jump to navigation

In the Land of the Blind… October 10, 2009

Posted by calvinus in Uncategorized.
Tags: ,
add a comment

Headline News!!

Middle-aged man suffers middle-aged malady.

...the one eyed man is king.

...the one eyed man is king.

Why is this news?

More to the point, why is this the leading news story on a range of news services?  Much as there was some half-hearted sensationalist waffle, it was quite comedic to see a medical expert (I forget the exact discipline) being “grilled”.  How dangerous is it? “Er, not really”. Is it contagious? “Er…no”  Does it have an impact on the way Mr Brown can run the country? “Eh? Are you serious?”  So why is this the top news story on the national broadcaster?  Is it because:

a) the public and meeja don’t understand enough about anything vaguely scientific anymore

b) we are obsessed by personality and David “Dave” Cameron is too young to have this sort of ailment

c) Manchester United had a week off and therefore it was a slow news day.

d) there is something more Machiavellian afoot and NewLabour will use this as a cover to allow the Prime Minister to stand down in a more dignified manner (call me a cynic if you will)?

If it is the latter, this country is clearly dumber in terms of scientific comprehension than first feared.  This is not a news story.

Is Gordon Brown’s right eye more important than Lance Corporal James Hill‘s life?


Software & a lack of understanding thereof September 20, 2009

Posted by calvinus in Uncategorized.
Tags: ,
add a comment

I have a theory.  Granted, this theory has only had a comparatively short period of evidence gathering to find supporting information, but it is a theory nonetheless.

When I was going through the education system (have I ever really left), the mantra was that we were much more computer literate than all of the professoriate and lecturing staff.  Anywhere else I have been, the mantra has been the same: the students are more IT savvy than the staff.  Even now I have colleagues that learn from our students.  This is worrying given how clueless many of our students are in matters of IT.

Let me be quite clear.  It is not their fault, nor is it a criticism of our students’ intellects or abilities.  Yes “da yoof” are more connected, more technologically fluid (but not fluent) than ever before.  However, faced with a minor problem that isn’t on the menu bar of a MS program, “da yoof” are lost.  I get exactly the same questions from panicking and utterly frustrated students that I get from my mother-in-law (and given that she still uses a dial-up, this might give you an idea of the level).

So, here is the theory.  Looking back, I suspect computer literacy probably peaked with the generation that was overly familiar with Windows 2000/ME (not, I stress, that I am suggesting that these were the ideal OS!).  After around that time, operating systems started becoming more user-friendly inasmuch that they would do a lot more things automatically and intuitively for the “average” user (NDLR: the lowest common denominator).  Couple this with the ubiquity of PCs, and MS in particular, and general understanding of the structure and function of software dropped.  The theory goes that understanding and ability to use software (or anything) is inversely proportional to the slickness and popularity of the software and operating system (which means that bloodyVista is a ray of hope for the improvement of user understanding!).

Some examples of what I mean.

1) When did the “My documents” function arrive?  Every year I teach a basic statistics course which involves the heavy use of computer-based workshops.  Despite the fact that the students love the statistics, every week I encounter the same problems.  Student X says that they have a problem – they cannot find the file that they saved their work in last week.

JC “Where did you save it?”

SX “Dunno. It was in My Documents last week.”

JC “Which My Documents?”

SX “?”

JC “My documents on the hard drive or My Documents on the network drive?”

SX “The what?”

JC “OK, have you tried searching for the file?”

Suffice to say, the answer is usually “no” as they hadn’t even realised that the “find” or “search” function existed… So, if something doesn’t automatically appear when you want it, it is clearly a problem of the computer, or so it would appear many people think.

2) Post-graduate student Y tries new software for operating a bit of kit.  Said software saves everything automatically by default and in a proprietary binary that I couldn’t care less about.  This is a good thing as you have all the instrument parameters, all the data, all the conditions, etc. in one compact file.  But this isn’t good enough for student Y: you can’t open up the data in Excel.  This is considered to be a “bad thing” and all hope is lost and there is darkness upon the face of the earth.  “This is useless, I can’t open my data in Excel.” I decided that a response of “RTFM” may not be the most constructive and after a small amount of fiddling (i.e., three clicks) we were able to get the data as ASCII that will happily open up in any spreadsheet that our IT department permit us to use (go figure the length of that list).  But this requires a conscious decision and effort on the part of the operator, even if it is just three clicks.  Therefore it was suggested that the software was “hardly the most user friendly”.

Lets pause for a minute.  Are we regressing?  Should all new software only save data in ASCII human-readable text?  Shall we take this to its logical conclusion and ask that our software only accepts input files that are text-only?  No GUIs please?  This is ironic given that I know the carnage that causes – I teach the use of computational chemistry programs (although admittedly I should use something other than vi).  While we are at it, should we not go back to UNIX and DOS??

The problems, I can handle.  I am more worried about the inability, or lack of confidence, to fiddle around and find possible solutions.  I suspect this year I shall mostly be teaching from XKCD:

French Blogs August 19, 2009

Posted by calvinus in Uncategorized.
add a comment

Sauf Enfants du Servette, evidemment, est-ce qu’il y a quelqu’un qui peux me racomander un blog français? Un blog scientifique, sportif, la vie academique, n’import quoi…

Anyone got any recommendations for French blogs.  Preference for science but intrigued what is out there.  Happy to hear of any suggestions…

Pauling and Polymaths August 14, 2009

Posted by calvinus in Uncategorized.
Tags: ,
add a comment

I’ve been away for a while and have not been thinking at all about chemistry or academia…and for good reason (not that I am telling you lot why).  Not long back at work and I have a surprising mountain of goodies that have appeared amongst the perpetual detritus of admin nonentities.  One of these has turned up via Peter Muray-Rust’s fine blog.

Thank you Peter for bringing the Pauling blog to light.  Linus Pauling remains one of those fascinating, monumental characters.  His contribution to chemistry one of the most significant and fundamental of the modern era.  Yet it is not just his chemistry that raises him above the crowd, as highlighted in the blog.  The day I tripped across the Pauling blog had an article about his involvement in disarmament and his peace activism, in this case, the Hiroshima Appeal.

Linus not just influenced chemistry but was active across a range of disciplines – and important in them too.  I can see me working more references to Pauling and his work into my teaching.  Does his profile need to be raised?  Do “the youth” need to be educated in this way?

Quite probably.

Two years ago, whilst teaching molecular spectroscopy and the Born-Oppenheimer approximation, I went off on one about another character of similar stature; J Robert Oppenheimer.  It would appear that out of 25 adults studying for a science degree, none had heard of Oppenheimer.  More worryingly, none had heard of the Manhattan Project.  It only sunk in to some of them when I gave the vague clue of “Come on, you must have heard of it – a couple of loud pops in the East around 60 years ago?”

Now, I don’t consider myself to be that old but does nobody try to put faces to equations?  Are these names really so meaningless to the current crop of students?  Should this actually be the case?  It seems a shame that the rich history of the likes of Pauling and Oppenheimer, of the likes of Richard Feynman, here in the U.K., of the likes of Bertrand Russell is not known.  All had fascinating, colourful lives – Oppenheimer’s role in the course of history particularly so.  All made fundamental contributions to many different fields (especially, I might argue, Russell). Who, I wonder is making the same contributions, to more than just a particular branch of science today?

Yet another comment on Swine Flu May 3, 2009

Posted by calvinus in Uncategorized.
add a comment

As usual, xkcd summing it up nicely.

Were all doomed.

Why am I doing this? April 17, 2009

Posted by calvinus in Uncategorized.
add a comment

Following on from my initial toe-dipping exercise in the world of blogging, my initial reaction is entirely positive, with one slight caveat.

I have been somewhat surprised by the quick encouragement and helpful pointers that I’ve received so far. Being jaded and a little cynical tends to be my stock in trade these days although I do try to be as encouraging and helpful as possible to young, impressionable postgrads. So, following on from Peter Murray-Rust‘s and Egon Willighagen‘s comments, why am I doing this? Do I know?

I mentioned before that I feel it is a duty. This is true but it is not the only thing. Back in “the real world” I tend to be something approaching a chemical evangelist. Part of me enjoys trying to put this across, so I want to take this opportunity to do this..but this is also an opportunity to improve this communication. Learn by doing, and all that. Do I have an audience in mind? Probably not. Is this wrong? The idea is to start off someplace and see where we go from there. Maybe a 6-month review and a year long probationary period is required. Young lecturers have to do more – 2 years of probation and a compulsory period in purgatory (a.k.a. a post-graduate certificate in higher education) is needed.

It is all good fun. The caveat? Time. There is a lot of things to cogitate on in my line of work. Lots of things to mull over in public and it would be good to get some constructive thoughts back in return. The problem is finding the time to put something coherent down in the first place. (Unlike this!) It will get there. I will also learn the finer points of trackbacks and the like… Onwards and upwards!