Year of Code on Newsnight

You’ve probably already seen the section on the government’s Year of Code initiative that was on Newsnight last Wednesday. But, in case you haven’t, here is it. We’ll wait while you catch up.

Most of the commentary I’ve seen on this concentrates on Lottie Dexter’s performance in the interview that takes up the second half of the clip. We’ll get to her later on, but the problems start long before she appears on screen. Within the first couple of minutes of the report, reporter Zoe Conway has referred to code as “baffling computer commands” and “gobbledigook”. One lesson that I’ve learned as a trainer is that a sure-fire way to ensure that students don’t understand what you’re about to teach them is to describe it as difficult or complex, so Conway’s descriptions of programming languages are hardly going to encourage people to take up programming. As Conway says “baffling computer commands”, here’s the code that appears on  the screen:

if (distance < radius) {

} else {

} // END if statement

Perhaps the fact that I’ve been programming for thirty years is clouding my judgment here, but I really don’t think that this code is “baffling”. Lily Cole does her best to counter this misinformation – saying that it’s “really cool to see how quickly we can pick it up”. I hope people listen to her and not the (obviously out of her depth) reporter. We then move on to the idea of children being taught to program at school. Various people tell us how important it is and we see a class who are trialing the programming syllabus that will be rolled out nationwide this autumn. Conway then gets to the heart of the issue. She visits East London’s “Tech City” and explains the severe shortage of programmers that the companies there are experiencing. There simply isn’t the supplier of programmers that the UK’s tech industry needs. Anything that addresses that problem should be welcomed. And then we’re back in the studio where Jeremy Paxman is talking to the Year of Code initiative’s director, Lottie Dexter. This is when it gets really weird. Let’s get a couple of things straight. I don’t think it’s a problem that Lottie Dexter isn’t a programmer. She didn’t try to hide that. She was clear about it right from the start. I also think that it’s great that she want to be a guinea pig for the Year of Code by saying that she wants to learn to code over the next year. But I do think that it’s a real shame that before coming to the interview she couldn’t find someone in her organisation[1] who could spend an hour briefing her so that she could sound like she knew what she was talking about. Instead, she just made the whole initiative look bad. Let’s look at some of the things she said.

  • “You can actually build a web site in an hour – completely from scratch.” This is true. I build web sites in an hour all the time. I install a copy of WordPress, choose a nice theme and install a few plugins. Of course, there won’t be any useful content on the site. And it will look like hundreds of other sites out there who also use the same theme. Of course, I can only do it that quickly because I’ve done dozens of previous web sites this way and I have a good idea about what works. Oh, and there’s no coding at all involved in this – so it probably falls way outside of what she was talking about. If I wanted to code up a web site from scratch, the minimum time for a web site that does something non-trivial is probably a couple of days.
  • “I think you can pick [teaching people to code] up in a day.” If you know how to code and you know how to teach, then I imagine that’s possible. But for a teacher who doesn’t already know anything about programming to pick it up in a day is a ridiculous suggestion. At college, I did a course on C which was taught by an experienced programmer and lecturer who didn’t know that particular language and who was reading the standard textbook a week ahead of us. The result was a disaster.
  • “If we start thinking about it now, I think in time for September when this goes onto the school curriculum teachers should feel confident” Colour me unconvinced
  • “I started a campaign last year. And if I had learned to code at school I could have done my own web site, I could have done my own app, I could have done my own graphics. I would have saved a hell of a lot of time, a hell of a lot of money and I think I could have done a lot better.” Sure, doing it yourself would have been cheaper. But I doubt it would have been quicker than having a professional do it. And I’m not at all sure that it would have been better. Or is she suggesting that when everyone knows how to code that we will no longer need professional programmers and web designers? I really hope not (or is that just my professional bias getting in the way?)

Paxman wasn’t much help either. I know he has a rather adversarial approach to interviewing, but was it really necessary to be quite so sneering about the whole idea? He did ask one good question though. He asked why it was necessary to code. And he’s right, of course, no-one absolutely needs to know how to code. But I think there are three reasons why teaching everyone to code is a good idea:

  1. We don’t know who is going to be good at programming. So teaching it to every child seems to be a good way of making sure as many people as possible get to try it.
  2. Even if many children don’t take up programming full-time, the fact they have been exposed to it demystifies it. They will be less likely to see it as a “black art” and will have more idea of what is possible.
  3. People who have some programming experience will be at an advantage over people who don’t. The future is going to be about data manipulation – extracting useful information from reams of data. See, for example, the Hacks and Hackers group.

So, yes, of course I agree with the idea of teaching children to code. The UK is already desperately short of programmers and that demand is only going to continue growing. But I worry slightly that the Year of Code project is just about being seen to do something rather than working out what the best thing to do it. The government have a awesome IT department doing wonderful things. I wonder what input they have had into this process. And please, can someone spend an hour or so explaining the basics of programming to Lottie Dexter before she makes her next TV appearance.

Update: Emma Mulqueeny has been working in this area for many years with her Young Rewired State project. Her reaction to the Year of Code is very interesting.

[1] Although, Tom Morris has severe doubts about the amount of technical know-how within the organisation.

UK Film Releases

I like watching films. I’ve been a member of the Clapham Picturehouse for about ten years and I like to get there a few times a month.

But I’m not very organised in my cinema-going. I never really seem to have much of an idea about what films are being released in the coming weeks. This means that sometimes I get taken by surprise when three or four films I want to see all open in the same week.

So I decided that if I had a better view of what is coming up, then I’d be better able to plan my visits. And that sent me looking for an iCal feed of upcoming UK film releases. But I was surprised to find that no such thing existed. Or, at least, if it did, it was very well hidden. I found a couple of RSS feeds on filmdates.co.uk, but they omitted the most important information – the date the film was going to be released.

After an unproductive couple of hours trying to track down an existing feed, I decided that I was just going to have to build one myself. So that’s what I did.

The iCal feed itself is at http://dave.org.uk/ukfilmrel.ics and I’ve also built a page that presents the information in a more easy to understand format. Currently, the data comes from a text file that I created by hand from just going through the latest copy of Empire. Hopefully I’ll find a better source for this information at some point in the future.

I thought it would be a two-hour job. But (as is usually the way) it took a bit longer than that and I ended up having to learn rather more about iCal than I thought I would. If you’re interested, you can find the code on Github.

If you find it useful, please let me know.

2013 in Gigs

According to Songkick, I saw 60 gigs in 2013. That’s quite an improvement on my previous record of 50 in 2011 and well past 2012’s rather disappointing 36. Songkick have stopped doing their excellent “My Year” feature, so I don’t have quite as many facts and figures at my fingertips. If they don’t do something similar next year, I might need to reimplement it myself.

This was the year that I started a separate blog about the gigs I go to. I started it early in June, but I’ve also added stub entries for a number of earlier shows.

As always, there were a few unimpressive shows. In particular, two old prog rock bands – Caravan and Camel – were both rather dull. And both MGMT and Manfred Mann’s Earth Band were massive disappointments.

So what did I like? Here, in chronological order, are ten gigs that I really enjoyed.

  1. My Bloody Valentine – I had never seen them before and had given up on ever seeing them. But, suddenly, they were back with a new album and a tour. I’m proud to say that I got through the whole show without resorting to ear-plugs.
  2. James – I bought a ticket for this largely because Echo and the Bunnymen were supporting and I had never seen them. They were great, but I’d forgotten what a fantasitc live band James are. It’s got to be twenty years since I saw them. I won’t be leaving it so long next time.
  3. Billy Bragg – I saw Billy Bragg twice this year. Both shows were great, but I think the atmosphere was better in the Union Chapel. This was also the show where he played all of Life’s A Riot as a second encore.
  4. Leonard Cohen – There are very few people who can tempt me to the O2 arena (probably London’s most soulless venue). But Leonard Cohen is one of them. Any year with a Leonard Cohen gig in it is a very good year.
  5. Amanda Palmer – Amanda Palmer is the only person who has been on all my annual top gigs lists. And if you’ve seen her live, you’ll know why. She always puts on a sensational show.
  6. David Byrne & St Vincent – As soon as I heard that David Byrne and St Vincent were making a record together, I knew that the tour was going to be unmissable. And I was right.
  7. Annie Eve – Annie Eve was  the only person I saw three times this year. And I hope to see her many more times in 2014. My favourite show was her EP launch show at Old St Pancras Church. But she’s always well worth seeing.
  8. Tunng – I saw Tunng twice this year. They were on top form both times, but I think I just preferred the second show when I saw them at Heaven.
  9. Heaven 17 – I thought this was just going to be a standard Heaven 17 show, but two things made it stand out. Firstly, the support was Scritti Politti. And secondly, Heaven 17 started by playing forty minutes of old Human League songs. It was a fantastic night.
  10. Haim – Something new to end with. I’ve been playing Haim’s first album pretty much non-stop since it was released. And they were even better live. I’ve already bought a ticket to see them again next year.

It was really hard to choose just ten gigs for this list. There were plenty of others that were just outside the list. So here’s an honourable mention for Sinéad O’Connor, Serafina Steer, Sigur Rós, Edwyn Collins and The Polyphonic Spree.

It was a great year for gigs. And next year is already shaping up to be just as good. I already have tickets to see Haim, Arcade Fire, Chvrches and a dozen other shows.

What great live music did I miss this year? What do you recommend for next year?

The Return of Winterval

One Christmas tradition in my household is marking the appearance of the first Winterval story in the British press. Some time in late November or early December, you could always guarantee that one of the tabloids would take some innocuous council memo, link it with the Winterval meme and concoct a “war on Christmas” story.

That all came to an end in November 2011 when the Mail printed a correction admitting that it was wrong about Winterval. Last year I didn’t see a single Winterval story.

But memories are short in the British tabloids. So this year it’s back. And it’s the Daily Mail that has resurrected the story. A story published on their web site yesterday has the headline “She may as well have wished us Happy Winterval!’ MP who sent out Happy Holidays card faces backlash for ‘marginalising’ Christmas“. Lib Dem MP Lorely Burt has sent out a Christmas card that commits the heinous crime of wishing her constituents “Happy Holidays”.

And the Mail wastes no time at all linking this to Winterval. The article says:

The row harks back to the Winterval furore in Birmingham in the 1990s, a season of public events over Christmas organised by the city council – a move widely considered politically correct so as not to offend non-Christians

And there’s even a sidebar – “Winterval Remembered” – which tells a (rather biased) version of the Winterval story.

I’ve tried to post a couple of comments on the story pointing out the paper’s previous correction about Winterval. But comments on the article are moderated and neither of my comments were published. I wonder why.

So, welcome back Winterval. You’ve been missed. And Happy Winterval to all my readers.

p.s. It’s worth pointing out that Kevin Arscott’s excellent debunking of the Winterval myth is now available as an Kindle book – The Winterval Myth: A Festive Tale of Bad Journalism.

Update: @bigdaddymerk has pointed out a great example of a journalist either making quotes up or (at the very least) putting quotes into people’s mouths. The story contains this:

Resident Adam Higgs complained: ‘She may as well have wished her constituents a Merry Winterval since that is the name Birmingham City Council once used to seemingly marginalise use of the word Christmas.’

Do you honestly know anyone who would give a quote like that?

Mail Misinformation

Yesterday, the Daily Mail ran a story about the London Borough where I live. It was entitled “The brightest spot in Britain: Wandsworth named brainiest place with 54% of residents having a degree“.

The story did pretty much what you’d expect from the headline. The ONS have produced study which measures the percentage of the population that has degrees. And Wandsworth came top of the list. Not really all that interesting.

What grabbed my interest was a throwaway line in the middle of the article.

For decades, Wandsworth was the only place in the country that didn’t charge council tax and now its 300,000 residents still enjoy the lowest rate.

Now, I’ve lived in Wandsworth for long time. I moved to Earlsfield in 1988, moved to Tooting a year later and then on to Balham in 1991 where I’ve lived ever since. I’ve paid my share of local taxes to Wandsworth Borough Council and I’ve paid close attention to what I’ve been paying in that time. And what “Daily Mail Reporter” writes here, just isn’t true.

When I first moved to Wandsworth, local taxes were paid in rates. And they didn’t really bother me as they were part of the rent I was paying. I started paying rather closer attention in the financial year 1990/91 when the community charge (aka the poll tax) was introduced. That was a tax on people rather than a tax on property, so it was no longer part of my rent (my rent didn’t go down though – funny that!) and I had to pay it myself.

For the first year my poll tax bill was about £140. In the second and third years it was nothing. Wandsworth manage to balance the books without asking their residents to pay anything. I think that is what the Daily Mail is incorrectly referring to. It wasn’t the council tax and it went on for two years, not decades.

The year 1992/93 was the last year of the poll tax. It was replaced with council tax. I still have most of my council tax bills and I’m happy to show them to the Mail. Most years I have paid something around £900. The second half of the Mail’s claim is certainly true – our council tax is definitely one of the lowest in the land. In the twenty years of the council tax there has never been a year that the residents of Wandsworth haven’t been asked to pay something.

But because of some half-remembered story about the 91/92 and 92/93 poll tax, the Mail reporter has fabricated this fact. And, because it has now been published in the Mail, it effectively becomes true for a lot of the population. “I read it in the paper” is a slightly better attribution than “I heard it from a bloke down the pub”.

I’ve emailed the Mail’s “Corrections and Clarifications” column giving them the details of this error. I’ll let you know if I hear anything from them.

Update: I’ve dug out the stack of council tax bills from my filing cabinet. I have bills going back over ten years. These are for a property in valuation band F. The early ones are actually a little cheaper than I remembered.

  • 2002/03 – £575.43
  • 2003/04 – £837.44
  • 2004/05 – £861.69
  • 2005/06 – £880.34
  • 2006/07 – £929.37
  • 2007/08 – £976.68
  • 2008/09 – £985.05
  • 2009/10 – £984.84
  • 2010/11 – £984.84
  • 2011/12 – £984.59
  • 2012/13 – £980.11
  • 2013/14 – £990.56

Remarkably cheap, I agree, but no sign of decades without being charged council tax.

Update 2: I got an reply to my email this afternoon. It came from an anonymous person at the Daily Mail. It said:

Thank you for your email and for bringing this unfortunate error to our attention. We will amend the article in the way you suggest.

And, indeed, the article has changed. The sentence in question now reads:

For two years in the early 1990s, Wandsworth was the only place in the country that didn’t charge “poll tax” and now its 300,000 residents still enjoy the lowest rate.

Which is better, as it makes it clear that we only had a couple of years of free poll tax. But it’s also still slightly confusing as it implies we currently pay a low rate of poll tax. Which is nonsense, as no-one in Britain has paid poll tax for twenty years.

There’s a “updated” timestamp on the article which has been changed to show that it has been changed today. But, disappointingly,  there’s no indication of the changes that have been made.

Also, my anonymous correspondent was silent on whether or not they would be mentioning this in their “corrections and clarifications” column. I’ve asked for clarification.

Insurance Update

Regular readers will know that two and a half weeks ago, my kitchen ceiling collapsed. A few people have asked me how things are going. Here’s an update. It’s not a happy story.

I’ve been talking to Aviva to work out what needs to be done. I took out my buildings insurance through my bank, First Direct, but apparently they farm all of their insurance out to Aviva. On the day that it happened I made an appointment for Aviva’s surveyor to come round and look at the damage. It happened on Wednesday and I was given an appointment on the following Tuesday. Six days seemed a long time to wait, but there didn’t seem to be any alternative.

So I took Tuesday off work and waited for the surveyor. Twenty minutes before the end of the eight to one window that I had been given he called me to cancel the appointment. His car had broken down. Of course, I can’t blame him for that, but a good company is one that can deal with unexpected problems like this. He told me that someone would call me and make alternative arrangements.

I stayed at home for the afternoon, but no-one called me.

Two days later (Thursday 25th) I tried to call them to find out what was going on. But I called after 5pm which is apparently when all their customer support people got home. Frustrated I did what anyone would do and tweeted my anger.

Those tweets were noticed by someone in Aviva’s social media group who replied, sending me his email and asking me to send him full details. Which I did.

The following day I got an apologetic-sounding phone call from an Aviva customer support agent.  He claimed that the original surveyor hadn’t told anyone that the appointment had been cancelled and offered to set up another appointment. Having already taken three days off work for this (two to deal with the emergency and one to wait for the Aviva surveyor) I was loathe to take more time off (I’m freelance and every day off is a day I don’t get paid for).

My wife was out of the country so we set a provisional date for this coming week, after she gets back. But I said that what I’d really like was for them to find someone who could see come round out of normal office hours. The agent said that he would see what they could do and that someone would call me back. I bet you can guess what is coming.

And you’d be right, of course. Another week has passed and no-one bothered to call me back. So it looks like my wife will be dealing with this in a few days time. At one point I optimistically hoped that the work might all be done by the time she got back. How naive was I?

So it’s two and a half weeks since the ceiling collapsed. I still have  huge hole in my kitchen ceiling and a shower that I can’t use for fear of it leaking again. And I have no idea when anything will move forward. Right now I wouldn’t be surprised if nothing was fixed by the end of summer.

The worst thing is the impression I get from Aviva that no-one there has the slightest interest in helping to fix this problem. I’ve never had to call on them before and, based on this experience, I hope I never have to again. I really couldn’t recommend them at all.

An Interesting Evening

(But the “Chinese curse” kind of interesting)

This evening I got home at my usual time, picked up my post from the doormat and was sitting on the sofa reading it. Suddenly I heard an almighty crash followed by the sound of running water. It was coming from the kitchen. I ran in and found this.

IMAG0097

And this.

IMAG0096

The ceiling had collapsed, scattering rubble and water everywhere. And water was still pouring out of the hole. Looking up into the hole, I saw this.

IMAG0099

It seems that something had been leaking into the lagging for a long time. The lagging had been soaking up the water, getting heavier and heavier, until today was the day it got too heavy for the ceiling to support it any more.

I got on the phone to our buildings insurance people. They have registered my claim and are sending a surveyor round next Tuesday (six days seems rather a long time to wait). Then I got in touch with Aspect to get a plumber round to see if he could work out what was going on. While I was waiting for him, I cleared up the most important bits of the mess – cleaning and drying the chairs and moving the table out from under the drips. The plumber arrived about an hour later and started to investigate.

What he found seemed to bear out my theory. But the question was, where was the water coming from. The bathroom is directly above the hole, so there were plenty of suspects. But he soon tracked it down to the shower and fixed it. Then, before he left, he ripped out the wet lagging so that there was no water left to drip on the floor.

So everything seems to work properly again. I haven’t had to turn the water off and there’s no longer water dripping into the kitchen. There’s just rubble and water all over the the kitchen floor and a big hole in the ceiling. The insurance company will pay for someone to fix the hole, but I’m going to have to do as much as I can to tidy up. I’ve done some this evening but I’m bored and going to bed now. I’ll do some more tomorrow.

But this certainly hasn’t been the evening I had planned.

Some of you will remember that we had a lot of work done in the house in 2010. The leaky shower was fitted as part of that work. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if the shower has been slowly filling the ceiling with water since then. Bloody builders.

Amanda Palmer vs The Daily Mail

I’ve obviously been slacking in my Daily Mail watching duties as this completely passed me by.

Two weeks ago, the Mail published a write-up of Amanda Palmer’s appearance at Glastonbury (don’t bother following that link – it’s really not worth reading). I say “write-up” rather than “review” because they didn’t mention her songs or the performance at all. No, they just fixated on one aspect of the show.

At some point during the show, Amanda’s bra rode up and for a while you could see her left nipple.

That’s what “Daily Mail Reporter” thought was the most interesting part of her set. That’s what he chose to write a whole article around. Oh, and a little bit at the end pointing out that her fans were annoyed that the BBC didn’t broadcast her set.

Of course they had a photo too. Which they published so that their readers knew exactly what they should be getting enraged about. The comments soon filled up with Mail readers who felt it was important to tell us that they had never heard of her. And others who were impelled to share their disgust at the fact that she doesn’t shave her armpits. It was all deeply depressing.

But this was all two weeks ago. Why am I telling you now?

Well, last night Amanda Palmer played a gig in London. And she got her revenge. As she came on for her encore, she sang this (warning: probably not safe for most workplaces).

She specifically asked us to film it and share it as far and wide as possible. So this is me doing my bit.

This video just surpassed Martin Robbins’ Fuck You Daily Mail talk as my favourite anti-Mail video.

Update: Found a higher quality version of the video.

Three Tom Robinson Gigs

I’ve been thinking about Tom Robinson recently. There’s an anthology of the old Tom Robinson Band recordings coming out on Monday and on Tuesday I’m going to see him at a show celebrating the thirty-fifth anniversary of Power in the Darkness. But this has all got me thinking about the first three times I saw him play. They were three very different gigs.

Ipswich Gaumont – 10th April 1979

Growing up in north Essex, the Ipswich Gaumont was nearest place that we could see mid-level bands. I went there many times between 1978 and 1981 (at which point I moved to London and going to see bands became much easier).

This was one of the dates on the tour to promote the Tom Robinson Band’s second album, TRB Two. Somewhere I still have the programme from the tour (really just a double-sided print folded in half) – I should find it and scan it in.

I don’t remember much about this gig. And what I do remember is probably slightly mixed up with a gig from this tour that was broadcast on Radio One at about the same time. I recorded that broadcast (in the time-honoured manner of putting a microphone next to the radio and glaring at anyone who dared talk) and listened to it a lot over the years. I only lost it when I threw away all of my cassettes about ten years ago. I believe that the “Wycombe Town Hall” gig that is included on the new anthology might be the same broadcast. I’m looking forward to hearing it again.

That was the only time I saw TRB. The next two gigs were very different. I can’t even remember for sure the order I saw them in.

Islington Folk Club – Summer 1982

I was living in a City University hall of residence in Islington and when I heard that Tom Robinson was playing at a folk club just round the corner, I couldn’t believe it. I was sure it couldn’t be the same Tom Robinson, but I went along just in case.

And, of course, it was him. This was the first time I became aware of Tom outside of TRB and the performance was very different to the previous one. Tom played a lot of songs that I heard for the first time that night and now know well. In particular, I remember 1967 and a cover version of Walk on the Wild Side.

I can find no mention of this show anywhere on the internet. I don’t think I dreamt it, but I’d love to have some evidence that it actually happened. Was anyone else there.

At the time I was social secretary at The City University. So at the end of the gig I approached Tom and asked if he would be interested in doing a similar show at the Students Union. He suggested that I should contact his agent. I did that, but the agent didn’t seem at all interested in finding Tom gigs so nothing ever came of it.

Bloomsbury Theatre – 1982(?)

It was certainly a theatre in Bloomsbury, but I’m not 100% certain of the name. This was a very strange night. Tom was playing support for The Passions (remember I’m In Love With A German Film Star?) but there was another support act which was a one-act play. There may have been some comedy involved too. I don’t really remember Tom’s set. I think it might have been the first time I heard Atmospherics.

This page on The Passions’ web site at least confirms that something like this did happen. It says:

Next came the question of how to promote the album. For some long forgotten reason the band were unwilling to tour at that point and so together with Cairo Management came up with the idea of doing a week of variety shows at the Bloomsbury Theatre in central London instead. ‘New Variety’ or ‘Alternative Cabaret’ was taking off at the time with the CAST theatre group running shows at pubs across London. Quite how a band such as the Passions fitted into this concept is puzzling to say the least. However the idea was followed through and acts were booked including a strange little play about someone who lived inside a sofa, the band’s friends Kevin McNally and Veronica Quilligan (who acted as comperes in addition to performing comedy sketches) and Tom Robinson.  The show was booked for five nights and apart from the first night, ticket sales were abysmal so the band pulled out after only two shows. As a result of this the band were sued for loss of earnings by the theatre group performing the strange play.

I guess I’m lucky that I saw one of the first two shows. Was anyone else there? Can you share any more memories of the night?

After that I’ve lost track of the number of times I saw Tom play. But it was a lot. Largely at festivals or at his annual gigs for fans. It’s been a while since I saw him though. I’m really looking forward to seeing him on Tuesday.