[Edu-sig] Update on my PSF doings

kirby urner kirby.urner at gmail.com
Tue May 5 18:55:00 CEST 2009

On Tue, May 5, 2009 at 8:46 AM, kirby urner <kirby.urner at gmail.com> wrote:
> I've been enjoying learning something of the internal organs involved
> in British education, thanks to working with Dr. Ian Benson on various
> proposals before the PSF regarding some math through programming
> initiatives (actually, just the one proposal at the moment, dubbed
> NiceTime [tm], a kind of wordplay if you know said organs (which I
> don't, or just barely)).[0]

And now I get to interleave into my own post, noticing typos (sigh).

I expect by a year from now I'll have a much better handle on the UK scene.

I started out with London Knowledge Lab on my radar from some years
back (summit meeting with Alan Kay et al), coming back to Portland
(PDX, not in Maine) all hot to trot, started Portland Knowledge Lab on
8th & Main at our DWA office (my late wife's studio, repurposed, then
closed owing to anemic Wifi, long story).

> Anyway, for those of you into math teaching (just a few of us on
> edu-sig), the counterpart of the USA's NCTM (following me on Twitter
> since the BOF at the last conference), is the ATM, founded by Caleb
> Gattegno and at one time a vector (in the CDC sense) for a positive
> strain of math teaching centered around those colored blocks or bricks
> we associate with the name cuisenaire (Belgian guy) -- not to be
> confused with Cuisinart if you're an American).[1]

The NCTM BOF I'm referring to is something I tracked through the
blogs, not saying I was there (I wasn't).  Here's a link:
(previously posted to this archive)

> Given Dr. Ian has been to my last [two] Chicago presentations, he's well
> aware that OCN is in the math education business.  In the Portland
> context, I keep [a] cube [at] CubeSpace for intermittent use, which is our
> geek hogwarts for adult professional[s], home of Portland Barcamp, most
> the user group meetings (not OpenGIS though).  Our geek hogwarts for
> middle schoolers is Winterhaven, where I taught Python at the 8th
> grade level using some GIS concepts ("hello world" means booting up
> Google Earth and saying "hello" -- or stick in a push-pin and grab the
> KML more likely).[2]

Link to Cubespace:  http://cubespacepdx.com/

Helps to have Calagator if you really want to stay up on events, see
right margin of CSN blog (all the PPUGers know about it).

> A few pilot schools have staying with Gattegno's original concepts
> more or less and have qualified for special attention.  They're eying
> Python among other FOSS offerings as possibly contiguous, now that
> their students are all algebra savvy and chomping at the bit for more
> challenges.  But of course our audience is teachers and empowering
> them.  This is where the NiceTime proposal comes in.
> As many of you know, OCN is into futuristic stuff, sort of at the
> other end of the spectrum from ultra-conservative.  I use the "rib
> cage" operations of __add__, __mul__ and their inverses with multiple
> "math objects" in order to generate an algebraic sense of group, ring
> and field properties.  When you define the "same" operations across
> matrices, rational numbers (Q objects), integers modulo N etc., you
> end up grasping higher level mathematics more successfully, or at
> least that's the theory. [3]

Of course this could all seem ultra-conservative in retrospect, but in
2009 this all seems breath-takingly avant-garde.

The "group theory for children" idea is in retreat, with everyone
focused on remediating a borked precalculus track which almost
everyone hates, but ETS keeps nailed, turning NCTM schools into slave

How sad for them.

They don't even allow YouTube in many schools, not even for teachers
projecting math-related content (there's *a lot* plus assigning
students to make them gives them important video editing skills, video
being the native language of youth culture in many ways -- why we put
such stress on these skills in our leadership trainings through
LAAP/AFSC (another long success story)).

Dark ages were us.

> We want this layer of abstraction so our dive into RSA and/or
> Diffie-Hellman-Merkle doesn't feel like some out of the blue math club
> activity or after school foray.  We want abstract algebra more
> intrinsic to the curriculum and think Python, operator overloading in
> particular, will make this doable.

This whole idea of doing "computer clubs" around the edges while
meanwhile the stupid hamster-brained calculators enjoy a
quasi-monopoly over computer programming in math is just one more
"canary in a mineshaft" indicator.

Obviously the Obama administration's promised "world class education"
is going to upset this applecart, if we have any hope of competing
with the rest of the world ("we" being USAers -- like what's on my

That's what the NCTM BOF was about, how to really make use of the new
technologies, not just give lip service to "technology in the
classroom" (as if calculators were all that could possibly mean).

> Of course this early in the game and it's by no means obvious:
> (a) that NiceTime will be approved (this is a 2nd pass already,
> Steve's attitude being "if at first you don't succeed..." -- he's been
> encouraging of Dr. Ian's process, knows he's just one more voice in
> the directorship, albeit the chairman)
> (b) that exotic Made in Oregon content will be what teachers are
> wanting to tackle, this being a UK project after all.  My materials
> are already FOSS and on the Web, including as videos, so it's not like
> I really need to lift a finger or anything (the Web is like magical in
> that way, wouldn't have much FOSS without it).

I've been recommending the documentary 'Revolution OS' which I excerpt
in my Saturday Academy classes.  Here's a synopsis (quoting from one
of my recent emails):

Not sure if you've seen 'Revolution OS' (documentary film, show
excerpts in my classes sometimes) with extended interviews with
Stallman, also Torvalds, many other top players (MVPs), but it pays to
understand the ambivalence twixt grad students doing all the hard CS
work, building Unix, only to be kicked out the door with degree, made
to fend for themselves in high licensing fee world, Unix unaffordable,
yet really their home, which they'd build.

FreeBSD, not just Linux, was the subversive reaction developed with
fanatical red gleam of revenge for shabby treatment, and Mac OS X
piggy backs on that I understand, though inherits from NeXT as well
and who knows what all, haven't read many books on it yet.  We're
talking POSIX in any case, with Windows hard pressed to play outlier,
especially on the server side, but really has a nice desktop -- and

Microsoft and IBM have their own interesting history with abortive
OS/2, lots of bad blood actually, which might also add to IBM's glee
in watching Linux trounce MS in many a strategic area (but then lots
of us have been enjoying that, not just IBM).

In any case, going back to the FOSS story per 'Revolution OS', a lot
of academics, CS professors in particular, were clearly not about to
lift a finger against proprietary software, had comfy positions and if
having to pay high fees to use Unix was a big barrier to entry, so
much the better, more job security for them, never mind their students
were getting shoved into an unforgiving world sans the very tools
they'd worked hardest on to produce.

Hence GNU.

See it as backlash (against some projection of the university as shill
for unearned power, AT&T or whatever) and you'll understand better.
Wolfram versus Cal Tech follows much the same lines.  Bill Gates left
Harvard early.

A theme here:  FOSS is creating its own culture *in parallel* with
sell-outs still on the inside.  The impulse, now that we're strong and
hardy, is to turn on the hand that didn't feed us when it mattered
(the smug faculties who didn't teach *ethics* -- Stallman is an
ethical philosopher) -- and kill it.

> What I'm pretty sure the teachers won't want, because too futuristic,
> is my Sqlite + Vpython lesson plans, where I take related tables
> stuffed with vector coordinates of polyhedra and draw those on screen.
>  Gattegno's curriculum is called AlgebraFirst for a reason (Ian also
> works with algebra.org in NY), whereas at OCN I'm into GeometryFirst,
> tempting Montessori schools with my Mites, Sytes and Kites, sometimes
> using CubeIt! (from Huntar company), other manipulables.[4]

It's not that the SQL based approach is controversial -- that's
actually a pretty good idea I expect many will copy -- it's the
volumes column most teachers won't like.  I use simple whole numbers
(integers actually) in place of the floating points they're used to
for these same shapes, and that makes them angry.

> This is what got me in hot water with NCTM years ago when they changed
> their logo from looking like an octet-truss (relates to this geometry)
> to an infinity symbol with stronger lawyer protections (like PSF, they
> were worried about losing control of their branding, actually were
> losing control in this case).[5]

What's an octet-truss?  Glad you asked:

> The politics here is Bucky Fuller was a cold warrior type, honored by
> then president Reagan with a Medal of Freedom but hated and feared by
> just about everyone else (except artists, hippies, other "live in the
> moment" types).  To this day, if you talk about space-filling Mites in
> a math teaching context, you're likely to get run out of town (unless
> the town is Portland, in which case you're allowed to teach this
> material through Saturday Academy, with the blessings of Silicon
> Forest -- but this town is unusual in that respect, a FOSS
> capital).[6]

When I say "cold warrior" I don't mean he hated Russians or anything
(he actually worked closely with Russian planners, lots at
Synchronofile.com on that, maybe at the web site, also at SU).

>From an Annapolis standpoint (looking at naval power etc. -- he went
there for officer training) he actually thought the Russians were
winning (per Critical Path).

He did focus on "great game" type literature, focusing on Afghanistan
a lot, like the rest of 'em plus he actually had that dome in Kabul in
1959, which the USSR's Khrushchev really admired, smart cookie that he
was, more on that here:


"Sonny" was of course E.J. Applewhite.

The early problem with H.S.M. Coxeter was over patents for the radomes
in Canada.  Dr. Loeb was also suspicious but later defected to the
Bucky camp by contributing to said magnum opus and, more important, by
coaching Amy Edmundson through the process of writing a more
Springer-Verlag type treatment, which was not well received given
Fuller's pariah status in academia (never mind the 11 doctorates

Marshall McLuhan, a big Bucky fan per Synergetics Dictionary (compiled
by Applewhite), was likewise razzed by the gulag professoriate.

    Marshall McLuhan told me the first day he met me -- on one of the
early Doxiadis cruises -- 'I am your disciple.' He held up copies of
No More Secondhand God and Nine Chains to the Moon and said 'I've
joined your conspiracy!'

    McLuhan has never made any bones about his indebtedness to me as
the original source of most of his ideas.

E.J. Applewhite, Synergetics Dictionary, Vol 2, pg. 592, card 4. ISBN
0-8240-8729-1 (one typo fixed) -- my copy a gift from the author.

Lots of interesting history, if we ever get time for it.

> So for now I'm mostly sticking to algebra and the transferable "rib
> cage" concept, thinking to walk teachers through these "math objects"
> with interactive capabilities.  Having this new discrete math title
> (brought to my attention by Software Association of Oregon, which has
> designs similar to mine, in terms of FOSS in the schools) is a boost,
> especially the section on polynomials and their treatment as algebraic
> objects (i.e. you can add and multiply two polynomials no problem,
> with closure in both cases).

Polynomials don't necessarily have inverses though, form a ring, not a field:


> I'm pretty sure NiceTime is on board with the cryptography stuff at
> least in storyboard.  Dr. Ian supplied a short video clip to my 3 hour
> workshop (first 57 minutes syndicated through Blip TV) authorized for
> that one viewing only, regarding DHM use at Amazon.  It was a
> kid-friendly Discovery channel segment, about public key cryptography
> more generally, so also suitable for RSA, which is what I've been
> going over (Andy Harrington supplied some improvements as well).[7]

I use an already cracked RSA number (Germans cracked it), enjoying the
realism Python provides.  The Javascript based demos of RSA I've seen
on the web tend to use small integers, which I think loses the flavor.

> One example of a high school project that might merit a poster at
> Pycon someday would be to dig through the Mozilla code base and find
> the https bits, maybe convert those to running Python.  It's possible
> to take lower level C code and recast it as inanely verbose and
> unpythonic Python that nevertheless runs and, by imitating the C,
> gives Python readers a first inkling of what a lower level language is
> like (many won't know).  Anyway, that's one idea.

I'm not sure the "inane Python" part is a good idea, but I do like
encouraging students to dig into code piles actually looking for
implementations.  The danger with FOSS is we won't encourage students
to study their heritage.  They'll just take it for granted.  And I'm
not saying you need to be a CS major to take a healthy interest in
such things (on the contrary).

> I've been very up front with both Steve (holdenweb.com) and Dr. Ian
> though:  I'm still pretty focused on South Africa and Lesotho (my
> family HQS was the latter mountain kingdom for like 7 years,
> transferring from another mountain kingdom in the Himalayas).
> Archbishop Tutu (like Dr. Ian, a King's College grad) was in town last
> night, yakking about ubuntu and all that good stuff, inspiring my home
> sickness for Cape Town.  Jackalope is looking good by the way.  But
> it's not either/or is it?

Tutu's visit (he was awarded a doctorate by University of Portland):

> My role in all this, as a noob with PSF (incoming Class of '09), is
> simply to look over Steve's shoulder and watch the process.  I'm not
> being asked to vote and there's nothing in the proposed budget to buy
> any of my services.  I've got other irons in the fire when it comes to
> teacher trainings, but really like this idea that the UK is looking at
> FOSS outside any strictly CS teaching context (which I think way too
> narrow, unlike CP4E's).
> Kirby
> 4D


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