Learning algebra

Something Kevin said sent me towards an article in the Washington Post about the uselessness of algebra to normal life, and the ensuing mouth-frothing response in the comments over at Pharyngula.

Two things I’d say. It rather makes me despair to see people talk about algebra as though it was advanced mathematics. Algebra is hardly even a branch of mathematics; it’s just a notational tool to allow you to move beyond arithmetic. It’s not quite true to say that it’s impossible to do any maths more advanced than arithmetic without algebra; the ancient Greeks managed without, for example. But it’s certainly completely central to the way maths is done today. Unless you think that high school should be satisfied with achieving no more than basic literacy and numeracy, passing a one-year course in basic algebra is not an outrageously high standard to hold for high-school graduation. Depending what you think a high-school diploma should stand for, it might even be an outrageously low standard. Judging by the article, this girl who couldn’t graduate because she didn’t pass algebra actually didn’t have basic numeracy skills, which means both that she shouldn’t be qualifying high school and that the school system has competely failed her.

The other point I’d make about the ‘I’ve never needed to use maths since I left school’ argument is that we all forget a large proprtion of what we learned in school unless we use it frequently. I did maths to quite an advanced level at school; I did two maths A-levels, which, for non-UK readers, meant I got as far as complex numbers, basic calculus, polar functions, basic mechanics, some statistics including things like Poisson distributions.

I can’t actually do any of that maths anymore. But having done it does mean that I’m not intimidated by equations; that I know what a standard deviation is, and a tangent and a function, and what binary numbers are, and what calculus is useful for so on. It’s not enough to enable me to do anything much, but understanding the concepts makes it easier to read popular science books, for example, or to make some kind of judgement about how useful a statistic is.

I also think that as a result, I’m much more comfortable than I would otherwise have been doing the kind of maths that *does* come up in everyday life. It’s good that schools teach a bit more than the students will really need, because hopefully that means the important suff will have a chance to really get properly absorbed.

Evolution, ID, Carl Zimmer, monkey-men and suchlike. Again.

I’ve just added The Loom to the linkroll. The Loom is the blog of Carl Zimmer, who wrote the excellent and rivetingly eye-opening Parasite Rex, as well as the excellent but marginally less riveting At the Water’s Edge. They’re both worth reading, but the parasite one would be my recommendation just because the subject matter is that bit more unusual. Anyway, I was reading a long discussion in the comments about how to sell evolution to the public, and it reminded me a of a point I’ve been meaning to make for a while.

The ID movement’s current Big Idea is a rather technical attack on the mechanism of natural selection. It looks good because they appear to be engaging with biologists on their own ground, rather than relying on appeals to scripture. On the other hand, the point which seems to have the most visceral appeal to the public is the question “do you believe that you are descended from an ape?”

But there are two questions here. The idea of ‘evolution’ – that all form of life on earth share common ancestors, that Ivory-billed Woodpeckers are similar to Pileated Woodpeckers because they are actually related to each other, and yes, that we are descended from apes – is independent of natural selection. There were evolutionists before Darwin. And the weight of evidence for evolution is overwhelming.

An analogy: Newton said that a dropped apple falls to the ground because all objects are attracted to each other by gravity in proportion to their mass. Whether that’s true or not, the apple still falls. Someone who rejected Newtonian mechanics would not therefore expect apples to float in midair; apples definitely fall, and the only question is why.

Even if IDists have found a fatal flaw in natural selection*, it doesn’t make any of the evidence for evolution disappear. We are definitely descended from apes (and reptiles and fish and little wormy things). Natural selection is by far the best explanation we have for how it happened, but the evidence for evolution is now so strong that if natural selection was disproved, we would need another evolutionary explanation to replace it.

*they haven’t

Mask of the Week

This is a Cajun Mardi Gras mask from Tee Mamou, in Louisiana, made by Suson Launey.

So is this.

You can read more about the Acadian Mardi Gras tradition here, read about Launey here, and see a couple more of her masks here.

Ken suspended

Ken Livingstone, the Mayor of London, has been suspended from the job for four weeks because ‘The Adjudication Panel for England’ decided that he has brought the job into disrepute by making insensitive remarks to a Jewish reporter. The exact rights and wrongs of the original remark can be argued over, but as a Londoner, I’m outraged that some unelected panel I’ve never heard of can suspend my mayor like a naughty schoolboy over something which isn’t illegal, wasn’t for personal gain, isn’t directly to do with his job, and basically isn’t any of their fucking business. If we want to get rid of Ken, we can use our votes. That’s what democracy is about. Isn’t it?

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Grayson Perry on the search for originality in art

It always faintly depresses me when I’m trying to find arts coverage in a news website, and I have to get to it by clicking on the ‘Entertainment’ link. But that wasn’t what I wanted to say. I’ve mentioned Grayson Perry’s columns in the Times before; I think he writes well and his position as an insider of the contemporary art world doesn’t prevent him from exhibiting thoughtful scepticism. His latest includes this:

Crash my party you bastards, a work by Richard Hughes, one of the nominees, is made of artfully arranged debris. It reminded me of one of my tutors at art college who said he sometimes applied “the rubbish dump test” to work by students. If their work was thrown on to a rubbish dump, would passers-by say: “Oh, look, there is a work of art on that dump”, or would they pass by oblivious to the discarded piece of avant garde? To this day I am not sure which result constitutes a pass or a fail in my tutor’s eyes. If they had spotted something recognisably an art work, was that good or bad?

On the Beck’s Futures website the word “innovative” crops up several times. Terms such as innovative, original, ground-breaking and cutting-edge make me suspicious. These are not words an artist would ever use about himself or his work. They are PR terms, they are words used to engage a news agenda, to appeal to a desire akin to the male sexual appetite, a lust for fresh meat. The economist and social philosopher Ludwig von Mises said: “Innovation is the whim of an elite before it becomes the need of the public.”

I thought ‘These are not words an artist would ever use about himself or his work’ was a particularly interesting comment. It’s nice to think it’s true, but even if they don’t say it, it could still be driving the way the work.

As ever, I’m tempted to make this into a comment about poetry, but I’ll resist.

holiday reading suggestions, please

When I go on holiday, I like to take reading matter which is appropriate to the place I’m going. The theory is that both the book and the place are enhanced by each other. A couple of years ago, I went to Tivoli and greatly enjoyed Howard‘s recommendation – Benvenuto Cellini’s Autobiography. Really, read it, if you haven’t.

This time I’m going to Andalucía, and I’m looking for suggestions again. So, something related to Andalucía, or Spain more generally; could be biography, fiction, history, poetry or whatever. Any ideas?

Mask of the Week

Since I went to look at the mummies this week, it seems a good time to post the mummy mask of Satdjehuty:

It’s from the Eighteenth Dynasty, which is apparently ‘about 1550-1295 BC’. I’m not sure how to post permalinks to the BM collections, but if you go to their Compass site and search for Satdjehuty, you can see details and other views.

It probably originally consisted of at least a coffin, the mummy, a heart scarab, this mummy mask and a quantity of linen. Only the mask and linen are in the British Museum.

We learn from the mass of linen that it was given to Satdjehuty ‘in the favour of the god’s wife, king’s wife, and king’s mother Ahmose-Nefertari’. Ahmose-Nefertari was the wife of Ahmose I (1550-1525 BC), the first king of the Dynasty, and the mother of Amenhotep I (1525-1504 BC), with whom she subsequently became associated as local deities. That Satdjehuty should have received such an honour shows she was a lady of the highest rank.

The winged head-dress on this mask is a feature found on funerary headpieces and coffins in the Second Intermediate Period (about 1750-1650 BC), and perhaps denotes protection of the deceased by a deity.


I went to the British Museum with my sister because, having been on a Nile cruise recently, she’s keen on all things Egyptological. It turns out that the process of preparing a body for mummification is a lot like making dry-cured bacon.

No Smoking

MPs have just voted by a large majority for a total ban on smoking in all enclosed public places, probably coming into effect in 2007. It was expected beforehand that there would be some exemptions – pubs and/or private clubs – but in the event the more draconian version was passed.

As a non-smoker, this can only improve my life, but I’m still slightly startled that it’s happened. A few years ago, it would have been a wacky extremist idea, surely? It’s surprisingly hard to think back. I was even more surprised by a survey they quoted on Newsnight that 48% of the public would support making smoking completely illegal. 24% of people smoke, so presumably that 48% is 2/3 of all non-smokers. Even more (the high 60%s) would support a ban on smoking when pregnant or a ban on smoking in a house with a child.

Only a few years ago cannabis legalisation seemed to be around the corner; I guess that’s now less likely, although allowing it in private homes on the same terms as tobacco would have a certain logic.

Anyway, no more shampooing other people’s smoke out of my hair the morning after going to the pub – that’s got to be a Good Thing.

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The cruellest month. Not.

Three days ago I started planning a holiday with nothing more specific than a vague thought that I wanted to go to Seville last time I was in Spain (8 or 9 years ago) and never made it.

Now I’ve pretty much organised a trip this April that starts in a hotel with a view of the marshes where I should, *fingers crossed* be able to watch flamingos from my bedroom; Seville during the festivities at Holy Week; then down to Tarifa, where Europe is closest to Africa and spring migration should be in full flow, with eagles, storks and loads of other stuff flying in for the summer.

This should *fingers crossed* be a fabulous holiday.

Top ten animals – #1, Giant Squid

I said there was an invertebrate on my list, and here it is, what I thought was the world’s largest mollusc and the owner of the largest eyeball known to science: the Giant Squid, Architeuthis dux. Even the Latin name has a poetry to it. Except I discovered, while searching out details for this post, that Architeuthis is almost certainly not the largest species of squid. There’s a bulkier species called Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni. Teuthologists (isn’t that a great word) used to think that the Giant Squid was at least longer, but the discovery of a huge but still not fully-grown specimen of Mesonychoteuthis means even that probably isn’t true. You can read a detailed comparison here.

We’re in the realms of dodgy records and informed guess-work. Giant Squid are pretty hard to find, but at least you can get partially digested specimens out of the stomachs of sperm whales. Mesonychoteuthis – which they’re now calling the Colossal Squid – live in the Antarctic oceans, futher south than the whales normally travel, and specimens are considerably rarer than mere gold-dust.

Out of sentimental attachment, I’m going to pick the Giant Squid as my #1 animal, even if it is only 13 metres long. The only photos of a Giant Squid in the wild are from last year. This is one of them:

Pretty much any other photo you ever see will be of a blob of red stuff stretched out on a lab bench. Not ideal viewing conditions. So here’s a photo (from the Cephalopod Page) of some completely different squid, the Caribbean Reef Squid. If you’ve ever been snorkelling or diving in the caribbean, you may have seen these guys.

These are two males and a female. The male in the middle has changed one side of his body to an aggressive ‘zebra display’ aimed at the other male while signalling something different to the female. The way these things change colour is like magic. Octopuses will change both the colour and texture of their skin to improve their camouflage. Can the Giant Squid flash different colours? I don’t suppose anyone knows.

Cephalopods are fabulous. 13m cephalopods are mindboggling. And all that’s quite apart from the fact that, to see them, you’d have to go in a deep-sea submersible; which would fulfil a lifetime ambition in itself, even if I only saw a few comb-jellies and ratfish.

Viva España

I’m just in the process of organising a holiday in Spain, and I’ve excitingly managed to book a room with a marsh view for the first part of my trip.

It’s a birdy thing.

Mask of the Week

The mask of ‘Lady Clapham’, from the V&A:

To quote the museum’s own blurb:

This mask was made for a doll, known as Lady Clapham, that is thought to have belonged to the Cockerell family, descendants of the diarist Samuel Pepys (1633-1703). The daughter of Pepys’s nephew John Jackson (the son of his sister Pauline) married a Cockerell, who had a family home in Clapham, south London.

Lady Clapham offers a fine example of both formal and informal dress for a wealthy woman in the 1690s. Her formal outfit includes a mantua (gown) and petticoat, while her informal dress is represented by the nightgown (a dressing gown rather than a garment worn to bed) and petticoat. Accessories such as the stockings, cap and chemise (a body garment) are very valuable since very few items from such an early period survive in museum collections. Equally important is the demonstration of how these clothes were worn together.

Here’s the reverse:

Testers wanted – again!

Sorry to be a pain. If I’ve got this right, the test blog should look exactly the same as it did last time you checked; it’s just much more intelligently designed. Or possibly more evolved.

I think it’s nearly ready for submission, now.

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Guy #1: Dude, all this Groundhog Day shit is bullshit. It is impossible for something to not have a shadow. All things that move have shadows. If it don’t move, then it don’t have a shadow. Groundhog Day is bullshit.
Guy #2: Dude, you’re a dumbass. Only living things have shadows.

from OHiNY

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CSS positioning

[Sorry, I know most of you won’t be even slightly interested in this]

I’ve just had a major intellectual breakthrough about how CSS positioning works. Or, to put it another way, I’ve just realised that I’ve been being very stupid for a very long time.

I’ve read lots and lots of online CSS tutorials, and either none of them made it clear, or I was being dense. They often suggest that ‘absolute’ positioning is measured from the containing block – or sometimes they say that it’s measured from the edge of the browser window. The containing block theory clearly didn’t work. The screen approach seemed to work most of the time, but it meant that you couldn’t, for example, center the page on the screen if you were using absolute positioning – because it would always be a fixed distance from one of the window-edges.

In fact, absolute positions are measured from the nearest containing block in the hierarchy which has a ‘position’ property specified as something other than static. So if you just set the page’s ‘position’ tag to ‘relative’, you can then move the page around as much as you want and all things you’ve positioned with ‘absolute’ measurements will follow it. Similarly, you can take one area of the page and set it to {position:relative} and then use absolute positioning within that area.

I assumed, you see, that you’d only set the position property if you wanted to change the position of the block in question, not as a way of affecting the blocks contained within it. Now I know better. The CSS positioning system is suddenly much easier to use and much saner. I can’t believe I’ve been struggling along trying to design table-free webpages without grasping this; and I can’t believe that none of the tutorials I read made it clearer, since it’s the single most important thing to understand if you want to use CSS positioning.

Testers wanted!

I mentioned earlier that I thought it might be fun to enter a WordPress theme competition. Well, I’ve got a theme worked up that I’m thinking of entering. You can see it in action on my test blog here. As you can see, it’s a two-column variation on the Swifts theme with a different picture.

I’ve checked it on Firefox, Safari and IE for Mac, and they all look basically OK, but I haven’t checked it on Windows at all. So I’d be grateful if anyone using IE, Firefox or Opera on Windows could take a look and poke around, see if there’s anything you think might be wrong, and let me know. Cheers.

EDIT: well, I’ve just tried it on Opera for Mac, and it doesn’t work right. It’s startling how no two browsers seem to render the same bit of code in the same way.

EDIT: OK, I’ve sorted that out. Further comments still appreciated. If something looks wrong, it would help if you could give me a screenshot of it so I can see what the problem is.