Archive for April, 2008

Mathematical Sabbatical

Today was my next to last exam, in Discrete Mathematics (arithmetic on steroids). As I was leaving the classroom (last one out, naturally), the professor, with whom I have developed a nice friendship over the course of two semesters, asked about my plans for the summer. Without a nano-second of thought, I said “mathematical sabbatical”. I am stepping off the math treadmill for at least the summer, and maybe for the fall semester. Three classes in one field this semester have done serious damage to my self-esteem, and have nearly drained my brain’s overworked batteries. Rest, recharge, and and recover.

I\'m on the bottom, that\'s some other poor student above me....

I’m just gonna say no to integration, differentiation, inflection points, the graph of the second derivative, and trig identities. I no longer care about p-values, confidence intervals, various hypotheses and test statistics, not to mention z distributions, t distributions, f distributions, or chi squared deals. So what if I can’t prove that the set of real numbers is infinite, or that boolean logic has the same truth tables as predicate logic. No matter that the universal quantifier for this universe of discourse does not exist. I love Euclid as a person, but hate his algorithm. For me, the greatest common divisor for the summer is going to be how many trips to the beach can I squeeze into the number of free days.

Yes, there is still a whopper of a statistics exam tomorrow, but I like my chances within a certain range of values, which is acceptable to this tired man.

No, for me, the summer will be spent learning Spanish. Ola, senor!

Buenos Noches…..

He’s Rooting For The Machines

As I cram down information on Boolean Functions (where 1 + 1 = 1, always), my textbook informs that a fellow named Claude Shannon is the source of this current pain.

What a familiar name. I encountered Dr. Shannon in my introductory Discovery Informatics course, where he was identified as the father of Information Theory.

A seriously smart guy, and arguably the father of the internet, the telephone, and any other modern communication system you care to think about.

But, as is the case most of the time with these smart math guys, there is a funny side. From the text:

Shannon had an unconventional side. He is credited with inventing the rocket-powered frisbee. He is also famous for riding a unicycle down the hallways of Bell Laboratories while juggling four balls. Shannon retired when he was 50 years old, publishing papers sporadically over the following ten years. In his later years he concentrated on some pet projects, such as building a motorized pogo stick. One interesting quote from Shannon, published in Omni Magazine in 1987, is “I visualize a time when we will be to robots what dogs are to humans. And I am rooting for the machines.”

Back to Boolean functions………as I try to juggle a few other things while riding my unicycle down the slippery road of life…..

What Have I Learned?

Today was the last day of classes. Tomorrow is the so-called “Reading Day”, when students are given a day off to prepare for finals. As if one day is enough. But, the student approach is still alive, even if I can’t feel it; one of my classmates asked me if I wanted to go to a keg party (I’m sure he was joking). My demurral prompted him to reply: “No class tomorrow, it’s just like a Friday night, right?”. Ah, for the good old days.

So, instead of standing around a keg of Bud Light, I think I’ll ruminate on the lessons learned of the just-over semester.

1. Do all homework, always, on time. I have learned the hard way that the ONLY way to understand mathematics is to work problems. The lesson has not fully seated in my brain pan….there are still times when I think I can simply read the material over and over and the full light of total comprehension will shine on my dumb ass self.

2. Take good notes. Easy to say, hard to do. Some of my classes this term made me wish I knew shorthand. Sometimes, all I did was scribble furiously for 50 minutes and then walk to the next class. When study time came, I didn’t have the slightest understanding of what I wrote-the professor said. It really sucks to have to read the text and re-write notes in the critical few days before a big test.

3. Review. I don’t do it, and I’m sure it’s going to bite me in these exams. At my age, retention is a crap shoot; and like dice, it’s not a winning strategy to bet on the player. The house (read: the school) always wins. I should start reviewing, like the professionals say, at least 4 weeks before exams. Which might have been possible but for the enormous number of increasingly difficult assignments, projects, and tests that are jammed into the last month. Today, on the last day of classes, I had a major test. I ask you….how screwed up is that?

4. Understand Me. No, that’s not a cry for help or attention, it is an acknowledgment that I ain’t 20 anymore. I cannot stay up all night cramming (I tried, and nearly died). It takes me longer to do the work, to process the material, to make the connections. Plan accordingly. Also, I think I need to accept that I can’t take 5 classes in a semester; it pains me to say that, but, friends, this stuff is hard and I take a long time to get ‘er done.

5. Have fun. A buddy of mine spent the 3 hours today before a test working on a project that is paying him very well for his self-acquired programming skills. I finally was forced, by my strong internal mechanism that might be called “Worry Wart”, to ask him why he was not acting just like me….you know, cramming, getting sweaty, scribbling furiously, scattering my stuff all over a desk. He looked at me and smiled, saying, as only a 20 year old guy can: “I’ll figure it out”. I get it, I remember it, I just can’t do it. But I should try to be more like him and less like me……

6. Illegitimi non Carborundum. Yes, I took two years of Latin in the 7th – 8th grades, but that was literally eons ago. But I saw this on a big guy’s desk, somewhere in my travels through Work. It means “Don’t let the bastards get you down”.

Good words, those.


Heard yesterday in the halls of academe, on the way to class:

“I’ve started studying for my exams…..I’m not sure when they are, but I assume they are coming up.”

Well, yeah…….

Big, Big News!

After 14 months of hard work, aggravation beyond description, despair of the blackest shade, and, yes, tears, a watershed event. I, erstwhile DI major, terrible math scholar, and programmer par non-excellence, have accomplished something that I have long dreamed about, talked about, and now, finally, accomplished.

Send in the band, please

I have accessed a database, extracted some data, and reported the results, using Python (nifty programming language). Just now, I literally dance for joy. The wife is stunned.

Herewith the details…..

The Code:

# A program to access the MaryRichards database, retrieve
# the tuples for the JOBS table, display as output the JOB id, job description
# and amount billed for the job.

import pyodbc

cnxn=pyodbc.connect(“DSN=MaryRichardsBackup;UID=The Tortoise;PWD=lucky7”)

except pyodbc.Error, error:
print “Error — No access”
print “Connected”
cursor = cnxn.cursor()

# Select some values from the database and print them:

cursor.execute(“select * from job”)
allrecs = cursor.fetchall()
for row in allrecs:
print row.JOB_ID, row.Description, row.AmountBilled


The Result:

Python 2.5.1 (r251:54863, Apr 18 2007, 08:51:08) [MSC v.1310 32 bit (Intel)] on win32
Type “copyright”, “credits” or “license()” for more information.

Personal firewall software may warn about the connection IDLE
makes to its subprocess using this computer’s internal loopback
interface. This connection is not visible on any external
interface and no data is sent to or received from the Internet.

IDLE 1.2.1
>>> ================================ RESTART ================================
1 Paint exterior in 794 White 2750.0000
2 Paint dining room and kitchen 1778.0000
3 Prep and paint upstairs bath 550.0000
4 Paint exterior doors in 633 Red 885.0000
5 Prep and paint interior wood trim 1299.0000

I Exult………

Exam Time

After 13 weeks of homework, assignments, tests, and other minor forms of professorial abuse, we happy few are just days away from the END. Between us and the END, of course, are exams, a particularly nasty form of abuse designed to validate a semester’s worth of effort by the student but which, through student artifice, is actually a massive test of retention skills. At this point in my personal curriculum, two classes will require a take-home exam; the point being that there is just TOO MUCH material to be regurgitated in a 3 hour window… this work be done over a 3 day window.

Difficult? Yes. Impossible? No.

Will I do it again next semester? Absolute-Damn-Lutely!

Commutativity and Life

(Cross posted at the other site)

Sitting in a math class, and the professor announces that the next topic will be a brief study of matrices (matrix is the singular form). Then is asked a show of hands of those who have NOT had some previous experience in the topic. Up goes my hand, relieved to see that mine is not the only uncluttered mind, but saddened that there are so few of us. Those emotions are replaced when the professor announces that he will ‘go slow’ so that we midgets can keep up with the crowd. Thanks.


As he takes us through the steps of ever increasing arithmetic manipulation, the point is made that some properties of matrices are commutative while others are not. It is the non-commutative properties that are of interest, he observes. For those of you who have my level of understanding, note that an arithmetic operation is commutative if the order of the process returns the same result; 3 * 2 = 6 and 2 * 3 = 6.

As the link above reports:

Records of the implicit use of the commutative property go back to ancient times. The Egyptians used the commutative property of multiplication to simplify computing products.[6][7] Euclid is known to have assumed the commutative property of multiplication in his book Elements.[8] Formal uses of the commutative property arose in the late 18th and early 19th century when mathematicians began to work on a theory of functions. Today the commutative property is a well known and basic property used in most branches of mathematics. Simple versions of the commutative property are usually taught in beginning mathematics courses.

But, predictably, there is a large portion of mathematics that is not commutative. I knew it was just too good to be true. As the professor observed, there are many, many examples in life where the order of a process is very important. As examples, he pointed out that opening the window and sticking your head out of the car window are operations where the order of things is critical.

Wikipedia expands on the idea:

Noncommutative operations in everyday life

  • Washing and drying your clothes resembles a noncommutative operation, if you dry first and then wash, you get a significantly different result than if you wash first and then dry.
  • The Rubik’s Cube is noncommutative. For example, twisting the front face clockwise, the top face clockwise and the front face counterclockwise (FUF’) does not yield the same result as twisting the front face clockwise, then counterclockwise and finally twisting the top clockwise (FF’U). The twists do not commute. This is studied in group theory.

I’m confused but more impressed than ever with the nature of our existence. How can an idea as powerful as mathematics embrace contradictory behavior? Why do we think that mathematics can explain the physical world when it is riddled with inconsistency? Could it be that the nature of our existence transcends the universe of mathematics?

Am I having a metaphysical moment?

“Life’s hard, son. It’s harder when you’re stupid.” — The Duke.

Education is a companion which no misfortune can depress, no crime can destroy, no enemy can alienate,no despotism can enslave. At home, a friend, abroad, an introduction, in solitude a solace and in society an ornament.It chastens vice, it guides virtue, it gives at once grace and government to genius. Without it, what is man? A splendid slave, a reasoning savage. - Joseph Addison
The term informavore (also spelled informivore) characterizes an organism that consumes information. It is meant to be a description of human behavior in modern information society, in comparison to omnivore, as a description of humans consuming food. George A. Miller [1] coined the term in 1983 as an analogy to how organisms survive by consuming negative entropy (as suggested by Erwin Schrödinger [2]). Miller states, "Just as the body survives by ingesting negative entropy, so the mind survives by ingesting information. In a very general sense, all higher organisms are informavores." - Wikipedia

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