#DIYMath – Math Wants to be Free

(Cross-posted at Coding 4 Humans)

As a programming and math nerd, I’ve certainly made good use of Wolfram Alpha. After all, it’s free*, it’s ubiquitous (all you need is a Web browser but there are also apps for both Android and IOS) and it’s natural language interface is very powerful and easy to use.  It’s certainly a cost-effective alternative to commercial math packages like Matlab ($50 – $2,150) or even Wolfram’s own Mathematica. ($139 – $2,495)

However, much as I love the folks at Wolfram, it’s nice to have your own math software that:

  • doesn’t require an Internet connection
  • runs on computers you control
  • still gives you a lot of power and flexibility

It’s even better if the software is:

It turns out that there are several software packages that fit the bill, each with their own strengths and weaknesses but all absolutely free and cross-platform. With that in mind, I’m going to be reviewing each of them from the perspective of a teacher and casual programmer. To keep things consistent, I’ll be looking at the following categories:

System Requirements – Because there’s no point downloading the software unless you can actually run it.

Installation – How easy is it to find and install the software? How big of a download is it and how much disk space and RAM does it need? How does installation compare between platforms? I’ll be installing the software on Windows 7, Debian Linux and Mac OS X Mavericks and comparing the experience.

Documentation – Does the developer offer good documentation and/or tutorials? (By ‘good’, I mean documentation you are actually expected to read**.) Is information available from third parties?

Compatibility – Like it or not, MatLab and Mathematica are the big dogs in the math software field. How easily could a MatLab or Mathematica user transition to this package? How easy is it to port code? The easiest way to test this is to see if scripts designed for MatLab or Mathematica will run with minimal or no modification.

Command Line vs. GUI – Some of these packages allow you to run them from the command line as well as in a graphical interface. This is very useful as it allows you to integrate the software with your native scripting language for easy automation. How do the two compare? Do both offer the same functionality? Does the software operate in the same way on different operating systems?

Summary – Pros, Cons and whether I’d recommend this to my students.

As I’ve said, I’m looking at this from the perspective of a math teacher. Are there other aspects of the software you’d like me to examine?

*for a certain definition of ‘free’

**I’ve noticed that a lot of open source software documentation seems to assume that the target audience are those who don’t need to read it. Yes, poor documentation makes me cranky.

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#TheMelvinProject My Apology to Senator Al Melvin

Dear Senator Melvin:

In March of this year, I wrote a post making fun of you and your opinions on the Common Core Standards.

Based on recent events, however, I would like to take this opportunity to apologize.

Sure, you admitted that you hadn’t actually read the standards document and what little you did hear about it, you grossly misunderstood. Certainly it was this lack of understanding that led you to follow your personal beliefs and oppose implementing the standards in your state of Arizona.

However, at least you didn’t say that implementing Common Core would make students gay.

So you’ve got that going for you, anyway.

Sincerely,

Tom

#WeHateMath Storytelling in Math Education

Recently my math class was studying basic probability and I had one student who was really having a hard time wrapping her head around the topic. One evening I got an email from them, stating that they didn’t understand one of the practice problems:

Given that P(E) = 1/4 find the odds in favor of E.

I replied:

P(E) means the probability of E happening. 1/4 means that there are four possible outcomes and that E (the one we want) is only one of them.

We figure our odds for something by comparing the number of possible things that we want (in this case just one) versus the number of possible things we don’t (in this case the other three).

So the odds are 1 to 3 that our event E will happen because out of four total, only one of them is E.

I hope this helps.

They responded that it didn’t help and that they had read the chapter multiple times and just weren’t getting it.

I gave this some more thought and decided on a different tactic:

Let me give it one more shot:

We’re having a dog race — four beagles: Evelyn, Sam, Henry and Charlie.

All four dogs are evenly matched – same age, physical condition, everything – so each of them is equally likely to win.

However, Evelyn is your favorite and you’d like to know the probability that she’ll win the race.  There is a total of four dogs so she has one chance in four to win.  In math-speak, this is known as :

P(E) = 1/4

What about the odds? Well, It’s Evelyn against the other three dogs so we say that the odds for Evelyn winning are 1 to 3 or 1:3

Once I had expressed it in the form of a story, it clicked. They replied that they now understood what the problem was about and had a better sense of the material.

 

In my experience, the mere mention of ‘story problems’ (sometimes known as ‘word problems’) is enough to send my students into fits. (Google ‘story problems suck’. This is not an isolated issue.)

But stories are the primary way we humans communicate with each other. I use stories in my classes all the time. Sometimes they’re personal anecdotes (usually of the ‘See what I did there? Don’t do that’ variety), historical references or just something I made up like the example above.

I think that the issue with traditional story problems is that they’re not very interactive. Most seem to be little more than a written statement of the math problem we’re trying to solve.

So maybe we need better stories.

One promising project is Oppia. This is a Google project described as a “Tool for creating interactive educational content”. In other words, you can create a story that guides your student through a topic, periodically asking them to apply what they’ve learned to solve a problem within the context of the story.

You can set up your own copy of Oppia on your own computer to test it, contribute to or browse through the lessons at the official hosted server or just use their test server to see how it works. I played with one of the tutorials and it was very engaging. So head on over there and give it a try, let me know what you think.

#WeHateMath Blog Review – MathFiction

MathFiction is not strictly a blog per se but it’s unique enough that I felt it deserved a shout-out.  From the site description:

 

Do you like fiction and mathematics? Are you looking for a book or story that might be useful for the students in your math class? Are you interested in what our society thinks about mathematicians? Then you’ve come to the right place. This database lists over one thousand short stories, plays, novels, films, and comic books containing math or mathematicians.

 

The list is maintained by Alex Kasman, who teaches in the Department of Mathematics at the College of Charleston. I came across this site when I was doing some research for a blog post about using calculators in math class. I was trying to remember an Isaac Asimov short story that I had read which described a future where nobody is taught arithmetic any more since it’s all performed by machines. (“The Feeling of Power” [1957]) A brisk search of the Intertubes brought me to MathFiction and I was so impressed that I bookmarked it for my classroom tool kit.

You can browse through the material at your leisure or, if you have something specific in mind, use the search page, where you can either use the site-specific Google keyword search or power-search by author, title, summary, medium, genre, topic or motif. Entries are also rated by both math content (1 to 4) and literary quality. (You can search on these fields as well.)
As both a nerd and a math teacher, I have a feeling that I’ll be spending a lot of time on this site. So head on over there and tell Alex I sent you. (I’m trying to start a thing.)

#WeHateMath Blog Review – Math Babe

I was directed to Math Babe by a link from Fawn Nguyen’s blog Finding Ways to Nguyen Students Over and it’s definitely a different kind of math blog than I’m used to reading. For one thing, blogmistress Cathy O’Neill was a former data scientist who co-authored the text Doing Data Science and before that she was a quant on Wall Street. (“Quants” or quantitative analysts are much sought after in the finance sector.)

Dr. O’Neill is currently the director of The Lede Program at the Columbia School of Journalism and she brings her unique perspective to her MathBabe blog. Primary topics of discussion include data science, statistics, finance, journalism and data modeling. Her writing style is friendly but not oversimplified. Her innate sense of humor always shines through, particularly with her regular feature Ask Aunt Pythia where she takes questions from readers in a mock advice column format (Pythia was the priestess at the Oracle of Delphi).

The questions aren’t restricted to finance wonkery, however. For example, this one from “Breasts of Oppression”:

Dear Aunt Pythia,

I am a female physics PhD student. A colleague once said to me that “If women want to be respected, they should not show cleavage.” What do you think?

Aunt Pythia’s answer?

Dear Breasts,

I’ve always thought quite the reverse. Namely, if men had boobs, they’d be showing them off all the time.

MathBabe has earned pride of place in my RSS feed so head on over there and tell her I sent you. (She has no idea who I am but, as I’ve mentioned, I’m trying to start a thing.)

#WeHateMath Book Review: Debt – The First 5000 Years

“Surely one has to pay one’s debts.”

The reason it’s so powerful is that it’s not actually an economic statement: it’s a moral statement. After all, isn’t paying one’s debts what morality is supposed to be all about? Giving people what is due them. Accepting one’s responsibilities. Fulfilling one’s obligations to others, just as one would expect them to fulfill their obligations to you. What could be a more obvious example of shirking one’s responsibilities than reneging on a promise, or refusing to pay a debt?”

Excerpt From: David Graeber. “Debt.” iBooks. https://itun.es/us/3z6RA.l

I was first put on to this book when I heard an interview with the author on the Majority Report podcast. David Graeber is an anthropologist who teaches at the London School of Economics and has a unique perspective on the intersection between economics, politics, religion, war and human nature. As the quote above suggests, this book was born out of a desire to answer a deceptively simple question: How does morality enter into what should be an objective business transaction?

At over 500 pages (including copious footnotes), this is not what you might call a breezy summer read. However, it’s very engaging and Graeber writes in a style that is friendly while still maintaining an academic rigor. He does an excellent job explaining how the very concept of ‘debt’ has hooked itself into some primordial part of our collective souls.

You’ll never look at your mortgage statement in the same way again.

 

References

Graeber, D. (2011). Debt: The first 5000 years. New York: Melville Publishing.

#WeHateMath The Minimum Wage in Context

I rarely watch television news because my yelling at the TV frightens the cats. But my wife likes it so this morning while I was putting on my socks I saw our local business correspondent report on a recent vote to raise the minimum wage in Switzerland to the equivalent of $25.00 per hour. He noted with a grin that this measure was defeated, with 76% of the voters rejecting it. This was all offered ‘as is’ with no context and they went on to the next story.

What does this have to do with math, you ask?

Economics is math plus people.

Math is arithmetic with context. (If you add 2 and 3 you get 5 but what do you get when you add 2 apples and 3 oranges?)

Without context, this story was meaningless and by reporting it, they had stolen moments of my life that I could never get back.

I needed to add context to this story. I thought about what was missing.

How about:

What is the current minimum wage in Switzerland? – It turns out that Switzerland doesn’t have a mandatory minimum wage. Your pay is set either by negotiating with your employer yourself or through a representative, ie a union. (According to the OECD, union membership represented 17% of the work force as of 2010. By comparison, the US is 11%.)

How meaningful is $25/hour to the Swiss worker? – For that, we need to compare the cost of living in Switzerland versus the United States. But that’s a complex metric, so let’s pare it down to a few, everyday measurements (NOTE: I’m comparing Denver, where I live, to Zurich):

A tank of gas – Gas is $7.99/gallon in Switzerland. The average gas tank size is 18 gallons. It would cost you $143.82 to fill up your car in Switzerland. The average gas price in Denver (as of 05/19) is $3.44 so a tank of gas would run you $61.92.

A gallon of milk – $6.45 in Switzerland, $3.69 in the United States.

Average Monthly Salary (after tax) – $6652.07 in Zurich, $3466.28 in Denver.

It turns out that Swiss workers are among the highest paid in the world and 90% of them already earn more than the proposed minimum wage of $25/hour AND they work an average of 35 hours per week. In addition, the unemployment rate in Switzerland is a paltry 3.2%.

Now I have some context. It would appear that the Swiss are doing pretty well for themselves (at least, most of them) and now it’s not that surprising that this proposal was rejected.