Saturday, August 29, 2009

Digital Britain points to present and past, not future

Digital Britain points to present and past, not future

Here we go, Digital Britain is off the blocks and it’s mostly a tired set of protectionist prohibitions, and potential punishments. Actually most of it has little to do with ‘Digital’ Britain, as it focuses on TV, radio and newspapers. Our Digital Future has been spiked by a bunch of London-based paper and TV folk.

Who’s running the show now?

All the hallmarks of ineffective leadership – two alternating Chairs and a Board of civil servants (oh, and Martha Lane Fox, as Digital Inclusion has been promoted to top spot!) OK, what about the Partner Group? Out of the 11, no fewer than three are Digital Inclusion bods. Talk about overkill, this partner group has so many inclusion experts that everyone else is excluded! Then a TV guy, two sector skills council (we all know how effective they’ve been), three more civil servants, an Ofcom guy and some unnamed person for some quango I’ve never heard of. It’s a sorry lot.

Digital Economy Bill

Impending election, not a chance. A mish-mash of dull radio and TV stuff that is about as ‘digital’ as my granny’s bloomers and of, course, the promise to prosecute real digital users.

Digital Inclusion and Participation

Much as I admire the work of Helen Milner, putting this as the first priority is tragically backward looking. The original report confirmed that huge numbers of people who are not online DON’T WANT TO BE ONLINE. £12 million set aside but most of that will be eaten up by the a new model army of Digital Inclusion professionals. Laughably, Channel 4 are to be asked to lead the charge – a TV channel leading the way – how very British!

Digital Skills

Money will be poured into known and unknown quangos to no good effect. Most of this is far removed from the private sector that knows most about delivery in this area. Skillset – the TV and film mob will be central stage. And guess what the TV mob Channel 4 are leading the charge – again! C4's like a lost abandoned child, everyone fusiing and finding things for it to do.

Current and Next Generation Broadband

Universal Service promise – but this will be plagued by problems, namely, 'Who will pay and by when?' New snappily branded quango “Network Design and Procurement Group”.

Spectrum Modernisation

Arbitration, consultation and harmonisation through Ofcom. Problem here, “"With a Conservative Government, Ofcom as we know it will cease to exist. Its remit will be restricted to its narrow technical and enforcement roles," David Cameron. One concrete idea here, and they’re rare, is the possible support for Broadband on trains and mobile on tube.

Digital Radio Upgrade

This section is the longest but least relevant. Expensive DAB upgrade that nobody wants or cares about – really an excuse for giving yet more cash to the BBC. Since when did radio become a force for digital good?

Video Games

Tax relief for video games companies – no chance as European competition laws forbit it. A ‘usability’ centre – completely unnecessary – good, professional, commercial usability and test centres already exist. I know, I set one up. Then some stupid stuff about strengthening the PEGI system. This became law in June 2009 and has worked fine for years. It's complicated enough as it is, leave it be.

Illegal file sharing

DB turns out to be an analogue wolf in sheeps' clothing, hunting down digital users. Don’t worry, Ofcoms powers will be stripped away by the Tories and this unworkable proposal will die a deserved death. It’s just so unbalanced – no real look at outdated IP laws – just threats by top-down politicians and curmudgeons to kids and students.

Contestable Funding

Amazingly brief sentence on taking some money from BBC to give to locals. What’s ‘digital about this?

Public Service Content

Usual licence fee wrangles on how to split up the analogue pie between BBC, C4 and others – yawn. Digital Britain appears to be one in which we’re still all watching TV and listening to radio.

Independently Funded News Consortia

Funding ‘News Consortia’. Looks like more analogue protectionist rubbish.

BBC/ Independent Production in the Nations

More TV stuff. This time TV production quotas – apparently we need more in regions. Wow, that’s a new suggestion! You try getting all of those luvvies out of London.

National Digital Security

At last, some sensible, hard hitting technical and business-based, internet suggestions. This one section is worth more than all of the rest put together. Unfortunately, no one on the board or partner group knows a damn thing about any of this.

Personal Digital Safety

Fair enough, as long as Reith doesn’t rear his ugly head and the moralisers start telling me what to do.

Online Consumer Protection

Again, fair enough. Online commerce has to be robust.

Digital Government

Weak, weak, weak. Easy for Gov departments to wriggle out of this one. Then an amazing sentence, ‘Establishment of G-Cloud’. What the hell is that! And lastly reference to those unremittingly, backward looking map people, the Ordnance Survey.

Digital Delivery Agency

Having spawned so many units, quangos and bodies in this report, the report then suggests bringing them all together. Why not start off this way? Talk about horses and stable doors.

Other Relevant Activity

Next Generation Digital Test Beds (whatever they may be), Local newspapers, Local Authority advertising, BBC rights. It all ends on a string of bum analogue notes.

What a wasted opportunity.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Extreme learning - learn from an autistic savant

Daniel’s an autistic savant, one of less than fifty worldwide that have ‘Savant syndrome’, with unbelievable mental abilities in maths and language acquisition, matched by weaknesses in social skills. In this, his second book, he tries to lay bare the inner workings of his own remarkable mind. What I love about this book is his laser-like attention on the brain, or rather his own brain. Daniel knows a great deal more about learning than most learning professionals because he’s an expert or extreme learner. We, in turn, have much to learn from him.

Extreme learning

Autistic savants, Tammet tell us, are no more than ordinary brains doing extraordinary things through focus and extreme learning. He’s not afraid to attack known figures like Oliver Sachs and Tony Buzan, literally accusing Sachs of lying in an experiment and Buzan of lazy thinking on learning a second language. Theorists who attribute special abilities to savants also come under attack, especially those that assume unproven concepts such as photographic memories and genius-type subconscious ability. He shows that memories and abilities can be extraordinary, but that the techniques are ordinary. We can all learn how to learn better.

Magic of memory

He starts with a tour of the brain, with some interesting references to neurogenesis and neuroplasticity, along with the groundbreaking Pasceul-Leone piano experiment that showed the same levels of brain activity when both playing and simply imagining a piano exercise. In other words we learn by visualisation and mental rehearsal. But it’s his analysis of learning through feedback, the 'power or practice' (this law is ubiquitous) and structured diligent study that impresses.

Memory is explored in detail and it is here that Daniel drills down into his amazing abilities. He has the European record for remembering pi to 22,514 decimal places, learnt Icelandic in a week and has an astounding ability to learn new things. He explains contemporary memory theory, episodic/semantic, observer/field and construction at the point of recall, along with brain scan studies that show a complex process of reformulation, rather than duplication, of experiences. Autobiographical memory is multilayered in years/decades, days/weeks/months and finally in short second/minutes/hours. It’s a fine primer to the basic theory.

The first key to improved learning is to understand and apply the encoding of a learning experience by attending to its meaning. Elaborative encoding must integrate new information with pre-existing knowledge. In other words, you need a comprehension strategy, not just a memory strategy. This is where role playing, the use of our imagination, music (NOT the Mozart effect) and movement come in. Chunking and the visualisation of concrete images encode in such a way that they can be efficiently stored and recalled.

Consolidation is the next key, with sleep being an essential part of the process. It’s better to learn at night before one goes to sleep than during the day, with little chance of consolidation. Retrieval cues through contextual learning are also necessary. Here he has a go at classroom learning (the wrong disembodied context). Cue-rich learning is much more effective than disembodied learning. Forgetting through interference must also be avoided.

World of words

Savants are usually known for their numerical skills, but many have remarkable linguistic abilities. Daniels’s ability to learn a second language is superb. He shows that a second language is stored separately in the brain (except when acquired as a young child) and that one must learn a second language in a different way. He’s full of wonderful techniques based on repetition of sounds, songs, affixes, onomatopoeic words, word clusters, word relationships, pairs of words, nouns with articles and lots of reading, and uses his own experience as a multi-linguist to bring this all to life, with a great description of how he appeared on Icelandic TV and wowed them with his conversational Icelandic, learnt in a week. Language teachers should buy this book for this chapter alone.

Number instinct

We have an inborn ability to do maths, as has been shown by a battery of clever experiments with babies and infants. Born with the ability to recognise quantities between 1-4, and maths, he explains, we simply need perseverance and the simple visualisation of numbers to make it work for your own brain. He sets great store by the ‘languageness’ of maths. He could have gone much further here and explained how this and other practical techniques could be used to improve numeracy in schools. We know where and how learners fail in numeracy but continue to teach them in an abstract and dislocated fashion, leading to puzzlement and an early exit. We know that contextualising and visualising maths through the workplace, shopping and so on, improve learning, but still teach it in dull doses of abstraction.

Light to sight

On perception, he gives a reasonable account of the basics of the psychology of perception with an interesting account of famous Ramachandran and Hirstein’s ‘Science of Art’ paper, where they put forward a neurological theory of aesthetic experience, based on eight universal principles. This caused a stir among those who abhor reductionist approaches to art, but it’s fascinating stuff. The eight principles are; peak exaggeration shift, grouping of similar perceptual effects, isolation of a single visual component, contrast, perceptual problem solving, generic viewpoints, metaphors and symmetry.

Food for thought

The second half of the book is more speculative, but no less interesting. He has some insights into the danger of political correctness leading to a stifling of debate, something explored in Diane Ravitch’s The Language Police, where a simplistic morality may limit complex analysis. Urban myths are discussed in terms of their exaggeration, tipping over into scientific urban myths such as the link between MMR and autism. As an autistic person he hates this sort of pseudoscience. But it’s his speculation into the nature of belief, with his admiration for Spinoza’s idea of disbelief involving the rejection of belief that takes him beyond the simple scientific stuff. This guy is one smart cookie.

Information overload

David Schenk’s Data Smog: Surviving the Information Glut sees info-glut as a psychological problem. We are immersed in many different flows of information and some psychologists have looked at the effect of this on our ability to concentrate, even sleep. He is also part of the backlash against the common belief that young people can multitask; they can’t, as studies by Marois, Horvitz and Iqbal have shown. This work has considerable consequences for the workplace where recovery times from emails and browsing have been shown to decrease productivity. He also brings in Roberstson’s study on the outsourcing of memory. All in all, he’s not fond of what Rosek called The Cult of Information – he’s an ideas man.

Forgivable weaknesses

The chapter on IQ is an interesting skim through the academic pros and cons of IQ testing, but says little about Daniel himself. In fact the book only springs into life when he’s relating his theories to his own wonderful experiences. The editor could, perhaps, have guided him more in this direction.


On page 176 he claims to ‘regularly spot misspellings and other subtle errors in the pages of a book or newspaper’ yet failed to spot the howler on page 147 where he describes his own number range landscape between ‘2,9000 (sic) and 3,000’. I’m no savant, in fact my wife suggests that this only goes to show shows that my talents are in being a pedant!

(Originally published in LINE’s newsletter)

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Fat heads: obesity and technology

Obesity? I personally blame JK Rowling, encouraging all of those chubby little teenage girls to spend hours reading those big, fat tombs of books in the quiet of their own bedrooms. Then there’s the endless, overlong movies, where they sit on their fat butts munching popcorn and slurping coke. Can’t they get out and play or take up a sport? I’m convinced there’s a strong correlation between Harry Potter fanatics and fatness. Show me a fat girl and I’ll show you a reader! Show me a book group and I’ll show you a room full of overweight bods. Now, I’m sure your indignation has been aroused by this rant, but this is the sort of argument that the middle-class, mumsy brigade pull out all of the time when blaming technology for obesity.

I had a weird experience recently when a few members of my audience (all teachers) harangued me over the problem of obesity, caused they claimed, by being online and playing computer games. This is a common comment (rarely a question) at talks I give, and curiously it often comes from people who, for want of a better phrase, are more than just a little bit cuddly themselves. Unfortunately, putting the rap for obesity on technology is all too easy. So let’s chew the fat a little.

Padded out problem
Sure prosperity has led to an increase in obesity, but let’s keep this in proportion. We come across our first problem with definitions of obesity, which are confusing, especially among children. There’s a difference in the literature between being ‘overweight’ and ‘obese’ and compounding the two leads to exaggeration. The definitions themselves are variable, complicated by gender differences, growth patterns, doubts over BMI measurements and so on. The whole filed is dogged by a lack of comparative standards.

Interestingly, in looking at the research in this area you do come across some rather wild claims about causality. Suppose a study does show a correlation between obese children and the amount of time they spend online. The causality may be complex. Fat kids may have low social skills, low self-esteem and may use online activity as a way of avoiding ridicule. On the internet nobody knows your weight. In other words internet activity may be caused by obesity, not the other way round.

So where’s the evidence that computer activity causes obesity, as opposed to genes, reading, listening to the radio, watching TV, reading newspapers, sitting at a desk at work, sitting in class at school, commuting by train, driving or the most obvious candidate – stuffing your face? Answer – there is none.

In fact, there is neither correlation nor causation. The ‘digital divide’ people tell us that technology is not being used by the lower socio-economic orders, but these are precisely the people who suffer most from obesity. If there was a correlation between obesity and the use of technology things would surely be reversed.

Most of the activity in this area is just noise by people who know little about either obesity or internet usage. Anti-technology moralisers isolating the variable they love to hate.

Computer games and obesity
Playing computer games is not as sedentary as most think. With modern input devices, the Wii, Guitar hero and other games have led to a surge in active, physical gaming. The Wii is the best selling fixed console worldwide and five out of the top ten games in the chart this week are active sports games: Wii Sports Resort (1), Wii Sports (3), Wii Fit (5), EA Sports Active (8), Wii Play (10). It’s a convenient scapegoat for the luddites to blame the medium they hate most. It used to be radio, then TV, now it’s the internet and computers. In fact, given the direct link between obesity and sugar-rich, junk food, it seems likely that TV, where most such advertising takes place, is far more dangerous than being online. Indeed, computer games are now being used to combat ageing, cognitive problems and obesity, with positive results.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

John Hughes RIP

Saddened today at the news of Film Director John Hughes death, aged only 59. Ferris Beuller’s Day Off is my favourite ‘school’ film and I’ve shown the famous ‘teaching’ clip from this movie hundreds of times all over the world. It always raises a laugh, because he absolutely nailed the single, most absurd problem in education – boring teachers/lecturers, boring people by just talking at them. Ben Stein (left), a former teacher, plays the role perfectly.

Here’s the transcript:

“In 1930, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, in an effort to alleviate the effects of the ... Anyone? Anyone? ... the Great Depression, passed the ... Anyone? Anyone? The tariff bill? The Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act? Which, anyone? Raised or lowered? ... raised tariffs, in an effort to collect more revenue for the federal government. Did it work? Anyone? Anyone know the effects? It did not work, and the United States sank deeper into the Great Depression. Today we have a similar debate over this. Anyone know what this is? Class? Anyone? Anyone? Anyone seen this before? The Laffer Curve. Anyone know what this says? It says that at this point on the revenue curve, you will get exactly the same amount of revenue as at this point. This is very controversial. Does anyone know what Vice President [George H. W.] Bush called this in 1980? Anyone? Something-d-o-o economics. "Voodoo" economics.

Why my favourite film on education? Well I positively hate the whole private/boarding school thing that has dominated school films in the UK, especially the whole Harry Potter boarding school thing (including the books). It makes me wince when I see adults reading this tosh. I ahve a similar feeling when I see young minds being similarly polluted, but don't those middle-class mums just love this stuff. A tiny number of kids went to these schools, but as our culture is often defined by the people who went to such schools, we get it shoved down our throats. It’s repulsive, unrealistic and divisive.

Ferris Beuller showed school as it really is, OK at times, but on the whole rather boring. My other favourite scene from the movie was the long ‘taking attendance’ scene, again played by Stein, "Beuller, Beuller, Beuller....”. It goes on forever. The empty chair said it all. Bunking off school is likely to have been one of the most exciting experiences in a young person’s life. It was thrilling and the freedom exhilarating. That in itself says much about school.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Sue Palmer - reply to reply

Thanks Sue – good of you to reply to my last post (see comments). So let’s carry the debate forward. I have read Toxic Childhood and 21st Century Boys. I did so after seeing you in the Brighton Festival two years ago (I’m a Trustee), when I attended and reviewed the debate hosted by Polly Toynbee. I thought then, and think now, that this species of ‘parenting’ literature is ‘toxic’ only in the sense that it is largely middle-class bile. Let me explain.

Toxic prejudices

You claim that you love technology but every single chapter of Toxic Childhood has a go at technology. “At the moment, too much technology is dumbing down our children....if the gap left by preoccupied parents is filled by the fruits of technology, toxic childhood syndrome begins to take hold”. Technology in schools “has made no noticeable impact”. “insidious.. screen-based activity..imagination-rotting, creativity-dumbing”. I could go on.

I’m also not at all convinced on your claim about very young children. The opening salvo in Toxic Childhood is against a teenager you describe, in the Uffizi Gallery of all places, as having, “the multiple trademarks of the brat...Poor child. Poor Parents. Poor Western Civilisation...the whole of the developed teems with miserable little creatures”, and that’s just on the first page! All of this from the observation of a bored teenager in an Art Gallery in Florence! Go to any art gallery and you’ll see bored teenagers – it’s normal. You go on to blame this epidemic of misery” firmly on the “clash between our technology-driven culture and our biological heritage” calling children “battery children...technobrats”. Difficult to backtrack from your claim that “My research suggests that children’s development in every one of these areas is threatened by the side-effects of technological...TV and computer games at home”. I really winced at your description of working class kids as “pinched and angry, with dead eyes....Their parents, deprived, uneducated, often scarcely more than children themselves...this feral generation”. Then the outrageous, old, racist chestnut “the birth rate among the have-nots is soaring, while among educated classes it is falling...could eventually threaten social stability”. At this point, and all of this is in the first chapter, I thought I was reading a BNP manifesto.

Toxic marketing

You make a great fuss in these books about the “siren call of the marketing men” (sexist or what?) but the opening chapter of Toxic Childhood (in itself a marketing ploy) is titled ‘Toxic Childhood Syndrome’. This is hysterical, and worse, borrows terminology from science (toxicity) and medicine (syndrome) to hyperbolically market your ideas. You are not a physician and hyping this term you’re doing a disservice to language, medicine and psychology. AIDS (Acquired Immunity Deficiency Syndrome) is a real syndrome. You’re ‘syndrome’ is a piece of marketing. ‘Toxic’ infers actual toxicity, again usurping a scientific term for the trite purposes of marketing. In truth, your ‘syndrome’ is an attempt at popularising a piece of polemic.

Marketing seems to be ‘good’ if it’s associated with hysterical parenting literature, but ‘bad’ if it comes from companies selling their wares. ‘Parenting’ literature is marketing at its worst, and ‘Toxic Childhood’ is perhaps the worst example I can think of, exaggerating the case, using pseudo-medical language to blame everything and everyone, especially poor parents, for the ills of society in general.

Toxic claims: ADHD, Autism

Here’s where things get really ‘toxic’. Autism is NOT caused by emotional deprivation, that much is clear, and to attribute causes at this stage is to move well beyond the research findings. The most promising line of research at the moment seems to be complicated genetic factors (multiple genes), so let’s be sensible. It is a mistake to see autism as a problem that is curable through some simplistic parenting books, it is a lifelong condition not caused by ‘good’ or ‘bad’ parenting. It is a downright insult to the parents of children with these disorders to blame them, even in part. Rich or poor they deal with the problem, while schools often struggle to even recognise the issue.

Similarly with ADHD. Genetic factors are clearly involved as shown in twin and genetic studies. More worrying, however, is that the lack of real evidence from brain studies is puhsing many researchers towards a more sceptical stance, looking at over-diagnosis. To blame technol,ogy is simply speculation.

The hysteria whipped up around the MMR vaccine is the most recent example of dangerous amateurs dabbling in areas they know nothing about. Non-scientific populist writing flooded the parenting ‘market’ causing the current problems with measles. Schools (my own included) are still dealing with parents who refuse to vaccinate their children, putting other children at risk, because of the so called ‘toxic’ arguments.


The research quoted in Toxic Childhood is simply one-sided and unrepresentative. In among the cherry-picked reports are lots of secondary and tertiary articles from newspapers (including that journal of fairness the Daily Mail), personal interviews, anecdotal speeches and personal emails. In no sense can this be regarded as a balanced look at the research. To take one of many examples, to exclude Judith Harris, from this debate is to exclude someone who really has done the research on the nature/nurture debate, a serious area of research which you describe in the book as “tediously familiar”. Perhaps the most hyperbolic example of one-sidedness is your description of Laynard’s book ‘Happiness’ as, “surely the most extraordinary book on economics ever written”. Sorry Sue, it doesn’t get into the Top 100.


I agree that your books are not just about the malign influence of technology, but that’s my field and that’s what I’ve focused on. You do have a go at technology in every single chapter of your book, so it’s not just one small part of the problem. It underpins your whole argument. Even here, it’s all about one-sided. TV, on the whole, is bad for young children, except, of course for the BBC, where you’re an advisor. You can’t have it both ways. You criticise the “glut of TV nanny programmes” but isn’t Toxic Childhood, exactly that in print? The main difference being that only middle-class parents will buy and read your book, which is not the audience you’re aiming for.

Primary teachers

Primary school teaching has been more than guilty of introducing problems of its own into the education of our children. At no point have you really addressed the point that it was educational professionals, advisors and teacher training establishments that caused many of the literacy problems that authors are blaming on ‘screen-based’ culture and other causes. There’s a lot of blame attached to other causes but little thrown at the ‘whole-language’ Taliban, who wrecked the literacy of so many children for so many years. I witnessed it myself with my own children, when spelling remained uncorrected and no attempt was made to explain or teach the underlying phonetic structure of our language. The ‘entire primary teaching profession’ is the very body that delivered the flawed teaching, and some of it is still hanging around in the system.