Upping the ante in maths.

It’s August, so we have had the school leaving exam results and as is typical, there has been much wailing and gnashing of teeth about maths. Put simply, we’re not good enough at it.

Collectively, I mean. There are some individuals doing nicely. Anyway, one of the options being suggested to improve interest in maths is bribery, I mean, bonus points for mathematics.

Bonus points for mathematics is not new. When I did my leaving certificate oooooh, exactly 20 years ago now, they existed. Since then, they don’t exist, the maths syllabus has been streamlined at least once, if not twice and foundation maths was invented. And all told, things do not seem to be getting better.

So the solution is Project maths;

Mrs Coughlan said the new Project Maths – a pilot scheme in 24 schools – would be rolled out across the country.

“I believe from the very tentative results that we have seen thus far that it is the most appropriate way in which we can encourage more young people to take higher level mathematics,” she said.

Helpful. Mrs Coughlan, for the benefit of posterity is the Education Minister of the time. 24 schools are the basis on which we will make this decision. I’m not certain that’s a good idea.

The problem – which is not unique to higher level mathematics – is that the attitude to education has changed. We don’t sell it correctly to teenagers, and they expect to be sold things. I do not know why – I don’t have children, so much of what I believe is pure and idle speculation. We do have a number of youngsters who do not necessarily understand the effort/reward set up of exams. And that the reward may not necessarily be just passing the exams, but more interesting things in the future.

When I was at school, I was taught maths by a man who took the occasional week off the syllabus to teach us how it was useful for economics and computer programming, neither of which were taught in my school. Some people worked hard in his class because they were scared of him. Others worked hard because in some way, he was inspirational. Maths was a tool for other things apart from being an end in itself.

Much of the educational curriculum is often written off with “I’ll never need to “… prove another theorem in my life. We have a generation of people who dismiss aspects of the education system as being a waste of time, without recognising how those aspects might fit into other things they want to do. For example, I do honestly believe we should be teaching kids to do some sort of programming at second level anyway, but there isn’t a hope in hell any of them will be able to do that without some reasonable grounding in maths, for example.

There’s too much emphasis – I think – on immediate usefulness of various aspects of parts of the curriculum – eg, computer courses tend to consist of the ECDL which is handy enough but it’s hardly taxing to learn how to use a wordprocessor if you can read – but apart from training an army of teenage mutant ninja hackers, a lot of people can’t see the point in kids learning to write their own programs, because, sure they can buy them.

Education is about a way of thinking. I think we’ve lost sight of that. And until we learn to show teenagers how things that they’ve convinced themselves are a waste of time (eg maths) are not a waste of time (eg don’t you want to write computer games), we probably won’t be able to up the ante in maths in the short term.

Part of this means we need to look at how we teach these things. Not necessarily curriculum content. Only that – in all honesty – there are probably a lot of people teaching mathematics who should perhaps not be teaching mathematics.

For the long term, I think we need to look at the education cycle in Ireland anyway. I think the primary/secondary split and move to specialisation in the timetable is too late. However, that is an argument for another day. In the meantime, a look at Professor Stewart’s various maths curiosities reveals that however belatedly, people are interested in maths.

Coding without comments

Via Robert the Grey and Jesse Liberty, I have been thinking about code comments and how necessary they are, and I have come to the conclusion that some people have just never really written assembler.

Jesse’s argument for his project is as follows:

  • Comments rust faster than code, even when you’re careful
  • Well written code can be read, and comments are annoying footnotes
  • Comments make for lazy coding

Comments rust faster than code not because you’re not careful, but because you’re lazy. And if you are lazy about commenting, how do I know you’re not lazy about coding?

I realise that sometimes the logic behind a piece of code can be less than clear; no matter how well you construct your variable and procedure names, that problem does not go away.

According to Robert:

  • Stating the bleedin’ obvious (I’m looking at you Method Arguments)
  • Put there because you’re too lazy to refactor the code as demonstrated in Jesse’s article and the comments
  • Enforced by stupid corporate coding standard mandates that are still stuck in the 90s
  • Stale (and sometimes actively harmful) by the next check-in or 6 months later

I think that this is a lazy approach. It says “I cannot be bothered to document things properly so it’s someone else’s fault if they do not/cannot read my wonderfully elegant code that is self-evident because I have designed it to be so”.

It’s also my experience that well written code tends to be accompanied by well-written comments, and that poorly commented code is rarely wonderful and easy to extract some meaning from.

If either Jesse  or Robert want to carry out thought experiments like this, it’s entirely up to them. But in the real world, code standards should include checks for adequate documentation so that people, other people, have a fighting chance of dealing with other people’s elegant code. Just because you think you’ve written good code and it is self-evident what it is doing does not mean you actually succeeded in doing so.

I’ve no objection against the new generation languages. Anything that makes programming more accessible to other people is a good thing. Anything, however, that allows you to break down some discipline, is not a good thing.

If you’re disciplined enough to write good code, I honestly don’t see an argument for not being disciplined enough to write good documentation for said code. If you can’t then, in my view, it is lazy.

Failed personal projects – NowILiveHere.com

One of the hardest things you have to do sometimes is reflect on projects which fail for whatever reason. For me, the key one is just occasionally, an idea comes along and I cannot give it the time it requires to make it work. We have only got a limited amount of time, it seems.

For me, the one that I really regret was the NowILiveHere.com idea. I’ve completely abandoned it for now because with the benefit of hindsight, the idea was nice, but making it happen turned out to be difficult in light of the amount of time I had to devote to it.

The idea was simple enough. NowILiveHere.com was to be a directory of all the activities you could get up to no matter where in Ireland you lived. The key objective of it was to make it community content driven – that meant people could sign up and plot their town and their local clubs and activities on it – so that if A N Stranger arrived in the town, family in tow, for a new exciting job and start in their lives, they had somewhere to look other than the local newspaper to find out about things that they could get involved in.

I believed this mattered because on the surface, most of Ireland appears to have GAA and the odd football team. I am willing to bet, however, that the top rugby players in small towns in Cork are completely unaware that the North Cork Lacemaking Guild is one of the best in Europe if not the world, or where the local judo club meets.

Part of this is rooted in my own youth. When I was a teenager, the choice of activities seemed to be limited to some of the more obvious (GAA) sports. I was fortunate that my parents were good enough to get me to a swimming pool every Sunday morning during the winter because I had zero interest in the local camogie club. Part of this is also rooted in a conviction I have that very often, things are going on that we just don’t know about. Things like knitting clubs, volunteer organisations building things. The media would have you believe that all the weekend is about is partying and sleeping in on Sunday morning. But I pass through towns, small towns, and realise that they have karate clubs, yoga classes and I thought that a central site where you could just go “okay, I’m living in Portlaois for the next year or so, what’s going on there?” rather than spend weeks asking at libraries, looking at notices in supermarkets.

When I built it – and I built it twice –  I set it up on Mediawiki because it struck me as possibly the handiest CMS for a project like that. I had grand plans involving linking into Google maps as well. Typically, however, on both occasions, it got heavily attacked by spam and I didn’t have the time to do any of the wider customisation and development I had in mind for it. Sometimes, the tools we give something are just the wrong fit.

I’ve been thinking about the whole idea again lately and am still tempted to try and figure out a way of making it happen. I might not necessarily go with Mediawiki – having looked at that again lately for other reasons, I’ve concluded that it doesn’t fit the needs of that project any more; that in fact, building something straight onto a Google or Bing map might even be a better fit altogether rather than trying to build anything more elaborate.

I’m still interested in making it community driven; I look at how boards.ie has developed into something highly useful (although occasionally monumentally diversionary) for a lot of people, particularly in specialist areas (I have an interest in the photography and commuting and transport fora there). It’s just, something like that can be hugely open to abuse, and the question is how you go about policing it. On the flipside, I really have no idea what people do in their spare time in the way of clubs and societies and classes in every town in Ireland. I need to crowdsource that information.

On balance, though, it matters that people who have ideas look at trying to implement them, and learning from the failure.