Where do you want to volunteer today.

I had a long conversation with someone about volunteering the other day, someone who has spent a good deal of working life outside Ireland. Specifically he was talking about volunteering time to help local schools with tech knowledge transfer and training. In addition to that, someone sent me this this morning via twitter and it got me thinking about how it can be done rather than the barriers that tend to block it. Obviously there are elements of that last one that are irrelevant to kids outside America because we’ve different ways of doing things but some of the general comments about approaching problems of this nature and how girls tend not to push themselves are not yet history.

I did, at some point during my college years volunteer to help students in disadvantaged areas with some tuition for state exams but I don’t know, given the change in legislation and the need for background vetting whether programs like this still exist. I also like a lot what James Whelton has done with CoderDojo, and things like the Mathsjam movement.

I’m also aware that there is a lot of concern about maths teaching in secondary schools, the perception of maths as hard, as somewhere we’re poorly performing and from past personal experience, the lack of support, sometimes, for girls doing maths. I had a great, great maths teacher at secondary school – I gather he’s a head teacher somewhere now. But he had one hell of a battle and argument to try and keep girls from dropping out of the higher level maths courses.

So I’m looking at the possibility of setting up maths clubs not unlike the coderdojo idea but with some mad cross between mathsjam for kids, purely on a voluntary basis, or possibly going out as a speaker to secondary schools and colleges be it under the auspices of some sort of future planning/careers talks (do we still even do these) or some sort of maths talks and I really, really need to know what I need to know what from a legal standpoint…


Data science

The last few weeks have been pretty busy on the assignment front as there were three in total due in the last couple of weeks, two maths and one statistics so I am really only catching on up on things here.

I started studying mathematics and statistics for a couple of reasons; (i) I liked mathematics a lot as a kid, but when push came to shoved aged 17, languages got higher up the priority list and (ii) the amount of data in the world is increasing; the number of people equipped to interpret it however doesn’t seem to be increasing. Also increasing are the number of people creating information graphics and data visualisations.

Some people are very good at this. The New York Times, for example, do sterling work in this area, as does the Office for National Statistics in the UK.

Some are not so good in interpreting underlying data. I’ve seen one absolutely beautifully drawn graphic that purported to display the strength of FaceBook in the social media world which compared FaceBook pageloads with Flickr image uploads. A fairer comparison would be pageloads for both sites. And this is a very simple criticism.

In other words, without a reasonable grounding in data analysis, it probably isn’t guaranteed that good datagraphics are going to appear.

Big Data is a buzzword which is turning up in my newsfeeds increasingly often. I’m not always sure what people understand by it but it is definitely flavour of the month and so we turn to this report from Silicon Republic on the subject of support for data science courses.

I am of the opinion that STEM (not sure I like that term for science, technology and maths courses but it has its uses) is definitely something worth investing in the future. However, like a lot of things, important and all as it is, it isn’t often adequately rewarded economically. Here, there are debates about how much people working in universities get paid; typically in the UK, funding for research is falling, and a lot of privately funded research is moving out of the UK, or its validity is being criticised purely on the grounds of the commercial nature of its funding (see pharmaceutical research as an example here – it is difficult to make any conclusion without some accusation of bias). In certain respects, research into options for the future is between a rock and a hard place.

EMC are best known to me for data storage. It’s interesting to see one of their senior guys talking about the importance of data science and I’d be interested to know if it’s coming from their interest in providing storage for large, nay massive quantities of data, or whether they also have some interest in how that information is organised. Obviously the big name in terms of how information is organised is Google. I will be interested to see if UCC do actually put a data science course together.

In the meantime, I have another 3-4 years of my own maths/stats to go and no doubt, the industry will change a bit again in that time.


Shortchanging investment in the future

Via Ninth Level, I find myself reading of all things, a Fianna Fail press release.

I can’t find a news report confirming the matter but feel the need to comment on it anyway:

At a major conference on Ireland’s competitiveness in Croke Park today, Minister Quinn attempted to defend his decision to abolish the Modern Languages in Primary School Initiative (MLPSI) by saying that he has bought several German cars in his lifetime but never needed to speak German to do so.

Release was issued by Averil Power, Fianna Fáil Seanad Spokesperson on Education.

No doubt a key reason we cancel initiatives like this could include the fact that we’re effectively bankrupt at the moment, don’t have money, the initiative is not really delivering, but that’s not, apparently what Ruairi Quinn said.

I have a declaration of interest. I speak fluent French and very good German. I’ve lived in France, Belgium and Germany. I have had that opportunity because I speak foreign languages.

Currently, on the propertypin, there is a discussion regarding schools in Dublin and while it covers a number of aspects of secondary schooling, there are comments from parents for whom language learning is very important. In other words, the mere purchase of a German designed car is not the only thing people might have ever used German for.

We also have calls from various business men for us to teach Chinese. I’ve written about this in the past also with a view to the practical implications of such an idea (clue – I’m not totally certain a blanket policy on Chinese because Richard Barrett, a business man with interests in China, says we should implement it). The point here is that there is an interest in teaching our young people other languages.

We suck at it. I’ve written about this in the past on one of my other sites and my view can be summed up as the country just being lazy at learning languages. We do not put in the effort, same as we don’t really put it into maths and science either. We could try a whole lot harder.

The comment attributed to the current Minister for Education just underlines that.



What do we tell the youth of today, anyway?

I picked this up on my twitter feed this morning.

If you were giving a talk to 16 yr olds about economy, would you be upbeat to inspire them or more downbeat to snap them out of complacency?

(Liam Delaney, Professor of Economics Stirling University. Research Fellow UCD Geary Institute, occasionally blogs here also.)

We’re talking about 16 year olds here. Complacency is not what 16 year olds do. They dream, and old fogeys put a lot of effort into getting them to attach to reality. Being downbeat is part of that.

I’ve come to the conclusion that this is an utterly stupid way to go about things. Here’s the basic truth about economies. They generally trend towards improved life but they do it in wild cycles. There is not an economist nor a business man in the world who truly understands those cycles because those cycles are the collective output of a lot of small economies acting together in non-centrally planned ways. They are not rational and what’s more, they can be changed at the microlevel without any reference to any sort of economic theory about what the right thing to do is.

In other words, what you say to teenagers is Economies go up, economies go down, you try to learn to ride the cycle, and, although I am sure Liam might not agree with me on this, you can probably ignore economists dealing in economic theory because despite its pretensions, it is barely a measurable science, dismal or otherwise. The most interesting economists I know are not really economists; they’re statisticians.

Yes,  Economies go up, and they go down and you, coming into a down cycle, difficult as it might look, have massive, massive advantages over those who come into a good cycle. You have the chance to be creative in how you deal with issues and difficulties. You learn to be resourceful. You learn to achieve an awful lot with comparatively little. And you’re in a good place when the good times come.

And you have dreams and with the resourcefulness that you can be delivering now, you can try to exploit them. Not everyone will be a pop star but I’ll bet Steve Jobs wanted to be a fireman when he was 5. Lives change. Different things, opportunities, people come along. The way you look at life now will change. So while you’ll need to plan for the future – this is where I say get a decent education – you need to look at how you’re doing now as well. Play that guitar. Do that gig. Never regret that you didn’t try something at least once.

What you do will make the economy of the future. The more you believe in what you are doing, the better that future will be. You may travel. Travel and temporary migration will be one of the best things that can happen you because the world will change, the lens you look through to see it will change. Some of the best things that have happened to Irish society happened because people left and came back. Societal change in Ireland was driven by the diaspora who came back. Look on it as an opportunity and another building block in your life and your future and not something to be negative about.

This is what I would be telling sixteen year olds if I were Liam Delaney. And I wouldn’t be thinking of being negative to kick the complacency out of them because if nothing else, that will destroy the economy and society for a further generation. We need them to build the future, not lie around wondering just how bad things are going to get before they get a job of some description.

Ireland has been poorly served by her experts and ruling class. We need to change that.

When you’re done, read this from Ronan Lyons, last August.

Hmmm…So..should we learn Chinese?

Via the Journal – a site I haven’t really worked out the purpose of yet – we have this little piece on whether we should all be learning Chinese.

There are a couple of key pieces of information:

Richard Barrett, who set up Treasury Holdings with Johnny Ronan, suggested from the audience that Irish people should be learning Chinese to equip us to fully embrace the possibilities for trade with the surging Asian economy.

I have issues with this, as indeed I have issues with anyone who pipes up and says “we should be learning X language for Y overly simplistic reason”. I may be wrong but I understand that Richard Barrett does a lot of trade in China which will probably explain his interest in getting our young people to learn China. But it’s not the sort of trade I want to see this country wasting any more money on collectively. Treasury Holdings was a development company and yes, some of its loans were taken on board by NAMA. In other words, this is not a sector of industry which would necessarily create a lot of sustainable economic growth for large numbers of enterprises.

I want to see our young people creating things; being given the freedom to create things. They will need communication skills as well – I will come to that in a moment – but above all, before they can trade with another country, they need something to sell. We are not teaching them to create stuff to sell in general. I’m sure there are people out there trying…individually – but if we were going to put any money and effort into the economic future of the country it should start with problem solving and creating things. So if we’re going to bring something new into the education system, it shouldn’t be ONE particular language, suggested by a property magnate.

I’d be in favour of much improved programming and design skills but that’s another argument later.

The thing is…we don’t trade much with China; not compared to how much we trade with France and Germany. And we already have problems getting our young people to learn to speak either effectively. I’ve written about this elsewhere so I am not going to go into the details now. To get our young people speaking any of the Chinese languages effectively out of school is a massive task when we can’t get them speaking an Indo-European language effectively.

One of the issues I have in Ireland is that it’s possible for someone like Richard Barratt to pop something like this out and have the Taoiseach have to respond to it without any real understanding of how possible it is – where are all these Chinese language teachers going to come from, for example – and how much is it going to cost given the rarity of the skill – and what directly is it going to bring the country if we don’t also – and more importantly – teach our young people to create something that we can trade with? Being able to speak Chinese and English is not enough. You need something to trade with.

Maybe I am missing something here.

LinkedIn penetration – What’s it worth really?

Last week, ComScore issued a press release highlighting the penetration rates for Twitter and LinkedIn in a number of different companies. The Netherlands came out top. What was interesting – and hence rather more widely reported than you’d expect normally – was that Ireland came second in the table for LinkedIn. I was a little surprised. The press release is here. It concentrates mainly on the Netherlands use of social networking media but there is that table of penetration for LinkedIn and that’s what I want to talk about.

It caught my interest because at the same time, an online forum which I frequent was running a discussion on how to find jobs in IT in Ireland. Networking via LinkedIn featured as a key component of something people should be doing; and how they should manage their profile, for example. It interested me because it strikes me that LinkedIn is working more or less as a lot of people feel FaceBook should be – a connection building exercise. I’m not sure FaceBook really works that way.

Given that Ireland is behind a lot of other countries in terms of penetration of FaceBook and Twitter, I’m intrigued to know why we score highly on LinkedIn. It’s possible that this penetration is as a result of:

  • high number of IT professionals;
  • high number of professionals intermingling with the US market;
  • high levels of staff turnover in the IT sector.

LinkedIn is a little interesting on the financial front too as it is due to IPO sometime this year. The expected flotation figure is – comparatively speaking (according to Mashable by the way), not all that high. This is important because the figures being bandied about for FaceBook are rather stratospheric, despite a complete absence of useful financial information. LinkedIn’s IPO documentation offers a lot more clarity.

The recruitment process in Ireland has changed a lot over the last 10 years. I was direct-hired to my current company having done battle with the recruitment agencies which, from what I can see, are really not all that trusted. LinkedIn cites job vacancies as one of their main income streams and anecdotally, I know people who have been headhunted via LinkedIn. I wonder if a key contribution to LinkedIn’s position in Ireland relates to recruitment specifically and I’d be interested in finding a way of figuring it out.

LinkedIn is an interesting way of finding a job; however. If you have any colleagues (or direct line reporting) within your network, it may be difficult to hide the fact that you are interested in moving which may or may not be a good thing depending on a number of matters such as workplace atmosphere and hierarchy, remuneration issues and workplace culture.

One of the things that struck me most about LinkedIn at the time I registered by the way was how structured it was in terms of describing your background, experience. A key complaint I have about the online form application modusfindanewjobus is that it is can be very difficult to fit that around your actual life and experience. I particularly found this with an IBM form lately.

While that makes it easier for HR staff, it may not – and almost certainly isn’t – necessarily in the interest of either an employer or a potential candidate. For that reason – I think there will always be an interest in a well designed and informative CV. LinkedIn allow you to upload these which is helpful.

Declaration of interest – my linkedin profile is here.

Role of education in Ireland

I wound up in a twitter discussion with Marc Coleman today because he is running for election to the Seanad and he got into some sort of a tiff with Brian Lucey, an academic in Trinity, this week. As I follow both of them, the argument caught my attention and I ended up contributing. I believe the roots of the debate were in an article which Marc wrote for the Sunday Independent, link here, and which left me somewhat cold as far as writing style was concerned.

With respect to the debate on twitter, however, it reminded me that a key issue in Ireland is that the debate on education seems to be very fragmented. No one ever seems to clearly answer the question “What do we want of our education system?” Ultimately, our commentators and politicians spend time arguing on micro issues without first of all even assessing the purpose of our education system. As such, we wind up with letter writing campaigns to the newspapers about such esoteric matters as:

  • the place of Irish in the curriculum
  • teachers’ holidays being too long
  • the dumbing down of the maths syllabus
  • how few people are doing higher level course which would lead them on to research and development
  • how badly we do at languages (and how we should kill off Irish language teaching to deal with this)
  • classroom buildings/facilities
  • class sizes.

Marc Coleman appears to be unhappy at how we measure academic productivity. He latched onto academic lecture contact hours and used personal anecdote as a stick to beat Irish academics with. I’m not going to argue against the simple fact that compared to other countries, many of our academics are relatively well paid; only that if you want to bring about a way of measuring their worth to us, a little more detail is called for.

I don’t work in academia. I came close, about 10 years ago, to applying for a lectureship but the position in question was part time and held not enough promise in terms of research options. Marc Coleman wants us to only hire the good people, but has not yet answered me the simple question of How do we identify them. Nor can he tell me how we develop them. You don’t really buy good academic off academic trees; they need to be nurtured and their research funded.

I’m not happy with certain aspects of education in Ireland. I think our primary and secondary school cycles could do with being modernised. Having spoken to a number of teachers, I’m aware that where we have failing schools, we have ploughed lots of money and have failed to get parental engagement. I’m not enough of an expert on the social sciences front to figure out how we address that. I did volunteer to give grinds to kids in a disadvantaged comprehensive when I was a student myself – I’m not sure if the program is still running – but this anecdote is nowhere near adequate to make me an expert in dealing with some of the problems our education system faces at the coalface.

I’m not in the mood for picking over the carcass of whether researcher/lecturer A should be earning more or less than random person B doing a similar job somewhere because it’s a meaningless debate if you don’t actually first of all decide what you want the education system to achieve. For example, I’m not sure it is to our benefit collectively that it brought about a situation whereby the points race causes most of our brightest to direct themselves towards law, for example. Or that perceived economic benefit dictates trends in demand for third level courses. This does not exploit our collective ability to the best.

If I were a Seanad election candidate, I wouldn’t be focussing initially on what we pay our academics in terms of whether they represent value for money. I would be asking people what they want from education. It’s a very, very important question that would enable us to better identify value for money from the system. What is the required outcome? Arguing over contact hours is not going to answer that question.

While we currently do not charge tuition fees for undergraduate students, it’s worth noting that the UK is moving to a fee based system (and the implementation of that in England is causing ructions with respect to access being dictated by access to money), and the US has had a fee based system for years. The merit of that system is being questioned, given the debts that are imposed on young people going to college and the disconnect between those debts and the likelihood that their jobs will ever enable them to pay of those fees. Put simply, if you cause every job to require a college degree but then do not produce salaries that will enable people to pay off the cost of getting said degrees, you have a problem.

Because we have had a policy of trying to enable as many people to get into third level colleges as possible, we have diluted the value of basic university degrees such that postgraduate qualifications are near mandatory if you want to get a job. I’m not sure that this is to the benefit of the wider economy, particularly in a country which currently has abotu 15% unemployment.

I’d prefer it if our Seanad candidates considered wider questions like this rather than running into the cost of bits of the whole system.

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.