Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Egan Chernoff aka MatthewMaddux

Math-Frolic Interview #11

You might not know the name "Egan Chernoff"... but you may know "Matthew Maddux" which is a sort of alias for Dr. Chernoff on the Web. And if, perchance, you've always wondered where that name stems from, well, just think about the word "mathematics" spoken a little differently.
Anyway, Dr. Chernoff is a Canadian university professor (webpage HERE) who writes what he calls "MatthewMadduxEducation" on the Web. But I'll let him tell you more of what he does...: (again, I have bolded bits of the content)

1) To start, could you tell readers a little about your background or anything else pertinent to your math presence on the Web...

Well, “math presence on the web,” to me, is a bit of a stretch. With that said, thank you for the kind words and, also, for your thoughtful questions. 
Looking back, this all started when I decided (way back in Grade 12) that I wanted to become a high school teacher. While in university I initially had plans to be a Chemistry major (thus, eventually, a Chemistry teacher), but that was until I took an Organic Chemistry course; and then a Geography major (thus, eventually, a Geography teacher), but that was until I found out the path I was on would lead to a BA and not a BSc, which, for some reason, mattered to me at the time. Ultimately, I decided to major in mathematics after taking a third year probability course in my second year of university. After that, for the next two years, I took some great mathematics and statistics courses from some great teachers of mathematics (e.g., Denis Acreman, Shane Rollans). With my degree I was able to then join the Secondary Mathematics Integrated Project (SMIP) at the University of British Columbia (UBC), where I would obtain my BEd. At this point, for the province of British Columbia, I had everything I needed to be a high school math teacher...except a job. In the end, I got a job rather quickly. For the next five years I taught high school mathematics (at Lord Byng Secondary and Killarney Secondary). What happened next is, perhaps, most pertinent to my “math presence on the web.”

My friend, Dave Cacchioni, and I were sitting in a pub, drinking beer, talking ellipses and the idea of going back to school was broached. Although, at the time, we both lived quite close to UBC, we decided to pursue our graduate studies at Simon Fraser University (SFU). SFU had a Secondary Mathematics Education Master’s, which appealed to us for three reasons. First, there was an MSc (not just an MEd) option. Second, we were excited that three of the six courses we had to take were math courses offered by the Department of Mathematics. Third, the program was designed such that we would take one course each semester and, as a result, could continue our teaching careers. A few courses into my Master’s and I was approached to concurrently pursue my doctorate at the David Wheeler Institute for Research in Mathematics Education, SFU. I said yes, which, looking back, signified my transition from the high school classroom to the university classroom. Soon I was teaching half time at my high school and half time at SFU. One year later, I had left the high school classroom and was working at SFU as a research assistant and sessional instructor teaching math and math education courses. Smash cut to few years later and I was living in Saskatoon working as an assistant professor of mathematics education at the University of Saskatchewan.

My math presence on the web started June, 2009 when I joined Twitter as @MatthewMaddux. My goal, at the beginning, was to use Twitter so that the members of the Master’s cohort I started would stay in touch outside of the classroom. Soon after, however, I realized that Twitter and other forms of social media could be used for much, much more. Over the past few years I adopted other forms of social media, but, more recently (as I detail below), I have started to focus on just a few services over the last little while. I think what I am trying to do now is akin to the “slow-news movement.” However, “slow-social-media for mathematics (education)” doesn’t have a nice ring to it. One last thing pertinent to my math presence on the web. In June, 2009, when I started this all, I asked myself one question: Will “digital service” be required of university professors in the future. I said yes. So, you can consider my math presence on the web the union of personal interest and, what I call, digital service.

2) Most of the folks I'm interviewing are math bloggers, so you're a little different in that regard. While you're very active in social media, you don't have a math blog of your own (I'm aware of you mostly through your Twitter feed), but what you do is actively "curate" math information that others are posting around the Web, at your site called "MatthewMaddux Education." Can you explain that a little further and what got you started with it? What is the ultimate goal for the MatthewMaddux site?
On the one hand, I disagree, I do have a math blog. Here’s the link: www.matthewmadduxeducation.  On the other hand, I agree, I am not a math blogger. Is it possible for someone who is not a math blogger to have a math blog? Yes. How is this possible? Microblogging. Taking all this into account, technically, I’m not a math blogger, but I am a math microblogger; and, technically, I don’t have a math blog, but I do have two math microblogs: my Twitter feed (@MatthewMaddux) and my Tumblr site ( (Worthy of note, if a microblog is a blog, or a form of blogging, then, technically, I am a math blogger and have a math blog. Clear as mud!)
Essentially, “MatthewMaddux Education” began when I moved my microblogging from Twitter to Tumblr, that is, from @MatthewMaddux to “MatthewMaddux Education.” The ultimate goal for “MatthewMaddux Education” is the same as it was for @MatthewMaddux: develop a permanent, central, digital repository for the mathematics (education) information I find via the web. Honestly, I probably would have stayed with Twitter for my microblogging, but it became, for me, too conversational, too “in the now,” too “stream of consciousness” and, definitely, too difficult to access earlier tweets (although I understand this has now changed). In fact, if you were to look through all (approximately) 7700 of my tweets, you would find a microblog dedicated solely to mathematics (education) information  — not the “dry turkey sandwich I had for lunch” or “the jerk that cut me off in traffic.” I even made some attempts to try and capture what I wanted out of Twitter (which lead to an iBook, @MatthewMaddux 2011: Chronicled Tweet by Tweet), but, in the end, I decided I could better achieve my ultimate goal with Tumblr.

3) There is now SO MUCH math content being put on the Web it seems like a very daunting task for one person to attempt curation… do you feel at times overwhelmed by it, or do you feel you have it under pretty good control at this point? And what sorts of criteria do you use for selecting what you do and don't curate?
 There have definitely been times where I have felt overwhelmed. While detailing my use of social media for mathematics education during the inaugural lecture of the Wheeler Institute in Second Life (here’s a link:, I discussed my first “Twitter crisis.” At the time, I wasn’t (for some stupid reason) skipping any of the tweets from the 100+ people I was following (which is why I consider Tweetbot both a blessing and a curse). The “Twitter crisis” occurred when I turned on my iPad after the three (long) flights I took in order to get to Poland for a conference. Let’s just say there were too many tweets to handle and a few short minutes later the number of people I was following went from 100+ to 0. 
Actually, that feeling of being overwhelmed comes back every once and a while, but, at this particular point in time, everything is under control. There are two reasons for my current state of confidence (which will be shattered when the next technological “advancement” comes along). First, my use of Tumblr and Twitter is hierarchical. In other words, all my Tumblr posts are automatically posted to Twitter (and, actually, to Facebook). Working in the other direction, however, Twitter posts do not show up on Tumblr. Second, although I followed as many as 200+ people on Twitter in 2012, I currently don’t follow anyone. The way things are currently set up, my use of Google alerts (sent via email and RSS), RSS feeds, Evernote, and Instapaper captures nearly 100% of what I was looking for on Twitter. 
The criteria I use for selecting what information to curate is quite simple: does the information resonate with me? (As for what information is of interest to or resonates with me, that is a very complicated question; however, as the “MatthewMaddux Education” archive gets larger and larger it will concurrently paint a better and better picture of my interests.) If so, then I will curate the information and, if not, then I won’t curate the information. Alternatively stated, if the information resonates with me then it is a “signal” and, if not, then it is “noise.” If I deem the information a signal there is, however, one last step. I need to determine whether the signal is a “clear” signal or a “noisy” signal. Clear signals end up on Tumblr (which automatically end up on Twitter) and noisy signals end up on Twitter. As a result, Tumblr has a “better” signal to noise ratio than Twitter.

4) Approximately how much time per week do you spend on your "curation" activities?
That’s a good question and is one that I am often asked. The short answer, not as much time as one would expect. To be clear, I don’t count my reading or watching or listening of the information as time spent on curation activities — I would be doing that anyways.

As for the non-reading, non-watching and non-listening components of my curation activities, RSS feeds and Google Alerts, for me, are key. They’re like an inbox for the internet. Once set up, you just sit back and wait for the information to come to you. Of course, every once in a while, one has to venture out to find more feeds or create new alerts, which is where following people on Twitter (and looking at the people they follow) is a big help. The other key for me is that programs like Evernote, Readability, Pocket, Instapaper, Reeder and Tweetbot now all work “seamlessly” across my iMac, MacBook Air, iPad and iPhone. As the hardware becomes more and more ubiquitous, I’m never really too far away from a device that will allow me to “check in” on see what’s going on. 
While finding signals doesn’t take much time at all, posting can be time consuming. Posting to Twitter is a snap, but posting to Tumblr is a little more time consuming — I like to post a snippet that could persuade a reader to click through to the full article. Trying to put a number on it, when I sit down for one of my sessions I can produce roughly 20 posts in an hour and, given that I average about 80 posts a month, my current activity on “MatthewMaddux Education” takes a couple of hours a week (minus the reading, watching and listening). 
5) Do you recall when you first fell in love with math and when you decided to pursue it professionally?
I do not pursue mathematics professionally. So, perhaps a more accurate way of phrasing your question would be as follows: Do you recall when you first fell in love with [probability] and when you decided to pursue [probabilistic knowledge and thinking] professionally. 
Yes, sort of, my affinity for probability definitely began during my undergraduate studies, but truly blossomed during the five years I tried to account for high school students incorrect responses to basic probability questions. The moment I decided to professionally pursue probabilistic thinking and knowledge, however, is crystal clear. During my graduate studies at SFU, when I was reading A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper by John Allen Paulos, I came across the heuristics and biases research of psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman. I immediately got out of the bed I was reading in, went over to the computer and downloaded their seminal (1974) article, “Judgment under uncertainty: heuristics and biases,” from the journal Science. Reading Paulos’ book, thus Tversky and Kahneman article, ultimatley led me to investigate subjective probabilities derived from the perceived randomness of sequences of outcomes for my graduate studies. I continue similar research to this very day. Looking back I now realize, I should, one of these days, go back and finish Paulos’ book!

6) You seem to have an especially strong interest in aspects of probability…can you say what draws you to that particular area of mathematics? Is it (at least in part) because probabilities pretty much surround all of us in our daily lives and yet it is an area the average person usually greatly MISunderstands?
Yes, I do have a very strong interest in probability. In fact, it consumes me and most of my time. As for what draws me to probability, there are numerous factors (e.g., the late emergence historically, the multiple interpretations, the famous questions, our perceptions of randomness, gambling, quantum mechanics and the list goes on), but, definitely, the counter-intuitive nature of probability is one of the biggest factors that draws me and my research to this particular area of mathematics
As Martin Gardner wrote in aha! Gotcha, "more than most branches of mathematics, probability swarms with results that are strongly counterintuitive, with problems for which the correct solution seems utterly contrary to common sense" (p. 85). The part that really draws me in is that it is not just the “average” person that has difficulty with probability. The use of misconceptions, misperceptions, heuristics, biases and logical fallacies is found across a wide swath of individuals (including, but not limited to, doctors, lawyers, teachers, professors, psychologists, nurses and, yes, even mathematicians and statisticians). Come on, even Paul Erdos, according to Paul Vazsonyi, when shown the solution to the Monty Hall Problem (initially) said “No, that is impossible, it should make no difference.” How could you not love probability?!
What I’m really interested in, however, yes, even more than the probability itself, is trying to get a handle on “what’s going on” when people solve probability problems. Currently, I’m investigating the probabilistic content knowledge of prospective mathematics teachers. My research, in general, contributes to the limited research on teachers’ probabilistic knowledge. More specifically, my work has led to the development of a variety of theories, models and frameworks, which account for relative likelihood comparisons (e.g., which coin flip sequence is least likely) made by prospective teachers. Currently, I am incorporating more recent developments from the field of cognitive psychology (e.g., attribute substitution), which (I argue) have largely been ignored by those investigating teachers’ probabilistic thinking and knowledge. In addition, I am establishing that informal logical fallacies (e.g., the fallacy of composition, the appeal to ignorance and others) are an effective means to account for normatively incorrect, inconsistent, sometimes inexplicable responses to a variety of probabilistic tasks. To me, the union of probability, psychology and education is a wonderful place to conduct research.
7) What are some favorite (non-technical) math books that you like reading for your own enjoyment, and how about math books that you'd especially recommend to lay people with some math interest?
Whether it’s audio, video or print, I’m a big fan of people who popularize mathematics. As such, here is a list of people I recommend to those who have some interest in math: Alex Bellos, Alexander Bogomolny, Amir Aczel, Card Colm Mulcahy, David Spiegelhalter, Ian Stewart, Ivars Peterson, John Allen Paulos, Keith Devlin, Marcus du Sautoy, Martin Gardner, Samuel Arbesman, Steven Strogatz, Carl Bialik, and The Numberphile Team (found here: 
I also think it’s important that people read Paul Lockhart’s "A Mathematician’s Lament" (found here: In addition, G. H. Hardy’s "A Mathematician’s Apology" (found here:'s%20Apology.pdf). 
Oh yeah, for those who are perhaps more mathematically inclined, I would recommend Pitici’s recent series: The Best Writing on Mathematics 2010, The Best Writing on Mathematics 2011 and The Best Writing on Mathematics 2012. Good stuff!

I'm familiar with all these, except for David Spiegelhalter, so I may have to investigate him further... looks interesting.
8) To round yourself out a bit, when you're not doing mathy things, what are some of your main interests/hobbies/activities?
Thanks for asking. I’m a big fan of stand up comedy; I love listening to podcasts and CBC Radio (1 and 2); I walk my dog, Scout, for about an hour a day; I enjoy reading non-fiction; I enjoy good TV, but that is getting harder and harder to find these days; and, once a week, I play left wing for the Engineering team of the University of Saskatchewan’s Faculty and Staff Hockey League.
9) Any parting words, not covered above, you'd care to pass along to a math-oriented audience?
Yes, calculus is perilously perched at the "top" of school mathematics, it’s days are numbered and that’s ok... statistics is waiting in the wings.
Thanks for the opportunity to respond to your questions.
Egan Chernoff (@MatthewMaddux)

I'm not sure how much you're being completely serious and how much tongue-in-cheek, but the recent ascendency of Nate Silver, and some others, has certainly raised statistics to the limelight (in America at least)... its future emphasis in education will indeed be interesting to observe!

ADDENDUM: Egan has responded elsewhere that he was very serious about the above proposal, and one of the links he mentions to make the point is this fine 3-minute Arthur Benjamin TEDTalk: 

Thanks for all the responses Egan.

Originally, I had postponed interviewing Dr. Chernoff because the video of him speaking on the Web (referenced above) covers him so well:

If you missed it the first time I linked to it, give it a play (about an hour-long, but it doesn't always load or play well).

...Lastly, I'll again appeal, that if any math communicator is willing to be interviewed here this is a good time to let me know, as I don't have any further interviews outstanding at the moment that I'm expecting to be returned (unless someone surprises me; YO! Vi Hart, surprise me... ;-)). The only incentive I can offer is a little added publicity for your blog or website, or books, if you're an author.

No comments: