Mathemagics

I’ve been listening to and transcribing the StackOverflow Podcast 31 in the last couple of days, and something Jeff Atwood said struck a nerve:

Spolsky: Maybe you just don’t like the kind of math they teach in American high schools. I mean, maybe you would like discrete math or set theory or that kind of stuff. The stuff that’s like really interesting math.

Atwood: I think historically the problem has been that I just didn’t really have — couldn’t really grok it at some fundamental level, like I could do it, like you could just show me a problem and I could solve that problem. But I couldn’t really extrapolate that to anywhere interesting. At all.

I can relate to Jeff here. That used to be, and to a very large extent, still is, my problem with math. While I can mechanically apply a solution I’ve learned, actually extracting the underlying principle and being able to identify analogous problems doesn’t come nearly as easily.

Fortunately, university math tends to be taught differently than high school math, and there is a heavy emphasis on being able to prove things and understand why things work, not just learn and apply them. That, and hindsight from the way I botched my high school studies should ensure that I learn at least a thing or two this time.

Listening to that bit in the podcast made me wish I had more time to devote to studying in general, and math specifically. Too bad I’m busy with my Data Structures course (final exam tomorrow) and work. Still, I’m keeping an eye out for math textbooks that seem interesting enough to grab my attention even outside the lecture halls.

Speaking of Data Structures, I have this funny feeling that I’ve both let myself down in terms of what I got from the course, and simultaneously learned more than I thought I had. Simply being familiar with some simple tree and graph traversal algorithms has given me the kind of insight into programming problems I didn’t used to have. It’s great, being able to recognize a concrete problem as an instance of something more abstract I’ve seen before, because it opens up a wide variety of known solutions to the problem. 🙂

Here’s hoping tomorrow’s exam won’t be a complete disaster. \o/

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