2012-12-03 07:12 am
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My philosophy of education

Well, I've been absolutely horrid at posting. I had a grand notion of reflecting on each of my classes after they happened, but, well, I didn't. Just a week left of classes yet, which will be followed by a few finals culminating activities, and then a month and a half of decompression.

One thing I didn't want to let go was my philosophy of (inclusive) education.  I think this is like the third or fourth time I've had to write one, but this is supposed to be the final one that will allegedly work its way into my job applications and whatnot, and so this one was actually read and critiqued by my professor.  He seems to get a kick out of it; as a school psychologist, he says that he has too much experience with seeing first-year teachers who are disillusioned by the reality of classroom management., so getting to ask ORLY at this phase in our professional development is a good move.

Anyways, I submitted enough drafts that my professor either ran out of questions or got sick of reading it, so here is my final draft which already got full credit.  SPOILER ALERT: I am either planning to be a radical educator or I am the king of snowing my professors with the current generation of dynamic buzzwords.


I affirm the inherent worth and dignity of all people, and I strive to use all of my talent, energy, and passion to provide a personally meaningful and practical mathematical education for all of my students. Every decision I make inside and beyond the classroom is, in some sense, a conscious reaction to my pursuit of this purpose. The following is a detailed but non-exhaustive list of specific strategies I undertake to achieve that ideal.

I define mathematics as “the systematic and objective process of making optimized decisions efficiently.” This includes learning how to perform numeric calculations, solving word problems, and other similar general tasks of primary and secondary mathematics. In the end, though, I believe that productive members of society must understand the range of decisions that they make throughout the day and the ways in which data is acquired, analyzed, and evaluated to make good choices and the ways in which both the choices and the processes are evaluated so that future decisions can be more easily and correctly rendered. For instance, if my students learn enough from about percentages and unit prices to pass a standardized test but not enough to be more strategic shoppers, then I will feel as if I have let them down.

To achieve that end, I believe in the principles of constructivist learning. As the mathematical tools students learn will be used by them throughout their lives, students must have an individual and intimate comprehension of those tools and how to apply them. When we teach a single perspective on a lesson and train students to apply it to solve a specific model of word problem, it should come as no surprise when students are unable to retain that knowledge past the unit test, much less when the lessons are built upon in future mathematics and science courses or in the real world. Only by giving students the resources and motivation to assimilate their knowledge into their own schematic understanding of the world will we provide authentic learning that the student can apply throughout his or her educational life and beyond.

Critical tools I use to showcase these diverse perspectives include small-group inquiry, peer learning, and a diverse array of multimodal media to explore problems in mathematics and the range of applications they have in the real world (focusing where possible on professional careers that require strong mathematical skills). An example that I often steer my students towards is the Khan Academy, which offers a thoughtful mathematical perspective that is often different from both my technique or the textbook's.

I believe that a teacher must be aware of and sensitive to the diversity of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, exceptionality, age, and socioeconomic status throughout our society. However, such a multidimensional cultural profile is only the first stage in forming authentic and respectful relationships with our students. Multicultural awareness is beneficial for roughly interacting with a group of people without unintentionally giving offense, but we must seek to destroy our stereotypes as quickly as we build them as we strive to know and serve our students as individuals. These plans require a foundation in a classroom culture of respect: my overt and consistent respect for all of my students and for the curriculum, my students’ respect for both me and for each other, and the students’ having respect for themselves as individuals, learners, and teachers.

To create this effective and inclusive classroom, I subscribe to the philosophy of culturally responsive teaching. My students have a diverse array of perspectives and differ in terms of the best strategies for educational success, and so I would be negligent to teach only in a way that benefited most of them or only in the way in which I was taught. For instance, lessons and projects should be customized to match the interests of a class to maximize their engagement, and vocabulary lessons should be structured around the linguistic strengths of each student. I also strive to take advantage of the diversity of perspectives and mastery amongst my students and use peer learning to further promote personal inquiry and self-constructed meaning, because there is no more effective and authentic teacher for a struggling student than the peer who just came to comprehend the material.

In the domain of assessment, I tend to be a follower of the theory of mastery education. Particularly in mathematics, there is little sense in advancing a student before he or she has a solid understanding of all of the standards that form the foundation of the new class. However, I believe that students deserve a broad range of options to demonstrate those competencies and that we should be open to the realities that many students do not do their best work on multiple choice exams under time constraints. For these students, the most authentic testing accommodation we can offer is alternative assessment, like journaling, oral examination, or service learning. If the grading criteria are tied to established objectives like the CCSS, calibrated against standard assessment measures, and performed with a passion for student success, I am confident that the result will be a measure of achievement that will provide a relevant supplement to the traditional measures. And when you demonstrate in word and deed that the education program can be catered to meet each student's’ talents and interests, the result is bound to be an increase in motivation and engagement that will enable the greatest possibility of positive outcomes.
2012-08-28 01:43 am
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Statement of Purpose

I promised myself that I would use this thing for my personal reflections during my summer course, but never quite got around to it.  Let's see what we can do about it during the full semester.

So, to catch everyone up, I am on my second semester seeking a Masters of Education from The College at Brockport.  To be specific, I am in the Alternative Adolescence Mathematics Inclusive Education program.  It's Alternate because I already have a full math education and just need education classes, and it's Inclusive because I'm learning to work with students with disabilities.  (This is not to say that I will focus on special education; the modern reality is that American classrooms strive to place students in the least restrictive environment in which they can learn effectively.  As a result, the general education setting contains students with a diverse array of gifts and needs and a large part of a teacher's energy is spent on identifying how education can be tailored to meet the needs of all students and particularly those that need accommodations.) 

Anyways, this semester I have four courses on deck.  That's overloading in Brockport's eyes, but I got a 4.0 under the same load last semester and my advisor doesn't seem to mind.  The first is Inclusive Teaching Middle School Mathematics, which is the first of my field studies which looks to be dealing with lesson plans and common standards and all that paperwork as it intersects with the reality of effective teaching.  The second is Teaching Language Skills in Middle and High School Content Areas II (can you guess that I love being in an environment where administrators won't use two words if eleven will do?), which is about literacy and comprehension strategies and differentiating instruction and many things that will probably be far more engaging that the way the course catalog makes it sound.  (I adored the prequel class, although I have heard rumors that this class ramps up the scholarly rigor.)  My third class is on Assessment for Special Education, which I think means diagnosing education-related disabilities rather than accommodating students with disabilties on general education standardized tests, but I'll know more on Thursday.  The fourth class doesn't start for another few months, and it's on drug awareness and public health and such.  Sounds like a bunch of boring seminars, but it's a critical certificate for schoolteachers so into the breach I go.
2012-05-15 08:08 pm
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Constructivist workers

I think it all starts with word problems.  This is contrary to the model of American math education, and maybe beyond.  We teach you the skill and then teach you how to apply it.

You know what, though?  I'm not the one who is backwards on this.  Remember Psych 101?  When a person is exposed to a new piece of knowledge, she will attempt to incorporate that fact into her worldview.  If she can't find a schema for it or hasn't developed an advantageous strategy for assimilation, then she's barely better off than if she hadn't been exposed to the fact in the first place.  On the other hand, if she can effectively identify a schema and assimilate the fact into it, then her worldview is expanded and she is embiggened by the process.

Not everyone has had Psych 101, I suppose, so I'll illustrate.  Let's say that a young child sees a German Shepherd, which is the first time that she recalls seeing a dog that is as big as she is.  She doesn't know what to make of it; perhaps she is inclined to think of it as a "big animal" like a pony or a goat, except that she has developed a sense of "dogishness" (that adults would call "canine") that this animal satisfies in many ways except size.  That sense is her schema of "dog", and when an adult tells her that German Shepherd are also dogs, she is able to broaden her schema to understand that dogs can be big and perform tasks beyond companionship. 

However, this model is exactly what we don't do in math education.  The skill comes out of the textbook through the blackboard without giving any sense of how it works into your worldview.  This is tragically short-sighted, since mathematics is actually the formalization of the modelling our ancestors did to solve their real-world problems.  Sometimes we are so busy answering "how" that we forget to ever get around to "why".  Some students can get it anyways, of course, but we're far too comfortable with thinking that when other students can't get it that the problem is with the students and not with the math instruction.  Back when I was in high school, if 80% of students barely understood math and 10% of students mastered the concepts, we'd have enough understanding to sustain society's population of alphas and betas.  We don't live in that world any more; machines are currently doing much of the work that used to be done by Deltas and the Gammas are next in line for reassignment.

Let me give you an example I use at the beginning of one of my pre-algebra lessons.  I am leading a full-day field trip, so I made some packaged lunches for the adults and children.  Each adult lunchbox contains seven crackers and five pieces of sausage, and each child lunchbox contains three crackers and two pieces of sausage.  If there are ten children and four adults on the field trip, what is the total inventory of food in the lunchboxes?  Go ahead and solve that problem: note that it is a moderately difficult arithmetic problem that requires a few steps.  Still, in my experience, it is not beyond the intuition of the sufficiently motivated student to understand that they want to "dump out" all of the lunchboxes and gather all of the similar foodtypes together.  I've got a follow-up question too -- did you come up with fifty-eight crackers and forty pieces of sausage as your solution, or ninety-eight food pieces?  Whichever answer you came up with, why did you settle on that as the better answer?

So, once people have worked out a few problems like this in small groups, I show how you would solve this in "algebra language":

10 ( 3C + 2S ) + 4 ( 7C + 5S )
30C + 20S + 28C + 20S
58C + 40S

See, I don't need to drag students on a trip to appreciate how to simplify algebraic expressions using the Distributive Law and collecting like terms.  They made that trip themselves.  My job as a teacher is to point out some of the highlights they'd have spotted along whatever journey they made, and they're going to be able to retain and apply that knowledge effectively because they had already engaged their schema for solving pre-algebra problems.
2012-05-08 08:57 pm
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Don't even know it

I wrote a poem today and recited it in front of my classmates. Sorry, let me say that again. *I* wrote a POEM today and RECITED in IN FRONT OF MY CLASSMATES. A sonnet, no less.  It was an amusing thing that lead me to it. For the "final exam" of my literacy skills class, we were asked to reflect on everything that we had learned in the class and to synthesize it in any form we wanted ... except prose. We could make a poster or a diorama or a folk dance or a board game, anything at all except the one thing that I'm good at.

Thing is, this class was AMAZING. It's called "Teaching Language Skills in Middle and High School Content Areas I". Phew. Point is, reading comprehension isn't just the job of the English teacher. Who's going to teach you how to read a geometry proof or write a chemistry lab? But we should all be using the same vocabulary so when I ask a student "What connections are you drawing from the text?" the student can process this new sort of comprehension in the context of every other sort of comprehension they've done in school up to this point. So many other things -- engaging students in high level questions, effective small group learning, the process of inquiry, authentic assessment strategies, the role of technology in the classroom, holy cow. And I had to make a single artifact that captured such a complete transformation of my educational philosophy for about 10% of my class grade without access to my strengths.

So, given that another thing that I've learned in this course is that written language is the conscious product of thought, I wrote around five pages of crankypants rant impassioned analysis on how much I learned in this course and how one of those things is just how unjust this assignment was. I had started to form a risk-benefit analysis of turning that in when --

Well, maybe you linguistic people could tell me what happened, because it was new to me. I was reading the text aloud to myself and starting to sharpen it up, and I was thinking "Huh, that sentence has a very regular meter. Huh, those two sentences rhyme," and about twenty minutes later I had turned a page of ranty prose into a sonnet. It was a very weirdly powerful experience.  Perhaps the muse is not a mythical creature after all.

Reflection is an inauthentic task
Mere two dimensions capturing a space
Summing up is far too much to ask
A photo’s no replacement for a face
The walls cannot contain the things here earned
Nor closets hide my crafts ‘neath layers of dust
My room will overflow with all I’ve learned
To serve my students, praxis is a must
I’ll comprehend the things I ought to do
And teach my students skills to do the same
The value of my tutelage is true
Math in the world, not just a blackboard game
My purpose found, the strategies to aid
To serve me as I quest to make the grade

I was well outside my comfort zone in class when I found that we'd actually be presenting our projects to the entire class, but a fellow grad student with an English concentration read it over and told me that she thought it was really good and I was among friends.  It earned me a round of applause and my teacher was flattered to be the inspiration for, by my count, the fourth authentic poem I've ever written.  But it's a strange thing that so many things will paralyze me into inaction when the truth is that I am fearless in the moment.  I really must find the way to learn from this.
2012-05-06 12:42 pm
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So I seem to have stepped out without turning off the lights first. Um, what to say....

First, I'm fine, and I've been fine. I've been working on having a more deliberate life (in Thoreau's sense), which in the context of the internet means a life made up of people that I can see and touch while I'm communicating with them. That has been quite an effort, and I can still see ways in which I need to continue to improve, but at the same time it has been entirely rewarding. I can see the value I'm bringing the world and aware that there are things that would have gone undone had I not been there to do them.

So, I'm back, and I've got some thoughts about what an internet soapbox offers to me in this chapter of my life. My brain is cramped with all of the facts and debates of educational philosophy and praxis. I need to sort out how to be an effective and authentic partner in learning and development and how that interfaces with the epistemological and pedagogical realities of the secondary mathematics curriculum. (Trust me, I have a graduate school vocabulary and I'm not afraid to use it.) I'd like to get it sorted out in the company of thoughtful people so that it will come out clearly in a job interview or a conference. If my classes are any indication, publicly wrestling with my own synthesis is productive for others whose journeys are like mine. And it's nice for me to be able to re-incorporate all the dear people who are outside the range of my eyes and hands.
2010-12-05 08:45 pm
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This I know

Here is a list of facts that were personally reinforced for me this very long and exhausting weekend. Some of them are more important than others, and I would be honored if you found them worth reflecting upon.

1) Don't stop talking to your brother just because Glen Beck or Michael Moore tells you that his (generally mainstream) ideas are treasonous or otherwise corrupting your noble ideals. If they told you that that's what I'd say, then they can doubly suck it.

2) Every children's toy that makes noise should have a mute switch. Especially if the noise is loud and annoying and on a very very short very loop.

3) If you're the only person in a crowd that is drinking alcohol, you should probably stop. If you can't stop, then you should definitely stop.

4) If you read a Bible passage in front of a large crowd of people as if it were a poem and not a government document, then they get a better chance of being able to actually hear it, which is a big plus when it's saying something neat that even you didn't know was there.

5) Being able to solve a Rubik's cube still seems to be an impressive feat, even if it takes you close to ten minutes to recall how to do the last few bits.

6) Be fair with your family, if you are able. Take what you need, offer what you can, and leave to recharge when you must. I am enormously privileged to live in a family healthy enough that this happens, but have hope in times of calamity that this will be the time that things will work as they should rather than as they have.

All of this put together adds up to the fact that I miss the heck out of my uncle and am glad that I can do my part to help lay his body and estate to rest and more deliberately live my life in a way that reflects the ideals that he lived so nobly.
2010-11-07 12:45 pm
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The Race to the Top

So I promised in an earlier post that I would talk about the anti-racist mathematical movement as I understand it (which is admittedly not well yet).

At a certain level, it seems to be a web of issues and I will mention them and then leave them without support or defense. One complaint is that mathematics is taught from the perspective of how it came to be understood in Europe, which often times ignores that virtually all of elementary mathematics was independently discovered by every culture in history (Chinese mathematics in particular often beat key European discoveries by a millennium or more) and that mathematical discoveries that Europeans knew were often the product of Arab, Indian, and Egyptian influences but we often don't highlight those contributions as such. This bleeds over into the same sorts of "dead white man" issues that literature and the physical sciences have faced over the years -- both that mathematical discovery is closed and that people of color have no talent for it anyways, which will discourage a student of color from mastering the material and furthermore from contemplating a career in a mathematical field. And that, in turn, is connected to all of the other ways that we fail to expect mathematical mastery (let alone excellence or prodigy) from students of color.

As I say, there is no lack of very important discussions to be had there. And my role in those various discussion would range from pulling out my cheerleader uniform to mildly defending the status quo all the way to heavy skepticism. I cannot help but become more informed as my own education continues, so perhaps I will someday come to know enough to speak on some of them in the future. In the mean time, I will speak of my first-hand experience with an issue here that I do know.

(For those who haven't been following along at home, my experience is as a math tutor for students studying for the GED and other related math tests at around the 8th grade level in the United States. My students are mostly black and Latino, nearly all female, I suspect virtually all living in poverty, and a significant number attempting to overcome learning disabilities and similar challenges.)

I will illustrate with an actual example that happened in the past week. About half of my students are taking a formal GED math class that my tutoring sessions are intended to supplement, and this past week they took the Official Practice Test. (A sufficiently high grade in this test would allow them to "graduate" to being allowed to retake the Math portion of the GED.) Here is a relevant portion of a question from that test. I won't display the rest of the question because the last thing I need is a cease-and-desist letter from the ACE, but trust me that an understanding of this sentence is a fundamental part of solving the problem. Again, I want to highlight that this is not a third-party product but an actual question generated by the American Council on Education that is a part of the gate-keeping process for GED diplomas.

"A restaurant menu lists 5 appetizers, 6 main dishes, and 4 desserts that are specialties of the house."

When I reviewed this question in my class, one of my best students shot up her hand and said "I'm sorry, but what does 'appetizer' mean? I'm sure I've seen the word before -- I mean, it's not like I've never been to a restaurant -- but I don't know if I've ever had one." And a few of us kind of talked out that it was like a plate of potato skins or chicken wings or shrimp cocktails that everyone at the table could share while they were waiting for the main dishes to be served, and she seemed to get it (although it was an embarrassing topic for her so I can't be certain).

But you see what happened there. If you're a middle-class white kid like me whose family ate out at sit-down restaurants on the average of once a week, you're answering an easier question than that student of mine did. Because we know that an appetizer isn't a specific sort of main dish, so we just multiply those three numbers together and move on. My student has to go looking deeper for contextual clues to figure out how to process these numbers. I can accept the argument that those clues are buried deeper in the problem, but there is a larger probability that she's going to miss those clues, and even if she does find them she will have less time and less morale than someone who "just knows" these non-mathematical facts.

And this is the sort of thing that you find quite a bit of once you're looking for it (and it is even easier when you have students who are comfortable enough to "admit" that it's their fault that they don't understand poorly-worded questions). How many days are there in June? What is the standard restaurant tip? What is an "at large" delegate? What does "reservoir" mean? Some of these questions are less unfair than others, and reading comprehension and setting up word problems are truly valuable skills that need to be tested. But when the word problems that you set up are biased against some classes or cultures, you really don't get to then dump on those classes and cultures for underperforming on the test.
2010-11-04 02:55 pm
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Lonely days are gone, I'm a-coming home

I just got a letter from SUNY Brockport.

It is a very heavy letter.
2010-10-31 03:25 pm
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Stepping up to the plate

I should start getting used to talking about me, especially since I'm doing some interesting stuff that I'll probably have to be talking about before long.

I've been spending the last handful of weeks as a volunteer math tutor for the Rochester Educational Opportunity Center, helping folk to get their GED and qualify for an LPN license and similar sorts of job training and college prep opportunities. The organization I am working for is a non-profit affiliated with one of our local state universities that does all this training tuition-free for qualified prospective students (and it seems like pretty liberal standards to establish the economic need) and it really seems to do a lot of good in helping people to chart out a better future. For me as well: it's not a paid position and doesn't even count as field work for a Masters in Education (even though the affiliated university is the one at which I'll be studying), but it'll be a leg up to have the experience in both the schmoozing sense and in being actually prepared for a room full of adolescents.

And so far it's been going really well. The staff is thrilled to get all the help they can, and they've been very helpful and welcoming. The students have been very generous with their praise as well, and even though there is selection bias in my hearing primarily from the sorts of student that I am helping, I can also objectively see that they are growing from one class to the next. That has more to do with my students being eager to be taught and willing to invest the time and brainwork than in the role that I'm playing, but again I am a critical catalyst in that reaction and if I don't give myself credit for my part then I can hardly expect people down the road to independently offer me future opportunities.

At the same time, it has been very challenging and I have yet to even comprehend the scope of the challenges. Math anxiety is a significant hurdle, and I don't have any specific strategies for dealing with it. (Nor do I have any personal experience with it at this level no matter how much I know about other sorts of anxiety.) I have also come to appreciate that people who talk about anti-racism math have their thumb on a very real and important problem. Again, I see it when I see it, but I'm still soaking in it and I've got to figure out how to confront that. 95% of my students are women, 90% are people of color, and I'll go ahead and guess that at least 95% of them aren't commuting from my upper middle-class neighborhood. In short, the only thing that comes easily to me in this class is the math.

But those last two paragraphs are both true and coexist in balance. My best isn't good enough, and my students deserve even better than my best. But that doesn't mean that I shouldn't do what I can do. The alternative to me teaching this class isn't Jaime Escalente taking over the class for me; the alternative is no class at all. I need to fail a little bit better every day, because a lot of people are still going to succeed in spite of me because of me.
2010-10-11 04:50 pm
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A thousand words

I've been spending the past few days playing with CaRMetal, which is an awesome application for generating mathematical figures. Here's a problem that I just finished working on.

In this diagram, the three internal circles all have the same radius and share the same point Q. ABC is a triangle "circumscribing" the three circles in the sense that each side is the unique line tangent to two of the three circles without crossing the third circle. R is the center of the circle that passes through the three vertices of the triangle (partially shown), and P is the center of the circle that is tangent to the three sides of the triangle (which isn't shown). In the diagram shown, P, Q, and R are on the same line, or at least they appear to be. The homework problem that was associated with this diagram was showing that this was the case, and that it works out this way no matter how you choose three circles of the same radius that share a point.

(For the record, I barely have the first clue of how you would show this to be true. I had some nasty punitive homework in college.)

The thing that makes CaRMetal a home run is that this diagram wasn't drawn so much as constructed. That line AC isn't "eyeballed" to sort of look like the tangent to those two circles; there are a whole structure of hidden points and lines that are all designed as being the perpendicular of this line through that point or the intersection that that line with the other circle and so on, so I can have confidence that the diagram is drawn "to scale". The thing that Makes CaRMetal a grand slam is that inside the application I can click and drag those three circles around and all of the dependent lines and points will recalculate themselves, so I can swing the circles around and watch the line segment PR move around in real time but still always pass through Q. Whoa.

So I've been rather giddily making diagrams to supplement my old college math homework. It might not turn out to be the best tool to draw graphs, but at least I should be able to draw proper pentagons instead of hand-drawn misshapen messes. Shiny.
2010-09-14 03:45 pm
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There was SUPPOSED to be an Earth-shattering KA-CHUNK

I voted today.

In the New York primaries.

They don't have the awesome tamperproof mechanical voting booths any longer.

The replacement technology doesn't have a big red lever that makes a definitive and satisfying KA-CHUNK sound when you pull it and register your vote.


That is all, I guess.
2010-06-05 02:22 am

I, for one, welcome our new robotic overlords

Reading the xkcd forum has turned me on to the awesomesauce that is Manufactoria.

The concept is simple at the start. Your job is to build a machine to test robots to ensure that their "program" (expressed as a string of red and blue dots) meets certain characteristics. For instance, the layout above tests to see if a robot's program ends with two blue dots. The conveyor belts pushes robots (that start in the circle at the top) into a neighboring square in the direction indicated, and the branches eat the first character in the string and push the robot in the indicated direction (or in the direction of the gray arrow if the string is empty). In this case, you can see that if the input string ends with two blue dots, the robot will be pushed to the acceptance square in the bottom, otherwise it will fall on the floor and be destroyed.

So it starts off as a fun model for deterministic finite automata, and that's cool enough. But over the course of the 31 levels, the ability to print dots at the end of the input string and a greater range of colors is added, and then you've got an entire range of formal grammar problems available for challenges. And once you've solved a problem, you can go back and tinker with it to make it smaller or faster as you wish. Or you can keep going through some pretty dense challenges that get hard to fit on the factory floor, much less read. That above example was maybe level 10 or 11 of the set, and let's call this level 29:

Still have two more challenges to figure out myself, but it's a great time if this is the sort of thing that you're into.
2010-05-23 06:31 am
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Martin Gardner (1914-2010)

NORMAN, Okla. — Prolific mathematics and science writer Martin Gardner, known for popularizing recreational mathematics and debunking paranormal claims, died Saturday. He was 95.

Martin Gardner was the most influential of my math teachers in junior high. I didn't get credit for his classes, but he taught me that math was far more interesting than what the official curriculum was revealing. He, along with Raymond Smullyan, turned me from a student who liked math into a nascent mathematician. I cannot imagine how my life's journey would have been different had I not been exposed to his work.

Rest in peace, Mr. Gardner.
2010-04-29 12:52 am
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Getting to the other side

Another twelve hour shift, another $WHOA thousand pieces of paper printed, another coming back home with my brain slightly tired but my body ready for more and needing to sleep so that I can do it again tomorrow.

Okay, I need to make one point about yesterday first, because this will probably be completely amusing to any snigglers reading out there who know of my horrid mutant power. So I mentioned that I was helping a pleasant young woman gain some confidence in her Excel intuition, and along with showing her how formulas can be copied and pasted and how to add and remove and resize rows and columns, I mentioned that a great tutorial is "Excel for Dummies" if you can get past the demeaning (and truly unfortunate) name.

So in addition to working my mouse-clicking finger to the bone, this was the day that I settled my employment future. I talked to the superboss I mentioned before (who is apparently so highly competent and effective that she only seems like a superboss) and she recommended a phone number for me to call that got bounced around a few times and wound me up with an admin rep on the other end of my cubicle farm. So I went to visit her, and she took down my vitals and said that she'd see what she could do. The next hour or so seemed to involve everyone in the office to some degree, including my great-grandboss who walked me around all the maps in the office until we could find one with fine enough detail to show what census district I lived in for placement purposes.

After all this, and a brief picnic lunch to enjoy some of the sunshine, I came back to my workspace to see a memo with training info for me for next week signed "Deb". And then a voice behind me said "I got it worked out for you," and turned to see the co-worker that I'd been helping with Excel. So in addition to the dumb luck of even getting all this work instead of sitting by the phone waiting for a message that still hasn't been returned, I made myself useful to the most important person in the office without even realizing it. So I was floating for the rest of the shift, even though getting trained this late means replacing someone who bails out, which might not happen and might put me in a position where bailing out might have been the rational choice. The training itself is another week of work and these contacts have strange and wondrous ways of extending my employment and giving me reasons to get dressed and leaving the house. Later, I found the admin rep from earlier and thanked her for her help, and she said "Deb really likes you ... but you know, you shouldn't have called her a dummy." *headdesk*
2010-04-28 09:52 am
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None of us are as dumb as all of us

So shortly after writing yesterday's post, I got an email from my Census boss saying that those of us who didn't get enumerator jobs could maybe do some clerical work this week since it is OMGWTFBBQ week preparing all of the casebooks for everyone who didn't mail in their forms. He gave a phone number which ... didn't get answered by a person and the voicemail was ignored for at least an hour. I then made another one of those bold decisions that I've become capable of, that since I know where my grandboss sits I can go see her even though if I don't know the number of her direct line. The worst that could happen is that I get escorted out by security.

The best that could happen is what did happen. I said "I heard you need help", thinking that she'd tell me when to come back. She brightened and said "let's find you a chair!" and I spent twelve of the next thirteen hours working. And and my chair turned out to be right next to the superboss who was the most capable of being concerned about my falling through the cracks and working to get me into the final round of training next week when all this dust has settled. That's no sure bet, but at least this time I'll know. But at the least, making the decision to seek my fortune instead of waiting by the phone probably made me nearly a thousand dollars in income this week alone. There's probably a moral in there somewhere.

The work itself is routine office work with the printing and the collating and the cross-checking and the metric-keeping. But it's fascinating to be there. First off, during a recession, Census workers turn out to be the cream of the unemployed crop, so everyone is a caterer or a masseuse or a retired businessman with a lifetime of world travel. Plus we all get to comment on how inefficient the work processes we're doing are, and how we'd do things differently to make the work easier for people in the field. And I even get to share my bounty of Excel wisdom with a cow-orker who needed to make a spreadsheet report. So that was my lesson for the day, both in my work and in my work outlook: to find the awesome you've got to penetrate the corporation and meet with the people. They're awesome and smart even if they look neglectful and ill-conceived from a distance.

Also, holy cow I don't know for certain, but I think I printed out and ran my hands over 7000 pieces of paper yesterday. I'm not sure I've ever done that in a month before now. Now I've got to go make lunch and head back so I can collate and punch holes in those papers I think.
2010-04-27 10:15 am
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A person to whom things do not happen

It's snowing. Quite a bit, actually. It's what I call "snowglobe snow" (in my personal effort to prove that we've got SO many more terms for snow than the Inuit) with big puffy flakes that are just as willing to move to the side as to drop, and while the sky seems quite full of action it doesn't amount to much on the ground. If it keeps up, it will be more than a trace of snow and we'll be able to move our last measurable snowfall up from February, which would be helpful for our Arctic cred.

In other news, my week of vacation from Census work is at serious risk of growing longer, since they never called to let me know when training for the next phase would begin and it might be that it's happening now. At the same time, they could be really busy figuring out how to assign teams and plan training locations and so they decided to push the training back a few days and they're so darned busy that they don't have time to respond to phone calls from enumerators wondering what's going on. I'm not bugged one way or the other, I just wish I knew which way it was so that I could look for another job if that's necessary and know that I can now schedule things for my evenings and weekends.

In my offtime, my brother pointed me toward the Sphere Online Judge, which seems to have all of the good things about online programming judges that I've seen in the past without quite so much of the annoyingness. As you can see, I have been busy at it. The thing that is quite pleasing to me is that I've gotten this far just in Python, although I think that there is getting to be a backlog of programs that I'm going to have to recode in C to get the speed boost I suspect.

That wasn't precisely a true statement, because a few of the programs have finally pushed me into learning brainfuck. I had been gunshy of it for a while because I had be given to believe that it was an actively hostile language, when in truth it's just very very minimal. But it's been great fun to tackle thorny problems and then wake up in the middle of the night saying "Aha! THAT'S how you write 'if x==58'!" I don't even particularly know if my solution is elegant, but I don't care because it's mine, and it looks like the first rule of coding in brainfuck is that you don't talk about coding in brainfuck.

And now it's stopped snowing.
2010-04-21 12:00 pm
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Kentucky Fried Coronary

I've said it before, but if Wonderella and I agree that you are off the rails, then dude, you are seriously off the rails. However, people seem to eagerly argue that the KFC Double Down "sandwich" is the greatest abomination in fast food history.


Even if you handicapped them by putting a bun around it, it's a double chicken sandwich with cheese and bacon. That doesn't even survive the first round of the Fast Food Abomination playoffs. When I was living in California, Jack in the Box would routinely offer specials like double cheeseburgers with three slices of cheese, five strips of bacon, and ranch dressing. But this? Burger King has spent years with "buy one chicken sandwich, get one free" coupons, and you have to know that customers were routinely eating both of them in the same meal. Take a deep breath.

My only question is why people are going into a KFC and ordering processed products like this when their signature fried chicken is so outstanding and you can just SEE that it's made out of a whole chicken with breading and fried in oil and nothing mysterious except exactly what the specific herbs and spices are.

On a slightly broader and less silly note, Nate Silver at 538 does an interesting deconstruction of the issue (which is a great relief from that site's normal operation these days of relaying Obama's talking points without even pretending that it's about poll analysis or statistics any more), and I think he is onto a good point when he talks about the utility of understanding nutritional benefits and harm per calorie. I think that there are two tough parts about meal planning with an eye towards maintaining weight. The first is making sure that you're taking in the proper amount of calories considering what you burn off through your basil metabolism and exercise, and the second is making sure that you don't accidentally shoot your entire wad of sodium or polyunsaturated fats on a single small portion of it. And the data that we get doesn't always do the best job of driving that home. I don't think that Silver has the magic bullet right off the bat, but it's an interesting avenue for exploration.
2010-04-20 09:25 pm
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Where were they going without ever knowing the way?

I think I may have decided what I want to be when I grow up. A schoolteacher. Which is mildly disturbing, since I was scared off of that when my graduating class deemed me most likely to return to my school as a teacher and that seemed non-complimentary. But I'm great at math and good with people as long as I'm not terrified of them and from talking to the teachers in my acquaintance they've been waiting for quite a while for me to want to jump into the square hole alongside them.

The exciting news is that I went to the campus of our local state school that has an excellent reputation for education on Monday and talked to a whole bunch of different people who all had their own ideas of what it would take to get me to the literal head of the class. The not-so-exciting news is that this afternoon I talked to the person who actually seemed to know the answer to that and her answer was the most disappointing of the lot. No, I don't get to pursue an MS in mathematics, no I can't apply in the fall for an MSEd, no I can't actually teach for at least three years (maybe after two years in special circumstances). And, not being affiliated with the Math department, the prospect of a teaching fellowship has probably dropped to zero.

The thing about this that tweaks at me is that all I've ever heard is that there is a back door for people who want to teach math in under-served communities but have the knowledge without the credentials. I'm hoping that one of my friends can show me where that back door is, because the front door is mighty unappealing. I'm mildly tempted to talk to the Math department guy again and see if he thinks there is good placement for people with MS in Math, because I got such a buzz from looking over the course catalog at that program. As you might imagine, my advanced undergraduate studies at Carnegie Mellon make the first year of study for an advanced degree at a state school a cakewalk, plus the hope of a fellowship and the knowledge that admission for Fall 2010 is still a few months away. Oh well, I suppose that at least I might be able to clean up the leftovers part-time after I get my boring old MSEd.

I stopped by the state vocational rehab place with an update. When I told my assistant caseworker that my plan wouldn't start until January from what I can see and that I'd probably need some sort of work placement for the interim, she smiled and said that it would at least be better than what I had been doing. That wouldn't be hard. I continue to be glad at how much I'm able to get done and how wonderful and supportive my team is.
2010-04-14 10:03 pm
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A piece of my soul

Barring any surprises, the facility enumerating phase of my Census work ended this afternoon. Then more training next week (with our team being split into as many as twenty-one pieces waaaaah) for the door to door operation. It was a lot of fun, being a beautiful day and kind of a FUBAR dorm to count so we stretched out the schedule to make a few final passes of the floors that we were assigned to maximize our count and put off the inevitable breakup for an extra half hour.

But something happened. Yesterday I went through my floor interviewing the people I could find and leaving forms for the people I couldn't, except there was one woman who I met that was too busy for the interview so I left her the form. So I come around this afternoon to pick up the forms, and hers has a post-it note saying that she's a photography major and would I mind if she took some pictures of me?

And, I, uh, well, huh.

I know my powers of self-image are totally borked, and also that I'm not a horrific looking person especially if I make an effort to clean myself up. I can smile at babies in checkout lines and they smile back, so I'm aware that I'm not a freak. But I never like pictures of me. I don't know if it's the freezing in time or the perspective switch needed to form a two-dimensional image, but I can pretty much count the number of pictures of adult me that I've liked on one finger. In fact, the very reason I don't have a userpic here or on my LJ despite having a digital camera and a USB port is that this process is one of the things that I'm afraid of.

I'm going to sleep on it, but I think I'm going to agree to her proposal. I'm certain to learn something. But I can't stop looking at my bottle of clonazepam and asking WTF is in these pills that I could think of agreeing to model for a woman that I only met for twenty seconds. Strange days indeed.
2010-04-10 01:57 pm
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Eleven things I probably never told you about me

1) I don't own a cellphone or a laptop. This isn't a philosophical position, I just have yet to have a need for them.

2) I once co-wrote, co-starred, directed, and edited a twenty minute movie to roast a friend at his wedding. It turned out to be pretty good for a home movie filled with in-jokes.

3) In addition to that, I have appeared on stage (both singing and acting), and in local newspapers and radio in several points throughout my youth. (I've only been on television in crowd shots.)

4) To the best of my knowledge, my name has never been in national media; the closest that I can say is that I was one of the three volunteers who actually carried out Diskette Day, a promotion giving away Macintosh disks to the first three hundred students at the Carnegie Mellon/Case Western football game in 1987. That made it into CNN and ESPN and the Wall Street Journal. And, as good and entertaining as the Tartans (and the band) are, it didn't work (although it surely didn't help that it was raining that day) and I had leftover Mac disks to last me through the remainder of my undergraduate career.

5) Speaking of Carnegie Mellon, I imagine that I am one of the very few people to graduate from that prestigious university with a full four-year degree in the past thirty years without taking a single computer programming course. It is required even for Drama majors and there is no placing out of it with the single exception that the first Computer Science AP exam turned out to be so OMGWTFBBQ hard that they decided to give people who got a 4 or 5 a pass. All the same, my degree carries great geek cred because people know that Applied Math at Carnegie Mellon is our code for computer programmers and they don't notice that my degree is in pure math.

6) I don't know my IQ. I'm outside the range of the normal test, and I've never cared enough to go hunting for the actual number. I think that it's a metric desperately searching for a context in which it is relevant. Abraham Lincoln is said to have claimed that his legs were long enough to reach the ground, and that's how I feel about how smart I am.

7) I don't recall ever saying "I told you so". I don't even think it. What I think is "I'm sorry I wasn't capable of persuading you enough back when it would have made a difference."

8) I can sing, but you've never heard me doing it. (Actually, I sang once at a boink, having been dared to sing the rap portion of Barenaked Ladies' One Week, which I can do except for half of the line about the golf clubs.) I was a soloist in my elementary school choir, but left it when my voice broke in eighth grade. (The only course that I could transfer to mid-semester was computer programming, which was the start of a beautiful friendship.) The choir director, who went on to help train Renée freaking Fleming can still pick me out of a crowded room after nearly thirty years, bless her soul. In my adult years, I sang bass for a small church choir, and my voice was described as "complex" and "adding depth". I presume that these are euphemisms.

9) I can ballroom dance, but you've never seen me doing it. Technically, my frame and signaling skills are very credible, but my mind freezes when it comes to actually leading in a way that shows off my partner's grace. I'd be an awesome follower if I ever trained for it, but there isn't much application for male followers in the world, alas.

10) I enjoy playing games, but it's an experience that I enjoy from the perspective of strengthening my knowledge base and having fun and not so much from winning. Specifically, I can't play Pictionary or Acquire because I am frustrated at my lack of growth and I don't play Settlers of Catan because it really screws up the dynamics when someone isn't playing to win. The one exception to this is that I refuse to throw a game to a child. There's no shame in doing your best and coming up short, especially if you've embiggened yourself in the process. I'll never be a parent, but I've got some wisdom to pass along.

11) I love people. I just do. You could be some asshole who has dedicated your life to pissing in my metaphorical Cheerios, I don't care. There's a jigsaw puzzle in this universe, and you've got a piece of it, and I want to get to know you. I'm afraid to do that, which sucks, but there we are.