Where’s the joy?

A couple of weeks ago I took part in a school INSET day, and I have to admit I didn’t recognise the name of the guest speaker, all I knew was that he was a world champion ping-pong player. I immediately had visions of the character in the radio version of Little Britain – Denver Mills – a silver-medallist Olympian who gives speeches at corporate events likening almost anything, selling double-glazing, making furniture, packing fruit, to running the 400 metres.

As soon as the speaker appeared, I realised my mistake – it was the Times journalist Matthew Syed, and I recognised him immediately from some thoughtful TV appearances.

It was a slightly surreal event, hundreds of us crammed into a new but shabby, windowless school sports hall. They hadn’t provided a PA for Matthew, who has a lovely voice but he’s very softly-spoken. So he stood in the middle of the aisle so more people could hear, and he was right next to me, which was good because I could hear him very well and make eye contact, but also not good because I had to pay bright-eyed attention for the best part of an hour.

I’m probably going to hideously over-simplify his message, and I admit I’ve not read his book, but here goes.

He made a convincing argument about the dangers of the way we in the Western world regard talent and about fixed versus ‘growth’ mindsets. He argued that talent is hugely over-rated. Saying (and thinking) that you are born with (or without) a talent for, say maths or sport is, he says, hugely damaging and limiting. It prevents people from reaching their full potential.

He had two powerful examples to back this up. He had been told that his reaction times were some of the fastest of anyone on the planet. Armed with this pleasing accolade about his talent, when he interviewed the tennis player Michael Stich he had a knock-about, and told him that he could return any ball Stich served at him. He never even saw the first ball coming, having only a vague sensation of something whooshing past his ear. Stich served 4 straight aces and Syed never got near the ball.

So much for the fastest reaction times in the world. Talking to sports scientists, and getting himself wired up to some sports tech, he discovered he was looking in the wrong place. He’d been looking at the ball. Professional tennis players don’t look at the ball, they read almost imperceptible signals from their opponents’ upper body positions that enable them to read where the ball will go even before it’s been struck. Even armed with this knowledge, Syed couldn’t return a tennis serve any better. Pro tennis players’ reaction times aren’t any faster than yours or mine – but what they have done is spend years and years practising reading these subtle signs. Not so much innate talent, more hard graft.

His other example was about his own sport of table tennis. A huge proportion of the top players in the UK all lived on the same street. His street. This was not because of some freak localised genetic mutation. This because on this street there was one of the few 24-hour table tennis facilities in the country, to which everyone on the street had a key, and an amazing coach. Talent played a small role – some people will always be better than others – and indeed Syed became a world champion, but some of his perfectly ordinary neighbours became county champions purely through hard work and great teaching.

He then talked about how limiting the ‘fixed mindset’ view of talent is. Children who think they are ‘no good at maths’ become disengaged because they will never succeed. But the children born with apparent talent also suffer, and he gave the example of Premier League football academies, who struggle to turn their young players into successful players. The reason, Syed says, is that they work really hard to get into an academy, then when they do get in they decide ‘I must be talented, I got in, agents are waving money and praise at me.’ And talent is supposed to look effortless, so they cannot admit to need practice or to work hard at any of the skills needed to be a great player.

He also said that the trend from the 1970s onwards of lavishing praise on all children, regardless of the quality of their work, was also very damaging. It was a well-intentioned attempt to boost self-esteem, but that kind of self-esteem isn’t worth having, he argued. It’s worthless because as soon as you come up against something you can’t do, you crumble and give up, thinking ‘I wasn’t any good after all’.

If, however, you have a ‘growth mindset’, Syed argued, you do not stop at the first obstacle saying, for example “I’m no good at behaviour management in the classroom, I just don’t have natural authority.” Instead, you think: how can I get better? What literature is there I can read for tips? Can I watch a colleague who does have good behaviour in their class to see what techniques they use? And by this point in the talk I was utterly convinced not only of his case, but also that in many areas I was guilty of having a fixed mindset myself.

Then a man sitting near me asked him “Do you enjoy table tennis?”

It was a great question. He asked it because at no point had Syed mentioned joy. Syed readily acknowledged the importance of joy, but the fact that he hadn’t mentioned it in about half an hour set me thinking. And this is the conclusion I reached: just because I can, with the right teaching and hard work, become good at table tennis / flamenco / calculus / rock climbing / painting – doesn’t mean that I should. Not if I don’t want to. Not if I don’t enjoy it.

Now clearly, some things are more important than others. A child might need to do some things they hate in order to pass some basic exams to get any kind of job. Great teaching can go a long way to inspire, but if it’s something a child fundamentally has no interest in, you are going to have a struggle. And I think that’s probably okay, if – and it’s a big if – the child has at least one thing they are passionate about, one thing they love. And it is the role of teachers to find that thing and draw it out of the child – as in the meaning of the Latin route of the word ‘educate’ – to lead or draw out. Draw out the one thing that brings them joy.

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J’accuse: Apple killed the podcast

Okay, this isn’t exactly scientific. It’s based on a sample of precisely… 1. Me. But I can’t believe I’m alone. (Okay, my Morrissey A-Level studies tell me that we are all alone and shall be for ever, but you know what I mean).

I’m not stupid. I can write simple Python code, I can assemble (most) Ikea furniture and I can even put music on my phone using iTunes. But I cannot FOR THE LIFE OF ME work out how to use Apple’s Podcast app.

I seem to be able to subscribe to an entire series – which I don’t always want to do – but do you know what? There isn’t enough room on my phone for the entire Wittertainment back catalogue. There isn’t even room to update iOS after a few apps and a few hundred songs.

All I want to do it drag THIS one single podcast onto THAT phone. And I can’t figure out how to do it.

The result is: I stream podcasts. I click on the ‘download’ link and Safari happily plays along. It’s a bit hard to navigate a 2 hour podcast (hello Jason Isaacs) on a tiny screen, so sometimes I have to reload it (helping the download stats, possibly).

Other podcasts offer the opportunity to stream in a lovely embedded player. I listened to the whole of Serial this way. And I suspect a lot of podcast listening is done this way – in web browsers (possibly in the background).

I’d like to hear your experiences. Do you load up your generic MP3 player and jog into the sunset – or for most podcasts, are you streaming and needing a 3G or wifi connection?

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A different kind of phone hacking

I previously mentioned this awesome project to rip out the innards of an old rotary dial phone, and stuffing a Raspberry Pi inside which plays a different MP3 file out of the earpiece each time you dial a different number.

I decided to have a go myself, having found 2 old phones in the loft. These are old British Post Office / GPO phones, so the wiring is probably different. I’d also like to keep these phones intact if I can, so I decided to do a bit of probing to see if I could attach a RaspberryPi to the phone’s existing internal terminals.

First – I had to choose a phone. The red one is type 706, the white a newer type 746.

I soon plumped for the white one as its terminals were more accessible and there’s more room inside.

The red one has an extra button and even has a vertical early PCB ‘card’ inside. Following the wires round inside is a nightmare, so I put this one back together and let it be.

I started probing – appropriately – with an old British Telecom multimeter, which was fine for locating the wires for the receiver ‘hook’ (it might be nice to have a dial tone when you lift the handset!), but a multimeter doesn’t react quickly enough to count pulses from the rotary dial. So I made a simple circuit with an LED to test the different terminals inside the phone to see if any were connected across the dial switches – and indeed they were. By breaking the LED circuit, and touching the loose ends across different pairs of terminals and dialling, I could see when the light flickered, showing the dial breaking the circuit to transmit the numbers.

Modern fixed phones dial by sending tones down the line to the exchange – known as DTMF or TouchTone. Old rotary phones worked by breaking a circuit to the exchange creating pulses at a rate of 10 pulses per second. 1 break in a second means you’ve dialed 1, 2 breaks is a 2 and so on. But what about 0?

I’m might confused by the wiring instructions in the original article, so next steps are to look carefully at the code, and perhaps write my own. And buy a jack plug so I don’t have to solder the earpiece on to the Pi direct.

Thanks to my former colleague Frank Bath for information about Strowger telephone dialling, and to James West for reminding me about phone phreaking and an old way you could sometimes cheat a payphone in the UK by tapping the cradle switches to mimic the dial pulses. I used to actually phone people this way on my home phone. Hey, I didn’t get out much, and phone numbers in my village were 4 (FOUR) digits long. And I can still remember my friends’ numbers: 2235 and 3516. And no, they’re not my PINs…


I’ve now wired the earpiece up…

…and I got as far as getting the Pi to detect when I hang up to stop the radio playing.

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2 cool RaspberryPi projects

Here are two insanely cool Raspberry Pi projects I spotted this week.

First up, turn a rotary dial phone into an MP3 player. This seems really simple and do-able. James West points out that some telephone EQ on the audio files would be desirable – boost the mid, slice off the top & bottom. The example plays nursery rhymes, and I can see this being a great gizmo to have in a classroom for KS1 children. Personally, I’m tempted to make a modern day Dial-a-Disc phone for my daughter. And if you want to know what Dial-a-Disc was, ask your gran.

Next: Libby Miller does very cool things with Raspberry Pi radios. (I think she may get paid for doing this, in which case she totes has my dream job). For some reason I’ve only just stumbled upon Radiodan, and I’ll be experimenting with this radio prototyping platform as much as my time allows. I love making RaspberryPi radios, and this is so much up my street I can’t believe I didn’t know about this – or perhaps I did and it got lost in the noise. Anyway, Libby’s latest radio uses old Oyster cards to play different podcasts when you present the relevant card to the radio. Wave Mark Kermode at the radio – Wittertainment! Sarah Koenig – get Serial! Totes amaze.

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Review of the Year – only kidding

I hate New Year’s Eve, I hate looking back at the last 12 months and I hate making resolutions. Especially when years suck as much at 2014 did. I won’t bore you with the details, but it included death & unemployment as well as the usual ‘I don’t know what to do with my life’ (© Buzzcocks) ennui. But I did learn a few things over the Christmas holidays:

  • I only saw ONE film from Wittertainment’s Top 10 Movies of 2014 – and I really didn’t like it one bit (Imitation Game, since you ask. Watch Enigma instead. More entertaining and probably more realistic despite being fiction). But I did re-discover three old films that are probably in my all-time top 10 films, thanks to Christmas TV.

  • The Ipcress File is as cool, grubby and fresh as I remember it. Every bar of John Barry’s amazing score is a different Portishead song. Michael Caine cooking with eggs is a great moment in cinema, and reminds me to make more use of Len Deighton’s Action Cook Book.
  • Channel 4 showed a lovely crisp print of Bugsy Malone. The songs are brilliant, it never loses its appeal, and there’s Jody Foster taking a custard pie in the face saying ‘so this is showbusiness?’ After me: we could have been anything that we wanted to be…
  • Hitchcock’s 1935 film of The 39 Steps is a masterpiece. I hadn’t seen it for, well, decades probably. It has aged incredibly well, it’s funny, entertaining, sexy and Robert Donat is just superb. If you’re tempted to think that screen acting wasn’t up to much in the olden days, watch him in this and marvel.
  • Away from the screen, having a puppy has been fun – if at times like having a 4th child in the house. I have learnt which fellow dogs (and owners) to trust and met some lovely people in the park. Now if dog-less people will just stop taking shortcuts through the dog exercise area and getting arsey with me when my dog greets them…
  • The MEATLiquor Chronicles is an infuriating, but brilliant book. After reading it I felt simultaneously hung-over, thirsty, sick and hungry. I soon learned to skip the DBC Pierre twaddly bits and seek out the gems. There aren’t a huge number of useful recipes in this book, but I think you only ever get 3 really useful ones out of most cook books any way, and this book contains some fantastic ones. The Red Snapper has now supplanted the Bloody Mary as my favourite drink, and the Layer Chilli recipe is, hands down, the most delicious thing I have ever made. I halved the cooking time and stock content and it was still amazing, served over nachos and melted cheese to replicate the divine chilli cheese fries we love at MEATMarket so much.
  • I discovered a great set of stories by G K Chesterton: seek out The Club of Queer Trades. Quite why Mark Gatiss hasn’t adapted this for the BBC is beyond me. And I re-read a childhood favourite, The Owl Service by Alan Garner. As good as ever, and it inspired me to get writing fiction again.
  • 2014 was a blank year for music for me – I think I only bought 2 albums. But I did discover, very late in the day, that I still have the capacity to be so moved by my enjoyment of a song I stumble across that I can be moved to tears, even if I don’t know why:
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