Wednesday, January 31, 2007
A Stab in the Dark
Tuesday, January 30, 2007
Maybe we should try this in high school
So today I saw one of the football players in the class sending text messages on his cell phone. I say to him, “You don’t need that now. Put it away.” And he was like, “I’m using the calculator to calculate.” Unfortunately for him, at the time the board looked like:Maybe that’s an idea that we could try in Weston — not that any of our students would ever text in class — oh, no, not in Weston.
(I was getting ready to write: “Show that there must be a prime number > 5.”)
So I responded, “All we have so far is 5. We don’t even have an operation. You don't need a calculator for 5.”
He sulked and put it away.
What I wish I had was his phone number (which I don’t because he added after the first day, and I collected that information on the first day) and a Bluetooth cell phone that worked with Address Book because then I would send him an SMS message via my laptop (probably something like “Stop texting during class”), projected on the screen in the front of the room for all to see.
Monday, January 29, 2007
As I’ve indicated earlier, the articles that concern mathematics, computer science, and some other technical domains are remarkably accurate — not that they’re free of errors, but they’re certainly as good as many printed textbooks. I assume that there are two reasons why this observation might in fact be true: contributors are rarely motivated to slant a technical article out of political or emotional bias, and writers are unlikely to spend the time to compose a math article if they don’t know what they’re writing about. So the two major sources of error — bias and ignorance — are greatly reduced in these cases.
Wikipedia has been in the news a lot recently. For instance, Mark Bernstein posts three entries in his blog: What Wikipedia can do well, WikiPolicing, and Wikipedia Biography. Here are a few of his interesting observations:
Where is wikipedia best? The most effective articles share some common properties:For various reasons, many of them rather obvious, it’s not a good idea to cite a Wikipedia article as an authoritative source in a bibliography for an academic paper. But it can be a great source of basic information, a quick way to acquire initial knowledge that can be confirmed or questioned in later research. Only the lazy would use it as the last word.
A wikipedia article on cycloctatetraene (one of my old friends) is likely to be good. Lots of people might be interested in cyclooctatetraene. Nobody cares terrible about it. Nobody loves or hates it. (I have a sneaking, nostalgic affection for it, but that’s just my and my COT).
- Of potential interest to a wide audience
- Of vital interest to very few
A wikipedia article on a controversial, living person is almost bound to be a combat zone.
Wikipedia is terrific for lots of uncontentious corners. As Diane Greco points out, the Vietnam War is still being fought on Wikipedia and that page is unlikely to reach consensus or achieve stability.
But if you want to know when Lord Acton wrote, or check exactly when Galileo died, Wikipedia is remarkable good. That’s not everything, but it's a lot.
Wikipedia has strengths. It’s useful. We shouldn’t expect it to be take on tasks for which it is poorly suited, tasks like contemporary biography. And its internal regulatory systems needs to be repaired, lest it be owned by an anonymous bureaucracy of axe-grinding children. This can all be fixed.
Not surprisingly, the Chronicle of Higher Education has its doubts:
Among academics...Wikipedia continues to receive mixed — and often failing — grades. Wikipedia’s supporters often portray the site as a brave new world in which scholars can rub elbows with the general public. But doubters of the approach — and in academe, there are many — say Wikipedia devalues the notion of expertise itself.It always makes me nervous when academics consider themselves to be a priesthood that must intercede between hoi polloi and the truth. Maybe that’s one reason why I’m a math teacher: mathematical truth can be discovered by anyone and vetted by anyone, regardless of credentials. Leaving truth to the experts alone can be dangerous. Do read the entire (long) article from the Chronicle of Higher Education which I’ve excerpted above.
Perhaps because of the site’s refusal to give professors or other experts priority — and because of an editing process that can resemble a free-for-all — a clear preponderance of Wikipedia’s contents has been written by people outside academe. In fact, the dearth of scholarly contributions to the site has prompted one prominent former Wikipedian — Larry Sanger, one of the site’s co-founders — to start an alternative online encyclopedia, vetted by experts.
Even the establishment New Yorker and the slightly alternative Boston Phoenix get into the act:
...just look at Wikipedia.com, which, with just five employees and an annual operating budget of $750,000, has become the 17th most popular site on the Web, boasting more than a million articles about every subject imaginable, written by hundreds of thousands of people across the globe. Compare that to the Encyclopedia Britannica’s measly 120,000 entries. Since its launch in January 2001, Stacy Schiff writes in a recent New Yorker article (from which those numbers are gleaned), Wikipedia has succeeded in realizing the dream of H.G. Wells, who “prescribed a ‘world brain,’ a collaborative decentralized repository of knowledge that would be subject to continual revision.”
Sunday, January 28, 2007
Romantic pairings: inappropriate for high school?
The mathematics is impeccable, the content is surely of interest to students, so what’s the problem?
Actually, I don’t think there is any problem. But some of my colleagues think that it’s inappropriate for high school and would offend some students and/or their parents, even at Weston. What do you think?
Saturday, January 27, 2007
Watch Your Back!
Friday, January 26, 2007
Once again, addressing the achievement gap
This topic is one that many people are uncomfortable with and therefore don’t want to discuss. But it’s important to confront it and try to find solutions, so that’s what we did. It was generally a productive day, with a good balance between an analysis of the problem and proposals for a solution.
I have tentatively reached the following conclusions at this point:
- Cultural differences are a major factor, but we can do nothing about them.
- Summer programs, on the other hand, could make a major difference. The gap is widest in September and narrowest in June. Given the geographical gap and the time it takes to commute, summer programs in Boston (or accessible by public transportation) would be particularly helpful.
- Black and Latino students don’t see their peers in honors and AP courses, and don’t see black and Latino teachers either. (I’m talking about Weston here, not elsewhere.) Changing this fact could have a major impact. But how do we change it?
- There is an inherent contradiction between asking for increased honors/AP enrollment by black and Latino students and also asking for increasing GPAs: if more margin students take such courses, their grades will inevitably drop. We’re caught between a rock and a hard place, and I see no possibility of having it both ways.
Thursday, January 25, 2007
Wednesday, January 24, 2007
Arsenic and Old Lace
Monday, January 22, 2007
Off by two ems
|John Smith, DMD|
Mary Jones, DDS
Joe Gummer, DDS
Rhonda Radical, DDS
But that isn’t actually how it looks. Poor Dr. Gummer’s line is misaligned, so the sign actually looks like this
|John Smith, DMD|
Mary Jones, DDS
Joe Gummer, DDS
Rhonda Radical, DDS
I thought I should tell my students about this discovery, but Barbara claims that they would consider me too geeky for words. I replied that they already know that about me.
Saturday, January 20, 2007
Anyway, in standard thriller fashion (as opposed to detective stories), Rendell reveals the murderer’s identity to the reader early on. Actually, it’s about a hundred pages in, and it could easily have been earlier. But you don’t read this sort of book for suspense; you read it for the character development, the setting, and the evolving discovery of the truth. Rendell succeeds in all three areas. I found it totally absorbing. The novel creates a believable world with a cast of believable characters. Humorous subplots help lighten what would otherwise be a rather somber plot. Read it!
Thursday, January 18, 2007
Excellence without a Soul
You might expect a lot about Larry Summers in this book, especially since the commonly accepted rumor is that the reason Lewis went back to teaching was that Summers pushed him out as dean. Maybe so, maybe not. There certainly is some interesting material on Summers here, especially the analysis that discounts the common wisdom that attributes the former president’s unpopularity to his style and his lack of social skills (Lewis claims that it was actually due to incompetence). But on the whole there is no significant emphasis on Larry Summers. And you might expect a lot of criticism of grade inflation, but actually Lewis shows through convincing statistics that grade inflation at Harvard is no more severe than it ever was, and that it was definitely not caused by affirmative action and sympathy for draftees in the 1970s. (In fact, that turns out to be the one decade when grade inflation was actually flat!) So neither of these topics dominates the book, which actually emphasizes cultural and academic issues, such as treating students and their parents as customers.
I’ll write in much greater detail later on, but for now all I can say is that this book should be read by the entire Weston faculty and by anyone else who cares about high standards at our top high schools and colleges.
Wednesday, January 17, 2007
Here are quotations from three respected movie critics. First, from Stephen Holden of the New York Times:
“Somersault,” which the Australian Film Institute garlanded with 13 awards, including best film, director, actor and actress (for Ms. Cornish’s astonishing performance), is a movie about the looks on people’s faces and the disparity between the surface and the roiling chaos beneath. Cool-headed and emotionally distanced from its characters, it trains an X-ray eye on their precarious balancing of civilized and bestial impulses.And then our own Ty Burr, from the Boston Globe:
'“Somersault,” in other words, is about that time in young people’s lives when they understand that no one can define them but themselves, a prospect that can scare them into noisy compensatory behavior. Heidi has (or thinks she has) one asset, but her needy lust keeps blowing up in her face. Why does being available turn people against her? How can sex promise such closeness only to deny it?And from Michael Wilmington of the Chicago Tribune:
“Somersault” is a small film, done with limited resources, but it’s impressive — and so is Cornish.Well, as I say, maybe I missed something. If you see this film and enjoy it, tell me what I missed.
Tuesday, January 16, 2007
“For every ten people you ask, seven will say, ‘Great, we have a clean street,’ ” said Casazza. “The other two will hate you for life.”The seven must live in certain neighborhoods...
I don’t know about the missing one.
Thursday, January 04, 2007
A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines
As you can guess from its offbeat title, physics professor Janna Levin’s A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines is not exactly a typical work of fiction. Maybe it would be appropriately labeled historical fiction — well, again, more or less. On the surface it’s a slightly fictionalized version of the lives of two of the most important mathematicians of the twentieth century: the Englishman Alan Turing and the Austrian Kurt Gödel. In a slender 230 pages it is of necessity very selective, and of course the novelist’s purposes make it even more so. What’s most interesting is the interplay between the contrasting worldviews of Turing and Gödel — mechanization vs. uncertainty. Levin’s style is also quite interesting and will not be everyone’s cup of tea. She writes in a rather non-traditional manner, which you will like if it captures you. Otherwise you may just agree with the Cambridge reviewer (our Cambridge, not Turing’s) who thinks that Levin just doesn’t know how to write and that her editors just don’t know how to edit. He’s wrong, but I can see why he thinks that “the prose is unbearable.” If you can’t jump into the spirit of this book, you will indeed find the prose unbearable. But give it a try, without any preconceptions of a prose style that you want to impose on the author, and you may find it a rewarding experience. I did.
Wednesday, January 03, 2007
Hey, Verizon, $.02 does not equal .02¢
Customer: Do you recognize that there’s a difference between point zero zero two dollars and point zero zero two cents?This customer had been quoted a rate of 0.002 ¢/kilobit for service in Canada, and then Verizon ended up charging him 0.002 $/kilobit, claiming that it was the same thing. You really don’t want to listen to the entire recording — I didn’t — as it’s quite long and all goes on and on in the same vein, but the first couple of minutes are distressingly priceless... and then the manager keeps insisting that it makes no difference whether the units are cents or dollars. He says that his calculator gives him the right answer, but the calculator of course doesn’t include units. Even when the customer points out that 20,000 cents would not be an acceptable payment for a $20,000 car, the manager insists on ignoring the units and wants to charge 100 times the quoted rate. As the science teachers would tell us, units do matter.
Manager: (after another long pause)... They’re both the same, if you look at it on-paper-wise.
Monday, January 01, 2007
“Don’t think about thinking, it’s not on the test”
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