Social Media as an Atomic Bomb

Occupy Math will start by reassuring anyone who needs it that the point of today’s post is that social media and an atomic bomb share a fundamental mathematical property: positive feedback. There is no actual danger of nuclear radiation from social media beyond the small chance it may someday start a war though misuse. The topic of today’s edition of Occupy Math is positive feedback loops which drive everything from annoying squeals when the person with the microphone walks too close to the loudspeaker to the uncontrolled fission reactions that destroyed two Japanese cities at the end of the second world war. The phenomenon of positive feedback is also relevant for the bubbles that form on social media and the success of fake news, a topic of great currency.

Positive feedback is a way of turning a relatively small input into an explosion.

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Image of the Week #29

This week Occupy Math returns to the Newton’s method filigree fractals. They use a low convergence number creating metallic background and black out some of the roots to create virtual jewelry.


Graphics that Lie

This week in an election aftermath edition, Occupy Math wants to look at the very tricky business of visually displaying data. Below is an example of an extremely bad election-related graphic that got over two million views. This graphic manages to:

  • Display the information it has in a deceptive fashion,
  • Ignore hidden assumptions that are wrong,
  • Ignore important data from the election,
  • Choose a set of comparison elections that are probably inappropriate, and
  • Get the information it displays wrong.

The overall effect is to propose an unsupported and probably false hypothesis about why the election came out the way it did. This graphic is an incredible example of how not to inform people.


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Check Your Assumptions at the Door.

When Occupy Math lived by himself in Pasadena, California, his custom was to have breakfast at Burger Continental on South Lake Avenue and read the LA Times Sunday edition. This makes for a long breakfast on all fronts. One story that caught his eye was about how far a cat could fall without dying. Eight stories was pretty safe, nine-to-twelve stories usually resulted in injury, changing to death at thirteen or more stories. This is an old memory so the numbers may be a bit off – and do not attempt any experimental replication!

The Times got a lot of hate mail about reporting on and encouraging evil (often “government”) scientists. Many of their readers (and more than half the people Occupy Math tells this story to) had a vision of an expressionless android in a lab coat flinging cats out of skyscraper windows. “Subject 34 ‘Fluffy’, 10 stories, pull”, followed by a descending yowl of terror. The study that the Times was reporting was compiled by a vet who, when a client brought in a cat to have it checked after falling, asked from what height it had fallen. People reported what floor they lived on when the cat went out the window after a bird or whatever, which forced the choice of reporting statistic. After compiling the data, the vet published his findings, which are mostly useful for deciding if it is safe for a cat-owner to open a window.

Why did so many people assume that funded government researchers were deliberately throwing cats out the window?

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Do we want serfs or citizens?

Occupy Math wants to look at student success in this week’s post. Past posts, like Why you should NEVER say “I’m not a math person”, have looked at this issue. This week we will look again at the misguided and awful theories of Andrew Hacker and contrast them with ideas of Stanford social psychologist Carol Dweck. Both these educational researchers have identified mathematics as the greatest barrier to high-school graduation, but they have diametrically opposed views of what to do about it. To summarize their views,

  • Hacker wants to teach most students only basic arithmetic, on the theory that is all they need.
  • Dweck has found ways of motivating students to learn math by helping them understand they can learn math.

Hacker would reduce most students to peons, Dweck wants to help them reach their potential.

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Image of the Week #26

To lighten your Monday, Occupy Math presents another fractal image. This is a three-parameter generalized Julia set built with quadrant convergence. It uses a slowly changing palette. The iteration value was set to stop at the three brown leaves in the center of the image. The fractal was prepared with the fractalizer, currently under development at Occupy Math Labs.

Quantifying Inequality

Occupy Math has heard many, many claims about wealth, who has it, who is being deprived of it, and the problems that unequal distribution of wealth causes.  In this edition of Occupy Math we look at a tool for quantifying the degree of income inequality in a country or area, the Gini Index.  This mathematical tool was invented by Italian sociologist Corrado Gini.  The world bank, the CIA, and a number of other organizations use the index to quantify the way wealth is distributed in a country.

Why is Occupy Math interested in this measuring tool?  Horrible events from the French Revolution to the 2016 American Presidential Election have involved inequality of wealth in a fundamental way.  French aristocrats died horrible, bloody deaths — driven by the incredible misery they inflicted on their subjects.  The decision of a substantial fraction of the American electorate to support an obviously unqualified, over-privileged candidate whose speeches and claims are detached from reality is supported, ironically, by the fact that wealth in the United States has become highly concentrated — making it harder for the government to serve the general welfare.

The Gini Index is a simple, effective single-number measurement of the irregularity of distribution of wealth.

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