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Random Tales of a College Math Professor: Over-Easy, On Wry

Mick Norton
Publisher: 
CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform
Publication Date: 
2015
Number of Pages: 
173
Format: 
Paperback
Price: 
19.95
ISBN: 
9781468116380
Category: 
General
[Reviewed by
Charles Ashbacher
, on
12/29/2015
]

The author is a retired math professor that specialized in statistics, which he taught as well as taking on occasional statistical consulting jobs. This set of stories has the occasional funny moment. The funniest is probably about the mother of a student who was not accepted; she contacted the school and said, “I knew he was not in the top half of his class but I had no idea he was in the bottom half.”

For most math professors, many of the stories in this collection will generate the reaction, “It happened to me as well.” Sensitivity is now the norm, so singling out any group may make you a target for the “That offends me” attack. Norton had a simple solution: he used the “overweight Martian” scenario to avoid someone taking offense about the mention of obesity in a statistics problem. One student’s response to his use of Martian examples was to ask him how he knew so much about Martians. A joke, perhaps? Of course there are also the standard pleadings for additional points based on rather “unusual” excuses and the evaluation of the content of student evaluations.

The best stories in the book deal with the use of statistics outside of the classroom, not only in Norton’s consulting but also in his experiences with the legal system. One amusing tale was about the makeup of juries in a population that had a significant percentage of African Americans. A person was trying to argue that given that characteristic of the pool, each twelve-person jury should have exactly the number of African-Americans on it that reflected this percentage. His response was of course to point out that this would mean that juror selection could not possibly be a random process.

Some of the stories contain material that could be used as unusual examples in classes in statistics and quality control. The best refers to the (now banned) practice of wrestlers that are a fraction of an ounce overweight standing on their heads for a minute or two and thereby “losing” the small amount of weight needed to make their class. There is in fact a physiological reason for this phenomenon.

While this book is entertaining, it is also the type of book that nearly all retired math/stats professors could write. When you combine the teaching of a complex subject, doing research, interacting with students, fellow faculty and the administration, there are a lot of opportunities for humor, frustration and absurdity.


Charles Ashbacher splits his time between consulting with industry in projects involving math and computers, and teaching college classes. In his spare time, he reads about these things and helps his daughter in her lawn care business.

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