...a companion blog to "Math-Frolic," specifically for interviews, book reviews, weekly-linkfests, and longer posts or commentary than usually found at the Math-Frolic site.

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"Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty – a beauty cold and austere, like that of sculpture, without appeal to any part of our weaker nature, without the gorgeous trappings of painting or music, yet sublimely pure, and capable of a stern perfection such as only the greatest art can show." ---Bertrand Russell (1907) Rob Gluck

"I have come to believe, though very reluctantly, that it [mathematics] consists of tautologies. I fear that, to a mind of sufficient intellectual power, the whole of mathematics would appear trivial, as trivial as the statement that a four-legged animal is an animal." ---Bertrand Russell (1957)

******************************************************************** Rob Gluck

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Ben Orlin... Math-blogging's Bill Watterson(?)


Math-Frolic Interview #27

 "We are all simultaneously experts and beginners, flaunting our talents while trying to cover our shortcomings the way an animal hides a wound. You could call this a 'math blog,' or a 'teaching blog,' but I would call it a blog about owning up to weakness and drawing strength from successes, however transient or trivial they may seem."
-- Ben Orlin (from his blog)


 I'm sure many readers here have been entertained by the fanciful cartoons that Ben Orlin uses to delve into mathematics and education at his blog, "Math With Bad Drawings" -- a blog that has established itself as one of the more distinctive, easily discernible sites in the burgeoning field of secondary math blogs. And because so many of us enjoy Ben's take on things, I wanted to learn more about him. Not unexpectedly, the humor evident on his blog comes through here as well:
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1)  First, some confusion: I see on the "about" page for your blog that you now teach in Birmingham, England. I always thought of you as a (Oakland) California teacher... When and why did the move happen, and is that temporary or likely permanent?

Temporary! Back to America in 2017, after my wife's postdoc here ends.

In late 2013, she was finishing her PhD and applying for 50-100 postdocs across the US. I'm a Boston kid, and I loved the Bay Area, but I agreed to move elsewhere (like Missouri or Wisconsin) if the job was good for her. The less exciting the location, the better the job had to be.

One day she says, "There's a great research fit for me at University of Birmingham."

My future flashed before my eyes: mosquitoes, high school football, Confederate flags. I said, "Well... is it a GREAT fit? Because, I mean, Alabama isn't what I was--"

"No, not Alabama!" she said. "England!"

We moved out here in August, and it's been great. (My apologies to Alabamans; I'm sure your state is lovely.)

2)  Please tell readers a little about your math background... When did your math interest begin? When did you decide to pursue it professionally? And what are your main specific academic interests within mathematics?

My academic interests run a mile wide and three feet deep. There are parallel universes where I majored in Econ/Biology/Philosophy/English/Spanish. The way some people fear romantic commitment, that's how I fear intellectual commitment.

So why math? Because I got pulled in by great teachers and great classes. (And because I knew it was a marketable degree.)

As for interests within math... well, I'm a dilettante there, too. I love probability. I got a huge kick out of Galois theory and fractal geometry. Years of talking to my wife about her research have turned me into a bit of an analyst, too.

I know a little about a lot, and a lot about nothing. Very liberal arts, I guess.

3)  These days there are a multitude of blogs from math educators.  You almost have to have a gimmick to break out from the crowd. How did your blog start, and how did the amateurishly endearing cartoons you use come about (had you already done cartoons in the past)?

I wanted to write about math. But I knew math is really hard to read. The ideas are so dense, you need to surround them with fluff: pictures, jokes, stories, asides.

My original plan was to ask friends to draw illustrations for me. But who wants to sketch out somebody else's ideas, for a blog nobody will probably read, for no payment?

I've always been terrible at drawing. But I'd been writing about the value of learning new things, and seeing your gaps not as weaknesses but as chances to grow. So I figured I ought to practice what I preach.

Hence, the drawings. And the title.

Also, math intimidates people. I hoped the images, so manifestly incompetent, would put people at ease. They'd send a clear message: "Even if you feel like you're bad at something, you shouldn't be afraid to try it."

And it seems to have worked. While my drawings still safely qualify as "bad," they've gotten a lot better!

4) Your blogposts seem to range from silly to semi-serious, often ending, it seems to me, with some sort of moral to the (mathematical) story -- is that a fair characterization of your postings, or how would you describe them?

Sounds right! I don't think there's much of a unifying principle for the blog, other than bad drawings.

And how do the posts evolve before we see the final result on the blog -- do you start with a message you want to get across, and then work backwards to figure out how to tell a storyline producing that message, or does the story enter your mind first, and then you figure out what lesson it can be used to teach?

The posts tend to evolve over a long period. I've got a big folder of half-baked ideas, most of which will never see the light of day. Each follows its own trajectory, but here's a frequent evolutionary path:

(a) I come up with a message/moral I want to share. In its initial form, it's overstated and overconfident.

(b) Thirty minutes into writing, I recognize my own hubris, and start asking, "Where did I get this conviction? How am I so sure about this?"

(c) I think back to the experience(s) that led me to this conclusion: little moments, year-long adventures, single lessons, whatever.

(d) I write that story instead, trying to limit my conclusions to what that story can justify.

(e) It comes out overly general and hubristic anyway. And that's okay.

5) Do certain of your blogposts stand out as personal favorites or ones that were the most fun to work on? And from the other side, which posts seem to have been most popular or attention-getting from your readers?

Yeah! My favorites:

I "filmed" the gifs for The Math Aficionado's Guide to High Fives in my old school, along with a bunch of friends and my (amazing) high school math teacher.

I accosted conference-goers at the 2014 Joint Maths Meetings and had them draw pictures for 39 Ways to Love Math.

I woke up one morning and wrote A Fight with Euclid before lunch.

The Kaufman Decimals came out of a fun conversation with a friend.

A Ray of Light is one of the my more honest pieces of writing.

The Church of the Right Answer is a recent soap-box tirade that was good to get off of my chest.

And as for most popular, I've had four big hits. What It Feels Like to Be Bad at Math is still my proudest. Also, two of my humor pieces "went viral," Math Experts Split the Check and Headlines from a Mathematically Literate World.

But my most popular post, by leaps and bounds, is Ultimate Tic-Tac-Toe. It's been viewed something like 800,000 times, and has spawned a whole mini-industry of mobile apps. Nothing I write will ever again reach such a wide audience. It turns out that people LOVE tic-tac-toe.

6)  How, if at all, do you utilize online math resources in your own classroom? And do you employ your blog or any social media, as teaching tools, in your classroom as well?

I'm awful about this. My 2015 new year's resolution is to steal more stuff. I have the bad habit of writing all my own materials, which is a lousy, time-destroying instinct. There's so much great stuff out there: nRich, Dan Meyer's three-act lessons...

I don't use my own blog, except occasionally to copy and paste an image.

7)  You've written for some other outlets, notably Slate and The Atlantic magazine... how did those opportunities arise, and would you like to freelance more in the future?

I have a friend who works at Slate, who very kindly passed "What It Feels Like to Be Bad at Math" along to an editor there. Aside from that, I just pitched them stories via email.

I may pitch pieces again in the future, although being back in the classroom (after a year off) is keeping me plenty busy!

8)  When you're not teaching math or cartooning around what are some of your other main interests/hobbies/activities?

I live in Europe now! So I have two main hobbies:

(1) Exploring new places (and being stupidly fascinated by trivial differences, like the signage fonts and the retail brands)

(2) Skyping home! Speaking of which, I'm going to check if my family is awake now.

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Thanks Ben for rounding yourself out a bit here. I think the personality that concocts those whacky caricatures shines through.  And regarding those cartoons, just one small piece of advice: ...hold onto your day job! ;-)

If by any remote chance you've missed Ben's blog introduce yourself to it with some of the links above (caution, you'll soon be hooked).
Ben tweets at: @benorlin
and has a Facebook page here:  https://www.facebook.com/MathWithBadDrawings

[p.s. -- I believe??? all the broken interview links on the Math-Frolic interviews-listed page have now been fixed. And for next weekend I've got one of my very favorite math writers lined up!]


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