Monday, July 25, 2011

Been A While

I've been detained for some time now.

Hopefully, I'll have something more meaningful to post in the coming weeks.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Ape After My Heart

L's sister and her husband are bringing their daughter down to our neck of the woods for weekly softball coaching.  Last night, they stopped by to hang out for a bit before heading home.

We were sat around my kitchen table, them enjoying burgers and fries, and all of us enjoying shakes (I have to admit that McDonald's has really stepped it up in the shake department).  After they ate, the adults talked, and my niece asked for some paper.  L brought her some along with my colored pencils.

The girl LOVES to draw, write, and read.  As she was drawing a picture of Mario, she noticed that the paper had print on the back of it.  "This paper is used," she said.

"It's scrap paper," I said.  She looked at me funny, so I elaborated.  "It's paper that we already used once, and we saved it to write or draw stuff on the back so both sides get used before we throw it away."

She flipped over a few sheets, some of which contained old versions of my dissertation, until she came to the basic skills exam that we give our future elementary ed teachers.  It's based on 4th, 5th, and 6th grade math.

"Ooh, pick one for me," said my seven-year old niece. 

After looking, I found one and made the numbers smaller, so then we all sat around helping her read and work through the problem.  She had trouble understanding the need to round up to whole packages of things (she's is only 7), so L gave her another example with packs of gum.  Once she understood, she wanted to move on to something else. 

"Pick another, pick another!"

So while I continued to chat with her mom, L taught her fraction basics, even giving her really tricky scenarios and word problems.  She had so much fun, and it made my heart go pitter-pat.  She wants to spend some of her summer finishing her first grade math workbook. 

See?  Math can be fun.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Primate at Peace

Heavy-duty construction is taking place on the street the math building faces.  Power, internet, water, the works.  The torn-open street will be closed until August.

Due to the construction, it's loud on the bottom and second floor on the front of the building.  Hence, the department booked rooms in other buildings and scattered across campus for summer classes.  While it's a small chore for the professors, it makes for a quiet building.

I don't hear students dragging their feet down the halls.  I don't hear them blabbing too loudly to whomever on their phones.  The building smells like books and paper - like a library with freshly waxed floors - instead of like summer b.o.

The professors I meet in the halls seem...more relaxed, even happier in some cases.  Maybe they are enjoying getting out of the building, walking the campus before the day gets too hot.  Trapped in a classroom or an office all day, it's easy to forget how beautiful the grounds are and how lucky we are that the tornado missed the university.

Before long, we'll miss the sounds of the vending machines, the elevator, the flipflops, and heavy sighs, but for now, it's peaceful.    

Friday, May 27, 2011

My neighbor's gardenia bush is blooming.  It perfumes the entire street, and when I walk by, I close my eyes and feel as though I float.  I want to bury my face in the blooms, absorb the scent and take it with me, keep it with me.  It's just not possible.  In another week, the heat will take its toll, but come autumn, it will bloom, and again my street will smell heavenly. 

Monday, May 16, 2011

I Like to Graph It, Graph It

You may have done The Worm, The Robot, and maybe even The Macarena, but have you ever done The Graph?  Kudos to Mister x2 + y2 for thinking outside the box.  He's the only identified dancer who isn't a function.  (x2 + y2 = constant is a circle.)  While he's not mathematically significant, Mister Crap gets a point for flexibility and reach. 

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Industrious Apes

I've seen commercials for "Go Build Alabama," but I had no idea that Mike Rowe was devoted to a country-wide quest to encourage young people to go into a craft or trade.  This is amazing, and he's absolutely right.  College isn't for everyone, and we badly need skilled craftsmen to keep the world we enjoy working.  Being a craftsman isn't a "boobie prize."  One day soon, it will be a prestige. 

For more information on his programs, visit

Friday, May 13, 2011


It's not as funny, if I have to explain it, but her tan lines are part of the graph of the tangent function.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Aimless Ape

I'm in the 'tween stage where spring just ended, though be it in an unorthodox manner due to the tornado, and summer hasn't begun. I'm not working, and I'm not working on anything.

Dr. C is apparently incommunicado. Maybe on vacation, maybe just avoiding me. We all need a break. We all need to recover.

I'm not writing so much lately. I can't get in the right frame of mind to be creative. I'm just not interested in any of my current projects.

I've been gaming a lot lately. I think it saps my imganative juices as well as giving me freaky dreams. However, it is something I enjoy tremndously, and something fun L and I do as a team.

I'm tired for no reason, and I hate feeling like that.

I'm just hoping Dr. C gets in touch with me soon.  I need to get my brain back in gear. I think that, once I do, the rest will come back online, too.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Dr. E said...

"I can use about half of my house."

He has five trees on his house.  His neighborhood is demolished. It's the worst of times in Tuscalosa, AL, kiddies.  So many people have lost so much across the entire state.  The mile-wide tornado that tore across the middle of town stayed on the ground for over 70 miles. We're pulling together, assessing, and preparing for clean-up.  I can't even begin to tell you everything that is lost, including so many lives.  I still haven't heard back from some students.

The tornado came within 1 mile of L's sister's house, and the one that destroyed Sipsey and Cordova came within 1/2 a mile of his brother's house. His cousins, aunt, and uncle in Huntsville were narrowly missed as well. 

My immediate family got lucky. We've only had to deal with power outages and phone issues, but all my cousins, aunts, and uncles in Pleasant Grove lost their homes.  One of my cousins and his roommate rode out the storm in his closet and came out to find the rest of the apartment gone.

Three grad students lost their homes, but amazingly, no one from the math department or their families lost their lives.  For that, we are all so thankful.  Tomorrow night, the algebraists and topologists plan to hold Aftermath as scheduled.  I think we can all use a drink.  We need to talk about it, to commiserate and to toast survival.  I think it's just what we need.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Unethical Apes

My friend (and co-worker) and I were discussing the various ways students will try to get out of doing work and paying attention. They come to class but play on their phones, and it often happens that the ones who play are the ones who are failing. Coincidence? No, sir! We wonder if they don't realize that if they act like that on a job, they won't have a job for very long.

Then, my friend said this: "If everyone was just honest and did the work they were supposed to do, they would pass."  Then, she laughed and added, "If everyone followed those two rules, the world would be a better place."

I agree, but I don't think it's likely to happen.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Thanks again to Dave, finder of awesome math/science webcomics.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Ape Observation

     Yesterday, as I was driving across campus from dropping L off at the lab, it was early enough that I didn't have to watch too carefully for students darting across the streets.  It makes me smile, just a bit, to think that the kiddos are like squirrels, except that the University squirrels know better than to run into the road without looking.  
     I was thinking about how many roads now have buildings in the middle of them.  By that, I mean that the University built all these roads to connect the campus and then decided that 1) it was too connected to be safe for foot traffic and 2) they needed the space for new engineering buildings and rehab/expansion of some old ones.  If we're going to cram 30K people onto this campus by 2015, we've got to put them somewhere. Don't know who will teach them, but at least they'll have a nice room to sit in.
     I saw a crane over what was the other half of the road I was traveling and thought about these radical changes.  People that went to school here back when I was in my first go-round can't believe how much it's changed, and they can hardly navigate campus when they get off the main drag.
     But one thing that never changes is seeing students walk or ride bikes to class with large packs on their backs.  I love that.  I love to see the engineering students with their T-squares poking awkwardly out of their packs and an armload of drafting supplies.  There goes an art student with an enormous portfolio case and a music student with an instrument case.  The beauty, beyond the fact that they carry tools of the subject they love, is that their hands are too full with real world stuff to bother with cell phones.  These overburdened ones don't have the finger and hand availability to text or chat as they walk, and so they look up. They watch where they're going.  They observe.  They learn.  I love that.   

Thursday, April 14, 2011

iiieee!!! Math-related Comics

Two of my favorites, both of which are on my office door.

Calvin and Hobbes: Math is a religion

xkcd: Purity

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Spring and Summer Plans

Three weeks of the spring semester remain, and I'm hoping that Dr. C and I can finish our paper by then or shortly thereafter.  We are so close, just a few finishing touches and a proof.  We'll send it off for review, and as spring turns to summer, I'll start adding to it to make my dissertation. 

I hope to write the vast majority of it this summer.  I'm not going to teach, which leaves my days free to write on the dissertation and on my novels.  I hope that by the time August gets here, I'll have the dissertation all but finished and I'll have my next novel ready for querying. 

In the fall, I'll present at the Algebra seminar, kind of a warm-up for the main event.  Since four of the attendees are on my dissertation committee, the idea is to introduce them to my work.  That way, when I get into my defense, it will be more of a short talk than a grilling.  Dr. C told me what I should expect, which made me feel so much better. 

I know other PhDs that can spout research, names, and dates like second nature, but I really don't have a mind for that kind of thing.  Also, it's quite up in the air who actually first proved many of the theorems in the branch of group theory I'm delving into, so saying "So-and-so gets credit for discovering this," may not be true.  It's just that particular person got pissy enough to want his name on it and the other people were like, "Whatever dude.  Have it if it means so much to you."  No matter what game you're playing, there's always one, right?  Sometimes, more than one.  Well, I supposed if my teaching load, promotions, and so on were based on me publishing, I might get pissy too.

The only thing left to do, other than write the thing, is make sure all the paperwork is complete in enough time.  Since I plan to defend in January or February of next year, I should have plenty of time to get it all done with enough time for "Oops, we forgot this."  I don't want this to not happen because I forgot to file my admission to candidacy form. 

I just...when I got my master's and started work, I never dreamed I'd come back to school and actually finish my PhD.  Now, it looks like it might really happen.  I might actually complete a major life goal.  It's pretty big for me.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Thanks to Dave (one of L's Navy buddies) for this one.  It's true, and these former Navy nukes know. 

Friday, April 1, 2011

Ape Real Fools

When that Aprill with his shoures sote
The droght of Marche hath perced to the rote,
Ans bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred in the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours y-ronne,
And smale fowles maken melodye,
That slepen al the night with open yƫ
(So priketh hem Nature in hir corages):
Than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages...

           --Geoffrey Chaucer The Canturbury Tales: Prologue

In a nutshell?  Spring fever - we all want to get outside and enjoy some fresh air and sunshine, even if it means a religious pilgrimage.

I see my students look longingly out the windows of the classroom, wishing they were on a blanket on the quad or on a chaise by the pool.  I've gotten in the habit of closing the blinds so that we can focus on the math.

This time of year always reminds me of one student in particular.  His name was Andrew, a trig student that I had in the first spring after my return to the University.  My classes were back-to-back, and in the ten minutes between them, I would often chat with the students as the first class trickled out and the second class trickled in.  Spring fever having hit and some students having lost all hope of passing, only half the second class attended on a regular basis, and I became friendly with those fifteen or so people. 

So it was in the five minutes before class began that I chatted with them, and Andrew made a grand appearance.  "I made it," he proclaimed, drowning out all other conversation. 

There was good reason for his enthusiasm.  He had three unexcused absences, and since he needed to replace his lowest test grade with his final exam score, he couldn't miss anymore days.  He had to come to class, no matter what.  No matter what indeed.

His white three-button shirt and khaki pants were soaked and streaked with mud and grass stains.  The knee was torn out of one leg of his pants, and I could see that his knuckles, his lower lip, and one of his eyebrows were bleeding.  He swayed and clung to the doorframe to remain upright.

"Andrew, what happened to you?" I asked.

"Whhheeeell."  He blinked slowly, and his breath washed into the room.  He was completely shitfaced.  "See, I went out last night and got really drunk." 

I nodded.  The rest of the class was now fully rapt and chuckling.  "I think you still are."

"Oh, I am."  He nodded.  "I, ah, left the bar, but I never made it home.  I haven't been to sleep yet.  Then it was like, 'Oh fuck you guys!  I gotta go to trig.  I can't miss anymore days.' So I got my buddy's bike and rode here."  He made locomotive motions with fisted hands.  I nodded and fought a smile.  "And like, I wrecked, and I got in a fight with a sprinkler."

"That explains the blood and the mud."

One of the girls in the class who knew him said, "You drunk idiot."  He pointed at her and then kind of staggered into the nearest desk. 

"Andrew, do you have a phone?" I asked.  He nodded.  "Okay.  Can you call someone to come pick you up?"  He nodded.  "Okay.  I think you should because you can be arrested for being drunk in a University facility.  I don't want to have to call the cops on you."

"But, I can't miss any more days," he whined.

"I won't count it against you."

He banged his elbow against the wall as he stood in a tazmanian devil style manner.  "Really?"  He reached into his pocket, smearing blood on its edge, to dig out his phone.  When I nodded, he dialed.  After a few moments, he said, "Dude, come get me at the front."  He staggered out of the classroom.  "No, she's totally cool.  She's not even going to call the cops!"

The class and I stepped out into the hall to watch him go.  He ran down the hall, tripped over his own feet, fell, got up, and resumed running.  Before he made it to the stairs that would take him outside, he shouted, "Woo-hoo," with fist pumps toward the ceiling and then executed a surpsingly agile heel-click.

"Well," I said as I surveyed my remaining students.  "Now that the entertainment portion of the class is over, let's get to work."  I ushered the class back into the room and continued my lecture on sequences and series.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Ape Update: Curriculum, All for Naught

"And the people in the houses all went to the university where they were put in boxes and they came out all the same."  -- from "Little Boxes" by Malvina Reynolds

Despite our warnings and refusal to teach the elementary ed courses if they were no longer hands-on, the department head buckled under the pressure of the provost.  So much hard work went into making the math portion of the program into something that could shine, something that could make other schools look at my school in what the rest of the country considers to be a backward state, and say, "We should be doing that!"  I can only be glad the marvelous woman who developed it and did all the hard work isn't here to see it destroyed. 

Starting in the fall, the goal is to cram more people into the classes and shove them through the program as quickly as possible.  I don't know when education at this place became about turning out a product, but it's a damned tragedy.  Powerless, I can do nothing about it. 

Thursday, March 24, 2011

According to Bob...

Bob and I ran into each other at a colloqium yesterday.  One of my fellow graduate student's father was in town, and he gave a talk on his research.  I cannot imagine what it would be like to have a parent and a sibling (her brother is also a grad student in our department)  who study the same thing I do.  I think it would intimidating, but also, I wonder just how much better I would be if I had a parent who studied theoretical mathematics.  It might have turned me off the subject completely, as in the case of my PhD advisor Dr. C and his children, as in the case of Bob and his daughter, who incidentally could've been an honest-to-God ballerina.

While I loaded a tiny plate with fruit, cheese, and carrots, Bob munched on broccoli and told me that his sister was in the hospital.  "She's saying just the most ridiculous things.  It's totally out of character for her."  Their family has no history of demensia, and the hospital is running all sorts of blood tests, but Bob had another theory.  "Our neighbor gets like that when she's dehydrated."

Blink, blink.  "Dehydrated?" I asked.

"Yeah."  Bob twirled his broccoli, furrowed his brow, and then smiled at me.  "Weird, huh?"

"So what, do you say, 'You're off today. I think you should have a gallon of water'?"

He laughed.  "It couldn't hurt."

As we made our way from the lounge into the room for the talk, I said that I would be good and not eat any more cheese, that I had more than my ration for the day, and Bob said, "Well, you can have more vegetables."

"Yes, but I want cheese," I whined.

"That reminds me," he said as we stopped outside the room and waited for the class meeting in there to leave.  "A study was recently done where people were shown a photograph of a hamburger and fries and asked to estimate how many calories where in the meal.  Then, the same people were given a picture of a hamburger and fries with a side of fresh broccoli or lettuce and asked to guess again.  They guessed a lower number of calories for the second meal."

Blink, blink.  "Even though they had already guessed on the burger and fries, and there was now more food?"  Bob nodded.  "What, like vegetables have negative calories?"

"Apparently."  He chuckled.  "Isn't it amazing - the things people think when they aren't really thinking?"

Sunday, March 20, 2011


I love Weird Al.  L found this gem of his, "Trapped in the Drive-thru," a few years ago, and we thought it was funny.  At the time, we had no idea it was a spoof.  However, after discovering it was a spoof of R. Kelly's "Trapped in the Closet," and subsequently watching about 10 episodes of that, I hee-hawed.  I just...I can't...I mean, "Trapped in the Closet" is even more ridiculous and gut-busting than "Trapped in the Drive-thru."  The spoof is a bit long, but nowhere near as long as R. Kelly's song (which, when all compiled is hours long).  Also, there isn't a crazy dude whipping out a gun every two minutes and threatening to shoot everybody unless they tell him what the hell is going on.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Back to the Jungle

For the past few days, I've had the windows open, and I hear the call of birds as I write or surf the web.  There is one call in particular that stands out, a mocking bird I'm sure.  One long tweet followed by a lower-pitched short tweet and then a slightly higher, off-key short tweet.  Instantly, I think of the swings.

When I was just a little ape, about once a week in late spring and all summer, my mother would pack up our giant, wooden picnic basket with the smiling sun on top, load us into the car, and take us to Memorial Park on the backside of the public swimming pool.  My brother and I hung from jungle gyms, dirtied our bottoms on metal slides, got stung by yellow jackets, and (my favorite) swung on the swings.  These were old-school: black plastic U-shaped sling seats that burned the hell out of your legs on summer days, long just-rusting chains, and towering A-shaped pole supports. 

It's the bird that reminded me, see, because at the park was the first time I ever heard that call. 

Tweeeeet, tweet, tweet, just like the squeak of the chains as she swings.  Listen!  He thinks he's found a mate, but it's her on the swing.  Poor, poor bird. 

Back, forth, the pendulum child stretches out her legs, leans back on the chains.  Higher feet, higher.  She reaches, reaches and scoops the clouds with her soles. 

Down she goes, knees tucked tightly.  Lean forward now, but don't fall out! 

Soar, reaching, stretching, yearning, until she gets so high that the chains go slack.  Weightless for a moment, her bottom leaves the sling, then she returns, the chains catch with a loud CLANG.  Watch your fingers, honey, the chains pinch; they leave blood blisters and blood and a worried mother.  Fingers safe, she wobbles wildly for a bit on the back arc.

When it's the dry, hot misery of late August, she watches as the poured concrete around the pole wiggles in the grassless dirt.  She sees the earth crack, sees the pole puff out dust as it settles at her lowest point.  She wishes for her brother, because if they synchronize, they can get a bit of the pole to come out of the ground.  They can see how the concrete looks like a crumbly, gray mushroom.  It won't come out too far though.  These things are buried deep (lawsuits and all). 

Tweeeet, tweet, tweet.  She swings up, up.  At the highest point, she leans back and lets go.  Little girl, let your feet fall over your head.  You will stick the landing with a smile.       

Sunday, March 13, 2011


Each time I read your words, I fully expect them to be the last you'll ever write.  Because of this attitude, when you write more, I say to myself, "Oh, how unexpected.  What have you shared today?" 

If I were a person who hoped, I would hope that each day I could experience this same phenomenon, this proof that you're still alive and writing.  I imagine the day that there finally is no more, I'll cry. 

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Karma Police

"Arrest this man."

I believe in karma, as I have felt the wheel roll over me too many times to igonore it.  When I hear about people who prey on the pain or loss or generosity of others, I know that at some point, the scales will balance.  I'm sure that isn't much comfort to those who were the victims of decption, but it is something. 

I could write a post about the tsunami in Japan, about how I worry the charities that spring up overnight aren't so charitable and that's why I only trust old ones like the Red Cross.  In times like these, people come together to aid their fellow man, but there are always a  greed-driven few looking to make a buck off tragedy.  Instead, I'm going to tell you a story about a man who fed on the generosity of others.  

Samuel started graduate school the year I came back.  Though his undergraduate record wasn't stellar, he received a full ride (tuition waiver, stipend, book money, housing allowance) at the department's expense.  An older student with a wife and seven-year-old daughter, he wanted to get his PhD, try to better his position in life, etc. 

He'd never taught before, and if you've never taught before and have no training, it's in your best interest to seek the help and guidance of a veteran.  Samuel did not.  The first semester, he was never on-time to class.  Several times, he never showed, forcing other teachers to fill-in for him and leave their spots on the floor tutoring unfilled.  He was always late to do his floor hours, practically hid while in the lab, and left early. 

Because of him, the lab director made a new policy that all the workers had to swipe in and out, like punching a time clock the same way the students did.  She claimed that the information collected would be used for the department chair to decide who got benefits and how much in following semesters. 

When Samuel learned of this, his work ethic improved.  He asked for help, called or emailed people to cover for him, and so on.  And we did help him and cover for him, even when he didn't repay us or failed to show for the shift he swapped with us.

After his first semester, he lost his stipend but not because of his shoddy work.  No, his grades were too low.  As  graduate student in our department, you can't make C's, and if you make too many B's, the department will cut your funding in favor of giving a better student and worker more benefits. 

Since his family depended on the money and he had 18 graduate credit hours, the department head took pity on him and kept him as a part-time instructor (same work load).  Because of his lack of teaching skills, he was put in a course with no instruction time.  He couldn't possibly teach his students wrong because there is no teaching in that class.  All he had to do was show up, but did he?  Of course he didn't.

Now, you might be thinking, "So he's a dirt bag.  I'm not seeing how this should exact karmic retribution."  Well, I'm getting there.  Right around spring break, he just disappeared.  The two people in the department who were friends with him couldn't get in touch with him, and finally he answered an email from the department head stating that his wife was in the hospital.

She had some kind of stomach bug.  He spent two days nursing her before deciding it was too severe and took her to the emergency room.  They said it was a bug, sent her home, etc.  When she wasn't better five days later, he took her back, and she was diagnosed with a bacterial infection so rampant that the antibiotics couldn't fight it.  After another week, she died.

We were shocked and appalled for him.  In this day and age, in the United States, how could this happen?  Well, it does.  Every day. 

We covered his classes.  We covered his hours.  We sent food, money, cards, flowers.  We asked after funeral arrangements.  Then, one of his friends saw him out one night WITH HIS WIFE!  Here, we were supporting him while he grieved for the loss of the love of his life and the mother of his daughter, and she wasn't dead.  She hadn't even been ill.  I can only hope that when the department head gave him the boot, he had to wipe shit off the toe when it was done. 

Even though there are people like Samuel out there, who will use and abuse the goodwill of others, we should still extend it to those in need.  Even if we can't be sure that the need is real, giving and helping is what a decent human does.  If you've been burned, please don't let it discourage you.  Just think of it as good karma. 

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Ape Update: Dissertation

My dissertation will be an expansion of a paper I am writing with my PhD advisor, Dr. C.  It's an unusual approach.  Normally, the dissertation comes first and then must be trimmed down from 100+ pages to only 20 or so to be fit as a journal article.  The best part of this is that we don't have the usual problem of trying to decide what stays and what goes.  We already know what is most important. 

Contrary to what most PhD students experience, I enjoy this process.  I enjoy the writing, even if the programming aspects are tedious.  I think this is partially because I write (as a hobby and hopefully for publishing).  However, the main reason is that I have someone to work with, to bounce ideas against, to take my observations and ideas and help me decide if they are worth pursuing.  We catch each others mistakes.  With the camaraderie and the sharing of ideas that occurs, I doubt I'll ever do solo research.  It has made me infinitely glad that I took that step, went to Dr. C's office, and asked if he'd have me for a PhD student.  It also makes me long for his equivalent in the realm of my fiction writing. 

We're spinning our wheels right now, not because we're stuck but because we're in the process of collecting the proper definitions for the objects we're examining.  Filling in the details, so to speak.  Definitions in this branch of mathematics seem to change yearly, so it's important to keep track of all the tweaks.  After searching online and printing papers yesterday, we finally found one elusive definition.  It turns out that a proof I had already written and planned to discard is almost the exact proof we need.

Sometimes, things just click.  Dr. C and I mesh well.  The property we invented is Baby Bear, just right.  Dr. C warned me not to expect this sort of thing from research.  More often than not, it painfully tedious and leads to dead-ends instead of further down the rabbit hole.  We got lucky in a sense. 

We've reached a point along the way where we can stop and say, "There is more to this tunnel, but we're stopping here for now.  Look for more in the sequel."  This is one of the bonuses of creating your own property.  You are the first to define it and explore it.  Everything you do is new and better.

I just hope it continues to go smoothly.  I've come too far this time to screw it all up.  If something bad is going to happen, I pray it waits until after May of 2012.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Math Humor

Thanks to my buddy and L's Navy buddy Rob for this gem!

x2 and ex are at a party. x2 is having a blast, but ex is sitting in a corner by himself. Eventually, x2 comes over and says, "Hey ex, why don't you try a bit harder to integrate?" ex replies, "It's no use. It wouldn't make a difference."

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Drs. Said...

Dr. D: "My graduate advisor said that math PhD students run on coffee and cigarettes."

Dr. E: "A mathematician is a machine that turns coffee into theorems."

Well, I quit smoking almost six years ago, and I only drink one cup of coffee at most three times a week.  However, I eat tons of peanut butter and cheese, so I suppose this mathematician turns peanut butter and cheese into theorems. 

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Advising Ape

I told a fellow grad student that I think she should finish her master's and have babies.  I have mixed feelings about it, and I never would've suggested that if she hadn't said that
1) she really wants to have babies, lots of them,
2) she doesn't think she's smart enough to get her PhD, and
3) she's thirty-one.

When she first came to ask my opinion, we discussed the marriage thing, the baby thing, and the PhD thing.  She's as sweet as can be, but I can tell by the way she talks about math that she isn't PhD material.  I'm nowhere near the perfect judge of such things, but there are signs.  I don't love all math, but the area of my focus I truly enjoy.  I get excited about it, and I love to talk about it.  She doesn't have that.

I'm not sure if it's because she hasn't found it or if it isn't in her, but she's out of time.  She's at the crossroads of six more years and no babies (or have babies and flunk out or quit) or one year and babies.  When I asked her why she wanted the PhD, she said for the money.  You don't get a PhD for the money.  You go the easy route and get an Ed.D. for the money.  I told her that, and she seemed to understand and agree with me.

She seemed infinitely happier that someone besides her mother gave her permission to do what she wanted to do.  I'm only a couple of years older, but I have already made the decisions she's facing, twice.  I hope I did right by her.  Hell, I hope I did right by myself.          

Monday, February 28, 2011

Fingers Crossed

Upon speaking with my immediate superior about my reservations about changing the way we teach math classes for future elementary ed teachers, I learned that the department head is reconsidering.  Everyone who currently teaches the courses, and even a few who don't but agree with us, stood up and said, "We won't teach this anymore if you ruin it."  Before you all go getting excited about the power of the people and so on, it isn't our opinion that matters. 

What matters is that the department can't afford for us to decline to teach the classes.  We badly need both professors (PhD's) and full-time instructors (master's), but the university won't give us the money to hire more people.  Qualified part-time employees are scarce and can only work so many hours before they become eligible for benefits (read "more money" = "worse than hiring someone full-time").  Some of our part-time employees are retired teachers and have to limit their hours so it won't effect their retirements. 

To add to our manpower issues, each year, enrollment increases.  Yet the university refuses to hire more people to teach the masses or build new facilities in which to hold larger classes.  People retire and aren't replaced, so the department head pulls more graduate students (including yours truly) to cover the gaps.  However, there are already plenty of classes for the grad students, part-timers, and full-time instructors to teach.  For that reason, we can say, "Screw you.  I'm going back to intro, and the professors can have the upper level stuff," without any real fear. 

While that is mean, it's highly effective at keeping people who know better from making stupid mistakes.  We sent a clear message: if you want to mess with the classes we're teaching, you need to involve us in the decision making process, or we'll leave you high and dry mofo.  Important lesson here.  In a time of being understaffed, it's in your best interest not to piss off the good people already working their asses off for you.

I'll keep my fingers crossed that the lesson is now learned.       

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Walken in My Dreams

Last night, I dreamed that my friends, family, and random dream people got together and threw me an awesome birthday party.  This is odd, since my birthday is in October and I don't usually funny or even happy dreams.  We had a great time, but the cherry-on-top was that L hired Christopher Walken to do his "Soldering Iron" bit from Joe Dirt. 

It was hilarious, and when he finished, he said, "And if you don't have a happy birthday, I'm going to stab your cake...with a soldering iron."  

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

I look forward to the day when some brilliant person invents white out for the spoken word.  I want to tape my mouth shut so I can't stick my foot in it. 

The same goes for email.  I want to break my own fingers so I can stop myself from typing responses to people who piss me off. 

Someone, stop me before I make an even bigger ass of myself than I already have.  I seem incapable of doing it on my own. 

Monday, February 21, 2011

Slinging Poo Again

I'm insanely angry.

My mentor worked her butt off to make sure that the elementary ed math classes I teach are the types of classes that they are: hands-on, focused on concepts rather than skill drilling, activity-based.  Yes, they are small.  You can't assign homework to more than 30 or so people and have them write up full responses including why they think and do problems the way they do and grade it all.  But this is what is necessary.

Standardized testing in my state is free-response in some grades.  Children are required to write solutions and their thinking on how they solved problems, not just fill in a bubble.  So, it only makes sense to teach their teachers to do the same, to teach their teachers how to use manipulatives and drawings to gain deeper understanding into basic math, to teach them how to explain what it is they are going to teach, right?  Well, it was until now.

Now, the department head is crumbling under pressure from the provost to increase class size.  Since we can't grade 100+ people's homeworks in a reasonable amount of time, they're looking at textbooks with computer homework options.  Now, tell me: how can software grade whether someone understands where a child's thinking went wrong or that they can explain in full detail how and why we get common denominators or that they know what multiplication means?  It can't!!  It can't determine 50 different ways of answering a question the way I can.  But no one seems to care except those of us teaching the courses.  Since we're not PhDs, we have no power and our cries of warning and impending doom go unheeded. 

They want to take something that works, that's doing the job it's supposed to, and change it into something they can dump 50+ people in and shove them on through math so they can start their education classes sooner.  The toady behind the ring leader doesn't even teach the fucking classes!  He's got a master's in math ed, and he teaches the Geometry for high school teachers class, but won't touch the elementary stuff.  Maybe he thinks it's beneath him.  I don't know about that asshole, but I do know he shouldn't be changing our entire way of doing things without consulting us or the fucking RESEARCH that says that what we're doing is the BEST WAY to do it.  They've been teaching this way in China since the 70's, and we wonder why they are so good at math and we in the U.S. suck?  I mean, other universities are modeling their curriculums after ours now, but we're flushing it all.

I'm just so angry, and there isn't a damn thing I can do about it.  What do you do when your screams of protest fall on deaf ears?  Quit.  That's right.  If this happens, I'm going back to teaching Calculus or Trig.  Let the asshole who thinks he knows so much, who wouldn't even tell me what curriculum his wife used to home school their 5 kids, teach the damned classes.  Suck my big monkey cock!

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Old Woman Who Lived in a Vinegar Bottle

I first heard this story in either kindergarten or first grade.  I love old European fairy tales, Grimm's and otherwise.  They teach children all sorts of life truths and lessons.  There is one that is unspoken but undeniably true: Never trust a fairy.

     THERE once was an old woman who lived in a vinegar bottle. Don't ask me why. It was a common old vinegar bottle. Maybe a little larger than most, but, still, it made for a very small house. The old woman would often sit on her front steps and complain. "Oh, what a pity! What a pity pity pity! That I should have to live in a tiny house such as this. Why, I should be living in a charming cottage with a thatched roof and roses growing up the walls. That's what I deserve."
     One day a fairy happened to be flying overhead and she heard the old woman's complaint. "I can do that," thought the fairy. "If that's what she wants...that's what she'll get." And to the old woman she said, "When you go to bed tonight, turn round three times and close your eyes. In the morning, just see what you shall see."
     Well, the old woman thought the fairy was likely batty, but she decided to give it a try. When she went to bed that night she turned round three times and closed her eyes. When she opened them again in the morning ... She found herself in a charming cottage with a thatched roof and roses growing up the walls! "It's just what I've always wanted," she said. "I know I will be so happy here." But not a word of thanks did she give to the fairy.
     The fairy went north and the fairy went south. The fairy went east and the fairy went west. She did all the business she had to do. Then she began to think about that old woman. "I wonder how that old woman is getting along. The one who used to live in the vinegar bottle. I think I'll just stop round and see."
     When she got to the charming cottage the fairy found the old woman sitting and complaining. "Oh, what a pity! What a pity pity pity! That I should have to live in a tiny cottage like this. Why, I should be living in a smart row house with lace curtains at the windows and a brass knocker on the door! That's what I deserve!"
     "Well," said the fairy, "I can do that. If that's what she wants ... that's what she'll get." And to the old woman she said, "When you go to bed tonight, turn round three times and close your eyes. When you open them again in the morning, just see what you shall see."
     The old woman didn't have to be told twice. She went right to bed. She turned round three times and closed her eyes. When she opened them again in the morning, she found herself in a smart row house with lace curtains at the windows and a brass knocker on the door. "It's just what I always dreamed of!" she said. "I know I'll be so happy here!" But not a word of thanks did she give to the fairy.
     The fairy went north and the fairy went south. The fairy went east and the fairy went west. She did all the business she had to do. Then she began to think about that old woman. "I wonder how that old woman is getting along. The one who used to live in the vinegar bottle. I think I'll just stop round and see."
     When she got to the smart row house, there sat the old woman in her brand new rocking chair ... rocking and complaining. "Oh, what a pity! What a pity pity pity! That I should have to live in this row house with common neighbors on either side. Why, I should be living in a mansion on a hilltop with a manservant and a maidservant to do my bidding. That's what I deserve!"
     When the fairy heard this, she was much amazed. But she said, "Well, if that's what she wants ... That's what she'll get." And to the old woman she said, "When you go to bed tonight, turn around three times and close your eyes. When you open them again in the morning, just see what you will see!"
     The old woman turned round three times and closed her eyes. When she opened them again the next morning ... She found herself in a mansion on a hilltop with a manservant and a maidservant to do her bidding! "This is just what I've always deserved," said the old woman. "I know I will be so happy here!" But not a word of thanks did she give to the fairy.
     The fairy went north and the fairy went south. The fairy went east and the fairy went west. She did all the business she had to do. Then she began to think about that old woman. " I wonder how that old woman is getting along. The one who used to live in the vinegar bottle. I think I'll just stop round and see."
     But when she came to the mansion on the hilltop she found the old woman in her velvet chair ... sitting and complaining! "Oh, what a pity! What a pity pity pity! That I should have to live in such a drafty old mansion. Why, I should be living in the palace. Oh, yes, I should be the queen with musicians to entertain me and courtiers to bow to me. That's what I deserve."
     "Good heavens," thought the fairy. "Will she never be content? Well, if that's what she wants ... that's what she'll get." And to the old woman she said, "When you go to bed tonight, turn round three times and close your eyes. When you open them again in the morning, just see what you shall see!"
     The old woman could not wait to go to bed that night. She turned round three times and closed her eyes. When she opened them again the next morning, she found herself in the palace and she was the queen, with musicians to entertain her and courtiers to bow to her. "Oh, yes! This is what I've always dreamed of. I know I will be so happy here!" But not a word of thanks did she give to the fairy.
     The fairy went north and the fairy went south. The fairy went east and the fairy went west. She did all the business she had to do. Then she began to think about that old woman. "I wonder how that old woman is getting along ... the one who used to live in the vinegar bottle. I think I'll just stop round and see."
    When she got to the palace there sat the old woman on her throne ... sitting and complaining! "Oh what a pity! What a pity pity pity! That I should be queen of such an insignificant little kingdom. Why I should be Empress of the Universe. Oh, yes, Empress of the Universe! That's what I really deserve!"
     "Well!" said the fairy. "There is just no pleasing some people! If that's what she wants, that's what she'll not get!" And to the old woman she said, "When you go to bed tonight, turn round three times and close your eyes. When you open them again in the morning, just see what you shall see."
     The old woman hurried to bed that night. She turned round three times and closed her eyes. When she opened them again the next morning, she found herself right back in her vinegar bottle! "And there she shall stay!" exclaimed the fairy. "If she can't be happy here, she won't be happy there. For, after all, happiness comes from the heart! Not from the house!"

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

"God loves a terrier."

Oh, yes, it is once again time for the Westminster Kennel Club dog show.  The pomp and circumstance began yesterday, so in honor of it, I'll spend some time tonight watching the mockumentary Best in Show.  Brought to you by the same folks that made This Is Spinal Tap, Waiting for Guffman, and A Mighty Wind, it is absolutely hilarious.  Christopher Guest, Fred Willard, Michael McKean, Catherine O'Hara, and Eugene Levy (just to name a few) star. 

The Norwich terrier that wins in the movie is a former best in show.  Cookie (Catherine O'Hara) loves her dog so much that she and her husband (Eugene Levy) write and perform songs about terriers.  Here's a clip:

It's fabulous - a must see!

Sunday, February 13, 2011

"Blame it on the (bosa)NOVA"

Nerd-gasm alert!!!

Last night, I watched an episode of NOVA in which the host explored non-Newtonian fluids (think ketchup and blood versus a Newtonian fluid like water).  Check out this clip from Time Warp where the guys play with oobleck:

Of course, play isn't the only use for such fluids.  With the development of magnetorheological (MR) fluid, engineers and scientists hope to build bridges, skyscrapers, shocks, and even body armor that reacts better and more safely to adverse conditions.  Also, it's just really, really cool.  If you're interested, read the excerpt below.  I found it at

[...] MR fluids are oils that are filled with iron particles. Often, surfactants surround the particles to protect them and help keep them suspended within the fluid. Typically, the iron particles comprise between 20 and 40 percent of the fluid's volume.

The particles are tiny, measuring between 3 and 10 microns. However, they have a powerful effect on the fluid's consistency. When exposed to a magnetic field, the particles line up, thickening the fluid dramatically. The term "magnetorheological" comes from this effect. Rheology is a branch of mechanics that focuses on the relationship between force and the way a material changes shape. The force of magnetism can change both the shape and the viscosity of MR fluids.

Magnetorheological fluid with and without magnetic field
When exposed to a magnetic field, the particles in magnetorheological fluid align along the field lines.

The hardening process takes around twenty thousandths of a second. The effect can vary dramatically depending on the composition of the fluid and the size, shape and strength of the magnetic field. For example, MIT researchers started with spherical iron particles, which can slip past one another, even in the presence of the magnetic field. This limits how hard the armor can become, so researchers are studying other particle shapes that may be more effective.

As with STF, you can see what MR fluids look like using ordinary items. Iron filings mixed with oil create a good representation. When no magnetic field is present, the fluid moves easily. But the influence of a magnet can cause the fluid to become thicker or to take a shape other than that of its container. Sometimes, the difference is very visually dramatic, with the fluid forming distinctive peaks, troughs and other shapes. Artists have even used magnets and MR fluids or similar ferrofluids to create works of art.

With the right combination of density, particle shape and field strength, MR fluid can change from a liquid to a very thick solid. As with shear-thickening fluid, this change could dramatically increase the strength of a piece of armor. The trick is activating the fluid's change of state. Since magnets large enough to affect an entire suit would be heavy and impractical to carry around, researchers propose creating tiny circuits running throughout the armor.

Magnetorheological fluid before and after exposure to a magnetic field
Magnetorheological fluid before and after exposure to a magnetic field

Without current flowing through the wires, the armor would remain soft and flexible. But at the flip of the switch, electrons would begin to move through the circuits, creating a magnetic field in the process. This field would cause the armor to stiffen and harden instantly. Flipping the switch back to the off position would stop the current, and the armor would become flexible again.

Other Uses for MR Fluids
MR fluids have numerous uses besides strengthening body armor. Their ability to change from liquids to semisolids almost instantly makes them useful for dampening impacts and vibrations in items like:
Since it can instantly and reversibly change shape, it could also be used to create scrolling Braille displays or reconfigurable molds.

In addition to making stronger, lighter, more flexible armor, fabrics treated with shear-thickening and magnetorheological fluids could have other uses as well. For example, such materials could create bomb blankets that are easy to fold and carry and can still protect bystanders from explosion and shrapnel. Treated jump boots could harden on impact or when activated, protecting paratroopers' boots. Prison guards' uniforms could make extensive use of liquid armor technology, especially since the weapons guards are most likely to encounter are blunt objects and homemade blades.

Oh, yeah, definite nerd-gasm!!!!!

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Academic Ape

A colleague, who teaches some of the elementary ed math classes that I teach, forwarded me this email from her husband, a probability and statistics expert.  For those of you in college or with children in/going to go to college, here is some food for thought:

If the purpose of a college education is for students to learn, academe is failing, according to Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, a book released by University of Chicago Press.  The research finds a direct relationship between rigor and gains in learning:

  • Students who study by themselves for more hours each week gain more knowledge -- while those who spend more time studying in peer groups see diminishing gains.
  • Students whose classes reflect high expectations (more than 40 pages of reading a week and more than 20 pages of writing a semester) gained more than other students.
  • Students who spend more time in fraternities and sororities show smaller gains than other students.
  • Students who engage in off-campus or extracurricular activities (including clubs and volunteer opportunities) have no notable gains or losses in learning.
  • Students majoring in liberal arts fields see "significantly higher gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills over time than students in other fields of study." Students majoring in business, education, social work and communications showed the smallest gains. (The authors note that this could be more a reflection of more-demanding reading and writing assignments, on average, in the liberal arts courses than of the substance of the material.)

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Dr. D said...

"My wife, well ex-wife, says that each time I tell a story, a little more information comes out.  Recently, I had some opportunity to discuss jobs I had before becoming a professor, and I told a story from when I was at university.  I had a job at a sewer works one summer.  I didn't have any really old clothes, so I wore the oldest thing I had, which was a white shirt and black trousers."  He laughed.  "I hadn't told her about the clothes or how much it disgusted my coworkers for me to wear a white shirt.  I only had the job a week."

We were gathered at Wings for our first ever Beforemath.  As usual, we drank beers and ate greasy sport bar food.  Near the end of dinner, Dr. D told this story, and it led to a discussion about the things we leave unsaid. 

I have heard L tell stories of going to Tijuana with his Navy buddy who liked to haggle.  In the most memorable one, his friend bargained for a marble chess board with hand-chiseled marble pieces and set in hand-carved wood.  L went back to San Diego having paid about $12 for it.  What I hadn't heard before was that he also picked up the leather wallet that he still carries.  Of course, this isn't a life-altering revelation, but as much pride as L takes in being cheap about certain things, it is the perfect ending to the story.  

"Well, at least he tells you the important things," Dr. E said.
"Yes, and you tell him the important things," Dr. D added.
I set my beer down and said, "It only matters if the person you're telling listens."  This comment got nods from around the table.

See, Dr. D's ex-wife claimed that he neglected her, and he did, but she never complained or mentioned it to him.  This was why, "I want a divorce," were the most startling words he could ever imagine coming from her, especially when they did.  Seeing some parallels between my own first marriage and his situation, we discussed this several times before his divorce was final.  For him, it was too little too late, which is unfair since she never gave him a chance until she had already closed her heart. 

Therapists say that communication is key to a relationship, and this is only as true as how much you are willing to share with your partner.  If you don't tell them how they hurt you, they can't know.  If you do, and they still don't make an effort, then at least you can say you tried.  In twenty-five years of marriage, Dr. D's wife never said anything until she said she was done.  He never had a clue. 

When I ask, he says, he's okay, which is an improvement over last winter.  He wears silly bands his daughters gave him in place of his wedding ring.  He told L, "If you love her, put your wife before everything else."  It goes both ways.  

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Death by Travel Channel

I think the Travel Channel is trying to kill its hosts.

I first suspected this after seeing an episode of "No Reservations" and decided that "Anthony Bourdain Gets Drunk and Crashes at Some Random Stranger's House" would be a more appropriate name for the show.  Even if he doesn't shack up with strangers, he does get drunk in almost every episode and begins slurring about how whatever is so much better "than anything we have back in the States."  His crew follows him around as he gets wasted, and sometimes they get wasted, too.  I'm not against you getting wasted as long as you don't harm other people.  It's just that I completely expect him to end up dead from it, and the Travel Channel will have the footage to show for it.

I wanted to post a drunk pic, but I couldn't resist this!

Next, consider Andrew Zimmern.  By choice, he eats all sorts of things I wouldn't touch in my worst nightmares (rotten beef packed in beef fat...bleh!).  I cannot begin to imagine the vomiting, diarrhea, and parasites he endures.  I figure he must loose a lot of weight during and after each of his trips, and he recovers it during his off-time.  Now, he has a new show where he travels to places in the U.S. So he goes off to other countries to stuff himself with things that turn his digestive tract into a worm hotel and flume, and then he comes home to fill himself with carbs and grease.  I smell diabetes, stroke, and heart attack all over him. 

Check out the pig with the cellphone.

But, he's not the only one.  Adam Richman of  "Man V. Food" is well on his way to the grave.  He either eats so much that it must leave his stomach and guts feeling like a whore that got gang-banged, or he eats something so hot that he probably shits napalm.  He has a new show too - going around and gorging on meat with his bffs.  He's only thirty-six, but I imagine his personal physician has already thrown in the towel.

Food-gasm or massive coronary? Whatever it is, the Travel Channel has its logo on it.
Okay, so maybe the Travel Channel isn't purposefully trying to kill its hosts, but it certainly is enabling them.  I wonder if they've signed waivers regarding the health-related ramifications of their shows.  When these men finally keel over, I wonder if their families will sue for wrongful death.   

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Feelin' Pepper-y

I woke up singing "My Friends" by the Chili Peppers, so I thought I'd post the video.  Also, I'm posting "Snow" because it is my favorite Chili Pepper song.  Sometimes, musicians hit the nail right on the head, and it's enough to bring tears to my eyes.  These are two such cases.

"My Friends"

Favorite line: "I heard a little girl, and what she said was something beautiful: 'To give your love no matter what,' is what she said."


Not one particular line I like best.  I love the whole damn thing, so I posted the song with the lyrics.  Hey, who denies that Anthony Kiedis can be a little hard to understand at times?

Friday, January 28, 2011

I am unmotivated today. 

It's partly the weather.  It's warming, which means that there will be an awful storm in a few days.  I can already feel the sinus pressure building. 

I haven't been sleeping well.  I keep waking from violent or active dreams.  Normally, I can blank my thoughts and go back to sleep, but this week, my mind clicks on the second I wake.  And, it's not that I'm worried about anything.  There are just a lot of people and things on my mind lately.  Thinking and talking about them isn't helping.  Pretending they would or do listen isn't healthy.  Writing about them won't help either, so it feels as though I have no outlet for what I'm feeling.     

Given enough time, it'll pass.  I really hate having to wait, but hell, that's just what you have to do sometimes. 

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Reading Is Fundamental

Generally, I'm afraid of fundamentalists (read fanatics).  However, the key to keeping your brain young and in good working condition is to keep learning.  One of the best ways to do this is by reading.  To people who say they hate reading, I say that you just haven't found the right subject yet.  If my sister-in-law can get my brother to read by buying him Star Trek fanfic, then everyone can find something they like to read.

Most people find textbooks especially inaccessible, and I agree to a certain extent.  However, in this day and age and book market, writing a textbook that is virtually unreadable is pointless, unless you're doing it on a graduate or research level.  Then, you're probably shooting for being published in a specific journal.  Anyway, my point is that you need to read, and if you're a student, that includes your textbooks. 

Having said all that, the following cartoon gives a much better argument.  Thanks, again, to Dave.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Space Avalanche

Adding this cartoon site to my blogroll.  Good stuff, especially all the Batman jabs.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Mentor To This Monkey

My undergrad mentor, and the designer of the elementary math classes that I teach, stopped by my office today.  It was the first time I've seen her since she retired a year ago.  She taught me how to write mathematical proofs, sponsored me for an undergraduate research grant, and introduced me to the best thai restaurant in town.  God, I miss her.  She was the only female faculty member and made a point to encourage me and any other female students in math to pursue our degrees and careers, especially since she didn't always have that support.

The woman is amazing.

At age twenty-two, she began her graduate studies at Berkeley.  She was married and had a one year old son.  In her second year, her husband was diagnosed with schizophrenia, which led to their divorce.  Somehow, she managed to earn a PhD in mathematics while caring for her son with no other help.  Honestly, I cannot even begin to imagine how damn near impossible that was. 

When her son was about twenty, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and while her career flourished, her family life was a nightmare.  She struggled with helping her child, now legally an adult, navigate a system fraught with often ridiculous rules and treatment requirements.  Giving a crazy person a long, carefully timed list of things to do in order to get treatment is a surefire way to set him up for failure.  Her son is now in his mid-forties, still somewhat dependent on her though he lives by himself, but she can't do for him what needs to be done because, well, he's forty!  She often feels powerless because the only thing she can still legally do is have him committed, which she had to do two years ago.

As of today, he's doing well.  He's compliant with his meds and living on his own again.  She just got back from visiting her sister in Seattle, and she dropped by to see how my courses were and how my research was coming along.  I told her I missed her and asked if she missed Ye Olde Math Building.

"I miss the idea of teaching, but not the reality of it.  There was a time when I couldn't imagine not teaching.  I just got so burned out, and I think these elementary ed classes sped up the process."  She ran her hands through her hair and rubbed her shin (her nervous ticks).  "Now that I'm not teaching, I've fallen in love with research all over again."   

She looked happy, which made me happy.  Love you, Cecelia.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Monkey Business

excerpt from an article in The New York Times regarding a portion of  Freakonomics by STEPHEN J. DUBNER and STEVEN D. LEVITT.  For more information about the authors and Keith Chen's research, including photographs, academic papers and a live monkey cam, see
Published: June 5, 2005
Keith Chen's Monkey Research

Adam Smith, the founder of classical economics, was certain that humankind's knack for monetary exchange belonged to humankind alone. ''Nobody ever saw a dog make a fair and deliberate exchange of one bone for another with another dog,'' he wrote. ''Nobody ever saw one animal by its gestures and natural cries signify to another, this is mine, that yours; I am willing to give this for that.'' But in a clean and spacious laboratory at Yale-New Haven Hospital, seven capuchin monkeys have been taught to use money, and a comparison of capuchin behavior and human behavior will either surprise you very much or not at all, depending on your view of humans. 
The capuchin is a New World monkey, brown and cute, the size of a scrawny year-old human baby plus a long tail. ''The capuchin has a small brain, and it's pretty much focused on food and sex,'' says Keith Chen, a Yale economist who, along with Laurie Santos, a psychologist, is exploiting these natural desires -- well, the desire for food at least -- to teach the capuchins to buy grapes, apples and Jell-O. ''You should really think of a capuchin as a bottomless stomach of want,'' Chen says. ''You can feed them marshmallows all day, they'll throw up and then come back for more.''
When most people think of economics, they probably conjure images of inflation charts or currency rates rather than monkeys and marshmallows. But economics is increasingly being recognized as a science whose statistical tools can be put to work on nearly any aspect of modern life. That's because economics is in essence the study of incentives, and how people -- perhaps even monkeys -- respond to those incentives. A quick scan of the current literature reveals that top economists are studying subjects like prostitution, rock 'n' roll, baseball cards and media bias.

Chen proudly calls himself a behavioral economist, a member of a growing subtribe whose research crosses over into psychology, neuroscience and evolutionary biology. He began his monkey work as a Harvard graduate student, in concert with Marc Hauser, a psychologist. The Harvard monkeys were cotton-top tamarins, and the experiments with them concerned altruism. Two monkeys faced each other in adjoining cages, each equipped with a lever that would release a marshmallow into the other monkey's cage. The only way for one monkey to get a marshmallow was for the other monkey to pull its lever. So pulling the lever was to some degree an act of altruism, or at least of strategic cooperation.

The tamarins were fairly cooperative but still showed a healthy amount of self-interest: over repeated encounters with fellow monkeys, the typical tamarin pulled the lever about 40 percent of the time. Then Hauser and Chen heightened the drama. They conditioned one tamarin to always pull the lever (thus creating an altruistic stooge) and another to never pull the lever (thus creating a selfish jerk). The stooge and the jerk were then sent to play the game with the other tamarins. The stooge blithely pulled her lever over and over, never failing to dump a marshmallow into the other monkey's cage. Initially, the other monkeys responded in kind, pulling their own levers 50 percent of the time. But once they figured out that their partner was a pushover (like a parent who buys her kid a toy on every outing whether the kid is a saint or a devil), their rate of reciprocation dropped to 30 percent -- lower than the original average rate. The selfish jerk, meanwhile, was punished even worse. Once her reputation was established, whenever she was led into the experimenting chamber, the other tamarins ''would just go nuts,'' Chen recalls. ''They'd throw their feces at the wall, walk into the corner and sit on their hands, kind of sulk.''

Chen is a hyperverbal, sharp-dressing 29-year-old with spiky hair. The son of Chinese immigrants, he had an itinerant upbringing in the rural Midwest. As a Stanford undergraduate, he was a de facto Marxist before being seduced, quite accidentally, by economics. He may be the only economist conducting monkey experiments, which puts him at slight odds with his psychologist collaborators (who are more interested in behavior itself than in the incentives that produce the behavior) as well as with certain economist colleagues. ''I love interest rates, and I'm willing to talk about their kind of stuff all the time,'' he says, speaking of his fellow economists. ''But I can tell that they're biting their tongues when I tell them what I'm working on.''

It is sometimes unclear, even to Chen himself, exactly what he is working on. When he and Santos, his psychologist collaborator, began to teach the Yale capuchins to use money, he had no pressing research theme. The essential idea was to give a monkey a dollar and see what it did with it. The currency Chen settled on was a silver disc, one inch in diameter, with a hole in the middle -- ''kind of like Chinese money,'' he says. It took several months of rudimentary repetition to teach the monkeys that these tokens were valuable as a means of exchange for a treat and would be similarly valuable the next day. Having gained that understanding, a capuchin would then be presented with 12 tokens on a tray and have to decide how many to surrender for, say, Jell-O cubes versus grapes. This first step allowed each capuchin to reveal its preferences and to grasp the concept of budgeting.
Then Chen introduced price shocks and wealth shocks. If, for instance, the price of Jell-O fell (two cubes instead of one per token), would the capuchin buy more Jell-O and fewer grapes? The capuchins responded rationally to tests like this -- that is, they responded the way most readers of The Times would respond. In economist-speak, the capuchins adhered to the rules of utility maximization and price theory: when the price of something falls, people tend to buy more of it.

Chen next introduced a pair of gambling games and set out to determine which one the monkeys preferred. In the first game, the capuchin was given one grape and, dependent on a coin flip, either retained the original grape or won a bonus grape. In the second game, the capuchin started out owning the bonus grape and, once again dependent on a coin flip, either kept the two grapes or lost one. These two games are in fact the same gamble, with identical odds, but one is framed as a potential win and the other as a potential loss.
How did the capuchins react? They far preferred to take a gamble on the potential gain than the potential loss. This is not what an economics textbook would predict. The laws of economics state that these two gambles, because they represent such small stakes, should be treated equally.

So, does Chen's gambling experiment simply reveal the cognitive limitations of his small-brained subjects? Perhaps not. In similar experiments, it turns out that humans tend to make the same type of irrational decision at a nearly identical rate. Documenting this phenomenon, known as loss aversion, is what helped the psychologist Daniel Kahneman win a Nobel Prize in economics. The data generated by the capuchin monkeys, Chen says, ''make them statistically indistinguishable from most stock-market investors.''

But do the capuchins actually understand money? Or is Chen simply exploiting their endless appetites to make them perform neat tricks?

Several facts suggest the former. During a recent capuchin experiment that used cucumbers as treats, a research assistant happened to slice the cucumber into discs instead of cubes, as was typical. One capuchin picked up a slice, started to eat it and then ran over to a researcher to see if he could ''buy'' something sweeter with it. To the capuchin, a round slice of cucumber bore enough resemblance to Chen's silver tokens to seem like another piece of currency.

Then there is the stealing. Santos has observed that the monkeys never deliberately save any money, but they do sometimes purloin a token or two during an experiment. All seven monkeys live in a communal main chamber of about 750 cubic feet. For experiments, one capuchin at a time is let into a smaller testing chamber next door. Once, a capuchin in the testing chamber picked up an entire tray of tokens, flung them into the main chamber and then scurried in after them -- a combination jailbreak and bank heist -- which led to a chaotic scene in which the human researchers had to rush into the main chamber and offer food bribes for the tokens, a reinforcement that in effect encouraged more stealing.

Something else happened during that chaotic scene, something that convinced Chen of the monkeys' true grasp of money. Perhaps the most distinguishing characteristic of money, after all, is its fungibility, the fact that it can be used to buy not just food but anything. During the chaos in the monkey cage, Chen saw something out of the corner of his eye that he would later try to play down but in his heart of hearts he knew to be true. What he witnessed was probably the first observed exchange of money for sex in the history of monkeykind. (Further proof that the monkeys truly understood money: the monkey who was paid for sex immediately traded the token in for a grape.)

This is a sensitive subject. The capuchin lab at Yale has been built and maintained to make the monkeys as comfortable as possible, and especially to allow them to carry on in a natural state. The introduction of money was tricky enough; it wouldn't reflect well on anyone involved if the money turned the lab into a brothel. To this end, Chen has taken steps to ensure that future monkey sex at Yale occurs as nature intended it.

But these facts remain: When taught to use money, a group of capuchin monkeys responded quite rationally to simple incentives; responded irrationally to risky gambles; failed to save; stole when they could; used money for food and, on occasion, sex. In other words, they behaved a good bit like the creature that most of Chen's more traditional colleagues study: Homo sapiens.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

It's Hard Bein' Hard, Ya'll

Sometimes, I get so tired of being tough.  I'm really not as thick-skinned as I like to think I am.  There are days when I want nothing more than to take off my shell and be at ease, Dr. Zoidberg-style.

Monday, January 17, 2011


Along with Metalocalpyse, Superjail feeds my appetite for gruesome, creepy, and awesome cartoonage.  I can't say that the plots and drawings are all that great, but the uniqueness of the imagination behind the animation and brutal death scenes that generally close the episodes are what take the cake.  It is rare to see two inmates killed the same way in not only the same episode but at all.  That is the beauty of this psychotic acid trip of a cartoon.

Characters: who don't I love?  There is Jackknife, the inmate who is always caught and dragged back to jail at the beginning of each episode.  Jailbot and Alice run herd on the inmates.  The Warden is a goofier, crazier version of Willy Wonka.  But, I suppose my very favorite characters are the ones I refer to as the "Techno Twins."  They take the warden's already poor ideas and kick them up a notch (playing the warden's dream organ until everyone is insane, setting Spanish flies free inside the female/male inmate dance, creating a superclone for the battle arena, to name a few).

When compared to the other bloody, gruesome cartoons Cartoon Network airs on Adult Swim, Superjail beats them hands-down in body count.  When I catch it, I almost always say, "Ooh, Superjail.  I wonder how everyone will die tonight?"  For a twisted, screwy person like me, it's the perfect bookend to a day.

A sampling of deaths; Note the Techno Twins and their clone on the left wall, watcing it all go to Hell.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Marcy Hack or Dynamite Playground

For the radio stations to have played "Sex and Candy" to death, it was by far not the best song on Marcy Playground's self-titled debut album.  The following YouTube videos of Marcy Playground aren't really videos but do have the full songs. There are several awesome songs on the album, but since I've been singing "Cloak of Elvenkind" along with the anti-rap of "Boyz in the Hood" by Dynamite Hack on and off all day, I thought I would post those and "Vampires of New York."

"Cloak of Elvenkind":

"Vampires of New York":

"Boyz in the Hood":