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Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Mark Boslough: Alabama Pi returns!

Alabama Pi returns!

by Mark Boslough, puckclust blog, April 2, 2011
Every April Fools Day I take time to google “Alabama Pi.”  News editors like to run stories about past April Fools jokes, and Alabama Pi is often on their list.   They sometimes rank them, and Alabama Pi has been slowly improving every year.  This year it attained the status of Number 2, according to KRDO in Colorado Springs!
Most of these articles crib material from Museum of Hoaxes, which is apparently the authoritative source about the Top 100 April Fool Hoaxes of All Time.  Much to my delight, Alabama Pi has reached position Number 7 there, and is the only one in their Top 10 that wasn’t the product of a corporate advertising, broadcasting, or major print media effort–the others included BBC (2), NPR, Sports Illustrated, The Guardian, Discover Magazine, Swedish TV, Burger King, and Taco Bell.  By contrast, Alabama Pi was first published in NMSR Reports, the newsletter of New Mexicans for Science and Reason.
This year my “Alabama Pi” search also turned up different story.  Same state, same legislation–but this time around, it was introduced by a tea-party-backed Congresswomen from Alabama as a bill to change U.S. law.  From the Auburn Journal:
Apparently in a bid to raise test scores, an Alabama politician is advocating changing Pi to just 3 so that the number isn’t so complicated and hard for kids to understand. The end goal is to be better than France at math, so maybe we can just tone down our standards finally and put our kids at the top with the “easy” math
Because we cannot post links (really? for a blog post? no links? OK AJ, what a wonderful way to run a BLOG section) just google “Geometric Simplification Act” and you will find the Daily Kos article
Congresswoman Martha Roby (R-Ala.) is sponsoring HR 205, The Geometric Simplification Act, declaring the Euclidean mathematical constant of pi to be precisely 3. The bill comes in response to data and rankings from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, rating the United States’ 15 year-olds 25th in the world in mathematics.
OECD is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2011, and the Paris-based NGO released its international educational rankings, placing the US in a three-way tie for math, equaling Portugal and Ireland, just beneath No. 24 Luxembourg.
“That long-held empirical value of pi, I am not saying it should be necessarily viewed as wrong, but 3 is a lot better,” said Roby, the 34-year old legislator representing Alabama’s second congressional district, ushered into office in the historic 2010 Republican mid-term bonanza.
Pi has long been defined as the ratio of a circle’s area to the square of its radius, a mathematical constant represented by the Greek letter “π,” with a value of approximately 3.14159. HR 205 does not change the root definition, per se. The bill simply, and legally, declares pi to be exactly 3.
Roby, raised in Montgomery, Ala., is on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, and the Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education.
“It’s no panacea, but this legislation will point us in the right direction. Looking at hard data, we know our children are struggling with a heck of a lot of the math, including the geometry incorporating pi,” Roby said. “I guarantee you American scores will go up once pi is 3. It will be so much easier.”
Democrats first responded to the measure with a mixture of incredulity and amusement.
“Really?” asked George Miller (D-Calif.), the ranking member on the Education and Labor Committee. “Isn’t that an awful lot like assuming only even numbers can be negative? You can’t legislate math; that’s like making it illegal to rain on the Fourth of July,” the San Francisco Bay area representative chuckled.
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) ridiculed objections from the left as further examples of classic elitist liberalism.
“Democrats don’t want our children to succeed, they would actually feel better if France one day bests our kids on that test,” Boehner said, unaware that, by tying Slovakia for 16th, France already does outrank the US in math. “Time after time, Democrats refuse to acknowledge American exceptionalism, and they’re doing it again by trying to deny our children another tool for success.
Rep. Roby took a slightly more pragmatic stance.
“For decades, we’ve all been learning that pi is this crazy ‘irrational’ number. And any number with no end is, not, well, it makes it really hard,” Roby said. “We talked about making pi 3-and-a-third, but that wouldn’t really help, because you’re still then stuck with endless threes.”
HR 205 is expected to pass the House of Representatives but even if it also passes in the Senate – unlikely with Democrats maintaining a slim majority – President Obama has pledged to veto.
My first thought was, at least Alabamians know how to poke fun at themselves, but then I noticed the Auburn Journal is from Auburn, California.  On digging deeper, I discovered that this story first appeared in the Huffington Post on a page called “Huffpost Comedy.”  As often happens with clearly labeled satire, the clues were stripped from the Auburn Journal version, including the original punchline:
“New York City Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) responded to Roby’s legislation with a massive brain aneurysm. Democrats are hopeful to retain his New York City seat in an April special election.”
Here are the highlights of the comments section:
I knew it was a satire when Obama didn’t immediatel­y agree to compromise at 3.1.
If it’s a Republican bill, you can be sure they want to keep the extra .14…. for themselves­.
“Oh Suzannah, oh don’t you cry for me, ’cause I come from Alabama–where pi is equal three.”
What’s next?  A light year is going to be the same as a real year with 1/3 the calories?
A remarkable number of people fell for the joke, prompting one commenter to bring up Poe’s Law.   Somebody pointed out that this was pretty close to the 1998 version, so the author, Ian Squires, added a note:
Author’s Note: It has come to my attention that there was a widely-discussed satiric piece by Mark Boslough published last century also premised on the notion of the value of pi being changed. Any similarity between the earlier piece and mine is purely coincidental.
No worries, Ian.  I’m counting on your sequel pushing Alabama Pi up to Number One in 2012–at least in the Huffington Post!

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