Tag Archives: education

Why Doctor Who Confidential mattered

Behind-the-scenes documentaries, like Doctor Who Confidential, matter. They matter because they show viewers, in particular children still deciding what to do with their lives, that it takes more to produce a high-class TV programme than just a few actors who become famous. It shows what other creative and/or technical jobs there are in television.

A couple of weekends ago, we went to the Doctor Who Official Convention (#dwcuk) in Cardiff. While one of the three main panels featured the three stars, Matt Smith, Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill (along with executive producers Stephen Moffat and Caroline Skinner), most of the other scheduled events were focused on how Doctor Who is made.

Danny Hargreaves makes it snow indoors

At the very start of the day, we went to see Danny Hargreaves blow things up talk about the Special Effects on Doctor Who. In his Q&A session (after making it snow indoors), the first question asked was “How did you get into special effects work?” and, between questions like how he blew up the Torchwood Hub and how he makes the Doctor’s hands and head fiery during a regeneration, a later question was “When did you realise you wanted to work in special effects?”. Attendees were interested not just in the fictional stories and characters but in how the programme is made and the interesting careers they might not otherwise have come across.

Old harddrive on the TARDIS console to make the spinny thing spin.

Throughout the day, I heard audience members ask how to become costume and prosthetics designers and how to become script writers. Danny described how his team designs and creates the effects, assess the risks of blowing things up, and who they work with to make it all happen. He also explained how he came to be a trainee in the nascent world of special effects before studying Mechanical Engineering so that he could build the devices they need for Doctor Who (and the other shows he’s worked on, like Coronation Street). Directors of photography, set designers, executive producers, writers, and directors went on to talk about what their own jobs entailed day-to-day and how it all comes together to make an episode of Doctor Who.

These discussions continued the story that used to be told after each new episode of Doctor Who by Doctor Who Confidential on BBC3. Doctor Who Confidential started in 2005 with the return of Doctor Who. As well as talking about some interesting perspective on making that night’s episode of Doctor Who, it featured interviews with, and ‘day-in-the-life’ documentaries about, the actors (including showing the less glamorous side of shivering in tents and quilted coats between takes), the casting directors, the producers, the writers, the choreographers, the costume designers, the special effects supervisors, the monster designers, the prosthetics experts, the directors, the assistant directors, and many, many others. It also held competitions for children to write a mini episode and then see the process of making it, which would’ve been an amazing experience!

Yes, it took a slightly odd turn in the last series when it turned a bit Top Gear by showing Karen Gillan having a driving lesson and Arthur Darvill swimming with sharks; possibly a misguided attempt to increase its popularity before it got canned anyway to cut costs.

I think it’s a real shame to lose Doctor Who Confidential and its insights into the skill, hard work, and opportunities in TV and film production.


Cool photo of Danny in the snow by Tony Whitmore.

A book in the Human Library at WOMAD2010: A tale in tweets…

One Sunday morning in June, while I was lazing in bed, I received this tweet:


how about it @lauracowen? would be good to have a female geek @ #WOMAD

I spent the next hour absorbed in reading the Human Library website and the WOMAD website on my mobile phone. Then:

@littlecough oo sounds cool. To be a book you mean?

And:

@lauracowen yep...need to challenge preconceptions about IT geeks! I need a couple of 2hr shifts from each book

So:

@littlecough yes, I'm up for that. Sounds really interesting. Been reading the website this am. U running it both days at the festival?

And that was that. I was committed. In public.

The Human Library is a fascinating idea that originated at Roskilde Festival 2000 in Denmark:

Borrow a person you normally would think you would not like. We have a wide selection of unpopular stereotypes. Everything from gays to hip hoppers to immigrants. Take a walk, have a talk or dont. Just remember to give back the person within two hours.

As a book, I had to have a blurb to be printed on my metaphorical back (in practice, it was to go into a printed catalogue of the available books for visitors to browse). The idea of the blurb is to be controversial and encompass some of the popular stereotypes about the subject. At which point, I started to struggle. So, I turned to Twitter again:

Tweeps, what stereotypes of female geeks have you come across, or you believe are true? Much appreciate any responses. Thanks :)

Initially I got self-consciously positive comments about women in IT such as:

actually the best IT Manager I ever worked for was female

Whilst a nice sentiment, it wasn’t quite what I was looking for. So I tried again:

Okay, I'll rephrase...what stereotypes have you heard of female geeks? I promise not to believe it's your beliefs unless you say otherwise!

I figured an example or two might be helpful to get the ball rolling:

okay...how about...'like to get hit on by male geeks on IRC'... :)

Um...or...'weird'...or...pls help...I'm struggling here!

That seemed to do the trick:

  • glasses
  • bad hair
  • love pink
  • like to be hit on by male geeks
  • all lesbians
  • the movies portray glamorous sexy chic
  • no fashion sense
  • most assume you have to be tougher and not at all girlie to be a female geek also
  • butch short hair
  • glasses
  • Glasses
  • pigtails
  • glasses and very girly
  • there aren’t enough/many of them
  • not as technical as male geeks

As you can see, there were quite a few responses, once unleashed. You can probably also see that some of them contradict others (eg ‘love pink’ and ‘not at all girlie’). I think that just goes to show that whatever you think about girl geeks, you’re probably wrong. :-)

Anyway, thank you to everyone who helped crowd-source my blurb. You can read my published blurb on the Human Library at WOMAD website.

My next task was to un-earth my 15+-year-old tent, and put it up in the back garden:

Me and my tent

And I bought some purple festival wellies on ebay.

On the weekend itself, I pootled up to Charlton Park, the venue for WOMAD 2010. After some difficulties with the lack of signage and not being able to find the right entrance, I was presented with not only a free weekend ticket but a CREW pass and backstage privileges:

WOMAD pass

Which, once I’d found Katy (@littlecough), I discovered meant that I could pitch my tent in the crew’s campsite. Basically it just meant I had to walk further but I could go pretty much anywhere and there seemed to be a higher ratio of toilets and showers to campers. I appreciated that a lot throughout the weekend.

So, the Human Library. Well, I had two 2hr sessions on the Saturday. The Human Library was based in a couple of pretty yurts on the edge of the festival.

The Human Library

It was a slightly odd experience being a book. It felt a wee bit like we were being pimped out – 8 of us books sitting out of sight on The Shelf (a row of chairs by the door with a label around our necks). The customers signed up at the desk outside the yurt and were then led inside to meet their book who would then take them to a free table and cushions somewhere in the yurt, or outside on a bench to chat for 30 minutes.

Some books were instantly popular, like the Tsunami Survivor and the Psychiatrist, who both seemed to be booked out in advance for every half-hour slot. On paper, it was less obvious what a Girl IT Geek was so I tended to be the pot-luck book; people who were interested in the Human Library and wanted to try it out would often just pick one of the books not currently out on loan.

Inside the Human Library yurt

I don’t think I got any advance bookings at all but I was borrowed for most of the slots. I found that I was every so slightly nervous at the start of each of my ‘readings’ because I don’t usually find it very easy to just start a conversation with someone, even though I’m usually happy to talk to random strangers who strike up conversations on trains. My first borrower was an academic who was, himself, slightly apprehensive, I think, and very serious. We had an interesting discussion about energy use and flying. He pointed out that academics typically made their careers from becoming experts in very very specific areas, and then it’s a career highlight to arrange a conference in that area in an exotic location that you have to fly to. We discussed how video-conferencing could be improved and the problems we’d each experienced with it.

After that it becomes something of a blur. I talked to a primary school teacher about energy monitoring and how it can be hard to reduce household energy usage when you share with friends. I talked to a musician about Open Source Software (he’d tried Ubuntu but didn’t think it had the software he needed for his music) and the software we use to produce the UUPC podcast. I talked to a single mum from New York and her young daughter about using computers and how awkward it is to get photos off a camera, on to your laptop, edit them, upload them. And I did a joint booking with the Vegetarian Ecologist for a group of teenage boys with whom we discussed Second Life, Open Source Software, home automation, and agreed that my Christmas tree lights project really was very geeky. (You can see me as a book in one of the photos on the Human Library at WOMAD website.)

blackboard

It actually went really well, though it was exhausting. In all but one of my bookings, we were still happily chatting away when the 30 minute bell rang to say the session was over. In the one that finished slightly early it just came to a natural end of conversation, which was fine. Over all my bookings, I think I probably ticked all the boxes of things I’m interested in and have blogged or tweeted about at some point…usability, climate change, energy monitoring, Open Source Software, Ubuntu, my Christmas lights project…

In the odd session when I stayed on the shelf, I chatted to some of the other books, including the Dyslexic Egyptology Student book, who was inspiring in what she does, and it was fascinating to listen to her talk about her life as the daughter of the Council Tenant Mum of 7 book. The Dyslexic Egyptology Student also had a great story to tell about some ace young girls who borrowed her and shyly asked her about her dyslexia and whether she’d got bullied about it and whether she thought they could go to university as they too had dyslexia.

The librarians

The sessions all ran really smoothly and the yurts were lovely and shady from the hot sun outside. I really enjoyed being a book and would recommend it as an experience to anyone. I think it would also be a brilliant way for a company to do diversity training. A few weeks later, I read a profile by a guy at work who has multiple sclerosis; the insight I got into his life just from reading that article had a similar effect on me as listening to some of the books talking at the Human Library.

As for the rest of the festival, I ate breakfast at the frightfully middle-class Riverford organic cafe (as in the delivery people), and learnt how to plait garlic (a fine skill, I feel), though I didn’t win the Riverford garlic-plaiting competition. I ate loads of vegetarian food from the various vans and stalls, discovered the lovely hot apple and cinnamon at the Tiny Tea Tent:

Hot apple and cinnamon at the Tiny Tea Tent

And watched the bubble experts (as seen on Blue Peter many many years ago making massive bubbles around small children):

Bubble-blowing

As I left Charlton Park on the Sunday afternoon, leaving the WOMAD 2010 music festival, I realised it was the first time since Friday lunchtime that there was no soundtrack. Since I arrived on Friday, there’d been a constant music bed of drums, singing, guitars, or PAs. WOMAD wasn’t somewhere I would’ve gone had it not been for taking part in the Human Library but it was a fun experience, and I saw both Cerys from Catatonia and Chumba-wumba live (she sang Mulder and Scully; they refused to sing Tub-thumping). Sadly I missed the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain.

Presenting…InfoSlicer (educational software for Sugar)

InfoSlicer two-colour icon

InfoSlicer is a small application that enables you to download articles from Wikipedia, drag-and-drop sections of them to create new articles, and then publish your collection of articles for others to install or view on their own laptops.InfoSlicer on an OLPC laptop

The ideal of InfoSlicer is to support teachers in schools where access to books is limited. They can use InfoSlicer to quickly obtain content from the internet (maybe at a cybercafe rather than at the school or at home) and to create customized versions of the information that are suitable for their pupils and can be viewed with needing access to the internet.

Since completing the initial prototype, however, it’s become apparent that InfoSlicer could actually be more useful to the pupils themselves than just as a means to receive information created by their teacher. The children themselves could use InfoSlicer to download articles and then learn how to re-organise information for a specific audience or purpose and how to attribute someone else’s content without plagiarising it; the outcome of creating the articles is then less educationally important than the process of doing it.

So if you have Sugar, download the first version of InfoSlicer and give it a go (or just find out more) from: http://sugarlabs.org/go/Activities/InfoSlicer

Update 13th April 2009:

On re-reading this article (which was intended to be just a short intro to publicise InfoSlicer), it sounds as if I wrote the software myself! I didn’t. It was the outcome of the brilliant efforts of the InfoSlicer Extreme Blue team during their internship at IBM Hursley last Summer. Here’s a photo of the team at their Expo stand in Germany:

Jessica Vernier, Matt Bailey, Chris Leonard, Jon Mace
Jessica Vernier, Matt Bailey, Chris Leonard, Jon Mace

Fosdem ’08: Free software in education

Back in February I attended a couple of sessions about free software in education. One was the kickoff meeting of OLPC Europe (the European support group for One Laptop Per Child). The other, was a fantastic talk by Knut Yrvin, who’s done a lot of work with free software in education in Norway.

His focus in the talk was on cross-platform free software – that is, free software that can be used in schools and runs on Windows, Linux, and (usually) Mac. He gave four examples of free software that he thinks is great in schools:

GCompris (award-winning software for younger end of primary school children) (www.gcompris.net/-en-). Having since met a 5 year old at LugRadio Live USA whose favourite activity on her OLPC laptop is GCompris, I’ll happily recommend it too.

StopMotion (for older end of primary school) (I’ve just been hunting for the URL for Windows but can’t find anything about it – can only find the page for the LInux version developer.skolelinux.no/info/studentgrupper/2005-hig-stopmotion/index.php – will let you know if I find the Windows one cos it looks really cool software)

OpenOffice.org (for secondary school level) (www.openoffice.org) – He made a point of saying that we shouldn’t inflict office skills on young children cos it’s boring. :) But at secondary level, this is a great alternative to paying for Microsoft Office. I use it all the time at work and at home. It’s free now but used to be a product from Sun Microsystems who sold it as Star Office. Much better now and is compatible with MS Office documents (eg .doc, .xls, .ppt files). Just download it and have a go.

Firefox web browser (all ages) (www.mozilla-europe.org/en). Again, I use this all the time (alternative to Internet Explorer) at home and at work.

If you’re a Windows user and want to know more about free software in education, there’s more free software that will run on Windows here: www.schoolforge.net

It’s here, it’s green, and it’s got ears!

And it’s so exciting! My OLPC laptop has arrived at last!

In case you’ve been living in a cupboard for the past couple of years (this is mainstream, afterall), the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project’s aim is to design a small, cheap, lightweight but robust laptop as a tool to support education in developing countries. The XO (or OLPC) laptop is the result of that effort.

So what’s it like? Well, I’m typing this blog post on it. The width of the laptop is 22.5cm (I just measured it) so the keyboard is quite small. I can’t touchtype on it but I can work up to a fairly efficient multi-finger typing. It’s a bit like typing on the Psion palm-top but the keys feel nicer because they’re rubbery and press easily.

The screen on the XO is amazing. It was designed especially for the requirements of the OLPC project. Many of the children that will use the XO laptop are schooled, or spend a lot of time, out of doors. Therefore, a typical laptop screen would be no good – bright sunlight would render the screen unreadable. There are two modes to the XO’s screen: a full-colour mode which is

pretty readable in sunlight as it is, and a monochrome mode which actually gets clearer to read the brighter the sunlight. Why aren’t all laptops made like this? Working at home in the summer would be so much more fun!

What else? Well, the ‘ears’ are actually the wireless antenae which will still work, apparently, even if you snap one off (they’re actually slightly flexible and tougher than they look in photos). I can connect to my home WPA-encrypted wireless network (but not, sadly, to my work LEAP netwok). There’s no ethernet port but you can, i think, get an ethernet USB dongle to work.

It has a built-in webcam. It comes with 1 GB solid state storage but I’ve put an 8 GB SDHC card in the slot beneath the screen to have more space than I’m bound ever to need. It has a built-in microphone and speakers, with mini-jack sockets for plugging in an external mic and headphones. Or, alternatively, you can plug in different inputs (eg a temperature sensor) to the mic socket.

And there’s ‘ebook mode’… You know how you can get some highly-priced regular laptops that have a screen that swivels round into ‘tablet mode’? Well, the XO does that too. To be fair, the XO doesn’t have a touch-sensitive screen but then its screen swivels so that you can use it to read ebooks. At the press of a button, you can rotate the display by 90, 180, 270, or 360 degrees. And if reading an ebook isn’t your thing, you can play games using the game buttons on either side of the screen.

I know I’m sounding like a commercial break now but it really is that cool. And rather sweet for a inanimate object. And it has a handle. And it fits in my handbag.

Oh, and did I mention it’s green?

And it has ears. :)