Friday, September 30, 2005

An Odd Thing

When I was working at Cadence, the person sitting opposite me was a fellow Christian. Here, the person who was sitting next to me (until a desk move today) is a fellow Christian. Coincidence?

Here's another thing: I've been extremely frustrated at work this week. There's one particular tool that is just bad. It got to the stage where on Wednesday, I wanted to do nothing so much as to pick up my PC and throw it out of the window. (And, incidentally, the windows don't open to the best of my knowledge.)

Anyway, I'd reached snapping point. I was about five minutes from the point where I would have cleared my desk and walked out, never to return, and to hell with the consequences. And it was that precise point when one of the other Christians in the office, a person I met the first time I attended the church here in Yeovil, tracked me down and asked how it was going, how I was settling, and so on. Which is probably the only thing that got me through that day.

Could it be coincidence? Of course. But I don't really believe in luck, and my trust in coincidences is rather limited.

Falling Standards in Education

Every year, exam scores go up. Every year, the government hails this as a wonderful achievement. And, every year, we have a chorus of cries about exams being dumbed down, and standards slipping. Which is terribly unfair: each year, kids work very hard for their results, and are then subjected to a bunch of so-called experts telling them that their results don't mean anything, and that exams are now easy.

But it is vitally important that we have this debate.

Between them, India and China account for almost a third of the world's population. Every year, they produce masses of people, all of whom want to earn a living. And we cannot compete on cost - economic factors prevent that. Fortunately, a few really good employees are better for a business than a lot of really poor employees, which means that it is possible for us to compete with the Indian and the Chinese, if we generate people of sufficient quality. But that requires that our graduates are of a genuinely high standard, and not merely that the average result is four A's at A-level. (Bluntly, that's a meaningless statistic in itself - what matters is whether the students who get A's can count, not whether we can count the number of students who get A's.)

Now, back to the important question: are standards falling?

As far as I can tell, there are five reasons why exam results might be improving year on year:

1) Kids are getting smarter.
2) Teachers are getting better generally.
3) Kids are getting more support in their learning (from fellow students, tutors, teachers, or parents).
4) Exams are getting easier.
5) Teachers are getting better at teaching towards the exam.

Now, if true, any of the first 3 are a good thing (unless the 'support' consists of people doing the work for the kids - remember, the important factor is what the kids end up knowing, not whether they can pass an exam). Number 4 is obviously a bad thing.

Number 5 is the worst of the bunch, however, because it is a bad thing that doesn't immediately show itself as a bad thing. The thing is, if I can look at past papers for the last 10 years of maths and learn that there is always a quadratic equation, a differentiation and an integration, I can then teach my class to do these three things in a robotic manner. They won't understand any of the theory behind it, and won't actually learn any real maths, but they will pass the exams in large numbers. And it's hard to fault this approach - the exam papers are a good guide to what is considered important, and the kids are at least learning something. Sadly, what they are learning is of no actual use in the real world, where we don't simply face the odd integration - we face problems that need tackled with a variety of tools, and it's equally important to know which tools to use, as well as how to use them.

In the global economy, the kids leaving school this year won't be competing against their peers in the UK, against whom they at least have a level playing field. They are also competing against thousands of Chinese and Indian kids, who are willing to work for about a quarter of what the UK kids have to earn in order to live. It's a real bitch, but it's life. And it means that our kids absolutely must be the best they can possibly be, in terms of real skills that can be applied, not just the ability to pass some crappy exam.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Painting with Numbers

It is my understanding that when Michaelangelo would sculpt, he took a block of whatever medium he was working with, and proceded to hack off any bit that didn't look like whatever he was scultpting. By contrast, when an artist paints, he takes a blank canvas and progressively builds up layers until the end result is produced. (There is, of course, rather more to it than that.)

In this regards, producing software resembles painting rather more than it does scultpture. I take a blank slate, add various components, fit them together, and end up with a servicable program. Sometimes.

I think next time someone asks what I do for a living, I'll tell them I paint with numbers. It's at least as accurate as my previous comedy answer: confectionary machinist.

Incidentally, there is sometimes a perception that a person is either arty or mathematical. That is, you're either good at sciences or creative stuff, but rarely both. This is a huge misconception. There is as much art in the construction of a really clean and efficient automobile engine as there is in most art galleries these days, and the Eiffel Tower is a feat of tremendous engineering as well as one of the most recognisable buildings in the world. In fact, actually putting it together may have been the easiest part of building the thing.

(Also, Leonardo da Vinci is best known for the Mona Lisa. However, he also left behind notebooks featuring detailed designs for both helicopters and tanks. Of course, if you actually build these vehicles as he described them, they don't actually work. You might well call that a fairly crucial flaw, but in engineering terms, it's actually fairly small. The principles he used are sound, he just had a bunch of bugs to work out, and was prevented from doing so only by lack of resources.)

Fear of Success

My biggest failure, when it comes to teaching the bagpipes, has to be a young man whome I shall call Bill. He was a quick study, and rapidly learned a lot. He could have been a great piper. However, just as he started to get good, he disappeared.

He came back about a year later, and it was apparent that he'd lost a lot of his previous skill. However, he remained a quick study, and started to get good again. And, just as he was getting good, he quit, and didn't come back.

I think that what was happening was that he realised he was good at something, got scared, and so quit.

The fear of success is a very real, and very difficult, thing. A lot of people don't realise how difficult it can be. They think they would dearly love to be really great at something, and that that would be good. However, being good at things marks you out as different. Very few people can play the bagpipes at all, let alone well. Few people are truly good at football, or maths, or whatever else you want to name.

So what? you might think. Being marked out for being good can't be a bad thing, can it? But the truth is that being different hurts, especially for a young man. Our culture has raised mediocity to some sort of great status, where smart people are portrayed as boring losers, and where you don't need any talent to be famous - you just need to be on reality TV and make an impression. Jade, for instance, now makes her living as a professional interviewee - she doesn't actually do anything, but just talks about how she's still famous. (To her credit, Jade doesn't claim to be clever or talented - she makes a lot of money out of her very lack of these qualities.)

I sometimes wonder if Bill ever regrets not completing his training. He could have been a really good piper, if he'd stuck at it. But, that would have required him to stand out from the crowd of his peers. Would that have been a sacrifice worth making?

Tonight on "Young, Dumb and Slutty"

I was thinking today (as I am sometimes known to do): why is it that Britney, Paris and Jessica all have crappy "reality" shows in which they reveal how talentless they truly are, but no male "stars" do? I can't believe there's no audience - I would be willing to bet that the core viewers of any of these shows are the same pre-teen girls that make up the core audience for the likes of Justin Timberlake. I'm sure that, if he wanted a show of his own, he'd get one in an instant.

Which means that he must not want one. Does this mean he actually has some standards?

The world is more bizarre than I thought.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

To the bedmobile!

In other news, my bed finally arrived on Wednesday. It's a bright red sports-car, which has been fully taxed, so I can drive to walk before I have to rise in the morning.

Not really of course. But it is quite nice not sleeping on the floor any more.

The tyranny of small things

In virtually every arena of life, getting the big things right is actually fairly easy. Huge mistakes are pretty rare, largely because the consequences are so bad. Therefore, people tend not to reverse along the motorway. They don't hire totally unqualified people for difficult and skilled jobs. Most people know not to murder their neighbours.

However, it is the little things that cause problems. There are so many of them, individually unimportant, that it is impossible to tick all the boxes. And small problems have a habit of escalating. Ignore a small problem with your car and you'll be fine - until that problem causes something else to go wrong. Fail to deal with an unpaid bill promptly, and the interest starts to eat you alive.

This may well be why relationships are so hard. If there is a huge flaw in the relationship, it will either end the relationship or be dealt with promptly. However, each person carries around a whole host of 'small things', any of which can annoy the other (eg the whole toilet seat thing). On a good day, these issues get ignored. However, on a bad day, the people are less charitable, one small thing leads to another, the problem escalates, and the whole thing implodes.

Or, just possibly, not.

Friday, September 09, 2005

The value of true friends

The move had been coming for three years. It wasn't clear until recently when exactly I'd be moving, or where, and there were times when I thought it might be avoided entirely. However, the notion had been there, on and off, ever since I was informed that my previous job was disappearing. As a consequence of this, and in a bid to reduce the pain of leaving, I had spent some of that time drawing away from my friends back home. This in itself was quite an unpleasant experience, but there were still a great number of people I would consider friends back home.

Since the move, I have yet to make any actual friends. That's not particularly surprising: I've been here two and a half weeks, which isn't really long enough, and although the people here have been universally friendly, there is a gap between being friendly towards someone and being the friend of that person.

It is difficult dealing with the wrench that that represents, even for someone like myself, who is by nature fairly solitary anyway. Back home, the person I was probably closest to was my brother, the person I turned to to drive the length of the country to help with the move, and it was always reassuring to know that we could always talk about something. We understood one another, had a huge amount in common, and didn't need to explain ourselves. Now, although he's on the other end of the phone, it's just not the same. There's a distance that's quite unnerving.

True friends are rarer than diamonds, and far more valuable. Treasure those you have.

The paragon of vegetables

I miss chips.

Pretty much the only thing I can't cook in the appartment are decent chips. The canteen at work do chips, but they do them badly. Mourn with me, friends, for my loss is grevious.

One thing that I have discovered is that Tesco do frozen potato wedges. These are much better than standard oven chips (and more expensive, of course), but they're really a poor substitute. Still, they'll do the job for now.

(As an aside: why is that pre-processed foods are universally so frightful? It's as if the manufacturers want to punish us for our laziness.)

Bizarre summer...

It's an odd thing when the sporting and televisual highlight of the entire summer is England's cricketing exploits. Yet that's the situation we find ourselves in just now.

It's funny - for years the English team seemed to be specialists in a really dull game that focussed on desperately avoiding defeat. They finally drag themselves back up to a decent standard (getting to within touching distance of the best team in the world - albeit an Australia that is slipping from its best), and the coverage is about to disappear from free-to-air television.

I suspect it will be missed rather more than many people expect once it's gone.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

An age-old dilemma...

Starting as I mean to continue, here's post two:

In Tesco today, I was again faced with a question that has plagued men since the dawn of time: when choosing a checkout, do you go for the one manned (?) by the cute young girl, or the one run by the older, and therefore more efficient, woman?

(There is a hidden third option: the one run by a male assistant. I've intentionally discounted this for two reasons. The first is that there are vastly more female checkout assistants than male ones. That's a statement of fact, not a sexist comment. To aid comparison, reason two is a sexist comment: women tend to be better at running checkouts than men. I suspect the reason for this is that checkout assistant fall into two groups: those who do the job as temporary work while they move onto something else, and those who do it long-term. Those in the first group - which seems to include almost all the men doing the job - aren't there very long, and don't get very good at it. Those in the second group, however, improve through experience. Thus, the average level of ability of a male vs. a female assistant is different.)

Anyway, tangents aside, we return to the dilemma. One one hand, men hate shopping, and prize efficiency. On the other hand, men prize any opportunity to talk to a cute young female. So, which way do we go? (It is instructive to watch this in action. Try visiting any supermarket at 8pm on any weeknight except Friday, and watch the decision-making process at work. I expect it would be even more interesting to see how men choose over the course of a whole week. No doubt Channel 4 will do a reality show about this next year: "we took thirty supermodels and put them into a supermarket. See the crazy hijinks that ensue!")

How did I resolve this crisis?

Well, I didn't. While I was making my choice, the extremely efficient manageress decided to open a new checkout, just for me. Manned by one of the rare male checkout assistants.

First Post

So, a new chapter begins, with a move to Yeovil. This calls for a celebration!

Sadly, in order to have a party, you need three things: a desire to actually have a party, somewhere to host it, and some friends to invite. Score: 0/3.

So I've decided to start a new blog instead. Not quite the same, but it'll do.

The blog will be several things all at once: it will be a somewhat accurate, somewhat uncensored, somewhat regular journal of my life in Yeovil. It will be a collection of odd and crazy thoughts and notions I've been working on - as used to be included in my infamous "wacky emails". And it will be a soapbox for my ranting about a whole variety of topics.

Be warned: you might be offended. But then, I could do a blog about fluffy bunnies and someone would be offended. The internet is like that.