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Fifty Reasons to love Ireland.

The Irish TImes has published a list of 50 reasons to love Ireland today. It doesn’t speak to my heart. Here’s the link although since they did the website redesign you now will have to click at least twice more to read the entire list. Sorry.

Anyway, as I said, it doesn’t speak to my heart, not all of it, or possibly, even much. We all, I guess, have our own things which cut into our feelings about the place, be it good or bad. Finding Hope In Bleak Theatre per Fintan O’Toole as sure as hell is not one of mine. So I decided to write my list.

Here goes.

  1. Doolin Point on a day with offshore wind. A person standing here can look to the wave off Crab Island if they are a surfer, the Cliffs of Moher away to the left, and the Aran Islands away to the right. On a clear day, the lighthouse that way is dead clear. I wish there was a webcam down there.IMG_1031
  2. The general mildness of the weather. Seriously. When we have snow, it’s minimal compared to a lot of other places on the same latitude. We have it easy. Our biggest complaint is the wind and the rain.
  3. In the 18th century, we had the biggest telescope in the world in Birr.
  4. William Rowan Hamilton and George Boole are two of our greatest mathematicians whose work has greatly facilitated the use of computers today.
  5. James Whelton started the coderdojo movement when he was still in school, something which may turn out to be one of the better contributions to this smart economy our politicians go on about when talking about rebuilding our economy.
  6. Flann O’Brien.
  7. John B Keane.
  8. Lough Corrib. Amazing place.
  9. The neutrality markers doubling as navigation aids in the second world war.
  10. The National Museum in Kildare Street, and yes it’s free and yes it’s on the Irish Times List but it is amazing and something we can be justifiably proud of.
  11. The Museum of Country Living in Mayo. I’m not going to box the individual museums when there is something special in all of them. I defy anyone not to be moved to tears by a comment in that museum from a man talking about hearing classical music for the first time when the radio came to the remote part of the country he lived in. We take stuff like this for granted.
  12. Marconi sending telegraphs across the Atlantic.
  13. The weather station in Valentia.
  14. Croke Park and Landsdown Road – two fantastic stadia. For a city the size of Dublin, quite an achievement.
  15. The small unknown music festivals all over the shop. Willy Clancy School. West Cork Chamber Music. Malahide Pipe Band. Cork Folk Festival. And that’s before you get to the big ones like the Guinness Jazz Festival.
  16. We’ve got fantastic climbing opportunities all over the place. Talk to Mountaineering Ireland.
  17. Alfred Tennyson wrote The Splendor Falls for very good reasons. The area around Killarney is beautiful and justifiably popular.
  18. We have some of the best surfing conditions in Europe on occasion. Right now, at 11.40 on a Sat morning, Bundoran looks particularly sweet.
  19. Even if you don’t surf, we’ve got some stunning beaches. Barleycove Co Cork. Silver Strand Mayo. Coumeenole Co Kerry
  20. We have some seriously scary roads. Scenic Road from Inch to Camp? Check. Keel to Keem Beach, Achill Island (check). The mountain road around Ballinskelligs?
  21. We have some fantastic myths and legends.
  22. The Book of Kells.
  23. The Crawford Art Gallery.
  24. We have one of the oldest operational lighthouse sites in Europe at Hook Head. And we’ve plonked lighthouses in some very dramatic and interesting places. The Fastnet counts.
  25. Bog snorkelling contests.
  26. Road bowling. Two examples of adapting the need to entertainment to locally available options.
  27. Trim Castle County Meath.
  28. Giants Causeway.
  29. We don’t take too much seriously.
  30. Some of our public art is quirky and amazing. Robot on the N21 between Charleville and Limerick? Model T Ford in West Cork? The bull somewhere outside Blarmey on the N21? The boats outside the tunnel in Limerick? Do I really need to make a whole list?
  31. We punch above our weight in golf. And boxing.
  32. Brown soda bread. Not long out of the oven wrapped in a tea towel.
  33. Barrys Tea.
  34. Taytos. There are two items on the lists demanded of visitors to emigrants. Strange that…
  35. Dara O’Briain.
  36. We have some ubertalented musicians in many fields of music who are doing their thing very successfully around the place.
  37. We have given the English language some very interesting idioms such as people looking like they have been dragged backwards through a hedge. How do we do this?
  38. The Dunbrody and the Jeanie Johnson and the famine ship memorial in County Mayo.
  39. We still have (despite it all) quite a few local newspapers, however much trouble the nationals are in.
  40. People talk. On trains, on buses, prior to concerts, in cafés.
  41. We have some very good street performers.
  42. It does not rain all the time. We owe the emerald branding to the stuff that does fall.
  43. Kilkenny sort of reinvented itself as a design centre. Good going.
  44. There’s that tree in Carlow that everyone has to take a photograph of.
  45. Our politicians are semi-accessible (seriously – compare it to getting at the ones in other bigger countries).
  46. We sort of embrace modern technology quite a bit. Don’t know why.
  47. The Pen Corner in Dublin.
  48. The English Market in Cork
  49. Maeve Binchy.
  50. The place is littered in history and the present. Regardless of how many gadgets you have in a 2013 car, you can’t go very far without tripping over a 12th century castle or a dolmen or something.

Microsoft/Yahoo…which way is it then?

Yahoo caused some consternation during the week when they announced that come June, all their remote workers would be expected to turn up to work at an office. Microsoft, in Ireland, at the moment, are running a competition about what people would do with the change in their lives if they could work from home.

Yahoo is in a bit of a bind and Microsoft have a cloud based office solution they are looking to sell. But…even so…

20 years ago I sat in a translation technology lecture talking about the Green Dream, and the beauty of being able to work from home because you’re connected to the network. It was in the very early days of the internet and email but the concept was under consideration. If you’re a freelance translator who can at least generate some work – increasingly difficult I believe – this works. But it may not work forever. Meanwhile, all the flexibility that technology related tools are giving us in terms of freedom from an office aren’t actually being used – much – in that way that I can see. Most knowledge based workers are still in some respect tethered to an office and working from home is not a regular feature of life but discretionary. Mostly, when I hear discussions about remote working, I hear the words “but you can’t trust…”

Trust is the issue. How do you trust that people are working if you can’t keep an eye on them? But you can’t really guarantee that unless you literally sit beside them and watch them doing their stuff.

I did a lean workshop a little while ago – and one of the comments I took away from it was the idea that what gets measured gets done. I’ve thought about this a lot, and realised that I don’t really agree with it. Mostly, we’re in the zone of organisational thinking here – how can we effectively get stuff done. A key answer to that question is to make it easy first up. Things that are easy to keep organised stay organised. I sometimes wonder if there is a way to compare which is likely to be more effective – making an organisational process easy versus making it measurable.

I find more people tend towards the measurable than the easy and I wonder why. And this need for measurable presentee-ism, it’s culturally driven. It’s not much good to Microsoft who are trying to sell this alternative lifestyle of distributed, remote work.

Decision-makers need to buy into it, facilitate it and make it easy to get work done. This, I suspect, may need a culture change because the one thing – in my experience in a lot of different places – that gets in the way of getting work done is the processes which many companies implement to measure how that work is getting done.

I think about this a lot lately. The technology allows me to live in west Clare – but industry culture has put all the work in a couple of central areas.

Our politicians talk a lot about the knowledge economy and I’ve always wondered what they exactly mean by that. I’d like a situation where it’s possible for more people to work remotely from parts of Ireland, rather than parts of Eastern Europe. Why do we accept offshoring to foreign countries but don’t necessarily facilitate it to parts of Ireland? This is a company culture thing as well.

We talk a lot about small and medium sized companies but we never talk about freelance individuals so much. I know a few people in that zone. When it gets discussed, what gets brought up is the tax they can avoid. But not the lack of coverage they get from social welfare despite paying quite a lot of money into it.

I’ve often felt that there is an issue in Ireland, and probably across humanity, with a culture of envy. The consumer society is, to some extent, built on it. I’m tired of hearing people tell me “Oh you’re so lucky” for some random thing which was an outcome of some decision or other I made (lately it’s the not having bought a house).

A flip side of it is the need to exert control as and when. This is part of the argument I hear against remote working. How can you control it? Control is a negative function. I’m more in line with looking at the question of how can we implement it and make it work easily. Because the easier it is to do, the more people will be able to to do with it.

Automattic who are responsible for WordPress have a distributed workforce – this I know because I know one person working for them but also because it was flagged in a lot of discussions around the Marissa Meyer decision for Yahoo regarding the pulling of remote working. A lot of offshoring involves distributed work forces. And the issue around measuring productivity in the knowledge economy exist regardless of whether you’re office tethered or not.

I happen to have Microsoft’s current iteration of Office and I like it a lot for various reasons. I recognise that Yahoo has lost its way and needs a reboot. A lot of comments focus on the idea that this might cause attrition and reduce Yahoo’s numbers accordingly. Some have focused on the culture that Meyer may have appreciated in Google.

But I think Microsoft’s way may well be the future, and Yahoo’s the past. Already, a lot of things are getting heavily and broadly distributed. Distributed university has existed for years courtesy of the Open University – and I have to say, electronic access to their journal library really, really rocks. MOOCs are currently big news although I suspect there’s a way to go before monetization is sorted out.

Most people, I believe, want to enjoy their work and flexibility tends to be demanded of them. But flexibility is a two way process. When I was answering Microsoft’s question regarding what I would do with time flexibility if I was able to work from home, I answered that location flexibility matters much, much more to me than time flexibility.

I sometimes thing people might forget that.

 

PDF reading in Windows 8

You know, I quite like the idea of a built in PDF reader coming with Windows 8. Unfortunately, I don’t know who did the testing but there is one absolutely huge problem with it. It will only allow you to read one document at a time.

This renders the application completely and utterly useless to me. It’s pointless to provide software which doesn’t give basic functionality like the ability to have two documents open at the time.

The Eire Markings

78 - EIRE

UPDATE: PLEASE GO TO WWW.EIREMARKINGS.ORG FOR MORE INDEPTH INFORMATION ON THIS SUBJECT. 26 SITES STILL REMAIN.

In 1986, I went to Donegal on a family holiday and before we were finally washed all the way down to Hurricane Charlie and Bantry Bay, we visited Malin Head on a cloudy, cool enough day. I don’t remember very much about it, but I remember seeing markings on the headline pointing out that this was Eire. We’d never seen them before, and somewhat surprisingly, my mother didn’t know anything about them. After some careful consideration, I assumed it went back to the early years of the state, and possibly linked to the fact that Malin was the pointiest bit north of the country. Logically I wouldn’t have been surprised to know they existed on Slyne Head (west). Mizen (south) and Wicklow Head (east).

In fact, they probably did, but it had little to do with the earliest years of the state. The subject of those markings came up during the week and somewhere along the line, between 1986, and 2012, I did learn that they had something to do with the Emergency. Following the discussion I had with a colleague during the week, I started looking in to them again. The best known appears to be the one on Malin, but it is far from being the only one. I tracked down the one on Malin on google maps and, having done a little research around them, I realised there really is no clear piece of information about them on the web.

I’m not a historian but in the way that various things catch my attention, I’m interested enough in these because they are a snapshot of time, and mostly, we tend to march over those snapshots.

During the war years, a number of coastal look out points were built around Ireland to monitor shipping and air traffic. Ireland had declared itself neutral. In total, 84 of these lookout points were constructed. They consisted of what can best be described as a little concrete bunker. About 50 of those structures have left footprints or are still standing. They look cheap, they are built of concrete, and most of them are in a state of disrepair. The only one I can recall ever being in is the one on Brandon Point in Kerry. I took some photographs from it.

IMG_1134

You really have no idea just how small this thing is. There was a tiny fire place in it, and otherwise it was pretty much open to the elements. I don’t know if they had glass in them. Having seen photographs of a lot of them lately, I doubt it. It cannot have been pleasant on a winter’s night in them.

Volunteers were assigned to each of the look out posts on eighthour shifts, one to watch, and take phone calls – these things were on the phone network – to keep abreast of any news from the other posts – one to patrol. Part of this was linked to the risk of an invasion of Ireland, a neutral country. Wikipedia has an interesting entry on Plan W. I really wouldn’t mind looking into that a bit more closely in the future but it’s a good starting point for the purposes of this piece.

The Clare Champion has a piece about the lookout post in Loop Head which is well worth a read.

Each of the lookout posts were numbered, 1 to 84, starting in the north east and finishing in the far north of the country. You can find an overview of the lookout posts here, along with photographs of the sites of all of them. I really appreciate this site because it speeded up some of what I wanted to do during the week quite a lot. Tim Schmelzer deserves an awful lot of kudos for that project but he concentrated mainly on the buildings and for myself, what interested me most was the markings.

According to one comment I have seen, the markings were put in place at the request of the American Air Force. I suspect that not only were they lined up to inform overflying pilots that they were over neutral territory (and shouldn’t be flying over) but as most of them were numbered and seem to face in specific directions, they may have also functioned as navigational aids. You can see this in a number of them. There are existing pictures of the marking in Inishowen, for example, and also of the one on Erris Head in Mayo. Interestingly, the numbers do not appear to have survived in all cases although the EIRE letters themselves have.

What I wanted to do was try and locate them on web available satellite imagery. There is very, very little information about the markings on the web so even now I am not sure how many of them still exist to be seen. If there is more than a dozen, I will be surprised. Most of the information I could glean about them have come from threads on Boards.ie and IrishMilitaryonline.com. From boards.ie I have learned that at least one other person has had a go at mapping them but I haven’t seen any evidence of the map. I initially looked at plotting them on Google but have found that the resolution on Bing’s service is slightly better for key parts of the west of Ireland

Until very recently, the EIRE sign linked to Loop Head was buried. In fact, it was uncovered so recently that you cannot see it on the Google map of Loop Head. Again, according to the Clare Champion it was unearthed and restored this year. The Bing map for West Clare has no resolution for that area.

As things stand, I can locate about ten of the signs on Bing Maps. I’m aware of an additional 1 which is in an area with inadequate resolution. In addition, I believe there are four more between Slieve League and Achill Island which are still visible but I have not yet been able to locate them. The two at Slieve League in particular have been noted as being in a state of disrepair.

Located on Bing Maps.

  1. Malin Head, County Donegal
  2. Saint John’s Head, County Donegal,
  3. Dursey Island, County Cork
  4. Black Head, County Clare
  5. Erris Head, County Mayo
  6. Horn Head, County Donegal
  7. Melmore Head, County Donegal
  8. Inishowen Head, County Donegal
  9. Toe Head, County Cork
  10. Arranmore Point, County Donegal
Location known but not available at time of satellite scan
  1. Loop Head County Clare
Known to exist but not located on a map:
  1. Achill Island, County Mayo ( 59 – Given as Moyteogue head on Tim’s site above) (x 2)
  2. Slieve League, County Donegal (x 2) <<<one of these located, other is now gone
  3. Baltimore 29 has been renovated. There are photographs of it but I can’t find it on a map (ETA)

My hope was to locate a dozen of them. I’ve a feeling I’ve actually seen the Black Head one driving past and just forgot. I don’t know why. I didn’t expect to find it too easily because I expected it to fade into the background of the Burren stone landscape.

I have seen a picture of one above which I haven’t identified (see here) so I’d obviously like to track that one down as well. The image is very clearly from google, but it doesn’t match any of the ones I have.

When I’ve done all this, I’ll write a proper summary of what I know about these markings and post it to a page either here or on my primary website. The map is very much under construction so I’ll post it here later.

The current map of those I have located is here:

It transpires that to get the pushpins, you need to view the larger map. You’ll also need to choose AERIAL view to get the images. This is not ideal for me – I’d prefer Google but seriously, the resolution is nowhere near adequate in a lot of key places.

There’s a bit of research going into this, so any help would be appreciated. In addition to the map plots on Bing and Google, I will look at seeing if an OSI map can be put together. I’m also interested in collecting photographs of the sites taken from the air, if possible, with a view to tracking changes in their condition. Any help would be appreciated.

Thanks.

Referenda – serious business

We had a referendum here in Ireland on Sat 10 November. The results were out today and the referendum was carried.

I don’t want to go into the rights and wrongs of this particular referendum, but one of the things that has been concerning me lately is that we seem to have spiked in the number of referenda lately. When I was a child, referenda were a big deal. They were quite talked about. It just feels like we have referenda at least once a year lately. So I wanted to have a look at the underlying data and see if there was an increase in referenda lately and additionally, because a key feature of yesterday’s referendum was a particularly low turnout, I wanted to have a look at voter turnout in Irish Referenda.

This is building up towards a bigger post on the subject later on one of my other websites but this is just a WIP which I’d be interested to see some comments on.

First up, the data relating to referenda, dates of same and turn out came from Wikipedia:

Okay.

The first thing I did was graph the number of referenda per decade. The output graph is here. graph of number of referenda per decade in Ireland

 

Okay, a couple of notes about this. There was only one referendum in the 1930s, and that was the referendum for the enactment of the current constitution in Ireland. There were none in the 1940s and from then on there’s a fairly clear suggestion that we’ve been having more and more constitutional referenda. We’re only in 2012 for the current decades so it’s not a full interval but we have already had 4 referenda since 2010 – 2 in 2011 and 2 in 2012. There were drops between the 70s and 80s and the 1990s and 2000s but it’s hard to escape the conclusion that we’re having more and more attempts to amend the constitution.

Now to turn out.

Okay, there’s a bit of work to be done here. One of the things that surprised me is that the turnout on 10 November 2012 isn’t actually the lowest turn out ever. Two referenda held in July 1979 came in lower and after that, one held in November 1996 was lower. The plateaus you see above by the way are where several referenda were held on the same occasion.

The data here are, in my view, a bit all over the place – there’s an argument to suggest turnout is on its way down – the highest turnout was the enactment of the constitution itself in 1937. The second highest was in 1972 for accession to the European Economic Community as it as then. For every other referendum since then, turnout has been below 70%.

So I wanted to see for how many referenda there was a turnout in excess of 50% of the electorate. There have been 35 referenda including the referendum to implement the 1937 constitution and of those, in 12 cases, the turnout was below 50%. This figure includes this year’s children’s referendum, however, the six previous to that were above 50%.

I want to have a look at the data in a little more detail, I want to look at the subjects of those referenda for example, and I believe I need to check some of those dates against the dates of other elections such as general elections – my memory is unclear on this but I’m pretty sure that at least one referendum has been held in tandem with another election. So more research is needed. I also want to see what the impact of running several referenda together is.

Part of this is based on a wider concern I have about how fit our constitution is for our country in today’s age. Our constitution does not require a minimum turn out for a referendum which I think is regrettable. I think it’s important to have this debate now because Fine Gael has flagged an intention to remove the second house of the Oireachtas (this would also be subject to a referendum) and I wonder if it might be a suitable time to consider implementing a change to the constitution regarding a minimum turnout for referenda. I am inclined to wonder how governments would react if constitutional amendments failed because there was not an adequate turn out to get the change implemented. I cannot help feeling that they would not like it.

I also have to question whether a constitution which needs to be updated as frequently as we have ours in the last 20 years is actually really suitable now. There are a lot of good things in our constitution but….we’re chopping and changing it quite a bit lately.

Subsequent to the Constitution being accepted in 1937 there were two amendments passed by the Oireachtas per a special provision in the Constitution. Between then and 1972, no changes were made to it. Three referenda were put to the people, one in 1958 and 2 in 1968 but they were rejected on turnouts of 58.4% and 65.8% respectively. Of the 35 referenda in total, 9 have been rejected, four since 2001.

The key issue I have, however, is that the creation of a new constitution requires someone with a bit of vision and someone who will not draft a constitution by committee. One of the key comments around the Children’s Referendum in 2012 was that wording it was extremely difficult. I honestly believe that the constitution of a country should be something a bit visionary and very accessible to the people in that country without law degrees. Again, the Children’s Referendum caused some difficulties in this area – some commentators are claiming the low turnout was linked to confusion. I’m not an expert in law but I believe that a constitution which requires approval from the people should be drafted in such a way as it doesn’t necessarily cause confusion for the people voting on it. This has been a massive issue with respect to European treaties as well.

I’m still looking at the numbers so this is a work in progress.

 

Business Week – right up there promoting the place of women in the workplace

Business Week readers invited to vote on which business school has the most attractive females
This really happened

I feel sorry for men sometimes. They try and persuade women that they are modern, forward thinking people who do not treat women purely as eye candy and who don’t judge women just on a subjective value of beauty and then a supposedly grown up business magazine pulls an adolescent stunt like this. Bad and all as it is for women, it reduces men down to making decisions about business school based on the quotient of available beautiful women. I know most men are brighter than that.

Meanwhile, Harvard Business Review is writing a piece on the progress women have made in the workplace in the last 40 years.

 

ETA – 11 November – Business Week pulled this from their website. There’s a still a reference to it on their FaceBook admittedly but it looks as though a certain amount of of outrage got through.

 

Concert Review: Muse – O2, Dublin 3 November

I was at a gig in the O2 for the first time in ages on Saturday night – one of the first of my many presents to myself this November.

It was brilliant. The place was packed and the atmosphere was terrific. And they did one hell of a stage show. I’d like to write forever on how wonderful it is but I’ll sum up the gig like this.

 

The tickets cost 66E or so. I’d have cheerfully paid the same to go and see them on 4 November as well.

swimming in paper

One of the downsides of having moved house a few times is you accumulate a whole pile of paper and sometimes, it’s not that organised. I’m swimming in the stuff. Seriously. And I have been unmotivated to tackle it because I knew it was going to involve shredding stuff and I never seemed to own a shredder. I do now and I have now sorted back through all the paperwork so that it is in organised piles but not really organised in a brain friendly way.

I used to be very good at paperwork until I wound up living in Belgium in 1997, and then the amount of paper I had to deal with in my personal life skyrocketed. It’s now worse than it was then.

I’ve tried folders. I’ve tried expanding boxfiles. I used to keep things in neat envelopes but that really doesn’t scale up.

I shredded 25L (at least) of confetti today and it’s all waiting for me to dump in the bin. I’m probably still not finished. I don’t want this to happen again so as of 1 January, a new, very user friendly system is going to have to go into place. To make it work, it’s going to have to find a home.

I don’t know how to do this. I’m struggling with space issues as it is. Houses in Ireland – even the three bedroomed ones – are built on the assumption that no one actually owns very much apart from some clothes. Our houses are too small. And we’re too fast to tell people what they need. I was sitting up in the box room which doubles as my office. I keep important stuff in the office, the very good, and very expensive photography books that remind me I’m a photographer, somewhere, in my soul, my Open University text books.

Two of my bills are gone electronic. I’m reluctant to send my bankstatements electronic on the grounds that I still haven’t a mortgage and therefore expect to need to produce a few when push comes to shove. If I ever buy a house, something which seems to be decreasing in likelihood every day.

Post Christmas, I’ll probably start yet another ring binder which will include critical paperwork such as NCT certs, P60s and related stuff, and then take whatever new paperwork comes in. And I’ll try to keep control of it this time although it would help if I didn’t move house. Just, you know, for a year or two have a little stability.

Maths and the need to belong.

Declaration of interest: I may be biased.

Colm Mulcahy has written an interesting piece – directed mainly at a US audience but worth a read for all that no matter where you are – on the subject of Mathsweek.ie. MathsWeek Ireland is an initiative coming I think, from a couple of lecturers in WIT and although I didn’t/hadn’t time/was snowed under in terms of participating this year (look, I even missed the mathsjam that went with it), I’m really happy to hear it went well. You might have noticed reminders of its existence on Abbey Street in Dublin if you were walking between Arnotts and the back entrance of the Jervis Street Shopping Centre.

He raises a point which I think is quite interesting. It’s not really a new point; in fact, there has been discussion around it for 10-20 years or more. It relates to people’s relationship with maths at school and how that colours their discussions around maths later in life. Put simply, a lot more people are able to admit to difficulties with maths and numbers, than they might, perhaps, to issues with literacy.

Most of the discussion around this that I have seen in the past suggests that in fact, this is because it’s socially acceptable to be bad at maths, not so much bad at reading and there is almost certainly a kernel of truth in that. But I think additionally, it’s something which can be embraced as a starting point. People, in my experience, are much more willing to roll up their sleeves and learn stuff when they can admit that they don’t have a good starting point. It is on this basis that MU123 – the introductory maths module – at the Open University exists, for example.

I didn’t have difficulties with maths as a teenager as it happens – and most of the credit for that will have to go to a Mr O’Connor who taught me maths most of the way through secondary school – and I’m aware that this admission might colour my biases.

I do know people who did have issues with maths. For whom the communications between themselves, and their school maths, just wasn’t effective, so they reach adulthood, convinced they were never great at maths. From what one or two of them have said to me, they just didn’t get a maths context and this closed doors to them. I understand how this can happen, and I know a lot of work is being done in the area of maths education in terms of addressing this. You may not always agree with what they suggest (I’m underwhelmed by Project Maths for example) as a lot of them don’t approach the issue holistically. If you read Colm’s article, you’ll see a little amount of defeatism in the comments regarding the US, and the need to teach people how to use calculators (and give up on basic arithmetic I suppose). I don’t think this attitude of finding the easy way out is what made the US the country it is today, but there seems to be this meme of avoiding the hard stuff when it’s too hard. That in itself is a lesson which is completely separate to mathematics.

But I digress. Via Mathsjam, there is a postcard on my desk at work with the following on it:

31 PRIME
331 PRIME
3331 PRIME
33331 PRIME
333331 PRIME
3333331 PRIME
33333331 PRIME
333333331 = 17 × 19607843

It looks a lot prettier on a postcard, trust me on that. Anyway. I also have the Batman curve on my desk. Between them, these two things fascinate people, who wander up to my desk for some completely unrelated reason involving actual work. What’s fascinating is that they don’t uniformly have an impact – the prime numbers interesting some people (who weren’t that interested in maths) and the Batman curve (who weren’t that interested in maths). Here in, I think lies the problem. The maths syllabus may be too narrow.

Maths is a huge topic. It covers a whole pile of stuff I’d have killed to do at school (networks. I didn’t know building networks was maths and yet I spent hours as a teenager with a fantasy town trying to figure out the best way to organise a metro around it. The pages are probably still at home somewhere) but couldn’t. A whole pile of other stuff like topology. I know we split into maths and applied maths (and possibly more) but I am wondering if we need to do a ground up re-appraisal of how we teach maths and how we make it inspiring for those who might find it inspiring (as opposed to only those who are covered already).

And I think we sow the seeds too late. I’ve long (as a linguist) been of the opinion that we start teaching languages too late in this country and that there is something to be said for getting kids working with specialist teachers from say, age 10 rather than waiting to age 13 for languages. The same may be true for maths but this would involve – also – reappraising how maths teachers are trained to teach maths. The approach, covering a longer may have to be reappraised and we need to reconsider the existence of a general higher dip in education as not being completely appropriate for all teachers.

I’ve spent some time with Colm. He is absolutely brilliant with cards – it’s fascinating to watch him. I think it’s criminal, in one way, that we don’t have a formal process of getting people like him into schools on a random basis to inspire kids to play around with maths. One of the many projects I have on the backburner is to see about getting more visits to schools (particularly girl schools) for specialists in the area of maths and engineering and computer sciences. This latter may be less necessary in the light of the @coderdojo movement which I may or may not have mentioned here before.

One of the points about debates on education which depress me – they seem to be common in English speaking countries at least – is the heavy emphasis on “when am I ever going to need to….” This attitude is also shared by (and spread) by attitudes. A fifteen year old girl who tells you she’ll never need to prove a theorem is actually lying because the basis of a theorem is logical thinking and this is a key blockbuilder to problem solving. In other words, there is an overly shallow understanding of the benefits of certain elements of learning.

Maths teaching – I think – suffers badly from this rather shallow idea that everything has to be targetted and applied. Most people’s lives change in many different ways from the time they are 15 to the time they retire. I studied foreign languages. I am a computer programmer. I’ve trained as an interpreter. Parents should not be listening to or repeating the words “sure they’ll never need to know [that particular detail]” because that’s not really focussing on the big picture of their child’s future. The more tools you give them, the better their future options are.

It’s worth looking at this ad for the Financial Regulator in Ireland. And then remember, it’s worth more concentrating on including stuff to know than excluding it.

While we’re at it, it’s worth recognising that it is a good thing when people are willing to admit their failings. Because shame, in my book, has never been the most productive motivator. Inspiration and excitement, doors to new worlds on the other hand…

 

Yes, I watched Felix Baumgartner

How could I not?

Live on the internet? 24 miles up in the sky, about to jump? 8 million people watching? I’m stunned he made it – you’d like to hope they were reasonably sure he would on account of not trying if the odds were seriously against it. Not that there are any guarantees around exploration.

My generation is a touch hard done by. I can watch the ISS passing over my head several times a year at the moment. Someone sends me a notice via twitter to let me know in advance (it’s usually cloudy). The first day I saw it is the first and only time I saw a space shuttle passing overhead as well. Fantastic. The  moon landing was before I was borne. I’ve lived through consolidation work on the space exploration front. I get to see pictures from Mars on a regular basis and Voyager II is hooked up to send a tweet every day. I read about the Voyager probes in a Youngline annual.

But….something huge, something to grab the imagination. Something to grab the Boldly Going Where No Man’s Gone Before thread of life….Frankly, it takes someone to go down to the bottom of the Mariana trench. We have no vision for the future of space travel for humans, it seems to me.

Well maybe they do in China but haven’t told us yet. Hard to tell.

So yeah, Felix Baumgartner. 39 km in a balloon, direction up, then jump. Of course, a few checklists in the middle, couple of years building stuff but…somewhere along the line the thought of I want to do this and how do I do it, what are the barriers and how do I overcome them. As simple as that.

Someone give NASA and ESA the money and the momentum to plan manned trips to Mars. Give us hope in the future and recognition of the abilities of humankind to have visions and act on them.