ramen and pickles

science, technology, and medicine served up with some tasty noodles

Monthly Archives: March 2014

A Mathematician’s Lament

I found this 10+ year old essay by mathematician (and teacher) Paul Lockhart on all the things wrong with education in mathematics education in K-12 and on mathematics as a form of art, entitled “A Mathematician’s Lament”:


He’s got some great stuff in there, highly quotable, such as “PRE-CALCULUS: A senseless bouillabaisse of disconnected topics. Mostly a half-baked attempt to introduce late nineteenth-century analytic methods into settings where they are neither necessary nor helpful.”

Although it makes for great reading and has a lot of good points, I’m not sure I agree 100%.  I do remember the transition of going into more advanced mathematics in college and the professor essentially laughing at the formal way we had been taught to do proofs in high school geometry.  My first year in university, when we were proving something, he had us write it out in a much more conversational style, with the mathematical notation flowing with the text, as sentences.  It totally blew my mind.  In the same way, when I was writing my first really scientific paper, I was laughed at by the PI for using passive voice, as we had been taught all the way through in our lab reports:  “50 mL of water was pipetted” instead of “we then added 50 mL of water”.   The first sounds ridiculous in retrospect, and the latter has exactly the same information but sounds like it was written by a human being.

However, I would stress some of the practical applications of mathematics as being really important and useful, and I am a little skeptical of the ability of most math teachers to really teach the beauty of mathematics in such a free form way, and I am also skeptical that a push in this direction won’t move us away from actual learning of skills.  For example, if you just teach poetry and encourage the beauty of literature, you end up with people who don’t know where to put commas in a business email.  I know many highly educated people with this problem, presumably because they were taught English by teachers who probably had dreams of being like Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society and awakening their student’s minds instead of teaching them grammar.  Paul Lockhart obviously isn’t saying that you don’t teach any technique or any formality, but I think it is worth mentioning this as a potential problem.  I think the same is true of teaching some of the fundamentals.  The New Math which was a real step backward in mathematics education is the fault of the fictitious Nicolas Bourbaki, a pseudonym for a bunch of French mathematics researchers who were trying to make sure math was more rigorous and beautiful.  I’m not always sure that when you plan out what should be part of mathematics curriculum you shouldn’t include just as many physicists and engineers as mathematicians in the discussion.

Instead of learning how calculate, students are encouraged to learn all sorts of abstract concepts instead of learning how to do useful things with mathematics.  At the same time, kids are often taught weird algorithmic, formal solutions for problems that aren’t even that relevant. For example, I did some substitute teaching of high school mathematics, and one of the things students were being taught was the Sieve of Eratosthenes.   In principle, I can see that it might be considered useful as a way to think about prime numbers, but these kids were having trouble with fractions and arithmetic.   It’s not that people won’t have access to calculators, but you should know roughly what the calculations should be like.  Learning how to do rough, back of the envelope estimates is an incredibly useful skill and I’d note like to see it be replaced by the art of mathematics for art’s sake.

For example, this response to a mathematics problem from the Common Core was making the rounds with a lot of parents:

Overall, I don’t have any particular solution, but I do like the essay by Dr. Lockhart, and I encourage those interested in mathematics education to read it.

Part of what is beautiful and satisfying about mathematics is that there is a correct answer.  There aren’t as many of the same semantic arguments that cause so much discussion in much of human discourse.   That’s also what makes mathematics hard but also worthwhile.

Part of my personal lament I suppose is that I don’t think a lot of my mathematics education prior to University was very good.  Although I did have some great teachers in my early education, my later years in K-12 were terrible.  For example, in 8th grade (middle school), I was given a textbook from the high school and told to sit in the back of the class and teach myself the material, as I was more advanced than the other students (partly because I enjoyed mathematics, partly because I had come from a better school system).  I just had to pass the midterm and final exams that came down from the high school.   That wasn’t a great method of education, particularly as the textbook sucked.  Maybe if I Dr. Lockhart had been my teacher, I would have more happy memories of my early education.



Comments appreciated in the section below.




Women in STEM & Impostor Syndrome


This is a short piece by the president of Harvey Mudd talking about Impostor Syndrome. I am daily surrounded by some of the brilliant women on the planet, and I have definitely noticed that these women seem so suffer a greater proportion of self-doubt and to a greater extent. It is entirely subjective, but that is my impression, and it seems to be supported by studies.

For those unfamiliar with Harvey Mudd, it is a small college in Southern California, and one of the best engineering schools in the country. So good, that its graduates are the highest paid college graduates: http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/03/which-college-and-which-major-will-make-you-richest/359628/

As a side note, apparently “impostor” and “imposter” are equally valid spellings: http://grammarist.com/spelling/imposter-impostor/

The same is true for “adviser” and “advisor”: http://grammarist.com/spelling/adviser-advisor/

For some reason, “imposter” and “advisor” are the natural spellings to my eyes, but statistics on usage seem to favor their rival spellings.





The Mona Lisa is not Tim’s Vermeer

I recently watched Tim’s Vermeer, and I enjoyed it quite a bit, but I’ll get back to that in a bit.  I was also recently interested in why the Mona Lisa is so popular and iconic, so I thought I write about each of these things a bit.

Why is the Mona Lisa so famous?  You can read about it being famous and well regarded as soon as it was painted, but it certainly had nothing like it’s iconic status until the beginning of this century.  You’ve  heard of the Mona Lisa and see her iconic half-smile everywhere.  How about the Portland Vase? If you believe Google Books N-Gram viewer is a something of a model of popularity, or at least discussion and public awareness, the Mona Lisa, was not nearly as popular at the Portland Vase just a few generations back.  Just to be careful, I also tried other aliases for the painting such as La Gioconda, but to no avail.

Mona Lisa Fame

Da Vinci’s painting got a little fame when, in 1869, Walter Pater wrote a popular essay on Da Vinci and praised the painting. At that time, reproductions began to get some popularity in England. However, it really got famous in 1911 when the Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre by an Italian nationalist and went missing for two years, during which there was a lot of publicity. So why is the Mona Lisa famous? As far as I can tell, it is disproportionately famous because it’s theft from the Louver received a lot of publicity at the time. Because it got popular and renowned as valuable, it has then served to represent fine art in popular media ever since, only magnifying its fame.  If you are interested in you can read a longer piece on it’s fame HERE.  Suffice it say that although I enjoy it as a painting, it certainly seems overrated, even after I went to go see it in the Louvre.

I encourage you to discover the works of Katsushika Hokusai if you are unfamiliar with anything other than Under the Wave Off Kanagawa.  It was interesting to see an interest growing in the late 19th century with the Orientalists, and then a bit peak in the 60’s counter-culture.

As much as I like Da Vinci, I am probably more a fan of the painting of Vermeer.  That made the idea of a computer nerd trying to figure out what technological innovations Vermeer might have used to help him paint quite interesting to me.  Tim’s Vermeer is definitely a movie by and about geeks for geeks, but I enjoyed it tremendously:

There seem to be some art critic type people who seem to think that this misses the point of Vermeer, but that is the sort of attitude of someone who thinks that understanding the refraction of light ruins the beauty of a rainbow.  When you understand more about a process you can understand and appreciate its beauty all the more.   When you understand a little bit more about the handwork and insight that goes into the process, I think you gain a greater appreciation for his genius.

If you’re interested, The Girl in the Pearl Earring barely makes a blip in the N-Grams compared to the others.


Naomi Sushi, Menlo Park

It’s been there for a while, but I hadn’t been before.  Naomi Sushi on El Camino is quite a good place.  It is sort of a typical sushi bar in the US, a little fancier than many. The staff were very friendly, and there seem to be a lot of regulars who go there who are familiar with the staff.

That had some good specials, including some bluefin chutoro and some very good aji (horse mackerel).  The simple rolls on the menu (tuna, cucumber, yellowtail, etc.) were quite reasonably priced.

Overall, I would recommend this place.  It’s also near another tasty Japanese restaurant, Gombei, just a block north on El Camino.  Gombei is good for bento boxes, and a variety of mixed dinner meals, not quite izakaya, but maybe more homestyle.  Two good places to get a good Japanese meal for not too much money.





Sam’s Chowder House, Palo Alto, CA

I finally got around to trying  a somewhat new restaurant in Palo Alto, Sam’s Chowder House.  I tried it because Oren’s Hummus restaurant had at least an hour wait.  That place is good, but it is way to crowded and busy.

I am from New England, and my uncle (retired police detective) had a lobster boat for a while, and even now at 75 years old has a commercial clam digging license in Maine, so I grew up on this style of seafood, and I am probably very picky.  However, I was really pleasantly surprised by this place.

Starting with their clam chowder, since something like chowder is very subjective, I will base my comparison with the chowder from Legal Seafood, which is fairly representative of a standard, decent quality New England style chowder.  Other NE style chowder that I have gotten around here in Northern California has been similar, often a little bit more gelatinous, presumably with thickeners such as corn starch or carrageenan or something.  Anyway, the soup at Sam’s was quite different.  In some ways it was a lot thinner, so less creamy and thick, but I actually found it very pleasant.  It had a lot of herbs and celery in it, which gave it a nice, refreshing flavor.  It has a nice subtle smoky richness, presumably from the bacon which is on the ingredient list.  There were nice big chunks of clam, with had a fresh taste to them, and some small chunks of potato.  So compared to Legal Seafood, it was much less hearty, but I think more flavorful and delicious.  If you are expecting the really thick and hearty style, you might be disappointed that it doesn’t meet expectations, but I thought it was good and would very much recommend it.

Sam's Chowder House

The lobster roll was really outstanding.  It was full of large chunks of lobster, maybe meat from 6 claws on top, with more meat under the claws.  There wasn’t any mayo that I could detect, which for me was a huge positive, as I don’t like it, especially places which fill it with mayo back in NE.  There were just some little celery nuggets and lots of butter.  The perfectly toasted roll was quite butter and delicious.  The lack of mayo was definitely made up for in butter.

Overall, I think this place is great.  It wasn’t cheap, but if you’re looking for cheap, University Ave in Palo Alto is probably not the place to go looking.  The service was good, it had a nice atmosphere, with friendly people.  Overall, it’s a definite recommend.


Ryowa Vegetarian Ramen

There aren’t many options for vegetarian ramen, however Ryowa in downtown Mt View, CA has one, and I hadn’t remembered if I had tried their vegetarian ramen.

Ryowa has some tasty ramen in general, and I like some of their options.  They have an oxtail ramen which is not common, and a delicious butter corn ramen.  They also have a really good pork fried rice plate to go with the ramen.  However, as I was doing a vegetarian dinner, I didn’t get any of this delicious rice this visit.

Ryowa Vegetarian Ramen

The noodles were tasty, and the broth was okay, but certainly laking the really good umami flavor which I guess usually comes from the meat.  I got the egg as an extra, and unfortunately it was hard-boiled, so soft runny yolk at all.  The mushrooms had a chewy consistency, like chantrelles which I didn’t like (not the richness of the black ear mushrooms which are my favorite in ramen).  There was tofu, both raw and fried in the soup, and it didn’t go well.  I like tofu in things like miso soup or just alone with some green onions, but it didn’t go well to me compared with the chewy texture of the ramen noodles.  The veggies were decent, but maybe not enough.  I would rather have crunchy veggies than the softness of the mushrooms and tofu.

Although I like Ryowa and I would recommend it to someone looking for ramen in Mt. View, I can’t really recommend their vegetarian ramen.





A great collection of free R books

If you are into statistical computing (or want to be), this is a great collection of freely available PDF texts on a range of topics.