Educational Technology Falls At The First Hurdle

Filed under: — Bravus @ 7:38 am

I’ll be delivering a lecture by videoconference to three campuses this morning, using video, PowerPoint (very sparingly), a visualiser, audio, controlling lights and sound…

And every time I come in to a lecture theatre, at least one of the two radio mics is not plugged in the right way, and therefore not charged. I’d hoped to use one radio mic as an audience mic here, but now I only have the one on me, because the other one is flat.

I mean, it’s very simple anyway – a light goes on when it’s plugged in correctly. But lecturers were struggling with that, so they put a little coloured sticker on the side of the radio mic, and another on the charger. All you have to do is match them up.

And yet, still, almost every time I enter a lecture theatre, someone has got it wrong.

Maybe it’s low care factor, or maybe just simple lack of skill. Those of us with a certain amount of facility with this stuff might sometimes forget how daunting it can be to encounter for the first time.

I do think, though, that the simple failure to plug the mics in correctly, when it’s signposted that clearly (there’s a big laminated sign on the desk right beside it, too), indicates that (as William Gibson has said), the future is here, but it’s not evenly distributed…


The Price of Principle (mingled with slow-wittedness)

Filed under: — Bravus @ 9:19 pm

The textbook I prescribed for one of my courses, unknown to me, is releasing a second edition in a couple of weeks. This means that the second edition is not yet available for the semester, which started last week, and the first edition is mainly out of circulation too.

I scanned and posted the single chapter for the first week’s readings under the ‘Fair Use’ doctrine for academic purposes, but that’s it…

But my students need to read the readings to keep up. Physically, it would have been easy to scan the two chapters for this week and post them on the course web site… but this is what I ended up deciding, and writing to the students: I’m not interested in ripping off authors. I know writing and publishing is very hard work. But, if the students already have the book on pre-order, the authors have already been paid… so I don’t feel too bad about providing scans of a couple of chapters to tide the students over, given they’ve already paid.

This seems like a reasonable compromise to me – if not 100% legal (and I guess I should throw in an ‘allegedly’ here and there in this post, just in case), then at least moral.

There are 280 students in the class (some of whom have already been able to obtain copies), so it was always going to make a lot of extra work for me over just posting the files for everyone, but I didn’t feel I could do that.

The scanned files – colour, high-rez for easy reading, about 20 pages per chapter – are about 24 MB each. I spent half the day emailing them out, taking 5 minutes for each file to upload to mail out in Gmail, before I realised that if I just forwarded the email messages I’d sent to earlier students, it was already uploaded, which speeded up the process.

And then, over dinner, end of the day, Suzie said “Why didn’t you just upload them to your server, and email people the links?”

“So, where were you at 8:30 this morning with your problem-solving ability?!”, I asked. She’s much, much better at this kind of stuff than I am. (The answer was that she was at the markets getting plants to improve the back garden.)

It’s security by obscurity, there’s no password protection and I’ll have to take it down soon, but that’s a far less cumbersome solution.

So, anyway, I think that works, and I’ve been emailing the links for just the last couple of the 50 or so people who have received the chapters today.

We might have to do one more week this way, and at least I’ve learned something, and have a solution in place for next week.

And an excellent wife is more valuable than rubies…


I’m not crying. No, really.

Filed under: — Bravus @ 8:31 am

We think that our faces and bodies show our emotions, but there seems to be some evidence that it also goes the other way – we feel what our faces are showing. If we smile, we start to feel happy.

Yesterday, riding from the Gold Coast to Brisbane, my allergies were causing my eyes to stream, and tears were rolling down my cheeks.

I was very happy – heading out for a day out with my amazing daughters – but the fact that I was (apparently) crying ended up making me feel melancholy. Even trying to smile just made me feel like I was ‘bravely smiling through the tears’, with the appropriate emotions.

It’s an odd thing – and just shows us that our emotions are much more complex than we tend to remember…


Imaginary Architectures

Filed under: — Bravus @ 9:51 am

Playing Skyrim this morning, I realised: inside my head, somewhere, there are thousands of floor plans for buildings that have never existed in the world.

The houses and caves of the Thief games, the wastelands of Fallout 3, the varied architectures of the Elder Scrolls games (Morrowind, Oblivion and Skyrim – didn’t play the first two installments) and many more.

These buildings have been designed, and built out of pixels and code, and I know them – probably better than I know, for example, the campus of my own university.


One Way The ‘Gnu Atheists’ Shoot Themselves In The Foot

Filed under: — Bravus @ 7:11 pm

Good piece from Douglas Murray in The Spectator about seeking balance and not getting carried away by one’s own rhetoric:



The Theory We Need

Filed under: — Bravus @ 7:09 am

Bit of a physics discussion on Facebook, around the differences between quantum and relativity, and how we’d combine them.

Someone noted that our current theories, particularly in the particle world, tend to keep creating new kinds of fields and particles, and getting more complicated. They compared that to geocentric astronomy just before Copernicus, where accounting for the motion of the planets required adding more and more complex arrangements of ‘epicycles’ – circles on circles. Once Copernicus came along with the hypothesis that the sun was at the centre of the solar system and earth and the other planets orbit it, the whole system was much simpler and had more explanatory power.

I commented:

I think what would make that kind of impact would be a fundamental rearrangement. As noted, we seem to be multiplying entities. To go outside science for a moment, Hegel suggests that thesis and antithesis reach synthesis at a higher level of abstraction. Quantum and GR need some meta-theory to unite them, and a successful candidate will (a) reduce the number of ad hoc entities, (b) explain all the existing experimental results and (c) make novel, testable predictions.

I wonder whether part of the problem is not specialisation: in Newton’s and even Einstein’s time a physicist could be across the whole field. These days, where are the people who are working at the highest levels in *both* quantum and GR? Career paths, funding, publication and a variety of other pressures – as well as the sheer volume of knowledge – tend to make people choose rather than embrace both/all.

The second paragraph is more of a musing, but the last sentence of the first is, among other things, a reasonable simple heuristic for testing the claims of people who come up with candidate Grand Unified Theories.

Incidentally, string theory doesn’t really fit (a), in that it creates more and more dimensions rather than simplifying, and doesn’t meet (c) at all: there is no testable prediction it makes that is not already made by our existing theories.

It’ll be interesting to see where physics goes… and we’re under no illusions that we’re close to wrapping it up.


How I Do Literature Reviews

Filed under: — Bravus @ 11:36 am

(Suzie asked for the basic tips, and I thought I might as well share them more broadly)

Conceptually, you’re trying to locate yourself on three ‘maps’1: the empirical, theoretical and methodological maps.

Empirical: what is already known about my topic? What have been the results of prior studies?

Theoretical: what theoretical framework is appropriate to my work, and why, and why are other, adjacent theoretical frameworks less appropriate?2

Methodological: what methods have been used to study this problem in the past? What method(s) will I choose and which adjacent methods will I reject, and why?

In terms of the simple mechanics:

  1. These days I always use Google Scholar for the initial search. Specific search engines and databases used to be better, but in my experience now Scholar has everything they have and more, and a much more powerful set of search tools. Once I’ve found the papers, then I go to the Griffith Library web site to actually get access to the full versions of the papers3.
  2. In terms of search queries, the rule of thumb is that more terms lead to fewer results and vice versa. If you put in five words and get too many results to be manageable, go to seven or eight, if you get too few, cut it back to three. Use synonyms for some of your terms – someone might have said it slightly differently.
  3. For a formal literature review article (I’ve written a couple, often with collaborators), you need to actually state the methods you used – which databases were searched, with which search terms, how many results were returned and what criteria were used to include and exclude papers. This is less crucial in a thesis or assignment, but something to be aware of.
  4. Looking at the papers your paper of interest cites allows you to go ‘backward’ in time and find the sources of the ideas, and relevant seminal papers in the field.
  5. Google Scholar has a ‘cited by…’ link in the searches, so it’s possible to search ‘forward’ in time to the papers that have cited the paper of interest. That gets you into the more recent work, and allows you to find any critiques of the ideas presented.
  6. You’re looking for enough comprehensiveness for your purposes. You don’t want to miss a key paper in the field. For a thesis you want to have all the key papers, for an assignment you may only need a few papers: but you want the best and most relevant ones.
  7. (side note – if you know who will be reading your paper/thesis – examiners or reviewers or markers – it always makes sense to add their name to your search query, find out what, if anything, they have published in the field)
  8. Personally I don’t use a reference manager like Papers or Endnote, but you might find it a useful way to keep track of the things you read and might want to cite. I guess I’d suggest weighing up the cost-benefit ratio, not so much in terms of money as time: will the time taken setting up your database pay off in speed later? For me, almost 20 years in, I still haven’t been convinced.

I hope this is helpful – it’s a personal account drawn from experience, not the result of any particular qualifications or studies. It’s also worth remembering that librarians do have those qualifications, and are your friends!

Have fun with it! Get excited about the ideas, envisage the maps, plant your flag!

  1. In the human and social sciences – in the ‘hard’ sciences the methodological map can tend to be ‘taken as read’
  2. You may want to use a little ‘disciplined eclecticism‘ (Geelan, 2001) and combine 2-3 theoretical frames
  3. Obviously it’s helpful to be a student or staff member of a university to avoid being charged 30 bucks a paper…


Physics and Language and Concepts, Oh my!

Filed under: — Bravus @ 2:32 pm

Via Chris Bigum, this is well worth a read:


Unlike most of the rest of the internets, the comments are generally worth reading too.

Tests As A Weapon

Filed under: — Bravus @ 1:35 pm

(with apologies to Pat Benatar)(and those who hate puns)(and those who care about grammar)

This ‘literacy test’ was used in 1964 – the year I was born – to try to disqualify black voters from voting in Louisiana.

I think I can do most of the questions. But in order to be allowed to vote, it was necessary to complete it all, with zero errors, in 10 minutes.


My conservative friends in America are hailing the striking down of the Voting Rights Act by the Supreme Court as a victory for ‘states’ rights’ and claiming it will not disenfranchise anyone.

The states have form.