Forth View

The lighthouse on the shore are North Queensferry with the Forth Rail Bridge in the mist.

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Bridge in the mist

The Forth Rail Bridge on a misty autumn morning

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Browse safer with a VPN

Image attributed to Duncan Hull (Flickr) and used under the Creative Commons Licence 2.0

Image attributed to Duncan Hull (Flickr) and used under the Creative Commons Licence 2.0

According to a popular Internet Meme, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs has a fundamental extension in the modern age – we all seem to need WiFi in order to function.

This need has created a fabulous opportunity for thieves. The term “WiFi” is a synonym for a Wireless (radio) Local Area Network or WLAN. Some WLANs may be password protected but many are not – these “open” networks are found in public spaces, provided by towns or shopping centres to attract trade. In open networks all devices in range can access the network’s resources – i.e. read what you’re typing.

Given that, why would you broadcast your login details, bank data, personal information and private conversations in an open space for all and anyone to listen to, take note of, and make use of at their convenience?

The best defence is to make sure that all internet activity on your mobile devices is sent over an encrypted, secure, connection. The WiFi providers don’t guarantee this, so you have to bring your own in the form of a Virtual Private Network or VPN.

Many corporate employers provide a VPN for staff to ensure that they are not exposed to commercial risk or litigation from data leaks. If that’s not available to you, you can use a service to keep yourself safe: my own personal choice is GoldenFrog’s VyperVPN. It costs a few dollars a year but has fast support and secure servers worldwide. You would normally use a nearby server for speed but if you’re trying to watch the BBC iPlayer in a bar in Prague, you can just connect via the London server to virtually relocate yourself back home to enjoy the latest episode of East Enders. I recommend you don’t use the apps they provide – they don’t work very well and will more often than not just stop you from using the internet. Manual configuration is the way to go: follow the Vyper guide here.

So, a VPN helps keep you safe by encrypting all of your data sent over WiFi; it also works for 3G/4G; and it can virtually relocate you to somewhere you aren’t. What it won’t do is protect you from stupidity – you still have to take care that you aren’t using easy passwords, you don’t use the same password for everything, and you know who’s looking at your screen, for example.

Finally, the image of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs above doesn’t really need that big box for WiFi. To be understood in the modern age, we should really put WiFi usage in the Belonging or Self-Esteem levels, but be aware that every user should take action to ensure that Safety is taken care of.

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.

the Stylemilers

The Stylemilers on Audioboom.

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.