Good Math/Bad Math

Friday, March 10, 2006

A few words about writing

Someone pointed out some ambiguous wording in my mention of the halting problem in this post the other day. So I decided to take a moment to explain a bit about the way I'm trying to write here. And I'll also take the opportunity later tonight to talk a bit more about the halting problem, which is a really great example of amazingly good math. (And there's more bad math in the pipeline; I'm going to use the information theory background that I've posted thus far to demolish the thoroughly wretched "information theory" argument against evolution that's cropped up in the last few years.)

Writing for a blog is pretty different from what I'm used to. In my day job, most of the writing I do is either technical papers, design proposals, or code documentation. All of that is very formal technical writing, and quite frankly, boring as hell to read.

Out here, I'd like to try to make the crazy things that fascinate me more approachable. Because of the lousy way math is taught, most people get the idea that math is hard, boring, and shallow. But it's not - it's amazingly broad, with all sorts of amazing insights, it can be fantastic fun, and it doesn't have to be hard.

So I'm trying to write in a way that gets across the fun, without making it unapproachable, ar unbearably dry. At the same time, I obviously want to be accurate - there's no point in writing this kind of stuff if it's wrong, but I also want to keep it informal enough that it's fun to read.

I'm also allergic to quantifiers. One of the members of my dissertation committee back in grad school couldn't understand anything unless it was phrased in perfect, quantified, logical form. You couldn't use words like "that", "it", or "there" with him, because he couldn't understand what they referred to. So you had to talk like a logician: if you wanted to tell him the old "frayed knot" joke, you'd have to say something like "So, there's a bar, X, a bartender B who works in bar X, and a talking string, Y. Y walks into X, goes up to B, and orders a beer. ". And he'd probably complain that he didn't know where the beer came from, because you hadn't introduced it with a quantifier.

Nice guy, but man could he be frustrating. I still hold the record for the longest doctoral proposal in the history of the department, because he went through my entire proposal, and complained about each and every sentance that wasn't phrased in perfect quantified prefix form. (If you're reading this John, sorry, but I did say this to your face - you just didn't understand it because I didn't quantify right.)


  • Hah, Sorry to hit a hot button on quantifiers, but the way you stated the issue did hit a hot button with me because I had done work in the area. I guess that would be who complains about an issue.

    By Anonymous Markk, at 10:54 PM  

  • markk:

    No problem. I really appreciate the correction. I was just trying to explain how I'm trying to write for this blog. I definitely want people to point it out when my informal writing style is being imprecise, or even worse, just plain wrong. I don't have a lot of experience writing this kind of informal stuff, so I know I'll make mistakes - I just hope that I can learn to be both informal and precise/correct.

    By Blogger MarkCC, at 12:57 PM  

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