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PyconUK 2014 and the Education Track

Saturday 21st June (02:00PM)

I write software. I use a programming language called Python. As well as being very easy to learn and fun to use Python is an amazingly powerful language that's used by thousands of organisations the world over - from the likes of Google, Bank of America / Merrill Lynch, and NASA to small start-ups and scrappy little websites such as this one. Every day, you inadvertently encounter thousands of digital creations made with Python. By any measure of technical success Python, it seems, is a triumph.

For all Python's technical prestige, I believe the most important aspect of Python is the community that has evolved around the language. Perhaps Guido's desire for computer programming for everyone set the seeds for the growth of such a community. Of course, the development of Python is an entirely voluntary affair and inevitably attracts the sort of person who likely wants to contribute to the wider public good. Maybe it's because the Python Software Foundation (the charitable organisation that promotes Python and coordinates its development) is not just sympathetic to but proactive in encouraging engagement in Python programming no matter your background and especially if you belong to an underrepresented group of nascent programmers.

Happily, the UK's Python community are a diverse bunch who maintain a reputation as a friendly, welcoming and dynamic group. Every year we meet for our community organised PyconUK conference. We come together in a way that reflects the widely held view that diversity and friendliness are strengths of our community to be celebrated and fostered (to paraphrase PyconUK's statement on diversity and conduct).

For the past three years we have welcomed colleagues who are teachers of Python in UK schools. For the past two years we have put on a special education track to promote programmer / teacher collaboration and mutual learning. Last year we ran a kids' day where the proto-programmers of tomorrow explored Python with the technologists of today. The following videos give you a flavour of what we got up to:

We are delighted to be running an education track at this year's PyconUK (to be held on 19th-22nd September in Coventry).

The philosophy of the education track is simple: wonderful things happen when diverse groups of people come together to learn about and explore empowering technology such as Python.

If you are a teacher, parent, programmer or young person interested in exploring technology then the education track has something for you. We have secured some very generous support for teachers, parents and young people to attend at little or no cost. Kudos to Bank of America, The Python Software Foundation, Hewlett Packard, The Raspberry Pi Foundation and our very own PyconUK Society for their extraordinarily abundant support.

Full details can be found here:

http://pyconuk.org/education

Book now because places are limited!


The Experience of Music

Saturday 24th May (11:30AM)

This is a second blog post resulting from emails about music exchanged with my buddy Francis (the first one can be found here). I also felt compelled to write because of this recent fragment of conversation on Twitter with another collaborator and buddy, Dr. Laura-Jane Smith, concerning how one measures the efficacy or effect of an artistic encounter.

What follows are personal reflections. Please take them with a large pinch of salt. I'm merely creating a context in which you may think about music.

The video (by FinallyStudio) claims there are lots of ways to understand music because there are lots of aspects of music to consider (and you don't have to know about any of them to enjoy music). The evidence for this argument is all around us: people with no musical training enjoy music all the time. Be it listening to the radio, singing in the shower or picking out melodies on a self-taught instrument, music is somehow an innate part of the human experience, no matter your level of education.

Both Francis's emails and Laura-Jane's question about positivism struck me as overtly intellectual in outlook: there had to be some thing to be identified, processed and (in LJ's case) measured and interpreted. As Francis explained,

I think I'm *so bad* at this particular music, I'm just not noticing any patterns. My instinctive feeling is it is just a whiney, drifty noise.

In these two sentences Francis identifies the nub of the matter (and the title of this post): the experience of music.

How does music feel? What are the sensations that music arouses in you? What do you think when you encounter music?

When reading this post I want you to wonder about your raw, intuitive or instinctive reactions to music rather than any higher order thinking about music.

Why?

I believe there is a danger to over-think music.

As far as I can tell, there's no need to identify patterns to appreciate music that is otherwise unenjoyable. Perhaps the composer wanted to create whiney, drifty noise. Even if this is not the case, who's to say Francis's reaction is wrong? I find plenty of well loved music hard to enjoy (or even to listen to).

In the context of health, MRI scanners can't measure qualia to provide evidence of music's efficacy or influence. Surely, enjoyment of the sensation is evidence enough? (After all, from a utilitarian perspective, the net sum of "happiness" in the world grows because of music.) Nevertheless, I'm reminded of an episode of the BBC programme Imagine from 2008 where Alan Yentob subjected himself to an MRI scan while listening to music. Upon hearing Jessye Norman perform one of Strauss's Four Last Songs - music to which he acknowledged he had a special emotional attachment - his brain was suffused with blood. As one reviewer put it,

He listened to her and his mind blushed.

While the MRI scanner allowed viewers to watch Yentob's apparent physical reaction to Norman's performance it didn't give us a sense of Yentob's obvious emotional reaction (obvious because he talks about how the music makes him feel).

Furthermore, each of us has a different, very personal reaction to music. What may seem like a heavenly performance to one person is a turgid noise to another. The infant school recorder ensemble may bring tears to the eyes for very different reasons, depending on who is listening. Some people love to play certain pieces while others can't stand the thought of another damn performance.

Because of these reasons, attempting to pin down the experience of "music" feels like an impossible task.

Even generalisations don't work. For example, we may assert that music is just a particular sort of sound; but then we'd need to explain Beethoven's composition technique. His deafness forced him to compose his later works solely in his head - no actual sound was involved in the process despite it being fundamentally musical.

In fact, some musicians disagree with the sentiment that music is in some way a sub-set of sound. Take the renegade American composer Charles Ives who famously asked,

What has sound got to do with music!?

Ives believed that music is in some way the underlying "spirit" of the composer and (especially) the performer expressed through sound rather than the sound itself. An alternative way to answer his question is to claim that music is the feeling you get from sounds rather than the sounds themselves.

In some sense, it is rewarding to "understand" music and know what's going on. Discovering, interpreting and describing the conceptual world of music is an interesting, enhancing and intensifying experience. But there is a danger that we become distracted by such intellectual diversions in a similar way that one might become fixated by the form of a Sonnet while missing its meaning:

Silent Noon

Your hands lie open in the long fresh grass, --
The finger-points look through like rosy blooms:
Your eyes smile peace. The pasture gleams and glooms
'Neath billowing skies that scatter and amass.
All round our nest, far as the eye can pass,
Are golden kingcup-fields with silver edge
Where the cow-parsley skirts the hawthorn-hedge.
'Tis visible silence, still as the hour-glass.

Deep in the sun-searched growths the dragon-fly
Hangs like a blue thread loosened from the sky: --
So this wing'd hour is dropt to us from above.
Oh! clasp we to our hearts, for deathless dower,
This close-companioned inarticulate hour
When twofold silence was the song of love.

                           ~ Christina Rossetti

Rosetti's poem was beautifully set to music by Ralph Vaughan-Williams (my wife and I enjoy playing it together ~ me on piano, Mary on 'cello). Listen to the recording below; sit back, let the music and words wash over you.

I challenge you to be unmoved.


Nothing to hide..?

Monday 19th May, 2014 (06:00PM)

On several occasions I have had to explain my position on privacy and surveillance (especially in a digital context). To save me the task of repeating myself, here it is in as simple a form as possible.

"If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear" is a common argument in support of the mass surveillance of citizens by the government or the harvesting of user data by private corporations. Often it is made in a reassuring manner, as demonstrated by William Hague:

A common re-statement of the argument goes, "only if you're doing something wrong should you worry, and then you don't deserve to keep it private".

I'm guessing many people will immediately sympathise with these sentiments. After all, we don't want the bad guys to gain the upper hand, you're probably a fine upstanding citizen and we should be happy that innocents are protected from the evil-doers that such a drag net will identify.

I beg to differ.

For a start, this position is a classic false dichotomy: two seemingly black and white choices are given yet there are many ways to address the subject. Such either/or thinking excludes the potential for a more nuanced and subtle debate. Furthermore, such false dichotomies are a favourite tactic in argument and, unless you know what you're looking for, can hoodwink many who take things at face value and stifle debate.

Leaving this aside, the actual choices presented in the argument hide various nasty "home truths":

Am I suggesting privacy trumps all? No. I would strongly argue for openness when it comes to public institutions, the machinations of government, our political representatives and corporations that deal with personal data. How else are we to hold such entities to account?

Am I saying there should be no surveillance? Of course not, that would be silly: I can think of plenty of legitimate reasons for surveillance but none of them legitimise the blanket surveillance of everyone. Furthermore, I'm not the only one who believes this:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Yes, I know, the irony isn't lost on me either.

This article was written in haste over lunch and tidied up after work. Think of it as a first draft and please feel free to take pot shots - I welcome constructive comments, critique and ideas. ;-)

EDIT #1

A detective I know has pointed out that,

Ripa isn't (and never was) just for national security, that is only one part of the act.

I stand corrected! :-)

I was trying to demonstrate how laws can suffer from "scope creep": once legitimate and sensible legislation being used in quite unintended and nefarious ways. My detective buddy (who also happens to have a philosophy degree and is exactly the sort of ethical, thoughtful and smart person you'd hope would be working as a detective) understood exactly what I was getting at so pointed out that,

Law creep might be better with terrorism stop and search powers where more people are stopped and searched without any actual individual justification. That seems a more clean cut issue to my mind; specific powers being used to blanket cover areas. Or laws set up to manage serious sex offenders also catching idiots - the guy who drops his trousers while drunk on a night out in town now has to notify any change of address and register as a sex offender!

Great stuff!

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