Tuesday, July 24, 2012

What I'd rather be doing

I write software and handle data to solve problems.  I take what you've got and fix it so someone else can use it.  Or, I take data (stuff) you have in one form and transform it so you can do something useful with it.  Sometimes I move large or small amounts of data from one place to another.  Sometimes I find a way to repair massive errors in datasets.  Sometimes I find ways to do these things more efficiently by several orders of magnitude.

I'm actually rather good at this.  What I do matters, both directly (patient data) and indirectly (employees don't have to stay over for hours and hours making corrections).  But I can't help thinking sometimes I could be doing more.

I really would like to be doing real data analysis.  Writing software meant to crunch serious numbers/data.  I've been interested in AI and machine learning since I was a kid, always with an eye towards such things as behavior modeling and predictive systems.

Sadly my early education missed some critical things.  I'll take the blame for some of this, some of it was simply that no one knew to look for dyscalculia, and even if they had heard of it, wouldn't have considered it in a kid who consistently made B's in maths.

Kids:  Learn math.  Arithmetic is not math.  Arithmetic is the simple stuff.  Math is the stuff you'll wonder why you'd ever want to know or how you'll ever use.  You need arithmetic, you use math already - you just don't know it.  Arithmetic lets you balance your checkbook.  Math lets you abstract the world around you and see patterns that aren't always obvious, and more importantly, test that those patterns are valid.

Parents/teachers:  Watch how your kids handle arithmetic tasks from an early age.  Dyscalculia is a real phenomena, with a constellation of symptoms that can be identified.  More importantly, the effect can be mitigated to varying degrees with suitable training methods and coaching.  Getting past the early failures in learning arithmetic can help a child get the early footing in mathematics that can make all the difference in their future.

Signs of dyscalculia:

  • Frequent difficulties with arithmetic
  • Difficulty with everyday tasks like reading analog clocks
  • Inability to comprehend financial planning or budgeting, sometimes even at a basic level; for example, estimating the cost of the items in a shopping basket or balancing a checkbook
  • Difficulty with multiplication-tables, and subtraction-tables, addition tables, division tables, mental arithmetic, etc.
  • Difficulty with conceptualizing time and judging the passing of time. May be chronically late or early
  • Particularly problems with differentiating between left and right
  • Inability to visualize mentally
  • Difficulty reading musical notation
  • Might do exceptionally well with writing
  • Difficulty navigating or mentally "turning" the map to face the current direction rather than the common North=Top usage
  • Having particular difficulty mentally estimating the measurement of an object or distance (e.g., whether something is 10 or 20 feet (3 or 6 meters) away).
  • Often unable to grasp and remember mathematical concepts, rules, formulae, and sequences
  • Inability to concentrate on mentally intensive tasks
  • Low latent inhibition, i.e., over-sensitivity to noise, smell, light and the inability to tune out, filtering unwanted information or impressions. Might have a well-developed sense of imagination due to this (possibly as cognitive compensation to mathematical-numeric deficits)
  • Mistaken recollection of names. Poor name/face retrieval. May substitute names beginning with same letter.
  • (From Wikipedia)

    Of these 15 signs I have 12.  You might not recognize them in me today.  I have learned to compensate for most of them most of the time. But it was a painful process of trial and error. 

    This isn't a call to arms, nor really a complaint even.  It really isn't even a vindication  of my under-achievement.  More than anything discovery of this disability(?) and its symptoms and treatment helped me understand my limitations and how to better compensate for them.

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