Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Jesus and Cooties

A few weekends ago, I spent a few days watching documentaries relating to The Da Vinci Code. Many were marvellously entertaining. For instance, did you know the Templars essentially established a form of international branch banking before the thirteen-hundreds? The movie (and the book) seem to have worked up quite a froth among conservatives because of the claims Brown makes about Jesus and the early church. Now to be fair to those doing the frothing, in addition to the fiction which is the book, Brown seems to be pushing a fair bit of background information for the book as factual which actually ranges anywhere from possible to highly improbable in the eyes of most historians, and some of which falls into the category of wild-eyed conspiracy theories. (Very little seems to be either widely believed or authoritatively disproven.) I suspect he does this deliberately because he thinks (probably correctly) that it will sell more books if he stirs the pot a little.

Should I warn about spoilers? I've not read the book myself (or seen the movie), but since I haven't been in a coma for the past year or so, I'm still aware of most of the points which are causing all the ruckus. One of the big ones seems to be the suggestion that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and that they had children, and that the bloodline still exists today. The producers of one documentary spent some time looking into the question of whether Jesus could have been married, and interviewed several scholars on this point, including a priest. The priest looked absolutely furious; he seemed almost too mad to speak, and managed to spit out that suggesting Jesus was married was "libelous."

Now this I have to wonder about. Whether someone was married or not may be true or untrue, and the question may be open or settled, but I've never heard it suggested that claiming someone was married is libel. (I actually looked up the definition of "libel" just to make sure the universe hadn't changed around me.) What in the world?

Two possibilities occur to me here as to why someone would feel such a claim would be so scurrillous. There is of course the obvious point that we have to remember who is doing the speaking here; if it turns out Jesus was married, someone may have been giving up the horizontal mambo his whole life for what turns out to be no good reason. (Remember the joke about the monk who spent his life making copies of copies of manuscripts who discovered upon reading the originals in heaven that the word was celebrate?) Personally, I suspect there's at least some truth to this basis for the anger, but I think there's another reason for much of the church to dislike the suggestion: They think women have cooties, and no one truly holy could possibly have touched one, or even wanted to. (This also explains how churches supposedly following the teachings of someone who spent almost all his time talking about love, caring, compassion, and forgiveness end up spending almost all their time talking about sex and the importance of not having it, or at least making sure no one has any fun at it.)

Which is particularly interesting in light of what some of the other scholars had to say about Mary Magdalene herself and other women connected with Jesus and with the early church. While the evidence seems to be pretty strong that if Jesus was married it wasn't to Mary, it does seem that she was a disciple who traveled with him--and that she wasn't the only one. In what would have been somewhat scandalous at the time, Jesus seems to have interacted with men and women in essentially the same way. In the earliest church, there were apparently a number of women who became teachers and leaders. Which makes sense if you think about the admonishments from some early (male) church leaders for women to be silent; why tell someone to shut up who hasn't been speaking out?

So perhaps some of the anger is the residual "women have cooties" feeling, which (ironically) may have been part of what Jesus himself preached against. Actually, the whole thing leaves me with the odd feeling that Jesus may have been way more progressive on gender issues than most of the contemporary world.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Neat People Never Make the Exciting Discoveries I Do

I used to have a little sign which said that. Every once in a while, I would come across the sign in a pile (see? I told you) and it would verify itself.

And in the course of cleaning, I've just discovered two more pairs of jeans that fit: one hanging in a closet (I vaguely recall the idea possessing me of hanging these up to save room elsewhere) and another I don't even vaguely remember but which I found in the middle of a pile (of course). This effectively doubles the pairs of jeans I own, which is a lovely surprise. It's like being visited by the clothes fairy. Which only seems fair since I had several pairs stolen when I used to wash clothes in a public laundry room.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Office Detritus

I'm rapidly reaching the bottom of the piles that are my office, and finding the odd effluvia of 13 years here (although only about three years since my last office move). I've boxed up most of my books and files that I want to keep, and schlepped many of them home to fill up my apartment, where they will await movers. I'm in the process of attempting to return books I've borrowed. I've been trying to pass off supplies, like a couple of dozen half-empty pads of paper (including one pad of graph paper, which I vaguely recall picking up for an algebra class when I first taught as a GTA about 12 years ago), and a blue-jillion blank note cards in different sizes. (These are the weird little supplies you end up with as a teacher. I already just gave up and threw out most of the red pens I found. And yes, "blue-jillion" is a technical mathematical term for "butt-load".)

So now the desks are starting to appear again (I told you already I'm a piler), and I can see the bits of paper, paper clips, rubber bands, stray markers and pens that escaped my earlier sweeps (how many markers did I own?), a prescription bottle which turned out to have been re-purposed for holding ibuprofen, an actual ibuprofen bottle (is this saying something about my job?), a bottle of Rolaids (no comment), some possibly blank CDs, two spoons (I'm grateful I didn't find more cutlery than that, really), a microwavable cup of soup that languished here since it's more fun to go get lunch with someone out, computer cables, a manual for a cheap calculator I got to loan out for students at tests, staples, a humidifier I brought when my sinuses were killing me, batteries, and probably a ton of other junk.

And paper. I have stacks and stacks of paper sitting on my floor right now, waiting to get taken down to a dumpster: notes that are too scattered to be worth rescuing, extra handouts I was keeping "in case", copies of old notes packs, the used halves of all those pads of paper, phone books, old student papers ("And if you look to your left, you'll see opscan mountain..."), overheads, a huge stack of evaluations I decided I didn't need to keep anymore (I have the yearly summaries, and I kept the ones from the past year or so which had any comments), magazines I didn't read, envelopes, and probably something valuable and important which I didn't notice got tossed into the pile.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Flashback to High School Health

Writing recently about my required high school classes reminded me of the experience that was "Health" in high school. It was a required class, and as I mentioned, there were no "advanced" or honors classes which substituted for it, so I was back amongst the general population of my high school my senior year, and it was an eye-opening experience. And yes, it's not current, but I felt like sharing anyway.

On the first day, my health teacher (also the cheerleading coach) was giving an overview of all the different topics we would be discussing that semester. She started talking about studying the different systems of the body, like the skeletal and muscular systems, and (apparently as segue) asked, "And how do we move our muscles?" Now I had just finished honors biology II the previous year, and aced the AP test, so I remember that I started thinking: "Let's see... there's a sodium and potassium ion exchange, and there's a ratcheting action in the fibers... gosh, I can't quite remember this... wait, is this completely understood? I guess this class is going to be harder than I thought." I'm so dissapointed that I didn't remember enough details to rattle off a quick answer to an (admittedly) hard question, because when no one answered how we moved our muscles, the teacher finished up with: "We EXERCISE them!" At which point I relaxed and thought, "OK, so this will be cake after all."

Which is pretty much the conclusion my health teacher came to after about a week or two, when she drew me and one other student aside after class and basically told us the class wouldn't be challenging for us, and she was sorry, but if we wanted to assume we would have lots of free time during class and bring other things to work on or read, that was fine. But, as she put it, there wasn't much she could do to make the class much more interesting, because she also had to deal with students in the class who couldn't even read. (This is high school, remember?) And mostly it was a fairly boring class, which covered the basics, including the lessons on staying healthy by exercising and eating healthy foods, and the obligatory "Drugs are bad, m'kay" lesson.

But then there was the sex ed unit, which was a lot of fun. For me, anyway. Mostly because our teacher couldn't bring herself to say the word "sex" out loud. (Once she had to bring up the topic, so she hurriedly wrote it on the board, then quickly erased it again.) I was pretty well-versed in the area actually, which is mostly attributable to being both an intellectual bookworm and a horny teenager at the same time: I read everything I could find. By the time I went into the class, I knew quite a bit about the biology, sociology, and psychology relating to sex. (And I had a fair idea which bits I'd like to try out, for that matter. And a long list of guys I'd like to try them with, but I wouldn't have told anyone either of those at that point.)

We saw a fair number of videos during that unit, because the teacher could start a film, turn out the lights, and hide in the back of the room. (Actually, this was frequently a pretty good idea, since a lot of our sex education ended up coming from PBS or Surgeon General Koop, which tended to be pretty good.) But I even managed to ruin a film for her once. When she showed "The Miracle of Life" (which was good, but dated), another student asked "Is this really inside somebody?", to which she answered no. When I explained that the film was controversial exactly because these shots we were seeing were real (and done using laproscopic cameras), she was mortified and actually started hiding her face in her hands on the desk. (Come to think of it, I probably shouldn't have said anything. She probably never showed that film again.)

One day a discussion broke out among the students about things stuck up people's butts, including comments about gay men "gerbiling". I brought in a Cecil Adams column the next day to read to the class in which he concluded that this was an urban legend, because a lengthy review of medical literature couldn't turn up a case. Interviews with nurses or emergency room personnel who claimed to have seen cases also ended up just going in circles and never coming down to an identifiable case. The column did however include a lengthy list of items mentioned in medical literature that had been removed from peoples rectums, including light bulbs, a plantain in a condom, and 72 jewelers saws (!). (These are the items which still stick with me; the full list was several paragraphs long.) While she let me read the article to the class, she also said afterwards that it would be the end of any further discussions of anything in anyone's rectum. (Actually she didn't say anything nearly that explicit of course.)

The time I wish I had read out loud to the class was when we covered birth control. Our teacher passed out a mimeographed table of different birth control methods to the class, including where to get them, how to use them, and what the benefits and drawbacks of each were. She said she wasn't going to read any of this out loud, and that no one else obviously wanted to, so we were to just read each row of the table silently to ourselves. So we spent a little time where she would say "Now read row three," and wait for a while. Then she took all the sheets back up, so we wouldn't go showing people what we talked about in health class. (And of course I can't help but think back to what she said at the beginning of the class about having students who couldn't even read.) I came within a hairsbreadth of volunteering when she said "no one else wants to read it either" and starting in on the table, but I didn't. I really wish I had, particularly since there were probably some people in there who needed the information and couldn't get it from reading the table. Plus, I bet I could have made my teacher climb under the desk.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Rejection Letters

I finally got my last rejection letter tonight (obviously I already had a job, so it doesn't matter much), but it makes for an interesting record. Of ten applications total, I got eight rejection letters and two job offers. But one school I never heard from again. (Yes, if you're counting, one school actually sent two rejection letters. As near as I can tell, they had a more detailed letter they sent out to the short-listed candidates (which I got), and a very generic letter they sent to everyone else. However, they apparently forgot to remove the short-listed candidates from the longer list, so I got both letters. All things considered, I may have dodged a bullet on this one.)

Now the one school I never heard from is interesting, since they actually interviewed me. And then... well, cue the crickets chirping. That was last year, and they ultimately hired someone (they have a new staff member this year), but I never heard anything back from them. I was leaning towards not taking the job if I got it actually; the school was in a sort of dire situation financially and academically. I don't honestly think they were going to even have a math major in another ten years. So no great loss, but still, a post-card would have been nice. Particularly to one of the three people who got an on-campus interview. So really, again, maybe I'm dodging bullets here.

All of this takes me back to applying for grad schools, where I also got a fair number of rejection letters. (Darn my college math department's near zero grade inflation since the 1960s.) I still remember one rejection letter in particular, although I can't remember exactly what it said. Northwestern University had the nicest rejection letter I'd ever seen. It actually succeeded in making me believe that they were genuinely sorry they couldn't accept my application, as if they felt it was the school's loss. Someone there wrote a beautiful rejection letter, and it helped some during a somewhat depressing time. Cheers to them.

Monday, May 15, 2006

No Bridges for Me

I won't have to live under a bridge next year after all; I found a place to live. It's in a line of townhouses mostly populated by other college professors, and I'll only be about a five minute walk from my office. (Actually, I think it's only really a full five minutes if I have to slog through six feet of snow and have to wait to cross the street.) No garage, but then I won't have to drive to work most of the time.

Now I'm back and spent part of the day trying to get movers. I have two appointments, one e-mail estimate, one "no can do", and two people who never called me back. It gives me something to do for the rest of the week. Plus the decision of what to take and what to leave. I've got some fairly old furniture, some of which is just cheap stuff assembled out of kits. I think at least those are not coming with me, if I can find someplace to get rid of them. It may be easier to just buy new furniture when I get there. I understand Pittsburgh has an Ikea store. Imagine me with real furniture!

I've also been engaging in partial packing of my office. I figure if I pack up a small book box and take it home each day, by the time the movers come, I'll have my office packed up and home. Good theory, but I'm finding carrying even one book box down the four flights of stairs and out to where I can park my car a little bit of a challenge. (It doesn't help that the school closed the parking lot that was close to my office. They feel a need to build another building there instead.)

I suppose I need to return the books I have from the department which are still current. Fortunately, we changed editions of the calculus book a few years ago, so I should be able to keep the old edition anyway. And who gets my old finals? I know normally we have to keep this stuff for at least a semester, but I won't be here to keep it. I'm somewhat surprised in at least a few cases I haven't already heard more complaints from students, but all has been quiet on the e-mail front for a while now.

It should be interesting to see what my state of mind is like in about a month. Although by that point it should be mostly over.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

More Pseudo-Randomness

  • For reasons I cannot fathom, my students apparently also believe 33 = 9. Perhaps someone is teaching this? It may be related to the fact that a friend of mine who teaches high school noticed a blackboard left up by another teacher with gems such as 1/2 + 1/3 = 1/5.
  • The brown and black cat has lost his collar, and the teenage girl who lives next door with her mother claims that the cat is hers now. The mother had originally said the cat wasn't theirs. I'm not sure what's going on. He also seems less willing to share the porch with the shy white cat now.
  • Hint to my multivariable students: If you are asked to produce an example of an absolutely convergent series and justify your choice, any series which you justify using a comparison test with another convergent series is the wrong choice for this problem.
  • Overheard from students (not mine) going into a final exam: "I didn't start studying until about an hour ago..."

I have just given my last final, and am mostly done grading it. This is good, as it means I can leave tomorrow to try to find someplace to live next year. I hate sleeping under bridges, especially in places where the snow may come that high anyway.

Friday, May 05, 2006

DonutFest 2006

Once again from our white board:

Is that Ooga Booga giving a thumbs up to donuts? Yes, of course.

Have we been eating too many donuts? Yes, we have.

Are we going crazy as we get into finals? No comment.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

I missed something

I missed something significant in the article I mentioned below about some financial aid being set aside for students who take a sufficiently "rigorous" program in high school, which I came across in conversation with someone else today. The article points out of course that some schools do not offer all of the options that are required for students to qualify for this aid. Students at these schools will of course just be out of luck.

Now, just as a thought experiment, which schools have the fewest options for students? Would these be wealthy schools or poor schools? Which schools can afford to make sure they offer all courses for an "advanced" diploma, including silly computer programming courses? Which schools can recruit teachers to make sure every student who wishes to can take two years of foreign language? Which schools can afford to support AP and IB programs for its students? All of these things are required for a student to qualify for this new financial aid.

And why exactly are wealthy schools wealthy and poor schools poor? (Remember that US schools are financed locally, and usually through property taxes.) So this new program is in essence transferring 4.5 billion dollars of federal aid into funds that can only be used by at least moderately well off students. (The same bill which authorized this new aid also cut $13 billion in college spending.)

So if you're foolish enough to be born to poor parents and consequently attend a poor school, you will of course have limited opportunities up through high school. But should you manage to do well and learn anything anyway, there won't be money for you to go to a college which might help make up for what you missed out on in high school; the money has been reserved for students wise enough to be born to middle-class or higher parents.

The Advanced Diploma Sucked Canal Water

(Borrowing a phrase from my junior high band director.)

I just ran across an article about new federal aid for college students who take a "rigorous" program of study in high school. It's a big deal because the federal government usually doesn't set curriculum for the schools. In the current list of requirements (different ones may come out in a different year), the following caught my eye; students will need to

"Have an advanced or honors high school diploma, as offered in at least 19 states."

My high school (in Texas) had an "Advanced" diploma option, which was a steaming pile of horse shit, pardon my French. I had planned to get the advanced option, but I took a lot of courses in high school. I took four years of Spanish (the new requirements for this financial aid require two years of a foreign language), I was in band for four years (I was in Orchestra too, but just practiced with them during home room so I didn't have to take it as a course), and was zipping through all the math courses on the way to Calculus. I even took an elective honors history topics course one semester dealing with issues in American national security. (The best high school history course I took, by the way. We did a lot of research and a lot of discussion and debate.)

In any case, when it came time to sign up for classes for my senior year, I was stymied. I had several required courses that I needed to take which took up slots. (These were courses that everyone had to take before graduating. There were no honors courses which substituted, and having spent the previous year taking nothing but honors courses, I was sort of appalled by what I saw in these classes. One of the most amazing experiences was taking "Health" the year immediately following acing the AP biology exam with 5/5.) I obviously wasn't giving up band (it was my major hobby, it covered my PE requirement, and I was already considering continuing with the oboe). I didn't want to give up on Spanish after three years (and in my last year I got a chance to spend a week in Spain, which was awesome). English of course was required anyway. But the advanced diploma had an additional requirement I hadn't met: I had to take a "the computer is your friend" basic computer programming class. It covered programming in BASIC on an Apple IIe, I think, which I could already do in any case. But if I didn't take that course, I had room to take calculus.

So I took calculus instead of programming in BASIC and graduated with a regular diploma rather than an advanced diploma, which really didn't matter, because no one has ever asked what kind of high school diploma I got. No one even asked for college admissions, and at this point most people are more interested in what I did for my PhD anyway.

But are we now at a point where someone else trying to decide between an advanced mathematics course and a rinky-dink introduction to programming risks losing college financing if they make the "wrong" decision? I really hate the cut and dried lists of rules that we have to substitute for good judgment most of the time.


OK, to be totally fair, the calculus course was pretty much a waste of time. Thankfully, I started teaching myself calculus the summer before I started the class. This is good, because our teacher was pretty much an idiot. I working on my own through the year and ended up way ahead of the class by the end. I remember asking my calculus teacher one day about the convergence of a series because my answer didn't agree with the answer in the back of the book. He just didn't say anything. It was years later that I realized he didn't know what I was talking about. On the other hand, I found the experience was very useful when I taught Advanced Calculus a few summers ago. I had gave my students several homework and test problems in the following form: "My high school calculus teacher taught us that (blank). Prove rigorously that he was wrong."

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Book Buying

I've been having a lot of fun recently picking out books to get with the faculty development money I need to use up. I feel a little like a kid in a candy store; there's all these cool books that I've either used personally or had recommended at some point, or are just classics that "every mathematician should have." I've realized three great things so far.

First, totally rocks. (When it works. I've also run into weird glitches, like one book that always appears for sale, but which is never available when you actually try to buy it... it's a phantom book I think. Or the time I received confirmation that a book had been shipped, followed by a note from the sender that "I can't send you this book" and a refund three minutes later.) When it works, you can get some older texts for cheap, and there's tons of old math texts that are still great. I don't think this would work as well in a lot of other fields, but things don't usually stop being true in mathematics, so we still read and reference a lot of old books. A lot of new ones too, but still plenty of old ones. (I remember one of my professors in college joking about a false "theorem" that was "proved" in a journal article one year, and found out ten years later to be incorrect. He said the theorem was "true between the years of...". My partner was also surprised to see I referenced papers from the 1800s in my dissertation; he considered anything older than perhaps 1980 to be tremendously dated and highly suspect.)

Second, Dover totally rocks too. I discovered Dover has been going crazy putting out ten-dollar paperback reprints of tons of great math books. (Again, this works great if old texts are still useful to you.) They always had some good stuff, but it's sort of amazing how much is available now. I'm waiting on a lot of these because they're so cheap and plentiful now, and mostly using grant money for more expensive (and harder to find) texts. But eventually I think my bookshelf will overflow with them.

Third, I must still really like math, because I'm really enjoying this process and it's exciting to think about all the things I could be reading. (I know you would assume I still like math, but every once in a while, I find myself wondering.)

I'm just slightly disappointed that my splurge is coming to an end. But I've promised myself that every few months I can buy myself a new math book, even if it's kind of expensive. I just have to remember that it's not just spending money; it's professional development.

Monday, May 01, 2006


Days left until:
  • Classes are over: 3
  • I've given my last final here: 9
  • My final grades must be entered: 12
  • My lease expires: 47
Days until I can visit my new location for apartment hunting: 10

Current panic level: Defcon 3.

I was going to go and start this past weekend, but I ran so late on Thursday with grades that needed to be entered that I didn't make it. I can't go this weekend because of finals. So next Wednesday I throw my last grades in and hit the road. (Distance: 433 miles. Time: 7 hours. According to MapQuest.)