SciTechBlog
May 3, 2010

Geek Out!: Wearing your geek cred

Posted: 12:18 PM ET
Science Is A Verb Now
Science Is A Verb Now

Editor's note: Geek Out! posts feature the latest and most interesting in nerd-culture news. From scifi and fantasy to gadgets and science, if you can geek out over it you can find it on Geek Out! Look for Geek Out! posts on CNN's SciTech blog.

As the old saying goes, "clothing makes the man." In the geek culture, what is said on the clothing is more important than the clothing itself.

Geeks, gamers and nerds have been showing their cred by the logos, designs and saying on their T-shirts. It is considered a badge of honor and a way to connect with others of like minds.

Shirt designers say people use T-shirts as a quick visual way to tell the world something about themselves. While the core audience for these shirts used to be hardcore geeks, some companies say the appeal has broadened in recent years.

Shane Peterman from Think Geek said buyers of their products include gamers, college students, scientists and NASA employees. "It is more of an open secret now," he said. "Your shirt helps you identify who is 'in the know'."

Brian Sunter, merchandise manager of Penny Arcade, agrees. "Geeks–and gamers especially–relate to that stuff as well, I think, because gaming has a huge pool of shared experiences," Sunter said. "Maybe it is a little awkward, but we’ve kind of all rescued the same princesses and saved the same worlds."

Chris Hastings, creator of "The Adventures of Dr. McNinja", takes a different view. He thinks T-shirts can connect people who wouldn't normally say a word to each other.

"If one is wearing a T-shirt that says 'Ninjas Can't Catch You If You're On Fire", the other sees it, immediately gets the joke and thinks "Wow! This person has the same weird sense of humor that I do," Hastings said.

Designers say that a good shirt goes a little further than just a logo and one level deeper to make that connection. But it all starts with a creative look on the t-shirt that sometimes has different meanings for different people.

TopatoCo has been working as an online store for many web comics artists for about 8 years. Supreme Commander of Promotions David Malki! said the best shirts get an idea out that is reflective of the comic's tone. He also thinks a good shirt speaks on behalf of the wearer.

"The shirt shows the exclusivity and uniqueness of the wearer," Malki! said. "It makes them seem super cool."

Ryan North, creator of "Dinosaur Comics", aims for shirts that target people who are familiar with his comic, but also works well with someone who has never heard of it.

"That way, the person buying it knows it's rad, and knows that people who see it will think it's rad too," North explained.

Sean Gailey, the Creative Overlord at Jinx, takes another route to designing their geek T-shirts. Gailey said they keep a close eye on trends and user comments.

"Our customer core is shameless and passionate about their interests," Gailey said. "The design message has to mean something and you're in on it."

Peterman also says the popularization of geek culture on television shows and movies influences who buys geek T-shirts.

"'The Big Bang Theory' is a big part of it," he said. "Older geeks are tapping back into the culture and they are the ones who can make buying decisions."

These companies are trying to harness that older audience by offering a wider selection beyond just T-shirts. Polo shirts, button down shirts, jackets, and even baby items are getting the geek treatment in an effort to spread the geek chic.

"It is more subtle," Gailey explained. "It is another option to still maintain and express your geek cred."

"I think what is next for geek chic is apparel that acknowledges the identity of modern geeks as responsible adults who grew up as gamers," Sunter said about their new First Party line of clothes. "There is a place, now, for classy clothing that gamers can identify with."

Malki! said TopatoCo is expanding their selections with more colors and organically produced shirts in response to customer requests. Peterman said Think Geek is offering interactive shirts, like a shirt recently seen on "The Big Bang Theory" that plays music when you press buttons on the shirt.

Perhaps the geek cred can be summed up in the mantra at Jinx – "Get into it."

"Whatever you like, get into it," Gailey said. "Don't take a casual interest."

Never let it be said that geeks aren't into what ever "it" is. And as this geek will tell you, wearing your heart on your sleeve – or emblazoned across your chest – is a matter of pride.

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Filed under: Gaming • Geek Out! • Mathematics • NASA • pop culture • science • web comics


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April 30, 2010

Geek Out!: Crochet sculptures teach higher math

Posted: 09:09 AM ET

Editor's note: Geek Out! posts feature the latest and most interesting in nerd-culture news. From scifi and fantasy to gadgets and science, if you can geek out over it, you can find it on Geek Out! Look for Geek Out! posts on CNN's SciTech blog.

This work of art has a logic to its beauty: It was inspired by a branch of mathematics called hyperbolic geometry. Daina Taimina, adjunct professor at Cornell University, has been making these crochet creations since 1997, both for teaching and for aesthetic value.

Taimina remembers that when she was a student of non-Euclidian geometry, her instructor would tell the class to imagine the concepts being studied. “Why should I trust something I can imagine?” Taimina asks. She wanted to be able to construct something that would represent the complex ideas of higher mathematics. When she began teaching non-Euclidian geometry, crochet allowed her to explain concepts not on a blackboard or computer screen but in something tangible.

Most middle school students are taught Euclidian geometry, which puts forth that if you have a line and a point outside of it, there is only one other line you could draw that would could go through the point and also be parallel to it. This is the case for a two-dimensional plane, on a flat piece of paper, for example. But in hyperbolic space, that is no longer true. “This is something you can really can see only after have crocheted it,” Taimina says. This model illustrates the point: In this space, there are three lines going through the point that will not intersect with the fourth line on the bottom.

The models Taimina uses for instructional purposes take about 10 hours to make. Her largest crochet work took eight months to construct. “In some ways I feel like I’m making sculptures with crocheting,” she said. “I’m interested how long you can crochet the same shape over and over.” The image above is an example of a manifold, which can be folded into an infinite number of shapes without distorting the geometry of the surface.

"Hyperbolic geometry" may sound esoteric, but there are plenty of real-world applications. It describes how skin grows on wounds, so plastic surgeons must be aware of it; for example, in reducing the visibility of scarring after surgery, Taimina said. It also plays a role in computer animation. In nature, you can see hyperbolic geometry in nature all the time, from kale to sea kelp to the holly pictured above.

To learn more, visit Taimina's Web site.

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Filed under: Geek Out! • Mathematics


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March 12, 2010

Geek Out!: My life with pi

Posted: 03:09 PM ET
Pumpkin pi.
Pumpkin pi.

Editor's note: Geek Out! posts feature the latest and most interesting nerd culture news. From scifi and fantasy to gadgets and science, if you can geek out over it you can find it on Geek Out! Look for Geek Out! posts on CNN's SciTech blog.

Happy (almost) Pi Day, everyone! I'm going to be eating some pie with my friends Sunday to commemorate the day. But Pi Day (see my CNN.com story here) wasn't always so well-recognized.

When I was 13, I thought I was different because several of my hobbies involved the number pi. For me, the ratio of circumference to diameter of a circle held many exciting possibilities. Since no one had proven that the digits were random, yet there were infinitely many of them, I saw this as an amazing opportunity for creative expression, and perhaps some code-cracking too.

For instance, you can put pi to music: using a piano, make middle C=1, D=2, E=3, and so on, you have a song representing pi. At the first instance of "0" the melody breaks down a bit (I wasn’t quite sure what to do with the “0” anyway), but I think there's a natural musical ending ("53421") - ending back on middle C - with the number 1 at digit 95.

I also did a lot of pi-related creative writing back in my teenage years, including this song "American Pi." Here’s a poetry technique you can try too: the number of letters in each word correspond to a digit, so a “pi poem” begins with a three-letter word, a one-letter word, a four-letter word, and so on. Here’s an example I wrote, representing (3.1415926535897932384626433832795).

Why, π? Stop, π! Weird anomalies do behave badly!
You, madly conjured, imperfect, strange, numerical,
Why do you maintain this facade?
In finite time you are barbaric.
You do wonders, mesmerize minds!

It was also fun to memorize digits from the poster in my math classroom. When that poster ran out around digit 50, I turned to books. To remember the digits of pi, I primarily relied on a rhythm in my head that grouped 2, 3, or 4 digits together at a time. To me it was three point one four one five nine two six and so on, although more ambitious pi memorizers may use other methods.

Today, it appears that pi become much more mainstream than when I first fell in love with it. Back in 1997, I had only my books and a few Web sites to draw from for pi inspiration. Now, there are hundreds of pi-related Web resources, not to mention a great deal of enthusiasm on YouTube – you’ll find pi recitations far longer more than my personal record of 178, and pi songs that are more ambitious than my own. It’s on "The Simpsons," in the movies, and a lot of other places you’d least expect. There’s even a Kate Bush song involving the digits of pi. Judging by how many pi-related t-shirts there are, I’d say it’s become a status symbol in this whole "geek is chic" movement.

Apparently it’s not so weird to like pi anymore. In fact, pi has actually brought me closer to other people. One of my good friends, also a pi fan, learned of my existence in 2002 when I published an opinion piece about pi in the Philadelphia Inquirer. A college classmate spent the morning of March 14, 2005, memorizing more than 200 digits so that he could beat me at Princeton’s annual math department Pi Day celebration (he took first place, I took second, we're still friends). In recent years I’ve worn a pi-related outfit at Dragon Con, which is a great ice-breaker among thousands of self-proclaimed geeks.

Clearly, I will not be the only one eating pie in honor of Pi Day on Sunday. What are you doing for Pi Day? Share your ideas in the comments.

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Filed under: Geek Out! • Mathematics


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November 18, 2009

Unsolved math problem turns 150

Posted: 12:14 PM ET

Happy 150th anniversary to the Riemann Hypothesis, one of the most important math problems ever!

Proposed by Bernhard Riemann in 1859, the Riemann Hypothesis deals with prime numbers. You may recall that a prime number is a positive whole number that has only two positive whole number divisors: one and itself. The first of them are 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, in order.

This hypothesis would be able to provide a better estimate than ever before of a special function denoted as Pi(x). Pi(x) represents the number of prime numbers that are no bigger than x, where x is a positive number. For example, Pi(14) would be 6, because there are six prime numbers (2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13) no bigger than 14. That's probably the most understandable explanation you're going to get that doesn't involve "zeta functions" and other technical terms.

Given that many of the best mathematicians have tried and failed to provide a solution, the proof is probably not easy or obvious, says Peter Sarnak, professor of mathematics at Princeton University and an authority on the subject. “Most experts expect that a proof will require a major new insight into the structure of whole numbers and the prime numbers,” he said.

But if you can solve it, the Clay Mathematics Institute will give you $1 million.

A proof would have implications not only for mathematics, but also for cryptography and computer science, says Ramin Takloo-Bighash, associate professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Internet security protocols, after all, are largely based on prime numbers. Experimental and theoretical evidence has supported the truth of the Riemann Hypothesis, although there are a small number of naysayers who say it can’t be proven, Takloo-Bighash said.

Still, there’s enough confidence in the truth of the Riemann Hypothesis that mathematicians have established “conditional” theorems, which can never be validated until someone proves the 150-year-old problem, says Kenneth Ribet, professor of mathematics at the University of California, Berkeley.

Riemann's paper on the subject was first published in November 1859, but no one knows the day. So, the American Institute of Mathematics picked a Wednesday in the middle of November to celebrate the 150th anniversary, said Brian Conrey, executive director.

Intrigued? Stop by one of these lectures today.

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Filed under: Mathematics


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August 12, 2009

Google testing new Caffeine search engine

Posted: 11:18 AM ET

Google has announced it is testing a new form of search architecture codenamed "Caffeine," and the company wants your help to examine the results.

According to a post on the Google Webmaster Blog:

For the last several months, a large team of Googlers has been working on a secret project: a next-generation architecture for Google's web search. It's the first step in a process that will let us push the envelope on size, indexing speed, accuracy, comprehensiveness and other dimensions.

Google's current search infrastructure relies primarily on hyperlinks. Pages that receive a large number of incoming links from external sites are given a higher PageRank and are more likely to appear near the top of Google's search results.

Google is unlikely to stray far from its successful PageRank system, but the possibility of new search results is a huge deal to companies that rely on Google-generated traffic or those who have invested heavily in search engine optimization (SEO).

Business Week claims "Caffeine may cause corporate jitters:"

Google suggested that Caffeine could change search results, which raises the prospect of companies' needing to change their search engine optimization (SEO) to protect their Google ranking.

To test Caffeine for yourself, visit: http://www2.sandbox.google.com/

Google admits "most users won't notice a difference in search results," but the company is still looking for "feedback on the differences between Google's current search results and our new system."

Did you notice any substantial differences in your searches with Caffeine? Were they more accurate than Google's current results?

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Filed under: Google • Internet • Mathematics • online news


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March 13, 2009

Pi Day, and 'American Pi'

Posted: 12:09 PM ET
Pi is the ratio of circumference to diameter of a circle. Celebrate it on Saturday, March 14!
Pi is the ratio of circumference to diameter of a circle. Celebrate it on Saturday, March 14!

In honor of Pi Day, March 14 (because it's 3/14, like 3.14), I came up with the basis for this song, inspired by Don McClean’s 1971 song “American Pie,” when I was in high school. Feel free sing along with that tune.

American Pi
by Elizabeth Landau

A long, long time ago, it was one December when I thought I'd found the end of pi.
And if I'd had some batteries, my efforts would have surely pleased
That math fair judge, and that's no lie.
But tests and papers made me shiver with every paper they'd deliver.
More bad news in chemistry,
Just needed that time to study.
I can't remember if I cried when I realized that I hadn't tried
Before something clicked off deep inside
And then, my calculator died.

CHORUS:
So why, why can't I calculate pi
I just want to see the numbers 3.1415
And if that's all, then let's keep it alive
'Cause my calculator seems to have died.
My calculator seems to have died.

Did you write the law of sines, or draw two perfect parallel lines
Without a ruler helping you?
Can you still use a protractor, or find just one imaginary factor
Of a polynomial of order 2?
Well I had a TI-83 when a great misfortune came to me
The screen began to blur - I couldn't even find my curve!
I was a lonely teenage computer freak,
My pencils were chewed but my glasses were sleek,
And the future was looking pretty bleak
The day my calculator died.

[CHORUS]

Books, eraser, graphing paper, I was just a young number chaser
Searching for the holy grail.
Like Archimedes, Ramanujan, and Gregory, Leibniz, van Ceulen,
I could approximate, but then I’d fail!
My calculator was in a daze,
It just wouldn’t run on new AAAs.
The math fair was in an hour
And I was still out of power.
I knew that I was running out of time
A new formula would have been sublime
But all that I could do was rhyme
The day my calculator died.

[CHORUS]

“We know it’s not the pi you eat, this pie’s a far more delicate treat
And it can be so much fun.
Well, Pi is a movie, Pi’s a perfume,
The digits of pi could fill a room,
But could ever find the very last one?”
And although this poem was nice and sweet
In my heart I knew it couldn’t compete.
The other kids had proof.
I felt like such a goof!
And, as I sat down I felt disgraced,
Like I had just gotten a pie in the face.
I knew that I had really lost the race
The day my calculator died.

[CHORUS]

I met a guy in Period 3 who seemed like he could help me
At least he didn’t turn away.
My calculator looked so sad, but I know this kid of course was glad
To make me feel worse on Pi Day.
He said, “I can’t believe you were so dumb.
All you need is a new lithium.”
I asked, “What do you mean?”
He wouldn’t even come clean
And tell me there’s another set of batteries besides the quartet.
So until I get some, and it resets
I think I’ll eat some pie.

So why, why can't I calculate pi
I just want to see the numbers 3.1415
And if that's all, then let's keep it alive
But my calculator didn’t really die!

–p.s. Tell us how you're celebrating Pi Day this year. It's also the birthday of Albert Einstein! And, check out the Science Channel's salute to pi for more information about one of the most important mathematical constants.

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Filed under: Mathematics


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March 3, 2009

Square Root Day

Posted: 12:56 PM ET
Square Root Day celebrates perfect squares like these. How many more can you name?
Square Root Day celebrates perfect squares like these. How many more can you name?

For years I have been celebrating March 14 (3/14) as Pi Day, which I have always considered the mathematical holiday of the highest importance - I mean, come on, it's Albert Einstein's birthday! - and never thought about commemorating any other day for its numerical beauty.

But today, I have been out-geeked. Today, it turns out, is Square Root Day. That's because it's 3/3/09, and 3 x 3 = 9, meaning 3-squared equals 9. I had never considered that this relationship between month, day, and year occurs so rarely. In fact, this "square root" coincidence in dates only happens nine times every century - the last one being 2/2/04.

How should you celebrate Square Root Day? According to CNET, a teacher in Redwood City, California, has organized a contest. Apparently, people will cut root vegetables into squares or make foods into the square root symbol shape.

In addition, perhaps you can listen to the song by Huey Lewis and the News, "Hip to be Square."

For more on Square Root Day and other math holidays, check out the Cybrary Man Web site.

And, stay tuned for my Pi Day tips next weekend.

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Filed under: Mathematics


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April 4, 2008

Fish add up, but not past four

Posted: 12:47 PM ET

We all know one fish and one fish make two fish, but recent evidence suggests that fish may know that too. In fact, mosquitofish can count up to four, according to results from a team of researchers led by Angelo Bisazza of the University of Padua in Italy.

In each test, a lone female mosquitofish had two options for shoals to join, each containing between two and eight other fish. The results showed the lone fish would usually choose the shoal that was larger by just one fish, consistently picking the shoal of four fish over the one with three, and the shoal of three fish over the one with two.

But when one of the choices was larger than four fish, the fish could no longer discriminate. Monkeys and one-year-old children exhibit the same limit, Bisazza said.

Experiments examining what the fish would do when confronted with larger numbers found that, for shoals of more than four fish, they could still tell the difference between the quantities if there was at least a 2:1 ratio. That is, they would choose a shoal of eight fish over the one with four, but they could not discriminate between a shoal of 12 and a shoal of eight. These results are consistent with mathematical abilities observed in birds and mammals.

Similar performance has also been observed in people who speak languages that contain limited vocabularies for numbers, Bisazza said. For instance, speakers of the Amazonian language Munduruku only have words for numbers from one to five, and do not have names for numbers beyond that. Though they are able to solve nonverbal number tasks involving quantities up to 70, in exact arithmetic they do not do well with numbers larger than four or five, he said.

Besides fish, other non-human creatures that have shown at least some rudimentary mathematical abilities in studies include chimpanzees, macaques, dolphins, dogs, parrots and pigeons.

"Many researchers are now convinced that mammals and birds may share common mechanisms to count objects and compare quantities," Bisazza said.

–Elizabeth Landau, Associate Producer, CNN.com

Filed under: Animals • Mathematics


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March 13, 2008

Pi: An Acquired Taste

Posted: 03:07 PM ET

Remember in math class when you had to multiply the diameter of a circle by a number called “pi,” approximately equal to 3.14, to get the circumference? Maybe you’d rather not remember that. But don’t underestimate this number. Pi has captivated the human imagination for thousands of years, and will be celebrated during Pi Day, observed on March 14, 3/14.

Before you join the math fest, take note that you can’t calculate pi on your cellphone. There are approximations like 22/7, but no simple fraction will give the exact number. And while great mathematicians throughout history toiled over uncovering more digits, pi doesn’t stop at 3.1415926535897932384626. These digits continue infinitely in an apparently random pattern that will never repeat. More than a trillion digits have been found so far, according to the Web site for the indispensable book The Joy of Pi.

Pi Day offers a fun reason to learn more about this fundamental constant and, of course, eat more pie. The Exploratorium in San Francisco will hold pie tossing events, along with educational lectures, on Pi Day. Other Web sites like TeachPi.org give suggestions for pi activities in the classroom.

If you have a knack for remembering things, try memorizing pi. The number’s mysterious, infinite string of digits has inspired some people to take up memorization as a sport. The current world record holder for memorizing pi is Chao Lu of China, who recited 67,890 digits from memory in 2005, according to the Pi World Ranking List.

Pi has also inspired poets, artists, and musicians. A poem called Poe, E: Near a Raven encodes 740 digits of pi, where each word represents a digit based on the number of letters in that word. Try that technique: see, a nerd a month considers pi.

Before you start writing, memorizing or baking, you’d better look the part. Web sites such as ThinkGeek sell pi attire. Givenchy even markets a perfume called Pi.

And don’t forget to wish Albert Einstein happy birthday. The physicist would turn 129 years old on this year’s Pi Day.

–Elizabeth Landau, Associate Producer, CNN.com

Filed under: Mathematics


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Are you a gadgethead? Do you spend hours a day online? Or are you just curious about how technology impacts your life? In this digital age, it's increasingly important to be fluent, or at least familiar, with the big tech trends. From gadgets to Google, smartphones to social media, this blog will help keep you informed.

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