[Edu-sig] Endlessly looping Pythonic mathematics (hypertoon city!)

kirby urner kirby.urner at gmail.com
Fri Jun 9 17:20:57 CEST 2006

On 6/8/06, Paul D. Fernhout <pdfernhout at kurtz-fernhout.com> wrote:

> You've made this point before, and I essentially completely agree.
> Python-as-it-is (or any other OK computer language) is a great vehicle for
> learning, and mathematics really is a subset of computing in some sense,
> and it makes more sense to present mathematics embodied into a larger
> meaningful context (including visualization).

Yes, and OO is omnipresent in industry, commerce, as it is in everyday
thinking.  Object-think is very natural.  Connecting "math objects"
(such as rational numbers) to "objects in general" is one way to
enrich the fantasy life of any child.  Plus you come away from math
class with new computer programming skills.  What could be more

Of course a *lot* still needs to be done.  More lesson planning and
training and so on, more of a buzz, plus all those gazillions of
cartoons and DVD clip shorts we don't yet have...  I could employ a
huge number of people if there really were a commitment to Gnu Math
out there.  You probably could too.

But I wouldn't be needing to redundantly mess with Python the
language.  That's not my job and it already works for my purposes as
is.  I could help with marketing it though, such as by putting the new
Python logo on my minibus or whatever (I'd need PSF permission

> Well, we can all hope it will happen, but consider the alternative (not to
> reopen an old arguement, but just as a data point :-):
> A newspaper article from a few days ago:
>     A 'hole in the wall' helps educate India

Yes.  When I say "teacher" I partly investing in a St. Augustine model
where the true teacher is within, so all of this adapts to a solo kid
facing a hole in the wall (with a computer in it) if those just happen
to be the circumstances.

I'm not trying to coral every kid in some classroom.

I've written extensively about hybrid systems in which older kids
spend more time at home, maybe only visiting school buildings three
days a week, let's say.  I'd also like to see kids able to choose
courses all over town, with some corporate sky towers getting in on
the act, teaching engineering math or whatever for high school credit,
and at no additional cost to taxpayers (but maybe with screening tests
to get in -- spaces limited).

City-as-campus is an old meme with me.

> Meantime, as a result of his success here, the innovator has been asked to
> bring Hole-in-the-Wall to Cambodia and South Africa, which means that,
> altogether, it has "been verified by 40,000 of the world's poorest
> children." [Curious who asked him to go to SA?]

I think it's a mistake to further invest in this Hole-in-the-Wall
experiment.  It's fun the first few times but it's also wasteful of
talent.  Those kids could use some instruction.  To over-romanticize
"discovering everything for oneself" is a serious pitfall some
constructivists fall into, as if the accumulated metaphysical assets
of a civilization can't be synthesized and summarized into
transmissable forms.  There's something uncomfortably post-holocaust
about these Hole-in-the-Wall experiments -- reminds me of the obelisk
in 2001 Space Odyssey.

> So it seems the number one thing an educator can do, even in a developing
> nation (such as the USA :-) is to use their adult skills to give kids
> access to opportunities to learn which the kids can't put together
> themselves.

But that *doesn't* mean leaving them to flounder completely without guidance.

Alan Kay was pretty strong at this point in our summit.  He's neither
expecting nor encouraging kids to reinvent calculus every generation.

It'd really suck the air out of the inventor-genius business if all
those brilliant minds thought they wouldn't be able to communicate
their innovations with coming generations.

We *do* write instruction manuals, and we *do* want our kids to be
able to read them.

Documentation really *does* serve a purpose.

> Number two might then be making easy-to-use systems. Number
> three might then be writing good tutorial or on-demand help systems for
> them, perhaps including screencasts. If the educator has the time and
> opprtunity to actually be there for kids, then number four might be
> setting a good example somehow or conveying excitement.

I agree all these components are needed.  I'd emphasize the
apprenticeship model, plus giving newbies more opportunities to
spectate, to lurk, which is what the Internet has been so good at

Adults need this just as much.  Using the web, they lurk in alien
disciplines, soaking up some of the memes.  Computer illiterate adults
can dive into mail lists and see what geeks talking to one another
looks like (like here).

Reality TV is so far way underexploited as a way of letting people
lurk.  USA culture's fascination with cops and cop shows means a lot
of the reality is chasing down criminals (usually not white color --
lurking in on the FBI chasing down scam artists and embezzelers would
be more fun than anything dom rel or drug related in my book).

> I guess after all that, then one can start talking about what other useful
> things educators can do to help kids learn, like in this book: :-)

Everyone is an educator of oneself.  When we talk about "the teacher"
we needn't externalize that role in a different person if that's not
relevant.  The "teaching function" is intrinsic to our mind-over-brain
capabilities (Fuller School model).

>    http://www.inspiredinside.com/learning/postman1.htm
> or anything by Holt and so on. For example, I liked Holt's suggestions on
> ways to present basic mathematics to young kids integrating all the basic
> operations (multiplication, division, addition, subtraction) into a common
> way of thinking about quantities, e.g. 2 * 3 and 3 + 3 are different ways
> of walking about the same thing.

Python's operator overloading is extremely useful as it shows how we
repurpose these operators at will, but usually in accordance with some
generalizations studied in group theory i.e. we expect addition and
multiplication to come packaged with identities, inverses, and a
distributive property relating the two.  Closure is also a nice
feature, when you can get it.

> Part of the problem is, by the time kids are in high school, there is so
> much (psychical and intellectual) damage related to mathematics to unlearn
> for so many kids, that it certainly is going to be a difficult problem. I

Yes.  "And now for something completely different" would by the
Pythonic spin here.  We'd really like to rock the boat, except most of
these boats are already at the bottom.

> taught computer programming to biology majors at a state university for a
> couple semesters, and I saw first hand that most people become biology
> majors in part because they don't like (or know) math, which is especially
> a shame as so much of modern biology research is heavily mathematically
> oriented (statistics, simulation, equation development, and so on). Yes,

Which is where OO comes in.  Cells are objects.  They compute,
processwise, using a protein abacus, in such a way as to replicate,
flagellate, infiltrate or whatever.

> there are exceptions, but the bulk are not mathematically oriented. But if
> the entire K-12 system has failed these kids, what can someone running a
> college course realistically hope to accomplish in a semester? (I think
> most kids took it, this was ten years ago, with a thought to getting a job
> as a programmer, since entry bio jobs didn't pay as well. :-)


> Anyway, while Python is very approachable in some ways, it is also not
> very approachable in others, including interface-wise (which is why Visual
> basic captured so many people's attention). Also, Python suffers from

I'm for sticking with a lexical interface a lot, even if we go visual
in some contexts.  We want to spark the imagination much as we do in
reading.  Start with a lot of picture books, but develop to where you
can imagine as you read (don't spend all your time puzzling over this
or that word).  At that point, the pictures, which were training
wheels, start to go away.  Great fantasy and science fiction may have
no pictures or close to none (cover art maybe).

Which is not to diss comics or movies or other media which do the
visual work for you.  I just think computer programming needs to have
some moments when we're not assaulting you visually, but are leaving
it to your imagination, and your imagination alone, to supply the
visuals.  The interface itself is all straight Python code.  But then
of course we need diagrams and stuff too.

This trend to make every interface visually dazzling, or warm and
fuzzy in some gooey sugar-coated sense, is over-pampering and
ultimately a disservice I think.

There's a tendency for geeks to hide behind a wall, doing lots of
intensively lexical stuff, but then to pander to end users with what
they assume are friendlier graphics, which they themselves hardly use.

In my lurk/apprenticeship model, kids get to tour the tunnels under
Disney World and see how the engineers actually see and do things.
They see how lexical it is sometimes.

They read Neal Stephenson's 'In the beginning was the command line'.

They train to become competent Morlocks, not helpless Eloi.

> several inconsistencies which can trip up both novice and causal expert
> user. Seemingly minor things (e.g. when to use "len()" and ".length" and
> even the whole issue of inconsistent abbreviation strategy), but each one
> is another hurdle. Some of those (GUI building) can be easily fixed as
> add-ons, the others require going over the language and dealing with a
> community process (so never going to happen?).

We learn from human languages and from life not to get tripped up over
little inconsistencies.  I don't demand perfection.

> Still, you remain correct, Python is ready right now to use as a learning
> platform for mathematics and other things.
> --Paul Fernhout

And we could employ an army of people to revamp the curriculum, were
Gnu Math to be understood and adopted even by a small but committed
subculture of geeks who care about such things.   There's lots of new
TV we'd want to make.  Lots of new DVDs.  We're talking labor
intensive here.

But it's just not directly about coding up some whiz bang new
interface or package.  For my purposes, Python is already complete.
Sure, it will continue to improve and burgeon with options, such as
Rur-ple (I'm not suggesting anyone stop work on pet projects).

I'm personally looking forward to more scriptable control over cartoon
characters from the command line -- but not "just like Alice" (maybe
more like Panda3D).

But the goal is to rescue kids from a dying math, a sinking ship.
Polishing the brass fixtures on the rescue ship doesn't seem a
priority to me.

But that's just me.

I'm not saying everyone should drop everything and work on Gnu Math.
I'm saying Gnu Math is ready to roll.  We could make an industry out
of it.  In the meantime, I'm heading to the beach for some fun in the
sun.  I don't feel there's much more required of me at this time.


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