This is the road to…

Clicky Steve:

Greece are in trouble.

Originally posted on politurgy:

Once upon a time a man set out on the road to economic prosperity. It was a road paved with the promises of global consumer capitalism and a common and open market.
But along the road he was set upon by some thieves, they beat him, and stripped him, and left him for dead.
(Maybe he was stupid to go down that road, it is a road well known for its pitfalls and dangers, but he had been told that it was the only road in town, as to who the thieves and robbers were – they have remained free to act with impunity in the shadows of the road).
Some time later an IMF came down the same road, saw the man, and crossed over on to the other side.
A little later a ECB came down the road, saw the man, and crossed over to the other side.

View original 167 more words

A parp in a bin and clapping chagrin

You can lie, you can smear, you can abuse public office for party gain, you can cause a diplomatic incident, you can pauchle your expenses, you can cover up the activities of well connected paedophiles, you can cheat, you can start an illegal war that causes the deaths of hundreds of thousands. Just don’t clap, because that’s beyond the pale.

Spot the difference

Apparently non British, Irish, or Commonwealth citizens will not be allowed to vote in the upcoming EU referendum in the UK.

I haven’t read into the actual law on this, just the media coverage, so caveat emptor, but:

More than 1million foreigners living in Britain will be banned from voting in the EU referendum, the Conservatives have announced, in a significant boost to Eurosceptic campaigners.

It comes after Eurosceptic MPs confronted ministers over the issue amid concerns that pro-Europeans could effectively rig the result by giving EU citizens the decisive vote.


The language we use is important.

Isn’t it interesting that here we see people living in the UK described as ‘foreigners’ – setting up an instant division – whilst the Scottish Government during the independence referendum process spoke not of ‘foreigners’, but of ‘the Scottish people’, irrespective of where they were from originally?

Isn’t it interesting that the result of the independence referendum was based precisely on the votes of the people who lived there, and not some ethnic idea of what Scottishness is supposed to be? Isn’t it interesting that this wasn’t seen as ‘rigging the result’, but as an integral part of it?

I don’t believe in ethnic politics. I believe in civic politics. Great Britain is a fundamentally racist construct that needs to be dissolved. The sooner the better.

Proportional representation won’t save the Union

In the days following the results of the 2015 General Election, there have been calls from all sides of the political spectrum for electoral reform. Quite rightly, those on the left are both furious at the lack of representation they’ve been afforded at Westminster, and also terrified at the prospect of a future where nobody but the Conservatives will be able to achieve a majority in Parliament. Those on the right aren’t much happier, with analysis showing that UKIP would have had a massive gain in seats under a proportional system, rising from the 1 that they currently hold to upwards of 80.

Proportional Representation - General Election 2015
How the BBC visualised the difference

Of course, this sort of disproportionate result has always been present in previous elections. It’s just that up until recently it has largely been masked by the domination of the two major parties. Cracks in the system began to show with the rise in popularity of the Lib Dems, and are now fully exposed both by the UKIP surge, and the simultaneous demise of Labour in Scotland.

One of the stated benefits of the First Past the Post System is to produce strong majorities in Parliament, bringing with them political and economic stability. Seemingly against all the odds, FTPT has managed to again achieve that, at least in terms of the numbers involved anyway. Whilst the Tories will be able to hold what’s called the ‘confidence of Parliament’, that doesn’t mean that they hold the confidence of an increasingly fractured United Kingdom. This election has demonstrated a strong need for electoral reform, with some sort of proportional system required to give legitimacy to future governments, but it will not solve the constitutional problems being faced, particularly in relation to Scotland.

If the UK truly was a single entity, without borders, then PR would provide a solid foundation for people to feel like they are genuinely and fairly represented, irrespective of where they lived. However, that is not the case. No matter how  unpopular it may be to some, we are – to use Cameron’s words – ‘a family of nations’, with distinct and separate identities. Even ardent Scottish Unionists recognise this; a truism that is not just some product of contemporary nationalism, but evident culturally and structurally. People in Scotland support proportional representation, but also want a stronger voice for their nation within the family dynamic. We may just be 5 million people out of 64, but we are also 1 of 4 nations. It is this contradiction that is posing such an issue for the future of the UK. Even with electoral reform, this identity crisis will remain; the Scottish question unanswered.

Scottish Independence British State

Another danger lurking underneath the surface of the calls for electoral reform is that the debate may indeed only serve to highlight the differences between Scotland and England, and ultimately expedite the breakup of the Union. In many corners, the questions about PR are posited in terms of reducing the influence of the Scottish, with the thinly veiled question at the heart of things really asking: Why do the Scots have so many MPs with such a small percentage of the population? This isn’t correct, of course – as we would have the same number of MPs whatever parties held them, but it’s easy for the issues to become conflated given the (disproportionate) success of the SNP, and the antiScottish rhetoric that has emerged. To my pro-Union friends seeking a fairer electoral system: beware this trap. Proportional representation won’t save the UK, and if the debate isn’t approached carefully, it could do more damage to the relationship than it will good.

Header ‘Scottish and British flags’ image by ‘The Laird of Oldham‘ – used under Creative Commons License. ‘Poland-Ball’ style image by ‘Universalis‘ – used under Creative Commons License

General Election 2015: The aftermath 

I’ve just woken up to the sun shining brightly over Loch Ness, as the final results of the General Election trickle in from around England.

At around 6am I headed to bed with only one Scottish seat left to declare, and its announcement looking likely to bring the total number held by the SNP to a staggering 56 out of 59 possible.

It’s important to reiterate just how incredible this outcome is. Some of the safest Labour seats in the UK have fallen to the SNP, mere months after a ‘no’ vote in an independence referendum. The seven seat stronghold in Glasgow has been swept aside with seemingly remarkable ease, colouring the city yellow – along with much of the rest of the country. Between them, Labour, the Lib Dems, and the Tories now only have three representatives. The record breaking swings to the SNP were so large that they broke the BBC’s swingometer.

They weren't expecting that.
They weren’t expecting that.

Where once household political names would be relatively safe from such shifts in the political landscape by virtue of their recognisability, it seems like that prominence may only have served to aid in their downfall. Danny Alexander has gone, Jo Swinson has gone, the Scottish Labour Party leader has gone, and the former shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander has gone, losing to a 20 year old politics student. It’s fascinating.

That right Jim, aye?
That right Jim, aye?

Even as the losses piled up, Labour Party members seemed unable to deal with the idea that they have fundamentally lost the confidence of the Scottish people – taking swipes at the SNP rather than asking themselves what the hell just happened. Scotland doesn’t belong to Labour, and the continuing failure to comprehend that by entitled politicians has doubtless played a significant part in their downfall. It wasn’t a ‘rise in nationalism’ that crushed Labour, as Ed seems to think. Labour have done this to themselves.

This isn’t just about standing shoulder to shoulder with the Tories as part of Better Together (though that certainly has been an element), it’s about a complete inability on their part to speak up for Scotland in Westminster: instead, working as a branch office of the British Labour Party. The Scots are fed up of their hollow promises. My now ex-MP who held his seat for 15 years voted to invade Iraq, against any investigation into the war, for national ID cards, and even to raise University tuition fees in England. Typical of the toxic sort of politics that has no place in post-indyref Scotland. Oh, he’s also the one who said that he was ‘bored with politics‘ just last week. Jog on pal.

What Scotland Looked Like Before
What Scotland looked like before
What Scotland Looks Like Now
What Scotland looks like now

As the results came in over the night, there was a markedly different mood between my Scottish and English friends. The former were abuzz with excitement and anticipation, whilst the latter despondent and almost disconnected from the whole thing. It’s not hard to see why this might be, given the bleak choice that faced those on the left. Miliband wasn’t just a weak opponent, but one who has spent so much time trying to appease Middle England on issues like immigration that red has seemingly just become another shade of blue. If I was down south, I couldn’t have brought myself to vote for him, tactically or otherwise.

It may seem strange to be celebrating a landslide SNP victory in Scotland when the Tories are currently finalising a majority from votes in England, but for the Scots, having no real impact on those who hold power in Westminster has always been the case. Given this, seeing real change sweep across Scotland became the most exciting and important thing, not whether we got Cameron, Miliband, or some other cookie cutter Prime Minister that we didn’t vote for anyway. The ‘roch winds blew through the Great Glen of Scotland tonight’. The established political wisdoms no longer apply here, and it’s exciting.

For all of that though, when the dust clears we will still be faced with the decidedly grim prospect of another 5 years of Tory governance. It’s incredibly unlikely that we will see ‘some sort of federal offer’, as Boris Johnson has suggested. Instead, what we definitely will see is a concerted attack on civil liberties, with the Tory tongues already drooling at the prospect of scrapping the Human Rights Act. We will see more hateful rhetoric around immigrants, with the currently ludicrous and contradictory system being stacked even more against British citizens with non-EU spouses. We will see a referendum in 2017 that could ultimately rip Scotland out of the European Union against the wishes of the people, and directly in the face of that membership being hailed as one of the benefits of remaining in the Union.

Ultimately, last night was a clear statement of how politics in Scotland have shifted. There could yet be a revolution, but things are going to get worse before they get better. We have a fight on our hands.

Election Night

It’s almost time. The polls are closing soon, and we’re just a disco nap away from a political all nighter.

I’ve never been as excited about watching the results of an election before, with the perhaps obvious exception of the independence referendum back in September. 

Last time around I didn’t even bother to vote in the UK General Election, as I didn’t see the point. I could have voted SNP, but with a general lack of enthusiasm in the rest of the country, it would have made no difference. Whatever I did with my pencil on polling day, Labour would win the majority of seats in Scotland, and the Tories (or whatever Governent England decided on) would inevitably get into power. 

It turned out to be more interesting than that of course, but by no means brought about a better outcome. Thankfully, things now are a bit different – at least North of the border. Finally, it feels like our votes might actually mean something, and the old duopoly of British politics has been broken.

I’ll be watching with interest to see if there’s a material difference in turn out between Scotland and the rest of the UK, but the real pleasure will be in something else. Nothing is more satisfying than seeing those in power surprised and afraid of an engaged electorate, and hopefully tonight that will be available in abundance. The old, complacent Labour dynasties who thought they were untouchable will be confronted with the harsh reality: that they have taken their Scottish constituents for granted for too long, and that the jig is up. The seats they felt so safe in before are now down to nothing more than an extremely shoogly peg.  

I will watch with whisky at the ready to toast the moment when those Labour MPs who voted to invade Iraq, raise tuition fees in England, introduce ID cards, and lie through their teeth about further devolution get punted out on their ear. It’s a day I never thought I would see come to the party’s Scottish heartlands, and one that I’m sure they never thought they would have to face either… But it has. Us Scots are a loyal people, but when you fuck us over we don’t forget it easily. Labour are about to find that out tonight. Come witness the entitled get swept away. 

SQA Higher Computing Revisited

School. Apparently the ‘best years of your life’.

That definitely was not my experience of school, it has to be said.

One of the big frustrations I remember from my time at Kirkintilloch High was taking Computing – both at the Standard Grade level (third and fourth year, or aged 14-16 roughly), and Higher (aged 16-17).

Despite it being something that I had a pretty in-depth understanding of, I ultimately only got a B for the Higher exam. What I remember is that the questions were vague, allowing significant room for interpretation; the teachers lacked the knowledge or the common sense to make allowances, and you could be marked down for answers which were correct, but didn’t match up rigidly with what was on the marking scheme.

The example that sticks in my head was from a prelim exam we sat where the question was ‘Name three pieces of hardware required to watch a multimedia video’. I answered: ‘Processor, Monitor, Graphics card’, which seemed to me like the very basics of what you would need – discounting all the other bits and bobs that make up a functioning computer. Apparently, this was wrong. The correct answer was something akin to: “An input device, processor, video card, or graphics card.’ My teacher informed me that ‘monitor’ was not on the marking scheme, and therefore I lost points as a result. My desperate pleading for an explanation of how anybody could watch a video without a display fell on deaf ears, and the maddening insanity of this has forever stuck in my mind.

I decided to go back and have a look at some of the questions from around that period, to see what they were like with the benefit of hindsight. This proved to be a bit tougher than I had expected, as past papers from that era aren’t kept online by the SQA. I e-mailed them to request a copy, and received a rather puzzling response:

SQA Copyright Restrictions

Well, that’s weird. Surely the SQA own the copyright to their own past papers? I pressed them on this, and got – if anything – an even more puzzling reply:

SQA Past Papers

The SQA can’t keep past papers for more than 5 years due to ‘data storage’?! I almost wrote back to offer a donation of a hard drive. Hell, even a 1GB USB pen drive should have been enough to keep them ticking over for a few decades. It possibly goes some way to explaining the nonsensical Computing questions that they used to ask.

I searched high and low for PDFs from the relevant years, only to turn up a couple of prelim samples from schools that had seemingly uploaded them yonks ago and forgot. Finally, success! I tracked down this bad boy from a seller on Amazon:

SQA Past Papers 2002-2006

So let’s have a look shall we? The examples below are taken from a mix of the online PDFs that I found, and the book above.

Consider the following question, taken from the specimen question paper to be used from ‘2005 onwards':

Higher Specimen Paper 2005The purpose of this question is to discuss ‘peripherals’, and the ‘advantages of solid state storage devices’. These are pretty important to understand, though the question here seems a bit bizarre.

  • What are the benefits of using a camera with a ‘flashcard’, compared to what? The question doesn’t give anything to compare flash storage against, so it seems impossible to know what the benefits would be.
  • There isn’t really any other storage option suitable for digital cameras. All of them use flash storage, so to use that device to illustrate the advantages seems weird. You can’t really have an advantage when that’s the only option. Asking: ‘Give two reasons why a flashcard is the most appropriate form of storage for the camera?’ would make far more sense.

This is backed up by the answers given:

Screen Shot 2014-11-24 at 15.19.18

It’s worth noting that these two are the only two listed in the marking scheme. Personally, I think there should be far more. Here’s a couple of suggestions:

  • Flash based storage is much faster to access than other kinds.
  • Flashcards are more robust, and less sensitive to knocks – as required in a portable device.

Thankfully, things have improved a bit on this front. Here’s the question from the same subject, but in 2014:

Screen Shot 2014-11-24 at 15.54.49

Much better!

Going back to the 2005 specimen paper, here is question b) – along with the answers:

Screen Shot 2014-11-24 at 15.30.00

In some respects, the aim of this is pretty good. Students should definitely understand the different types of file formats available for graphics, and their varying purposes. However, the question itself is stupid. It asks what file format would be ‘suitable for this application’ – i.e. for use in a digital camera, and then gives equal marks for explaining the pros and cons of whatever you choose. That means you’d get the same marks for answering GIF as you would JPEG. Completely ridiculous. A GIF would never be an appropriate file format for use in a digital camera, irrespective of the advantages and disadvantages. There’s too much of a disconnect between the question and the learning outcome.

This would be a more appropriate question:

‘Name a ‘standard file format’ used in modern digital cameras, and explain why it is most appropriate (one advantage and one disadvantage)

It makes clear that there are particular formats that are used, doesn’t award marks for inappropriate answers to real-world examples, and still requires the student to understand and analyse why the format is appropriate over and against others.

Here’s a similar question from the 2005 exam, with the acceptable answers underneath.

Screen Shot 2014-11-28 at 18.06.59

I think disallowing ‘bitmap’ here is pretty unfair given that it’s the name of the file format bmp. If they had asked for the extension of the standard file format, rather than ‘name a standard file format’, then restricting it in this way would make more sense. Boo, hiss.

Moving on, take a look at this question:

Higher Specimen Question 2 2005

I’d tell Helen to throw out her PCWorld Magazine and go buy a Macbook Pro.


Okay, I’m kidding, but only half.

This is the answer given:

Screen Shot 2014-11-24 at 15.40.25The purpose here is to demonstrate ‘justification of the hardware selected in terms of appropriate characteristics’. Again, an important aim, but with an inappropriate question.

We’ll ignore the fact that floppy drives at this point were only ever used in PCs for when (inevitably) things went tits up and you had to do something to the BIOS (Apple had gotten rid of them years before this). We’ll also ignore that the question didn’t actually specify what sort of data Helen wants to back up, so it would be impossible to know whether a floppy drive was too small for purpose or not. (Maybe she just wanted to back up a few text files?).

Even back then, the most appropriate answer would be to use some sort of external USB storage. Helen would have been better off getting the cheaper system out of the two that let her also get an external device. Maybe that’s what’s meant to be covered under the vague description of: ‘Other suitable.’ However, it looks like they don’t really care what answer you give, so long as you pick the one with the DVD-ROM.

This sums up exactly what was wrong with much of the Computing Higher back then. Even if you gave a perfectly justifiable reason to pick the ‘Lynx 983′ device, you would be marked wrong – completely defeating the aim of the student justifying the hardware selected based. The questions were vague, allowed significant room for interpretation, and no common sense was used in the marking process. On top of that, the teachers often didn’t have the knowledge or leeway to do anything about it anyway.

One of the saving grace’s of the curriculum is that it included questions relating to ‘Computers and the Law’. Something that everybody should have an understanding of:
Screen Shot 2014-11-24 at 15.14.10

Higher Paper Question 4 2005Nice.

Another of the problems with the Computing course was the disparity in difficulty levels of the questions within the space of one paper. On one hand, students are asked to explain what the benefit of using a DVD is over a CD (answer: more space), or to explain why a short domain name is better than a long, complex one… and how the Internet can help small businesses:


and just a few pages later they are expected to know wtf ‘backchaining’ and ‘loop constructs’ are, and to be able to express things in pseudocode:

Pseudo Code Higher Computing


and does anybody really need to know how to work out numbers in binary? I sure am glad I don’t have to do that sort of calculation any longer.

Higher Computing Binary

I get the importance of gaining holistic knowledge about computing and the technology industry, but the consistency in the questions was way off. One of the particular frustrations I remember from sitting these exams myself was being treated like an idiot on one hand: “Duhhrr give an example of a URL.” and then being expected to produce fairly beefy examples of scripts out of our heads on paper (that’s right, we ‘coded’ everything in our notebooks, rather than using the computers). It seems like half the course should have been at Standard Grade, rather than Higher level. Although it’s probably best we don’t go back to look at those particular questions, which involved explaining what a mouse and keyboard were used for.

Back then the Computing curriculum was a joke, doing a disservice both to those who taught it as well as those who sat it. The purpose of the whole thing seemed (and seems) pretty unclear. Whether it was to teach the basics of hardware, prepare future programmers for University, or just give a general overview of Computing it failed on all accounts. I really hope that things have changed since then.