The Know-Nothing Oscar Pool

You can play here until March 4th!

Backstory: Since 2009, I’ve had an annual Oscars wager with my friend Ryan. From 2009 to 2014, Ryan always won.

Ryan’s advantage? He is much smarter than I am. (Smart friends: I don’t recommend it.) He’d go to and identify the favorite in each category. (For close races, he’d supplement with a little extra research.) While Ryan leveraged the wisdom of the crowds, I’d fall back on my own personal favorites and erratic judgment. I’d lose because I couldn’t keep myself from “clever” (read: stupid) underdog picks.

Image (4)

Then, in 2015 I devised a new scoring system to neutralize Ryan’s advantage. An Oscar pool for know-nothings like me.

Picks would be scored based on their probability of winning. If prediction markets gave a film a 1-in-2 chance of winning, then its victory was worth 2 points. If they gave it a 1-in-15 chance of winning, then its victory was worth 15 points.

Image (5)

This system has a simple mathematical property: it equalizes expected value. So you can follow any probabilistic strategy you like. Pick all favorites. Pick all longshots. Pick the nominees whose names make the most appealing anagrams (“Lady Bird” –> “I Dry Bald”; Phantom Thread” –> “Top Hardhat Men”; “The Post” –> “Hot Step”; “Get Out” –> “Toe Tug”).

In the long run, it will all return the same average total: 24 points a year.

Now, it didn’t matter that Ryan is a neurosurgery resident, busy saving lives by mastering the inner workings of the most complex organ in existence. None of that did him any good. What an idiot!

Anyway, this year, I am excited to open up the game to you, with the KNOW-NOTHING OSCAR POOL. Continue reading


The Reluctant Gatekeeper

From time to time, math folks can’t help wrestling with the old, pot-stirring question “Is [algebra/calculus/trigonometry/mathematics] class really necessary?”


The argument goes like this: At every step of education, students face math requirements.


What’s weird is that, once you’ve cleared the bar, you rarely use the math you learned. Continue reading

The Twitter Logo is Just Circles

a roundup post that I wrote in November and never shared,
and now I’ve kinda stopped doing roundup posts,
but hey, here ya go

Suterisms: I recently came across the work of cartoonist David Suter. His images are hard to describe. Artful cartoons? Cartoonish art? Visual puns? More like visual wordplay; “thoughtplay?” It’s what you’d get if you hired MC Escher as a political cartoonist. This one was a favorite of mine:

Related image

Belatedly: RIP, Voevodsky: A tribute to the visionary mathematician Vladimir Voevodsky, who died in 2017.

Continue reading

Math Classes Every College Should Teach

Math 40: Trying to Visualize a Fourth Dimension. Syllabus includes Flatland, the Wikipedia page for “hypercube,” long hours of squinting, and self-inflicted head injuries.

Image (6).jpg

Math 99: An Irritating Introduction to Proof. The term begins with five weeks of the professor responding to every question with, “But how do you knoooooooow?” If anyone is still enrolled at that point, we’ll have to wing it, since no one has ever lasted that long.


Math 101: Binary. An introductory study of the binary numeral system. Also listed as Math 5. Continue reading

A Borrowed Joke (and 15 other math cartoons)

The Fence Post Error

2017.12.1 fencepost problem

I drew this one at the request of Prof. Jim Propp, who writes the excellent Mathematical Enchantments and whose November essay Impaled on a Fencepost explored the kind of off-by-one errors that I make at least 17 times per day. (Or is it 18?)

Greetings from Heisenberg!

2017.12.4 postcard from heisenberg

Tourist bureau of Würzburg, Germany: please feel free to sell these. Continue reading

Things to Know About the Year 2018

Whatever your grievances against 2016 as a year, it was a stellar number. Like a picnic with milkshakes and beer, this integer was fun for the whole family.

Just look at these equations:

1 new year

After this crowd-pleaser came 2017, a prime year, which engendered this brilliant Tweet from Matt Parker:

That brings us to 2018.

It’s not triangular, like 2016.

It’s not prime, like 2017.

Is it, then, worthless?

Well, I myself am neither triangular nor prime. But if the roles were reversed, I like to think 2018 would do its best to uncover my special qualities and catalogue them in a blog post. So I went to do “research” (my codeword for “Google searches”).

What secret mathematical properties and pleasures will our new year contain? Continue reading