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.

Decluttering your life

When I came to Ireland in 1999, I was an ex-bureaucrat and I had a fairly decent fist on keeping my paperwork in order. Something has gone wrong here. I suspect part of it is linked to the lack of stability linked to having moved house several times. And part of it is the sheer volume of it I have – and this having gone digital on two key bills.

Receipts? I swim in them. Bills, letters, notifications. Things I don’t want to throw out without shredding them along with the practical difficulty of not currently owning a shredder. It is growing exponentially. I have an office which I am in the process of decluttering and it is scaring me to the extent that I will buy that shredder tomorrow and I will get some sort of control over it.

I’m just about to start another two Open University modules and one of the things I noted last year was the total absence of organisation for the last two. I don’t need that to happen again but in order to be organised about it this time, I really need to get some sort of control over all the stuff which is already disorganised. In this way I won’t go to Easons to buy A4 paper again for at least a year because guess how much of it I found buried under a pile of paper work linked to the last house move? Lots. And it’s not cheap paper either – it’s Clairefontaine which I don’t typically lose.

This isn’t me. Or,. more accurately, this did not used to be me, and I want the old me back. Maybe this is part of getting older but still…

But our lives are not really helped by the fact that the infrastructure we live in needs to be enhanced to organise all this stuff. I spent a lot of this afternoon questioning the possibility of rebooting my life, and I did, some of it. Every single digital art, Photoshop related magazine I have went to my recycling bin today. Oh I know it had to happen but listen, even having bought 5 Expedit shelving units since I arrived in this house I still don’t have enough storage. I just don’t. If I owned the house – which I don’t – I could possibly look at re-arranging thing (and buying more shelves) for more effective storage. But I can’t. I’d like to get rid of some of the furniture in this house (but I can’t).

So the alternative really was to declutter. Just get rid of stuff that I have no real emotional attachment to (like about 600E worth of digital art magazines, yes, let’s not go there) and try to avoid adding to the stuff I don’t care about so much (like digital art magazines).

I’ve a way to go before I’m finished – I’m going to bring a bunch of DVDs to the nearest charity shop (where they will need to sell them really cheaply I think to get any competition on how cheaply some of the older films are being sold for in HMV and Golden Discs these times). In the meantime, along with decluttering the physical side of my life, I’m trying to tidy up what’s going on in my head, sort out the plates I have spinning and see if I can achieve more with my time.

Tea, lovely tea

Here are some of my favourite teas.

  1. Mariages Freres – Marco Polo
  2. Barrys Gold Blend
  3. Nordvist Tiigerin Paivaumi
  4. Nordqvist Kaiserin Morsian
  5. Le Palais des Thés – No 25
  6. Le Palais des Thés – Thé des Amants
  7. La Compagnie Anglaise des Thés – Túron
  8. La Compagnie Anglaise des Thés – Fuego
  9. Mariage Freres – Wedding Imperial
  10. Nordqvist – Karibean Aurinko

I may have spelt the Finnish ones slightly wrong – sorry.

Winter is approaching and warm drinks are more and more important. For most of my life I lived off Barrys Gold Blend and I will always have a box of it to hand somewhere. But Marco Polo is just the most amazing tea going. It’s a pity that no one sensible sells Mariage Freres tea in Dublin (that I know about) because the delivery charges from France are fairly hefty. Likewise for the Nordqvist tea from Finland. And Kudos to le Palais des Thés who have a shop on Wicklow Street where if you’re really very lucky, they will also have the most amazing ginger bread for sale.

Just fantastic.

The thing is, when you grow up in Ireland, tea is almost a binary experience. Are you Barrys or Lyons? Tea is so much broader than this now and yes,. we have a few decent specialist tea shops around the country now. And there is a bigger selection of tea in the supermarkets (nod to Twining’s Lady Grey by the way – it’s almost on the list).

This is a good thing. There are more varieties of tea available in Ireland now than beer. This is something we may want to consider when wondering about the country’s alcohol problem.

 

iOS 6 – argghh

I don’t usually bother upgrading the OS on my phone the day it comes out because usually I am too busy. I don’t, however, usually avoid doing it for long but on this occasion, I am going to have to.

Apple have replaced Google Maps with some homefried application of its own. It’s fair to say that according to most of the comments about it yesterday, it probably isn’t very useful.

My most frequently used applications on my phone are the browser, the phone, text messaging and maps. On my iPad it is probably the browser, Chilltrax, Bejewelled and the maps. In real terms, I can’t actually do without the maps. They find me when I am lost. They cover me for everywhere I have tended to need maps. I have been standing lost in the middle of Helsinki finding my way to my hotel using maps on my phone. I have used maps on my iPad to plan journeys in France and check out areas where I dream of buying houses. They regularly help me locate myself in the banditland that is anywhere south of the Liffey. Last night they helped me find Dunsink Observatory.

But it doesn’t sound like I can rely on the same accuracy from the current incarnation of Apple’s maps product so for now, no iOS6.0.

We the people and open data

When I told my mother that the Oireachtas website had stopped serving XML the other day, she wasn’t very pleased on two counts. She wasn’t pleased that this was not reported on her main news service and she wasn’t pleased that it happens.

I might never go to Kildarestreet.com but I absolutely value the concept of open data and believe that our ability to crowd source and mash data is massively important and it is a coming skill, not just in government matters but in most matters relating to the collection of data on which decisions rest. We the tax payers pay for this data and I don’t think it’s unrealistic to make it easy for us the tax payers to gain access to it. Saying “It’s on the Oireachtas website” is not really adequate if the Oireachtas website is not all that perfect from an accessibility or search point of view which in fact, it was prone not to be.

In a country where there is massive attachment to smart economies, computer science, and we have business people talking about datascience being the coming thing, and we have an official policy on open data, the decision to stop releasing XML was a retrograde step. I know that there is some effort being made to rectify this and hopefully next week Kildarestreet.com will be back functional. But it does suggest that there is occasionally a tendency to make short decisions without looking at the wider ramifications and what it is we talk about wanting to achieve and what we are doing to achieve this.

I will be writing to my local TD today – whom I viscerated on my doorstep last week for various reasons relating to pensions and poor job creation plans – and I will include this as evidence of the lack of consistency between words and actions on the part of our government at this time. It may be a small thing – it’s not like Kildarestreet.com or god knows the Oireachtas’s own website – get anything like the same amount of traffic as Facebook for example – but it is evidence of an ethos, a desire on how to do things, which matters for the future.

Culture Night – Dunsink Observatory

I’m never really quite prepared for Culture Night – I love the whole idea of it but there seems to be an overwhelming amount of stuff to do so I fear to tread anywhere near Dublin City Centre. I found out by accident yesterday, however, that Dunsink Observatory were doing a few bits and pieces so I ventured out there.

I met a friend there too, family in tow and the overwhelming assessment was that this was fantastic.

Dunsink Observatory is in the grounds of what was William Rowan Hamilton’s house. Its South Telescope is an example of a Grubbs telescope and when your local politician is on to you about knowledge economies, know that in the early 20th century, the world’s leading manufacturer of telescopes was based in Dublin. We have powered the science of the world. In fact, we also had the biggest telescope in the world for a while over in Birr but that’s a different story.

Anyway, Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies who own the site were on hand with someone giving a talk about the telescope every 30 minutes, with someone on hand to talk about ICHEC’s work with heavy duty dataprocessing and demonstrating their 3D visualising software. I was absolutely mesmerised by this and took information home because I want to know more. There were people pointing telescopes up and the sky and when I left, one of the telescope operators was about to start looking for what my memory tells me was the Crab Nebula.

The sky was mostly very clear.

The staff were overwhelmed by the turn out – it seems to have far exceeded their expectations and there were a lot of children there which I think is some evidence that here, at least, interest is turning in the direction of science and what it can do for the world. Things like this are inspiring – I know I was fascinated by the Birr telescope when I was a teenager, that here was something that we were best at in the world. That there are no limits.

According to Dunsink’s website, they run public evenings from the observatory a couple of times a week during the winter. My friend and I are definitely, definitely up for that this winter.

 

AND…dammit…I left before the meteor shower. That’s a pity. Still….next time.

 

How to avoid a 386 situation.

  1. Identify the site in question
  2. install a plug in such as Leechblock or StayFocused.
  3. Allow yourself 20 minutes on that site a day.
  4. You get thrown out.

Plus points of this are:

  1. Your mind gets focussed on what’s really important about your interaction on that site.
  2. You have more time to play Bejewelled
  3. You realise there is more to life than online fora.
  4. Your stress levels and blood pressure tend to be a bit healthier.

Worth doing. 386ing yourself is not good. People being wrong in bars gets limited by barmen asking if you have no homes to be going to. You need an equivalent for the internet.

Beautiful things – Fiskars scissors

I own quite a lot of stuff – many books, much stuff in the kitchen and a lot of hobby related items. One of the more utilitarian things I own is a Fiskars scissors, with the trademark orange handles. It was given to me by a girl called Ulla, from Finland, very proud of how good Finnish things are. I still have the scissors. It is unquestionably the best scissors I own. Fiskars scissors are not cheap; in addition to the household scissors which I have used to cut every sort of things from paper to chicken breasts, I own a couple of smaller craft scissors for cutting thread; one in my knitting tool box and one in my crochet tool box. They are always comfortable to use and in fact, I believe Fiskars were the first company to produce scissors to suit lefthanded people. I think this is brilliant, even allowing for the fact that I am right handed.

I was in Finland last week, after the whole OLympics trip, and while I was in Stockmann, Helsinki’s biggest department store, I made a bad-for-my-credit card discovery. I discovered that you could get Fiskars scissors with lovely designs on the handle. They are utterly beautiful.

This is a scissors. You don’t usually apply the word “beautiful” to it. They are not beautiful. They are usually plane; the Fiskars for years had the orange handles I mentioned above, most of them come with plain coloured handles if they are not 100% metal with a few dots of rust. Some of them have red swival dots but they are not beautiful. They are sharp, or blunt, or lousy or useless.

The first one I saw had a scene from the Finn Family Moomin on it. I had to have it. Then I discovered other ones from the Inspiration range. Beside me I have a Gloria scissors. How can you not love something? And because it’s a Fiskars, I feel confident that it will work and last me. After all, the one I mentioned above, my general orange handled household scissors I have had since 1998.

waves and numbers and stuff