Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Nerds in an Uproar

   Before we get to the meat of the issue, Company, let me take a minute to take care of a couple of, shall we say, housekeeping issues.  You may have noticed that we have been strangely silent the last couple of days, and while we here at Big Dave and Company apologize for that, in reality we don't give a shit.  Everyone here, from my myself (Big Dave) to the lowliest unpaid intern (and they are lowly, believe me) has been working their butts off for a couple of big events.  First, is the impending visit of super mega-star Pins McGee to the Big Dave and Company Podcast.  He will be on this week and we have to get the place cleaned up and his green room stocked with 31 cases of Natural Light beer and a pallet of pork rinds.  You know how hard it is to find a distributor for that stuff?  The second major upcoming event is the annual blog of the year awards that always come on the last day of June, so we are getting that put together, which is a lot of work.  That being said, we are sorry for the couple of missing days.
    The second piece of housekeeping has to do with a stereotype that we are about to perpetuate.  You may have noticed that the title of today's post is "Nerds in an Uproar" and what you will find as you read on (should you read on) is that it is a post about mathematicians and a mathematical concept.  I am not trying to say that everyone who is adept at or interested in math is a nerd.  That is not true.  There are plenty of people who love math who are cool-ass-mo-fo's, and there are plenty of nerds who like to race cars.  But these particular folks are getting really riled up over something that most of us, well, couldn't care less about.  So riled up that they are talking about how certain concepts in mathematics just feel more "natural" and how they get angry about the perpetuation of other mathematical concepts, and that sounds like fanatical devotion to an idea that is far from the mainstream - the definition of nerddom.  They have ever tried to proclaim a day to celebrate their cause.

Tau - looks like a T
to me.
      That cause is "tau", which is a mathematical constant exactly twice as large as the much more famous and well known "pi."  People - mostly high schoolers - have been using pi to solve all sorts of circle and arc-related math problems.  Yet apparently pi is not the number that we should be using, according to the self-described "world's leading anti-pi propagandist" Michael Hartl.  He is an educator and former theoretical physicist.  I am going to let him explain it to you so that I am not accused of being the one boring you to death with math-speak. "When I say that pi is wrong, it doesn't have any flaws in its definition - it is what you think it is, a ratio of circumference to diameter.  But circles are not about diameters, the're about radii; circles are the set of all the points a given distance - a radius - from the center.  What you are really doing is defining it as the ratio of the circumference to twice the radius, and that factor of two haunts you throughout mathematics."  Riveting.
    Let me take a moment to try and explain it in sort of layman's terms.  If you draw a perfect circle (the geometric shape, not the band) on a piece of paper, every spot along the circle will be the same distance from the center.  That is the radius.  It is twice the distance of the radius from and given point the the point on the opposite side.  Hartl is saying that that factor of two is a big problem in mathematics.  What tau does is apply the power of two to the ratio instead of making you have to do it on your own.  I think.
     But all that doesn't matter.  What matters is that Hartl and his buddies get really into tau.  First of all, they all, they have proclaimed today to be Tau Day, because tau is roughly 6.28 and today is 6/28.  How clever.  They wrote something called the Tau Manifesto, which really lends credibility to a cause.  Because, I mean, more than just crazy people write manifestos, right?
Pi - I made it twice as large as tau even though in reality
it is one-half the size.  Dr. Hartl is going to be pissed.
     That is not the strange part to me.  The strange part is that a lot of the tauists, as I am going to name them, develop a sort of irrational number hatred towards pi, a number that really hasn't done anything wrong.  I mean, it is not pi's fault that it has been the darling of the everyday person for years, helping to make people know at least one thing that is represented by a symbol.  And it is not pi's fault that it was probably discovered first and just got used more.  Yet, they still get a little worked up about it.  Dr. Hartl talks about a "conversion experience" in which people find themselves to be violently angry about pi - going to far as to use profanity when discussing it and feeling as if they have been lied to all their lives.
     One of the people who has undergone the "conversion experience" (I imagine a beam of light and choir of heavenly angels singing a chord in perfect harmony) but whose rage has subsided is University of Leeds mathematician Kevin Houston, who had this to say: "It's surprising people haven't changed before.  Almost anything you can do in maths with pi you can do with tau anyway, but when it comes to using pi versus tau, tau wins - it's much more natural."
     I contend, however, that it is not surprising, Kevin.  You are a mathematician, and you work with numbers every day of your life as a way of making a living, so it is not surprising that you or some of your colleagues would seize on a new way of doing your work, especially if you feel that it makes your life easier.  But the general public doesn't give a flying fuck about the fact that tau fits better and feels more natural, or that it makes things easier, etc, etc.  That is because the general public knows and understands pi, and it doesn't do enough with math, or do advanced enough math, to really understand why tau is so neat or special or useful.

Signs with Clearview font.
Big Dave mad, BIG DAVE SMASH!
      It is that mindset, and that thinking, and that singular excitement over this issue that has such a narrow level of interest that makes me brand you nerds, and draws my attention to you.  You are passionately angered by something no one cares about, and you sound like me when I am getting all pissed off over Clearview replacing Highway Gothic.  I know that makes me a dorky nerd but I don't care.  I am a nerd in an uproar at those times.  And people tell me that no one cares, so that is what I am doing for you.  I mean, Dr. Hartl goes so far as to hypothesize that people use degrees to measure angles because degrees don't use pi.  Pi is ruining the world!
      No, pi is not ruining the world.  Pi is fine for the bulk of us, and if tau works better for you, then by all means use it in your daily or work life.  I don't care.  But don't beat down pi.  Generations have learned pi.  We have built the Great Wall of China with pi.  We have electrified the nation with pi.  We have gone to the moon with pi.  Pi works just fine, so just leave it alone.  Go ahead and promote tau, but don't try to knock down pi.  Happy Tau Day in any event.

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