Monday, 30 April 2012

My laptop has died. How do I choose a new one?

My laptop and I have enjoyed a tempestuous relationship for the last few years. Initially a company reject, I was delighted to pick up the pieces of the thoroughly unremarkable HP Compaq 6515b. As a company machine my first duty was to remove the software which was not licensed for private use, and the easiest way to do this was simply to replace the limited 60gb hard drive with a decent 320gb drive and a fresh install of Linux Ubuntu (of which , more later). Unfortunately, Ubuntu and my laptop did not see eye to eye on many issues.  The fan broke within months while the budget AMD processor was initially slow and over the years progressed to being glacial.  By far the most problematic issue was the use of wireless. The inbuilt Broadcom wireless card refused to speak to anything not owned by Microsoft, so for three years working online has been a never-ending wrestling match involving re-installing drivers and threatening the wretched machine with a 15ft drop from the nearest window.

Eventually (and quite understandably) the whole thing simply gave up the ghost, and I am now faced with the prospect of having to start a new relationship with a new machine.  While the idea of a laptop which does not involve an hour or two of frustration and cursing each day does appeal, the simultaneous idea of having to trawl my way through the various options and does not.

You see the thing is that computers are, on the whole, a rip off. It would be interesting to research just how many people are using computers which are actually suited to their use of them. My instinct tells me that there are huge numbers of people sending emails and browsing the internet on computers which are really designed for system intensive operations like multitasking video or photo editing. The majority of advice available is sketchy at best, and at worst downright misleading. Even if you were to simply look up the best recommended machine in a computer magazine you would probably end up with something triple the cost of anything which could actually suit your needs better. The only way to do the job properly is to understand exactly what you need, and exactly what is out there.

So, since this was clearly going to involve a lot of work I thought I would chart the process - perhaps in the rather egotistical hope that it might be useful to someone else. 

So over the next few days I will be describing some of the things which I am going to be looking for in my new computer, explaining the reasons for some of my choices, and hopefully reporting on how successful or otherwise my eventual choice is.

I need a new laptop, pt. 1: What do I use it for?
I need a new laptop, pt. 2: Size and Weight
I need a new laptop, pt. 3: Brand
I need a new laptop, pt. 4: Operating System 

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Theories of Description

So. Picture yourself on a rainy, gloomy Thursday, looking forward to the prospect of delivering a two-hour lecture on Bertrand Russell's theories of description. Can you feel my pain? The difficulty here is that the purpose of this class is not to develop a deep and comprehensive understanding of the various theories which surround Russell's idea (this is quite possibly something which should reasonably expected of any sane person), but to introduce just enough to provide a working definition (if you will excuse the philosophical paradox) of the theory which to a large extent determined the shape and style of philosophical approaches to language throughout the twentieth century, and on to the present day. This presentation was designed to follow on from an initial review of the problems with referential language. Anyway, here we go:

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Re. 'Are we just meat in the room?'

I have just read yet another very interesting blog from @PlashingVole (hereafter referred to as PV, which I hope he does not mind) about the issue of attendance at lectures (read the article here:  I started to write a comment back for it, but it got so long-winded I thought I would blog my response instead.

I imagine most places are struggling with this same issue.  PV makes an excellent point about the fact that students do not necessarily recognize the benefit of a course when they feel forced to do it.  We deliver compulsory Study Skills courses on the degrees at NUC which often incur a wide-spread (even aggressive) resentment from students.  Common responses are: ‘Why am I being told how to structure a sentence?’; ‘I have three A-levels, so I already know how to write an essay!’; ‘I hate maths, so why am I having to study quantitative research methods?’; ‘I came to study English – and this unit isn’t English’. Significantly though, by the end of their second year (sometimes even by the beginning of their second semester) many of those same students cite these units as the most important on the course, and some even express the wish that they were longer.  As PV argues, students cannot always be expected to understand the long-term benefits of a unit of study – but this doesn’t mean that such benefits aren’t genuine, and even necessary.

There is a further concern in that when we look across student attendance and progression data, there is a clear and direct correlation between grades and attendance. Those that turn up, get better grades (see my presentation on this below, which I tend to use to kick off my research methods class).


This might be because the stronger students tend to value lectures more anyway rather than because the lectures themselves have such a direct quantitative impact upon grades, but however you interpret the data it is difficult not to come to the conclusion that those students who often fail to attend classes are the very ones who need to. Even the presence in a room where relevant ideas are being discussed, and where students can interact and debate relevant ideas, must be of some benefit to those who (for whatever reason) struggle to give the time and commitment to their studies which they need.

There are problems with compulsory attendance though.  Firstly, as PV points out, the 'we know best, so do what we say' approach seems to go against the idea of 'independent learning' - that golden notion which seemingly distinguishes the graduate from the rest of the herd.  Secondly, there is a question of the increasingly stark practicalities of retention and progression data. Changes to HE funding mean that HEIs are increasingly dependent on being able to keep students and to make them succeed (see HEFCE). The thought of failing a (possibly) significant percentage of students because they only made 75% of lectures might be an effective threat to increase attendance in some students, but I can imagine many institutions expressing some qualms about whether the benefits outweigh the problems in terms of the institutions data. The marketability of an institution is increasingly dependent on this same data too. Many prospective students - particularly mature students - facing the significant costs of higher education are likely to review such data before making decisions on where to study. If you are paying that much money, are you going to go to the place with a 50% achievement rate, or the one with a 70%?

I certainly agree with PV that an attendance requirement would ultimately (if not always comfortably) benefit students, but would question the will of many institutions to enforce any penalties for failing to meet it. One alternative might be, instead of the threat of not accepting work from those with low attendance, to instead provide a greater incentive for attendance. Newham College, for example, gives its FE students with 80% attendance a laptop computer as a reward. I have no idea how effective this strategy has proved, but it might be interesting to see whether attendance at lectures can be better improved with a stick or with a carrot…

Friday, 20 April 2012

Problems with referential theories of language

Yesterday I begun the unenviable task of trying to explain twentieth century philosophies of language to a group of students who had really done nothing to deserve it.  As a build-up to the inevitable headaches which Bertrand Russell is going to create next week I thought I would begin with a line or argument explaining the problems caused by referential theories of meaning, and the consequent need for a new model to explain language.

Anyway, here is my presentation.  Does it make any sense to anyone?

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