...a companion blog to "Math-Frolic," specifically for interviews, book reviews, weekly-linkfests, and longer posts or commentary than usually found at the Math-Frolic site.

"Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty – a beauty cold and austere, like that of sculpture, without appeal to any part of our weaker nature, without the gorgeous trappings of painting or music, yet sublimely pure, and capable of a stern perfection such as only the greatest art can show." ---Bertrand Russell (1907) Rob Gluck

"I have come to believe, though very reluctantly, that it [mathematics] consists of tautologies. I fear that, to a mind of sufficient intellectual power, the whole of mathematics would appear trivial, as trivial as the statement that a four-legged animal is an animal." ---Bertrand Russell (1957)

******************************************************************** Rob Gluck

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Mike Lawler of MikesMathPage

Math-Frolic Interview #23

"Unlike most conversations with adults involving the Monty Hall problem, though, everyone seemed to have fun.  

The neat surprise came later in the week when I saw my friend again and she told me that, to her absolute shock, the kids voted the math section as their favorite section from career day.  She really couldn’t believe it, and she said that all the teachers at the school were just baffled as to how that could have been the case.  Her shock has always stuck with me, and I hope to show kids that math can really be fun." -- Mike Lawler

I've said before that while interviewing 'big name' mathematicians or authors is always a thrill, probably the most fun I have is learning more about the everyday sorts of folks who do math blogs, but whom I know little about. Such is the case in interviewing Dr. Mike Lawler and finding out much more about the fellow who has, with two able assistants, been entertaining many of us for awhile now in short family videos with a wall and a magic marker.

Mike's WordPress blog is here: http://mikesmathpage.wordpress.com/
His YouTube channel is here: https://www.youtube.com/user/trossandallie/videos
And he tweets at: @mikeandallie

See if you're as delighted as I was in learning more cool stuff about Mike from his answers:


1) Mike, I don't actually follow a lot of the primary/secondary education-related blogs that closely, since I'm not active in that area, but I have followed your blog somewhat for the last year.  For my own benefit, and any others who don't know, tell us a little about the history and evolution of your blog… why/when did you start it, have your two "assistants" always been a part of it, how has it changed over the time you've been doing it, etc.?

The blog is relatively new – I think the first post was just last fall.  I decided to start writing because several teachers that I follow on Twitter wrote “a day in the life” articles and I thought it would be fun to contribute something.  I signed up for a Wordpress account and wrote about one of my days.  After that I started writing about some of the little math projects that we do.

It was about 4 years ago, though, that I started putting some of the math work that I do with my kids online.  The math video projects started as an offshoot of some coaching that I do (see question 8).   There were lots of internet resources with adults talking about math and I thought kids and parents might find it interesting to see other kids doing math.  It was just a whim, really, but we’ve now got close to 1,800 videos up – with no organization at all, sadly.  Ha.

[WOW! 1,800, I didn't realize… impressive, in just 4 years!]

Other than trying to keep the video times to less than 5 minutes these days, I’m not sure they’ve changed that much over time.  For the stuff we do during the week, we just sit down and talk through a problem or a concept.  Some of our weekend activities are a little longer, but I try to break them up into shorter pieces to write about on the blog.

2) Are your boys already thinking of being mathematicians when they grow up, or is it too early for such decisions? Do they get kidded much... or saluted... by peers and schoolmates for their internet 'stardom'?
Ha – no, there is no desire for internet stardom.  That’s definitely not the point at all.  

The kids are too young to be thinking about careers.  If you asked them now about their dream job, it would probably involve some combination of Minecraft and Lego.  But they both have always loved numbers and math.  For example, when my oldest was in preschool, each kid was assigned a letter for show and tell. He got “q” and decided to bring in a poster with the number one quintillion written on it.

I’m just trying to keep them interested and to show them some fun and unusual things that wouldn’t normally be part of a school math curriculum. 

3) I understand you were long ago a professor (math?) at a university… can you say much about why you left that career? And to my surprise, you currently work in the insurance industry (I'd simply assumed you were a teacher)… how does mathematics play into your current career, and along with that perhaps you can say something about the well-publicized, recent billion-dollar prize Berkshire Hathaway offered for a 'perfect bracket' in (basketball) March Madness -- apparently YOU had a hand in that?

I finished my PhD in math at Brandeis University in 1997 and took an assistant professor position at the University of Minnesota for two years.  For reasons that I’ve never really been able to understand, I sort of lost interest in math in graduate school.  I accepted the position expecting that I would be leaving academia pretty quickly, but because I’d basically spent my entire life up to that point wanting to be a math professor, I figured that I’d regret it if I didn’t at least give it a try.

Although I enjoyed the two years in Minnesota, I really had lost interest in academic math.  My wife and I moved to Omaha (where I grew up) in 1999 and by an amazing bit of luck I was hired into Berkshire Hathaway’s reinsurance division in late 2000.  I’ve worked there ever since.

Most of the math I studied was theoretical, and obviously there’s none of that in the work that I do now.  There is a lot of problem solving, though, and I enjoy that part of my job tremendously.  I was part of the team that worked on the perfect bracket deal, which was truly one of the most interesting problems in statistics that I’ve ever seen.  It was particularly amazing to see all the different opinions that were offered about the odds of a perfect bracket.  When small changes in assumptions are essentially being raised to the 63rd power, you get a pretty wide range of possible answers!

I’ve also been lucky to have been involved in a few other really fun projects.  In 2003 and 2004 we partnered with Pepsi on a TV game show called “Play for a Billion.”  On that show there was a 1 in 1000 chance that one of the contestants would win a billion dollars.  As in the Quicken perfect bracket deal, we wrote an insurance policy to Pepsi that would pay the prize if someone won.  I helped pick the winning number on the show both years, which was quite an experience.   On another promotion that we insured in Europe, I served as the dealer in a TV poker game where there was a EUR 100,000,000 prize if one of the players ever ended up with a royal flush in spades. The lesson from these projects is that TV show production is pretty different from the normal day to day life of someone involved in math!

[Interesting stuff!]

4) Of the videos you've done with your boys, which was the hardest one to complete? And do you have to 'rehearse' much for these clips, or do multiple 'takes,' or do you usually pull them off in one take?

The one that was the most difficult to complete – by far – was the project we did a few weeks ago on Graham’s number.  Evelyn Lamb wrote a neat post about Graham’s number and it really grabbed me.  I thought it would be fun to try to explain this number to the boys – and particularly fun because the main take away for me from  Lamb’s post was that it was next to impossible to understand this number at all.  I spent a week studying and playing around with how to talk about Graham's number with kids and eventually had a fun little project with the boys one morning.  Here’s that piece:


The prep work for the Graham’s number project is pretty unusual, frankly.  For virtually every video we do I do no prep work at all.  It is often the case that the problem we are talking through is something that we’ve already been covering in the books they are studying, but there’s no rehearsal or multiple takes or anything like that.  The boys only see the problem we'll be talking about right before the camera is turned on.  I want kids watching these videos to see other kids thinking and doing math, and “doing math” for kids and adults involves a lot of mistakes and false starts.  Our videos are filled with those.   

I should also point out that I am no expert at teaching math to kids – there are many mistakes and false starts in my own teaching that are on full display.  No one is going to watch our videos and come away thinking – wow, that guy is super polished.

[Well, of course that 'realness' or less-scripted feel is what makes your videos so enticing and watchable, in a way that say a Khan Academy video, might be less so.]

I’ve only re-shot a complete video once, and that was because instead of publishing it, I wasn’t paying attention and geniusly deleted it!  Oops.  Occasionally I’ll start over if something has gone totally off track, but that’s actually very rare – I think it is important for the mistakes and the struggles to be part of these videos. 

5) What have been a couple of your favorite videos to do, and which have seemed to be favorites with your readers?

The most popular blog article is a project we've done was inspired by Numberphile’s 'Pebbling the Chessboard' video.  This is a great project for kids and the Numberphile video introducing the problem is tremendous:


I think the video that has been the most popular is this one about why a negative number times a negative number is a positive number. 


That one came about last summer when Dan Meyer asked on Twitter if there were any interesting explanations of this fact.  I was sort of daydreaming at work and thought the idea of inclusion/exclusion might be interesting for kids to see.  It has 1200 views or so – that’s probably as close as any of our videos are going to get to cat video-like view numbers on YouTube.

My two personal favorite videos were motivated by physics.  The first one is a little talk inspired by a neat article Frank Wilczek wrote about the Higgs Boson.  It turns out that the Higgs boson has a life expectancy of about 10^(-22) seconds.  I wanted to explain to the boys a little bit about that number:


The second is a calculation of the speed at which the Sun is moving around the center of the Milky Way. This one is from two years ago and my older son and I were just playing around with estimation and arithmetic with large numbers.  We found a bunch of fun examples from the solar system and the Milky Way and this was the last one in the series.  As I said above, we don’t really do any prep work, so it was a cool surprise to see his old favorite number come up in this video – one quintillion!


6) From your time spent doing the blog videos are there any behind-the-scenes stories that might be funny or entertaining to tell?

I’m not sure that I’ll have the best collection of funny stories, but there always some funny things that the kids will say.  We were talking about the Collatz conjecture, for example, and I explained that the process always seems to end up at 1 for any number anyone has ever checked.  I told them that we’d be famous if we checked a number that no one had ever checked and found out that it didn’t eventually end up at one.  At that point my younger son suggested that we try the number 23.  

A story from the Minnesota days may be the most entertaining and also helps to show why I enjoy doing all of these fun little projects with the kids.  A friend of mine was a middle school teacher at the time and she invited me to the school’s career day.  I forget the details, but the general idea was to have maybe 5 people come in and spend a class period with a group of kids explaining a little about what you do in your job.  Groups of kids would cycle through the 5 career stations over the course of the day.  

The project I chose to illustrate stuff that math professors think about was the Monty Hall problem.  I had the kids pair up in groups of two and play the game with cups and pennies.  Before we started the kids had to try to guess the outcome for the switching and non-switching strategies, and, as there always is with the Monty Hall problem, there was lots of spirited debate.  Unlike most conversations with adults involving the Monty Hall problem, though, everyone seemed to have fun.  

The neat surprise came later in the week when I saw my friend again and she told me that, to her absolute shock,  the kids voted the math section as their favorite section from career day.  She really couldn’t believe it, and she said that all the teachers at the school were just baffled as to how that could have been the case.  Her shock has always stuck with me, and I hope to show kids that math can really be fun.
 [That's a GREAT story... Monty Hall to the rescue! -- really good math puzzles never lose their power to engage people.]

Certainly one other important story is all of the great math stuff that people are sharing on their blogs and on Twitter these days.  Teachers like Fawn Nguyen and Patrick Honner have been particularly influential in helping me think about what to teach and how to teach.  Even more so in the last year after my high school math teacher and mentor, Mr. Waterman, died from ALS.  Alexander Bogomolny's Cut the Knot website is an absolutely amazing resource that I find myself returning to again and again.  Many people in university math departments are also sharing great stuff that I've used with my kids -- people like Evelyn Lamb, Steven Strogatz, Ed Frenkel, and Laura Taalman are just some of the people I would suggest that everyone follow (you have to see Taalman's 3D printing blog to believe it).  Finally, Richard Rusczyk is doing things at Art of Problem Solving that I can only describe as being beyond anything that I could have possibly imagined could be done in terms of presenting fun and amazing math to kids.

7) A strictly curiosity question: the picture/avatar you use for your Twitter account appears to be an old pic of you -- if that is true is there some significance to that choice of photo or just a whim? 
And another curiosity question: I noticed there is a mathematician on the Web named Greg Lawler… a family relation by any chance, or no connection? [I've since discovered there's also a "Brian Lawler" mathematician on the Web, as well.]

Ha – the picture is from high school.  Just a picture that I like – nothing of any significance.  I think it is from the spring of 1988.  My hair is shorter and I weigh a bit more now!
 [...uhhh, I know the feeling]

No relation that I know of to Greg Lawler.  My parents were both Theology professors at Creighton in Omaha, so there is a little bit of academia in the family, just not math.

8) To round yourself out a bit, when you're not doing mathy things, what are some of your main interests/hobbies/activities?

Outside of work and teaching the boys, my main interest is coaching ultimate frisbee.  I’ve spent the last 6 years working with the Boston women’s club team Brute Squad and the Seattle women’s club team Riot.  After spending the last two seasons with Riot, I’m back with Brute Squad this year.  The first tryouts actually begin this weekend.

I played a lot when I was younger and even met my wife playing ultimate.  I’m happy to have the chance to still be involved in the game.  I’m not sure what the general public would view as a more unusual way to spend your spare time – making math videos for kids, or coaching ultimate frisbee – but they are both really important and incredibly satisfying activities for me.  I find the amount of work and dedication that the players put in to improve over the course of the season to be a constant source of inspiration.  The leaders on these teams – like Gwen Ambler and Rohre Titcomb in Seattle and Blake Spitz and Emily Baecher in Boston – are among the most impressive people I’ve ever had the opportunity to work with in any setting. 


Thanks Mike! Neat to learn so much more about the dude-in-the-ball-cap behind all those math videos. Keep teaching those young men... and keep letting us peek in on the lessons along the way!

If by any chance you're not familiar with Mike's work on the Web, click on a few of the blog links he's provided and you might just get hooked.

1 comment:

  1. Just lovely. This is truly a double treat because I have an immense respect for both of you and your work. Thank you, Shecky and Mike.