Book recommendation: How Not to Be Wrong

Today, I finished reading How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking by Jordan Ellenberg. This is a very enjoyable, very well-written, general-audience book about mathematics, which I recommend whole-heartedly.

Ellenberg, a math professor at the University of Wisconsin, does a great job weaving together a plethora of mathematical topics, including non-Euclidean geometry, probability, statistics, and mathematical analysis of voting systems. He writes in a way that someone who only vaguely remembers—or never really understood—high school algebra would be able to follow and enjoy. His exposition is made more lively by a cast of historical and contemporary characters, some famous and some primarily known only to mathematicians, including Abraham Wald, Bernhard Riemann, Teddy Roosevelt, Francis Galton, Voltaire, Nicolas de Condorcet, David Hilbert, Ronald Fisher, Antonin Scalia, and Nate Silver. (My favorite line in the book is the one in which Ellenberg describes Silver as a “Kurt Cobain of probability.”)

The best part of the book is about how the Massachusetts Lottery ran a game in which it was occasionally profitable to play (that is, there were some drawings in which the expected value of a ticket’s winnings was higher than the price of a ticket). Of course, some smart people (e.g. an MIT student) figured this out and recruited investors to buy absurd numbers of tickets for the profitable drawings. In the course of telling this story, Ellenberg weaves in discussions of finite geometries and error-correcting codes, both of which are relevant in describing how one buys thousands of lottery tickets without accidentally having to split winnings with yourself.

I think it would be awesome to use this book in a gen-ed math class.

In defense of FERPA

In an op-ed piece titled “College kids have too much privacy“, Michele Willens criticizes the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) for making it difficult for families to monitor their college student children’s academic performance.

I can understand why some families are frustrated by FERPA. Many families spend a great deal of money to send their young to college. Consider the parents in Willens’s opening anecdote, who learned their daughter had not actually graduated and skipped class for the last two years. I think anyone would be angry to be in their shoes.

However, it’s just not true that FERPA means, as Willens puts it, that “you have to take [your kid’s] word for it when they say ‘everything’s fine.'” FERPA allows a student to voluntarily release their records to another party. I recall having at least one scholarship in college whose sponsors required me to send an official transcript every year. I don’t see why a parent couldn’t insist on this as a condition for continued financial support.

In addition, a student can sign a FERPA waiver allowing a third party to get their records directly from the school. Although Willens describes this as a “laborious process”, it really amounts to having a student sign a form or check a box on a web site.

Part of being in college is learning how to become an independent adult. The transfer of FERPA rights from parents to student is part of that process. So is students learning to take responsibility for their learning. All FERPA requires is for parents to deal with their adult children directly, as adults, rather than being able to go behind their back.