Elegant, isn’t it? After all, there’s nothing I enjoy more than hitting the “mute” button so I can microwave a Hot Pocket® while doing a conference call from home.
There are a few old jokes at the intersection of math and telephony:
I’m sorry. The number you dialed is imaginary. Please rotate your phone 90°, and try again.
When I dial into conference calls, I hope beyond hope that the dial-in number is imaginary. But no such luck.
Got math problems? Call 1 – 800 – (7 × 5 + 36) – (212).
Both of those jokes are terrible, and I apologize. But you came here for math jokes, and since I’m about to rant about something that isn’t math-related, I figured I should lead with something that connects the rant below with the reason for your visit. And those are the only jokes I know that even tangentially relate math to conference calls.
So, there ya go.
Now, my rant. I hate conference calls. I mean, a lot. We’re talking full-on despision here, like the kind Tartaglia had for Cardano. Conference calls are occasionally useful and productive, but typically they involve too many people and waste too much time. If I’m never invited to another conference call, I promise I won’t complain about feeling lonely.
Dave Barry said:
If there’s one word that describes why the human race never has and never will reach its full potential, that one word would be: meetings.
Replace “meetings” with “conference calls,” and it’s equally true.
I have 11 reasons for despising these unproductive time-sucks, but feel free to add additional reasons in the Comments section.
- People who dial in late. For God’s sake, please don’t dial in 10 minutes late and then expect the rest of us to catch you up on what’s been discussed so far. Show up on time.
- People who dial in late and announce themselves. As if it isn’t bad enough that you’re late, now the conversation is interrupted while the rest of us hear your name. If your conference call provider says, “After the tone, please state your name and then press the pound key,” just press the pound key; and if your provider says, “Please announce yourself,” don’t.
- Someone bumping the redial button. Now we all have to hear ten (or more) melodic beeps. Oh, for Pete’s sake, please put your finger back in your nose so this doesn’t happen again.
- People who coordinate activities for those in the main office. For instance, someone interrupts the conference call to sing “Happy Birthday” and deliver cupcakes to the 8 people who are gathered in a conference room. Meanwhile, the 14 of us in other locations have to imagine how good those cupcakes must taste, based on what sounds like giraffes chewing bubble gum on the other end of the line.
- Trying to focus for an hour on voices from a far-away land. I know I can’t do it, and I’m not alone. Dr. Mike Hollier from Dolby Communications explains,
…if we visualize our entire cognitive capability as the size of a football field, then our conscious intelligence — the portion of our intelligence that’s available in the moment — would be the size of a tiny grain of sand. In face-to-face meetings, we don’t need to strain our conscious intelligence to figure out who’s speaking… But conference call audio is so hard to decipher that we need to devote our entire conscious intelligence to analyzing audio information. With our conscious intelligence so taxed, paying attention to the subject of the conference call is exhausting.
- Multi-tasking douchepickles who continually ask, “I’m sorry, could you repeat the question?” Sorry, Biff, I cannot repeat the question. But I would like you to repeat after me: I will not play Evil Genius during conference calls.
- Calls being continually rescheduled because one person can’t attend. Perhaps this is reasonable if the one person is the Queen Mum or the Dalai Lama. Otherwise, accept that it’s impossible to find a time that will work for 27 people, and proceed with those who are available. Be a good employee, take notes, and send a follow-up to everyone after the call — including those who couldn’t be there. That’s progress, and you won’t have to wait till June 2054 to find a mutually agreeable time.
- Making 15 people wait while the organizer uses his cell phone to call the one jerk-off who hasn’t dialed in yet. If he doesn’t deem the call important enough to remember it, why does the organizer think he’s important enough to warrant a reminder? Why is his time more important than yours? Send him an IM, maybe, but proceed without him.
- The long-distance yeller who shouts, “Okay!” from the far side of his office to the speakerphone. Are you afraid of catching a communicable disease through the phone? Or is it just that your Justin Bieber bobblehead is on the other side of the room? Please, get a little closer to the phone so we can hear you.
- Bad mobile connections. If you cause static for more than 5 seconds, mute yourself. If you cause static for more than 10 seconds, hang up. Nothing you have to say is so important that we should have to tolerate this. And if your input is that important, then call from a landline.
- Conference calls that take place when you should be driving home. No calls starting later than 4 p.m. Period. And for goodness sake, no calls after noon on Friday!
Greg at www.ihateconferencecalls.com says, “You hate conference calls? I hate them more.” Here’s a pearl of his wisdom.
I really am doing my best. I have to remember:
- They aren’t doing this call because they hate me specifically, but rather…
- They are doing this call because they hate humanity, and this small amount of suffering that we all share will bring us together as humans.
- By suffering through the call, I become more human.
What do you hate about conference calls?
Let’s get this party started with a classic word puzzle.
What English word contains four consecutive letters that appear consecutively in the alphabet?
In Mathematical Mind-Benders (AK Peters, 2007), Peter Winkler describes how the puzzle above served as inspiration for a word game.
I and three other high-school juniors at a 1963 National Science Foundation summer program began to fire letter combinations at one another, asking for a word containing that combination… the most deadly combinations were three or four letters, as in GNT, PTC, THAC and HEMU. We named the game after one of our favorite combinations, HIPE.
This seemed like a good game to play with my sons. I explained the game, and then I gave them a simple example to be sure they understood.
They quickly generated a long list of solutions, including:
Since that introduction a few weeks ago, the boys and I have played quite a few games. It’s a good activity to pass the time on a long car ride. The following are some of my favorites:
(these two are fun in tandem)
(the game’s namesake is a worthy adversary)
The practice with my sons has made me a better-than-average HIPE player, so when I recently found myself needing to keep my sons busy while I prepared dinner, I offered the following challenge:
Create a HIPE for me that you think is difficult, and I’ll give you a nickel for every second it takes me to solve it.
Never one to shy away from a challenge, Eli attacked the problem with gusto. Fifteen minutes later, he announced, “Daddy, I have a HIPE for you,” and presented me with this:
That was three days ago. Sure, I could use More Words or some other website to find the answer, but that’s cheating. Winkler wrote, “Of course, you can find solutions for any of them easily on your computer… But I suggest trying out your brain first.”
The downside to relying on my brain? This is gonna cost me a fortune.
For your reading enjoyment, I’ve created the following HIPEs. They are roughly in order from easy to hard, and as a hint, I’ll tell you that there is a common theme among the words that I used to create them.
- TRAH (bonus points for finding more than one)
Winkler tells the story of how HIPE got him into Harvard. He wrote “The HIPE Story” as the essay on his admissions application, and four years later, he overheard a tutor who served on the admissions committee torturing a colleague with HIPEs and calling them HIPEs.
I can’t promise that HIPEs will get you into college, but hopefully you’ll have a little fun.
Her name is Tara, but she should expect her friends to call her by a different name from now on.
Not knowing all seven dwarfs is forgivable. Not knowing that sneaky isn’t spelled with two e‘s is less excusable. That she committed both errors simultaneously all but guarantees that her friends will call her Sneaky for the rest of her life.
Or maybe it’s only a guy thing to give nicknames to their friends for colossal fails?
If a guy had made this mistake, his best friend would have texted him before the show was over:
Nice guess, Sneaky.
I got a nickname in a most inglorious fashion. After an Ultimate Frisbee tournament in Fort Devens, MA, we headed to the local bar and ordered a round of Irish car bombs.
The problem was, the Guinness arrived in a 16-ounce plastic cup, and the shot of Bailey’s and Jameson’s arrived in a 10-ounce plastic cup. When we tried to drop the smaller cup into the larger cup, it floated. We spent a good half-hour debating how we’d get the shot to the bottom of the larger cup, and I seemed to offer more ideas than most. The bartendress, finally tired of my yammering, looked at me and said, “Okay, cupcake, you gonna talk about it all night, or you gonna drink it?”
All I could think was, “Dear Lord, I pray that my friends didn’t hear that.”
When I turned around, they sang in unison, “Cuuuup-caaaaaake.”
It stuck. That was 15 years ago, but there are those who still call me Cupcake on the Ultimate field. And sadly, there are those who still call me Cupcake when they run into me at the grocery store. Nothing like your seven-year-old, father-worshiping son asking, “Daddy, why did that man call you ‘Cupcake’?”
Sadly, famous mathematicians don’t have nicknames. At least not cool ones, not generally. Sure, Euclid may be the “Father of Geometry,” but his friends didn’t call him that when they were drinking mead around a campfire. And while textbooks may refer to Leibnitz as the “Aristotle of the 17th Century,” none of his peeps did.
The only two cool mathematician nicknames I could find — and by “cool,” I mean that they didn’t start with “Father of” — were “The Passionate Skeptic” for Bertrand Russell and “The Samian Sage” for Pythagoras. Granted, it’s not like “The Italian Stallion” for Rocky or “The Master of Disaster” for Apollo Creed, but mathematicians aren’t generally nickname-acquiring types.
But I think mathematicians deserve nicknames, so here are some suggestions for your consideration.
- Leonardo “No Questionacci, No” Fibonacci
- Pierre “Not Fer Pa” de Fermat
- Leonhard “If She’s Squeaky” Euler
- Carl Friedrich “Anyone’s” Gauss
- Blaise “Little” Pascal
- John “Cock-a-Doodle-Do” Napier
- Benoit B. “Benoit B. Mandelbrot” Mandelbrot
- “Chortlin'” Lewis Carroll
- Maria “Which Witch” Agnesi
- George Bernard “Dirty” Dantzig
- Emmy “I Barely” Noether
- Girolamo “I’m Sick” Cardano
- William “Off the Charts” Playfair
- Alan “Fac” Turing
- Charles “Too Much” Babbage
To be sure, the best thing you could do right now would be to leave a comment in which you refer to me as “cupcake.”
While most nicknames above are silly, like the nicknames given to football by players by Chris Berman, some of them may require an explanation.
- John Napier once covered a black rooster with lamp soot to catch a thief.
- Benoit B. Mandelbrot is the “Father of Fractals,” which are self-repeating.
- Lewis Carroll coined many words, including chortle.
- The Witch of Agnesi is a famous curve.
- Girolamo Cardano was an infamous hypochondriac who predicted his own death.
- William Playfair invented line graphs, bar charts, pie charts, and circle graphs.
My favorite question is, “Why?” (And my favorite answer is, “Because.”) But not far behind is the question, “What if?”
What if a baseball player swings a bat with the proper speed, but starts swinging 0.01 seconds too late? What if I could earn 6.3% on a real estate investment instead of 1.4% in a Roth IRA, but had to pay capital gains taxes? What if I tried to walk through a revolving door with a pair of skis on my shoulder?
“What if…?” questions don’t always have to be mathy, ya know.
The beauty of Excel is that you can repeatedly ask “What if…?” questions and then explore to your heart’s content.
Overheard in math class:
“It’s not that I don’t want to do all those math problems,” Julia said to her teacher. “I’m just saying, if we put them into a spreadsheet and let Excel do its thing, we can have an extra 20 minutes for recess.”
Sure, one of the powers of Excel is reducing the tedium associated with calculations, but a much greater power is its ability to allow for deep exploration of math topics in a short period of time.
Art Bardige and Peter Mili agree. That’s why they’re giving away spreadsheets that allow students to explore mathematics.
Their What If Labs allow students to investigate questions like:
- What if you used Excel to design a house?
- Is the world population growing at a faster or slower rate than 50 years ago?
- Instead of wood, nails, and string, what if you used a graph and coordinates to create string art?
The spreadsheets are useful, fun, educational and — dare I say — beautiful. Not to mention, free.
Art believes that teaching math with Excel has two benefits. First, it fosters business skills by having students learn the basics of the most ubiquitous business application on the planet. Second, it empowers students by giving them complete control to explore on their own.
I concur with Art’s philosophy.
Excel is one of my best friends. I use it to test conjectures, especially for probability problems about which I don’t have any intuition — or, more often, when my intuition is wrong!
One of my favorite problems, which was discussed in the post Fair and Square in 2011, is the following:
Three points are randomly chosen along the perimeter of a square. What is the probability that the center of the square will be contained within the triangle formed by these three points?
Would I have solved that problem without Excel? Maybe. Probably. But without Excel, it would have taken longer, and I might not have had the same deep understanding of the underlying structure.
Kudos to Art and Peter for providing a free resource that will let other students benefit from that same type of insight.
No one knows how to live a funky life more than Prince:
Life, it ain’t real funky
Unless it’s got that pop
Need a little extra pop in your life? Here’s a game you can play.
Create a game board consisting of n adjacent squares. Here’s a board for n = 10:
Still with me? Good.
The rules of POP are rather straightforward.
- Players alternate turns, placing either an O or a P in any unoccupied square.
- The winner is the first player to spell the word POP in three consecutive squares.
I first learned this game using O’s and S’s and trying to spell SOS, but for young kids, O’s and P’s are much better… the accidental occurrences of POO and POOP add a certain je ne sais quoi. (But not as much as foreign phrases add to a sentence about feces.)
Alex and Eli played this game tonight on the board shown above. After six turns, the game was decided. (As you can see, an accidental POO occurred in squares 6‑8. I mean an accidental occurrence of the word POO, not an actual occurrence of POO itself. If the latter had happened, the game would have ended immediately, and I wouldn’t be writing about it now.) It was Alex’s turn, and he realized that he lost: playing either an O or a P in squares 3‑4 would give Eli the win, and playing either an O or P in squares 9‑10 would just delay the inevitable.
“So, what’re you gonna do?” I asked.
Alex added an O to the third square, shrugged, and handed the pencil to Eli.
A coward dies a thousand deaths; the valiant die but once.
In that game, Alex went first and lost. So an immediate question:
- Will the second player always win when n = 10?
This then leads to follow-up questions:
- Are there other values of n such that the second player has a winning strategy?
- Are there any values of n such that the first player has a winning strategy?
- Are there values of n for which neither player has a winning strategy?
If you’d like to play a game of POP, then head over to The Game of POP spreadsheet on Google Drive, email the link to your friend, and start adding O’s and P’s. Feel free to change the size of the game board, too! Just please be a sweetie — when you finish, clear all your letters, reset the size of the game board to 10 squares, and be sure all the directions are retained at the top of the page.
John Urschel is an offensive lineman for the Baltimore Ravens and admits, “I love hitting people.” As it turns out, he loves hitting the books, too. He earned a masters degree in mathematics from Penn State, and he recently published a paper with the impressive title A Cascadic Multigrid Algorithm for Computing the Fiedler Vector of Graph Laplacians in the Journal for Computational Mathematics.
Note that Urschel was the lead author, even though his three co-authors were an associate math professor from Tufts and two math professors from Penn State.
I have to wonder if the paper was fairly refereed. I mean, honestly, who in the math community is gonna tell a 6’3″, 308‑pound football player that he made an error?
A la Paul Erdös, Urschel doesn’t need much to be happy. In an essay published March 18, he wrote:
I drive a used hatchback Nissan Versa and live on less than $25k a year. It’s not because I’m frugal or trying to save for some big purchase, it’s because the things I love the most in this world (reading math, doing research, playing chess) are very, very inexpensive.
I was thinking about how Urschel has superior talent in two fields, when I saw this comment on an article on Deadspin:
Here’s the thing.
There are 1,596 players in the National Football League at any given time (32 teams with 53 players each). Throw in a few more who serve on practice squads and occasionally get a chance when someone else gets hurt, so maybe that number climbs to 2,000. Still, the chance of making it to the NFL is unbelievably remote. Recruit 757 claims that only 0.008% of all high school athletes get drafted by the NFL.
And if you can believe Wolfram Alpha, there are 2,770 mathematicians in the United States, or approximately 1/47,165 of the U.S. workforce.
Point is, the probability of becoming either a professional football player or a mathematician is ridiculously small. Becoming both is smaller still. Though John Urschel proved it’s greater than 0. The saving grace is that he seems like a down-to-earth guy who realizes how lucky he is.
To read a math article written by John Urschel, check out 1 in 600 Billion.
I met Steve Reinhart when he was a presenter at a 2001 NCTM Academy in Branson, MO. I only met him that one time, yet he had a profound effect on my teaching philosophy. Read his article “Never Say Anything a Kid Can Say!” and you’ll see why.
Last week, I met a second Steve Reinhart who works for an educational publisher. I asked the second one if he knew the first one, and he told me a funny story about how he was in his hotel room at a conference, and the door to his room opened. He looked at the guy standing there, realized what happened and asked, “Steve Reinhart?” And the first Steve Reinhart said, “Yep,” paused for a second, then asked, “Are you Steve Reinhart, too?” And the second one said, “Yep.” With the same name, when the first one showed up but there was already one checked in, the hotel receptionist gave the first a key to a room already occupied by the second.
Now, that’s a funny coincidence.
What does a mathematician do when it starts to rain?
At the end of my senior year of college, I finished my last final on Friday afternoon. I then worked 8 hours, headed home and pulled an all-nighter cleaning our apartment before returning the key on Saturday morning, and then headed to work for another 12-hour shift. After work, I trekked to the on-campus hotel where my best friend and I would stay the night before going our separate ways. After nearly 50 hours awake and a 3-mile walk, I was delirious when I arrived at the hotel. I told the hotel clerk my name, and he handed me a key. I walked wearily to the elevator, exited at the second floor, looked at the key to check the room number (it was the olden days — the room number was etched on the brass key that I was given), and proceeded to Room 222.
When I opened the door, a naked, middle-aged woman lying in the bed quickly pulled the sheets over herself, and a naked, middle-aged man sitting on the toilet with the bathroom door ajar gave me a look I’ll never forget. I said, “Oh, my gosh! I’m so sorry,” then quickly exited and closed the door. I heard some indecipherable yelling come from the room as I made my way down the hall.
I returned to the lobby, explained that I must have been given the wrong key, and told the receptionist what I had seen. “I’m very sorry, Mr. Vennebush,” he told me.
“No apology necessary,” I said. “But I don’t think I’m the one you need to be worried about.”
And then, as if on queue, the elevator door opened across the lobby, and an irate-but-now-clothed guest yelled, “What the f**k kind of place is this?”
That was not a funny coincidence.
This is just a funny mathematical coincidence:
And the crazy part? It’s accurate to within 0.00002.
But as far as coincidences go, this is good advice:
It’s far more likely for something to seem suspicious and turn out to be nothing, than for something to seem like nothing and wake up to a smoking crater where your city used to be.