Friday, April 29, 2011

In which our hero calms the raging torrents of social bookmarking into a gently flowing activity stream

AJCs Little Helpers One of the weakness of Flipboard (yes, Flipboard again - it's the future dontcha know) is that it's a bit controlling in terms of sources. There's no built-in ability to add an RSS feed. So, since it seems like delicious will be with us a bit longer, I wanted to get the content from my delicious network into Flipboard, which does a much better job of displaying this noisy and diverse source than Google Reader does (yup, better watch out Google, another threat). So:

  1. Create a Twitter account: AJCDeliciousNet
  2. Burn the RSS feed from my delicious network in Feedburner.
  3. Tell Feedburner to autopublish to the Twitter account.
  4. A few misguided souls prefer Diigo to delicious, so burn the RSS feed from my Diigo network in Feedburner and tell Feedburner to autopublish to the Twitter account.
  5. Load to the Twitter account in Flipboard.
  6. Admire the beautiful filtered display that my virtual elves have produced (screenshot above).
Simples! Well, not actually. C'mon Flipboard, stop being controlling and loosen up a bit. Or is that a premium feature?

Update: You can now add RSS feeds from Google Reader directly to Flipboard without messing around with troublesome Twitter lists :-)


Wednesday, April 27, 2011

A Tale of Two Books

I switched off and read a few books over Easter. The first was The Dervish House, Ian McDonald's postcyberpunk grey goo novel (spoiler - no grey goo involved). I've been looking forward to reading this for a while, and I enjoyed it a lot. McDonald is rightly dismissive of the grey goo scenario ... if it was going to happen ... , so instead offers something much more interesting - religious belief as disease. With subplots involving aggregation/crowdsourcing and specific mentions of small world networks, it's, err, a thumping good yarn. But not a classic to rival Gibson's Neuromancer or Stephenson's Snow Crash.

I also read F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, which I've never read before. I was rather disappointed with this book, which for me didn't live up to its reputation. If this is truly the Great American Novel, god help us all. Some good one liners though and it will bear re-reading sometime, something I rarely do. Quite a short book, so I also went on to read The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which is much more charming.

But there's something else:


I read The Dervish House on paper, and the others on my iPad. I also read a lot of other stuff over the holiday, mostly via Flipboard and Zite - social curation, aggregation, small world networks. Leaving aside the fact that the iPad is not a great eBook reader, there is a fundamental difference in the reading experience. The iPad is much more of a sit-forward device than a printed book or a magazine, and that alters the reading experience. Great for work, not great for relaxation - for me at least, when I want to switch off, I switch off the iPad and sit back. Did the medium I read these two books on affect my reaction to them? I can't see how it would fail to. I guess that means I'm not a digital native ;-)

Thursday, April 21, 2011

iPad2 1 week on

MyPad The inevitable review.  Mostly, I love it, with the following caveats.

The first thing I noticed when I turned it on was the screen resolution, which doesn't compare well with the iPhone4 - don't buy an iPad just as an eBook reader. I wanted a handheld computer, and at that the iPad excels. eBooks are just a bonus. I'm ashamed to admit I've never read The Great Gatsby, so I've loaded it into Stanza - my favourite eBook reader - and I'll be reading it over Easter.

I bought the magic cover and fitted a cheapo screen protector. Both make me feel happier but neither has been a life-changing experience. The screen protector reduces glare from the shiny screen slightly so makes it easier to use in bright light (iPad no good outdoors during the daytime folks, it's not an eBook reader, I said it again) - and will get better as it becomes more matte with use.

The cameras are not as bad as I expected them to be - perfectly adequate for a device of this sort. Again, don't buy an iPad as a camera. The battery life is, at present, disappointing - not as long as the stories I heard. Maybe I have a poor battery, maybe it's not fully conditioned yet (although I have cycled it fully), or maybe the power of the iPad 2 drains it faster than the previous model.

Games: I don't do games.

The version of Safari is incompatible with Blogger, which is a pain. But Atomic web browser is a revelation - this is the best app I have found so far, a fully-fledged tabbed browser. Come on Apple, pull your finger out. Blackboard Gradecenter only partially compatible with Safari or Atomic. Boo hoo. Other than that, Apps mostly suck. I just use saved web pages from the desktop.


Now we get to the interesting stuff. Flipboard is the real revelation - as novel a format as everyone says it is. Flipboard-like services are clearly the future but I'm particularly struck by the difference between reading on this device and in print. These services work best on noisy sources - Twitter Facebook, etc. Finally a use for twitter lists (I normally filter services heavily to reduce the noise). Flipboard provides noise reduction without diversity reduction, so I've made some custom lists to cram more diversity into app and overcome the limitations imposed by the makers (What The Papers Say; Long List of Leicester).

Is Flipboard a new paradigm? Not quite, but close. I'd happily pay for Flipboard with more tiles, RSS support and an integrated activity stream view. Zite is very similar at first sight but has it's own subtly different attributes. I can see these two slugging it out for some time to come. Expect to read more about them here.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

What is it with the Kahn Academy?

Kahn Academy In theory, I should love the Kahn Academy, and in some ways I do. At least, I admire it. But I also loathe, fear and worry about it.

Fantastically popular with students, word of mouth has made the Kahn Academy a runaway success. So what's my problem? My problem it that the oversimplistic explanations give students a monolithic view of a topic from which they find it very hard to move on to a deeper understanding. Compare with Wikipedia. Do you see any links out from the Kahn Academy? No. It is in some ways a walled garden. And that worries me.

Monday, April 18, 2011


I've just been pruning drafts of lots of posts written over the past few months that never saw the light of day on this blog for various reasons. Interestingly, several of them surfaced elsewhere, proving that this blog really is my reflective space (mental sandpit) where I work things out in my head before burdening you with them. Here's an example:

Playing and Reality Donald Winnicott was a pediatrician (who inspired the work of Benjamin Spock) and psychoanalyst who developed ideas around play and transitional spaces. According to Winnicott, play is important in counteracting the implicit threat in transitional spaces which limit learning. It seems appropriate therefore that I should put my academic credibility on the line by holding imaginary conversations  with a sock puppet while attempting to remove the fear of command-line drive statistical analysis.

D.W. Winnicott, Playing and Reality. (Penguin 1971).


we7 The recent news about Spotify prompted me to look again at online music services. The truth is, I haven't been using Spotify much recently, so the changes are not much of a problem for me. Would I pay for Spotify? No - lack of trust and not value for money. The main problem with the new free version is only being able to listen to a track five times rather than the total monthly allowance.

I've had an account at we7 ever since it started in 2008 but never used it much, so I went back and dusted it off. And I like it. we7 reminds me more of Pandora, which I used quite a lot before it barred UK users, and that suits me better than Spotify anyway. I also purchased and downloaded a song, something I could never get to work with Spotify, although we7 is more expensive than Amazon or iTunes.

Chatting with my kids about this at the weekend I got incredulous remarks about why anyone would want to use these services anyway. We've got YouTube Dad. And YouTubeU doesn't charge £9k a year.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Statistics workflow: Use real data

R I'm currently writing a new statistics course (more on that shortly), and trying to follow the exhortation to "use real data for authenticity". I've tried this in the past and failed to find enough useful examples to illustrate procedures, but I have a new workflow which is working for me and I want to document it here:

  1. Go to PubMed (I'm writing for biomedical students, if you are writing for another discipline, substitute another database).
  2. Type in the name of the test, e.g. "Fisher's Exact test" or whatever.
  3. Click on "Free Full Text".
  4. Find candidate papers and see how statistics were used/reported. Find one with a good (engaging) scenario on which to base a question.
  5. It's rare to find the original data, usually just the summary statistics are published, but with these numbers (e.g. n, mean, SD), you can use R to reconstruct a suitable population, e.g. using rnorm(), rlnorm(), etc.
  6. Write the question based on the introduction to the paper (background, rationale), give the raw data, write feedback.
  7. Credit the authors and cite the publication while making it clear that the data used is only based on the original paper and has been modified for the test.

Works for me! Another bridge crossed.

    Tuesday, April 12, 2011

    iTunes, U Fail

    iTunes U I've never spent much time on iTunes U, partly because I've been disgusted at conferences listening to universities crowing over it as a marketing channel, but mostly because whenever I've tried to find useful content there, I've only come up with dusty old public lectures ("Next slide please" - audio only), and never found an efficient way of finding the high quality content which I'm sure is there (in small pockets hidden in all the badly recorded lecture cruft).

    Yesterday afternoon, I was spending some quality time with OeRBITAL, so I tried again. With the same result. Academically, iTunes U is a mess, with no useful filtering mechanisms. It's part of Apple's failure of social (Ping, anyone? I thought not) that the crowdsourced recommendations ("Noteworthy", Top Downloads") don't work with the granularity needed for an academic to find the best content for a particular course or subject. However, the iTunes U Power Search turns up lots of content. Unfortunately, that is when the problems begin rather than end. The quality of the material is highly variable. For the most part, it is recordings of public lectures, often with a large dose of marketing which makes most of it effectively unusable for educational purposes. Beyond that, almost none of the material on iTunes U carries any licensing information (MIT Open Courseware being the notable exception, but that's not great for biology), rendering it inoperable as an OER.

    Whose fault is it?

    Well it's not Apple's fault, they're just running a business (which isn't education). It is the fault of the academics and of the institutions they work for, greedily turning a potentially useful education tool into a marketing channel, and failing to add simple licensing information metadata (or better still, flag the licence status clearly on the iTunes channel). In some cases, this is a simple technical failure. In other cases, it is a result of the don't ask, don't tell approach through which academics have to publish such grey content - although that should not apply to iTunes U since these are institutional channels.

    So much for iTunes U. At least I've still got Jorum to look forward to ;-)

    Thursday, April 07, 2011

    A Week in December

    Cover I've got a love-hate relationship with Sebastian Faulks. I didn't love this book. Occasionally (Birdsong, Engelby), Faulks has hit the heights. Mostly he doesn't. Here, he aims high and falls short with this glorified soap opera.


    Monday, April 04, 2011

    Students participation in assessed social network activity - a statistical autopsy

    Graphs Our first year Biological Sciences students have just completed their key skills course. This consists of two modules, one delivered in Term 1 (scientific literature databases, Google Reader & RSS, intellectual property, Google Docs collaborative writing, manipulating numbers, units & conversions, molarities & dilutions, areas & volumes, exponents & logs) and the other in Term 2 (Microsoft Excel, descriptive statistics, normal frequency distribution, t-test, chi-square test, correlation, regression).

    Running throughout both modules is an assessed task consisting of contributing to a social network, (, designed to encourage reading and discussion of current scientific literature relevant to taught modules, and a reflective aspect ("My Diary"). I've just finished marking these contributions for Term 2 (click for larger image), which shows some interesting contrasts between the two terms.

    In Term 1 (median 75%), where the friendfeed contributions contribute 30% of the module marks, there is a strong negative skew, but in Term 2 (median 40%) we see more of a bimodal pattern, where the large number of high marks is moderated by a sizable number of students who do not participate in the friendfeed exercise. This occurs for a number of reasons. In some cases, students are having academic problems across the board, whereas a proportion take the decision to incur a 20% mark penalty in order not to participate. The difference between the two modules is highly significant (Wilcoxon rank sum test, p <0.001).

    What can we say about student engagement on these modules (which is the subtext of this approach)? Reading the contributions, it is clear that the students who do participate are highly engaged. The "My Diary" reflective exercise also appears to be highly engaging for those who choose to participate. But what about those who find it intrusive or too time-consuming? Apart from the fact that students are encouraged to set access to their friendfeed accounts as private (subscription only) if they wish, the My Diary exercise is only a minor component of the module mark (10%), effectively allowing students to opt out, which some do.

    What happens next? Our experience from previous cohorts suggest a continued participation rate of approximately 20% - but much depends on how participation is defined. Evidence shows there are a large number of non-contributory lurkers still checking into friendfeed, occasionally popping up with a question or a remark.

    Is the whole thing worth while? It's cheap (cloud-based) and incredibly efficient in terms of staff time. You betcha.

    Friday, April 01, 2011

    Social media: Self-reflection, online

    Nature "The key is choosing wisely whom to follow. For example, leaders in a particular field often have advance notice of high-impact papers or job advertisements, access to which can be priceless. And scientists not using social media may be missing out on opportunities - without even realizing it. “Grant-making agencies, such as the NSF, are learning how to diffuse opportunities through these types of networks to reach the best and brightest,” says Filmer. An NSF tweet on 14 March, for example, alerted undergraduates to an opportunity to submit a two-minute video describing an original energy-innovation idea; the best will be aired on a special Weather Channel programme. What is more, use of Twitter and other social media can have tangible career-promoting results. “I can't count the number of conference invitations that have come from people finding me online,” says Hawks."