Monday, April 27, 2009

NPR story on "Largest Prime Number"

   Yep, that's right, you can listen to it at .  
They are talking about the Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search, and they can't even say 
"2^n-1" out loud, but they can say 
The number is currently the world's largest prime. But there's always a larger one to find."

WOW!  This sounds like a huge contradiction even if the "world's largest prime" is different from "the largest prime".  Also, wouldn't it seem relevant to mention that no one has proven that there infinitely many Mersenne Primes?  

Still, the part about the Hope Diamond is kind of interesting -- Are Mersenne Primes mathematical diamonds?  What are your mathematical "diamonds"?

Compare with Look Around You -- Maths (the section about the longest number)

Monday, April 13, 2009

Math did not kill your 401K

So I sent this to the LA Times as an editorial, and they wouldn't publish it.
So here it is.

Some financial experts would have us believe that they were lured into ruin by a seductive model, a mathematical model. A recent Wired article blamed our economic crisis on economist David Li and his "fatally flawed function", with "all powerful" parameters, giving rise to an "irresistible" equation. Since when is equality a "dangerously precise concept" that leads financial experts to divorce themselves from reality?
The tendency to blame "quants" (quantitative analysts) is becoming more prevalent as people look for a convenient scapegoat. In a recent letter to his shareholders, Warren Buffet chided his audience for being taken in by “a nerdy-sounding priesthood, using esoteric terms such as beta, gamma, sigma and the like.” I hear from many people that math is Greek to them, but as Mr. Buffet demonstrates with his use of the word "esoteric", we use words with Greek origins every day. On a recent episode of the Bill Maher Show, Representative Maxine Waters (D-California) called for the jailing of "the schemers who have conspired by hiring these mathematicians and others to come up with these exotic products that rip people off and put them in homes that they could not afford ...". But who really put people in homes they could not afford?
A more balanced article from the New York Times, is entitled "They Tried to Outsmart Wall Street", where "they" refers to quants. This article makes the point that quants' warnings concerning the use of a particular model are often ignored if following their advice reduces their company's profits. So perhaps a solution is to create think-tanks of financial mathematicians who produce work that is refereed as it is in academia. Then any flaws would be more quickly exposed, and more freely acknowledged. Companies could subscribe to the think-tank's entire body of work and use it in whatever manner they wanted without having mathematicians on permanent staff. Much like the Material Safety Data Sheets that Chemists produce, this literature would include clear directions for proper use, so that companies who misuse the models produced by mathematicians could be held accountable.
In any case, the demonizing of mathematical models is not productive. Instead, better understanding of the nature of mathematical models is needed. Just as the directions on a cleaning product often read "test on an inconspicuous spot" before using universally, mathematical models should be "spot-tested" on particular situations before they are used more extensively. Of course, all of us have failed to read or ignored the directions on a product before. But we have also begrudgingly accepted that any less-than-stellar consequences are our fault. Models, like any tool, are only as good as their user is skillful. Why is it so much harder to "read the directions" for mathematical tools? When holding a physical tool, the intent of the creator is just easier to see. But the more abstract the tool, the more education is necessary to properly use it, which is why financial managers are usually paid more than quants. So let's not blame the guy who designed the vacuum cleaner when some guy tries to use it to mow the lawn.

Quotes taken from:

Recipe for Disaster: The Formula That Killed Wall Street
Wired Magazine, February 23, 2009
Felix Salmon

In Letter Warren Buffet Concedes a Tough Year
The New York TImes, February 28th, 2009
David Segal

Bill Maher Show
Panel Discussion (with Maxine Waters and others)

SPEAK UP against misomathy!

    So you're at a social event, and someone tries to make small talk:
"So what do you do?" they ask politely.
"Oh, I'm a student." I'm avoiding the inevitable.
"And what do you study?"  
And here comes the internal struggle--  do I say "mathematics" or "topology"?
This is like a choose-your-own-adventure book.  You choose now. 

 I.       "Oh, I study topology."
 Long silence,  and then "Oh, yeah, maps are really cool."
"Actually, that's topography, which sound very similar and comes from the same root word, but topology is a branch of mathematics.  And ironically, we have our own meaning for the word "map"-- it's just not what you might expect."
Bewildered look... then reluctant "Oh, what type of math is topology?"
So now, I have to explain what it is as quickly as possible, and the person really doesn't care.  Their eyes glaze over, and I get the sense that they are looking for a reason to end the conversation so I try to be brief.
 "Well, it's the study of spatial relationships that don't depend on measuring."
 "Huh, well, somebody's gotta be good at math, but it isn't me.  That stuff is just BEEEEEEYAWWWWWND me.  You must be, like, a, genius, or something. 
 I've just always sucked at math."

II.  "Oh, I study math.  Specifically..."
Quickly interrupts: "Oh, I h@te math."

 Now, I have developed several ways of coping with this situation:

 I. In response to "What do you study?"
 "Oh, I am SO LUCKY -- I just think all day.  I can work while I'm walking or in a coffee shop, and the things I think about are so beautiful.  I study mathematics. What do you do?"  Enthusiasm abounding in my tone.

Or, if I'm feeling sinister/nasty:
II. In response to "I h@te math." or "I always sucked at math."
"Oh, I see.  What do you do?"
"I'm a musician, and..."  
 cutting them off "Oh, I HATE music." or "I always sucked at music, it's just BEEYAWWWND me!"

In the above spirit, I am now going to keep track of how many hits there are for "I h@te math"
on google (with a lower case "a"-- I don't want to contribute to my own count).  Okay, so that's
93,000 hits, and since I wouldn't want to discriminate against british english speakers, let's google "I hAte maths" -- 23,000 hits.  Now, try your favorite "I hate _________".

CHALLENGE:  Find something that a greater number of people hate than the number of people who hate math!  Hint: the following won't come very close:  "racists", "english", "science", "homos", "arabs", "jews", "stupid people"....

Yep, I'm not kidding!  

There are mathophobe "support groups", there are lists of professions not involving "any" math, there are books that happily advertise that they are for math haters.

And now that I think about it, mathophobia is not really the right word.  It's more like 
misomathy (ala misogyny), with "miso" coming for the greek meaning "hate".  

So here is my pledge to fight misomathy and encourage philomathy (even though it's hard to pronounce)!  Enough already!  We should not live in a world where people are proud of their ignorance.

Next time someone says "I h@te math", just say "Don't be a hater!"  They may laugh, and they may recall the conversation later....