Tag Archives: random musings

Three resources about gender bias

These are three resources that look like they might be useful in understanding and avoiding gender bias. They caught my attention because I cover some cognitive biases in the Critical Thinking course I teach. I also cover the advantages of having diverse teams working on problems (the latter based on discussion of How Diversity Makes Us Smarter in SciAm). Finally, like any responsible  teacher in information systems & computer science I am keen to see more women in my classes.

Iris Bohnet on BBC Radio 4 Today programme 3 January.  If you have access via a UK education institution with an ERA licence you can listen to the clip via the BUFVC Box of Broadcasts.  Otherwise here’s a quick summary. Bohnet stresses that much gender bias is unconscious, individuals may not be aware that they act in biased ways. Awareness of the issue and diversity training is not enough on its own to ensure fairness. She stresses that organisational practise and procedures are the easiest effective way to remove bias. One example she quotes is that to recruit more male teachers job adverts should not “use adjectives that in our minds stereotypically are associated with women such as compassionate, warm, supportive, caring.” This is not because teachers should not have these attributes or that men cannot be any of these, but because research shows[*] that these attributes are associated with women and may subconsciously deter male applicants.

[*I don’t like my critical thinking students saying broad and vague things like ‘research shows that…’. It’s ok for 3 minute slot on a breakfast news show but I’ll have to do better. I hope the details are somewhere in Iris Bohnet, (2016). What Works: Gender Equality by Design]

This raised a couple of questions in my mind. If gender bias is unconscious, how do you know you do it? And, what can you do about it? That reminded me of two other things I had seen on bias over the last year.

An Implicit Association Test (IAT) on Gender-Career associations, which  I took a while back. It’s a clever little test based on how quickly you can classify names and career attributes. You can read more information about them on the Project Implicit website  or try the same test that I did (after a few disclaimers and some other information gathering, it’s currently the first one on their list).

A gender bias calculator for recommendation letters based on the words that might be associated with stereotypically male or female attributes. I came across this via Athene Donald’s blog post Do You Want to be Described as Hard Working? which describes the issue of subconscious bias in letters of reference. I guess this is the flip side of the job advert example given by Bohnet. There is lots of other useful and actionable advice in that blog post, so if you haven’t read it yet do so now.

XKCD or OER for critical thinking

I teach half a course on Critical Thinking to 3rd year Information Systems students. A colleague takes the first half which covers statistics. I cover how science works including the scientific method, experimental design, how to read a research papers, how to spot dodgy media reports of science and pseudoscience, and reproducibility in science; how to argue, which is mostly how to spot logical fallacies; and a little on cognitive development. One the better things about teaching on this course is that a lot of it is covered by xkcd, and that xkcd is CC licensed. Open Education Resources can be fun.

how scientists think


hypothesis testing

Hell, my eighth grade science class managed to conclusively reject it just based on a classroom experiment. It's pretty sad to hear about million-dollar research teams who can't even manage that.


Blind trials


Interpreting statistics


p hacking


Confounding variables

There are also a lot of global versions of this map showing traffic to English-language websites which are indistinguishable from maps of the location of internet users who are native English speakers





Confirmation bias in information seeking



undistributed middle


post hoc ergo propter hoc

Or correlation =/= causation.

He holds the laptop like that on purpose, to make you cringe.



Bandwagon Fallacy…

…and fallacy fallacy


Diversity and inclusion


 Licence: All xkcd are by Randall Munroe and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.5 License. This means you’re free to copy and share these comics (but not to sell them). More details.

[Updated 15/11/2016 to add full source & licence info and some links, which I really ought to have known better than to forget.]

On the first day of Christmas

Prompted by

and with apologies:

On the first day of Christmas
My true love gave to me
A testable hypoth-e-sis

On the second day of Christmas
My truelove gave to me
Two sample means
And a testable hypothesis

On the third day of Christmas
My true love gave to me
Three peer reviews
Two sample means
And a testable hypothesis

On the fourth day of Christmas
My true love gave to me
Four scatter plots
Three peer reviews
Two sample means
And a testable hypothesis

On the fifth day of Christmas
My true love gave to me

(I always thought the carol went down hill from there)

New projects for me at Heriot-Watt

WordPress LTS?

A question: does WordPress have anything like the Long Term Stability branches of Ubuntu?

The Cetis website is based on WordPress, we use it as a blogging platform for our blogs, as a content management system for our publications and as a bit of both for our main site.  It’s important to us that our installation (that is the WordPress core plus a variety of plugins, widgets and themes) is stable and secure. To ensure security we should keep all the components updated, which not normally a problem, but occasionally an update of WordPress or one of the plugins causes a problem due an incompatibility or bug. So there is a fair amount of testing involved whenever I do an update on the publications site, and for that reason I tend to do updates periodically rather than as soon as a new version of each component is released.

Last month was fairly typical, I updated to the latest version of WordPress and updated several plugins. Many of the updates were adding new functionality which we don’t really need, but there were also security patches that we do need–you can’t have one without the other. One of the plugins had a new dependency that broke the site, David helped me fix that.  Two days later I login and half the plugins want updating again, mostly with fixes to bugs in the new functionality that I didn’t really need.

I understand that there will always be updates required to fix bugs and security issues, but the plethora of updates could be mitigated in the same way that it is for Ubuntu. Every couple of years Ubuntu is released as a Long Term Stability version. For the next few years, no new features are added to this, it lags in functionality behind current version, but important bug fixes and security patches for existing features are back-ported from the current version.

So, my question: is there anything like the concept of LTS in the WordPress ecosystem?

Euclid in colour and technology for learning

I work in the area commonly known as Learning Technology, or Educational Technology.  I don’t have much time for trying to pin down what exactly constitutes “technology” in that context, and certainly none for considerations like “printing is technology, does that count”.  But today I bought a book which does quite literally(*) illustrate advances in printing applied to learning.

euclid2The book is a reprint of the Oliver Byrne’s The first six books of the elements of Euclid in which coloured diagrams and symbols are used instead of letters for the greater ease of learners which was first published in 1847. Instead of the conventional referencing of lines, shapes and angle by letters used in geometry text books. So instead of:

Proposition 30: Straight lines parallel to the same straight line are also parallel to one another.

Let each of the straight lines AB and CD be parallel to EF.
I say that AB is also parallel to CD.

Let the straight line GK fall upon them. Since the straight line GK falls on the parallel straight lines AB and EF, therefore the angle AGK equals the angle GHF.
Again, since the straight line GK falls on the parallel straight lines EF and CD, therefore the angle GHF equals the angle GKD.
But the angle AGK was also proved equal to the angle GHF. Therefore the angle AGK also equals the angle GKD, and they are alternate.
Therefore AB is parallel to CD.
Therefore straight lines parallel to the same straight line are also parallel to one another.

This book has:euclid1

Colour printing of books was not common in 1847, it only became commercially viable after the invention new printing techniques in the C19th and mass production of cheap synthetic dyes, starting with mauvine in 1856, so this can fairly be called advanced technology for its time. Like many uses of technology to enhance learning, when colour printing of text books did become commonplace, it wasn’t used with the same imagination as shown by the pioneers.

* except, of course, that “literally” means according to the written word and this is a book of pictures. #CetisPedantry

In Roman times

A play-list for Roman History from the In Our Time archives.

I’ve become a bit of an addict of In Our Time since I was alerted to the archives available as podcasts by a tweet from someone, I can’t remember who. In Our Time is a Radio 4 programme where Melvyn Bragg discusses some topic with three academics. Whoever it was who sent that tweet said something along the lines of it possibly being the basis of  a University syllabus, which gave me the idea of putting together a playlist for one of the topics I’m interested in: Roman History.

Taken from various sections of the In Our Time archive, the descriptions are edited excerpts of those found on the BBC In Our Time site. The links are more or less chronological in order of Roman history; on left are links to discussions that relate directly to the story of the Roman Empire, on the right are discussions which relate to neighbours of the Empire and ideas that influenced the story.

All except one of the programme* are available for download from the BBC site, I’ve cobbled together this rss file will set up a podcasts play list. (*I can’t find The Roman Empire’s Decline and Fall for download.)


For the historian Herodotus, the Battle of Thermopylae (480BC) was the defining clash between East and West, and allowed Western values to rise above Eastern.

The Phoenicians
People from the Levant who established a trading network across the Mediterranean linking many settlements, including Carthage.

The Etruscan Civilisation
Emerging ca.800 BC the Etruscans thrived for the next eight hundred years, extracting and trading copper and developing a sophisticated culture. Eventually the Etruscan civilisation was absorbed into that of Rome.

Romulus and Remus
According to tradition, the twins were abandoned by their parents as babies, but were saved by a she-wolf who found and nursed them. Romulus killed his brother after a vicious quarrel, and went on to found a city, which was named after him.

Res publica, 500-50BC

The Roman Republic
The rise and eventual downfall of the Roman Republic which survived for 500 years.

The Carthaginian general who led an entire army, complete with elephants, across the Alps in order to attack the Roman Republic during the Second Punic War which unfolded between 218 and 202 BC.

Carthage’s Destruction
Carthage and its destruction by the Romans in the 2nd Century BC, was a pivotal moment in world history that left Rome as the supreme power in the Mediterranean.

Judas Maccabeus
Born in the second century BC, Judas led his followers, the Maccabees, in a rebellion against the Seleucid Empire, which was attempting to impose the Greek culture and religion on the Jews

Slave revolts in the 1st century BC, especially the Roman gladiator and rebel leader Spartacus.

The last pharaoh to rule Egypt, Cleopatra was a woman of intelligence and charisma, later celebrated as a great beauty. She was lover of Julius Caesar and Mark Antony.


The Augustan Age
A golden age of literature with Virgil’s Aeneid and Ovid’s Metamorphosis among its treasures. But they were forged amidst creeping tyranny and the demands of literary propaganda.

Greek and Roman Love Poetry
Greek and Roman love poetry, from the Greek poet Sappho and her erotic descriptions of romance on Lesbos, to the love-hate poems of the Roman writer Catullus.

Roman Satire
Much of Roman culture was a development of their rich inheritance from the Greeks. But satire was a form the Romans could claim to have invented.

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the Roman poet Ovid and explore the theme of metamorphosis from the transformation of Narcissus to the bug of Kafka’s story, and beyond.

The Aeneid
Virgil’s Aeneid was the great epic poem that formed a founding narrative of Rome, written in Augustus’ reign at the start of the Imperial era and has been called an apologia for Roman domination; it has also been called the greatest work of literature ever written.

Vitruvius and De Architectura
Written almost exactly two thousand years ago, Vitruvius’ work is a ten-volume treatise on engineering and architecture, the only surviving work on the subject from the ancient world.

St Paul
Paul’s impact on Christianity is vast. Crucially, Paul is responsible for changing Christianity from a Jewish reform movement into a separate and universal religion.

Pliny’s Natural History
Some time in the first century AD, the Roman scholar Pliny the Elder published his Naturalis Historia, or Natural History, an enormous reference work which attempted to bring together knowledge on every subject under the sun.

Pliny the Younger
A prominent lawyer in Rome in the first century AD, Pliny later became governor of the province of Bithynia, on the Black Sea coast of modern Turkey. Throughout his career he was a prolific letter-writer, sharing his thoughts with great contemporaries including the historian Tacitus, and asking the advice of the Emperor Trajan.

Tacitus and the Decadence of Rome
Roman historian Tacitus chronicled some of Rome’s most notorious emperors, including Nero and Caligula, and whose portrayal of Roman decadence influences the way we see Rome today.

The Celts
The Greek historians who studied and recorded the Celts’ way of life deemed them to be one of the four great Barbarian peoples of the world. Perched on the North Western fringe  were the British who shared many of the religious, artistic and social customs of their European neighbours. 

Roman Britain
One backwater of the Empire noted for its wretched climate, gloomy atmosphere and uncouth inhabitants.

The Druids
Active in Ireland, Britain and Gaul, the Druids were first written about by Roman authors including Julius Caesar and Pliny. They were suspected of leading resistance to the Romans, a fact which eventually led to their eradication from ancient Britain.

In 60AD, Boudica led an army of tribesmen and sacked Camulodunum, modern day Colchester, before marching on London. She came close to driving the Roman Imperial power out of Britain before she was finally defeated.

Hadrian’s Wall
Built in about 122 AD by the Emperor Hadrian, its construction must have entailed huge cost and labour. However, the Romans abandoned it within twenty years, deciding to build the Antonine Wall further north instead. 

The Cult of Mithras
A mystery religion that existed in the Roman Empire from the 1st to the 4th centuries AD.

Ptolemy and Ancient Astronomy
In the 2nd Century AD Ptolemy proposed that the Earth was at the centre of the universe and explained all the observed motions of the Sun, Moon, planets and stars with a system of uniform circular motions which he referred to as ‘epicycles’.

Decline and Fall, Byzantium

The Roman Empire’s Decline and Fall
How far is the growth of Christianity implicated in the destruction of the great culture of Rome? How critical were the bawdy incursions of the Ostrogoths, the Visigoths and the Vandals to the fall of the Roman Empire?

Queen Zenobia
Born in around 240 AD, Zenobia was Empress of the Palmyrene Empire in the Middle East. A highly educated, intelligent and militarily accomplished leader, she led a rebellion against the Roman Empire and conquered Egypt before being finally defeated by the Emperor Aurelian.

The Sassanid Empire
Founded around 226 AD, in Persia, the Sassanian Empire lasted over 400 years as a grand imperial rival to Rome. This super-power traded goods from Constantinople to Beijing, handed regular defeats to the Roman army and only fell to the Islamic conquests of the 7th century.

The Trinity
The idea that God is a single entity, but one known in three distinct forms – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – has been a central belief for most Christians since the earliest years of the religion. The doctrine was often controversial in the early years of the Church, until clarified by the Council of Nicaea in the late 4th century.

The Nicene Creed
The Nicene Creed which established the Divinity of Christ, written to counter the 4th Century Arian heresy

The Pelagian Controversy
 In the late 4th century a British monk, Pelagius, travelled to Rome where he preached a Christian doctrine which many regarded as heretical: that mankind was not inherently depraved.

The Roman Empire’s Collapse in the 5th century
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the causes of the fall of the Roman Empire (in the West, that is, the story continues).

In 453 with the Barbarians at the gate, through the gate and sacking the city of Rome “the wide arch of the ranged empire” finally began to fall…Or did it? In AD 395 the Emperor Theodosius had divided the vast Roman Empire between his two sons.How did the East survive when the West fell, were they really Romans and why do we know so little about one of the most successful and long lived Empires ever to straddle the globe?

The Arab Conquests
In 632 the prophet Muhammad died and left behind the nascent religion of Islam among a few tribes in the Arabian Desert. Within 100 years Arab armies controlled territory from Northern Spain to Southern Iran and Islamic ideas had begun to profoundly refashion the societies they touched.

The Abbasid Caliphs
From the mid eighth to the tenth century the Abbasid Caliphs headed a Muslim empire that extended from Tunisia through Egypt, Syria, Arabia, and Persia to Uzbekistan and the frontiers of India.

Muslim Spain
In 711 a small army of North African Berbers invaded Spain and established an Iberian Islamic culture that would last for over 700 years

The Battle of Tours
In 732 a large Arab army invaded Gaul from northern Spain, and travelled as far north as Poitiers. There they were defeated by Charles Martel, whose Frankish and Burgundian forces repelled the invaders.

The Carolingian Renaissance
In 800 AD on Christmas Day in Rome, Pope Leo III proclaimed Charlemagne Emperor, the first of the Holy Roman Emperors. A Frankish King who held more territory in Western Europe than any man since the Roman Emperor, Charlemagne’s lands extended from the Atlantic to Vienna and from Northern Germany to Rome.

Third Crusade
When Saladin, Sultan of Egypt and Syria, seized Jerusalem back in 1187 Pope Gregory VIII issued a Papal Bull for restoring the Holy City to Christian Rule.

Constantinople Siege and Fall
When Sultan Mehmet the Second rode into the city of Constantinople on a white horse in 1453, it marked the end of a thousand years of the Byzantine Empire.

Post Hoc

Rome and European Civilization
Melvyn Bragg assesses the role Rome has played in European civilization. Rome has meant Republicanism, as well as Imperialism; it has stood for Pax Romana and also for the machinery of war, it is an eternally pagan city that still beats as the Catholic Heart of the Christian Church.

Teaching philosophy statement

As part of the Post Graduate Certificate in Higher Education that I am taking I need to outline my conception of teaching and learning and describe how and why you do (or will) teach”

modelLearner On the left is a model learner I found in Leuven. If you think of it as showing knowledge flowing into someone’s head as they read a book, then it is not my conception of learning. I believe:

  • knowledge is not something that exists externally and can somehow be transferred into a students head, it is something that is built and rebuilt in the brain.
  • learning is not something that can be done passively simply by absorbing what is in a book, it requires an active effort
  • education is a social activity, not a solo activity

(For the avoidance of doubt, I don’t preclude reading as an active effort or as part of a social activity.)

Part of my role as a teacher is to provide and be part of the social setting, activities and resources through which students may develop their knowledge and understanding of the outside world.

I am involved in education because I believe in the capability of people learn, to change and to improve, throughout their life. Their time at University is part of that, but I think it is important to consider what students will need the day after they leave University and in 10 years time. Once they leave University many of them will find themselves without a teacher for the first time in their life. Part of my role as a teacher is to prepare them to be without a teacher. The area that I teach (computer science/information systems) is rapidly changing. When I suggested to a colleague that he should tell his new students what it is that they will learn in the next four years that will be useful in ten years time he replied “Tough question – ‘we are/should be teaching students to solve problems we don’t know using technologies we don’t know'”. That suggests to me that problem solving and the ability to learn new things are more important that content knowledge. Now that is a thought that is quite terrifying, the content knowledge is way easier to teach, but I can at least encourage students to think about what they know, what they need to know and how they are learning.

I also believe that teaching is difficult and the resources and approaches used are difficult to create. It is important to evaluate what works and what doesn’t, to change and to improve what doesn’t work, and to share what does.

[The image is my own available on Flickr under a Creative Commons attribution only licence http://www.flickr.com/photos/philbarker/4663480615/ Leuven being the brewing capital of Belgium and therefore of the world, and alternative interpretation is that it represents the role of beer in learning.]

Expertise, objectives and pedagogies

I while back I read Harry Collins’ and Robert Evans’ book Rethinking Expertise. The website blurb says:

What does it mean to be an expert? In Rethinking Expertise, Harry Collins and Robert Evans offer a radical new perspective on the role of expertise in the practice of science and the public evaluation of technology.

Collins and Evans present a Periodic Table of Expertises based on the idea of tacit knowledge—knowledge that we have but cannot explain.

The core of that “Periodic Table” is a range of ways of knowing about things that runs from “beer mat knowledge” to “contributory expertise”:

Text, left to right: Beer mat knowledge, popular understanding, primary source knowledge, interactional expertise, contributory expertise.
Collins’ and Evans’ spectrum of expertise

Beer mat knowledge is the sort of information that may be learnt from a “did you know” snippet on the back of a beer mat, useful for pub quizzes, but disconnected from any other knowledge; popular understanding is what might be gained through reading popular science books or watching documentaries; primary source knowledge requires understanding original papers in a field; interactional expertise is the ability to talk to other experts, requiring a knowledge how the published literature fits with the excepted paradigms and current developments in a field; and contributory expertise is enough expertise to advance the field one self.

Pyramid with text, top to bottom: remembering, understanding, applying, analysing, evaluating, creating
Blooms Taxonomy, revised
It always struck me that there was a congruence between this spectrum and Blooms taxonomy. At least at the extremes, mastery at “Beer mat” level requires no more than remembering, contributory expertise is about creating. In between the match isn’t one-to-one, but there is some overlap.

Reading about pedagogies this week while preparing for teaching, it struck me that there is another mapping that could be made. The first three of Collins’ and Evans’ classes could all be learnt in isolation, that is by reading books or watching films; the other two require, by definition, interaction with other people. So this seems to map to the three perspectives of pedagogy presented by Terry Mayes and Sara De Freitas[1]:
the associationist perspective: learning as an accumulation of skills
the cognitive perspective: learning as a process of building mental models making sense of concepts
the situative perspective: learning in the context of social interactions.

Odd, that it is the situative perspective that I struggle most with understanding, yet the social aspects of interactional can contributory expertises were ones that made immediate sense to me as someone who has worked as a physicist on a subject (polymer science) that showed the differences between physicists and chemists, and who went on to learn the different between physicists and engineers by working with engineers.

1. Terry Mayes and Sarah de Freitas Review of e-learning theories, frameworks and models (pdf). Stage 2 of the JISC e-Learning Models Desk Study. Also see Helen Beetham and Rhona Sharppe (eds.) Rethinking Pedagogy in a Digital Age (1st ed), chapter 2 Learning and e-learning: the role of theory.