sexta-feira, 26 de março de 2010

quarta-feira, 24 de março de 2010

terça-feira, 23 de março de 2010

a very important subject to any man who hopes to negotiate fatherhood with his sanity intact

I took my 6-year-old daughter to a birthday party yesterday, and fell into conversation with another middle-aged dad (of a 5-year-old girl) about strategies of paternal self-defense in relation to our children’s DVD diets. This is a very important subject to any man who hopes to negotiate fatherhood with his sanity intact, for reasons I’ll explain. Anyway, it took us about five minutes to discover that our respective sprogs shared an abiding fascination with Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and that both had even given it the same alternate title : “The Space Movie.”

Chuck, the guy I was talking to, told me he’d had equally great results with Dr. Strangelove. I told him that just wasn’t going to work for me, because my daughter has zero patience for anything in black-and-white (on the grounds that it “looks too old”), but that I’d gotten a solid 6 weeks of protection from O Brother, Where Art Thou? which, a couple of mild cuss words aside, makes for topnotch, high-repetition kiddie fare, and that I’d found both Hello, Dolly! and Singin’ in the Rain to be both worth their weight in unobtanium. 

Before I take this any further, I want to make clear that I’m not indulging myself in any Neal Pollack-style Alternadad bullshit here, nor crowing about how unbelievably brilliant my progeny is (although she is, of course, unbelievably brilliant). I’m talking about issues of stark survival, from a viewpoint of narrowest self-interest. 

Under enhanced interrogation, I might even admit that the scene in 2001 where the one ape clubs the other to death might be construed as just a tad violent for a 4-year-old, which I think is how old my daughter was when I first showed her “The Space Movie.” But I’d also have an array of counterarguments at the ready. 

First, she’d already been digging on Hellboy for a year by that age. 

Second, the psychological impact of that one fatal beating is surely evened out by the ensuing, math score-enhancing sequence of the space shuttle docking with the space station to the uplifting strains of The Blue Danube

Third, and most important, the deleterious effects of a single monkey murder (even if witnessed a few hundred times) is nothing compared to the potential negative impact of being raised by a father suffering from high-dose exposures to the likes of Alvin & the Chipmunks: The Squeaquel, Milo & Otis, Baby Geniuses and all the rest of the awful crap that it is my solemn duty to protect her from her interest in/affection for. 

Mind you, the problem isn’t just shrill, cynical Hollywood Twinkie-filling like the aforementioned. Some of the most maddening programming aimed at kids today is actually to be found on nominally instructive and improving cable venues like Nick Jr and PBS Kids Sprout. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you are probably unfamiliar with the vocal stylings of Moose A. Moose and Laurie Berkner, the hushed, pious moralizing of animated series like Arthur and and Hey, Franklin, or the crazy-making Dadaist repetitions of Dora the Explorer and Blue’s Clues

My point is, young-fathers-to be, it’s fucking jungle out there, and once Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed comes into your house, it’s going to be about as easy as bedbugs to get rid of. And unless you and your missus can afford to hire a full-time, Montessori-trained nanny/laundress/cook/masseuse, you will inevitably and routinely find yourself backsliding into that most unforgivable of parental sins, using the television as a babysitter

But there’s no reason to pay for that sin here in this lifetime.

domingo, 21 de março de 2010

Dia Mundial da Poesia e da Árvore

Quem planta uma floresta
planta uma festa.
Planta a música e os ninhos,
faz saltar os coelhinhos.

Planta o verde vertical,
verte o verde,
vário verde vegetal.

Planta o perfume
das seivas e flores,
solta borboletas de todas as cores.

Planta abelhas,planta pinhões
e os piqueniques das excursões.

Planta a cama mais a mesa,
planta o calor da lareira acesa.
Planta a folha de papel,
a girafa do carrocel.

Planta barcos para navegar
e a floresta flutua no mar.
Planta carroças para rodar,
muito a floresta vai transportar.
Planta bancos da avenida,
descansa a floresta de tanta corrida.

Planta um pião
na mão de uma criança:
a floresta ri, rodopia e avança.

Luísa Ducla Soares no FB ;)

sexta-feira, 19 de março de 2010

Mathematical Curiosities and Treasures

[and the Professor wrote books on the science of Terry Pratchett's Discworld, no less]
[and this priceless tagline in one of the book's jacket cover:

Forget Sudoku. For keeping your brain limber, nothing can compete with Professor Stewart's tasty assortment of numerical nibbles.

In his quiet way, Ian Stewart may have done more for his subject in these two books than he or his colleagues have done in perhaps the previous 10 or 15 books about mathematics I have read. One has to allow for that warmth towards a book just finished, but I might still feel the same a week or a fortnight from now.

There is no story in these books, no moral, no parable, no implied rebuke for my failure to master the calculus or to remember the difference between a prime and a Mersenne prime. There is only delight and amazement, and of course a tiny bit of entirely self-induced guilt at my own sluggard response to mathematical challenge.

For those who haven't yet looked at them, they are ragbags: almost random jottings of little puzzles, jokes, oddities, anecdotes, commonplaces and calculator curiosities collected over a lifetime. Did I read every word? Probably not. Dippers like me do tend to miss the occasional treasure. And no, I didn't try to solve all the puzzles, but yes, I did get some of them right.

I kept dipping into these books when I was supposed to be reading Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel. I dare say I shall still be picking them up when I get around to finishing Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The entries are short, comprehensible, delightfully distracting and deceptively frivolous.

When I first opened Professor Stewart's Cabinet of Mathematical Curiosities, the first thing I saw was the story about how the Indiana state legislature had passed a law fixing the value of pi. Why not? My school had in effect implemented a law fixing it at 22/7 or perhaps 3.14 (actually I think the first value was at primary school, the other at secondary school, as we went from fractions to decimals). Given that at some point you have to tell an examiner the area of a circle, you need to settle on a value.

But as Stewart points out, firstly it's a myth – also told about Iowa and Idaho – and secondly, the consequences of a "legal truth" (a legal limit on pi) that isn't in fact a "true truth" would be judicially absurd (turn to Cabinet page 25 for the consequences in theorem form).

Stewart can say this with conviction because, as his entertainments confirm, mathematics exposes the reality beneath the semblance of reality that most of us are happy with. There are hundreds of these confections and all of them are presented with an effervescent enthusiasm and good humour missing from the morose maths lessons of my own schooldays.

Some of the charm comes from the telling. I don't know why those recurring postulants the Great Whodunni and Grumpelina are more palatable starting points than A and B; and why Farmer Hogswill and Pigasus, his prize pig on a rope (Cabinet, page 143) seem more easy to manipulate than a blackboard theorem involving an equilateral triangle, but they are.

The other enticing thing about these books is that they are not just an alternative to the cryptic crossword or sudoku. They contain, in snack-sized servings, nourishing bits of intellectual history: Fibonacci series, Fermat's last theorem, chaos theory, the four colour problem, what Byron wrote about Newton, Euler's conjecture, public key cryptography, the inventor of the equals sign, Zeno's paradox, how the Babylonians handled number, the probability theory of monkeys and typewriters, the square root of minus one, celestial resonance and how the Egyptians did fractions with hieroglyphs (not a problem that I'd ever thought about before).

The entries are not all brief: Stewart's discussion of global warming (Hoard, page 164) goes on for pages, just after what Stewart claims is the shortest mathematical joke ever (but you might quarrel with the word "joke").

And how nice to be in a world where e is a Napierian exponent and not a recreational drug, where sliced bread comes in perfectly spherical loaves, and where proverbs become "tautoverbs". Example: If pigs had wings, they'd have wings; they still wouldn't be able to fly, because aerodynamics has laws to stop that sort of thing, but since this is Ian Stewart, the non-flying pig has to become an "unfeasible porcithopter".

My argument (am I the only one to think this?) is that while a little learning may be a dangerous thing, bite-sized ingestion might help some of us chew gratefully on such provocations. Instead of making a three-course meal of one theme in mathematics, Stewart has served up the instructive equivalent of a Michelin-starred tasting menu, or perhaps a smorgasbord of appetisers. And of course, appetisers are designed to give you an appetite for more.

Sometimes the most arcane dish is spiced with even more arcane flavours: a preposterous anecdote from Snorri Sturluson's Heimskringla (Hoard, page 223) is accompanied by two footnotes on the identities of Olaf, Olof the Treasurer, and Sigrid the Haughty.

I had, of course, come across Fibonacci and Fermat and quite a few other mathematical stars before, often in Stewart's earlier books, but these bits of semi-detached instruction seem a lot more reader-friendly when surrounded by unexpected titbits and not-so-silly jokes. For instance, in Hoard page 139 – between a short history of the square root symbol and a description of the ham sandwich theorem – is a tiny little squib headed "Please bear with me.

Q. What's a polar bear?

A. A Cartesian bear after a change of co-ordinates."

Yes, I'm still thinking about that one.

terça-feira, 16 de março de 2010

A Cat!

segunda-feira, 15 de março de 2010

A Tabuada / Times Tables

Click to compute ;)

Why do times tables matter - and how should they be taught?

The question above is half asked by me, and half by my 8-year-old daughter. She is currently learning her tables, and wondering why they are important. I've told her they're vital, but she remains unconvinced (er, the cheery phrase, "times tables suck" was written on a piece of paper left on the breakfast table one morning last week.)

I, on the other hand, remain convinced that tables really do matter, both for extending maths ability and for life outside the classroom. They can help, as I've tried to explain to her, from working out how much money you need to buy something, to measuring a room for a carpet (not that appealing to a child, I do realise). They're also important for recipes - what if you need to double or triple the quantities? - and for saving time. If you know your tables, then you're ahead of the game.

Clive Portman teaches Year 5 at primary school (that's 9 and 10 year olds). He says that tables are vital, because if you don't know them, you can't do the maths that follows. It sounds obvious, but it's so important. If you don't know your tables, you risk being lost when maths gets a bit more difficult. Clearly, you need to know what these tables mean, and how to apply them, but I don't think that's really so hard (groups of numbers, anyone? Or why not use the plastic cups method shown on Monday night's Dispatches programme?)
"Learning their tables is also good for a child's self-esteem," adds Mr Portman. "We find that parents often see them as an indicator of how good their child's maths is."

Adam Creen, head of maths at a secondary school, Salesian School, in Surrey, agrees that tables are crucially important. "They're used all the time," he says. "Half of the GCSE still needs to be done without a calculator, and knowing your tables speeds everything up. It's important for squares, square roots and powers. And, of course, you use them out of school, in all sorts of jobs too."

Peter Watt, a fellow secondary school maths teacher backs this up. "Remember that numbers and algebra are connected, so from a secondary teacher's viewpoint, this basic understanding of numeracy allows the pupils to engage in much deeper, more abstract maths beyond just counting," he says. "So, if you are confident with your numbers, then the fun stuff like algebra becomes instantly more accessible. Take for example the simple problem, I buy 8 albums for £24, if they are all the same price how much is each one? Which is just a wordy way of saying 8a = 24, what is 'a' worth?

"Confidence with numbers breeds confidence in maths, if you are stressing about 6 times 3 then you will struggle to access the other topics."

So, multiplication tables are important, and not just in an abstract sense, but for educational achievement and life in general. My daughter appears to be slowly coming around to this, as we have begun pointing out when we use tables in everyday life (usually concerning money!). She has also realised that division is so much easier if you can do multiplication, something she didn't seem to have picked up before.

The Conservatives are thinking of making all children take a tables test in primary school (possibly instead of KS1 Sats), so I wonder why our children often don't seem realise how important they are. Is this partly because they're taught in so many "fun" ways these days, they don't want to buckle down and actually learn something by heart (I do realise that makes me sound very old-fashioned)?

So, how should tables be taught? There seems to be much less of an emphasis on learning by rote now, although I actually think this is a good way to learn some things. As I mentioned above, I'm unconvinced  that everything at school needs to be desperately imaginative, or fun. 

Adam Creen, however, says that he's not convinced that rote learning is best for everyone, and at a recent workshop at my daughter's school, we were told that as learning by rote only worked for around 80 percent (!) of children, it wasn't particularly encouraged. The problem, as I see it, is that you simply need to know your tables. If you are having to work them out by adding up each answer (2,4,6,8,10 etc), you will find it a very hard and slow process.

I'm joined in my views by Clive Portman, who says that he "strongly believes in the rote learning" and by Dina Strasser, an American teacher (and blogger) who tells me that the same issues are talked about in the States. "I learned mine (late 70s early 80s) by rote, with much angst,  Mom tells the story of coming upstairs to hear me reciting them worriedly in my sleep," she says. "My daughter isn't old enough to have hit them yet, but I can say from the math she's bringing home and the math my 7th graders are learning, there's a tension between rote learning and more conceptual, investigative learning that continues in the US-- and not just in math, but in all subjects."

However, Dina adds that "for all its dreadly drill-and-kill feel, I feel that some thing are just worth memorising - as well as understanding. I'd put the times tables amongst the very few pieces of knowledge that are."

So I'm all for learning tables and there are many ways to do this. Peter Watt recommends playing Brain Training to practice, and there are loads of times tables games on the internet, not to mention CDs (we liked times tables disco and also learnyourtimestables, though some of it is a bit strange...). 

But I do realise (as mentioned in that 80 percent comment above) that some children do find times tables extremely hard and need more help with them. This is what prompted Penny Topsom, who's severely dyslexic, to come up with a new way to teach them to her children (who are also dyslexic).

"I had a fear of maths, a real problem with it," says Penny. "So when I had to help my sons with their tables, and one of them pointed out that the list of tables I'd produced didn't look like a 'table.'. I decided to change the way they were written and come up with my own version."

Penny's grid produced patterns to the tables that she didn't realise existed before. Suddenly maths began to make sense.

She has now written a book about her method, called "Multiplication rules" and she adds: "whether a child should be answer them instantaneously, with a teacher and an entire class staring at them, I'm not sure. Most of us when put under pressure, panic and go completely blank  and this is where I think most peoples' dread of times tables comes from. I'm sure it was this that made me few like a complete 'maths numptie' never once being able to answer these question!"

However, despite this, she agrees that kids simply need to learn to multiply. "I could never get a grip on the times tables when I was growing up," she says, "but now I realise that if you understand them, it makes fractions a lot simpler, and division. In fact, every part of maths seems to come back to them. I never understood why I needed to learn them at school, but now I do."



domingo, 14 de março de 2010


Embrace Life

Via JC no Twitter ;)

sexta-feira, 5 de março de 2010

Food and Children's Books

Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland is released today, the latest adaptation of Lewis Carroll's books. Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass are packed with descriptions of food: treacle wells, wine that doesn't exist, jam you can have tomorrow but never today (so you never actually get to eat it) and the Bread-and-Butterfly, which lives on nothing but weak tea with cream in. If it can't find any, it will die. ("'But that must happen very often,' Alice remarked thoughtfully. 'It always happens.'")
There's much to learn from food in children's books. Starvation was all too often inevitable in Victorian society, even if your diet wasn't limited to weak tea and cream. Plus Alice needs to be more sensible. Eating cake you've just found because it says 'EAT ME'? Drinking out of a strange bottle on the grounds it's not labelled "poison"? It's hardly clever. But kids in literature are far too keen to accept treats from strangers – just look at Edmund Pevensie in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. Turkish Delight is his downfall. Will he sell out his siblings for a quick sugar rush? Why, yes he will.

CS Lewis filled his books with religious imagery, so one line of thought says Edmund's face-stuffing is simply a warning against temptation, a caution against being lured by the sins of the flesh. It's also an effective warning against gluttony and stranger danger. Think before you scoff and don't take sweets from people you don't know, especially if you're lost and / or have just emerged from a magic wardrobe. You might find they've cancelled Christmas.
The greedy, grabby kids in Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory meet stickier fates, though: Violet Beauregarde turns into a blueberry, squirrels push Veruca Salt down a rubbish chute and Mike Teavee gets put through a gum stretcher. So if you're going on a day trip, don't be greedy, nosy or disobedient. In fact, to be on the safe side, just don't eat, breathe or touch anything.
My friend Kat was traumatised by Enid Blyton's The Magic Faraway Tree: "I'll never forget Dick getting punished for breaking off a barley sugar door knocker in the Land of Goodies," she says. "I never looked at a door knocker in the same way again." Even Winnie the Pooh's beloved honey (or rather hunny) causes trouble in Pooh Gets Stuck: in another warning about the perils of over-eating, he fattens up on hunny and gets himself wedged in Rabbit's front door (Rabbit helps by hanging tea towels on his legs).
From warning against greediness and fussiness to the perils of sweet-wielding strangers, is there no such thing as an innocent snack in children's literature? Actually yes, there is. Look no further than the Moomin books by Tove Jansson. They are always nice to each other and they never seem to run out of porridge.

What food do you remember from children's books? Were you discouraged from eating it, or have you spotted any hidden messages you didn't notice when you were younger?

segunda-feira, 1 de março de 2010

Good news for anyone who may be looking for a present for a child they really like

The Weirdstone of Brisingamen is back in print! This is one of my all-time favourite books. Long after other childhood fantasy books have faded into the mists of memory, The Weirdstone stands proudly on my shelf, badly battered but hauled out for regular visits to the deceptive rural peace of Alan Garner's Cheshire.
With Colin and Susan (children of some indeterminate age between infancy and adolescence) I get off the train at Alderley Station, and am met by Gowther Mossock. We get into his horse-drawn carriage and go up the Edge, to the Mossocks' farmhouse, still lit by candles and lamps, for the Mossocks have not seen fit to change the way of life that suits them...
That is the beginning, and simple enough. Colin and Susan have been sent to stay with the Mossocks because their parents have been called away abroad. At first they -- and we, the readers -- see only the pleasant strangeness of their new home. But we are soon introduced to a deeper strangeness, yet so naturally that it flows out of the story as beautifully as the water of the Wizard's Well.
Garner, who besides being a writer of fiction is also a noted scholar of British folklore, tells us a story at the beginning of the book, a story about a wizard, and a sleeping king, and a farmer from Mobberley who had a milk-white mare. It's a true story -- or at least, a genuine piece of Cheshire folk tradition. And very soon, Colin and Susan discover just how true it really is, and how their lives have accidentally become interwoven with this great magic. For the wizard is real, and the cave where the King sleeps, along with a hundred knights on horseback, who, it is prophesied, will one day save the world.
This is not a typical Arthurian story, nor is it the usual story in which fortunate children leave this world for a more exciting one. Garner finds magic and mystery enough in his familiar English landscape, in the beautiful strangeness of Alderley Edge, in the maze of mines and tunnels that underlies Cheshire. The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, a magical stone lost for hundreds of years, has come into the children's possession and makes them a target for the servants of Nastrond, the dark spirit of Ragnarok. Their quest to return the stone to its keeper leads them on a desperate chase through the mines, and into a countryside transformed by a fierce and unseasonable winter. Colin and Susan, dragged bewildered into the magical country interwoven with their own, find themselves on an adventure more thrilling than they have ever dreamed of.
Yet what no review can convey is the solid reality of Garner's English landscape, and the way in which the magical creatures stand squarely on the ground with everyone else. In The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (as with its successor, The Moon of Gomrath) Alan Garner succeeds in the greatest magic of all: creating a world of imagination as absolutely believable as our own. 

Orchid or Dandelion?

Most of us have genes that make us as hardy as dandelions: able to take root and survive almost anywhere. A few of us, however, are more like the orchid: fragile and fickle, but capable of blooming spectacularly if given greenhouse care. So holds a provocative new theory of genetics, which asserts that the very genes that give us the most trouble as a species, causing behaviors that are self-destructive and antisocial, also underlie humankind’s phenomenal adaptability and evolutionary success. With a bad environment and poor parenting, orchid children can end up depressed, drug-addicted, or in jail—but with the right environment and good parenting, they can grow up to be society’s most creative, successful, and happy people.

Read all  The Atlantic