I’m back

Hey everyone.

I took a two year hiatus from blogging. Life got busy and I let the blog slide. I’m sorry.

But I’m back, and my New Year’s Resolution for 2017 is to post at least once a month!


Here’s what I’ve been up to over the last two years:

  • Twitter. When people ask why I haven’t blogged, I say “twitter ate my blog.” It’s true. Twitter keeps feeding me brilliant things to read, engaging me in wonderful conversations, and providing the amazing fellowship of the MTBoS.
  • James Key. I consistently receive mathematical distractions from my colleague and friend, James, who has a revolutionary view on math education and a keen love for geometry. This won’t be the last time I mention his work. Go check out his blog and let’s start the revolution.

    with my nerdy friends named James

    with my nerdy friends named James

  • My Masters. I finally finished my 5-year long masters program at Johns Hopkins. I now have a MS in Applied and Computational Mathematics…whatever that means!
  • Life. My wife and I had our second daughter, Heidi. We’re super involved in our church. I tutor two nights a week. Sue me for having a life! ūüôā
family photo

family photo

  • New curriculum. In our district, like many others, we’ve been rolling out new Common Core aligned curriculum. This has been good for our district, but also a monumental chore. I’m a huge fan of the new math standards, and I’d love to chat with you about the positive transitions that come with the CCSS.
  • Curriculum development. I’ve been working with our district, helping review curriculum, write assessments, and I even helped James Key make some video¬†resources for teachers.
  • Books. Here are a few I’ve read in the last few months:¬†The Joy of x, Mathematical Mindsets, The Mathematical Tourist, Principles to Actions
  • Math Newsletters. Do you get the newsletters from¬†Chris Smith¬†or James Tanton (did you know he’s pushing three essays on us these days?). Email these guys and they’ll put you on their mailing list immediately.
  • Growing. I’ve grown a lot as a teacher in the last two years. For example, my desks are finally in groups.¬†See?
my classroom

my classroom

  • Pi day puzzle hunt! Two years ago we started a new annual tradition. To correspond with the “big” pi-day back in 2015, we launched a giant puzzle hunt that involves dozens of teams of players in a multi-day scavenger hunt. Each year we outdo ourselves. Check out some of the puzzles we’ve done in the last two years.
  • Quora. This¬†question/answer site is awesome, but careful. You’ll be on the site and an hour later you’ll look up and wonder what happened. Here are some of the answers I’ve written recently, most of which are math-related. I know, I know, I should have been pouring that energy into¬†blog posts. I promise I won’t do it again.
  • National Math Festival. Two years ago we had the first ever National Math Festival on the mall in DC. It was a huge success. I helped coordinate volunteers for MoMATH and I’ll be doing it again this year. See you downtown on April 22!
famous mathematicians you might run into at the National Math Festival

famous mathematicians you might run into at the National Math Festival

Now you’ll hopefully find me more regularly hanging out here on my blog. I have some posts in mind that I think you’ll like, and I also invited my colleague Will Rose to write some guest posts here on the blog. Please give him a warm welcome.

Thanks for all the love and comments on recent posts. Be assured that Random Walks is back in business!

Fearless Symmetry

I come to you today with a recommendation for the book Fearless Symmetry by Avner Ash and Robert Gross. I started it this summer and finally had a chance to finish it over the Christmas break. I didn’t understand the last half-dozen chapters, but my dad did warn me that would happen. I wouldn’t even attempt reading it unless you’ve already been exposed to some undergraduate mathematics. But if you have, or if it’s been a while and you need a refresher, I highly recommend the book.

In the book, Ash and Gross attempt to explain some of the math underlying Wiles’ proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem. So you can understand why the math gets a bit hard at the end.

Along the way, you’ll get a very conversational, well-written, fun-loving introduction to the Absolute Galois Group of the Algebraic numbers. This is a group that is so complicated and messy and theoretical that we can only explicitly write down two elements of the group. In order to talk about it, we need representations, which the authors also introduce in a gentle way. In particular, we need linear representations.

Elliptic curves become very important too. I have studied elliptic curves in two of my classes before, but I really liked the way they introduced them here: We know everything about linear equations (highest exponent 1), and everything about conics (highest exponent 2 on x and y), but suddenly things become very interesting when we allow just ONE of the exponents (on x) to jump to 3. These are elliptic curves. Amazingly, you can define an arithmetic on the points of an elliptic curve that yield both a GROUP and an algebraic VARIETY. Incredible. Of course, the authors introduce what a variety is too.

After reading this, I also gained a much bigger view of abstract algebra–a course I’ve taken, but I found myself guilty of seeing the trees but not the forest. I loved the way Ash and Gross introduce the group SO3 and relate it to A4 with the rotations of a sphere inside a shell. Very nice visualization!

I could go on, but just know that there are lots of little mathematical gems scattered throughout this book. It’s a refreshing jaunt through higher-level mathematics that will demystify some of the smart-sounding words you’ve been afraid to ask about :-).

Go check it out!

Summer Odds and Ends

I promise I’ll start blogging again. But as followers of this blog might know, I like to take the summer off–both from teaching¬†and blogging. I never take a break from math, though. Here are some fun things I’ve seen recently. Consider it my own little math carnival :-).

I love this comic, especially as I start my stat grad class this semester @ JHU. After this class, I’ll be half-way done with my masters. It’s a long road!¬†[ht: Tim Chase]

Speaking of statistics, my brother also sent me this great list of lottery probabilities. Could be very useful in the classroom.

These math dice. Honestly I don’t know what I’d do with them, but you have to admit they’re awesome.¬†[ht: Tim Chase]

These two articles about Khan academy and the other about edX¬†I found very interesting. File all of them under ‘flipping the classroom.’ I’m still working up the strength to do a LITTLE flipping with my classroom. My dad forwarded these links to me. He has special interest in all things related to MIT (like Khan, and like edX) since it’s his alma mater.

I’ll be teaching BC Calculus for the first time this semester and we’re using a new book, so I read that this summer. Not much to say, except that I did actually enjoy reading it.

I also started a fabulous book, Fearless Symmetry by Avner Ash and Robert Gross. I have a bookmark in it half way through. But I already recommend it highly to anyone who has already had some college math courses. I just took a graduate course in Abstract Algebra recently and it has been a great way to tie the ‘big ideas’ in math together with what I just learned. The content is very deep but the tone is conversational and non-threatening. (My dad, who bought me the book, warns me that it gets painfully deep toward the end, however. That’s to be expected though, since the authors attempt to explain Wiles’ proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem!)

I had this paper on a juggling zeta function (!) sent to me by the author, Dr.¬†Dominic Klyve (Central Washington University). I read it, and I pretended to understand all of it. I love the intersection of math and juggling, and I’m always on the look out for new developments in the field.

And most recently, I’ve been having a very active conversation with my math friends about the following problem posted to NCTM’s facebook page:

Feel free to go over to their facebook page and join the conversation. It’s still happening right now. There’s a lot to say about this problem, so I may devote more time to this problem later (and problems like it). At the very least, you should try doing the problem yourself!

I also highly recommend this post from Bon at Math Four on why math course prerequisites are over-rated. It goes along with something we all know: learning math isn’t as ‘linear’ an experience as we make it sometimes seem in our American classrooms.

And of course, if you haven’t yet checked out the 90th Carnival of Mathematics¬†posted over at Walking Randomly (love the name!), you must do so. As usual, it’s a thorough summary of recent quality posts from the math blogging community.

Okay, that’s all for now. Thanks for letting me take a little random walk!

87th Carnival of Mathematics

The 87th Carnival of Mathematics has arrived!!¬†Here’s a simple computation for you:

What is the sum of the squares of the first four prime numbers?

That’s right, it’s

Good job. Now, onto the carnival. This is my first carnival, so hopefully I’ll do all these posts justice. We had lots of great submissions, so I encourage you to read through this with a fine-toothed comb. Enjoy!


Here’s a post (rant) from Andrew Taylor regarding the coverage from the BBC and the Guardian on the¬†Supermoon¬†that occurred in March 2011. NASA reports the moon as being 14% larger and 30% brighter, but Andrew disagrees. Go check out the post, and join the conversation.

Have you ever heard someone abuse the phrase “exponentially better”?¬†I know I have. One incorrect usage occurs when someone makes the claim that something is “exponentially better” based on only two data points. Rebecka Peterson has some words for you¬†here, if you’re the kind of person who says this!

Physics and Science-flavored

Frederick Koh submitted¬†Problem 19: Mechanics of Two Separate Particles Projected Vertically From Different Heights¬†to the carnival. It’s a fun projectile motion question which would be appropriate for a Precalculus classroom (or Calculus). I like the problem, and I think my students would like it too.

John D. Cook highlights a question you’ve probably heard before:¬†Should you walk or run in the rain?¬†An active discussion is going on in the comments section. It’s been discussed in many other places too, including twice on Mythbusters. (I feel like I read an article in an MAA or NCTM magazine on this topic once, as well. Anyone remember that?)

Murray Bourne submitted¬†this awesome post about modeling fish stocks. Murray says his post is an “attempt to make mathematical modeling a bit less scary than in most textbooks.” I think he achieves his goal in this thorough development of a mathematical model for sustainable fisheries (see the graph above for one of his later examples of a stable solution under lots of interesting constraints).¬†If I taught differential equations, I would¬†¬†absolutely¬†use his examples.

Last week I highlighted this new physics blog, but I wanted to point you there again: Go check out Five Minute Physics! A few more videos have been posted, and also a link to this great video about the physics of a dropping Slinky (see above).

Statistics, Probability, & Combinatorics

Mr. Gregg analyzes European football using the Poisson distribution in his post,¬†The Table Never Lies. I liked how much real world data he brought to the discussion. And I also liked that he admitted when his model worked and when it didn’t–he lets you in on his own mathematical thought process. As you read this post, you too will find yourself thinking out loud with Mr. Gregg.

Card Colm has written¬†this excellent post¬†that will help you wrap your mind around the number of arrangements of cards in a deck. It’s a simple high school-level topic, but he really puts it into perspective:

the number of possible ways to order or permute just the hearts is 13!=6,227,020,800. That’s about what the world population was in 2002. So back then if somebody could have made a list of all possible ways to arrange those 13 cards in a row, there would have been enough people on the planet for everyone to get one such permutation.

I think it’s good to remind ourselves that whenever we shuffle the deck, we can be almost certain that our arrangement has never been created before (since ¬†52!\approx 8\times 10^{67} ¬†arrangements are possible). Wow!

Alex is looking for “random” numbers by simply asking people. Go contribute your own “random” number¬†here.¬†Can’t wait to see the results!

Quick! Think of an example of a real-world bimodal distribution! Maybe you have a ready example if you teach stat, but here’s a really nice example from Michael Lugo: Book prices. Before you read his post, you should make a guess as to why the book prices he looked at are bimodal (see histogram above).

Philosophy and History of Math

Mike Thayer just attended the NCTM conference in Philadelphia and brings us a thoughtful reaction in his post,¬†The Learning of Mathematics in the 21st Century. Mike wrote this post because he had been left with “an ambivalent feeling” after the conference. He wants to “engage others in mathematics education in discussions about ways to improve what we do outside of the frameworks that are being imposed on us by those outside of our field.” As a secondary educator, I agree with Mike completely and really enjoyed his post. Mike isn’t satisfied with where education is going. In his post, he writes, “We are leaping ahead into the unknown with new educational models, and we never took the time to get the old ones right.”

Edmund Harriss asks¬†Have we ever lost mathematics?¬†He gives a nice recap of foundational crises throughout the history of mathematics, and wonders, ultimately, if we’ve actually¬†lost¬†any mathematics. There’s also a short discussion in the comments section which I recommend to you.

Peter Woit reflects on¬†25 Years of Topological Quantum Field Theory. Maybe if you have degree in math and physics you might appreciate this post. It went over my head a bit, I’m afraid!

Book Reviews

In¬†this post, Matt reviews a 2012 book release,¬†Who’s #1, by¬†Amy N. Langville and Carl D. Meyer. The book discusses the ranking systems used by popular websites like Amazon or Netflix. His review is thorough and balanced–Matt has good things to say about the book, but also delivers a bit of criticism for their treatment of Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem. Thanks for this contribution, Matt! [edit: Thanks MATT!]

Shecky R reviews of David Berlinski’s 2011 book,¬†One, Two Three…Absolutely Elementary mathematics¬†in his¬†Brief Berlinski Book Blurb. I’m not sure his review is an *endorsement*. It sounds like a book that only a small eclectic crowd will enjoy.


Peter Rowlett submitted this post about linear programming and provides a link to an interactive problems solving environment.

Peter Rowlett also weighs in on the recent news about a German high school boy who has (reportedly) solved an open problem. Many news sources have picked up on this, and I’ve only followed the news from a distance. So I was grateful for Peter’s comments–he questions the validity of the news in his recent post “Has schoolboy genius solved problems that baffled mathematicians for centuries?” His comments in another recent post are perhaps even more important though–Peter encourages us to think of ways we can remind our students that lots of open problems still exist, and “Mathematics is an evolving, alive subject to which you could contribute.”

Jess Hawke IS *Heptagrin Girl*

Here’s a fun-loving post about Heptagrins, and all the crazy craft projects you can do with them. Don’t know what a Heptagrin is? Neither did I. But go check out Jess Hawke’s post¬†and she’ll tell you all about them!

Any Lewis Carroll lovers out there?¬†Julia Collins submitted a post entitled “A Night in Wonderland”¬†about a Lewis Carroll-themed night at the National Museum of Scotland. She writes, “Other people might be interested in the ideas we had and also hearing about what a snark is and why it’s still important.” When you check out this post, you’ll not only learn about snarks but also about creating projective planes with your sewing machine. Cool!

Mike Croucher over at Walking Randomly gives a shout out to the free software Octave, which is a MATLAB replacement.¬†Check out his post,¬†here.¬†MATLAB is ridiculously expensive, and so the world needs an alternative like Octave. He provides links to the Kickstarter campaign–and Mike has backed the project himself. I too believe in Octave. I’ve used it a few times for my grad work and I’ve been very grateful for a free alternative to MATLAB.

The End 

Okay, that’s it for the 87th Carnival of Mathematics. Hope you enjoyed all the posts! Sorry it took me a couple days to post it–there was a lot to digest :-).

If you missed the previous carnival (#86), you can find it here. The next carnival (#88) will be hosted by Christian at checkmyworking.com. For a complete listing of all the carnivals, and more information & FAQ about the carnivals, follow this link.


Mathematical Pasta

Geek mom author Helene McLaughlin reviews this great geeky book about the mathematics of 92 (!!) different kinds of pasta [hat tip to Tim Chase]:


When mixing flour, egg, salt and water to make pasta, I’d guess the only math you consider is how many minutes you have left before the kids will be begging for dinner. I’d guess that you never really contemplated the mathematical beauty of that rigatoni or cavatappi that you are eating. Thats not the way George L. Legendre eats pasta.

In an effort to bring order to the possible chaos of cooking, George L. Legendre takes cooking geek to the next level with his unique book, “Pasta by Design“. Legendre takes 92 of the most familiar types of pasta, categorizes them, determines the complex mathematical equation describing the shape and shows us incredibly intricate computer models for each type of pasta.


Calculus for Infants

My wife and I are expecting our first child in February, so these are definitely items that should be on our registry, wouldn’t you agree?

I saw these first on thinkgeek.com. Introductory Calculus for Infants is currently out of stock, but Amazon.com has it! I haven’t seen any legitimate reviews of these books yet (no reviews on amazon.com), so I’ll have to provide a review once I get them. Introductory Calculus is a Calculus book, Andre Curse is about infinite recursion, as the cover subtly suggests.

This is the most important thing to be thinking of as I prepare for fatherhood, right?