### In other words

The US’ ban on Canadian beef had nothing to do with mad cow disease, after all.

The US’ ban on Canadian beef had nothing to do with mad cow disease, after all.

Midway through last term, I observed that my students were relating to me very well. I was, to them, something of a peer; I was close to the youngest ones’ ages, and I was younger than around a quarter of my students. This had its advantages and its disadvantages. On the one hand, my students saw me more as an ally than as an authority figure. On the other hand, my students saw me more as an ally than as an authority figure.

This development, coupled with the fact that - irony of ironies - people in Island Town tend to assume I’m a student *far more often* than anyone ever did when I was actually studying at Large Urban Grad School, led me to decide that it was about time I started looking like a grownup. The two easiest ways to do this - get haircut, and wear makeup - were out. No one, including me, would recognize me with short hair and a painted face. *No one*.

This meant new clothes - suits, or some approximation thereof.

I had a list of nonnegotiables:

- Limit of $200 per outfit, and even that was pushing it.

- No garish colours. I’m trying to be taken more seriously, not less. Even allowing that neon pink and bright purple have their uses, businesswear is not among them. Brown or olive green would be ideal for a suit. Black would be fine as well.

- On the same theme as 2), only moreso: “sexy” is quite decidedly not the image I’m going for. I’m not interested in flashing leg. Ditto for cleavage, which is a nonissue for me anyway.

- On
*that*theme, clothes must fit. I am the arbiter of fitting. A salesperson telling me that “it’s*supposed*to be that tight” does not have the final word.

- POCKETS. This is a dealbreaker. Pants and jackets must have pockets that are cumulatively of sufficient size for transporting items such as wallets, pens, small papers, and cell phones. I refuse to tote bags with me whenever I wish to bring more than my person from one place to another.

I don’t think I’m *that* picky, but a trip to the largest mall on Vancouver Island left me emptyhanded. The only jacket with pockets would have set me back $150. The long skirt that looked fine from the front, had a massive slit right up to the ass in the back. And I had tried on the lovely, well-fitting, $40, chocolate brown pants when I realized that they were manufactured by a POCKET TEASE, a designer who puts little folds near the hips that look like pockets, but that go nowhere. Apparently it is considered fashionable to appear as though you have pockets but don’t.

This doesn’t even take into account the frustration engendered by the sheer arbitrariness of women’s clothing sizes, which are apparently functions of a multitude of variables, including, but not limited to, the woman’s size; the calendar year; the price of the clothing; and the alignment of the planets. I am of the tall, thin variety, with apparently the majority of my body fat concentrated in my thighs and ass. Somehow, though, it’s not uncommon for the size *n* pants to fit just fine, while the matching size *n+4* blazer is a little small. There’s also the perplexing experience that I routinely try on pants that fit me at the waist, but that are around three inches too long. I have a BMI of NINETEEN. I cling naively to the view, unpopular on this coast, that the market responds at least *somewhat* to demand, but (evangelical Marxists, take note) damned if that belief doesn’t take a beating every time I shop for clothes. I guess it’s possible that although I’ve never met any six foot tall, 120 lb women, they not only exist, they also buy a helluva lot of pants - but I’m skeptical.

In any case, I decided to put the clothes shopping on hold. It wasn’t worth the stress, and Island Town apparently had little to offer me.

This week, though, I found myself in Big Ontario City, and decided to try again. The clincher: the local paper’s horoscope for my zodiac sign, which I reproduce in full:

You will acquire some new clothes.

And - THANK YOU, Mercury in retrograde! - I did. For three hundred dollars, I obtained three pairs of well-fitting, dark, pocketed pants; two blazers (one black, one orangish-brown) with pockets; and two shirts. The sizes were arbitrary (I can feel my ribs and spine, which to me indicates that a size large shirt should not restrict my breathing, but whatever), and the mall was a zoo, but I can wear something other than jeans next term. Without needing to carry a purse.

And best of all, I won’t have to do this again for another year or two. Unless the stars encourage me otherwise.

A combination of morbid curiosity and masochism will see me parked in front of my TV on Sunday nights, watching Numb3rs (part of the word is a *number* - clever, eh?):

To help capture a serial rapist-turned-killer, FBI Special Agent Don Eppes recruits his genius brother Charlie, who uses a mathematical equation to identify the killer’s point of origin by working back from the crime scene locations.

Via Learning Curves, which provides the appropriate snark. Who knows, though. It’s inspired by actual events! And the Caltech head of mathematics is a consultant for the show - which may have something to do with the fact that the character of Charlie is a hottie who seems mentally stable and hygenic, unlike oh so many fictional mathematicians. We’ll see.

**Update**: Suresh at The GeomBlog shatters my optimism:

…the preview is not encouraging. There are exchanges like ‘Life is more than just numbers ! Life is all about numbers !’, and inane sequences where the math whiz says ‘There is no statistical evidence for X’, his brother says ‘X will happen’, and lo and behold, X happens.

Right. Well, life *is* all about numbers; for instance, today I have plans to 234 22467 6126721. With maybe a little time for some 827 3222132 after lunch.

Halfway through my undergraduate career, I stopped reading course descriptions. Well, not quite; I was minoring in philosophy, so I read philosophy course descriptions. I stopped reading *math* course descriptions. There just wasn’t much point. I could generally tell from the title whether the course was something that interested me (”Topics in Geometry”, for example, did, while “Partial Differential Equations” did not), and the paragraph of text that followed the course title in the university calendar tended not to provide any additional information to anyone who hadn’t yet taken the class. In Real Analysis I and II, I learned the Heine-Borel and Bolzano-Weierstrass Theorems, and I picked up some useful stuff on uniform convergence and L^p spaces. but a simple enumeration of those topics - which meant nothing to me until I was halfway through the course itself - was hardly enlightening. I was jealous of my peers in history and English, whose third-year course descriptions I had little trouble understanding.

I was a math major, mind you, so I wasn’t too vexed by this. My students, however, are taking precalculus and statistics as required courses, and I see no reason to throw a pile of disembodied terminology at them on the first day of class. Why lose them before it’s necessary? I feel particularly strongly about this in the case of the statistics course, which contains a good deal of material that is directly relevant to Real Life^{TM}; I don’t see why I shouldn’t summarize and motivate that material transparently on the course handout.

Here’s the course description, as it appeared in on the syllabus that one of the other faculty gave me:

An introduction to statistics which includes: organization and presentation of data, measures of central tendency and variation, probability and probability distributions, the normal distribution, central limit theorem, sampling and sampling distributions, estimations of means and proportions, choosing sample size, hypothesis testing, inferences from two samples, linear regression, correlation coefficient, curve fitting, goodness-of-fit, analusis of variance.

That’s not a course description; that’s a copy-paste job on the chapter headings from the textbook, mushed together into a run-on sentence.

Here’s my working course description:

How do we collect numerical information for a study, and how do we interpret it? These questions come up all the time - for instance, in assessing the effectiveness of a new drug, in determining the popularity of a national leader, and in comparing two companies’ customer service. In what ways can we usefully analyze large sets of numbers collected as part of a study? You’ve certainly seen one of the most common statistical quantities - the

average- which your teachers may cite when they return your tests. Is there any way to get a good idea of how the grades weredistributed- for instance, were they spread apart or bunched together? Were there a lot of high marks and a lot of low marks, or were most grades in the middle range? In this class, we’ll learn various methods of collecting, presenting, and interpreting numerical data.

Underneath I name the textbook, along with a list of the chapters we’ll be covering. The chapter names contain all of the terminology, which hopefully will make more sense to my pupils as the term progresses.

When I found out I was teaching this class, I knew immediately that I wanted to present it from the perspective of instilling a sense of media numeracy in my students. It’s a skill sorely lacking amongst people who read (and write) the newspaper, even as “media *literacy*” has become a buzzterm in recent years. Today I read a journal post whose author expressed frustration with her ignorant peers for failing to interpret a certain work of art in keeping with her own enlightened, progressive politics; some time later in the same post, she mentioned in passing that she’d done poorly in high school math. One of her commenters proclaimed that What The World Needs These Days is fewer math classes, and more classes on media analysis and - wait for it - *critical thinking* in high schools.

(I’ve never heard anyone who *doesn’t* have an ideological axe to grind promote “critical thinking”, but that’s another matter.)

That the self-proclaimed purveyors of critical thought don’t see *mathematical competence* as another side of the media analysis coin is disturbing to me. And I’ve seen it the effects: socially conscious activists who can inflict a the latest trendy analysis on any news item at the drop of a hat, but who are rendered completely impotent as soon as numbers. That cancer test with the 3% rate of false positives and the 3% rate of false negatives? Obviously correct 97% of the time. Arctic temperatures rising from 10 degrees to 12 degrees Fahrenheit? A whopping 20% increase. Unemployment - originally at 10% - falling an average of 0.5% per month? Keep that up for 200 months, and everyone’ll be gainfully employed. Yeah, we need to teach less math, so that people can *analyze the news critically*.

Rewriting the precalc description is more challenging; I’ve taken the “here’s some stuff you’ll need when you’re all grown up and taking calculus” approach, because I can’t come up with any compelling justification for learning how to factor quadratics or graph exponential functions. Last term I tried to emphasize what I thought were the most important skills: setting up equations in word problems, estimating answers, checking work. If I could have spent half the term just developing those skills, I would’ve; alas, the curriculum demanded otherwise.

Less than two weeks before classes are scheduled to begin, Department Head finally emailed me my teaching assignment. The first line read *There’s been a slight change in plans. I’m afraid the hours are not very good, and ideally we’d have you teaching different classes, and…* Bear in mind that Department Head is British, and characteristically, prone to *understatement*, and you can imagine why I was hesitant to scroll down.

The damage: Sixteen hours a week teaching four classes, three preps. Thirteen of those hours are spread over all of two days, and the other three are spread over another two days. If I weren’t teaching the class, I wouldn’t show up for that single hour I have calculus on Mondays. None of my classes start before 11:30 am. On the heavy teaching days, four and a half hours of my teaching are *uninterrupted*. Four classes, three preps - two sections of statistics, one of precalc (the same one I taught last term), and one of integral calculus. But it’s not so bad, really. I’m - hesitantly - excited about the stats assignment, as I think I may be able to incorporate some interesting topics from John Allen Paulos’ *Innumeracy* and *A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper* - but I don’t know how flexible the curriculum is. The textbook is typical of stats-for-arts-students books: enough mathematics to legitimately file it with the other math books, but definitely on the squishy side of the spectrum. Precalc so far has an enrolment of twelve, touchwood, and none of those twelve are among my flunkies from last term, touchwood. Integral calculus, presumably, will not contain any students who don’t know that fractions are numbers.

All of this, alas, may be a nonissue, because lately my union - without a collective agreement since February, apparently - has been making noises about bargaining, which I know from experience will soon give way to noises about striking. I also know from experience - that’d be the $GRADSCHOOL TA Strike of ‘03 - that noises about ineffective mean that a strike vote is imminent, and we’ll be on the picket lines sometime between mid-January and, well, let’s give the administration *one more chance* to bargain in good faith…

My prediction: the union executive will give the administration another month, and take a strike vote around beginning of February. Assuming the vote passes, this will put the beginning of the strike right after Spring Break ends, much to the delight of the many instructors who accidentally scheduled their return flights for a week after classes resumed. Picket lines will go up in mid-March, which coincidentally is right as the weather is turning picket-line-friendly, as well as being a few weeks before the end of the term, but not *so* close to exams that we’d be legislated back to work immediately.

Hey, that’s exactly how the TA Strike of ‘03 unfolded. I’ll be.

This, of course, is contingent upon the faculty voting to strike, which seems somewhat less certain than it was in ‘03, when I was at a big urban school and the administration’s underhandedness was truly beyond the pale - they tried to take away our health benefits and hope we wouldn’t notice; when we did, the president of the university pointed out that TAing wasn’t a *career* for us, so we couldn’t expect health insurance from this job. This time, the issues are things like academic freedom, wee wage increases, and greater flexibility, none of which are even slightly relevant to us temporary faculty. I reckon many of the adjuncts will be voting as I will - reasoning that they’re only around for a year, and that they sure as hell didn’t move to $ISLANDTOWN so that they could walk picket lines.

Reflecting on my life thus far and my career options, I realized that I am a) an intellectual fraud, b) under-employed. Both at the same time, which at first stuck me as pathetic, but which, upon reflection, seems perfectly natural. With regards to a), I implore those who know me personally to hold the “oh, you are NOT” comments, as a) is not a comment about my perception of my intelligence, but about my credentials.

Six months after the fact, I have forgotten most of the material that earned me my Master’s degree, if I ever really knew it to begin with. Since the second year of my graduate degree, I haven’t really *done* any math, except for a bit here and there during the summers: I have read math, I have synthesized math, I have organized math, and I have taught math, but all of these are different matters entirely, activities that all but bypass the cognitive functions activated when I actually work on *solving* a math problem. My Master’s thesis was in many ways the serendipitous culmination of three years of near-paralyzing apathy on my part for the academic path I had chosen for myself: a Maple program that may have the worst runtime of any program ever written (O(4^n*n^8n) - it crashed at n=5), thirty-five pages of painstakingly-formatted LaTeX, and a competent but tepid distillation of a subject that fully twenty people in the world give half a crap about. I left school amidst warnings that I’d never be able to do anything with my life with just a Master’s degree, and from there I promptly secured the first job I applied for, which paid me a hell of a lot more than what my detractors were making as graduate students. And, quite possibly, more than they were going to be making when they tried to break into the academic job market *n* years hence.

Nevertheless, that degree is what got me a job making more money than I have any particular need for, teaching and writing about material that I have could have taught or written about nearly a decade ago. My temporary position at the college ends this spring, and the department head has hinted a number of times that if I had - or even if I were working on - a Ph.D. in computational geometry or symbolic logic or combinatorial topology, then I’d be a shoo-in for a permanent position teaching innumerate eighteen-year-olds that (x+y)^2 is not equal to x^2+y^2, fields of characteristic two notwithstanding. Right now the temps just teach the first-year courses - can’t trust us with anything heavier - though I have plenty of experience at an academic summer program teaching fourth-year-level material to students who have kept me on my toes far more than any university undergraduate non-math majors would.

This experience is scarcely unique to me; the Western world is awash with intellectual frauds, the necessary byproduct of a system that places, well, innumerate eighteen-year-olds in university classrooms and all but promises them degrees. The “underemployed” end of things is merely the right-hand side of that equation: churn people through an academic setting that is not governed by the same capricious and unforgiving market forces that determine job availability, and you’re bound to have a surplus of degreed - if not necessarily educated - floating around claiming that they deserve better.

And while part of me whines *but I’m DIFFERENT*, I know that half the reason I quit before getting the Ph.D. was because I wasn’t intellectually *stimulated* enough. Challenged, yes; compelled to learn more, no. And nor do I think there’s any job that can sustain my curiosity and short attention span for years on end. I might return to school at some point for another degree; I might take a year or so to hone my pottery skills and see if I can make a go at that; and then there are the books I want to write: the Uncalculus Text and the projective geometry one, and hell, it’s been awhile since I’ve written fiction, maybe it’s time again.

When I was six years old, I told my mother what I wanted to be when I grew up: I wanted to be an astronaut. And a doctor. And a teacher, and a vet, and an author. Oh, and a painter. And then, as an afterthought, I asked: I can do all of those things, right? I don’t have to pick one, do I?

And my mother said what all mothers of six-year-olds should say: Of course, honey, you can be all of those things when you grow up.

My own interests diverged from my six-year-old self’s some time ago, but the spirit is still there: I’m going to get awfully bored, just doing one thing when I grow up.