Tag Archives: Math


Here are a few items I haven’t had time to write about, but are still, I think, worth your attention. I may revisit and more fully discuss some of these in the future, but there’s no reason not to share them now.

James McWilliams makes the case against eating meat. And Mark Bittman, questioning the line we draw between “pet” and “animal,” calls attention to our continuing cruel treatment of farm animals. (He writes a must-read follow-up here.)

Maria Bustillos discusses “Wikipedia And The Death Of The Expert.” Interesting to revisit this piece after having finished Robert Sawyer’s excellent WWW Trilogy, which projects a breathtaking and optimistic vision of the benefits of our online interconnectedness (and the emergence of a benevolent online AI). But it’s also interesting to consider this “democracy of opinions,” “we are all experts” mindset in the light of a recent talk by Timothy Ferris at last weekend’s World Science Festival. Ferris said that while science and democracy have flourished together (as he wrote in The Science of Liberty) the real test of democratic culture today is whether such a diversity of voices can produce the quick, decisive actions needed to respond to climate change. The Internet broadens our landscape of data and opinions — but is it slowing down our power to choose among these options, to act to save ourselves?

Why libraries matter: because every damn kid matters. And hey, every prisoner matters too.

On the education front: Diane Ravitch, former Assistant Secretary of Education and author of The Death and Life of the Great American School System, speaks out against standardized testing. David Bornstein explores a better way to teach math. And while the US faces a crisis in civics education, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor reminds us that learning about government can be fun: check out her brainchild, the nonprofit gaming site icivics.org. (My daughter’s favorites: “Executive Command” and “Argument Wars.”)

A must-read piece by Linda Holmes on how we should deal with the fact that, no matter how much we individually read and watch and listen and consume what culture has to offer, we’re going to miss almost everything.

Edward Lerner rails against the media for celebrating the end of the space shuttle flights and basking in NASA’s old glories, rather than getting the public excited about the need for a continuing, active, and ambitious space program.

Michael Boylan asks: “Are There Natural Human Rights?”

Jonathan Franzen suggests that technology makes us more self-directed, while love makes us other-directed. Well worth reading. And in conjunction, read David Brooks’ op-ed, “It’s Not About You.” Perhaps they overstate the case in some areas, and there’s some thoughtful pushback in the comments, but these are still, I think, wise pieces.

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No stinking calculators, cont’d: Vi Hart’s math doodles

I love discovering stuff like this. Vi Hart is an artist, writer, musician (check out her classical compositions based on the Harry Potter books) and mathematician who posts increasingly popular YouTube videos on “math doodles” and other mathematical and musical adventures. Here’s a favorite (though they’re all good):

I love a good pun (“serpentagram,” ha!) and the Little Prince reference is a nice touch.

The best part from her New York Times profile:

She is also happy that, unlike in her early efforts, which drew an audience typical of mathematics research — older and male, mostly — the biggest demographic for her new videos, at least among registered users, are teenage girls.

“I just think that’s really awesome,” she said, “because you’ve got girls in middle school and high school who are suddenly enjoy mathematics and enjoying being a little nerdy and smart, and we need that.”

More videos at the link above, as well as on her YouTube page and website (which also features her other creative projects).

My other posts on cool math here.

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No stinking calculators, cont’d: Egyptian math

Ever since I saw Arthur Benjamin’s astonishing display of mathematical ability, I’ve been interested in alternative math strategies that you won’t learn in a modern American classroom (a great disservice to today’s students, I think).

Here’s Michael S. Schneider demonstrating the mathematics used by the ancient Egyptians and Chinese (and still employed in today’s computers; who knew?), which operates on the base-2 number system rather than the more familiar base-10:

If you’re curious about how it handles fractions and decimals, a video (somewhat dryly but clearly) explains further here.

Schneider seems to have some New Age-y notions I don’t buy into, about “sacred geometry” and the hidden significance of numbers in the universe; but his math strategies — like Arthur Benjamin’s — are solid, and deserve to be more widely taught to kids at school, I think. The more tools we have in our mental arsenal for figuring out the world, the better.

(via Unreasonable Faith)


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Arthur Benjamin doesn’t need any stinking calculators.

At last weekend’s World Science Festival, what I’d hoped would be a personal highlight — a star-gazing party in Battery Park — turned out to be a bit of a disappointment, as a completely overcast sky blocked out any view of the stars. It was, however, fun to walk around the full-scale model of the James Webb Space Telescope — Hubble’s eventual replacement, scheduled to launch in 2014 — as well as to hear the distinguished panelists discuss advances in astronomy, and to see the always-entertaining Neil deGrasse Tyson play host to the crowd. Still, I wanted to see stars.

On the other hand, a casual family outing to Sunday’s festival events in Washington Square Park led us to one of the most astonishing demonstrations of mental power I’ve ever seen.

Meet Arthur Benjamin, a.k.a. the Mathemagician. This is a clip from his 2005 TED talk; at the festival, he performed these acts and more, and even let us in on some of his strategies and shortcuts:

The rock-star ovation he received at the end of our event was at least twice as loud as this. I’d never seen so many kids — and grown-ups — get so excited about math, and the prospect of improving our math skills; thanks to his tips our daughter is now proficient at doing magic squares, and I’m itching to wow people with my new “I can multiply 11 by any two-digit number” trick at the next dinner party.

No surprise that Benjamin is also a mathematics professor. Here’s what he has to say about the state of math education in America:

Arthur Benjamin does for math what Carl Sagan did for science, and what every teacher should do with their chosen specialty: make the subject come alive. He should be cloned and put into every math class in the country. Because if you can get kids to fall in love with what they learn, you make the rest of their education a whole lot easier.

(And kudos to the young man in the audience who won a digital camera during the pre-show, for correctly stating the quadratic equation. Knowledge is rewarding, of course, but the reward isn’t often this immediately tangible!)

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