Sunday, January 8, 2012

A Couple of Books (…and, a Dig at Microsoft)

 Am reading a couple of books at the moment worth passing along:

"Math For the Frightened" by Colin Pask is yet another volume that purports to make math more accessible to those who have an aversion to it -- there are a plethora of such offerings around; almost a genre unto themselves -- and I am glad such volumes exist, but I do think they tend to oversell themselves. Math takes effort; it doesn't come easy for most of us, especially beyond certain levels. Assuredly some approaches to math introduce a bit more fun or interest or understanding to the subject than some other approaches, but for those with genuinely weak analytical skills or simply 'afraid' of math, such volumes likely won't turn the tide.
The Pask effort is a good and sincere attempt, but I imagine will still leave non-math-types in the dust at many points. I'm more comfortable recommending the book to those already inclined to math, or to math educators, than to any who are genuinely "frightened" of math (I'm probably more a fan of the "For Dummies" series of mathematics offerings for the math-averse). However, I'm only half-way through Pask's volume, and scanning ahead it looks like some of the best material may be yet to come. And here's a couple of quotes I like from the book that touch upon why reaching out to the math-challenged is so important:
From Arnold Toynbee: "I chose to give up mathematics, and I have lived to regret this keenly after it has become too late to repair the mistake. The calculus, even a taste of it, would have given me an important and illuminating additional outlook on the Universe."

And this from W.H. Auden: "I was cut off from mathematics. And this is a tragedy. That means half the world is lost. Scientists have no difficulty understanding all the humanities, but if you don't have mathematics you can't understand what they're up to."

A bit of a diversion, but a second book I'm reading and enjoying is William Poundstone's new "Are You Smart Enough to Work at Google?" -- a volume centered interestingly around the questions, puzzles, techniques currently employed by hiring interviewers at many top-flight high-tech companies -- an entertaining and breezy read (I recommend); I'll probably pull a few 'Friday Puzzles' from it for the blog.
Nothing to do with mathematics, but I'll close out with this joke from the volume that gave me a good chuckle:
"A helicopter was flying around above Seattle when a malfunction disabled all of its electronic navigation and communications equipment. The clouds were so thick that the pilot couldn't tell where he was. Finally, the pilot saw a tall building, flew toward it, circled, and held up a handwritten sign that said WHERE AM I? in large letters. People in the tall building quickly responded to the aircraft, drawing their own large sign: YOU ARE IN A HELICOPTER. The pilot smiled, looked at his map, determined the route to Sea-Tac Airport, and landed safely. After they were on the ground, the co-pilot asked the pilot how he had done it. 'I knew it had to be the Microsoft building,' he said, 'because they gave me a technically correct but completely useless answer.' ;-))

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