Tall, Dark, and Mysterious

12/23/2005

A somewhat tense hour and thirty-nine minutes

File under: Meta-Meta, Talking To Strangers. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 8:29 pm.

The other day, I found myself lamenting the lack of bloggable material that has crossed my path of late. I did not, however, then say to myself, “Oh, I know! How about I leave my wallet on a bus, and then write about my experience trying to get it back!” Nevertheless, you take what you can get, and I couldn’t be happier with what I got, really:

  • Prior to taking this bus, I had to buy a transfer from a machine. All I had on me was twenties, so after buying the transfer I had $19 in loonies, twonies, and quarters, which I pocketed. So when my wallet and I parted ways, I still had $19, which would be enough to get me through the next few days, if it came to that.

  • The guy at the transit system’s customer service centre managed to strike a formidable balance between I’ve-dealt-with-this-sort-of-thing-a-hundred-times -before professionalism, and nothing-is-more-important-to-me-than-your-case compassion. He took my name, and told me that every bus is swept when it gets to the end of the line, and that this bus in particular would be back at my door in an hour going the other way, and if I wanted I could go try to catch it.
  • I did, and explained my case to the driver, who stopped his bus and let me on to try to find my wallet, but informed me that he hadn’t found a wallet when he’d gotten to the end of the line and doubted that it was here. Still, though, he’d take a few minutes to look, as would all twenty people on that bus. Alas, nothing. But then the driver asked me when I’d gotten on the bus.

    “Seven twenty,” I said.

    “Oh, this bus was at your stop at seven-oh-five,” he said. “So your wallet wouldn’t be here.”

    “So is the next bus going to be the seven twenty one?” I asked.

    “No, that bus goes back to the lot,” he replied.

    I thanked him and and he let me off. A passenger at the front, a woman of around eighty who minutes before had been on all fours to check under her seat, wished me luck.

  • But what does a bus driver know, I thought; I knew the schedule, and there’d be another bus coming by in exactly fifteen minutes, and it would be the seven-twenty bus, no?

    So I waited, and the drizzle gave way to pouring rain, and fifteen minutes later I was drenched, but there was a bus. He stopped, and I explained my situation.

    “You weren’t on my bus,” said the driver matter-of-factly. “I’d remember you.”

    “Yes, I was, I got on at the beginning of the line at seven twenty.”

    “Naw, this bus came ’round your way seven thirty-five.”

    Very well.

  • Back home, I called customer service again, and got a woman who took my name. “You saved me a phone call,” she said. “We just got word that a wallet was found, has your name in it.”

    “How much cash is in it?” I asked.

    All of it.

  • “All of it” was under a hundred dollars, as opposed to the ten thousand-odd dollars that you read about every now and again in front-page articles around Christmastime, in which some homeless person finds a wallet full of some obscene amount of money, leaves it all there, and then doesn’t accept a reward. I was glad that I hadn’t left ten thousand dollars in my wallet because I didn’t want there to be a front-page article about me. By the way, for what it’s worth, if I found a wallet with that sort of cash, I would return all of it to the owner, but I damnwell would expect a reward, and I would accept every penny. Because I returned a wallet to someone who walks around with ten thousand dollars in cash.
  • Got it back the next day.

Longtime readers may contrast the relative ease in obtaining money from the transit authority with to the crazy-making ordeal of acquiring same from the Employment Insurance office. I wonder if we could streamline the Employment Insurance system by having employers place cash in wallets on buses, and have unemployed people collect their benefits directly from the transit authority.

12/17/2005

But will they be the sensitive motherly types, or the nagging shrews?

File under: Character Writ Large, Righteous Indignation, XX Marks the Spot, Home And Native Land. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 6:30 pm.

Last night, the three Men Who Would Be Prime Minister (and the One Who Would Abolish The Position Entirely) were asked during the first English debate: what to do about all the heckling in Parliament? How to restore civility to the House of Commons?

To which Jack Layton, feminist, replied:

Well I’ve told my caucus that we won’t shout out and disrupt Parliament. And I think there’s one other thing we should do and that’s have a lot more women in Parliament. I’m very happy that our party has the highest percentage of women candidates ever that any political party has ever presented in an election, 37%. And mark my words - the tone of that house would change if we had a lot more women there, and voting NDP will help make that happen.

Women, see, are more polite than men. Really! Says so right there on TV! And politeness is good, and we want the House of Commons to be more polite, but we can’t very well expect the menfolk to behave by themselves, so let’s bring in more women to set the tone of Parliament. It’s a great deal: Layton gets to send the wimminfolk to do the dirty work, while collecting affirmative action points, all at no cost to himself!

Where have I seen this before? That’s right, grad school. I am leery of most manifestations of affirmative action to begin with, but at least I find a good many of them to be undertaken in good faith; this particular strain, however, is just odious.

Carolyn Ryan, one of four CBC journalists who live-blogged the debate, speaks for me:

Did Layton really just say his party would increase civility in the House of Commons by electing more women? That’s placing a big burden on the gender that produced Sheila Copps, Hedy Fry, and Deborah Grey. Are the female MPs supposed to shush their male counterparts when they get raucous? Should they hold tea parties in the foyer? Will they bring in a “bad-word jar,” with MPs having to pay a twonie every time they heckle? Puh-lease. Why not just promise to elect more polite people as MPs, or discipline the ones you’ve got now?

Why not? I know why not: because Layton knows better than to make promises he can’t keep. Better to set standards that his green women MPs won’t be able to live up to, and let them take the fall when they inevitably fail.

12/15/2005

So, what IS the point of those introductory college statistics classes, anyway?

File under: Those Who Can't, Queen of Sciences. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 9:06 pm.

For the past few months, I’ve been tutoring a college student in statistics. This tutee, unlike the other one I took on this summer, is good-natured, engaged, reasonably comfortable with basic mathematics, and in general an absolute pleasure to work with. But I figure there’s a reason that TD&M gets more hits in an hour than there are holds on every copy of Pollyanna in BC’s public libraries put together, and why mess with a winning formula? So enough about that student.

Let’s talk instead about the purpose of these statistics requirements for business and social science majors.

I taught such a course last year. My objective going into the course - and objective that made its way onto the syllabus - was for my students to emerge with a decent ability to assess and interpret quantitative data. Every lesson plan was subordinated to this purpose. I taught the standard intro-stats notation and terminology, but only as a means to an end. Each and every one of the ten quizzes and three tests that my students wrote contained at least one question that required that they answer in plain English. It was not enough that they be able to give me the bounds of confidence interval; to receive full credit, they needed to tell me what it meant. It was not enough for a student to tell me that a sample proportion fell inside the critical region and that we should therefore reject the null hypothesis; they needed to tell me what that meant in terms of a manufacturer’s or politician’s claim.

The class, for the most part, went rather well. Marks weren’t great; but I was confident that a good mark in my statistics class indicated a genuine understanding of statistics, and not just an ability to pluck out numbers that, when plugged into a meaningless equation, will yield the numerical answer that will be marked correct.

The statistics class that my tutee just completed was quite different. It covered the exact same topics as my class - sampling, measures of central tendency, distribution, probability, estimations of means and proportions, hypothesis testing - but this professor’s teaching and testing style was very different from mine. He gave a lot of assignments, and was fond of breaking questions down into multiple parts that lead a student to the answer. I’m not entirely opposed to some amount of that - hell, I think that such questions are probably the best way, at least initially, to deal with students who freeze when confronted with a problem that they can’t solve immediately - but this prof’s multi-part questions were…ill-conceived, to say the least. In particular:

  • Every question on a certain topic followed exactly the same template. No two topics shared same template. My tutee quickly figured out that an eight-part question in which the first part asked for a sample proportion and the second asked for the claim of the population proportion, was a hypothesis test that called for use of formulas 8.3 and 8.4. She also figured out that you could plug the first, second, third, and fourth numbers given in the question, respectively, into 8.3; 8.4 used the result of 8.3, along with the fifth number given in the question.

  • Even if I had devoted my best efforts to the task, I could not have written questions more leading than this guy’s. For instance:
      …The distribution of student weights is unknown. 42 students are weighed…

      a) …

      b) …

      c) Which of the following applies:

    • We can use Formula 7.3 because the distribution of student weights is normal.
    • We can use Formula 7.3 because the sample size is at least 30.
    • We cannot use Formula 7.3 because the distribution is not normal and the sample size is less than 30.
  • The man was a certifiable jargon/notation fetishist. Tell me, how the hell else do you explain a question of the form “What is the sign (less than, greater than, or not equal to) that appears in the statement of the alternative hypothesis HA?” Or - and this is my bias talking, because I can never for the life of me remember which label goes with which - the query “would this be a Type I or a Type II error?” with no followup.

None of the questions had an “explain in plain English” portion. My tutee, whose term mark was among the highest in her class, could tell me that in Question #4 of Section 9, we reject the null hypothesis because x-bar fell in the critical region, but she could not tell me that what this meant was that the lightbulb manufacturer’s claim was bullshit. She solved the problems on her tests and assignments by pattern-matching on the rigid templates, and on following the leading questions. When I worked with her two nights before her exam, she stated matter-of-factly that she expected to forget everything from the course the next day.

If this what one of the top students in this statistics class has taken from the course, then I think it’s a pretty safe bet that this statistics class is not preparing students to assess and interpret quantitative data.

But I can’t hold this professor responsible, because he seems to be doing a good job under the circumstances: he’s got a jam-packed curriclum to follow, and is responsible for delivering a bevy of content at the expense of skills. Even though this prof he gives plenty of practice problems that prepare for the very predictable tests, and even though he gives excellent notes, and even though he is available for plenty of extra help…despite all that, my student - who has been sick half the term and who, by her own admission, has been slacking off lately - is one of the top students. I’m certainly not going to second-guess what I presume was a conclusion that his students could not handle a more rigorous course, one that aims to train students to assess and interpret non-canned quantitative data.

I can’t blame him for concluding that there’s no way he can deliver such a course successfully, so he might as well not have his students hate him by the end of the term. And if that means that there’s no guarantee that an A student will understand what it means for a poll to be accurate within three percentage points nineteen times out of twenty, then so be it.

And there’s a big problem with that. If there’s one math class in which the question “what’s the point of this?” should never ever come up, surely it is introductory statistics. But I can’t for the life of me see how anyone could justify teaching a statistics course like the one I tutored.

I wish I could design such a course, because having taught it once, I know exactly what I’d do differently if I were granted full control over the format. In two words: less content. Oddly, calling for less content in a math class tends to invite charges of “dumbing down”, and we can’t have that! - nevermind that the textbooks of yore contained vastly less content than the ones of today - but emphasized mastery and application.

Here’s what I’d trim out of a single-semester intro stats class:

  • Most of the probability section. I love probability - so much that I spent far too much time on it last term - but it’s easy to underestimate just how much difficulty students have with it. I’d get rid of everything that isn’t necessary for binomial probability applications, and leave those in only because of the normal approximation to them. (Height of stupidity: spending three weeks on permutations and combinations, and then glossing over connection between probabilty and statistics. Yes, I did that last year.)

  • The Student’s-t distribution. There’s more than enough you can do with normally-distributed sample sizes, and if we’re going to wave our hands over the Central Limit Theorem anyway, why confuse matters with the rule that samples of size thirty use Table A5 while samples of size 29 use Table A7? This time would be better spent elsewhere.
  • Though not on the “estimating the standard deviation” section. Estimating means is simpler and more relevant, and students still struggle with it.

The leftover time - and really, there isn’t much when you cover the rest of the course at a reasonable pace - can be used with hands-on activities, which are so natural for a statistics course. It can be used to have students design the sorts of questions that usually appear on tests: the data they encounter when they see the latest polls, or when they weigh precisely a bag of apples, provides suitable fodder for a variety of such problems. It can be used to discuss why one researcher would rather risk Type I errors, and another Type II errors. It can be used by emphasizing, over and over and over again, the implications of the material everywhere.

I don’t think that such a course would be at all dumbed-down from the one that my tutee took this year; to the contrary, it would require students to think far more deeply about the material. But such a course would be faithful to what I assume are the reasons for teaching introductory statistics. And if I were to teach it, I’d feel a lot more better about the answers I give to what’s the point of this stuff than I would if I were instead responsible for delivering the more content-heavy statistics class class that nearly every business and social science department requires its students to take.

12/13/2005

Quick, somebody hand me a violin that only dogs can hear:

File under: Character Writ Large, Home And Native Land, I Read The News Today, Oh Boy. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 10:45 pm.

Paul Martin, who shall remain nameless, has hurt David Wilkins’s feelings:

“Just think about this. What if one of our best friends criticized you directly and incorrectly almost relentlessly? What if that friend’s agenda was to highlight your perceived flaws while avoiding mentioning your successes? What if that friend demanded respect but offered little in return?” Wilkins asked.

I’ll be honest: I’d feel pretty bad.

Then again, my mommy always said that if your best friend doesn’t visit you for thirty years and imposes tariffs on your lumber even when NAFTA tells them not to and doesn’t seem to mind deporting your citizens to be tortured in foreign countries, then maybe they’re not really your friend after all.

12/12/2005

Ruminations on the value of a dollar

File under: When We Were Young. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 6:50 pm.

One day this past summer, a camper of mine, bored, threw herself onto an armchair and demanded that I tell her a story.

A story? I said. What kind of a story?

Y’know, she replied, one of those stories you always tell.

Recognition dawned instantly. You mean one of my bitter childhood memories?

Her eyes lit up. Yeah, one of those.

And all this talk about Christmas, I must say, is putting me in the mood for a bitter childhood memory.

This one began when I was ten years old and decided that I wanted a pet bird. Although perhaps it would be more accurate to say that this one began some years before that, when I decided that I wanted a pet dog, a request that was summarily denied on the grounds that everyone in my family, especially me, was allergic to pet hair. Somehow this was no longer a consideration some years later when my brother, unopposed, brought home Tulip the Guinea Pig, who shed half her weight in fur every day - but that’s beside the point. The point is that when I was ten years old, I decided that I wanted a pet bird.

My mother agreed provisionally: I could have a pet bird. But the pet bird would be my responsibility, not hers. Okay, Mom. Which meant that I had to convince her that I knew enough about pet birds to take care of one properly. Of course, Mom. And that I would take care of it. Sure, Mom. And that I had to pay for it and its cage and its toys and its food and its vet bills myself. You bet, Mom. And that if I convinced her that I could take care of a pet bird, then we’d go buy one at the end of the summer, after we’d returned from my grandparents’ cottage house. Cool, thanks Mom!

I hurried to the library to borrow a handful of books about pet birds and devoured them immediately. Within a few weeks’ time, I became a walking encyclopedia on the subject: name any species of parrot, and I could tell you its diet, longevity, nesting habits, and Latin name. My mother became convinced that I knew enough about pet birds to take care of one responsibly.

That left money. I had never been much of a spender as a child, and during my eleventh year more than any other, I hoarded every penny I got, including an entire year’s worth of allowance: one dollar per week. And this was the eighties, not the fifties, when you could buy a quarter with a nickel. In the eighties you could buy approximately one and a half chocolate bars with a dollar - more than you could buy today, sure, but still not much. I’d need a year’s worth of allowances, plus a year’s worth of birthday and holiday presents, to buy my bird and supplies.

My savings account grew that year, and in the summer I accompanied my family to the cottage with the assurance that we could go pick out a budgie when we returned.

We spent a week at the cottage. Late one morning my brother, age six, was sitting in front of the television in his pyjamas, watching a video of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or whatever it was that he watched in the late eighties. My father didn’t want my brother, age six, to sit in front of the television in his pyjamas watching a video of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, thereby setting the scene for the rising conflict part of this story. I sat in an armchair opposite my brother, watching the argument unfold.

Get dressed. It’s a quarter to twelve. You’re not going to sit around all day watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

I’ll get dressed after this one finishes.

You said you were going to get dressed after the last one finished. Get dressed now.

I SAID I’D GET DRESSED AFTER THIS ONE FINISHES!

You’re not going to get dressed soon, are you? You’re just going to sit around in your pyjamas all day.

I SAID I WOULD! LEAVE ME ALONE.

No you’re not.

I PROMISE I WILL!

No you won’t. I’ll bet you a hundred dollars that you won’t be dressed by noon.

We all have our price. My brother’s price for getting dressed, as it happens, was a hundred dollars. Actually, I would wager that his price was considerably less than a hundred dollars, because when you’re six years old it’s not like you’re just going to up and go work for the other father who offers you a better price for getting your lazy ass off of the sofa and putting some clothes on. I have a feeling that my father could have gotten the desired effect if he’d instead offered my brother a fiver, which is still an awful lot of money when your main source of income is that cheapass the Tooth Fairy, who only offers a stinking quarter for each tooth, and you only have twenty teeth to lose, so you do the math. Or don’t. Anyway, this is called knowing your market, something that I’m sure that my father learned when he was EARNING HIS MASTER’S DEGREE IN ECONOMICS.

Anyway. At five minutes before noon, my brother emerged from his room with a t-shirt sitting awkwardly on his shoulders and his shoes untied. He stood triumphantly before our father, whose expression indicated clearly that my father was a man of his word. His stupid, stupid word.

A week later we went to the pet store, where I selected a blue budgie, cage, and accessories. My father paid for it, on the understanding that I’d make a visit to the bank and pay him back later.

I forget if we made one or two visits to the bank later that summer, my father and brother and I. This was in the days before ATM’s, and my brother stood in line fanning and collapsing his hand of twenties like a cocky poker player. He peered over the teller’s counter, presenting the deposit form he’d filled out in his six-year-old’s handwriting. “I have a hundred dollars!” he declared. “I won it in a bet with my dad.”

The teller raised an eyebrow and gave a half-smile at my father. “Is that so,” she said without a question mark.

My visit to the bank was to withdraw a lump sum, almost my entire savings from a year of hoarding allowance and birthday money: One hundred and three dollars and twenty-six cents.

I like this story. I tell it often. I tell it often to my parents, and my father always sighs, and asks if I’m ever going to get over this, for crying out loud, it was more than fifteen years ago, am I still bitter about that?

To the contrary, I assure him. I remind him that my brother withdrew his hundred dollars a few weeks after he deposited it, and blew it all on comics and candy, the latter of which he ate and the former of which he quickly grew tired.

I, on the other hand, was left with a story that will last me for the rest of my life.

12/5/2005

There is a war between the ones who say there is a war and the ones who say there isn’t

File under: Righteous Indignation, I Read The News Today, Oh Boy, Semitism. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 6:21 pm.

You’ve probably heard of this one by now, if not this year then any of the last ten: Christmas is under attack! And I for one am having trouble choosing sides, because I can’t decide whose position is more compelling. Do I ally myself with the devout Christians who get the vapours whenever someone wishes them a sectarian Happy Holiday? Or should I instead join forces with the sensitive secularists who opt instead to pay due respect to those other religions that celebrate their tree-based holidays by engaging in a frenzy of consumerism in the days weeks leading up to December 25th? These, it appears, are our only choices in this war; “ignore this holiday and the accompanying propaganda entirely” isn’t on the table, which means that just like in a real war, the bulk of the casualties in this one are innocent civilians. As a vegetarian infidel whose family never ever celebrated Christmas, it might seem that I’m predisposed to being more sympathetic to the hippie heathens, but damned if I wouldn’t rather listen to Mariah Carey’s Christmas album on repeat than be subjected to rallying cries like this one here:

“At Rideau Hall, we will be putting up a holiday tree as we find it reflects the traditions of many cultures, and it is inclusive,” Rideau Hall spokeswoman Lucie Brosseau said.

Jesus wept. Not the Christian Jesus, mind you - the other Jesus, the inclusive one who represents the traditions of many cultures.

I assure you that the “we” that finds the history of all traditions great and small to be reflected in the magical Holiday Tree does not include any real-life Jews, Hindus, or Muslims, regardless of what the persecuted Christians may have you believe. And that’s the really mind-numbing aspect of this: the unfounded assumption that people who don’t celebrate Christmas are in fact on board with these inane gestures to pretend that Christmas by another name is somehow a whole ‘nother holiday. No, I would bet hard cash that the “we” that Brosseau references is a subset of earnestly sensitive, yet oh-so-ignorant semi-lapsed Christians who don’t believe in God or Jesus anymore, but who still celebrate Christmas because doesn’t everyone celebrate Christmas? I mean, some people may call Christmas something weird like “Chanukah” or “Diwali” or (God help us) “Ramadan”, but it’s basically the same thing, right? This “we” are the ones who puzzle over whether to put up Christmas trees in deference to their more traditional families and neighbours, or whether they should instead put up more inclusive holiday trees; it never occurs to them that they don’t need to put up trees, period, and that in fact most people in the world - and some even in this very country - don’t. And that some of those people don’t think that the end of December is sacred in any way - or, at least, they don’t think it’s more sacred than other months.

These are the folks who think that nomenclature is the single thing standing between an intolerant Christian society and an enlightened, multicultural one. There’s not a practising Jew in this country, I promise, for whom the generic, inclusive holiday tree - not to be confused with the nigh-identical Christmas tree - brings to mind the story of the Maccabees’ triumph against the Greeks. I assume that followers of religions that don’t even share part of a Bible with Christians aren’t going to be thinking inclusive, tree-inspired religious thoughts just because someone says they should. The holiday tree’s not a Jewish icon, and to pretend that it is - to tell a group of people who don’t adhere to your religion which icons are involved in theirs - that, in my view, is far more offensive than simply displaying bona-fide religious symbols in public. And that’s what pisses me off the most about this war: not the idiotic assumption that saying Happy Holidays constitutes persecution of Christians, but rather the idiotic idea that a few function calls of Replace(”Merry Christmas”, “Happy Holidays”) somehow amount to a genuine understanding of, and respect for, cultural diversity.

So while I’m certainly an opponent of this war, I’m having trouble working up a whole lot of partisan rage over it. Because what do we have? - we have one side insisting that Christmas music and Christmas greetings be ubiquitous…and the other accepting the ubiquity of Christmas iconography and culture but changing a few words here and there; not even thinking about how we have Christmas Day as a statutory holiday rather than a floater - those non-Christians can use their own personal leave time to celebrate their little holidays, after all; and unironically making a point of mentioning Chanukah - the single least important Jewish holiday - whenever they mention Christmas. And both sides fancy themselves martyrs.

It’s almost enough to turn one into a pacifist.