Jan 25 2015

Star Trek game – a Python port from Tiny BASIC

A while back I mentioned that I was in the process of porting an old Computing Today Star Trek game from Tiny BASIC to Python on my Raspberry Pi. This was before I’d taken the edX Python course and learned to code properly in the language.

Frankly, although my code works, it is truly horrible stuff. And I didn’t even have the excuse of being limited to a couple of kilobytes of memory that the original was designed to fit into. I’ve just never had the time since to go back and do it better.

However, a couple of people have asked for the code, so here it is, in all of its – ahem – glory.

The original Tiny BASIC version (pdf format) – you’ll need this to make sense of how to play the game.

My Python port (pdf format) – you’ll need to copy and paste this into a .py file to make it work with a Python 2.7 interpreter (obviously).

Have fun!


Jan 22 2015

The US government “gets” lifelong learning – so why don’t our politicians?

After I wrote about the fall in OU student numbers for a fourth consecutive year last Saturday, I decided to see if I could get a reaction from the five largest (by membership) UK-wide political parties by asking them about their policies for promoting lifelong learning.

My first attempt was on Sunday. I sent this tweet to @LibDems, @Conservatives, @UKLabour, and @TheGreenParty. I even held my nose and sent it to @UKIP – after all, who knows what May will bring.



I didn’t get a response (or even a click on the link to my article) from this. But it was Sunday. Maybe those who run political party twitter accounts take the day off. I can understand that. So undeterred, I tried a similar tweet on Monday: 


… and it got exactly the same result. Nothing. Yesterday, I tried to introduce an element of competition:


… and no-one has responded to that tweet.

Which is a shame. Because the lack of investment in lifelong learning, at all levels of study, directly impacts our ability to compete as a nation. It means we continue to fail to make the best possible use of our greatest resource – the people who live and work here.

By contrast, the Obama administration seems to genuinely “get” lifelong learning. Their latest proposal is to provide free access to two years of higher education through their network of community colleges for eligible students. This is in addition to what seems to be a well thought out and employer supported workforce training programme.

I’m going to keep on pestering our politicians about this. I’m particularly disappointed, but not wholly surprised,  by the lack of any kind of response so far from the political party I belong to.


Jan 20 2015

Memory stuff

Going through my parent’s house over the last few months has taken ages. They’d lived there since 1963 until my father died at the end of 2007. Mum had subsequently lived there alone until she needed to go into a nursing home in 2013. Now that they’re both gone, the task of sorting through the house and the memories that are attached to it has been left to me and my brother.

Before we started, we’d made a plan. We both like plans – we’re good at those. First pass – sort through the house and throw out the obvious rubbish, such as tins of food that were long past their use by date and the like. Second pass – work out what we wanted to keep for ourselves, give away to relatives and friends or sell. Final pass – everything that didn’t find a new home would be thrown away. We estimated that it was going to take us until last Christmas. As I write, we’re still not quite at the end of the first pass.

I had no idea how much stuff was in the house and quite how much I’d be affected by sorting through it. It’s not the items of furniture, ornaments or even the mountains of clothes that we’ve considered that has been the biggest surprise. It isn’t even dad’s photographs and cine film or mum’s paintings (I’d prepared myself for dealing with those). Little packets of old birthday, Christmas and get well cards, letters, school reports (theirs, not mine!) have been harder to cope with.

But hardest of all, at least for me, has been finding piles of old ticket stubs and travel receipts for holidays and other events long past. Some of them probably hadn’t been looked at in 50 years before I stumbled across them.

I suppose that they were there at all shouldn’t have surprised me. After all, I do the same thing. I know that hidden away in my sock drawer, the cupboard above the bed and the attic there are little piles of my old tickets and receipts waiting to be found once I’m no longer around to care. Sometimes, when I’m looking for something else, I’ll come across a pile of tickets from (say) a holiday I took ten or twenty years ago and I’ll spend a few minutes reflecting happily on the event. And crying of course, naturally.

This weekend I found the folders of ticket stubs, hotel brochures and letters to the Swiss National Bank about Italian petrol coupons from the holiday to Italy that my father and his best friend took in 1961. It was wonderful to look at them alongside the photographs he took (here’s a few of the first photographs he took on that holiday). Doing that also made me cry, of course.

I also found a collection of receipts and notes from a holiday we took together as a family in Scotland when I was 15. I haven’t looked at these yet, because I’m finding it too difficult. I obviously wasn’t even alive at the time of the Italy trip – but I remember the Scottish holiday vividly.

One day soon, with the photographs that we both took on that holiday, I’ll sit down with a glass of whisky and look at all those receipts and notes. I think I know what the result will be.


Jan 17 2015

OU student numbers decline by a further 10.3% in 2013/14

The latest statistical first release from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) was made on 15th January. New part-time enrolments (often, but not always, mature students) have fallen by 8% across the whole sector, adding to a 15% decline from the previous year. New full-time enrolments have increased by 1%.

Table 10 of the release provides a detailed analysis of OU student numbers (who are all considered to be part-time, regardless of the intensity of study undertaken). This has allowed me to update the chart I created last year.

OU Student Numbers 2008-09 to 2013-14The chart shows a year on year decline of 10.3% in overall student numbers, with an 11.7% decline in undergraduates. However, the number of postgraduate students has increased by 8.8%, albeit still below the number being taught by the OU in 2011/12.

The OU has, of course, taken steps to ensure that it is able to survive in the current climate, not least by the nearly four-fold increase in module fees charged to students domiciled in England who are not on transitional fee arrangements. However, you can’t help but worry when you see figures like these for (a) the health of the institution and (b) the impact that changes in HE funding arrangements must be having on those who want or need to re-skill themselves later on in life. Lifelong learning continues to be undervalued by this government in much the same way that the previous Labour government undervalued it when they removed ELQ (equivalent or lower qualification) funding in 2008.

Perhaps there’s a glimmer of hope on the horizon. At the end of last year, UCAS released figures demonstrating that the number of students placed at UK HE institutions in 2014 reached an all-time high (these acceptances will of course be reflected in next year’s release from HESA). However, it would be misleading to extrapolate this data to the Open University as UCAS do not administer their admissions.

I wish Peter Horrocks, the new vice-chancellor of the OU, every success in the role which he is due to start on the 5th May, a mere two days before the general election. Let’s hope that whatever colour(s) the next government consists of they will be rather more sympathetic to the needs of lifelong learners than the last two have been.


Jan 08 2015

On leadership and followership



I read somewhere that the boatman who rowed King William back across the river after the Battle of the Boyne is supposed to have asked the King which side won … To which the King replied: “What’s it to you? You’ll still be a boatman.”

J.G. Farrell, The Singapore Grip


Jan 05 2015

3 tickets I’d like for things that never happened

I’ve been amused by the news today that Accrington Stanley are selling 250 tickets for a third round FA Cup tie with Manchester United that never was, as they’d been already knocked out in the second round by Yeovil Town. It led me to think about the tickets I’d like for events that never happened. In reverse chronological order:

1. The State Opening of Parliament for the Liberal-SDP Alliance government in 1983.


Ahh, the heady days of the Alliance and David Steel’s 1981 Liberal Assembly speech – go back to your constituencies and prepare for government. There’s a passage in it about race relations that sadly still seems relevant now when applied to the debate about immigration:


You cannot dehumanise a whole section of society by taking away their rights, dividing their families, subjecting them to police and bureaucratic interference and harassment, and then pretend … that this is all done in the interests of good race relations.

2. The FA Cup Final between Derby County and Southampton in 1976.

Derby (the favourites – sigh) were beaten 2-0 by Manchester United in their semi-final, who then went on to lose to Southampton 1-0 in the final. There’s no question in my mind that the Derby side of 1976 would’ve easily beaten Southampton in the final. I still can’t watch the semi-final “highlights” all the way through …

3. The launch of Apollo 18 in 1973

NASA cancelled the scheduled Apollo 18 mission to the Copernicus crater along with the planned Apollo 19 mission (Apollo 20 had already been cancelled to make way for Skylab) during 1971. The cancellation saved around $42m (small in comparison to the whole cost of the programme), but came about due to the political pressure the Nixon Whitehouse was under in the early 1970s to divert spending towards more ‘useful’ endeavours.


These are my top three events that never happened that I’d like tickets for – what would yours be?


Jan 02 2015

New year cancer stories

Ever since my diagnosis with lymphoma last summer, I’ve tried to stay away from press coverage about cancer. This is because most of the time it’s pretty poorly reported and I’ve found it far more helpful to refer to the information provided by my consultant, specialist charities and peer-reviewed science. However, a couple of press stories have caught my attention over the holiday period.

The first of these was the reporting of Dr Richard Smith’s views on death, from a BMJ blog article published on new year’s eve. I’d encourage you to read the article, rather than some of the more hysterical press reports or twitterings that there’s been about it, as it puts his words into proper context. The main point he makes is that because death comes to us all, sooner or later, we need to come to terms with it. He suggests that (suicide excepted) there are four different types of death: sudden causes; the long slow death of dementia; death from organ failure and the weeks or months that those with terminal cancer have. He considers all four types and argues that a death from cancer is preferable, as at least you usually have the time to put your affairs in order and say goodbye to those you love.

Well, we’re all entitled to our opinions (although many of the comments on the article suggest that he isn’t entitled to his, which is ridiculous). I think that I’m minded to agree with him – but only up to a point. The one, very specific point that I do definitely disagree with is made in his final paragraph: “let’s stop wasting billions trying to cure cancer, potentially leaving us to die a much more horrible death.”

I don’t think that money spent on extending human life is a waste. It’s the focus on life and the good that we can do, rather than our inevitable death, that we ought to all concentrate on. There’s always an argument to be had about priorities and where the resources we have should be spent, but on a purely parochial (England and Wales) basis, it would seem to me that spending money on finding ways to address cancer still seems worthwhile, given the relative progress made over than last century in reducing death rates from other causes (and yes, I’m aware that if you don’t die of circulatory or infectious diseases, then more people will survive to die of cancer. We all have to die of something, so the chart below doesn’t quite tell the full story).

The ONS notes that advances in treatment for the other two main causes of mortality have “reduced the number of early adult deaths” – but that’s not necessarily the case for cancer, which can still strike us at any age. I suppose that my main argument with Dr Smith’s last statement is that money spent on cancer research most definitely isn’t a waste if it enables younger people to have the prospect of a longer, healthier life – in the same way that tackling other causes of early death wasn’t viewed as a waste of resources in the 20th century.

Age-standardised mortality rates by major cause, England and Wales, 1911-2011Source: Office for National Statistics licensed under the Open Government Licence v.3.0

The second story has been about the role of “bad luck” – or more scientifically, the chance of a random cell mutation causing a cancer to occur, versus the contribution from lifestyle choices and inherited genes. I’m not convinced that the mainstream press (or me) has understood the subtitles of this research (this link takes you to the abstract and original paper) but there’s an interesting blog article and debate about it here.


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