A personal milestone in math blogging

4 minute read

A continuation of my history of Howard County Council redistricting series is coming soon (I promise! really!), but after an evening at the HoCo Blogtail party I’m not in any shape to do any serious historical blogging (even one blogtail will do that to you). I thought I’d use the opportunity instead to plug my other blog math.hecker.org, on which I publish worked out exercises from my attempt to relearn various branches of mathematics. I’m starting with linear algebra, a field of study that isn’t as well known as calculus but in some ways is even more important as a basis for a lot of real-life applications.

I recently worked my way through all the exercises of the first chapter of the linear algebra text I’m using, as noted in a celebratory post yesterday. At the rate I’m going I’ll be a long time in finishing it, but since this is a personal hobby there’s no great rush. My math blog is even more niche-y than this blog, if that’s possible; a typical post gets 10-15 views at most. So why should you care?

Believe it or not, there are some points of connection with the non-math stuff I blog about, including some Howard County points of connection. First, Maryland in general, and I presume Howard County in particular, is actually fairly well-populated with mathematicians as these things go. According to the relevant Bureau of Labor Statistics data, there are almost three thousand people in the U.S. in the job category mathematician (defined as those who [conduct] research in fundamental mathematics or in application of mathematical techniques to science, management, and other fields), of which over a third work for the Federal government.

What are these mathematicians doing? Well, a lot of them work for the National Security Agency. NSA aggressively recruits mathematicians and traditionally it was one of the major career possibilities for mathematicians not going into academia. (Those who’ve seen the movie Good Will Hunting may remember the rather self-righteous rant delivered by Matt Damon’s character when an NSA recruiter comes to call.) More recently NSA has been in serious competition with private industry as a career choice for newly-minted math PhDs, although (as noted in a BusinessWeek story on the subject),

[In addition to patriotism] there's also a lifestyle lure. NSA officials say a good number of mathematicians prefer a suburban Maryland life and a government job with predictable hours to the more frantic pace and market gyrations of an Internet company. This is especially true of women. In general, they're underrepresented in mathematics, but far less so at the NSA.

Ah, that suburban Maryland life—we know what they’re talking about. The upshot is that Maryland has the highest concentration of mathematicians of any state in the U.S. (over seven times the national average), with the highest average wage for mathematicians as well.

A couple of other points of connection: First, I’m both taking advantage of and contributing to the trend of people using the Internet for online learning as an alternative to traditional formal education. Interested in learning about linear algebra directly from the MIT professor who wrote the textbook I’m using? No problem, here are his lectures and other course material online for all to enjoy. Need to start your online math education at a slightly lower level? Check out the videos and other material published by the Khan Academy, starting with basic addition. This trend might even come to Howard County public schools some day; Khan Academy is doing a pilot with the Los Altos school district to explore ways to blend online and in-classroom learning. Would this be worth doing in Howard County? I don’t know, but I’m sure it would be a more interesting and productive conversation than talking about the latest Allen Dyer happenings.

Finally, doing mathematics has taught me a personal lesson when it comes to discussing other areas of life, politics in particular. Some people try to take the methods of mathematics and the hard sciences and wholeheartedly apply them elsewhere; for example, a lot of libertarians seem to think that we can deduce from first principles the correct answer to any political question. I think this is misguided. The lesson I take away from doing my math homework is that even in a formal mathematical exercise it’s not trivial at all to rigorously prove a conclusion; in doing my posts I’ve several times found places where I’ve missed key points, assumed things which needed to be proved, and otherwise made a hash of my argument. All the more difficult to be sure of one’s reasoning and conclusions when it comes to areas like politics where there’s disagreement and dispute even about the basic values that we should hold and our basic premises about how the world works. More than a little modesty in one’s pronouncements seems to be called for.

And with that it’s back to non-math blogging for this particular blog. But if you ever need help with your linear algebra homework you now know where to turn.