Thursday, November 8, 2012

Greg Ross of Futility Closet

Math-frolic Interview #8

"An idler's miscellany of compendious amusements." --Futility Closet

Another major treat for me today! If the name "Greg Ross" doesn't immediately ring a bell, you might still know his blog "Futility Closet," one of the most consistently entertaining blogs on the Web for geeky types! Despite it's relatively simple, plain presentation, it's become a daily stop for 1000's of readers.  Futility Closet is not a math blog per se, but does have its share of math content (and puzzles and chess problems also), and it was great fun for me to learn more about its proprietor (...oh, and learn where the name "Futility Closet" came from also)! Enjoy....


1) Most folks I interview here are math bloggers, but your blog "Futility Closet" is different and hard-to-define. I know you work professionally as a scientific editor, but what is your academic past… do you come out of a journalism or writing background, or more of a science-trained education (or something else)?
My training is in magazine journalism, but I've spent most of my career working with engineers and scientists, first at IEEE and now at American Scientist. And I've spent some time in education as well, at the National Educational Service and then at, an online university.  I'm happiest when I'm learning, but there's no one discipline that captivates me. I suppose that's reflected in the blog.
2) Can you say how math fits into your life and work… is it just one among several side interests, or anything more than that?
It's just one, really. I love the beauty of math and the ingenuity of mathematical arguments, but I'm equally drawn to history, philosophy, and language. I guess I'm attracted to interesting ideas generally, and math is certainly a rich source. The blog has given me an excuse to explore math a bit more deeply than I otherwise would have, but I'm definitely an amateur.
3) Your blog is one of the quirkiest ones out there… and yet it becomes a favorite for everyone I know who finds it. How did the idea for the blog first come to you, and how confident were you that there would be an audience for it? Also, where does the title "Futility Closet" originate from?
When I started at American Scientist I wanted to create an informal site where I could experiment with web development. The content was really an afterthought -- I'd experimented with blogging in the past, but writing about my own opinions seemed too self-involved for me. So I just tried to envision a site that I myself would want to read, following O. Henry's dictum "Write what you like, there is no other rule."  For me that meant a collection of concise, self-contained posts on curiosities in history, literature, art, science, philosophy, and math. O. Henry knew what he was talking about -- I've never promoted the site, but it's getting a million pageviews a month now.
The name Futility Closet was sort of an accident. My wife went to American University in Washington D.C., and one day while visiting there I saw a door marked UTILITY CLOSET where someone had scratched an F into the wood next to the placard. I'm sure there's a great story behind that, but I don't know what it is. Years later, when I wanted to buy a domain for the site, that was one of the few names I could think of that wasn't already taken. I suppose it's memorable, at least.
4) Do any particular math posts that you've done come to mind as personal favorites? And how about puzzle posts?
I think the most popular math post of all time was the one on spirolaterals, from April 2010:
That involves a bit of a mystery. I first came across spirolaterals in The Penguin Dictionary of Curious and Interesting Geometry, by David Wells, who gives the swastika example but not its source. Wells credits Frank Olds for inventing spirolaterals and Martin Gardner for discussing them in his November 1973 column in Scientific American, but none of these three explains who discovered the swastika example, so I don't know whom to credit for it. It's certainly striking.
This summer Gary Antonick at the New York Times asked for my favorite puzzles -- I sent him these:
I told him that I seem to be drawn to puzzles that have a mathematical character but that require little math to solve; that's what these seem to have in common. He was asking because Mark Frauenfelder had run the "catbird seat" puzzle on Boing Boing, and Gary picked that up in September:
5) Approximately how much time per week do you spend working on your blog? And is it principally "a labor of love" or something more than that for you?  Might there ever be a "Futility Closet" book in the future?
I guess it's a couple of hours a day now on weekdays, and then flat-out on weekends.  My day job is demanding, and I have freelance work to do as well, so the blog takes up what used to be my free time -- it involves a lot of trips to university libraries. I'm sort of dog-paddling toward developing the site further, first by redesigning it and then, hopefully, starting a series of books. There seems to be a lot of potential, but it's a real struggle to find time to work on it.
6) You deal with a lot of real oddities on your blog… you're probably a pretty skilled fact-checker(!), but have you ever published a post only to find out later its content was inaccurate, fake, questionable, or for some other reason ought be retracted as published?
Yes. I spend about half my research time in fact-checking, but even then errors get by. Happily the readers are pretty erudite, and they tend to put me right when this happens. The most recent case occurred last month with a post on the paradox of the second ace ( I had published that originally in February 2009, but a reader showed me that I'd flubbed the setup by letting the player volunteer the contents of her hand, rather than answering questions put to her by an observer. So I took it down and it sat in my notes for a year until I found the time to work on it again. I think it's okay now. :)
7) Do you from time-to-time repeat posts you've done before, and if so, do you have a rule-of-thumb for how much time must pass before you'll re-run post material used previously?
No, I try not to do this -- it would mean deleting the older post, which would break any links that readers had made to it. Plus it would be boring for long-time readers, who have already seen the material. I'll make an exception if an old post can be developed in some way or combined with new material to make something that I think warrants renewed attention -- the paradox of the second ace is a good example. But generally I try for fresh material with each post.
8) You don't have "comments" on your blog-posts… is that just to avoid the headache that they can be or for some other reason? And do you get a lot of email feedback from readers?
I correspond with readers all day, but I think general experience has shown that a good Internet community requires pretty close moderation, and at the moment it's everything I can do just to write the content.  But that's one of the developments I'm considering -- I know from my email correspondence that we have the makings of a good community, if that's what readers want, either post-specific comments or a general forum.  We're redesigning the site now, and the new version will include an author blog where we can discuss what to do (if anything).
9) To round yourself out a bit, when you're not researching/writing geeky things, what are some of your main interests/hobbies/activities?
Oh, man, nothing. I run, and I used to play guitar and piano, and chess, but right now I'm just working flat-out all the time. What a terrible answer!
10) Any parting words, not covered above, you'd care to pass along to a math-oriented audience?
No, except to thank them for their interest and their patience with me. I'm always looking for material, so if anyone has a prospective submission, they're welcome to send it to me via the site. Thanks for reading!

...If you're not familiar with Futility Closet definitely check out some of the links Greg has passed along here (you'll get hooked)... oh, and if you are familiar with Futility Closet RE-check out, and RE-enjoy, some of the above classics that Greg has provided (and you can always search his archives via several categories as well).
Thanks Greg for finding the time to take part here; great fun for me. Looking forward to the books!

No comments: