No More Maths

It is axiomatic that it is important for our school students to be mathematically literate; to be numerate. But that axiom needs some closer study. There’s an assumption there that needs examination, possibly for the first time since Pythagorean geometry was state of the art.

This isn’t just my idea. I was at a meeting of volunteers on the Computing At School project. I had a conversation with a professor of mathematics that crystallised my thoughts. Let’s drop mathematics from the school curriculum!

The axiom that privileges mathematics equates mathematics and numeracy, and it’s a false equivalence. Numeracy requires the ability to spot an arithmetic error in a supermarket bill. Numeracy does not require an understanding of trigonometry. Numeracy is important, mathematics is not in and of itself important.

The apparent importance of mathematics dates from the time when the mark of a gentleman was his ability to read Homer in the original language. Mathematics in schools doesn’t seem to have progressed much since the 18th century.

My idea is that at that time mathematics was the only tool for taking observations about the physical realm and taking them into the abstract realm. In the abstract realm concepts can be transformed in various ways, then mathematics handles the conversion of the transformed concepts back into the physical realm. That’s important but three centuries later we can do that same job better.

Let’s ban the News

There is an argument that the Internet’s harmful effects outweigh its substantial benefits. Back in the early 90s it was argued that media fragmentation would lead to balkanisation. It has.

Let me unpack that a bit. First, media fragmentation. When I was in short trousers there was one TV channel in the UK. In the playground you could tell what day of the week it was by listening to the chatter. Children of families that had TV all talked about what they saw the previous night. Later we got a second station and now there were two different conversations. We now have hundreds of channels. There aren’t hundreds of conversations though. Instead there are a handful because TV viewing clusters around a relatively small number of popular channels. Some people get their news from CBS and others get it from Fox.

Balkanisation is the division of a group or place into separate pieces that owe more allegiance to themselves than to the whole. Serbs and Croatians, Republicans and Democrats, Jews and Palestinians, Hatfields and McCoys. It’s not uncommon on a small scale, and by small-scale I mean Palestine or Northern Ireland.  In those two cases balkanisation is due to religious and/or racial differences leading to separate cultures. Now in the UK we have Remainers and Brexiteers both pointing at news sources that conclusively prove their mutually incompatible views.

With Republicans and Democrats in the US balkanisation has hit the big-time. There is some light at the end of a very long tunnel. Solving balkanisation in the US might throw some light on how to build a society that can cope with groups having radically different ideas of how things should work. And that won’t just help the Hatfields and the McCoys.

Brexit complications

The text of an email I have just sent to my MP:

let me first add my voice to those asking their MPs to do whatever is necessary to avoid The UK leaving the EU.

Next let me mention an issue that may affect the decision. Article 50 states that the EU may conclude negotiations and force exit two years after invocation. It seems to me that the practical implications of that have not been discussed.

To execute a withdrawal the government will need to review every department’s IT system as will every other organisation with a significant IT system, such as the NHS. The review could go ahead immediately if necessary, and probably should be started in weeks rather than months. A (very) rough guesstimate is that this will require an additional 100,000 skilled IT workers over and above those we already have and take five years. The likely source for those extra workers is India unless China enters that market. Some of this work will probably involve legacy software and that will require some existing UK IT staff to be brought out of retirement.

Negotiation of exit arrangements can to some extent run in parallel with the review. The next stage will only start in earnest when the first heads of agreement are available. This stage is modification of existing software to implement the new business processes that put negotiations into effect, and then testing it. If managed well this phase of the project will probably require another 200,000 immigrants. It will also require the active involvement of substantially every existing civil servant. It will also take five years, if managed competently. During this stage every new piece of legislation (foreign and domestic)  should be examined for its likely effect on the progress of the rewrite and if necessary deferred.

I should add that expecting this project to be managed competently may be a triumph of hope over experience. Even if it is managed well you should not expect any change from your hundred billion pound note.

Another fine….

We are finding out more about the consequences of brexit. Here’s another issue that I haven’t seen mentioned elsewhere.

Untangling the UK’s government systems from its involvement with the EU is non-trivial. Pretty much every government department and company will need to look at the final negotiated agreement and work out how its administrative systems will need to be change. If we assume that the EU is willing to enter into negotiations before Article 50 is invoked then that shouldn’t take more than five years or so. That is a bit faster than a normal EU trade negotiation but both sides already understand the system.

Knowing what the legal requirements are is the starting point for re-engineering IT and business processes. It is important to understand the scope of the work. Most government departments will have to analyse their systems so that they understand which of them will need changes. Most of this work should be easy because building modern IT systems generates the necessary documents. But some of the systems are not modern and so will have to be documented. That shouldn’t take more than a year or two and we can start right away.

Once we understand what we need to change and what changes we need we can get started on the main task. The first step will be to halt any other legislative changes that might interfere. Then we need to hire enough analysts and developers for the job. By the time this kicks off there may be enough of them in Europe but if not we will need to import them from either India or China. This will happen at the same time that industry also needs them so there will be competition for the best people. My rough guess is that we will need around half a million new immigrants, best case.

Worst case will be to hand the development work to the jokers that “built” the Universal Benefit system for DWP. Best case the work required will cost around £100 billion and take five years. Worst case it will be £500 billion and ten years. That is for the government half of the job. Industry’s bill will be about the same size.

I suspect that whoever wrote the two year time-limit into the Article 50 clause was well aware that it effectively makes leaving impossible.