A Conversation That Made My Day

Student #1: Look, Mr. Orlin, we all signed this petition!

Me: “We, the undersigned, would like to have Calculus all day, every day.” Hey, I’m glad you guys are enjoying the class.

Student #2: Can you change the schedule?

Me: Well, logistics aside, you guys only got two signatures on this.

Student #1: What are you talking about? Annie signed it too!

Me: Her name is in your handwriting. And she’s glaring at us.

Student #2: Look, it’s a petition. Take it or leave it.


Iron Man 3 Outsold the Entire Book-Publishing Industry

Recently, I wanted some reassurance that I’m not the only gung-ho movie-watcher (I went to Iron Man 3 and Star Trek Into Darkness opening weekend) and lazy reader (still haven’t read new books by Nate Silver or Junot Diaz, despite lusting after them in bookstores – the books, that is, not the authors, cuties though they are).

Anyway, I craved a good statistic, and I found it: On May 3rd (the day I saw Iron Man), more Americans bought tickets to Iron Man 3 than bought books. I mean all books. Combined.

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History’s Greatest Chess Matches

I’ve been poking at chess lately, the way a chimpanzee might poke at a car engine. Does he understand it? Not really. Is he having fun? Sure!

Chess is much like math. Instead of problem sets, you play games, and in lieu of lectures, I’ve been YouTubing famous games from chess history. Here are 3 of my favorites, each no longer than an episode of Arrested Development – and just as intricate and clever.

The Immortal Game

In 1851, Adolf Anderssen (a math teacher) and Lionel Kieseritzky (the editor of a chess magazine) played a match that has been talked about ever since.

In it, Anderssen leads his pieces in a suicide charge. He sacrifices a bishop, both rooks, and the queen – nearly all his best material – in exchange for nothing but pawns. It’s like a parent chanting, “Go! Go! Go!” as he sends his children sprinting out into onrushing traffic. He’s a madman. Yet in spite of the seemingly crippling losses, he checkmates Kieseritzky on the 23rd move. The madman wins.

Anderssen’s play is as spooky as a zombie movie. The attackers seem to have no regard for their own safety. They’ll destroy themselves to bring you down. Continue reading

Learning is a Fluorescent Light

Me: I know this new concept feels hard. But you know what it’s like turning on a fluorescent light? It flickers on, then goes dark, then goes bright for an instant, then goes dark again…

Student #1: Then bright?

Me: Yes, because…

Student #2: And then dark again?

Me: Right. And what I…

Student #1: And then bright!

Me: Yes, yes. And eventually the light comes on, but it’s slow, and there are these alternating moments of illumination and darkness. And that’s how it is understanding tough math. You feel like you get it, then you don’t. There’s a moment where it’s perfectly clear, then a moment where it all seems hopeless. Your understanding flickers at first, but eventually it becomes steady and bright.

Student #3: Oh! I get the analogy!

Me: See? It’ll come to…

Student #3: Wait! I lost the analogy.

Me: Oh… well, I can…

Student #4: Ohhh! Now I get it!

Me: Hmm. Are you just mocking my…?

Student #4: No! It’s gone!

One student starts flicking the light switch off and on, as others cry and shout:

All students: It’s all so clear! No – I’ll never get it! Wait – I see! No – I’ve lost it! Hold on – yes!

Me: I love you guys. Also hate.

A Fight with Euclid

I had a fight with Euclid on the nature of the primes.
It got a little heated – you know how the tension climbs.

It started out most civil, with a honeyed cup of tea;
we traded tales of scholars, like Descartes and Ptolemy.
But as the tea began to cool, our chatter did as well.
We’d had our fill of gossip. We sat silent for a spell.
That’s when Euclid turned to me, and said, “Hear this, my friend:
did you know the primes go on forever, with no end?”

I took a napkin to my face,
to wipe the tea and shock.
At length I said, “The primes don’t end?
My friend, that’s crazy talk.”

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