Monday, December 27, 2010

Australian Cricket mismanaged

Australia is never going to be as successful at sport as we used to be. The rest of the world is more interested and with more opportunity. Meanwhile our interests have switched to more sedentary activities. Still the current state of Australian Cricket (hitting an amazing low on the first day of the MCG test) seems to be significantly caused by mismanagement.

Ricky Ponting showed why he is such a bad and unsuccessful captain at the start of the England innings. He held a huddle to gee everyone up. Richie Benaud was immediately critical. It was essential that the bowlers stayed calm and put the ball in the right spot. Instead they tried too hard and immediately sprayed the ball around. We can well imagine that this has been a feature of Ponting's captaincy. It is also bad for the batsmen. We need them to bat a long time, and you can't do that if you are trying too hard. We need batsmen who can still focus while staying calm.

Some of the coaching staff do know what they're doing, as we saw when they took Mitchell Johnson out for one test and sorted him out for Perth. Still we need to restore calmness in the coaching department. Let's start by making Mark Taylor head coach.

The tendency of players to play on and on has destroyed the natural rhythm of the team making it too hard to bring in young players. This also involves players playing with injuries. That might work in a 1 day game, but you can't bowl long spells or bat for a long time with a crook back. Shane Warne showed what a break from the game can achieve. I'd like to see Ponting take a big break. He might bat on for many years after that.

I fancy Cameron White for Australian captain, why else would Warwick Armstrong be reincarnated? However there are a few things against it, including the fact that he is probably not good enough to make the team. I think Shane Watson could be good, though he is another one who is not as calm as he seems.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Mathematics is "Thinking clearly about problems"

Robert Krulwich's NPR blog has comment on a wonderful Vi Hart video: However it (and Vi Hart) are misguided about what is needed to improve maths education. We don't need to provide more stimulation for people for whom maths is (or might be) a recreational/cultural activity. What we need to do is make teacher and student appreciate the importance of mathematics for problem solving in every field. This is my comment on their blog:
The subject matter of Mathematics is "Thinking clearly about problems" (not counting most problems related to understanding and relating to human behaviour and culture). Teachers can't teach maths well without having this focus. It isn't (mostly, and for most people) a cultural activity like music. Math tends to invent a terse language to help express itself, but teaching the language without clearly relating it to problem solving is what makes math seem weird and pointless to many students.
If we could base mathematics education on this definition then we would see many immediate benefits:
  • Teachers and students would know why they were learning mathematics;
  • A problem based approach would help everyone see the difference between the important and the merely conventional aspects of the language and methods of mathematics;
  • It would be clear why mathematics should be compulsory, and why efficacy should be a key requirement for higher education courses (outside the Humanities);
  • It would integrate mathematics with computer education to the benefit of both.
To make the definition comprehensible it is important to tell teachers and students how mathematics supports understanding data of all sorts (using probability and statistics); how the real world (and hence engineering) is only clearly understood using mathematics; how computer programming is becoming a mathematical science instead of a black art.


In John Baez's blog I appended this to a comment I made:
My New Year’s resolution is to have another go to sell the idea that “The subject matter of Mathematics is how to think clearly about problems (mostly excluding human interaction issues like culture)”. Teachers and students are hopelessly confused by an education system that treats mathematics as a collection of facts (about Platonic entities) which is sometimes useful in the real world. My definition will give Mathematics its rightful place in the core of a modern education. I’m not going to make any progress until I can find a real Mathematician to endorse the idea.
And I got an endorsement from John Baez himself. Initially his comment was (as wordpress emailed it to me): "I hereby endorse your idea. Please make progress.". But now the reply reads:
I hereby endorse your idea. 
When I go back to UC Riverside in the fall of 2012 and start teaching math again, I’m going to teach it in a new way, informed by everything we’ve been discussing on this blog. I think the kids will enjoy it. I never taught math as a collection of ‘facts’, and that’s probably why the students liked my classes, but now I’m more keen on real-world examples that illustrate the big problems facing our civilization, rather than examples of the sort that pure mathematicians (like my former self) most enjoy. 
Sometime before that, I plan to write a paper with the mild-mannered title “How Mathematicians Can Save the Planet”. I’ll put drafts here, and I’d appreciate your comments.
I'll continue this subject area in a new post soon.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

critique of "Ecotechnic Dictatorship"

Difficult times always bring out the desire for dictatorship. Plato kick started it all with his vision of the philosopher king. But it never works. Instead when democracy fails then the looniest sociopath takes over. He has no concern for the future or for the environment. His obsession is always his own grip on power.

Anatoly Karlin's writing displays a nostalgia for dictatorship that infects a large minority of folk from/in the former Communist countries. As such he is more looking to justify his position than make an honest case. This is particularly clear in his treatment of nuclear power. He first says, correctly, that it is the only hope for continuing our current high level of energy use. Surely this should induce him to thoroughly investigate and understand that issue. But no. Instead he quickly dismisses it with quick comments about Uranium running out which don't reflect any honest attempt to understand that issue. [Uranium is a very common mineral, as we see from the amount that has got into the ocean. Thorium is more common and has more energy (though not soluble so not in the ocean).]

Peak Oil doesn't mean "running out of oil". It does mean rationing by price and the huge costs of changing infrastructure to an electricity based one. Difficult times are guaranteed and the push to dictatorship will be on from well meaning folk as well as the sociopaths who will win any successes in that direction. The price of liberty is eternal vigilance. Democratic institutions need to be improved not dismantled. People who genuinely want to save the world need to get involved with politics not acquiesce or support the destruction of politics.

Monday, December 6, 2010

on the dangers of giving humans lots of energy

Atomic Insights Blog: A video that Tim "The Tool Man" Taylor would love. More power! What can 1 pound of uranium per day do? has a video of a Russian nuclear powered ice breaker going to the North Pole through the ice at high speed. It makes Rod Adams think of all the benefits of nuclear power. It makes me think that humans with lots of energy will do lots of mindless (and sometimes deliberate) destructive things.

Before the Industrial Revolution we felt powerless in the face of nature. Actually some of our worst human environmental disasters had already happened: the destruction of the megafauna outside Africa; deforestation of Britain and many other places. With fossil fuels the potential for destruction became so great that we invented the National Park. With nuclear power we need to aim even higher: the restoration of most of the Earth to its natural condition (plus intervention to compensate for the lack of megafauna). Let's let the rivers flood as they are meant to, and the oceans and rivers be free of industrial fishing. Let's use our biological skills to get rid of introduced species in many places.

Of course it is a bit premature to worry about a world with too much energy.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Sign Language

NextBigFuture speculated that no one will learn second languages soon because of machine translation. This misses quite a lot of the way we use language that machine translation can never do (such as using esoteric or group-specific features of a language as a way of establishing membership of a group). However my posted comment concentrated on one of my pet theories:

Human brains are designed to know multiple languages and some bits of the brain don't develop properly if not (which we know because people with one language have more trouble learning a new language than people who learn more than one when very young). And there is a second language that everyone should learn early: sign language. Reasons: (a) Talk in noisy environments; (b) Easier to have a private conversation because light waves are easier to block than sound waves; (c) Babies can learn sign language earlier (and parents are very frustrated till they can communicate with their kids). Sign language was our ancestors first language: we needed a language first to justify all the voice box changes needed for language.