Sunday, October 26, 2008

Notes from a pre-Halloween trip to Erie

  • For craft stores: A large hanging Halloween decoration should not be termed a "Jumbo Dangler." There's only so much I can take.
  • I went into one store because the sign said a "Giant Halloween Blowout" was "going on now," and I'm still looking for a few things. I found a few small islands with some discounted Halloween merchandise, and approximately 47 billion aisle filled with Christmas merchandise. (I thought about getting some fake cobwebs, but decided it would probably just confuse all the real spiders that live outside my door.)
  • I'm still frustrated by the lack of Halloween clothing for men.
  • I found nice materials for my horns this year. While perusing the gory stage makeup at the party store, I saw a boy about 10 or 12 drawn to the kits for a costume. His mother immediately told him "We're not doing any of that" and dragged him off to the rest of the costumes. I always like the sort of gruesome stuff for Halloween, because that's sort of what it's about. C'mon mom; let the kid have some fun. (I just hope she's not making him dress as a fairy princess or something...)

Friday, October 24, 2008

Contest Updates

This year I managed to organize our first ever Putnam team, and even got students together for practices. Unfortunately, the students dropped like flies. Two dropped after the first practice, and two more after the second. I ended with enough students to make a team, so we were going to be officially represented--but then one more student dropped at the last minute.

I enjoyed Putnam practice sessions, which I ran a bit like a Moore method class (with me in it). I didn't look up solutions to the problems; we just tackled what we could and tried to come up with ideas. It was interesting and moderately productive. (These are hard problems.) Unfortunately, two very strong math majors chose to participate because they are involved in too many other things. In the end, our Putnam team did not score any points, but our school does appear on the list of "Schools which took the Putnam exam", which I still think is cool. I also feel pretty good that I solved a few of the problems on the exam this year myself. (Did I mention these are hard problems?) Perhaps we will do better next year.

I also got together our department's "College Bowl" team, with significant help from another faculty member. We needed four players plus an alternate, and unfortunately we only had five people come to try out, but we did have some fairly good people. I had some schemes for this year, too. It basically tests how much useless trivia students have memorized, so I obtained for our team used copies of a great popular book on memory systems (to stuff pointless facts into their heads with) and a copy each of An Incomplete Education (full of pointless College-Bowl-style trivia to start stuffing). In the end, we did very respectably in our school; we almost made it to the finals.

I also had fun this year "consulting" with the programming contest team. The programming contests frequently involve some interesting mathematics, so I've been coming to practice sessions and helping them figure out how to tackle the mathy problems. The problems are often pretty cool. Between that and the Putnam, I enjoyed doing some occasional math last year. I also like working with the programming team because it lets the students see professors "bridging the gap" between math and computer science. For some reason, we seem to have a division between the math and computer science majors in the department, which is pretty weird, because there isn't much gap I've noticed among the professors.

So what new contests will the "I-don't-like-competition" guy find himself involved in? Funny you should ask; I actually thought about trying to get together a team for a mathematical modeling contest in the spring. Of course as with the Putnam, what I'm really interested in is getting together students to do some math, not really to compete. I didn't do it this year, but I'm looking into more information about mathematical modeling for next year.

FAR, FAR away...

For about a month or so I've had a deadline coming up to turn in a notebook about how great I am and why the school should keep me on. My last school called this a Faculty Activity Report, or FAR, so I keep calling it that here too. When I wasn't tenure track faculty, I didn't feel much need to worry about them. Now I feel sort of like I have to write "Look! Up in the sky! It's a bird! It's a plane! No--it's... SUPER PROFESSOR!" Able to teach hundreds of under prepared students elementary mathematics every semester while contributing heroically to the department and university, and maintaining an active research program at the same time!

On the plus side, I had a few presentations, attended some conferences, have a lot of interesting new thoughts on teaching (partly from one of the conferences), and have picked up a few new activities in the department. On the other hand, I didn't manage to get a paper published (pushed off now for a while longer) and had a fairly weak spring semester. So maybe this year is a wash.

But in any case, the notebook was turned in last week, and I took part of the weekend to go out and have fun, which I haven't felt like I had time to do much of. It was nice to take a break. Now when is the semester over? Actually, that's not enough of a break. When is summer here again? You know, so I can take another crack at those papers for next year's FAR.