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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.

 

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.

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…

 

Higgs’ Boson and during the week

I’m not a physicist. I will freely admit that. I did quite a lot of chemistry in my younger days because chemical equations, for some bizarre reason, appealed to me, and now, I’m back studying maths.

There wasn’t any major doubt in my mind that they’d found something in CERN when they lined up for their announcements during the week, and given that they’d been looking for something in particular, there’s not any major surprise for me that they’ve probably found it. It’ll be interesting to see how, from a purely physics point of view, said particle behaves.

I’m more interested in how they found it. Over at Significance Magazine’s website, you can find a whole lot about this. Basically they looked at a whole lot of data and analysed it statistically. We’re talking a lot of data. It’s the sort of thing that makes me think that statistics can be really fascinating.

It’s just, we don’t sell it very well sometimes.

If you’ve any interest at all in statistics, I recommend a look at Significance’s website, and if you have an iPad, their magazines can be downloaded for a handful of euro each. And a few of them are free at the moment. Well worth a look and in particular, it’s fairly accessible as a stats publication goes.

Favourite piano concertos

A while back, I went to the final of the Dublin International Piano Competition, an item which along with figure skating championships had been on my bucket list for about 10 years. While it is fair to say that the finalists were all very talented, I wasn’t so enthused about the choice of concertos I sat through that evening. In summary, we had Tchaikovsky No 1 twice, Rachmaninov No 3 and what I think was Prokofiev No 3 although I am not familiar with that piece and it didn’t endear itself to me enough for me to seek it out any further.

So, bearing that in mind, I wanted to – again – list a bunch of piano concertos which I particularly like, some of which are well known and some less so. After that I would choose a couple of movements out of piano concertos which are almost standalone work of genius.

  1. Saint-Saens Number 5
  2. Rachmaninov No. 2
  3. Grieg in Am
  4. Schumann in Am
  5. Bruch in A flat Major for 2 pianos
  6. Hummel No 3
  7. Tchaikovsky No 2
  8. Beethoven’s Mighty Emperor No 5
  9. Liszt No 2
  10. Brahms No 2.

If I am looking to listen to powerful piano music, these are often close to the top of the list.

Now for a few odds and ends which stand out for various reasons

  1. Shostakovich 2, II Andante.
  2. Adinsell – Warsaw Concerto
  3. Ode to the Yellow River (get Lang Lang’s performance of this – it’s well worth it)
  4. Saint-Saens Africa Fantasy
  5. Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini
  6. Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody arranged for piano and orchestra
  7. Rachmaninov 3 Opening movement
  8. Mendelssohn 1, opening movement
  9. Mendelssohn for 2 pianos 1, second movement
  10. Franck – Symphonic Variations

Happy listening.

Special presents

I don’t often do the Ebay trick but lately I find myself regularly looking through it. I am on the hunt for one particular item, well, 4-6 of them anyway. Special, all the same.

In 1998, I was on holiday in Finland learning Finnish on a government sponsored course and over one weekend had dinner with the family of a girl I had taken in after an au pair story hadn’t really gone well. They wanted to give me something and so they gave me a beautiful piece of Finnish glassware. You’ll (currently) find a picture of something similar here on eBay. I still have it. It was designed by one of Finland’s top glass designers, Oiva Toikka. I love it.

Recently I learned that there are little serving bowls in existence. The pattern doesn’t appear to be sold at the moment so if I want them, I need to find them on one of the auction sites. So for that reason, I am watching Ebay for them. I want the clear ones (the rare blue and green ones don’t interest me) and am looking forward to actually owning them.

I’m very fortunate to have some unusual but very thoughtfully selected things in my position. Another one is a most beautiful pewter tea measuring spoon which, for someone like me who drinks a lot of looseleaf (and expensive) tea is a highly thoughtful gift. You’ll find some very similar measuring spoons here (at the moment)

I like things like these.