Graeme's Meandering analysis Thu, 28 Jan 2021 12:11:20 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Homeschooling tips from a home educator Sat, 09 Jan 2021 14:05:07 +0000 My daughters were both home educated for many years (the younger one still is) and I want to share some things I have learned along the way with parents who find themselves temporarily home schooling because of lockdown.

This is all written from a British viewpoint (e.g. it assumes under 16s will be aiming to do (I)GCSEs), and also based on what worked for us: parents, children and circumstances vary.

Do not worry too much.

Neither parents, not schools, nor anyone else, will do a perfect job of education. It is intrinsically messy and uncertain. You need to figure out what will work for you and your child.

Forget the curriculum.

For children not studying exam syllabuses yet, you want learning, but what they learn is of secondary importance. They need to learn to think, and to learn study skills. English and maths are important, as they are needed to study other things. Other than that be flexible, and let children follow their interests.

Look for opportunities

Use the time to do things they do not have time to do because of school.

Hobbies can be educational: even if not directly so they develop concentration and some range of skills. My daughters did a bit of electronics when they were little (they learned to solder by 7, made little kits, improvised a few things….) and my older daughter is now doing electronics A level (and planning to do a degree in it).

It may also be an opportunity to do subjects schools do not offer. Interested in Latin or astronomy?  Want to learn programming to a useful level? Interested in philosophy? Obviously particular schools might, offer subjects, but no school can offer anything like the full range of available subjects. The sky is the limit – unless you are interested in astronomy, in which case, the observable universe is.

There are now MOOCs (large scale  online courses) that, again, many adults do for pleasure. My children have done MOOCs on everything from Dante to Haskell (a programming language no one teaches at school level – but which appeals to the mathematically inclined).

Doing interesting stuff may not advance covering the syllabus, but the motivation and knowledge pays off in the long term

Be realistic about time spent studying.

School hours are not study hours: there are breaks, assemblies, recording attendance, time between lessons and so on. There is time spent on interruptions, telling kids off, and a lot more. Studying at home should be more intense, so three hours of real study (broken up by breaks) is more than enough. Less for younger children, more for those in a final run up to GCSEs, and still more for A levels.

Keep an eye on time killing habits

TV, videos, games, social media, and more. It used to be easy to just not have a TV, but there is too much online distraction for that to work. Many routers let you block certain sites and services at certain times. Very useful.

There are lots of excellent, free, online resources

There are far too many to list here, and what is suitable depends in maturity, ability and interests. Its not hard to find them online though. Oak national Academy was set up for the pandemic – but there are also Khan Academy, Wootube, Wikibooks, BBC Bitesize, and many, many more.

Give children responsibility

The more responsibility you give children for their education, they less you need to push them. I do not know it this will work for everyone, and some kids may just drift, and it will need some conversations, guidance to make it work, and will not work all the time – but when it does its easier for parents, and children are happier

Encourage reading and creative interests.

Encourage reading, encourage any other interests they have, especially creative ones. Art or music or a good book is a respite from studying, but not a lazy one like slumping in front of the TV, but feels like relaxation.

Read around subjects instead of just text books. Looking at my own bookshelves, we have lots of things related to school subjects (maths, history, physics etc.) aimed at adults who buy them to read for pleasure.

Project Gutenberg has a huge range of free ebooks – they can be read on a phone or tablet with a suitable reader (I use FBReader).

Do NOT try do everything HE families do

You may know home educating families, or read about them and be tempted use them as a model. There may be things you can learn from what we do (that is the point of this post) but we also do a lot of things that depends on the flexibility we have because we home educate long term.

We have very different choices. For example, as often spread (I)GCSEs out over several years. We cannot do certain (I)GCSE subjects (art and PE for example) so use alternative qualifications for those – but we can do a much wider range of academic subjects: anything available to private candidates, from Sanskrit to Economics. This means we have a lot of flexibility in following a curriculum to suit the individual On the other hands schools will take a lot of decisions (which subjects and exam boards to offer) which does make life easier.

There is no such thing as Home Education Sat, 02 Jan 2021 11:57:11 +0000 The public view (shared by media and politicians) of home education often seems to be that it simultaneously means parents assiduously coaching children to get firsts in maths when they are 14 while simultaneously neglecting their education so they never get any qualifications. The problem is that they expect home education to exist in a way it simply does not.The problem is that home education is not a “thing”. The best definition is that it is every type of education that takes place outside a school and classroom setting. This covers a huge variety. There is variety in approaches, variety in subjects and qualifications, variety in everything.

At one extreme there are online schools which (in the UK, at least) are legally home education but work in almost the same way as a school does: it is just school taken online (as many things have been these days). The only real difference between that and the home schooling we have seen schools doing during lockdown is that the online schools have the advantage of being set up to work that way, and the parents involved want to do it. Personally, I see it as being school education in reality, if not in law.

At the other there is unschooling which is deliberately unstructured. Studies show it works well in practice although I am personally not comfortable with that unstructured an approach.

There is also variety in syllabus and qualifications. Most people in the UK do GCSEs, and IGCSEs (public exams typically taken at 16), but may do them early or late. However, some people do American exams, some do vocational qualifications, and so on. Some do minimal academic qualifications, some do a lot.

There is one thing that the popular view (and media and politicians) get wrong about all these approaches is the expectation that home educated children have worse opportunities for social development. This is entirely wrong: home educated children go to a variety of classes, social events, sports, and so on, meeting a wide range of people in different places: far better socialisation than meeting mostly people of their own age group in one setting.

That aside, “every kind of education outside school”, covers a lot, in addition to the two approaches I already mentioned.

Lets start with what used to be called “private education” (before American influence hijacked the term to mean “non-state schools” – British terminology is too complex to explain here for those unfamiliar with it). This is how the Queen and her siblings were educated: by tutors hired by their family. It still happens, but is obviously restricted to those who can afford it.

The obvious alternative is to send children to tutors, or classes held for home educated children. Again, these days, many classes are held online.

Another approach, just as radical as unschooling in its way, but generally more focused on academic achievement, is self-teaching. A lot of children can teach themselves if provided with textbooks and equipment. A great advantage is that they develop better study skills and self-discipline.

There are some other advantages, common to most, if not all, approaches: flexibility and tailoring education to the child. For example, a wider choice of subjects, taking some exams early (my older daughter did her first IGCSE when she was 11). There also tends to be more room for education that does not lead to qualifications: both my daughters have done online courses on subjects ranging from Dante to Haskell programming.

All these different approaches work, but how they work is very different. Differences in personal and family circumstances and differences in individual talents and personalities, also mean different HE children have very different experiences. They may mostly study by themselves, or mostly do classes, or mostly have one to one tuition. They may do entirely different combinations of subjects. Their parents may be involved in day-to-day education very heavily, or just organise things, pay bills and sign forms.

Add in the variety of exams and qualifications and you get even more variety. Imagine one child doing a variety of GCSEs in academic subjects ranging from classical Greek to computer science, taught one to one by tutors. Imagine another doing the same subjects but mostly self taught with some online courses and parental support. Imagine another doing functional skills exams (a less academic substitute for English and Maths GCSEs) and an online IT BTEC (there is such a thing). Imagine another doing Open University courses. Each may be right for the individual. Each is a very different experience, makes different demands, and has different requirements – and I have not even looked at the variety in their lives other than education.

Home education is not a way of educating, it is every way of educating bar one.

You should not home educate because of covid Sat, 12 Sep 2020 13:12:33 +0000 I am an advocate of home education, but I doubt one group of people currently switching are making the right decision. Not all, by any means: it depends on why and what you want.I am heavily involved in online HE communities and I see two groups of newcomers:

  1. Those who found their children (and often themselves) were happier learning at home during lockdown.
  2. Those who are scared of sending children back to school because of covid

These largely correspond to two other groups:

  1. Those who want to try a different way of educating their children
  2. Those who want their children physically at home, but want the school system.

The problem is with the second group. In many cases they are looking (I see them asking online) for a replacement for school, that works as much like school as possible. What they will end up is the worst of both.

I dislike the idea of “online school” because it loses the advantages of home education: the flexibility to tailor education to a child’s interests and abilities, the flexibility to take exams early or late rather than an arbitrary age, choosing from a vast range of subjects (any qualification open to private candidates), meeting lots of different people of different ages in different settings, learning study skills, self-discipline, and taking responsibility, and so on.

Some people are doing this with year 11 children only months away from taking GCSEs. They may have to change syllabus (e.g. from GCSE to IGCSE for sciences), switch to alternative qualifications (for drama or art) perhaps drop some.  I can understand why people do this, but it really should be a last resort. A good test would be whether delaying exams for an year (which would greatly reduce the problems) would be worth it.

Those with younger children have a different problem. Are they happy staying with HE long term? While you can always switch back, you need to consider practical issues such as losing school places, or going too far from the curriculum followed by schools

Covid will be gone (as a meaningful risk) in an year or two – if you think otherwise please read this explanation of virus evolution  Will you still want to HE then? What will you do then if your kids love HE and do not want to go back, but you do not want to the commitment of HE? Are you happy to stick to the school syllabus in the meantime (again negating many of the advantages of HE). Its not just that you may not have covered things in the syllabus, your kids are also likely to be ahead in their best subjects and bored in class.

What we call “home education” is what used to be called “private education” until American influence lead that to mean being educated at an independent school. It is no longer the province only of those who can hire governesses and tutors, but accessible to anyone who can afford a few textbooks, and ideally an internet connection and exam fees.

Many people have found that having children at home is good. One survey said that fathers are particular keen on it post covid. That makes sense to me, because many men are denied involvement in bringing up their children: they are at work and the children are at school. Children are happy to see more of their parents, and parents are happy to spend more time with their children.

Making it better than school takes time, effort and money (although its partially offset by things such as not taking them to school in heavy traffic, buying uniforms, etc.). It means doing things differently. Parents have to take responsibility for either teaching, or organising teaching, or ensuring children are teaching themselves. Parents have to decide on educational approaches, set/influence expectations,  help or find help when needed, and so on,  When it comes to exams you have to find exam centres, decide on syllabuses, fill in forms and pay fees. You may have to argue with an anti-HE local authority trying to bully you into sending children to school, sometimes breaking the law or lying in order to do so (it is surprising how many LAs think their policies can override legislation).

It is an amazing and rewarding experience for parents, and has worked brilliantly for my children, but you have to want to do it. If you are looking for school without a physical presence, you will instead get a second rate copy of school.

Hodder CIE IGCSE Computer Science textbook corrections Sun, 30 Aug 2020 16:24:37 +0000 My (then home educated) daughter used the Hodder Computer Science text book for CIE IGCSEs last year. It was good but we found a number of mistakes. It is still a current textbook so I am noting down some corrections.

The corrections are mostly from Lucy’s notes, but I have looked at the textbook too. Not all are important for the exam, but most could be.

Most of the problems are in Chapter 8. These are what is covered below. If I find any more relevant notes, or find any other issues, I will add them below. If you spot anything I have missed please let me know.


Hacking has meaning other than breaking into a computer system. It can also mean ingenious or cobbled together use of technology. The book’s definition is a common usage.

Cracking means maliciously breaking in into computers. The book’s definition is simply incorrect.

Viruses and malware

  • Viruses embed themselves in other software, altering the executable (program) files them selves. This may include documents that can contain software, such as office documents that allow macros.
  • A worm is a free standing executable that replicates itself.
  • A trojan is disguised as, or inserted into something else, but does not usually replicate itself. For example, a user may install an apparently useful application and find that the developer (or someone else tampering with the distributed code) has added malicious functionality.


Pharming redirects users from a website they want to use to another one. This may be done by editing the hosts file on the user’s own computer, compromising DNS servers, or compromising routers.


WEP should no longer be used. It has been replaced by WPA

Spyware and keylogging

Spyware is much broader than keylogging. Spyware might record web browser history, track media usage, and more.

Keylogging is hard to spot, and may be done with hardware (typically a recording device plugged into a USB port, with the keyboard plugged into that) as well as malicious software. Wireless keyboards may also be monitored in other ways.


  1. Are not the only mechanism for storing data in a web browser: there are also flash cookies and HTML5 storage, for example.
  2. While anonymous per se, they can be used to store personal information, or to store IDs that can be linked to personal information.


Most current web browsers no longer support SSL, or even early versions of TLS.

The term SSL is still used to refer to things associated with this layer: e.g “SSL certificates”.


MD4 is very old and rarely used. MD5, SHA-1 and other more recent algorithms are more common.

Denial of service attacks (DOS)

Attacks that flood the target usually use large numbers of machines to simultaneously attack it. These are often huge networks of PCs compromised by malware. These are called Distributed Denial of Service Attacks (DDOS).

There are may other attacks. For example, Slowloris (see proof of concept code) can bring down a web server by making more requests can many web servers can handle from a single attacking machine, but being more efficient at making requests than the servers are at handling them.

Free software

The book’s definition of free software is essentially based on one type of open source license, the GPL, but with an odd explanation of restrictions and the bizarre addition of one about “not producing software that is deemed offensive by third parties”).

Lots of information from the Free Software Foundation and the Open Source Initiative.

Open source includes free software, but not vice versa. The key difference is that free software can only be included in or modified to produce other free software. Some open source licenses allow proprietary to incorporate the code and remain closed: such software is widely used, for example in Apple’s MacOS X (and iOS) and Google Chome web browser.

Free software is subject to copyright laws – that is why the restrictions in the license are enforceable.

The important difference between open source software (including free software) and freeware is that users cannot redistribute (usually) or modify it.

The Geography of Covid Sun, 21 Jun 2020 14:47:09 +0000 I cannot explain this map, but the clear division in compelling. A few lines divide the world into high, medium and low covid death rate countries and there are few exceptions in the high and low death rate areas.

All I have done is drawn some lines to a map from Our World in Data – eight straight lines and one with a single curve.

As I said, I cannot explain it, but I can rule out some things.

Its not government policies that are critical. Our World in Data has multiple maps of government responses, and there seems to be no sign of correlation.

Its not GDP either.

My first though was of a link with GDP, but while most of the worst affected countries are rich ones, there are two many execpetions both ways.

I cannot see any obvious link to how healthy populations are either.

It occurs to me that Japan, by far the biggest (in terms of population) first world country with a low Covid death rate has an unusually healthy population: in particular a healthy diet and very low rates of obesity. Maybe some combination of wealth and health is the explanation.

Why we are never prepared for a crisis Thu, 16 Apr 2020 12:13:52 +0000 From 2005 Sri Lanka has been well prepared for a tsunami, unfortunately it was entirely unprepared in 2004. From 2021 onwards I have do doubt that the world will we well prepared to deal with a pandemic. We are always ready to fight the last war..

In the case of the COVID-19 pandemic we cannot claim it was unforeseen. Many people had warned of it, pandemics have occurred before and it was inevitable others would in the future. It was no black swan event.

There were tsunami warning systems, and people knew the 2004 tsunami was heading towards South Asia, but no one had given any thought to how to pass warnings to countries outside those involved in the warning system, and while they dithered, people died.

We will now be well prepared for a viral pandemic for the next few decades but there might not be another this serious for a century. Will we really stay prepared for that long?

In the meantime there are other things that may happen, and dealing with one disaster does not make us any better prepared for another. How well are we prepared for another Carrington Event, event for example? Very few people have even head of it, as a solar storm did little damage in 1859 so it was not a disaster then, but it would be one now, knocking out electricity, telecommunications, positioning systems like GPS, and a lot more. This is despite a near miss in 2012 which should have acted as a wake-up call.

Many of the changes in response to COVID are actually making us more vulnerable solar storms and the like. More working from home, greater use of electronic payments, more online shopping, and the general reliance on electronics which will simply stop working.

When we do successfully anticipate and prevent a disaster, many people regard it as a non-event – take the millennium bug, for example. Many people say “nothing happened, so it was a pointless scare”. Nothing happened because it was dealt with.

There are many other disasters we are unprepared for. Meteoroid strikes sound like something out of science fiction or prehistory, so they get filed as “not real”. They are real, and have occurred not much longer ago than the last killer pandemic. The Tunguska Event happened in Siberia in 1908, so, although it destroyed many tens of millions of trees, it did not kill many people. That was luck, it could just as easily have hit a densely populated area.

In Arthur C Clarke’s book 2001, a meteoroid defense system was built after Venice was destroyed by one. Sadly, that is probably what it will take to persuade humanity to prepare for it. In the meantime we are doing very little.

Space weather is on the UK’s “National Risk Register Of Civil Emergencies” but without public discussion and scrutiny it is impossible to know what, if anything, is being done to help us cope. There are no serious plans anywhere to deal with meteoroids, not even real warning systems. These are threats far worse than COVID – they really could be the end of the world, or at least civilization and most human life – but lets “cross that bridge when we get to it”, and its far too late.

Climate treaties cheat the environment. Fri, 13 Jul 2018 11:06:35 +0000 Climate treaties suffer from a problem that is pervasive in our society. It is the same problem that is destroying British state schools, makes public sector out-sourcing fail, and cripples businesses. Once you set a numerical target, the metric becomes more important that what it measures.A good example of the problem is the EU’s pushing of diesel cars. This has, thankfully, been reversed, but it remains a good example of bad consequences.  There are still a far greater number  diesel cars on the road than there otherwise would have been and this is not a problem that is easily solved.

I have a diesel car. We do low annual mileage and much of our driving is through open country,  so I am pretty sure the environmental costs of scrapping it and replacing it with a new vehicle would massively outweigh any gains from running a cleaner car. I suspect that eventually the government will encourage people to scrap regardless of this: because it helps meet the numbers.

The British government defended the policy on the grounds that “it was not known” at the time that diesel was bad? The EU did not know about diesel particulates? Really?

The EU still requires that diesel contains a proportion of bio-diesel. This, again, meets the treaty targets because it is a renewable. The fact that we are chopping down forests to achieve this. In case it is not obvious this policy is that the forests that  remove CO2 from the atmosphere are being cut down, and we are causing localised climate and other environmental damage, and  we are worsening the already terrible mass extinction.

The British governments subsidises the Drax power plant in Yorkshire because it uses “renewable” wood instead of dirty coal. This, once again, means chopping down priceless forests and increasing CO2 emissions and using the only fuel that is actually dirty than coal. Once again, the underlying problem is that the metric is out of touch with reality, and the metric is what matters because it has become a treaty obligation.

There are two political problems:

  1. The need to have fixed targets, which requires a metric, and a metric will never reflect the reality of as complex a problem as this.
  2. The influence on government policy of vested interests such a businesses that have products to sell to solve the problem.

The latter problem is worth expanding on, Have you ever wondered why there is so much focus or reducing the use of fossil fuels, and so little on preserving the forests that are vital to removing CO2 from the atmosphere? The answer is simple. There is money to be made in selling new power plants, new cars, and all the rest. A lot of money. There is no money to be made in not doing something. Guess which the world’s invariably “business friendly” governments prefer?

Not just a CO2 shortage – the economy is broken Thu, 12 Jul 2018 09:27:19 +0000 Shortages happen. A shortage of a gas that is vital to the manufacture of everything from beer to pain killers may look like just another unfortunate occurrence, but it is really a product of the way a “neo-liberal” economy works: globalisation and centralisation.Big businesses centralise production in a small number of plants, this means that unfortunate timing, a small number of closures happening at the same time has a large effect on the supply. If we had a large number of smaller plants, one of my suggestions in How to Fix Capitalism,  then it would be statistically highly unlikely that the same proportion of production would coincidentally shut down at the same time.

Globalisation is to blame for two reasons. Firstly it encourages centralisation. Secondly it encourages imports which makes it harder for anyone to anticipate or plan for the problem and cuts domestic production even further. It makes central planning (which does not have a great track record) even harder.

The reason we have this system is supposedly the pursuit of efficiency, and it is possible that prices of ammonia (of which CO2 is a by-product) and CO2 are lower as a result. I have some doubts (there are other motives for scaling up, and there is plenty of evidence that agency conflicts and the advantage to managers is the real motive), but we can leave that aside for now.

A clearer problem is that the costs of the shortage are widely spread out across the economy, rather than falling on those who operate the plants. In other words, the risk and reality of shortages are externalities.

Combine externalities with the market fundamentalist ideology of the “invisible hand” and the, again ideological, taking of homo economicus not just a useful simplification in economic models but as a guide to reasonable, even moral, behaviour, and we have all the ingredients for the problem. It is not the manufacturers duty to even warn of the problem, let alone try to ameliorate it. If people are expected to have a selfish motivation, what duty is expected to customers, let alone wider society?

So, in summary, if we had lots of small firms, instead of a few big ones, we would avoid this sort of problem. If we had a bit less free trade, it would help as well. Finally, if we had different ideologies and attitudes, we could plan for it. However, these are not three separate issues: they are all products of the market fundamentalist/neo-liberal/pro-business (call it what you will) ideology.

Django signals are evil Thu, 12 Oct 2017 14:20:52 +0000 I was trying to figure out what a Django app was doing today. It turned out that the original developer had decided to monkey patch a third party app. I hardly need say that monkey patching is evil (i.e. a last resort), but one of the things I needed to check along the way was that there was no code being triggered by a (Django) signal, and the problems it causes are very similar to monkey patching.The problem with signals is that it is not obvious to someone else reading your code what is going on. I had a similar problem a few weeks ago when I found a signal was already doing the same as code I was writing in a view. In both cases it added a lot of extra time (proportionate to the fairly simple problems I was fixing) to work out what was going on.

The is exactly the same as the worst of the problems caused by monkey patching. It makes code less readable. A signal could be anywhere in a project, and it could do anything. You look at a view and think you know what it does, but there could be code anywhere that does something you do not know about. Readability counts.

Of course monkey patching is worse. For one thing the risk of incompatibilities break on upgrade is much higher: signals use a well defined API, whereas monkey patching is entirely unpredictable and may change anything.

What are the alternatives to signals? You can often put the code somewhere else. In fact you can always put the code somewhere else if you are willing to fork when signals come from other people’s code. For model signals you can usually use the save method instead, for others you may be able to to subclass or wrap views.

Like monkey patching signals should be used reluctantly, because the alternative is even worse.


Trump’s immigration policy compared to the UK’s Sun, 05 Feb 2017 12:27:17 +0000 There has been near universal condemnation of Trump’s immigration policies, but it seems to be that they simply do in one stroke what most European countries have done incrementally. The UK is a fairly typical European country in this respect so lets see how it compares.

This is a rough summary, and I welcome corrections, but the overall picture is pretty accurate.

Trump UK
All no Syrian refugees in Allow some in after previously admitting virtually none
Prevent people likely to be refugees from boarding flights Prevent people likely to be refugees from boarding flights
Allow in no-one from seven unstable and violent countries Make entry extremely difficult for anyone from most of the world
Might change rules for highly skilled workers – no one knows in what way yet It is already very difficult for highly skilled workers to get visas
Scapegoats immigrants and panders to Islamaphobes Scapegoats immigrants and panders to racists
Easy visas for rich people, even if they are violent criminals Easy visas for rich people, even if they are violent criminals

What is the difference in motives of end results? The main difference is one of rhetoric. Trump has said, in that past, that he wants to keep out Muslims, British politicians use more subtle language, but they make sure that racists are reassured that immigration will be reduced.