Math Problems

The Myth Math: And other STEM Delusions by Andrew Hacker
2016 The New Press

“Is Algebra Necessary?” asked the headline of a New York Times op-ed written by Andrew Hacker, a political scientist. His negative reply produced a minor storm of angry comments and counterarguments from almost everybody. Now he’s back with the same arguments in book length.

Note that my late father had a M.Sc. in Mathematics, he was a college mathematics professor (teaching calculus, linear algebra and perhaps any remedial math classes the college offered), I did well enough in high school and college math and I am currently in university doing a Computer Science degree. So you expect me to join his many angry critics. Yet, I do not think I can.

There is a lot to agree with Hacker. The current American fad of requiring every high school student to take advanced math classes is a mistake, another pointless ‘fix’ that does not fix anything, but does break a lot of other things. The job market for STEM majors is far graver than typically pictured, thanks to (i) industries trying to drive down wages, (ii) wishful thinking and (iii) a job market for non-STEM majors that even more dire. His description of professional mathematicians working on the mathematics curriculum reminds me of professional writers giving grammar advice; just because a person can creating new theorems or short stories, does mean necessarily mean they are good at developing a curriculum or describing grammar. They have different skill sets, but the difference is often lost on the public and the professionals themselves.

Still, it feels like it goes too far. Couldn’t this all be resolved with some minor tracking? The school system I went to had too required streams of math starting in Grade 9, with an advanced and basic streams (there was also a talented and gifted program, and probably remedial classes as well). The advanced stream leads to the post-secondary sequences of calculus and linear algebra, while the basic stream was more like a ‘quantitative reasoning’ class that Hacker advocates. I believe there were options to ‘upgrade’ during the summer. Likewise, I think there should be similarly free adult education class for those who have already graduated high school. I think these ‘upgrading options’ should go a long way to ease concerns about the fairness of tracking.

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Books for December-January-February

It is a good thing that I do not keep new year resolution, or my semi-formal vague self-promise to keep this blog updated would long been missed. So instead, I will try to put some thoughts on the books that I have read and that have left an impression, good or bad, on me. Hopeful I could make this a semi-regular feature. Note a lot of this is all from memory, so please forgive the errors. Links go to LibraryThing entries, where they have links to all the online booksellers.

  • The Oracle of Oil: A Maverick Geologist’s Quest for a Sustainable Future by Mason Inman: a biography of M. King Hubbert, the oil geologist who most famously predicted the peak of conventional oil discoveries in the 1970’s. The first half is an interesting and insightful story of Hubbert’s life from birth to his famous prediction. Yet the second half drags, with the narrative shifting the US energy policy from Carter to Reagan. Recommend.
  • The Nature of Crops: How We Came to Eat the Plants We Do by John Warren: a short books on food crops. It’s a bit disorganized, and it does feel like it would have made a good companion to a sadly unproduced documentary. Yet it does provide some clear lessons: the majority of all the plants grown for human consumption comes from selected few edible species; indeed, many edible plants are often uneaten. The boundary between “cultivated” and “wild” often quite fluid. Often the plants we like to eat are often poisonous; those plants have the evolutionary strategy of storing lots of energy while creating poisons to deter the plant eaters, like us. The process of domestication often involves reducing those defenses, which reduces their protection of other predators, which we defeat using poisons of our own, who then become resistant to them, which means we have make more poison even more poisonous … and so on. He ends with a concluding chapter arguing against Jared Diamond’s arguments from Guns, Germs and Steel. Recommend.

  • Unbound: How Eight Technologies Made Us Human, Transformed Society, and Brought Our World to the Brink by Richard L. Currier: Speaking of Diamond, this book’s jacket described “Diamond-esque”, and that probably a good description. This is a history of the human race from its origins as a merely different kind of ape to globe-altering super-species, all told from point of technologies (which he defines as ‘things have been purposely altered for some goal in mind’) , particularly the 8 “technologies” in the subtitle. These include fire, clothing, spoken language (which I cannot see as being technological in any definition; it’s an inherited trait), agriculture, settlements, boats, machine tools and digital computers. Along the way, he examines how they have affected human biology, human societies and the wider world. Recommend.

  • Japan and the Shackles of the Past by R. Taggart Murphy: a guide to modern Japan and its history, economy, politics and culture and how they all inter-relates with one another, and how this effects its relationship with the world. While he loves the place, he very critical of its flaws, and make a good case that in many ways, the world has gotten more Japanese over the years. I think it certainly useful in understanding East Asia in general (although I doubt many Koreans or Chinese would like that. Recommend.

  • Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea by Charles Seife. Didn’t finish it. It just was too hand-wavely and does not give enough facts.  Don’t Recomend.

  • Introducing Logic by  Dan Cryan and Sharron Shatil. I’ve taken a (linguistic) Semantics class and I’m currently taking a Discrete Math (for computer science) class, all of which involves introducing the rudiments of propositional and predicate logic, so much of the material was not new to me. Yet much of stuff further on was, and overall it does provide the reader with a good map of the subject explore further … or just be able to recall a few tidbits to impress people with. Recomend.

Partly because of my return to university and partly because politics (and economics) has become an exhausting tire fire (and I don’t just mean the US with the Trump Administration and the “Resistance”), my reading has shifted away from current affairs and history and more toward computer science, (pop) mathematics and logic. It is nice get back to more “grounded” subjects.