Sunday, October 30, 2011

Garfield does math

And so do we

I always look at the comic sections of the newspapers I read, but I don't necessarily look at all of the comics. “Pearls Before Swine” always gets my attention, as does “Bizarro,” but others need to do something special to draw me in—like sprinkle their panels with numbers. “Garfield” did exactly that yesterday. (Is it true, as Stephan Pastis says, that cartoonists prefer to bury their weakest efforts in their Saturday strips?)

Everyone realizes, of course, that a giant mutant 98-year-old lady would be physically impossible, despite such earlier documentary evidence as Attack of the 50 Foot Woman. Galileo's square-cube law should have put that notion to rest (but Hollywood prefers to honor that law in the breach). But let's allow Garfield the same leeway that movie producers get. Let's accept that a giant 98-year-old lady is driving her 32-story 1965 Bonneville into town, threatening the entire community.

The 1965 Bonneville was a gigantic (in its own way) vehicle over 18 feet in length. Its height was about 4.5 feet (with allowances for tire pressure and passenger load). In the comic strip, the giant old lady's Bonneville is said to be scaled up to 32 stories in height. While architects are allowed quite a bit of variation in what constitutes a “story,” we can use 10 feet as a reasonable mid-range measure. In other words, the giant old lady's car is 320 feet tall, or (divide by 4.5) over 71 times as tall as a regular Bonneville. That's big.

And if your 98-year-old great-grandmother is five foot two, she'd be nearly 370 feet tall if she were scaled up to be the little old lady in the car.


Now, about that turn-signal thing. Garfield says it's 16 feet tall (and blinking, of course). A look at the back end of a '65 Bonneville shows us that the rear lights were not quite half as tall as your basic license plate. If we call it 4 inches (being just a little generous—I don't have a Bonneville handy to actually measure), scaling it up by a factor of 71 results in 284 inches—or nearly 24 feet.

But Garfield said 16 feet. Oh, oh! But you know, that's probably good enough for the funny papers. Let's give him this one.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Catch 22 goes to school

Academic dual citizenship and its discontents

One of my friends is in postdoc limbo, having completed his degree and thus been thrust into academia's outer darkness. Since PiD is no longer a graduate student and faces a very discouraging job market, he is now at the tender mercies of the schools that hire part-time instructors on a term-by-term basis. To earn something approaching a living wage, he currently shuttles between his old school—a university that tosses him an occasional class or two—and a neighboring community college, which uses adjunct faculty for many of its classes. The two institutions don't cooperate in any formal way, so it's up to PiD to juggle the offers and cobble together a schedule that doesn't require him to break any laws of physics to meet his classes.

Fortunately, PiD has found enough similarities between the course offerings at the two colleges so that he can adapt materials he uses at one school for use at the other. In particular, boilerplate text concerning student conduct was borrowed from his university syllabus and incorporated into his community college syllabus. It had been battled-tested at the Big U, so it seemed suitable for Medium Community College. PiD had every reason to assume that all was well because MCC requires its instructors to submit their syllabi for review and approval before the start of each semester. The BU language passed muster with the MCC administrators, so clear sailing was to be expected.

As I'm sure you can well imagine, PiD's education was about to move into a new and more surrealistic phase.

He called me recently to share a conundrum. It seemed an unfortunate but typical college situation: He had clear and unmistakable evidence that a student had committed plagiarism. PiD had found the original source material and the student's surreptitious use of it was extensive and blatant. He reported it to the department chair:

“I have a clear case of plagiarism by one of my students and I need to initiate MCC's academic discipline process.”

The chair was characteristically helpful.

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“I mean the student will flunk the class, per the language in my syllabus regarding plagiarism, and I need to refer him to the college's disciplinary process.”

“Um, well, I don't think we have a formal process.”

“So what do I do then? My syllabus says plagiarism is a flunking offense and that the student can appeal by means of the college's disciplinary process. The evidence I have is unambiguous, but I presume we have a way for the student to state his side of things and get due process.”

“Okay. Well, you have to do what's in your syllabus.”

“Yes, of course. So how do I do that?”

“You should check with the academic dean.”

“Okay. Good. Does he enforce academic discipline?”

The chair seemed to think that might be the case. PiD contacted the dean.

“Yes, I agree with the chair. You have to follow your syllabus. We approved it and you need to follow it,” said the very helpful dean.

“Yeah. How exactly do I do that?”

“You know, I'm new here and just learning the ropes, so I don't want to depart from MCC's established practices. I need to refer you back to your department chair.”

As PiD well knew, Big U had a fully functioning review process in place to handle cases of academic misbehavior by its students. To his dismay, however, he had discovered that MCC was letting each department go its own way and there was no college-wide protocol for dealing with plagiarism. His current department had essentially nothing in place. The chair referred PiD to the college's statement of academic standards, which did mention that students were expected to be good citizens who behaved in a scholarly way, but neglected to stipulate any penalties or adjudication process for dealing with instances of not living up to those expectations. There was, of course, that helpful policy of reviewing instructor syllabi each semester, but apparently no one bothered to tell instructors when they cited nonexistent processes. (To add the cherry to the sundae, the department specifically required that syllabi contain a statement on the evils of plagiarism—but in reality was unprepared to deal with its occurrence.)

The last I heard, PiD was preparing a carefully constructed message to the cheater that his plagiarism had been discovered and that (a) his case had been brought to the attention of the department chair “in accordance with the provisions of the course syllabus” and (b) he would receive a failing grade in the class “in accordance with the provisions of the course syllabus.” If the student is bold enough to object, he can try his own luck with the chair. (That sounds like a “process,” doesn't it? Close enough!) Maybe she'll send him to the dean!

Oh, oh. Good luck, PiD! The dean ain't got your back!

Sunday, October 23, 2011

You are right, I guess

And I'm right: you guess

The aftermath of the semester's first exam is often a teachable moment. I frequently assign my students to analyze their results. This usually comes in the form of a two-part prompt, to which I want a written response: (1) What kinds of mistakes did you make? (2) What steps will you take to minimize these mistakes on the next exam?

Most of the responses are dominated by the usual litany of math's most persistent errors and shortcomings:
  • I misread the problem.
  • I made a stupid mistake.
  • I used the wrong formula.
  • I made a calculation error.
  • I didn't study.
  • I didn't do the homework.
  • I need to catch up.
The proposed remedies are as predictable: More study. More answer-checking. More diligent attention to homework. More visits to office hours or tutors. All good ideas and apt to be helpful if actually applied.

Occasionally, however, I get the whiny response from someone who is looking to place the blame elsewhere. Why not engage the instructor's sympathies by explaining to him that he is to blame? Most students avoid this approach, but sometimes you get a brave one:
After looking to see if I had done the problem right in which case it was correct but the only thing that I had over-looked was the correct notation.
Ah, yes. Notation. I may be a little stricter about notation than other math teachers, but I refuse to countenance false statements like

4x + 3 = 11 = 4x = 8 = x = 2.

I'm just not crazy about taking the equal sign in vain. Putting an equal sign between things that aren't equal is irksome, sloppy, and—darn it!—untrue.

In the present instance, the student was taking a calculus class and had presented me with solutions that were mostly bits of scratch work and the occasional untrue statement. For example,

6x + 3h − 5 = 6x − 5

is a false statement unless you indicate that you are taking the limit of the left-hand side as h goes to zero (if you would please be so kind). The student got most of the credit for deriving the correct answer, but he lost a few for neglecting correct notation. His tone was a bit pettish, but he came to a correct conclusion in his analysis:
Overall, I think in order to improve myself as a math student in Dr. Z's class, I need to focus on how he wants me to solve or work out the problems so I can meet his expectations. Because it seems to me that I do the work as best as I can but fall short of what is expected of me from him. So my best solution to this dilemma is to find out how he wants things done and pretty much follow his rules in order for me to get an A in his class.
A helpful hint: The best way to find out how I want things done is to watch what I do in class, because I model it in every example I do and in every homework question I solve for the class. And—one more hint—be there when I do it.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Shameless self-promotion

On not being famous

My editor-in-chief pointed out the other day that I am not a famous person. Naturally, this took me by surprise, since I have followed my career with rapt attention and had not realized that others were not doing the same. I'm sure you can understand.

Having recovered from the initial shock of this discovery, I wondered why my editor had made this obvious—in retrospect—observation. In response, he reminded me that his main occupation was professorial, not editorial. Although he headed up a university press, it was not a gigantic publishing firm with crack teams of publicists and salespeople. (Rather, they have catalogs and websites.) He suggested that sales of my novel would get a significant boost if only he could run some cover quotes from more famous authors—where “more famous” means “famous at all.”

The solution, of course, was simple. I just needed to get in touch with all of the famous authors I know and ask them to please send me enthusiastic encomia to emblazon on my book cover. You know the type of thing: “An excellent book!” “Laugh out loud funny!” “Exceptional descriptive writing!” “Brilliantly orchestrated, hilariously funny!” “As good an ending as ever written!” “One of the best books I’ve ever read!”

Yeah. That kind of stuff.

One teensy, tiny problem, though.

All the successful authors I know are involved in math or computers. Not in fiction. (At least, not intentional fiction.) Rats. This means I have to go trolling for endorsements from people I don't know. I have to sidle up to famous and semi-famous people and make a nuisance of myself. The task is an unpleasant one. However, I may be good at it.

The unsuspecting Jonathan Franzen came to Northern California on tour. He made a stop at the Mondavi Center at the University of California at Davis. I got myself a ticket and made plans to get up to the home of the University Farm for Franzen's talk. He won the National Book Prize for The Corrections and reaped a huge publicity windfall from his public spat with Oprah (followed by a highly publicized kiss-and-make-up event on her show). The man is either a promotional genius or incredibly lucky. Either suits me just fine.

I got to UC Davis early (not much traffic in Davisville on Saturday nights) and wandered about the Mondavi Center for a while. A few years ago I was there on the invitation of a nephew who scored a pair of tickets for an appearance by Stephen Hawking. It was a different crowd for Franzen's talk (less of a comic-con vibe and more of a white-wine-and-cheese ambience).

Franzen read his talk—somewhat to my surprise—but there's no rule that says a good writer must also be a good public speaker. He was starting to hit his stride when he interrupted his talk to fish a pen out of his briefcase and scribble a couple of corrections on his typescript. In fact, the talk was punctuated with such interruptions. At one point, he shook his head and confided to the audience that he had written “actually” three times in rapid succession and at least one of them had to go. He was also in fear of encountering a fourth, actually.

Whether intentional or not, Franzen was giving a good illustration of a writer's travails, fussing over text and vocabulary. The talk was, overall, a well-received success, with enthusiastic applause, after which Franzen took a seat on stage with a UC Davis faculty member who fed him some Internet-delivered questions for a Q&A session. In addition, a live microphone was set up in an aisle in the orchestra section of the hall. When Franzen suggested it was time to go to a live question, heads swiveled to discover that no one was at the mike. I popped up out of my seat and strolled over:
Thank you for being here, Jonathan. I'd like to ask you about the importunities visited on successful authors. You must have lots of people making demands for chunks of your time to provide pre-publication quotes for book covers. How do you decide whether an author's unpublished manuscript is worthy of the stress of your regard?
Franzen laughed and said, “That's an original question. That's why I love university audiences. The questions are so clever.”

Then he rashly answered my question: “I don't know if I should really say this, but I actually look at just about everything that gets sent to me. If the first page contains no clichés, I'll read the second page. If there are no more than one or two clichés on subsequent pages, and I find it interesting, I'll keep on reading.”

I was still standing at the mike while Franzen wrapped up his answer, so I leaned back toward it and said, “Thank you, Jonathan. I'll be in touch!”

That got a good laugh from the audience. Afterward, I got in line so he could sign my copy of The Corrections.

Just to be clear, Franzen has promised me absolutely nothing and committed himself to nothing. When he gets the packet of sample pages from my manuscript, he might riffle through it, yawn, and toss it aside. On the other hand, he might like it. And then say so. I live in hope.

P.S.: The “pretend” quotes above are actually1 genuine. They were actually2 sent to me by people who actually3 read the manuscript. When these folks get famous, I'm all set!

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

One order of oxymoron, please

Hold the oxy

A letter-writer to the Sacramento Bee has earned my stunned admiration. In criticizing the Occupy Wall Street protesters, this resident of the town of Auburn has crafted a sentence that is all but perfect in its representation of unthinking tea-partyism:
These protesters are part of a very well-organized group of anarchists who vow to destroy our American way of life, which, yes, is capitalist.
Thanks for the warning! Once the well-organized anarchists join forces with infertile parents, wealthy paupers, and impoverished millionaires, western society is doomed! Doomed!

Thursday, October 06, 2011

This is not about Steve Jobs

Death at a young age

[D]eath is very likely the single best invention of life. It is life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away.

The quote is from the commencement address that Steve Jobs gave at Stanford in 2005. Naturally lots of people have been considering those words since the report that Jobs died on Wednesday. Naturally people have been thinking it's unfortunate that Jobs was “cleared away” after having lived only 56 years.

I can remember when the fifties seemed like old age to me. That was a few years ago, of course. I no longer think that. Especially since I am no longer in my fifties. In fact, I used to doubt that I would ever make it that far.

Young people. How foolish they can be.

By a curious coincidence, I have a cousin who is 56. The same age as Jobs. My cousin is in hospice care. Perhaps you know what that means. It provides some relief to his wife, of course, because she has been bearing the burden of caring for a terminally ill man who can no longer get about under his own power. However, it is also a harbinger of imminent death, because hospice workers don't show up till the final days, which is where my cousin is now.

By a peculiar circumstance, my cousin is acquainted with the hospice workers. He knows them from the meticulous and considerate care they gave to his sister last month, in the days before she died at the age of 53. She was the first of our generation to go. Her brother will soon be the second. He attended her funeral in a wheelchair, knowing that the ceremony could be considered a dress rehearsal for his own imminent last rites.

How do people deal with tragedies like this? I don't know. I suppose that having no choice is a big part of it. You can't pick any alternatives. You have to endure the unendurable because it cannot be avoided. My uncle and aunt are still alive, having buried one child and expecting soon to bury another. I can't imagine how they feel.

I am insulated from the grief. These are cousins who live at a distance. Not cousins I used to see on a daily basis when we all lived on a big farm. They're the city cousins I used to see a couple of times a year when we traveled down to southern California to visit my maternal grandparents. Many years have passed since I last saw any of them in person. We've been out of touch and the bad news has been percolating north through the family grapevine—my mother, mainly. My dying cousin is her godson.

No, this post is not about Steve Jobs. It's about people dying young. People younger than me. I wanted to say something about it. Not that it does any good.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Enjoying your mid-life crisis

Trying to get the hang of it

One of my colleagues, now retired, told me about his mid-life crisis. He dyed his gray hair back to dark brown, bought himself a motorcycle, and got a new wife (one of his former students). By the time he recounted this tale to me, the gray hair was back, the motorcycle had been replaced with a sedan, and he had settled down into a relatively sedate middle-class existence with wife No. 2. He wasn't sure, but he suspected things had worked out better than he had had any reason to expect.

I'm not sure I understand these crises. Perhaps I favor routine too much. Perhaps I decline to embrace the evanescent enthusiasms of the day—including society's tiresome expectation that middle-aged men are supposed to get fidgety. Perhaps I have successfully punctuated my life with screams of “Serenity now!”

In looking back, I've tried to consider whether my existence has been marked by any decadal milestones. My conclusion is a firm maybe. Decide for yourself:

When I turned 20, I went off to school, leaving home for the first time. It wasn't any kind of mad impulse, though. It was simply the logical next step. I had to pursue my education at least to the point where I could escape from my bucolic environment. Certainly I was beginning to suspect that education would be a primary theme in my future. So off I went, nervous but determined.

When I turned 30, I was out of school and starting a stint in California's civil service, having been transformed into a minor bureaucrat in Sacramento. The job was something of a detour, but I had done a modicum of teaching, experienced a stint in journalism, and tried my hand at magazine writing. I wasn't exactly at loose ends (civil service is seldom a “loose ends” kind of place), but my goals had become diffuse. In theory, I could earn job security, get vested in the retirement system, and ride out the decades till retirement. But that somehow seemed unlikely. For the time being, though, it was okay.

The classic crisis year in which I turned 40 was unremarkable in most respect, though I did get fitted for braces. Orthodontia seemed a better choice than a motorcycle. I had bravely run away from civil service for a tenuous temporary appointment to a faculty position, leaving the state capital behind. Fortunately, I had successfully navigated the transition into a tenure-track position, was under contract to produce a math textbook, and was now accumulating seniority in my college. The mouthful of metal seemed a mere detail.

When I turned 50, I was back in grad school. My transcript had long boasted a mess of units beyond the master's degree, and I had finally ginned up the courage to go back to school to try to complete a doctorate. It was a thoroughly weird experience to be a student after years of being a teacher. More than one of my professors looked askance at me with eyebrows raised as if to remind me which side of the room I was on. Oops. But I survived the experience—and so did they.

When I turned 60, I became a novelist. Or I will, when the book hits print next summer. I've served my department as chair a couple of times and only a handful of my colleagues have seniority over me. My teaching job is still the best job I've ever had and I seem to have little cause to suffer from emotional crises. My serenity endures and bids fair to last forever!

Either that, or 70 is going to be a doozy.