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Reducing math anxiety in Iceland

By Murray Bourne, 01 May 2009

I've had an interesting exchange of mails with a reader in Iceland. We talked about math, the financial crisis in Iceland, the environment and colonizing other planets.

I asked his permission to quote from our correspondence here, and he agreed.

Reynir subscribed to the IntMath Newsletter and wrote:

First of all, my dearest thanks for the great Interactive Mathematics website. I'm 23 years old and only after finding your site am I truly discovering math. I did well in elementary school math but after the age of 14-15 or so I had lost all motivation. I was a very sceptical child and the teachers never could answer my questions about the USEFULNESS of learning the material, nor did they address my questions of "why" and my thirst for understanding. It was pure parroting.

But I digress. The point is, now I'm finally freeing myself from the math-phobia and negative stereotypes that pervade my culture, and have begun learning math using your site. It is my goal in life to work in mathematics/science education, as I am outraged by the poor education that I received and I feel that humanity is in dire need of more scientifically literate people.

I digress again, dammit =D ... I'll cut to the chase now, HONEST =P ... I'm using your fantastic site to build a solid foundation from the ground (all the way down to the elementals) up to prepare myself for university. In addition to thanking you for your help, I also wanted to ask one question: I've found a couple typos on my journey through your material. Do you want me to point them out to you? Or just ignore them and move on?

Just thought I'd ask because I wasn't sure if it would be considered helpful or just annoying.

Best wishes from Iceland,

I'm glad that Reynir could find some answers to his quest for the usefulness of math in Interactive Mathematics. He is doing a good thing for reducing his math anxiety - he is reading over things himself. I applaud him for wanting to do something about "poor education".

I always welcome feedback and suggestions on the site, so I replied:

Hi Reynir

Thanks for the information and good on you for doing some learning before you attack your formal course.

I would very much appreciate feedback on any errors or typos you come across. This helps Interactive Mathematics to be better for everyone.

How are things in Iceland? Is it in the state of financial collapse that some news articles suggest?


He pointed out a few things that needed fixing on the site and then wrote:

Regarding the situation in Iceland... well you know news stations. From what I hear the foreign media is exaggerating quite a bit about us. Fact of the matter is, we were an extraordinarily rich country by world standards already, and this isn't really that big a deal. People aren't having any REAL troubles (like with food or housing) .... people are mostly bitching about losing things that were erroneously considered "needs", like luxury trips to Spain, and driving really expensive jeeps even if you never ever leave the city.

The people hit hardest are loan credit abusers and the like (many consumption-loans were made with foreign currency, so when our currency crashed, those debts almost doubled). Some people also just plain LOST the savings they had in the more risky funds or stock, and many are angry that the banks did not inform them fully about the risks. My savings were in a safer type of fund, but my plans of moving to another country some day have been dented quite a bit since the currency devalued almost 50% so my money's usefulness abroad has been cut in half.

But like I said it's not *really* that bad... I mean we're still a rich country by world standards. Many Icelanders are actually glad that the "financial disaster" happened, as they feel the nation had been getting way out of hand with disgusting showoff consumerism. I am partially glad about the positive effects of the crisis on Icelandic culture, but there is also the rising unemployment to think about... and I don't know what the situation will be like in a year or two.

P.S. Oh and one other nice side effect of the crisis is that Icelanders finally learned how to protest. We had been such pushovers before ... now we actually had heavy protesting that lasted for months and eventually got the the crappy government FIRED out of office ;P ... that's definitely one for our history books.


After fixing the typos and implementing other suggestions, I replied:

Thanks also for the insight into Iceland. What is it with these crazies that insist on driving gas-guzzling 4WDs that never leave the city?

All the best to you.

This pressed a button, and Reynir wrote:

Showoff consumerism, man, aka Keeping up with the Joneses.

I’ve studied anthropology a bit and thought about this phenomenon in particular… it’s weird. I believe it’s this exact same thing that makes people addicted to games like Everquest and World of Warcraft… being stuck in a system of competition for COMPARATIVE material status, when everyone else in the system is trying just as desperately hard to achieve the same thing. It's a zero-sum game, you can't be happy in that sort of culture without making someone else unhappy... and the people around you aren't gonna take THAT sitting down. And so the standards of what counts as “fancy” inevitably escalate ahead of your latest effort. But where does it end?

Have you heard of Richistan?

It's pretty amazing stuff. Billionaires running themselves into debt trying to out-do each other, in ways that make the average westerner wonder what the hell is wrong with them. Richistan is an example I use to illustrate to people that this whole thing is a never-ending pointless rat race, and that we ought to stop sleepwalking and define our OWN values and goals in life... instead of just letting advertisers and the like tell us.

Reynir has some interesting insights and by now we were merrily talking about all sorts of things. I replied:

Thanks for the link on Richistan, written in the height of the bubble. What worries me now is that so many Americans have suddenly found themselves quite poor and the social unrest implications of that (add at least one weapon per household to the mix) and it could get quite ugly.

Me - I'm starting to really like the idea of living in a log cabin in the woods, growing my own vegetables and having a few chickens. But wait, the "spring" water bottlers are sucking my (dream) stream dry and the factory pig farmers up river are polluting what's left.

Sigh - I despair for the 21st century...

Reynir's mails were becoming longer and longer:

Yes, I despair for the future of mankind too sometimes... and I agree with Stephen Hawking that the sooner we colonize another planet the safer this species will be.

About the woods thing... I have a (vaguely) similar idea going, which I try to get other people around me to join me in... namely resigning from the showoff-consumerism rat race altogether and deciding on those new values. Living inexpensively but happily and letting the excess money just build up. Then, when one has good financial security, do something to make the world a better place. Either by doing research to find a good organization that can be trusted or, if one doesn't want to trust ANY organization, just travel to a poor country and build a school or something.

(that's what I used to plan, because I didn't trust anything, frankly. But after watching some great TED speeches I now know a few organizations I would trust. Also the whole "investing in Africa rather than just giving aid" thing struck a nice chord with me.)

I did this interesting thought experiment once. After looking at other cultures I was rather amazed by what I saw going around in my own. Nobody seemed to have any money... everybody, from great salaries down to what's known in my country as "shit salaries" (which are still amazing salaries by global standards though), everybody seemed to be broke all the time. People acted as if money burned a hole in their pocket. But nobody FELT rich, because they didn't notice this stream of money passing them by, and their perceptions of what is "nice" or "fancy" just elevated along with their consumption levels.

I was appalled with all those crazy "standards" in my own culture. Not just the standards of what's "fancy".... but the standards of what's "the bare minimum". One quick example... my brother was looking at apartments, and there was one which was just under a 100 square meters. And my mother called it a "rat hole", and berated him for even looking at such a "small" place (he lives alone btw). But meanwhile in countries such as Japan and South-Korea, where space is more scarce, people seem to be quite happy with apartments that in our eyes would be incredibly small.

Anyway, my thought experiment. I wanted to know what would happen if a person with a GOOD salary (say, an engineer at 1.2 million ISK per month) would live like a person with a "shit salary" (say, an unskilled worker at 200 thousand ISK per month). Now even the people at 200k live VERY RICH by global standards and we certainly could take it lower than 200k ... but those were the parameters I decided on.

Now then, such a person would gather up 12 million ISK per year, and HALF A BILLION ISK over a 42-year career. Which translated into $8.3 million before our currency crashed by almost 50%. And that's only assuming he or she invests well enough to merely compensate for inflation.

I was dumbfounded by this. Even if we cut it in half to assume a person with a lesser salary, that's still a LOAD of friggin money!

So naturally I started asking myself... just WHERE is all that excess money going? Those vast riches that people don't notice, that pass them by like wind through their lives. And, well ... those questions of mine yielded some interesting answers. There are several big money sinks, but the main one is housing loans. A 40-year housing loan in Iceland often means that people end up paying 120 million for a house that costs 20 million. So naturally I decided to avoid housing loans like the plague. I "recruited" some of my friends into this way of thinking, and we're saving up money to buy an apartment together, and pay on the spot. I only need one room for myself anyway, and that room can be my "apartment within an apartment", sort of. And we are all going to get filthy rich over time just from avoiding housing loans, let alone with all the other optimizations.

Anyway and then later on when I have nice financial security, I'll start putting chunks of that money to some good use somewhere one this lovely planet of ours. =) And since I don't plan on having kids (and even if I do I wont spoil them with a big inheritance), good causes will be pretty much the only thing on my will.

I hope to spread this way of thinking as much as I can, because many dream of doing major good deeds, and this is a way to do good deeds without working in the good-deeds-sector itself.


P.S. You probably already know about this but in case you don't, I recommend checking out, it's awesome.

I'm really not sure about this desire to colonize other planets, so I wrote:

Hi Reynir

Thanks for your interesting (as usual) take on things.

I think i agree with all your points except the bit about colonizing other planets. For 1/1000000000 of the cost (or thereabout), we could fix up this one and run it sustainably. And how many people could enjoy the benefits of another planet? And it is highly likely you would need to live in a glass bubble when you get there, if you get there. Oh, and who wants to sit for years on some spacecraft, being bombarded with radiation, space junk and mini-comets that could destroy you?

I certainly have come across TED and I love what they have - great videos.

We then moved on to robots:

Yeah, after sending my mail I wished I had said "expand into space" rather than "colonize other planets". I absolutely agree that we can (and ought to) fix up Earth and run it sustainably, rather than to "finish raping this planet and then look for another one". Nor do I see expanding into space as a good solution to overpopulation. I just hope we do it as a sort of security measure, in case there some horrible disaster (man made or otherwise) that wipes out Earth-bound humans.

I don't particularly care what option we pick... terraform Mars, build nice bio-domes in orbit around the sun, or travel to other solar systems... as long as humanity, and the collective knowledge we have worked hard to build over millennia, is safe.

Oh and about the cost-in-space thing... that reminds me of an idea I had recently that I've been meaning to seek some "wizened opinions" on. Maybe you would like to tell me yours. Here goes:

The biggest cost with doing anything in space is lifting things off the Earth. But what if we could form a "swarm industry" in space nearly from scratch. The idea is to send a handful of self-replicating, semi-autonomous, remote-controlled robots. They would be small and numerous, to keep things decentralized and redundant (because of asteroid impacts and other accidents). They would be crude and few to begin with, just enough to enlarge the swarm from it's initial small seed number to ensure their safety. But later, not unlike how a human industry first starts with crude tools and then builds better tools, etc... they could be made to build more sophisticated "offspring", with increased specialization.

First I was thinking of mining asteroid belts. But then I thought, why not closer to home and less turbulent... the Moon!

As for energy, the swarm could harvest solar energy, and later maybe we could send some uranium into space and have the swarm build nuclear power plants. For once, environmental safety would not be a major engineering concern, heheh =)

In the end we could have a sophisticated industry for building and repairing things in orbit (satellites, space stations, space ships...) WITHOUT having to lift all that much off the Earth. And the only cost money-wise would be the initial cost of sending the "seed bots" out there and the ongoing cost of overseeing the swarm. Already we do a lot of space-lifting just for the sake of launching and repairing satellites. This could even SAVE us costs in the long run.

So what do you think? Does this make sense to you?


I responded:

Hi again Reynir

One of the interesting developments in space travel has been Richard Branson's attempts:

He showed that you could lift people into lower Earth orbit for much less than the Americans do each shuttle flight. If the airline industry survives, there will be flights that reach the limits of the atmosphere and will make Sydney - London a trip of only an hour or 2.

The idea of space robots is already in Nasa's planning:

But there is a big difference between people on a planet (or moon) solving day-to-day problems and robots.

As I said earlier, let's just spend 1% of the rich countries' budgets and put in place sustainable resource practices. If that ever happens, then we'll have the luxury of thinking beyond this planet.

At this point I thought we should share our discussion with a wider audience.

What do you think about expanding into space? Good idea or not?

See the 13 Comments below.

13 Comments on “Reducing math anxiety in Iceland”

  1. Miss Loi says:

    Some of this sounds hauntingly familiar.

    Say hi to Iceland, Singapore!

  2. Reynir says:

    Fascinating these (finally) new developments in making space lifting more efficient.

    What I'm most excited about is the potentially low cost of this "swarm space economy from scratch" idea. The only cost would be the launching of a few of those small self-replicating robots... and then the salaries of the people overseeing them, giving them macro-orders and stepping in with remote control in those instances when their autonomy software craps out, 'scuse my french. But software can be continually upgraded of course, and the "remote control labor requirements" per robot would diminish over time.

    But you mentioned something about there being a big difference between people and robots performing tasks on the Moon. Could you perhaps elaborate?

  3. Murray says:

    When a robot encounters a problem on the moon (or anywhere, really), one of 2 things can happen:

    1. It can solve the problem because the software developers anticipated it
    2. It has no idea what to do to solve the problem because it hasn't been programmed to solve it

    Whereas one of the main reasons humans have thrived is that they have excellent problem solving skills.

    As you say, software can be upgraded, but that won't necessarily give the robots creative abilities to solve similar problems in future...

  4. Reynir says:

    Ah, right you are (about robot problem-solving)... but that wasn't really what I meant.

    When I mentioned reducing the amount of remote control needed with software upgrades, I was only referring to making the robots crap out less while navigating around some rocks and similar things of that degree. Problem solving and such would remain in human hands back on Earth.

    But tasks such as building the same thing over and over and over... surely that could be mostly automated, given time to hammer out the kinks?

    And mining, too, given time to hammer out the kinks, although humans would still always have to choose new mining sites, plot out new mining tunnels, etc. But the robots ought to be able to do the grunt work, which basically only requires to "do as you're told and repeat".

    And unlike mining back on Earth, worker safety would not really be a big issue, heheheh.

    And finally, as to the notion of making the robots repair things... for that I was thinking of telerobotics... you know, like the equipment that surgeons use these days. In fact, telerobotics could be used for lots of things, making not only human intelligence available to the robots whenever needed, but also human "handling" of things.

    Oh and several years ago, I heard NASA was planning to use telerobotics for satellite repair. I hope they'll manage it soon, it would be brilliant, saving us the extra weight of hauling up all stuff needed for human life support. Plus the repair bot itself might well be lighter than a human body plus space suit plus tools.

  5. Steven says:

    I'm with Zac on this one. Why waste billions on all this robotics stuff when we can fix the Earth (or at least stop it from deteriorating so quickly) for much less?

    Let's leave these pipe dreams until such time as we can really afford it (when everyone has adequate food, clean water, the air is clean, there is no poverty, etc.)

    I think we'll be waiting a long time.

  6. Reynir says:

    What are these billions you speak of? The reason this idea came to mind was exactly to reduce the damnable costs of getting things into space... by building them there instead of lifting them off the Earth.

    The whole point of this idea is cost reduction. What if this is actually very cheap? What if launching those few seed bots to the moon only costs the same as any old routine mission?

    Would you still be against it then?

    I am just curious because I feel I'm being misunderstood here... please explain to be what in this proposed project would cost so much.

    If it's R&D costs you mean, I don't think that's going to be a problem. Robotics research is roaring ahead anyway, just look at Japan.

    But please belive me when I say I am just as passionate as you guys about righting the wrongs of the world. It's just that I'm also very passionate about humanity going forth into space, and the current costs of it are unbearable.

    But if it's frivolous spending that should be cut we're talking about here, why don't we talk about the massive amount of global military spending, especially by the U.S. which has a larger military than the rest of the world combined.

    Or maybe we should talk about the massive resource wastage involved in all the silly insecure showoff-consumerism in the Western nations?

    But anyway, what I'm mostly curious about is hearing just what it is you guys think is so expensive about launching a few bots to the moon and then paying a few engineers to oversee them.

  7. emet says:

    How much money is required to purchase enough materials and provide enough food for the entire humanity to survive for 10 days? 10 weeks? 10 months? 10 years? Think about it.
    How about medicine? Epidemics like the H1N1 going around these days? In a more confined space with someone having a contagious, potentially fatal disease, the only "good" news to you is that more deaths will (cut costs!?).

  8. emet says:

    Moreover, will you be growing people up in space rather than sending them up?

  9. Reynir says:

    (sigh) ... no I'm not suggesting we "grow" people in space. And why are you assuming that I'm some kind of monster that would be pleased about people dying?

    As I said in the emails to Zac I do *not* see this "expand into space" thing as any sort of solution to overpopulation. The only solution to that (IMO) is to educate people and otherwise convince them to have less offspring. It should be easy to convince reasonable people, assuming they care about the future of humanity (or just the future of their grandchildren).

    What I am suggesting is that if we as a species are going to continue sending lots of robotic missions to explore the solar system, if we're going to continue making lots of satellites, if we're going to send manned missions to Mars, if we're going to build stuff on the Moon, etc... it just seems a lot more economical to build it off the Earth, because (current) chemical rockets can barely lift themselves and the fuel they need for escape velocity, leaving very little extra lift for cargo. Plus the way they work they leave parts of themselves which then become stuck in orbit and collide with other junk, seperating into much smaller pieces of junk and thus increasing the chance of collisions.

    In short, if we're going to continue doing stuff in space, we can use fewer resources, fewer man-hours, spread less space junk, destroy less of the ozone layer, etc... by mining resources and building things off the Earth.

    My notion of having at least a few thousand people living off the Earth as a safety measure thing in case something horrible happens was just one of the things mankind can do in space. But it really seems to bother people here. By all means, let us abandon that discussion point and focus on the other stuff instead.

  10. emet says:

    Sorry, boy. I didn't realize it was only just like that. Many apologies.

  11. emet says:

    Can someone just tell him I regret posting so many bad words?

  12. Reynir says:

    It's quite all right, no worries.

  13. Li-sa says:

    I think that your idea is nice. Sending robots to probe might be more cost-effective than humans (just some electricity; no food or water required; and they're lighter too) although, if possible, the robots could better be manually remote-controlled to avoid the bots from getting confused - if the terrain is not what they expected.

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