Interesting things I’m reading

3 Dec

Quora asked: What do math grad students do all day?  That’s an excellent question, and here’s an excellent answer, which compares doing mathematics with learning everything you can about vacuum cleaners, without ever having seen one, and using only words with four letters or less.   A choice tidbit: “OK, your next idea: I can use a vacuum cleaner to clean cats! That’d also be super-useful. But, alas, a bit more searching in the literature reveals that someone tried that, too, but they didn’t get good results.”

This is what math grad school is like.  Only the cat is significantly less happy.

This is what math grad school is like. Only math is a significantly less happy animal.

I also mentioned this article to my adviser, and he said that mathematicians are like vacuum cleaner repairmen and innovators, but that we should also know something about the fridge, for instance.

Next, what inspired this blog: some guy talking about baking and math.  An excerpt:

For my money, the best part of the baking process (aside from the delicious final act) is the careful and precise initial measurement of the ingredients.  Keeping an accurate account of the relative proportions of each piece of the recipe is a hallmark of baking, and reflects the nature of baking itself: one part art, one part science.

I read this and immediately disagreed with it.  But I’m not a very precise person and my baked goods are made with more heart than head.  Maybe doing math will make me a better baker because I’ll care more about little details like how much of each ingredient to use, or following a recipe exactly.  Just realized that I totally lied without meaning to in the fruitcake post: definitely ran out of brown sugar and used white sugar with a random splashing of molasses instead.

Here’s my deal: life is imperfect and unpredictable.  Even if I measured everything exactly, my results will never be exactly the same each time.

I think life makes about as much sense as this does

Ferris Bueller had impressive amounts of control and luck, but even he couldn’t save Cameron’s car.  My cookies are sometimes like that car.

Sometimes it’s humid, sometimes I open the oven door more allowing cool kitchen air to enter, sometimes my baking soda is a little old and won’t work as effectively.  I don’t mean anything extreme, as in because I don’t have absolute control I should cede all of it; I just mean I don’t think I need to take it so seriously.  Butter, flour, sugar can’t go so terribly wrong if I mess up.  The situation is in my hands as far as it is, and that’s the way it goes.  That’s how I see math too: I have no control over it, but I can wrestle with it as far as I can, and that’s the way it goes.

Finally, a kind of remarkable insight into the mind of a baking engineer, which talks about Moistness Values and Fat Content, which leads to a randomly generated recipe builder.

Just look at those equations!  So shiny!

Just look at those equations! So shiny!

I find computers and engineers both very intriguing in an anthropological studies sort of way.  My last paragraph makes it pretty obvious that I’m not of the exacting engineering mindset, but I certainly respect and admire it.  In any case, I’m very curious to try some of those randomly generated recipes in future baking endeavors.


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