Friday, October 5, 2012

Distribution and Association

This has been a heady week. I had two very important moments this week, and both had to do with math. One was a matter of distribution, the other, association.

The Distributive Axiom
x(y+z) = xy + xz

It's been challenging to keep up with all of my homework. There's the grading homework I have do to every night - the compositions to be evaluated, the vocabulary to be graded, the Latin translations to be picked apart - and then there's my Algebra homework. I used to leave Algebra for last, as I had stressed to my students that I don't do my Algebra work until I have completed all of my teaching work. Last week, however, I came home, changed out of my teaching clothes into my comfy jeans, and dove straight into Algebra before I dealt with the grading. For once, I knew I had time to do both because my kids had requested what we call "scavenging night" for dinner and I would not be called into cooking duty, but I was actually...wait for it...excited to do my Algebra homework. I didn't even run outside into the yard to obsessively weed the garden, roll the compost barrel around the yard, and deadhead the flowers. Bonus Jess Lahey Axiom: hyperactivity + a hint of a hint of a hint of ADD = fun-filled afternoons of disorganized odd-job hilarity.

But back to my newfound enthusiasm for Algebra homework. Has the Earth experienced a geomagnetic polarity reversal? (I read on that it happens every 250,000 years or so and now I'm worried.) I don't know what else could account for the crazy shift in my priorities. 

But here it is: I love distributing. It's almost as satisfying as simplifying. Maybe more. I can't decide. Changing 3(x+5) into 3x+15 is fun, and watch: I can even go in the other direction. 10x+20 can just as easily be transformed into 10(x+2). Is it just the imposition of order? I am a fan of organizing. Give me a label maker and five cases of wide-mouthed mason jars, and I can turn a disorganized pantry into the very model of a modern major-miracle. I love the purging of excess clutter, so the removal of factors in an expression is akin to taking truckloads of refuse from my basement to the dump. Satisfying. Cleansing. Where I was faced with a messy 10 and x and a 20 cluttering up the place, I can create order through 10(x+2). Clean. Neat. Minimalist. And gosh darn it, I love it. 

The Associative Axiom for Multiplication
(xy)z = x(yz)

In the midst of this shocking revelation, I attended the Dartmouth Writing Summit. In years past, I would have fallen all over myself to attend every second of this writing geek-fest, but this year, THIS year, was a challenge. I was only able to arrange coverage for a couple of my classes, so I had to choose carefully. I was only going to be able to attend one session. One. 

From Dartmouth Now:

"Pulitzer Prize-winning author and noted historian David McCullough is one of several scholars who will lecture at Dartmouth October 2 and 3 as part of 'Writing Summit 2012: The Power of Writing in the Contemporary World.'"

David McCullough?!?!? David McCullough??!!? Seriously? Holy Crap! I love David McCullough; he's one of my writing heroes. I would do just about anything to meet David McCullough.

But then I was faced with the following associative quandry: 

"The Writing Summit 2012 will feature 12 speakers, including keynote addresses by McCullough, Katherine Bergeron, professor of music at Brown University, Hortense Spillers, professor of English at Vanderbilt University, and Steven Strogatz, professor of applied mathematics at Cornell University."
Hold on...forget that McCullough guy...what's a Pulitzer-Prize winning author and noted historian when real pearls, math pearls, are being offered up by my newfound Algebra guru, Steven Strogatz?
And so, for the first time in my life, I have willingly chose to associate with math over...over...well, over just about anything else on the planet. Even this new crazy, upside-down planet where apparently, compasses point south. 
This reversal of polarities paid off, though, because Steven Strogatz was fantastic. He talked about 1) his work at the New York Times, 2) how he first scored his gig at the Times, and 3) his writing process. Spoilers: 1) He doesn't write about teaching math, but about teaching people to love math, 2) he first met his editor at the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Station, and 3) he employs a combination of longhand and dictation software. 
He even answered my question about how he handles the instant (and aggressive) feedback of Times commenters (his first piece currently has 546 comments) without resorting to a strategy of defensive writing. His answer? He doesn't read them.
And with that, Professor Strogatz taught me his most valuable lesson thus far: 
The Axiom of Successful Writing over Narcissism


  1. What a great week! His answer: he doesn't read them.

    The man is a genius in more ways than one.

  2. Here's a nice thing about the distributive law too - you can apply it outside of algebra.

    Let's say you need to multiply 7x32. Consider 32 is just 30+2, so really you have 7(30+2), which is 210+14, which is 224. Saves on long form multiplication.
    11x41 = 11(40+1) = 440+11 = 451, etc.