Exclusive Interview With The Creator of The Math-Frolic Blog

Esteemed Mathematics aficionado "Shecky Riemann" is one of those rare people who has succeeded in putting the "COOL" factor back in the subject. If you have been following his somewhat wacky yet amazingly informative Math-Frolic blog, you will know I speak the truth. It is indeed my pleasure to convince him in sparing a few moments from his busy schedule to sit down with me for a little talk.

First and foremost, I would to express my heartfelt thanks to you for agreeing to this interview. Pray tell, how did the moniker Shecky Riemann come about? Would my guess of it being borne out of combining the names of Comedian Shecky Greene and the greatly adored Riemann Zeta Function be anywhere near the mark?

Yes indeed!... Shecky Greene was one of the comedians from my youth I was thinking of when I hastily concocted the pseudonym; and simply picked "Riemann" because he was one of my favorite mathematicians (who came from a part of the world that some of my own male ancestry came from).

You embraced Mathematics from a very young age, which for a lack of a better word is pretty unusual given kids would rather "kill" themselves than pore over puzzles and numbers. How did that happen? Anyone who inspired you in particular?

I really don't know why I latched on to math early on; there was no particular inspiration, and no one else in my family was much interested in math, so it's always been a mystery. But I always liked exact or precise knowledge, and that's what math had; I liked that there was no wishy-washiness about it.

What was your primary motivation for starting Math-Frolic a long while ago? Has that changed or evolved?

I was actually doing a small science blog at the time, but science is so broad it was difficult to select post-topics among the multitude of choices on any given day (and there were LOTS of science bloggers doing a way better job of it). When Martin Gardner died in 2010 I pulled some of his books off the shelf for re-reading and was reminded of all the joy his writing brought over the years. I was also reading/enjoying Sol Lederman's Wild About Math blog at the time and noticing how popular it was as an "accessible" math blog. I started getting some ideas for possible math posts, and abruptly quit the science blog and opened up Math-Frolic , never really thinking it would last more than 6-7 months. ...The rest is history ;-)

If you were allowed to pick only one post from your blog which wholly encapsulates its essence, what would be your choice and why?

Wow! I couldn't choose ONE since my blog's 1000+ posts are all over the place (some humor/fun, some philosophy, some current news, education, puzzles etc.). My own favorite posts though tend to deal with ideas that are, in some way, mind-boggling, and yet not too difficult to understand on a logical basis (without a need for advanced mathematics). Here are 3 posts that sort of do that for me… the first is an old Raymond Smullyan puzzle I love and re-post every year (though it's never been a popular post!), the second is on the Cantor Set which most readers probably know about, and which I find forever mind-blowing, and the third is simply an old Richard Wiseman puzzle that was fun to think through:

Speaking of simple, sheer fun, I've also always enjoyed this early toe-tapping post with Jonathan Coulton singing his Mandelbrot Set song:

Finally, I should also note that the interviews I do, where I get to learn more about various math communicators and present them to readers, are also a key element to my blogs.

What responsibilities are you occupied with of late? Okay, I mean, what exactly are you doing right now?

Well, let's see, RIGHT NOW I'm typing the words "Well, let's see, right now I'm typing the words..." ...sorry, couldn't resist; you may know from my blog I love issues of self-reference!

Actually, being semi-retired at the moment, my responsibilities are relatively few; in fact I'm hoping to find the time to re-learn more of the math I knew at an earlier age.

Let's chat for a bit about the American education system. I am unsure if you have viewed the rather thought-provoking documentary "Waiting For Superman", however till date I have read a significant amount of unforgiving responses related to the supposed less than satisfactory standards of public school systems despite the slew of bills and reforms implemented over the years. In this regard, Daniel Greenfield's article at FrontPage Mag stood out. Your take on this seemingly never-ending debate?

First, let me be clear, I've never been a math instructor, so all my viewpoints ought be taken with some caution!

And I'm unfamiliar with "Waiting For Superman" so can't comment on that (except that it looks like something I should find time to check out). I just now read the Dan Greenfield article, and am surprised to actually agree with much of what he says (even though it's in a magazine I don't have much agreement with!).

Some of my own take on math education was summarized in a post over at my MathTango blog last year (the basic message of which is that I don't believe there is any one-size-fits-all answer to math education, but the debates will continue for a long time):

More specifically, are you contented with the current state of affairs surrounding Math education in both American middle school and high schools? Hypothetically speaking, what would congressman "Shecky Riemann" have done differently?

The hot issue in America right now is a "Common Core" set of standards being adopted by a majority of states. I'm all for some kind of minimal Common Core standards, but not convinced the ones developed are the right answer. Moreover, even if everyone could agree on the standards themselves, the actual execution of those standards, and assessment of both students and teachers becomes very problematic. I'm not confident enough of my own ideas to espouse what I'd do differently, but one thing I will stress (as many others before me have done), is that the problems being addressed go far beyond the classroom. Teachers only have kids for so many hours a day or week. If those kids are arriving at school without the motivation, discipline, curiosity, desire, focus (even food and sustenance) that is needed to learn, no classroom experience is likely to remedy that deficit. The home and culture each child emerges from can be as much of the problem as whatever transpires inside the classroom walls; and in America at least, children's early environment and upbringing is, sadly, probably worsening with time instead of improving -- THAT is a difficult burden to overcome, or legislate education solutions for. But I'm glad there is such a vocal public debate occurring.

How strong are you a believer in rote learning? Because over here in Singapore it remains pretty much the mantra which majority of the students swear by in order to attain good grades.

Actually, I'd be curious to know how YOU feel about it since you are more actively involved in it than I am, and Singapore math students rank excellently…

I don't doubt that rote learning has a major role to play in math education. The younger a child is the more their minds are like sponges capable of soaking up everything -- it's a good time for rote learning to occur, especially for various elements of arithmetic. As children grow older rote learning becomes more difficult, but still varies greatly from one young person to the next. In my own case, I vividly remember ENJOYING rote math learning as a kid -- I WANTED teachers to just tell me math "truths" so I could go off and memorize them… if they tried to show me "proofs" or explanations, I thought that was hugely boring at the time and didn't want to go over some process that others had already done 100s of years prior; I just wanted to know the end result (not necessarily the 'process'). I think a lot of youngsters are like that, BUT others are not, and can only make sense of a "result" if they are shown where it comes from. Again, there's no one-size-fits-all for every mind.

What is the number one pet peeve of yours when it comes to someone learning Mathematics? Any personal encounters worth reminiscing?

I guess my pet peeve right now is the sometime implication that there is ONE best way to teach math, and someone out there, or some committee, knows what it is. Having said that, I'm all for trying out different approaches and seeing which ones lead to better outcomes (I just don't expect one approach to dominate over all others, which is why the Internet is fantastic -- it offers more choices than students will ever get inside the classroom).

The only personal encounter I can think of was around 9th grade, when I suffered through the sudden introduction in America of so-called "New Math" -- one of those ideas that probably sounded good and sensible at the time (to some at least), but didn't work well for the age-groups targeted. Keith Devlin has written a lot about how secondary school math and college math are two completely different animals. That, to me, is a fascinating idea that most people don't realize, and that I've only come to appreciate later in life.

I am envious of the huge zest you have for life and your amazing mental astuteness for a man your age. What is your secret?

...Are YOU talkin' to ME???... While I do have a "zest" for math (and some other topics), I wouldn't say I have any more zest for life than the average person (and considerably less than, say, James Grime! ;-) -- all I have to do is turn on the national news any given hour to become depressed! I do think it's important to keep the child within each of us alive, active, and curious… and I often say mathematicians are eternal children, ambling through the world exclaiming 'HEY, look at this!' It comes down to that long-time adage, do what you love in life! When I'm doing math or working on my blog then I experience zest!

Obviously you have seen the world, done it all. What advice would you give to younger educators like myself?

Unfortunately, having never actually been a math educator I've little real advice to offer. I don't know how it is in Singapore, but in America today teachers have it rougher than ever as a profession; under-appreciated, underpaid, less-than-ideal teaching conditions, and tight budgets, as well as constant debates over changes-to-be-made; many are leaving the profession far sooner than they'd ever planned to. So I wish I had some good advice (what I have, is admiration for those who persevere with it!), but there just aren't any quick fixes to the many problems/variables involved, a number of which have to do with matters away from school that educators can't even much affect.

Going forward, what are your future plans and intentions? Would a 1-1 meet-up with Taylor Swift in person rank high on your list of to do things?

Geee, did I unknowingly reveal my Taylor Swift preoccupation somewhere along the way!??? …yes, I'm actually a HUGE Taylor fan (odd since almost all my other music tastes go back to the 1960s/70s); so if you can arrange that 1-to-1 meeting I'll be forever grateful! ;-)

Otherwise, no great plans for the future; I suspect I will eventually merge my two blogs (Math-Frolic and MathTango) back into one blog at some point, and might get more involved with math in some other form in the future.

Any final words you would like to say to the readers out there?

Some young people probably lack any knack for mathematics (and there are plenty of other options for them to pursue), but to most others I would say, 'DON'T be afraid of math; and don't give up if it seems too hard at first.' There are so many resources via the Web these days, click around and find a website, a presenter, an approach, that connects with you. It might take extra time and effort, but math literacy will be vital in the world ahead. And to those who already relish math, by all means, you too take advantage of the Internet's resources to exploit your talent. The more people with a solid grounding in (indeed, love for) mathematics the better the world will be. ...Oh, and never cast aside the child within you!

I really appreciate your candid sharing. On an ending note, please allow me to offer you the most sincere of wishes for your health and happiness; may you also continue to champion the beautiful language of Mathematics. God bless.

Thank you for all your kind words (and exaggerated compliments!); and I very much like the idea of 'championing the beautiful language of Mathematics' -- my credentials don't qualify me as a mathematician, but I do think of myself as a cheerleader on the sidelines for mathematics.

Anyway, have to go now... I'm waiting for a call from Taylor Swift.

(Dated 26 February 2014)