Category Archives: Math

Data Visualization for US Politics

With the end of the primary season coming up this summer, I expect a resurgence of the talk about “red and blue states” that dominated the 2004 election as we approach the direct engagement of the Republican and Democratic parties. This morning, I stumbled on a great site by Michael Gastner, Cosma Shalizi, and Mark Newman from the University of Michigan that uses very nice cartographic representations of the last election results to better visualize the electorate.

Popular publications such as USA today published many maps of this sort showing the winner’s party by county.

But this graphical representation fails to take into account either the population density, electoral votes by county, or how close the vote was. If you process the map topology and scale each county to represent electoral votes, and color the vote results as a continuous scale from red to blue with even results represented as a mixed color of purple, the result is much more interesting.

Rather than the stark red/blue divide of the trivial map above, a more representative view of our nation deemphasizes sparsely-populated geographies with little economic impact and highlights those regions driving tomorrow’s economy. We also look like a much more homogeneous purple nation in this view.

Interestingly enough, in the economic-political view, the most politically homogeneous regions are the blue counties where economic development is the strongest.

Check out the whole site here.

1 Comment

Filed under Graphics, Math, Politics

New WISE Web Site Launched

Hi all,

We just launched the new web site for the Westminster Institute for Science Education [W.I.S.E.]. Click on the logo below to check it out, including the links to the student and teacher blogs. Comments and suggestions welcome!

Oh yes, and for any of you wealthy philanthropists or corporate titans with a hankering to invest in nationwide science, math, or technology education reform, donations are encouraged! Just email or message me, or post a comment here on “All the Best Bits.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Education, Math, Science, Technology

Politicians Speaking in Code

Who says encryption is only for mathematicians, geeks, or credit card transactions?

Generally, I am used to politicians dodging questions they are asked while trying to “stay on message” to push their specific agenda. But there seems to be a new trend in political communication of sending “secret” messages to core constituent groups that are very strategically and specifically encoded or worded so as to not put-off others outside of that core group. Otherwise they might otherwise seek alternative candidates if directly confronted with an open message. And I really do mean code, as in encrypted messages that only those who have, or figure out, the appropriate key can understand. My favorite recent example was pointed out to me by Josh Marshal and his blog readers.

One of Mike Huckabee’s core campaign messages this season is that he thinks America needs “Vertical Politics” rather than “Horizontal Politics,” and a “Vertical Thinker” for its next President. Here are a couple of examples from his speeches and his web site.

Being reasonably well-informed politically, this sort of verbiage didn’t even register with me as anything unusual or even noteworthy. It didn’t appear to me as anything more than a typical no-content type positioning statement much like “We need change,” or “The urgency of now.” (More on this last code later).

But it turns out there was a very important message embedded in what sounded, at first blush, to be otherwise meaningless positioning verbiage. I, however, being outside of the core group of intended recipients, did not have the key to decrypt the secret message. If you happen to be an evangelical Christian, or a faithful church-going Baptist, you probably already know what Mr. Huckabee is talking about because you have the key to his secret code. “Vertical Thinking” has become part of the common evangelical vernacular (see here on “Vertical vs. Horizontal Thinking” and here at the “” blog for explanations and the general philosophy).

The real message turns out to be a very clear statement to those “informed” that the US as a whole would be better off with a leader who holds God as the origin of all inspiration, morality, and, well, everything, and uses that to guide his leadership. This is in contrast to “Horizontal Thinking” wherein man figures things out without looking to God; it is this “Horizontal Thinking,” according to Huckabee, which has gotten the US into so much trouble.

Now it’s certainly true that Mr. Huckabee has been completely open about his history as Baptist minister, and I have to say that in the end, the message is completely consistent with his background. And I have nothing against any candidate who would clearly state a religious political agenda. But I find the wording that was so clearly calculated to pass innocuously beneath the notice of the unaligned moderates while still reassuring the faithful to be both a stroke of genius and rather insidious at the same time. It demonstrates a realization that if his agenda were completely out in the open, and the candidate were forced to speak clearly and openly without obfuscating their position in order to placate a conflicted constituency (i.e. the evangelical vs. fiscal republican bases) they could not actually garner winning support.

In all fairness, Huckabe isn’t the only politician speaking in code. Sean over at Cosmic Variance pointed out Obama’s “Urgency of Now” type code words taken straight from the civil rights movement.

My personal preference would be to support a candidate who is completely open in his communication, without depending on codes or secret messages decipherable only be specific constituent groups. I want to understand what other constituencies I might be supporting inadvertently by supporting someone like Huckabee, and where their agendas differ from my own.

I would also prefer that a candidate support such “horizontally” conceived issues such as stem cell research, family planning strategies based on real historical performance data and research, support for abatement of climate change. Lately, I have begun to contrast candidates who look backwards through tradition and religious adherence, and favor candidates who will openly accept the world as it is based on open scientific inquiry and look forward to how things might be. Is there such a visionary candidate?

Well anyway, I have a couple new code keys now, and so do you. What other sorts of secret political codes can we winkle out? How would you construct a clever political code?

Leave a comment

Filed under Math, Politics

A Mathematical Mazda

Check out the model number on this bad boy.

Yes, it’s Pi to 27 digits. From techEblog.

Leave a comment

Filed under Humor, Math

Aphabetical Bias ,or What’s In a Surname?

Judging by a recent paper from the Journal of Economic Perspectives, it would appear that I stand in good stead if I ever want a job in economics accedemia, and I have my father to thank for it.

And no, it’s not just because he was such a great dad and taught me how to fend for myself and all. Not that he didn’t help set me on numerous paths of opportunity. He did indeed. But one step would appear to have accrued simply from sticking with the country’s naming tradition.

A paper entitled “What’s in a Surname? The Effect of Surname Initials on Academic Success” by Liran Einav and Leeat Yariv (of Stanford and Caltech)showed some rather comprehensive data that showed measurable advantage to those with names starting with letters earlier in the Alphabet.

The more elite the selection criteria, the more the bias was evident. Check out the paper.

In retrospect, I can remember that just through the happenstance of my last name, I usually ended up first in or second in line whenever a class was organized, and got to start projects earlier than most. Maybe that sort of things add up. So all you teachers out there, start switching up and be sure to sort from the back of the alphabet half the time, or else suffer the risks and liabilities of unintended alphabetic discrimination.

1 Comment

Filed under Economics, Math

Star Wars Origami

One of my favorite technical books from a couple of years ago was this textbook by Robert Lang on the mathematics and symmetry properties of paper and origami.

But there was just that something that was missing. The models were so…, well…, so traditionally Asian that I had trouble connecting with them culturally. NOW, however, there is hope, for the Force is with us all. Phillip West has folded a set of Star Wars Origami models. Enjoy.


Filed under Humor, Math

Diet For Energy Independence

In a paper scheduled to appear in the Engineering Economist, Laura McLay and Sheldon Jacobsen have determined that growing obesity across the US is imposing even more of an economic impact than the often-reported health care costs of treating its side effects such as type 2 Diabetes.

It should come as no surprise to anyone with any Physics background at all that it takes more energy to move more mass around.

“The obesity rate among U.S. adults doubled from 1987 to 2003, from about 15% to more than 30%. Also, the average weight for American men was 191 pounds in 2002 and 164 pounds for women, about 25 pounds heavier than in 1960, government figures show.”

Using those weight figured combined with statistics on 2003 driving habits, it is pretty straightforward to conclude that about 39 million gallons of additional fuel are used each year for every pound of average weight increase across the US.

So relative to our svelte 1960 profiles, at a gas price of $3.00 per gallon the US is consuming around an extra $3 billion of oil for automotive fuel a year simply because we are getting fatter. And then there’s the issue of airline fuel costs as well, an effect already reported by the CDC.

So if we could just manage to curb our waistlines, we can decrease our dependence on foreign oil. Maybe we could even manage it by driving less and walking more. What a virtuous cycle that would be.

1 Comment

Filed under Health, Math

The Economic Value of Education

A government report based on data from the Census Bureau has determined that a bachelor’s degree is worth about $23,000 a year, with college graduates earning and average of $51,554 in 2004 compared with $28,645 for those with only a high school diploma. If you carry that yearly salary difference through retirement age, you end up with a total difference of about $1.2M.

High School dropouts earned an average of $19,169 a year, and those with advanced college degrees earned an average of $78,093.

So high school is worth about $502,000

College is worth an incremental $1.2M

Graduate school is worth another $1.4M

It seems like a no-brainer to me, specially when you consider some of my buddies who have turned what they learned into economic engines worth billions of dollars as an up-side. Of course there is a down side, but according to the large-scale statistics, even Joe-average is best served staying in school a little longer.

1 Comment

Filed under Education, Math

Where There’s Math, There’s Fire

I’m always on the lookout for a good screensaver. And mathematically-defined flames just seem too good to pass up. These tasty little bits of eye candy are based on the work of Michael Barnsley from Georgia Tech (One of my freshman calculus instructors, incidentally) who invented Iteratted Function System fractals, which were used by Scott Draves in 1992 to make artificial flames. These examples were made by rajah, and you can see many more examples and animations here and here.

Now you can go and make your own artificial flames with a freeware application called Apophysis that runs on the Windows operating system. Donwload it here. If you’d just like to check out some animations and images, look here.

1 Comment

Filed under Art, Graphics, Math

Caught Lying With Statistics

Mea Culpa. They suckered me, and I fell for it. I should know better, really, than to just take an Atlantic Monthly chart and post it just because it happens to support my fervent belief that America’s schools need radical improvements in science and math education. A hat tip to Chad over at Uncertain Principles who tipped me off to the (now) obvious.

Some of you may remember the chart on relative test score performance of eighth grade science students from different countries (reposted here for your review.)

Looks pretty dismal, huh? Well, take a look at this re-plotted version of the test score chart from Chad’s blog, which has been normalized on a scale of zero to one, as many physicists prefer. (Note that the original test score chart only ranged from 500 to 600.)


Okay, that doesn’t look so bad. Now which should we believe? Is there evidence here for an international crisis in American science education?

This time, I actually did go all the way back to the original source, “Highlights From the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study 2003.” Surprisingly enough, despite all of the media teeth-gnashing, there was nothing in the report that actually defined how significant or relevant the differencesvbetween the test scores might be. The Atlantic chart accentuated the differences, and Chad’s normalized chart de-emphasised the differences.

More investigation is in order. I’m going all the way back to the original reports to see what I might find out. Stay tuned…

1 Comment

Filed under Education, Math, Science