Reading for pleasure puts children ahead in the classroom

Or does it?

This recent study, by the Institute of Eduction at the University of London, on the face of it is simple: in a study, kids who read for pleasure do better at maths. The study is based upon an ongoing study and data collection exercise for what is known as the “1970 cohort” – a large set of children born in 1970.

But I would argue that the study was not proper research. It’s very interesting: it would, for instance, have been fascinating to learn that those who did not read at all, or did not like to read, were better at maths. That would imply that an ability in mathematics was, for some reason, not compatible with a love of books. That would be worthy of further study: are there certain kinds of books which would lead to better maths scores? Would it be better to restrict children’s maths activities in order to encourage reading?

But, actually, what the study shows is what we would expect: that bright, inquisitive kids like to read, like to explore there world and, in consequence, understand things better. This therefore comes out in their maths abilities.

What the study doesn’t show, yet newspapers up and down the country now appear to be suggesting, is that reading more will make you better at maths. Those who read for pleasure are more likely to be good at maths. Those who do not read for pleasure are more likely to be poorer at maths. Those statements are supported by the facts, but the statement: “Those who do not read for pleasure will do better at maths if they read more” is not.

It might be true, but the study doesn’t show it.

To make any headway on this one, then, needs further study – for instance, taking a group of kids who do not read much for pleasure and trying to encourage them to do so whilst leaving a second group alone. This begs the question: can you actually encourage kids to read for pleasure – or indeed encourage anyone to do anything for pleasure? Or is it a self-driven thing.

Anyway, my point is that this study really tells us nothing useful although it could lead to further useful work. It certainly doesn’t give us a panacea to low maths scores, as the popular press seem to wish us to believe. No doubt Michael Gove’s next policy will be increased reading activity in the national curriculum…

Privacy, secrecy, and you

We’ve all heard a hell of a lot in the media recently about our sudden lack of privacy. Comedian David Mitchell suggested on “10 O’Clock Live” that the internet has basically made spying too easy: when spies had to really work hard to cover a lot of ground, we were relatively protected from being spied on through sheer numbers (assuming you, dear reader, are not a known terrorist. I’m sure you’re not). This is no longer the case, as computers can crunch an awful lot of messages awfully quickly.

It’s a fair point.

So why do we fear being spied upon by our governments (or, perhaps, “their” governments)? And what can we do to keep our communications more private?

Well, to answer the second question first I have a radical proposal: get rid of anonymity. Yes, I know everyone is going on about how we need services which protect our anonymity but, really, do we? A greater threat to our embryonic online social scene than any foreign government is people who, feeling secure in their anonymity, behave anti-socially. And we’ve seen enough examples of just how anti-social people can get on the internet to realise that the time has come to do something about it. It’s just not acceptable to allow people to be hounded on Twitter, Facebook or anyone else by hate-filled vitriol; even death threats. We can end this quite simply: by removing anonymity.

These public services are not intended to be used anonymously. Facebook’s #1 rule under Registration and Account Security is: “You will not provide any false personal information on Facebook”. Twitter’s policy is somewhat less specific, but does clearly state that: “You may not impersonate others through the Twitter service in a manner that does or is intended to mislead, confuse, or deceive others.”

The trouble is, there is no real way for Twitter, Facebook, Google or any other provider to know for sure whether you are who you say you are. You could be using a made-up persona, or you could be impersonating someone else: either way you’re able to post anonymously.

So my radical suggestion is this: that we extend the systems we already have which give people legal identity – passports, most usually – and use them as a source for online identity. So, just like if I want to sign up for online tax returns I need to prove my identity with an official source, so too should I have to do this when I sign up to Facebook, Twitter or any of the others.

There is still scope for anonymous systems, but they serve a different purpose. Try this thought experiment. If there were two versions of Twitter, identical in every way except that one allowed anonymity and the other enforced “official” identity, which would you use? The anonymous one, because you fear government snoops? Or the regulated one? I suggest that you choose the regulated one because 1) you will know that the tweet from your favourite footballer really did come from your favourite footballer; 2) you will know that your message to your favourite footballer will be going to him; 3) you will be unlikely to receive really offensive or threatening messages because nobody wants to do time in prison; 4) your favourite footballer may actually read messages you send to him, because he won’t be using the system in send-only mode (which everyone in the public eye does, currently, much of the time, in order to avoid having to read hate-filled vitriol).

The world would be a happier place all round. Let those who wish to remain anonymous remain anonymous… but on other systems.

Does this keep our conversations more private? I’d argue yes, it does. Governments would have no need to routinely monitor messages if they knew that the proper, legal avenue – a court order – would work.

How about the other question: why do we fear being spied upon by governments? My honest view? I’m really not sure that we do. But hell, it sells papers.

No, Social Media is not dead

I’ve not posted for quite a while but, like our old friend Social Media, I am not dead. Unlike Social Media, I’ve been doing other things (writing a book no less: “An Infinite Number of Monkeys: A Guide to Effective Business Communications”, http://www.mike-barnes.co.uk/monkeys; travelling around Scotland with my family on an extended break). Social Media hasn’t gone anywhere.

We get this cycle with all “next big things”: people keep saying “is Unified Communications dead”, for instance. The truth is, marketeers like grabbing hold of concepts and warping them to their own advantage – and it is marketeers who create the buzz, even now in our socially-enabled world. Because, despite the hype (ironically), most of the information we consume comes from traditional sources – although we may be accessing them in a different form. But that’s beside the point.

We’ve gone through the first few years of buzzworthiness, and Social Media is now firmly entrenched. That means that it does not so effectively differentiate products: everything even vaguely in the space has a social moniker. The marketeers, thankfully, can now move on to abuse other things.

What remains is a core of tools which have, in many ways, been around for a long time but which are made more effective by always-on networking, impressive computing power in the home, and mobile devices approaching Star Trek cool.

The basic tools, though, are really simple: text exchange, video exchange, directories, tagging, rating, following and sharing.

A social media product (I’ll drop the capital letters now, you’ll be pleased to hear) allows people to post ideas, videos or activities (I guess this is the “media” part. I’ve never really found the term very descriptive), and allows others to share them, rate them, and discuss them. And, although it’s a far cry from your old address book, in order to share there’s a directory of contacts in the background – some of them are contacts who have added themselves (your followers). Different systems present all this in different ways but the fundamentals are the same.

A few years ago, when the internet was young, I was an active member of Fidonet. Never heard of Fidonet? Fidonet consisted of private computers which dialled each other up at night in order to exchange messages which people wrote. Those computers ran Bulletin Board System (BBS) software which provided the users with their interface. They dialled up too (yes, this was all done over the normal phone network using modems). Some were messages to each other (netmail: basically email, but not quite so swift) and others were messages in forums (echomail: like Yahoo Groups but, that’s right, not so swift). If you started an echomail group (I can’t even remember the proper term for it, it’s been a long 25 years) other people could choose to read it – but only if their chosen BBS had subscribed to it.

See? Subscribing, message exchange, social interaction: that is where all this started.

Fidonet, by the way, really is dead. The internet preserves it’s state at http://www.fidonet.org/, but as far as I can see from that there’s nobody home. Nor should there be… analogue modems and dial up BBSs? This is 2013. (wikipedia seems to disagree with me: maybe the dog is just resting?).

Social media built on these early beginnings by making the atoms of information smaller: we don’t have to subscribe to a whole echomail group, or indeed to a whole RSS stream, we can subscribe to see updates of/from a specific person, product, or “thing”. It’s actually still pretty granular: I have to subscribe to all of Stephen Fry’s wittering on Twitter, or none of it – there’s nothing in Twitter’s own system which will pull out just the gems for me.

So social media isn’t a new thing, it just reached a point a few years ago where technologies were ripe and ready to provide a step-change in user experience. Social media isn’t new, but it’s changing as it’s getting better all the time… and acquiring new buzzwords as the marketeers get involved. Will we give it a different name at some point? I expect the marketeers will see to that, but even when the name is buried alongside long lamented Fidonet

So next we will be seeing new names for subtle variations on the same things. That’s OK, but just remember: social media is not dead, it’s just being absorbed into the big toolbox of spanners which collectively forms our communications toolkit.

The Christmas Mouse

Here’s a story I wrote this Christmas for my boys. I claim copyright on it, so please do not circulate it without my permission for profit or otherwise, but feel free to read it to your own kids if you like it. In fact, if you’re artistic and would like to collaborate on creating some artwork for it then please get in touch!

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BYOD to Save the World

The business world, at least in the IT community, is abuzz with the concept of Bring Your Own Device (BYOD). Simply put, this just means employers allowing employees to use their own IT equipment (phones, computers, tablets) for work – either instead of, or supplementary to, equipment provided by the business itself. Read more of this post

Olympic gold for telecoms?

The London 2012 Olypmics have been fantastic – and I say that as a sceptical Brit who is generally as interested in most sports as you probably are about belly-button fluff.

Aside, obviously, from the fact that Team GB trounced every country which should have beaten us on the medals table (not including the US and China who absolutely had to beat us, and maybe Russia too who had an awesome medals tally), the games have been a triumph for technology. Underpinning the skills of organisers, volunteers and athletes has been some frighteningly good use of electronics.

The pixels in the stadium wowed us, but where I’m really going with this article is the stuff many people will have taken for granted. Mobile apps, full live and recorded streaming of all the events on-line, satellite and freeview multi-channel action, tie-ins with Twitter and some very slick on-line apps to pull the whole lot together.

This is really how Unified Communications should be. Not convinced that this is Unified Communications at all? Well you should be because, whilst many people like to pigeon-hole UC into a niche of business IM/email/voicemail/voice/video, UC is all about taking multiple forms of communication and integrating them to provide a service where each technology is put in front of the user in the most appropriate fashion. The BBC did a great job of wrapping these things together in their web and TV coverage.

According to the press, Cisco provided 1,800 wireless access points, 2,220 switches, 10,000 cable TV sockets, 16,500 telephones/ IP handsets, and 65,000 active network ports. The IP handsets are the big interest for me I guess, as I had a minor role to play there, and as they were all controlled from a Cisco Hosted UC solution designed by Cisco and operated by BT I would say that this proves to the doubters that hosted UC works – even when the pressure’s on.

If it was this good in 2012, think how it may be in 2016. I can’t wait – I might even have bought a tablet by then…

Going light

As my boys grow up, I’m able to do more and more with them – at least with my eldest lad, Jake. He’s nearly 8, and finally he’s able to walk (a bit!) without too much encouragement. When he wants to.

So to add some adventure, we’re planning an overnight backpacking trip in the Spring – just the two of us.

An overnight trip means we’ll need decent kit, and decent kit which will need to be shared between one adult, neither very fit nor very strong, and one 8-year old – ditto but smaller. So my hunt for a selection of suitable kit started. If it is to be any fun at all, it needs to be light.

First up, stoves. I already had a backpacking stove, from Coleman bought many moons ago but rarely used (you’ll spot a recurrent theme here), which looks light but the scales say it’s 239g. The MSR Pocket Rocket gets rave reviews, is 86g, and is decent value. I found the best price was The Outdoor Shop which happily is not that far from us, at Stoney Stratford near Milton Keynes, and well worth a trip. Their price is good even though it’s gone up since the sales.

Cleanly and safely contained in a little plastic case (which is surprisingly hard to open, even for shop assistants), the Pocket Rocket is certainly a nice piece of kit. I think in general I prefer remote stoves, which don’t sit on top of a gas canister, as they can have greater stability, but they are mostly heavier and/or more expensive. If you’re able to dig the canister into the ground a bit then actually there’s little difference and perhaps the canister version is even a little more secure. Obviously digging isn’t always an option. I looked at alcohol stoves, which can be bought very cheaply (or you can make your own penny stove) from army surplus or any outdoor shop. I decided against the extra faff but might reconsider for a longer trip. For fuel, I already have a 100g canister.

Next, sleeping. I already have a three-quarter length Thermorest, the lightest (I think) at the time. Yes, it’s also from a long time ago  and has seen little use (hey, I got married and had kids!). That will do fine for Jake, so for me a Thermorest Prolite (regular size) went into the bag. At 460g it’s about the same weight as the older mat (at 464g).

With a few other bits and pieces – basic lidded cups from Blacks, some MSR “Deep Dish” plate/bowl things, a neat little salt and pepper shaker (it was too cute to pass up) – that’s the bulk of the buying done. Except for the most important part, the tent.

Another old but little used (OK, unused) item in my stash is a one-man Terra Nova Solar tent.

Terra Nova Solar

Terra Nova Solar – Mine’s in green

I pitched it in the living room. It’s too small. It’s not luxurious for one, but it’s titchy for two, even if one’s a little ‘un (it was advertised at the time as a 1.5 man tent I believe!). There’s also little in the way of porch. At just over 2kg (I weighed it as 2038g) it was ultralight in its day but great strides have been made since with materials.

Queue much research.

There are a number of lightweight two-man tents on the market, at a vast range of prices, and having done some digging there were a shortlist of contenders. But first, what are the criteria for my tent?

Firstly, of course, weight. With a one-man tent weighing in at 2kg on my shelf, psychologically I didn’t want to go above 2kg. It needed to be robust, but aside from reviewer comments its pretty hard to gauge that without a decent trial – it at least needed to look well made. A decent amount of floorspace would be a bonus, as would the ability to sit upright in it. Finally, porch space for storage and potentially cooking. Although our first outing will be a tame overnighter and we’ll schedule for good weather, the hope is that many trips will follow. I certainly didn’t want to fork out on a one-night-stand. There is a good selection of tents on cheaptents.com for easy comparison.

It’s possible to go really light by sacrificing your skin – well, one skin of the tent at least. Double-skinned tents suffer far less from condensation than twin-skinned tents do, and I’m not a great fan of a damp tent so nothing single-skinned made the grade.

The shortlist? The Vaude Power Lizard, Vaude Taurus Ultralight, Vango Helium 200, Terra Nova Laser Competition 2 (actually there are several Terra Novas I considered), and Robens Mythos Duo. The table below gives the key facts and figures, but without the layout diagrams (which you can find for yourselves by following the links) the significance of the shape of some of these tents is not obvious. Due to strange shapes, effective space inside is reduced – in the case of the Power Lizard I’ve given the minimum rather than the maximum width because that minimum is maintained for much of the length of the tent. Similarly, the porch space is not shown as it’s hard to quantify. In truth, the best option would have been to try every one of these – and perhaps some of the others on the market too, even though they’ve not made it into my shortlist here.

Power Lizard Taurus Helium 200 Laser Competition 2 Mythos Duo
Weight  1.1kg  1.8kg  1.35kg  1.25kg  1.88kg
Internal Width  90cm min  130cm  120cm max  105cm max  120cm
Internal Length  230cm  220cm max  210cm max  230cm max  210cm
Internal Height  95cm  100cm max  95cm (est max)  95cm max  95cm max
Price  £280  £190  £224  £269  £179

However, the upshot of all this was that I opted for a tent which I could find little about on the net, the Robens Mythos Duo. Most tents have been used and abused a fair bit and the outdoor community have shared their views, which can be a good thing or bad depending upon their needs, price range, weather situations and expectations. Sometimes, reviews don’t help as much as you’d think. Perhaps the lack of real world feedback helped make Robens this sale, but the features – especially the nifty addition of a porch each side – for the price looked good. Cotswold had the Mythos Duo on sale at a decent price (it helps planning these things during the sales) and though bought on-line would accept for a refund at any store. So if it proved poor, it could go back.

Robens Mythos Duo

Robens Mythos Duo

Delivery was a little slow, but actually rather faster than they told me it would be so no problem there. When it arrived around Christmas it wasn’t a good time for a field test so it went up in the lounge (just).

First impressions were good. A decent size for the weight (a tiny bit under 2kg on my scales). The double porches were pretty cool, the quality  of both fabric and poles felt good, with neat little “techno pegs” which look a bit useless but later proved fine. The attention to detail is good, with reflective guys and tensioners on the pegging-out straps. With a double skin and decent features, at a reasonable price and good weight, I opted to keep it.

Basically the tent is a single hoop design much like my Terra Nova Solar (current Solars seem to have been re-designed with a more complex pole), but with a central bar at 90 degrees to the hoop to put some width into the tent at the top. The hoop pole goes on the outside, plugging into a hole at each end of the tent which is then hooked onto the pole with plastic hooks which go on (and off) really easily. With the inner already attached to the outer (it can be removed, it’s attached with standard webbing and clips) the bulk of the work is now done. The cross bar attaches to the tent by plugging its ends into two clear plastic sockets attached to the tent, which to me look like the weak point in the design, then all that remains is to peg it out. However, with the tent on the hoop any wind makes the pegging awkward so I can see that two people will be required if it’s particularly windy. There was some moderate wind and I managed OK, and in truth this isn’t the only tent which suffers from wind (sorry, poor joke).

There are plenty of guys and the right number of pegs, which as I mentioned earlier I’ve christened “techno pegs”. They weigh almost nothing, and are short v-shaped affairs with a minuscule amount of a notch for the guys. They don’t look like they should work, but they seemed fine. There are also some additional webbing loops on the tent which I presume are for extra guys in bad weather, although Robens do not sell this as an extreme tent.

There is a porch on each side, which is not terrible big – I’m not sure whether cooking will be feasible or not – but a nice touch for those frequent occasions where the wind changes direction 5 minutes after you’ve pitched your entrance away from it. Also handy to have a porch for kit and a porch for getting in and out, or even a his-and-hers arrangement for getting to the toilet.

Inside, it’s not huge and I’m certainly glad I’m short. However, it’s roomy compared to some lightweight two-man tents and it’s certainly got sufficient space. There are plenty of pockets, but they are mostly in the ends at the bottom and weight the inner down considerably when there’s anything in them. In fact, if there’s a fault with this tent it’s that the ends slope from the ground immediately rather than having a vertical section first – so the effective length of the tent is reduced as even your feet like some height. Some of this may have been down to pitching, but if so I didn’t discovery a way to improve it even though I tightened everything up and adjusted the geometry after it had been pitched for a couple of days.

So when just recently I finally got around to field-testing it – or rather “garden-testing” it – thankfully it lived up to expectations.

The story goes like this. We had nice weather, dry, and I had some time available. So up it went, and duly became a playhouse for the day for the kids. But come evening my youngest, Nathan, decided he was going to sleep in it. Maybe I’m planning a trip with the wrong boy? (I’m not – Nathan is currently rubbish at walking any distance). Perversely, Jake didn’t – he didn’t want to sleep out there, just him and Nathan. I can understand that, but it’s a small two-man tent and 3 into 2 doesn’t go – at least not with any comfort at all.

Well, the upshot was that Nathan and I shared the tent (I crept out around 11pm and found him fast asleep – he really did go through with it on his own).

So it was an unintended real test of both the tent and my Snugpak Black-on-Black 2 season bag (as far as I can tell the same as a Softie but black, aimed at military users). The tent passed with flying colours, as did the Thermarest (I somehow ended up with the shortie) – although I’m aware that a thicker mat would have kept me warmer. But the bag didn’t quite live up to my hopes.

Despite warm clothes, I did not pass the night snugly. It wasn’t a terribly cold night – probably around 6 degrees C – but probably colder than we’ll experience on our trip. Even so, I’m seriously reconsidering my bag now. Originally I’d intended to supplement the Snugpak with a TS1 liner to up the temperature floor, but to be honest the idea of a liner doesn’t much appeal – mummy bags are bad enough for tying you up, surely a liner is just going to make that worse? Well, we’ll see – for now the Snugpak is under review.

More on my lightweight experiences to follow…

World Peace, Oil, and the Falklands

It hardly seems like it can be thirty years since the Falklands War. I was still at school at the time, and I guess that foreign policy and the rights and wrongs of nations were not my strong point. All I knew was that it was scarey, yet morbidly exciting. Thirty years later, with more inclination to understand these things, the conflict, the ongoing war of words and the history of the islands has me puzzled and not a little concerned about human nature.

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Email: The heart of communications

Email is not dead. Email is not dying. Email is alive and well, and will be with us all for many, many years to come.

Email is your friend. Say it after me: “Email is my friend!”

There, now you are ready to read on.

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The comparison you didn’t know you were waiting for: Motorola Milestone vs Samsung Galaxy S2

A year is a long time in the world of smartphones, so 18 months must be… well, half as long again. I mention this because as I have an 18 month tariff with T-Mobile I was faced with this challenge: upgrade my phone, or get a cheaper deal. It seemed a no-brainer – get a new toy!

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