Reblog: Parable of the Polygons

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If you haven’t seen it yet, you should stop reading this blog right now and go check out Parable of the Polygons!

It’s a project created by Vi Hart and Nicky Case called a “playable blog post.” It’s a sort-of game, sort-of blog post, sort-of math modelling presentation, sort-of social comment.

The interactive post focuses on the issues and segregation that occur when even just a small amount of “shapism” exists in society. The post is incredibly relevant to the current events regarding racism in the States, but also successfully comments on any sexism/size-ism/homophobia/etc.

The thing about the Parable of the Polygons that I think is really amazing is how universal the game is. It’s very appropriate for kids and schools, yet the “cuteness” of the shapes and demos does not make it too young for adults. It’s interesting for mathematicians and scientists since it takes a data-driven look at society, yet is no where near too dense for non-STEM individuals. And, although the post has been public for less than a week, it has already been translated into five languages by volunteers!

I also love that it brings together mathematics and humanities, something that is a relatively new and exciting interdisciplinary frontier. The interactive blog post is a good example of how powerful mathematics can be when applied to a topic you won’t think it apt. Vi Hart says:

[I]f there’s two subjects that get a really defensive and hateful reaction, it’s mathematics and social justice, so we figured we’d do them both at once.
(Vi Hart on her blog)

Go check it out! What do you think?

A Few Other News/Blog Posts on the Parable of the Polygons (because it is getting a lot of attention!):

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Graph theory is to BSM as Jesus is to Church School.

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For those of us who attended Church School every week growing up, we quickly learned that if you didn’t know the answer to a a question being asked, you should just say “Jesus.” And much of the time, that was actually the right answer. As we got older that fact became more and more of a joke.

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At BSM, a similar sort of joke has evolved, but replacing the “Jesus answer” with graph theory! A friend here told me that he has decided one of the reasons Hungarian mathematics is so strong is because they know how to simplify *any* question to one about directed graphs, connected graphs, simple graphs, bipartite graphs, etc. and then apply those theorems.

effx0When a professor asks how we should approach the problem, and you don’t know, you should probably say “represent it as a graph.” ;)

Why I edit Wikipedia, Three Reasons:

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(1) Because I want to.

I think this is the most important reason, really. I find editing and being a “Wikipedian” fun! Wikipedia is generally one of the first links that comes up in a Google search for anything, and is the first link many people click to get quick information.Screen Shot 2014-12-02 at 13.30.45

It’s really exciting for me to think that when someone does a web search they are looking at information I’ve added, sentences I’ve copyedited, and photos I’ve taken!

(2) Because of Living in Hungary.

Being in Hungary has opened my eyes to just how dependant on the Internet I am.

Back home in the States, if there’s something I don’t know, I Google it. The opening hours of the teahouse down the street? Google it. The formula I need for my physics homework? Google it. The winner of yesterday’s midterm elections? Google it.IMG_0713

Here, in Hungary, there have been so many times when I have tried to find information I need that simply doesn’t exist online. The chances of a webpage both existing and being accessible in English for a store or cultural attraction in Budapest are quite low. The best information tends to come from second-hand sites such as budapestbylocals or TripAdvisor. Otherwise, you have to get your information the “old-fashioned” way: by going to the store and reading the sign for their opening hours, etc. While I expect every “mom & pop shop” in the States to have a webpage, it’s an exception in Budapest if that’s the case.

Further, while trying to learn about monuments, history, and culture of Hungary, the information just isn’t there on English webpages the way it is for American culture. In particular, the Wikipedia pages for Hungarian topics, if they even exist, are severely lacking in information in English.

Compare the Wikipedia page for St. Stephen’s Basicialla  in Budapest, cited as the third-largest church in Hungary, to St. Paul’s in London. The article on St. Stephen’s is tiny, and frankly, not very helpful or informative. It shouldn’t be the case that I can’t get information on St. Stephen’s online, just because the basicialla exists in a country where I do not speak the language.

I realised that Hungary is something I know about and care about that most people don’t. So I do the opposite of what I would do back home: instead of searching about someplace before visiting it (since it won’t be helpful), I  go on Wikipedia after I’ve visited and update the page with the information I’ve learned and photos I’ve taken.

I love this city and this country, and I want to help make it more accessible to other English-speakers.

(3) Because of the Gender Gap.

For me, simultaneously editing Wikipedia and lessening the Gender Gap is just sort of a cool side-effect.

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Image: “Mind the gap1” by London Student Feminists

As of 2011, it was estimated that only about 11% of Wikipedia editors identified as female (Cohen, Define Gender Gap?…). This is a serious problem because the content that is available on Wikipedia is completely reflective of the volunteer editors who take the time to add it. If the editors are primarily male, then the information is skewed to what men stereotypically know about. This is unacceptable for an online encyclopedia which is consistently one of the top ten most-visited websites in the world.

I think Wikipedia is really cool, and I’ve realised there are so many places where my knowledge, experiences, and interests are helpful to the online community. For me, I think it’s sort of similar to blogging, related in the way where blogging is like the op-ed section of a newspaper while Wikipedia editing is more fact-based journalism.


If you want to start getting into Wikipedia editing, I highly recommend trying the Wikipedia Adventure game. It’s a little bit silly, overly cute, and has some bugs, but it’s a fun and simple interactive way to learn the basics of the Wikipedia syntax as well as the rules and regulations of Wikipedia culture.

Liberal Arts Students in a Semester of Maths?

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I’ve never questioned my liberal arts education until this semester.

When I was in the process of searching for colleges I was torn between choosing to study music or to study something in the sciences– so I didn’t make a choice… I went where I could do both. I decided to go to a liberal arts college and became a math major with a minor in pipe organ performance.

I still feel like this was the right choice for me, but I am no longer as certain as I used to be. What if I had gone to a tech or research university instead?

Spending this semester at BSM is making me realize how much math I simply don’t know. And it makes sense: the students who go to university and take 4 or 5 STEM courses a semester where I normally take two should know more math and science than I do.

However, it’s causing me to struggle here. There are so many things I don’t know. So many “famous” proofs that I have not seen. So many “rudimentary” theorems I’ve not heard of before. I take longer on my problem sets than many other students because I need to do the background scut work at the same time. It makes me be the embarrassed student in the room who raises her hand during the colloquium in response to the question:

–Who doesn’t know that proof the area of a parallelogram on a grid is equal to the determinant of its two component vectors?

At BSM, unlike at home, I sit toward the bottom of the class here. I sit in lecture and feel kind of stupid in terms of my mathematical knowledge. My liberal arts education has not prepared me mathematically for the intense program at BSM. I’m having a hard time. I imagine this is what graduate school in maths might be like, and that I will have to work exceedingly hard to fill in the gaps in my maths education if I choose to pursue graduate studies.

However, my liberal arts education has given me breadth of knowledge, if not mathematical depth. It has taught me how to learn anything I want or need to, and it’s allowed me to follow my multiple passions.

I have to remember that although I might feel stupid in the maths classroom, there is so much else I get the chance to study that science-only students don’t:

  • I have classroom discussions on gender and sexuality.
  • I take advanced-level French and have become completely conversationally proficient.
  • I write papers on the importance of memorilization in a post-genocide society.
  • I give recitals and lead entire worship services from behind a pipe organ.

This is all important too!

I think that neither the liberal arts student nor the science student is better than the other– they’re just different. I am beginning to understand that we probably need both kinds of academic citizens in this world.





Feature Photo: Last Light, by Felix Gonzalez Torres. “The work of Cuban-born artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres, whose family emigrated to the US in 1979, revolves around themes both personal and political, such as racism, homophobia, history, and international politics. Inspired by Christmas decorations, his lightbulb installations suggest both celebration and memorial. Untitled [Last Light] alludes to his friend Ross Laycock’s death from AIDS in 1991, evoking not only death but also renewal, bulbs always being replaced as they burn out.” (Le Centre Pompidou.)

Mathematical Modelling: A Tool for the Indecisive (aka me)

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It’s time to apply for next semester’s housing back on my home campus.

My friend who’s also abroad and I were stressed about filling out the forms with our housing preferences. We both want to be living in singles, but we want to be in the same dorm. So much is riding on the results of this form!

Our conversations went something like:

–I’d love to live in Safford.

–But so would everyone else! So we probably won’t both get into Safford.

–What about 18? No one wants to live in 18. We should both get in there.

–Yuck. There is no way I want to live there.

–What do we do?!!

So I did what any normal person would do… I created a mathematical model to rank the dorms for us!

(I think I have officially reached a new level of geekiness.)

I made a very simple Excel model which took into account:

  1. How much we like a given dorm (on a scale of 0-5)
  2. The ratio of Single Rooms : Total Students Housed in the Dorm (as a percent, then normalized also on a scale of 0-5), and
  3. The popularity of a given dorm (Very popular = 0 points, sort of popular = 1 point, not popular = 2 points).

Add the values up, and voilà! All the dorms on campus are ranked for us with scores between 0 and 12.

The thing that was very cool about it is that the model actually put the dorms we were thinking we might apply for on top of the rankings. So we did!

And there were no more stressed-out conversations. You can’t argue with math. :)

The Secret Pre-rec to BSM

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Hands down, the course I am most thankful to have taken before coming to BSM is my Discrete Mathematics course.

I’ve been really surprised at how much I am relying on the things I learned in discrete math. The only official pre-rec to BSM is having taken either Abstract Algebra or Real Analysis, and that’s really just to ensure you have learned enough math and are at a high enough mathematical level for the courses offered.

Yes, I’m very glad I took Real Analysis– I use the thought processes developed in that class all the time. Real Analysis was the first math course I took in which I genuinely struggled; it taught me how to work through confusion and persevere. It began to teach me what it actually means to do math as opposed to just learn math.

But I use the topics covered in Discrete Math every single day at BSM. After this week, I have officially done some degree of graph theory in ALL FOUR of my math classes! My friend’s response upon hearing that from me was simply: “Welcome to Hungary.” (:

For example, in Abstract Algebra, we’re studying and doing problem sets on the symmetires of graphs.

Every single bioinformatics model I’m studying is a type of graph.

The matrices I am researching are bipartite directed multigraphs.

Our game theoretic models are…yes…graphs.

I knew that Hungarians were famous for their teaching of combinatorics, but I couldn’t have anticipated the extent to which graph theory is utalized as a mathematical tool here in Hungary.

I’m finding myself doing proofs in which I need to interpret the problem as a graph, then use graph theoretic theorems to solve it! I learned how to do this in discrete math; I would really be struggling if I hadn’t taken that class. And discrete is actually not even a direct requirement for my math major back home.

Some other discrete math topics I’m so grateful to know:

    • Counting, counting, counting: I use a lot of combinatorics counting arguments in abstract algebra. For example, last week we needed them to answer the question that there were, of course, 7 choose 3 divided by three times 4 choose three divided by 3 all divided by 2 unique cycle permutations in some group. I found the counting argument much more difficult than the algebra part of that problem!
    • Modular Arithmetic: Many of the groups we use as examples in Abstract Algebra utilize modular arithmetic in some way. We did a short lesson on it in the beginning of the abstract course, but it was incredibly helpful to already have an understanding of the properties of the operation and to have practice adding, multiplying, finding “fractions” and using inverses in modular sets. Even though we did a small unit on modular arithmetic during this course, our homework sets require a more through understanding of modular arithmetic than was covered in class and one that I only have thanks to my discrete math course back home.
    • Set Theory: In Game Theory, we are constantly using power sets, and everything is turned into a set of actions, a set of player payoffs, etc.
    • Probability: My bio research professor told me that many American students he meets seem to fear probability. “It’s just some value between 0 and 1. That’s it.” In my research group we’re working with uniform probabilities– we are using lots and lots of Markov Chain Monte Carlo processes, and I wish my probability background was stronger than it is.
  • LaTeX: It’s actually just coincidence that I learned to use Tex in discrete math, but I’m going to include it on this list anyway. (: I TeX all of my problem sets for Game Theory. It’s by far not required, yet by far the preferred method of receiving problem sets by my professor.
    Additionally, there is this social hierarchy that exists in the math community surrounding the use of LaTeX (just see #1 on “Ten Signs a Claimed Mathematical Breakthrough is Wrong” for proof). For us, it’s an unspoken understanding that the students who regularly turn their problem sets in using TeX are the ones you’re trying to measure up to. The math world is a learn to typeset in LaTeX or be an outsider kind of place.

I am using all of my previous math knowledge in some way this semester: sequences and series sometimes come up, properties of the real numbers are important, I might (rarely…) take a derivative, matrices are great, but, I am currently thanking the math gods that I’ve had a semester of discrete mathematics.


I am still updating my BSM Tips page! Don’t forget to check it out if you’re considering spending a semester or two at BSM.

“I’m a woman in tech. That doesn’t mean everything has to be pink.”

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I originally wrote this post on August 9, 2014, but unfortunately just got around to editing and publishing it now:

I recently listened to the New Tech City podcast episode “Mindy Kaling, Girly Girls, and the Future of Tech.” To use a phrase given by the dissenting opinion on the episode, it made me cringe.

The episode was about the attempt to get more girls involved in computer programming by “meeting them where they are”–aka by pink-ifying, glitter-ifying, and pony-ifying computer programming. By making it seem **glamorous** to 8-16 year old girls.

Now, I completely agree that we need more women in tech (I wrote my entire gender studies final on the subject last semester), and I’m also all for diversifying the stereotype of what a typical programmer/scientist/mathematician looks like. I hope that soon when someone thinks of one they do not always imagine an old, antisocial, white man with glasses and a pocket protector.

So it’s totally awesome to want to encourage “girly girls” into the sciences. But I guess what my concern is about is this idea of “meeting them where they are”– because they’re not all there. My concern is about losing the middle ground. I think we need to make sure we are not only attracting the girly girls, but also actively encouraging the tomboys and the not-quite-so-girly and the “my favorite color is orange and I like to play softball” girls into the sciences.

Think about the concept of intersectionality, which focuses on an individual’s multiple identities, made famous by Kimberlé Crenshaw in the ’80s. Her emphasis at that time was on the African American WOMEN’s unique set of struggles that cannot be addressed by either the feminist movement or the Civil Rights movement alone. By being part of not one, but two distinct minorities, the complex identity created at the intersection of these two separate identities carries extra weight.

Consider the not-so-girly girl. She likes math. Her favorite subject is chemistry (and no one had to trick her into it!). With this influx of girl-focused programming initiatives, you’re going to lose her.

As referenced on the podcast episode, many boys get involved in computer science because they love video games. She doesn’t. Yet still if you send her an invitation to Google’s “pink lemonade” girl coding gala, she’s not going to be excited about it. The other girls already make fun of her because she doesn’t want a boyfriend, she doesn’t wear makeup, and she likes to ask for the “boy” toy in her McDonald’s Happy Meal. She’s not like them. How is she going to get into coding? She is seeing that if you are a boy, there’s a place for you in the sciences, and if you’re a very feminine girl, there’s a place for you in the sciences. She’s falling through the cracks.

I’m concerned that her intersection of identities–being a girl, but not a girly-girl– is creating extra weight and thus making it more difficult for her to peruse a career in the sciences. Which is ironic because she ought to be easy to encourage– she already likes the subjects.

Bringing more women into the sciences is an excellent and admirable goal. Just make sure there is space left for those of us women who are already standing outside the door, waiting to be welcomed by the still male-dominated STEM world.

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