Tall, Dark, and Mysterious

1/31/2006

Technology: the cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems

File under: Sound And Fury, Those Who Can't, Queen of Sciences. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 8:58 pm.

Reading this article about a series of math workshops directed at students and parents, I am reminded of a famous fifty-year-old psychology experiment:

In Festinger and Carlsmith’s classic 1959 experiment, students were made to perform tedious and meaningless tasks, consisting of turning pegs quarter-turns, then removing them from a board, then putting them back in, and so forth. Subjects rated these tasks very negatively. After a long period of doing this, students were told the experiment was over and they could leave.

However, the experimenter then asked the subject…to try to persuade another subject (who was actually a confederate) that the dull, boring tasks the subject had just completed were actually interesting and engaging. Some subjects were paid $20 [for this], another group was paid $1…

When [later] asked to rate the peg-turning tasks, those in the $1 group showed a much greater propensity to embellish in favor of the experiment when asked to lie about the tasks. Experimenters theorized that when paid only $1, students were forced to internalize the attitude they were induced to express, because they had no other justification. Those in the $20 condition, it is argued, had an obvious external justification for their behavior, which the experimenters claim explains their lesser willingness to lie favoring the tasks in the experiment.

In what I can only infer to be the 2006 version of this experiment, two math experts who believe that students rely too much on calculators, are then sent into schools to…teach students to use calculators.

Sunshine and Speier will show students how to do math problems without having to reach for the calculator.

Sunshine and Speier both said students rely too much on using the calculator to solve math problems.

“Get the pencils and papers into their hands as soon as possible…,” Sunshine said.

Sounds about right. I can’t wait to see where this is going!

Speier will also work with Lego Robotics and show high school students how to use graphing calculators.

Huh? But didn’t you just say…? Oh, never mind:

Speier and Sunshine will help students understand basic math because they said they have seen students struggle with basic math concepts like multiplication.

So have I, and so, I presume, has everyone who has ever taught math on this continent. And I agree with Speier and Sunshine when they talk about how the best way to understand basic math is to put pencils and papers, rather than fucking graphing calculators, into students’ hands as soon as possible.

What, then, accounts for the schedule of these workshops?

Monday, Jan. 30: Providing a good start in math at home: graphing and multiplication.

Tuesday, Jan. 31: What is Algebra all about? A two-hour crash course in the subject.

Wednesday, Feb. 1: Programming and Robotics with the Lego Robotics systems.

Thursday, Feb. 2: Programming the TI-83+ Calculators.

Given Speier and Sunshine’s lack of enthusiasm for the calculator-based curriculum, my guess is that Texas Instruments put them into the $20 group.

1/30/2006

Somebody is going to regret this

File under: When We Were Young, Know Thyself, Welcome To The Occupation. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 9:25 pm.

“Applicant must be willing to travel”, read the job ad, and they weren’t kidding: I’ve got five trips scheduled this quarter alone, and they range in purpose from the interesting to the Dilbertesque. Next month, for example, I am to attend a conference that will teach me the ins and outs of effectively managing one’s employees, and I leave the taxonomy of that one as an exercise to the reader.

I’ll give the reader a hint: I do not, myself, have any employees. I am the managee in this relationship, not the manager.

And another: preparation for said conference involved taking a personality test, which revealed such things as - try to contain your shock - “subject is highly independent”, “subject is task-oriented” and “subject scored in the lowest decile on the ‘cooperation’ scale”; in other words, subject is the sort of person for whom it would be in everyone’s best interest if subject were just left to do her bloody job, as opposed to, say, attend a conference on managing one’s employees. Oh, and subject is a pain in the ass to manage.

And, a little anecdote that I know full well does not constitute a reliable statistic, BUT STILL: during my tenure as a college math instructor, every single one of my most difficult and manipulative students, to an individual, was a psych major. For whatever reason, these students were really interested in human behaviour.

And, just for good measure, a story from my childhood: when I was five years old, my mom had this childhood development book called Your Five Year Old. Not included in the book: anything about the five-year-old who was so precocious, and so antagonistic, that she would pry the book off of the shelf while her pregnant mother napped, and say to herself, “The child may be extremely bold one minute and shy the next? Nuh-uh, Mom, I’m afraid it’s going to be just a little more difficult to predict my behaviour.”

I tend to be brutally straightforward and impatient in any sort of team setting: I tell people explicitly what I want, and they don’t deliver, I do it myself. I perceive - uncharitably, to be sure - anything else as manipulation, which is why I’d be a crappy manager and have no overwhelming desire to be one. And I am hyperalert to any hint that I am being manipulated by, for instance, a superior who is choosing his words in such a way as to elicit a certain sort of response that he would not get if he were being more direct. And when I sense that someone is trying to manipulate me, I am quick to respond in kind. Skillfully.

And here I am, not only being led into temptation, but collecting Air Miles for the trip.

1/27/2006

Business sense

File under: XX Marks the Spot, Know Thyself. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 7:20 pm.
  1. At the local Sears, women’s jeans, unlike men’s, are indexed not by pairs of numbers that denote waist size and inseam, but by single numbers that denote nothing. Yeah, I know, I’ve been over this before, but that’s what you get when you keep reading the same blog for over a year. Anyway: a few weeks ago I subjected a (middle-aged, male) coworker of mine, nevermind why, to a passionate tirade about how I will not even try on jeans whose manufacturers can’t even be bothered to provide a two-parameter description of them. Why waste my time? Except that some of the Sears jeans are labelled with waist size and inseams: one pair, filed under the marker “8″, sported a tag that read “30/32″. Seems the dolt in charge of the women’s jeans section decided that that information should be hidden from immediate view. (Aside: you know those women in fiction who describe themselves as “I’m a size n”? Does anyone actually do that? Because if I were to give the single-number pants size, I’d need to provide a margin of error as well.)

    Credit where it’s due, however: I did manage to pick up some great pyjama bottoms at Sears. They came from the men’s section - and were labelled with waist and inseam. Which is kind of weird, but goddamn, do those pyjamas ever fit.

  2. My employer sprung a new business trip on me after I’d already booked tickets for another one. I called the airline to cancel my original flight, had some conversation involving the words “non-refundable” and “thirty dollars”, and I agreed to a bunch of stuff, and then, a few weeks later, saw my credit card bill, and -

    “Excuse me, but did you people charge me thirty dollars to change a flight from return trip to Edmonton to return trip to nowhere?”

    “Yes, we did.”

    “That doesn’t make any sense.”

    “It’s our policy. We explained it over the phone to you.”

    And, in all fairness, they did: they said that my tickets were nonrefundable, and that I could cancel the flight “for thirty dollars”, which I (understandably) parsed as “…but we’ll refund you $30.” You know how I always complain about students not reading the damned question, and instead just doing whatever they want with the numbers in their word problems? Feel free to point me to this post next time that happens.

    Nevertheless, “But if I just didn’t show up to the airport, it wouldn’t cost me anything to fly to nowhere. I thought that the airline would prefer to know that I wouldn’t be flying so that they could sell my seats to someone else.”

    “Yes, we do appreciate it, thank you for notifying us.”

    “But you just showed your appreciation by charging me thirty dollars.”

    To be fair, they were charging my employer thirty dollars, and perhaps I should have shown my appreciation for my employer by not spending more than thirty dollars’ worth of my time debating this issue with the airline. However, it wasn’t about the money; it was the principle of the thing.

    “That’s our policy.”

    “May I speak to your supervisor?”

    Yes, I may! And let me skip the ensuing thirty-minute conversation and go directly to the coda, which is this: supervisor agreed that why yes, now that I mentioned it, this was ridiculous from the perspectives of both company and customer, and we’ll credit your account thirty dollars, have a nice day.

  3. The hotel where I last stayed on business had a pizza place on the first floor. “Available in the restaurant on the first floor, and in room service!” boasted the menu on the desk. Also: “15% gratuity extra for room service.” Why not? I’m sure that lots of folks who pay their own money to stay in places like this also pay their own money to avoid walking to the lobby.

    “I’d like to order a pizza,” I said.

    “Room number?”

    “Oh, I’ll pick it up myself.”

    “Okay, but we still need your room number so that we can call you when it’s ready.”

    Fair enough.

    Twenty minutes later, a knock on my door, along with man holding a pizza.

    “Oh,” I said, “I told them I’d pick it up in the lobby.”

    The fellow nodded, and walked over to the end of the hall. I followed him into the elevator and into the restaurant. “That’ll be twelve dollars,” he said, reading from the receipt he’d carried up to my room and back down again. “Price of the pizza plus tax.”

1/26/2006

What do you call it when a person deliberately seeks out psychologically unhealthy attachments?

File under: Righteous Indignation, Sound And Fury, Those Who Can't, Queen of Sciences. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 6:34 pm.

I often forget just how dysfunctional a relationship many of my weaker students have with mathematics.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been surprised at the extent to which such students harbour an unproductive and damaging belief that mathematics is nothing more than a mishmash of symbols and voodoo procedures. After all, this is understandable, what with students being taught that memorizing templates of questions and plugging memorized formulas into their fucking graphing calculators is homologous with “doing mathematics”.

What surprised me for a long time after - at least the first fifty times I encountered the phenomenon - was how resistent these same students are to seeing mathematics as anything other than a collection of disconnected formulas and calculator algorithms.

The other week, I found myself teaching introductory graphing to a handful of students. Partway through a lesson, one student asked me - how do I graph the line in this question? Do I find two points and join them, or should I just find one point and the slope and then graph it that way?

Giddy with delight at this hint of outside-the-box thinking, I replied: you can do it either way you want! It’s your choice! Both of these options are totally valid methods of graphing the line! Two points, point slope, it’s up to you! In fact, you can graph it one way, and then if you want to check your work, you can graph it the other way, and ISN’T MATHEMATICS SUPER?

Pregnant pause. Hesitation. The barely-perceptible tremours of a worldview beginning to collapse unto itself.

There are two ways to do this question?

Yes! Not one, but two (2) ways to achieve the goal of graphing a straight line! Pick one! It’s entirely up to you!

But which way should WE do it?

EITHER way! The easy way! The quick way! Try ‘em both for practice, and then on your homework you can do the graphing questions whichever way you prefer, unless you’re explicitly instructed otherwise!

Facial expression indictating flicker of hope. Oh, so sometimes you’ll tell us which way to do it?

Well, yes, sometimes, because I want to make sure you understand both methods, but in general I’ll -

But which is the right way THIS time?

Do it both ways, and if you did it right, you’ll get the same line both times!

Shock and awe. Oh, we get the same line? No matter which way we do it?

Yes! That’s the point - these two methods are different ways of answering the same question correctly! Remember last class, when we talked about how we can think of a line as a path, and the two methods of being different ways of giving directions? I can say “start at 8th and Burrard and head north”, which is like a point - 8th and Burrard - and a slope - the direction “north”. Or I can say “start at 8th and Burrard, go to 7th and Burrard, and keep going in the same direction”, which is like two points. These are two ways of describing the exact same route. Just like the two points, or the point-slope method, will give you the exact same line.

Pause that gets pregnant, gives birth, and raises twins to adulthood. But which method is BETTER?

SWEET JESUS GOD, THE POINT-SLOPE METHOD, ARE YOU HAPPY NOW?

Remind me why I bother again? Give them freedom, and they beg for a dictator.

1/24/2006

I Can’t Believe It’s Government!

File under: Character Writ Large, Home And Native Land. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 2:55 pm.

Oh, Canada, did you just vote in an even more unstable government than we had last time? You did, didn’t you? Whatever are we going to do with you?

I have an idea: haul in some cameras and a reality TV crew, because The Real World: House of Commons damn near writes itself. Think about it: we’ve got the most right-wing prime minister this country has had in, well, ever, and the man’s got no history of consensus-building to speak of; but never before has it been so vital to a Canadian prime minister’s political survival that he compromise with the other parties in the House. In this minority government - which is weaker than most polls predicted - Harper is going to have to compromise with some party on every issue. And, oh, the possibilities:

Behind door number one, we have the Liberals, whom Harper slammed as corrupt at every turn! Will compromising with the Liberals mean compromising his integrity?

Alternatively, Harper could open door number two, behind which we find…the separatist Bloc. How cozy can Harper get with them before alienating his western base, who have long complained about the government being determined by Ontario and who would therefore probably not take terribly well to being at the mercy of Quebec?

Fortunately, there’s a third option: Harper can go with door number three and deal with the Satanic NDP! Oh - wait - that won’t quite give him a majority of seats. He’d have to get the radio shock jock in on that one!

I predict high ratings. Wonder how long it’ll be till the third season…

1/20/2006

Electoral Reform, or, In Which the Author Extrapolates Wildly From an Extremely Small and Biased Sample

File under: Character Writ Large, Queen of Sciences, Welcome To The Occupation. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 9:24 pm.

On the agenda at work today: coordinate a meeting that as many as possible of two dozen-odd clients would be able to attend. Inane administrative duty? No: opportunity for field research into alternative voting systems!

Dear clients, I wrote, I’d like to hold a meeting with you during the first week of March. Could you please email me a list of times when you will be available during that week (eg, “Monday morning”, “Thursday afternoon”, etc)? If you have some times that are better than others, feel free to send that information as well (eg, “I am free Monday and Tuesday mornings, but the best times are Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday afternoons”). I’m going to do my best to accommodate as many of you as possible, but I can’t guarantee anything.

And I got responses, some of which provided me with nice, STV-compliant rankings. But, oh, the others - for instance, the dozen that went something like this:

dear moebius stripper

i am free tuesday mornings

Thank you for your quick response, I wrote back, But you’re a retired grandmother and like hell that’s the only time slot you have free Are there any other times you have available? I am trying to accommodate as many people as possible, and while I can’t guarantee that everyone will get their first choice, I will have a better chance of arranging a meeting that most people can attend if I have more options.

dear moebius stripper

yes there are other times i could come but tuesday mornings are the best, i do not want the meeting any other time.

Fully half of my clients did not want to provide me with their second choice because they were afraid that doing so would weaken their first choice vote. I’m wondering now how widespread this attitude is - does it account for a significant proportion of votes against electoral reform? If so, it’s both selfish and irrational, because we’re probably going to end up with a meeting date that hardly accommodates anyone.

Kind of like the government we’re going to end up with on Monday.

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