Archive for the ‘TED Talks’ Category

Copyright Math

This is a short TED Talk by Rob Reid (The $8 billion iPad) that tries to infuse a little “reasonability test” into our blind belief in the numbers provided by those with self-interest … in this case, the music/entertainment industry.


There are several examples that you could turn into signed number addition or subtraction problems.  In my favorite example (about 2:57 in the video), Reid uses what he calls “Copyright Math” to “prove” that by their own calculations, the job losses in the movie industry that came with the Internet must have resulted in a negative number of people employed.

Here’s the word problem I’d write:

In 1998, prior to the rapid adoption of the Internet, the U.S. Motion Picture and Video Industry employed 270,000 people (according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics).  Today, the movie industry claims that 373,000 jobs have been lost due to the Internet.

[Prealgebra] There are many ways to interpret this claim.  If all these jobs were all lost in 1999, how many people would have been left in the motion picture industry in 1999?  If the 373,000 jobs were spread out over the last 14 years, then on average, how many jobs were lost each year? Using this new “annual job-loss” figure and no industry growth, how many jobs would have been left in 1999? Can you think of other ways the quoted figures could be interpreted?  Use the Internet to see if you can find out how many people are employed in the motion picture industry today.  [Prealgebra]

[Intermediate Algebra] If the job market for the motion picture and video industry grew by 2% every year (without the Internet “loss” figures), how many people would be employed in 2012 in the combined movie/music industries?  How many jobs would have been created between 1998 and 2012 at the 2% growth rate?  If the job market grew by 5% every year (without the Internet “loss” figures), how many people would be employed in 2012 in the combined movie/music industries?  How many jobs would be created between 1998 and 2012 at the 5% growth rate?


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TEDxMuskegon: A Recipe for Free Range Learning

Here’s my recent TEDxMuskegon talk called A Recipe for Free Range Learning.

In my opinion, there is the basic recipe for learning. Any type of learning, be it free range or structured, should mind the recipe to be effective.

A Recipe for Learning
Ingredients: High-quality Information
Directions: Re-engage often and reflect
Spice: Social Interaction
Final Preparation: A Final Learning Challenge

While it is possible to be a “free-range learner” I would argue that it’s not likely that the average person can successfully learn on their own, and I outline why in this talk.  The industrial education system, much maligned of late, may be a necessary evil as long as we want the majority of people to have a broad liberal arts education.

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Teaching Math Without Words

I’ve been following this MIND Research Institute math platform for a while now … looks like it has really come into its own in the last year or two.  So your students have poor reading skills?  Maybe this is what we should use.

Teaching Math Without Words, A Visual Approach to Learning Math from the MIND Research Institute from TEDxOrangeCoast

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Battling Bad Science (and Statistics)

Battling Bad Science is a great new TED Talk about experimental design, data, statistics, and medicine.

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Failure is a NORMAL part of Learning

“Dr. Tae is a skateboarder, videographer, scientist, and teacher. Contrasting his observations of his own learning while skateboarding with the reality that is the current education system, Dr. Tae provides some insight as to how we might better educate in the future.” (from the YouTube description of this great TEDxEastsidePrep video called “Can Skateboarding Save Our Schools?“)

Some observations.  As Dr. Tae says, “Failure is Normal.” Period. You might try to solve a proof or a mathematics problems many times before you succeed at doing it correctly.  You will only learn the correct process by making mistakes.  I’d venture that more is learned from making the mistakes than by doing the problem correctly.  Every mistake branch tells you valuable information – this is something that didn’t work.  Huh.

This week I told my Calculus students that “division by zero” no longer means the problem can’t be done.  It just means “try another way.”  This is an incredibly hard lesson to learn.  Many learners are too quick to just give up when they encounter something that doesn’t work.

“Nobody knows ahead of time how long it takes anyone to learn anything.” – Dr. Tae

I agree. And yet, here we have the so-called modern education system, where 1 credit hour equals 15 weeks of one hour in class time and 2 hours of out-of-class time.  We predict, several times a year, that it will take 3 credits or 4 credits for every student to learn the topics that are covered in a course.  On top of that, we are starting to be held accountable if students aren’t successful enough.  If we don’t know ahead of time how long it takes any student to learn a body of knowledge, then why do we keep pretending we do?

Some time last year, I wrote down this quote in my Moleskein notebook, and I’ve been running back across it ever since:

“Grades are simply a measure of the speed at which a student learns.”  - Unknown source

If a learner manages to become competent at an average level during the period of learning (semester or quarter), they get a C.  If they manage to become expert, then they get an A.   I think there’s an argument to be made that learning math should be more about mastery, like skateboarding.  Either you “land the trick” (problem, concept, proof) or you don’t.  Any assigned grade in between just leads to problems down the road.  For example, “average” understanding of algebra and trigonometry leads to a pretty poor understanding of Calculus.

Another point from the video, “Learning is not fun.”  I would revise that slightly. The process of learning is not fun.  The process of learning is work.  The moment when you finally master a technique or synthesize an idea is fun, and it continues to be fun up until the point where it just becomes boring.

[Thanks to David Wiggins for pointing me to this great video.]

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David McCandless: Data Detective

I just finished watching the TED Talk by David McCandless called “The Beauty of Data Visualization” and it is stunningly awesome! In the talk, he discusses the importance of understanding the relativeness of data when it is reported in the news.  ”Visualizing information is a form of knowledge compression” where we squeeze enormous amount of information and understanding into a small space.  McCandless was not trained in graphic design, but “”being exposed to all this media over the years had instilled a kind of dormant design literacy in me.”  He says he is something of a “data detective” (see his graph “Mountains out of Molehills” in the talk for an example).

Edward Tufte also discusses the importance of data visualization, but he is something of a technology Luddite.  David’s interactive digital data visualization “Snake Oil” is simply awesome and demonstrates a path that “information supergraphics” could take if Tufte were to embrace technology instead of just bashing it (I went to one of Tufte’s workshops last year and I can tell you that the only “good technology” was his iPhone).

If there was ever a video to show a math or statistics class at the beginning of the semester, this might be it.  Of course, then you’ll actually have to DO some data visualization during the semester, but hey – it will keep you honest!

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Moving Math from Analog to Digital

Arthur Benjamin has been on TED in the past (see Mathemagics) and has done a really phenomenal job.

Here’s his latest 3-minute appearance, called “A Formula for Changing Math Education.”

The problem is that the very short talk does not present a “formula” for changing education, just Benjamin’s idea that the pinnacle at the top of the math pyramid should be statistics instead of calculus. There is nothing in the the short talk that suggests any kind of coherent plan for how it could be done, or even a suggestion that he has a plan. That’s what I would want to know about. Of course, it’s only a 3-minute talk and it’s certainly possible that he had nothing to do with the name of the talk.

I did agree with these two statements, but want to add my own two cents:

1. “very few people actually use calculus in a conscious meaningful way in their day to day lives” … but I’m not sure we teach people how to use calculus in a “conscious meaningful way” nor are many of us required to use calculus for the simple reason that our superiors don’t understand it at all. Calculus could be used in a “conscious meaningful way” but our society chooses not to engage. As a matter of fact, very few people actually use statistics in a conscious meaningful way in their day to day lives. Enough said.

2. “it’s time for our mathematics to change from analog to digital” … here I agree, kind of. It’s time for our mathematics to include both analog and digital, and it’s definitely time for our mathematics teaching to change from analog to digital. What happens in most math classrooms is based on a factory-model of education that developed before computers even existed. Even though the world has changed, the instruction (for the most part) has not.

I found it more interesting to read through the comments that followed the short TED talk. There is an interesting conversation taking place there. One wise commenter pointed out that it’s possible that there should not be just one pinnacle on the math pyramid. Both Calculus and Statistics could be considered penultimate goals of a mathematics education. I think that’s dead-on.

If there’s anything I’ve learned during the process of writing my dissertation, it’s that the system of collegiate mathematics education is extremely complex.  There will be no “easy” fix to the system, even if someone is able to convince a majority of the stakeholders that their change is the correct one.

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Mathematical Coral Reefs

Margaret Wertheim speaks at TED about the beautiful mathematics of coral reefs, hyperbolic geometry, and more.  In particular, I liked her bit (around the 8-minute mark) where she says that if zero and one are already possible answers, then mathematicians would become immediately suspicious that infinity might be one too  (think, how many ways can two lines intersect).  She also discusses the inability to see a principle when it is right in front of your face (like the hyperbolic geometry in leafy lettuce).

Margaret Wertheim on the Beautiful Mathematics of Coral Reefs

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Modern War follows a Linear Regression

Just watched an amazing 7-minute TED talk on The Mathematics of War where an interdisciplinary team of researchers (physics, mathematics, economist, intelligence, computers) figured out how to mine data from public streams of information to collect and analyze modern warfare.

It turns out that when they began plotting the number killed in an attack with the frequency of those attacks, they found the data was linear. Not only was this relationship linear, but the same linear relationship then appeared in every modern war they looked at (with slopes that varied slightly).


So, next they modeled the probability of an event where x people are killed.


Finally, they went back to each conflict to try to understand the meaning the slope of the line.  It turns out that the alpha value (which hovers around 2.5) has to do with the organizational structure of the resistance.  If the resistance becomes more fragmented, it is pushed closer to 3.  If the resistance becomes more organized, it is pushed closer to 2.

Anyways, it’s only seven minutes.  You should definitely watch it!

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Wii Have Liftoff!

I’ve been working on this Wii Smartboard hack project for about two weeks and today I’m pleased to report that I finally have liftoff !

What is it? Johnny Lee (who presented at TED 2007) has been doing some fascinating work with simple Wii remotes. One of his projects, shown below, has been to make a “hack” version of a SmartBoard using a wii remote, an infrared light, and a bluetooth capable computer.

It’s been blogged about all over the Internet, and several of you have urged me to write about it, but I wanted to try it myself before passing it along. So … here are the gory details (more lucid details, without all the embellishment, can be found on Johnny Lee’s website. It is the project called Low-Cost Multi-point Interactive Whiteboards Using the Wiimote.

STEP 1: Build an infrared light pen and borrow someone’s wii remote. I did purchase the parts from Radio Shack for under $10: an infrared light, a switch, some wire, and a AA battery. For the pen construction (which was going to possibly require some sautering), I enlisted the Industrial Technology Wing of our campus for some help. One of their students did a fabulous job disassembling a standard whiteboard marker to create our working infrared pen. When you press and hold the switch, the infrared light is on. In our model, the battery is housed in the tail end, which makes it relatively simple to replace (by removing the duct tape). The infrared light is glued into the tip to hold it steady.

STEP 2: Find a computer that has bluetooth that can be hooked up to a projector of some sort. This actually turned out to be one stumbling block. It turns out that not a single classroom computer on our campus is bluetooth enabled. This left us scrounging for laptops (or my tablet PC), which kind of defeats the purpose of installing the system in a classroom, but for the purposes of trying the technology, it was fine.

STEP 3: Get the computer to detect the Wii Remote. This was the hardest step. I spent hours trying to get my tablet to pair with the Wii Remote. I still have not gotten my tablet to “synch” with the remote. It would detect the existence of the Wii Remote, but it would not pair. I suspect it has something to do with the fact that I am running Windows XP Tablet, and not a standard version of Windows XP or Vista. The tablet keeps insisting that I give a code for the Wii Remote before it will pair. This evening, my assistant Jill volunteered her laptop for the experiment and we used her Bluetooth (for the first time ever) to successfully perform the synch. So that’s one good thing I can say about Windows Vista. Where I spent hours not getting XP to synch properly, Vista managed it in under a minute.

STEP 4: Download Johnny Lee’s Wiimote Whiteboard software (found on his website). You can’t even run the software until you get the Wii synched, so don’t bother trying.

STEP 5: With the computer projecting, and the camera part of the wii pointing at the projected space (mirroring the computer screen), run the Wiimote Whiteboard software and calibrate the pen to the space. If the pen does not seem to be seen, you will have to keep adjusting the wii camera and starting from scratch until all four calibration points are easily seen by the wii remote.

This is Jill demonstrating our successful launch of the Wii Smartboard Hack.

Now, you’re going to ask, how does it work? Well, we still don’t have it set up properly. We need to play with the angle of the Wii remote camera, but Jill’s laptop ran out of power before we got a chance. You can see that the writing we’ve got on the board in this calibration is somewhat “blocky” but it was smoother in a previous (not pictured) calibration.

I guess all I can say, at this point, is that I can verify the technology works. So we have, at least, accomplished that much. Ideally, I would affix the wii remote semi-permanently to the ceiling projector apparatus so that it couldn’t be bumped during use, but I promised to return the wii remote (unharmed) to the owner.

So, we’ll update you again when we have power for Jill’s laptop and some time to work on our calibration issue. In the meantime, start thinking about what we might be able to do with a “smart” table with four seats and four infrared pens!

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