Thursday, 26 November 2015

Hope for the future 1

I had a young boy in my class come up with an idea for magnetic shielding. I told him to go research it, and tell me how it could work.

He's just sent an email with the technical details for it, along with citations for research. He's only 11.

There' hope for us yet!

Are RS teachers qualified enough?

RS, for those not in the UK, is Religious Studies.

It's a mandatory part of the curriculum, and for a fairly good reason; it teaches about various different religions to foster tolerance in young people. I've heard it was brought about in reaction to the problems caused by intolerances leading up to World War 2, and the tragedies that brought about.

Essentially it's hard to demonise a particular religious group if your target knows more about them. Propaganda dissolves in the face of hard facts and reason.

The idea is to teach children about all the different religions out there, as well as tackle the fun questions of faith, belief, reasons for ceremony, and all the other ornamentation we add on to going to our place of worship a few times a week (in my case, the local hobby shop).

That wasn't my experience at school, and largely coloured my views on religion.

I went to a Catholic school, and right away a number of you have already made up your minds what the problem was. It was only somewhat like you're imagining, but I wasn't the lone brave atheist in the school outspoken against the oppressive religious regime, like so many other internet personalities claim.

My story is a little more mundane. I think the breadth of what we should have been taught was cut a little bit for more depth on Bible studies. I never learnt about other religious customs, but that's not to say I was indoctrinated, or to say that I didn't learn the value of respecting other cultures... it was only done through a certain lens, and usually attached to a parable or Old Testament story.

Not bad teaching by any means. Context is important, and the Bible is excellent for setting context.

The problem for me was not being able to perform the necessary step from reading to believing. There was always a disconnect there. I could cite stories from the Bible, and talk about what they meant, and why what they were teaching was a god idea. But I could never link it to reality. To me it was simply discussing Lord of the Rings or Narnia. Fun, but not really, well real.

Eventually I taught myself to stop thinking about it, and just regurgitate for tests. It got me through primary school, and enough of the way through Secondary school to eventually leave it behind. But I'm sure that most RS teachers are feeling ashamed that a student went through their school life just knowing rather than understanding, just as I do when I get an adult coming to me saying they know nothing about Science.

The issue was that my original RS teachers only knew about theology. It was what they knew to talk about. And because they couldn't talk about morality and diversity of cultures through any other lens other than Christianity, they couldn't get me to engage with the topics.

This was brought into focus again for me just a few days ago. I was leaving a meeting from one classroom, and as I sped past an open door on my way to the next lesson (teachers very rarely have time to just walk), I was called into an RS lesson.

The teacher asked my bluntly; "What is love?"

"Baby don't hurt me," I replied, to the grins of some of the more internet savvy students. Physics banter is becoming notorious in the school.

She asked again for love in terms of Science, so I asked for clarity; were we talking about bio-chemistry or evolutionary reasons?

I think she chose evolutionary reasons as it was the jargon she was more familiar with.

I've taught Biology. Questions like this are fun to toss around a class, building up understanding!

So I start off by going through how love could be used to keep familial groups together, to preserve genetic material, branching off into speculation about committed relationships and their value to a species survival, hinting at studies showing how humans are not naturally monogamous and so on, until she stopped the conversation to bring up consciousness.

Basically, does the physical brain impact on the mind.

It's a very weak question, and one that Science has answered in great detail, if not fully answered yet.

And so I go off again, talking about brain chemistry, and how moods are affected by hormones and other chemical signals, discussing how parts of the brain affect your personality and some of the case studies of accidental lobotomies changing how people act, and touching upon some of the nifty ways you alter your own brain chemistry to change your own state of minds (but only when you hit 18, I remind the students), when she interrupted the conversation again to talk about sentient machines.

Basically, are humans just sentient machines...

At this point it dawned on me that she was expecting an admission of ignorance. She was looking for me, as a representative of Science to put my hands up and declare, "I don't know."

It went on like this for the rest of the lesson before the bell reminded me I hadn't got my copying done for my own classes, but at this point the RS teacher was already literally banging on the desk looking for a gap in my knowledge.

I wasn't forthcoming. And I'm not even a real scientist.

There is an awful lot I don't know, how people think that a degree in Gender Studies prepares them for a paid job being chief among them. But at no point did her questions and probes come even close to finding these gaps.

I still don't even know what discovering this gap was meant to prove. Science doesn't know everything, therefore there's room for something supernatural? It seems like great lengths to go for a God of the gaps fallacy. Simple open challenge to the new teacher by an established teacher who feels threatened? As an Newly Qualified Teacher in a different department, I have no idea why such a challenge should be needed.

Motive aside, why would these questions which have a plethora of research about to choose from be considered bait? As I said, this is not even my field, and yet I have still read about them, watched summative videos, and sifted through some raw data to understand the issues. Why, if you re teaching them, do you consider them to be tough for another adult to, if not answer, at least point a student to where the answers lie.

Either way, on my way out I gave my usual, "If you want to know more, the Science block is over there."

Purely anecdotal, and something I'm going to look into a bit more: are RS teachers really qualified to teach these issues in class. It seems to me that you should at least be aware of the Scientific research going on about this particular topic.

It also means that perhaps RS as a course, particularly for A level, is potentially ineffective for what students really want to learn. They would be better served by Biology classes, where some real evidence can be used for context.

This is more a ramble that any serious questions. But I just wonder if RS teachers are really prepared for the sheer weight of research in their field... and if they are really equipped to understand and teach it. How many students are lost by the teacher not being able to link what they study to the real world?

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Mathhammer: The Hidden Obvious in Ballistic Skill

Take a look at the stat line for any model in Warhammer 40k, and you'll see that they will have a load of numbers. These numbers will show you just how good a model is at doing something, and as a rule of thumb, higher numbers means increasing competence.

We'll be looking at one number today, because it's a nice little entry to how the game mechanics, and thus the mechanics of the universe of 40k, are more accessible than you might think.

We'll be looking at how good a model is at shooting. Otherwise known as its Ballistic Skill, or BS.

Some of you are snickering, now. Stop that.

The BS (stop it...) shows how accurate a model is with a ballistic weapon, or a gun, and follows the rule of thumb above that larger numbers are better. It's used during the To Hit roll of the shooting phase, and is generally done per model.

The To Hit roll for each ballistic skill is shown in the below table, with re-rolls being the second number:

Ballistic skill12345678910
To hit6+5+4+3+2+  2+6+2+5+2+4+2+3+2+2+

Which is interesting, and indicates likelihood of hitting the target rather easily, at least between BS 1 and 5.

For that we need to know what a 6+ roll actually means.

Remember, 40K is based off of a d6, or a 6-sided dice. When we have a 6+, it means we're trying to get a 6 or higher on that dice.

Higher than a 6 on a d6 is not possible.

Simple probability now: what is the possibility of getting a 6 on a 6-sided die?


For a 5+ To Hit roll, we have two options: either rolling a 5, or rolling a 6 for success. That's 2 sides out of the 6 that wins us a hit.

i.e. 2/6

I'm going to show these probabilities underneath the BS so you can see the pattern emerging.

Ballistic skill12345678910
To hit1/62/63/64/65/6 

Can you see it now? Your BS basically tells you how many shots are actually going to hit their target. If you keep your squads in multiples of 6, you can always work out easily how accurate they will be.

ie. 6 models with BS 1 fire at a target. The likelihood is that only 1 will hit.

6 Guardsmen at BS3 fire at a target. 3 will hit.

6 Dire Avengers in formation at BS5. All but one are going to hit (meaning 10 hits with their nasty catapults!)

This pattern falls down a bit for BS 6-10, so we're look at those values next time (although I strongly suspect a similar pattern will emerge). But it's just nice to see the glaringly obvious in the assigned numbers to these models.

I'll also be looking at Twin-linking, and effective BS. Because Space Marine bikers are not BS4 with their bolt guns.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Mathhammer: Simple stats

... or is it?

Seriously, the game designers down at Games Workshop in deepest darkest Nottingham have created a ridiculously complicated game out of nothing more complex than a six sided die.  They've done so though layered saves and special rules which break the core rules, or more often than not, add something to Core rules.

For those who have not misspent their youth in the paint fumed shops full of multiple miniature armageddons, Games Workshop is a UK based company, famed (and infamous) for its most popular creations: Warhammer Fantasy Battles (WFB), and the perhaps the more well know, Warhammer 40,000 (40K).

These games are all based on pushing miniature soldiers around a board, whilst furiously rolling dice at each other to see who does in who. You might not have been fully aware of it, but you may have seen huge shoulder padded space knights running around shouting "For the Emprah!", or green skinned Orks running around with oversized machine guns shouting "Waaagh!!".

It's most famous for the high prices of the miniatures, rule books, and, well, the high price of everything. It's actually a bit misleading in how expensive it is, and we'll come to that later. Issues arise because people become infatuated with the art and concept of the universes GW build, spend a lot of money without thinking, and lose interest before really getting to play, or before even finishing up their army.

And the game is complex, taking the standard "Variation by rule breaking" philosophy most RPGs have, to the Nth degree. Even their special rules have special rules. Much of the early days of play is spent in the library studying, and of course, number crunching army lists.

That said, it's not so complicated as to be impossible to crack without the original spread sheets and calculations. At its core, it is still just variations on a 1/6 probability. This makes the statistics much easier to predict, at least for individual situations.

Where it becomes difficult is trying to compare different units. Mighty are the arguments and rages between which Marine is best! Commoragh echoes with the shouts and counterpoints between Kabalite warriors or Wyches for troops choice (which is actually a closer debate than you might think!).

Every scientist is at heart a puzzle solver. Hours are spent in the lab trying to glean the source code of reality. It's no wonder that a large proportion of burgeoning scientists are also avid gamers. Cutting their teeth on evaluating the rules behind these fantasy realities is often the first step to the really hard science.

In my Mathhammer series, I'll be doing just that. Taking a peak under the bonnet of the games mechanics, and working out how the game is put together. Along the way I'll also be collecting my own little army, with the aim of using it to lure students into statistical analysis... and also to stay sane in the mad chaotic whirl of the school.

I mentioned that this was all about statistics. The first thing you need to realise is what a d6 die represents.

d6 = 6 sided dice.

This means that to get a certain number is always going to be a chance of 1/6.

Common misunderstanding: 6 is better than 1. This is not true. The chance of getting a 6 is exactly the same as a 1. The value we assign it is dependent on the rules we apply to the game... which is frequently that 1 is an automatic fail, and that 6 is an automatic pass.

The next step, is seeing what this means in the first dice roll players will often make in a game turn: the To Hit roll.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

Teachable Moments

Sometimes I'll look at a game or a movie, and I'll say "Damn."

I'm sure many of you have done so before, but probably not for the same reason.

It started back when I was teaching English as a foreign language. I worked in a number of countires before coming back to the UK, and as any good English teacher will tell you, finding samples of good spoken (or written) English is actually pretty hard.

I know what you're thinking. This man just told us in his last post that English Literature was a waste of time, and now he tells us he used to teach it? Well you'd be wrong. English as a language is a fun mess of systems and structures just ripe for the dissection. Forget simple grammar rules, discourse functions and the basics of simply getting your mouth to make the right sounds is full of good science, and analysis opportunities.

And that complexity is the problem. People don't speak good English that much. Or write it. Or even think it.

Just cast your mind over today. How many times have your responded to a question with "Uh."

There's no sentence there, there's not even a word! And you'll have grunted your way through whole conversations more times than you're likely to admit. I know I do.

Which brings us back to teaching language. Quite often you'll com across a nice stretch of dialogue in a movie, which will have interesting content for the students, relevant to the topic and context of your lesson... only to have it peppered with grunts, slang, and fragments of sentences strung together with various shades of "Er...".

Good for high level students, but for beginners it's a nightmare. You end up using the text book samples, full of voice actors speaking slowly with fake accents. Often talking about the interesting Space Conflict movie with Laser Swords. Truly motivating.

But sometimes, oh sometimes! You come across that wonderful gem. A song where the lyrics aren't just a kid going "Baby" and "Ooh", like they were singing to a toddler that had just spilt their milk on their new smart phone. The movie clip where the words are clear, easy to follow, and have lasting meaning and impact. The game segment which perfectly describes Newton's 3 laws.

And without fail, you'll find it a day or two after you've taught the lesson.


Make a note, put in lesson next time you teach the topic.

To avoid legions more teachers swearing their way through otherwise enjoyable media, I will put up sections of Teachable Moments here. Since I'm a Physics teacher, there going to be Science based at first, but if my reader base ever gets beyond myself and the daphnia on my desk, then maybe people can supply me with more.

By the way, if you're a stamp collecting teacher, get yourself some daphnia. They live off basic bread making yeast, and are pretty hardy. The cool thing you can do with them is examine them under a microscope with your class (visualizer is better if you have one) and add some Red Bull to their water. They start whizzing around like crazy! Perfect to show the effects of caffeine, without feeding the kids coffee (which you shouldn't be doing any more anyway).

Friday, 13 November 2015

What is an Artificial Scientist

Natural sciences are the most wonderful achievements of humanity.

Without them, our world would be colder, darker, and far more dangerous than it is. When it comes to how I would change the world, it would only be to encourage more people to be scientists, to study Physics, and Chemistry, and stamp collecting if the first two are too hard.

But then again, I am a Physics teacher. I have a vested interest in getting people invested in my interests.

This is Artificial Science, where I discuss video games, cinematic worlds, table top games, the whole gamut of nerd and geek culture, all through the lens of Science, reason and rational thought. In each of our make-believe worlds there are truths and systems which can help us to understand our own world. I love dissecting the world around me, and analysis of data can keep me entertained for a far too long a time.

I want to share these musings with you. Because there's nothing a nerd likes more than to lecture on and on about the things he knows. As a group, we tend to vent trivia. Because learning is fun!

I am a Physics teacher, and through the many twists and turns of my life, I never quite made it to the vaunted goal of Real Scientist. As much as I would love to drop everything and go back to university to eviscerate to bounds of the unknown, I am a family man. Sometimes you have to be sensible about things, and focus on where the next pay cheque comes from.

Teaching, and working in the labs so that others may go forth into the intellectual wilderness is satisfying enough... at least for now. Even though I may never get there, at least I will have helped many become Real Scientists. And save them from the perils of, well, English Literature or Gender Studies.. or other wastes of academic time.

That's unfair... all subjects have their place. But it's rare when an interesting interpretation of Hamlet produces an iPhone. Even rarer will a conversation on the roles of transgender iPhones in modern society. I'm not saying the work isn't important, but finding cold fusion and engineering more abundant food stocks will be better in the long run.

That's really the point of this. I don't find debates about skirt lengths in fighting games all that interesting, and there's already a few thousand people out there raging on about them being too high/low/long/blue etc. demanding immediate change and action at a societal level. That strikes me as exhausting. This is a place to relax and talk about light sabres, and how they're better off being plasma brands rather than lasers.

If I can't be a Real Scientist, I'll settle for being a weekend one. I'll settle for examining our artificial worlds, which are a tad more easy to put numbers to than the natural one. An Artificial Scientist. If at the end of all this I have the skills to be a Real Scientist, then excellent! I can retire from teaching, get my evenings back from lesson planning and sit in a lab happy as a pig in data-based muck. If not, well, at least I'll have had some fun.

And isn't that the point of movies and games?

I've preamble rambled on enough, and I've got some books to mark.