Tag Archives: Writing

What I never expected

I’ve been off WordPress for a while and so it’s been a while since I checked my stats, and I was surprised to learn that I had something like a 200% increase in traffic last week, and for the best reason.

My “Fractals You Can Draw” posts have always been the most popular ones on the site. In general I think the writing life is weird like that. You never know what 20 minute or hour long effort is going to be the one that really lasts. I’ve spent hundreds of hours writing this blog, but that week I spent getting my wife to draw fractals, building a Sierpinski triangle out of marshmellows and toothpicks, and frantically trying to update by C++ skills has been one of the more lasting efforts of the last five years for me.

But the best thing is every year around the spring and fall I get new referrals from schools. WordPress does a pretty good job of letting you know where traffic is coming from, and every year I find some new class, ranging from grade school to college that references one of my fractal posts. That’s really the reason I’m doing any of this. What I’ve learned since I started blogging and especially in the last year working on the “Fractals You Can Draw” book is that I really want to teach people. I like writing fiction, but I love writing about math.

Honestly I’m as shocked as the rest of you.

Right now I’m working on Chapter 5 of the new book (or trying to, it’s been a crazy couple of weeks). I’m learning about new ways to use the Fibonacci sequence to draw fractals, and I can’t wait to share what I’ve learned. I’m so excited about this stuff I even snuck in a half an hour to write on Monday night while I was waiting for my mom to finish her grocery shopping.

If you’ve found this blog through one of your math courses I’d love to hear from you. To all the teachers who included links to my posts in their courses, thank you. And thank you for teaching people about fractals. It’s one of the best ways to build a love of math.

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Dispatches from writing a new fractal book

I spent a lot of the weekend making figures. If a picture is worth 1000 words, then my book would be 500,000 words long. There are a lot of things to consider when making an image for a book:

  • Since this will be a B&W book, what’s the best gray-scale values to look two-tone without looking faded?
  • What resolution will work best for the print size, but still work for an eBook (so I don’t have to make two of every picture, hopefully)?
  • How does the image flow with the text? Does it make it hard to read, or does it illuminate a point the text is making?

This last is the primary goal of pictures. Pictures serve two purposes in my book: to show people pretty images, and to show people how to make pretty images. A lot of the heavier math texts I read can still be very informative if they have good illustrations that make it clear what the writer is trying to say. Still, you don’t want to lean on the pictures too heavily, the text still has to make sense.

My early drafting process has been to write the chapter without illustrations. I insert an [ILLUSTRATE] tag into my text where I think an image would/should go, and then I move on. So far this seems to be working okay. I’m remembering from writing the first fractal book that what I think is a clear explanation and image isn’t always what people actually understand, so I may have to try a few different images, and change the text accordingly.

It probably doesn’t make sense to talk this long about pictures without showing you one, so here is a Minkowski sausage:

kochQuadMinkowskiSausageL3

Neat, huh?

One other weird quirk of the early going is the feeling that I’ve written this all before. In some ways, this fractal book is the culmination of 5-10 years of thinking about fractals, as well as an intense period of six months research. I have run through the progression of thoughts that make up the first chapters dozens of times in my head, and even though this one of the first times I’m committing them to paper in this particular order, it still feels like something I’ve been doing all along. Probably some of that comes from blogging about fractals, that’s really where this recent and previous interest started.

Last thought of the day is a nice little moment at the library. I was checking out yet another fractal reference, and got to talking with the librarian about the new book, and how I got interested in fractals back in the 6th grade EPP program at school (more than 18 years ago now). Turns out, her son had just recently been part of the same program, and had loved fractals and all of the ways you could use them to make math beautiful. It’s for these kinds of kids and curious adults that I’m writing this book, and it was a nice little encouragement to know that they’re still out there.

Have a good week. I’ll check in when I can.

kochTriCurveSingleLineOneTenthL5

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Squirrel Rant: Mathematical Notation

foamy_by_foamy_the_squirrel

Since this post veers into very inside baseball territory, let’s start with how we got here.

Have you ever had that book that you had to take with you everywhere? It could be the latest exciting story you were reading, or a really handy reference guide, or something with deep sentimental value. Maybe this book has been a passenger in your car; you take it out to lunch even though you know you’re not going to read it while you eat because you might get sauce on the pages. You just want to pick this book up and hold it, flip through the pages, feel the weight of it as you toss it from hand to hand. Maybe you even… smell the pages. That sort of book.

My latest book of this type is “A Perspective in Theoretical Computer Science: Commemorative Volume for Gift Siromoney“:

GiftSiromoney

I know, it’s cliché. Everyone loves this book and has a copy next to their nightstand.

No? Just me, then? Okay.

Why this book is important is that it is the end of a long trail of looking through references in papers, from a stray mention of Kolam patterns in a L-System book by Przemyslaw Prusinkiewicz to the work of Darrah Chavey, Paulus Gerdes, Marcia Ascher and countless others. This book has some of the best grounding in the computer science behind drawing curved line patterns using context-free and array grammars, and contains images from work in the field. It is perfect because it is obscure and exactly the right book at the right time, even though it was written almost 30 years ago.

Which brings me to mathematical notation.

As a fledging programmer one of the first things they teach you is to use meaningful variable names. A variable is an object that holds a value. So if I’m counting oranges, I might have a variable called numOranges. What I wouldn’t have is a variable called ‘o’. ‘o’ could be anything: orangutans, oscilloscopes, Timothy Olyphants, etc.

Math on the other hand tends to use one letter symbols all the time. You’d think this was okay, because the symbols only ever have one meaning. A ‘+’ symbol is a plus symbol. ‘π’ is pi the number.

Except when π is an iteration symbol, or a time stage symbol. And ‘x’ means multiplication, until you graduate to Algebra where a dot is now multiply and x is a variable. And ‘+’ could mean turn right if we’re talking L-systems.

Math papers in general make an assumption about mathematicians that isn’t always correct. It assumes they can write in a way that can be understood. They understand their field technically, but not in common language, or even readable technical language. Now I’m not picking on the Siromoney book too much. The text is very readable. Some of the paper’s problems come from problems in reproduction. Older books like this one had papers submitted physically and then photocopied into a full book. This was done a typewriter or an early word-processor (courier font is kind of a tip off that we’re looking at a typewriter), so some subscripts and superscripts are incorrect, and some symbols have to be hand-drawn after the paper is typed.

The bigger offenders are the ones who use a symbol without any explanation. I remember after staring at it for a few seconds that ∪ means union, but it might be nice to have some handy definitions at the back or in the text. Defining your terms is often a necessary part of making any proof, or explaining any new concept. It never hurts to make sure your audience is on the same page you are. Especially if you plan to have terms mean something other than their common meaning, like ∪ meaning recursive level, or some such.

For a while now, my goal with this new book has been to take complicated concepts and explain them in ways that make sense to everyone. These papers often do the opposite, take something simple and explain it in a complicated way. Fractals actually aren’t that hard to understand. More and more after reading these papers it feels like I’m translating from some arcane and obscure language, with symbols that change in meaning from one place to another.

It’s confusing, and it doesn’t have to be this way. We can be rigorous AND we can be clear. If you can explain a concept to a 6th grader, then you really understand it.

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Sharing someone else’s culture

I spent part of the weekend reading about creation myths and fables of the Chokwe, an ethnic group that lives roughly in Angola. This is part of my research for the new book, which is expanding to have an extensive “Ethno-mathematics” section (i.e. Math and Fractal Drawings from around the world), specifically the Chokwe tradition of Sona. Sona are drawings made in the sand while telling a story or riddle. It’s one of the ways in which Chokwe elders impart knowledge and fables, though from what I’m reading the Sona tradition is dying out. They bear a resemblance to the Kolam of the Tamil-Nadu community in India, and even to traditional Celtic knots.

ChokweCreationMyth

Math from other cultures is becoming really intriguing to me, and it’s an area I don’t think is covered enough in public education. Colonial era westerners often made the assumption that these “primitive” peoples didn’t understand some of the higher concepts of technology and mathematics, but if my studies have taught me anything it’s that we westerners were a little behind the curve (so to speak). At the very least, learning about how other cultures look at math and art can help us to see connections between ideas from new perspectives.

But one of the things I am wondering about is how to tell these stories respectfully. Some fables and tales are very private, specific to a culture, and not something that is intended to be shared with outsiders. Now obviously, since I don’t have the resources to travel to Angola myself, I’m getting these stories from people who’ve already spread them around. The genie is out of the bottle, so to speak. But it’s still important to consider their meaning, rather than to just include them as a pretty picture.

A lot of Adult Coloring Books have mandalas, in fact mandalas seem to be the stand-in term for most circular patterns in coloring books. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with enjoying these patterns, or designing new ones, and coloring them as a loose form of meditation. But at the same time I think it is also important to be respectful and understanding of the tradition. We want to learn and educate ourselves about a type of drawing, not just appropriate it.

Sometimes meanings for things change. The Kolam tradition seems to have had religious significance in the past, but now it is more a form of artistic expression by women in the Tamil community. Celtic knot constructions have a triune grid which reflects the triune nature of God, but also look really good on leather bound notebooks.

I’m a guy who wants to spread art and cool designs for their own sake, while also trying to explore some of the deeper meaning these traditions have to the cultures that created them. And I want to do that in a way that honors those traditions, without sharing them merely because they are exotic or different. The best way, at least for me, is showing the connections between some of the more abstract concepts of fractals, and their origins before they really came into their own (the days of computers and Mandelbrot). I’ve been thinking about fractals as something that is a new concept in math, but their origins may be much older.

I’m still working this stuff out, but I hope my intentions if nothing else can shape the writing in a good direction.

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