Lies, Damn Lies and My Vital Statistics

The BBC report that a giant database of people's personal details could be created at Whitehall under government plans aimed at improving public services.

I'm finding it hard to summon up any enthusiasm for such a project; read on...

Last year the Department of Constitutional Affairs (DCA) claimed relaxing rules on data-sharing would help tackle ID fraud and would also identify those "in need".

But Shadow Constitutional Affairs Secretary Oliver Heald said: "Step by step, the government is logging details of every man, woman and child in 'Big Brother' computers."

Shadow Home Secretary David Davis said: "The chances of it actually solving crimes is pretty small.

"The chances of it costing over £20bn is very high. It will be a white elephant."

Information Commissioner Richard Thomas, who is charged with ensuring the state does not collect too much information about citizens, has also been critical of data-sharing and already expressed concern at the Citizens' Information Project.

That is a plan by the Office for National Statistics to create a population database for use by public services.

"There are reasons why we need to promote better information," Mr Thomas said, "but whether the right answer is to create a database should be questioned."

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Learn Mandarin

Historically the British have always mastered communication with johnny foreigner by simply using English - but speaking a little slower and a little louder.

I'm not sure that will work with the new Chinese who now outnumber us by approximately 25 to one.

In just five years, the number of non-Chinese people learning Mandarin Chinese has soared to 30 million. What is fuelling this expansion, and will it change the status of English as a global language?

Shanghai-born lawyer Kailan Shu Lucas of Chinese Learning Centre organises lessons in Mandarin, the main Chinese language, for pupils in London - and she is very busy.

She now co-ordinates lessons for 12 London schools. She believes that in most cases, having their children study the language is a career calculation made by the parents.

"Parents nowadays think that in 10-20 years' time, when their children are in adulthood, China will be even bigger - and so learning Chinese will be a very helpful tool," she told BBC World Service's Analysis programme. "This will be a very useful, important language to learn."

[Most of those] parents are from the finance industry where China is "a big thing." "That influences the parents' thoughts," Kailan added. "They want their children to learn Chinese and be more versatile in terms of job prospects in the future."

The hope, presumably, is that if you can't beat them - you can at least join them.

You can make a start to learning Chinese here, with the BBC.

Link: BBC World.

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Sentient Developments: Must know terms for today's intelligentsia

I fell upon this quote from Carl Sagan whilst browsing Sentient Developments:

"The visions we offer our children shape the future. It matters what those visions are. Often they become self-fulfilling prophecies. Dreams are maps."

Which particularly struck me as I had only just finished listening to the latest podcast from the UK thinktank Demos.

Over at Demos (who are also in MySpace now), Hannah Green and Celia Hannon have been working on a project funded by the National College for School Leadership called Their Space: Education for a Digital Generation.

Paul Miller has been involved:

I helped out a bit with the research for the project and it’s been fascinating to work on. Hannah and Celia have done a brilliant job at bringing it all together and writing what I think is one of the best Demos reports for quite a while.

The piece basically takes apart the myth of ‘digital danger’ for teens. It suggests that schools in particular should have a lot more faith in kids ability to navigate the online world and should rearrange the way that IT is taught to put the kids in charge. The findings (which are all about kids in the UK) mesh neatly with things we’d learned about the US from danah boyd’s work.

The report caught my eye because the findings almost exactly mirror the talk I've been giving to Independent school audiences up and down the country for the last two years.

As ever, so much of the issue is encapsulated by Douglas Adams:

Anything that is in the world when you're born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.

Anything that's invented between when you're fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.

Anything invented after you're thirty-five is against the natural order of things.

Meanwhile - over at Sentient Developments

At the dawn of European humanism, Florentines believed that reading Dante while ignoring science was ridiculous. Similarly, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo both recognized the great importance of understanding science, technology and engineering.

Despite these trail-blazers, not much has changed since then; a startling number of so-called 'intellectuals' remain grossly ignorant of pending technologies and the revealing sciences

They go on to offer a list of "must-know-terms" that includes the following:

  • accelerating change
  • augmented reality
  • human enhancement
  • molecular assembler
  • neural interface device
  • open source
  • participatory panopticon
  • political globalization
  • quantum computation
  • radical Luddism
  • remedial ecology
  • Simulation Argument
  • Singularity
  • ubiquitous surveillance
  • virtual reality

Great stuff. Go and read the full list. I'll test you later...

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The Old Person’s ICT Curriculum

John Naughton in fine form in this morning's Observer.

The QCA is a fascinating organisation, staffed by responsible adults in suits. It produces tons of earnest documents, all of them possessing a single common property, namely that of reducing their readers’ will to live.

It goes on:

Put such an organisation in charge of designing a curriculum on ICT, and you can predict the result: An Old Person’s Guide to ICT.

The Old Person’s ICT Curriculum (OPIC) has three ‘themes’: ‘using ICT systems’; ‘finding and exchanging information’; and ‘developing and presenting information’.

The first involves learning a Key Skill — that of ‘interacting with ICT for a purpose’. Pupils should be taught important things like ‘take a turn playing a screen-based game, using a mouse, selecting options and keying in information’. Teachers should ensure that pupils are able to ‘choose between option buttons displayed on a cashpoint screen’, ‘follow instructions when using interactive TV’ and ‘receive a text message to make arrangements, e.g. where to meet a friend’.


And then the same kids go home and log onto Bebo or MySpace to update their profiles, run half a dozen simultaneous Instant Messaging conversations, use Skype to make free phone calls, rip music from CDs they’ve borrowed from friends, twiddle their thumbs to send incomprehensible text messages, view silly videos on YouTube and use BitTorrent to download episodes of ‘Lost’.


And he's absolutely right.

I suspect it isn't too far from the truth to suggest that QCA is now one of the biggest obstacles facing Education.

They are, after all, the organisation that annually asks over a million children to sit at wooden desks and, without access to any technology, answer questions on paper using a pen.

Children will rightly ask how this might possibly prove useful to them...


Due to some mysterious glitch, this morning’s Observer column appeared in the paper edition but not on the Web. Catch the full text via John's website: Memex 1.1 - The Old Person’s ICT Curriculum.

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Surprise Surprise: Market Forces do Apply to University Choices

Golly. There has to be a PhD somewhere in all of this research...

The Higher Education Policy Institute describes a "hierarchy of esteem" in which students apply to the most prestigious places their results allow.

It says there is a widespread and probably accurate perception that degrees from some universities are more valuable in the job market than others.

Although it may be "regrettable", students tend to apply to the most prestigious institutions that they think they can get into, it adds.

Institutions then select the most able and employers favour candidates for jobs from those institutions.

This it describes as "a vicious (or virtuous) circle that perpetuates the hierarchy of esteem".

Link: BBC Education

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"I just use Google": Blogger2.0 launches

It's probably illegal to advertise another blogging product from within my TypePad account... but here goes.

Blogger 2.0 - lots of tools that now make Blogger a good tool rather than a lame one.

Makes that "I just use Google" suite of tools look very attractive.

Mail, Maps, Earth, Video, Spreadsheets, Docs, Search, Calendar, Photos, Feeds... need I go on?

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Extracting Meaning from Data

Swivel looks to be very, very interesting.

It's basically a Social Networking site that allows you to share data.

Think Flickr, but for statistics.

And just as Flickr offers serendipitous connections between pictures, so Swivel allows users to derive value from shared data sets.

Think Freakanomics but with lots of smart users all looking for smart connections.

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