Archive | March 2012

Pi Day

Today is a more-special-than-normal day for two reasons.

The first is quite obviously stated in the title:

Today is Pi day!

As if getting your eyes checked isn't annoying enough...

I dont know how all of you “celebrate” or acknowledge pi day, but we used to hold pi competitions: as in seeing how many digits of pie you can memorize.

Pretty typical, huh?

But to be honest, though I give you major props for doing so, what exactly do you gain from memorizing maybe 600 digits of pi?

Yeah, you can win. Yeah, you know more pi digits than the majority of us, but what other practical application is there? In most calculations I’ve encountered, you need just 3.14. For more detailed calculations (with more sig figs) you need maybe 3.14159265 (and even that is being a bit lenient). There’s also the handy button on your calculator or it being pre-programmed into your computer software…

I just don’t quite understand what encouraging people to memorize digits of pi will do.
Again, I will say that it isn’t easy to memorize all those digits. I’m not saying I can do it no problem (actually I’d have quite a bit of trouble… I’m not the best memorizer of digits) and I definitely think “wow. That’s… I can’t believe they memorized all of that,” but where do you go from there?

Many people argue that some parts of math are “stupid” or “useless” to learn because most of us may never use advanced math in the future. Though I’m a math nerd myself and don’t quite like the notion of learning only the basics needed to do day-to-day computation, I believe memorizing digits of pi runs in the same vein.

Why spend so much time on an irrational number? It’s never going to end… ever…

I once downloaded a document that contained 1 million digits of pi (I was really young… and curious… and possibly stupid) and the document was over 600 pages long. Plus, it almost made my computer crash (though I give computers back then were… lackluster).
There really doesn’t seem to be a purpose in memorizing so many digits except for a feeling of accomplishment and momentary fame (if you win).

I grant you that to some, that may be reason enough.

But I feel like… Couldn’t time be spent in more beneficial ways?

Plus for those of you who actively memorize, I hate to tell you this but there are people out there who don’t even need to do that.

Some people known as Savants have an amazing memory. I’m not talking photographic memory or just good at memorizing things: they can remember things at a level beyond normal human capacity. It’s an extraordinary thing that is, unfortunately, often coupled with conditions like Autism.

But regardless, a particular Savant I’ve heard of is one who knows a freakishly huge number of digits of pi without needing to try to remember. He has described it as the numbers just “coming to him” in his mind — like pictures or images that just form.

It’s amazing, but, regardless, all it really has is WOW-factor.

Of course, such an ability to memorize — for both Savants and normal memorizers of pi — can be applied to many other fields. My point is that they should be. Pi is cool and such, but thats about it. It’s a never-ending number.

And I shall now digress…
The second thing about pi day is MIT. Yep. MIT.
Now I don’t know if this has always been true, but from personal experience and what I’ve observed, MIT regular decision results tend to come out on pi day.

This would be this year's date and time, complete with a cute little email to diffuse the tension.

Of course, it’s not coincidence. Clever MIT planned this all along! At least from what I think. No one ACTUALLY thinks it just HAPPENS to be pi day… right?

Well, either day, it’s a big day for any MIT applicants
And quite a stressful one…

But in addition to the date being pi day, I’ve been wondering about the time.
I remember that last year they had the date and time so amazingly worked out. It went a little something like this:

Yep. They even included lottery numbers. Way. To. Go.

I could be over-thinking, but given that last year’s time had meaning I’m starting to wonder if this year’s time means anything. Plus the fact that it’s 6:28 rather than like 6:30 or 6:00 makes me suspect something. At first I thought suspected it was e (because of the 28) but that doesn’t really correspond to the 6. I wonder if they’ll release something after the fact…?

Then again, I think too much

Phew that was a long post. Sorry if I ranted a bit. Despite what I might wonder about memorizing pi, pi day is still an awesomely nerdy day (they should make Feb 7th e day! haha). Hope you all enjoy it (or have a normal, rational day!)

A look on Invisible Children.

The title, I admit, sounds weird. Especially out of context.
However, it’s probably something many of you are familiar with. For those of you who don’t know:

"We can stop this. We will fight war."

Two days ago, March 5th 2012, a certain video went viral on Facebook (and, I’m sure, other websites that I don’t pay attention to). This video is know as KONY 2012 and was made by a humanitarian group called Invisible Children. They created it in order to generate awareness on a 26-year-old conflict in Uganda that has spread to other parts of Africa and gain support to stop it.
You can find their 30-minute documentary/video here:

I’m not here to tell you to go out there and openly participate in their cause.
I won’t even tell you to watch the video.
It is just 30 minutes long, but to some of you it could be a whole 30 minutes. We all have a different senses of time and daily schedules, so watch this at your own leisure or discretion. Either way, I’m not here to enforce any viewpoints or movements on others.

Instead, I’d like to take a step back from all of this and look at the situation from as objective of a perspective as possible.

Let’s take a minute to see what they’ve accomplished. In the matter of a day or two, they got their message out quickly and efficiently to so many people. They, in turn, spread it to their friends and the connections just keep going. Their cause is now all over one of the most popular social networking sites as well as other websites due to their success.
This is, of course, all due to the aid of technology.
As we all know, we’re now able to “flatten” the world through these instantaneous connections on the world wide web.
It’s truly remarkable what can be done.

Yet at the same time, it makes me sadly aware of how ignorant we are despite this flattening of the world.

I am disappointed to say that I did not know of these events happening in Uganda prior to watching this video. I will offer no excuses other than my blatant ignorance of this part of the world (and to be honest, other parts as well). I can’t believe that such a thing has been going on for 26-years so out of U.S. public notice. I’m not the most updated news-follower ever, but there’s no way I would miss something like this in the media. It’d be big and it’d be everywhere, as it is becoming now.

But aside from my general ignorance, think about it: so many of us (I assume from the reactions of my friends and others) had no idea this was occurring.
Despite instantaneous connections
Despite the widespread information network
Despite easy accessibility to media and other sources
Despite all of these advanced resources.

When we see how technology can push something like this viral in a matter of hours, we feel like technology and communication have improved in leaps in bounds. Yet, when we see the fact that this somehow went under our noses for 26 years, it feels — at least to me — like we’ve been sitting in place. As if having such ease and accessibility has given us the illusion of knowledge to the point where we can be confidently ignorant about such events happening as we speak.

Some may argue that this was in a different continent, and one that contains developing nations no less. How can be expect to know everything?
Well, then what about all the other events that we find out about?  The conflicts in Syria, the protestors in Libya, and economic issues in Europe: those all take place on different continents. Yes we have a closer relationship with Europe. Yes, we keep a close eye on Libya and Syria, but that all started from something: you don’t just watch and watch until something happens. Something happens which causes you to watch.
The same goes for incident. It’s impossible that no one knew about this — after all, how did the ones starting this movement find out? The local and government officials aren’t stupid or blind.
The problem is it was somehow kept under wraps for such a long time. The word never got spread out. Maybe those who did hear of it thought it wasn’t the biggest problem the U.S. needed to face. Maybe we’ve all been too occupied with everything else. Maybe people didn’t think much of it. After all, on a general basis, we know much less about Africa and African culture than that of places like Europe.
But whatever the reason, it didn’t remain hidden for 1 or 3 years: it was hidden for 26 years.
To me, that’s unimaginable.

It should be impossible.

Yet it wasn’t.

What do we take from this?
Well, for me, we are sometimes too confident in the beautiful technology that we have developed. Yes, we’ve accomplished so much, but it’s no reason  to become confident.

Just because we’ve flattened the world, doesn’t mean it’s an open book.

It may just be even more important to understand the world now that we think it’s so “flat.”

If anything, it might be even more difficult to pick facts from fiction and important from meaningless. Such is the complicated world we both live in and fabricate…

14 Hours of Math

So, I just spent 14 hours on a math modeling competition.

I cannot begin to tell you how mentally exhausted, and yet mentally uplifted I feel.
I had a LOT of fun. And I’d gladly do it again… and again… and again!

To begin with, I do not recommend doing such a math contest unless you actually like the subject. It can give you a good push or something to talk/write about in terms of college, but it’ll be pure torchure unless you’re ready to spend 14 hours on math (plus you might not do well).

Oh and when I say 14 hours, I mean starting at 7 am to 9 pm. And if you don’t turn it in by 9 pm time stamped exactly, then you just spent 14 hours making a model for nothing.

Luckily they do accept partial answers, so you can turn in an unfinished paper to be evaluated just in case. It’s so much better to turn in an unfinished model then nothing at all. Especially when you invest 14 hours. So in this case, being a perfectionist may not pay off…

So onto the actual competition. Now I don’t know if I’m allowed to disclose the actual problem we had to model yet. I haven’t been advised about that, so I won’t try.
I do have some big-picture things to say and encouraging points in case you’re interested in similar contests.

First of all, you’re not alone. Literally. I don’t mean you’re not the only nerd, but that you have teammates. In this competition I had 4 teammates. In another one I did earlier this school year, I had 3. I won’t guarantee that all math modeling contesta will give you teammates, but at least the ones I’ve been apart of have teammates (and that’s 2 … so you don’t have to listen to me).

Now believe it or not, it can be both a help and a detriment to have a small or large number of teammates. It can help because with all the different viewpoints and minds, a lot of good ideas go floating around. In addition to this, it keeps you from being focused on one thing.
The number one error you could do in such a competition would be to get caught up with one little detail or aspect, dump way too much time into it, and then end up regretting it.

And that would really suck.

Now the thing to be wary of with teammates would be a lack of organization or even over-discussion of modeling methods. Although it’s always good to talk about things and not always helpful to create rigid groups, don’t let it go overboard. Talking too much can eat a ton of time and open groups might prevent efficient resource allocation.
Keep ideas flowing and energy high.

On a general note, make sure to pull back every so often an really ask yourself what am I accomplishing it right now and is this what I need to do? I know it sounds stupid and people might tell you similar advice for a lot of things, but in a high-pressure situation like this, it’s quite crucial. You might stumble upon a brilliant idea and a beautiful model, but it might just be extra stuff — details you dont need — while you miss answering a crucial question outlined in the quesiton.

My suggestion to easily avoid this is to just reread the problem you’re given every so often. Often times they will have bullets or questions outlined for you to answer. Just go over it, quickly think of what you have so far, and then evaluate your situation from there.

It’s really easy. Takes 1 minute tops.

Oh and one big thing: simplify, simplify, simplify. I cannot emphasis this enough. I was lucky to have a group that was on task, concise and understood the time restraint for my first competition. We were a little less on task due to complications with my second group, but we were still on time. Either way, you need to understand that if you’re doing a 14 hour competition, they’re expecting a solution that can be produced in 14 hours. They aren’t asking you to factor in EVERY SINGLE variable or EVERY SINGLE possibility. Those are what strengths and weakness sections are for (or other sections where you talk about what you omitted).

You are NOT EXPECTED to address everything. And you can’t.
So go simple.
Of course… not too simple.
Yep. I’m going to be that way

On a happier note, despite all the mind-numbing hard work and willingly sacrificing your Sunday, it can be a lot of fun (at least I had a great time). So much mental stimulation and energy occurs in that room that it is very enjoyable. You’re talking to each other about this and that, sometimes going a bit off topic or making a joke in-between, while also working on your model together. Plus, despite what you may think, we don’t just sit in front of computers or notebooks silently and think for 14 hours. We joke around, we break for lunch, and we have fun. It’s really a great Sunday.

Just… for nerds.

And I LOVE that.

Plus you feel smart and accomplished afterwards.

(We wrote a 15 solution paper. Yeah. How’s that for getting something done).

Til next time ^.^