Friday, November 30, 2007

The Perversity of Self-Referential Teaching

When I taught my students version one of the Fundamental Theorem of Calculus (the one which tells you how to take derivatives of functions involving integrals), I said:
Isn't this easy? Don't you wish the whole test was going to be this? Well, I will go ahead and tell you that when I put one of these problems on the exam, half of you will forget and miss it.
I say this every time I teach the section, in the hopes that it might make the material stick. This time I went one step further and added:
That will be true despite the fact that I have just told you this.
I thought possibly that this statement might make at least a few more students decide to remember it. (It seemed to make an impression at least; they did laugh.)

Well I gave the exam this morning, and it turns out that in fact more than half the class forgot it. I think somewhere around 80% forgot it. Maybe next time I will try: "Everyone gets this problem every time, so don't bother to study this at all."

Monday, November 19, 2007

Spring Semester

I have a schedule for Spring now. I don't have any more 8 am classes--Yea! I'm also scheduled to teach three sections of math for elementary ed students--also Yea! And I'm teaching Discrete Math, which is worth a cautious and qualified Yea (?)!

Discrete was my favorite class in college, and it was also the "sexy" class that convinced many people to be math majors. It is the course where students learn to write proofs, and the topics tend to include things like set theory, formal logic, and combinatorics. (Of course, I got to take it with a realio trulio set theorist, so how cool is that?) The only problem is that since then I've been at two other schools where Discrete Math seems to be a major problem (including this one), rather than a joy. I have no idea why this is, and I wonder if I'm up to doing the job my professor did with my class. I hope so. I think it's a very cool course, even though it's not in the area I ended up in.

I'm not sure why, but I've already had two students try to get me to sign an override form so they can take Discrete Math even though they haven't taken the prerequisite yet. Hint to any students thinking about this: The answer is no.

Friday, November 16, 2007

In which I play with squeaky toys

The university is having College Bowl type of competition in which all the departments put together teams of students to compete on general knowledge questions. The Math/CS department put together a team a few weeks ago using a preliminary competition. Since I was the first person who didn't say "no" when asked, I played MC and read the questions (which someone else had downloaded from a College Bowl site.) [I received some kudos on my reading, by the way, because I didn't trip too badly over reading all the odd place and people names that fill the various literature, movie, geography, and history questions. I had to point out that this just meant I was good at reading confidently, not that I had any friggin' clue how to pronounce any of these things.] The students responded by squeezing a squeaky toy (since we don't have buzzers), then got to answer the question. We selected a team based on how people answered.

This afternoon, we had scheduled a practice round, where students would compete against a faculty team. (The faculty team won't otherwise compete in any way.) Since I again didn't say "No" when asked*, I've ended up on the faculty team, so this afternoon I got to play with squeaky toys too. Of course, this means someone else had to be recruited to read questions, but that was apparently more appealing than having to show up on the team. I understand this, since I had the distinct impression I was going to look like a complete idiot. (There are plenty of things I know I ought to know as a generally educated person but don't; I just do my best to keep anyone from finding out about these.)

I spent the week studying by reading An Incomplete Education and setting my TiVo to record everything history related that I could find. I also looked for other random trivia that tends to show up in these things. (Did you know all 14 mountains more than 8,000 meters above sea level are all in Asia, either in the Himalayan mountain range or the Karakorum range? The first man to climb all 14 was Reinhold Messner of Italy. If you count height as measurement from base to top, the tallest mountain is actually Mauna Kea in Hawaii at over 10,000 meters, but that includes a portion beneath the ocean. The deepest point in the ocean is the Challenger Deep in the Marianas trench off the coast of Southeast Asia, which is 2 km deeper than Mt. Everest is tall.)

As it turned out, I managed not to look too foolish, and in fact one thing I found in Incomplete came up. (One of the 12 supreme court decisions the book listed as ones everyone should know.) So I feel like some studying paid off. But there was nothing about mountains.

* "I'm just a girl who can't say ..."

Wednesday, October 24, 2007


I think I'm going senile. (Or maybe it's just a side effect of being a math professor.) On Tuesday of last week, I forgot to go to a class. (It meets at a different time on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. What really happened is that I forgot it was Tuesday, and the class started half an hour earlier than I thought.)

Then on Wednesday of last week, I forgot to leave class. (At least I forgot to get my stuff. I must have let a student distract me out of the classroom, then forgot I left all my stuff spread out across the desk until I happened across it again four hours later.) Yesterday I discovered I left all of my stuff in the classroom again.

I told my colleague across the hall about this, and she asked me when I came back from class today if I had all my books. I laughed, then left my umbrella in the hallway after I got my door open.

Thursday, October 18, 2007


So guess who had his proposal approved to speak at the national Joint Mathematics Meetings in January?

San Diego, here I come. (Hey, I wrote that dissertation. I may as well get some use out of it eventually.)

Thursday, September 20, 2007


I went down to Pittsburgh for a meeting this past weekend on using technology in math teaching. I didn't really find anything that impressed me much, 'though. We did have a demonstration of "clickers" that I was interested in, but it mostly killed my interest in them. (For those not in the know, clickers are small remote control devices that students can use to respond to short in-class questions, usually multiple choice format. The results are collected and tabulated by computer and can be displayed. They've been used a lot in physics classes.) I've thought clickers looked intriguing, but I'm not sure I'd bother for anything other than a large class now, and maybe not then. It seems like a great deal of trouble for not so much gain. We also got to play with fancy calculators, which are kind of cool, but a complete pain to try to enter anything into. I don't see using anything like this until/unless the input is better. I'd just go with notebook computers if you want portability, personally.

On the other hand, I got to meet a few people and we did get to go out to eat Indian food. (I think I may have introduced some of my colleagues to the joys of it; I'm not sure.) Indian is one thing I have a hard time finding around Erie, so I'm glad I got to do that. But it all pretty much ate up my weekend, so I'm glad I've got another one coming up. It will give me a chance to finish grading my latest round of tests. Oh joy.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Starting the semester

Well, here's the short notes from the first two weeks, now almost over:
  • An 8:00 am class four days a week is very hard on me; I'm not a morning person. It's very tough dragging myself out of bed at 7:55 every morning. I'm worried since this is a Calc I class that I may have the continuing 8am Calc II class in the spring, too.
  • Actually, the subjects that I'm teaching this semester are all things I've taught before, and out of the same book, even. It's kind of weird to have a schedule I essentially could have been teaching at my last job. (Well, it's the same book modulo an edition or two. I hate that publishers keep rearranging and changing the problems to force students to buy new copies. It also makes me change my assignments and homework quizzes, which is a pain.)
  • I let a student from one of my spring classes borrow a library book I had out. He subsequently disappeared completely, and did not take the book back to either me or the library. Since he's a major in our department, I figured I could grab him from someone's class in the first week (and perhaps shake him). But he's not enrolled in any classes this semester. His home address on the system lists Pakistan. I'm annoyed.
  • I use scantron forms (bubble sheets) in my calculus classes for daily homework quizzes. I ran the forms today, after going through the stack to try to correct problems with the students' forms, like forgetting to bubble things in, or using pen, or putting in the wrong information. (As it turns out, I missed one that used pen for bubbling in just a single item, which screwed things up.) I'm also noticing that they are calling the bubble sheets "scantron" here, as we did in high school. This after I spent about a decade at my last school getting used to calling them "opscans".
  • I'm an adviser now... apparently. I have a list of students who appear on my "advising" menu on the system. I realize we have a mixed department, but I'm not sure why all of my advisees are computer science majors. We got an e-mail suggesting that we contact all our advisees early in the semester. I'm not sure what I'm supposed to tell them, 'though.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

New Toy

I bought a replacement camera so I can take pictures of my students when classes start again (Monday, Ack!), so that means I can take pictures of stuff. Like the new car:

OK, now back to regularly scheduled class preparation.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

The Pile is Following me

Remember the pile? The giant stack of trash (including furniture) dumped out on the lawn after a neighbor moved out in Virginia? It followed me to Pennsylvania, apparently. When I came back from my trip Saturday night, I found the neighbor (on the same side as before, mind you) had left a huge pile of trash out in the yard. (Granted, a much smaller pile this time, which does not actually include furniture, but is still impressive.) Trash collection on Monday morning picked up only the bagged items, which still left a veritable cornucopia of junk. I was briefly hopeful, because there seemed to be people cleaning the next door apartment who apparently bagged up most of the remaining stuff, but then left everything. There was a local skunk which was nosing around the pile at night.

Do I just attract this for some reason?

Thankfully, the stuff has finally disappeared.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Time Wasters of the Summer

Just a short list of things that have helped me waste time this summer:
  • I know the lyrics to Yakko's World and Wakko's America. I'm waiting for a good opportunity to whip them out.
  • I finished Might and Magic VI: The Mandate of Heaven. I loved the Might and Magic series, but they stopped coming out for Mac after the fifth. (I'm a fan of turn based role-playing games, because I have no coordination or patience to try to do things in real time.) However, I have access to a PC now, so I bought a used copy of VI-IX off of and had fun with VI most of the summer. I finally obtained blaster weapons for my characters, defeated the Kreegan queen, and saved the world. (For those not familiar, the series is a basic fantasy role playing game that mixes in a sci-fi element at the end of each game. So you have archers and wizards battling robots on spaceships or something. Those who know me can probably see why this appeals to me.)
  • At the end of July, Deathly Hallows came out. (Book Seven of Harry Potter, but you knew that, right?) I spent a day (about 12 hours) reading it, so I'm not sure if it counts as a total summer time waster. Besides, how can that be wasted time? I finally know about how Neville and Harry were really switched at birth but both have been slipped Polyjuice potion in their sleep for their entire lives. (You have to read if you want to know what really happens.) I was delighted by the book, and was equally delighted (and smug) to find that basically everything I predicted about the end came to pass. But in any case, I'm glad I finally know how it all ends up. I even apparently convinced one of my colleagues to read the whole series.
  • I'm not sure it counts as time-wasting, but I did spend about two weeks researching and shopping for a car. I hate doing things like that, but I always want to make sure I get a good deal on something I like. I also looked into replacement digital cameras, and next up is a navigation system.


I bought a new car. I bought the car because I no longer completely trusted the old one to go on long trips. I need to go on long trips because my other half lives in another state 7 hours away. I was waiting until late in the summer because I was waiting to see if we were going on strike or not, which was supposed to be settled by the end of July. We supposedly weren't, although this is up in the air again. I got tired of waiting, said "screw it", and bought a lovely blue Toyota Camry using my summer school money as the down payment. When the contract is settled I'll pay off an additional large chunk of it.

I would include a picture of the new car with this post, since it really is extra lovely, but my camera is broken. I discovered this when I went to take pictures of my students at the start of summer classes and found it functions perfectly except for not taking any pictures, which is a bit of a snag for a camera. I think I need to replace this before the semester starts. Interestingly, I was searching for recommendations on a new model from the same website that had suggested my original model a few years ago, and found my current camera mentioned in an article on "the worst digital cameras ever made". Which makes me wonder if I'm wise to take advice from them again.

But in any case, I got the car and got to travel down to Kentucky again for a week. I love visiting, but dislike the trip. The new car is nice 'though. It's much quieter on the road than the Focus, which is nice, because it's easier to nap while I drive. We did get to make a short trip to Lexington and found nice Indian food, which is one thing that Erie is a little short on. (Although there is a grocery store that stocks tons of Indian, including lots of nifty pre-made dishes in little pouches that you can heat up and eat. It's lovely.)

Now I'm back and have to start planning for the semester, plus possibly do something about finally publishing something. There ended up being less summer than I thought for all of this.

Monday, July 23, 2007


I was just purusing, which is a riot, and has as a central premise "Superman is a dick," supported by a wide array of Superman comics covers showing Superman being a... well, you get the picture. But it also includes a great gallery of ridiculous super powers, including heroes such as "Kite Man", and powers like super weaving and super ventriloquism. Which got me to thinking about a conversation I had years ago with a fellow grad student in which we tried to think up reasonably good, but unusual, superpowers we could have. I picked the power to locate any specific penny anywhere at any time. I thought this was reasonably good, actually. You could track anyone by just slipping one tiny penny onto their person. Tape a penny to everything you own, and presto--no more looking for the remote. And pennies are so ubiquitous, no one notices them, but pretty much everyone (in the US, anyway) has them. Plus you'd likely be able to find your keys when they fell out of a hole in your pocket because you probably dropped a penny at the same time, even if you didn't tape a penny to them. I think it's superpower which is just at the right level of being useful without being in any sense overpowered. My friend wanted to the power to inflict pain on men. I don't think she was joking, but I don't think she was really getting into the game, either. I suspect there were unspoken issues with some man or another in particular.

I also remember a good conversation regarding the premise of massive numbers of random mutations granting superpowers in the X-men series. We reasoned that there would have to be a whole bunch of mutants with totally useless powers. Like the guy who can move his nose to any location on his body. Or a woman with unlimited flatulence. (Interesting combination, those two.)

My deep desire for a superpower 'though is to be able to teleport anywhere instantaneously. (And I've had this wish even since before I was living seven hours away from the significant other.) Consider the travel possibilities. (And say goodbye to admission fees at Disney World. :-) ) Commuting would be a snap. Live where ever you found a nice, cheap place, and work where ever you want to. Miss your favorite restaurant in another state? Have dinner there tonight. Or explore the restaurants in Paris, Hong Kong, or Sri Lanka. As an added plus, you don't even have to worry about whether you're walking in a bad neighborhood or not. If you don't like it or someone jumps you, just zap back home. You even have a good entrepreneurial opportunity: no one could beat your very expensive one-hour delivery service. (Although it might be in less demand in a world with e-mail.) Of course, if you're unscrupulous, there are plenty of opportunities to do anything you want, too. Have I spent too much time thinking about this? Yes, of course, but that's what I do. You should hear the elaborate plans I have for what to do if I should ever find a genie.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Back Again

I'm back again. I do tend to have these lapses as things get busy, but I think I'm justified this time. I spent the last five weeks with a double summer session load, teaching for about two hours in the morning and three hours in the evening on Monday through Thursday. Then spending two and a half hours in office hours each afternoon, to which some of my students actually came on a regular basis. I had to resist the tendency for it to become "The professor does your homework for you" afternoons. We had a prof in grad school who was famous for that, actually. When I am relatively rested and alert, homework questions always turn into "20 questions from the Prof", which start with "What are they asking you to do here?" and end with "And does that answer the question we started with?" Very Socratic of me. When I am worn out, my answer tends to more sound more like "take the limit; watch your algebra; you'll get 13/4.")

We did not end up on strike, although we have yet to see (and vote to approve) the final agreement. At least I got to finish my session without interruption. It felt rushed regardless. (I still seriously can't believe anyone can learn calculus in three hours a day, four nights a week.)

And since I'm not teaching, I can just be amused at hearing the students streaming by my open door in the hallway this morning on the way out of a quiz, saying:
"It probably would have helped if I'd done my homework."
"Yeah--I just put down whatever I thought it might be."
Ah, the wonderful sounds of Not-My-Problem. In fact, I've had a passably good afternoon. I think I've even proved something, which makes me feel like a real mathematician. (I ran across an interesting probability problem in considering the distribution of candy in my candy bowl just before the session started, and I've partly solved it now. But the bowl is empty now, so maybe I won't get any more inspiration.) And thank goodness I did, because one of the things I still have to do this summer is get something published.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Good Shoes

I went over the week end and got the most comfortable dress-casual shoes I could find, so if I have to walk picket lines next week I can do it without killing my feet. It looks like a strike might happen; there has been little change in the negotiations by the administration. (There is of course plenty of time for them to make some reasonable offer, but I'm losing faith at this point.) Who knows what craziness will ensue from the weekend onward. Stay tuned.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Worst. Movie. Ever.

I've been participating in the League of Dubious Film run by friends this summer. The first I saw with them was BeastMaster, which I have no objections to because, hey, Marc Singer in a loin cloth. (Interestingly, we discovered that there are parts of this movie no one had ever seen before because we'd all watched it on TV, and TV usually cuts out shots which include boobies, for example.)

But the second movie was something called Zardoz, starring (believe it or not) Sean Connery in an orange diaper with bandoliers. He's a member of the "Brutals", one of two divisions of the future human race. He's one of the Brutals who is employed by a floating stone head called Zardoz to exterminate as many of the rest of the Brutals as possible, until he decides to stow away in the head and meets the "Eternals" who live forever in the Vortex. The Eternals are apparently very advanced and psychic (or perhaps just prone to weird convulsions; it's hard to tell) but apparently have lost the technology from our time which allows women to keep their tops on. (There does seem to be a common boobie theme in many bad movies. I keep thinking of Joe Bob Briggs.) The immortal line from the beginning of the movie is the stone head roaring "The Gun is Good! The P*nis is Evil!" This lead someone to hypothesize early on that it was a lesbian movie, but we decided after watching for a while it most definitely was not. I finally decided it must have been made by fundamentalist Christians, because while they say it's evil, they obviously can't stop thinking about it for ten minutes.

But I have to give a warning here: The movie is much worse than it sounds. It could easily have been edited down by at least an hour and have lost nothing (except perhaps all the trippy drug related sequences with flashing lights and disjointed sounds and clips). The floating stone head takes up far too little screen time. There are no other lines which compare with the "Gun is Good!" line. The only point to the movie (although poorly made) is that humans shouldn't live forever. (Or perhaps it just wants to communicate that women have boobies, which was a better made point.) It's a truly hideous experience which no one should have to sit through. And yet amazingly, any film, no matter how bad, has its adherents. There are actually crazy people who think this is the greatest science fiction movie ever made.

That said, there are apparently movies that people have found more unpleasant to sit through. I've gotten some amusement out of reading through some of the reviews on, which gives Zardoz three "droplets". (I think they're slime drops, but I'm not sure.) That ranks it as a middling bad movie. Some movies get only one (described as "A bad movie, even for me"), or a "skull" (described as "This is going to hurt, lots"). Personally I'm intrigued by the five droplet movies, such as Drunken Wu Tang, which is a Kung Fu flick featuring a watermelon monster. Check out the site; it has pictures.

Saturday, June 09, 2007


A few quick updates:
  • Regarding my post Pennsylvania Registration, Take II: Apparently, Pennsylvania does send out registration renewals; they just don't send them to me.
  • Promoted from comments on my post "50 Years of Sitcoms": Obie Ben Ken Obie says
    A fair number of sitcom plots go back to the Roman comedians Plautus and Terence, which had their own stock characters (clever slave, clueless master, oaf) and situations.
    Well there you have it. Those clever buggers. (Although it still leaves unanswered who they may have stolen from. The lack of written language if you go back far enough is a real pain.)
  • I spent part of yesterday wrestling with air conditioners. I've added a second unit to the back bedroom and I'm going to see if these two somewhat overpowered units upstairs will take care of the whole apartment or not. Unfortunately the larger one I put into my bedroom is a bit noisier than the old one.
  • I've been spending time getting ready for my summer classes, although not nearly as much as I wish I had. Classes start Monday. I'm really not sure how I'm getting through all the material in one of the classes in the time allotted. I also have to say I think having a four hour class in a summer session by meeting three hours a day, four days a week for five weeks is a terrible idea. I can't imagine how any student could end up learning anything.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Gender Genie

This post isn't nearly as weird as you thought it was. Or maybe it is.

It is not, amazingly enough, about a new approach to sex changes involving a lamp and a lot of rubbing. No, this is about a web site. Put the other thing out of your mind. No, seriously, I mean it.

There is apparently a program called the Gender Genie which will attempt to guess if the author visits the "Buoys" or the "Gulls" room at Cap'n Jack's Fish Shack, Argh. Alas, I'm afraid it's not completely consistent with my writing, although it seems to be right more often than half the time, so it may be on to something. Perhaps the confusion is a sign that some of my favorite writers whom I try to emulate are of the girly persuasion. Or maybe it can just tell I have The Gay.

Of course, if you read this because you're interested in transgendered fairy tales instead, try looking up "The Girl Who Pretended to be a Boy", included in The Violet Fairy Book, which is even available free as a Project Gutenberg etext. I aim to please.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

50 Years of Sitcoms

Lately, I've been watching reruns of I Love Lucy on my TiVo. (This is part of what I think may be a part of the development of a TiVo user: Eventually you see everything you really wanted to see originally, and start trying new things to see if you like them or not. It ultimately broadens your palette, because you never have to miss anything.) It was in fact a darned good show, and Lucille Ball was very talented.

But there's something odd about it. If you watch episodes for a while, you get the distinct impression that you can hear the last 50 years of sitcoms being written. The plots sometimes seem unnervingly familiar, and not just because people like to do "tributes" to famous scenes like the chocolate factory. It's because I think every plot that came to be used in every sitcom may have gotten its start here. Or perhaps earlier. At least according to Wikipedia, many of the plots were rewrites of plots Ball performed earlier on the radio show My Favorite Husband. And who knows how original the material was then. Maybe early humans were sitting around a campfire going "Og think he fool me... me turn tables and fool Og back!" while everyone laughed uproariously. (Who knows, it may have come just days after the first "pull my finger" joke.)

As a downside, it does mean there are few real surprises in the shows, but it's still fun to watch. Sometimes I feel a little like a friend of mine who had never watched It's a Wonderful Life. When I finally got her to watch it, her reaction at one point was "Oh, it's one of these, where he sees what the world would be like without him."

Pennsylvania Registration, Take II

Last year, I thought it was weird that Pennsylvania does auto registration through AAA. (I still do think that's weird.) This year, I notice that either I missed it, or Pennsylvania does not send anything when your registration is about to run out. My stickers expire at the end of the month, but I haven't heard anything. Thankfully all that stuff can just be done on-line these days, so I'm still set.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Coke as a Health Food

I noticed this recently, but had an opportunity to try it when I went out to lunch today: Diet Coke Plus, which is Diet Coke with added vitamins and minerals.

Short take is that it tastes fine, although there may be a slightly different taste--I'm not sure if I'm imagining it or not. I actually think the added vitamins and minerals are pretty silly, and I prefer Zero anyway (which is almost as good as the real thing), but there's nothing wrong with it, even if it does sound kind of funny.

And in a related topic, why is it that you always see health nuts going crazy trying to find some way to hate diet soda? There's no calories, it's not really much different than drinking water, except it tastes good. Actually, I suspect that's the objection: If you're not suffering, you must be doing something wrong.

Postscript: The end is in sight. If I finish grading one more final, I can be done with grades for the semester. Yea!

Thursday, May 03, 2007

I so take advantage of my students

"I'm happy to go over these problems, review further, or answer any questions you want for the rest of the class, but since some people seem interested in leaving, I won't penalize anyone who decides to leave."

Within 5 minutes, the room is always cleared, no matter that a final or whatever else is coming. Which means I get to leave early.

Well, almost always. Occasionally there will be a small group of 2-3 who will stay, but then I just get to sit down and have a tutoring session, which is fun and easy. For the most part, everyone takes the opportunity to leave, with (I'm assuming) the belief that they'll just study "later".

For some reason, it always makes me think of Calvin's mom telling Susie that "it's mean to take advantage of kids with no common sense" when she finds Calvin about to eat five worms for Susie's nickel.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Applied Combinatorics

When I was in grad school, a friend and I noticed that one of our professors would appear multiple days a row in the same outfit. In one case, he showed up in the same outfit for a week, and only changed suddenly at the end of the week when he hosted a visitor to the school. (I hypothesized that a conversation in his household that morning probably started with "You are not wearing the same thing you've had on all week while your friend is visiting...")

This may have left me a little paranoid about what I wear to class. Sometimes (like this semester) I try to keep track of what I've worn to different classes over the course of the semester. This leaves me figuring out how to arrange my sartorial schedule to have the fewest number of repeats for each class. Fortunately, I have several classes this semester which only meet once a week, and that makes it possible to make it look like even I have a wide and varied wardrobe.

I was very relieved when the weather improved enough that I could wear some short sleeved shirts, because I was running out of long sleeved shirts for my twice a week class. Then it got cruddy again. We're down to the last week of classes, and I'm barely able to wear my warm weather clothes. At least I'm ready for my summer classes.

On the other hand, it occurs to me that this may not be necessary at all. I usually can't remember what anyone I know was wearing the previous day, so I'm not sure I'd notice if anyone was repeating. A professor in Psychology even assured me that people are very unlikely to remember. Still, I'll try not to wear the same thing all week. It'll only make future professors paranoid.

Saturday, April 07, 2007


I received a genuine paper faith handkerchief in the mail from a church, because "someone connected to [my] home needs God's help and blessings." I was supposed to print my name and my "most pressing problem, by faith" on the handkerchief, and place it by the bed while I slept. Then the next day I was supposed to mail it back to them. And lest you doubt, these handkerchiefs apparently have amazing powers! According to the letter, people have had fathers and husbands stop drinking, had a son get out of jail (I'm assuming legally, but they weren't clear on this), had their home fixed up, gotten a check for $3,500, gotten big financial blessings, gotten $5,000, and gotten a check for $2,500. (There seems to be kind of an interesting pattern to a lot of these.)

I figured my most pressing problem at the moment was the rotten sinus problems I've been having for weeks, so I put that down and went to sleep. (I always do everything strange churches tell me to do in the mail.) Of course, having a handkerchief handy right by the bed when you wake up in the middle of the night with sinus problems leads to only one conclusion, and now I'm not sure if they really want the handkerchief back....
(1) Oh come on, now, you didn't really think I was serious, did you? The "handkerchief" is a printed 8x10 piece of paper. Like I really need paper cuts on my nose in addition to bad sinuses. Or that I'd actually listen to a church, for that matter.

(2) I remember these used to go out as "prayer rugs", I think. They've apparently now found a bible passage that sort of ties in with what they're doing, so they call them "faith handkerchiefs" now. (Acts 19:11-12, if you're interested. It looks to me to be a "We must hold high his holy gourd!" type of interpretation if I ever saw one.)

Monday, April 02, 2007

Winter is heck on roads here

I'm not sure if it's from the salt, the plowing, people with chains or studs on their tires, or just the freezing and melting (except when the heck did melting happen?), but the roads are a mess after the winter. Potholes everywhere. Big ones. Yikes. Now that the snow is all melted it's easier to tell.

And oh, what's this? More snow forecast for the end of the week. Maybe it's a fluke. But this weekend is Easter, so we'll just hope Jesus doesn't see his shadow, or we'll have six more weeks of winter. And that reminds me: I need to plan my Day-After-Easter discount candy shopping trip.

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Trip Report

It was great to see my better half again, and also great to see some people (and a few places) I had not seen in a while. The area has been growing rapidly. I'm amazed at how much new construction (some complete and some in progress) there has been since I left in June of last year. So I suppose I would rate it a good trip. Was it relaxing?

In the words of Edna Krabappel, "Ha."

Things went fine until the car started dying on me. That didn't happen until we got to Virginia, so when it got very bad on the second day, I took it to the dealer I bought it from. Unfortunately, the person who needed to look at it was gone and wouldn't be back until the next day. We ended up stranded at the hotel until the next day, then sitting in the dealership until about 4:00. The dealer finally said they couldn't replicate the problem, even though they had someone drive it for about 80 miles. So we finally just left for Kentucky, after stopping to get a prepaid cellular phone for the trip.

By the way, to activate the phone, you dial an 800 number to an automated system which does most of the setup before it transfers you to a real person to finish. The automated system opened with, as I recall: " 'Sup? This is Symone, and I'm here to get you set up with your new phone..." and continued with responses like "OK, cool." Much eye-rolling on my part ensued. The real person (who was probably much hipper than whoever wrote the script for the recording) never said "sup" once, by the way.

We got back to Kentucky without the car dying again, so I felt like I was in good shape. Then we found out the next morning that it was going to snow in Pennsylvania for the next three days, so I set off immediately to get home. I drove the last third of the trip in increasing snowfall and accumulation, and got in around 11 in the evening. Most of my body was sore from being constantly tensed up for the last few hours. I had forgone stopping at rest stops because I was iffy about how well the various on and off ramps had cleared.

But I made it intact, and the car never died again. It hasn't really given me more trouble since, although I did have a hard time starting it last weekend. Unfortunately, it also means I feel trapped. Unless it repeats the same problem and I can get the problem positively identified and fixed, I can't take this car on another long trip. So I can't really go down to Kentucky or anything else again until either that happens or I get a new car.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

I resurface

Sorry for the delay in posting, but I wandered to near the edge of the earth, and fell off. I've been battling sea monsters for some time, trying to make it back up the edge. (That first step's a doozy.) Or at least it feels that way sometimes.

In reality, I've just been living day to day, trying to keep up with all my classes and at the same time find ways to be involved with service to the campus and community, and at some point I'm supposed to publish some groundbreaking research. As a good start, I went to a seminar given by another new faculty member on her research area and actually understood most of what she was talking about, which made me feel like doing a little victory dance. Now if I only understood any of my research, I'd be in very good shape.

I've gotten away with an unusually light student load this semester. One class was an upper level elective that only attracted about 15 people, another was restricted by a Dean for a special cohort and didn't get over about 25, and another meets once a week at an odd time and ended up with only 19 students. With another class of just under 40, it comes out as a moderately manageable load. Except of course I have to keep coming up with stuff to do. Especially in the topics class, which is all me. (It's never been taught before, so it's up to me what we do. I keep feeling like I'm scrambling for something interesting each week, and I fear I've already used my A material.)

In the other classes, I have no lack of material, but some lack of time in which to get the students to understand it. A recent test of consumer mathematics in one class left me with the distinct impression that many students were just randomly selecting numbers and operations in hopes it might solve the problem: "Find the interest rate? Hm... let's see, I'll add those two numbers, divide by this, and then multiply by ten... maybe that's it." Perhaps they saw too many of the old McDonald's commercials, and are sold on the tag line: "Hey, it could happen." Unfortunately, passing will not happen for a number of them. Or there are my elementary education students, who in fact I like very much and who seem to mostly try hard, but a number just don't grasp some concepts.

And I currently have my winter cold. I may continue to have it until we get spring weather, which around here may be July. I just want my sinuses to be happy again. Happy sinuses. That's the dream.

But we're up to Spring Break; I've just taught my last class for the next week or so. I'm planning on driving down to pick up my better half, then going back to Virginia for a visit for a few days. I'm looking forward to seeing him again, and to visiting some friends. And we've got a list of restaurants we need to visit again while we're in the area. That was a high priority for both of us. It may explain this expansion I seem to keep undergoing. That or all the chips, cookies, and ice cream I tend to eat at home. But I'm feeling limited on what I can do about that, since I've been tending toward depression again this year. It's not that this is a bad place (although I am getting a little tired of all the snow), but it's not where my partner is, and that's just not satisfactory. Unfortunately, I can't figure out how to fix this right now. But at least I get to see him soon.

Next week will be a good one.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

In which I play Real Professor (TM)

The last week or so has had me feeling like I'm a real professor, which I guess I am now. I'm just not used to thinking of myself that way.

I'm serving on the library committee for our department, and got to recommend books for the library to get. After encouragement from the department, I even requested some books that might be helpful for my own research interests. (This seems odd to me, since it's pretty much just an undergraduate institution, and as such, I may be the only person to ever look at one or two of these.)

Then I gave a talk for the department. Granted, it was just a rehash of my dissertation defense, but it was a talk. (Which meant I had to go remember what all that stuff in my dissertation meant. More or less. Thank goodness no one had any questions about asymptotic values.)

And finally on Friday, I met for the first time with a newly formed presidential commission on LGBT issues at the university. Me, on a commission. We should have a bat-signal style spotlight to summon us for emergency meetings.

All this is on top of all the usual stuff going on. I'm just now grading papers from students who think that paying off a loan early could save them over $100,000 off of the $982 finance charge. (They have a test coming up, too.) Earlier in the week I was trying to teach my elementary education students how to work in bases other than 10. (It's no wonder this tends to be known as a disaster for students; the elementary teachers may not understand it.) And my topics class is working on a take-home test which has generated plenty of consternation.

But hey, I feel like a professional sometimes now.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

OK, so I watch bad movies

In my childhood, I went through a phase where I just loved Escape to Witch Mountain, which was about two orphans with psychic powers who turn out to be from another planet. Mostly I think I just liked the idea of telekinetic powers.

Apparently more people than just me liked to too, because it spawned a sequel, Return from Witch Mountain. I remember reading the book, but I don't remember if I saw it as a kid or not. Well the sequel was on so I Tivo'd it, and it's pretty bad but still kind of fun for some reason. I couldn't help laughing every time I saw the description 'though:
Teens help two psychic children from another world thwart an evil scientist and his henchwoman.
Sounds ridiculous, doesn't it? I suppose it is. The scary part is, it leaves things out, like the mind control device and telepathy with an heroic goat. But it gets better: The evil scientist is played by Christopher Lee and the henchwoman is Bette Davis. (How the mighty have fallen.)

Not that there aren't worse things, like "Afro Samurai" on Spike. I might have held on for a while if they hadn't included the evil gangsta cyborg monks.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

The Beast

I have looked into the maw of the beast, and have survived.

As I've mentioned before, my department head apparently thought it would be amusing to send the southern boy to teach at the satellite campus twenty miles away one night a week in the spring semester. We live in a major snow belt. This is why I live within walking distance of my office.

Last Tuesday, there were predictions for a fair amount of heavy snowfall towards evening. Now the university has shut down evening classes twice before while I've been here because of heavy snow making the interstates impassable, so there was a chance that would happen again. However, I needed to be there by 3:30, we had already had plenty of snow, and the university does not generally shut down the evening classes until at least 3:00, so I knew I was going to end up traveling no matter what happened.

First, I needed to unearth my car, including shoveling out the huge drift behind it made by the plow that (partly) clears the parking lot. I do this by cleaning the car, then hauling the snow out of the way and piling it onto areas with grass on the sides of the parking lot. Other people do this by throwing the snow off into the middle of the parking lot, I suppose on the hopes that the plow may come again at some point before anyone else needs to drive anywhere. If it's that well thought out. In the course of clearing space around my car, I accidentally knocked off the side mirror again, which has been looking at little loose. (Remember when I lost the side mirror this summer?) I reattached with duct tape for now. I think it might be time to look into having this completely repaired.

Driving to class was fine; the main roads were pretty well cleared, and what snow we had at the moment was light. Around 5:30, the class took a break and discovered the massive amount of snow streaking down outside. This is not promising.

I left around 6:45, after cleaning the car again (which had gotten rather caked). I told the car I had faith in it, that it could indeed get me home safely even in this weather. I patted it's dashboard and headed (slowly) out of the parking lot and onto the road, making my way down to the state highway that runs in front of my street. So far, only mild amounts of sliding while going around corners. That unnerving sense of shift which you know shouldn't be there, the sense in your gut that part of your movement is not under your control.

The snow gets heavier, and I have the wipers on full. The road is completely white, and I'm mostly steering based on previous tracks in the snow rather than any signs of actual road. There are headlights behind me, so someone is following, perhaps too closely. Perhaps they think I should speed up. They can bite me.

There is little traffic on this road, which is mostly good. I make it to a mid point town and stop at a gas station to fill up. After I leave, I get the paranoid feeling I often do and check the side mirror to see if I've closed the gas flap. It turns out I actually haven't. I'm in the middle of nowhere, on a two-lane road with no stops, where I cannot see the shoulder because it is under drifts of snow, with thick and heavy snowfall, and there are cars some distance behind me. I hope that I actually screwed on the gas cap and only forgot to close the flap.

The snow gets heavier. We're approaching white out conditions, and I doubt I can see more than about 10 feet ahead of the car. Although my wipers are running, they are for some reason not clearing part of the windshield; ice is actually starting to build up on parts of it. I'm ducking down a little bit to see under this part. I'm also leaning forward, as if getting closer to the window will help me see through the curtain of dancing flakes just beyond it.

I'm not entirely sure where the road is anymore, but I begin to suspect that I'm on the wrong side of it. Either that or the string of cars heading toward me is. Assuming they're correct, I head back to the right, hoping that I'm not driving off the road into a ditch or snowbank. I seem to still be on solid surface as the cars finally reach and pass me.

Despite the defrost blasting on the highest heat setting and the wipers running, my windshield is getting progressively harder to see through. I'm not sure what's up with that. Thankfully the onslaught gradually slows as I approach home. I seem to have driven out of the worst of it as I get back into town. I can actually recognize some landmarks, and not just a small radius of white around my car.

There is a grocery on the road going home, so I stop for supplies and to check the car. I'm relieved to find the gas tank tightly capped and slide the flap over it. There is about an inch and half of ice frozen around the edges of my windshield wipers. It's no wonder they were not helping. A spray of defroster and some scraping loosens things up so I can finish my trip.

Amazingly, when I get home I actually find an open space in the parking lot which is not totally blocked by mounds of snow. In fact, it's the same space I came out of. I'm not sure how that happened. I'm not even sure how I survived the experience. If I were superstitious, I think this would count as a legitimate miracle.

The snow eventually moseyed its way down the highway dumped a few more feet outside, but that was long after I was in, so I didn't mind. (Although I laughed pretty hard in the morning when I found how deep the drifts were on the sidewalk I had completely cleared the day before.) And a professional driver here thought it was bad last night, so I think I can fairly claim to have driven in winter conditions now. I don't want to ever do that again.

I hope I won't have to next week.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Snow? In January? Are you serious?

Looks like global warming has wimped out. We've only gotten through half the winter with unseasonably high temperatures preventing any significant snowfall.

Or as The Onion reports, "Northeast Stunned by Freak January Snowfall".

And it just keeps going... we got some heavy snow last week, then it just keeps adding. I had to drive back from teaching class on a satellite campus while it was snowing, which is a tense and terror inducing experience for me. Yup, I'm pretty much a southerner.

Classes even got cancelled on Thursday evening this last week. (I'm told because the highways were closed due to wrecks.) This is not good: since the class only meets once a week, we're now a week behind.

I just continue to hope desperately that no major snow hits on Tuesdays when I'm out at the satellite campus. A small amount is enough to panic me.

And now it's doing it again. I keep digging back out, and it keeps pulling me back in.

Admittedly, as I keep shoveling the walk and the drifts on either side of it get deeper and deeper, I keep thinking I could make a really rocking snow fort between the sidewalks if I just scooped out the center and packed the sides. I wonder what my neighbors would think? Especially if I hid out in it all day and threw snowballs at anyone walking by.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Repeated Conversation

From today, with groups of students handing in a group work assignment:
Me: This problem asked you to show that these numbers are composite. You only listed them.

Student: But they are composite!

Me: But you haven't shown this. You just listed the numbers.

Student: But it's right--they are composite!

Me: How could you show the numbers are composite?

Student: I don't know. What's a composite number?
Repeat for most groups.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Academic Year Interstitial

Spring semester has started, much too soon... it always does.

Over the break, I put together my "notebook", explaining what I've been doing at the University for the last year, except in my case it was what I've been doing at the University for the past five months. I'm hoping that matters, because I have the feeling that most of the sections on scholarly development and university service essentially boil down to: "I got nothin'." At least I can say I won Time magazine's person of the year.

I feel the same way about the courses I'm teaching in the spring. I have three sections which meet once a week for two and a half hours, and I'm feeling slightly lost about what to do. One class now counts for a whole week. The classes will only meet 15 times! In one respect I like the longer sessions; it feels like I can do some things (like group activities) which take a little time to start--we don't have to break suddenly in the middle and assume the students will still remember what they are doing when we start the next class. But what do I do about tests? I can't really see successfully covering new material the same class as I give a test, but I don't see giving up three weeks of class to give three tests either. For the topics course, I'm thinking I should be able to get away with some take homes, but I'm not sure that will work in lower level courses. So I'm experimenting. One course I'm doing just quizzes, basically every week. Another I'm actually giving an hour test and then moving on to new material. We'll see what happens.

Then there's the textbook for one low level course I'm teaching. I was pressed for time last semester, and ended up selecting the textbook that most of the rest of the department uses for the same course. I've been reading it over the past week or so, and I hate it. It's annoyingly filled with bubble-gummy pop culture references to everything under the sun, from Jurassic Park to "Judge Judy", in some sort of attempt to be hip and exciting for what I'm sure the author thinks of as "those wacky college kids", or equivalently, "gen-y" or "gen-z" or maybe we've cycled back to "gen-a". There is also a formula, neatly boxed, for everything. In each section, we have a sequence of carefully labeled problems. Each problem has its own formula, and an example of plugging numbers into the formula. It's a frigging how-to manual on steroids. Nowhere does it ask students to actually think about anything; it asks them to memorize, plug numbers into formulas, and regurgitate regularly. (The author has the gall to then title the book Mathematical Thinking.) Oh, and then there's this other little kicker: sometimes it's just flat out wrong. I'll look for another book for the next time I teach this course, and if I don't find something better, I'll roll my own. The list of topics isn't that complicated.

Monday, January 15, 2007

The Return of the Marshmallow

One of my friends in grad school accused me of being a marshmallow when it came to grading. I guess I took the more optimistic view of how many points to give an answer. ("Well, he didn't answer the question correctly, but he understood that the writing needed to go on the paper, and most of it has correctly formed words and numerals. Let's give him half credit!")

I can tell that the marshmallow has clearly returned.

I have not gotten a single complaint from a student or request for a higher grade.

I obviously did something very, very wrong last semester, and I'm worried about anyone else finding out.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Amusement from Students

Here I just collect a few of the random student incidents which have amused me over the last semester:
  • Picture it: I'm in the middle of deriving the quadratic formula (which gives the solutions to a general quadratic equation), and the students are obviously having a lot of trouble with the abstraction, since this is supposed to cover all possible cases. (I also dropped a term or two and had to make corrections as we went, which didn't help.) In the midst of our derivation, a student asks: "Can we do another one after this one?"
  • A student tells me he studied the wrong chapter for the exam. It was a chapter we hadn't studied yet. I asked, "Didn't this all seem pretty unfamiliar?" He said, "It always does..."
  • Learned from tests: Three lines which meet at a point might be called (1) sedimentary, (2) a midpoint, (3) conclusive, or (4) parallel. (The last is my favorite answer.) A convent is made up of two angles with measures summing to 90 degrees. Many of my algebra students decided that the product of 6 and 9 is 15. One of my colleagues believes some of her students have trouble reading; I have no idea where she gets that idea.
  • One student missed class and sent me a note with his homework from the day explaining he couldn't make it because he was in line for a Playstation 3. The note said he was going to sell the Playstation "for a large profit of which I could use for school related bills." He also let me know he was in several TV and newspaper interviews from that day, "if that helps validate my dilema" (sic). I considered taking the homework in exchange for a Playstation 3.
  • Another colleague was despairing at the end of the semester because on the final he asked students to calculate how much total they would pay for a $200,000 home loan paid over 30 years at some standard interest rate. The answers ranged from $120,000 to eight million dollars. We concluded that we should quit teaching and go into the business of selling home mortgages to our students.

Monday, January 01, 2007


Since I went to Texas for Christmas, I flew. Since I haven't yet learned to do it on my own, I had to get on a plane.

I discovered that the Erie airport is tiny, much smaller than even the Roanoke airport (and I never thought I'd be able to make that comparison with anything). I got checked in at an automated kiosk, which was handy as no one was at the NWA ticket counter when I got there. (I mean NWA the airline, not the rap group.) Unfortunately, nobody was at the counter when I finished checking in and needed to check my bag. I stood around for perhaps four or five more minutes before someone came out of the back and checked my bag. (Perhaps he was constipated.)

We all know going through security is a royal pain, and we all know it's because we're all ruled by ninnies. Let's see, shoes off, and I'm not trying to smuggle any liquids on, am I? I actually packed a bag of filled Hershey kisses in my luggage so that no one would have a fit because there was something semi-liquid inside them. I'm convinced most of these plots have just been to see what stupid things we can all be made to do. Now there's work on an x-ray machine to examine everyone who goes through the airport. We'll all be zapped with radiation every time we get on a plane. Some people have actually complained about this--because they don't want anyone to see their naughty bits on the screen. Screw that; I'll walk through naked before I'll let them irradiate me to satisfy their curiosity. I'm kind of tempted to do it now; I almost took a jar of bouillon cubes in my carry on as a protest anyway. (If you don't know what I'm talking about, you must not watch Stephen Colbert.)

Next time I'll be prepared. I'll just tell the guard that the person in front of me looks suspiciously foreign, and while they all tackle him, I'll wheel through my 12 cases of bottled water. I figure I'll sell the water at $4 a pop on the plane, which should work out great, since I think that's half what the airline wants for the same thing.

Anyway, stuff into the plane, and off to Detroit. While I'm racing from one end of the airport to the other in 20 minutes between flights, I notice there's an automated announcement telling us we're in the central time zone, and to check clocks in the airport for the local time. (The automated announcement can't include the local time?) Then a voice starts up saying something in Japanese, which I assume is the same thing, because at one point it pauses to say "Central Time Zone".

Finally on to Texas, and I get to eat. (No food served on the planes, and remember I only had 20 minutes between planes in Detroit. I got in at 6:15 and my last meal was breakfast at 8:00.) Then home, where I got meet my parents' cat, Sweetie, also known colloquially as "Mr. Kitty." He's is a sweetie, and my parents rescued him some months back. He is now also possibly one of the most spoiled cats I've ever seen. My father attributes this to the fact that both my parents have the "grandparent hormones" raging, and no grandchildren, so they've settled for a grandcat. They each try to entice the cat to sleep with them at night, and every time my mother goes into the kitchen he runs in and hops up on his chair in case she wants to feed him treats. I don't know where he gets the idea that he always gets treats when she goes into the kitchen; I think there have been a few times when he didn't get treats. (She also holds his bowl for him when she feeds him breakfast and dinner, because he gets scared otherwise. He's somewhat timid, from having previously had a rough life.) He's a very affectionate little thing, and actually looks a good bit like my partner's cat. We got along fine once he figured out I would pet him.

Flight back was mostly uneventful, with the Erie airport again the bottleneck in the whole thing. We arrived about fifteen minutes ahead of schedule, but then waited almost half an hour for the luggage to appear. After fifteen minutes, someone came on the speakers to announce there would be a delay. (Would be a delay?) The woman next to me wondered why they could sort 50,000 passengers a day in San Diego, and not handle the luggage here; she thought perhaps there was a cow on the runway they forgot to move.

But I'm back home, and home is still here, which is always a relief. I suppose I have to think about doing work again.

Happy New Year to all!