Sunday, December 11, 2005

The Progression of a Weak Student

Every semester, there is a clear track that some students seem to fall into, which is roughly as follows:
After the first homework is graded: "I had a really bad time on this assignment, but I'm going to work really hard and I'm going to bring my grade up."

After Test 1: "I'm going to study hard and do really well on my other tests, so doing so badly on this test won't hurt me so much."

After Test 2: "I'm going to do really, REALLY well on the third test and final, and then those will bring up my scores on my first two tests."

At some point in the semester: "You drop the lowest lab/homework/quiz/whatever score, right?"

After Test 3: "Does the final exam grade replace your lowest test grade if you do better?" (I can guarantee I will get this question from at least one student as a test is being turned in. It does not bode well for the student's performance on that test.)

After the Final: "Is there anything else I can do to bring my grade up?" (Hint to my students: There's a reason we use the word "Final".)

Of course, all of this is complicated by the fact that the weakest students in my classes are those who are really bad at math, and therefore can't correctly average their grades. A friend of mine had a student who got an 80 on the first test, failed the second test miserably, and didn't come to the third test at all. My friend was startled when the student (who hadn't been coming to class or turning in homework either) showed up to a review session for the final exam. She took the student aside and asked, "You do realize you can't pass the class, right?" The student was shocked: "I thought I had a B!"

Saturday, December 10, 2005

A Brief Update

I've been meaning to post for a while, but it's that time in the semester. In fact, I've got some semi-technical posts I've worked on a bit and haven't decided whether to put up or not. So some brief updates follow, since I'm in today letting someone take an exam.

  • Our office floor continues pretty much as usual. The white board degenerated from a lesson on elementary graph theory to something else about a month or so ago:
    Geomotron and a Cat
    (Yes, Geomotron and the cat were my creations.) Eventually Ooga-Booga got involved:
    Ooga Booga Meets Geomotron
    I suggested to some other people on the hall that we have enough interesting things going on to create our own prime-time dramatic series.
  • I went down to Atlanta again for Thanksgiving. My partner has a new kitten. I'm not sure what the kitten would think of Geomotron, but he would almost certainly attempt to play with it, since it seems to be his main method of interaction with everything. (He's not too discriminating; he gets excited if you just wiggle your fingers in front of him.)
  • Just as an aside, I've recently discovered that it's possible to rewrite "The Little Drummer Boy" into an alternative song about a boy who didn't even have a drum and had to play a different instrument. I call it "Little Flatulent Boy" (or something worse). You don't even have to change the 'Barump-pum-pum-pum's. It's fun, too.
  • I have a student wanting to have a few extra days to study for a final, and I'm somewhat inclined to just let her. If I do, I have to resist the urge to say, "Sure, and how much more rope do you need?" There are always some students who believe in end-of-semester miracles. I've never actually seen one 'though.
  • I now have five job applications out for next year, including one at my own alma mater. I'm really hoping I can leave next year (finally). Think good thoughts for me.
  • I'm in today giving some make-up finals and grading. (Hence why I've suddenly found time to post here.) I'm also eating bagels and donuts that another instructor had left over after bringing in breakfast for his students taking a 7:45 am final. Now I owe him breakfast, which is problematic, considering the likelihood of either of us being up early enough to eat breakfast again in the near future.

I think that will have to do for now, but perhaps I'll be back soon. Happy Holidays to all, and good wishes.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005


Well I found horns, although not quite what I hoped for. They amused my students. Of course it also meant I was passing back tests somewhat in character. (Some years back, I wore a different pair of horns to class on Halloween and told my students that what they had suspected about me all semester was true. Then some wag in the back row shouted out "That's not what we've suspected about you all semester!")

I had a fair number of trick-or-treaters in the evening, and I think I succeeded (partly by the horns) in seeming somewhat menacing. I do try to be very friendly with the younger kids so as not too be too intimidating. (I like to see if I can make the older kids mess themselves, 'though.) I think one small girl found it a little overwhelming; she decided not to take the candy I offered and just leave. (Maybe she was just picky about candy, but I do tend to give good stuff.) On the other hand, there was a tiny little girl I think dressed as a butterfly or something (think one of those Anne Geddes creations and you'll have it about right) who seemed fascinated by me. She tottered over (assisted by Dad), I gave her some candy, she stared up at me for a bit, then started to head inside. Dad steered her back the other way: "No, no, this way--say 'thank you'!" I think she decided, this guy has horns, he sounds like Kermit the Frog (just ask my students), and he has candy. I'm staying here! Or maybe it's just the general fascination small children seem to have with me. My partner observed that whenever we were out to eat, any small children in the vicinity would end up staring raptly at me for some reason. Frequently over the seat of the booth behind me.

Someone on the block was apparently giving out dollars, according to some of the kids. Even though this person probably paid more than I did for Halloween, I still think that's kind of cheating. The real meaning of the season is free candy.

I think we had a slightly smaller group for Halloween this year than last, but it was fun. And now I've got lots of left-over candy, which is the best part. Low-carb candy. I'm sure it's all low-carb candy. Especially the chocolate.

Friday, October 28, 2005

So I'm not Unique

My students' potentially differening opinions notwithstanding, I am not in fact unique.

There is another TMWA, namely the Truckee Meadows Water Authority. A brief comparison seems in order, so that in case you meet one of us on the street one day, you can identify which you are speaking to:
  • Them: Employs approximately 160 people.
    Me: Employs approximately 0 people.
  • Them: In Nevada.
    Me: In Virginia.
  • Them: Teaches Reno, Sparks, and Washoe County how to conserve water.
    Me: Teaches math to approximately 200 students.
  • Them: Treat water.
    Me: Drinks water (when Coke Zero is not available).
I hope this helps clear up any lingering confusion.

This has been a reasonably non-productive alternative to finishing grading two large stacks of tests, which I am not enjoying. We now return to our regularly scheduled procrastination.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Sneaky Movie Theaters

While I was in Atlanta a few weeks back, I went to see Corpse Bride (which was cute). The theater down there is following the trend of having clever ways of telling people to turn off their cell phones. This one uses a preview for a non-existent movie which gets interrupted by a cell phone. The characters on-screen turn toward the audience and complain about the interruption.

The first time I saw one of these it was imitating some sort of martial-arts genre film. Last time it was animated, but it caught me a little more off guard because I had actually seen a poster for this non-existent movie in the lobby, together with other coming attractions. I double checked on the way out: The poster is there, and it looks fine, but there is no studio information or release dates at the bottom.

The segments are entertaining, but I don't know if they get people to turn off their phones. I have noticed a lot of people in theaters these days playing with their phones through the course of a movie--probably playing games or something similar. There's a bunch of little glowing screens floating around amongst the audience anymore. I'm not sure why these people came anyway.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005


I was having high hopes for Halloween this year, and it's one of my favorite holidays. I usually wear a pair of fake plastic horns or something, especially if I have class. (One year I came in with the horns and said, "What you have been suspecting about me all semester really is true." Then a wag in the back of the class shouted back, "That's not what we've been suspecting about you all semester...") This year, I decided to splurge and buy the really good ones. There are plenty of kits available, based on stage/movie makeup, that let you create some great special effects for costumes. I'd seen horns plenty of times before, but hadn't been willing to actually get some. This year was my year.

I saw some great examples of the kits while I was down in Atlanta a few weeks ago, plus some really awesome decorations. Target also had a nice selection of decorations this year. I thought it was likely to be a good year for Halloween. I set out a week or two ago with two goals: (1) good horns, and (2) a cheesy Halloween themed tie.

No luck. Everyplace I checked didn't carry either. A local downtown store used to have lots of great costume supplies in their basement every year, but this year it's become devoted to fraternity clothes. The closest I came to a Halloween tie was a rack of discounted Christmas ties at the local Goody's. (And the crazy thing is, I'm sure I've seen these ties before everywhere. Someone heard me planning.) I'm slightly miffed that I've seen several stores offering Halloween themed clothing for women, but none for men.

I've also realized I'm going to miss some of the trick-or-treaters this year because I won't leave work until 7:00 on Halloween night. (Yes, I'm finally living someplace where we get trick-or-treaters, and I love having them. My favorite last year was a tiny girl dressed as Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, sitting in the arms of her parents as they coaxed her to say something. All she could manage was to stare at me with enormous eyes and a slightly agape mouth. I think it was all a bit much for her.)

I'm not completely discouraged yet. K-mart has some passable horns, and I at least have a nice orange shirt and black leather jacket that would work well, if no tie. And maybe I can still find some good horns somewhere. (I know I'm doing my job if some of my students start wondering about me on Halloween. If I do find the horns, I think my line this year will just be: "It's a little physical problem I have this time every year, and I really don't want to talk about it.")

Alternatively, it occurred to me I'd probably also get my students attention if I went with the Elvira costume I saw and a big pair of fake boobs. Whatta ya think?

Air Vents

When I first came to grad school, I was assigned to sit in on a class with some computer labs and to assist students with the labs. The course was a standard calculus course, except for the addition of some numerical/graphical work in the labs. The teacher I was assigned to was a nice person, but I came to realize he was not the most exciting. His class was not tremendously interactive, and he was pretty laid-back rather than particularly personable or energetic. (My own undergraduate teachers had mostly been awfully good, so this was a little different for me.)

After a while, I came to notice that when you sat in his class long enough, the sucking (or maybe blowing) of the air vents gradually became overwhelming. There's an ongoing drone about the limit of this and the derivative of that, and an incessant hiss low in the background. It's a bit like the never-ending whoosh in the background of Star Trek episodes, representing the hum of the engines. But when there's nothing much else interesting going on, the hiss becomes overwhelming.

Now years later I observe grad students who are teaching, and offer them observations. And sometimes the main observation I make while watching someone else's class is "Man, those air vents are really sucking today." Then I have the challenge of translating this into a constructive comment.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

More Ooga-Booga

Since I introduced you to Ooga-Booga recently, I thought you might like to see the pictures we have up of him on the door to our common room/testing room. (Also the future site of Dean C's Celebrity Dance Party.)

Below, we see Ooga-Booga rising over the mountains, and skeet-shooting with son Oogie (2004):
Next, we see O.B. enjoying his iZot shuffle ("Utter chaos made even more random, starting at $99"), "Ooga Booga hates moving", "Guess what ELSE Ooga-Booga hates?" (all names are of local car dealerships), and finally "Ooga-Booga HATES meetings."

Another instructor's student once asked "Did someone's kid draw those?" He answered it was someone he worked with. Technically of course all the artists were in fact someone's kid, however.

Friday, September 30, 2005

Nice weather means a nice day

The weather is beautiful, finally. Things are finally cooling off; we're around 70 with sunshine today, and everything is still green. It's a slow start to Fall. (I finally did see some leaves falling off trees last week.)

It's days like this that make me want to do nothing, which I've been fairly successful at so far. Oh I posted grades for my students (today is the last day to drop), but that involved a second trip home to retrieve a stack of papers I left behind. During the trip, I dropped my rent check and had to go back to retrieve it, making a second trip home and back in one day. But that just meant some time sailing along the area streets with the windows down, noticing that the weather is nice.

Last weekend was a little intense, since I had tons of tests to grade. The rest of the week got sort of crushed under trying to keep up with the opportunities I offered for bonus points after the tests. (The tests were a little disappointed.) But that's all over now, and this weekend can be a little slower. Next weekend I'm planning on making another trip to Atlanta, so I guess I have to get a little ahead. But at the moment, I'm feeling lazy. After a week as long as this one, I think I'll do nothing for a while. Which is probably what I'm best at.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Why I don't like Tuesdays

This semester I spend Tuesday afternoons at a computer/tutoring lab. My primary purpose for being there is to work with a group of students in a class I'm teaching. The students are learning about calculus through numerical and graphical work using computer software. (This counts as their third day a week; the other two class days meet in a regular classroom.) I give a brief introduction to techniques they need to know, then send them out to work on a worksheet in small groups at a computer. I (supposedly) answer questions when they are stuck.

Unfortunately, my students end up scattered across the computer lab (which is large), and I'm not always sure where they are. Also, while working there, I'm supposed to answer questions from any student in the lab, about any math class, and not just the students I'm working with. So I spend most of my time answering questions from the elementary calculus class which is now entirely on-line. (They have one teacher to cover about 1,000 students, so it's not surprising that she can't cover all the questions.) When the department has several large classes over there with many confused students and only one teacher, and the department insists that (a) students from the class cannot all be seated in one area, and (b) everyone has to answer all questions, then I begin to suspect that my real teaching load is actually a few more classes than show up on my course schedule.

Days vary with that class, but yesterday was a bad one. Students had an quiz problem to practice that was very difficult for them, so I saw the problem many times. One reason it was so difficult was that it required remembering how to divide polynomials, which was covered in the previous course.

Yesterday also included a fair number of people who had a list of questions ready for me when they got my attention. When this happens, I end up answering questions from one student for 20-30 minutes as it continues with "Wait--I had another problem I didn't know how to do." (Help available at the lab is supposed to be brief help with whatever the student is having trouble with at the moment. More detailed tutoring is available elsewhere.) I'm not a fan of the list-keepers. Maybe I need to learn to give more confusing answers to the first question so they will send me away and try to get someone else when I'm gone.

Truth be told, I'm more comfortable working with a student for an extended period than just running from student to student answering quick questions. In fact, on days when I just have to work the lab in general (and don't feel responsible for any particular groups of students), I sometimes regain my sanity by ditching the rules and handling the help in my own way. I sometimes just sit down and spend some time with a student going over everything they're doing in detail. No one is really keeping track of how long I spend with a student, so no one probably notices that I haven't moved in a while. I may get some slack on this anyway, since I seem to be known as the answer guy. I'm one of the only people working at the lab who has a PhD (most of the staff are undergraduates, graduate students, or instructors with masters degrees), and I seem to be one of the few people in the department comfortable with answering software questions.

But yesterday I had students I was responsible for, and so I tried to keep moving. It didn't help much. All told, I spent very little time with students I actually came with yesterday; most of my time ended up with the online calculus course. I can only assume someone else helped students. Maybe it was the teacher with the online calculus course.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

A minor annoyance, and something enjoyable

Sigh. Apparently bots have found my (very minor) blog, and I've started getting comments that are really ads for websites and such. So I've turned on "word recognition", which requires commenters to type a word displayed in a graphic before they can comment. Sorry about that if you'd like to add a comment, but it shouldn't be too bad.

On the other hand, I just upgraded my Mac to OS 10.4 (Tiger) this weekend, and I'm really liking it. I skipped the last update, so I have quite the host of new features. For those of you who are Mac fans and know what I'm talking about: I'm really liking Expose, Dashboard is really growing on me surprisingly quickly, and the jury is still out on Spotlight. (Spotlight is somewhat less speedy than I was led to believe, and it has failed to find some things at all.)

Spiritual Enlightenment on Bathroom Walls

This is just a quick one. While running to the restroom today, I found the following amongst all the usual graffiti (which usually alternates among personal ads for sex acts, drawings of genitalia of both genders, and "DIE FAGS!!):
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Philippians 4:6-7.
Now OK, it's a bit out of place, but this is truly lovely. It turns out that the passage goes on with some other really nice stuff:
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things.
(I looked it up.) These are beautiful passages, and striking. (One person I know translated the first as "Don't worry, be happy," which is probably reasonable if a little less poetic.) A god that is a god of peace, and passes it on to his believers when they have worries. A god that will help you resolve your problems, if you pray to him. I like that.

I sort of wonder why I don't see more passages like this from evangelicals trying to gain converts. I find most of the commonly used passages fall completely flat, unless you already believe. (I particularly like the passages shown to us infidels that are the equivalent of "Everything written on this piece of paper is true.") But this passage has a certain beauty and a certain appeal in and of itself. It's the closest anything ever came to "converting" me, but still, atheist I remain.

But it does at least make me want to believe.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Salt and Toxins

This semester I'm teaching a differential equations course. It's kind of fun. (Don't tell my students, but I didn't take this as an undergraduate. I actually learned most of this when I taught the course for the first time about four years ago.)

We just recently finished a section on modeling, which includes so-called mixing problems. Generally, there is a tank containing some solution (often salt dissolved in water), and some inflow and outflow of solution with differing concentrations. The idea is to model how the concentration of the solution in the tank changes based on the concentration of the incoming solution and what is allowed to flow out of the tank. A common problem is a "flushing" problem, where we start with a mixture in the tank at some concentration, and have clean water flowing in while the mixture flows out. Over time, the concentration in the tank will approach zero, "flushing" the tank.

It's a nifty application, and the approach to modeling with differential equations is (I think) pretty clever. One thing I like about this application is it has a nice application to environmental issues. The same idea is often used to model pollution levels in a lake, given that there is some inflow and outflow to the lake in the form of rivers or streams. In fact, I was once involved with creating a web-based module focusing on the application. I like the fact that in some sense this is a mathematical problem that might lead people to think about broader social implications about clean water and environmental protection.

There's a problem like this in our text that talks about two inter-connected lakes, one feeding into the next. At the start of the problem, it says 1000 pounds of a toxin is spilled into the first lake, and the task is to model the levels of the toxin in the two lakes over time. However, I noticed something in the solution set developed in our department: The solution immediately starts talking about the concentration of salt in the lakes. I found this oddly disturbing, but no more so than discovering many of my students did the same thing when solving the problem.

Now while I know salt is not really considered a health food, I think switching from "toxins" to "salt" is a pretty significant change. Obviously the model looks the same either way, but it means very different things for actual lakes. Perhaps nobody really takes this problem particularly seriously. It sort of bothers me that there's a glib attitude towards polluting lakes, even if they're imaginary ones.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Meet Ooga-Booga

We math people on the fourth floor of this building are unusual, in that we have our own personal god. (Well, OK, we are unusual in a number of other ways, but the existence of a personal god is the one I wish to address at this time.) I would like you meet Ooga-Booga, a giant, amorphous, ghost-like being who dispenses wrath on the deserving. He says hello. He is pleased to meet you.

Ooga-booga is the original creation of my office-neighbor, who drew on our white board a picture of Ooga-Booga attacking a college which had turned me down for a job about a year and a half ago. (We are a loyal group up here.) Ooga-booga is an angry god, who rains down green, lightning-bolt shaped "zotting rays." (They make the sound "zot!") We have determined that zotting rays make things burn and shrink at the same time. This makes clean up after Ooga-booga's rampage so much easier--everything (and everyone) destroyed can be dropped into a relatively small hole and buried. The theological origins of the shrinking power of zots involve problems in getting appropriate scales for drawings on the white board.

When I encountered job hunting problems, Ooga-Booga has appeared on the white board to take vengeance for me, as if by magic. When someone else encountered hiring problems, Ooga-Booga zotted the offending parties on the white board. Paper sketches have started filling the common-room door. Ooga-Booga now has a family, including a son (little Oogie), who he apparently goes skeet shooting with (using zots, of course). Ooga-Booga enjoys listening to his iZot shuffle ("total chaos made even more random, starting at $99.") When my office-neighbor had his nearby apartment building bought out and had to move, we learned that "Ooga-Booga hates moving." (He zotted the old apartment building. We engaged in a theological debate for a while as to whether the shrinking nature of zots were an aid in packing.) When my neighbor (who shortly became a regular neighbor when he moved across the street from me) had to also buy a car, Ooga-Booga was seen wrecking local car dealerships. (Caption: "Guess what else Ooga-Booga hates?")

Recently, I've been avoiding meetings. The department is a little meeting happy sometimes; they have meetings for the sake of having meetings. There is a weekly "course meeting" for one class I teach. It may be helpful to TAs who have never taught before, but I'm already familiar with this class. The content of the meetings could be handled by an e-mail message, but they meet every week anyway. Since they picked a time which is fairly inconvenient for me, I've not been going. I found out the course coordinators are miffed with me. My condensed response: Bite me.

I did come in early this Thursday for a different committee meeting. (I volunteered to be part of this committee, so it could be worse.) But since one of the agenda items for the meeting was to find a more convenient time to meet, I suggested that we stop physically meeting, since everything we were doing could be accomplished by e-mail and an online message board. In fact, we have course management software which could provide us with everything we need with an easy-to-use Web-based interface. I even offered to set this up and manage it. After all, the school prides itself on its high-tech approach to everything. Every student and faculty member has a computer, and students are expected to use a variety of systems (including e-mail and the web, but also including specialized course software and technical programs). But we couldn't switch to asynchronous meetings; it would require learning "all that." And besides, no one would be able to "see people's faces". (I resisted the urge to point out the department web page has faculty pictures on it.) So we will continue to have these meetings, which are convenient for almost no one, so that we can see each others faces. And I'll continue to avoid course meetings and be frowned at.

There's a new picture on the door of the common room: "Ooga-Booga hates meetings."

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Interesting Students

When I start a new class, I take pictures of my students with nametags made from notecards to help me in learning names. I got serious about this when I started teaching large sections, since there's really no hope for learning so many names without some kind of a system. (Unfortunately, it doesn't help that much in large sections; I still can't learn all the names by the end of the semester.)

I usually ask students to include their full name on the back of their card, together with one interesting fact about them. (I'm hoping to find something to associate with the student.) I leave it pretty open; the students can respond with anything they want.

Now the definition of interesting is pretty open to interpretation too. A favorite response in a sophomore level class is "I am a sophomore." If the class is intended for major X, then I get a number of students who answer "I am an X major." And for some reason, I used to get "I like horses" from about twenty women each semester in one large section I used to teach. (I don't know why that response was so popular.)

Recently I've been processing my note cards for this semester. It's a long process of cropping pictures and copying the tidbits students share into an Excel spreadsheet where I keep their grades and other information. I noticed recently that someone else I read has been writing about the asking the same question. (Interestingly, it's another math teacher at another school. Go figure.) She has apparently been getting somewhat better answers than "I am a sophomore X major."

But I have gotten interesting answers. I usually find out that I have students playing in a variety of varsity and club sports at the university, or who are in the marching band or another musical group. I frequently have some student who is widely traveled: "I've been to 5 continents", or "I've lived in 13 countries, and underground for 3 days." I usually have a polyglot or two: "I speak 8 different languages." (These students are generally not from the US.)

I also find out that some students want to be orthodontists or vets, love animals, can't swim, hold a swimming record at their high school, hate math, love Jesus, that some are an only child and that some have a twin. (I often have more than one twin, although usually not as a set.)

I find out some of my students are making long trips to come to school. I get students who are from India, Pakistan, Korea, Guatemala, Peru, Turkey, Singapore, and a host of other countries. Some also tell me they grew up less than 30 miles from this school.

Some cards are blank. Years ago I had a student with blue hair and a nose ring write "There is nothing interesting about me."

I usually have some students who I think should be very tired by now: "I have been singing for nine years." "I have been playing soccer for 12 years now." "I have been playing piano for 11 years."

But my most interesting response came a few years back. It just said "I pee in the bed." I'm not sure what that was supposed to mean, but I got nervous if the student looked like they were about to fall asleep during class.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

The Revenge of Young Sith, or Inappropriate Giggles

OK, so I had to share this. I finally got around to seeing Revenge of the Sith while I was last down in Atlanta. (Overall, an OK movie. I have to give Lucas props for managing to make it look like he always had a grand scheme in mind from the beginning, which I don't really buy.)

But people in the theater must have thought I was a little crazy at one point. (Admittedly, I waited so long I saw it for a dollar, so I probably don't care what the other patrons thought.)

OK, very minor spoiler warning on the following, in case you haven't seen the movie and would actually be surprised by the scene I'm about to describe. Like, if you've been living in a cave on Mars for the past ten years and didn't see most of this coming.

So anyway, we all know Anakin turns evil. He leads a Storm Trooper attack on the Jedi temple and kills all the Jedi there, including all the kids. In one scene, we have an unbearably cute kid come up to Anakin and says (very earnestly): "There are too many of them! What will we do?" At which point, Annakin pulls out his light saber and gets a sort of grimmace. And I start giggling. Because I'm suddenly flashing back to Young Frankenstein. Remember the monster and the little girl throwing petals down a well until they run out? Then the little girl says "What will we throw in the well now?" At which point I swear I think Peter Boyle gets the same expression that Hayden Christensen later had in the Jedi temple. I think it's really the same scene. With a light saber.

Monday, August 22, 2005

It Begins

Classes started for the semester today, and I'm exhausted. (Partly from having arranged a schedule with everything crammed into Monday-Wednesday, so I can make Atlanta trips about once a month. You make your trade-offs. I do like saying "I'm done for the week" on Wednesday night to the guy in the office next to mine, just to be annoying.) I feel pooped. (And that's as a direct object.)

I really hate the first day of intro Calculus. Not so much for the material, which is moderately interesting, but because there is so much process to cover. I have all the usual stuff: this is how the course is graded, we'll have these quizzes and those tests. (If they are short quizzes, we can call them "little quizzies", but you should avoid using similar terminology for short tests.)

I have to send them to our online course management system to retrieve documents and assignments. (We're not supposed to photocopy handouts for class anymore. Budget cuts. So yes, that means we are passing even more costs directly to the students by asking them to, in essense, do their own photocopying.) We also have to tell the students how to sign up for an extra course meeting (at a computer lab) during the first week, and how all that will work. (This includes telling them how to find the computer lab.)

Additionally, the course is the standard math class for most math and science majors, so there are many sections. A number of the sections are taught by graduate TAs, who may be first time teachers. So there has been large scale standardization, including common time exams and a separate online quiz system for the labs.

All of the above has to be communicated in less than 50 minutes to first year students who are lucky to have found the classroom today, and who also have another 4-5 classes which are probably similarly overwhelming them. Oh, and I need to start on some calculus. I can't get behind, because have you seen the schedule we have to meet?

Speaking of schedules, we had some difficulty with schedules this time because the school finally has given the students Martin Luther King day off in the spring semester. (Which in Virginia, was Lee-Jackson-King day for a while because the legislature thought it would be a good day to use the day to celebrate General Lee and the Stonewall Jackson on the same day. Think I'm joking? Guess again.) The school has been under some pressure to recognize MLK day as a holiday, and has finally given in apparently. However, to balance the semesters, they needed to excise a day in the fall from the schedule as well. (This has been sort of a mess to plan for; a day has just vanished from the semester, but only for classes which meet on that day.) I find it interesting to note that the school has decided to avoid controversy by giving us Columbus Day off this year. I can't wait to see how this goes over.

All of the above notwithstanding, I count the first day as a sucess. No needed technology blew up, no major problems have appeared in my class schedule, I have yet to find whatever awful mistake or omission I found in my course contracts, and I'm still standing. And as near as I can tell, so are my students.

Goodnight to all.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Visiting Atlanta

TMWA just returned from another pilgrimage to visit his other half in Atlanta. It was good to see him, but too short. Classes start for me next week, and have already started for him, so it's the best I could do. Despite the apparent glamour, avoid the two-state relationship whenever possible.

The trip takes about six and a half hours, if you go straight through without really stopping. It can be sort of meditative sometimes, with long stretches of road filled with... I'd like to say filled with nothing, because that would be artistic and all, but I'll have to say "stuffed with cars everywhere." I wouldn't think the roads would be quite so crowded in-between the cities, but they are. (And in the middle of the day. On Tuesday for crying out loud.) It may be because there are so many trucks. Why in the world do so many things get shipped by trucks, instead of something a little more efficient, like rail? Or passenger pigeon? (You know, lots and lots of them, all tied with little strings. But then I guess we'd have a serious bird poop problem in this country, and I'm not sure that's better. Although broad, white, crispy plains have a certain flair, it could be like driving through a sticky rainstorm all the time.)

I was greatly disappointed to find that a wonderful Indian restaurant we used to visit in south Atlanta has apparently folded and been replaced with some sort of Barbecue place. It may be a chain. That's sort of heart-breaking, since the food was almost transcendent. Best Indian I've ever had, although I'm hardly a world-traveling conne connues expert type guy. (Ah. Connoisseur. Aren't the Internets wonderful?) In fact, the only trip I've had out of the country was to Spain, and I'm not aware of it being a bastion of Indian cuiss cusi food. (OK, it's cuisine. Just playing with you. You're surprised? Perhaps you didn't notice the name at the top of this page?) But I know what I like, and that was it. Now we need a new Indian place in Atlanta. I'm sure there's a good one, we just don't know what it is yet.

The meditative nature of the trip was enhanced by the fact that I went sans AC to save gas, and just left the windows down, and if you haven't noticed, it's hot out there. And humid. It's actually not too bad to me; growing up in Texas attending marching band practice through the month of August for 2-3 hours a day on an asphalt parking lot has left me with a high heat tolerance. I must leave the windows down 'though, and that means no music. (Try listening to something in your car with the windows down doing about 70. If I do, I usually forget the radio is on until I slow down or stop somewhere, at which point I get startled when I suddenly start hearing voices.) But it leaves me a lot of time to think. Not necessarily about anything, mind, but think nonetheless.

The scenery can be fairly entertaining though. Let me give you the brief tour of my trip up from Atlanta today...

We begin up 85 through the heart of Atlanta. Since I left mid-day, I didn't hit major traffic snarls, which is good. Just general traffic, which is plenty. Winding our way out and into the Georgia countryside, we find ourselves passing billboards for upcoming quaint and rustic country stores. There's one: "TOPLESS! TOPLESS!" And another which says "TOPLESS/TOPLESS" (I'm assuming there are two halves which are topless in this case, and I don't know what sort of person that refers to.) Also: "Topless Adult Toys!" (I figured this one out: A convertible is a topless adult toy. I'm sure there's a car lot on site.) Yes, we are approaching the "Cafe Risque", one of several pornogruffy stops heavily advertised on the way. These seem to appear from about North Carolina on down. (We discovered this summer that they also exist all the way down 85 in Georgia into Florida, culminating in the "X-Mart" somewhere near Orlando, which advertises itself as an Adult Discount Super-Store. I'm not sure what one of these would look like, but I'm guessing a lot of latex is involved.) And yes, in case you're wondering, the "Cafe" does in fact advertise food, which leaves us all wondering: Who eats at some place like this? ("Here's you're soup--oops! Sorry about that... Let me get that out...")

The Cafe is exit 173 on the way out of Georgia. It's almost the last stop, and it's a stop I usually make, because it's also the last Chevron available until at least North Carolina. (They are not apparently in SC.) I like Chevron for long trips, since they claim it helps clean your engine. I also like it because the major US manufacturers import it into Detroit for their federal emissions tests, so it must be fairly clean-burning. Is Chevron evil? Who knows. Odds are excellent given that it is an oil company.

Then across the border into South Carolina, where I pass Walhalla at Exit 1. (This is where Elmer Fudd goes if he dies in battle.) Exit 2 is Fair Play, where there is a giant red box of a building, maybe 5 or 6 stories tall in the middle of nowhere, with a gigantic yellow sign shouting "FIREWORKS" at the top, which is easy to read from the road. Also easy to read from the road is an only slightly smaller sign over the front entrance reading "NO SMOKING". (I swear, the letters are maybe 3 feet tall.) There's another of these buildings as you exit South Carolina on the other side, except it doesn't have the giant "no smoking" sign. Maybe the first building learned from experience at some point.

South Carolina has another smut shop, "Bedtyme Stories", which is oddly enough in Blacksburg, SC. I always find myself wondering if maybe there's is a magic portal that connects all towns of the same name, so I could just slip through to Blacksburg, VA, and be a lot closer to home. I never tried. If I do, I'll let you know how it goes. I also pass by "Dallas" at one point on my trip, and when I enter North Carolina I pass through "Cleveland County." I get around a lot on this trip. Oh and there's plenty more fireworks sites, like Shelton's ("Party down with a big bang!"), and roadside stores that sell both fireworks and peaches, which I suppose is only natural if you're a little insane. The latter is in Gaffney, SC, which features the "Peachoid", a water tower made to look like a peach. (Pictures included at the link.) I remember being a little nonplussed the first time I saw this wonder on the way down to Georgia a few years ago, and now you can all share the experience. (We saw a second, smaller peach-shaped water tower on the way down to Florida this summer, but the Gaffney one is definitely of higher quality.)

Then it's into North Carolina and through Charlotte, and we switch to I-75, at what used to be a fairly scary junction, but which is now fairly easy thanks to some construction finally finishing. (And is it just me or is everything everywhere under construction this summer? A few weeks ago I found myself being directed into a detour in the middle of another detour.)

A bit further, and we reach Lake Norman-Cornelius, which is apparently a semi-major vacation spot for people who like lakes. I like it because there is a K&W cafeteria there at a good place for a break and I like to eat some vegetables occasionally when I'm riding for a long time in the car, in the hopes that I might one day have a bowel movement after all that sitting. There is also a really great Indian place, but I tend not to be to adventuresome in meals while on the road in case I encourage aforementioned movement to come a little earlier than planned, and possibly between rest stops.

Then it's the home stretch: Into Virginia, where we're immediately climbing a massive mountain and watching the poor truckies sort of grind to a halt. There's a great view into the valley at one point, but when you're driving alone, the great view is likely to turn into a really spectacular view and brief, much-too-thrilling ride, followed by a crunch and a splat, so I don't spend too much time looking. When I reach the shot tower state park, I know I'm almost to I-81, which will finish my journey. (Did you know shot towers worked by dropping hot metal from a great height and letting it cool while it fell so that the metal formed a round and mostly-solid ball by the time it hit bottom? I didn't know that, until my partner explained what the shot tower was on one trip.)

So finally I'm home, where I can finally feel sure that yes, I unplugged the iron, and no, I didn't leave the door unlocked. And if the description seemed long, you really gotta try the trip sometime.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Disney Conversions

I am a Disney theme park true believer, and this summer I converted my partner.

I think most people who have not been to a Disney park assume it is similar to most other theme parks, and that's the disconnect. I don't particularly care for most theme parks, but Disney is in a category of its own.

My parents and I went to California when I was 11. We drove the desert southwest to reach California, visiting Carlsbad Caverns, the Grand Canyon, and the Painted Desert on the way. (Also awesome sights, but not my point here.) And while in California, we spent a day at Disneyland. I think my parents were almost as excited to go to Disneyland as I was. (My mother later wrote she didn't know who was happier; me or the "two lost children who never got to go.")

The whole family loved the park. I think my mother was most surprised by how clean and beautifully maintained the whole park was, which is nothing like the usual theme park experience. (And Disneyland opened in 1955.) It was beautiful, with a loving attention to detail throughout the park.

We made another trip to California, and finally made it to Disney World in Florida when I was 14. A colleague recently remarked that she loved Epcot now, but "no child really wants to go to Epcot." I did. I think I was more sold on this park than the Magic Kingdom. Epcot had opened a little after our first Disneyland trip, and I was practically drooling. I remember seeing spreads in magazines and television specials about the new park. It sounded so incredibly cool--and it was. I pored over the official guide before we got to Florida, getting ready for the trip. We first entered Epcot in an early afternoon just after a rainstorm, while the walkways were wet but the sun was coming out again.

The first attraction I saw at Epcot was "Horizons", and it was everything I could have imagined and more. I drank in all the visions of the future, all the wild animatronics and special effects, and the giant projection screens that made me feel like our pod was "flying" across landscapes. (I still miss Horizons; I'm sad it's gone, although I understand the need for Disney to create new attractions. I really wish I could go back and see it again, 'though, and I wish I could take my partner with me. I understand the nostalgia people get for long-gone attractions at Disneyland, even if I might like what replaced them.) I loved the whole park, but my first memories stand out most.

Did I mention I'm a complete roller-coaster weenie? (I even hate small drops, like on a standard flume ride. That's the degree of weenie we're talking about here.) I think that's part of why I'm such a Disney park fan: there is so much more than thrill rides in any Disney park. When I was 16, my high school band went to a contest at AstroWorld in Houston. The trip included a day at the park. It was sort of disappointing to me, even given that I knew not to expect a Disney park. It was mostly thrill rides (which I avoided), and the theming seemed so minimal. It wasn't a bad way to spend a day with friends, but I wouldn't have paid to do it. (Of course, if you're one of those people who actually like roller-coasters and the associated "oh-my-gawd-I'm-gonna-die" sensation, I guess I can see the appeal.)

So while I've never felt much urge to go back to standard theme parks, I'm a Disney junkie. But there are those in my life, who, through no fault of their own, are as yet Unbelievers. My partner fell into this category. Although I regaled him with tales of The Mouse, he remained an inveterate skeptic.

But finally, after years of gentle nudging and not-so-subtle hinting, I got my partner bundled into my car and on the road to Orlando after my summer classes were finally over. I think he was just humoring me, actually, but after talking with other Disney fans, I finally went with the theory "If I get him there, he will have fun."

We spent part of the trip down going over descriptions of parks in the unofficial Guide (my favorite) to decide what to do, and we passed a bit of a watershed at some point: By the time we arrived, I think he was finally actively interested and not just humoring me.

We spent a day in the Animal Kingdom (new for me too, since it was built since I last visited), took one day off, then went to Epcot for a day. We took between us about 1,200 digital pictures (I'm not exaggerating), ate a ton of great food (small exaggeration), and generally had an absolute blast. We also got lost a lot; I'm apparently not quite up to navigating Orlando roads.

Current highlights and reviews:
  • Animal Kingdom is very neat, but different from most Disney parks. There's more to walk through and look at, including a lot of cool animal habitats; in this respect, maybe it's a bit like the World Showcase in Epcot.
  • The new Animal Kingdom Lodge is magnificent. It's African themed, and houses some neat African art and artifacts. It's almost like a new World Showcase pavilion. The attached restaurant (Boma) is amazing, and a lot of fun. (We stayed outside of The World to save money, but we did try the restaurant.) It was a lot of fun in that I'm a fairly adventurous eater, and there was a lot there that I'd never had, or in some cases, never heard of. Like watermelon rind salad, or a carrot-ginger soup.
  • Although I stand by my earlier statement that I am a roller-coaster weenie, I tried a few rides that I had reservations about, and had fairly postive experiences.

    • "Dinosaur" at Animal Kingdom was not bad at all, but it really fakes you out. There were many times I was afraid that I was about to experience something euphemistically described as "thrilling", but it was fine.
    • Test Track at Epcot was a little more intense, but survivable. There are some sudden accelerations and a "braking test" that was a little over the top for me. (My partner calmer than I; while I was going through his pictures later, I discovered he has some from inside the ride, including one of me which, if you look closely, reveals that I have a death-grip on the bar in front of me.)
    • Tried "Soarin'" (a sort of hang-glider simulation) for the second time (the first was in California a few years ago), and found myself actively enjoying it, to my greater surprise.
    • I sat out "Mission Space" at Epcot because I started to feel nauseous standing in line. (Since it's rumored to be Disney's most nausea inducing ride, I thought I should probably skip it.) I was probably feeling over-stimulated from just coming out of Test Track. (My partner said "Mission: Space" was fun but intense. On the other hand, he also saw an ad and wants to go on the "Tower of Terror" at Disney-MGM on our next trip. Buddy, you're on your own for that one.)
But the important point is that my partner came away completely convinced and ready to return as soon as possible. By the end of the day in Epcot, he was rushing from pavilion to pavilion in the World Showcase, desperately trying to see everything before we ran out of time. It was very cute, and it was the moment at which I was sure I had him sold. I finally have a permanent Disney buddy, and have confirmed what I've long suspected: If you can just get a doubter to Disney World, they will have fun.

New Mathematical Principles

After consultation with a colleague who was here way too late (as I was), we came up with two useful new principles of mathematics.

Axiom of Generalization: If something works for three cases, it works for every case.
The Axiom of generalization is popular with math students everywhere; if we allowed for it, we could have all sorts of interesting new results, such as the following:
"No infinite series converges to any number."
Proof: It is fairly straightforward to see that the infinite series with nth term (1/2)^n cannot converge to 0, 1/4, or 1/2, since the partial sums are strictly increasing and the second partial sum is already bigger than 1/2. Since we have exhibited three numbers to which the series could not converge, it clearly does not converge to any number. Also, I can easily construct two more series for which this is true...
The Axiom of Chance I think speaks for itself:

Axiom of Chance: If a result looks plausible, publish it. (Alternative form: Retractions are easier than proofs.)

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Ending Summer

I am rapidly approaching the end of another summer. In theory, I have summers off. This means I can do other fun things, like teach summer classes, catch up on projects I didn't get to during the year because I was busy teaching, and . . . prepare for my next semester of teaching.

I taught during first summer session this year, and that gave me a chance to start prepping for teaching the same course in a large section this fall. I've been teaching a class in large sections recently, and so I was asked to take this one. (Apparently I'm now considered a large class expert. I hope this doesn't translate into last-minute large class assignments, because getting ready for a large class is a large pain.) My notes and some other materials are already made, and I have a few ideas about how I might handle homework and tests.

I also feel the need to try to publish something. I have material from my dissertation which I haven't published yet, but every time I look at it I end up feeling there's so much to do that I don't start. It would be a good idea to try to get something published 'though, since I'm job hunting again this year. My current job is sort of a place-holder. I can likely keep it for a while, but the department will happily attrit the job as soon as I'm ready to leave. On the other hand, math teaching jobs are sort of sparse these days. So I search, and go on searching.

I hate having to put myself forward and try to sell myself in the job hunt. ("Hi, you don't know me, but you should hire me and pay me lots of money because I'm really awesome. Trust me.") It's another reason why I'm not looking forward to the end of summer: job postings will start to appear again. I also stress about it because my partner is working in another state, and we are still trying to solve the problem of getting us both to the same area again. Ack, I'm starting to think I should have called this "StressBlog", but I see there is apparently already one of those.

On the upside, I had a fairly good break, including a vacation with my partner (more soon), and this week I've finally managed to get to the gym a few times. (You could tell my letters were looking especially buff and ripped today, couldn't you?) Now if only food weren't so tasty . . .

Who is the Tall Man?

Long ago and far away (in college), some of my friends developed descriptive names for each other. I didn't have one initially, but one day Bearded-Man No Hoo-Hah, in a fit of pique, dubbed me Tall Man, Wise-Ass. (I had been hassling him. It's what I do.) I liked the name, and it stuck.

Also long ago (at least it seems), but not so far away, I went to grad school, and I kept up with my friends in a series of missives I labeled "The Pilgrim's Progress", and for a while went by the nickname "the Pilgrim". (I started a bit of a trend. Several other people started similar chronicles detailing their own grad school journeys. Yes, we were a geeky lot.) Initially the letters were fairly frequent, but over time I seem to have sputtered to a stop.

Recently I found myself wasting way too much time re-reading these epistles and decided it was time to renew my efforts. And I thought to myself: "Self, I should try one of the blog thingies that are all the rage." I figured it would be a significant improvement over sending out my life saga by e-mail because, um... Technology! Interactive multimedia! Paradigmicity!

Anyway, blogger all that; here I am. (Actually, I'm just sitting in a chair right now typing. But in spirit, I'm on the web.) While I'm at it, I decided to go back to being TMWA.

And lest anyone should ask, I'm not tremendously tall and definitely not that wise. But a Wise-Ass? Well... that would be telling.

As a final note, did you know that the spell checker built into Blogger does not apparently recognize the words "blog" or "blogger"?