The importance of math for the trades

There’s a cynical joke that goes “School never taught me how to go about buying a car or a house or paying taxes. But boy am I glad I know … the pythagorean theorem!” I always disliked the joke, but I think it’s fair to point out that school doesn’t do enough to teach life skills. I also used to think that people generally never really used math after school, so putting such an emphasis on math in school was not worthwhile, except for people who go into STEM fields. This was because I underestimated how crucial basic math knowledge can be.

If you asked me two years ago whether it was a reasonable scenario that someone was too bad at math to be a good welder, I would have said: no. I no longer think that, and not just because I’ve seen some people who are really, really bad at math. That’s not even the primary reason.

Instead, I learned a little bit about welding. (Not a lot, unfortunately. Seriously, I am so bad at welding. It hurts).

For instance: welders need to calculate material usage. That requires using fractions, maybe some elementary algebra. They need to know how to run their machines for what process and what material, and that requires reading charts and graphs.

practical-problems-in-mathematics-for-welders-applied-mathematics-5th-edition-93aba35c2759dbb0298c443bc8660e97Welders need to read blueprints. That requires the ability to convert between 3D and 2D representations. To go between these blueprints and real objects, they sometimes need to calculate areas and volumes. To read dimensions off blueprints, they need good mental arithmetic involving fractions. And they need a basic understanding of Euclidean geometry, including angles.

Then there’s also the math you need to run a business, or to not get screwed over by someone else. How many people can understand the mathematical arrangement of doing piecework? It turns out, not everyone, not by a long shot.

You may say that all of these skills — reading blueprints, planning material use, figuring out rudimentary finances — are tangential to welding itself. Maybe so, but they are required in order to be a welder worth hiring. They won’t help you put down a bead. But, surprise, they already have robots that can put down a bead like nobody’s business. You can only dream of welding as consistently as a robot. If you’re going to be a welder, you need to succeed at what the welding robot doesn’t do. Part of that is dealing with non-repetitive situations. And part of that is all the peripheral aspects of the job.

And yet, there are people who can’t do it. And yes, some of it has to do with not being able to do the math to figure out the material you need, or to read a blueprint*.

There are also specific mental blocks around multiplying fractions, and about using algebra with letters instead of numbers. And calculating things in 2D or 3D. And the people that have problems with this kind of math are going to have trouble being successful welders, automotive technicians, machinists…

What is someone who can’t get a welding job going to do for steady, secure, dignified work? There’s a sort of triumphant Tom Friedman-esque idea that the loss of low-skilled work doesn’t matter, because workers can be retrained into at least slightly-below-average coders, and get work. But you need more math than many people have in order to be a good welder. And you’re saying they’re going to be coders? I really, really don’t think that’s true.

*Interestingly, the way some people are bad at math isn’t the way I expected. Most people I’ve seen are actually pretty good at “mental math” up to a point. But they don’t perform the mental math in a conscious step-based way. Instead, it’s like a black box that spits out an answer. So if it gets past the point where they can intuitively guess the correct procedure, they are totally lost. For example, there are many people who can easily answer “If 2/3 of a number is 6, what is the number?” but can’t say how they got that answer. And that means that they can’t — even with using a calculator — answer “If 5/12 of a number is 40, what is the number?”

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Teaching Thoughts: Teaching is a service

Gonna start talking about what I learned from teaching with the biggest thing about teaching that I think people don’t always consider: it’s a service.

I was actually just planning to link to Freddie de Boer’s essay on the topic, but his site seems to have gone down, and then been resurrected without the blog. I don’t know if it is archived anywhere. So I will have to say it myself: the biggest revelation to me about teaching is that it is not at all a “product”.

Your job as a teacher is not to be the fount of wisdom for the students to drink at. After all, as everyone keeps saying, information is free these days, and the library and the internet are a lot more accessible than college. You are not there to manufacture lessons. Maybe at some very high level of material, it actually is like that. But at the community college level, that’s definitely not the case.

Instead, your job is to figure out how to get the students motivated, learning, doing work, overcoming trouble, getting through specific questions. It’s also your job to figure out where a specific student is having difficulties, and tailor your teaching to that.

And doing all this makes a difference. Or at least, the only difference you can make as a teacher. This is at least one reason why MOOCs have so far failed to fulfil the promise that techno-futurists ascribed to them.

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Simone Weil v. Jarvis Cocker

Attention conservation notice: I take 1000 words to give you the “amazing revelation” that experience can teach you things. Then I bizarrely suggest that you should go be a dilettante hipster farmer. I finish off with a career announcement and an intro to a new post series on the blog.

In 1934, Simone Weil took a year’s sabbatical from her job teaching philosophy to go work in a factory so that she could better understand the plight of the working class. Was this an admirable act of intellectual curiosity, putting your money where your mouth is, making sure that what you are working towards corresponds to what people actually need? Or was it an example of an out-of-touch elite “slumming” in a way that’s ridiculous and borderline offensive? The action certainly fits with Simone Weil’s other behaviour where the consequences for others aren’t super well thought out. Like the time she tried to persuade the Spanish Republicans to send her on a covert spy mission ignoring the fact that, being French, she would have a lot of trouble passing for a Spaniard. Or joining up with a commando unit despite being so bad at marksmanship that her comrades had to waste their time protecting her rather than her doing anything to help them. These actions are object lessons in the idea that good intentions are not enough. And joining the factory sort of also seems like that. It’s doing things that look good but don’t actually do good. Simone Weil was a prominent writer and philosopher — she could clearly do more for workers as a philosopher, than she could working at the Renault factory.

Apart from the missed opportunity, it’s also easy to be against this kind of thing for hypocrisy reasons. Pulp covered this point in their hit song “Common People” where Jarvis Cocker sneers at rich people living like the poor: “still you’ll never get it right / cause when you’re lying in bed at night / watching roaches climb the wall / if you called your dad he could stop it all”. It’s hard to avoid the idea that Weil was “playing at being a worker” and feel kind of insulted on behalf of the people who had to spend their whole lives at the factory.

But that’s the wrong way to look at it. While I still think it can be done in a hypocritical and not well-thought-out way, I have come to believe that since lived experience is the best teacher, seeking it out is the morally right thing to do. Far from being worthy of mockery, what Simone Weil did deserves respect and emulation. If you want to advocate on behalf of people working at car plants, as she did, you have to know what matters to people working at car plants, and what car plant workers’ lives are actually like. You can say “believe the people who have the experience“ all you want, but this doesn’t actually cover it. For one, actually working in a car factory is by far the best way to get that second-hand perspective anyway. It’s also true, though, that as an outsider, you can’t tell how important one concern is relative to another. Working in the factory will make you a more perceptive judge. People are going to opine on any number of issues — if you’re not a car factory worker, you have no idea what is part of the reality of how life as a car factory worker is, and what is some external opinion.

It’s not that you’re going to learn everything you thought was right is wrong, but that lived experience can bring up issues you may never have thought of. It also has a way of being convincing in a way other things aren’t. So even as I find myself learning new things and changing my mind less and less due to argument, I still find myself learning new things. And changing my mind overall more and more — because of personal experiences.

But what about the fact that Simone Weil only did it for a year? Isn’t that not nearly enough? Jarvis Cocker says “Everybody hates a tourist / Especially one who thinks it’s all such a laugh / And the chip stains’ grease will come out in the bath”. Of course, the more all-encompassing and long the experience, the more you learn from it. However, I think this is overhyped. Whatever “the learning curve” means, it’s true that you learn the most right at the beginning.

I worked as a steel tier for less than three weeks. Granted, the main thing I learned on that job is how incredibly shitty some jobs can be. And how easy it is to get tendonitis. As a co-worker on another labour job told me later, “they give you that job when you first join the union so that you don’t complain about any of the other ones”. But that’s not the only thing I learned there. Knowing how to tie rebar is (hopefully) never going to be a skill that is vital for me, but both a realistic picture of what that job is like and talking to other people working there was very valuable to me. It’s been the same at everything else I’ve tried doing. And it’s been especially true of teaching.

This is why my new piece of political advice is: for issues that you care about, if you can manage to, actually go and do it. If you want to be active in food politics, work on a local farm. Yes, you might be a dilettante. Yes, you might be the annoying hipster who doesn’t know how to farm and is a laughingstock. But I guarantee that you will learn more than you would by just reading about the issue and believing what the farmers say. And you’ll be doing the right thing. And when you do read to learn more, you will be more informed about what information is important and trustworthy. Do you want to understand factory work? Be like Simone Weil, and go work in a factory for a year. It will inform what you are saying, and what you learn from then on.

This is one reason why, knowing that I will be teaching math to welding students, I decided that I needed to take a welding class. And I was right. I am never going to be a good welder. But I am already much better at understanding what welding is like, and what skills you need for it. It’s been incredibly worthwhile (not to mention really fun, but that’s a special case that won’t always be true).

I am coming to see learning through experience to be the most valuable thing that I can do to know about the world and to be a more useful person. So it is partially with that in mind that I have decided to leave teaching to try something different. Of course, that wasn’t my motivation. The fact that my new job (technician on a high energy physics project) involves going to CERN is kind of the big draw. But it’s one reason I think I’m doing the right thing.

So for now, my time as a teacher is coming to an end. What did I actually learn? In the next few posts on this blog, I hope to write about some of the things I’ve changed my mind on as a result of working as a teacher. As for “Common People”, I still love the song, but I no longer share its worldview.

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If you prick us…

On Feb 8th ’17, Alexei Navalny, a nobody, with 0% chance of winning, but someone who stated that he will seek to be a candidate in next year’s Russian presidential election, has nevertheless, facing double jeopardy, been found guilty of embezzlement of state funds, in a politically motivated trial, which barring success in appellate court, will prevent him from participation in the upcoming election.

After browsing the state owned “Perviy Kanal” website, I found no mention of this seemingly newsworthy item.

I write this, simply so that there’s evidence of one more person with eyes capable of reading and digits capable of typing who did not fail to notice that this occurred.

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Trump Prediction Update

When zipppa wrote a post of Trump predictions, I laughed at the jokes. But last week, when McCain and Rubio indicated they would support Tillerson for State, thus totally killing Téa Leoni’s chances for that position, I really began to worry what that meant for the matchup. And today, reading the Washington Post’s story on Trump’s conversations with the President of Mexico and PM of Australia, my worries increased where I got to this passage:

Trump told Peña Nieto in last Friday’s call, according to the Associated Press, which said it reviewed a transcript of part of the conversation, “You have a bunch of bad hombres down there. You aren’t doing enough to stop them. I think your military is scared. Our military isn’t, so I just might send them down to take care of it.”

Even in conversations marred by hostile exchanges, Trump manages to work in references to his election accomplishments. U.S. officials said that he used his calls with both Turnbull and Peña Nieto to mention his election win or the size of the crowd at his inauguration.

Honestly, I did think the Trump presidency would be this bad, but I really really didn’t think it would be this fucking stupid.

I think my issue was that I never listened to Trump for long periods of time, and, expecting some exaggeration from a pro-Clinton and sensation-seeking media, I figured Trump’s public pronouncements were “almost as stupid as the media makes them out to be” and not “an order of magnitude stupider”.

Would be more funny if it wasn’t so frightening and sad, etc. etc.

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Thanks, Obama

REN0724 ObamaObama has been President for most of my adult life, and it is weird to consider that very soon he won’t be. I will always sympathize with him, but he wasn’t a good or successful president. The reason why: I don’t think it’s controversial that the world and the U.S. are in worse shape now than they were when Obama was elected. The main factor in this is the election of Donald Trump, a disaster of historic proportions. Of course, Trump’s election is not exclusively – or even primarily – Obama’s “fault”. But it happened in reaction to Obama’s presidency. Trump and the Republicans can quickly work to undo most of Obama’s other positive achievements. For now, it seems fair to me to say that the primary legacy of Obama’s presidency is the election of Donald Trump.

Most or all of Obama’s achievements – Obamacare, the Paris Accords, the EPA rules on carbon, the Iran nuclear deal, Dodd-Frank, changes in the tax system, etc., can quickly be reversed. Jon Chait makes the counterintuitive claim that Obama’s legacy can endure, but I don’t buy it. His argument mainly consists of two parts: (a) lots of stuff happened on Obama’s watch that isn’t in the purview of U.S. government and (b) Trump and Republicans may pay a political price for undoing Obama’s achievements. I think it’s not right to give Obama so much credit for (a), and overly optimistic to think Republicans have no aims other than staying in power for (b).

Obama had a theory about how the world works. I sympathize with Obama, because I thought his theory was correct. It seemed like careful, small nudges in the direction Obama thought the world should go were the best way to proceed. But they weren’t. Trump’s election has shown that he was wrong.

In his farewell address, Obama spoke as if he still believed in this vision. But I don’t. Not anymore. As Anton Chigurh says, “if the rule you followed brought you to this, of what use was the rule?” And I am very doubtful that Obama believes it anymore either. I think he is scrambling to figure out a new way to see the world and how he should act with the power that he has in it. I think moves like the UN resolution on Israel are examples of this scrambling.


It’s not useful to talk about whether a President is a “good guy”. The moral decisions of the US presidency necessarily involve knowingly killing innocent people for complicated geopolitical gamesmanship reasons. If someone does that and is not horrified every minute of every day, his morality is at least not one I can recognize. But Obama was a person I admired.

There’s one more reason I will appreciate him more than his achievements warrant. Unlike most politicians, he seemed extremely, sincerely worried about trying to do a good job. Maybe that’s not much – after all, Mark Zuckerberg also seems to be sincerely worried about doing a good job, and I think electing Mark Zuckerberg as President would be terrifying. Still, it’s a surprisingly rare trait: I don’t think Trump, Bush, or either Clinton possess it. But Obama did, and I am grateful for that.

So, bye bye, Obama. And Thanks.

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2016 in Review: Articles etc.

Here are some interesting things I read on the internet in 2016, in this episode of “no value added”


U.S. Politics

Life and Culture

Fiction and Essays

  • The Inner Ring C.S. Lewis gives a commencement speech
  • On Venus, Have We Got a Rabbi William Tenn writes, well, you’re not convinced you should read this from the title? What do you need, a hand-printed invitation, maybe?


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