Tall, Dark, and Mysterious

4/30/2005

Anyone want my old copy of Achtung Baby?

File under: Character Writ Large, Home And Native Land, I Read The News Today, Oh Boy. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 12:40 pm.

As the band launched into OneBono urged fans to climb up and sing with him. “One love, one life, when it’s one need, in the night,” Bono cried out. “This audience, this generation, has had enough. Enough! Enough of despair! No more! So Paul Martin, I’m calling you!”

I can’t even mock this, for so perfectly does it embody the Platonic ideal of self-parody that anything further I could say or write would only serve to dilute it. Truly. Even the doe-eyed actors in Team America weren’t such sycophants. Or such puppets.

4/29/2005

The left tail of the distribution

File under: Those Who Can't. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 12:59 pm.

[I’ve had this post in the wings for nearly two weeks; I’m dusting it off because end of April seems like a good time to wrap up talking about teaching, seeing as how I DON’T HAVE A TEACHING JOB ANYMORE.]

Three times in my teaching career to date, I have assigned final grades of zero. All three of these students failed make a single appearance in my class during a quiz, a test, or exam; hence the zeroes. The naïve reader might infer that my interaction with such students would be commensurate with their marks; I too used to be that naïve before I started teaching, so I won’t laugh. Here are their stories, presented in reverse chronological order because my grade ten English teacher taught me that whenever you have three different points you’re developing in an essay you should finish with the strongest one and begin with the second strongest.

  1. My most recent zero was The Woman of a Thousand Excuses, who hadn’t made a single appearance during the first month of classes last term, missing two quizzes and a test in that time. “But I’m keeping up with all the homework!” she told me in an email. I was unconvinced, but wrote back something brief about requiring a note for the missed test, which she had skipped because she was attending a funeral. Two days later I received, and I shit you not, an electronic copy of the eulogy delivered by the wife of the deceased. Dearly departed, by the way, was apparently a prominent union leader during the fifties who, I suppose, sort of fought for my student’s right to miss tests without being threatened with termination (student aid, in this case), so out of respect for the dead I cut her some slack. Or at least, I would have cut her some slack if I had ever seen her again that term, which I didn’t. Ergo: zero.

    She enrolled in my class once again this term, attended the first quiz and was then MIA for eight weeks. Then, I got another email from her, detailing the trials she’d suffered this semester, which appaeared to be cribbed from the Book of Job. But she used to get good marks in math classes, so she thought she could pass this one. Would I kindly write up a page of review questions that she could work on, as a quick way of catching up on the two missed tests and five missed quizzes? I wouldn’t, but sent her copies of said tests and quizzes. She failed this term anyway, though not as desperately as some of my students who’d actually attended the class all semester except on Tuesdays and whenever they were too tired to show up. I’m pretty sure that she could have pulled off a decent grade if she had attended class consistently throughout the term.

    [ETA: between when I started writing this entry and when I posted it, this student came to me to get me to sign a late withdrawal form. I hadn’t been aware that it was possible to withdraw from a course four months after it ended, but in this case, what the dean says goes.]

  2. My second semester at grad school I had a student who joined the class late in the term, showed up twice, and then didn’t come to class for three weeks, missing all of the quizzes and the first test. I figured she’d dropped the class, either officially or unofficially, and thought nothing of it until three weeks before the final exam, when she made an appointment to meet with me. She’d had a really rough term; would it be possible for me to grade her strictly on her final exam? I offered to pass her if she could obtain a 60% on the final; did she think she could do that? Oh, yes, she said eagerly; she was sure of it. I don’t know whether or not her self-assessment was warranted, as I didn’t see her at the exam, either. Two years later I ran into her on a city bus. She stared at me for a few minutes before exclaiming, “That’s where I recognize you from - you taught me calculus!” I said something friendly and nondescript in response, even though “no I didn’t” would have been an truthful reply.
  3. But by far the biggest piece of work, and the biggest drain on my time and patience, was the student I had back my very first term teaching, back when I was too young and inexperienced to tell this kid to take a hike the second time I saw him, which I would do without hesitation if faced with a similar situation today. Clueless Timesucker was a refugee from Calculus for Students Who May Actually Use it Some Day, and joined my Calculus for Students Trying to Get Into an Overenrolled and Completely Unrelated Major class two weeks into the term. This kid had tasted university-level mathematics, and had found it frightening; he was so behind, he was completely lost even in the easier calc class, he’d been out of school for years; what should he do? I told him to find himself a copy of a grade 11/12 math text, and I’d highlight the sections that he should work on concurrently with the course material.

    Two days later, he returned, text in hand, and I underlined the sections that were most pertinent to the course. He trotted off, and two days after that, returned. This stuff, he informed me, was hard. Yes, I said, it was difficult to get back into math after years away. Had he gone over any of the sections I’d told him to look at? Did he have any questions in particular about the work? No, he said; just that it was hard. And because I was young and stupid, this continued for another ten minutes.

    A week later, he missed the first quiz, and then came to my office the following week, “just to chat.” I told him that I’d noticed he’d been away for the quiz; did he have a reason for that? At this, he sighed mightily and gave me the most bizarre justification for an absence that I’ve ever heard, before or since. “You see,” he opened with the air of someone delivering an inaugural address, “I’m the sort of person who needs to either get zero, or a hundred. And I didn’t feel I knew the quiz stuff very well, so I skipped it.”

    It took me a moment to recover from that, and when I did, I informed him matter-of-factly, “In that case, you will get a zero in this class.”

    And lo, he did. Because he never wrote a single test or quiz with me. But this wasn’t the end of my interactions with Clueless Timesucker, who, as the fates would have it, happened to frequent the same restaurants and bookstores where I spent much of my time. And every time I saw him, he greeted me with, “HEY! How are you? Man…that zero you gave me really screwed up my average! MAN!” I didn’t remark that it was a good thing that zero had screwed up his average, because otherwise, what would that say about his average? During my final year of grad school, Clueless Timesucker became the first of my two hundred or so former students to join the pottery studio where I spent much of my time, and apparently he would ask the other members if they’d heard the story about how this other potter in the club had given him a zero in Calculus, “which totally screwed up my average!” Needless to say, he omitted some minor details, such as how he never showed up to class and hadn’t submitted a single paper with his name on it to me.

That’s the Zero Brigade. The lowest mark I have ever given to anyone who actually showed up for all of the tests and the final was six (6) percent; the girl whose exam I photographed has that honour. I’m not an overly generous grader, as my students remind me routinely; however, I am loathe to give zeroes on any question that is worth five or more points, and will do so only if the student’s solution contains nothing that could pass as mathematics. The weekly quizzes are out of ten marks apiece, and I give a minimum grade of 1/10 to anyone who shows up to write one. This student got an average mark of 1/10 on her quizzes, so you do the math. (In case that student (whose attendance was perfect, Nicholas) is reading this: IT MEANS YOU GOT 1/10 ON EVERY QUIZ.) I’d omitted to scan the last page of her final exam, in which she remarked that she was “pretty sure” she’d failed the course, so I’m going to chalk that up to a false memory. She’ll be taking precalculus again next term, she told me, and it seems such a waste, because precalculus isn’t what was giving her trouble. If I thought it would do her any good, I’d recommend that she go way back to fourth grade or thereabouts. Except that she already attended fourth grade, ten-odd years ago, and a fat lot of good it apparently did her.

4/28/2005

Unqualified

In spite of…well, most of what I post here, I am confident that I have done a respectable job of working with my raw material (fundamentally uninteresting and inapplicable mathematics, students who should be in grade seven instead of university) this semester and last. When I emerged from a week-long isolation grading exams, I was able to step back and realize that a healthy majority of the papers I was grading belonged to students who had known nothing about the subject three months earlier, but who now had a working knowledge of it. Because of me. And the comments I got from students, for the most part, reflected that as well, not that I am above distributing course evaluations the day after a test, when my laziest and most obnoxious pupils can be counted on not to attend class.

My negative comments, unsurprisingly, came mostly from my precalculus students. Apparently, I am “too hard” and “too abstract”; I don’t “make the material interesting enough”, nor do I “relate it to real life.” (Of course, my attempts to make the material interesting and relate it to real life (see “word problems”, September 2004-present) meet with just as much hostility (see “too hard”, above).) Guilty, alas, on all charges; but I don’t see what I could have done differently while still teaching the material I was hired to teach. In any event, imagine my glee upon discovering, last week, that my successor is apparently a newly-minted Ph.D. whose area of expertise is - wait for it - category theory. Yes, the students who barely squeaked out of Precalculus 1 because they thought that equations were boring, abstract gibberish, have spent this past term learning Precalculus 2 under the tutelege of an individual who saw fit to devote his entire life to actual boring, abstract gibberish. *

Our resident category theorist (who I’ve previously referred to in this space as “Poor Sap”, a moniker that is actually more applicable now than ever before, for reasons I’ll get into as soon as I close these parentheses) will taking leave of Island U this month, after one brief term of employment. Reason: as it turns out, his category-theoretic ways were incompatible with the pedagogical needs of mathematical illiterates. Who’da thunk it? Perhaps both he and Island U would be happier if he were to find employment elsewhere, and we wish him the best of luck in his job search. Not that we’ll be providing glowing references.

Meanwhile, I also handed in my textbooks and keys ** this week. My time at Island U has also come to an end; but unlike Poor Sap, who didn’t make it through the mandatory probationary period that precedes an offer of permanent employment, I’d actually originally been hired for a single term, and managed on the basis of good work to get my contract extended for a second one. But that won’t turn into a permanent offer, because, well, I don’t have a Ph.D. in, for instance, category theory. Really - you can’t make this stuff up. Department Head and I parted on good terms: as far as he’s concerned, he told me, I’ve done Island U a huge favour this past year and he’d love it if I could stay on, but his hands are tied. He wishes me the best of luck in my job search, and I should know that he’ll be happy to provide a good reference whenever I ask for one.

And I know he’s sincere, and I feel badly for him, because now he has to go through the hiring process again. But feeling bad doesn’t get me a paycheque next month. Still, I reckon there aren’t droves of people out there who a) have Ph.D.’s, b) have the skills and the temperament to teach mathematical illiterates, and c) are willing to move to Island Town; so I wish Department Head the best of luck.

But I think that the most ironic thing to come out of all of this is that there’s actually a real-life use for a degree in category theory.

* Yes, I have studied algebraic topology and algebraic geometry, both of which make copious use of category theory, so I realize that I owe a debt to this bizarre field. I maintain, however, that category theory talis qualis is just so much abstraction piled upon abstraction, and I have no interest in entertaining arguments to the contrary in this space. That said, some of my best friends are category theorists.

** Oh, crap, forgot about the keys.

4/26/2005

Breaking news: British Columbians ill-informed about breaking news

File under: Character Writ Large, Sound And Fury, Home And Native Land, I Read The News Today, Oh Boy. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 3:59 pm.

On May 17, British Columbians go to the polls for a vote and a meta-vote: the vote, on the new provincial government; the meta-vote, on whether to reform the way that British Columbians choose their governments. Right now, BC’s government, like those of the other nine provinces and three territories, is a parliamentary system, with the province divided into 79 constituencies, each of whose electors select one representative to send to the legislature. The representative who receives a plurality of votes in the riding wins. An advantage to this system is that every voter has, in theory anyway, a local representative to the provincial government. A disadvantage is that that government has the potential to be anything but representative: the most dramatic example of this in Canada was the 1993 federal election, which saw the Progressive Conservatives get over 20% of the popular vote - and fewer than 1% of seats in the House of Commons.

The proposal is to replace this system with single transferable voting (STV), a system already in use in Australia, which would broaden the consistutencies and allow voters to rank their candidates from most to least favourite. Each constituency would then send between two and seven representatives to the provincial legislature.

With the referendum on STV a mere three weeks away, it would seem that Teh Media would have a lot to say about this new system, right? Well, they do, and they’re all in agreement: STV is complicated, and Canadians don’t know much about it. And that’s about it:

  • From the Vancouver Sun:

    [Pollster Angus] Reid predicted that the system of proportional representation will fail to get the support it needs to become law because it is too complicated.

    “No one can explain what this is all about. I’ve got a PhD in stats and I can’t explain it,” he complained.

  • More from Reid, on the polling company’s own site:

    Very few adults in British Columbia are informed about a proposal to elect lawmakers in a different way, according to a poll by The Strategic Counsel released by CTV and the Globe and Mail. 42 per cent of respondents in the Canadian province say they know a little about the single transferable vote (STV) system, while 47 per cent know nothing at all.

  • The Globe and Mail agrees, spending six paragraphs rehashing British Columbians’ ignorance before making some lame attempt to remedy it with an STV By Dummies, For Dummies approach, and concluding with a poll reiterating how ignorant we all are:

    The STV system would ask voters to number the candidates on the ballots in order of preference.

    By tallying alternative choices, candidates who in the current system might have gone down to defeat could win.

    The number of ridings would be reduced and each riding would have more than one MLA.

    Under the STV system, if a party received 40 per cent of the votes, it would obtain 40 per cent of the seats in the House. (Ed’s note: no, it won’t. STV will approximate proportional representation better than a parliamentary system, but it’s completely inaccurate to equate the two.)

  • And here’s a bizarre and dreadfully formatted article from the South Delta Leader that raves about how much people are learning about STV. The article then links to some cartoons on a partisan website (see also, “Dummies”, above) that, according to a promoter of STV, “provide the ‘ah-hah!’ moment that seems to clarify this for most people who see it”. Presumably the South Delta Leader’s readers would react the same way if its journalists then followed up with any actual information about STV, which they don’t: all we get from them after this is some pap about how all the cool people are supporting STV.

And that’s pretty typical of the usual suspects. Summary: silly BCers, not understanding the news that we’re not reporting. A refreshing exception is an informative page from CBC, which even held a mock election illustrating the difference between STV and the current first-past-the-post system.

I’m unimpressed. As usual, a community of nonjournalists provides more useful and more accurate information. Now that I am finished for the term, I might do some reading on the mathematics of the STV system, which the Wikipedia article discusses at considerable length. (Do any of my readers have any recommendations?)

The alternative media is somewhat better: searching for BC commentary about this, the only online editorial I could find was from the alternative news site, The Tyee, which comes out strongly in support of STV. It’s pretty typical of commentary in the lefty press: informative, egregiously one-sided, and painted with an overcoat of if-only-you-knew-you’d-agree-with-me that is virtually guaranteed not to win any new converts.

Fortunately, if journalists aren’t explaining current events to us, there’s regular folks…for now: a disturbing article in the hipster Terminal City paper reports that ordinary citizens who know something or other about the referendum, and have partisan opinions about it, aren’t allowed to write about them publicly unless they first register with the government:

As of March 1, anyone maintaining a site specifically created for the purpose of promoting one side or the other of the single transferable vote debate without notifying the election office is in violation of the referendum regulations.

The Terminal City article links to two low-traffic (because after all, British Columbians don’t know anything about the referendum!) blogs on the topic: the pro-STV STV For BC - Vote Yes!, and the anti-STV Single Transferable Vote in BC. I’ll be going over them both detail this week, because I think I’m already well-enough informed on how ill-informed I am about the issue.

4/24/2005

Gripes inspired by a visit to the optician

File under: Sound And Fury, Know Thyself. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 5:07 pm.
  1. Is there a research grant available for the development of a mirror of variable curvature that would allow people who aren’t wearing their old glasses to see what they’d look like in new glasses? And don’t anyone bother suggesting contact lenses, or friends with good taste. We deserve better than that. Didn’t we put men on the moon so that we could insist upon such ostensibly-simple-but-as-yet-nonexistent advances in technology?
  2. Not that I was going to get new frames anyway, as a) my current ones are still functional; b) my insurance won’t cover much more than the cost of the lenses; and, most importantly, c) the invisible hand governing trends in eyewear has decreed that peripheral vision is for nerds and old people, and hence, all of the trendy, cutting-edge glasses are basically the ocular equivalent of bikini tops that cover only the nipples. The eighties and early nineties got a lot wrong, I’ll grant, but to their credit, they did give rise to eyewear that allowed people to look up, down, or askance without twisting their necks.
  3. Not a gripe, but because there is magic in threes: I spent my entire life, until two weeks ago, without polarizing sunglasses. I don’t know how I did it. It was certainly easier when I didn’t live near large bodies of light-reflecting water.

Someone else field this one

File under: Righteous Indignation, Those Who Can't. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 4:23 pm.

Dear Moebius Stripper,

I don’t understand why you won’t just give me the mark that I want in the course whose exam I missed for legitimate reasons, even though you have explained it to me twice already. Other students might make up excuses for missing their exams, but not me! I can even provide a note explaining my absence. I think you’re being very mean. If I were making up an excuse for missing the exam, then I could understand why you’d be giving me an incomplete in the course and making me go through the ordeal of setting up an appointment, at my convenience, basically anytime during the next five weeks to write it. But since I’m honest, and going through some difficulties in my personal life, I think you should just give me the mark I want.

Obviously you don’t understand how hard my life is right now. I paid for a tutor to help me do better in this class of yours that I’m paying for, and I did okay on the rather easy last test. This should be enough to convince you that I don’t need to take the final exam to prove that I have learned the first two months’ worth of material, can deal with problems out of context - or even that I still know the concepts that I hastily committed to memory back in late March. Please understand that it would really cramp my style to have to actually write the exam in the next month, because I was counting on not having to write it and so I stopped studying three weeks ago and have forgotten everything I learned. See how desperate I am, telling you that in writing! If that doesn’t convince you that I deserve to be exempted, then you either don’t get it or don’t care.

All of my other professors are nicer than you. Could you please reconsider your decision? I know that you said that me writing the exam - which I even said I’d do last week, before I broke my appointment with you on two hours’ notice! - was “nonnegotiable”, but I suspect that when you said that, you just didn’t realize how much I was counting on taking advantage of what seemed to be a gaping loophole in the system.

Sincerely,
My Life Is Hard, And So Is Math

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