which should have read:

sudo apt-get install sense-hat
sudo pip-3.2 install pillow

The second line was omitted, leading to the above error. Once the pillow module was installed OK, running the test python script above produced the results I was looking for (see picture). There is a lot of decent documentation at pythonhosted.org that I hope to take a look at in order to get some ideas for physics teaching using the sensors in my new HAT. I’m loving the sense of really playing (and learning) with computers: those of you old enough will remember the same joy of getting a BASIC program to run properly on your BBC or ZX Spectrum. Suddenly, computers are fun again.

A rocky road to run

Out running in the pleasant countryside of Fife this afternoon, a friend passed some young gentlemen who seemed to be entertained by the lone female getting fit in the fresh air. A sudden sharp pain in her hip as she ran by brought her to the shocking realisation that these were not the well-bred, well-educated youth of her everyday experience: one had thrown a rock at her which struck its target. The lone female took a fright and ran back to her car to examine the damage and consider next steps.

The next step, on establishing that there was no bleeding, was to drive to the next cut in the path where she met them cycling on the wrong side of the road towards her. She stopped in a passing place and took a photograph of them and asked them to explain their actions. No satisfactory rationale was forthcoming but in the attempt at a justification, an admission was obtained. Initially indignant at the breach of their right not to be photographed in a public place, they became fearful as the lone female got into her car and drove away with evidence that linked them to the crime.

The really awful thing about this episode, aside from the fact that a lone female is not safe to run in the lovely Fife countryside for fear of assault, is that this lone female is a teacher and, if she were to publish the faces of these assailants or pursue redress or apology through the good offices of Police Scotland, it is possible that questions and accusations may be raised that challenge her professionalism. That’s a road not worth running down.

The Magic Physics Pixies

On Thursday last week, I gave a short talk on the background and operation of one of my other sites, sptr.net, and the components that make up what I called “a professional community resource”. The event was the Association of Learning Technology Scottish SIG meeting at Glasgow Caledonian University.

The presentation slides can be downloaded as a pdf by clicking on the image on the right. You can watch a recording of the event below. This post is also available on sptr.net.