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My secret life: keeping the math cover story out of the blog


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January 13, 2006

My secret life: keeping the math cover story out of the blog

Stephen Baker

I've been leading a secret life on this blog. For months and months I worked on this math cover story. I was talking to mathematicians and people who use math, and it was dominating my thinking. It was in many ways the most interesting thing going on--and I couldn't blab about it in the blog.

This created a disconnect, one that I think is going to continue to frustrate mainstream bloggers like us. On many days, I had to wrench myself away from math, visit my aggregator page and force myself to switch subjects. Occasionally, I gave in to temptation and posted a thought or two about math. In this battle between two subjects, math didn't always win out, of course. I'm sure as the editors waited for the story and saw blog posts continue to go up, they had good reason to wonder if blogging was getting in the way.

I think blogging strongly influenced the development of the story. When it came time to write, I wanted to write it in a looser more conversational style, like the blog. What's more, I wanted to be clear with readers from the very start that I knew very little about math, that I was an outsider visiting this world. That sort of disclosure is much more common in blogs. In traditional journalism, by contrast, we usually write as though we know what's going from the start.

So I wrote a first draft in first person. Some people liked it, some didn't, but I'm sure they all agreed that it didn't read like a traditional BW story. The top editors said, in effect, nice try. But they wanted the traditional approach: Less me, more clarity.

So I ripped it up and started over. During this process, I tinkered with some cover ideas that might attract even mathophobes. Those too got the nix. What do you think?

07:44 AM

BusinessWeek

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? It?? a Magnificent Time to Know Math from Dorai's Techlog

If you don?? believe me, read Math Will Rock Your World (thanks to Digg) in Business Week. It talks about the amazing impact of Math in various areas of business from finance to advertising.

A few excerpts:

??t the Sunnyvale (Calif.) campu... [Read More]

Tracked on January 14, 2006 09:35 PM

That's actually a great cover! It definitely would get more of a reaction and get more people to buy/read the issue. However I'm not sure it fits the vision the editors at Business Week want to project for the magazine. Not everyone has the courage or desire to break out, take a chance, and do something that no one expects, however it's in those moments that you put it all out there on the line that define greatness.

Posted by: graywolf at January 13, 2006 10:17 AM

I enjoyed your article "Math Will Rock Your World." Are we educating our teachers to support our needs?

I'm concerned that in systems where standardized tests are growing in their domination, teachers' abilities to include wide areas of study in mathematics are diminishing.

While statistics is certainly a topic that may deserve more attention and time in education, mathematical modeling includes a broad range of topics. What are examples of these topics? Optimization as you mentioned is one. Many complicated areas can be simplified to two and three dimensional problems which secondary students would be able to tackle and creatively consider. Its a mathematical stragegy for attacking a problem. To understand what you described in the beginning of your article, one could first consider "a world" in which there are only three topics to build a model of how you locate a persons place from their search. (An excellent source for topics can be found in COMAP's Mathematics Modeling our World series intended for high school students. Another example leading to investigating efficiencies and reliability can be found by googling "reliability theory".)

"We have to train people in business to spot a bogus argument." In mathematics this may be tackled by how we use and teach proof and by how we develop in our students the demand that things make sense. Again this is an area that standardized tests inadequately assess. And so in our increasingly test driven plans, what will be happening to our focus on logical argument? I'm concerned we may be leading students and teachers the wrong way.

Posted by: Usha Kotelawala at January 13, 2006 10:41 AM

Sorry Stephen, the layout...uuuuhhhh, stick to writing ;-)

Posted by: PXLated at January 13, 2006 10:43 AM

I just read the article and thought it was great. I emailed it to my husband who teaches high school math and statistics. It's important to show kids that there's more to math than they think. This article is a great way to expose students to careers in math that they probably wouldn't think of on their own.

Posted by: Paughnee at January 13, 2006 11:20 AM

Stephen,

Excellent post about the conundrum(?) that journalists who blog must go through -- on an increasingly regular basis.

For the most part, journalistic writing differs greatly from the more conversational, at least informal writing most do for blogs. As more and more journalists blog -- someone predicted that journalists will dominate blogs in the future -- will journalistic writing change?

Will the traditional writing readers are used to remain, or change?

It'll be an interesting study to see if and how the reporting styles change by journalists who blog. As you saw, some of your blogging style easily crept into your professional style.

A former journalist, I'm now in public and media relations. However, I'm still a relatively new blogger, so haven't noticed my professional writing change. But, I'll definitely watch myself to see if my blogging tendencies creep into my professional tendencies.

Mike

Posted by: Mike Driehorst at January 13, 2006 11:30 AM

Math graduates are getting starting salaries in the six-figures?

...man, that's going the hit the engineering departments of our universities hard. Especially those who've been working on/with mathematical models for decades.

Posted by: Viking_Engineer at January 15, 2006 11:42 AM

Steve-- I'm still unconvinced that the "looser conversational style" is native to blogs. Would this have been so out of place as a New Yorker feature?

Posted by: Jon Garfunkel at January 17, 2006 03:51 AM

Jon,

You're right. There are plenty of outlets in the magazine world for the looser style. I guess I was contrasting my two worlds, the newsweekly and the blog. And the first draft was closer to the blog.

Posted by: steve baker at February 9, 2006 05:54 PM

Hello everyone,

I'm writing from Bulgaria, it's very nice to have such ( as businessweek) magazine here in Bulgaria. I think that an article as this is bringing a new hope for those people who attend to study and work as mathematicians as well as economist.

Posted by: kalin at February 21, 2006 09:58 AM


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