Wednesday 23 January 2008

Dave thinks it's OK to lie then

The Times reports this, David Cameron's fudge on faith school 'fakes', so it must be true. As far as I can see, there's not much fudge there. It's straight out justification: it's right to lie if it gets you what you want.

This is a very good example of what I talked about in my last but one post, the corrosive morality that Thatcherism promoted - anything you do is not just possible but actually justifiable, regardless of its actual moral quality, if it helps you attain your ends. What exactly is Tory morality nowadays then?

Monday 21 January 2008

Those nice people at Eclipse

I work for the Open University, which uses FirstClass as a conferencing and communications system. It's a big system - the OU has, I think, something like a million licences. Some people have problems with its speed of operation, because the port it uses or the type of packet it delivers is identified by some ISPs as a file sharing kind of thing, and they throttle it. Now the biggest culprits, I shan't name them, tend to flatly deny that they do anything like that, and continue to deny it even if you prove it to them, and even then they won't do anything about it. As a result of which Tiscali, among others, has lost quite a few customers. OK, I named them.

Anyway, a few weeks ago, my FirstClass started slowing to a crawl at certain times of day, a classic sign of traffic management going on. I phoned my ISP, Eclipse. The first thing that was refreshing was that they were completely open about practising traffic management (which I don't mind at all, by the way, as long as people are honest about it, which Eclipse were.) But they were puzzled as to why they were picking up FirstClass, and needed to be sure that it was actually their issue and not something to do with either me or the OU. Fair enough. So we did a few tests - inconclusive. So they went and got a copy of FC, and I guess they must have had an OU student somewhere on the staff, to see if they could replicate the problem - still inconclusive. So they thought about it for a while. I was convinced by this time, having used other computers and ISPs to log in to the same servers on the same FC account, that it was a traffic management issue.

In the end they decided quite simply to unmanage my account. Bingo. The minute they did that, FC was back to its old self. They very nicely left me unmanaged while they thought about what to do next. They contacted the OU, got the details of their servers, and eventually white listed them. They've re-managed my account, but I don't mind because FC is still flying.

It took a while, but the fact is they bothered. They kept me informed of what they were doing. They thought about what to do. They even phoned me to talk things over or to tell me what they were doing. I was dealt with by two or three different people to start with, but then given my own technician to deal with until the issue was resolved. I shall now embarrass him in front of his colleagues by naming him. Thank you, Matt, and thank you Eclipse for a piece of genuine customer service.

I blame John Motson

We have parents buying cheat essays for their children at university. We have teachers believing internet plagiarism is a big issue. We have a professor at Brighton University, Tara Brabazon, banning google and wikipedia, which she expands on here. We have a fuss about whether students should be doing A-levels or vocational studies.

All these are linked very closely together, and all are indicative of the state of both education and society in this country.

Looking at the cheat mills first, they claim, with positively Hainian disregard for moral values, that they are selling study aids not material to cheat with. Yeah, right.

People always have and always will do things regardless of their moral character or moral consequences. The particular taint that Thatcher introduced, and that has been taken up with such enthusiasm by some sectors of our society, was that people not only do it but think that it's right to do it, that it somehow has its own moral justification. Which it does not, it's pure Pharisaism. People are arriving at the level in the education system that I teach in without any notion of the value of learning or of self respect. The biggest problem with plagiarism is not that it is technically possible but that it is morally possible. To that extent it is a cultural issue and one that can only be tackled successfully by challenging why people do it, not how they do it.

But what bothers me most about these cheat mills is that somebody is writing the essays that get sold. Quite a lot of somebodies - people who do the same job I do, and presumably, like the students who buy their work, have no notion of value, truth or self respect. Every one of them is a cheap minded traitor to their profession.

As for the issue of plagiarism in general, there is much concern that it is on the rise. I don't know whether it is or not. I certainly believe that it is not on the rise because of the internet. Yes, the internet has made it easier for students to find things they can copy. But it has also made it a lot easier for their markers to find the stuff as well. The big problem about plagiarism is rarely realising that a student has done it - most plagiarisers are too thick to notice that the style change gives them away. The big problem has always been proving it. Before the internet, unless a marker was lucky enough to recognise the words being used and remember where they were likely to be found, it was very difficult to do. Now it is dead easy. This week I marked some end of course assessments for s web design course I teach. In one report there was a change of style. I googled some of the phrases and inside a minute I had the two sites from which parts of the report had been lifted.

After that the problem ought to be simple, but is often clouded by litigious students, or their even more litigious parents, or by a concern that throwing this student out means losing their fees and the top ups that go with them. But that's another story.

To return to the issue of students and the internet, I sympathise with Professor Brabazon, much as I think she has entirely the wrong answer. Google and Wikipedia have brought information to the masses in ways that it was never available before. The problem for real students is how to evaluate that information, and sort out the gold from the dross. The problem for teachers in our society is that we now have two generations of students who are learning at all levels of their social existence that learning is not nearly so important as achieving targets. It is, as I have blogged before, the ultimate failure of Thatcherism, that although it unleashed a great deal of creativity, it also taught people that the end of being prosperous justified any means to get to it, particularly if the means were cheap. The point of going back to Thatcherism is not to have another pop at the sainted MT, but to lay out the historical context which means that we have now a generation of parents in this country who think like that, as well as the students who are currently learning. I am sure that Professor Brabazon is a good teacher, and I am sure that her stance on Google is due to her utter frustration at having to sausage machine people through degrees who themselves don't want to be doing them. Otherwise we wouldn't meet our targets would we?

The problem of Google and Wikipedia is the problem of the internet in microcosm (though a pretty big microcosm, it must be said). There is no obvious authority to go to. Back in the good old days, knowledge tended to be mediated through people who you could see as authorities - teachers, professors, authors, critics, wise old men and women - who could tell you what was worthwhile and what was not. Nowadays, we all pile on to the web, and there is no gatekeeper, it's just us and them. And how do we set about judging what is worthwhile and what is not? Well, we use our judgement, for heaven's sake. We can learn, and most of us need to learn, to use it better than we do, but in essence that is what the modern citizen needs to do. Far better to teach it to them than to ban it in class and leave them at the mercy of the big wide web world when they go home. There are plenty of places where the skills of judgement can be learned. The Open University's Safari is a good example, with its structured approach to evaluating information based on presentation, relevance, objectivity, method, provenance and timeliness. I suspect the difficulty more often than not is that many students are seen as being either unwilling or unable to exercise their judgement to that extent.

And that brings me to the last of the issues highlighted in recent news, that of the old chestnut - "A level or vocational?" Nothing could be more symbolic of the clotting thrall that educational snobbery still exercises over our schooling system than the positively Victorian distinction that stills hangs over it between thinking and doing. You either do A levels, where you are taught to think, but usually at the expense of learning how to do things, or you are taught to do things, and heaven help you if you try to think. I don't blame teachers, who mostly do know how to teach. It's a more general force in our society that does it. There are many, many people in this country who do not think - I've met quite a few. But there are very few who are not capable of thinking, it's just that they live in a society where far too many are taught from day one, not just by schools but by the whole way our society operates, that thinking is bad for them. The boundary between the two that we thrown up and maintain with such force and such energy is entirely artificial. In the real world the only distinction between thinking and doing is that which we force upon it. People who do things need to think about them if they are to do them well. People who think about things need to do something in order to put those thoughts into action.

The web design course I teach on is a case in point. Some students join it with no intention of thinking about what they are doing; they cannot see the point. They cannot understand that if they are to do web design properly they don't just need a Dreamweaver manual, they need to think about what they are doing. They need to exercise their judgement about the design process they have to organise, about the vaarious compromises that will inevitably have to be made, about the principles and outcomes that they will have to prioritise and operationalise, about the problem solving processes they will inevitably go through, and finally that they will have to communicate to their customer in a way that enables their customer to make an informed decision about what they are paying for. No, just give me the manual and teach me the skill in a way that doesn't engage my brain, thank you very much, what do you think I'm paying you for? But there are plenty, thankfully, who do get the point and who benefit enormously from the course.

And on the other side of the fence, there are academics who cannot understand why web design is a level two university course. Surely that sort of thing doesn't involve thought? It's training isn't it, not our level of rarified thinking, unsullied by putting our hands to actually doing anything. They cannot understand that doing something does not taint thinking but gives it purpose and focus.

John Motson is fond of saying near the end of games he's commentating on "It's all academic now". I love Motson's commentary but not that phrase. He means by it, as a lot of other people do, that it's meaningless. He has been taught, like a lot of other people, that that is what "academic" means - purposeless, pointless, not the stuff of the real world, doesn't put bread on the table does it. Academic is the very opposite of that, it is not just real, it is more real than real. Academic helps people to understand what lies beneath the surface, to get behind the face of things to see how they really work. It is actually quite subversive because there are a lot of people in this world, usually those who like the status quo, who want us all to take things for granted. And students who have been taught to think real thoughts about real life never take things for granted again. I hope during my lifetime to see the end of this pointless, pointless, pointless distinction between "academic" and "vocational". I suspect that if it does come about, we will see a lot less plagiarism, because people only plagiarise because they can't see the point of learning for themselves. If learning engages the whole being, the thinking and doing being, it becomes a whole lot more exciting than plagiarism, and a whole lot more rewarding, whatever the parents are prepared to pay for.

Wednesday 9 January 2008

On driving and reporting

Another in my very occasional series of news reports headlined with the opposite of what the news actually says. A new charge of causing death by careless driving will entail sentences of up to five years in jail. Its effect will be to apply harsher (I would say more appropriate) sentences to people who cause death by driving carelessly. Most people convicted under this charge will be more heavily penalised than they would have been before. So why do all the headlines say "Killer drivers could avoid jail" - BBC, "Killer drivers could escape jail" - Independent, "Killer motorists may be spared jail" - Guardian. Our media - and these are the respectable ones - are cloning themselves again, and looking for a good headline.

On the whole, despite what I said above, I think we should be concerned if drivers who kill - for whatever reason - get away with anything other than a custodial sentence. I like the approach quoted in the BBC article "Lorna Jackson, from the road safety charity, Brake, said she still hoped custodial sentences would be a "starting point"." In other words a non custodial sentence would only be applied in truly excceptional circumstances. It doesn't matter how good a driver's record is, it doesn't matter how exemplary they are as a person or a driver; if they've been careless they need to take responsibility for that. Driving stands along side binge drinking as one of the last areas where people feel the right to defend to the death (in this case usually someone else's death) their right to be irresponsible.

A moment's carelessness when you're driving is not just a moment's carelessness. It's symptomatic of an attitude which most drivers in this country have, which is that they can just get into a car and drive. They don't think as they get into the car that they need to concentrate on their driving every wheelturn of the way from point A to point B. It is culpable behaviour if they allow themselves to be distracted by their phone - even if handsfree - or their passenger, or their tomtom, or their radio. And I will admit that, yes, while driving home this afternoon, I did shout at the idiot on the Jeremy Vine show who wanted to close all our libraries. If the act of doing that had distracted me from what was going on in front of the car to the extent that I mowed down and killed somebody else, then I would have had to take responsibility for that, and not say, "I'm truly, deeply sorry, but please let me off with community service because it was just carelessness".

Brake can be found at

Tuesday 8 January 2008

The meaning of "large"

Why is it that "large" when applied to clothes means "would fit a pint sized six year old", whereas "large" when applied to coffee means "you'll be overdosing on caffeine for the rest of the week"?

Rob, with serious jitters after a foray to Costa's.

Sunday 6 January 2008

Just to recap - summed up

Nick Clegg, quoted in the Telegraph, sums up the listing in my last post very neatly.

37,000,000, that's 37,000,000, yes, I said 37,000,000 pieces of private and personal data confidential to people in this country, lost last year.

ID card, anyone?

Tuesday 1 January 2008

Just to recap

20th Sept - HMRC laptop containing hundreds of people's details stolen.

18th Oct - details of 25,000,000 child benefit claimants and their children lost (and still not accounted for today). Includes bank details etc.

30th Oct - six more data disks missing from HMRC

Approx 3rd Nov - data of around 15,000 Standard Life customers lost by HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC).

5th Nov - details of up to 3,000 NHS patients on a computer stolen from a doctors' surgery.

24th Nov - package containing about 200 pension statements has gone missing after being dispatched by a Scottish Government agency. But they found it again later.

1st Dec - fresh benefit data lapse admitted by Dept of Work and Pensions.

4th Dec - several firms admit disk failings.

7th Dec - DVLA admits sending 1215 questionnaires containing confidential personal information to the wrong people.

Week of 7th Dec - data on 60000 people on stolen CAB computer.

11th Dec - Leeds Building Society says it has mislaid information containing the personal details of its 1,000-strong workforce.

11th Dec - The Driver and Vehicle Agency in Northern Ireland admits it has lost the personal details of 6,000 people.

17th Dec - details of three million candidates for the driving theory test go missing; "hard drive not found where it had been expected to be, in a "secure facility" in Iowa". Iowa????

18th Dec - personal details of 6,500 customers belonging to a pension firm lost at an office of HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) in Cardiff.

21st Dec - a subsidiary of the Skipton Building Society admits sensitive personal details of 14,000 customers have been lost. Seems to happen to building societies based in Yorkshire....

23rd Dec - nine English NHS trusts admit losing patient records. Tunbridge managed it twice, so that's ten losses.

24th Dec - NHS Grampian has admitted losing the personal data of patients on a number of occasions in recent years - eight times in five years to be precise.

26th Dec - Devonshire Police apologise after confidential details of its staff were found on a dump.

18th Dec - just to remind you that your data aren't safe, even if they're in the right place - a police officer is to face trial on 10 charges of illegally obtaining personal data. The charges date from January 2004 to January 2007 and allege he obtained data "for a purpose that was not the prevention or detection of crime".

And these are only the ones I've found with a quick trawl through the BBC news website.

All of that suggests to me that those who want us to have ID cards and a database state need to work very hard to convince us all that our data will be safe with them.