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.