Tag Archive: rant

Aug 29 2013

More rant on higher education

It’s been quite a while since I’ve had a rant on my blog. I’ve been muted by the responsibilities of child care and a new job, but the drought is over!

My ire has been raised by this article in the TES where university academics are bemoaning the fact that they may actually be compelled to hold qualifications in teaching.

The core information in the piece is that the Higher Education Statistics Agency is compelling universities to provide anonymised data on the teaching qualifications of their staff. Academics fear the data will be used for “foolish” ends and may make such qualifications compulsory.

Oh the humanity!

It isn’t like I have no working knowledge in this area – I worked in universities for 10 years: as a PhD student, a postdoc, a weird intermediate state at Cambridge and finally as a lecturer. In all that time I received approximately 4 days training on how to teach. I taught students in small groups, practical classes and lectures.

Teaching well is a skill and it is ironic that, in institutions which award qualifications to people, the idea that qualifications in your profession might be useful is a radical idea and a thing which must be opposed.

An interviewee for the piece lets the cat out of the bag, he says: “If you want to maintain an active research life, you need to devote… 24 hours in the day towards your research. These [teaching] qualifications take time and effort to obtain, and anything that takes away from research time makes it more difficult to stay in the research excellence framework”.

Remember this when you or your offspring are planning on spending £9k per year to attend a university because the view that any teaching effort is a distraction from research is common.

Outside academia qualifications are seen as something of a benefit, if I had a teaching qualification it would be on my linkedin profile in a flash!

Imagine buying a rather expensive car and being told “None of the designers or engineers who made this car had any qualifications in making cars but they’ve been doing it for years”. It’s the very core of teaching: learning stuff you wouldn’t learn by experience.

So, there is my rant.

Aug 18 2012

Sharepoint–how do I hate thee?

Sharepoint is Microsoft’s document sharing and collaboration tool. It allows you to share and manage documents, and to build websites – so it’s a content management system too. For work I am strapped to the mast of Sharepoint: we need to share files across the world, previously we used shared network drives, as a byproduct individual teams can also create websites. There are close on 100,000 of us.

The file sharing/content management schizophrenia can lead to horrible websites, on a normal website you might expect that following a link in a page will take you seamlessly to another web page to be rendered in your browser. Not in Sharepoint: the siren voice of the file sharing side means that all to often website authors are going to link you to documents – so you hit a link and if you’re lucky you get asked whether you want to open a document in Microsoft Office, if you’re unlucky you get asked to enter your credentials first. Either way it breaks your expectation as to what a website should do: hit link – go to another webpage.

For every function you can imagine Sharepoint has a tick in the box:

  • Blogging – tick.
  • Social media – tick.
  • Wiki – tick.
  • Discussion forums – tick.
  • Version control – tick.

The problem is that whilst it nominally ticks these boxes it is uniformly awful at implementing them. I’ve used WordPress and Blogger for blogging, phpBB for discussion forums, moinmoin and Project Forum wiki software, source control software, twitter, delicious, bit.ly, Yammer for social media and in comparison Sharepoint’s equivalent is laughable.

This ineptitude has spawned a whole industry of companies plugging the gaps.

Sharepoint does feature some neat integration into Microsoft Office: viewing shared calendars in Outlook, saving directly to Sharepoint from office application but this facility is a bit flakey – Office will try to auto-populate a "My SharePoint sites" area but does it via a cryptic set of rules which can’t be relied on to give you access to all of your sites.

For the technically minded part of the problem is the underlying product but part of the problem is down to how your company decides to implement Sharepoint. My WordPress-based site looks pretty much how I want it, bar the odd area where my CSS-fu has proved inadequate. In a corporate Sharepoint environment other people’s design decisions are foisted upon me, although Sharepoint’s underlying design often seems to be the root of the problem

Take this piece of design (shown below), this is part of the new Sharepoint social media facilities but it’s ugly as sin, most of what you see for each Note is Sharepoint boilerplate (Posted a note on – View Related Activities – Delete) rather than your content, furthermore I have repeatedly set my dates to format dd/mm/yyyy in the UK style and this part of my site remains steadfastly on the US mm/dd/yyyy format.


Here’s another nasty piece of design.The core of the document sharing facility is the Document Library, below is a default view of one of my libraries (with some blurring). All of the Sharepointy magic for a document is run off a dropdown menu accessed via a small downward pointing triangle on the "Name" field, the little triangle is only visible when you float over that particular line, note also that if you click on the name in the name field then that takes you to the document – so you trigger two different behaviours in one field.


Other items in this table are hyperlinks but take you to entirely uninteresting content.

It didn’t have to be this way, the Document Library could functionality could have been integrated into the Windows File Explorer. Applications like the source control software TortoiseSVN and TortoiseHG do this, putting little overlays onto file icons and providing functionality via the right click menu. Windows 7 even has a panel at the bottom of the screen which seems to offer quasi-Sharepoint functionality – you can set tags for documents which could map to the "properties" that Sharepoint uses.

Users are familiar with the file explorer, Sharepoint discards that familiarity for a new, clunky web-based alternative. Furthermore users sharing files are often moving from a directory-based shared hard-drive scheme, Sharepoint allows you to use directories in Document Libraries but it breaks the property-based view which is arguably a better scheme but forcing users over to it wholesale is unreasonable.

In summary: Sharepoint suffers from trying to be a system to share documents and a system for making websites. It features a poor web interface for functionality which could be integrated into the Windows file explorer.

Apr 08 2012

Bad polling

Bullied teachers fear culture of ‘macho managers’. Union survey shows 67% were affected by abuse and harassment from their colleagues

The Observer 08.04.12

This is the headline and subtitle to an article in The Observer today. Sound terrible doesn’t it? If I were working in an organisation where 67% of the staff were being bullied I’d probably want to leave, and I’d certainly expect senior management to be addressing the problem. Fortunately I suspect this headline is almost entirely misleading.

Firstly, the first line of the article says “more than two-thirds of teachers have experienced or witnessed workplace bullying in the past 12 months” (my emphasis) – so one teacher shouting at a colleague in a busy staffroom would generate an awful lot of “yes” votes.

Secondly, it’s described as an “online poll”, giving no information on the nature of the poll. If the respondents are randomly selected then fine, however if they are self-selected then it’s close to meaningless.

It’s possible that the level of bullying of teachers by their colleagues is at the level implied by the headline, but they’ve been done a great dis-service by their union and The Observer in the poor example of polling and reporting.

You’d have thought The Observer would have learnt its lesson by now, having published a mea culpaWhen is a poll not a poll?” over a headline claiming “Nine out of 10 members of Royal College of Physicians oppose NHS bill” which highlighted exactly the issue with self-selecting surveys.

Dec 27 2011

‘Planned 49% limit’ for NHS private patients in England

Mention of the NHS seems to result in a serious outbreak of irrationality amongst the commentariat, this week it’s because the new Health and Social Care Bill with contain a cap of 49% on the fraction of income an NHS hospital can earn from private patients (BBC news here). Clearly this represents end-times, privatisation of the NHS etc etc…

Currently most hospitals are limited to a cap of 2% income from private patients, although a quick search shows that the Royal Marsden already gets 26% (source), Christies 6% (source), Papworth 4.5% (source). These are not hospitals renowned for poor service to NHS patients.

The key point here is that 49% is a cap, not a target. Since only 8% of the UK population has private health insurance, amounting to 14% of health expenditure (source) it’s very difficult to see how NHS hospitals as a whole will reach anything like 49% of income from private patients. The current situation must be that private patients are largely (lets say 90%) serviced by entirely private hospitals – NHS hospitals will only pick up that trade if they offer something better. The area they will offer something better is in specialist care – which isn’t viable for a private system serving less than 10% of the population. The limit case is that NHS hospitals would get 14% of income from private patients and the private hospital sector would disappear, clearly this isn’t going to happen.

Private patients in the NHS wouldn’t be displacing publicly-funded patients from beds, if that were all they were doing then what would be the point for the patient? To get private patients an NHS hospital would need to build (or convert) private “wards”, this is what hospitals like the Royal Marsden do already. To do this they’d need a fair expectation that they could attract the custom otherwise they’d simply end up poorer.

I’ve had private medical care – I liked it a lot, I wish everyone could have it. The benefits I received were in getting rapid treatment for a non-emergency condition, having my own room for the run-up and post-operation and having consultations in a slightly more pleasant environment. As a family (unborn included) we continue to use the NHS for most of our medical care. As someone with private health insurance, I get to pay twice for some of my health care – I pay for NHS treatment which I don’t use, then I pay again for private treatment. I don’t resent this, I do resent the idea that my private care must be entirely separate from any public provision that is available – in that case why can’t I withdraw my contribution to the public system?

The figures on health expenditure in the private sector give some idea of the potential funding gap for the NHS – what we’d need to pay for a gold-plated NHS where, for example, there were no waiting lists and we all had private rooms (if that was medically appropriate). Currently the NHS gets £106billion per year, equivalent to 25p basic rate tax. Private health insurance appears to cost about 1.75 times as much per head therefore a crude estimate is a gold-plated NHS would cost  £185bn or 46p basic rate tax. This would put us at a level of spending that is equivalent to Switzerland and only exceeded by the US (source). It’s possible that you could do it for rather less but not if every attempt to change anything in the NHS is met by a hysterical and apocalyptic knee-jerk response. The important thing is patient care, not the institution that provides it. Providing a healthcare system isn’t simply a choice between the NHS or US-style system, you can see the range of systems here.

And before we get hoity-toity about people paying directly for health care – all the NHS does is launder the process of paying for health care. We pay tax to the government, the government funds the NHS – it isn’t some vast charity run on goodwill. Consultants and doctors in the NHS are really paid quite well, and in my experience individual consultants are working for both public and private sectors at the same time. It is rather offensive to the wide range of people in the private sector service industries to imply that the service they provide is somehow inferior because they are paid by the customer, not by the government.


More on this at NHS Vault (here), definitely worth reading.

Dec 01 2011


As a long time programmer there is a little thing I’d like to rant about: case-sensitivity.

For the uninitiated this is the thing that makes your program think that the variable called “MyVariable” is different from the variable called “myVariable” and the variable called “Myvariable”. The problem is that some computer languages have it and some computer languages don’t.

I grew up with BASIC and later FORTRAN, case-insensitive languages which do the natural thing and assume that capitalisation does not matter. Other languages (C#, Java, C, Matlab) are not so forgiving and insist that “a” and “A” refer to two completely different things. In real life this feels like a wilful act of obstinacy, the worst excesses of teenage pedantry, it is a user experience fail.

The origins of case-sensitivity lie in the origins of the language C in the early 1970s,  FORTRAN doesn’t have it because when it was invented, in the dawn of computing, teletype printers did not support lowercase – there was no space on the print head.  I still think of FORTRAN as a language written in ALL CAPS and so rather IMPERATIVE.

There is an argument for case-sensitivity from the point of view of compactness; mathematicians, even of my relatively lowly level will name their variables in equations with letters from the Roman and Greek alphabets, subscripts and superscripts. My father, an undergraduate mathematician, even went as far as Cyrillic alphabet. Sadly the print media, even New Scientist, do not support such typographically extravagance.

It’s even worse when your language is dynamically-typed, that’s to say it allows you to create variables willy-nilly as you write your program rather than statically-typed languages which demand you tell them explicitly of the introduction of new variables. In a statically typed language if you start with a variable called “MyVariable” and later introduce “Myvariable”, by a slip of the key, then the compiler will kick-off: complaining it has no knowledge of this interloper. A dynamically-typed language will accept this new introduction silently, giving it a default value and causing untold damage in subsequent calculations.

It’s not like case-sensitivity is used in any syntactically meaningful manner: to a computer there is no practical difference between “foo” and “Foo” – the standard placeholder function name, foo” and “Foo” to the computer are simply the label you have stuck to a box containing a thing. There are some human conventions, but they are just that – and as with any convention they are honoured as much in the breech as the observance. The compiler doesn’t care.

I must admit to a fondness of CamelCase: capitalising the initial letters of each word in a long variable name, I do it in my hashtags on twitter. In the old days of FORTRAN no such fripperies existed, not only were your variable names limited in case but also in length: you had 6 characters to work your magic.

This is to ignore the many and varied uses different uses that computer languages find for brackets: {}, (), [] and even <>.

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