Street-Fighting Math MOOC Is Open

My mathematically inclined readers are cordially invited to enroll in "6.SFMx: Street-Fighting Math," which starts today on EdX. Like most (all?) MOOC courses, it is free and open to world, as are all the course materials.

So far, I have learned that teaching an entirely online course requires far more effort than teaching in person. Maybe by a factor of 10. Partly, it is the difference between talking to a friend on the phone---you just pick up the phone and start talking---compared to writing a long letter that needs to be thought out. To this difference you add that 10,000 others will also read and depend on the letter. You get nervous about making all the pieces right. They never will be, so you never rest easy.

U.S. Math Education Still in the Doldrums

Every three years, the OECD, in the PISA assessment, studies 15-year-olds around the world to measure performance in reading, mathematics, and science. The results of the 2012 PISA assessment, which had a particular focus on mathematics, just came out and the United States does not fare well: "Among the 34 OECD countries, the United States performed below average in mathematics in 2012 and is ranked 26th." I worry not so much about the rank, but about the low absolute level of proficiency to get this rank.

The U.S. students' particular strengths and weaknesses are even more distressing:

Students in the United States have particular strengths in cognitively less-demanding mathematical skills and abilities, such as extracting single values from diagrams or handling well-structured formulae. They have particular weaknesses in items with higher cognitive demands, such as taking real-world situations, translating them into mathematical terms, and interpreting mathematical aspects in real-world problems.

The Marketing of Dogfish

In New England, cod and haddock are overfished and, according to WBUR, fishermen and restaurant owners are seeking cheaper and more plentiful fish like dogfish. Fish wholesalers are therefore working to promote the dogfish's image. According to WBUR, dogfish is already used in cafeterias at some local universities and hospitals -- and local lawmakers are now pushing the federal government to help by buying dogfish for prisons and military rations. What genius marketing: "Dogfish: Tasty enough for schools, hospitals, C rations, and even prisons."

Transaction Costs: The American Way

The rest of the world likes to say that everything in America is big: the cars, the CO2 emissions, the buildings, even the hamburgers. The farce at the U.S. government's website for enrollment in health insurance under the so-called Affordable Care Act (ACA) shows that we also supersize our transaction costs.

In a news report from NPR, Alaska Public Radio Network, and Kaiser Health News, even a computer programmer who had also created websites needed many attempts over many weeks to use the site to enroll for health insurance. And she still awaits the enrollment confirmation (with luck in the new year, said the radio version of the report). If it arrives, she gets affordable health insurance ($110 instead of $1200 per month), but then still has the joy of dealing with an insurance company and the claim paperwork.

The Nobel Prize in Physics and Traffic Priority at Roundabouts

The 2013 Nobel Prize in Physics was recently awarded for symmetry breaking and its consequence, the Higgs boson---a particle so well known that, according to the president of the American Physical Society, "[i]f you're a physicist, you can't get in a taxi anywhere in the world without having the driver ask you about the Higgs particle." Teaching the symmetry unit in my own course this semester, I couldn't help wondering about symmetry as I drove through an apparent example of symmetry: roundabouts or traffic circles.

Roundabouts use two complementary systems for controlling traffic flow: (1) Traffic in the roundabout has priority, or (2) traffic entering the roundabout has priority. The choice seems so symmetric, like choosing right- or left-hand traffic. In the United Kingdom, traffic in the roundabout has priority. In contrast, on many Massachusetts roundabouts, including one on my commute, entering traffic has priority.

Why It's Hard to Find a Used Bicycle in Denmark

Visiting friends in Copenhagen and cycling around the city, I wondered why so many bicycles were new (and, having experienced Scandinavian pricing, expensive). When I lived in England, I bought a three-speed BSA bicycle from the wonderful Chris Lloyd Bikes repair shop for only £60 (about $100). The bicycle had already lasted 40 or 50 years; according to Laplace’s rule of succession, it would probably last another 40 or 50 years -- at least with regular maintenance. Which I provided. When any problem turned up, I took the bicycle back to Chris Lloyd, who set it right for a right price.

That's the difference from Denmark, with one of the world's highest hourly wages.

Titles of Laws as Propaganda

How illiterate do our politicians think we are?

In the old days we had plain titles of laws, such as the Voting Rights Act or the Civil Rights Act. In the United Kingdom, the titles of laws still reflect their subjects, whether the Official Secrets Act or the National Health Service Act. The modern U.S. Congress, as the least trusted institution in America, is particularly prone to these propaganda titles. Thus, modern Americans, instead of universal, government-funded healthcare, get government-funded propaganda: the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

The Ultimate Telemarketing Database

Playing “My Country, ’Tis of Thee” on the piano for my evening relaxation and hearing my daughter sing about the "sweet land of liberty," I thought of the NSA's Prism surveillance system. The U.S. government should thank whistle-blower Edward Snowden for providing a way for them to reduce the U.S. budget deficit. Now that everyone knows that the U.S. government harvests data on every person on the planet not living in a cave, why doesn't the U.S. government mine the data -- after all, it has the most computing resources -- and sell the results to telemarketers?

Minute-Wise, Hour-Foolish

In my kitchen cabinet, with the richest aroma, live baggies of ground cumin, coriander, turmeric, curry powder, cinnamon, and cloves. Four feet away are their labeled spice jars. The jars are easier to use but sit mostly empty. Whenever I cook, I need the spice now, before the main food ingredient releases its water and stops the spice from browning.

So I don't dig out the funnel to transfer the spice into its jars. Nor do I cut up scrap paper and fold it into a funnel. I just fish out each spice from its baggie, and fumble around to reseal the plastic zipper. Each choice is rational, in the short run. In the long run, by not transferring the spices to their jars, I waste time and stress out my cooking.

Having noticed this reasoning anti-pattern, I see it all around.

Aaron Swartz Versus the Bankers

New Yorker article on Aaron Swartz, who committed suicide while under federal investigation for bulk downloading academic articles, leaves little to disagree with. But it missed a comparison that has troubled me: between Swartz and the bankers who tanked the world economy.

I have found myself unable to write about this topic until now. First, Swartz lived for many years in my apartment building in Cambridge, Mass., and many residents remember him as quiet and kind. Second, I share his belief in the free flow of information. Using the NonCommercial ShareAlike license from Creative Commons, MIT Press published and freely licensed my Street-Fighting Mathematics"One of the early architects" of Creative Commons was Aaron Swartz.

Swartz tried to free knowledge and expand the public domain. In contrast, the bankers took from the public domain.