Monday, November 28, 2022

Would you be more productive if you didn't log on? It worked for Christopher Havens!

There are times when NOT having computer access (is that possible anymore?) can make you MORE productive. 

1) I did a lot of my Muffin Work when I was in Mexico for a bar matzah and had no computer access, and no Television in English (though Texas Walker Ranger, and Kindergarden Cop, were actually pretty good in Spanish even though I don't now Spanish.) 

2) I did work on NIM with Cash when I was stuck at an airport for 8 hours. 

3) I proofread (on paper!) most of my book with Erik D and Mohammad H when I was at a relatives house for four days  who had weak wifi and only got  ABC, NBC, CBS, PBS, some local channels, and COZI (not sure why they got COZI, though I am glad since I caught a good episode of Columbo).

4) Thanksgiving at my Mom's apartment (she's 93 years young!), with no computer,  I relearned the proof of the Hales-Jewitt theorem. I seem to learn/forget/learn/forget that one a lot. 

There are times when being AWAY from technology is helpful. I sometimes go to the Math Library and try to NOT use my cell phone. 

Having said that I do think that overall having access to papers online is great and that overall academic productivity has increased.  But there are times when the computer can distract you and time AWAY from it is good. 

Which brings us to the story of Christopher Havens. He works in Number Theory and logs on very rarely, perhaps never. He just works on math 10 hours a day. He has  a paper (with co-authors).  It take discipline to resist the urge to log on. How did he manage this?

He is in prison for murder.

Here is a podcast with him as a guest. 

Here is an article about him. 

Here is a math article where he is a co-author. 

Here is the short version of all of this: 

1) He is guilty of murder and in a max security prison in America.  It was a drug related shooting (why do people only talk about drug deals gone bad when they should also talk about drug deals gone good?) . When I first read Prison Inmate Solves Math Problem I thought that maybe a white collar criminal who majored in Math and was in a min security prison with access to the web (do white collar criminals have access to the web?)  But NO, Christopher Havens really did murder someone and is in max security.

2) He really has turned his life around. He really is not the person he was, and when he gets out I cannot imagine he will go back to drugs and crime. I suspect he will work on the Math Prison Project which I mention later. 

3) His mother says that when he was in High School (which is as far as he got for education)
he was helping students in math who were  2 grades above him, but he has no recollection of this.

4) When he was the hole (solitary confinement) someone who did Prison Education gave him (and others, he was not picked out) an envelope of math problems to work on--- pre-algebra. Christopher did them well and liked it and began requesting more advanced math books and learned math by himself, working 10 hours a day. When he requested a book it was random which ones he would get. I don't know why some were blocked. I don't think he knows why some were blocked. 

5) Some mathematicians from Italy (Italy?) contacted him and they began corresponding and yada-yada-yada, he has a paper now.

6) He has conceptualized the Math Prison Project to help other prisoners do math, though I would suspect not on the level he is on.  Then again, maybe the reason that P vs NP is still open is that we all have to many distractions, and conference deadlines, that a prisoner would not have. 

7) Some articles say that he solved a ancient problem in math that Euclid couldn't solve. This is not true. He helped solve some problems about continued fractions. 

8) There is going to be a movie about him, see here. I predict it will take an interesting story and make it less interesting and more fictional. 

What to make of all this? 

1) KUDOS to him!

2) I don't know which side of the nature/nurture argument this goes to

a) He OBVIOUSLY had math talent naturally or else he couldn't have learned all of that math.
b) He shows that HARD WORK and TENACITY can overcome other issue.

3) back to my original point- if you had the FREEDOM to work 10 hours a day JUST on math and had no other distractions, but also limited access to books and people,  would you be MORE productive? LESS productive? Also note- no faculty meetings, no teaching obligations, and no word processor to distract you. 


  1. I suspect that for most people, having nobody to talk to would reduce their motivation enough that they wouldn't actually work for 10 hours a day (or even much at all).

    1. Nobody to talk math with might make you less productive. But
      Nobody to small talk with might make you more productive.

  2. True story: Someone at a prison emailed me and asked me for a copy of my book. I sent it to him but he didn't get it because it was in a white envelope (which supposedly could hide drugs).

  3. With regards to not logging on, I've been trying to learn jazz guitar for an age now, and not making much progress. In real life, that's simply because I don't spend enough time at it. But my teacher reports that over many years of watching many students go by (several have become professionals), it's clear that the amount of progress a student makes is inversely proportional to how much use the student makes of computers.

    And I resemble that. In spades. From music notation, to transcription, to recording, to practicing, it's all at my desk/peecee. If I'd spent as much time practicing as I have futzing with this stuff, I'd be a better guitarist, my teach thinks.

    1. Excellent point- while my examples were `less time with computers could help one be more productive in MATH' you point out a generalizaion- replace MATH with GUITAR or MUSIC or perhaps quite a few X.