Thursday, March 27, 2014

Gears of War

When I was a kid, one of my favorite pastimes was the Avalon Hill wargame Bismarck about fighting ships in World War II (see it reviewed on my gaming site here and here). In junior high school, at some point my English teacher asked me what I wanted to do as a career, and was completely apalled when I said "I want to join the Navy and control the main guns on a battleship". (I think I'd share her dismay if someone told me something like that today.)

Anyway, over at Ars Technica, a wonderful article has been written by Sean Gallagher (former Navy officer and IT editor) on exactly how the fire control systems on those ships did their jobs -- solving 20-variable calculus problems in real-time (accounting for moving, pitching, rolling, recoiling, Cariolis-spinning projectiles on both ends) with shafts and gears, with accuracy that is hard to beat even today with digital computers and GPS-driven rocketry. There are lots of insightful videos about the components and gears used to do input, sums, multiplies and divides, and spinning disks that can do complicated functions like trigonometry and more.

To me, this stuff is completely like crack. Check it out:

(Also: Further commentary and links at recently-established news site SoylentNews.)

Thursday, March 20, 2014


Nate Silver (statistician who famously predicted all 50 states voting in the last election) recently expanded his FiveThirtyeight blog to a full-blown "data journalism" site. His first post was a manifesto on data, science, statistics, politics, journalism, and honest storytelling in general. I agree with almost all of his observations here. They guy really knows his stuff and has a fiery passion for his particular mission. Great stuff.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Faulty Factoring

Here's something I think I see a few times in any college algebra class: a really weird way of accomplishing quadratic factoring. (More generally, this might go in a larger file of "things students swear are taught by other instructors which are semi-insane" -- including whacked-out order-of-operations, keep-change-change for negatives, the idea that -42 means (-4)(4), etc.).

Anyway, let's say we want to factor what I call a "hard quadratic", i.e., Ax2+Bx+C, in integers, with A≠1 (hence "hard"). I prefer the method of grouping: i.e., factor AC so it sums to B, use those factors to split the term Bx, and then factor the four terms by grouping. Pretty straightforward.

But here's what a few students will insist on doing every semester: (1) Find factors of AC that sum to B; call these factors u & v (so that step is the same); (2) Write the expression (Ax+u)(Ax+v); (3) Look for a GCF of A in one of those binomials and strike it out.

Here's an example: Factor 5x2+7x−6.
Step (1): Note AC = −30 = (10)(−3), factors which sum to B = 7.
Step (2): Write (5x+10)(5x−3)
Step (3): Divide the first binomial by 5, producing (x+2)(5x−3).

So while this procedure does produce the right answer, what irks me tremendously is that the expression written in step (2) is not actually equal to either the original expression or the answer at the end. (Compounding this issue, students will nonetheless usually write equals signs by rote on either side of it.) Riffs on this procedure would be to write something like this on sequential lines, if you can follow it:

5x2+7x−6 → x2+7x−30 → (5x+10/5)(5x−3/5) → (x+2)(5x−3)

Again, the primary grief I have over this is that none of these expressions are equal to any of the others, and the students using this procedure are always oblivious to that fact. Second issue: They're likely to trip up over a non-elementary problem where the factor A does not appear in either of the binomials, e.g.: 4x2+4x+1 = (2x+1)(2x+1). Third issue: If there's a GCF in the quadratic itself and you overlook that, the standard grouping technique will still work (even if it's not the easiest way to do it), whereas I suspect users of this technique will be prone to incorrectly striking out any GCFs they discover at the end of the process.

Now, technically you could modify this and turn it into a correct procedure this way: Note that for quadratic Ax2+Bx+C, values u & v satisfy uv=AC and u+v=B if and only if Ax2+Bx+C = 1/A(Ax+u)(Ax+v). (Proof: 1/A(Ax+u)(Ax+v) = 1/A(A2x2 + (u+v)Ax + uv) = Ax2 + (u+v)x + uv/A and equate coefficients). So you could find u & v as usual, then write this latter expression, and simplify. The 1/A does always cancel out, but I've never seen a student actually write that factor in the second step.

So what I always do if I see this on a test in my college algebra class is to take half credit off for the problem and note that the intermediary expression is "false", i.e., not equal to what comes before or after. This then becomes an opportunity to discuss with the student why that's improperly written math -- went well in my most recent semester, but I can easily see that becoming more combative in a remedial algebra class.

Have you seen this (common) faulty factoring procedure in your classes? What do you as a correction for it, if anything?

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Presenting at Johns Hopkins

Here's one of these topics that merges my great interests in teaching & gaming, so I have no choice but to cross-post about it here and on my gaming blog.

Last week I had the opportunity to visit Johns Hopkins University, at the invitation of Peter Fröhlich to speak to his Video Game Design Project class in the computer science department there (run jointly with art students from the nearby MICA). A great talk and chance to meet with his students and network a bit with Peter, Jason from MICA, as well as one of my idols from old-school role-playing game publishing.

Bounce on over to my gaming blog for the details!