Tall, Dark, and Mysterious

7/30/2005

Biting the hand that helps me feed myself

File under: When We Were Young, Know Thyself. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 1:21 pm.

First things first: yes, that is a copy of Landing a Job For Canadians For Dummies on my nightstand. Because, well, I’m trying to land a job, and I’m Canadian, and although I’m not a dummy, I’ve been advised not to look a gift horse in the mouth - another adage that I shall now proceed to violate.

First thoughts: they take their demographic very seriously. I’d suspected that that Dummies series catered merely to, for instance, those job-seekers who didn’t hold MBA’s and who weren’t totally up on such things as (to quote the literature) “tapping into the hidden job market”. Not so: this book caters to the bone-stupid. “There will be no business jargon in this book!” promises the author, who then goes on to define, for the benefit of the truly stupid among us, some of the terminology that we will be using, such as the word job. I’m not making this up.

After that’s taken care of, we get a word of caution:

…this book doesn’t provide you with a sure-fire formula for getting hired. Know why? Frankly, because such a formula doesn’t exist (despite what your math teacher might have said).

Straw poll of the several dozen math teachers who read this blog: who here has told their students that there exists a formula for getting a job?

(Crickets chirping, bigass ball of twine rolling across barren desert landscape.)

To its credit, the book doesn’t assume that the reader has a career in mind. Unfortunately, it addresses this issue in a way that reminds me exactly why I hated my grade nine English class. In particular, there’s this bizarre little brainstorming exercise in the first chapter, devoted to figuring out if the wayward reader actually does know, deep down inside, what sort of career he or she is looking for. We get suggestions such as this one:

If you were to write a book, what would it be about? Does the topic suggest a potential career to you?

Well, I’d like to write a recreational math book. Say, that does suggest a career to me: writer of recreational math book. Anyone hiring?

Ignoring constraints on my talent and experience, I’d probably like to write the sort of fiction that I like to read: hard-boiled detective novels. This suggests such careers as “fictional hard-boiled detective” and “serial rape-murderer”, none of which is particularly viable.

Moving along:

If you had a twin, what would they tell you to do? Of course, you have to assume you have a twin that knows you very well and tells you exactly what he or she thinks! This is often not what your parents would suggest, or even what you yourself would think of.

First of all, I commend the author for stating that assumption explicitly. It’s often taken for granted that identical twins are exactly alike, but those of us who uh, had friends who read all of the Sweet Valley books, know quite well that twins’ personalities can in fact develop entirely outside the influences of either nature or nurture. But now I feel threatened by this fictional twin, who apparently knows me better than I know myself. And since she’s otherwise just like me, that translates into a level of self-awareness that far surpasses mine. Is she unemployed? Because if so, she and I are neck-and-neck in terms of personality, education, and transferable skills, but she’ll totally kick my ass in the part of the interview where we’re asked things like Where do you see yourself ten years from now? Thank God the embryo didn’t split, is all I can say.

Anyway, that was fun! Now that I know what sort of job I want, it’s time to start searching. This requires me to set up a little area where I look for work, which the author cutely calls “Mission Control”. Where should I set up Mission Control? Well, that’s up to me, but the author kindly provides some suggestions as to where not to set it up:

Your garage. Far too cold and dirty!

Your walk-in closet. Some people go to any extreme for a little privacy! But in return, you get bad lighting and potentially claustrophobia! I don’t have to mention the spare bathroom, do I?

And yet, in the pages that follow, even those of us who are thick enough to conduct business from a toilet seat or a garage can check off “Strongly Agree” on statements such as “I am resourceful and practical”, thereby paving the way for a challenging, high-paying job as an interior designer. And they say America is the land of opportunity.

[Related anecdote from back when my brother and I were kids: my dad was on a business trip, and he, the King of the Free Upgrade, had gotten us this enormous posh hotel room that had three phones. I was old enough to recognize decadence when I saw it, and I knew that three phones was decadence. At one point my dad had to make a business call, so he figured he’d have some privacy if he left my brother and mom and me to watch TV while he used the phone in the bathroom. Because, well, there was a phone in the bathroom. And my brother was three or four years old, still at the stage where he felt entirely at ease doing things like wandering into the bathroom while my father was on the bathroom phone, leaving the door wide open, picking up the toilet seat, and conducting his business. So, maybe I’m being too hard on the author: none of us were born knowing the full extent of what bathrooms are and are not suitable for, and not all of us had the benefit of learning same during our formative years.]

I’ve only skimmed through the rest, and though much of it follows this format of guiding complete idiots through the job-hunting process (don’t look up the home phone number of the person who interviewed you, and call her the next day at midnight to see if you have the job!), there’s a lot of value, such as the link to the Canadian government site that lists 25,000 different careers with their descriptions. (On preview: nope, that site doesn’t exist. But here’s the HRDC site that’s almost as good, giving descriptions of a whopping one hundred and seventy jobs. Feh.) So I can scan ahead to everything in courier font and skip the rest, which already makes this book more useful than the meeting with the employment counselor, who never talked in courier font at all.

7/29/2005

The Canadian military: officially irrelevant

File under: Home And Native Land, I Read The News Today, Oh Boy. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 5:16 pm.

Ooh, lookie here, it’s another disputed island. This time we’re duking it out with Denmark:

Defence Minister Bill Graham says Canada will assert its sovereignty over Hans Island in response to a letter of protest from the Danish government.

…There is concern that global warming has made the Northwest Passage more accessible to shipping and Graham says Canada needs to act.

…The United States, for example, still considers [the Arctic waters] to be international waters.

Yo, Bill: The country with the largest military in the developed world is claiming that the water surrounding Baffin Island is as much theirs as ours, and we’re all worked up over Denmark claiming a land mass that’s half a square mile in area? (ETA: you want your threat to national sovereignty? I got your threat to national sovereignty right here.)

So much to make fun of in this story, so little time at the library computers. For instance:

Graham was not clear on exactly how Canada will assert its sovereignty without the equipment to keep foreign vessels out of Canadian waters.

Um, we’re Canadian. And we’re dealing with Denmark. We’ll ask nicely?

And: the battle of the Google ads!

Toronto resident Rick Broadhead googled the matter and found an ad that touted Hans Island as Danish. “Does Hans sound Canadian? Danish name, Danish island.”

Oh, spare me the parochialism of Western Europe. What the hell does a homogeneous nation know about these things? Galiano Island has an Italian name, but unless it migrates out of the Georgia Strait, it’s ours for keeps. And are you going to point at us and laugh at our funny place names like Ottawa and Manitoulin Island which sound funny and not-English? I mean, kindly do school us, Denmark, on what “sounds” Canadian, will you? We’re how many of us immigrants or first-generation, who fled countries like yours? Because, in part, we have a less narrow view of what it means to be from “around here”?

Idiots. Watch this one totally not get resolved.

7/27/2005

Success is the best revenge

File under: Meta-Meta, Hubris. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 2:11 pm.

Daniel Lemire says I’m the funniest math geek on the web. Y’hear that, everyone who ever called me a nerd back in middle school? The funniest math geek on the web.

7/25/2005

I feel so unclean

File under: Righteous Indignation, Those Who Can't, Know Thyself. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 2:30 pm.

O, the moral depths that a woman will plunder when she’s desperate for money (*): this morning’s tutoring session covered the topic of How to Use Your Fucking Graphing Calculator to Find the Roots of a Goddamned Quadratic, For Crying Out Loud. And I taught it. Without snark, flailing of arms, or even a modicum of political commentary. And, so help me God, I even acted - convincingly, I think - as if I enjoyed it. I take some measure of comfort in the knowledge that my tutee will probably forget this lesson, along with all others, the minute he finishes writing his provincials (if not before), but still. They don’t make soap strong enough.

You won’t think less of me for this, will you?

(*) Not the case here; my savings will cover groceries and rent. Today’s spoils will finance a meal or two of Dim Sum at the Buddhist restaurant, which I think lies somewhere between Love and Esteem on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. I guess this makes me even more of a skank.

7/23/2005

Is there a cognitive psychologist in the house?

File under: Those Who Can't. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 4:36 pm.

The comments to my post on math prerequisites that aren’t being met are the reason that, despite all of the comment spam, I leave these pages world-writable. Some excellent stuff there, and I hope that some curriculum developers in my province are reading what my readers have to say. I have more to say in the prerequisites thread, but first I wanted to address some comments from high school math teachers who assure me that their students aren’t leaving their classrooms without knowing what an equation was, how to add fractions, and so on.

I believe them. To look at the BC high school curriculum, it’s hard to find anything specific that is explicitly wrong with the course. (Aside, that is, from the “This book is brought to you by the letters T and I” thing, which I suppose is a big one.) By the time British Columbian teenagers leave grade twelve, they’ve been exposed to fractions, exponents, quadratic equations, graphs, and logarithms - the prerequisites for college math. They’ve even been exposed to questions that are a lot more open-ended than I expected - questions that demand a modicum of creativity.

The problem is that many students - perhaps most - never properly learned this stuff. Others knew it to some degree at some point, and promptly forgot it.

I’ve been tutoring a student in that second category - he can’t remember how to solve a linear equation (when do you divide both sides by the same number? When do you add stuff to both sides?), he can’t remember how to evaluate powers, he can’t remember…much of anything he learned. And nothing makes me feel like a failure as a teacher than hearing that the mathematics I’ve been trying to teach has come across as something merely to remember.

Can anyone recommend any reading material, accessible to a layperson, on how knowledge is stored? Why, and how, some information gets stored in short-term memory, some finds its way into long-term, and other types of data - a first language, for instance - is not something that people think about as knowing and not as remembering? Because I don’t think it’s something intrinsic about mathematics that it seems to get stored into the most unreliable section of my students’ brains.

As I was thinking about this post, reader Susan made an insightful connection between math (something students memorize) and language (something students learn):

It’s possible for a non-expert to determine whether a child is literate by asking him or her to read something unfamiliar (ideally both outloud and silently) and to explain what they’ve read in their own words.

We need to define and expect something similar as far as being numerate.

To which I add: not expecting anything similar for math gives students no reason to process and learn math instead of just remember it.

I’m only now remembering that I actually did do something similar last term, although I didn’t draw the connection to reading that Susan did. Last term, after one particularly miserably-done test, I gave my students an opportunity to submit (for credit) corrections to the word problems. I gave them a template to follow: they had to describe, in words, what information they were given in the problem, and what they were missing. They had to describe, in words, how those things were related, and then, based on their previous work they had to provide the equations they needed. A few students actually came up to me and said that that exercise really helped them understand what they were doing with word problems. I was shocked - this was the horrible precalculus class - and encouraged. A month later, however, I found that those same students drew a blank when faced with the word problems on the test.

We’ve got a long way to go.

One could argue that I went into it with a negative attitude

File under: Know Thyself, What I Did On My Summer Vacation. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 3:57 pm.

Because I don’t think I want to spend the rest of my life teaching precalculus to students who can’t compute 5*0 without a calculator, and because the local colleges don’t seem intent on letting me do that anyway, and because a temporary lapse of self-awareness made me completely forget the “independent to a fault, don’t need nothin’ from nobody” aspect of my character, I decided to pay a visit to a career counsellor.

Summary: big, fat waste of time. Upon reflection, I think the biggest problem is that I’d assumed, incorrectly, that an employment counsellor was an expert on jobs. It turns out that an employment counsellor’s expertise is actually a step removed from, and hence a step less useful than, that: mine clearly specialized in the “job-seeking process”. Which meant that when I came in with a list of my skills, interests, and possible employers that I’d like to research (this last one is non-trivial, as there are confidentiality issues involved with the employers I’m interested in; I’m not going to go into details), he couldn’t help me with that. He could, however, refer me to a “career exploration program”, where I’d be able to “explore my strengths and weaknesses”, “discover my interests” and other somesuch; this would be explained in greater detail in the pamphlet he gave me. Leafing through it, I noticed that the first day of the three-week program would be devoted to discovering my Myers-Briggs personality type.

INTJ,” I told him. “And I know what my interests and strengths and weaknesses are. I’m a highly analytical, independent worker with no patience for small talk and routine. I have some types of careers in mind; I need more specialized direction than this.”

From the look on his face, I gathered that no one had ever made such a request before.

That wasn’t the only problem. The meeting, actually, started going poorly even before I shook hands with the man: I arrived on time, and spent the next thirty-five minutes in the waiting room while the counsellor was “almost done, really, we’re sorry about this.” At the stroke of n-thirty, he finally emerged from his office and presented himself to the (newly-hired) secretary, and proceeded to admonish her gently for booking half hour appointments instead of full-hour appointments. He needed a full hour, he explained, for new clients. Somehow this didn’t translate into my own consultation lasting for more than twenty-three minutes, or involving the counsellor doing things like actually reading the resume I’d been instructed to print out, but I was ready to leave after twenty-three minutes (see above) anyway, so I wasn’t about to object.

Once in the room, he took a minute, literally, to scan the form I’d filled out in the waiting room. Like all government forms I’ve ever filled out, this one contained an optional section in which one can identify oneself as belonging to one or more of various groups; like all government forms I’d ever filled out, I opted to leave this part blank. Noticing that I am severe-featured and dark-skinned, the employment counsellor quickly proceeded to engage me in a variant of Twenty Questions that I swear to God I play every other month:

“So, where are you from?”
“Ontario.”
“You were…born there?”
“Yes.”
“Where were your parents born?”
“Quebec.”
“I see…”

Just his luck, I’m third-generation, so he reluctantly abandoned that line. But seriously, I understand why there’s an ethnicity field on these sorts of forms, but I understand even more so why filling out such a section is optional, and I resent it when people who really should know better try to coax such information out of me. Am I the first person who has ever chosen not to fill in a few optional fields on a government form? Shee.

(Aside: every now and again someone asks me, point-blank, “What is your ethnicity?” I’ve had bad luck answering honestly, as my experience has been that more people fancy themselves experts on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than is warranted, and a lot of them are just dying to give their input on the matter. Finding out that the bloodline of their interlocutor intersects with that of some folks who live in that region, by the way, apparently constitutes a capital opportunity to do so. So when the Swedish hosts of a B&B on Denman Island posed the question, I responded in my preferred way: by selecting, at random, a country that lies roughly on the line joining Warsaw to Bombay, and claiming ancestry. “I’m half Turkish,” I lied, and the Swedish wife turned to the husband and said something rushed and excited that had the cadence of I told you, didn’t I tell you? and the husband turned to me and smiled weakly, as though to say, No she didn’t, but what can I do?)

Back to the meeting: the best I could say about it is that unlike almost all of the academic types who have counselled me on employment, Employment Counsellor was not of the mind that I’d never get anywhere without a Ph.D. Alas, he opted for the other extreme, and wrote off my education altogether: “Oh, I see you can use a computer,” he remarked approvingly, as he glanced at my resume, skipping over things like the title of my thesis (understandable), my Dean’s List placement at my alma mater (less so), and a description of the ceramic dinner set I’d been commissioned to make (ok, fine). And, yes, I can use a computer to a degree that puts me in direct competition with only three quarters of the youth in my province, rather than all of them, but, my lord.

Like many members of my demographic - gifted kids of professionals, who were directed to seek scholarship, rather than employment, in their studies, and who were never given much guidance with regards to the latter - I am finding myself suspended between two distinct groups that are, for opposite reasons, ill-suited to help me. On the one hand are the intellectuals who can’t fathom a universe outside the academy, and hence cannot help me find my way in that world; on the other, the folks who never studied a subject as abstract and as technical as mathematics beyond the high school level, and consequently can’t provide the specialized direction I need to apply my own abstract and technical interests and skills outside the academy. Frustrating, because I know that there are math folks employed in statistics and in finance and in the military and elsewhere, and they didn’t hatch ready-made inside their cubicles.

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