Category Archives: magazines

Should science journalists check copy with their sources?

I have often heard mathematicians complain — most recently, last night — about their work being mangled when it gets covered in the press.  Why don’t science journalists check with their sources to make sure that the science is presented accurately?

There’s a great discussion of this issue at PLOSBlogs, featuring many well-known science writers and highly-placed editors in the comments.  It’s a tough issue.  On one side, journalists are quite likely to make mistakes about technical subjects (not only science) even if they’re very diligent when conducting the interview.  On the other hand, journalists are not public relations officers, and I tend to agree that it’s important to preserve that distinction, even when there are some costs.

As for me, I would never show copy to a source prior to publication.  Then again, because I mostly write about math, I think people cut me a lot of slack — if I oversimplify somebody’s work, they know that I know that I’m oversimplifying, and respect that I’m bowing to journalistic necessity.

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98% sounds like it means “almost all” but it doesn’t always

From The Economist:

Michael Spence, another Nobel prize-winning economist, in a recent article in Foreign Affairs agrees that technology is hitting jobs in America and other rich countries, but argues that globalisation is the more potent factor. Some 98% of the 27m net new jobs created in America between 1990 and 2008 were in the non-tradable sector of the economy, which remains relatively untouched by globalisation, and especially in government and health care—the first of which, at least, seems unlikely to generate many new jobs in the foreseeable future.

You should never say “98% of X” in a context where “150% of X” or “-40% of X” would make sense.  Let’s say I run a coffeeshop.  My core coffee business just missed breaking even this month, losing $500.  On the other hand, the CD rack I put up made $750 in profit, and so did my pastry case, so I came out $1000 ahead for the month.

So CDs accounted for 75% of my profit.  Pastry also accounted for 75% of my profit.

See why this is weird?

(Imagine if I’d lost 500 more bucks on coffee — then I’d be making infinity percent of my profit on CDs alone!)

See also:  the Wisconsin GOP’s June press release asserting that Wisconsin had accounted for 50% of the country’s job growth in June.  Great!  Until you realize that California accounted for almost 200% of the country’s job growth…..


Stephen Burt interviewed in Publishers Weekly

Steve Burt interviewed in the PW series, “The Art of the Review:”

Classes can reveal the properties of their members more fully (to understand the differences between calcium and magnesium, for example, you should know why they are both alkaline earths) but classes can also obscure them (the Pagans and the Germs were both American punk rock bands, but to me their songs sound nothing alike). Classes should be used with care everywhere; there’s probably no way to fully avoid them.

But you aren’t asking about classes in general; you are asking why poetry critics and reviewers seem to classify and classify, whereas fiction reviews try to avoid it. Perhaps it’s because few books of poetry can count on a buzz produced by their authors, or by a publicity campaign, or by grassroots, independent-bookstore-sales-driven chatter, all of which can justify (to assigning editors, to casual readers) space and time for extensive reviews of single volumes. Poetry reviewers, poetry critics, even very academic ones, need other pegs on which to hang their claims.

Novelists, necessarily, work in sustained solitude, when they are working (however gregarious they become otherwise), whereas poets can work in solitude in short bursts and then come together to discuss—and make programs and slogans about—what they made.

Poets also seem to attach themselves and their work more often either to their peer group, or to their teachers; some poets can tell you where and with whom they studied almost in the way that classical musicians can tell you about their teachers, and their teachers’ teachers.  If novelists do that, I haven’t seen it.

For more, buy Steve’s book, Close Calls With Nonsense.

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Rick Ungar makes too much of Kloppenburg-Prosser

A couple of my friends recommended Rick Ungar’s piece in Forbes on today’s election, but I think he overstates the good news for Wisconsin Democrats by a long way.

To illustrate the point, consider that Judge Prosser won his last election to the bench by garnering 99.54% of the 550,000 votes cast. That is no typo – Prosser actually won almost every single vote that was cast.

So when Wisconsin held its primary to choose the top two candidates for the requisite general election run-off, it was no surprise that Judge Prosser garnered 55% of the vote. The closest remaining vote getter, Joanne Kloppenburg, an unknown Assistant State Attorney General, managed only 25% of the few votes that were cast….

Remember, Judge Prosser won his last election with over 99% of the vote. In this election, he not only lost a full 50% of that voter base, it would appear that he has lost his seat on the bench. Considering that he was involved in no scandal or other event that could explain such a remarkable reversal of fortune, I suspect we would have to search long and wide to find another election in our history with a similar result. Should Prosser ultimately prevail in the recount, there is still no getting around the fact that he’s taken an historic tumble in voter support.

I think it is, therefore, safe to say that the Democratic base has been ignited in the State of Wisconsin.

Yes, Prosser won all but 2,569 votes in his 2001 election.  But he was running unopposed.  To refer to 99.5% of Wisconsin as his  “voter base” is thus a bit rich.  Unfair, too, to compare Kloppenburg’s 50% of the vote to her 25% share in the primary, which wasn’t a two-person race;  three viable candidates were competing to go up against Prosser.  The total primary vote was 55% Prosser, 44% “somebody less tied to the GOP than Prosser.”  To make up a 10-point deficit in two months is no small trick — but it’s hardly historic.


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December linkdump

Noted with minimal comment:

  • Add to Ellie Kemper another former student making it in showbiz:  Damien Chazelle, who was actually in high school when I taught him number theory, had a feature in the Tribeca Film Festival.
  • Can William Langewiesche write a boring magazine feature?  If so, it is not this one about a Brazilian prison gang.  (Langewiesche previously on this blog.)
  • The Judybats are more thoroughly forgotten than they should be.  Frontman Jeff Heiskell, a decade after the last Judybats release (and fifteen years after the last Judybats release anyone heard)  sounds bitter about it.  If you like the fact that Heiskell says, in this interview, “My rectum draws up tight like a little antique button,” you will probably like their records.  Here’s the video for “Native Son.”  Look at these beautiful 1990s mid-South college town hepcats!
  • Yellow Ostrich was a band from Appleton and now is a band from Brooklyn like everyone else.  They put on a great show at the Gates of Heaven synagogue last spring, right before the move east.  Here’s the simple and compelling “Whale”:
  • People like to complain that today’s parents are too fond of giving kids names with novelty spellings.  But have you met a kid named Gregg lately?
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Non-ridiculous things that sound ridiculous

New York Magazine this week features a dopey listicle, “The Ten Most Ridiculous-Sounding Math Classes Currently Offered at Liberal-Arts Colleges.” Many are not math courses at all, but literature courses studying the use and depiction of mathematics in novels and plays.  I approve.  Others are perfectly reasonable math courses, whose only sin seems to be that the course-catalog writer tried to make the class sound reasonably accessible:  “In particular, we will ask such questions as: How do you model the growth of a population of animals? How can you model the growth of a tree? How do sunflowers and seashells grow?”

This prompted Nathan Collins to tell me this great story (Gerald B. Folland, American Mathematical Monthly, Oct. 1998, page 780)

On April 9, 1975, Congressman Robert Michel brandished a
list of new NSF grants on the floor of the House of
Representatives and selected a few that he thought might
represent a waste of the taxpayers’ money. One of them
(on which I happened to be one of the investigators) was
called “Studies in Complex Analysis.” Michel’s comment
was, ” ‘Simple Analysis’ would, hopefully, be cheaper.” I
shudder to think of what might happen if certain members
of the current Congress discover that the NSF is supporting
research on perverse sheaves.”

It’s also reminiscent of the high placing of math books in the annual Oddest Book Title competition.  In my opinion, Kowalski was robbed.

Sara Marcus and Danica McKellar

My friend Sara Marcus — whose definitive history of riot grrrl is now available for purchase! —  interviews Wonder Years-star-turned-math-popularizer Danica McKellar in Salon.  Good stuff.  Basic question:  if you sell math to junior-high-school girls by emphasizing the compatibility of math and shopping, are you mostly tearing down the stereotype that girls don’t like math, or are you mostly reinforcing the stereotype that girls like shopping?

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March math link dump

  • If blood found at a crime scene contains a series of genetic markers found in about 1 in a million people, and if you search a database of genetic material from 300,000 people and find just one match, person X, for the blood at the scene, what is the probability that person X is innocent of the crime?  If you said “1 in a million” you might be a prosecutor.  If you said “1 in a million, and I’m barring any expert testimony that says otherwise” you might be a judge.
  • Good article in the New York Times about the challenge of teaching teachers to teach.  Deborah Ball of Michigan talks about what math teachers need:
  • Working with Hyman Bass, a mathematician at the University of Michigan, Ball began to theorize that while teaching math obviously required subject knowledge, the knowledge seemed to be something distinct from what she had learned in math class. It’s one thing to know that 307 minus 168 equals 139; it is another thing to be able understand why a third grader might think that 261 is the right answer. Mathematicians need to understand a problem only for themselves; math teachers need both to know the math and to know how 30 different minds might understand (or misunderstand) it. Then they need to take each mind from not getting it to mastery. And they need to do this in 45 minutes or less. This was neither pure content knowledge nor what educators call pedagogical knowledge, a set of facts independent of subject matter, like Lemov’s techniques. It was a different animal altogether. Ball named it Mathematical Knowledge for Teaching, or M.K.T. She theorized that it included everything from the “common” math understood by most adults to math that only teachers need to know, like which visual tools to use to represent fractions (sticks? blocks? a picture of a pizza?) or a sense of the everyday errors students tend to make when they start learning about negative numbers. At the heart of M.K.T., she thought, was an ability to step outside of your own head. “Teaching depends on what other people think,” Ball told me, “not what you think.”

    The idea that just knowing math was not enough to teach it seemed legitimate, but Ball wanted to test her theory. Working with Hill, the Harvard professor, and another colleague, she developed a multiple-choice test for teachers. The test included questions about common math, like whether zero is odd or even (it’s even), as well as questions evaluating the part of M.K.T. that is special to teachers. Hill then cross-referenced teachers’ results with their students’ test scores. The results were impressive: students whose teacher got an above-average M.K.T. score learned about three more weeks of material over the course of a year than those whose teacher had an average score, a boost equivalent to that of coming from a middle-class family rather than a working-class one. The finding is especially powerful given how few properties of teachers can be shown to directly affect student learning. Looking at data from New York City teachers in 2006 and 2007, a team of economists found many factors that did not predict whether their students learned successfully. One of two that were more promising: the teacher’s score on the M.K.T. test, which they took as part of a survey compiled for the study. (Another, slightly less powerful factor was the selectivity of the college a teacher attended as an undergraduate.)

    Ball also administered a similar test to a group of mathematicians, 60 percent of whom bombed on the same few key questions.

  • Thurston teams up with the House of Miyake for a Paris runway show loosely based on the fundamental 3-manifold geometries.  Thurston talks fashion:
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Compressed sensing in Wired

My new Wired piece, about compressed sensing, is now online. For a more technical but still gentle introduction to the subject, see Terry’s blog post.

Update: Igor at Nuit Blanche has a great post clarifying what kind of imaging problems are, and aren’t, currently susceptible to CS methods.

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The Chess Master and the Computer

Garry Kasparov has a thoughtful and educational piece in the New York Review of Books about his transition from best chess player in the world to best human chess player in the world, and what computers mean for the future of chess.  (Spoiler:  Kasparov thinks chess does have a future.)  Mentioned in passing is Jonathan Schaeffer’s unbeatable checkers program, Chinook.  If you enjoy hopeless enterprises you can play against Chinook online.

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