Archive for the ‘mathematics’ Category

Calendrical Hegemony

September 21, 2017

It’s another new year somewhere, this time in the hearts and minds of Jewish people. As Jews are wont to do, I am debating and questioning what Judaism even means.  To me, this day in age, in this economy.

According to 23andMe, I am comprised of even more Ashkenazi DNA than either of my parents, somewhere between 98.3% and 99.5%.  So I’m of a heritage that has been oppressed and the oppressor, in old and in new days.  I delight and recoil from various traditions, sometimes at the same one, and seek a place for myself that reconciles my heritage with the brand of anti-racist, pro-indigenous, feminist, decolonial thought that I’m trying to cultivate within myself and in my family.

So I like that I don’t have to count time from when Jesus may have been born, but when my imperfect mind still chooses first to proffer Homer or Virgil or Maimonides or Dante or Milton or Dostoevsky or Primo Levi, you can see that I could do better.

A convenient dehegemonization of Anno Domini is to add 10,000 years and enter the Human Era when we claim to have found adults who probably could hack it in today’s civilizations if they were transplants here.  But this isn’t “true” and correlates with narrow adoption.

We could count from when humans first left the planet to touch other soil, in which case we’d now be in the 49th year After Tranquility.  But the full proposal to honor 14 white men (and an Egyptian that white people think was white?) centered on extraterrestrial colonization and terrestrial war mongering could also do better.  Much better.

My people have counted from their creation story’s beginning.  Which is kind of like trying to piece together what happened after a long night of drinking where only parts of the evening–transpired in crystal clarity–are strung together by less-aimed walks and tumbles of lesser-known duration.  Surely in hindsight we can assign meaning to the ambling, and guesses to the meaning, and then more meaning to the guesses, but we can’t forget what estimation techniques were used and how to correctly propagate errors.  To be frank, my college physics lab teachers _could_ probably be more proud but I’ll invoke them here nonetheless.

So we may be off by 1700 years.  Or by 4.5 billion years. Or 4.6.  Or 13.8 billion why not.

There’s so much more to be mad about, and–on this day–so much more to be doing, but I’ll just catalog this first day of this new year through my own kind of gematria, albeit based a bit more in number theory and trivia.

More importantly, this anno mundi year is a year where I can do better, and I hope I can.

Shana Tova.  Anyada Buena, Dulse i Alegre.  Gut Yontif un Gut Yor.



Enumerating MATLAB Command Iterations

June 10, 2016

I wasn’t trying to come up with the most boring sounding title for a post, but I just couldn’t stray from the descriptivist banality of what is about to unfold.  Well, banal only to some.  Clearly not to me or Nick Higham, whose interest in mathematical peculiarities extends beyond the numerical and functional to the editorial as well.

In a recent post, he raises a curious point that certain MATLAB commands can be applied to themselves.  This is curious because the functions may or may not accept numerical or string inputs, but MATLAB’s weak-typing allows us to interpret the string input as whatever is required, in some circumstances.

For example,

>> diff diff

returns the differences between subsequent array elements, and returns

ans =
    5    -3    0

by interpreting the input as the ASCII numeric value of the string input.

Most of the trickery is of this flavor, casting string input as a numeric array and then going on our merry way.  What’s cutest is Nick Higham’s line of thinking: what about triple (and naturally, more) invocations of these functions?  How many are valid?  How many are interesting?

MATLAB has helped us pose the question and it is perfectly equipped to answer it.  With 20 lines of code to recurse the folder tree of the default MATLAB path and 10 more to run the commands we’re interested in, I have found some interesting results.  Mind you, I’m stuck in the past (2012b) so your mileage may vary.

gtext gtext

is surely the first most interesting thing, since it’s the first double-invocation that requires user interaction.  Yes, there are plenty of dialog boxes and figures opened before this while-looping through all double-invocations alphabetically, but this is the first worth mentioning.  A click in the figure let’s us continue.

input input

is the next one that stops us in our tracks, but we can’t actually interact with the console until we close a GUI Options dialog that’s been opened by the following.

guideopts guideopts

Close that window, enter our ‘input’ into input and we’re back on our way…after we click through the our first required dialog box.

inputdlg inputdlg

The next group is interesting because they stop us at breakpoints–quite unexpected surprises in that regard!

javaaddpath javaaddpath
javaclasspath javaclasspath
javarmpath javarmpath
publish publish


pack pack
questdlg questdlg
tsnewevent tsnewevent
uigetdir uigetdir
uigetfile uigetfile
uiopen uiopen
uiputfile uiputfile
uisetcolor uisetcolor
uisetfont uisetfont

required a click somewhere, and then we’re home free until we start over again looking at triple-invocations and more break points in

dbstop dbstop dbstop
inputdlg inputdlg inputdlg

and the Java path tools.  My favorite is coming up, which will continue to work for all number of invocations:

menu menu menu

from which we have to select a valid menu item from the “menu” menu, which in this case will be ‘menu’.

A question dialog will get us yet again, and forever it seems, as will tsnewevent and the ui functions along with some others that only work with an even number of inputs.  But, after closing enough dialog boxes and continuing through enough break points, at 10 invocations we’ve converged a bit on behavior and can look at some population results.

First, there are some funny ones based on their console output that should be included as honorable mentions:


But what we really want to look at is how many functions can be called how many times.  And also, how many functions have their maximum-allowable amount of invocations at any given count. 


So what are these cool functions that have a finite limit to their valid invocation count and aren’t already talked about here?  Highlights are:

cov cov cov
dot dot dot
kron kron kron
(l|ml|mr|r)divide (l|ml|mr|r)ldivide(l|ml|mr|r)ldivide
union union union
sparse sparse sparse sparse
spline spline spline spline
pde pde pde pde pde
polyval polyval polyval polyval polyval

and the rest appear to be arg checking, dialog boxes, and those that you can keep invoking forever.  I’m sure there are others in the list that I haven’t identified as interesting, so you should look at the list here and try running the code yourself in some later version of MATLAB.

OH!  I almost forgot to include the list of dangerous functions.  These either combinatorially exploded, corrupted the MATLAB path, or even caused a segfault in later function execution!


Well, there you have it.  An non-exhaustive description of an exhaustive enumeration of MATLAB functions and their various methods of self-invoking.  Thanks, Nick Higham, for the inspiration!

Losing Weight with … Graph Algorithms!?

June 16, 2014



Problem Statement

Between the Septembers of 2009 and 2010 I participated in an incentivised diet and exercise plan. My college roommate and I had both gained weight since college, and bet each other $20 every two weeks that the slope of our weight loss trajectory would be more negative than the other’s. We came out even, and each lost 30lbs.

Since then, I’ve kept the weight off, but not without the same kind of tracking that helped me get there. I now use the Withings Smart Body Analyzer to upload my weight readings to the cloud and track my trends.

This didn’t exist for me in 2009, though, and I was taking down all my weigh-ins manually. I lost some of this data, and recently found their only relic: a JPG with the data plotted with appropriate axes.

How could I programmatically extract the data from the picture, to recreate the raw data they represented, so I could upload it to my new, snazzy Withings profile?

Just like last time we surprisingly (or not?) get to use dmperm!

Load the file

I made the picture public back then to gloat about my progress.

I = imread('');
image(I); axis equal tight


image(I); axis equal tight, xlim([80,180]); ylim([80,180]);


Prepare the image

We can split out the different color channels and create a sz variable for later …

R = I(:,:,1); G = I(:,:,2); B = I(:,:,3); sz = size(R);

… as well as crop out the axes …

R(571:end,:) = 255; R(:,1:100) = 255;
G(571:end,:) = 255; G(:,1:100) = 255;
B(571:end,:) = 255; B(:,1:100) = 255;

… and check out a kind of grayscale version of the image:

D = sqrt(double(R).^2 + double(G).^2 + double(B).^2);
imagesc(D); axis equal tight; colorbar; colormap bone;


imagesc(D); axis equal tight, xlim([80,180]); ylim([80,180])


Detect the blobs

You can do blob detection on your own in MATLAB in a cinch / pinch. We first make a Gaussian kernel, and convolve it with our image to find help localize information packets that are about the size of our kernel:

k = @(x,y,t) 1 / (2*pi*t^2) * exp(- (x.^2+y.^2) / (2*t^2) );
[x,y] = meshgrid(-8:8,-8:8);
L = conv2(D,k(x,y,1),'same');
imagesc(L); axis equal tight; colorbar


imagesc(L); axis equal tight, xlim([80,180]); ylim([80,180]);

weight_06Then we take the laplacian, the sum of the second derivatives in both dimenions which helps us find the edges of these blobs. This assigns the appropriate sign to the data that is close in shape to our kernel. We do some mild trickery to keep the image the same size as the original:

zh = zeros(1,sz(2));
zv = zeros(sz(1),1);
L2 = [zh ; diff(L,2,1) ; zh] + [zv diff(L,2,2) zv];
imagesc(L2); axis equal tight; colorbar


imagesc(L2); axis equal tight, xlim([80,180]); ylim([80,180]);


Adjacency matrices?

So we have “detected” our blobs, but we still need to find out where they are in the image. We do this by thresholding our laplacian data to find out the index locations in our matrix of every pixel that matters to us. We can then build an adjacency matrix. All of the pixels we care about are “connected” to themselves in this matrix. We also can take a look at all of the pixels above, below, to the left, and to the right of our pixels of interest to see if they are thresholded out of our interest or not. We make the matrix, A, sparse because it is HUGE and we know that many of it’s entries will be zero. Why store almost half a trillion zeros?!

T = L2 > 35;
spsz = [numel(T),numel(T)];
A = logical(sparse(spsz(1),spsz(2)));

idx = find(T);
[r,c] = ind2sub(sz,idx);

A(sub2ind(spsz,idx,idx)) = 1;
A(sub2ind(spsz,idx,sub2ind(sz,r+1,c))) = T(sub2ind(sz,r+1,c));
A(sub2ind(spsz,idx,sub2ind(sz,r-1,c))) = T(sub2ind(sz,r-1,c));
A(sub2ind(spsz,idx,sub2ind(sz,r,c+1))) = T(sub2ind(sz,r,c+1));
A(sub2ind(spsz,idx,sub2ind(sz,r,c-1))) = T(sub2ind(sz,r,c-1));

Learn about the blobs

DMPERM to the rescue–we’ve made an adjacency matrix where the connected components are the blobs we care about! When we run it, we can look at each connected component, find the pixels that belong to, and average their locations. You can see each connected component and the “location” we’ve assigned each one. It’s not perfect, but it’s really close:

C = zeros(size(T));
[p,q,r,s] = dmperm(A);
n = numel(r)-1;
px = nan(n-2,1);
py = nan(n-2,1);
for> G=2:n-1
    idx = p(r(G):r(G+1)-1);
    [rows,cols] = ind2sub(sz,idx);
    py(G-1) = mean(rows);
    px(G-1) = mean(cols);
    C(idx) = .25;
C(sub2ind(sz,round(py),round(px))) = 1;
imagesc(C); axis equal tight; colorbar


imagesc(C); axis equal tight, xlim([80,180]); ylim([80,180]);


Extract the real data

With all of that work done, we can prescribe how the pixel locations relate to weights and dates, and actually collect the real data from the image:

weights = interp1(30.5:67:566.5,225:-5:185,py);
dates = interp1([112,1097],[datenum('9-8-2009'),datenum('12-1-2010')],px);

dateStrs = datestr(dates,'yyyy-mm-dd HH:MM:SS');

f = fopen('weight.csv','w');
fprintf(f,'Date, Weight\n');
D = 1:numel(weights)
    fprintf(f,'%s, %f\n',dateStrs(D,:),weights(D));

plot(dates,weights,'.','MarkerSize',10), datetick


All in all, this is a pretty gross way to get at the underlying data, but it was fun to try and to get it working. What have you used DMPERM for recently? What have you used MATLAB or Image Processing for recently?

Conference Scheduling with Graph Algorithms

May 6, 2014


Problem Statement

The Harvey Mudd Clinic Program has been a model for programs like it across the globe. In it, student teams are connected with corporate sponsors to define, design, and provide solutions to real world engineering problems.

Projects Day, at the end of every academic year, is when these teams and all of the corporate sponsors and friends of the HMC Community get together to celebrate Clinic and hear talks about each of the projects from that year.

Like most conferences, there is too much to see. Thankfully, each team gives their talk three times in the afternoon. The question is, how can we figure out when to go to which talk?

Preliminary Design

MATLAB can help us here. Let’s pick the 6 talks we want to go see:

  • 1:30, 2:00, & 4:00 – eSolar
  • 1:30, 2:30, & 3:30 – City of Hope
  • 2:00, 3:30, & 4:00 – HMC Online
  • 1:30, 2:00, & 4:30 – Lawrence Berkeley National Labs
  • 2:00, 2:30, & 4:00 – Walt Disney
  • 2:30, 3:00, & 4:00 – Sandia National Labs

We can make a matrix with topics as rows, times as columns, and ones where a talk is actually given at that time:

%	1:30	2:00	2:30	3:30	4:00	4:30
A = [ ...
	1	1	0	0	1	0 ; ... eSolar
	1	0	1	1	0	0 ; ... City of Hope
	0	1	0	1	1	0 ; ... HMC Online
	1	1	0	0	0	1 ; ... Lawrence Berkeley National Labs
	0	1	1	0	1	0 ; ... Walt Disney Animation Studios
	0	0	1	1	1	0]; ... Sandia National Labs

Now we know when we can go to all of the talks we want to go to. What we want, though, is to transform A into a matrix B that only has one entry in each row and column. This would be our selection. How can we do this in a way guaranteed to maximize the amount of talks we can attend while arbitrating conflicts?

Bipartite Graphs

Here, the matrices A and B that we are talking about are adjacency matrices: matrices that represent which elements of the two sets (rows and columns) are adjacent to one another (connected) in a graph. Because are rows and columns are distinct sets (in our case topics and times) the graphs we can describe are bipartite graphs: a graph on two sets where edges only connect one set to another. That is, there are no edges between topics and no edges between times. There are only edges connecting a topic to a time.

A is a bipartite graph of all of the talks that exist in the set of talks that we want to go see. B will be a subgraph of that, which connects at most each topic to one and only one time. It may be the case that there is an unresolveable conflict, in which case we will only be able to go to, say, 4 or 5 of the 6 talks we want to go to. hopeful that won’t happen.

The Dulmage-Mendelsohn Decomposition

There are many algorithms out there that feel like they are magic, and this is one of them.

The Dulmage-Mendelsohn Decomposition (or permutation) is briefly documented in MATLAB’s dmperm, and more thoroughly described (and defined) in the 1958 classic “Coverings of Bipartite Graphs” by A. L. Dulmage and N. S. Mendelsohn.

I love the details and genius in the paper, which can be a little exhausting, but the idea is that all bipartite graphs, full of edges or only with very few edges, may be made of strongly connected, connected, and/or disconnected components with respect to one of the sets. We should be able to traverse the graph in a particular way to determine which edges are in which category, and then to label them in some way for further analysis. dmperm does just that:

[p,q] = dmperm(A)

p =

     4     1     3     2     6     5

q =

     6     1     2     3     4     5

Here, p and q tell use how to reorder the rows and columns to give us, visually, the block structure of these components. In our case, we have a single, well-determined component (the other outputs of dmperm tell us this). Further, that component gets organized into the strongly connected components.

Looking at the permuted matrix:


ans =

     1     1     1     0     0     0
     0     1     1     0     0     1
     0     0     1     0     1     1
     0     1     0     1     1     0
     0     0     0     1     1     1
     0     0     1     1     0     1

we see the block upper-triangular form that A has been put into. In this case, however, we only have two blocks of sizes 1×1 and 5×5 along the diagonals. Most notably for our application, we see that there are ones in every diagonal element. This means that we can go to every talk we wanted! Can you see why?

Making our Schedule

Let’s prepare our B matrix by filling it with zeros. If we then index into B using our permutation vectors from dmperm, we can tell the permutation of B to be the 6×6 identity matrix (one and only one topic per time for all times). In B, then, will be in the inverse permutation of the 6×6 identity matrix, telling us with respect to our original talk and time ordering when we should be where!

B = zeros(6);
B(p,q) = eye(6)

B =

     1     0     0     0     0     0
     0     0     1     0     0     0
     0     1     0     0     0     0
     0     0     0     0     0     1
     0     0     0     0     1     0
     0     0     0     1     0     0

Another way to think about the permutations of rows and columns is just to look at the sets of graph

topics = {'eSolar';'City of Hope';'HMC Online';'LBNL';'Disney';'SNL'};
times = {'1:30';'2:00';'2:30';'3:30';'4:00';'4:30'};
sortrows([times(q) topics(p)])

ans = 

    '1:30'    'eSolar'
    '2:00'    'HMC Online'
    '2:30'    'City of Hope'
    '3:30'    'SNL'
    '4:00'    'Disney'
    '4:30'    'LBNL'        

to get our schedule. Can you see how this matches up with our matrix B?


Enter the Rosser matrix

January 8, 2014

I love matrices. They can encode love affairs, process images — heck, things like representation theory let us use matrices for practically anything.

Rosser Matrix

I also watch Cleve Moler‘s MathWorks blog, Cleve’s Corner, like a hawk. So when he recently posted about the Rosser Matrix I was left disappointed by what he didn’t talk about. The matrix itself is interesting because of its place in eigenvalue history. Eigenvalue: the word is just awesome. If it’s not comfortable for you, just think of the eigenvalues of a matrix like they are your…values. When you go out in the world, you make an impact and push things in the direction of the values you believe in, and certain values are more important to you than others. Matrices do the same thing with the (eigen)values they espouse.

So it’d be great if we could compute the eigenvalues of a matrix: they tell us a lot (or at least something) about who they are. These days, this is straightforward, there are many (even free) computational tools to do it. Back in the day, however, eigenvalues were a difficult thing to find, and some were harder than others. For example, eigenvalues that are really close to one another are hard to pin down precisely, and when an eigenvalue is repeated (that’s a thing) we’d like to find every copy of it.

So, back to Rosser. He makes this test matrix in 1950 that’s got a lot of good stuff in there that they could compute exactly:

  • A double eigenvalue.
  • Three nearly equal eigenvalues.
  • Dominant eigenvalue of opposite sign.
  • A zero eigenvalue.
  • A small, nonzero eigenvalue.

Then they could benchmark proposed eigenvalue-finding-algorithms (which would run for days on behemoth computers) against how close they were to the actual eigenvalues.

I love this steampunk mathematics, but the juiciest parts seemed to be left out of Cleve’s post: what algorithms were they actually using back then and (more importantly) how does one make a test matrix? It appeared that it wasn’t just Cleve leaving out the good stuff either, MATLAB itself doesn’t tell us anything interesting about how to make the Rosser matrix:

%   Copyright 1984-2005 The MathWorks, Inc.
%   $Revision: $  $Date: 2005/11/18 14:15:39 $

R  = [ 611.  196. -192.  407.   -8.  -52.  -49.   29.
       196.  899.  113. -192.  -71.  -43.   -8.  -44.
      -192.  113.  899.  196.   61.   49.    8.   52.
       407. -192.  196.  611.    8.   44.   59.  -23.
        -8.  -71.   61.    8.  411. -599.  208.  208.
       -52.  -43.   49.   44. -599.  411.  208.  208.
       -49.   -8.    8.   59.  208.  208.   99. -911.
        29.  -44.   52.  -23.  208.  208. -911.   99.];

After more slightly digging than expected, I found Rosser’s original paper on the subject (and an incredible bible of math I hadn’t heard of before). The first thing I noticed was that there were many other people involved than just Rosser, none of which were slouches: Lanczos has eponymous algorithms, Hestenes with him crushed some linear systems, and Karush killed it at nonlinear programming. Another name I saw which deserves mention here is in the footnote below:

Miss Fannie M. Gordon, numerical analyis

There’s isn’t much on the internet about Miss Gordon, but it appears she was working at INA along with Lanczos. In his paper on “his” algorithm (not yet named as such) to which the Rosser matrix paper is a direct follow-on, another footnote talks about her in much more grateful detail:

Indebted to Miss Gordon

While she didn’t go down in the record books like Lanczos and friends, it’s great to see that her work behind the scenes was appreciated and talked about, a part of mathematical history we don’t talk about now as much as we should. For another peak into this corner of the mathematical world, check out the list of all of the NBS/NIST staff members mentioned in A Century of Excellence in Measurements, Standards, and Technology: A Chronicle of Selected NBS/NIST Publications, 1901-2000 [Text, Google Books].

With all this information at my fingertips, I could get a much clearer picture of how to get your hands dirty and find an eigenvalue. It’s only in another appendix, however, that Rosser tells us how to make actually make a test matrix, the key ingredient that was used to benchmark algorithms across decades of computational and mathematical advancement. There, on the bottom of page 293, are the 64 entries of the matrix (color coded in the image above), just as they are in rosser.m:

The original Rosser matrix

I had to see how it actually worked, so in the paste below you’ll find a MATLAB Rosser recipe, the way sausage is actually made (you can skip the code for a visual explanation):

%   Created by David A. Gross. Inspired by [1].
%   Construction from [2,3].
%   [1] ...
%   the-rosser-matrix/, accessed on 2014/01/07
%   [2] Rosser, J.B.; Lanczos, C.; Hestenes, M.R.; Karush, W.
%   Separation of close eigenvalues of a real symmetric matrix
%   (1951), J. Res. Natl. Bur. Stand., Vol. 47, No. 4, p. 291,
%   Appendix 1,,
%   accessed on 2014/01/07
%   [3] T. Muir, History of Determinants III, 289 (Macmillan
%   and Co., Ltd., London, 1920), ...
%   ~al/Classiques/Muir/History_3/, accessed on 2014/01/07

% make our eigenvalues in 2x2 matrices
M1 = [102  1 ;  1 -102]; % lambda = ± sqrt(102^2 + 1)
M2 = [101  1 ;  1  101]; % lambda = 101 ± 1
M3 = [  1 10 ; 10  101]; % lambda = 51 ± sqrt(51^2-1)
M4 = [ 98 14 ; 14    2]; % lambda = 100, 0

B = zeros(8);

% explode M[1...4] into an 8x8 matrix
B([1,6],[1,6]) = M1;
B([2,8],[2,8]) = M2;
B([4,5],[4,5]) = M3;
B([3,7],[3,7]) = M4;

sylvester88_A = @(a,b,c,d) [ ...
    a  b  c  d ; ...
    b -a -d  c ; ...
    c  d -a -b ; ...
    d -c  b -a ];

sylvester44 = @(a,b,c,d) [ ...
    a  b  c  d ; ...
    b -a  d -c ; ...
    c -d -a  b ; ...
    d  c -b -a ];

% make Sylvester's "penorthogonant" of determinant 10^8
P = blkdiag(sylvester88_A(2,1,1,2),sylvester44(1,-1,-2,2));

% P'*P = 10I
R = P'*B*P;

It’s quite cool, actually. Four 2×2 symmetric matrices are constructed to have the desired eigenvalues, and those matrices are exploded into an 8×8 sparse matrix (sparse in that it’s all zeros where there aren’t any dots):

How the sausage matrix gets made

Lastly, a special matrix (magenta & yellow, above) is smashed on either side of our sparse matrix and BAM!–you’ve got yourself a full test matrix with the eigenvalues you wanted.

There’s a lot of this that’s wonderfully clear and clever, in hindsight: how Rosser forced and hand-calculated the eigenvalues he wanted, how he kept the matrix symmetric. But there are many things that were left up to Rosser to decide, almost artistically, about how the matrix should be made. The special smashing matrix, for example, actually scales up the eigenvalues of the original four matrices by a constant factor. A guy named Sylvester said that it was easy to make it scale up by powers of 2, but that if you were careful you could make a matrix that scales up by any number you want. Rosser had to cleverly find the integer entries of that special matrix that would give him a scale that meaningfully preserved the original eigenvalues he picked (for usability and clarity) and he chose to scale them up by 10.

Another artistic choice Rosser made was how to explode the original matrices into the sparse 8×8 matrix. What I mean is all of the following matrix explosions:

Matrix explosions

(and 2,511 other possibilities) have the same eigenvalues, but would make completely different full matrices after being smashed. Computational eigenvalue history would have looked very–well, slightly–different had Rosser picked any of these as the base for his test matrix. Maybe there’s something deeper to uncover here about his choices, but I’d like to think that Rosser loved matrices as much as I do, and that’s just one that he liked more than the rest.

If you don’t love matrices now, that’s ok. What originally started as a small coding exercise turned into a much deeper and richer look at the history of computational linear algebra (matrix algorithm stuff). I hope that some of you take the code and have fun making matrices that match up with your own values, and that others learned a little about how math was done almost 65 years ago.

math is fun, not gross

April 21, 2013

I’m finishing my evening, reflecting on my math brains.  This morning I took the GRE Subject test in Mathematics [PDF] (on the chance that I want to apply to any post-graduate programs in the next 5 years), and I prepared by taking one Math GRE a day for the last week.  What I found was that everyone must think that math is boring and gross.  I believe that this couldn’t be farther from the truth.  This is probably more a comment on standardized tests, but out of all of the disciplines, I would hope that the mathematicians could make word problems interesting.

I am probably not allowed to comment on what was and wasn’t on today’s exam, but I can say that it was practically the same material as the practice exams I took: there were people in committees, students waiting in line for lunch, dice being cast (although of the two problems, at least one involved a dodecahedron), coins being flipped–there was a differential equation, but none of the group theory questions had any context, and definitely not the set theory or topology.  Linear algebra and complex analysis were context free as well, and even the geometric questions were as bland as “here is an object, apply divergence theorem” or “here is a circle, compute some chords”.

During the week that I was studying / practicing / drilling / training* I accumulated the following (amazing) sample of material in my feedly, which is wholly opposite that material I was working on: These are engaging, interesting, and intellectually challenging accounts instead of numbing drills:

What a roundup!  What if the material generated _just_this_week_ was the kind of stuff that the GRE tested people on?  What if we could ask people how to think _creatively_ about _new_ problems?  Write programs instead of deciphering them?  How many times will students be asked to identify the programmatic output of a Collatz Sequence or Euclid’s Algorithm?  Obviously, it’s hard to standardize good problems, but we’ve had over 150 years of Residue Calculus–can’t someone come up with a complex function with poles that means something?

Anyway, I’m not really ranting.  I thoroughly enjoyed brushing up on my math.  Wronskian?  Adjugate?  L’Hôpital’s Rule (to the max)?  These are things I don’t use in my day job.  Lie groups and matrix invertibility, FFTs and signal processing, and, every once in a while, some Fundamental Theorem (of Algebra, Invertible Matrices, Calculus, &c), but not much, and not in very wide company.  But diving into the tips and tricks was actually a joy for me–and that’s because of where I come from.  My personal (Math Nerd**) and educational (Math Mudder) backgrounds get me excited about what are, truly, “Math Tips and Tricks”.  But wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t test our future mathematicians on those, but instead on exciting, engaging material?  What if people learned something from standardized tests, and what they learned was that they _want_ to answer hard problems with interesting techniques?  I know that should be happening in the classroom (in person), but why can’t we manage to make it happen on paper, too?  Don’t mind the rhetoric too much, and let me know if I’m way off base here.  I hope, in either case, that either the Tips and Trick become interesting on their own to everyone, or we all work very hard to make questions about thinking, and not about Tips and Tricks.

* I was actually doing these tests on my train commute to work, half on the way there and half on the way home.  Happily, everyone was very considerate and didn’t bother me with book, paper, pencils, and countdown timer spread across the tables.  Sadly, no one engaged me about what I was doing so I couldn’t teach any lay-residue theory or integration by parts.

** This is the book I did an independent study with in High School to continued my jump-started career in math (kicked off in earnest by Mr. Sisley’s introduction to Spivak and Mr. Robinson’s introduction to Chaos and Dynamical Systems in 11th and 12th grades, respectively).

ideal vs. real – wikipedia weighs in on pants

March 17, 2013

I’ve been reading up on this month’s announcement that the 3-body problem has 13 more solutions, and came across a wonderful little nugget of a wikipedia disambiguation:

Pair of pants

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

This article is about an object in hyperbolic geometry. For the article of clothing, see trousers.

It’s usually the case that disambiguations favor primary topics by usage but, in same strange twist of fate, the following image is described with the awesomely gross sentence:

Six pairs of pants sewn together to form an open surface of genus two with four boundary components.

So think about that next time you’re at the sewing machine, trying to patch your punctured spheres.

[Edit: “Trousers” is now the front page of the “Pair of pants” redirect, accessed April 2013]


[1] article: physicists-discover-a-whopping.html
[2] wiki/Pair_of_pants
[3] wiki/Wikipedia:Disambiguation#Is_there_a_primary_topic.3F
[4] wiki/File:Worldsheet.png
[5] wiki/Riemann_surface#Punctured_spheres

pi-kus for pi day

March 14, 2013

I’ve been looking around the twitter-spheroid and blago-blogs and finding that lots of people are writing “pi-ku”s today, a haiku about pi, in honor of pi day:

you go around once
and make an infinity,
of digits that is

But what is a pi-ku, really?  Is a “haiku about pi” the best we can do?  What about my wife’s suggestion (which she came across from Powell’s Bookstore) , where the syllables pay homage to pi’s most well known digits?  Here’s the formula:

— First line: 3 syllables
— Second line: 1 syllable
— Third line: 4 syllables

and used in a sentence poem:

i know, of
pi squared digits

But we can get grosser than that.  What about longer pi-ku sequences, traversing the decimal-dance of pi’s digits:

(3) from where does
(1) pi
(4) originate?

(1) is
(5) it an integral
(9) half (neg why dee ex plus ex dee why)?

(2) maybe
(6) riemann zeta at 2,
(5) times six, square root is

But I digress.  How can you contort pi into your poetry?  Leave your poems in the comments, and don’t forget to enjoy your favorite kind of pi to celebrate the sweetness and the arbitrary transcendental numbers that permeate  our limited understanding of the universe.  Today I enjoyed smitten kitchen’s apple pie cookies.  Smaller size, same great ratio of circumference to diameter.


[1] Powell’s Bookstore’s Facebook Conversation, Pi Day 2013
[2] my favorite approximations of pi, on github
[3] smitten kitchen’s apple pie cookies