Tall, Dark, and Mysterious

10/29/2005

This post would be TOTALLY AWESOME if I didn’t care about my job

File under: Meta-Meta, Know Thyself, Welcome To The Occupation. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 4:01 am.

Last week, Nurse Hatchet provided some thoughts about blogging and work, namely that one should never do the former at the latter, and that one should only occasionally and very very carefully do the former about the latter. Her advice is reasonable enough, and I’m paranoid enough, that I plan to follow her recommendations to the letter, and that’s why I’ve been spending the past five days rereading her post in the hopes that I missed the “unless there’s something really really juicy, in which case, WRITE AT LENGTH AND IN GREAT DETAIL” exception the first twenty times. But, alas.

Let me give you a taste of just what I’m leaving you in the dark about, okay? Here - my first week of work involved a lot of mini-meetings, most rather standard, with the experienced staff: here’s where to find the office supplies, here’s a project you might be working on next month, here’s how to log on to the office database. That sort of thing. And then yesterday: here’s a pile of confidential emails that illustrate just how batshit insane some of the people we deal with are. And although I want so very much to elaborate on this, I MUST NOT TELL YOU ANY MORE. Never since Abraham laid his son upon the altar has God so tested one of His people. Oh, I thought of using the old “just make stuff up” device to satisfy the urge, but this is so completely a case of truth being stranger than any sort of fiction I can spin that there’s really no point. Really - think of the craziest type of work-related emails you can imagine. These are crazier.

Other than that, this job? Pretty good so far! I like the people I work with! The commute is too long! It sure is raining an awful lot these days!

And before anyone points out the obvious - my last job was a contract position, and I suspect that I could have skinned a live cat in any one of my classes and the university still wouldn’t have fired me and looked for someone to replace me for less than six months, at zero notice.

10/26/2005

‘A journalist doesn’t think she should know statistics. Bloody hell.’

File under: Sound And Fury, Queen of Sciences, I Read The News Today, Oh Boy. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 9:38 pm.

Thus commented Geoff the other day. Timely remark, that one, for tonight a whopping eighty-five percent of Canadian adults waited eagerly to see if they took home the Lotto 6/49’s record-breaking $40 million jackpot, and we all know what that means: it means that it’s time for journalists nationwide to present us with a panel of mathematical geniuses who regret to inform you, Joe Ticketbuyer, that you’re probably not going to win:

The results of the biggest lottery jackpot in Canadian history will be announced tonight, but experts are warning people not to get their hopes up.

For the uninitiated: you play the Lotto 6/49 by selecting 6 numbers out of 49. You win (part of) the jackpot if all six of your numbers all match the six numbers drawn.

According to experts, this event - whose probability, by the way, I had my never-were-any-good-at-math-and-always-hated-the-subject psych majors compute in my discrete math class last year, and most actually managed to do so correctly - is unlikely.

What are the chances that your ticket will hit the $40 million Lotto 6/49 jackpot?

Not good, according to Simon Fraser University Professor (well, senior lecturer, but who’s keeping track? - Ed.) Malgorzata Dubiel. She has calculated that the odds are just short of one in 14 million.

All the while muttering to herself: “For this I got a Ph.D.?”

Semantic quibble: the odds are slightly better than one in 14 million; they’re one in 13 983 816. So I take issue with the use of the phrase “just short”, which implies “a bit less than”, no?

Anyway, is followed by three paragraphs about the would-be philanthropist who said he’d donate half his winnings to charity if he won the jackpot (he didn’t), and then this:

[Dubiel] also debunked the myth that a person can “crack the code” of lotteries.

“Everything we know about mathematics says no, it can’t be done.”

This makes it sound as though the sum total of the mathematical canon to date, from Archimedes to Zariski, was brought to bear on the age-old question of “Stochastic Processes: Totally Stochastic, Or Just Kind Of?”. And, at last, produced the long-awaited conclusion that as a matter of fact, God occasionally does play dice with the universe, at least when He’s choosing the Lotto numbers. On top of that, I wince at the “everything we know” wording, which is reminiscent of Underwood Dudley’s dealings with aspiring angle trisectors. Many of those sorry folks explained their obsession with the problem with something along the lines of “mathematicians say that trisecting an angle using compass and straightedge alone is impossible, but they’re just not trying hard enough.”

But I digress: whether or not the lotto code is crackable isn’t a mathematical question, dammit. If the code is crackable, it’s because the random number generator selecting the numbers is somehow not completely random, and seriously? Take it to a computer scientist, dude. (Except that…lotto numbers are still selected by that spinny thing with the balls, no? And we’re asking a mathematician if it gets all spinny on the balls in a crackable way? Is this what people start thinking when they watch shows like Numbthreers?)

Dubiel admitted that there have been cases of people winning multiple times, but put it down to luck.

Note the use of the transitional term ‘but’, which is typically used to contrast one idea with an ostensibly opposed one. As in, there’s an apparent contradiction between the existence of multiple lottery winners, and the absence of mathemagical gnomes that select them deterministically.

“People simply put too much faith in something that is just coincidence,” she said.

They’re also too easily wowed when mathematicians remind them of the stuff they saw in Chapter 8 in their grade twelve high school math text, but that’s neither here nor there.

10/24/2005

Ode to general knowledge

File under: I Made It Out Of Clay, No More Pencils, No More Books. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 9:55 pm.

I’ve stated before that I don’t believe that college is for everyone. For example, college is not for Stacy Perk, who just wants to write for Glamour magazine, but her dumbass school is making her learn stuff, and she doesn’t care enough about stuff to actually go to class and do her homework and shit, so her GPA is suffering and so she might get kicked out of j-school, OH THE INJUSTICE OF IT ALL. (Where did I find this again?) There’s cheap dig about Glamour magazine (Americans spell ‘glamour’ with a U? Who knew?) just asking to be made, but I can’t be bothered to make it. As for the rest of the piece - it’s been a long day, and fisking is a delicate art as it is, and fisking something that so spectacularly transcends parody? Forget it.

So I’m going to talk about how a broad and general technical background has served me in the place where I most flagrantly avail myself of the right hemisphere of my brain: the pottery studio.

For instance, I minored in physics for a spell - more than long enough that I can answer the question that every beginner potter asks: “why is everything I make turning into a bowl?” That’s Newton’s first law in action: if you pull the clay directly upward, it’ll bowl out, because as soon as you lose contact with your form, you’re releasing the centripetal force that keeps your clay close to the centre of the wheel. Compensate by pushing inward, toward the centre of the wheel, if you want to throw forms that don’t widen at the top.

…A solid background in elementary geometry was enough to enable to me to help a fellow potter who was throwing a drum. On top of the thrown drum body she planned to stretch a circle of drum skin, which she’d tie on by looping a string through “twelve or fourteen” holes spaced equally on the perimeter. Twelve, I explained, would be better than fourteen, and we could space them equally using nothing but pencil and a straightedge. And I understood the reflection properties of conics deeply enough to explain why it was suggested that drum bodies be paraboloids.

…My studies of chemistry ended when I graduated high school - something that I didn’t start regretting until I started working regularly with clay. But I stuck around long enough to learn the difference between temperature and quantity of heat - a difference that is paramount to everyone who works with kilns. Potters talk about firing at various cones rather than at various temperatures - whether your kiln temperature rises at 50 degrees per hour or 150 degrees per hour makes a huge difference in how your glazes will come out. I stuck around long enough to understand that the evaporation of the water molecules in wet clay - which happens when clay is left in the air to dry - is a physical change, whereas the driving off chemically bonded water from clay molecules - which happens in the bisque firing - is a chemical change. This distinction explains why clay will disintigrate if you dip it in glaze - a suspension of insoluble particles in water - before it’s been fired, but not after; it also explains why unfired clay can be recycled, but bisqueware can’t. I don’t know enough chemistry, however, to make glaze-mixing anything other than random, which is why I’m positively salivating over this book. (I do know enough to remember that copper turns green when it’s been exposed to oxygen - witness the roofs of our Parliament buildings, among countless others - which is why I’m not surprised that copper oxide in glazes only gives brilliant reds in reduction firings, such as raku, in which the interior of the kiln is starved of oxygen.)

…And damned if I have the physics/kinesiology background to explain this one adequately, but every time I teach a beginners’ workshop, I recall a certain experiment that I found in one of the children’s science magazines I used to read when I was a kid. Try this one at home: have a partner - preferably a strong one - extend his or her arms, with elbows locked, and fists pressed together as tightly as possible. You won’t have much trouble knocking your partner’s fists apart, regardless of how strong they are or how weak you are. Now have your partner try this again, but with his or her elbows bent and fists pressed together close to the body. That’s a much more stable position, and it’s how I motivate the throwing posture: you use your entire upper body - not just your hands - when you’re on the wheel. You tuck your elbows into your hips, you bring your chair right up to the wheel, and you lean downward into the clay; otherwise you’re no match for it when you try to centre it. Take it from a certain beginner I taught once: he was six inches taller and nearly a hundred pounds heavier than me; he had biceps the size of my thighs; and when he sat back at the wheel with arms extended, he was no match for a 500g lump of clay.

That’s how my “useless general knowledge” has come up in the pottery studio alone. I owe a huge debt not only to the artists, but to the mathematicians and scientists who have laid the groundwork for my craft. I suppose I don’t really need to know why I need to lean inward why I throw; why I can’t seem to control a pound of clay unless I tuck my elbows into my hips; why we can’t get bright red glazes with our electric kilns…but my time in the studio is richer because I do.

Similarly, Ms. Perk technically doesn’t need to know damn near anything outside how to write a sentence if she wants to write. But she sure won’t have enough perspective to write anything worth reading. Not even in Glamour magazine.

10/20/2005

Show me the data.

File under: Righteous Indignation, Sound And Fury, Those Who Can't. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 10:56 pm.

What’s that you say? You’re sick of all those long-winded education rants that never go anywhere? Me too! However, I can’t pass up this opportunity to commend the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing for so succinctly summarizing everything that’s wrong with elementary-school-level mathematics education today. And in an exam that every prospective teacher in the state is required to write, to boot - now that’s efficient delivery!

Many people believe children will never learn mathematics if allowed to use pocket calculators. Having spent countless hours memorizing multiplication tables and doing long-division problems unaided by any mechanical device, many adults cannot conceive of anyone acquiring this knowledge without similar effort and practice. ______________. What many people fail to understand is that mathematics is constantly evolving; it is not a fixed body of facts. Students must still learn basic skills, but they do not need to perform the endlessly repetitive exercises that calculators largely eliminate. Youngsters can better use their time—time they would have spent performing long-division problems—to learn mathematical concepts that will enable them to become better problem solvers.

Which sentence, if inserted into the blank line, would best focus attention on the main idea of the passage?

(A) It is true that mathematics is not the easiest subject in the typical elementary school curriculum.

(B) Many of you have doubtless heard about the bitter classroom experiences of students who learned mathematics this way.

(C) There is much to be said for instilling this kind of discipline in students.

(D) Although it was clearly not fun, students trained in this manner rarely forgot what they had learned.

(E) Such views, however, seem to reflect a resistance to change rather than a rational approach to mathematics instruction.

(F) Contrast this instance of common sense with the hallucination that follows.

Just kidding! (F) isn’t an option. The correct answer is (E).

Yes, yes: fish in a barrel are targets for amateur marksmen, I know. But what we have here is a barrelful of tranquilized guppies that been given free reign over early mathematics education, so let’s have a go at it before any more metaphors get mixed:

What many people fail to understand is that mathematics is constantly evolving; it is not a fixed body of facts.

You know, I skewered this one months ago. I even used the word evolved, for crying out loud. My readers found this -

Yes, if there’s one field that has evolved beyond recognition in the past quarter-century, it’s introductory calculus. Why, back when I was a tot, the area of a rectangle was length plus width, the derivative of sin x was 5, and we only had whole numbers, so whenever we needed to compute the area of a circle we had to use pi=3, AND YOU NEVER HEARD US COMPLAIN.

- to be hysterically funny, because it was so over-the-top. Except that…it wasn’t. It was very much beneath the top. It was smack dab in the middle of what those enlightened educators, unlike “many people”, have succeeded in understanding.

Students must still learn basic skills, but they do not need to perform the endlessly repetitive exercises that calculators largely eliminate.

They don’t? Really? I’m not convinced. Let’s see what a cognitive scientist has to say about this!

It is difficult to overstate the value of practice. For a new skill to become automatic or for new knowledge to become long-lasting, sustained practice, beyond the point of mastery, is necessary.

… By sustained practice I mean regular, ongoing review or use of the target material (e.g., regularly using new calculating skills to solve increasingly more complex math problems, reflecting on recently-learned historical material as one studies a subsequent history unit, taking regular quizzes or tests that draw on material learned earlier in the year). This kind of practice past the point of mastery is necessary to meet any of these three important goals of instruction: acquiring facts and knowledge, learning skills, or becoming an expert.

But what does that guy know, anyway? The times (tables), they are a-changin’! Mathematics is evolving! Get with the program!

I’m curious about something, though: is this anti-repetition view unique to mathematics education? Have the musicians among my readers, for instance, noticed a similar trend in music pedagogy? Music is EVOLVING! It is not a FIXED BODY OF FACTS! We have new-fangled technomology that enables students to bypass all that boring stuff, like learning scales! Or…do music students still practice scales, even though scales really aren’t that much fun to practice? I know that when I teach pottery, I spend a fair bit of time focusing on the basic skill of centering the lump of clay, even though it’s more rewarding to throw teapots.

Onward:

Youngsters can better use their time—time they would have spent performing long-division problems—to learn mathematical concepts that will enable them to become better problem solvers.

Joanne Jacobs speaks for me:

I’ve spent countless minutes (that seemed like hours) waiting for students I’ve tutored to multiply 4 times 5 or 3 times 6. Oddly enough, they weren’t adept at understanding mathematical concepts or solving problems.

The idea that students who don’t waste their time learning the boring basics will have freed up valuable time and brain space to become creative problem-solvers is one I’ve seen cited often. It’s an idea that every single mathematics educator with whom I have ever communicated - and I have communicated with hundreds, across several continents, both in person and through this blog - considers to be utter hogwash. But it’s possible that we’re just outliers. It’s possible that on the whole, students who don’t learn their times tables beyond mastery are brighter, bolder, and more creative problem solvers than their predecessors. And if that’s the case, then there should be plenty of statistics to bear that out. And surely the proponents of calculator-based curricula have plenty of rigorous statistical studies at their fingertips.

Let’s see them. Put up or shut up.

Show me the data.

Show me a single peer-reviewed study that indicates that students who were raised with calculators show greater facility and more creativity in problem-solving than those who were raised without. I want to see test scores. I want to see comparisons of performances in university-level mathematics classes between students who were made to memorize and practice their times tables, and those who weren’t. I want to see evidence that learning the basics and learning advanced mathematics are negatively correlated.

Until then, I’m going to rationally resist change, and teach mathematics in the way that my peers and I actually learned it.

10/19/2005

Potteryblog, redux: the Hollywood North edition

File under: 1000 Words, I Made It Out Of Clay, Talking To Strangers. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 9:10 pm.

So, we’ve established that no one’s interested in my pottery. Tough crowd, but I’ve been spending nearly all of my time in the studio lately, so that’s all I’ve got. How about a story about my pottery and Al Pacino, then?

Gallery Show this week. Here’s my stuff. Those of my readers who follow the amateur pottery scene will note that the bulk of my work does not conform to the preferences of the consumer, who will pay good money for a turd dipped in blue glaze after rejecting every other colour of bowl, mug, vase, or plate, regardless of how skillfully made and well priced. I’m not kidding; every single one of my pieces that sold in the past two days was blue. Someone bought the fifth piece I made, ever. It was crap, but it was blue. Don Davis, author of one of my pottery bibles, once remarked that potters tend to focus on form, while non-potters pay closer attention to the surface of a pot. This certainly holds true in my experience, and it’s a shame, because glazing is my weak suit, and it shows. Throwing is my strength and my passion, but only other potters seem to recognize that.

But, Al Pacino. Sales were slow at the gallery yesterday morning, and the other studio member who was manning the tables with me decided to duck out for a few minutes to promote our show. A few minutes turned into half and hour, and when K returned, she explained that she had had trouble getting across campus, what with the movie being filmed around the science building (*), and what with every student and their dog trying to get a piece of the star, Al Pacino, who was six feet from her, and her without her camera!

I had my camera. K dispatched me to the scene, and I had no trouble finding it. Or, as it turns out, walking into it: I soon found myself six feet from Al Pacino while a handful of security guards idly looked on, but I convinced myself that it wasn’t actually him, because wouldn’t the security guards have held me back? As I turned a corner, a stagehand called out to me, “Hey! Get back! Only extras are allowed in here!”

“I’m an extra,” I lied, because, why not? I had nothing better to do yesterday than be in a movie.

The stagehand didn’t buy it. “No, you’re not,” he proclaimed with such conviction that I couldn’t help but feel hurt. What gave it away? I surveyed the actual extras across from me as I tried to assess what separated me so obviously from them. Was it my glasses? My aspherical breasts? My underwear-covering jeans?

The stagehand was forthcoming: “Our extras are not covered in dirt,” he sneered.

“Clay,” I corrected, self-consciously fingering the dried bits of slip in my hair. Nevertheless: point well taken.

I apologized for walking onto the scene, and explained that the security guards on the set had seen me and hadn’t tried to stop me, so I had assumed that the filming was taking place elsewhere. The stagehand sighed heavily. “Those are not security guards,” he explained slowly, “Those are actors playing security guards.”

I excused myself from the set. Off to the side, two female students were chatting up another assistant. The topic of conversation was something along the lines of Al Pacino is here? Like, right here? Can we see him? Can we get his autograph? I injected myself into the discussion long enough to ask what the movie was called, because on the off-chance that its editors suck, then they’ll leave in the scene that was filmed when I accidentally wandered onto the set. Look for the clay-covered girl, appearing soon in a theatre near you!

“It’s called 88 Minutes,” replied the assistant. “It’s about a guy who has 88 minutes to find three people .”

“What three people?” asked one of the girls.

And at this, the assistant gave a lopsided grin, and said, “If it were up to me”- here he pointed - “it would be you, you,” - eyes settling on me, and a huge wink - “and you.”

A few hours later, when I’d gotten myself to a computer, I looked for some more information about 88 minutes. Here’s a plot summary:

[88 Minutes is a] thriller about a college professor who, while moonlighting as a forensic psychiatrist for the FBI, receives a death threat telling him that he has only 88 minutes to live. In narrowing down possible suspects, he frantically seeks to communicate with a problem student, an ex-girlfriend, and a serial killer on death row. (**)

Which makes “and you” a contender for the worst pick-up line ever. Regardless, I have been really low on bloggable material lately, so I giggled and smiled back at the assistant, and handed him a promotional postcard for the gallery show. “You’ll have a lot longer than eighty-eight minutes to find us,” I said, and winked back at him.

I spent this morning in the studio attaching handles to mugs, and just after lunch I wandered up to our display to see how sales were going. “You sold some stuff,” the studio secretary informed me. “Some guy came in and asked for you specifically. He didn’t know your name, just told me what you looked like. It was weird. I told him where your stuff was.”

“Dude in his thirties or so, tanned, light brown hair?” I asked.

“Yeah,” replied the secretary.

Son of a gun. “Did he buy anything?” I asked, incredulous.

He did. He bought a mug.

It was blue.

——————-

(*) There have been many movies filmed on campus. The one that I remember best was this dreck, which is hands-down the worst movie I have ever seen in my life. I watched it only because I had heard that part of it was filmed in the very classroom where I had taught a first-year calculus class. The movie opened with a scene featuring high school students in that classroom writing their SATs, an acronym that the narrator informed us stood for “the Suck-Ass Tests”, and if you still think that this looks to be quality cinema after reading that, then you are not welcome here anymore.

(**) Does anyone else find it amusing that the problem student is apparently just as likely a suspect as the serial killer?

10/15/2005

Potteryblog

File under: I Made It Out Of Clay, Meta-Meta. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 9:10 pm.

Those of my readers who desperately hang onto my every word, who begin to twitch when the rate of updates wanes, and who, lost when confronted by this utter absence of new and interesting content, cast their eyes rightward in the hopes of finding something, anything of mine that they can read - those strange, strange folks recently had their creepy devotion validated when they found a new link to photos of my pottery in the sidebar. The rest of you had to wait until today.

Everything in that gallery was made in the past three weeks, by the way - I recently renewed my membership in my beloved old studio, and have spent four to five days there each week ever since I signed the club contract and reclaimed my old cubby. I start my new job soon, and am sad that [above] won’t last much longer. There will be pictures of my older stuff up soon - my studio is holding a big show/sale soon, and I’ll want to get shots of the older pots before I part with them.

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