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A new podcast about the election! You bet!

We discuss:

  • Why pundits hate Nate Silver
  • Why issues don’t end up mattering
  • Ballot initiatives
  • What will happen if/when Obama wins
  • Our picks
[audio http://dl.dropbox.com/u/14175885/Podcast9.mp3]

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Inspired by recent Beyonce song “1+1,” I wondered what other kinds of math-based lyrics I could find in pop music.

Beyonce’s tune sticks to pretty basic arithmetic, as a result of her limited math knowledge:

If I aint got nothing, I got you
If I aint got something I don’t give a damn, cause I got it with you
I don’t know much about algebra, but I know one plus one equals two
And it’s me and you, thats all we’ll have when the world is through

Still, even the most basic math can perplex musicians; Radiohead’s “2+2=5” certainly illustrates that arithmetic is hard. (OK, there might be some sort of deeper philosophical point being made here along the lines of 1984.)

Furthermore, algebra, even when referenced in pop songs, does not result in many solved equations. (See, e.g., Jason Derulo – “Algebra”: “I’ve got more problems than an algebra equation.” Besides, does an algebra equation really have many problems? I’ll assume that Jason Derulo has a lot of variables in his algebra equation(s).) So maybe it’s best that Beyonce stuck to addition.

Kate Bush does OK with her ode to irrational numbers on “Pi,” but she does get some digits wrong. The lyrics about the “great circle of infinity” don’t quite cut it either, but hearing Kate Bush sing the digits of pi almost correctly is interesting in its own way.

Most pop music references to math tend to be oblique or metaphorical. That makes sense; one hardly wants to spend one’s mindless pop song thinking about math.

The oblique reference usually takes the form of a non sequitur, like Drake’s random verse in “What’s My Name?”

I heard you good with them soft lips
Yeah you know word of mouth
the square root of 69 is 8 something
cuz I’ve been trying to work it out

Presumably Drake means that 69 implies that the participants “ate” something. Plus, he gets bonus points for being technically correct, in that the square root of 69 is indeed ~8.307. Still, the use of a square root seems wholly unnecessary, a tacked-on bit to show off how smart he can be.

Bobby Darin’s “Multiplication” is more biologically based than mathematical, but his fun with numbers is again little more than cursory:

Multiplication… that’s the name of the game!
And each generation… they play the same!

Let me tell ya now: I say one and one is five,
You can call me a silly goat!
But, ya take two minks, add two winks,
Ah… ya got one mink coat!

Similarly, Ace of Base uses the Golden Ratio as a metaphor for a perfect significant other (“The Golden Ratio“), although I wonder how far that metaphor can go. Would you really want to say you found the perfect guy and that the ratio of him:you is ~1:1.618?

So, do any songs actually get math right? Even gifted musicians, when using the math metaphor, either stick to mere counting (Mos Def – “Mathematics”) or the basic one and one is two addition (Brad Paisley – “You Do The Math”).

Unfortunately, the best math songs are necessarily novelty songs. Tom Lehrer writes fun tunes, but they’re never going to hit the big time.

Similarly, Bo Burnham has a nerdy novelty song (also called “New Math”) which combines his typical wordplay with legitimate math concepts:

and if you made a factor tree of the factors that caused my girl to leave me youd have a tree…
full of asian porn.
C-A-L-C-U-LATOR (see you later) mathetmatical minds make industrial smog.
and whats the opposite of ln(x), duraflame the unnatural log.

Maybe the best odes to math in pop music are math-rock songs, using complicated math to push the boundaries of what music can sound like, mostly with ridiculous time signatures and syncopation. The best math in music isn’t in the lyrics; it’s in the songs themselves.

Bonus video: (Because it has to be here)

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Lane Wallace has a post at the Atlantic entitled “Innovation Isn’t About Math,” in which he explains how a renewed focus on math and science education will not necessarily bring about innovation. Although I am amenable to his general premise, Wallace’s post highlights a key problem in education inequality.

Wallace asserts that math and science education alone will not lead to education, and that integrative approaches to education are necessary to solve the “sticky” problems (health care, climate change, etc.) that will face us in the future. Unfortunately, pushing for an integrative approach assumes a broad content knowledge that usually doesn’t exist, especially in the lower tier of our two-tiered system. Without basic content knowledge, such leaps of innovation are impossible. For years, schools have touted integrated learning curricula and frameworks, but they often sacrificed area content for the sake of projects and posters. But when students cannot read, perform basic math, or understand a simple experiment, the hurdles for such integrative curricula become nearly insurmountable.

As much as I am a proponent of polymaths, I guess I’m fairly unconvinced by the suggestion that increased math and science education won’t lead to more innovation. Newton famously said that he stood on the shoulders of giants, and his advances would have been impossible without understanding the advances of his predecessors. For innovation to work, we need not only to help students get onto the shoulders of giants with the fundamental content, but also to get students to recognize that their place will allow them to reach farther than their predecessors.

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Insert Asian math joke here

Average scale scores for Grade 4 Math, by race/ethnicity (NAEP)

Average scale scores for Grade 4 Math, by race/ethnicity (NAEP)

In case you missed the news, American math test scores stayed essentially flat over the last couple years. Most major news outlets reported prominently that white, Hispanic and Black scores remained the same, maintaining the achievement gaps for racial minorities. Well, not all minorities. (Side note: Why didn’t the NYT or WP or AP decide that Asian scores were important? Are they so naturally anomalous that they are no longer worth reporting?)

One minority group continued to improve their math scores: Asians. In the National Assessment of Educational Progress data, one can see the continual rise of Asian/Pacific Islander scores in every year since the tracking of that particular minority group.

One explanation might simply be income level. The scores for students in poverty (eligible for free or reduced lunch) are predictably lower than students not in poverty, and Asian/Pacific Islander has the highest average income of all the tracked races/ethnicities.

Another explanation comes from a new neurological/psychological explanation, proposed by Jamie Campbell among others (and pitched in Gladwell’s Outliers) in which Asian cultural and linguistic backgrounds lead to superior memorization and subsequent superiority in mental math calculations on exams.

Nevertheless, this fails to explain how the scores continue to rise year after year. Campbell’s conclusion asserts that native-born Chinese with more linguistic and mathematical education in the mother country would do better than American-born populations. Yet, Asian immigration has declined, although one presumes a lag effect in the test scores. To boot, the South Asian population (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, etc.) has increased the number of “Asian-Americans,” and presumably the test scores, but this is not reflected in Campbell’s cultural explanation.

Any ideas, peanut gallery? Why are Asians better at math?

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