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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

Math Geek Mom: Angry Birds
April 12, 2012 - 7:04pm

Thanks to my daughter and her friends, I have been exposed to the computer game “Angry Birds.” In it, some nasty pigs try to steal the eggs of a group of birds. These birds then fight back by flinging themselves (with our help) in an attempt to destroy the pigs, who sit laughing at the whole matter. I am most intrigued by the fact that much of what I learned in my first college physics class can be put to use to progress through the game. For example, the angle at which a bird should be launched depends on the location of the target, and destroying that target involves calculating the right force to fling it with. If I taught a class in first year physics, I might even assign the game to my students. I recall how I once encouraged math students learning how to reduce matrices to solve systems of equations to play the computer game “Free Cell”, a version of “Solitaire.” I reasoned that playing the game would help them strategize several moves ahead, in a manner not unlike that used while trying to solve a set of equations using matrices.

As I occasionally play the game “Angry Birds,” I find myself asking what it is that I am angry at. In general, there is little in my life that makes me angry, although I recently came across a situation that makes my blood boil. I think it is a good example of the fact that our health care system has room for improvement, even if we are not in complete agreement as to the specifics of how to do that.

My sister, who is very sick herself, has a baby boy whose neck muscles are tighter than usual, due, most likely, to being twisted in the months before being born by a swollen liver that turned out to be cancerous. Because of this, he needs to go to occupational therapy to help loosen those muscles, a task he obviously does not enjoy. He does, however, understand it. When my parents told him that he was going to see “Miss Nancy”, he started moving, tilting his head from side to side, in a manner very similar to that used by "Miss Nancy," the occupational therapist.

Because of the tight muscles, he tends to sleep in a way that prefers one side of his head more than the other. This has led his head to become flattened on the preferred side, a situation that can lead to problems with his eyesight and tooth development later on, but can be easily corrected with a special helmet. In the course of trying to get a helmet for her son, my sister ran into a problem with her insurance company. It seems that the insurance company will pay for the helmet, but only if it is used after a surgery to break the bones in the skull. Such a surgery could be preformed after the bones have fused in a few months. So, to correct a problem that may well lead to issues with her son’s eyesight and tooth development, my sister needs to wait to have her son’s head bones fuse, only to have them broken in surgery, after which the bones can be re-aligned using the helmet that could be used now. As she told the people from the insurance company, “That is disgusting!”

She is lucky that she is in a situation where she can purchase the helmet now, without the help of insurance, and that her doctor and the company who makes the helmets are willing to sell her one directly. Of course, this whole issue is one that she needs to deal with as she takes one step forward and two steps backwards in her own battle with a very deadly cancer. I have to wonder why we can’t find a better way to offer health insurance to our citizens.

As I watch my daughter participate in the battle between birds and pigs, I wonder how I can bring about change in the world when I see wrongs that need to be corrected. In thinking of this, I realize that I probably need to make more of a commitment to bringing about a more just world. As the birds fly through the air, I recall one person’s description of a bacon and egg breakfast, which they used as an illustration of the difference between being involved and being committed. In creating that breakfast, the chicken (a bird) was involved. The pig, however, was committed.


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