Sunday, June 30, 2019

When Martin Let Me Down...

It's Sunday, so, hey, something a little preachy...
I recently stumbled across a post on my former MathTango blog from 2 1/2 years ago that I didn’t even remember writing (remembered thinking about it, just not ever actually posting it!). It touches on some matters I was recently thinking about again, so will re-post here with minor revisions:

We’ll start with a news story (…because we live in this wonderful time when you get to make up any damn thing you want and pass it along as "breaking news"):

==> According to top-classified PRIME Security documents uncovered by TMD special investigator Alexus Jones, the Donald Trump we see is in fact an electronic Slovenian-built, fully-programmable cyborg under direct control of long-time Moscow operative Melania Kvorniporakovski and her Russian handlers (no one, for example, has ever seen him actually use a rest room)….

Que sera sera…. (p.s… by the way, the beauty of fake news is that it's difficult to prove false since one can just add further layers of lies to keep it going).

Moving on….
There were many factors for Hillary Clinton's 2016 election defeat, but the simplest is that James Comey’s late intervention torpedoed her campaign, halting her momentum and moving many undecideds (cringing at the prospect of hearing about emails for the next 4 years), over to the Donald side. Without that single news event all indications are HRC would've won, and of course she DID win the popular vote handily. But with that said, at least the Comey announcement was an actual news event. 
Another factor that got a lot of attention is all the “fake news” reports that were passed along (and believed), especially on social media, by the unaware (or dare I say, the none-too-bright)… some of it so ridiculous on-its-face as to bode ill for Democracy’s future! Which leads to the two topics I want to raise here. Because... what-the-hell is wrong with people's basic reasoning skills these days!?

American demographics are changing; specifically the percentage of older people, say 70 and over, is far greater than in the past relative to the number of young people, say 30 and under. Medical/health advancements and lower birth rates mean age proportions are becoming more skewed all the time.
But ANOTHER potential skewing is FAR more controversial...
It has been called "dysgenics" or 'retrogressive or backward or reverse evolution' (the opposite of eugenics). Unfortunately, controversial Nobel-Prize winner William Shockley brought the idea to public attention decades ago, though it well-precedes him in the biology community. If you remove notions of race and IQ from the discussion, the more general concept is worth reviewing as a partial explanation for the anti-intellectualism, anti-science, anti-establishment, and fringe views on prominent display these days. 

Shockley spoke out at a time that the "Zero Population Growth" movement, family-planning, and widespread access to birth control were first spreading across America. In brief, his idea was that the most educated, most successful, most fit individuals were primary practitioners of these new trends, while the least educated, least successful, and least fit, were largely unaware of, or uninterested in, such trends. In short, the most fit, capable couples were often deliberately limiting families to 2-3 children at most, while their less fit (less capable) counterparts were more likely to have 4 or more offspring, who in turn grew up in less ideal conditions, received less education, were generally less fit or successful, and continued the cycle — self-perpetuated skewing (of ability and education). 

70 years since the world collectively said "never again," the rise of xenophobia, anti-semitism, isolationism/nationalism, anti-elitism, anti-science, and simplistic-thinking across the globe is unmistakeable, and may coincide with factors Shockley noted decades ago. 
An alternative explanation for recent political events specifically in the U.S. is that the right-wing have always been a part of the American populace, but were not very active politically in prior generations. Beginning in the 1960’s the Republican Party deliberately set out to contact, coddle, mobilize, and activate conservative rural and fundamentalist elements (the so-called  "Silent Majority") through targeted mass mailings and talk radio... and now also with digital social networking. They were successful -- millions who were never previously active in politics now suddenly are... and they've changed the very nature of the Republican Party (for many formerly key figures in the GOP it's a case of 'be careful what you wish for' as they've essentially lost their Party).

In any event, if the numbers of less-educated, less critically-thinking people have risen in recent decades (partly perhaps because dysgenics, mathematically-speaking, may be baked into the demographics), then widespread quality education, starting early, may be the only antidote to all this. Which leads me finally to Martin Gardner….

The greatest skeptical mistake Gardner ever made, in my opinion, was his derision of non-Aristotelian "General Semantics."  While some elements of G.S. (and its founder, Alfred Korzybski) are easily critiqued, the broader intent and purposes of G.S. were admirable. G.S. fundamentally trains people to be aware of the many ways, words and language manipulate thinking, perception, decision-making. In short, it assists in 'critical thinking,' in dismally short supply these days. 
Gardner, of all people, should have been a fierce adherent of G.S.; instead his scorn helped make it a fringe field, doing for G.S. what Noam Chomsky did for “behaviorism” in psychology. In fact I don't know of any way to teach people critical (and skeptical) thinking without employing tenets from General Semantics. They are simple and basic, yet often not internalized by people without some instruction. G.S. inculcates a wariness of language in advertising/marketing, politics, relationships, religion, news-coverage, and even science, and a recognition of the subtle dogmatism that infuses so much communication. On a sidenote, here are a couple of popular 'taxonomies of logical fallacies' which actually relate back (unknowingly) to a number of G.S. basic principles:

(You may be able to embiggen them on your screen for better readability, or download them -- they ought be somewhere in every high school, IMO!)

It amazes me that secondary students are still forced to read Shakespeare or Dickens or Hardy, but never taught rudiments of how language operates on our cognition, a far more important faculty in today's world (indeed it's amazing/disappointing how many life skills are NOT taught in our schooling, but left almost to chance!).

I won’t try to summarize G.S. principles here, and I haven’t kept up with G.S. volumes over the years, but two of the old popularizations (there are many) that most influenced me were:
Language In Thought and Action  by S.I. Hayakawa
The Tyranny of Words  by Stuart Chase

In its own way, Alan Sokal’s “Beyond the Hoax,” which I’ve referenced before, also touches on many of these issues. I was a bit miffed some time ago to see Ben Goldacre, in a tweet, imply (if I interpreted it correctly) that Sokal’s hoax may have actually contributed to the large-scale mistrust people now exhibit towards science and academics. That’s not true at all; on the contrary Sokal’s target was specifically 'postmodernism,' and some of the ’softer’ disciplines that brush on a mere veneer of science instead of the real thing. We need more Alan Sokals, not fewer, to combat the growing anti-elitism, anti-science sentiments thriving today.
Anyway, at the bottom of the page I’ve also tacked on a couple of weblinks that further detail the whole rift between Gardner and G.S. Some people even viewed G.S. as a “cult,” in part probably because L. Ron Hubbard was said to have incorporated parts of it for his early “Dianetics” program, but many of G.S.'s principles are broad enough that they can be incorporated in any number of programs.

In fairness to Gardner I will note that he was less critical of the “popularizers” of G.S. than of its Korzybskian foundations and some of its technical notions.

In his autobiography Gardner uses an example of how "E-prime," a G.S. idea that never caught on (which advocated avoiding all forms of "to be"), would alter some simple doggerel. Here’s an example of an E-prime version on left versus standard on right in parentheses:

Roses look red  (Roses are red)
Violets look blue  (Violets are blue)
Honey tastes sweet   (Honey is sweet)
As sweet as you

I suppose to many (like Gardner) these may seem trivial, innocuous changes, but buried in language/words are deep meanings/mindsets and effects, and the effects of these two versions ARE different (the first being more accurate, less dogmatic; the second being assertive, but unprovable and potentially inaccurate). Emotions, prejudices, ambiguity are intrinsically buried and maintained in our language use. I’m a bit flummoxed that a writer as clear and incisive as Gardner didn’t show a deeper grasp of how words (dangerously) manipulate people. If you think that words like "chairman," "fireman," and "policeman" are sexist and ought be changed to "chairperson," "fire fighter," and "police officer" then you believe in elements of G.S.

Or take a different short sentence: “Mary had a little lamb.” 
Sounds simple; you likely think you understand it. But in fact you CAN’T really understand it without more context because it has too many possible meanings. Just emphasizing different words shifts the meaning:
MARY had a little lamb.
Mary HAD a little lamb.
Mary had a LITTLE lamb.
Mary had a little LAMB.

And putting these varying sentences into different extended contexts can further significantly alter what is being said. The point is that routine language (that we take for granted) is imprecise and ambiguous, yet people react to it as if it is clear and explicit. I’m using minor examples here, but there are far more nefarious ones out there in the world (especially in this day of bountiful conspiracy theories and lies).

There is some irony that a spurned figure like Shockley was perhaps prescient in foreseeing where the U.S. was headed, while Gardner’s much-touted skepticism led him to rebuke one program that could have prevented this electoral outcome; prevented the very gullibility and irrationality he spent his adult life battling.

Properly taught at young ages, General Semantics, would be an antidote to the nationalism, anti-elitism, anti-intellectualism we now face. Though it is still around, G.S. basically flopped back in the 50s/60s, shortly before the time that Shockley began worrying aloud about dysgenic factors in this country. 50 or 60 years later a demagogue gets elected President of the U.S. Well, no shit Sherlock!! ;-)
As a self-described “democratic-Socialist,” Gardner would be spinning in his grave (or wherever), at the 2016 election outcome. But I’m here to say, even if a bit facetiously, that he was unknowingly partially responsible. And the trend is no better in many other democracies. Fascism will always hold appeal for an unaware or angry populace.

p.s… an aside: I once briefly mentioned to Jim Propp my disappointment in Gardner’s failure to take General Semantics seriously, and he countered that every fan of Martin has some one beef with Gardner -- some particular thing they think he got very wrong. So rest-assured, in that context, I still consider myself a typical, inveterate admirer of Martin, but as a skeptic and even a word-maven, how he missed the essence and significance of what G.S. tried to teach I’ll never quite fathom.

For anyone wanting to know more about the Gardner/G.S. clash here are a couple of pages that go into further detail:

Friday, June 28, 2019

Chi-i-i-i-i-i-ll Friday *

[ *  "Chill Friday" is Math-Frolic's meditative musical diversion, heading into each weekend]

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Erik Demaine… Free Spirit

OK, for today’s math profile we’ll be talking about E.D… no, no, not erectile dysfunction (as all you emeritus 75 year-old Yale profs were automatically thinking), but Erik Demaine, one of the most interesting chaps out there. Dr. Demaine is a Professor in Computer Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (that’s a school in Cambridge, Massachusetts, down the road from Lesley University). I’m sure most professional mathematicians well know of Erik, but for my lay readers who might not, we’ll start at the beginning:
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.

WAIT!! No, I’ve gone back too far, let’s start at February 28, 1981, the day Erik was born as an up-and-coming Pisces with Pythagorus rising. Six days later Walter Cronkite stepped down after 19 years of anchoring the CBS News, though I think that was purely coincidental (and as we all know, if you've read Nassim Taleb, coincidence is not causation). 1981 is also the year of the Simon & Garfunkel ‘Concert in Central Park,’ not that Erik would remember any of that as he was probably sucking on a pacifier or a Klein bottle at the time. 
Anyway, he was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, making him ineligible to become President of these here United (LOL) States even though he’d be better at it than any imaginable Republican candidate of the future (unless of course Abe Lincoln is exhumed, cloned, and run against Kirsten Gillibrand).

At around the age of 7, Erik was identified as a “child prodigy” and began traveling across North America with his high-school-educated, artist father. One article states that Erik was raised among hippies and jugglers and free thinkers” ( doubt the world would be a better place if we all were!). He has since become a world traveler, still often working with his father, combining math and art. As a kid he got interested in mathematics when he wondered aloud how video games worked and his dad explained that you had to know computer programming which in turn meant knowing mathematics. So Erik was off and running.

During that youthful time he was home-schooled until finally entering a Canadian university at the age of 12, an age when I was still vigorously playing with Silly Putty (…much like today). At 14 he had his bachelor’s degree, moving on to the University of Waterloo where he completed a PhD. by the age of 20. His dissertation was on “computational origami” (and even won an award as the best PhD. thesis in Canada) so you know he’s gotta be a fun person!
Also at age 20 he joined the faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (there must've been no suitable openings at Pomona College), the youngest professor in the school’s history. In 2003 he won a MacArthur Fellowship (so-called “genius grant”) apparently knocking me (waaaaaaay) out of contention. In 2011 he became a full MIT professor. And he soon acquired an ‘Aaronson Number’ of 1, publishing with computer scientist Scott Aaronson… OK, I made that up, there is no such thing as an ‘Aaronson Number,’ but there should be (and as soon as Scott wins a MacArthur Award I may be profiling him too). p.s.: Erik DOES have an Erdös Number of 2 (while mine continues to languish around 2googol ).
By now it’s probably time for Erik (approaching 40 and losing his edge) to retire and pass the baton on to some new prodigy, so he can spend more time on his many, varied hobbies… no, no, he is beloved by his students and has MANY productive, game-filled years ahead, during which perhaps he can even figure out how-the-heck dang Silly Putty works. Speaking of hobbies, Erik is into glassblowing, origami, juggling, magic, video games, improvisational comedy/theatre, and Kama Sutra (just kidding, I mean c'mon Kama Sutra is sooooo 1960s). A virtuoso of talents.

Demaine's primary research interests focus on algorithms, including protein-folding, computational geometry, and other complexities. His MacArthur award describes him as a “computational geometer tackling and solving difficult problems related to folding and bending—moving readily between the theoretical and the playful, with a keen eye to revealing the former in the latter”. In other words he’s a 10-year old in a grown man’s body. Indeed, much like Tadashi Tokieda, who I profiled earlier, "play" and curiosity are the  essential elements in Erik's whole approach to teaching/learning/doing math and science, and his office is filled with toys, games, puzzles, and Jimmy Hoffa's ashes (NOT!).

His fun side is further exemplified by the fact that he is President of the Board of Directors of the Gathering 4 Gardner group, carrying on Martin Gardner’s recreational legacy.

Here he is at one of their gatherings talking about juggling and card shuffling:

...and here’s one brief interview with Erik:

There are lots more videos of him on YouTube, where he consistently demonstrates his immaculate taste in cutting-edge fashion:

Anyway, Erik has done more in less than 40 years than I’ve accomplished in... well... somewhat more than that (…though I’ve gotten pretty good with Silly Putty). And with any luck I hope one day he lands a plum job in the Scott Aaronson Presidential Administration. With any luck, some of you will live long enough to see it (I, on the other hand, may have perished during the 4th term of the Trump Administration).

A brief transcribed interview with Erik is here:


Prior math profiles have been of: 

Friday, June 21, 2019

Chi-i-i-i-i-i-ll Friday *

[ *  "Chill Friday" is Math-Frolic's meditative musical diversion, heading into each weekend]

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Books and More…

First a few quickie book notes:

1)  Interesting to see Oscar Fernandez’s 2014 “Everyday Calculus” suddenly re-appear now as a paperback. [see correction/update at bottom...] Can’t help but think this has something to do with the widespread acclaim/popularity for Steven Strogatz’s current “Infinite Powers.” And later this year Ben Orlin has his own take on calculus coming out and perhaps giving Strogatz a run for his money in this genre. ;) 
Fascinating (and wonderful) to see the bane of so many previous students, calculus, suddenly entering the mainstream of popular book fare. Sort of wish Martin Gardner was around to see this new emphasis. He attempted a remake of a calculus text decades ago and would no doubt love seeing the renewed interest in and approaches to the subject.

2)  William Poundstone is one of my favorite nonfiction writers. Just finished his latest offering: “The Doomsday Calculation”… good, thought-provoking book, lousy title methinks (because who wants to read about doomsday; like the daily news isn’t already bad enough).
Anyway, lots of fascinating topics, thought experiments, paradoxes, conundrums, philosophy, (Bayesian) probabilities, cosmology, ETs, the Matrix, AI, mind-stretching stuff, etc. Give it a whirl (don't be put off by the title)!

3) …also, ICYMI, AMS with MAA has made a wonderful compendium of essays, “Living Proof: stories of resilience along the mathematical journey,” available for free download on the net:
A great read both for professional mathematicians, and especially for those contemplating a possible math path ahead for themselves.

4)  And on the Twitters, Mike Lawler gives Graham Farmelo's new book, "The Universe Speaks in Numbers," a "100% terrific" rating. It's on my to-do list, though I'm a bit burnt-out on physics reading at the moment so it's not high-up on that list.

In other news, get your popcorn ready! Coming to a computer screen near you, the all-new summertime 2019 "Big Internet Math-Off" from Aperiodical has been announced with a diverse set of vibrant competitors (beginning July 1); Jim Propp returns, but otherwise all-new cast of characters:

Just checked with my bookie, Vinnie Boom Stats, and he analyzed the odds for each competitor to-win-it-all as follows:

Sanderson  3:1
Singh    3:1
Pantaloni  4:1
Silva  4:1
Evans  5:1
Shah   5:1
Freiberger/Thomas  6:1
Warren  6:1
Beveridge   7:1
Propp  7:1
Neale   8:1
Stephen  8:1
Carr   9:1
Corner  9:1
Haensch  9:1
Rycroft-Smith  9:1

Vinnie uses a combination of astrology, Babylonian numerology, and Oolong tea leaves to compute his odds, so no promises (I mean he assured me that Maximum Security would win the Kentucky Derby). 
…Let the upsets begin!

And from Numberphile, a fantastic calculus history lesson (audio podcast) from that Strogatz fellow (you may have heard of him) mentioned up above:

No math, but ICYMI I'll end with a link for chuckles to this widely-reported Canadian story about a plan to get consumers to do the right thing, that backfired, 'cuz ya know it's just hard to mess with human nature:

Correction:  Dr. Fernandez contacted me to let me know that despite the recent appearance of his 2014 volume in my local bookstore, the paperback version of "Everyday Calculus" actually first appeared in 2017. The paperback version of his "The Calculus of Happiness" did just recently appear, and his newest volume is "Calculus Simplified."
(...Maybe Dr. Strogatz should ask for a 10% royalty on all this renewed interest in calculus ;)))

Monday, June 17, 2019

Marilyn and Martin

Just an old article I linked to over a year ago and am passing along again, because it's such an interesting backstory:

It's about the (working) relationship between Marilyn vos Savant and Martin Gardner, and about a slim oddball volume Marilyn penned back when Andrew Wiles 'proved' Fermat's Last Theorem.

Friday, June 14, 2019

Chi-i-i-i-i-i-ll Friday *

[ *  "Chill Friday" is Math-Frolic's meditative musical diversion, heading into each weekend]

Monday, June 10, 2019

Holly Krieger… NOT a Brit!

Just a little musical interlude to introduce today's mathematician profile, this rendition of "The Holly and the Ivy":

Holly Krieger must have her own fan club… or an active stalker… because twice as many requests have come in for a “profile” of her as of any other mathematician (...specifically, she’s had 2 requests with only 1 each for a few other people). 

I used to think that Dr. Krieger was British born-and-raised ’til I was pleasantly surprised to discover she was not, and she & I actually share some commonalities (despite the fact that as a Scorpio, she is horribly incompatible with me). She was born in Champaign, Illinois, less than an hour from my birthplace, and she went to high school in Naperville, just outside Chicago, less than an hour from the prep school I attended. 
In one other overlap, I was happy to see her mention David Hilbert (who I profiled HERE, and is one of my favorites also) as a mathematician she would most like to take a class from.
But that’s where the commonalities end, as her hair is red, and my remaining strands are a tad gray-tinged… well, white… er, uhh, no, I mean silver, yeah that's it, Sean-Connery-silver.
Holly attended the University of Illinois-Champaign (where many of my friends matriculated and/or smoked pot) for her Bachelors degree, and the U. of I. Chicago to complete her Masters, and PhD. in mathematics, though she considered majoring in biology, psychology, Italian, and computer science before settling on math… much as I considered astrology, homeopathy, phrenology, and fermentology, before finally selecting whatever the heck my major turned out to be, lo those many years ago.
She also spent academic time at Berkeley and MIT, and since 2016 has been employed at the University of Cambridge where they speak British. If she punches up her resume just a little bit more she may eventually qualify for a teaching position at Pomona College.

Despite the name similarity, Holly is, so far as I can tell, in no way genealogically-related to Freddy Krueger, who I don’t think ever got beyond high school algebra. I'm still checking to see if she has any possible connection to Justin Kruger of Dunning-Kruger fame.
Her primary area of mathematics interest, is in “dynamics” or the long-term behavior of systems, like why, after 240+ years of ebb-and-flow, the U.S. suddenly finds fascism so downright alluring (even Terry Tao is stumped by that one, though Kurt Gödel long ago foresaw it). She is also interested in number theory, but then hey, what would be the friggin' point of being a math major if you weren't interested in number theory [just my editorial comment].

Unlike several other female mathematicians, I couldn’t find a single photo of Dr. Krieger with teal hair; she does admit to having tattoos however, but says none of them are mathematical... leading one to ponder what and where they are -- and if she won't tell, readers will be forced to use their imaginations. Given her abiding interest in the Mandelbrot Set though, it seems we ought recommend this one to her: 

(from HERE)
...or, if she's slightly more ambitious... or drunk... perhaps this:

In several of her interviews Holly mentions how important social life was for her, and that her discomfort with the nerdiness (and in some instances, arrogance) of mathematicians was part of an initial hesitation to even enter the field. But she picked her colleagues and mentors carefully over the years and emerged a rousing, and sane, success. It all couldn’t help but make me think of the old math joke (indeed probably older than Holly is):
What’s the difference between an introvert and extrovert mathematician?: An introvert mathematician looks at his shoes while talking to you. An extrovert mathematician looks at your shoes.” 
Then again, IF you wear Crocs I’ll ALWAYS look at your shoes (with envy)… LOVE me some Crocs! ...but then who doesn't:

Holly says that at her 10-year high school reunion everyone, except her, seemed to know she would turn out to be a mathematician -- heck, I didn’t know at my 25-year reunion what I would turn out to be! ...and seeing what some of my classmates turned out to be is a little scary (not that I would ever mention Ricky by name).

It’s clear from reading some of her interviews that “proofs” played a major role in leading Krieger down the path to math degrees. Yes, proofs, that bore the bejeebers out of so many, were the alluring stimulus that produced an irresistible click inside Holly’s head which she found worth pursuing (...clicks in my head on-the-other-hand are more likely to indicate dentures coming loose).

So if you’re a number-nerd, or just someone with a weakness for redheads, you can join 7500+ others following Dr. Krieger on Twitter at:
[...I was mortified to discover that on Twitter she DOESN'T follow me, but DOES follow "Cambridge Cows" (who aren't even spherical) -- somehow though, I'll survive and moooove on with my life.]

Holly has done several Numberphile videos:

sample: here she is explaining the "centrifuge (balancing) problem":

Brady Haran no doubt keeps her on Numberphile because she has better hair than Matt Parker and her laugh is contagious... or infectious... or recursive... or something.
On the “My Favorite Theorem” podcast she talked up the "Brouwer Fixed Point Theorem," and she does it even while talking down Dr. Brouwer himself a tad:
(...but she notes that her favorite theorem changes often, so I suspect come Saturday night, and hunger pangs, the Pizza Theorem may be her favorite.)

…and finally a couple of past interviews with her (from which I stole whatever information in this-here profile is actually accurate):

We should enjoy many more years of Dr. Krieger spreading the good news (and dynamics) of mathematics far and wide. Despite extensive investigation I could not determine if Holly's fondness for the UK was more the result of a massive crush on Matt Parker or Marcus du Sautoy, but in any event I think we ought encourage her to Brexit Britain and return to the States (...even though I realize, at this point, that's a bit like asking someone to leave one nuthouse just to go to another). Oy.

Prior math profiles have been of: 


Friday, June 7, 2019

Chi-i-i-i-i-i-ll Friday *

[ *  "Chill Friday" is Math-Frolic's meditative musical diversion, heading into each weekend]

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Tadashi Tokieda … the Bob Ross of Mathematics!

Today, my seventh mathematician "profile," replete with tales, toys, and tingles...
If you’re familiar at all with ASMR phenomena (and you ought be) you may well know that a common trigger for ASMR in many folks are old tapes of Bob Ross’s “The Joy of Painting” — only when ASMR got to be a thing some years ago did millions(?) of people suddenly discover they shared a tingly response to Bob’s slow calming voice and ‘happy little accidents.’ ;)

My contention is that Tadashi Tokieda and his mellifluous voice is the Bob Ross of recreational mathematics! I think I could sit and listen to him read the Stanford University phone directory (of course he would find some way to intermingle science and math into it)!

First, IF you missed it and want to read a real profile of Dr. Tokieda be sure to peruse the excellent, fascinating portrait Erica Klarreich painted of Tadashi for Quanta Magazine (from which much of my info is taken):
…in the meantime I’ll give a few brush strokes.

Tadashi’s life story reads like a piece of fiction, a Lewis Carroll creation perhaps… except of course for it being real! If you wrote up his life-story as a novel no publisher would touch it; it would be too unbelievable.

Tadashi Tokieda was born in Japan in 1968 -- the same year that, in a wretched juxtaposition of events, Richard Milhous Nixon was elected President of these here barely-United States. While Nixon was busy conspiring and obstructing, Tokieda grew up immersed in Sudoku, Ken-Ken, and Tae Kwon Do… ok, I’m making that up; I have no idea what Japanese children of his generation were immersed in growing up. In fact he reports that as a youth he was a painter, so perhaps brush art, calligraphy, and Lotus leaves were more his style; he definitely seems like a jack-of-all-trades or maybe a Zen-of-all-trades… at the very time when I was at home eagerly waiting for the Three Stooges to come on TV, Tadashi’s mind was already racing with ideas and questions.

I've previously stated my view that, for mathematicians, the Universe is a playground. No one exemplifies this more than Tokieda. You've heard of Pee Wee's Playhouse, well, for Tadashi the entire world is a playhouse where toys abound.

But a little background... he graduated from Tokyo’s Sophia University in 1989 with a degree in classics (…you know like perhaps maybe 1 in every 150,000 mathematicians does). From there he ventured to France where he was trained as a classical philologist (whatever the hey that is), before discovering his love for mathematics by reading Russian math puzzles on his own -- of course to do that he first had to teach himself Russian! I took Russian in college and can tell you it’s not an easy, nor pretty, language (in fact, personally I'd call it a hard, ugly language) — if I’d had to learn Russian as a kid I’d be hooked on vodka too! (Since Trump got elected though I'll admit to finding a lot of uses for the word "Nyet!").

At any rate, with his new-found love of mathematics Tadashi set off to a place in Britain called Oxford (where they do some academic work)… though first he had to now teach himself English ('cuz they were hugely nonfluent in Russian there) — what the heck, just another silly language to learn. Having travelled widely he is actually fluent in Japanese, French, and English with knowledge of Greek, Latin, classical Chinese, Finnish, Spanish, Russian… all of which would be very impressive until you realize that even Melania Trump claims fluency in at least 5 languages. So, mehh. 
Anyways, in 1991 he completed his BS in math, or maths, as those misbegotten Oxfordians are wont to say. Pomona College in the U.S. doesn’t have a math PhD. program so next Tadashi opted for Princeton to attain his doctorate in mathematics while also studying physics and natural science. He admits it was all “an unusual path into mathematics.” And by “unusual” I believe he means ‘friggin’ nutso!’
He is now a 51-year-old professor at Stanford, where his lectures are apparently so fascinating that students DON’T fall asleep at the sound of his soothing, sonorous voice (but I’ll bet there’s a whole lotta ASMR tingling going on in that lecture hall).
And I can just imagine him addressing each of his students as “Grasshopper” just like the mentor of David Carradine’s character in the old “Kung Fu” television series (for the 3 of my readers old enough to remember that). Or, for a slightly more recent image I can just picture Tadashi standing atop his Stanford desk doing “the crane” pose (above) like Mr. Miyagi in “The Karate Kid,” right before blowing the students’ minds with some demonstration with paper and scissors. OK, so I have an overactive imagination… which should, by the way, be a good thing given Tadashi’s whole approach to math. But enough stereotyping, just because he’s Japanese… and knows 37 languages, and is brilliant and insightful, and the sort of teacher we all want… for every class we ever take, enough already (but seriously, could we maybe clone him?). 

Here's one short sample of his work (which often combines math and physics):

And here are a couple more pages for his videos. Please watch them and write me an essay by noon tomorrow on all that you've learned (or the tingles you experienced).

Tokieda has repeatedly said that one element that excites him about about math and science is “surprise.” Surprise can be the newness of the unexpected or it can also be discovering that an assumption made, or something thought understood, is actually wrong. Either way surprise is a gift. He says every surprise “makes us ever-so-slightly but substantially smarter.” Personally, my idea of a momentous surprise would be waking up tomorrow morning, turning on NPR news, and learning that Donald Trump has resigned overnight — considerably more thrilling than the Fibonacci sequence, and virtually as invigorating as Wiles' proof of Fermat's Last Theorem.
And needless to say, I would vote for Tadashi for President of the U.S. at the drop of a hat… or kimono. Or, better yet, make him Secretary of Education (since currently, heavens-to-betsy, we seem to lack one).

Tadashi is famous for his love of “toys.” He’s essentially an 8-year-old trapped in a grown man’s body! But unlike the toys easily bought at your local Walmart or Target, Tadashi’s are familiar things free (or cheap) in nature or readily around the household (cups, paperclips, cookie cutters, pencils, ribbons, rope, porn tapes, etc.; OK, I threw that last bit in to see if you're still reading) -- things we take for granted and therefore tend to have untested assumptions about… ripe, in a sense, for surprises. As Erica Klarreich put it, “these are not to be mistaken for oversimplified teaching implements but rather instruments of surprise that are designed to encourage a collaborative discovering experience.

And is it just coincidence that Tadashi shares the same initials as Terry Tao? Me-thinkest NOT! Then there’s always that other T.T. genius, Tom Toles:

What we really need in this country is a good Tao Party.
Oh well, moving on....

A new talk or video from Tadashi is always something to look forward to. A frequent question Tokieda hears after many of his talks is the age-old, ‘but does this have any practical use?’ His answer is as simple as his toys are: he says his demonstrations make children happy, and what’s more important than THAT!
(pssst… don’t tell him, but I have a li'l secret… he makes a LOT of adults happy, as well!...
just like Mr. Miyagi did).

So here's to Tadashi Tokieda!... oh, and one more thing: wax on, wax off!
Prior math profiles have been of: