Fake an Answer and Run Away

a weekly roundup of cartoons, links, and strategies for when people ask you arithmetic questions that you don’t know

First, the cartoons (which you can see early by liking the MWBD Facebook page, or following me on Twitter):

2017.10.16 multiplying in other bases

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5 Ways to Troll Your Neural Network

Alexei Efros, a laureate of computer science, opens his lecture here in Heidelberg with a striking fact: 74% of web traffic is visual.

Foto: Bernhard Kreutzer für HLFF

“Everybody’s talking about big data, the data deluge—all this data being rained down on us,” Efros says. “But I think a lot of people don’t appreciate that most of the data is actually visual…. YouTube claims to have 500 hours of data uploaded every single minute. The earth has something like 3.5 trillion images, and half of that has been captured in the last year or so.”

Today, teams of computer scientists like Efros are working to understand that data via “deep learning” algorithms. First, you prepare a network of connections. Then, as a training regimen, you show it vast quantities of photographs. With time, it learns to accomplish extraordinary tasks—writing captions, colorizing black-and-white photos, recognizing animal species.

Unless, of course, you troll it. Continue reading

Mathematicians Make Pasta and Eat Corn

a weekly roundup of cartoons, links, and easy mathematical pasta recipes

2017.10.9 imitating parents

The noodly mathematics of gerrymandering remains a hot topic in the news. I recommend the More Perfect episode, as well as Patrick Honner’s explanation for Quanta Magazine. (Speaking of which, Quanta is like the Beatles of popular math writing. The quantity of quality stuff is unfathomable.)

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The Professor vs. the NSA

Today, Martin Hellman stands before a crowd of hundreds, narrating the history of his research in public key encryption. It’s foundational: internet security is built on mathematics, and Hellman (along with collaborator Whitfield Diffie) helped to fashion that math. Throughout the talk, you can see their adorable bromance: Diffie heckles from the front row, and Hellman banters right back.

Back in the 1970s, Hellman and Diffie couldn’t have known that their work would lead to this stage. In fact, there was a likelier destination.

Federal prison.

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“It’s July 1977,” Hellman tells the audience. “Whit and I are involved in a major fight with NSA over the data encryption standard.” Continue reading

Insatiable for Updates

a weekly roundup of cartoons, links, and the updates you and your computer are both hankering for

2017.10.2 no more problems

I’m awaiting the day when the New York Times becomes a full-time math-only publication. This week brought us a step closer.

First, Manil Suri meditates on the social impact of mathematical discovery, by asking who invented zero.

And second, Jordan Ellenberg describes the state of gerrymandering in Wisconsin, where new computational techniques have elevated the old practice from an art to a science. “As a mathematician, I’m impressed,” writes Ellenberg. “As a Wisconsin voter, I feel a little ill.”

2017.10.5 computer updates

A gem from ArXiV: Marvel Universe Looks Almost Like a Real Social Network, applying graph theory to the Marvel comics universe. Each character is a node; appearing together in a comic book is an arc.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, 99.4% of all characters belong to a single connected component of the graph.

2017.10.6 odd number theorists

Last thought: the Best Mathematics Writing of 2017 looks sharp.

No, There’s No Nobel in Math

It’s the very first on the Nobel Prize’s list of frequently asked questions: Is there a Nobel Prize in Mathematics?

Alas; it turns out that Alfred Nobel didn’t much appreciate the icy abstractions of mathematics. And before you ask, there’s no prize for computer science, either.

Faced with this emphatic snub, what’s the best response for the math/CS community? Should we pout? Throw tantrums? Pen angry, tear-stained letters to the King of Sweden? Gossip that Nobel was just jealous because his fiancée slept with a mathematician (fact-check: probably false)?

Though not above juicy gossip, the math/CS world has mostly pursued a different solution: Give fancy prizes of our own. Today, these five prizes rank among the highest in math and computer science: Continue reading

The Fortune of Mathematicians

a weekly roundup of cartoons, links, and breathless summaries

I just got back from the most exciting and undeserved week of my year: the Heidelberg Laureate Forum.


It gathers, in an adorable German city, 25 laureates of math and computer scientists (winners of the Fields Medal, Abel Prize, Turing Award, etc.) along with 200 young researchers (students and postdocs), for a week of lectures, discussions, and fancy dinners at museums like this:


Among my favorite activities of the week is ambushing the young researchers and asking them to draw cartoons for me. You can find three posts on the HLF blog: Continue reading