From Khan Academy to Code Academy: Celebrating Tau on June 28th

Guest Blog by Charles Burghard, Director of Applications Development at Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen & Hamilton LLP

 

Most of us in technology or IT management probably don’t directly use the Trig or Calculus or Statistics that we learned in school. But there are frequently moments when understanding a situation and communicating that understanding requires “doing the math”.  Whether it’s determining the impact of latency on application performance, or figuring out the impact of a scope change on resource requirements and cost, we need to develop a mathematical model of an existing or proposed infrastructure or process. Then, we need to run some real numbers to show that what we are saying about how a system will behave or how a process will turn out makes sense and is probably correct.

So when we switch hats from supporting IT functions to trying to be good parents, and see our kids in middle school or high school or college learning a foundational discipline like math or science, it’s natural for us to encourage them to excel.  It’s not that we expect them to become mathematicians or scientists, but we know from experience that they will need to know how to model systems and processes in the practical world. We also know that hard work in foundational disciplines will prepare them to do just that.

On that note, I was very reassured a few years back when I discovered that math teachers these days like to actually celebrate that favorite circle constant, pi – the wonderful fraction of the circumference with endless non-repeating decimal places.  They’ve reserved an entire day, March 14th (for 3.14), to bake pies, rehearse formulas, and generally laud the benefits and mysteries of the age-old constant.  Math isn’t just work, but it’s intrinsically memorable, interesting and fun.

It was a bit of a shock to find out recently that many mathematicians are now arguing that pi is the wrong constant.  You heard that right.  For a couple of thousand years, we’ve all used pi to find the circumference and area of a circle, and to help our Trig functions break through the barriers of the 180 degrees of the triangle (remember “SohCahToa”?).  But it turns out that pi is actually a pretty clunky constant, and using another constant called “tau” (which is exactly 2 pi) leads to much more elegant formulas in all the areas where pi has be used in the past.  For an amusing rendition of the argument by Vi Hart, check out her video at out http://www.khanacademy.org/math/vi-hart/v/pi-is–still–wrong .

But, maybe the broader lesson here is that even in subjects we consider foundational and something that we know (or at least knew), we can pass that on to younger generations as models or patterns for solving problems, even though the world is constantly changing.  I heard a chemistry professor recently point out that the lab tools and techniques he teaches his students now will inevitably become obsolete in three years.  On the more practical side, particularly in IT, obsolescence is likely to arrive in 18 months.  The point is not that we should give up teaching and learning altogether, because the target knowledge and skills will soon be out of date. Rather, we need to accelerate teaching and learning at all levels on an ongoing basis throughout our careers.

So when June 28th (or 6.28 for “tau”) comes around this year, take a minute and check in on one of the foundational disciplines like math or science that may have tracked you into IT in the first place. See how things are still evolving.  Then let that experience re-energize your IT passion.  Leverage an e-learning site to master Python or see what Hadoop is all about, or plow your way through an e-book on ITIL.  Take a minute and celebrate that old constant, change, with a nod to the tools and methodologies that are working for folks now.

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Posted in Advice, Guest Blog, Legal Technology

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