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For All Practical Purposes

Published on Thursday, October 29, 2009 in , , , , ,

Why do so many people hate mathematics? A large part of it is that they associate it with boring problem-solving exercises, and have never been shown how it relates to the real world.

Back in 1987, there was an excellent PBS series, For All Practical Purposes: An Introduction to Contemporary Mathematics, hosted by Sol Garfunkel, that focused on real-world applications of mathematics.

Not only did the series show how real-world applications, it also employed modern mathematical concepts that many people never learned about in high school or college. It also presents them in an easy to understand manner.

The real-world applications were broken up into the areas of management science (scheduling people and workflow to maximize efficiency and effectiveness), statistics, social choice (making choices and taking chances), size and shape, and computer science.

Most of these videos are now available online. Below is a complete list of episodes, with the available ones linked to videos of their respective episodes. Many of the gaps can be filled in by consulting the accompanying textbook of the same name.

Since this video series is more than 20 years old, some of the examples may seem outdated, but all the principles still apply. As a matter of fact, the age of the series is actually an advantage, as you can do some research on these examples, and see how those example were developed over time, and learn even more!

Episode 1: Management Science—Overview
Episode 2: Street Smarts
Episode 3: Trains Planes and Critical Paths
Episode 4: Juggling Machines
Episode 5: Juicy Problems
Episode 6: Statistics—Overview
Episode 7: Behind the Headlines
Episode 8: Picture This
Episode 9: Place Your Bets
Episode 10: Confident Conclusions
Episode 11: Social Choice—Overview
Episode 12: The Impossible Dream
Episode 13: More Equal Than Others
Episode 14: Zero Sum Games
Episode 15: Prisoners Dilemma
Episode 16: On Size and Shape—Overview
Episode 17: How Big Is Too Big
Episode 18: It Grows and Grows
Episode 19: Stand-up Conic
Episode 20: It Started in Greece
Episode 21: Computer Science—Overview
Episode 22: Rules of the Game
Episode 23: Counting by Two's
Episode 24: Creating a Code
Episode 25: Moving Picture Show
Episode 26: Summing Up

If you like Sol Garfunkel's teaching style, you may also enjoy his other series, Algebra: In Simplest Terms, which also has many episodes available online.

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Halloween Memories

Published on Sunday, October 25, 2009 in , ,

Halloween shall be upon us soon! If you've been developing your memory skills here on Grey Matters, here's how to make them pay off at your Halloween parties.

At this time of year, my thoughts naturally turn to Edgar Allan Poe poems. His poetry is timeless, and perfectly suit this time of year. If you want to memorize some poetry to recite at a Halloween party, you might try one of his shorter works, such as Alone or The Valley of Unrest. If you really want a challenge, try his most famous work, The Raven. With these poems and the help of Verbatim, you can impress and scare at the same time!

For more inspiration, you can check out the rest of PoeStories.com, but don't stop there! As always, Dark Side of the Net is a great place to turn this time of year. Their collection of Ghost Stories is unparalleled!

Halloween, besides being connected with scary things, is also connected with funny things. We don't need to focus on only the scary. Over at poetry4kids.wordpress.com (not to be confused with Ken Nesbitt's excellent poetry4kids.com), they've been focusing on Halloween silliness all month.

To round out this post, I'd like to leave you with a classic tale, The Tell-Tale Heart. The version below is an animated version from 1953, and was the first film to be rated X in Great Britain, yet was nominated for an Oscar in the USA. It's less than 8 minutes long, but creates the mood and tells the story perfectly.


Enjoy, and happy Halloween!

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Happy 95th Birthday, Martin Gardner!

Published on Thursday, October 22, 2009 in , , , , , , ,

Martin GardnerYesterday, October 21st, was Martin Gardner's 95th birthday, and we here at Grey Matters wish him a very happy birthday!

If you're not familiar with Martin Gardner, he's the only individual whose name is a label here on Grey Matters. His best known work is his Scientific American Mathematical Games column, which are all available as books, and even on CD-ROM.

The best introduction to the man is David Suzuki's documentary Mystery and Magic of Mathematics: Martin Gardner and Friends, which I first mentioned last December.

I guarantee that if more people taught mathematical concepts like Martin Gardner does, people bragging about hating or doing poorly in math would be far fewer in number.

Over at Metafilter, in an entry appropriately titled Martin has turned thousands of children into mathematicians, and thousands of mathematicians into children, you can get an idea not only of some his best-known work, but also the appreciation people have for his work.

If you go through Grey Matters' Marting Garder section, it's not so much about learning math as it is discovering treasure. Wandering through his prolific authoring and co-authoring of over 70 books also has this same effect.

I myself was introduced to Martin Gardner's works as a kid when I was given one of his Aha! books (click to view explore these wonderful books). These books contain very high-level concepts that are usually reserved for college study, but it presents them in such a simple and straightforward manner that even some older pre-teens can grasp them.

Yes, this post is short, but if you're willing to go through and explore Martin Gardner's work and influence in just these few links, you'll find that you'll probably spend more time on this post than any of the others.

He's truly changed mathematics for the better by bringing a sense of fun into it. Even this blog would be a far poorer place without the work of Martin Gardner.

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Even More Quick Snippets

Published on Sunday, October 18, 2009 in , , , , , , , , ,

LinksIt's time once again for snippets! This edition is focused on updates.

• The bug in Verbatim has been fixed! The original problem was that the program couldn't read XML files on other servers due to the same origin policy. That has now been fixed, and files can be read from anywhere. As an example, here's Verbatim loading a poem file from freetzi.com.

The modification itself took only a few hours to program. Finding the approach was the hard part! It seemed like I was looking through an endless array of methods to allow Javascript to load programs from other domains. I'm really pleased with the solution I found, as it allowed me to keep the program working the same as far as the user was concerned. The same XML files that worked with it before still work with it now in the same way. Even better for me, I didn't have to rewrite the manual or reshoot any of the instructional videos!

I've also fixed a minor bug in the memorize text section. Originally, if the lines were hidden when you changed the chosen piece or number of lines, the poem wouldn't be displayed, and the only way to bring it back was to restart the program. Now, even if the lines are hidden when you change the piece or number of lines, the lines and title will display correctly.

Speaking of the programming itself, Verbatim uses several techniques that might be of interest to my fellow Javascript programmers. They're all detailed in the srouce code, but I also thought I'd include them here for those who are interested:

Centering an image that's wider than the screen
Detecting an iPhone or iPod Touch user on your site
Preventing a div from overlapping other elements
Reading variables from a URL
Trimming a url to get just a file name
Using CSS to autospace elements on a toolbar
Using Yahoo! Pipes, Jquery and JSON to read XML files from other domains
• Back in August, I reviewed the Stacked Deck iPhone Native App. For what it did, I liked it, but it was missing the ability to add non-standard stacks. I ended the above review by stating:
Due to mostly to the glaring inability to add a custom stack when it seems to be offered by the program, I'm afraid I can't recommend this program just yet. However, it does have so many good qualities, it is definitely worth keeping an eye on for updated versions.
The update for which I'd been hoping was just released this past Friday!

Stacked Deck 1.0.1 (iTunes Link) has been fixed so that it now saves custom stacks! Even more impressive, it saves plenty of work by notifying you anytime you enter a duplicate card.

I can now give Stacked Deck the recommendation I've been holding back.

• Thanks to what I learned while programming Verbatim, I've been able to give the iPhone/iPod Touch Mental Gym Menu a face-lift. Besides the new look, I've added links to Verbatim, the Grey Matters blog, and eliminated some games and replaced them with others. I also believe that it's more intuitive for iPhone and iPod Touch users, too.

• New videos have been added to the Grey Matters Miro Video Channel. The first is The Story of Pi, a segment of a Project MATHEMATICS! episode that help visualize concepts related to Pi.

The other videos I added are the three episodes of Dr. Frank's Math Minutes. Here you learn about fractions in a pizzeria, how to measure the height of a building while staying on the ground, and the principles behind Newton's Law of Cooling in a hamburger joint. The links to each episode's page is included in the channel, so you can download accompanying handouts and worksheets.

These episodes are hosted by Dr. Frank Wang. That name may sound familiar to long-time Grey Matters readers, as I featured other videos of his back in May of 2006 on my video blog.

That's all for this edition of snippets. I'll see you Thursday!

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Sporcle Game Creation Center

Published on Thursday, October 15, 2009 in , , ,

Timed QuizzesIn August of 2008, I introduced the Time Quiz Generator for those who wanted to create their own timed quizzes for their site, similar to the ones you find at Sporcle. Sporcle has now released their own version, called the Sporcle Game Creation Center.

To create a game, you must first sign up for a free Sporcle account, and log in. Once you're in, you can simply click the create tab to begin.

The best way to start is to read the Game Creation FAQ and the Cheat Sheet (PDF).

Before I continue, I'd like to clarify a few differences between the Sporcle Game Creator (SGC) and the Timed Quiz Generator (TQG). The SGC quizzes can only be used and played on Sporcle, but may also be included by Sporcle on their official list of verified quizzes. The TQG, on the other hand, generates code you can use to place your own quiz on your own site. There's not that much conflict between them, so the TQG will remain available.

On the SGC, you edit the quiz itself in 3 tabs, Game Info, Data and Style. As you go through these steps, you can test the quiz at any time, using the most recently saved version of your quiz.

The Game Info tab is the one detailed in the cheatsheet, where you set up the topic and basic structure of the game. This includes things like the title, the URL, the time, the column names, and so on.

The Data tab, of course, is where you enter your answers. As long as you're not using the 3rd column for anything (it's often used for hints and such), you can enter ee into it to denote an easter egg-type answer.

Style simply lets you control the appearance of the quiz. It's easy to use, as clicking on any of the color entries will bring up a color selector that is very intuitive. If you know your HTML hex color codes, you can also enter them directly just by typing.

After you've created and tested your quiz to the point where you're satisfied with it, it's time to click on the Finish Up tab. Here is where you take the quiz live, so other Sporcle users can see your quizzes. As an option, you can also give Sporcle permission to use your quiz on the front page, and announce it on Twitter, as well.

This is a great tool to help you memorize various types of lists, and also to share and challenge others from a large community of puzzle-takers!

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US Constitutional Amendment Mnemonics (Part III)

Published on Sunday, October 11, 2009 in , , , ,

Mdgilkison's We The People graphicIn order to form a more perfect union, you must master not only the first 9 amendments, and not only the second 9 amendments, but all 27, including the ones I'm about to teach you.

We start this post with the 19th amendment. Just about anyone who grew up in the 1970s or 1980s can tell you what the 19th amendment is, thanks to Essra Mohawk and Schoolhouse Rock!:



If the lyrics themselves don't help bring the women's rights amendment to mind as number 19, imagine the scene with all those women coming out of the voting booth, and imagine that there's exactly 19, 190, or 1900. To help lock it in, you could also imagine that they're all 19, too.

There's a simple mnemonic for memorizing the 16th through 19th amendments in order as a group, as well: “In come senators with wine and women.” “In come” refers to the income tax amendment (#16). “senators” refers to the 17th amendment, dealing with the election of senators, “wine” referring to the prohibition amendment (the 18th), and “women“, of course, referring to the women's vote amendment.

The 20th amendment almost writes its own mnemonic. It states that the president takes office on January 20th, so you can just think of it as the January 20th amendment. It not only covers what happens when a president goes into office, but also when a president goes out, such as a death in the office. The other parts concern how often Congress must meet and what happens when a state representative dies. Remember, this was covered for senators in the 17th amendment.

We've already covered 21 in the previous article, since it repealed the 18th amendment. As a refresher: You can't drink at 18, but you can drink at 21.

amendment 22 is another one that nearly writes its own mnemonic. It limits a President “2”(to) 2 terms.

The 23rd amendment can be thought of as the “23-D-C” amendment, because it allows citizens of Washington, D.C. to vote for the president.

Moving on to amendment 24, this amendment prohibits poll taxes. In other words, it is unconstitutional to charge people for registering to vote. If you link amendment 24 with December 24th, when Santa is very busy at the North Pole (or “No Pol”), you can easily recall that this is the “no poll tax” amendment.

The 25th amendment details the order of succession when the President dies. An easy way to remember this is the short poem, “Prez not alive? See 25!”

Since we've had a few easy mnemonics, we pay for that ease at the 26th amendment. This amendment lowered the voting age to 18. You can remember this by recalling that 26-(2+6)=18. True, we're throwing some arithmetic into the mix, but focusing on this fact can help you remember it all the more.

We're almost done. The last amendment is the 27th, which says that Congress can vote themselves a pay raise, but it won't take effect until after the next Congressional election. Imagine Congress voting themselves to a pay level of $270,000 (click here for current 2009 Congressional pay levels), to help you remember that this is covered by amendment 27. You can also think of it as the highest amendment number covering the highest salaries.

The 27th amendment is not only the highest numbered amendment, it also is the amendment that took the longest to ratify. It was first proposed on September 25, 1789, and wasn't ratified until May 7, 1992 - over 202 years!

Once you've practiced these amendment mnemonics, it's time to put yourself to the test. Here's a constitutional amendment quiz that gives you the subject of the amendment, and you have to give the correct number. Just as in the US Constitution, all the amendment numbers are given as Roman Numerals, so here's a quick Roman numeral refresher course, should you need it.

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US Constitutional Amendment Mnemonics (Part II)

Published on Thursday, October 08, 2009 in , , ,

Mdgilkison's We The People graphicHave you been practicing the first 9 constitutional amendments? I hope so, because it's time to move on to amendments 10 through 18!

Amendment 9 and amendment 10 sort of work together. While 9 says people have rights not spelled out in the US Constitution, 10 says that the United States (as in, the federal government) has only those powers explicitly spelled out in the US Constitution. The remaining powers are delegated to the states or the people. This is sometimes known as the “state's rights” amendment. Since the phrase “state right” has 10 letters, it's easy to remeber that it's the 10th amendment.

While there's still 17 amendments to go, you now already know the complete Bill of Rights (the first 10 amendments).



1 citizen may not sue 1 state that isn't the citizen's own with permission from the defending's states court. These two “1s” are kept seperate by a number that brings two “1s” together, amendment 11.

Amendment 12 covers the elections of America's jobs “1” and “2”, that of the US President and US Vice-President. This amendment requires separate ballots to be cast for each office.

The next 3 amendments can be thought of as the “Post-Civil War” amendments, as they all deal with issues concerning the former slaves, and all were ratified in 5 or less years after the Civil War.

Amendment 13 freed the slaves. It's not too hard to think of how there were only 13 colonies when America liberated itself from the British. Just remember that 13 amendments after the 13 colonies were liberated, the slaves were liberated as well.

The are many different parts to the 14th amendment, but it all boils down to foreign-born citizens and natural-born citizens having the same rights. Think of this amendment as giving equal rights to “Foreignteen”-born citizens, and this should be easy to remember.

Amendment 15 basically says that every man may vote, regardless of whether or not he was a former slave (women still couldn't vote when this amendment was ratified). The phrase “Every man may vote” has 15 letters, making this one easy to remember.

Taxes, in the US, are due on April 15th. If you send them in on or after April 16th, you can get in big trouble. Since it's the 16th amendment that gives the federal government power to tax, just link April 16th, as the day when the federal government should have their money, to amendment 16, as the reason why they're getting that money.

The election of senators is the subject of amendment 17. I've actually found 2 good mnemonics for remembering this. First, the phrase “elect your senators” has 17 letters. Also, 7-1 (from the number 17) equals 6, which is the number of years for which a senator serves.

This post will now be rounded out by amendment 18, which bans the the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors. Currently, this is the only constitutional amendment ever to be repealed, which was done by the 21st amendment. It's not only best to remember these two together, but also quite easy. Just imagine you live in a state where you can't drink at 18, but you can drink at 21.

Practice these mnemonics, and go over the first 9, as well. Once you have them down, you'll actually to be able to recall more than 2/3rds of the the US Constitutional Amendments!

This coming Sunday, we'll wrap things up with the final 9 amendments. Actually, since we skipped ahead to the 21st when talking about the 18th amendment, there's really only 8 more you need to learn.

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US Constitutional Amendment Mnemonics (Part I)

Published on Sunday, October 04, 2009 in , , ,

Mdgilkison's We The People graphicOne of the toughest things to remember, whether you were born in the US, or came here as an immigrant, is the 27 Amendments to the US Constitution. In this and the next 2 posts, I'm going to teach you a series of mnemonics that will help you remember all of them.

Let's start with a quick refresher on the basics of the US Constitution with some help from Schoolhouse Rock:



What I'm about to teach isn't the only way to learn the US Constitution. The movie Born Yesterday (the 1993 version) features a song that teaches the amendments.

The first amendment to the US Constitution is the only one where there are 6 different rights spelled out, so you can remember these rights with the nonsense word RAPPOS. RAPPOS is an acronym for the freedoms of Religion, Assembly, Petition, Press, Opinion and Speech. Most people are familiar enough with the first amendment that there's no need to link the number 1 to these rights.

When you're trying to remember what's in the 2nd amendment, just think of someone calling out, “2 Arms! 2 Arms!” Yep, the 2nd amendment is the right to bear arms.

Amendment 3 is remembered with 3 words: No housing troops. The 3rd amendment is the right to freedom from being required to house troops during peacetime. This was considered important, as the British had often forced the American colonists to house the redcoats.

The 4th amendment, protection against unreasonable search and seizure, is easily remembered with by asking the question: What are you searching 4?

The 5th amendment is another famous one, as you so often see movies and TV shows where someone is pleading their 5th amendment rights. This is always is court, because they are asserting their right to not be forced to testify against themselves.

Public speedy trials, a phrase that contains only 6-letter words, is the mnemonic for the 6th amendment. This is also the amendment that says someone accused in court has the right to confront his accusers, and the right to a defense counsel. The 5th and 6th can be thought of together as the Miranda warning rights.

How can you remember the 7th amendment? 7 is supposed to be good luck, and in civil cases, having a trial by jury can bring good luck towards reaching a favorable decision.

The mnemonic for the 8th amendment will probably be the most vivid of the mnemonics in this first section. Imagine that you've been convicted of a crime in a village of cannibals, and as punishment, they ate you! This seems like cruel and unusual punishment, doesn't it? The 8th amendment, fortunately, protects you from cruel and unusual punishments like this.

Users of the Major/Peg system already associate 9 with the letter P, as the letter P looks like a 9 facing the other way. That helps with remember the 9th amendment, where P stands for Power and People. The 9th amendment makes it clear that individuals do have rights that aren't explicity mentioned in the Constitution.

If you can remember these, you'll be able to recall not only a full third of the constitutional amendments, but 90% of the Bill of Rights, as well! Practice these, and on Thursday, I'll teach you mnemonics for amendments 10 to 18 (and maybe even sneak an extra one in).

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Siegfried & Roy

Published on Thursday, October 01, 2009 in , , ,

Siegfried & Roy StatueIt seems incredible, especially to those of us in Las Vegas, but this coming Saturday, October 3, 2009, it will have been 6 years since they regularly performed at the Mirage Hotel & Casino.

Details are sketchy about Roy's tigery injury, but we do know that Montecore, the show's star 7-year-old white tiger bit Roy on the neck, ending the show's run.

However, Siegfried & Roy are not ones to give up their Masters of the Impossible title easily, promising to perform together at least one more time. With Roy's injury, though, few expected they could pull this off.

Sure enough, this past February, they returned to the stage with their illusions in a short 10-minute performance to benefit the building of the Lou Ruvo Brain Institute. It was filmed for 20/20, and the full episode, including the performance, is currently preserved on YouTube.

Enjoy this look back at the career of Siegfried & Roy, and marvel at their resolve to accomplish this 1-night return: