Callister Brewing : English beer in Vancouver

As an English native living in Vancouver there are a few tastes that I occasionally miss from the old country   –  pickled onions, pork pies, piccalilli, Branston, Marmite, bangers, pasties, black pudding, etc. Though some are hard to find, I have found sources where I can get at least a very close approximation of
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AIs can pass SATs. So, what does this tell us about SATs?

So, a machine can achieve about an average score on a SAT (scholastic assessment test). This is a cool achievement. What interests me more, though, is what this tells us about SATs.

Passing a SAT is presumably meant to show that someone is capable of something other than passing a SAT. But of course it doesn’t. Just like many of the people that are forced to sit these barbaric, ill-considered things, this machine is no more capable of applying that knowledge than a toaster. We need to put an end to this kind of meaningless, inhuman, illusory and deeply harmful approach to assessment and we need to do it now. It kills motivation, kills learning, kills teaching, causes untold suffering, and it doesn’t even do what it is supposed to do in the first place.

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George Siemens says 'Adios Ed Tech. Hola something else'

soft and hard technologies My friend and colleague George Siemens is concerned about dehumanizing trends in educational technology and, in this post, disassociates himself from them. I couldn’t agree more and I am especially glad that he is distancing himself fully from the harder end of the learning analytics movement, which has worried me since before it became a thing (we used to have such issues in adaptive hypermedia). And I couldn’t agree more about the dangers of Knewton.

George is concerned not about edtech in general but about what I would call hard educational technologies. Hard technologies orchestrate phenomena for us: they take away human agency. This can be a very good thing sometimes. I’d much rather have a hard technology sorting out my annual leave requirement or my taxes than one which I have to use creatively, though I do deeply hate the cog-like role that I do have to play in such things – it’s the worst of all possible worlds when we must be a component of a hard technology, doing badly what a machine can do better. I am even less enamoured of those that Ursula Franklin describes as prescriptive technologies and that Gary Boyd calls ‘dominative‘, that actively control me, especially if they are trying to make me learn or teach in a way that someone else has decided I should. These are the ones George hates, and so say we all.

I think that what George is seeking is what I would call soft educational technologies, akin to (but not identical to) what Franklin calls holistic and Boyd calls liberative technologies. These are flexible tools (including the cognitive, pedagogic, social, ethical, organizational and physical) that we orchestrate ourselves, that demand creativity of us, that are incomplete without us, that allow us to do better things as human beings, not as part of someone else’s program or orchestration – words, pencils and paper, guitars, computers (when we control them), pedagogies, and so on. We are even more a part of soft technologies than we are of hard ones because they have no meaningful existence without us. We bring them into being. 

Hard technologies can very much be a part of soft assemblies – they give us bigger, smarter, more interesting chunks to assemble and play with – and that is great, as long as they do not demand that we become a part of them. If they add to what we can do then it is wonderful – we can (literally) go to the Moon with hard technologies. If they replace what we can do, then it is only worthwhile if the thing they replace was not worth doing in the first place. There are many hard technologies that we must be a part of – where our role is entirely fixed and proscribed – that would be far better done by machines.  Automation, a particular subset of hardening, can be awful, but it can be great too, as long as it automates the right things and does not take away our agency in the process. For instance, I really like that fact that modern cars can park themselves (as long as I can do it myself if I wish) or that Twitter hashtags are auto-linked so I don’t have to run a manual search any more, or that I don’t have to be a uuencode/decode guru just to send an attachment through email, or that I don’t have to be a part of the hard technology of putting letters on a page with a pen (though I could if I wished) or sharpening a quill.

What matters is automating the right things and extending the adjacent possible, not diminishing it. And it is always important to remember what we lose in the process as well as what we gain. I’m very glad that people don’t have to read my handwriting any more (and so are they, trust me on that) but there are times when nothing else will replace it. The physicality of the handwritten letter, the intimacy of it, the connection it makes with another human being, is not so easily replicated by a machine. There are likewise things about paper books that e-books, despite their manifest superiority in most ways, cannot duplicate. Giving someone an e-book just ain’t the same as giving them a physical book, and the space they take on the shelf serves other cognitive purposes apart from making it easier to find them. And don’t get me started on learning management systems as drop-in replacements for physical classrooms…

Hopefully we will figure that out as part of making our technologies more human, not to return to the old but to fulfill the promise of the new. One of McLuhan’s Laws of Media is concerned with what new media retrieve that was previously obsolesced. To see that, we need to know what we have lost. When we grasp adjacent possibles we don’t always notice what we leave behind, and we really, really should.



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To truly end animal suffering, the most ethical choice is to kill wild predators (especially Cecil the lion) – Quartz

Delightfully deadpan and believable philosophical investigation into the ethics of animal activism and some ethical justifications for vegetarianism. In fact, it is so believable that some people have taken it at face value and have been up in arms about it. Apparently, the editor supports their outrage by claiming it is a dead serious think piece. Indeed, I agree that it is, though I don’t think that it is making quite the point that the title claims to be making. It is much more to do with the ethics of animal rights activists, of hunting, of vegetarianism, and of ecological interventionism. Perhaps, too, it is a meta-reflection on the nature of philosophical enquiry, that can certainly lead to some untenable conclusions via plausible (if incomplete) premises. There are many implicit and contradictory conclusions here, some lost in innocent-looking parentheses.

This is satire of the finest sort, intellectually challenging, perceptive, and subtle as can be. It is a worthy successor to Jonathan Swift’s modest proposal.

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Google Chrome just made big changes to save your battery (but not big enough)

About time. However, though there might have been some improvements, it is still nothing like good enough yet.

I usually work for a few hours with my laptop on battery each day and can normally rely on 6-8 hours of battery life, even with lots of networked apps open, much more if I’m careful. Some days I can go off grid for 10 hours before warnings start to appear.

Yesterday I made the mistake of leaving Chrome running because I had been in a Hangout and forgot to close the app down. The browser-proper was shut, but the Hangouts app kept it running in the background. Apart from that, all I was doing was writing – I was not even browsing the web or checking my email. I got about 2.5 hours before the laptop hit 5%.

Chrome is one of the very few apps that predictably makes my machine fan whir, whether or not I have lots of tabs open. It is the only app I know of that grows if left unattended too – I have several times had to delete it from my system when the app has grown to 2GB or more (it’s because, on a Mac, it retains all of its previous versions in the app itself). Do they not employ smart software engineers at Google? I thought that was kind of the point of their hiring policy.

Hangouts would be an incredibly useful app if it weren’t for its dependence on Chrome. From a technical, usability, functional and connectivity perspective it is far better than Skype, FaceTime, WhatsApp or Viber in almost every way. Seems that there’s a lot of foot-shooting going on here.

Though it did have a bad few years of slowness and bloat, Firefox has been far superior to Chrome for a year or two now and, of course, it is genuinely open, and largely free from commercial interests (I forgive it the integration of Pocket because I really like the service). It runs fast and lean, is highly usable, highly customizable, and solid as a rock.

I also really like Firefox Hello, the Mozilla answer to Skype et al, especially because it does not routinely route my conversations via the DSA, shower me with ads, or invade my privacy. Sadly, from a technical perspective, Hello still feels a little primitive and can be a bit glitchy.  It has a long way to go before it comes close to competing with Skype, WhatsApp, FaceTime or Hangouts and its great strength of not being built explicitly to farm its users also means that it can be harder to set up a meeting: unless you have a Firefox account, you can’t just ad hoc call or message someone. It would be great if more than two people could be in a meeting too.



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10 free tools for creating infographics

From Creative Bloq, a list of free tools, mostly web-based, for creating infographics. A good range here, from data visualization to diagramming tools and templates.

I’m not a massive fan of the trend towards the indiscriminate use of infographics – it’s much too easy to disguise shallow thinking and inadequate research, and way too easy to fail to pass along things that matter and emphasize things that don’t, making them dangerous for much the same reasons as PowerPoint is dangerous – but, when they are done well, and when they are combined with links to richer sources of information, they can be powerful learning tools.

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When You're Calling Culture Content, You're Reinforcing The Idea Of A Container

I like this idea, from Rick Falvinge. This is about the insidious effects of choosing to call the stuff that people create ‘content’, which implies a container, from which it is an easy step to assert ownership, control and property rights, leading to very tricky and dangerously exploitable notions like ‘intellectual property’ and all the rest of the ugly mess that sustains lawyers and patent trolls. As Falvinge puts it:

“Do you need a container for a bedtime story? Do you need a container for a campfire song? Do you need a container for a train of thought? Do you need a container for cool cosplay ideas?”

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Resources for writing a dissertation

Grainne Conole has shared this useful page of annotated links aimed at education masters students, including links to process guidance, tool tutorials, writing tips and guidelines, referencing standards, research methodology help, and theory. This will be of most value to EDDE, MDDE and some MAIS students, but there is plenty of useful stuff here for anyone wishing to do a project, essay, thesis or dissertation that falls broadly into social science/applied science areas.

Caveat emptor – it’s not all great. This is just Grainne’s helpful hint list that accompanies her teaching, so not all the resources will mean much to everyone, and not all are of the same high quality. Most of it is very useful, though. Anyone that has to write a lit review would do well to heed the list of hints from Tom Reeves at the end of the page.


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A waste of time

pocket watch 

A while back I wrote a blog post about the apparent waste of time involved in things like reading email, loading web pages, etc. At the end of the post I suggested that the simplistic measure of time as money that I was using should be viewed with great suspicion, though it is precisely the kind of measure that we routinely use. This post is mostly about why we should be suspicious.

But first, my basic initial argument, restated and stripped to its bones, is simple. According to the vacation request form that I have to fill in (and, after taking vacation, repeat the process) an Athabasca University working day is 7 hours, or 25,200 seconds, long. There are about 1,200 employees at Athabasca University so, if each employee could save 21 seconds in a day (25,200/1200 = 21), it would be like getting another employee. Equally, every time we do something that loses everyone 21 seconds a day for no good reason, the overall effect is the same as firing someone. I observed then that we have lately adopted a lot of ICT systems that waste a great deal more than that. Since then, things have been getting worse. We are about to move to an Office 365 system, for instance, that I am guessing will cost us the time of at least 5 people, maybe more, compared with our current aged Zimbra suite. It’s not rocket science: a minute of everyone’s day easily accounted for in loading time alone, which I have  checked seems to be roughly 20 seconds longer than the old system, and most people will load it many times a day. At the start, it will take way more than that, what with training, migration, confusion and all and, if my experience of Microsoft’s Exchange system is anything to go by, it is going to carry on sapping minutes out of everyone’s day for the foreseeable future thanks to poor design and buggy implementation. So far, so depressing.

But what have we actually lost?

The simplistic assumption that time is money has a little merit when tasks are routine and mechanical. If you are producing widgets then time spent not producing widgets equates directly to widgets lost, so money is lost for every second spent doing something else. Even that notion is a bit suspect, though, inasmuch as there are normally diminishing returns on working more. Even if a task requires only the slightest hint of skill or judgement, the correlation between time and money is a long, long way from linear. Far more often than not, productivity is lower if you insist on uninterrupted working or longer hours than it would be if you insisted on regular breaks and shorter hours.  At the other end of the spectrum, it is also true, even in the most creative and open occupations, that it is possible to spend so much time doing something else that you never get round to the thing that you claim to be doing, though it is very hard to pin down the actual break-even point. For instance, a poet might spend 23.5 out of every 24 hours not actually writing poetry and that might be absolutely fine. On the other hand, if a professor spends a similar amount of time not marking student work there will probably be words. For most occupations, there’s a happy balance.

But what about those enforced breaks caused by waiting for computers to do something, or playing a mechanical role in a bureaucratic system, or reading an ‘irrelevant’ all-staff email? These are the ones that relate most directly to my original point, and all are quite different cases, so I will take each in turn, as each is illustrative of some of the different ways time and value are strangely connected.

Waiting for the machine

As I wait for machines to do something I have from time to time tried to calculate the time I ‘lose’ to them. As well as time waiting for them to boot up, open a web page, open an application, convert a video or save a document, this includes various kinds of futzing, such as organizing emails or files, backing up a machine, updating the operating system, fixing things that are broken, installing tools, shuffling widgets, plugging and unplugging peripherals, and so on. On average, given that almost my entire working life is mediated through a computer, I reckon that an hour or more of every day is taken up with such things. Some days are better than others, but some are much worse. I sometimes lose whole days to this. Fixing servers can take much more. Because I work in computing and find the mental exercise valuable, futzing is not exactly ‘lost’ time for me, especially as (done well) it can save time later on. Nor, for that matter, is time spent waiting for things to happen. I don’t stop thinking simply because the machine is busy. In fact, it can often have exactly the opposite effect. I actually make very deliberate point of setting aside time to daydream throughout my working day because that’s a crucial part of the creative, analytic and synthetic process. Enforced moments of inactivity thus do a useful job for me, like little inverted alarm clocks reminding me when to dream. Slow machines (up to a point) do not waste time – they simply create time for other actitivies but, as ever, there is a happy balance.


pig, showing cuts of meat

Bacn is a bit like spam except that it consists of emails that you have chosen or are obliged to receive. Like spam, though, it is impersonal, often irrelevant, and usually annoying. Those things from mailing lists you sometimes pay attention to, calls for conference papers that might be interesting, notifications from social media systems (like the Landing) that have the odd gem, offers from stores you have shopped at, or messages to all-staff mailing lists that are occasionally very important but that are mostly not –  I get a big lot of bacn. Those ‘irrelevant’ allstaff emails are particularly interesting examples. They are actually very far from irrelevant even though they may have no direct value to the work that I am doing, because they are part of the structure of the organization. They are signals passing around the synapses of the organizational brain that help give its members a sense of belonging to something bigger, even if the particular signals themselves might rarely fire their particular synapses. Every one is an invitation to being a potential contributor to that bigger thing. They are the cloth that is woven of the interactions of an organization that helps to define the boundaries of that organization and reflect back its patterns and values. The same is true of social media notifications: I only glance at the vast majority but, just now and then, I pick up something very useful and, maybe once every day or two, I may contribute to the flow myself. The flow is part of my extended brain, like an extra sense that keeps me informed about the zeitgeist of my communities and social networks and that makes me a part of them. Time spent dealing with such things is time spent situating myself in the sets, networks and groups that I belong to. Organizations, especially those that are largely online, that are seeking to reduce bacn had better beware that they don’t lose all that salty goodness because bacn is a thin web that binds us. Especially in a distributed organization, if you lose bacn, you lose the limbic system of the organization, or even, in some cases, its nervous system. Organizations are not made of processes; they are made of people, and those people have to connect, have to belong. Bacn supports belonging and connection. But, of course, it can go too far. It is always worth remembering that 21 seconds of bacn is another person’s time gone (for a large company, it might be a second or less) and that person might have been doing something really productive with all of that lost time. But to get rid of bacn makes no more sense than to get rid of brain cells because they don’t address your current needs. An organization, not just its members, has to think and feel, and bacn is part of that thinking and feeling. As ever, though, there is a happy balance.

Being a cog


I’ve saved this one till last because it is not like the others. Being a cog is about the kind of thing that requires individuals to do the work of a machine. For instance, leave-reporting systems that require you to calculate how much leave you have left, how many hours there are in a day, or which days are public holidays (yes, we have one of those). Or systems for reclaiming expenses that require you to know the accounting codes, tax rates, accounting regulations, and approvers for expenses (yes, we have one of those too). Or customer relationship management systems that bombard you with demands that actually have nothing to do with you or that you have already dealt with (yes – we have one of those as well). Or that demand that you record the number of minutes spent using a machine that is perfectly capable of recording those minutes itself (yup). This is real work that demands concentration and attention, but it does nothing to help with thinking or social cohesion and does nothing to help the organization grow or adapt. In fact, precisely the opposite. It is a highly demotivating drain on time and energy that saps the life out of an organization, a minute or two at a time. No one benefits from having to do work that machines can do faster, more accurately and more reliably (we used to have one of those). It is plain common sense that investing in someone who can build build and maintain better cogs is a lot more efficient and effective than trying (and failing) to train everyone to act exactly like a cog. This is one of those tragedies of hierarchically managed systems. Our ICT department has been set the task of saving money and its managers only control their own staff and systems, so the only place they can make ‘savings’ is in getting rid of the support burden of making and managing cogs. I bet that looks great on paper – they can probably claim to have saved hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars although, actually, they have not only wasted tens of millions of dollars, but they have probably set the organization on a suicide run. But they could as easily have gone the other way and it might have been just as bad. Over-zealous cog-making is harmful, both because ICT departments have a worrisome tendency to over-do it (I cannot have assignments with no marks, for example, if I wish to enter them into our records system, which I have to do because otherwise the cog that pays tutors will not turn) and because systems change, which means many of the cogs inside them have to change too, and it is not just the devil’s work but an accounting nightmare to get them all to change at the right time. Well-designed ICT systems make it easy to take out a cog or some other sub-assembly and replace it, and they use tools that make cog production fast and simple. Poorly designed systems without such flexibility enslave their users, just as much as those that have to submit to cog-retraining are enslaved when their systems change. As ever, there is a happy balance.

Wasting time?

I’m not sure that time is ever lost – it is just spent doing other things. It can certainly be wasted, though, if those other things do not make a positive difference. But it is complicated. Here are just a few of the things I have done today – not a typical day, but few of them are:

  • reading/responding to emails from staff, students and others: roughly 2.5 hours
  • writing a forward for a book: roughly 2 hours
  • writing this post: roughly 1 hour
  • walking: roughly 45 minutes
  • making/consuming food and drink: about 30 minutes
  • reading/ making notes on books and papers: roughly 1 hour
  • replying to interview questions: approximately 45 minutes
  • checking my boat didn’t die in the rainstorm: roughly half an hour
  • cleaning and tidying: maybe half an hour
  • writing a book: about 20-30 minutes
  • replying to student posts: roughly 1 hour
  • marking: roughly 1 hour
  • waiting for computers: perhaps half an hour
  • grooming/washing/etc: maybe half an hour
  • checking/listening to the news and weather: roughly 45 minutes
  • taking an afternoon nap: about half an hour
  • Skyping: roughly 15 minutes
  • Deleting spam from the Elgg community site: about 10 minutes
  • Drying a wet dog: about 5 minutes
  • serious thinking: roughly 12 hours

There are still a couple of hours left of my day before I read a book and eventually go to sleep. Maybe I’ll catch a movie while reading some news after preparing some more food. Maybe I’ll play some guitar or try to get the hang of the sansula one more time. With a bit of luck I might get to chat with my wife (who has been out all day but would normally figure in the list quite a bit). But I hope you get the drift. I don’t think it makes much sense to measure anyone’s life in minutes spent on activities, except for the worst things they do. Time may be worth measuring and accounting for when it is spent doing the things that make us less than human, but it would be better to not do such things in the first place. I have put off responding to the CRM system today and only spent a few minutes checking admin systems in general because, hell, it’s Monday and I have had other things to do. It is all about achieving a happy balance.

What would you miss? Trends in media use in the UK

Really fascinating examination of OFTEL figures on recent changes in use of tools and media in the UK, with some intriguing demographic variations showing enormous differences between young and old, and between richer and poorer (barely discernible gender differences). There are extremely clear trends, though, that cut across demographics. Basically, cellphones/tablets (the two categories are blurring) and TCP/IP-based alternatives to familiar media with analogue antecedents (mainly phone, SMS, TV) are rapidly taking over in almost every segment, especially among the poorer and younger demographics, and the change is occurring incredibly fast. Even native digital technologies like laptops are on the verge of disappearing into a minor niche any moment now. And the title of the article picks out one interesting trend: younger people, in particular, would not miss their TVs much. Most would not even notice they had gone.

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