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Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Quotation from a math student

Quotation from a math student at a college that will be unidentified to protect the innocent:
That exam was unfair. You made us understand the material. I’ll memorize the phone book if you ask me to, but you can’t expect me to understand stuff.

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Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Chau Chow

Dorchester finally has a good Chinese restaurant! For years we’ve had to cross the border into Quincy to eat at the best Chinese restaurant around, the Great Chow (which, as I only discovered two years ago, is owned by the father of one of my students — but it was already our favorite long before that). Now at least we have an alternative that we can walk to: the Chinatown trio of Chau Chow, Chau Chow City, and Grand Chau Chow has expanded its territory into Dorchester by opening a fourth restaurant, also called Chau Chow, in the Morrissey Boulevard site formerly occupied by Pha Le and long occupied by Linda Mae’s before that. The grand opening was the day before yesterday; I’ll review it as soon as I get the chance to eat there.

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Monday, May 08, 2006

Weston supports its schools

On Saturday the residents of Weston voted to override the restrictions of Proposition 2½, thereby providing another year of adequate funding for its schools. Yes, I know that “they can afford it,” but in all too many well-to-do towns the voters who no longer have kids in the school system would rather not spend money on other people’s children. I appreciate the support of the community in which I am privileged to teach. If you vote in a town that does not support its schools, work hard to change the voters’ minds!

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Sunday, May 07, 2006

Art Show

Yesterday afternoon, Barbara and I attended the third annual art exhibition, “At Home with the Arts,” at The Boston Home, a nursing home for adults with advanced MS. Didn’t buy anything, but there were a number of works we liked. Check it out next year!

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Saturday, May 06, 2006

Team-teaching CS and Art

So I’m teaching a course called “Create Your Own Computer Game” to fourth-graders at The Saturday Course, and last week I’m talking to Eileen, an artist who teaches “The Art of Drawing”; I happen to remark that some of the kids in my class are having a hard time drawing convincing backgrounds for their games. Microworlds provides the standard 2-D drawing and painting tools, along with the capability of producing graphics under program control, but that isn’t sufficient for those of us who are artistically impaired. I have no skills in creating accurate perspective, nor in teaching others to do draw well, so Eileen suggested that we could combine our classes for part of the period, and her students could work with mine on their game backgrounds. What a good idea!

So today we team-taught for about 20 minutes. It was quite an unusual experience for both of us. The experiment was definitely a success for the kids, and we’re planning to repeat it next Saturday. This bears further consideration: we did it with very little planning, and it would be worth seeing what would happen if we did some serious curriculum work before trying it next year.

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Friday, May 05, 2006

Black Orpheus

Just watched Black Orpheus on DVD. I hadn’t seen it for at least 35 years, but it still holds up as a classic masterpiece, especially the cinematography. Highly recommended.

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Thursday, May 04, 2006

Converse or contrapositive? (And what does this have to do with the price of oil?)

On NPR’s All Things Considered, Robert Siegel just interviewed New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman about his article entitled “The First Law of Petropolitics.” Friedman stated this law as follows:
There is an inverse correlation between the price of oil and the pace of freedom... As the price of oil goes up, the pace of freedom goes down.
He then went on to say, “the converse is also true.” Presumably he meant the converse of his second sentence, since the first one doesn’t have a converse. Friedman stated the converse in this way:
As the price of oil goes down, the pace of freedom goes up.
Although technically not the converse, this assertion certainly is logically equivalent to the converse, since it’s the contrapositive of the converse (as long as we believe the dichotomy that freedom and oil prices either rise or fall, rather than making a trichotomy by including the possibility that either might stay the same):
  • Statement: If price of oil rises, then pace of freedom falls.
  • Converse: If pace of freedom falls, then price of oil rises.
  • Contrapositive of the Original Statement: If pace of freedom rises, then price of oil falls.
  • Contrapositive of the Converse: If price of oil falls, then pace of freedom rises.
OK, so far so good. What Friedman called the converse is indeed logically equivalent to the converse.

But now, several minutes later in this lengthy (lengthy for radio) interview, Siegel asked, “Beyond the First Law of Petropolitics and its contrapositive, do you have any other laws?” Tut-tut: Friedman didn’t enunciate the First Law and its contrapositive (which would be vacuously equivalent to it, of course); he enunciated the First Law and the contrapositive of the converse, which is interesting precisely because it’s not equivalent to the First Law. I’m shocked, shocked...

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Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Another play about math!

Or about mathematicians, at any rate:

On May 15 and 16, the Underground Railway Theater and The MIT Office for the Arts will be performing a play by Ira Hauptman entitled Partition: A fantasy based on the life of self-taught mathematical genius Srinivasa Ramanujan. Here is the official description:
In 1913, Ramanujan was brought from India to England by G.H. Hardy. Partition explores the turbulent relationship between the two mathematicians, torn by cultural clashes and opposing ideas, as well as the mystical bond between Ramanujan and Namagiri, his sensual mentor: a Hindu goddess and his “Divine Mother”.
On the 15th the performance will be in Room 10-250 at MIT, on the 16th at the Cambridge Family YMCA, 820 Mass. Ave, in Central Square. Both performances are at 7:30 PM, and each is followed by a discussion with Robert Kanigel and others. Kanigel is the author of a biography of Ramanujan, The Man Who Knew Infinity.


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Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Rating high schools

What kind of metric should we use in order to rate high schools (assuming, of course, that we should rate high schools comparatively, which is a big assumption). According to Newsweek, we should be calculating A/S, where A is the total number of Advanced Placement exams taken by all students in the high school, and S is the number of seniors. Note that the scores on those AP exams don’t matter; even a student who hands in a totally blank paper (as a surprisingly large number do) is counted toward computing the ratio.

There is actually a rationale behind this strange metric:
With our Best High Schools list, NEWSWEEK recognizes schools that do the best job of preparing average students for college. By dividing the number of AP and IB tests taken at a school by the number of graduating seniors, we can measure how committed the school is to helping kids take college-level courses.
Convincing, isn’t it?

The metric contrasts with the first paragraph of the very same article from which the preceding quotation was taken. Here is an excerpt:
...A one-size-fits-all approach no longer works for everyone, the new thinking goes; a more individualized experience is better. “We are changing the goal of high school and what it’s possible to achieve there,” says Tom Vander Ark, executive director of the Gates Foundation’s education initiative, which has spent $1 billion in 1,600 high schools...

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Monday, May 01, 2006

School Days

I just finished listening to Robert Parker’s School Days on audiobook. This must be the 75th novel in the Spenser series...no, wait, let me look it up...ah, it only feels like the 75th, it’s actually the 34th.

So, with that out of the way, should you read it? Should you listen to it? The brief answer is yes. (An aside on the subject of audiobooks. Parker is one of those authors who is more effective when read aloud than silently. In other words, listening to his work is better than reading it. That’s partly because it’s light reading and doesn’t demand much concentration — a negative (in my view) in the case of a real book but definitely a positive in the case of an audiobook. Furthermore, since Parker paints characters with a broad brush, a competent actor can readily use distinguishing voices; nuances are not necessarily. The downside is that the continual use of “he said” and “she said” grates on the nerves when read aloud; they’re easier to skip over when you use your eyes than when you use your ears. I don’t like abridgements, but couldn’t the publisher just make a tiny alteration in the audiobook version: skipping the he said’s and relying on tone of voice to signal the presence of dialog?)

Anyway, by a strange coincidence, this is the second mystery I’ve listened to recently that was based on the Columbine massacre. It’s a coincidence because Columbine took place in 1999, whereas the two novels were written in 2005. Maybe it takes six years to develop enough distance. Anyway, as with the Lippman book that I reviewed exactly a week ago, a school shooting turns out to be something other than what it seems. School Days is engaging and interesting, taking place in a suburban town that reminds me of Weston, though it’s clearly meant to be a further-west exurb. (For instance, Spenser drives east to get to Framingham.) Maybe the town of Harvard? Anyway, the best thing about the book is the portrayal of the town, the private school where the shooting takes place, and various characters in the town, notable and otherwise. The only thing that bothers me is that two deaths in the book are presented much too casually, especially so since one of them is partly Spenser’s own fault and yet he shrugs it off. This doesn’t fit the concrete-over-the-abstract honor code that he always makes a point of following.

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