Saturday, July 31, 2010

Students are present

Some with presence of mind

Students naturally groan when their teachers whip out a pop quiz. Mine are no different, except perhaps that they're a bit more jaded. There's not a lot of “pop” in a quiz when it's anticipated as a routine part of the class. I prefer short in-class quizzes as an alternative to collecting and grading homework. The results show me whether my students are following me and the degree to which they're mastering the material.

Eventually, many of my students figure out that keeping up to date gives them a major edge in quiz-taking. Some begin looking forward to quizzes as opportunities to rake in some fairly easy points for knowing basic material. They begin to anticipate quizzes and even ask for them. (By no means do all students do this!) This recently reached a fever pitch when we were approaching the end of the class period and no quiz had been given. I was disappointing them. We got down to five minutes.

“We're down to five minutes,” I said, displaying my gift for the obvious. “What can we do with only five minutes?”

“Let us out early!” chorused a few—always a crowd-pleasing response.

“Give us a quiz!” cried another group (quite distinct from the first, I might add).

Most of my quizzes are more than five minutes long and I had not prepared one.

“How can I give you a five-minute quiz? That's not enough time.”

“Make it easy!” they sang out.

Good answer.

“Well, I did once give a one-minute quiz,” I admitted.

Consternation and curiosity appeared on their faces.

“It was an attendance quiz,” I continued. “The quiz was ‘Write down your name.’”

I don't actively take roll after the first few days of a semester, but the frequent quizzes do a good job of tracking attendance. I expect my students to show up and I'm disappointed when they don't. I also like rewarding good attendance and had not yet taken any special steps to do so that term. The students (even the ones who wanted to leave early) brightened at my suggestion.

“Yeah! We can do that!”

“Okay. Deal. Take a piece of paper, write your name down, and hand it in.”

There were ripping sounds as paper was torn from notebooks.

“Is it okay if we share paper?” asked one green-minded student.

“Sure,” I said.

He and two other classmates used one sheet of paper to submit their names.

Another student strolled up and handed in his paper. He had written “your name” on it.

“I thought it might be a trick question,” he said with a smile. “You said ‘Write your name.’”

He had also written his actual name across the top of the paper.

“Thanks,” I said. “Now get on out of here.”

The next student had drawn a box around her name, like the answer at the end of a calculation.

“Nice,” I said.

Jonathan then handed in an odd piece of work:
Jessica Jones

Jonathan Smith
“I started to cheat off Jessica's paper,” he said, “but then I figured out how to do it on my own.”

“That was good of you,” I replied.

Then Ian sauntered up and placed his paper on my desk:
Ian Doe.0000
"You didn't say how many decimal places of accuracy you wanted, so I assumed four.”

“Uh, thanks. It's true that your name would go on forever if it's irrational.”

The next student had quadrille-ruled graph paper. He had written his name in block form by tracing grid lines.

“You didn't provide equations,” I pointed out.

He grinned and handed it in.

My students are a curious lot, but I'm sure I'm not responsible for this condition.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Where's my money?

Teaching for dollars

San Francisco's KSFO, bastion of right-wing talking points for the poor out-numbered arch-conservatives who live in the Bay Area, has been cutting back. High-priced hosts like Melanie Morgan and Lee Rodgers have been shown the door and their erstwhile sidekick, Brian Sussman, has been elevated into the anchor chair. His feet may not be able to touch the floor as he sits in it, but Sussman is now KSFO's monarch of the morning drive time (although actual traffic reports come from “Officer Vic,” who now gets to be Sussman's yes-man).

My inner masochist occasionally takes over when I'm driving and tunes the radio to KSFO, just to see what the crazies are promoting at the moment. On Tuesday, July 27, 2010, listeners were treated to yet another paean to the wonders of running government “like a business.” This shows remarkable resilience in right-wing ranks, especially after the debacle of George W. Bush's “MBA presidency.” Yeah, another dose of the business acumen that destroyed the world economy is just what government needs these days!

During the 7 o'clock hour, Sussman started a little rant about the Obama administration's shocking lack of business people in its top ranks. While Reagan and the two Bushes had over fifty percent of their appointees coming from the world of business, the current administration's tally is only eight percent. Shocking! (While the numbers may be true, they came from one of Sussman's devoted listeners, so a block of salt might be indicated.) With Officer Vic providing sycophantic punctuation, Sussman began to rail against academia—the reputed source of the bulk of President Obama's political appointments.

By itself, this is no surprise. Right-wing talk-show hosts really don't like higher education and its purveyors. We tend to be too liberal for them. (Funny how education tends to make people more liberal, open-minded, and opposed to right-wing radio bigots. No doubt Beck University will fix that.) Nevertheless, Sussman managed to surprise me, a jaded liberal listening to a usually predictable spewing of right-wing talking points from KSFO. You might not guess, however, just how he managed to surprise me.

Check it out:
Sussman: Herein lies the problem. These people live in a parallel universe. They don't understand. How do you get ahead in academia? It's not about being the best. It's not about being— There's no competition.

Officer Vic: No.

Sussman: Basically you go out there and get a degree and maybe another degree and another degree. And then you work your way into— You get a job at a university and you publish papers that no one reads and you publish books that are unreadable and you speak [Officer Vic: You get tenure.] and your speaking can be completely boring and you teach and you can be the worst teacher on the planet but you get tenure.

Officer Vic: Yep.
I begin to suspect that Sussman has never been on a university campus. Good thing tenure is so easy to obtain, though. Practically automatic.
Sussman: And then, you're in! That's it. You're in the club. It's nothing about being the best. There's no competition involved to move up the ranks of academia. It's not like in the real world. And that's who Barack Obama's surrounded himself—a bunch of propeller-heads, who have never produced anything. They've never produced a job. They've never managed large numbers of people. But it's all unraveling for these guys.
It's true. Competition is anathema in academia. We don't compete for choice assignments, office space, grant money, promotions, or anything else. Never, ever. It's contrary to our communitarian nature.
Officer Vic: Payroll.

Sussman: Never had to make payroll, never had to balance a budget. Never had to manage a profit-and-loss statement. Oh, they'll write about profit-and-loss statements, they'll write about how to manage people, they'll write and write and write and write, they conduct all this research. And again, I think it's hilarious. You read some of the books that these people write and they are unreadable. You hear some of the speeches that they give and you can't listen to them. You go to their classes and you listen to them teach and they're awful. But they've got their jobs and they're millionaires.
I don't think Sussman actually goes into classrooms to listen to professors and deem them awful. He strikes me as a class-skipper. But that last sentence? Yeah, that's the part when Sussman took me by surprise. Millionaires? I think I need to talk to my union rep. I may be getting cheated! (Of course, I'm not a university professor, so perhaps I shouldn't quibble—except that I know plenty of university professors who earn less than me.)

So Sussman thinks professors are millionaires who never have to make payroll, never create jobs, and never balance a budget. What an ignoramus. One of the problems at universities is the management of research teams, the budgeting of grant monies, and the allocation of lab space. One jumps through all kinds of hoops to get the funding the first place and then gets to do further mountains of paperwork to document its expenditure on personnel and resources. We even have similar challenges at my community college, even though on a smaller scale. (We seek external funding more frequently now that the state budget is such a mess, but it all comes with strings.) Maybe we have to deal with the NSF instead of the SBA, but many of us can commiserate with the entrepreneurs who deal with the latter.

KSFO's morning oracle continued:
Sussman:I get a kick out of— You go to UC Berkeley, you go to Stanford, you go to these various campuses and these students are out there protesting, “We need more money for our schools!” And standing next to them are the professors. “We need more money for our schools!” Hey, have you ever asked that professor how much money they're making every year? These professors are all millionaires. They're millionaires with big, big salaries and big, big retirement packages. And yet they dress like little schmoes, you know, with their crummy jackets [Officer Vic: Patches on the elbow.] that are twenty years old, yeah, and patches on the elbow. And their ties are askew and their hair's kinda crappy and they drive crummy little cars and they're millionaires. They're all millionaires! And they actually have the gall to stand next to the kids who are protesting because their fees are too high. “We need more money for our schools!” So you can pay these millionaires!
Oh, good. Fashion advice from a radio jockey. Nice hair, Brian. What training academy does it for free just for practice? As a millionaire professor, I shell out $14 for each of my haircuts.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Hit bottom, kept digging

Conservapedia finds new lows

When P.Z. Myers shared the happy news that Conservapedia honored him with its article of the week, I naturally had to see for myself how he was being celebrated over at Andrew Schlafly's Fortress of Ineptitude. It was a fun-filled visit, punctuated with peals of sudden laughter at the many pages of inadvertent humor.

These guys are funny.

While I was there, I had to revisit the Conservapedia entry on President Obama, which I cruelly mocked in a post last year, just before the presidential inauguration. Naturally, I was curious to see whether it had been improved in any way.

The answer depends on whether your metric involves laughter.

Here is the opening paragraph:
Barack Hussein Obama II (birth name Barry Soetoro,[1][2][3] allegedly born in Honolulu August 4, 1961[4][5][6][7][8]) is the 44th President of the United States, and the first President who is biracial. He previously was associated with several radical causes[9] and served less than four years as a first-term Democratic Senator from Illinois (2005-2008).
Try to remember that this is supposed to be a source of reliable information (“The Trustworthy Encyclopedia,” they claim). Were you able to spot any mistakes? I admit I wondered how the president's birth name could be “Barry Soetoro” given that Lolo Soetoro was his step-father and was nowhere on the scene when Barack was born. Both birth announcements in contemporary Hawaiian newspapers reported that the father was Barack H. Obama. The president's birth certificate (I know, I know; Schlafly and his crew refuse to accept Hawaii's official document) gives his name as “Barack Hussein Obama II.”

No Soetoro.

After a flub like that, I'm surprised that Conservapedia got his presidential number right. Yes, it is 44. They also noticed that he did not serve out his term as U.S. senator. Good catch! (Getting elected president does that to you.)
Upon taking office Obama promised relief for unemployed workers and warned failure to pass his proposed stimulus scheme would turn a “crisis into a catastrophe.”[10][11] The unemployment rate has hovered in the 10% range throughout his presidency, up significantly from the 7.8% rate in January 2009. Since passage of the president's stimulus package, 2.4 million Americans have been added to the unemployment rolls.[12]
Conservapedia loves post hoc, propter hoc insinuations. The stimulus package passed and then unemployment soared. There are two reasons for that which most sane people are able to identify: (1) the stimulus package wasn't big enough (and Paul Krugman warned us, too!) and (2) the collapse of the U.S. economy under the Bush administration still had plenty of momentum in January 2009, right when its chief enablers scrambled out of town. Who knows how much worse off we might be without the cushioning effect of the stimulus package (which, once again, was not large enough).
After the “War on Terror” was abandoned during his first year in office the rate of terrorist attacks on the United States has gone from zero per year during George W. Bush's last year, [13] to at least four.[14][15][16][17][18].
Such careful choosing of time periods! (Cherry-picking, anyone?) Why not compare Obama's first year with Bush's first year. Oh, yes. September 11. Too bad about ignoring terrorist threats until it was too late (and then exaggerating them for political benefit and war justification). I will admit, however, that I like the quotes around the “War on Terror.” Is Conservapedia admitting that the president is merely avoiding some of the cant phrases and reducing the bully-boy rhetoric that characterized the Bush-Cheney years? That's certainly a relief. In the meantime, in terms of reality, Obama is aggressive against terror in ways that may or may not pay off. You know, little things. Little things like tripling the number of drone attacks against targets in Pakistan. I have my doubts about it, but the Conservapedists should be yelling their heads off in support.

The president is not anything close to a pacifist, but his actions are not loud enough or indiscriminate enough to please the troglodytes who live in the dark caverns of Conservapedia.
President Obama authorized offshore oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico[19] and has been widely criticized for mishandling the “worst environmental disaster in US history.”[20][21] Obama declared, “oil rigs today generally don’t cause spills. They are technologically very advanced.”[22][23][24]
Well, generally they don't cause spills. There's only one that really causing trouble right now. Of course, it's a doozy. That's the catch. One big spill can do gigabucks of damage. That's why many people reacted negatively to the president's comments about authorizing more oil drilling. However, the drill that spilled was in place long before Obama said anything. The disaster was a legacy of Bush administration neglect and lack of enforcement of safety standards and procedures.

The Gulf spill might, of course, have been mitigated if the Obama administration had promptly ramped up safety inspections and enforcement of maintenance regulations, but I can easily imagine how Schlafly and his minions would have reacted. “Anti-business!” (I think it was Stalin—or was it Hitler?—who was really keen on state enforcement of safety regulations.)

Did you notice the sly post-hoc implication of the paragraph's initial compound sentence? (1) Obama authorized drilling. (2) Worst environmental disaster in U.S. history.

Sentences like this don't get constructed by accident. Schlafly really wants readers of Conservapedia to think that BP's Gulf of Mexico disaster was the direct consequence of Obama's statement about offshore oil drilling.

The president's words are powerful.

The initial paragraphs of Conservapedia's entry on Barack Obama is all of a piece. A piece of propaganda. The article deliberately misleads. That's curious, isn't it? The overtly religious perpetrators of such mendacity are evidently so full of good intentions that they regard themselves exempt from the commandment about bearing false witness.

The morality of the people at Conservapedia is very much like the God they purport to follow. There's damned little evidence for the existence of either.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Judging a book by its author

Something I don't need to read

Nepotism poster child Tori Spelling is on a signing tour to promote her new book. The formerly reputable McClatchy Company is helping out with breathless little stories like an interview article in The Sacramento Bee:
There's an anecdote in it about you contacting the late Farrah Fawcett.

It was during a reading on the phone with (celebrity psychic) John Edward. We have the same publicist. I thought, “Oh, this'll be cool, maybe my dad will come through.” Instead, John said, “Farrah Fawcett's coming through.” He was really surprised, too. She wanted me to let her family know she's happy and OK. I wrote a letter to Ryan O'Neal, explaining the story. I said, “Please don't think I'm crazy, I'm simply passing on a message.”
Gosh, Tori? Think you're crazy? Never! Think you're gullible and maybe just a little bit stupid? From now till eternity!

Perhaps I am being too mean. After all, she shares a publicist with John Edward, famous for being “The Biggest Douche in the Universe.” It may be that Tori is just a good little trouper who cooperates with her p.r. person in trying to gin up some press coverage for a fellow celebrity from the same stable. I can't tell, though, if Tori is being cynically manipulated or just cynically playing along.

In a way, of course, it doesn't matter. The stupid is right there on the page for us to see.

Let's look the other way.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Lucy Van Whitman runs for governor

The campaign budget is peanuts

The insight was not mine. It was a friend's daughter who said, “You know who Meg Whitman reminds me of? Lucy Van Pelt!”

Suddenly it all became clear. That's right. Whitman is exactly like the self-proclaimed fussbudget from the Peanuts comic strip. She promises faithfully to hold the ball steady while California—in the guise of Charlie Brown—runs up to give it a good kick.

We all know what's going to happen if we fall for it, don't we?

Speaking of boys named Brown, Meg is both eager to remind us that Jerry Brown is one of California's historical figures and hopeful that we remember none of the historical details. While she labels him a failure, his eight years in the governor's office seem like the good old days relative to the current political and budgetary environment. In particular, Whitman wants us to think that Jerry Brown was such a profligate big-government spender that he broke the bank:
His big spending turned a surplus into a billion-dollar deficit.
Actually, Meg, the voters broke the bank with Proposition 13. Brown was an exceedingly frugal governor. So frugal, in fact, that the tax increases enacted under Governor Reagan (that's right, Reagan) were creating a surplus.

Perhaps Meg is not aware of Brown's penny-pinching history. Back in those days she was far away from California, going to school at Princeton and Harvard. More likely, though, Meg and her people are consciously distorting Brown's record. That's what politicians tend to do during campaigns and Meg has certainly become a politician, complete with a well-funded propaganda campaign.

The truth about that era of California politics is difficult for right-wingers to swallow. I remember being called a liar in 1980 during Reagan's unfortunately successful campaign for president. A Reagan supporter blew up at me when I pointed out that California budgets had grown more rapidly under Reagan than they were growing under Jerry Brown. Knowing that Ronnie was the patron saint of tight-fisted budget-slashers, the Reaganite told me quite emphatically that I was either a fool or a liar.

It's easy, however, to check the numbers for yourself. The California state treasurer's office in the spring of 1986 put out the Annual Long-Term General Fund Forecast that I still have on my shelf. It's replete with historical data. In 1967, Reagan's first year in office, state expenditures totaled approximately 2.939 billion dollars. By 1974, the last year of his two terms, expenditures had reached 7.245 billion dollars. On a point-to-point comparison, that's a 46.5% increase. It amounts to an average increase of 13.8% each year.

In 1975, Jerry Brown's first budget came in at $8.264 billion. Three years later, his 1978 budget (before Proposition 13 passed) was $11.612 billion. His budget increases were averaging 12.0% per year, nearly two points less than those of supposedly fiscally conservative Reagan (who would soon be running up a deficit as U.S. president).

People couldn't help notice that Jerry was spending less money than the state was taking in. The state surplus ballooned to nearly four billion dollars, an awesome amount. It helped spur Californians into voting for Proposition 13 on the June 1978 primary election ballot, slashing property taxes to the bone and putting the Golden State into a fiscal straitjacket.

The state government had not exactly stood idly by while the surplus grew and the voters got antsy. The governor's office supported a reduction in property taxes. However, a concerted effort to enact property-tax relief for California's homeowners was consistently opposed by conservative legislators who wanted it to fail. They wanted things to get worse so that middle-class voters would support an initiative written to principally benefit corporations and owners of commercial property. It worked, and California took a quick tumble into the fiscal frailty from which it has never fully recovered.

The 1979 state budget incorporated major subventions to local governments and school districts to soften the blow of the gutted property tax. As a result, that budget totaled $16.174 billion, a dramatic one-year increase of 39.3%, largely at the expense of the rapidly shrinking surplus. As the surplus dwindled and Brown reasserted his fiscal frugality—now underscored by the draconian Proposition 13—the governor ended his final year in office, 1982, with a budget of $21.522 billion. Compared to 1975, that was a 60.4% increase. Averaged out, it represented a growth of 14.7% per year.

Thus the impact of Proposition 13 pushed Brown into a position where he exceeded Reagan's overall growth rate. Nevertheless, his average ended up less than one point higher even after absorbing the 39.3% kick in the teeth occasioned by Proposition 13. It strains credulity to portray Brown's record as governor as one of irresponsible spending. As a budgetary manager, he did a good job. In light of his successors, he did a damned good job. It is endlessly regrettable that Brown and the contending forces in the legislature were unable to forestall Proposition 13 by coming to terms on a reasonable and timely property-tax relief measure. The Golden State still suffers the scars of that battle and that proposition's enactment.

Now here comes Meg Whitman to save us! She presumably knows how to solve our state's problems because she's cut from the same cloth as the people who imposed them on us. How much irony is there in her free-spending quest for political office? She spent $76 for each vote she got in the state primary. And now her general election campaign trail is carpeted with the greenbacks spilling from her deep pockets, much of that money going to a statewide media campaign that smears Jerry Brown as a big spender.

Good grief!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

It's just another day

Irrelevant ancient history

Today is July 20. Remember when Olin Teague kept trying to make a national holiday of it?

Of course you don't. In fact, you're probably saying, “Who the heck was Olin Teague?”

That's okay. He's been gone awhile. U.S. Representative Olin Teague held a congressional seat from Texas for a big chunk of the 20th century. He chaired the Select Committee on Astronautics and Space Exploration. The Apollo moon program occurred on Teague's watch. You could say he was a big space booster.

By now you've recalled (or figured out) that July 20 is the anniversary of the first Apollo landing on the moon, the Apollo 11 mission that took Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin down to its dusty surface. Sometimes, in a fit of nostalgia, I bother to mention it to my summer school students (if I'm teaching summer school that year, of course). Their reaction is usually dispiriting.

The last time I did it, I wrote “July 20” on the board and left it there for a while. Since I don't normally bother writing the day's date on the board, it was anomalous behavior. Successfully stifling any curiosity—intellectual or otherwise—my calculus students did not ask the date's significance.

So I did.

“Does anyone know what today it?”

A couple of my more insightful students said, “July twentieth!”

I gave them a sickly smile.

“Thank you for the obvious answer. Can anyone dig a little deeper than that?”

“It's my niece's birthday!”

“Okay,” I said, with great forbearance. “I hope you got your niece an appropriate birthday present.”

“I don't know. I'll find out this afternoon when Mom gets back from shopping.”

Things were not developing in an encouraging direction. I abandoned subtlety.

“Today is the anniversary of the first moon landing,” I said.

They looked at me, mostly blankly. A couple of students said “oh” without much enthusiasm in their voices.

“Yes, I realize we're talking about ancient and boring history,” I said. “No doubt you've heard of the Apollo program and seen photos or videos of it, but it's probably difficult to imagine how exciting it was to see it all occur in real time. We saw the lift-offs and moon landings on live television, just as it occurred. It was a thrilling time to be a witness to history.”

“My father said he actually got hives on the day of the moon landing,” said one student, a small smile on her face. “But he's an electrical engineer.”

“Oh, an engineer. That explains it, of course,” I replied.

Students nodded their heads as if everyone knew that's the way engineers are. They're easily susceptible to hives and other allergy-related afflictions. It's possible—or even likely—that they were dutifully humoring me, having no particular opinions of their own. One should always encourage a teacher who is off-topic and telling stories instead of lecturing.

“The space program was a great motivator when I was in high school. It was exciting to all of us who were interested in math, science, and engineering. The Apollo moon rocket generated seven and a half million pounds of thrust to lift a six million pound vehicle from the launch pad. It began painfully slowly, but the final stage reached speeds of seven miles per second as it left earth orbit. That's about twenty-five thousand miles per hour. Residents of Hawaii actually got to see the third stage of Apollo 11 light up overhead as it pushed the spacecraft toward the moon.”

Some of my students goggled as I reeled off the numbers. I had either captured their attention or they were good at feigning interest. (Either—or both—is entirely possible.) I turned to the board and wrote “F = ma.”

“What does that mean?”

Many students were ready to blurt out the answer.

“Force equals mass times acceleration.”

“Indeed. As I was watching the moon rocket take off on live television, I saw how slowly it rose during the first moments of its flight. It took several seconds to clear the tower. Since I knew its mass and the force of its rocket engines, I could compute its acceleration. Only one problem, though.”

I paused for a long moment, waiting.

“The mass wasn't constant!” a student proudly announced.

“Exactly!” I said. “The first stage was burning off fuel at a rate of fifteen tons per second.”

Even some of the more jaded students were a bit slack-jawed with wonder now.

“So, what to do? Well, I broke the time interval into short segments.” On the board I wrote t0, t1, t2, and so on. “Since I knew the rate of fuel consumption, I knew the mass of the rocket at the beginning of each subinterval. I could compute the acceleration for that interval and calculate the rocket's change in altitude. The computations were simple, but there were a lot of them. How could I get my results to be even more accurate?”

“Do even more calculations,” they said. “Use shorter subintervals!”

“Quite right! And how does that compare to something you've learned in this class?”

“Smaller intervals for more accuracy in Simpson's rule. Or in Riemann sums!”

“Indeed,” I agreed.

“Hey, you were giving a math lecture after all!” cried a student.

“Gotcha!” I admitted.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Believing your lying eyes

One picture is worth a thousand misstatements

PZ Myers over at Pharyngula is more pleased than he should be with some “flashy illustrations” of the creationism menace. “Use these!” he admonishes. Um, maybe not.

While the graphs are flashy and, in their way, are informative (though I'm not crazy about the choice of pale red [is not explicitly mentioned] as intermediate between green [is mentioned directly] and dark red [isn't mentioned]—pick a better color palette, guys!), there are significant scaling problems. When one ostensibly represents ratio data with the linear dimensions of objects possessing area, the visual impact is seriously misleading. Perhaps this sounds fancy, but it's not.

Suppose you want to compare a data value of 16% with a data value of 32%. The latter is twice as much as the former. In a bar chart, one would be twice as tall as the other. Simple:

You can't get much more basic than that. However, what if you decide to represent your data with cute little gingerbread men? It's quite obvious that the one representing 32% must be twice as tall as the one representing 16%, right? Except look at what happens:

It's the classic problem of scaling. Doubling the linear dimensions of a two-dimensional figure results in a quadrupling of its area, immediately creating an exceedingly misleading visual impact. To maintain a correct visual impression in a situation where two-dimensional area rather than one-dimensional length catches the eye, the linear scaling factor should be the square root of 2 (approximately 1.4142) rather than 2 itself. The results are much better:

This is exactly the problem with the Campus Explorer's iconic graph of teachers' personal beliefs in evolution vs. creationism and intelligent design creationism. The purple figure representing 28% looks like it's quite a bit more than twice the 16% icon. The 16% icon similarly looks a lot bigger relative to the 9% icon than it should. The Discovery Institute will certainly be delighted with the colossus representing adherence to ID creationism.

With some elementary (and not particularly elegant) picture editing, I offer this statistically improved version, whose visual impact is not misleading:

Darrell Huff warned us about misleading data graphs in How to Lie with Statistics, originally published in 1954. We have yet to learn the lesson he tried to teach us.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Advice from my nephew

An expert in his field

He calls me “uncle,” so I call him “nephew.” He currently lives on the East Coast, so it's been quite a while since I've seen him or his father (who many years ago was a student of mine). In need of some information, I dropped the boy a note via e-mail:
From: Zeno Ferox
To: Ian Rhys
Sent: Fri, July 9, 2010 8:44:56 PM
Subject: Birthday gift list

Hi, Ian. I know someone who is turning 11 years old next month and I was wondering what a good birthday present would be. If you were choosing a nice gift for an 11-year-old boy, what do you think he might like?

I welcome your suggestions, as I regard you as an expert in this field.


Uncle Zeno
Ian is not normally a prompt correspondent, but my missive evidently touched a responsive chord. A reply was soon in my in-box:
Date: Sat, 10 Jul 2010 05:44:58 -0700 (PDT)
From: Ian Rhys
Subject: Re: Birthday gift list
To: Zeno Ferox

Well I actually think it depends on what the boy's charechtoristics are. E-mail me his charechtoristics. okay?
Ian has rather creative spelling, but his response was an entirely reasonable one. I hastened to provide the requested information on the birthday boy's “charechtoristics”:
From: Zeno Ferox
To: Ian Rhys
Sent: Sat, July 10, 2010 9:48:58 AM
Subject: Re: Birthday gift list

Good point, Ian. Unfortunately, I haven't seen the boy in question in quite a while, so I'll have to go from memory. I seem to recall that he was very smart. He was interested in lots of different things and very good at reading and math. Good sense of humor, too.

I realize that's not very specific, but perhaps that's enough for you to work with. Any ideas?

Uncle Zeno
Despite the paucity of specifics in my message, it was apparently enough to inspire some recommendations from my consultant:
Date: Sat, 10 Jul 2010 15:21:04 -0700 (PDT)
From: Ian Rhys
Subject: Re: Birthday gift list
To: Zeno Ferox

Well if hes smart I guess he might like these items:

Redwall: Bellmaker

Redwall: Outcast


Star wars Lego set

I think any of these would work for a boy like that.

Tell me if you think he will like one of these.........

- Ian
This was exceedingly helpful, but now it was my turn to ask for some characteristics:
From: Zeno Ferox
To: Ian Rhys
Sent: Sat, July 10, 2010 6:36:03 PM
Subject: Re: Birthday gift list

Why, yes, as a matter of fact. I think he might like all of the items you mentioned. Of course, if I were to choose to give him a Star Wars Lego set I would have the difficulty of picking which one to send him. There are many, many choices. Perhaps an intelligent young man such as yourself might offer me some additional guidance?


Uncle Zeno
He was clearly poised to answer. I soon had the specifics I had requested:
Date: Sat, 10 Jul 2010 15:43:43 -0700 (PDT)
From: Ian Rhys
Subject: Re: Birthday gift list
To: Zeno Ferox

this is the full name that I found for it:

LEGO 8086 Star Wars Trifighter Droid

I think he will like this one...

If you cant remember the name then print it out and bring it to the store

A good store would be toys are us or a lego store, oh and wallmart maybe..

If its too much just get any type of star wars lego set.

He will like it..

- Ian
He seems to have no doubt in the matter (even if he's concerned that doddering old Uncle Zeno might forget the details). Who am I to question his judgment concerning the birthday presents currently favored by 11-year-old boys? I dispatched a note of thanks:
From: Zeno Ferox
To: Ian Rhys
Sent: Sat, July 10, 2010 9:20:39 PM
Subject: Re: Birthday gift list

I consider your advice definitive in this matter and am confident that you are correct about the birthday boy's appreciation of the gift. Thank you exceedingly for your kind counsel.

Lots of love from your Uncle Zeno
You will appreciate how cleverly I have outsmarted the little rascal and gotten so much information out of him. Ian sure is going to be surprised when he receives a Star Wars Droid Tri-Fighter Lego set and a couple of Redwall books for his 11th birthday from his sly Uncle Zeno.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Solution by coincidence

Lucky Larry asks for full credit

My introductory calculus class had arrived at the section on finding critical numbers for given functions. These numbers, as you recall, provide the candidates for possible maxima and minima for the functions. They come in two forms: (1) numbers for which the first derivative is zero and (2) numbers for which the first derivative does not exist. After some practice and review of the topic, I gave my students a quiz containing the following function f(x) = x5/3 + 5x2/3.

The fractional exponents are a dead giveaway that mischief is afoot. The derivative is straightforward:

The factored form makes clear that there are two critical numbers. The factor x + 2 yields x = −2 as a number for which the first derivative is zero. The factor x−1/3 shows that x = 0 is also a critical number, since division by zero is undefined and the negative exponent is an indicator of an implied division.

It's a nice little problem that provides a critical number of each type. But one of my students was miffed when I didn't give him full credit for having successfully winkled out the two numbers. When he protested, I gently explained to him that his work was invalid. As a clever student who fully believes in his cleverness, he was certain that an injustice had been committed. “This isn't over,” he muttered. “I can prove that I'm right.”

“Go right ahead,” I said in my most agreeable tone of voice.

We huddled over his paper as he explained his solution to me. Instead of factoring the derivative after setting it equal to zero, he had divided both sides of the equation by 5/3, obtaining

x2/3 + 2x−1/3 = 0

“Then I applied the quadratic formula,” he proclaimed. “I had a = 1, b = 2, and c = 0.”

“You could have factored,” I pointed out.

“Yeah, well, factoring and the quadratic formula give the same result,” he said.

“Um, sure,” I agreed, “but only if you're applying them to a quadratic equation. This equation is not quadratic in form.”

“Hold on a second,” he persisted. “Look at what I get.”

“See?” he concluded triumphantly. “When I simplify, I get the critical numbers 0 and −2. I'm right!”

“The numbers agreed with the correct answers, but it's a coincidence. The quadratic formula doesn't apply.”

He was not pleased.

“What do you mean?”

“Look at your equation,” I said. “Your lead term contains x to the two-thirds power and your second term contains x to the negative one-third power. The former is not the square of the latter, which is the necessary condition for treating an equation as a quadratic.”

His face fell.

“But I got the right answers!”

“It's a coincidence.”

He fussed over it a bit more.

“But it'll work every time, won't it?”

“In a problem of exactly this kind? Yes, because the derivative-does-not-exist critical number got converted into a derivative-equals-zero critical number.”

“So can I use this? I just showed that it works.”

“No, you just showed that you lucked out. A coincidentally correct result from an invalid process is still invalid.”

“But if it works—”

“I'll tell you one more time: No credit for lucky accidents. If you use quadratic techniques when they don't apply, you don't get credit. Besides, factoring is easier and gives correct results. Try to remember that.”

He still thinks he was cheated of full credit by a hard-nosed teacher.

He's half right.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Majority rule

Democracy invalidates all religions

It's fun to read the letters to the editor. One learns so much about the way other people think (or don't!). Last month someone decided to give everyone the benefit of her deep thought and reasoned argument. She was upset that Proposition 8 was being challenged in court:
We have the right to preserve and protect the definition of marriage. We did so, twice. We have voted. Judge Vaughn Walker should uphold our vote and not be swayed by the unhappy minority. Judges are to interpret the law, not make the law. Again, the majority has voted. Uphold the vote and be done with it. Quit listening to the minority of California.
So there!

I guess it doesn't matter that this might be a matter of fundamental human rights. A majority of the voting population should be allowed to trample upon them. (I also presume that the letter-writer sees no significance in the falling level of support for hetero-only marriage in the two votes she cites. Third time could be the charm! It ain't over, baby.)

Nevertheless, the writer's abasement before the god of majority rule makes me wonder how far she would allow it to be taken. I'm pretty sure she would pull up short if I were to point out that the majority opinion is against her religion. While nowhere in her letter did she mention religion, Proposition 8's noisiest supporters are right-wing Christians—and Christianity is a minority religion.

Let's do the math. While membership numbers are often unreliable and religions aren't required to audit their membership rolls, it scarcely matters. Most of the 6.7 billion people in the world will reject any particular religion you claim to name. Let's look at Christianity, since that's America's most popular religion.

Only 34% of the world's population purports to be Christian. Thus our nation's most widely shared delusion is spurned by a two-to-one margin. In political parlance, that would be a landslide.

What about Islam, which considers itself the religion fated to replace Christianity (and, for that matter, all other beliefs). The news isn't so good.

Yes, Muhammad's followers are on the wrong end of a three-to-one split. That's got to be discouraging. And it's downhill from there for other forms of devotion. Buddhism can scrape up a similar number of adherents if you generously aggregate all of its many flavors (much as I did with the sects in Islam and Christianity).

It's barely one out of five. However, that's still better than Hinduism, which can claim almost one person in six:

There is no winner. The religions are all obvious losers. Furthermore, these demographics almost certainly represent best-case scenarios where casual or lapsed adherents may be bundled into the head count.

Sometimes I wonder if my home parish still has me listed as a member of the local Roman Catholic congregation. It's possible. The church register is notoriously unreliable. If so, this final result is also inflated.

Sorry, Benny Hex. You don't have any many followers as you think you do—and the ones you have are terribly outnumbered..

All religions are therefore minority religions. Folks who are eager to tromp on minority rights might want to keep that in mind while they are embracing majority rule and demanding the right to gang up on others. Next time it could be your turn.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Information hiding

Preordained political punchline

Lisa Benson is the talented political cartoonist who never lets reality mess up a good storyline. She leaves no daylight between herself and the right-wing talking points of the day. In the main, Democrats are always stupid, incompetent, or evil and Barack Obama is an ignorant ideologue. (That seems a bit like projection to me.) Here's a recent example:

See anything wrong or misleading about it? While we understand that the political cartoon is not a format that lends itself to detail and nuance, it still seems a terrible oversight to have omitted a “George W. Bush was here” sign on the stump of America's economy and a GOP sticker on the chain saw (which Obama undoubtedly found lying next to the fallen tree). Lisa probably knows that the economy was actually devastated under the stewardship of Obama's predecessor, but let's be fair: she's simply doing her job as a right-wing propagandist. I guess we're supposed to take this in stride.

Because, you know, everything is fair in love and war—and politics. Even lies, apparently.

As a math teacher, however, there are certain lines that I cannot bear to see crossed. Check out this peculiarity:

Today we all know that the original Obama stimulus was too small. (Paul Krugman warned us at the top of his lungs, but most of us ignored him at our continuing peril.) Hence the risk of a double-dip recession is all too real. While the Great Recession itself has George W. Bush's oil-stained fingerprints all over it, a second dip—if it occurs—will owe much to Obama's timidity at the beginning of his tenure (and his foolish penchant for seeking bipartisanship from an opposition party that doesn't know the meaning of the word).

So what's wrong with Lisa's double-dip cartoon? It seems more on target than most, and even depicts the president as trying to carry Uncle Sam across a perilous chasm. It's this: How the hell does one get a double-dip in a rope bridge, for crying out loud? Catenary curves are uniformly concave up (as they say in calculus class). Benson has deeply offended my sense of mathematical reality.

Much as she often does my sense of political reality.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

My life as an ignoramus

LeBron who?

Arthur Conan Doyle famously depicts Sherlock Holmes in A Study in Scarlet as the kind of eccentric genius who manages to be oblivious of even some of the most commonplace bits of human knowledge.

The faithful Dr. Watson was quite dismayed:
My surprise reached a climax, however, when I found incidentally that he was ignorant of the Copernican Theory and of the composition of the Solar System. That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth travelled round the sun appeared to be to me such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it.

“You appear to be astonished,” he said, smiling at my expression of surprise.
Holmes was entirely unrepentant because heliocentricity was of no conceivable use in his work as a private investigator. The arrangement of the solar system was therefore mere mental clutter, more likely to get in the way than to inform.

This past week I found out who LeBron James is. I really didn't know before then. Honest. I am not kidding. Since I pay not the least attention to sports, why should I know its players?

I understand the counterargument. After all, when something is the obsessive topic of conversation in all quarters, how can one be ignorant of it? How oblivious can one be?

Pretty oblivious.

I confess that I have inherited some of my father's disdain for the uninformed. Dad delights in recounting episodes of Jay Leno's “Jaywalking,” in which the talk-show host trolls the streets of Burbank for clueless idiots. (It's southern California, folks. The population is plenty big enough for Jay to scoop up a great catch.) We get to point and hoot at dummies and feel superior. Most of us like feeling superior. I know that I do, although I occasionally remind myself not to let it show too much.

The media frenzy over LeBron James and the overhyped coverage of his decision to relocate (which I understand involves switching teams) has helped me to better understand how ignorance works. I am my own case study.

A few years ago I posted an item on my complete lack of interest in sports of any kind. I neither care, nor pretend to care, about whatever sport is currently on TV or at the local sports arena. My old college roommate was himself a sports nut, but we had a nice accommodation: He got immediate dibs on the sports pages that I would have otherwise discarded unread from my newspaper subscriptions and he didn't hassle me about my asportuality. Win-win, as they say.

There's an important clue in that previous paragraph. I never read the sports page. I always tossed it aside without looking at it. That's one big step toward ignorance about sports. There are others, of course. I never watched sports on television and if family and friends turned it on, I would leave the room and find something to read. If a sports report came up on the radio, I punched a button for another station.

This behavior started early and it meant I uniformly and casually shunned or shunted aside any stream of boring information about sports (and it was all boring). It became second-nature and I maintained my ignorance with scarcely any effort. Only when the fabulous Mr. James became the focus of every media outlet in the world and his story led Google News and occupied the headline on every radio station I listen to and every TV channel I watch did I finally learn his identity. It was amazingly intrusive and it penetrated my powerful barriers of uncaring.


Is this what it's like for the people who say they don't care about politics and don't even know who is the president of the United States? (Such people exist, and not only on Fox.) Is it this way for people who neither know nor care about science? And history (and are doomed to repeat it)? I seem to have learned a lesson about ignorance, which amuses me a little. Yes ... I have knowledge of ignorance.

While ignorance both fascinates and appalls me, I have been one of its most assiduous practitioners. I suppose I can console myself by considering that my willful ignorance is highly specialized and confined to a very specific and narrow niche—although in a niche that is huge to most of the people around me. This I now realize in the wake of the week in which I learned who James LeBron is.

“Now that I do know it I shall do my best to forget it.”

Right on, Sherlock!

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Insane asylum in Texas

The one-star state

My college roommate from years gone by had had a good run, but the glory days were definitely coming to an end. While I had detoured into a stint in state government before settling down to a comfy teaching job, he had taken his shiny new Ph.D. in mathematics into the Beltway bandit business back on the East Coast. His lucrative consulting work for the U.S. Navy eventually brought him back to California with a cushy position as CIO for the San Diego office of a major research firm.

I still remember the time he mentioned in a Christmas letter that his year-end bonus was more than half my entire year's teaching salary (and I do not consider myself underpaid). Ow!

Good thing he socked a lot of it away for a rainy day, because it's been raining heavily (figuratively speaking) for a few years now. In the natural course of events, his company was acquired by a rival organization. The consolidation of operations led to a significant reduction in staffing throughout the newly merged companies. When he saw the name of the vice president and chief information officer of their new overlords, my college roomie saw it as the writing on the wall. It was someone he had laid off for under-performance several years earlier. Apparently he had landed on his feet and now had the upper hand.

My friend accepted his buy-out package and walked out the door. He couldn't find an equivalent position anywhere (particularly if he didn't want to uproot his growing family), so he polished up his old secondary-school teaching credential and found employment as a high school calculus teacher. The pay was poor, but the job was more fun that he had had in several years. And there was that nest egg he had socked away to provide a nice mixed-metaphor cushion and safety net.

All was well, and his old college roommate didn't write to point out that our salary situations were now reversed. (In the aggregate, he's still way ahead, but we're not competitive about it. Oh, no!)

Then the California state economy splashed into the toilet. San Diego school districts started laying off the teachers with the least seniority. My buddy got pink-slipped.

What to do?

Smart guy that he is, my friend had stayed in touch with former colleagues throughout the government consulting business. He had picked up some independent consulting contracts. It wasn't as lush as the good old days, but it was substantial. Then, a breakthrough!

His wife found out from old friends that a number of teaching jobs were open in their urban school district in Houston, Texas. My friend dropped me a note:
The wife has a bean up her butt to move to Houston to be close to dear friends and much closer to her family. I’ve applied for some teaching jobs in their district. The situation in Texas appears to be much brighter than California in terms of funding for education and our friends’ district is really good. Pay is less but we can get a house comparable to ours for about 1/3 the price. We shall see.
I wrote him a semi-congratulatory response:
Sorry to hear that you have a pink slip in your future. Being a teacher in Texas sounds scary to me, but it's probably safer for math teachers. The nut cases on the Texas school board are too busy messing with science and history standards to worry much about math.
My old buddy was quick to reply:
I doubt Texas will happen. Had to apply to keep the wife happy. Don't know about math standards in the one-star state. Are Arabic numerals allowed?
Oh, God. If the Texas school board finds out that mathematicians promote Arabic numerals, they might want to round us all up as terrorists!

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Now hear this!

Trust Dr. Rock Star

Farm life is not necessarily a bucolic idyll accompanied by the soulful lowing of cattle and the melodic twittering of songbirds. The roaring of tractors and other farm equipment may imprint you with less restful souvenirs—like a ringing in the ears.

During my childhood, no one on the farm wore ear protection during long hours in the field, driving tractors to and fro with equipment in tow. Some of the farm gear was unpowered and relatively quiet: discs, harrows, plows, and rakes. The diesel engines of the tractors provided most of the noise. Other devices raised a ruckus of their own, powered devices like balers, whirling choppers, reciprocating scythes, and stalk cutters. Then there were odd devices like the cultipacker, an unpowered farm tool that consisted of a big cylindrical axle festooned with toothed steel rings, which clashed against each other as they rolled across the field. It sounded like a continuous explosion in a cymbal factory.

One legacy of my life as a farm kid is tinnitus—a continual ringing in my ears. It's a mild case, usually easily ignored, but it varies from time to time and I wish it would go away. I unknowingly did my best to avoid it, always letting my brother volunteer for farm tasks that he would happily do while I would regard them as infringing on my reading time. Despite my shirking, the damage was done.

Naturally my ears pricked up when I heard a radio advertisement for a new remedy. Although my doctor had told me there was no useful treatment for tinnitus, hope springs eternal. Had there been a recent breakthrough? The pitchman on the radio cheerfully reported that Quietus would safely provide relief from the ringing, humming, or squealing in the ears that characterizes various forms of tinnitus. Sounded good to me.
Now you can alleviate the ringing with all-natural Quietus, a proprietary formula that helps support healthier cochlear auditory nerve function in the inner ear, to relieve that annoying internal noise.
Oops! I hear buzzwords. Do you hear buzzwords? “All natural”? “Helps support”?

I also smell something. Like a rat.

The male voice of the pitchman gave way to the female voice of a supposed satisfied customer of Quietus:
I like it that it's homeopathic and doesn't require a prescription.
Okay. Got it. Quietus is a bogus nostrum with no medical value (unless you count the placebo effect). Out of curiosity, I visited the Quietus website. That where I discovered that Quietus was “discovered by a drummer.”

Sounds like someone was inspired by Airborne, the supremely successful fraud perpetrated “by a school teacher.” Who wouldn't trust a remedy invented by a rock star? (They're way more credible than mere doctors and researchers.)

The only good part of the Quietus website was the fine, fine (really fine) print at the bottom of the page (complete with the product name misspelled!):
Queitus™ Advanced Homeopathic Medicine. **These results not typical. Individual results will vary. These real testimonials do not represent the typical or ordinary experience of users. They are for demonstration purposes only and do not accurately capture the actual results you will experience. Your results may vary and you may need to use the product for a longer or shorter period of time. Each person’s experience with Quietus is different, which cannot be determined from these testimonials.
It's a lovely bit of cover-your-ass prose, which approximately 99% of visitors to the website will not read (or perhaps even see).

We tinnitus sufferers will have to continue to wait for a genuine remedy from real scientists—perhaps something along the lines of current research, which has succeeded in regrowing cochlear hair cells in mice. In the meantime, one can find a consumer-alert message about Quietus on YouTube (although I must warn you that it has an irritatingly noisy soundtrack!). I'd rather direct you to this trenchant commentary by Dara Ó Briain, who thinks we should “bag” homeopathy. But please don't clap too loudly. My ears are delicate.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

A mighty wind

It blows through Joe's ears

Everyone knows Joe Barton now. He's the Republican congressman who apologized to British Petroleum because of its treatment at the hands of the Obama administration. The president, you see, is holding BP responsible for the consequences of the catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and that—gosh darn it!—makes a grown Republican want to cry. Imagine beating up on a corporation! Why, it would make the angels weep!

Do you know what happens if the GOP gets a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives after the November general election? Rep. Joe Barton becomes the chair of the House energy committee. That's right: sob sister Barton would be in charge of energy legislation.

We know from Barton's cloying prostration before BP's CEO that he is in the pocket of the oil industry. Is there anything else relevant to his qualifications to lead the energy committee? Perhaps it's his keen grasp of matters scientific:
Wind is God's way of balancing heat. Wind is the way you shift heat from areas where it's hotter to areas where it's cooler. That's what wind is. Wouldn't it be ironic if in the interest of global warming we mandated massive switches to energy, which is a finite resource, which slows the winds down, which causes the temperature to go up? Now, I'm not saying that's going to happen, Mr. Chairman, but that is definitely something on the massive scale. I mean, it does make some sense. You stop something, you can't transfer that heat, and the heat goes up. It's just something to think about.
Yes, it really is something to think about. Poor Joe Barton needs some serious remedial science education. I mean, everybody knows that the wind is caused by trees. When trees wave back and forth, they stir up the air, causing wind. It's simple observation, people!