succumbing to peer pressure

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Book Completed: A Compact History of Everything and More, David Foster Wallace

So, I have mixed feelings about this one. I'm glad I read it, and I'm glad that I hung in there and finished it. Most days it was sort of like going to the gym - although I enjoyed the during part of the experience, it was sort of hard to get psyched up about actually doing it. I imagine every book in the Great Discoveries series has the same problem - in writing a 'pop technical' piece you run the risk of trying to appeal to a mass audience and instead alienating everyone. I recognize that there are math geeks out there who aren't necessarily math majors, but I'm still not entirely convinced that this book is for them. And I think it's definitely too over-simplified to not annoy actual math majors. I much preferred the parts of the book that were more about math generally and math history than the actual technical derivations of things. As I said when I started this one (yes, nearly two months ago) DFW has some really great things so say about the abstractness of math and thinking about math and how and why students struggle so much with it. He also covers some really good ground about the various communities of mathematicians and in-fighting and cooperation and fueds and motivation behind some of the great mathematicians and the ideas that drove them nuts. I've always thought that this sort of background information really makes math more interesting and accessible, but there never seems to be room for it in your basic math class. AWB and I were actually just discussing the other day how intro classes (in all subjects) seem to avoid background and historical context out of this idea that most students can't handle that much information or its irrelevant or something. I don't know. I guess it is possible that some intro students may be overwhelmed by the various controversies inherent in every field, but it feels like such a disservice to teach things as if this is The Law and everyone agrees with it. Especially when your more clever students are going to see through that and either feel like they're missing something or going crazy or just lose interest in the subject entirely. Specific example - it wasn't until my second semester of PhD theory that I had a prof really tackle the divide in statistics between Frequentists and Bayesians. Oh sure, we all knew there are two schools of thought, but since the vast majority of departments are predominantly Frequentist in nature, that's just what gets taught, with a little nod to Bayesians, maybe. And it was nice to have this discussion in class about other statisticians who thought p-values were total crap and made-up, arbitrary values. And they seem that way, to a lot of intro students, so why not give them credit for being thoughtful and fill in the historical gaps? It's really an interesting controversy in the field, and maybe something that would make stats seems so much less dry and boring and irrelevant.

Book started: Sweet Relief: The Marla Ruzicka Story, Jennifer Abrahamson

Karen, my 'gymnastics boss,' loaned this one to me. I'm only a few pages in, but it sounds interesting (and frustrating and sad). Ruzicka was a young woman in her 20s who who founded the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC), and was most recently working to secure funding for Iraqi civilians who were injured by or had family members killed by American soldiers and/or American bombs. On April 16, 2005 she was killed by a suicide bomber while driving on Airport Rd in Iraq.


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