All posts by Jonathan Sanderson

Science film-maker, writer, director and consultant.

That was quick

Last month, I linked to a New Yorker story about managerial and regime failings in a US school, though I was more interested in the ‘infatuation with data’ angle than the ensuing misconduct. On Twitter, several people commented that they were worried we’d eventually hear similar stories out of the UK.

In today’s Observer:

Academies run by a superhead praised by the government for producing schools that “outperform the rest” of the state sector had secret advance notice of Ofsted inspection dates.



Beautiful Chemistry trailer

This is something I’ve wanted to do for many years, which we discussed when I was at the Royal Institution but never quite got around to: careful macrophotography of chemical phenomena and reactions.

The Institute of Advanced Technology at the University of Science and Technology of China and Tsinghua University Press have teamed up with photographer and science visualisation specialist Yan Liang to film a series of reactions, and from the looks of this trailer they’ve made a really good job of it. There’s a ‘Beautiful Chemistry’ project website and blog, and I suspect I’ll be posting again when the main project goes live next month.

Extracting audio from video. Without a microphone.

We’ve all winced at those scenes in CSI:Nowheresville when somebody in a lab coat ‘enhances’ an image until you can see the reflection of the room in the pupil of somebody’s eye, or whatever.

This video is like that. Clearly implausible, most likely witchcraft.

Alternatively, a group of researchers at MIT really have found a way of extracting temporal information from CMOS sensor skew, sufficient to reconstruct audio up to around the 400Hz range from pictures alone.

Damned impressive, even if ‘sorcery’ is a more plausible algorithm.

Lies, damned lies, and lying to ourselves with statistics

John Ewing, who served as the executive director of the American Mathematical Society for fifteen years, told me that he is perplexed by educators’ “infatuation with data,” their faith that it is more authoritative than using their own judgment. He explains the problem in terms of Campbell’s law, a principle that describes the risks of using a single indicator to measure complex social phenomena: the greater the value placed on a quantitative measure, like test scores, the more likely it is that the people using it and the process it measures will be corrupted. “The end goal of education isn’t to get students to answer the right number of questions,” he said. “The goal is to have curious and creative students who can function in life.”

I don’t know much about the US education system, but this lengthy feature in the New Yorker paints a hair-raising (and at times depressing) picture of a rigidly data-driven monster corrupting everyone it touches.

There’s a general principle here, that any time you build a system you have to think through what exploits of that system would look like, and how you’re going to guard against them. But what emerges here is less a picture of people conspiring for personal gain, rather people fighting the system to provide the evidence it requires that they’re doing the right thing anyway:

To [the mother of a teacher who corrected students’ exam papers], his decision to cheat was an act of civil disobedience. She told him that as soon as she heard about cheating in Atlanta she thought, “I bet my son was part of that.”

The villain of the story isn’t so much corrupt public officials as the insidious temptation of performance metrics. How close is the correlation between things you can measure, and the outcomes you want to achieve?

As the Wikipedia page on Campbell’s Law points out, there’s a parallel in the way the lofty goal of ‘evidence-based policy’ degrades into ‘policy-based evidence.’

Royal Society Vision for science & maths education

A quick post as I head out of the door this morning: the Royal Society have published their document on what they think STEM education should look like by 2030, and how they think we should get there.

They’re doing #ASEChat on Twitter next Monday (8-9pm BST), and in the autumn they’re planning a bunch of discussions about responses to the plan, and how it might be implemented.

I’ve only had chance to skip through the PDFs, but my first impression is: blimey, that looks expensive. I guess I’m not sure whether to cheer the sense of ambition or grouchily snark “Good luck with that.”

I’ll be interested to hear opinions as the discussion develops.

Memory, advertising, and business models

This is probably a sign that I need to dust off one of my personal blogs, but to be fair I do spend a chunk of time trying to work out how science communication (and particularly online engagement) can be sustainable. Which in practice means: trying to work out what the business model is for STEM engagement.

Which in turn means: advertising.

OK, that’s a bit cynical, and there are plenty of circumstances where, it turns out, people will actually pay for public engagement (I know, radical thought, right?). However, for at least some web-based projects one could do, advertising would end up being key. And that’s awkward, because:

  1. Online advertising is more-or-less loathed by everyone, and
  2. It doesn’t work anyway, partly because of (1).

Ask me about children’s science TV if you want to know my opinions on advertising-backed business models. Been there, done that, still in therapy over it.

Meanwhile, this wonderful recent conference presentation/essay by Maciej Ceglowski spans memory, privacy, and the broken startup ecosystem. Likening venture capital pitches to selling advertising futures is, I think, a brilliant and insightful criticism.

Quora’s declared competitor is Wikipedia, a free site that not only doesn’t make revenue, but loses so much money they have to ask for donations just to be broke.

Recently, Quora raised $80 million in new funding at a $900 million valuation. Their stated reason for taking the money was to postpone having to think about revenue.

There are times when I find it frustrating that our only real models for scicomms are enlightened self-interest (ie. forget the business model and do it anyway) and grant funding (ie. enlightened self-interest by someone with more money than you). Then I remember that the whole point is: people pay for things they value. We only assume those things are goods and services – they can also be something less tangible, like ‘the public good.’

I often think we should be less apologetic about that.

Ceglowski’s presentation is long, but worth your time.

Scripts, detail, and obsessively-detailed scripts

This film has been doing the rounds of late, and while there’s plenty of discussion out there about whether it paints too narrow a depiction of ‘comedy’, I, for one, think it’s a good point well made. Of course there are counter-arguments – comedy wouldn’t be interesting if it could be done in 8 minutes.

The lesson for scicomms is, I think, that detail matters. We obsess about our explanations, but we’re rarely as careful with our transitions (which to my mind are both more difficult and more dangerous), let alone the visual aspects of our performances. Since I cut my teeth in children’s TV this has always baffled me, and Wright’s visual flourishes feel like an extended version of what we too-often failed to do in CITV.

Whatever your medium, the performance your audience perceives is the total of what you say, how you say it, and what happens. Comedy is merely one form of emotional prompt you can deliver: to me, none of this is really about humour or film-making, it’s about the rôle of visual cues in conveying information.

Final two hours for Mirobot!

Yes, yes, I know I’m a stuck record about this, but: you only have a couple of hours left to back Mirobot. The Kickstarter hit its last stretch goal last night, so the full package now includes the line-drawing robot, obstacle detection, line following and a speaker.

I’m delighted for Mirobot’s creator Ben Pirt, and looking forward to the production run later in the year.