Archive for May, 2016

Speak from the Heart

Tuesday, May 31st, 2016 | Public Speaking, Video

Recently, I’ve been working on including more personal stories and emotion in my speeches. Some have gone better than others. This speech, for example, was a failure. Sort of.

Feedback was very positive. One of our members stopped me in the bathroom to tell me that he had never written a feedback slip before, but had tonight, because my speech was “perfect”. In fact, all the feedback slips were positive, which is frustrating because you can’t improve when nobody call tell you what was wrong. This was extra frustrating, because I failed to win best speaker.

Looking back at the video though, I can see why it wasn’t a winner. It doesn’t have the emotion in that I wanted it to have. I just didn’t express it. In fact, I think my trademark humour, as everyone refers to it, probably detracted from the speech because it took the edge off the emotion, and maybe I shouldn’t have done that.

Travis CI

Monday, May 30th, 2016 | Programming, Tech

travis-ci

Travis CI is a cloud-based continuous integration tool. Notably, it is also free for open source projects. They do paid subscriptions as well if there is a private repo you want to test. If you just want to test a public GitHub project though, it’s free and really easy to set up.

You can log in with your GitHub account. Once you have done this, you are given a list of your projects and you can turn on Travis CI for each one individually. Using the GitHub hook, you can configure Travis CI to automatically run a build every time code is pushed to the repo.

It supports an array of different languages and platforms. To get up-and-running, you need to add a config file into your repo. This is pretty simple. Here one I am using for a PHP project:

language: php

php:
– ‘5.5’
– ‘5.6’
– ‘7.0’

install: composer install

This configures it to run it on three different versions of PHP, and install the dependencies before starting the test. It comes with many of the common PHP extensions already enabled, and an additional list of ones you can enable if you need them.

Badge Poser

Sunday, May 29th, 2016 | Programming

badge-poser

Badge Poser is an online tool that generates badges your PHP projects’ readmes. There is zero setup: it integrates with Packagist, so once you have your package setup you simply go to the website, enter your package name, and it generates the badges for you.

It then generates a series of Markdown for you to insert into your readme. This will then display anywhere where your readme is rendered: GitHub and Packagist for example.

Currently, it can generate badges for:

  • Stable and dev branch names
  • Total downloads
  • Monthly and daily downloads
  • License

Can Britain win Eurovision?

Saturday, May 28th, 2016 | Distractions, Thoughts

eurovision-2016-winnerJamala wins Eurovision 2016. Photo credit: Thomas Hanses (EBU).

This will be the last post about Eurovision for a while. I promise. Probably. I want to address this issue though because a lot of people think Eurovision is a joke and there is no point us trying because we can never win. This isn’t the case.

We’re really good at Eurovision

Britain’s recent performances in Eurovision are not indicative of our past performance. A look at the all-time winners list puts it in perspective.

Country Wins
Ireland 7
Sweden 6
United Kingdom 5

We are the third most successful country in Eurovision ever. It’s only Sweden’s two recent victories of Loreen in 2012 and Måns Zelmerlöw last year that have pushed them ahead of us. The UK and Ireland between them have cleaned up. We’ve also hosted it a record number of times as we have helped out poorer countries by hosting it for them on several occasions.

Good music wins Eurovision

Here are some of our recent scores:

Year Artist Place
2011 Blue 11
2012 Engelbert Humperdinck 25
2013 Bonnie Tyler 19

Note that when we are not dragging singers back from the grave, and put a popular band in, we do much better. Blue were already arguably has-beens by the time they entered, and the song was okay and look how much better thet did. Our performance in the votes is correlated to the quality of music we put in.

Sweden, who have been smashing it recently, start picking their song in November. They have a whole music festival to decide on it. They take it seriously: and they win.

Bloc voting isn’t that important

Bloc voting isn’t as important as you might think. The Radio Times have a good write-up of the situation. UCL even published a study showing that while bloc voting has an affect, it is not big enough to prevent a a song winning the contest. Lena’s “Satellite” winning for Germany in 2010 is a good example of this. Germany don’t have many friends, but they still triumphed.

Even if it is, we’re in a bloc

Some would argue that the bloc voting is actual just cultural voting. People like the music of their culture and as their neighbours probably have a similar culture, they are likely to get votes because they share the same music tastes. Whatever the reason, the UK benefits from this.

What country do we give the most points to? Ireland! And who gives us the most points? Yep, it’s Ireland. Our neighbours across the water, France and Belgium, are also some of our most generous donors and god bless Malta who gave this year’s song, that came third from bottom, a full 12 points.

Parenthood and life expectancy

Friday, May 27th, 2016 | Health & Wellbeing

father-and-baby

One point of tension for me when becoming a father was the fight between my own needs and that of my family’s. The stress of looking after them and torture of sleep deprivation surely must have a negative impact on my health? How much would I be willing to sacrifice my own wellbeing for theirs?

However, in a speech by Scott Galloway, that I wrote about a few weeks ago, he claimed that being a carer was actually the best thing you could do to prolong your life expectancy. I knew that having a partner and friends was one of the biggest factors in life expectancy. However, he claimed it was the act of giving care that produced the effect. There was no source, so armed with some new hope, I set off to investigate.

Some studies have shown a lower mortality rate in parents than childless adults. However, perhaps it it could be that people who want to become parents tend to live longer, regardless of whether they actually have children or not.

In 2012, The Economist wrote about a Danish study that looked at people undergoing IVF. This was key because it controlled for the desire to have children. They found the same result: parents experienced lower mortality rates than childless couples.

Business Insider also wrote about the study noting that men who adopted experienced the same benefit (women experienced some benefit, but not as much as having their own children).

This is all good news. While I am sure the sleepless nights children cause will be very unpleasant, at least there is some comfort that it is actually good for my health.

20-week scan

Thursday, May 26th, 2016 | Family & Parenting

20-week-scan

Last week we had our “mid-pregnancy anomaly scan” where they check if everything is okay. It turns out it is. Baby seems to be hitting the predicted growth rates perfectly.

Obviously baby has massive head in comparison to its body, but I think we all kind of knew that any child of mine would be a big-head.

Political Islam

Wednesday, May 25th, 2016 | Humanism

political-islam

At West Yorkshire Humanists this month, Dr Afshin Shahi delivered us a talk on Political Islam. He discussed the origins of international jihadism, the structural and identity problems facing countries in the Middle East and the potential problems we will face in the future – especially as climate change increasingly causes draught in the region.

One of the key messages in the talk is that trying to combat radicalisation is only really treating the symptoms and not the cause. If we want to solve the problem in the long term we need to look at the problems of inequality and unfairness that allow these ideologies to take hold.

Should we start school later?

Tuesday, May 24th, 2016 | Thoughts

child-in-school

Compared to other European countries, especially the Nordics, we start school very early. In the UK, children start school the year they turn five, with many starting while they are still four. In Sweden, it’s seven. The Nordics also have much longer summer holidays: three months in Finland.

All of this does not make much difference to educational outcomes. The Pearson Education Index ranks Finland as the best education system in Europe (1st globally in 2012, 5th in 2014). The UK scores 6th overall, 2nd in Europe. You can compare this to the intense schooling that countries such as Singapore and South Korea and by the time everyone reaches undergraduate level, we see no significant differences between intensive schooling and Finland’s “turn up for a bit in the winter, when you’re older”.

Given that, it then seems sensible to reduce the amount of schooling and allow children more time “to be children” (rather than whatever it is they are being when they are in school). How we would implement this is not clear though.

Free, as in childcare

As a parent-to-be, I like the idea that by the time my child hits five, the state will provide me with free daycare for the next thirteen years of their life. It’s not that I don’t want to be a parent, but that I do have to have a job. And then spend most of my money on daycare. That is super-expensive for one child, let alone more. If you had to pay for child care until each of your kids was seven, well, you literally couldn’t. You can easily be looking at £600+ per month, per child. If you have two children, you are spending over 50% of your take-home pay on childcare even if you earn the average UK salary (and 50% of the population earns less!).

In Finland, this isn’t a problem. The state is mandated to provide childcare and it is on an means tested system. If you don’t earn enough you pay nothing, and the amount you might pay is capped, so even if you are a millionaire your childcare will be cheaper than the UK. It’s a great idea, and the UK has now followed suit, offering free childcare for three year olds.

However, note that Finland does not have a system where children stay at home and receive more parenting, they just go somewhere other than school.

Letting children be children

Given that most Finnish children go to daycare, the system is actually remarkably like the English one. You can argue that daycare is fundamentally different than school, because it is more relaxed and allows children to learn through play. However, I think this is being unfair to our schooling system.

While some structured learning does go on in reception, a large element of the learning takes place through learning through play as well. I don’t remember doing that much work in reception. I mostly did fun stuff.

There are advantages too

One possible advantage of having some structured learning in these years, is that it may help level the playing field across socioeconomic backgrounds. In the UK, everyone will go to reception the year they turn five and start doing some reading and writing.

This is not the case in the Nordics. If you are not attending school until you are six or seven, your learning will only start if it starts at home. For example, Elina could already read when she started attending school. This gave her an advantage over other children, who may not have even picked up a book before the age of seven.

Should we teach more foreign language?

Monday, May 23rd, 2016 | Thoughts

books

Learning foreign languages is a big thing these days. As we grow into a globalised society, children are being taught other languages from an earlier and earlier age. When I was at school I did French and German at high school. Now, you would typically start learning another language in primary school. This is in the UK, where we are far behind our European neighbours, who often speak several languages.

In Finland for example, you cannot earn a degree without speaking Swedish. So even when you go to university, you continue to take classes in Finnish, Swedish, and often English as well. In Luxembourg, you learn French, German and Luxembourgish (yes, they have their own language and it is taught in their schools).

However, all of this this focus on languages misses one quite important point: teaching children languages simply doesn’t work.

The failure of bilingualism

I remember very little of my French. In fact, the things I do know I probably re-learned last time I was there, rather than remembering. My German is poor too. Even my mum, who enjoys languages, speaks enough French to get by when they go there on holiday every year, would struggle to hold a conversation about anything meaningful.

It is not just us Brits however.

Have you ever spoken to a Canadian from the English-speaking regions? My money is on them having no French skills. They learn it in school: it’s an official language. In reality though, they forget it all as soon as they walk out the door.

Even Finland, greatest education system in the world, and with a dire need to learn another language because only 95% of their own population speak native Finnish (let alone other countries) has not been successful. English is strong in urban areas where they get to practice it, but my in-laws don’t speak English. Elina constantly bangs on about how poor her Swedish is. In Finnish Saturday school. I sit next to a Finland-Swedish woman, who’s Finnish is about as good as mine.

Of course many people are bilingual. However, this is primarly a result of them getting the opportunity to use and develop their skills in society: by living in a country and speaking the language. People who learn a language in an educational system do not develop those skills.

But what about the other benefits?

Learning a language does not provide the direct benefit of being able to speak that language, as discussed about. But what about the other benefits? Are there any? The answer is yes. Though what they are and how much benefit they provide is not always clear.

For example, being able to think in another language is highly beneficial because a language provides a construct for thinking. Therefore, by thinking in another language you are taking a different approach and that will improve your problem solving skills. However, this only works if you can think in that other language. As Elina found, you need to live in that language for years before you start thinking in it, rather than translating thoughts back to your native language.

Learning a language may also improve your cognitive skills, help keep your brain active through learning, help you understand your own language better and develop your multitasking abilities.

These are all genuine benefits and very worthwhile having.

However, if we accept that people don’t actually get the language skills out of the learning, they just get these benefits as a bi-product, we are essentially just using language classes as a proxy for these benefits.

Which is fine, they’re good benefits, but why not just teach a class in that? It might be that learning a language is the most effective way to do that. I doubt it though. Teaching a class specifically to develop these skills would intuitively seem the best way to develop these skills, rather than proxying it through another subject.

Summary

Teaching foreign languages develops important skills and those skills are certainly worthwhile having. However, given the lack of success in developing language skills, it may be that there is a more effective way to do this. Therefore, teaching languages may not be as important as is often claimed.

The Big Short (film)

Sunday, May 22nd, 2016 | Distractions

the-big-short

The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine is a 2011 book by Michael Lewis. It is one of his best, perhaps second only to Flash Boys. I reviewed it in 2014. I recently watched the film adaptation. Coupled with The Blind Side makes me look like I am on kind of Michael Lewis-film binge, which I only noticed afterward.

It is a reasonably good retelling of how it happened in the book. Not that you can do it justice in a two hour film, but it is a good summary. Occasionally one of the characters would break the forth wall and introduce celebrities offering sarcastic explanations of how the banks fucked us.

Speaking of fucking, the one thing that draw my attention was the phone call between Mark Baum and Greg Lippmann. I’m sure in the book Lippmann actually told Baum how he was going to fuck him, rather than the watered-down reconciliation in the film.

The film even had a moral point at the end, discussing how basically nothing has changed and we are just repeating the same old patterns. And that is why I am moving to Iceland in two weeks…