Good advice to students from President Obama

Note: the increase in the cost of education comes mostly from increased administrative costs. Drivers: student services, learning assistance centers and technology!

But students have some responsibility for their own educations as President Obama makes clear from 3:00 to 3:40:

August 17, 2014 Posted by | Barack Obama, education | , | Leave a comment

It isn’t “j” it is “i”!

If you get the comment/joke at 30:30 to 31:05, you are probably my kind of person. :-)

August 6, 2014 Posted by | education, humor, mathematics | , , , | Leave a comment

Republicans: overly wedded to what they want to believe

This first thing from Bill Maher caught my eye. He was interviewing Neil Degrasse Tyson and mentioned that there was a National Review article about him. There were the usual “they don’t like you because you are a smart black guy” comments (strictly speaking, not true; Ben Carson and Professor Thomas Sowell are smart, black and are popular with conservatives). But later he gets to the real issue of what disturbs them about Dr. Tyson (about 1:10 to 2:00): fundamentally, they can’t stomach that humans aren’t “special” in a way that the rest of the universe isn’t; the idea that this universe was NOT created with US in mind (or FOR us) just disturbs the hell out of them.

This is an old clip, but this would make many a Bible Believer’s head explode:

Conservatives aren’t above just making stuff up either. The Republican supply side experiment in Kansas just blew up in their faces. So, the Republicans point to Texas and try to compare it to California…and the latter has rebounded quite nicely. That is too much for Republicans to bear, so their economists just make stuff up. This time, they got caught.

They also love to grab a headline which maybe misrepresents a program and then claim: “we KNEW what those liberals were up to!”

This is from an article about higher education in The Daily Caller. The Daily Caller references a right wing blog which references a concern from a professor at the University of Wisconsin. Here is what is going on: the Board of Regents signed off on a plan that has a goal of equalizing minority representation in the more desirable majors as well as grade distribution: one could read that as “we want minority students to do as well as anyone else.” A professor expressed a concern that professors would be under pressure to inflate the grades of minority students in these fields.

I can understand the concern that the professor has; stuff like this has happened in grade schools.

But that is only a concern; there is nothing in this plan that tells people to give any student a grade that they didn’t earn.

Think of it this way: suppose one was concerned with the physical fitness of, say, urban students. So one comes up with a plan that says, say, that male urban 9’th grade students be brought up to the same standards met by, say, male 9’th grade suburban students. Suppose the metrics used is, say, the 2 mile run and the number of pull ups that can be done in 1 minute.

The goal would be clear, right? No one would expect the urban students to get a 1 minute handicap or, say, a 2 pull up handicap. The idea would be, say to introduce physical fitness activities that are more physically demanding and the like.

Yes, I know, there have been times, at SOME schools, where professors were required to weight, say, participation to a certain percentage so as to encourage student effort. And no, I don’t approve of that type of program.

July 26, 2014 Posted by | economics, economy, education, religion, Republican, republicans, social/political | , , | Leave a comment

Poverty, statistics, sexual harassment and weight loss surgery

Weight loss surgery
That is one of the things that strikes me as “icky”; it sure looks like mutilation to me. But it can help and, surprisingly bring changes to gut bacteria and improves diabetic conditions. Yes, there are several kinds (e. g. bypass, lap band, etc.) and these are discussed in this article.

This is an interesting video story about a 52 year old guy who delivers pizzas for a living…via a bicycle. He has done this for 30 years; it is not an easy life.

I remember being more clueless in the mid 1980’s. One of my lifting buddies at the Austin YMCA used to throw shot for Texas State (then Southwest Texas); I played football with his brothers.

He then had a job with the Austin Park District; he worked outdoors keeping the parks in shape. I said “how cool is that; you get to be outside all day!”. He reminded me: “you know, that job doesn’t pay very much.” That helped me keep some perspective.

The effects of poverty are felt in education as well. This is a long story in the New Yorker about a middle school mathematics teacher who helped his students cheat on a standardized exam; the idea is that schools would be closed and teachers fired if students didn’t meet a certain score on a standardized exam.

Yeah, I know; we all love the movies where some firebrand comes in and “believes in” the poor students and gets them to meet some standard that everyone else said “couldn’t be met”.

But student performance is a product of many factors including the environment in which they are raised, the health care and nutrition that they got while growing up and individual genetic factors.

Administrators who bellow about “meet these standards; no excuses” don’t do any good, especially if the standards to be met aren’t set in a realistic manner.

Sexual harassment in science
This is a survey about sexual harassment and sexual assault “in the field” among scientists.

The questions were:

1) ‘‘Have you ever personally experienced inappropriate or sexual remarks, comments about physical beauty, cognitive sex differences, or other jokes, at a field site? (If you have had more than one experience, the most notable to you).’’

2) ‘‘Have you ever experienced physical sexual harassment, unwanted sexual contact, or sexual contact in which you could not or did not give consent or felt it would be unsafe to fight back or not give your consent at a field site? (If you have had more than one experience, the most notable to you).’’

Note: sexual assault could include something as benign as getting your butt slapped.

The results:

Of the women who responded to the survey, 71 percent reported having experienced inappropriate sexual comments while doing scientific fieldwork and 26 percent said they had experienced sexual assault.

Of the men who responded, 41 percent reported inappropriate sexual comments and 6 percent reported sexual assault.

The wording is interesting. I suppose that if I were to answer the question honestly, I could say that *I* was sexually assaulted at a running race; one time I was trying to kick it in at a small town 10K as the clock was almost at 50 minutes. I sprinted (or what passed for a sprint), stumbled across the finish line and got a hearty butt slap from one of the women at the finish line.

No, she wasn’t a friend; this was at a small race in rural Wisconsin.
No, I didn’t care; in fact I was almost comatose at the time…when I walked away I turned around, looked at her and thought “oh, she is cute; pity I wasn’t more aware at the time” and chuckled.

But I had not given consent….but I tend to answer questions very literally.

July 17, 2014 Posted by | economy, education, poverty, social/political | , , | Leave a comment

Two points about that George Will Column

It appears to me that George Will loves to stir things up.

He recently wrote a column with the following title:

Colleges become the victims of progressivism

Ok, I wonder how much he actually KNOWS about what goes on at a university. He does make a couple of valid points about the discussion of sexual assault on campus:

Consider the supposed campus epidemic of rape, a.k.a. “sexual assault.” Herewith, a Philadelphia magazine report about Swarthmore College, where in 2013 a student “was in her room with a guy with whom she’d been hooking up for three months”:

He goes on to describe a murky situation; this type of thing indeed happens. Ask a student services professional.

He also takes issue with some of the reported numbers and percentages:

Simple arithmetic demonstrates that if the 12 percent reporting rate is correct, the 20 percent assault rate is preposterous. Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute notes, for example, that in the four years 2009 to 2012 there were 98 reported sexual assaults at Ohio State. That would be 12 percent of 817 total out of a female student population of approximately 28,000, for a sexual assault rate of approximately 2.9 percent — too high but nowhere near 20 percent.

So far, so good. I haven’t checked his work, but there is nothing really to be outraged about. These are reasonable things to discuss. But, prior to making these points, he had gone completely off of the rails:

they make victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges, victims proliferate.

Saying things like this is a great way to make someone disregard the rest of what you have to say.

As far as the rest of the column: sure, there are attempts made to get people to understand that not everyone is like you; that some people are recovering from a tough time (e. g. think about returning combat veterans who have lived the horrors of war).

And sometimes, attempts to be sensitive go a bit too far; it isn’t as if many (most?) people have an ability to recover.

This leads me to my second point When conservative pundits describe a college campus and college life, they describe, well, something I haven’t really seen in the 28 years I’ve been teaching college courses (professor, lecturer, teaching assistant).

The bulk of my time has been trying to get students to understand facts like \int sin(2x) dx = -\frac{1}{2}cos(2x) + C .

I remember a couple of times when conservatives found out that I was a college professor. They accused me of “teaching kids liberal ideas and how to hate our country”; I replied that “I didn’t know that there was an un-American way to solve a differential equation or to compute a p-value.”

They got their feelings hurt! :-)

Sometimes conservatives create some fantasy world to attack.

I am not saying that there aren’t whack-job professors; there certainly are. But they tend to be the rare exception.

June 10, 2014 Posted by | education, social/political | , | Leave a comment

Whining, politics and science

Gee, when people dismiss crackpot ideas (e. g. engage in global warming denialism) it gives Charles Krauthammer the sadz. No, Mr. Krauthammer: ideas have no inherent right to respect, including…well, some academic ideas like this one (forbidding “triggers”).

Speaking of dumbness: a few of the “in the future predictions” made by the film “Idiocracy” have come true. But…I should point out that some of these predictions were already commonplace prior to the movie. Remember how humans in “civilized” countries used to amuse themselves: public executions, burning animals alive, making people fight to the death, etc.

Yes, keeping control of the Senate will be an uphill fight for the Democrats, even if some of the “head to head” polls look ok now. There is the problem of the “drag” on the ticket due to the unpopularity of the President in the states in question, many of which are “red” to begin with.

But there is time, and the recent news for Obamacare has been good.

And maybe, just maybe, there is some attention being paid to inequality. Ok, that book by Piketty is rather highbrow.

It is interesting, but being slightly underweight and undereating seems to help with longevity. Is there an evolutionary reason why this is so? There is a new conjecture about this, but the conjecture has detractors:

Why did creatures evolve such a mechanism in the first place? Researchers have declared the most popular theory doesn’t make evolutionary sense, and they’ve proposed a new explanation in its place.

The most prominent theory involves what happens physiologically during times of food scarcity. When the living is good, natural selection favors organisms that invest energy in reproduction. In times of hardship, however, animals have fewer offspring, diverting precious nutrients to cell repair and recycling so they can survive until the famine ends, when reproduction begins anew. Cell repair and recycling appear to be substantial antiaging and anticancer processes, which may explain why underfed lab animals live longer and rarely develop old-age pathologies like cancer and heart disease.

Margo Adler agrees with the basic cellular pathways, but she’s not so sure about the evolutionary logic. Adler, an evolutionary biologist at the University of New South Wales in Australia, says this popular idea relies on a big assumption: that natural selection favors this energy switch from reproduction to survival because animals will have more young in the long run—so long as they actually survive and reproduce. “This idea is repeated over and over again in the literature as if it’s true, but it just doesn’t make that much sense for evolutionary reasons,” she says.

The problem, Adler says, is that wild animals don’t have the long, secure lives of their laboratory cousins. Instead, they’re not only endangered by famine but by predators and pathogens, random accidents and rogue weather as well. They also face physiological threats from a restricted diet, including a suppressed immune system, difficulty with healing and greater cold sensitivity. For these reasons, delaying reproduction until food supplies are more plentiful is a huge risk for wild animals. Death could be waiting just around the corner.

Better to reproduce now, Adler says. The new hypothesis she proposes holds that during a famine animals escalate cellular repair and recycling, but they do so for the purpose of having as many progeny as possible during a famine, not afterward. They “make the best of a bad situation” to maximize their fitness in the present. “It’s an efficiency mode that the animal goes into,” she says. Adler and colleague Russell Bonduriansky published their reasoning in the March BioEssays.[...]

This Scientific American article discusses “modular forms” and notes that a current mathematician appears to have solved a riddle proposed by a famous mathematician from yesteryear. As articles about mathematics go, this one is pretty readable.

April 18, 2014 Posted by | 2014 midterm, economy, education, evolution, health care, mathematics, politics/social, science, social/political | , | Leave a comment

“Viral” math common core meme

(cross posted on my math blog)

This is making the rounds on social media:


Now a good explanation as to what is going on can be found here; it is written by an experienced high school math teacher.

I’ll give my take on this; I am NOT writing this for other math professors; they would likely be bored by what I am about to say.

My take
First of all, I am NOT defending the mathematics standards of Common Core. For one: I haven’t read them. Another: I have no experience teaching below the college level. What works in my classroom would probably not work in most high school and grade school classrooms.

But I think that I can give some insight as to what is going on with this example (in the photo).

When one teaches mathematics, one often teaches BOTH how to calculate and the concepts behind the calculation techniques. Of course, one has to learn the calculation technique; no one (that I know) disputes that.

What is going on in the photo
The second “calculation” is an exercise designed to help students learn the concept of subtraction and NOT “this is how you do the calculation”.

Suppose one wants to show the students that subtracting two numbers yields “the distance on the number line between those numbers”. So, “how far away from 12 is 32? Well, one moves 3 units to get to 15, then 5 to get to 20. Now that we are at 20 (a multiple of 10), it is easy to move one unit of 10 to get to 30, then 2 more units to get to 32. So we’ve moved 20 units total.

Think of it this way: in the days prior to google maps and gps systems, imagine you are taking a trip from, say, Morton, IL to Chicago and you wanted to take interstate highways all of the way. You wanted to figure the mileage.

You notice (I am making these numbers up) that the “distance between big cities” map lists 45 miles from Peoria to Bloomington and 150 miles from Bloomington to Chicago. Then you look at the little numbers on the map to see that Morton is between Peoria and Bloomington: 10 miles away from Peoria.

So, to find the distance, you calculate (45-10) + 150 = 185 miles; you used the “known mileages” as guide posts and used the little map numbers as a guide to get from the small town (Morton) to the nearest city for which the “table mileage” was calculated.

That is what is going on in the photo.

Why the concept is important

There are many reasons. The “distance between nodes” concept is heavily used in graph theory and in operations research. But I’ll give a demonstration in numerical methods:

Suppose one needs a numerical approximation of \int^{48}_0 \sqrt{1 + cos^2(x)} dx . Now if one just approaches with by a Newton-Coats method (say, Simpson’s rule) or by Romberg, or even by a quadrature method, one runs into problems. The reason: the integrand is oscillatory and the range of integration is very long.

But one notices that the integrand is periodic; there is no need to integrate along the entire range.

Note that there are 7 complete periods of 2 \pi between 0 and 48. So one merely needs to calculate 7 \int^{2 \pi}_0 \sqrt{1+cos^2(x)} dx + \int^{48 - 14 \pi}_0 \sqrt{1+ cos^2(x)} dx and these two integrals are much more readily approximated.

In fact, why not approximate 30 \int^{\frac{\pi}{2}}_0 \sqrt{1+cos^2(x)} dx + \int^{48 - 15 \pi}_0 \sqrt{1 + cos^2(x)}dx which is even better?

The concept of calculating distance in terms of set segment lengths comes in handy.

Or, one can think of it this way
When we teach derivatives, we certainly teach how to calculate using the standard differentiation rules. BUT we also teach the limit definition as well, though one wouldn’t use that definition in the middle of, say, “find the maximum and minimum of f(x) = x-\frac{1}{x} on the interval [\frac{1}{4}, 3] ” Of course, one uses the rules.

But if you saw some kid’s homework and saw f'(x) being calculated by the limit definition, would you assume that the professor was some idiot who wanted to turn a simple calculation into something more complicated?

March 30, 2014 Posted by | education, social/political | , | Leave a comment

No whining, some science/philosophy issues

It is has been a while since I linked to anything but “winter sucks” and “here is my workout”.

Jerry Coyne has a couple of interesting articles.

One: he talks about an article that claims that we “should study history to understand science”:

Alejandra Dubcovsky, an assistant professor of history at Yale, thinks that it’s essential for scientists to study history (she doesn’t specify what kind of history, or if she means the history of science), for another reason: because it gives us scientists “a sensitivity that only the humanities can teach.”

Or so she maintains in a new piece at The Chronicle of Higher Education, ”To Understand Science, Study History.”

Like the reader who sent me the link, Dubcovsky seems not only defensive about her discipline, but stretching a bit to make her point. To show how history informs our scientific sensitivities, she uses the examples of Rosalind Franklin, which will teach us that science is not gender-blind (she says Franklin is “largely forgotten,” which is simply untrue); of Rebecca Skloot’s wonderful book about Henrietta Lacks (donor of the HeLa cells), which should teach us that science and race have an “uneasy history;” and about Oppenheimer and the atomic bomb, which should teach us that “we find deep, sometimes unforeseen, and often devastating consequences, even from the most theoretical of projects.”

Yep. I am often amused to hear a non-specialist tell me what “I don’t know about” in my own discipline. :-)
Frankly, the humanities ARE under fire and are really stretching to stay relevant. Why? My guess: higher education is getting more and more expensive, and there simply isn’t a great demand for humanities majors. The market for humanities Ph. D.s is also terrible.

And yes, science IS blind to sex; for example, if you get the laws of science wrong, what you build with them won’t work. I doubt that there is a feminist interpretation of quantum mechanics. :-)

Note: the humanities ARE valuable IMHO…and even have practical value. Steven Pinker’s book Better Angels of Our Nature, gives a bit of credit to fiction in helping humans become less violent (e. g. reading a novel better helps us “walk a mile in another person shoes”).

In this day of a smaller globe, the study of language and culture is essential! And knowing some history is extremely helpful, especially given some of the turmoil we are seeing now. Much of it has ancient roots. For example: had we remembered that Vietnam and China were traditional rivals and enemies, we might have reacted better to the situation in Vietnam rather than escalating that horrible, wasteful war.

Professor Coyne has another article about Whole Foods (the store) and about how it promotes woo-woo (beyond the usual woo-woo stuff about “natural” and “organic”). Here, he goes off on Whole Foods pushing homeopathic remedies (placebo really). This might be seen as a “liberal” type of creationism, though conservative sites like NewsMax also pushes woo-woo “cures” and the like. If you get on their e-mail lists, you’ll see adds for them. Hey, there is nothing more Republican that cheating the gullible out of their money! :-)

Sandwalk (Larry Moran’s blog) takes on the “argument from evil” response that some atheists attempt to use against theists (e. g. if your loving God exists, then why did horrible thing X, Y, or Z happen?)

I agree: this is a waste of time. The response by the theist (who believes in a specific deity) is something like “we don’t know God’s ways” or “this is in this life, which is just a microsecond in all of eternity…even the worst possible suffering in the here and now doesn’t compare to ETERNAL bliss that we are going to get (some of us anyway), blah blah blah.”

It is weak medicine, IMHO> And of course, there could be an Evil God. Here is my favorite:


February 28, 2014 Posted by | education, religion, science | , | Leave a comment

Outliers and society

I think that this is common in this day and age: I have some students who are struggling in our “elementary conceptual calculus” course. They come to class, but work a large number of hours at a job in order to make ends meet. So…they are often left with very little time to study.

And yes, IN THIS COURSE, most of the students need to study quite a bit in order to have a chance at even a “C”.

In short: most students need to have a certain number of hours in order to sleep and to addition to making the classes and their part time jobs.

Now, some might say that this is nonsense.

I remember a professor I had at the Naval Academy. He said that when he was an undergraduate he studied very little for his math classes as he paid his own way through school by waiting tables. He made up for it by PAYING ATTENTION IN CLASS.

That is well and good…..but then remember that he had an earned Ph.D. in mathematics from MIT.

Most of us don’t have that type of natural ability.

Yes, Mohammed Ali could break the conventional rules of boxing (dangle his arms, lean away from punches):

But most, including most other professional boxers, don’t have that kind of ability.

Yes, there are people who can run a 2:15 marathon on 35 miles a week of training:

Following the 1976 trials he trained by running 35 miles per week and ran “a 2:14:37 for second place at the Nike-Oregon Track Club Marathon in Eugene in 1978. After that, he ran 2:15:23 for 15th place in the Boston Marathon in 1979.”

But most of us aren’t that gifted (this was Tony Sandoval, cowinner of the 1980 US Olympic Trials Marathon)

Yes, some can make a successful film while being stoned on marijuana, but most of us aren’t as talented as the Beatles.

The list can go on and on. The bottom line: you can gain inspiration from the incredibly successful, but you won’t be able to get away with taking the short cuts that many of them got away with. Neither you nor I are outliers.

Public policy should reflect this. Yes, it is great that a tiny minority of people might strike it very rich. But MOST WILL NOT. It is unjust to orient society that way.

February 25, 2014 Posted by | boxing, education, marathons, social/political | , | Leave a comment

Ignorant and proud of it….

Workout notes
Full weights plus 1800 yards of swimming (just over a mile)

Weights: rotator cuff, hip hikes, Achilles
pull ups: 2 sets of 15, 2 of 10
bench: 10 x 135, 7 x 170, 6 x 170
military (dumbbell): 3 sets of 12 x 50 (seated, supported)
rows: uphight, 3 sets of 10 x 25 (dumbbells)
rows: Hammer, 3 sets of 10 x 210
pull downs: 3 sets of 10 x 160
curls: 3 sets of 10 x 70 (machine)

Swim: 500 warm up (slow; got blown away by Ms. Bikini)
500 of drill/swim (no fins)
10 x 50 on the 1:10 (first 5, count strokes: 21-23 per length, 51-52 sec.)
next 5: 49-50
100 first drills
2 x 100 IM

I felt a bit bad; I grabbed the lane by the wall, and this kind of strange guy who usually swims there saw that and left, though there was room in the middle of the pool. I’ll ask him if there is some medical condition that precludes him from using the middle lanes.

The pool (and the weight room) has been used at an unusually high level lately.

The public and mathematics
Yes, some people have asked me this: “why all of the letters? Why don’t you use NUMBERS?”.

If I am in a patient mood I might say something like: “ok, suppose you want to be able to program a computer to compute a tax on an order? Well, you’d need the item ordered, the price of the item ordered, how many of each item ordered and the applicable tax, right?

Well, there is a “slot” in the order form for each of those, and the “letters” we use stand for such slots.”

Usually, these questions come from those who haven’t had the benefit of an education.

I expect better from our political leaders, and from time to time I am disappointed in them:

Ignoring pleas from business leaders, the Senate Education Committee voted 6-3 along party lines Thursday to bar Arizona from implementing the Common Core standards the state adopted four years ago.

Sen. Al Melvin, R-Tucson, who championed SB 1310, said he believes the concept of some nationally recognized standards started out as a “pretty admirable pursuit by the private sector and governors.”

“It got hijacked by Washington, by the federal government,” said Melvin, a candidate for governor, and “as a conservative Reagan Republican I’m suspect about the U.S. Department of Education in general, but also any standards that are coming out of that department.”

Melvin’s comments led Sen. David Bradley, D-Tucson, to ask him whether he’s actually read the Common Core standards, which have been adopted by 45 states.

“I’ve been exposed to them,” Melvin responded.

Pressed by Bradley for specifics, Melvin said he understands “some of the reading material is borderline pornographic.” And he said the program uses “fuzzy math,” substituting letters for numbers in some examples.

No, this isn’t satire. I wish that it were.

So, in all seriousness: how is such a person supposed to make a decision on any issue that requires the least bit of analytical thought?

I swear: I am old enough to remember Republicans when they were proud of their educations and knowledge. Now, at times, it appears that they are mostly proud to be ignorant.

But…I can’t blame this all on the rabid populists. A Facebook friend posted this article on her wall…and look at her comments, especially the LAST ONE:


Get that? If something is too tough for a “special needs” person to do…well, it is too hard for the general population.

I’d hate to think that common standards are determined by the least able among us, but there is a large segment of the population that thinks EXACTLY that way.

I can see a conservative chuckling and saying “ok, how is that PUBLIC EDUCATION working out for you”? :-)

Note while there ARE legitimate criticisms of Common Core; using “letters for numbers” isn’t one of them.

Note: the above link was brought to my attention by someone on Facebook.

February 24, 2014 Posted by | education, politics, politics/social, republicans, republicans politics, swimming, weight training | | Leave a comment


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