Saturday, March 28, 2020

debating the virus

Exponential growth

Eight days ago I sent some figures to a friend saying that if exponential growth continued, doubling every 4 days, then we would have 3,200 corona virus cases in Australia today (28/3)

Our government website, Coronavirus (COVID-19) current situation and case numbers, says that yesterday, 27/3 at 3pm there were 3,166 confirmed cases, so we are still on an exponential growth path.

From their graph the doubling looks roughly like this:

date   total cases
9/3        100
12/3       200
16/3       400
20/3       800
24/3      1600
28/3      3200

Extrapolating that further if the current exponential growth continues
1/4       6400
5/4      13,000
9/4      26,000
13/4     52,000
17/4    104,000
21/4    208,000
25/4    416,000
29/4    832,000

Nearly a million cases by the end of April. These figures, understanding exponential growth, explains the importance of an immediate lock down or hibernation.
Click on the image for a larger view. The lower reported figures in the last two days could be a positive sign or could be a delay in reporting.

update (new graph 4 days later, March 31st):
Hard to read at that size but click on the image for a larger view. Note that the reported figures for each day creep up after the day has passed. New cases on 26/3 are 280 on the first graph and jump to 360 on the second graph. New cases on 27/3 are 175 on the first graph and jump to 370 on the second graph.

Nevertheless, the curve has flattened a little. If doubling every 4 days had continued we would be up to 6,400 cases tomorrow (1/4) and our current figure of 4,359 (today, 31/3) is well below that.

The debate in Australia and world wide is divided between:
  • Those screaming for an immediate lockdown (#lockdownAustralia, Dr Greg Kelly) and critical of Scott Morrison for his ambivalence and mixed messages.

  • Those saying that the danger of this virus has been exaggerated, that the Infectious Fatality Rate is roughly 2 deaths in a 1000 cases (eg. Global Covid-19 Case Fatality Rates:
    Our current best assumption, as of the 22nd March, is the IFR is approximate 0.20%... and later .... Current data from Iceland suggests the IFR is somewhere between 0.05% and 0.14%
  • Those saying that it is more important to keep the economy going and that a lockdown will have worse consequences than attempting to contain the virus (eg. The Corona Dilemma)

  • Those saying that the capitalist system is inherently anarchic or unstable and that this event will push us into an economic downturn worse than the 1930s Depression (A Greater Depression?, People’s Forum: Economic Lessons for 2020)
My views:
I'll keep this brief since still reading and assessing:
(1) What should we do immediately? I agree with lockdown simply because there are empirical cases of
(a) it can overwhelm health systems as in Italy
(b) Some countries through lockdown have succeed in flattening the curve (China, South Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore)

(2) There is a lot we don't know about this particular virus, we need to learn a lot more. eg. as far as I'm aware we don't know whether young people with the virus who are asymptomatic pass it on to others. Of course there are a lot of experts working hard on this right now.

(3) What does the health endpoint look like and how long will that take? Can a vaccine be developed in less than 18 months? Apart from a vaccine what other end points are possible?

(4) Economic and political futures. The left has been lost for many years. There seem to be a few thinkers with a clue (eg. Michael Hudson, David Graeber) but no coherent movement to lead us out of this mess.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Second open letter from Australian doctors to Australian federal and state governments regarding COVID-19

Listen to this podcast interview of Dr Greg Kelly which explains the thinking behind the open letter in more detail.

Second open letter from Australian doctors to Australian federal and state governments supporting strong COVID-19 response to save the lives of Australians
To: Australian Prime Minister Hon. Scott Morrison MP
cc: Australian Health Minister Hon. Greg Hunt MP, Australian Chief Medical Officer Prof. Brendan Murphy, State Premiers and Health Ministers


Australian doctors, healthcare and emergency workers applaud the difficult decisions that have been made by governments this week alongside comprehensive economic measures. However, we are critically concerned that these measures remain inadequate to contain the transmission of COVID-19.

We support the immediate introduction of maximal measures. This means dramatic limitation of physical contact, by requiring all people to stay home, and a shutdown of all services that are not absolutely essential to provide for the necessities of life and functioning of the healthcare system.

We note that Australia is now an outlier amongst other nations that have moved to maximal shutdowns including the UK, New Zealand, Spain, France and Italy. These restrictions are inevitable, as at this stage of the pandemic they are the only way to avoid the disastrous loss of life and profound economic damage seen in Europe and the US. The demonstration of community transmission in NSW and Victoria now means that the virus has not and can not be contained. We need to urgently move to minimise the impact COVID-19 will have on the health system and our community. Despite efforts to increase the capacity of intensive care units across Australia, it is clear from international experience that a surge of critically ill COVID-19 patients can overwhelm even the best health systems and result in much higher death rates. We remain on track for this catastrophic outcome in Australia.

We explicitly endorse the Group of Eight advice of 22nd March commissioned by the Chief Medical Officer, that recommended a “go now, go hard, and go smart” strategy as the best way to “increase the likelihood of a speedier move to a national social and economic recovery phase.” While there will never be perfect information, the risk of further delays is simply too great to wait any longer.

We further explicitly endorse the call from the Australian Academy of Science that the data underpinning COVID-19 decisions in Australia be made public to enable scrutiny of key assumptions and input from frontline health care and emergency workers.

Finally, we are continuing to experience alarming shortages of personal protective equipment at the front line. This equipment is vital to protect the lives of healthcare and emergency workers and our families, as well as reduce transmission to the general community. We acknowledge government efforts in this area, but request urgent, ongoing attention to increasing supplies of personal protective equipment.

Tuesday 24th March 2020

Dear Prime Minister,

We, the undersigned Australian medical doctors, write again to express our grave concern regarding the rapidly escalating threat that Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) poses to the lives of all Australians. We support the strong measures that Federal and State Governments have already taken to contain its threat and, additionally, support the even stronger measures that we know will be required in the days ahead.

We request:
1. The immediate shutdown of all non-essential services in Australia and strict social isolation to limit the spread of COVID-19;
2. Continued strong support for health systems to prepare to face a surge of COVID-19 patients; and
3. Further attention to the risks for Indigenous, rural and remote Australians.

Each of these points is addressed in more detail below.

When 7,000 Australian doctors wrote to you on the 17th of March we made alarming predictions regarding the rate of increase of COVID-19 infections in Australia that have since proved conservative. Worryingly, our prediction of 1,500 cases by today was realised a day early. Italy has continued to suffer very high mortality rates and other developed countries including the United Kingdom, United States, Spain and France are all now suffering from hundreds of deaths as severe COVID-19 cases overwhelm their health systems. We are very concerned that Australia, with 1,700 cases but thankfully few deaths, is currently in a similar situation to the UK's of 14 March, when they had 1,100 cases and 21 deaths. Now, as you know, the UK has had 5,500 cases and 280 deaths. Given our current rate of case increases and the fact that it takes infected patients some time to develop critical illness, we are very concerned that we are little more than one week from a comparable situation. We commend that Australia has performed more COVID-19 testing than most other countries and that faster testing kits are arriving, however, this does not change the current numbers nor the trajectory. Hence, the time to act is now.

We appreciate that Federal and State Governments are giving the situation their full attention and resources, and attempting to balance health risks against severe social and economic ones. We applaud the measures that you and State Premiers have announced in recent days in suspending non-essential gatherings, and note that further measures have been flagged. However, we are concerned that these measures are not being implemented soon enough to slow or halt transmission. Therefore, we support immediate, further action, including a national shutdown of non-essential services and enforcement of strict social distancing. Although these measures will be challenging for us all, implementation needs to happen now to give Australia the best chance to minimise the human and economic toll from this disaster.

Last week, we requested that our health systems urgently prepare for a surge of COVID-19 patients. We appreciate the leadership and resources that have been dedicated to this issue in the last week. Healthcare workers and systems are now clearly focusing on these preparations. However, we need more time and resources at the front-line. Preparations remain incomplete. These include obtaining adequate supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE), training to use it properly and environmental changes to minimise the risk to staff from COVID-19. Also, measures to increase our capacity to care for critically ill patients are lagging - many hospitals are still performing elective surgery, repurposing of areas remains incomplete and vital equipment has yet to arrive. We need more time for this preparation. Hence, reducing the rate of COVID-19 transmission remains critically important. Recent experience from Italy shows that poorly-protected healthcare workers are at substantial risk from COVID-19. It also shows that the mortality rate from COVID-19 can be as high as 4% when health systems are overwhelmed, compared to 1% when they are not.

Finally, we appreciate the attention that has so far been paid to ensuring the health of Indigenous, rural and remote Australians in this crisis. We support ongoing measures to limit transmission in these areas, build capacity and support Indigenous, rural and remote health workers and healthcare.

With these strong, immediate measures, Australian doctors stand ready with their communities to face COVID-19. We cannot do this alone. We need the help and support of the Australian people, and of our representatives in government, to give us the best chance of saving the lives of your loved ones and to protect ourselves and our families too.

Yours sincerely

Sunday, March 22, 2020

5 countries have flattened the corona virus curve

Click the image for an enlarged view.

This graph shows which countries have developed effective measures and have flattened the curve (South Korea, Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong, China) and summarises how they did it.

On the other hand the USA has the sharpest upward trajectory.

Note that the vertical axis is logarithmic not linear.

The best information I am obtaining comes from Dr Greg Kelly's twitter feed

For Northern Territory vital corona virus updates follow Dr John Boffa's twitter feed

Great news!:
Northern Territory introduces strict new coronavirus border controls to halt COVID-19 spread
The Northern Territory will introduce strict border controls from 4:00pm on March 24 that mean anyone arriving from interstate or overseas will have to self-isolate for 14 days.

Key Points:
  • Restrictions will not halt the delivery of essential goods and services
  • There are some exemptions, including health services and police
  • The measures are likely to remain in place for six months
Chief Minister Michael Gunner announced the new restrictions on Saturday

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Open letter from Australian doctors to Australian federal and state governments re. coronavirus COVID19 emergency response

This letter was initiated by Dr Greg Kelly (his twitter feed)

Open letter from Australian doctors to Australian federal and state governments re. coronavirus COVID19 emergency response
To: Australian Prime Minster Hon. Scott Morrison MP
CC: Australian Health Minster Hon Greg Hunt MP, Australian Chief Medical Officer Dr Brendan Murphy, State Premiers and Health Ministers

Monday 16th March 2020

Dear Prime Minister

We, the undersigned Australian medical doctors, are writing to you today because of our grave concern regarding the threat that novel Coronavirus 19 (COVID19) represents to the lives of Australians. We believe that Australian federal and state governments can avert disaster by heeding the lessons of other countries.

This means:

1. Immediately implementing the strict measures of lockdown and social distancing that have been shown to be effective at slowing the spread of COVID19 and,
2. Preparing our health systems for a surge of COVID19 and critically ill patients.

Taken together, these measures would reduce the numbers and presentation rate of COVID19 patients and allow our health system to cope.

International experience is that the COVID19 virus behaves in a relatively predictable way with the number of cases doubling every 3-5 days before strict lockdown and social distancing measures are implemented. Data from China, Europe and now Australia support this assertion. Exponential growth of this kind leads to relatively small numbers of infected patients to become large numbers at first slowly and then very, very quickly.

On current growth rates the 370 cases in Australia today will be 750 on Friday, 1500 on Tuesday next week, 3000 next Saturday, 6000 on the 1st of April and 12 000 by the 4th of April. This is less than 3 weeks from now and puts us in a worse position than Italy is currently in. Experience from China and Italy has also shown us that social distancing changes implemented today will take 2 weeks to show an effect on the numbers of diagnosed new cases due to the lag between initial contact and development of severe disease. We are especially concerned about impacts on Indigenous communities given their high rates of pre-existing illnesses and limited health infrastructure.

While we applaud the measures that have been taken by Australian authorities so far we know that they are not enough. The Italian government believed that they were acting decisively with their first local lockdowns at just 21 confirmed national cases, far lower than the current rates in Australia. Many of us are in contact with colleagues in Italy, Spain and France and they are begging us to learn from their mistakes.

The Italian authorities are reporting much higher rates of critical illness in their population than reported in Wuhan, China. This is likely related to an older population demographic with more pre existing illnesses. Australia is much more similar to Italy than Wuhan in this respect. Patients with critical COVID19 illness require admission to an intensive care unit for respiratory support and require highly specialised staff, equipment and locations, all scarce resources that cannot be easily increased. The Italian region of Lombardy which is currently hardest hit by COVID19, is one of the richest areas in Europe with a health system equal to that of Australia's. Our colleagues there have made herculean efforts to increase their capacity to care for critically ill COVID19 patients. Despite their efforts their systems are completely overwhelmed with corresponding very high death rates and inability to provide intensive care to previously healthy seventy year olds. They describe their situation as like being "in a war zone." With access to intensive care the death rate from COVID19 is likely less than 1%, but in an overwhelmed system without access to intensive care the death rate approaches 4%. Today, Italy has reported over 2100 deaths.

Fortunately, experience shows that COVID19 transmission rates can be significantly reduced if we heed the lessons of other countries. Chinese provinces outside Wuhan are excellent examples of this, as are Singapore, Korea and Taiwan. Widespread economic lockdown and social distancing are what is required. Transmission still occurs but the number of severely ill people remains within the capacity of our health system to treat them. The international experience has been that this decision cannot be averted, only delayed, and that the cost of delay in economic and human terms is higher than the cost of acting early and decisively. Furthermore, due to their experience with SARS, countries like Singapore can teach us valuable lessons about minimising economic effects from such epidemics.

Our second request is that urgent preparations are made to prepare our health systems for an unprecedented surge of COVID19 infected and critically ill patients. Such measures include an immediate reduction in elective work, increased frequency and intensity of hospital cleaning, measures to temporarily increase intensive care capacity and increasing personal protective equipment for staff.

With these immediate measures, Australian doctors and health care workers stand ready with their communities to face COVID19.


Related: Covid_19: Open letter from Italy to the international scientific community

As you surely know, Italy is suffering a dramatic spreading of the coronavirus.

In just 3 weeks from the beginning of the outbreak, the virus has reached more than 10.000 infected people.

From our data, about 10% of patients require ICU (Intensive Care Unit) or sub ICU assistance and about 5% of patients die.

We are now in the tragic situation that the most efficient health system of the richest area of the country (Lombardy) is almost at its full capacity and will soon be difficult to assist more people with Covid-19.

This is the reason why an almost complete lockdown of the country has been ordered: to slow down and hopefully stop the contagion as soon as possible.

The virus is spreading at maximum speed, doubling the number of infected people in just 2,4 days[1].

As it emerges without a doubt from the data available, all the European countries are in fact experiencing the same rate of contagion speed and that they are just a few days behind on where it is Italy now [2].

The beginning of the outbreak had the exact same number of infections in China, Italy, and other countries. The difference is that China strongly and quickly locked down Wuhan and all of the Hubei region 8 days before Italy [3].

Just 8 days of delay for the Italy lockdown will result in an enormous increase in the number of total deaths in Italy with respect to China.

This exact same initial dynamic in the number of new cases can also be observed in every country outbreak.

It’s hard for non-specialists to intuitively grasp the way an exponential rate increase can get out of control.

So it’s very difficult to realize the tragic consequences that an exponential growth can have in a contagion like this one.

As a scientist, you surely do understand it. You do also understand that, as long as the rate of increase is exponential, no linear solution to contrast it will work (I.e. increasing x times the number of ICU machines, etc.)

Similarly, just imposing a limitation on people from staying together in large groups is not a sufficient solution.

This is an appeal to you, as a member of the scientific community, to urge your government to act now for actively stopping the virus!

In most EU countries you have enough time to make a lockdown similar to China or South Korea to quickly slow down and stop the contagion with much less effort and cost of what is now needed in Italy.

If Italy had strongly acted just 10 days ago, and that is more or less where you are now, there would have been much fewer deaths and economic tumble.

South Korea and China should be taken as the example to follow to stop this epidemic.

There is no other way.

So please, make your best effort to urge your government to act now! Time is our common enemy as the virus is very fast and really lethal.

Every minute is exceptionally important as it means saving lives. Don’t waste it!

Take care.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Report of the WHO-China Joint Mission on Coronavirus Disease (summary)

Report of the WHO-China Joint Mission on Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) (Feb 10- Feb 24, 2020)

I've extracted some of the main points. The whole report is 40pp.

Zoonotic origins
COVID-19 is a zoonotic virus. From phylogenetics analyses undertaken with available full genome sequences, bats appear to be the reservoir of COVID-19 virus, but the intermediate host(s) has not yet been identified

Routes of transmission
COVID-19 is transmitted via droplets and fomites (eg. human skin cells, hair, clothes, bedding) during close unprotected contact between an infector and infectee. Airborne spread has not been reported for COVID-19 and it is not believed to be a major driver of transmission based on available evidence

Household transmission
In China, human-to-human transmission of the COVID-19 virus is largely occurring in families. … Among 344 clusters involving 1308 cases (out of a total 1836 cases reported) in Guangdong Province and Sichuan Province, most clusters (78%-85%) have occurred in families.

Contact Tracing
China has a policy of meticulous case and contact identification for COVID-19. For example, in Wuhan more than 1800 teams of epidemiologists, with a minimum of 5 people/team, are tracing tens of thousands of contacts a day.

Transmission in China outside of Hubei
To date, most of the recorded cases were imported from or had direct links to Wuhan/Hubei. Community transmission has been very limited. Most locally generated cases have been clustered, the majority of which have occurred in households, as summarized above.

Data on individuals aged 18 years old and under suggest that there is a relatively low attack rate in this age group (2.4% of all reported cases).

The signs, symptoms, disease progression and severity
Symptoms of COVID-19 are non-specific and the disease presentation can range from no symptoms (asymptomatic) to severe pneumonia and death. As of 20 February 2020 and based on 55924 laboratory confirmed cases, typical signs and symptoms include: fever (87.9%), dry cough (67.7%), fatigue (38.1%), sputum production (33.4%), shortness of breath (18.6%), sore throat (13.9%), headache (13.6%), myalgia or arthralgia (14.8%), chills (11.4%), nausea or vomiting (5.0%), nasal congestion (4.8%), diarrhea (3.7%), and hemoptysis (0.9%), and conjunctival congestion (0.8%).

People with COVID-19 generally develop signs and symptoms, including mild respiratory symptoms and fever, on an average of 5-6 days after infection (mean incubation period 5-6 days, range 1-14 days).

Most people infected with COVID-19 virus have mild disease and recover. Approximately 80% of laboratory confirmed patients have had mild to moderate disease, which includes non-pneumonia and pneumonia cases, 13.8% have severe disease ... and 6.1% are critical (respiratory failure, septic shock, and/or multiple organ dysfunction/failure).

Individuals at highest risk for severe disease and death include people aged over 60 years and those with underlying conditions such as hypertension, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, chronic respiratory disease and cancer. Disease in children appears to be relatively rare and mild with approximately 2.4% of the total reported cases reported amongst individuals aged under 19 years. A very small proportion of those aged under 19 years have developed severe (2.5%) or critical disease (0.2%).

Mortality increases with age, with the highest mortality among people over 80 years of age (crude fatality ratio, CFR 21.9%)

While patients who reported no comorbid conditions had a CFR of 1.4%, patients with comorbid conditions had much higher rates: 13.2% for those with cardiovascular disease, 9.2% for diabetes, 8.4% for hypertension, 8.0% for chronic respiratory disease, and 7.6% for cancer.

Knowledge gaps
Annex D summarizes the key unknowns in a number of areas including the source of infection, pathogenesis and virulence of the virus, transmissibility, risk factors for infection and disease progression, surveillance, diagnostics, clinical management of severe and critically ill patients, and the effectiveness of prevention and control measures. The timely filling of these knowledge gaps is imperative to enhance control strategies.

Much of the global community is not yet ready, in mindset and materially, to implement the measures that have been employed to contain COVID-19 in China. These are the only measures that are currently proven to interrupt or minimize transmission chains in humans. Fundamental to these measures is extremely proactive surveillance to immediately detect cases, very rapid diagnosis and immediate case isolation, rigorous tracking and quarantine of close contacts, and an exceptionally high degree of population understanding and acceptance of these measures.

For the public
1. Recognize that COVID-19 is a new and concerning disease, but that outbreaks can managed with the right response and that the vast majority of infected people will recover;

2. Begin now to adopt and rigorously practice the most important preventive measures for COVID-19 by frequent hand washing and always covering your mouth and nose when sneezing or coughing;

3. Continually update yourself on COVID-19 and its signs and symptoms (i.e. fever and dry cough), because the strategies and response activities will constantly improve as new information on this disease is accumulating every day; and

4. Be prepared to actively support a response to COVID-19 in a variety of ways, including the adoption of more stringent ‘social distancing’ practices and helping the high-risk elderly population.

Friday, March 06, 2020

useful articles about the corona virus

update: (March 13th)

It is easy to overdo COVID-19 quarantines

This one covers the nature of the virus, the health and economic issues.

Quarantines and restricting events with huge crowds (Scott Morrison's current "solution") will slow down the spread of the virus but won't stop it. It is unlikely that a vaccine will be developed soon. So, the virus will continue to spread to a large percentage of the population. This will lead to a profound economic downturn.

On a personal note, wrt health issues probably the smart thing for an elderly person like myself to do is take supplements to improve my immune system:
Nutrition experts recommend supplementing diets with Vitamins A, C, E, antioxidants and selenium. Other experts say zinc, Vitamin D and elderberry may be helpful
How does the coronavirus outbreak end?

Deaths by age in mainland China:
over 50: 94%;
under 50: 6%
You’re likely to get the coronavirus.

The assertion was based off an estimate from Harvard epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch, who predicted some 40 to 70 percent of all adults around the world would catch the virus within a year. Lipsitch has since revised that estimate downward and with a greater range: He now estimates it’s “plausible” that 20 to 60 percent of adults will catch the disease. (If this comes to pass, while being bad, it’s not apocalyptic: Most cases of Covid-19. are mild. But it does mean millions could die.)

In an email, Lipsitch says his model “assumes that the transmission in the rest of the world is at least fairly similar to that in China.” But “projections should be made with humility,” he adds, as there’s a lot still to uncover that will impact the forecast (like the role children play in spreading the disease).
Did the coronavirus get more deadly? The death rate, explained

From the figures it appears that the death rate from those infected is 3 to 4%. But this is misleading because many mild cases are not reported.

Worldometer corona virus

The latest stats: The coronavirus COVID-19 is affecting 124 countries and territories around the world (March 12, this figure increases daily)

Original post (March 6th) At this point I'm persuaded it will lead to a global recession. The first article talks about this and I can't refute it.

The second article is about overlooked issues, quite interesting. The third one is about how our health systems are susceptible to hacking.

The Gathering Storm: Could Covid-19 Overwhelm Us in the Months Ahead?

Easily overlooked issues regarding COVID-19

Security of Health Information

Monday, February 03, 2020

the Todd river

Alice Springs locals say that when you see the Todd flow three times you'll stay for life. In 2018 we had 161 consecutive days without rain so I was doubtful that I would ever see the Todd flow.

But today after more than 2 years here I saw it flow for the first time:

Monday, January 27, 2020

books I am reading in 2020

Appiah, Kwame Anthony. Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers (2007)
Bruner, Jerome. The Culture of Education (1996)

Eglash, Ron and co., various articles:
  • Automation for the Artisanal Economy: Enhancing the Economic and Environmental Sustainability of Crafting Professions with Human-Machine Collaboration (2019)
  • Of Marx and Makers: an Historical Perspective on Generative Justice (2016)
  • Culturally responsive computing as brokerage:toward asset building with education-based social movements (2016)
  • Computer Science Education from Life (cSELF) (2013)
  • From Ethnomathematics to Ethnocomputing: indigenous algorithms in traditional context and contemporary simulation (2012)
  • Fractal Simulations of African design in pre-college Computing Education (2011)
  • Teaching with Hidden Capital: Agency in Children’s Computational Explorations… (2009)
  • Culturally_Situated_Design_Tools_Ethnocomputing from field site to classroom (2006)
Gershenfeld, Neil; Gershenfeld, Alan; Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld. Designing Reality: How to Survive and Thrive in the Third Digital Revolution (2017)
Graeber, David. Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2014 edition)
Kelly, Kevin. The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces that will Shape our Future (2017)
Merlan, Francesca. Caging the Rainbow: Places, Politics and Aborigines in a Northern Australia Town (1998)
McLean, Ian. How Aborigines invented the idea of contemporary art: edited and introduced by Ian McLean (2011)
McLean, Ian. Rattling Spears: A History of Indigenous Australian Art (2016)
Nakata, Martin. Disciplining the Savages, Savaging the Disciplines (2007)
Perkins, Rachel. Boyer Lectures 2019 (audio)

my decade

I went through my blog posts from 2010-now to clarify my own path. As usual I have jumped around, leading multiple lives, burning bridges and ending up in no man’s land. Nevertheless, it makes sense to me.

I began the decade continuing with some serious study of political economy, mainly but not only Marx. I feel satisfaction that I finally gained some understanding of Capital and value theory. Why did I stop this, given that the economic crisis certainly hasn’t gone away? Part of the reason was that I couldn’t find reliable comrades to team up with. Another reason was that I found it really hard to get a strong grasp of the subject. But, in thinking about it more, in the end it felt like armchair research. I couldn’t see an endpoint that would be socially useful. I wouldn’t be able to prove anything beyond the now fairly obvious fact that capitalism is an unstable system. I’m an activist as well as a theoretician. Would I return to this topic? Perhaps. I would like to understand authors like Picketty (Capital in the 21st C) and Graeber (Debt: The First 5,000 years)

I began the decade as a huge fan of Noel Pearson. Because of him I became involved in indigenous education and decided to give Direct Instruction (Zig Engelman version) a go. In my interpretation of Noel’s educational vision I could play a positive role. I completed an observation visit to Djarragun College (a Pearson school), near Cairns, in April 2012 and was impressed. Later, I went there to work, 2016-17. The school was a fascinating place but in 2017 the leadership turned bad. I learnt a lot about Noel and now think he is a poor leader. I learnt that someone might be a great speaker and writer but still a poor leader. Nevertheless, because I was teaching aboriginal kids from all over the Cape and Torres Strait Islanders too, I ended up with an experiential understanding of the difficulties and joys of teaching those kids.

Assessing the significance of indigenous culture has been a tortuous path for me. Initially, due to Noel’s influence (DI) and Alan Kay’s influence (the non universals) I was one eyed about the virtues of modernity. However, this began to change due to both my reading and exposure to culturally informed ways of teaching maths. Through the conferences run by Chris Matthews (ATSIMA 2016 and 2018) I discovered YuMi Deadly Maths and authors such as Martin Nakata ( Disciplining the Savages, Savaging the Disciplines). This was a slow burn, starting in 2016, but looking back now I can see it transformed me from a determined supporter of DI into something very different. I still see a place for DI, the Rhonda Farkota version, but it is not central to my way forward anymore. I’m no longer a vanilla modernist but have transformed into a mongrel modernist.

Throughout the decade I have attempted to understand the true nature of science. Following Pickering I now see science as a complex performance in which there is a dance of agencies between humans and machines as nature offers resistance to our attempts to understand it. Representation and abstraction may be useful at times but they are not real. The path to truth is in the world, lived practice, the full, messy, sensual social human drama of activity.

I still believe there is no single unified learning theory and good teachers have to walk the walk along several approaches: behaviourist, cognitivist, constructionist, enactivist, phenomenology.

In the past couple of years I’ve resumed study of the potential of computers in education. In particular the three game changers of computer coding, physical computing and maker spaces. I’d like to make a contribution by taking these devices to Disadvantaged students, particularly the indigenous.

Late in the decade I’ve discovered the work of Ron Eglash and co which can be called ethnocomputing or Culturally Situated Design Tools. I think I can apply this to Australian indigenous conditions and make a positive contribution in this regard. I’ve developed an exemplar to illustrate this approach, called Dotted Circles, which integrates computer coding, maths and the Papunya Tula art form.

Life after Noel (2018)
Alan Kay Universals / Non Universals (2008)
Martin Nakata: Disciplining the Savages ...
Rhonda Farkota
The Mangle of Practice: Time, Agency and Science (1995) by Andrew Pickering (download the book)
the 3 game changers, Invent to Learn
Ron Eglash CSDT site and articles

Monday, January 20, 2020

Frontier Justice by Tony Roberts

I remember being impressed by the meticulous research in this book when I read it in 2018. IMO it is essential reading for those who want to understand the frontier wars. Keith Windschuttle has challenged this sort of information when it has been put forward by other authors, such as Henry Reynolds, in what is known as the history wars: the true impact of British colonialism on Australian aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders. I did look for critical reviews of this book but couldn't find any.

I found a review I agreed with (here) and am quoting it in full.

Frontier Justice: A History of the Gulf Country to 1900 by Tony Roberts (2005)
Tony Roberts begins his monumental study of Aboriginal-white frontier relations by describing the harshness, remoteness and dangers of the Gulf country, a vast region stretching from the Barkley Tablelands to the Roper River in the Northern Territory and from the Stuart Highway to the Queensland border and beyond as far as Burketown. The region is centred on the isolated township of Borroloola.

As Roberts notes, this was Australia’s last frontier. Even today the area is remote and little known to most Australians. The strength of Robert’s study of frontier relations in this region is evident from the start in the deft and telling way he sets the context. During the pastoral boom of the 1880s thousands of head of cattle were driven along the ‘coast track’ from Queensland to Roper Bar and Katherine in the Northern Territory to stock the vast stations being established. There followed many hopeful individuals seeking riches in the Kimberley gold rush. Roberts notes this was ‘a momentous time in Australian history’.

However, describing the enormity of the dispossession and destruction that overwhelmed the tribes of the area in the short space of two decades, Roberts applies those same words to describe the significance of these events for Aboriginal society. He says it was ‘a momentous time in Aboriginal history’. The implication is clear – there are two histories in this country. Roberts sets himself the task of exploring both versions, and in the process throws much light on previously hidden aspects of the interaction of the two societies, settler and Aboriginal, in this remote frontier region.

Roberts’ detailed, almost forensic, examination of this relationship reveals a tragic and cruel tale. The damage inflicted, sometimes unwittingly, but all too often with callous intent, on the Aboriginal people of the region, is captured in the words of his title – ‘frontier justice’ – a title redolent with irony, as the reader becomes only too well aware as the story of the destruction wrought upon Aboriginal society is revealed.

Frontier Justice provides a detailed account of the history of the area to 1900 on a chronological and on an area by area basis. Although this approach leads to some repetition, the result is a comprehensive account. Roberts has spent 30 years researching and writing this book. It is a labour of both love and despair. The story Roberts tells is one of rape, abduction and murder of Aboriginal people by brutal whites (and Roberts makes abundantly clear that not all whites were brutal), of Aboriginal reprisals by way of killing of whites (Roberts uses the term ‘murder’), spearing of stock and setting fire to the country. The deadly cycle of reprisal, including ‘punitive expeditions’, then comes into play. Indiscriminate shooting of Aboriginal men, and sometimes of women and children, became the method of ‘controlling the blacks’. Roberts builds a strong case to show that the police were active agents in the punitive expeditions, and in particular raises serious concerns about the role played by Inspector Paul Foelsche who was in charge of policing in the northern half of the Territory from 1870 to 1904.

Roberts explains that essential to the subjugation of the Aboriginal tribes was the conspiracy of silence that prevailed. This kept the metropolitan government in Adelaide at bay as they struggled ineffectively to keep some control of the Northern Territory situation. One needed to know the code to understand what was happening – Aboriginal people were not ‘shot’, they were ‘dispersed’. When reports were written they understated the numbers killed and misrepresented the circumstances. Bushmen were not obliged to join in the hunting of Aborigines, but they were required to keep silent about what they knew. Roberts has managed to penetrate this ‘veil of secrecy’ only through an enormous research effort. He has uncovered many key documents from archives and personal possessions which have not previously seen the light of day. He has relied on a wide variety of sources, published and unpublished, including extensive Aboriginal oral history. It is a cover-up that almost succeeded.

Such a mass of information could have been overwhelming, and made such an account as this turgid and difficult. However, Roberts writes with an economy of words that repay close attention as they carry much information, directly and by implication. Writing of the punitive expeditions, Roberts notes: ‘In the fledgling Northern Territory they [the punitive expeditions] were commonplace: supported by government officials, applauded by the local press, perpetrated by ordinary men and sometimes led by senior police officials’.[1] The sentence says a lot about the nature of the Australian frontier. Roberts’ book is lengthy not because the author is wordy, but because of the mass of information it contains.

As well as punitive expeditions, casual shootings and assorted violence, Roberts describes the forced sexual mistreatment of women and children in the region. Venereal disease became rampant and was untreated. The practice of kidnapping young children left old people to fend for themselves – often destitute and starving.

However, a parade of violence, well-researched and documented as it is, would not take us far in understanding the dynamics of the frontier. Roberts shows that lying behind the self-justified and largely unchecked violence was the assumption that the Aboriginal people had no rights in the lands they had occupied for millennia. On the other hand, the whites had, apparently, the right to travel through, or even take possession of, these lands. Any opposition on the part of the Aboriginal people was seen as contrariness, treachery or criminality. This is the true psychology of terra nullius. Roberts himself pinpoints this assumption by the whites: ‘The land was simply occupied as if it were terra nullius and severe punishment was meted out to any Aboriginal who resisted’.[2]

Frontier Justice is a well-informed, closely researched and absorbing book. It is a work of detailed scholarship which manages to be objective, in the sense of a dispassionate search after historical truth, and morally engaged at the same time. Roberts does not hesitate to name moral bankruptcy. Frontier Justice strips away the romanticised view of the pioneering days which has largely served to hide the brutal and difficult realities of our past. These realities have to be faced. Frontier Justice makes a significant contribution to this task. It deserves to be in every school, university and public library.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Australia's shameful history

“This history is so shameful that most Australians could not admit that this is the origin of their state and their nation”
— Indigenous historian Marcia Langton, in The First Australians.
When I grew up in Melbourne in the 1950s the history of what happened to the aboriginals was invisible. No one talked about it. As Bill Stanner said in 1968 it was the great Australian silence, a cult of forgetfulness on a national scale. A view from the window where a significant part of the landscape was hidden.

Some of my marxist comrades say something like this:
Aboriginal resistance to colonialism can’t be supported because their social system was too backward, primitive, “stone age”. Further, it is argued that Marx supported globalisation and implied from that, that he supported colonialism. See Marx Supported Capitalist Globalization  According to this dialectic the British occupation of Australia was basically a good thing. Modernity is good, superior to any form of pre-modern society. Perhaps I am not portraying their position correctly. They can fix that.

What I am thinking:
This mindset filters out some uncomfortable facts. We see the world through our mind memes, the state of our mind determines what we choose to see. Hence, some of these comrades end up say that Windschuttle was correct in his denial of massacres. I've been told that historians such as Lyndall Ryan and Henry Reynolds either exaggerated or lied and never admitted it when they were caught out. I can except that but believe that their fundamental position is correct, that widespread, systematic massacres occurred.

What facts?
That there were repeated massacres of aboriginal people. Following from the terra nullius doctrine aboriginal people were not treated as having any rights. So, in Tasmania the ex convict settlers took their women. In Queensland pastoralists took their land, etc, etc. Any thinking person should be able to see that this would inevitably lead to conflict. I filter the facts through that context, terra nullius and what would have to flow from that. Aboriginal people responded by killing whites or cattle. In response the whites responded by multiple killings of aboriginals, the only viable way in the conditions of the early colonies, to “teach them a lesson”. Those doing the massacres were usually not brought to justice. Either a blind eye was turned or the massacres were kept secret from authorities.

The evidence:
I didn’t always know this as mentioned earlier. When I went to Far North Queensland (Pauline Hansen country) I learnt through reading (eg. Henry Reynolds) and talking to people that the mindset of “keeping the abos in their place” was widespread. A cleaner at Djarragun College told me that during a holiday further north a publican had told her that when driving home at night if an aboriginal was on the road the best thing to do was run them over.

At any rate, I’ve read these books which I believe provide adequate documentation of both the mindset and the facts:
All that is solid melts into air by Marshall Berman
The Politics of Suffering by Peter Sutton
The Tall Man by Chloe Hooper
The Black War by Nicholas Clements
Why Warriors Lie Down and Die by Richard Trudgen
Why weren’t we told? by Henry Reynolds
Forgotten War by Henry Reynolds
Frontier Justice by Tony Roberts
Disciplining the Savages, Savaging the Disciplines by Martin Nakata
Cosmopolitanism by Kwame Anthony Appiah
Colonial Frontier Massacres, Australia (Date Range: 1780 to 1930)
Dancing with Strangers by Inga Clendinnen
The Sinister Glamour of Modernity by Ross Gibson
Australian Frontier Wars: Keith Windschuttle and Henry Reynolds on Lateline (22 minutes)
Australian Frontier Wars: Keith Windschuttle and Henry Reynolds at the National Press Club (58 minutes)
Man from Arltunga: Walter Smith Australian Bushman by Dick Kimber
Gillen's Modest Record edited by Philip Jones
Boyer Lectures 2019, by Rachel Perkins (audio)

Of these, perhaps the best documented books about the massacres (rather than the mindset) are those by Clements (about Tasmania) and Roberts (about Queensland and the NT). I mention this because I accept that everyone is busy on their own projects and doesn't have time to read everything.

Update (Jan 19): Added some more books and links. In particular the debate between Keith Windschuttle and Henry Reynolds at the National Press Club (58 minutes) is worth watching.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Dotted Circle samples

A good app IMHO. Here are some sample art works I made with my dotted_circles app. The first two are me just playing around but the bottom two are attemps to imitate a portion of aboriginal art from the exhibition book referenced at the end.

Go to the Snap! app dotted_circles_6 and do one yourself!

(with the last two designs I have attempted to imitate a fraction of the art work on pages 2 and 80)

Issues arising:

My overall goal is not to imitate Papunya Tula art but to find new forms to teach maths and computer coding to indigenous students.

This is an app which builds a bridge between maths and computer code to make art. When introduced to students what will the learning outcomes be? I suspect they will learn something about design but it would take a lot more input from a teacher for the students to learn computing coding and maths from this. Nevertheless, it may motivate them to do so.

The User interface is poor. Since the user has to poke around and find the values to change in the Scripting Area. Important issue but I'm not sure at this stage how to improve it. ie. you can do good art with this app but need patience to master the user interface. Not good since UI is a huge issue.

There is a big story to tell about the Papunya Tula art movement, which I have yet to tell, although others have.

The learning theory was discussed in an earlier article: Culturally Situated Design Tools: Dotted Circles Exemplar version 2. In two phrases (1) performance above representation (2) ascend to the concrete.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Culturally Situated Design Tools: Dotted Circles Exemplar version 2

aka Tribal Modernism
aka ethnocomputing

It begins like this:

and develops into this:
This began as an exploration of a good way to teach maths to the indigenous. It has turned into an integrated curriculum approach with maths as one of the important elements. The elements of integration include art, aboriginal culture, technologies including digital technology, maths and story telling

A powerful idea from indigenous culture is the circle. This was highlighted by Chris Matthews at the final session of ATSIMA 2018 (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Mathematics Alliance).

The numbers (1), (2), (3) and (4) on the diagram refer to particular interfaces within the overall picture. I’ll use those interfaces to describe the approach in more detail.

(1) The interface between Indigenous Dotted Circle Art and Ascend to the Concrete.

The dotted circles are prominent in western desert aboriginal art (Papunya Tula) dating back to the early 1970s. I was surprised to discover the assertion in a couple of books by Ian McLean that aborigines invented the idea contemporary art. It makes for interesting history and I’ll have to summarise that story at another time. Dotted circle art in indigenous culture is a powerful theme, not tokenistic. Ian McLean coins the term "tribal modernism" to describe the growth of the Papunya Art movement:
The Western Desert painters remain committed to their tribal traditions. They did not abandon them for the promises of Westernism but instead insisted on the contemporaneity of their tribalism. This is perhaps the greatest shock of the art movement from an artworld perspective: it is tribal modernism. Thus it challenges the self-defining paradigms of both Western modernity and the artworld.
- Rattling Spears, p. 121
The following example comes from a public poster about NAIDOC week:

(2) The interface between Maths of the Circle and Ascend to the Concrete.

Mathematical abstraction is often cited as a pinnacle of Westerm culture.

However, some authors have presented original interpretations. Ascend to the concrete comes from the philosophy of Marx. Andrew Pickering’s mangle analysis of Science speaks of the dynamic interaction between the material (machines) and humans. Epistemological pluralism, where the bricoleur approach is recognised as both valid and powerful, comes from Papert and Turkle.

By mathematical abstraction I mean, pi = circumference / diameter and the other formulae that flow from that. Mathematical abstraction is powerful, I agree with that. However, it is also a double headed beast. To abstract a circle, as in a textbook maths representation, is to oversimplify the richness of real circles found in art and nature.

Rather than dry as dust textbook maths I strive here for material based, hands on, models that will engage, motivate and educate. The long term goal is to teach maths and the computer coding of maths. But dry abstractions, learn C = 2piR, then plug in the values and get the correct answer, often does not engage or promote meaningful understanding.

How do we make the derivation of pi more concrete? One good way is the rope activity. Walk out 7 steps along a rope being held by a partner. Then walk around your partner in a circle counting your steps. If you get 44 steps then you have an approximation for pi (44/14 = 22/7). Repeat this process for different radii. Notice that the value of C/2R or C/D is always roughly the same. Why is that?

Moreover, a sprite on the computer sits at the boundary between the abstract and the concrete, a visible thing, almost tangible. Program it to move in a circle. That is abstract. Then see the sprite move in a circle. That is concrete. Add some colour and other effects, such as lumpy dots. That is enriched concrete or artistic concrete with an underlying abstraction. We have ascended to the concrete.

Snap! program estimating pi by measuring circumference and diameter

(3) The interface between Maths of the Circle and Indigenous Dotted Circle Art

How do we make the maths artistic and the dotted circle art mathematical? This can be done with computer programs such as Turtle Art, Scratch or Snap! There are various ways to draw circles on the computer. A good way to do a dotted circle was to start in the centre, lift the pen, move radius, put the pen down, draw the dot, lift the pen and return to the centre. Then turn a little and keep repeating the process. Computers are fast, one of their great strengths, so it doesn’t take long.

I spent a fair bit of time experimenting with colours of both dots and background and how to do lumpy dots, more in keeping with the art form. I am doing this for the user but the how to can be read in the code. The art and maths intermingle in a transparent process.

I got this far trying to imitate the above NAIDOC poster using Turtle Art:

(4) In the middle of the three rings above is a sweet spot, I hope. As I develop my understanding of the 3 teething rings the sweet spot becomes sweeter

My interpretation of ascend to the concrete in this context goes like this: It refers to a journey from the first exposure to a concept (eg. the circle) to an exploration of its properties (eg. pi) and then returning to the concrete circle in the world armed with a theory to put into practice (eg. understanding and using computer code to draw interesting and artistic circles)

Although it's not in the teething rings above digital technology is a wonderful device to present the abstract concretely. As well as that digital has become / is becoming the new dominant medium since you can arguably develop more powerful, more flexible and more evocative representations than in previous mediums. I have to qualify that though. Papunya Tula art is far more evocative than the puny representations I have developed so far digitally. Rather than trying to duplicate Papunya Tula art I have moved to the position of using aspects of it as inspiration to develop a new form of digital art. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses.

Here is a summary of the approach. Take a powerful idea from indigenous culture and represent it using a variety of technologies! Start with the cultural theme so that the technology serves and enables different forms of expression of the culture. ie employ and mobilise the motivational aspect that comes with tapping into personal culture. Then use technology (both digital and non digital) to make the abstract ideas within the powerful idea more concrete.

We end with an enriched circle, a rich art form. Not traditional art. Nor an abstract disembodied circle. Rather a form which has elements of both abstract maths and traditional aboriginal art. Call it indigi_maths_art. Call it tribal modernism, a mongrel of the traditional and the modern. It’s part of the work of cultural extension.


In an earlier version of this essay I talked about representing the circle in various ways. Since then, I’ve been persuaded by Pickering that real knowledge arises through performance and representation is an after the event disembodied abstraction.

Performance is real time interaction between humans and machines to achieve a goal specified by the humans. This is a difficult path marked by resistance and accommodation to that resistance. Teachers understand this and are continually modifying their lesson plans to better fit the needs of their students. For Pickering, this is the true nature of scientific knowledge. It is part objective, part relative (or subjective) and part historical. Science is material, not just knowledge. Historically, this is true. Galileo used the telescope to help start a scientific revolution. Machines were at the heart of the Industrial revolution. Galileo’s work was dramatic performance. I am taking Pickering’s insight to help map out a performance based educational pathway. The modern machine that can assist us the most is the computer.

One goal is to master the user interface, to use the computer effectively. In developing this app I want it to be easy enough for the naive user to create interesting art quickly. And I want it to be open and transparent so the user can readily look under the hood to see how it was made.

Another goal is to teach computer coding. Computer coding has become more popular, largely through the lead provided by  Scratch. Nevertheless, not all students find this easy or are led to more complex coding. Even though block coding is easier than text coding still not all students become engaged with it. This is partly a cultural issue.

To learn to code is an arduous, sometimes difficult process and the cultural image of the highly skilled computer geek is a barrier to overcome here. Why would an indigenous student want to learn to code? The answer or pathway offered here is that it provides an opportunity to create some interesting and culturally relevant art forms. Hopefully, that might enhance engagement and learning further.

Tinkering or tuning is an important part of the learning process for both teacher and student. Humans tune the machines. The machines tune the humans. This process operates on me as the developer of this software app. Does it engage the student and help achieve the long term goal of teaching maths? A curriculum is an instrument too. Try the activities, see if they succeed. They will succeed for some but not for others. Then tweak them, think of new activities. This is a never ending developmental process. One goal was to teach the maths of the circle. Pi stuff. Are we succeeding?

Some of the many possible performances (previously I said representations) with which I have made some progress so far include:
  • The art itself (dotted circle theme). I have looked at the art and bought some books about it. I've yet to actually do the art myself but am looking for that opportunity
  • Language English: Tell the story of the Papunya Tula art movement and find out what the circles represent
  • Humans with rope, make a dotted circle or just a circle. This can be used to estmate pi concretely.
  • Snap! program estimating pi by measuring circumference and diameter.
  • Turtle art: For artistic effects and special fast primitives, such as arc, with the 2 inputs of angle and radius, arc: angle radius, see first iteration of a NAIDOC week poster using Turtle Art
  • Scratch application, see dotted_circles_version_1
  • Scratch: Cloning circles. I've done this in other contexts and it could be adapted to this context.
  • Snap! and Scratch compared: Hal Abelson's objective ("programs must be written for people to read, and only incidentally for machines to execute") can be achieved more readily with Snap! than with Scratch. See a comparison between Scratch and Snap!
  • Snap! application, see dotted_circles_4
This artwork was made with the Scratch application, dotted_circles_version_1 Click on the link and do your own performance.

This artwork was made with the Snap! application, dotted_circles_5 Click on the link and do your own performance.

Another Snap! application work of art:
Here are some more possibilities which I have thought of but haven't attempted to implement yet:
  • Language Pintupi / Luritja: introduce some
  • App Inventor: dotted circle with one phone or many phones
  • Photography: Show some pics of dotted circle art, perhaps from overhead using a drone
  • Robot (which robot?) draws the dotted circle
  • Microbit: Use radio to send a message around a circle (what message, can it be interactive? A message about the Papunya art movement)
  • E-Textiles: dotted circles on a beanie
  • Circuit Playground Express: it’s already a circle
  • Chibitronics: circuits on paper
There are a lot of ideas here. I'm sure that more could be added by others with knowledge of the three themes: dotted circle art, the maths of the circle and theories which make the abstract more concrete.


Rattling Spears: A History of Indigenous Australian Art (2016) by Ian McLean
Ch 5 The Invention of Indigenous Contemporary Art outlines the history of the Papunya Art movement through the lens of “tribal modernism” (p. 121)

How Aborigines Invented the Idea of Contemporary Art: Writings on Aboriginal Contemporary Art (2011). Edited by Ian McLean.

For more background on Marx’s theory of ascending to the concrete to see:
Dialectics of the Abstract and the Concrete in Marx’s Capital by Evald Ilyenkov

Epistemological Pluralism and the Revaluation of the Concrete (1992) by Sherry Turkle and Seymour Papert

Culturally Situated Design Tools (CSDT) by Ron Eglash and co
Many cultural designs show how math and computing ideas are embedded in indigenous traditions, graffiti art, and other surprising sources. These “heritage algorithms” can help students learn STEM principles as they simulate the original artifacts, and develop their own creations.
NB. The recommendation to study Andrew Pickering comes from a Ron Eglash article, so I am indebted to him for that as well.

The Mangle of Practice: Time, Agency and Science (1995) by Andrew Pickering (download the whole book)
Andrew Pickering offers a new approach to the unpredictable nature of change in science, taking into account the extraordinary number of factors: social, technological, conceptual, and natural that interact to affect the creation of scientific knowledge. In his vie w, machines, instruments, facts, theories, conceptual and mathematical structures, disciplined practices, and human beings are in constantly shifting relationships with one another "mangled" together in unforeseeable ways that are shaped by the contingencies of culture, time, and place

Monday, December 23, 2019

Comparing Scratch with Snap!

Hal Abelson:
First, we want to establish the idea that a computer language is not just a way of getting a computer to perform operations but rather that it is a novel, formal medium for expressing ideas about methodology. Thus, programs must be written for people to read, and only incidentally for machines to execute.
- "Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs"
Scratch version (follow the link to see the finished product):

Snap version (follow the link to see the finished product):

From the experience of building these, some of the advantages of Snap which emerged are:
1) Hal Abelson's objective ("programs must be written for people to read, and only incidentally for machines to execute") can be achieved with Snap. Because you can Build Your Own Blocks (BYOB) the overall structure of the code can be laid out far more clearly. It's tidy and you can immediately see the big picture of the overall program. This is because the extra blocks you build are tucked away into the Palette section.

Here is my main Snap procedure. The inner repeat stamps a fuzzy circle of dots. Then the radius and number of dots is increased and the process repeated until the specified number of circles are done. The structure of the code is relatively easy to understand, compared with Scratch.

I have written no less than 9 of my own blocks and by naming them meaningfully you have a good idea of what they do. Their names are:

LOOKS TYPE (purple)


These DIY blocks are not black boxes. The user can open them up in the Block Editor, look inside to see how they are implemented.
Here is set_dot_colour:

Here is move_fuzzy_radius:

2) Because of point one above it is possible, with Snap, for the user to easily see and tweak variables in the Scripting Area. You can see the values in the code of 4 variables: radius, radius_increment, dot_spacing and number_of_rings:

On the other hand with Scratch the whole code takes up lots of space, so it is not practical to tweak the variables in the scripting area. This means, in Scratch, it has to be done with prompts but with so many variable that becomes too arduous / time consuming and the user will become impatient. In the Scratch version I "solved" this problem by restricting the number of variables that could be tweaked to three: background colour, dot colour and number of circles.

3) Snap has extra features such as lists within lists which enable me to display colour selection more clearly and elegantly. See the pen_colour table. The user chooses the colour by typing in the matching number, eg. 10 for orange.

Previously, I reviewed an article about the design of construction kits by Mitch Resnick and Brian Silverman where they promoted the virtues of the KISS principle. Their point 2 was that wide walls took precedence over high ceilings. Their point 5 was "make it as simple as possible – and maybe even simpler". Those points are embodied in Turtle Art and Scratch.

I'm arguing here that Snap!, a program with more powerful features is better suited to designing more advanced tools / applications. And surprisingly, with respect to, presenting tidy code it does adhere to the KISS principle. Returning to the Hal Abelson quote I was struck by how I could reduce clutter in the Scripting Area by Building my own Blocks and design code that expressed its intention more clearly than in Scratch or Turtle Art.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

dotted circles version one

My idea was to build an application that indigenous students would find interesting which in turn would interest them to learn coding in Scratch. I'll write a more detailed educational rationale later, although I have written some before too.

You can find the application, written in Scratch3.0 here

Some more screenshots of what it can do:
There were a number of design challenges.

An earlier version had far too many variables to be set by the user before they could make anything. I felt the users would lose patience with it. This version has only three variables: background effect, dot colour and number of circles.

I was tempted to introduce a second dot colour, to have one colour for the inner and outer rings and a different colour for the inbetween rings. But for the sake of simplicity I rejected that. The end product would be richer but the user interface would be more complicated.

Other rejected variables include dot size, dot spacing, inner radius, radius increment.

I like the lumpy dots effect, which goes in all directions.

With the backgrounds I had to find a way to do them quickly so I opted for randomly large to small dots of a particular colour with shade variations stamped onto the page.

Earlier rationale: Proposal for an Australian indigenous version of Culturally Situated Design Tools

Monday, December 16, 2019

how to create a great background in Turtle Art

The backgrounds I was creating in Scratch for my dotted circle project were too slow (here for now). So I went back to Turtle Art to see how it was done there.

What features do you want for a great background. I would say:
  • speed of creation
  • no gaps
  • distinct brush strokes
  • artistic curve and wave
  • subtle colour variation
Here is how:

A circle moves rapidly across the screen from left to right while curving, waving and changing colour.

The speed is created by long and wide brush strokes,
pensize 7
arc angle = 360 (full circle), radius =500

With a diameter of 1000, this takes us outside the edges of the screen (680 x 550), which also means there are no gaps (nearly always)

The right amount of curve in the strokes is caused by the radius setting. If the radius is too large then there is not enought curve. If the radius is too small (eg. 250) then there are gaps at the top and bottom

The brushstroke effect is caused by the subtle colour changes, not the pensize (as I first thought)

The wave effect is achieved with right random(1 to -1). This outputs a value of 1, 0 or -1 creating an unpredictable wave.

The subtle colour change is caused by random ((-100 to 100) / 100). This outputs a decimal between -1 and +1 causing slight changes in the colour at each iteration.

In Turtle Art the number 0 represents red and as this changes through to 100 the colours vary according to the colour spectrum ROYGBIV.

I experimented with altering the start colour and achieved these effects:

Start colour = 0 (red)

Start colour = 15 (yellow)

Start colour = 50 (cyan)

I then thought I might want browns for background. To achieve that I set the colour to orange (10) and introduced shade, making it 30 (0 gives black and 100 gives white). I also tweaked the random colour variation to random ((-25 to 25) / 100) so it didn't alter so much. Here is one result:

Then I thought a vertical wave rather than left to right would be interesting so I further tweaked the code for that. Here is how that one looked and the new code is underneath:

Thursday, December 12, 2019

measuring the cooking and cooling of your microbits

This represents the educational equivalent of sensor analytics, which commercially is a killer app. Not advocating commercialism here but learning from it.

The micro:bit can be part of a data rich educational pathway. I didn’t realise this until I googled microbit data and discovered the microbit app (Windows 10 only) as well as some great tutorials at Data Collection and Data Analysis

This app has a few extra features over the online editor at The important extra feature here is you can directly read serial data from your micro:bit for data logging.

For this experiment I need 3 microbits, two for transmitting temperature data at different locations and one to receive it. I placed one sender near a hot plate and the other was taped to an air conditioner.

The receiver microbit transmits the data, through a USB cable, to the microbit app running on my computer. In turn, the microbit app displays the data and graphs on a data console.

I’ll show both the block code and the corresponding JavaScript. I’ve added the explanatory comments to the JavaScript. You can add comments to the block code but it quickly becomes cluttered.

This code was flashed to the two separate micro:bits, one near the hot plate and the other near the air conditioner.

This microbit was connected to my computer and the data is displayed in the microbit app console as both scrolling results and graphs.

Once again I’ve added the explanatory comments to the JavaScript file

The data can also be downloaded as a csv file and processed in Excel. I made a graph as follows:
Other ideas for remote data collection with the microbit:
  • measure the acceleration of a dropped microbit or one attached to a rocket
  • check soil moisture of a pot plant
(checkout the links in the first paragraph for more detail about other projects)

Note that the temperature experiment was done without any extra data collectors, just the microbit app. I think that this app extends the range of what can be done with the microbit tremendously.

Related: Making sense of the microbit

Footnote: explaining the "killer app" statement in the first paragraph
Persistent identity is the "killer" feature and sensor analytics and mobile payments are two "killer" apps, while more immersive first-person videogames and live event experiences could become another “killer” app for some wearables
Wearable Devices The ‘Internet of Things’ Becomes Personal by Morgan Stanley Research 2014