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From Imitator to Innovator

-and what’s math got to do with it?

Farid Nolen



Š Farid Nolen, 2010 Printed by Boon Prints Enterprises, Quezon City, Philippines Illustrations by Nawruz Paguidopon ISBN 978-91-633-7236-0 All rights reserved. No parts of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.


Anything but mathematics


Slicing reindeer heads with an axe is normal


Renovating choices


The biggest math question of modern times


Why math?


I am not a math person


Becoming an expert on ’not getting it’


Einstein died not getting it


From imitator to innovator


The class turned silent


Chalmers is respect!


How much do you need?


Can you do all that if you have a police record?


From exclusion to inclusion


Social entrepreneurship


Converting Matheists


Students taking over the project


CajĂş Branchizing


He showed up anyway


Playing ping pong in Norway


How will they know you exist?


The Crown Prince never replied


From garbage man to superman


Mathivation World Tour


My mom is a gang leader


Losing passport and moving to Thailand


Hope is life in Bangkok


Hip hopping with Cambodian presidents


Believing or writing the stories?


Think twice before taking advice


Says who?


Anything but mathematics was eight years old. It was just simple addition and subtraction. 6-1, 4+3, 7-5, and so on. Still, I failed the exercise. My sub-arctic Swedish substitute teacher wanted the answers to the mathematics quiz to be filled out with different colors on a map. I didn’t know at the time that I’m color blind! After seeing my poor results, the teacher pulled me to the side and told me, “You know, everyone can’t be good at everything. Maybe math is just not your thing?”

When I was 17 years old my physics teacher asked me if I was going for engineering studies after high school. I laughed, thinking, “Are you crazy? Me, sitting at a university solving those advanced formulas with Greek letters? That’s for math people who are born with a math brain!” I was actually quite good at math in high school; I just couldn’t imagine passing an exam at university level.

asked me why I was drawing pictures instead of completing the task. I didn’t know, but I showed her how you can give eyes to number 5 and how its belly is big because it just ate number 2, the swan.

up was to move away from the remote and isolated town of Kiruna. Although it was a beautiful place, I was getting tired of -30°C winters with two meters of snow and months of not seeing the sun. I wanted to travel and explore the world. But I was a shy and introverted teenager. When I got the chance after graduation I made it only a few hundred kilometers south, to Luleå, located just below the Arctic Circle.


“Maybe math is just I didn’t know what to study or what career r u o y t o n Up until third grade I to pursue, but I knew it recall my classmates finishing was not going to include ” ? g n i the exercise book while I was mathematics. The only h t still on the first page. My teacher clear goal I had growing

At the age of 10 I was presented circles filled with colored dots, supposedly containing a secret message. I couldn’t find any of the numbers I was supposed to see. I was officially diagnosed as color blind by the school nurse and received a piece of paper listing all the professions, most of them I had never heard of, that no longer were an option for me.



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th The biggest ma times n r e d o m f o n o ti ques called my dad asking for advice on what to study, as long as it didn’t involve mathematics. He gave me the number to his friend, Ali Pourtaheri, who was in a leading position in the Swedish mobile phone company Ericsson. After hearing about the exciting designs they were working on I got really interested. My hopes were rising and I started to picture myself working there, designing new cell phone models. I couldn’t see how I could possibly get a job like that though. “Who do you hire?” I asked him. I choked on his reply, “Mathematicians and engineers with a strong background in mathematics.” The beautiful picture was smashed into pieces.


Disappointment was followed by irritation as it re-awakened the one question I always asked my teachers in school. A question that I never got satisfactory answer to, “When are we actually going to use all this mathematics in real life?”


high a

I had been confused about mathematics a great deal ever since the letter ‘x’ was introduced. When will I ever use algebra in my life? I know somebody, somewhere, is using an exponential function to figure out how much fuel to put into a rocket. But what has that got to do with me? Why would I study calculus when I can’t even picture myself ever using it? And how come there are no universities in the world that would admit a medical student who didn’t study extra mathematics? You have to be able to find the derivative of f(x)=x2sin(3x) to be allowed to apply. If doctors would be derivating trigonometric functions and solving for x instead of prescribing you your medicine they would surely lose their jobs. And probably end up in a mental institution. Why do doctors then have to learn so much of a subject they don’t use? Why do we all have to go through algebra and equations in school no matter what profession we choose? It all seemed so strange to me.

When are we actually going to use all this

mathematics in real life?” 13

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How will they know you exist his was the second time I had moved to Norway. The first time, eight years back, my bank account was reaching zero and I ran to the unemployment office all freaked out, desperate to get a job. The garbage collecting job really saved me then. This time my bank account was not approaching zero. It was approaching negative $3,000. We had been working without any salary for some months and payed for a lot of expenses in the hope to get funds together for the project Intize Global Branchizing. This time I didn’t go to the unemployment office to look for notes telling me how I can survive this month’s bills. Neither did Ismail.


I sold my car. Ismail took his first bank loan. We took time off from our studies and our bank accounts kept growing more and more negative. We were in a foreign country with extremely limited contacts and resources. People told us we were stupid. “Why would you leave your studies and take such financial risks? Why not build on the project in Göteborg where you are already established and people know you?” We had no idea even where to start or who to contact. How will people even know you exist? How do you make an impression? Does your project actually have potential?


“THE SUPER MENTOR Farid Nolen thought he was bad at math. Now he is inspiring students all over Norway.”

NHO-Magasinet number 01.2009


Mathivation World Tour


t was time to move on to the next phase. Two weeks after the hearing for ENTER was over, Ismail sent some emails. 120 companies said they had no money or interest to sponsor Mathivation World Tour 2009, mostly blaming it on the financial crisis. We approached Professor Sundgren who had left his position as President at Chalmers and was now Senior Vice President of Volvo. We also contacted the Chairman of Berg Propulsion, the propeller design company where Jonas was working, and NHO. $6,000 was in place for the Mathivation World Tour 2009. We had created a new job; the job note of which probably won’t be found in your local unemployment office. In August 2009, two one-way tickets to Bangkok were purchased. We did our first talk at Singapore International School of Bangkok on September 25, 2009, the same day as the the category 2 typhoon Ketsana (Ondoy) formed and moved over Luzon, the largest island in the Philippines, killing 747 people and causing $1.09 billion damage. We had not bought our tickets to the Philippines yet, which was our next destination with 7 schools and 1,400 students waiting for Mathivation in Metro Manila. After mathivating 666 students at 6 schools in Bangkok, and the credit card not working to purchase the Manila ticket, we really didn’t feel like pushing it. As Ketsana had brought the worst rainfall to Metro Manila among recorded typhoons since the start of rainfall record keeping, the flood water levels had reached a record 20 feet in rural areas and the President had declared a “state of calamity” and closing the airport and all the schools, we were advised not to go. But as Ketsana reached Vietnam at mid-afternoon on September 29 killing at least 163 people, and was entering Thailand early on September 30, we were advised not to stay. That same morning we conducted our last scheduled seminar for the students and staff at the Asian Institute of Technology (AIT) near Bangkok. Professor Said Irandoust, the President of AIT was very positive about helping us reach out to countries in Asia. Realizing the potential for Mathivation in Asia, I sent an email that very same night of September 30, to my landlord giving up my apartment in Stockholm. A Filipino friend helped us purchase the ticket, and we left Bangkok at midnight to arrive at dawn in Makati City which had just drained out. After a week the schools opened and we visited 4 of them mathivating more than 800 students. On Monday afternoon, October 12, we were finished with our final event at Sampaguita National High School in Laguna, Philippines, and hurried straight to the airport. On Monday noon, October 12, we gave our first US talk at Academy of the Pacific in Honolulu, Hawaii, during our stopover on the way to Bonanza High School in Las Vegas. The talk in Vegas was cancelled so we decided to rent a car and head to Los Angeles.






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My mom is a gang leader n the Philippines we met students who loved learning and going to school. They even sang, “Welcome to our learning sanctuary,” upon our arrival! Something that didn’t quite happen in Los Angeles. The first school we went to was Woodrow Wilson High School. “If some of the students in this class don’t respond,” the teacher said, “don’t take it personal, one third of them don’t speak English.” We were in El Sereno in East LA. The teacher explained that only 45% of the students graduate.


The previous year one of her students was stabbed in the head in the bathroom. Two students were shot on the school yard, one of them in the stomach in a drive-by shooting. During lunch a police officer told me that Hollenbeck, comprising El Sereno, Boyle Heights and Lincoln Heights, was one of the most dangerous police districts in the world, with gangs that have been active since the 1930s. With more than 30 gangs and 6,000 members in 15 square miles having claimed the streets, Hollenbeck has the highest concentration of gangs in Los Angeles. During two intensive weeks at this school we held nearly 100 talks and workshops and met 1,400 students. This was by far the toughest crowd we had encountered. How to motivate students who go to school because it is safer than staying at home? How to inspire a girl whose mom is a gang leader? We just immersed ourselves in this environment and got to know the kids. We evaluated almost every class and got constant feedback. About 10% of them could not care less. But among the 90% who got something out of it, there were responses like:


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