Updates on Gerrymandering

A court gavel rests on a sound block

Photo by Blogtrepreneur via Wikimedia CC

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last month on gerrymandering. “In a 5-4 decision along traditional conservative-liberal ideological lines, the Supreme Court ruled that partisan redistricting is a political question — not reviewable by federal courts — and that those courts can’t judge if extreme gerrymandering violates the Constitution,” NPR reported, adding, “The ruling puts the onus on the legislative branch, and on individual states, to police redistricting efforts.”

With that decision handed down, folks are still discussing the issue of gerrymandering and attempting to answer the question “What now?”

Some background

Anna discussed gerrymandering in her 2018 “Not Those Midterms” post and her 2017 “Hacking Cracking & Packing” post. I recommend checking those out if you haven’t already. The Capital Currents blog also has numerous posts about gerrymandering. Cathy O’Neil also has a post on her blog about the history of gerrymandering, “how to gerrymander,” “how not to gerrymander,” detecting gerrymandering and problems with detecting gerrymandering.

Commentary on the Supreme Court ruling

“The Mathematics of Gerrymandering and the Supreme Court,” a post on the MAA’s Math Values blog by Rachel Levy, deputy executive director of the MAA, with an excerpt from Jeanne Clelland, a professor of mathematics at the University of Colorado, Boulder, covers the recent ruling.

The excerpt from Jeanne Clelland explains a strategy developed by several groups for “quantifying gerrymandering based on statistical sampling and outlier analysis and gives her take based on her reading of the text of the entire ruling.

“In this week’s decision, Justice Roberts basically threw up his hands and declared that the search for a manageable judicial standard for measuring gerrymandering is hopeless, and therefore such claims will no longer be considered justiciable in federal courts. He seemed not to clearly understand the mathematical argument; he repeatedly referred to the proposed outlier analysis as attempting to measure deviation from proportional representation, which it absolutely does NOT do. More significantly, he opined that it was not the Court’s business to decide how much deviation was permissible, and that therefore the entire question should be left up to the states and to Congress,” Clelland wrote.

“In Justice Kagan’s scathing dissent, on the other hand, she made it clear that she understands the math and believes that it could and should form the basis for a judicial standard. She did not attempt to set a clear threshold for how much deviation from the mean should be permissible, but she thinks that in the North Carolina and Maryland cases at hand – both of which are way out on the tails of their respective bell curves – the Court should say, ‘This much is DEFINITELY too much.’ Then it would be up to future litigation, legislation, etc. to work out the question of where to set limits on how much deviation from the mean is permissible, similar to the process that has played out for racial gerrymandering,” Clelland added.

What now?

Sam Wang, a professor of neuroscience and molecular biology at Princeton University and founder of the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, wrote the New York Times opinion piece If the Supreme Court Won’t Prevent Gerrymandering, Who Will?”

“Progressives have long looked to federal courts to guard the rights of racial minorities and dissenters. But that protection is weakening. Faced with the enormous injustice of partisan gerrymandering, the Supreme Court last month permitted politicians drawing election district maps to discriminate by party and even potentially mask their racial “packing” and “cracking” as mere partisanship. To fill this growing gap, reformers should take an unexpected route: states’ rights,” Wang states at the beginning of his piece.

Throughout the remainder of his piece, Wang outlines the details of that approach. Towards the end of it, he states, “Putting all federalist routes together — courts, voter initiatives, laws and elections — I estimate that reform is actually possible in the vast majority of states, even without the Supreme Court’s help.”

Wang closes with some analogies: “In biological systems, my other area of expertise, self-correction prevents living systems from going off-kilter. If we don’t sweat, we overheat. When cells disregard the boundaries of the organ where they belong, the result is cancer. So too in democracy: Without a mechanism to ensure fair districts, a political party can ensconce itself in power indefinitely. By introducing self-correction mechanisms, we can reverse the erosion of faith in democracy that comes from gerrymandering.”

The blog for the Princeton Gerrymandering Project has numerous resources, including a U.S. map with a state-by-state assessment of “the best route to reform.”

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Mathematical Resilience

The MAA and AMS recently co-published “Living Proof: Stories of Resilience Along the Mathematical Journey” and the e-book is free to download here. The book was edited by Allison K. Henrich, a mathematician at Seattle University, Emille D. Lawrence, a mathematician at the University of San Francisco and editor-in-chief of the Math Mamas blog, Matthew A. Pons, a mathematician at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois and David G. Taylor, a mathematician at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia.

Each chapter is written by a different contributor. The chapters are organized into four sections “organized around common themes in the experiences. Part I is about math getting hard and people hitting a wall. Part II is about struggling to belong in math (and is particularly well aligned with the goals of this blog). Part III is about persevering through and overcoming difficulties. And Part IV is about the sometimes challenge of integrating our mathematical identities with the rest of our lives,” Brian Katz wrote for the inclusion/exclusion blog.

“As you read this, we hope that you will find some inspiration and common ground in these pages. We trust that there is at least one story here that you can connect with. For those stories that you cannot relate to, we hope that you will come to better appreciate the diversity of our mathematical community and the challenges that others have faced. We also hope that you will laugh with some of our authors as they recount some of the more absurd struggles they have faced. In the end, we hope that you are motivated to share your own stories as you learn more about the experiences of the people in your own mathematical lives,” the book’s editors wrote in the preface.

Some of the chapter authors are also math bloggers. Here are some highlights about a few of the chapters:

8: “Hitting the Wall” by Laura Taalman

“Math was easy for me, until suddenly it wasn’t. I suspect this is a transition that many people go through,” wrote Laura Taalman, who is a mathematician at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. In this chapter, she describes an honors calculus sequence that was a “real shock” to her, in which she “easily had to work ten times as hard as everyone else in the class.” Yet, Taalman wrote:

“Having to work so hard that semester and develop a thick skin for feeling stupid all the time in a math course really helped me in my career. I don’t think mathematics was ever ‘easy’’ for me again after I got to college; it was always a struggle…But at each step, it was a struggle that I loved working through. I didn’t mind being stuck and feeling dumb. I knew I could get through it if I kept plugging away. In today’s language, I would say that I was lucky to have formed a ‘growth mindset’’’about learning math—I was willing to work on hard problems to find success—rather than a ‘fixed mindset,’ where I judged myself harshly when I didn’t know something. To this day, I still benefit from this mindset, and I’ve basically made a career out of trying new things that I don’t know anything about. It’s in the process of making mistakes and figuring out how to make progress where the real fun begins.”

Taalman writes about “design, math, and failure” on her “Hacktastic” blog.

30: “A Close Call How a Near Failure Propelled Me to Succeed” by Terence Tao

Terence Tao wrote about how his lack of systematic study habits and habit of “improvising” his way through homework and exams, almost made him fail his “‘generals’ — the oral qualifying exams, often lasting over two hours, that one would take in front of three faculty members” in his graduate studies at Princeton University until he “was saved by a stroke of pure luck.” His original write-up about his generals is still available online here.

Tao is a mathematician at UCLA and on his blog, he shares “updates on my research and expository papers, discussion of open problems, and other maths-related topics.

27: “Just Don’t Bomb the GRE” by Amanda Ruiz

Amanda Ruiz wrote about her experience with studying for and taking the GRE. “Every time I opened that GRE study book, I felt like an impostor. It made me feel stupid. It didn’t value my kind of smart. So, I devalued it the same way it devalued me,” she wrote. She subsequently “bombed the GRE,” which put her dream school out of reach.

“If I had been at my ‘dream school,’ it is unlikely that I would have been able to continue to work towards my PhD or, at the very least, finish in a timely manner while caring for my daughter. If I had gone to my dream school, my career trajectory would look different, and I would not have allowed myself to start a family until after tenure, which would have been biologically too late for me. So maybe, in a weird way, bombing that GRE was exactly what needed to happen,” Ruiz wrote.

Ruiz, who is a mathematician at the University of San Diego, is also an editor of the Math Mamas blog.

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Planet Math

This is what Boston looks like with a 6 ft rise in sea level, which some experts have declared “physically plausible” in the next century. Image via coast.noaa.gov.

I was recently talking to a friend of mine about real estate. In particular, he was interested in buying a beautiful house on a beautiful street with bright new siding and a shiny array of solar panels. We had the usual conversation that one has with a friend buying a house: trends in the market, accessibility by public transit, distance to the riverfront jogging path and whether or not the backyard was big enough to play croquet. And then the conversation took a turn that felt very particular to the times. He pulled up a map of the 100-year flood forecast of the area and began weighing the likelihood of his croquet pitch being underwater before the term of his 30 year mortgage.

Our planet is very vulnerable. This is a well known fact. But besides eating a plant-based diet, ditching your car, and having fewer kids, there are the big pushes in math and science that need to be made to really make a change.

For a wealth of information about the math of our teetering ecological crisis, an excellent resource in the #MTBoS is the work of mathematical physicist John Carlos Baez, who you should definitely follow on Twitter. Baez is a big time contributor to The Azimuth Project which is a forum for STEM-type folks to share information about topics pertinent to the threats to our global ecology, and Baez also writes the Azimuth blog.

How to reduce your contribution to climate change, via Phys.org.

Like with most things in the world, it’s relatively easy to nod in vigorous agreement when someone suggests that mathematicians have a lot they can contribute to our fight to save the planet, but for many people it can be hard to imagine just why or how (other than gathering lots of data and making graphs that are totally scary). But The Azimuth Project very handily connects the dots between mathematics/engineering and important topics in ecological science like sustainable energy and geoengineering.

The Azimuth Project shows that there’s a lot to be done, and they say “we need to do it now, because people don’t always get better at optimizing their collective behavior when things get worse.” Ugh. True. “When people are struggling to survive, they often do things like start wars. And then we’ll wish we’d taken action sooner.”

Perhaps you don’t feel in a position to develop the next big breakthrough in carbon sequestration — although I’d urge you to try! — but at the very least we are all capable of informing ourselves and our friends and students.

If you are interested in learning about more applications, you might consider joining SIAM’s activity group on Mathematics of Planet Earth, which exists “to provide a forum for mathematicians and computational scientists to study Planet Earth, its life-supporting capacity, and the impact of human activities.”

When I tweeted out a request for information on mathematicians studying sustainable energy last week I also got so many more recommendations of people doing cool things. Like Julie Lundquist studying the impacts of wind energy, or Ellen Webborn studying energy usage through smart meter data, or the Porous Media Group who study the math of geothermal energy and subsurface energy storage.

If you have more resources you’d like to share, and if you have any photos of cool looking leaves, you can tweet them at me @extremefriday. Enjoy the outdoors this summer!

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Pride Month And Math

The Philadelphia Pride flag. From top to bottom, its stripes are black, brown, red, orange, yellow, green, blue and purple.

The Philadelphia Pride flag design, which includes black and brown stripes to signify queer people of color. Credit: Philadelphia City Council and Tierney (public domain image via Wikimedia CC).

June is Pride Month. June 28, 2019 is also the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots/uprising that marked the beginning of a new era in the fight for rights and freedoms for LGBTQ+ folks in America and around the world.

With the 2015 Supreme Court ruling in favor of marriage equality, it might seem to some as if the fight for equal rights for LGBTQ+ individuals in America is finished. Yet there’s still much work to be done.

For instance, on May 17, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Equality Act, but the U.S. Senate hasn’t yet ruled on the act, which would protect LGBTQ folks from discrimination in housing, the workplace, public accommodations and more, Vox reported. Specifically for schools receiving federal funding (including all public schools and many private ones, it “codifies protections that the Department of Education has already put in place through case law and guidance, including the right to form Gay-Straight Alliances/Gender and Sexuality Alliances (GSAs) and protection from discrimination on the basis of sex stereotyping. The Equality Act prohibits discrimination against any LGBTQ youth…including bullying and harassment by other youth or by teachers and staff,” according to a fact sheet from the Human Rights Campaign.

Whether or not this legislation passes, there are ways to make school in general and math class specifically more inclusive of LGBTQ+ students. The GLSEN blog offers these resources:

“How Do We Make Math Class More Inclusive of Trans and Non-binary Identities?” by Kyle S. Whipple

“Mathematics teachers have a unique role to play in the lives of their students, because understanding algebraic concepts and statistics has become a central focus for creating productive adults, and researchers have determined that LGB high school students are less likely to complete Algebra II than their non-LGB classmates,” wrote Whipple, who offers practical examples of ways to create engaging and inclusive mathematics and statistics lessons.

“Why (and How) STEM Curriculum Needs to Be LGBT Inclusive” by Mary Hoelscher

“An LGBT-inclusive STEM curriculum is also one that acknowledges the lives of LGBT individuals in the field. For instance, Sally Ride was a physicist and astronaut. She was also a lesbian. Let’s talk about the whole lives of LGBT professionals in STEM so that anyone with the skills to go to space wants to get off the launch pad and go to that inclusive party in the sky,” Hoelscher wrote.

One place to find profiles of living LGBTQ+ STEM professionals? The 500 Queer Scientists website, which includes more than 500 profiles.

GLSEN’s website also has an LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum guide for educators.

This month, Anthony Bonato posted “On being a gay mathematician redux,” a follow-up to one of his 2017 pieces. This year, Bonato wrote:

“Pride flags and celebrating Pride Month in your offices are lovely, but we need more than a once a year gesture. The voices of LGTBQ+ folks matter, but we make up a relatively small slice of the population. We can’t achieve equality on our own.

We need straight and cis mathematician colleagues to speak out on our behalf. Your voices together with ours could make real change. We need you to stand up for LGTBQ+ mathematicians at work and beyond.

I don’t have all the answers or even a tangible list of recommendations. But to effect real change, we need those in power to be accountable.”

He ended his piece with this question: ” What can you do, today, to support your LGTBQ+ colleagues and co-workers?”

Juliettte Bruce offered interesting insights on creating a mathematical community that cherishes and supports people from all backgrounds and identities in “See, Accept, Affirm,” a 2016 piece for the AMS’s inclusion/exclusion blog about writing a community statement of commitment to inclusivity.

“Creating a inclusive, supportive, and safe community takes dedicated, deliberate, and thoughtful action; writing a statement of commitment is just a first step,” Bruce wrote.

Earlier this year, I was also excited to learn about LG&TBQ, a conference taking place this week with the goal of fostering “ongoing community and collaboration among LGBTQ+ mathematicians working in geometry, topology and dynamical systems.” If you’re attending the conference, I would love to hear about your experience! As always, you can reach me in the comments or on Twitter (@writesRCrowell)!

I’ll end with this quote from Bruce’s piece: “I see you, I accept you, and I affirm you.”

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Inclusive Math History

Pile of old books

Earlier this month, Anna announced on Twitter “It’s finally happened, I got tapped to teach History of Math. Since I cover so much of the euro white guy stuff in number theory, I want to do a People’s History of Math. Who must I include? I want some ladies! I want some Asia/Africa/S.America! (And don’t tell me Emmy Noether.)” To date, her post has gotten 189 replies, many of which include resource recommendations and other ideas. Here is a collection of resources (both from that thread and from elsewhere) for folks who are curious about the subject or perhaps even interested in developing their own take on “a People’s History of Math.”

“Toward humanizing undergraduate mathematics education: A re-imagining through historical perspectives in mathematics” by Luis A. Leyva.

Leyva wrote this post on the AMS inclusion/exclusion blog. He wrote that his post was inspired by Sara Hottinger’s book, Inventing the Mathematician: Gender, Race, and Our Cultural Understanding of Mathematics. 

Leyva’s post summarizes “Hottinger’s distinction between internalist and externalist historical accounts and their respective influences on the construction of mathematical subjectivities. This is followed by a discussion of how Hottinger’s insights can be applied to re-thinking pedagogical practices in undergraduate education that challenge traditional representations of mathematics as void of sociohistorical contexts and personhood,” he wrote. It also includes references to other related works.

Biographies

This list of mathematician biographies and this sublist of women mathematician biographies (both maintained by the University of St. Andrews, Scotland) were recommended by @DynamicsSIAM.

Consider incorporating primary sources

In the Twitter thread, Evelyn Lamb recommended Mathematical Expeditions by Reinhard Laubenbacher and David Pengelley, particularly for the chapter on Fermat’s Last Theorem, which “has an excellent section on Germain’s work on the problem,” she wrote.

Later in the thread, she wrote “Back to primary source point, I think college math Ss are used to seeing ideas after they’ve been very well-digested. Getting them to engage with primary sources really helps them (& us) think about how we know what we know I think college math Ss are used to seeing ideas after they’ve been very well-digested. Getting them to engage with primary sources really helps them (& us) think about how we know what we know [about the] past.”

Mike Lawler also shared the link to his post “An attempt to share some Katherine Johnson’s math ideas from Hidden Figures with my son” on his Mike’s Math Page blog.

Some typesetting considerations

On his Division by Zero blog, David Richeson wrote about using XeTeX (rather than LaTeX) to “typeset Egyptian hieroglyphics, Babylonian cuneiform, and Chinese rod numerals” for a history of math course he taught.

Have favorite resources on the history of math from diverse perspectives? Feel free to share them with me in the comments or on Twitter @writesRCrowell!

Posted in History of Mathematics, Issues in Higher Education, K-12 Mathematics, Math Education, people in math, Uncategorized, women in math | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The recent buzz on John Urschel

John Urschel, a graduate student in mathematics at MIT and former offensive lineman for the Baltimore Ravens, has been in the news a lot lately. That’s because his memoir, ““Mind and Matter: A Life in Math and Football,” which he co-wrote with Louisa Thomas (who is a journalist, a historian and his wife), was recently published.

“I’m looking forward to being considered that mathematician who used to play football” rather than “that football player who’s really smart,” he told the Washington Post. He hasn’t played football – even for fun – since his retirement in 2017, article author Nora Krug notes in that piece, adding “He wanted his first book to be a pure math book, and at signings he’s been known to inscribe the memoir he ended up writing with ‘fun integrals’ and ‘important constants’ that he’s excited to explain to anyone who wants to geek out with him.”

“For me, math is the greatest intellectual pursuit – though it calls upon my spirit too. It is a story of moving between the ideal, abstract world and the reality we live in, a story of private investigation and also collaboration,” the preface to “Mind and Matter” reads.

Ben Orlin wrote “Why Teachers Should Read John Urschel’s Book” for his Math with Bad Drawings blog. I especially enjoyed his drawing of three bored kids — including The Next Emmy Noether – and this section:

“Strained analogies, dubious ‘real-world’ connections, non sequitur photos of jets—that won’t cut it for students like John.

They want the math.

Math can be captivating, just as vegetables can be delicious—as long as you don’t make the mistake of coating them with frosting.”

Orlin’s piece also references a recent opinion piece Urschel wrote for the New York Times. Its title? “Math Teachers Should Be More Like Football Coaches.”

“No one expects a math teacher to tell a talented student that he or she could become the next John von Neumann. (No one expects math teachers to tell students about von Neumann — perhaps the greatest mathematician of the 20th century — at all.),” Urschel wrote in that opinion piece, adding “No one expects math teachers to talk with the kind of fire, or to demand the kind of commitment and accountability, that football coaches do. But I wish they did.”

Urschel also recently appeared on the Numberphile podcast.

In case you missed them, here are two other interesting pieces about Urschel from recent years.

“10 out of 200: From NFL to MIT – John Urschel tackles clustering problems”

Last year, Urschel was a 10 out of 200 young researcher participating in the Heidelberg Laureate Forum. This piece for the Forum’s blog is a Q & A with Urschel in which he answers questions such as “Why did you become a mathematician?” and “Who were your most important mentors and what lessons did they pass on to you?”

“John Urschel’s Favorite Theorem”

Also last year, Urschel spoke with Evelyn Lamb and Kevin Knudson on the My Favorite Theorem podcast.

The AMS also has a page about Urschel that shows a poster you can request with quotes from him and has a list of coverage about him.

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A Conversation With Jim Propp

I recently had the tremendous pleasure of attending the 2019 BAHFest at MIT, an event in which very clever people deliver convincing arguments in support of absolutely ridiculous bad ad hoc hypotheses to a packed auditorium of nerds. Happily, this year one of those nerds was me, and one of the presenters was Jim Propp, a professor of mathematics at UMass Lowell, who you might know as the blogger of Mathematical Enchantments.

This was Propp’s second year presenting at BAHFest. You can (and should!) watch the video of his 2017 first-prize-winning presentation, “Dinosaur Extinction Caused By Gravitational Reversal Event,” and you can read this Q&A about how he develops his BAHFest material.

Since I write for a blog on math blogs, and cool math bloggers are my beat, I decided to call up Propp and have a chat with him about his experiences and inspirations in the realm of math outreach in blogging, BAHFest, and beyond.

Jim Propp also serves on the advisory council of the National Museum of Mathematics in New York City. Photo courtesy of Jim Propp.

Propp understands that blogging, writing, and generally contributing to math communication outside of the standard academic framework can be a challenge. Blogging takes time, and it is a reality that this type of writing is not as highly valued as research writing. And even if one has the time and support to blog, not all ideas are ready to be put into written word. I think this might be what people call writer’s block.

To help his thoughts gather momentum and clarity, Propp keeps a continually updating text document of ideas. I do something similar, but I email myself ideas and put them in my “ideas folder.” And this is a good thing, “let things sit for a long time and let them accumulate,” he says, “there will be time to blog later.” Documenting your ideas is a powerful practice.

I asked Propp what kind of advice he has for aspiring bloggers or math writers, he says “a piece of advice I got early on was that once a month is too seldom to post.” A sagacious suggestion to be sure, but one that Propp intentionally chose to ignore. Instead he posts precisely once per month, but always on the same day. “Regularity is helpful,” he says, so don’t be scared by these superhuman bloggers that post twice a week (I’m lookin’ at you Mathbabe).

Another suggestion that Propp likes to ignore is to “make pieces shorter.” Like one of his writing role models, Martin Gardner, Propp prefers long form essays that really take time to explore ideas. But although most of his posts are several thousands of words, Propp still likes the challenge of condensing his writing, and keeping a high “density of ideas per paragraph.” And this is part of what makes his blog so enchanting. Each essay opens an idea to its fullest, whether explaining the beauty of dimensional analysis or delivering a treatise on “Thirdsday.” Propp writes, “Hardly any of my Mathematical Enchantments pieces are “blogs” in the traditional sense; rather, they’re my way of testing out ideas, trying out ways of explaining those ideas, and more broadly, becoming a better expositor.”

I myself prefer a short paragraph without any ideas in it at all.

For newcomers to Mathematical Enchantments, Propp recommends the following posts:

Propp also hosts a list of practical style tips for blogging about math in WordPress, including some (sadly imperfect) workarounds for rendering LaTeX in HTML and getting those sweet math graphics into your post. If you’re looking for some more nuanced tips about the writing part of blogging, you might also enjoy Rachel Crowell’s recent post, “A roundup of advice for writing about mathematics.

Our conversation made me curious, dear reader. Have you ever considered starting a blog of your own? Why haven’t you done it yet? What feel like the biggest hurdles?

Propp has the eventual plan to publish thematic collections of his essays in book form, “I don’t know how to write a book,” he says, “but I know how to write a lot of them at once.” We will look forward to that, and in the meantime, you can reach out to Propp in the comments section on this blog, or find him on Twitter @JimPropp. And if you need me, I’ll be there too @extremefriday.

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Call for Co-Editor of the AMS Blog on Math Blogs

The AMS invites applications for a co-editor of the AMS Blog on Math Blogs. This blog’s editors are mathematical scientists who explore the world of blogs, which cover a wide range of math—research, applications, recreational—and write their take on blogs or particular posts.

Some blogs covered may be associated with, for example, media and science journals, research mathematicians, or secondary school math teachers. The Blog on Math Blogs is written to inform and engage mathematicians and non-mathematicians alike, and to encourage all mathematicians to join the community of followers and to post comments. Sometimes blogs are revisited, as the Blog on Math Blogs editors give readers an ongoing “tour of the mathematical blogosphere.”

Blog on Math Blogs editors have covered biomath, current events, data science, game theory, math history, math education, math and the arts, women in math, publishing, statistics, computing and much more from the math blogosphere.

The position of co-editor requires excellent communication skills, a commitment to posting twice a month, and monitoring of comments. The posting itself is done with WordPress, a free and open-source content management system for blogs. Familiarity with WordPress is a plus; otherwise applicants must be willing to learn it (with AMS documentation and support).

AMS blogs are hosted on blogs.ams.org, and AMS staff liaisons help promote awareness of the blog and the blog posts on ams.org and on AMS social media. The co-editors are expected to commit for a three-year period, with an opportunity for both the co-editor and AMS to review the commitment each year.

Applicants are requested to provide a sample of their writing (from a blog or for a similar audience), CV, and their reason for interest in being co-editor, along with a vision statement for the blog (such as examples of math blogs of potential interest).

Send applications by May 17, 2019 to paoffice at ams dot org.

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On Technology And Harm

Caution sign on wooden pole in front of snowy landscape

Public domain photo courtesy of Yinan Chen/Wikimedia CC

Fictional stories about putting too much trust in technology often involve armies of killer robots. But what if some of today’s real threats of improperly checked technology are less thrilling but nevertheless harmful or even deadly?

On the bit-player blog, Brian Hayes writes about computation and mathematics. He also has a self-described “morbid fascination with stories of technological disaster.” He has written about a few disasters that tragically illustrate the results of putting too much trust in technology.

Two Boeing 737 MAX 8 airplane crashes 

Earlier this month, Hayes wrote an in-depth post about ongoing investigations of two tragedies involving new Boeing 737 MAX 8 airplanes. The first is the crash of Lion Air Flight 610. That plane departed Jakarta, Indonesia on October 29, 2018. After a flight control problem, that plane crashed into the sea, killing 189 people. The second is the crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, which departed Addis Ababa (the capital of Ethiopia) on March 8, 2019. Just six minutes after takeoff, the plane crashed, killing 157 people.

“The pilots reported control problems, and data from a satellite tracking service showed sharp fluctuations in altitude. The similarities to the Lion Air crash set off alarm bells: If the same malfunction or design flaw caused both accidents, it might also cause more. Within days, the worldwide fleet of 737 MAX aircraft was grounded. Data recovered since then from the Flight 302 wreckage has reinforced the suspicion that the two accidents are closely related,” Hayes wrote.

Preliminary analysis suggests that problems occurred with the a type of onboard software called the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, according to Hayes’s post.

Pressure surge and a series of fires and explosions

Last October, Hayes wrote about the role that technology played in the Merrimack Valley gas explosions and fires in Massachusetts on September 13, 2018. “By the end of the day 131 buildings were damaged or destroyed, one person was killed, and more than 20 were injured. Suspicion focused immediately on the natural gas system. It looked like a pressure surge in the pipelines had driven gas into homes where stoves, heaters, and other appliances were not equipped to handle the excess pressure,” Hayes wrote. He added that the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) had released a preliminary report supporting that hypothesis.

Hayes wrote about a disturbing finding:

“The cause of the accident was not a leak or an equipment failure or a design flaw or a worker turning the wrong valve. The pressure didn’t just creep up beyond safe limits while no one was paying attention; the pressure was driven up by the automatic control system meant to keep it in bounds. The pressure regulators were “trying” to do the right thing. Sensor readings told them the pressure was falling, and so the controllers took corrective action to keep the gas flowing to customers. But the feedback loop the regulators relied on was not in fact a loop. They were measuring pressure in one pipe and pumping gas into another.”

That safety board subsequently released a safety recommendation report about the product development and review of natural gas distribution systems. For NiSource, Inc., the company whose subsidiary (Columbia Gas of Massachusetts) owned and operated the distribution system involved in the disaster, the report’s recommendations include such measures as applying “management of change process to all changes to adequately identify system threats that could result in a common mode failure” and developing and implementing “control procedures during modifications to gas mains to mitigate the risks identified during management of change operations. Gas main pressures should be continually monitored during these modifications and assets should be placed at critical locations to immediately shut down the system if abnormal operations are detected.”

Cathy O’Neil, who is author of Weapons of Math Destruction, blogger at mathbabe.org and a Bloomberg opinion columnist, has written extensively about algorithms and the issues that accompany them. You can find her posts about algorithms here. (Check out the other posts on this blog about O’Neil and mathbabe.org, along with Anna’s coverage of O’Neil’s MAA-AMS-SIAM Gerald and Judith Porter Public Lecture, “Big data, inequality, and democracy” on the 2019 JMM blog.)

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Do Evaluations Really Add Up?

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via FlickrCC

First, let’s start with the classic article, “How to Improve Your Teaching Evaluations Without Improving Your Teaching” by Ian Neath from the mid 90’s, in which 20 tips are furnished for gaming your end-of-semester evaluations. Despite the funny title and sort of gimmicky conceit — and at this point somewhat out of date research — it is a serious paper in a serious academic journal. We know more now than we knew then, but a lot of the broad strokes are still the same. Often more than teaching and student outcomes, the class size, maleness, quality of students, and other non-pedagogical factors, play an outsized role in Student Evaluation of Teaching (SET) scores. But there’s more.

In a recent slam-dunk of a meta-analysis by Uttl et al. in 2017, the authors provide strong evidence that when controlled for prior knowledge and sample size “student evaluation of teaching ratings and student learning are not related.” Yup, that’s it, there is no correlation between the learning and the SET scores. Based on this the authors suggest, “institutions focused on student learning and career success may want to abandon SET ratings as a measure of faculty’s teaching effectiveness.” In a post for the Berkeley Blog, the statistician Philip Stark talks about some the “statistical considerations” of SET scores.

So we can be reasonably convinced that instructors who get very good evaluations aren’t necessarily bringing better learning outcomes to bear. But maybe they are bringing…something else?

In “Availability of cookies during an academic course session affects evaluation of teaching,” published by Hessler et al. in 2018, the authors prove just that. All things being equal, the presence of cookies leads to higher SET scores, or as the authors so succinctly put it, “the provision of chocolate cookies had a significant effect on course evaluation.” And again, they conclude that it might be unwise to use SETs in important promotion and tenure decisions.

Since then, the research about Student Evaluations of Teaching continues to roll out and continues to undercut my confidence in the system. Most recently, “Gender Bias in Teaching Evaluations” a study by Mengel et al really lit up the internet. This study includes analysis of almost 20,000 student evaluations and makes some important observations about the presence of bias in SETs.

A really nuanced discussion of Mengel et al. appears in a post on the Rice University Center for Teaching Excellence Blog. The tables in the original paper are a bit hard to digest, but this post distills some major ideas into an easy to read infographic, and gives good bulleted summaries of the main points. Some takeaways are that bias is more apparent in math than in other subjects, junior women are subject to more bias than senior women, and bias in evaluations follows some in-group patterns, that is, men tend to rate men more favorably and women tend to rate women more favorably. The most appreciable loss is dealt to female PhD students teaching classes of predominantly men, who see -0.26 on a 5 point scale compared to their male counterparts. This number isn’t huge, but still troubling when you consider the particular importance of SETs for young people just beginning their career.

I recently learned that SETs at Villanova this year will also allow students to comment on instructor bias in the classroom. You can read about it in a Wall Street Journal editorial (sorry, paywall), or in this twitter thread from Jeffrey Sachs.

Many universities have started to move away from using SETs as tools in determining promotion and tenure cases. In the US, the University of Southern California caused a stir in spring of 2018 when they announced that they would no longer use SETs in promotion and tenure decision. Since then others have also begun to opt out, and others have begun to offer training on how to correctly interpret the scores once they’ve been collected. Jacqueline Dewar wrote a comprehensive blog post for the AMS blog On Teaching and Learning Mathematics about how we might interpret our SETs.

A thing that really frustrates me about all of this is that women, POC, and other underrepresented groups who get lower SET scores by no fault of their teaching, are fooled into thinking they are a “bad teachers” when they’re really perfectly good. Consequently, they redirect the energy they would have otherwise spent on research in trying to fix their teaching, thereby increasing the likelihood that they will be viewed as less serious researchers. This, in a word, sucks.

The end of the semester is barreling towards us, which means SETs will be dropping soon. Has your institution had the talk about SETs? What will you do to prepare your students? Are you bringing cookies on SET day? Do you love SETs? Tell me everything over on Twitter @extremefriday.

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