Numbers, fraudulent and misleading…

Education: yes, if you base teaching performance on the test scores of their students, the teachers will cook the data any way that they can. Given a metric, people will seek to optimize the metric, regardless of end results.

A questionable pro-President Obama claim: This article claims a 22 point improvement in President Obama’s approval ratings:

President Obama’s approval rating has improved by 22 points in the Gallup poll since Republicans won control of Congress. Obama’s opposition to the Republican agenda is making the president more popular while destroying the myth of a GOP mandate.

Really? Well, his approval went from 39 to 50 percent, which IS nice. So where did “22 point improvement” come from? You see, his DISAPPROVAL went down so the difference (approval minus disapproval) went from -17 to +5. Okkkkaaaaayyyyy…

That is an interesting slight of hand. But Rep. Sessions (R-Texas) thinks that 108 billion divided by 12 million is 5 million and not 9000. He called it “simple arithmetic”. Hmmm, for him, not so simple? :-)

That’s ok; Fox News will probably back him up, and NPR will probably try to present “both sides” of this arithmetic issue “well, most math teachers say that the quotient is 9000, but some say 5 million so we’ll give BOTH SIDES an equal opportunity….”

March 26, 2015 Posted by | education, health care, political/social, politics | | Leave a comment

Some stark reality: academia and otherwise

This is from College Misery and discusses the lament of someone teaching an astronomy course to, well, less than talented and less than motivated students:

Each semester, I usually teach a large section of general-ed astronomy for non-majors. I also teach a large section of physics for engineers and scientists.

I also teach a smaller, upper-level theoretical astrophysics course for physics majors and grad students. Sounds impressive, doesn’t it? We’re supposed to be delving into the secrets of the Universe.

Well, THIS semester’s astrophysics class has convinced me that American university education is without question in its death spiral.

The large, general-ed astronomy class is packed with freshpersons. Sniveling, patently unprofessional, childish behavior is common. I hate it, but it’s like the smell you get living near a slaughterhouse: you get used to it.

Similar childish behavior is rarer in the physics class for engineers. This is because it’s more advanced, with at least three other prerequisite classes. When childish behavior does raise its ugly head there, it hurts.

This semester, for the first time, I am encountering childish behavior from most of the upper-level astrophysics class, and it REALLY HURTS. More than once I have reminded them that astrophysics isn’t an immediately commercially applicable subject: people do it mainly because it’s interesting.

So WHY do these students treat the wonders of the Universe as such a dreadful CHORE? Probably because even the simplest wonders are quite beyond them. Most of the grad students don’t understand significant digits, despite my TRYING to explain what they should have learned on their FIRST DAY of college. If they think they are going to GET A JOB doing this, they’ll be going up against people from Caltech and MIT, ALL of whom funnily enough DO understand significant digits.

I think that we are seeing “regression to the mean” effects: we are sending higher percentages of people to college. So: this means more jobs for professors at “teaching oriented” institutions but also…a less talented student body. None of the lament surprises me at all.

We even see this in the humanities:

I recently left a teaching position in a master of fine arts creative-writing program. I had a handful of students whose work changed my life. The vast majority of my students were hardworking, thoughtful people devoted to improving their craft despite having nothing interesting to express and no interesting way to express it. My hope for them was that they would become better readers. And then there were students whose work was so awful that it literally put me to sleep. Here are some things I learned from these experiences.

Writers are born with talent.

Either you have a propensity for creative expression or you don’t. Some people have more talent than others. That’s not to say that someone with minimal talent can’t work her ass off and maximize it and write something great, or that a writer born with great talent can’t squander it. It’s simply that writers are not all born equal. The MFA student who is the Real Deal is exceedingly rare, and nothing excites a faculty adviser more than discovering one. I can count my Real Deal students on one hand, with fingers to spare.

There is more in the article. But yeah, what is said there counters many popular but hare brained ideas:

1. “You can do anything you want to do if you want to do it badly enough.” Anyone who believes this has never accomplished anything of significance.

2. “It is never too late to start”. Wrong. It is probably not to late to learn something new, but if you start from scratch late in life, you are all but guaranteed to not be good at it (there are isolated exceptions, of course). And by “good at it” I mean “good compared to the stronger people in the profession”, not good compared to “the other average old geezers”.

As you get older, it becomes more difficult to pick up brand new material, though if one is still active in an area one can often compensate by having a broader perspective and by having a larger tool box of knowledge to draw from (just from learning for so long).

Extrapolation from the local
Yes, it may have been cold where you live…but:

Screen shot 2015-03-21 at 3.03.17 PM

Yes, I live in the dark blue area.

Being certain…even if the facts are against you. Zealots are very good at doing this:

The Times has an interesting headline here: Richard Fisher, Often Wrong but Seldom Boring, Leaves the Fed. Because entertainment value is what we want from central bankers, right? I mean, Janet Yellen is such a drag — she just keeps being right about the economy, and that gets old really fast, you know?

OK, never mind. What is remarkable is Fisher’s complete confidence in his own wisdom despite an awesome track record of error. What’s even more remarkable is that his unshaken certainty is the norm among inflationistas and anti-Keynesians in general. So wrong for so long — and the other side has been right, again and again — yet not a hint of self-doubt.

And check out this anti-new atheist article.

This is supposed to come from a “sophisticated believer”, but never once does he even make the case that the existence of any deity of any kind is even a reasonable conjecture, much less a belief in their deity of choice.

Really. We live in one average galaxy and orbit one of billions of stars in said galaxies ….among billions of other galaxies. And somehow, the scribblings of profoundly ignorant groups of humans made are supposed to be taken seriously as a guide to knowledge of how things work now? Oh boy…if the old blue hair says so… :-)

What is comical is that these sort of writers expect to be taken seriously.

March 21, 2015 Posted by | astronomy, atheism, economics, education, religion, social/political | , | Leave a comment

Schock, snowflakery, dishonesty on different levels.

Aaron Schock is stepping down from his US House seat (IL-18); he was my Congressman for 4 years (and Illinois State Representative for 4 years prior to that) until I got redistricted into IL-17.

Each time, I voted for his opponent.

Well, now he is under investigation by the FBI for a number of things; witnesses are being subpoenaed and a Grand Jury has been formed.

I admit that I never liked him and that was for reasons beyond his being a Republican.

But I did wonder to myself: “how much of this dislike is just simple envy?” After all, much of his resume was impressive: school board as a teenager (elected), school board president, winning the Illinois State House (close election the first time) and winning it again in a very blue district and then running for, and winning Ray LaHood’s old seat.

He finished his undergraduate degree in 2 years and made money in real estate, and, at least at first, much of it was above board.

Yes, he is fit, though my Steamboat 15K best (1998, 1999) is about 7 minutes faster than his. He is a heck of a lot faster than I am now though. :-)

But..I wondered “how much of your dislike is that he is/was ambitious, attractive and successful?”

Still, in his debates, he was quick with statistics and data..but it was almost all cherry picked. He reminded me a bit of a young Paul Ryan.

Now I never cared one way or the other about his Instagram photos and the like; I know that when it comes to social media, I enjoy my friend’s vacation and adventure photos, especially those that show me what they are seeing.

So, as much as I’d love to tell you “I told you so”, I really don’t know if my dislike stemmed from tribalism (“other political party”), envy (his success and ambition) and from personality; there was something that seemed phony about him (as it does, to be fair, with Bill Clinton who I mostly liked). He just struck me as a frat boy who used slick power point slides to bluff through a presentation of stuff that he really didn’t understand that well.

So I really can’t crow “I told you so” and there is about 5-10 percent of me that is genuinely disappointed that he didn’t put his considerable talent to better use. And yes, there is about 50 percent of me that is gloating; I am not proud of that. :-)

Speaking of entitled snowflakes Randazza has a laugh about this:

NH Lawmakers Crush Fourth Graders Bill. Good.
And I applaud them for it.

In the spirit of learning by doing, students drafted a bill to learn the process of how a bill becomes law. They proposed House Bill 373, an act establishing the Red Tail Hawk as the New Hampshire State Raptor. Even though it passed through the Environment and Agriculture committee with a majority vote, some representatives were far from receptive.


Cue the outrage.

In fact, the headline was “NH lawmakers brutally kill 4th-graders’ bill in front of them”

Rep. John Burt, a Republican from Goffstown said, “Bottom line, if we keep bringing more of these bills, and bills, and bills forward that really I think we shouldn’t have in front of us, we’ll be picking a state hot dog next.”


Yes. Just because you think your kids are “smart” and “cute” doesn’t mean that their ideas warrant being taken seriously. Really. I feel the same way when someone posts some video of some pre-teen or teenager “owning” someone on an issue.

Really. I teach college. I’ve seen the work of 60-70 undergraduates per semester for 24 years. The vast majority of them don’t know what they are doing, just as I didn’t when I was that age.

When it comes to laws, issues, etc., if you want me to take an idea seriously, give me someone who knows what they are talking about and who is respected by others in the field. I am not interested in what your little snowflake has to say.

Now of course helicopter parenting isn’t unique to the United States; check his out:

Cheating in school tests is an old Indian problem.

But the malpractice literally scaled new heights this week in the eastern state of Bihar when relatives of 10th-grade students climbed the wall of a school building and perched precariously from windows of classrooms as they handed cheat sheets to children writing the tests inside.

Videos also showed school inspectors slapping young girls as they pulled out cheat sheets from under their tables.

Cheating is common in schools in remote rural areas in India, where jobs and seats in college courses are few but competition is fierce. But the sight of parents risking their life and limbs to climb the walls shocked many Indians.

I’d like to think that we aren’t that bad.

Why your Republican friends sound so nutty
If your Republican friend watches Fox News, they are often only getting part of the story. The government issued two reports about Ferguson, one which showed that it was a very bad idea to use Michael Brown as some sort of innocent martyr and one that showed that there WAS systemic racism within the Ferguson city government and police department. Guess which one Fox News emphasized and which one was downplayed? (though NOT totally ignored)

Bonus Read Randazza’s CNN post on why the racists at the University of Oklahoma have free speech rights, which include their right to NOT be kicked out of school. Note: I have no problem with the Fraternity being kicked off of campus and their charter being revoked.

March 20, 2015 Posted by | Aaron Schock, education, IL-17, IL-18, racism, social/political | , , , | Leave a comment

The relative honesty of sports relative to education

Workout notes: 31 F (0 C) at the start; I walked my 10.5 mile course (included the Goose Loop) and it took me 2:37 instead of the 2:34 it used to take me in 2012 (with the same effort). Time marches on. But there is a long time between now and October 18, 2015, so I have a lot of time to build up to a marathon and time to work on my 5K/1 mile run first.

Main Post

First, I realize that there are doping scandals at the highest level of sports and sometimes eligibility fiascos at lower levels.
And I also understand that academia at the higher levels, at least in my field (mathematics), tends to be honest. Sure there is a fake journal here and a fight over “who got the results first” there. But when one writes a math paper, it isn’t as if one can crib other sources.

I am mainly talking about the lower levels.

I remember my English class during my senior year in high school; it was the usual “British Literature” that is taught for college preparation. I had great teachers.

One of the things we had to do was to write a book report and present it in class. And so I sat through them; I specifically remember the one on Wuthering Heights.

The guy who gave it had an easel complete with charts, a circle diagram (concentric circles) with the various characters and relationships in the concentric circles, with Heathcliff vs. Heathcliff in the middle.

I rolled my eyes; I knew that the guy giving the presentation wasn’t smart enough to come up with this on his own.

Afterward, the teacher said “very good; perhaps you should look to sell this to Cliffs Notes. ”


Well, eventually I went to a book store, looked at Cliffs notes…and what did I see? You guessed it….and no, he didn’t sell his work to them.

That was just the beginning of my eye opening process.

The bottom line: many see education as nothing more than a credentialing process; a way of getting credits, a GPA and all that. The idea that one’s mind is supposed to be challenged and grow along the way really isn’t a popular one. It is all about “that piece of paper” and, perhaps, learning something along the way.

Yes, students search for solutions to homework problems on the internet; that is why I try to give some in class exams. The exception is for a courses in which I expect them to be able to use software.

I still remember my undergraduate days. I really did my homework and I really did find joy in figuring out things for myself. Not everyone else took the same approach, including some who had a higher GPA than I did.

Even funnier: some (almost all?) who got undergraduate degrees are completely unaware that what they learned was..well…baby stuff.
I wonder how many of these would have survived Ph. D. comprehensive examinations which, at least at my school, had a pass rate of 30 percent?

Then after sweating these, which seemed so difficult to me at the work on your dissertation and find out that your qualifiers were really just…baby stuff. :-)

Now contrast that with sports. Say you want to finish a marathon within the course’s time limit (and yes, the time limits are getting longer year by year).

If you don’t put in the miles, well, you aren’t going to finish (true for most of us, anyway, especially those of us who are older than 50). And to finish the marathon, you have to cover every step of the course.

True, there is some cheating (even in trail ultras!) and some who claim to do what they haven’t done. But the vast majority who finish a marathon really do finish it; there is no “cut and paste” available; no one to crib off of.

Of course, even in running where the results are there for all to see, there are those who don’t understand that, well, a 2-2:30 plus half marathon is really nothing to boast about (at least for someone 45 or younger) and that a strong marathon runner would have gone twice as far in close to the same amount of time. But I suppose there is a social aspect to it; the vehicle “mileage” stickers and the attitude face selfies..and of course, the “bling” (Showing off a medal for a half marathon finish? Really? should you award yourself a medal for finishing a medium long workout? ;-) )

Note: my current half marathon running time stinks; I ran a couple of 2:01 half marathons in 2013 but I have enough self awareness to know that those times stink. My “over 40″ PR is 1:34 (1999) and, for a 40 year old male in good health, that is more or less a “meh, fit but not a runner” time.

But no matter how sorry the performance is and how many grossly overestimate their achievements, there is no getting around that most have covered every inch of the course under their own steam…sans wikipedia. :-)

March 15, 2015 Posted by | education, running, walking | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Appropriate teaching attire or not?


Interesting question. I suppose that context is important (grade? all boys or all girls school?).

I don’t have a good answer. Here is why: had some of my high school teachers dressed like this, yes, I’d be distracted. But is the onus on me, or does the teacher at least bear some responsibility? And please, spare me the “it doesn’t matter” stuff: obviously a male who came to teach while wearing a speedo would get called out.

I’d have to think about this one.

March 14, 2015 Posted by | education | | Leave a comment

Finally, something to write about: p-values, venting about college students

First my workout: This was my first weight workout in about 2 weeks and I felt it.

Pull ups: 4 sets of 10, 2 sets of 5. Quality: ok, not stellar. Rotator cuff
bench press: 10 x 135, 1 x 180, 5 x 160 (pathetic) (rotator cuff)
incline press: 7 x 135 (bad)
standing military: 3 sets of 10 x 40 dumbbells (weak)

It was a start, but it was rather bad.

Running went marginally better: treadmill, 0.5 incline, started at 5.3 mph and increased by 0.1 every 1/4 mile
2 miles in 21:18, 3 in 30:55, 4 in 39:47 (last 5 minutes at 7 mph)
Yes, I coughed afterward, but this time only for 2-3 minutes or so, instead of 10. It IS getting better, albeit more slowly than I’d like.
After the workout weight (dr. scale): 176.0

Basically, I was weaker with the weights than with the run. The swim is going to be UGLY tomorrow.


There is some chatter among professors about the appropriateness of calling out certain types of student behavior. The old model is that this is somewhat untoward as “professors had more power than the students”. But things have changed; often the professors are adjunct professors with little real power and these-a-days there is a tendency for administration to use student evaluations to evaluate the professors (at least at the more teaching oriented places).

I see something else going on here:


The above refers to grade school. But in the college setting, replace the parents with deans, administrators or even professors from departments that are desperate to retain their students.

There is where the tension comes from. Most professors expect 18-20 year old students to…well, behave like 18-20 year old students. Getting undermined from other parts of the same campus is very irritating and it happens too many times (though not all of the least right now).

You may have read things like “most of the newly reported science results are wrong” and this is because, well, one is more likely to report a positive finding, and many positive findings are honestly done false positives. So, one psychology journal has decided to prohibit the reporting of p-values in its articles. That makes no sense to me, and evidently it makes no sense to some scientists and statisticians either.

March 5, 2015 Posted by | education, running, science, statistics, weight training | , , , | Leave a comment

Feeling strong enough to complain

Ok, no 100 percent; I still have some illness “afterglow”. I’ll put this on my virus post.

But I didn’t cough much when I shoveled snow (about 3 inches of easy, fluffy stuff) in very cold (14 F) weather. I cursed the idiot plow drivers as they buried our walks instead of putting the snow on the useless median and did the walks…again.

Peoria is simply a horrible place to live; Canadian winters (last 2 anyway), incompetent city government and idiotic people.

But when I finished shoveling (AGAIN), walking to school and climbing the stairs I was soaking with sweat…and did not cough…once. I can’t tell you what a huge improvement that is. I’ll probably walk on the treadmill tomorrow.

But my wife is home, taking up space and coughing away…no rest of the wicked, I suppose.

No relief from the brutality of this winter either; yes, THIS YEAR, and LAST YEAR have made the “top 10 coldest Februaries on record:

February 2015 is on track to being one of the coldest February’s on record for Illinois. Data through February 24 puts the statewide average at 19.4° F. This is 11.5°F below average and slightly colder than last February’s 19.4°F. Before February, this was shaping up to be a mild winter with near to above-average temperatures (see graph to the left, click to enlarge).

At this point, February 2015 is ranked as the 8th coldest on record, edging out 2014 (see table below). The NWS forecasts show that temperatures for the rest of February will be 15 to 20 degrees below average. Therefore it is possible that it could move up the ranks. I will post more on this at the end of the month.

Yes, it will get colder:


And yep, we will get slammed with more snow again.

We have the worst of both worlds: Canadian winters and US conservatives in the same place.


Yes, some college administrators, even those with academic Ph. D.s really are this stupid:

When I started as an assistant professor, our Provost insisted that to be tenured, all tenure-track faculty had to have scores on their anonymous student evaluations that were above their department’s averages. I tried to explain to him that if this were sustained over time, the result would be that all tenure-track faculty would be required to have perfect scores. After that happened, no one would get tenure, since it would no longer be possible to score higher than average. He gave me a deer-in-the-headlights look.

(by department average, they mean vs. all tenure track and tenured; this is the “everyone should be above average idiocy”)

And yes, they expect you to view whatever “research” they did on a level with yours.

February 27, 2015 Posted by | education, illness, Peoria | , , , , | Leave a comment

Made it…

I won’t lie: I wondered how teaching would go.

It turns out that I was able to climb the 4 flights of stairs with no difficulty. So I am feeling better (cold log is here) but I do have a cough which is (TMI) very productive at the moment. I’ll have to take something for it prior to going to bed, else I won’t be able to sleep.

There were two positives to come from this cold:

1. This past weekend, I saw 4 of the 5 Missouri Valley basketball games. Of course, 3 of the 4 games I watched were blowouts; the Illinois State vs. Loyola was reasonably competitive (67-60 ISU). But Bradley lost to Northern Iowa by 17, Drake crushed Missouri State 78-43 behind 62 percent 3-point shooting (it was 35-14 at the half!) and WSU cruised past Evansville 62-43; Ironically the Bradley loss was by a lesser margin than the other games. And at least BU was still in the game at the half (down 27-23); WSU lead Evansville 30-14 at the half.

So, had I planned things better, I could have caught the SIU vs. ISU blue and had my own “Arch madness” on the TV. Still, 4 out 5 games isn’t too bad.

I wonder if TV game viewership goes up during cold/flu season.

2. I learned something about teaching from today: today I taught:

Lagrange Multipliers (brief calculus II)
Limits and evaluation of limits along different paths for functions of 2 variables (calculus III)
The separation axioms (T_1, T_2 ), closure and interior in topology.

I didn’t really use notes as I was dead to the world this weekend. But it looks as if I did a competent job even though I was part of the walking dead during the classes.

Reason: I know this stuff. THAT is the take away to teachers: if you want to be able to teach something effectively, you need to know it well beyond the level you are teaching it.

I’ll put it another way: if you need a “teacher’s edition” with the answers in it, you suck and you shouldn’t be teaching the stuff. I’m not opposed to having a solution key to give to the grader or, on occasion, to see what unwarranted assumption the book made (and yes, they sometimes make them…much to my disgust).

February 24, 2015 Posted by | basketball, education, illness | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

I’m liberal for a reason, but conservatives are not all crazy…

Yes, genetically, I am a liberal. I couldn’t make myself be conservative if I tried. One of the reasons is that I am simply not tribal enough; the very idea that my country, people, etc. are the “best ever” and chosen by some deity/force of history to lead the rest of the world sounds ridiculous to me.

But, I fall afoul of other liberals in many areas too.

Here is one way: though I reject the idea that we should dictate to the rest of the world, I also reject the idea that we are especially evil either. As Steven Pinker points out in Better Angels , our moral track record isn’t that bad, when you compare us to other Leviathans.

I also think it is bad form when foreign students come to our universities and put us down (and yes, that happens, a LOT). If you don’t like “ugly American” behavior when we visit your countries, why do you act that way in ours?

I also reject some liberal attitudes toward poverty. Before you jump on me, I am FOR programs that, say, feed poor kids. There is some data that SNAP type programs reduce the probability that those who grow up poor will need public aid benefits in the future. And spending money on foot programs can help poor kids learn in school; it is tough to concentrate on ANYTHING when you are genuinely hungry.

So, I support such programs.

What I reject: I reject the claim that kids being hungry is anyone else’s fault but the parents!


So while I approve of the program, I rebel at labeling it as the failure of anyone but the parents. Is saying “don’t have kids you can’t afford” so controversial? I suppose that it is in some circles.

And just get a load of this headline: “what if everything you knew about poverty was wrong?” Uh, it isn’t:

Edin sees in these obstacles to full-time fatherhood a partial explanation for what’s known as “multiple-partner fertility.” Among low-income, unwed parents, having children with more than one partner is now the norm. One long-running study found that in nearly 60 percent of the unwed couples who had a baby, at least one parent already had a child with another partner.

Uh, that is EXACTLY what many of us think.

Seriously, at times, it feels as if holding human beings to a higher standard than we hold rabbits is considered immoral in some liberal circles.

February 21, 2015 Posted by | economy, education, poverty, social/political | | Leave a comment

Taking it for granted

Workout notes running: 2 mile warm up in 20:36 (treadmill)
1 mile (middle lane, as opposed to the inner lane I used last year): 7:46 (1:58/1:55/1:55/1:56)
1 mile walk (slow)
2 mile treadmill (20:50)

Weights: pull ups (5 sets of 10, easy?) hip hikes, Achilles, rotator cuff rests
bench press/military press super set: bench (dumbbells) 10 x 65, 8 x 70, 8 x 70, military (dumbbell) 12 x 50 seated, supported, 2 sets of 10 x 40 standing
super set rows/pull downs: 3 sets of 10 each (110 rows, 130 pull downs, wide grip, “other machines”)

Though I thought that I felt tired going in, I felt pretty good afterward.

The run: hard enough to make me cough later (for 1-2 hours after), but not hard enough to cause pain in my teeth.
I’ve coughed after really hard runs (usually 1 mile or less; sometimes after a hard 5K when it was a 20 minute effort for me) almost all of my has never been serious.

Taking it for granted
One thing about teaching the basics of a subject like topology: it reminds me of how much I take for granted when I do my own research. Yeah, I’ve worked out all of the nuances, but for many of them, it was 25-30 years ago!

February 12, 2015 Posted by | education, mathematics, running, weight training | | Leave a comment


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