Saturday, April 14, 2007

Number nine...Number nine...Number nine...

1 More Annoying Student Habit

Come to class, people. Please?

Look, I understand that "things" come up unexpectedly: illnesses (ohhhhh...do I understand that one well), family emergencies, lottery winnings, superstardom, unexpected tickets to the Superbowl, including all-access passes to get onto the field while Prince is performing...These "things" come up, and they can come as a thief in the night.

Yet these "things" aren't the only things keeping you from coming to class. Other things, less sudden, yet more stealthy, things that don't pounce on you like a jungle cat leaping from the shadows but might rather overcome you slowly, wearing away at you as the semester gets on: excessive love of sleep, excessive love of pot, passive apathy, active antipathy, a malingering defeatist "I'm doing so poorly in this class how can hurt me more if I stop coming" attitude, fin-de-si├Ęcle ennui...any one of these things might stalk you quietly and drag you slowly down.

Please don't let these things overtake you, all right?

See, here's the thing: I like it when you come to class. I do. I like seeing you there, I like interacting with you. At the end of the day, I love what I do for a living. While in a particularly peeved mood yesternoon (brought about by, I might add, certain students exhibiting this Ninth Annoying Habit) I was musing to one of my best friends: "why didn't I take a job in industry? I'd be working nine-to-five, making twice what I make now, and I'd have none of the stress, none of the busyness." Of course, the answer came from my own lips not five seconds later: "because I'd hate that. It'd suck, and I'd hate it."

I love my job, every bit of it. I love math, I love math research, and math conferences and math committees...and above all I love teaching math. I love all of these things. I just get annoyed when you don't think it worth your time to come and share my joy. (Oh, and, by the way, your fellow students notice when you're not there, too: when only 15 people of the 23 who are registered for the course show up, your absence is distinctly palpable.)

Again, I'm not talking to those of you for whom "things" have come up. "Things" have been coming up regularly since the dawn of time, and as far as I can tell, "things" will keep coming up regularly for the rest of the foreseeable future. There's no getting around "things," but a quick phone call or e-mail to let me know about them when they do pop up might be nice.

I'm talking to those of you who've decided that it's just too much effort to come to class. Let me end this rant with this note for you.

When you miss class for an inexcusable reason, you send the following message, boldly and clearly, both to me and to your fellow students who do come regularly: "I have very little consideration for the enormous amount of time you spend in crafting learning experiences for me to take part in."

Hey, man, if that's the score, please do me a favor and don't register for the class in the first place.

Whew.

END OF RANT

So here's the deal with the Menger sponge.

While lying awake a couple of nights ago (I slept well last night, for the first time this week, thank you very much for asking!), my mind addled by codeine-laced cough syrup, I thought deeply of this fractally-formed creature. How came I to these ruminations?

Well, it began a couple of weeks ago, when we spent some time during the March 31st installment of our Super Saturday program working with fractals in the plane. At that time I had a chance to wow the kiddoes with a picture of a Menger sponge, namely this one, a shot of software engineer Jeannine Mosely, standing in front of the sponge she spent nine years building from business cards, with the help of hundreds of folks from around the country. Incidentally, there are 8000 cubes in this one, a "level-3" sponge. (By the way, The hijinx and hilarity continued this week. Just hours ago we wrapped up the today's class, spent assembling a Sierpinski pyramid out of several dozen folded pieces of recycled printer paper, affixed to one another with Scotch tape. [No pictures yet, my camera was at home. Next week! I promise.] The result is quite impressive, and the kids were proud of their achievement. Each took her or his turn holding the behemoth overhead, as though all had played an equal part in its construction. [Truly Jasmine, the lone female in the class whose time, already actively used to its full potential, was freed by not having anyone of her own sex to waste time with, contributed most of the student work on the project. I provided a goodly number of the little pyramids, while Umberto worked slowly yet diligently on his pile of triangles. The few pyramids he made he passed off to Jasmine so that she could skilfully fasten them together. Whether he was motivated by a simple crush or by a sense of pragmatism, recognizing her as the master builder, I'm not sure. In any case, it was cute.] The guts of the Menger sponge that never would be, 200 sheets of recycled printer paper with stenciled cube skeleta photocopied onto them, were left almost untouched. Too bad.) Now, I mean no insult to business cards and recycled printer paper (what better way is there for a piece of printer paper to end its practical life than to be made into a beautiful work of mathematical art?), but it must be admitted that these media are not so sexy as other materials one might choose to build fractals from. Plastic? Wood? Metal? Glass? Ceramic? Silk? The possibilities are endless.

What if, in the spirit of community projects such as Postsecret, people were asked to submit to a central source their own tiny cubes, 2 or 3 centimeters per side, made of whatever material they wished to use and decorated in any fashion desired, and these cubes were assembled lovingly by project coordinators who took care to build the structure by attaching cubes to one another in the manner specified by the contributors: "please ensure that the side bearing my name is not visible..."? Imagine a sponge stretching over 7 feet in any direction, made up of 160,000 (with all due respect, take that, Dr. Mosely!) 3x3x3 cubes of all manner of media, each cube telling a story of an individual contributor, as those submitting cubes could include stories, insights, comments on what the project means to them: "I chose to participate because..."

I'd be curious to see what people would have to say, about the project, about math in general. It's not so often that I get a chance to interact mathematically with people who know so much less about math than I do, with people whose love of math (if it's there at all) is not inherent: how do such people feel about things mathematical?

I don't know.

What do you think of this? Is it a codeine-made pipedream, or a worthwhile artistic undertaking? I'm truly tempted to try this out, but I'm not sure I'd want to start without some backing. Who's got my back? If you're out there reading this, let me know what you think, and ask your friends to check in and let me know what they think, too. Consider it an ad hoc committee on the creation of the Multimedia Menger Sponge Project. Let's get together, people!

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