Archive for January, 2014

Pronouns are evil

January 30, 2014

Recall that a pronoun is a word that refers to something else.

I have a friend who never calls his wife by her name, he always uses pronouns to refer to her. For example:

She does the taxes.

She works at Home Depot.

“She” is a pronoun. I have never said anything to my friend, but I think it is disrespectful for him to refer to his wife by “she”. This is much better, I think:

Mary does the taxes.

Mary works at Home Depot.

Don’t you think that is much nicer?

I have another friend whose wife uses pronouns for everything. For example:

Did you do that?

“That” is a pronoun. My friend is expected to figure out what “that” is. My friend’s wife would be much clearer if she said:

Did you do the laundry?

Don’t you think that is much clearer?

By the way, my friend informs me that sometimes when his wife uses “that” she is referring to something from a week past!

Lesson Learned: we would all be a little bit better off if we used fewer pronouns.

The last place on Earth without human noise

January 17, 2014

Unfortunately, there is absolutely no place on Earth that is completely free from human sound all of the time.

For the past 30 years, Hempton, an acoustic ecologist, has made it his mission to discover what he calls the last great quiet places, areas that clock in at audible human noise-free intervals of 15 minutes or more.

Over the years, his list has shrunk as he returns to a previously quiet spot, only to find it now polluted by noise. Still, he says 12 such quiet places exist in the US, with more found around the world. A spot in the Hoh Rainforest in Washington is one, as are places in Grasslands National Park in Canada, Boundary Waters Canoe Area in Minnesota and Haleakala National Park in Hawaii. He identified a quiet place deep in the Ecuadorian rainforest, and there are others in South America. He suspects one might exist in Poland (he’s waiting on funding to come through to further investigate this possibility), and also more in Norway, Sweden and Finland.

More …

Why I teach

January 16, 2014

My purpose in teaching this course,
as in the others I had taught over the
years, was to learn the material myself.

The Mathematical Experience by Philip J. Davis

I don’t believe in genius

January 15, 2014

Here are some quotes from this fantastic video (

I don’t believe in genius. I believe in hard work.
Persistence is far more important than any
notion of talent.

It’s all about practice, a lot of practice. There are
no shortcuts. I love the feeling that I can work
at something and get better at it.

The ideas of genius and talent just aren’t useful.
We just started working on a new video. If we are
geniuses, the ideas are just supposed to come to
us in a bolt of inspiration, it’s supposed to be easy.
But it isn’t. So then if we are not geniuses, then
we are screwed because we are never going to have
a great idea. How is that attitude going to help us
make something? How does that attitude help you
get better at what you want to do? The ideas of
genius and talent get in your way. Research bears
this out: If you think that your ability comes from
an innate talent, when you face an obstacle you
are more likely to give up. But if you think your
ability comes from hard work, when you hit an
obstacle you are more likely to dig into it and
overcome it.

In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell popularized
the idea of 10,000 hours: it takes 10,000 hours to
become an expert at something. Whether it’s playing
chess, juggling, making viral videos, it is going to take
10,000 hours of practice to become world-class. At
first that seems like a scary amount of time, it seems
completely overwhelming. But it’s also really simple.
It will take a few years, but you can do it. It just takes

What so many people don’t realize is that you need
the drive, the training, and the 10,000 hours. You don’t
need to be a genius. You don’t need some kind of
magical talent. You need to get up in the morning,
every morning, and take one more step toward that
ultimate goal of being great at what you do.

Skills required by knowledge workers

January 11, 2014

Job requirements: a good ability to visualize, some programming experience, and the willingness and patience to follow non-trivial examples.

Active learning and spectator learning

January 11, 2014

We’ve all been told that the best way to learn is through active learning. Don’t be a spectator. Be a participant in the learning process by solving problems, writing code, writing papers, etc. But the following wonderful description points out that it is important to rise up and survey the landscape — be a spectator for a while.

In mathematics teaching, it’s a commonplace
that “Mathematics isn’t a spectator sport.”
You learn by doing, especially doing problems.
Like all truisms, this is half true. Mathematics
education as doing, doing, doing — no thinking,
no conversation — can seem dreary. An artist
isn’t prohibited from occasional art appreciation
— quite the contrary. You can’t learn a practical
skill as a spectator, but you can learn good taste,
among other things.

— The Mathematical Experience

Why do some birds stay during the winter?

January 3, 2014

Brrr, it is wicked cold outside today. I look out my window and I see some birds flying around. Why do some birds stay during the winter while others fly south? Are the birds that stay designed differently and are able to endure the cold weather whereas the others are not able to endure the cold weather?

Any bird experts out there who can explain this please?