Tall, Dark, and Mysterious

8/31/2005

What fucking idiocy

File under: Those Who Can't, I Read The News Today, Oh Boy. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 3:07 pm.

How much swearing in the classroom is too fucking much? More than five derivatives of the word “fuck” per lesson, according to a British secondary school:

A secondary school is to allow pupils to swear at teachers - as long as they don’t do so more than five times in a lesson. A running tally of how many times the f-word has been used will be kept on the board. If a class goes over the limit, they will be ’spoken’ to at the end of the lesson.

“Here ya go, you insolent kids: some arbitrary limits. Now don’t go testing them! And yeah, we’ll address the ‘How many times in one class can you call your teacher a bitch’ issue when it comes up.” Gee, I can’t imagine that one backfiring.

As always, the devil is in the details - the relevant ones in this case being this unfortunate choice of words from the assistant headmaster:

Within each lesson the teacher will initially tolerate (although not condone) the use of the f-word (or derivatives) five times…

Say, what are they teaching in English classes these days? Elements of language? Types of speech? Oh…the use-mention distinction, maybe? Probably not, but it’s not hard to imagine some precocious, potty-mouthed little fucker doing a little bit of reading outside of class if it enables him to expose the assistant headmaster’s subpar knowledge of his native language. (At Weavers School in Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, no less. Seriously, does that not sound like the name of a place where your English would be constantly corrected for deviating even marginally from the Queen’s?) For example: this post here? Only uses derivatives of the word “fuck” three four times. Even if you count the previous sentence, and this current one, which contains a wholly unnecessary mention of the word “fuck”.

What do my readers think? And please, keep it (relatively) fucking clean, or you’ll be spoken to.

(Link from Erin O’Connor and Joanne Jacobs)

8/29/2005

‘It’s somewhere in the destination city…probably’

File under: Sound And Fury, Meta-Meta. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 4:59 pm.

My computer is fixed! And it was shipped by ground, on August 23, by a service that guarantees delivery within four business days.

Yeah.

Purolator, at my request, has placed a trace on the damned thing, and they assure me that they’re doing their best to resolve this as efficiently as possible. This being the company that puts people on hold for half an hour at a stretch, you can imagine that I am positively FILLED WITH HOPE AND OPTIMISM.

Yes, I would waste my supernatural powers on this

File under: Meta-Meta, Queen of Sciences, Know Thyself. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 4:21 pm.

Declan at Crawl Across the Ocean tags me for a “intellectually worthless but fun meme”: Choose your super hero name and what your powers would be. Declan’s reason for choosing me is that “a mathematical superhero would be interesting”. Alas, *dramatic sigh* this restricts me to math-related superheroes, which are doomed to be less interesting than Declan’s Analogizer and guy-who-makes-things-literal - that’s my excuse for providing this anecdotal evidence that mathematicians are boring.

You see, this meme comes at a very convenient time, because for the last week or two I’ve had a math-related superpower in mind, based on a conversation I had with Meep over the phone the other week:

Me: (rants at length about how the high school graduate I’m tutoring seems to have learned nothing in the dozen math classes he’s taken, other than how to use his fucking graphing calculator)

Meep: Wouldn’t it be nice if there were some device that could just disable graphing calculators? Like, you press a button, and boom! - they don’t work?

Me: I’m sure the technology exists. (thinking) Yeah, that would be awesome. (Thinking some more) That would be totally amazing.

Not as cool as the old standards - invisibility-at-will, flight, superhuman strength - but my ability to disable graphing calculators at will would actually save the world. Or, at least, it would save mathematics education.

(And my superhero name? I think I can go with Moebius Stripper on this one; if memory serves me, most female superheroes’ uniforms are pretty much indistinguishable from pole dancers’, so that fits.)

(If I were to have evil math-related powers, I guess I’d have to go with the ability to make logically impossible things happen. You know, three-sided squares, the square root of two being rational, God creating a rock He can’t lift - that sort of thing. Just to see what would happen. Then again, I fear that the fallout would be that the universe as we know it would totally collapse, leaving only politicians in its wake. Yeah, that would be evil.)

8/24/2005

Back in the day

File under: Those Who Can't, Home And Native Land, Know Thyself. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 12:12 pm.

My maternal grandfather’s family fled Poland in 1934 on the last boat to Canada before the war. He, his brother, and his parents spent a week on the ship, and then another two weeks quarantined for chicken pox, before they headed off to Montreal with ten dollars in their pockets. Around this time, according to family legend, my paternal grandmother’s brothers were spending their weekends playing hockey with frozen cakes of horse manure. My great uncle, who told this story, has been known to tell tales, but this one rings true, because I can’t think of a more Canadian way to get through the Great Depression: We might not be have been able to afford rubber, but we had horse shit and damned if we were going to give up hockey.

My parents had it better, but apparently life in the fifties still sucked. For instance, my father and his siblings, for reasons I’m still not sure I understand, had to brush their teeth with salt. (Correction: Mom tells me it’s my grandmother who did that.) And the six members of my mother’s immediate family lived in a small house with one bathroom and when your grandfather went in, God bless him…

Not me. I grew up in an era of fluoridated water, small families, and multiple household bathrooms. For a time I resented my parents somewhat for depriving me of stories to tell my own children and grandchildren when they started bitching about how tough their lives were. I mean, what was I going to say? That our surround sound system had only six speakers? That we had to watch movies on lower-quality videotapes, without extras?

I needn’t have worried.

“I can’t believe you guys had to do all this stuff without graphing calculators,” said an incredulous high schooler this morning. “What did you do in your math classes?”

“Math,” replied Grandma Moebius Stripper, Luddite.

“No, seriously” (”seriously!”) “how did you guys do questions like this one?” - pointing to the Solve for x: tan x sin x - tan x = 0 example, which our tech-savvy student, following the instructions given by MATHPOWER 12, had just solved by first plotting the functions y = tan x sin x - tan x and y=0 on his TI-83+ and then invoking the INTERSECT command.

[I’d originally accidentally written tan x sin x - tan x = 1. Sorry! Thanks to Dog of Justice and Ronald for pointing that out.]

And from there, a five-minute digression into how when I was his age we knew the trigonometric ratios of the special angles by heart, and if we didn’t, at least we knew how to derive them from the triangles. (”You mean the ones you showed me yesterday?” “Yeah, those.” “Oh, so like you had to learn those?”) We had to actually factor expressions such as the one he was working on. Sometimes, we would sketch the graphs by hand, which we got to be very fast at, and then we’d apply our knowledge of periods and phase shifts and suchlike in order to find general solutions.

Replied the student, clearly a product of west coast ethos, “That musta taken lot of paper.”

Damned straight, it did. And this was before pulp and paper mills. And we had to cut down the trees by ourselves. With our teeth.

8/21/2005

You won’t find yourself in university if you got lost somewhere else

File under: No More Pencils, No More Books, I Read The News Today, Oh Boy. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 3:21 pm.

This article from the Georgia Straight does a decent job of quantifying and probing some observations I made in some earlier posts I wrote about the contradictory messages students receive on the relationship between university and employment. University, it seems, is neither a path to a career nor a place to develop intellectually - rather, it’s a place to wander about aimlessly with little guidance on either front:

  • About half of postsecondary students drop out or change programs by the end of their first year
  • Up to four out of five students don’t know what they want to do with their education when they start it
  • Just 75 percent of students completed the college or institute credential they set out to earn
  • Just 44 percent of former students reported that their job is “very related” to the training they took (Aside - I’m surprised it’s that high, actually.)

Unfortunately, the writer then muddies the waters by lamenting the rising cost of tuition. Which is a barrier to higher education for many, to be sure, but the rest of the article makes a pretty compelling case for just how overly accessible university educations are to a large contingent of people who have no clue what to do with them. I also disagree with a statement made by Phillip Jarvis, developer of career-exploration tests, who remarks, “Education changes slower than anything else in the country, and career is changing at an accelerated rate.” Having seen the changes undergone by high school and university mathematics curricula in the past decade, I’m inclined to disagree that education is stagnant. I’ll concede, however, that high school and university education are diverging from the practical, career-related goals they’re purported to fill.

Nevertheless, the main point of the article is a good one: that career counselling and skills training in the university are vitally important, and that both are between bad and nonexistent.

So, can someone remind me a) why it’s taken for granted that everyone who can afford it (and many who can’t) should go to university, b) why students are expected to go straight from high school to university, c) why university is the canonical setting for self-discovery among middle-class children of professionals, d) why, given the facts, many employers will overlook applicants with “only” two-year diplomas or hands-on training in a trade, and e) why government organizations and activists concerned with education accessibility focus their energies almost exclusively on the Rising Cost of a University EducationTM, and not on alternatives to same?

In which the iPod renders high school math obsolete, and other stories

File under: Sound And Fury, Those Who Can't, Queen of Sciences, Home And Native Land. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 12:25 pm.

The - count ‘em - eleven authors of MATHPOWER 12, the text currently in use in high schools all across British Columbia, are in a pickle. On the one hand, they know that the young people these days are more interested in the rock and roll music and the reality teevee than the book-learning, and that they’d rather play the video games than do the mathematics. Unfortunately, however, there’s not a whole lot about graphing conics that’s fun and exciting. So our intrepid authors, fingers firmly on the pulses of the jaded young members of their audience, settle for making half-assed connections between analytic geometry and Real LifeTM in the hopes that their teenaged readers will realize just how kewl math can be. Check out the hook they use in Chapter 3.3 - The Circle, to make sure that their readers are intrigued enough stick around until the end of the unit:

The compact disc player is everywhere these days. Developed initially by Philips and Sony, it first came on the market in 1983. By 1986, over one million CD players were being sold each year. Because of the low-cost laser components, the CD player has become one of the most successful electronic devices to date.

If you trace around the outside of a CD, the result is a circle.

A circle is the set or locus of all points in a plane which are equidistant from a fixed point. This fixed point is called the centre. The distance from this centre to any point on the circle is called the radius.

CD players! Cuz, like, music is cool, and think of how much cooler it will be once you know that the outline of your CD is all x^2+y^2=25 and shit.

Chapter 3.5, on the hyperbola, kicks it up a notch by getting all sonic on us:

The Concorde, a supersonic aircraft developed by Britain and France, first began passenger service in 1976. The Concorde travels at twice the speed of sound at an altitude of 17 000 meters. As a passenger on the Concorde on a flight from London to New York City, you would cross five time zones in 3.5 h. Your arrival in New York would be 1.5h prior to your departure London time.

As you saw in the chapter opener, at speeds greater than the speed of sound, air pressure disturbances accumulate in front of the aircraft and a conical shock wave forms. When the Concorde is travelling parallel to the ground, this conical shock wave intersects the ground in the shape of one branch of the hyperbola.

Right below is a graph of a hyperbola, and a description of its focal property.

Actually, this is quite interesting. I know I saw some of this back when I was an undergraduate, but I forgot it, and now I’m curious about the physics of sound. If I were a high school student reacting in what I assume is the authors’ intended way - “hey, cool, sonic booms give hyperbolas, I wonder how that works” - I might be inclined to flip through a few pages in order to learn more.

Unfortunately, there’s nothing more on sonic booms. Nothing. We don’t get to learn about the significance of the foci in the picture, nor are we even told the most basic fact about the sonic boom hyperbola - namely, that the sonic boom is heard simultaneously at all points on the hyperbola. We do not even, in fact, see how the focal property of the hyperbola allows us to derive the equation for the hyperbola, period - that formula is just handed to us as-is, and we’re left to trust that it gives us the same shape as the one whose focal distances have constant difference. Actually, we can forget about the focal property entirely: it never comes up in the exercises or in the tests. (We can even, to a certain extent, forget the equation for the hyperbola, and rely on our graphing calculator to remind us when the need arises.) But, check out the funky photo of the Concorde! (Aside: the textbook authors don’t even provide a picture of a sonic boom.)

I have tutored high school math on and off for more than a decade, and during that time, I have noticed a trend toward stripping high school mathematics texts of logic and proof - and, for that matter, of anything that requires sustained and focused attention - and filling in the gaps with pretty pictures, long-winded examples, and graphing calculator applications. No wonder my students regard mathematics as a disjoint collection of facts: their textbooks give no indication otherwise.

Enough about the conics. Let’s skip ahead to a section on combinatorics (7.4 - Pathways and Pascal’s Triangle), because there are enough elementary applications of that material that there’s no need to provide any disjointed, contrived ones. But reading the introduction to this section, I find that an apology is due - to the kid I’m currently tutoring, and to all of the students who perplexed me with their dogged refusal to read the questions before answering them. Because, see, when I (and my readers) ranted about students who expect to be able to solve word problems without reading them, we were assuming that the authors of those word problems were not insufferable windbags who are being paid by the word. And by “insufferable windbags who are being paid by the word” I mean insufferable windbags who are being paid by the word, because I can’t think of any other explanation for this atrocious introduction to path counting, which I swear to God I’m not embellishing:

The destiny of Ottawa changed forever when Queen Victoria chose it as the capital of the province of Canada in 1857. Construction of the Parliament buildings began in 1860 and was completed approximately six years later, just in time to be reaffirmed as the nation’s capital in 1867.

Prior to European settlement, various aboriginal groups occupied the region, including the Ottawa nation from which the city took its name. With the arrival of the French in the 1600’s, and later the British, the fur trade became the mainstay of the economy in the Ottawa River valley. Despite this fact, Europeans did not settle the Ottawa area until 1800.

Not long after the timber trade began, and with the completion of the Rideau Canal in 1832 by Lieutenant-Colonel John By of the Royal Engineers, a community called Bytown was firmly established as a centre for timber trade. This thriving town was incorporated as the city of Ottawa in 1855.

The simplified street map shows a portion of downtown Ottawa, close to the Parliament buildings. If you start at the corner of Bank and Laurier, and travel only eastward or northward, there are two routes you can take to walk to Corner B. How many routes are possible to walk from the corner of Bank and Laurier to the corner of Rideau and Elgin?

I’m no longer going to tell students to read the entire question before answering it. A clueless student who reads only the last sentence of this question has a fighting chance of answering it correctly. One who reads the whole tome, on the other hand, has a non-negligible chance of processing the quantitative data in a way familiar to everyone who’s graded word problems: Number of pathways = 1857+1860-1867-1600+1800-1832+1855 = 2073.

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