What have I been up to #1

What have I been up to #1

This is deliberately short. It was pulled from a LinkedIn post made recently

• Wireframed an app prototype so customers can check and verify orders before talking to an agent to place an order
• Started a Python, Django and MySQL project to improve verification of orders in a company to make sure that they are correct before going to assembly
• Listened to a new piece of music each week, to make sure that I am expanding my interests. This weeks piece was Hallelujah Junction by John Adams
• Applied for 5 apprenticeships, with more to come
• Up-ped the number of people I am tutoring to a solid 11

I hope to write more of these as a way to prove to myself that I am actually making progress.

Help! I need ideas quick!

Over the course of the BT Work Ready Program, Teams had to produce prototype applications around ideas generated in the space of a few minutes. This involved being ruthless and quick-minded. Here are a few of the techniques we used to generate an idea.
Naming
The first step in the journey was naming our team. With no knowledge on what was going to be created, we approached naming our team to be as vague as possible. Three things that seemed to lead to good progress:

Foreign Languages

Pulling words or directly translating words into a foreign language acted as a way to create a sense of mystery and a quick way to generate a varied list. My team used a variant of the german translation of magic - "Zauber" to create the name of our app "Zaubra".

Plants

Our team name was copied from the Maple Tree. This was from a route of approaching varying names and then leading down the route of plants, then trees. It allowed us to have a general name before we had pinned down our app idea.


Random Thoughts

To start the process, the team spouted random words. The function did not bare fruit of a name, however, it did kick start us down multiple paths such as Plants and Foreign translations. It did also act as an ice breaker as we had not worked together before.

Three Post-it Note Method

Besides trying to name a product, the first problem is actually generating the initial starting point. The quick method we used to create our app prototype:
  • Have three categories: Existing Technologies, Human Needs, Existing Frameworks/Applications
  • Set a specific time limit and generate a pile in each category
  • Then collect one Post-it from each category together and come up with a new concept based on the three individual ideas.
For example:

Lazer Guns,  Fun, Lime (Electric Scooter Firm)

The resulting idea was a Lazer fighting matchup app, it made no sense, but it was a good example of how quick it was.

Being ruthless and the specifics later

An overarching observation from the process. When it came to generating a lot of ideas, you had to be critical and quick when eliminating. You did need to have good reason to remove, however, the speed at which you went from keeping to elimination had to be robust.

When it came the specifics, some things were better left for later. When it came to developing the website portion of the project, decisions around the colour pallet and font choice needed to be relegated to the lowest priority, This was part of rapidly creating a piece of content and ensuring the substance was there, well before the style.

If anything came from this process:

Being quick was good, but being ruthless about quality was the most important.

Scrap GCSEs/A-Levels and start again

GCSEs are the main entry and foundation set of tests for the next steps in a student's career. Whether they plan to undertake an immediate apprenticeship, A-Levels to then go on to work or attend university, they are a stepping stone, however, are they still fit for purpose?

The History

With schools mainly functioning as private institutions until 1870, Government introduced legislation giving councils the ability to part-fund/ run schools. This led to the idea of mandatory, free education for 5 to 13-year-olds.

 1918 saw the first "examination" as we would know today. The School Certificate (SC) was for up to the age of 16 and those who stayed till 18 were awarded the higher equivalent. Based on credits across varying subjects with a pass needed in 6 (including English and Maths).

1951 introduced the replacement to the SC via CSEs and O-Levels with A-Levels being the further progression. CSEs were based on a number system and O-Levels on a letter.

1988 saw the replacement of CSEs and O-Levels into the GCSE. A-Levels were not replaced. The aim was to allow a broader range of study in a more rigorous way. It borrowed the letter naming scheme of A-Levels and O-Levels. Tweaks to the GCSE were adding of the A* in 1994 and reduction/tightening of rules around coursework in the 2000s.

Under the 2010 Coalition, then education secretary Micheal Gove moved to remove coursework in most subjects, moved back to a number based system as seen in CSEs, reworked the curriculum with a focus on longer style essay questions, making AS Levels not part of the main A-Level system, linearisation of courses (removal of the modular system) and many other major changes.

The New System

A new focus

Reforming the GCSE system meant re-writing the aims and drive of each subject. English Literature introduced a focus on older texts and a more British Theme.
Sourced from the DFE

Mathematics was reformed with the aim of providing a better foundation for students to step up and pursue a mathematics-based career. This was in line with extra funding schools can receive for encouraging students to take STEM subjects

9-1 Grading

A* to U was replaced with a 9-1 system (emulative of the old 1-5 system for CSEs) as a way to differentiate it from the previous GCSE system. The equivalence is not a straight comparison. The official equivalence made the lower grades equivalent to more grades (3-1 being the same as D - G), stretched the higher boundaries and offered a form of A**.










The Problems

A* to U being transformed to 9-1

As a method to distinguish the two exam systems, to ensure old students of the former systems are not disadvantaged by the introduction of an extra grade (either an A** or a C* - as is currently the case in Northern Ireland), to allow employers some comparison across the previous generation of tests and as a method to sum up general understanding in a single number; it stands up as a good system. However, the problem lies in its use as a general summation of understanding.

A more modular approach with in-depth scoring for each sub-topic would give a better to understand the strengths and weakness of where a potential employee/student lies.

Modularisation

With the chance to reform, a system similar to the formerly modularised system of the A-Levels could have been introduced. Students should have been scored on a similar A-E or 1-5 system as O-Levels or CSEs but in specific units such as data handling, statistical analysis and algebra. Trying to convey meaningful information about many different types of information that are very different in one number is not useful in the long run so why should GCSE grades be treated the same? A modular break-down could allow people to specialize earlier and allow students to tackle "harder" modules.

The idea of modularisation could be taken further. Collapsing A-Levels and GCSEs into a single exam type that could be picked up at any point during the 4-year school career currently of GCSE to A-Level. All who wanted to sit a subject would have to sit a mandatory base test and then could progress in any fashion. The Former - and to some extent - the current A-Level Further Mathematics system offers foundation units, such as Mechanics 1 with further modules (Mechanics 2) if students want to go further, but this is not usually a decision Students get to make as the teachers have to plan and decide with fairly small class sizes. How to tackle this is something I cannot answer.

When Exams are taken

Why are exams taken ONLY at the end of the year? Why are they not placed regularly throughout the calendar? The current set up of a single block of exams means preparation all year and the final weight being put on the result. Spread exams over the year, with re-takes only happening the next year for the same unit. The A-Level Mechanics Exam could have happened in the second quarter of Year 12 for A-Level students. GCSE students could sit a specific set of topics in a similar fashion.

A downside for this is that it removes the property of the current exam system that boards use to their advantage. There is too much content to put in all exams, so they have to pick and choose. Students have to be versed well on all content and be prepared to tackle any topic that may or may not come up. Making exams where the choice of topics is smaller could mean that less is asked, and hence there is still the "turn up an see what is asked" mentality, but then there comes a point where there is too little content to exam to have this.

Content Reform

With a focus on preparing a future generation for a more technical vocation study, Mathematics and STEM subjects could have gone further with pulling content from the old A-Levels before reform. This would have given even more stretch to the top bands, however, could give the chance for further progression elsewhere.

If this was paired with a modular system, some units could be core and mandatory to preserve a basis across all students and then unit exams are held for a wider variety of subtopics. This could allow more focused mathematics.

If not paired with the idea of modularisation, then at least the exam could be said to be more challenging and offer a better foundation for students who want to go into more technical apprenticeships/ jobs straight after GCSEs.

Why do any of this?

Why exam in the first place? The skills testing encourages have no applicable use in the working environment. As much as exam boards want us to show that they can ask questions that test problem-solving skills, lateral thinking and other demands of a workplace, a test will always prescribe a specific way of thinking and is not conducive to encouraging a certain way of working.

There does need to be some standard for people to be measured against, however, a wider and more dramatic approach would be needed. How do you measure people without testing? That is a question that I cannot answer currently, but maybe someone else might be able to.

Concepts English Needs

As part of a recent trip to Marseille, France I had to stumble across the fact my lack-lustre French GCSE would barely allow me to scrape by for rudimentary communication. I do not assume that wherever I go that I will be able to communicate in my language of choice, however over the last few years I have taken for granted the fact that all one has to do to communicate in most modern fields is to talk English. This often leads to the "I cannot be bothered to learn another language aside from English because I can get by with only it" mentality, that is often discussed, but has led to another serious defect. We become culturally unaware and less exposed to fresh, sometimes brilliant perspectives that are only present in other languages.

Anstandsstück

A concept I was introduced to via a German Friend is the idea of Anstandsstück. The idea of not taking the last bit of food without being offered. This is a fairly normal social idea, however, to express it requires far many more words than the simplicity of the german Anstandsstück.

It is not an unusual concept of loaning words into English from others, such as the many French loan words that have not morphed. Laizzez-Faire, Carte Blanche and many others are simply great concepts that would require many more words in English if not for the loan words.


The various forms of We

This point was directly stolen form an amazing Tom Scott video around features that English is missing more generally, and not words in particular.

English lacks clarity on the inclusivity or exclusivity on who is being included in a group. Telling someone "We are going on holiday" to your children could imply that they are going on holiday with them, or that we is inclusive with another group who are also present in the conversation. The ability to specify who is included in we would massively help in resolving confusion and not lead to the same conversation every time about whether or not the listener is included.

A good feature of English

This is point was lifted from the sketch by Yuriko Kotani on Russel Howard's Comedy Central Show a few years back.

Yuriko expresses her joy and then lack of that she cannot express the term "-ish" in Japanese. When I am told "6-ish" I know that being punctual is important however a few minutes either side is to be expected. It is not a fine deadline to be followed. It is also similar to the idea of adding "-y" to the end of nouns to term them into adjectives. Instead of staying something has the consistency/likeness of cake, you can say that the object is cakey. The concept can be applied to other terms and be used to inspire meaning in several other ways


Overall

This piece might have not been the most business-focused, however, was just a small insight into interesting features of other languages that could be interesting to have expressed in English. Change to a language is slow, yet they could work their way into common tongue if they had more perceived usage

Algebra: Maths most useful topic for modern life

Of all the mathematics taught at school at GCSE level, a lot can seemingly be disregarded. I am often asked: "What use of trigonometry will I find in the future", "Where on earth will I need to use the quadratic equation". They are all valid questions. If you are going to studying a technical vocation, then a fair chunk of what you are shown can be set aside, but having a good understanding of basic mathematics, rapid mental arithmetic and a general knack for problem-solving.

Algebra of all topics covers the problem-solving aspect that most modern roles ask for. The concepts at the foundation of algebra: balancing equations, solving for unknowns, substitution methods, inspection via examining equations, quadratics; these may not have direct application to a shopping list or how to prepare a recipe, but there are techniques embedded in the teaching of algebra that are universally useful.

Abstraction

The technique of abstraction - the ability to remove information from a question to have only the most useful and relevant content to solve a question.

How you go about selecting what is relevant information is a skill of its own. New specification GCSE Exams call for more worded questions in the name of problem-solving. Quite a few students do struggle to digest these denser questions and putting into practice the idea of abstracting away useless information.
Maths tutor explaining meaning of question
Take this question. Irrelevant information that can be removed:
  • The manufactures name
  • What they are manufacturing (Unless the question is about the context)
  • Other information about reasoning and things that add things grammatical structure
Maths tutor explaining how algebra is a useful topic in mathematics
Taking those points- highlighted in yellow is actually what is relevant to completing the question.

Abstraction is not a technique in mathematics that is purely restricted to algebra - as is seen with this probability question, however, I find that algebra offers the best and most direct way of teaching. For example, via Simultaneous equations and taking the costs of teas and coffees in different combinations and then reducing it into some simple algebraic expressions. Once this has been mastered, it can be applied in several other situations.

Clear layout and presentation

Solving equations involves an understanding of how to reverse operations and how equations are affected by applying operations. I have found many students take time to adapt to the idea that if you apply the reserve operation, it cancels out. To solve an equation you also have to be happy with the idea of collecting like terms, simplifying fractions and what many key terms and symbols mean.

One thing this all requires (mainly to insure markers can credit work properly) is a clear layout and good presentation of steps.  Take the solving of this equation:
Maths Tutor looking at clear layout in algebra
There may be some redundant steps such as listing that you are subtracting by 3, yet the general presentation is clear and concise.

The skill of being able to clearly show an idea in a condensed and simple form is - again- not only applicable to algebra,  but I believe it is the best form to promote and show this idea at an early age and in a very easy and applicable form.




  

Applying for Bloomberg

As part of my seemingly never-ending search for what to undertake after A Levels, I applied for a Software Engineering apprenticeship role based at Bloomberg, London. This is a brief recount of a very well put together and swift interview process.

The Pre-application

For anyone who has not used the government, the system works where any company can list under the framework of Post GCSE, Post A-Levels in the form of A Level equivalent, foundation degree, degree and master's degree. Bloomberg was offering a 4-year path towards a Bachelors Degree with the opportunity of full-time work after. As part of the pre-application,  Bloomberg asked for several written answers about hobbies, programming examples and motivations for the role.

After submitting the application via the website, 1 week passed with it sitting far in the back of my mind and I was landed with a pleasant surprise. Mainly due to my lack of self-confidence in the responses I had given due to doing a similar exercise for 5 other apprenticeships and being rejected, a video interview was lined up within a few weeks time, so the post-pre-preparation began.

Video Interviews and Hackerrank

As part of the process and video interview, Bloomberg employed a system called NEXI - an internal version of Skype - and online brain training style activity website "Hackerrank". Hackerrank was an interesting experience. I have used similar systems to learn languages such as Codeacademy and Project Euler; the thing that caught me by surprise was pair programming activity.  Not a skill I practice, the simple act of communicating and programming showed me how a much better thought process and a clear line of logic can be achieved.

There is a concept in computer programming called "rubber duck programming/ debugging" which involves talking to an inanimate bath duck to walk through logical errors. It acts as a simple way to help communicate ideas that may be on the brain but not currently in active processing. This method of pair programming acted as an animated version of rubber duck debugging and the duck could suggest knowledge outside the scope of my current thinking. It was a better system then talking to cold plastic one facial expression duck.

After the end of the video interviews, I was not in the best frame of mind over the weekend about whether I had been successful. Only answering two questions and trying to shoehorn in as many keywords, knowledge and humour as I could to convey the idea that I had some competence. To my surprise again, after only three days, I was invited to an interview at their new and shiny HQ in the Square Mile.

Interview Day

The idea of a London bound train in peak morning rush might seem a mundane activity for to a veteran commuter, however, I enjoyed the activity of people watching and the myriad of faces as a way to kill nerves and time. Between fumbling in trying to read a Python book to make sure I was up to scratch and being squished patt-a-cake style, my commute would only go downhill from there. The Tube - as I should have known - was packed at Kings Cross. I am not the kind of person to act as a gnarly sheepdog and force my way through the crowd to an already sardine tin train. A trip along another tube line, walking towards the wrong station for ten minutes, all culminated in being ten minutes late when I could have been twenty minutes early.

The interview itself was more successful. Firstly, a theoretical question themed around optimising a shopping service system to assign shoppers to a cashier and metric that would lead to more efficiency. Questions were raised such as; Who do you prioritise? How do you measure things you plan to use to inform decision making? As a result of making the decision, what effect can we expect to see? Secondly, an HR Interview about motivations and skills. I cannot attest to how at ease the recruiter made me feel, but I now look back and question whether I gave enough detail and spoke about myself enough. It is a semi-egotistical skill to have to try and shine yourself in a light that is favourable, but then be self-conscious with not having to say something so out of place that you are telling a blatant lie about your true character.

The final stage had actual programming. Starting with a theoretical exercise about reading flow charts that made a checker piece snake down a chess board. From there, the activity moved to alter the flow chart to achieve a different pattern of movement, then moving on to implementing a sorting algorithm. I tried and implemented, with help.. a lot of help, a recursive implementation of a Quicksort.

Lunch followed, mixed with infinite coffee throughout the day and some social interaction ended up a fairly successful day.

If you ever have a chance to visit the Bloomberg HQ, do. It is an art exhibit in itself. The entrance is dubbed the vortex, around every corner is some form of art. Food was within good eye line in most locations, technology was integrated into the soul of the building. Just do not try and enter via the Security entrance as you will be greeted with a scowl and a firm hand wave to go the other way.

In the end

The whole event summed up to no-offer from Bloomberg, however, I have picked up so many things to use in future applications. Better communication, how to un-apologetically sell yourself, better time management to arrive early, how infinite coffee is a better idea on paper, how to not follow a blue dot on a map to make sure you are going the way you should be.

If someone from Bloomberg happens to read this who was involved in the process, thanks for the experience.



Snog, Marry, Avoid: International Institutions Edition


Smaller Nations are usually battered by international heavyweights, and to gain any influence have to marry a large through some agreement. China acts as Sugar Daddy through the temptation of money with the knowledge that it will not be repaid, with the ultimate aim of taking control of the asset created on an extremely long lease. The USA offers a seemingly sweet wedding, with the condition of an iron-clad prenup that ultimately allows the USA to walk all over the bride to be. International Institutions seem to be a way to create co-operation and project influence, without the one-sided marriage or a secret agenda of a generous third party. Let’s play snog, marry, avoid on some to see if they do this.

Snog the international criminal court (ICC). In practice, this institution could be a force for good, but needs love. With major nations such as China and the US not wanting to participate, criticisms of focusing only on African cases and having no method of enforcing rulings ( like many international institutions). The ICC sits in a grey area of having a focused agenda to achieve but no way to go around to get it results on the international stage.

Marry the international standards organization. With more reach and interconnectivity, standards are needed to ensure regularity between countries. ISO standards that led to containerization and mass global trade, standards for worldwide scientific studies and standards for internet communication are a landmark of this era. The ISO has to lead to global interaction on a scale never seen before- all while being optional. However, that could be its biggest weakness; A standard that could do major good, might not be approved by countries that would lead to widespread adoption.

Avoid the Security Council of the UN. Similarly to the ICC, the security council lacks a direct way to enforce rulings (excluding Peacekeepers whose usage is effective but contentious). However, having the backing of the US and EU countries offers a way to put in place sanctions. The issues that call for it being avoided is the well-known veto - which overrides all other non-permanent countries opinions. It also causes ruling on other countries that are committing atrocities to be vetoed by allies of the committing countries. The council has a majority voting system, however, it is made redundant by the existence of the veto. The veto is also highly grouped, with France, the UK and the USA voting together and not having distinct voices where they could do.

I wrote that international institutions can be a force for good where smaller nations are forced into one-sided relationships, yet, is their existence useful in the first place. If their job is to encourage cooperation, then some do. Do they then need to be international? Why not a set of bilateral agreements? Or if their aim is for international co-operation, how do you bring on countries that are seen as the real drivers of change when they do not want? If the opinion is that only major countries drive change, then we need to re-define where change comes from - not large to small, but small to large.