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A government report was just recently published which tells us all what we already know about ICT in schools; it’s shit. Kids know more than the teachers, and that’s a testament to how luddite a typical teacher has become, not at how advanced our kids now are.

I’m a father now, and as a geek, everyone seems to assume that my son was born with an iPad in his hand. I’ve had at least twenty people ask me, not if he already has a mobile phone, but if it’s an iPhone or a Blackberry (no love for Android, then!). He’s just four and a half and already a master of Angry Birds and a veritable Fruit Ninja!

Now ICT has always been crap and I’m frankly surprised that it’s taken us over two decades to realise it. The solution to making it better has been under our noses for decades too. Let me explain…

Let me take you back over twenty years to when I was a kid in primary school. I grew up in Germany, but as an army child – educated in a military-run (but national curriculum) school in Germany in the 1980’s. It was, co-incidentally the time that the BBC had just chosen the “Micro” as the computer it was going to push a series of TV, radio and magazine programs out about and encouraged schools to buy them. And buy them they did, in droves.

My parents bought one. It was archaic and stayed with us throughout my childhood. No Nintendo entertainment system for me, my parents weren’t happy with our household having a C64, Amiga or any of those ‘games’ computers. No, for me it was monochrome joy and games such that they were came from days, weeks and sometimes months of painstaking copying of code from monthly magazines from the city’s newsagents. If I was lucky, I could type two or three thousands lines of code from a magazine without errors – although invariably there would be a print error and the finished game code wouldn’t run. Such is life. But if it worked, the result would be a card game, tetris or even… After an entire term of after school coding.. Elite! (A space ship trading game that started it all for me :P).

That’s how I learned to code. Not really understanding what I was doing but going through the ropes all the same, simply to get what it was that I wanted (a game) required me to build it.

Later, back in England at secondary school around the time of my GCSE’s and A-Levels, I made some good friends who were also computer geeks. We’d hang around before and after school to use the school computers. Hacking, mostly. And mostly harmless.

We were spurred on – at first we wanted to find ways to hide our games, so we did. Then we wanted a method of ‘instant messenger’ (before such a thing existed), so we wrote one together. (we wrote out text files to a shared folder that we secretly created on a machine in the main computer office – clients would read and write these files). This made us happy and gave us a real rush. It was a thrill.

We moved on to bigger and bigger projects – if we could remote chat, then we could remote CONTROL, and our chat client became a Trojan, a back door on every computer in the school and the sixth form college. We got some funny sound files and a speech engine and made our chat client play these sounds – at full volume anywhere from the library, to first year ICT classes, to the headmistresses office. It was THRILLING. And it got us in trouble a LOT.

This leads me to recount the only moment that I was officially in deep trouble at school. It was via our remote control client that another student managed to obtain (a few years under us) and officially script-kiddied our work to hack the salaries files of all the teachers. I was one of those who got the blame and spent an hour getting screamed at after school by our Irish deputy headmaster. After he finished venting his frustration at his salary was now public knowledge (again, not my fault), he offered me a taxi ride home. I didn’t accept, but instead did my usual 3.5mile walk home, deeply upset. That incident made me hate him and wasn’t at all a factor in future pranks 😉 however all four of us involved were banned from using the computer rooms. At least, officially 🙂

Needless to say, ICT classes throughout this time was a complete bore. We had to work through worksheets given by teachers who had clearly never even touched a computer before. It’s frustrating, and I feel for kids in a similar situation to the one that I’ve been through. Looking at comments coming from kids at school on Twitter, it seems the more things change, the more they stay the same.

So why am I telling you all this?

Because I know what we can do to fix the problem and I know that what we are currently doing is still pretty shit.

I saw a report by the BBC today and it shows a new charity whose idea of bringing ICT to schools is to teach kids how to “Make apps”. Oh my God, can you honestly think of anything more crude? It’s almost as if “Apps” has become the new blog, or the new “Web 2.0”. Are those kids actually MAKING apps? Would any of them be able to tell us the difference between a Model, a View and a Controller? Could any describe the benefits of the Singleton pattern?

Of course not.

But they could all tell you the best way to conceal porn on an iPhone and the most ten most amusing things to do with Skype in a classroom. Some of them might even have a genuine passion for, say, World of Warcraft, and already be writing custom excel spreadsheets to calculate the most cost effective farming runs or their own apps to monitor their gaming networks while they’re at school – daydreaming about how they’re going to master a new dungeon instance when they get home.

The key, then, dear Ofsted is to meet the kids where they are. Teach everyone why critical thinking is important, show them how technology can improve lives. And then take the ones who care and rather than give them programming lessons – allow them to use your equipment.

Bill Gates would never have gotten anywhere unless he had access to a top of the range programmable computer at his school (as donated by his dad) and I would never have gotten this far if my school hadn’t at least inadvertently given me a hundred-computer playground with which to tend and abuse to my young geek heart’s content.

Inspire them all, then give the ones who want to learn the tools, the equipment, the resources and the time to do something.

Just don’t be angry if they build something inappropriate or hack your accounts.

You have been warned.

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Deep sky panorama

What could be more awesome than a deep sky image?

A panorama in Orion

Flickr: A panorama in Orion. The Horsehead and Flame Nebula on the left and “Great Nebula” on the right.

A deep sky panorama!

The above image was captured in one night from under urban, light polluted skies during an exceptionally clear evening. It was a frosty and chilly night and the air was still, making very good conditions for astronomical observation and imaging.

This is my first attempt at a mosaic, it’s made from two pictures sewn together in Photoshop (two layers blended together around the middle). I’ve over-processed the Great Nebula and lost some of its detail. It can be fixed later.

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A close-up of the flame and horse nebula (taken from the panorama)

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A close-up of The Great Nebula in Orion (taken from the panorama).
(I’m not happy with how this came out).

The Great Nebula in Orion is a cloud of energised gas and dust that is condensing – in parts – in on itself. When a ball of sufficient mass and pressure has built up to a critical level, atomic fusion occurs and the ball of dust and gas becomes a great ball of fire. The ball of fire we call a ‘star’ (which is the same as a ‘sun’) and it is these young hot stars that are blowing away the surrounding gas and dust and that’s how the Great Nebula gets it’s blown-out shape.

Once ‘born’, the stars don’t stay in the nebula for long. They move out and away to live out their lives. When the bigger stars die, they explode and their matter is what makes everything else in the universe that isn’t hydrogen or helium. All that solid stuff you see around you (including you!) was made from particles forged inside a very large sun (much bigger than ours) and thrown out into the cosmos way before even our sun was formed. It’s amazing that we can know all this, through the scientific method.

I’m just enjoying taking pictures of it all happening Smile

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Photography of the night

 

Behold my latest ThoughtfulGeek video, “Photography of the night”. I thought it would be fun to put together a short fun video showing what I get up to at night sometimes…

The following images are included in this video:

M45 - The Pleiades
M45 – The Pleiades (Seven Sisters)

A frame from my latest video
The Horsehead (IC434) and Flame Nebula (NGC 2024)

 M35 and M36 in Auriga
M35 and M36 in Auriga

"Interstellar space". Nebulosity and star clusters in Auriga.
The Flame Nebula (IC 405) and an orange companion nebula (IC 410)

M31, The Andromeda Galaxy
M31 – The Andromeda Galaxy

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Key words to learn at home

We’ve just been going through, ‘key words to learn at home’ from our son’s school.

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500 unique visitors per day

This might be a nice time to stop for a few minutes to reflect on this site’s website traffic. I honestly don’t care for page loads, it’s unique (and returning) visitors that interest me most. And here you all are over the past month:

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I’m currently getting about 500  unique visitors per day (max: 650, min: 370) to this blog… Three and a half years ago, I went from 0 to 100 visitors in six months but the in-between period saw me blogging fairly inconsistently.

In that time, I’ve started a few YouTube channels – mostly for messing around but one particular Philosophy-based channel that I started in 2008 currently has 2,467 subscribers and over 40,000 total upload views. I won’t tell you what the channel name is yet, but it’s a public channel with just six videos on it. Feel free to see if you can find it. I may reveal this channel name in the future.

So, talking about videos, you may have noticed my new YouTube channel; the video version of my blog. It was hard enough choosing a name and recording and editing video takes more time than writing a blog post but it reaches a bigger audience, which is cool.

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The lessons I learn making videos will apply directly to my business, as I plan to make video tutorials and marketing videos for all my own products in due course.

Generally the most popular posts are split between how to tutorials, geek reviews and astronomy. Reviews like this and gadgets like this and how to posts like this and how to build your home server get the most traffic.

A brief note on SEO

When I was younger, I used to attend a lot of networking events like those held by Business Networking International and Ecademy. They were generally meetings where local businesses would meet regularly to exchange leads and advice. Each group had it’s own butcher, baker and candlestick maker (yes, I even met a wax worker!) and every single group had it’s own “go to IT person”. Not much room for outsiders then, but I made and earned a few referrals and some sound business contacts during this time. The troubling thing was that I met dozens of “SEO” experts. Every single time they opened their mouths I would cringe. “We can get you to the top of Google”, one would exclaim as if Google was some local hilltop summit that could be reached if only the service provider was gleamed with enough cash.

My retort to them was the same every single time. “If I search Google for “SEO services”, will you be on the front page?”, I would say. The response was invariably ‘no’. But these modern age snake oil salespeople will invariably take your money anyway and provide essentially nothing but placebo in return.

This needs to be an article in its own right, but let me tell you now what the key to doing well in the search engine rankings is:

  • Don’t be a dick
  • Produce freely available, genuinely useful, quality content regularly.
  • Interact with people

Spamming keywords in META tags, jostling things around and producing monthly performance spreadsheets will not translate into conversions. Neither will simply making a video of your products and services and plopping it onto YouTube. “Don’t be a dick” means what it says. You cannot follow an SEO procedure to win views, you cannot “optimise” your online content (past making sure that the markup is clean) and search engines make it their business to match good content to their search. They will find your content if it’s good. And if you want to take advantage of organic search engine optimisation then you’ll need to get out there and interact with your customers online via all the channels they use; forums, social media, video, and so on.

I have never sold SEO services (despite being asked to provide them) and never will. “SEO services” are the technological equivalent of homeopathy, tea leaf reading and snake oil.

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Want to know where your site will be listed in Google? Why not try reading tea leaves instead?

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If you want to buy SEO services, I have a bridge in Brooklyn that I could sell you….

This topic needs it’s own article.

Do you have a blog and how is it doing? Let me know where I can find your blog in the comments below and I’ll add you to my RSS reader…

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This is what happens when a star explodes

This, ladies and gentlemen, is what happens to suns larger than ours at the end of their life. They explode and all the stuff that made them up gets scattered across interstellar space.

The Veil Nebula (west and east)The Veil Nebula Complex

This image was taken using my new widefield scope (an Orion ED80T with a x0.8 focal reducer) and shows only the Hydrogen Alpha (+/- 7nm) wavelength of light. This wavelength of light is emitted by excited astronomers hydrogen gas clouds and it’s a deep red colour. It’s been made black and white to show a little more detail.

Veil Nebula Complex night one (Ha 10 mins) 14x10min - FINALThe Western Veil (NGC 6960, the bright star is called ‘52 Cyg’). It looks a little like a witches broom, doesn’t it?

Veil Nebula Complex night one (Ha 10 mins) 14x10min - FINALThe Eastern Veil (NGC 6995)

Veil Nebula Complex night one (Ha 10 mins) 14x10min - FINAL
I have no idea who “Pickering” is, but this is apparently his triangle.

This image contains 2 hours and 20 minutes of data and is made up of 10 minute exposures.

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Crucial M4 256GB SSD Review (on SATA 2)

Whether your computer is a desktop or a laptop, the single best upgrade that you can treat your computer to is a solid state drive. I’ve been a long-time advocate for SSD’s and use them in all my builds. Whilst they’re more expensive per gigabyte than a traditional spinning platter hard drives, they deliver blistering low-latency speed for reading and writing as well as having no moving parts which makes them ideal for laptops.

I’ve had an Intel X-25 160GB SSD in my laptop since 2010 when my laptop was a 13” MacBook Pro (Core 2 Duo, 2009 model). I’ve since upgraded to a 15” MacBook Pro (Core i5 w/ high-res antiglare screen) and kept the SSD. Compared to the mechanical drives that Apple ships, an SSD makes a huge difference to startup and shutdown and application startup times & responsiveness, and I’ll never use a laptop without a solid state drive again. Ordering a solid state drive from Apple is an expensive lottery, one never knows what drive you’ll get with your MacBook (it could come from either Toshiba or Samsung). And honestly, Toshiba and Samsung aren’t the fastest, nor the most reliable SSD manufacturers.

A quick history lesson: In 2008, Intel’s X-25 SSD’s were disruptive – they delivered much better read and write rates than all the other mainstream SSD’s in the market, besting the ubiquitous Samsung second generation SSD’s (the ones Apple were using) by some margin. As it turns out, the Intel controllers were more reliable too. Other manufacturers have since caught up and with the introduction of “SandForce” controllers (drives are made up of non-volatile flash memory storage and a controller which controls access to the storage) we now see other brands; Crucial, Corsair and OCZ battling it out at the top and mainstream end of the market

I’ve been struggling with storage on my MacBook Pro all year and at the start of the year I removed my Windows BootCamp partition from the drive to save space, choosing instead to use a simple virtual machine rather than a partition. A couple of months later, that too was removed from the drive. Even MacKeeper and DaisyDisk couldn’t stop my drive from filling up so it’s time to take the plunge and order a fresh drive.

The choice at the moment in the 256GB segment is obvious. It has to be the Crucial M4, the successor to the C300 that I blogged about here. The M4 is a SATA 3 version of the SATA 2 C300 model. SATA 3 allows for twice as much bandwidth (which translates into speed) as SATA 2, 6Gbps versus 3Gbps, and the Crucial M4 sits very comfortably ahead of the pack on all the usual benchmark sites.

But what happens when you want to use an M4 in a machine that has only SATA 2 support, like my 2010 MacBook Pro? (The 2011 models with Thunderbolt ports have SATA 3 support).

To solve this question, I decided to film a video review. However the SD card in my video camera (a Transcend 16GB Class 10 SDHC card) decided to fail on me while downloading the video to my MacBook. Not only that, but these particular cards were recalled and LoveMemory didn’t pass on the recall notice. Thanks guys Sad smile. This means that there is no video review showing how to upgrade the HDD in a MacBook Pro and losing the startup and shutdown times too.

Crucial M4 Solid-State Drive (256GB)

vs.

Intel X-25 Solid-State Drive (160GB)

The Benchmarks (on SATA 2/II)

XBench 1.3 was used to benchmark both drives. The Intel drive had 10GB free (I made as much space as I could for the benchmark) and care was taken to reduce the number of tasks running at the same time as the benchmark tests.

The benchmarks results are presented in MB/s

Read versus Write speed (higher is better) (sequential and random scores combined)image

The Intel drive surprisingly shows a clear advantage in read speed and a larger disadvantage at writing.

Sequential versus Random speed (higher is better) (read and write scores combined)image

The Intel drive demonstrates remarkably consistent performance in both Sequential and Random read/write access tests. The Crucial M4 on the other hand seems optimised more for Sequential, rather than random access. This is a little surprising considering how solid state drives tend to prefer random over sequential access and perhaps this suggests that Crucial are attempting to redress the balance with a bias towards sequential access.

image screen-capture

Conclusion

Clearly the Crucial M4 is handicapped by the SATA 2 bus and as we know it would blaze past the Intel X-25 if it were attached to a SATA 3 bus. Despite this, it still has a surprising advantage over the Intel SSD on write performance but the Intel wins out on read. Overall, the Crucial M4 is the better performer and is future proof, at least for the latest SATA generation and would make an excellent upgrade to an existing desktop or laptop or a blazingly fast upgrade to a brand new build.

The Crucial M4 can be purchased from Amazon (currently for £290 / 256GB or £145 / 128GB) which work out to be at least £80 cheaper than other comparable premium SATA 3 SSD’s from Corsair, OCZ and Intel.

   

Recommended (even if Transcend SD cards aren’t!).

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Guess who just got Giffgaffed?

Guess who my most recent GiffGaff referral is?

The son of god himself!

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It’s official. Jesus wants us all to communicate with one another on the same network – for free (up to an hour in one call). He also clearly approves of the competitive tariffs and the iPhone “JesusPhone” 4S, as this is what he’s using 🙂

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Blazewear heated clothing video review

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The first “Thoughtful Geek” video is now live on my new YouTube channel. This video reviews a couple of electrically heated garments, just the thing one needs with the approaching cold weather!

This is my first ever video review, and it’s my first ever attempt at actually presenting a video on camera. It was done completely unscripted (and more or less unplanned) and all scenes were shot on the same day.

If you like this video review please rate, comment and favourite it on YouTube. If you want to see more videos like this one, please subscribe to the ThoughtfulGeek channel!

 

And here’s where I set up for the evening (sorry you didn’t see any scopes in the video, it would have meant needing to use video lights and white light spoils night vision & spoils images & would have made me rather unpopular that evening Smile with tongue out):

Red starry sky I'm observing Jupiter

It gets awfully cold outdoors and the warmth from my Blazewear fleece was keeping me toasty and comfortable all evening long (with the double-sized battery, of course). Getting into a cold car is not so unpleasant when you have a heated fleece. (Pro tip: If you’re indoors, switch the heating onto ‘high’ five minutes before you leave home or your workplace to have a nice toasty garment to wear for when you leave).

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New YouTube Channel

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Coming soon to a video sharing site near you!

(logo design by Jason “Jaffo“)

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