Monday, May 6, 2013

Living Roadblocks

I think bottlenecks are magnets for oblivious morons. There are several varieties of Narrow Passage. Most are doors. Some are intersections of hallways. More amorphous ones are created by crowds and continually shift. But no matter the species of Narrow Passage, just as you arrive at it, it will be blocked. A very slowly moving person or collection of persons will ooze slothfully into the space mere nanoseconds before you need it. Then they will stand there with no apparent purpose in life, except to have volume. They will look lost, and yet be able to keep their back turned toward you at all times. The more you are in a hurry, the dumber and more slothful they become.

Or, you may be heading down a broad sidewalk at a good clip. Just as you overtake the gaggle of 4 or 9 people ahead of you, they'll drift apart into a sauntering roadblock. Holes between them will leisurely open and close just before you can take advantage of them.

Or, perhaps there is a set of double doors. In all civilized countries, people drive and walk to the right in any sort of traffic. Observation of any busy mall or campus will show that 90% of all people walk on the right. If you make this observation, watch how much chaos that one left-walker causes (and note how he doesn't notice) as everyone has to stop, start, and dodge to get around him. It's worse at a set of double doors. Foot traffic can be flowing at a decent rate, with the outgoing people on their right and the incoming people on their right...until that one inconsiderate, incoming boob with his nose buried in his iPhone stumbles through the wrong door. All the people trying to get out are now stopped (and a crowd quickly piles up.) The sheep behind our hero just follow him and so now there's a line of left-walkers blocking both doors from the people who want to get out.

Maybe they don't teach this in schools any more, but I recall several lessons about paying attention to where one was. If we met someone coming the other way we needed to talk to, it was a matter of courtesy to step out of everyone's way, rather than block off an intersection for 5 minutes.

Don't get me started on HEB or Sam's Club. The aisles are ample for two carts to pass. Maybe even three. Yet there are left-walkers who charge down the aisle and it never registers with them that absolutely everyone is making a curve around them. Or they have to turn their cart sideways and stand next to it while studying, oh so carefully, the labels of everything of the bottom shelf. (These are the same people who take 750 items to the express lane.)

Do you really want your tombstone to read "Here lies Bob. He took up space. But not in a pleasant way."

Thursday, February 25, 2010


As Voltaire said, "Common sense is not so common." I'm having a particularly grouchy morning. I've talked to 3 different medical receptionists and nurses today and none of them has allowed me to finish a sentence. The last nurse I talked to told me she'd get right on "it" and get back to me. If she does get back to me, I'm going to ask her what "it" is, because she never found out what I wanted. Back up. The receptionist interrupted my first sentence, and guessed, incorrectly, what I needed and put me onto the nurse. Likewise, the nurse interrupted my first sentence and guessed, again incorrectly, what I needed. Well, we'll see how bad I can make her feel when she calls back.

Meanwhile, while I'm in this mood, grinding away at my mountain of work, a student walks into my office. The door was closed, but not latched. And this blithering idiot barges into my office without knocking. If he'd been one of my students, I'd have chased him down the hallway with a 3-hole punch.

So he stands there with some papers in his hand looking at me like I'm a shiny object. Then announces that he's going to leave his homework on my office mate's desk. "O" and then "K", I say, reaching for my 3-hole punch. How precious are his next words:

"Uh, you got a stapler?" I lied. Of course I have a stapler, but I'm not in the habit of loaning it out to bumblers who have just committed breaking-and-entering.

It sure seems like that which we called "common courtesy" as recently as 20 years ago is all but dead.

The core and founding principle of courtesy is respect for others' personal spaces. Yet look how much we violate this daily. Or minutely. I can't listen to Mozart on my car radio, because the escaped inmate in the next pickup is blasting his anti-music so loudly. I can't walk down the sidewalk without someone (who is apparently allergic to shampoo) accosting me about saving the environment (which a bottle of shampoo would go a long way towards.) I can't have a meal without an utterly insignificant politician calling me to yell about something.

As for my intrusive dirtball this morning: he didn't bother taking his earbuds out while asking for my stapler. The "music" was so loud I could hear it plainly and, while it didn't completely drown out the Chopin Nocturne I was listening to, it did interfere with it sufficiently that I had to start it over. To top it off, when I went outside my office later, the hallway was strewn with the little bits of paper produced by spiral bound notebooks. Yes, the dweeb had stood outside the door and torn these little bits off his homework and simply tossed them on the floor.

What can you do but shake your head and think, "What starts here changes the world," and "We are in so much trouble"?

And surely interrupting someone while they are speaking is equivalent to personal space violations. Both sorts of sin are sins of arrogance. If you barge into my office without knocking and invitation, you saying something about how much more important you are than me. If you talk over the top of my sentence, you are saying something about how much more important you are than me. Such covert messages are apt to put me in a very bad mood.

In sum: Couldn't we all get together and resurrect the time-honored practice of taking turns speaking and knocking before entering?

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Practice/sample Tests

Here's a treatise on my philosophy about practice tests. The bottom line is: They're bad for you. I have caved in over the years and I now upload copies of some old exams for students to look at. There are only two good results of this. First, at least there's a handful of problems everyone will really learn to work. Second, students get to see what the format of the exam is apt to be. These advantages are sorely outweighed by the disadvantages, and if my thousands of students hadn't worn me down over the years, I would cease making old exams available.

The worst result is that so many students will do nothing except work the practice exam over and over. Instead of studying the material for the sake of actual understanding, they will spend their study time memorizing pencil strokes.

So first, they end up learning nothing. Then they, surprisingly, are furious when they bomb the real test because "it was nothing like the practice test." ((facepalm)) First, the practice test is not supposed to be like the real test. Second, but in fact, the real test was very much like the practice test, however, in their narrow view of studying, they didn't learn the broad view which was the goal of the course. If one understands the material at the level we're after, then one would see the similarities between the tests. Further, the point of the practice test wasn't to show you exactly which topics would be covered, so that you could ignore and skip things that are part of the course. It was just to show you how you would be tested (because that reduces some people's anxiety. I don't know why, it just seems to.)

So it does no good (and if fact makes you look bad) if you complain that there was a linear approximation problem on the real text, but none on the practice test. We educator types really, really hate (maybe more than anything except grading) indications that a student is trying to minimize his learning. I can't teach you anything when you're working so hard not to learn anything.

I'm trying to make this clear: The practice test will not help you study for the test. Puh-freakin'-eriod.

Therefore, I have this policy: I don't give out solutions to the practice test, nor do I help students work problems on the practice test. You're already distracted enough from what you should be doing (working a large number of a large variety of problems.) There's no sense in you and I both wasting our time helping you memorize the answers to several problems which won't be on the real test. Especially when that means I have waste my time 100 times, while you do it only once.

The best way to prepare for a math test is 1. to do lots of different problems. Almost all textbooks have more problems than you can work, so you really don't need an extra source of problems (like a practice test)
and 2. make sure you're well-rested and fed before walking the test. I have seen lots of guys try to take math tests when they're so tired that their skin is green. I've never seen one of them pass a test.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Some Sites to See

I'm not affiliated with this guy, but I sure do like browsing his site: Grand Illusions I'm glad that he has lots of videos so that I can see his toys in action without having to buy them.

Once my students find out I'm an avid homebrewer, I get deluged with questions about The World's Greatest Hobby(TM). The answers to almost all questions are here: HowToBrew
John Palmer has written the most excellent intro-to- brewing book. Since he's in 3rd edition now, he's put his 1st edition online so you can read it for free.

I'm not a photographer, but I sure do enjoy good photography. I think Stern Magazine has the best photographic team inside Saturn's orbit. It's a German magazine, so their standards are sometimes different from American standards, but you may set filters. Towards the top is a link to "Bilder des Tages" (Pictures of the Day.) This gallery is added to daily. Towards the bottom are two gray-background strips with about 4 thumbnails. These lead to "View Photocommunity" and "Photographie" galleries. Very many very nice pictures there: Stern Besides, it's useful to see what some of the Europeans think of us.

Here's a sight you may find occasionally useful;
before there was wiki, there was MathWorld. Type in anything math-ish you like and see what you get. Try "factorial". If there's a formula for something, you can find it here.

Next: Fireball Crosswords This guy makes the best crosswords. He used to edit a daily puzzle, but has backed off to once per week. If you love freakishly hard puzzles, you can subscribe to his weekly puzzle for $10 for a year. You can also buy books of his old puzzles. (Again, I'm not affiliated.)

I am a member of this club: Austin Saengerrunde We own Scholz' Bier Garten, nuff said.

Finally, for your amusement (and hopefully education) here's link to a 10-year-old article from the New York Times. Some things never change: NYTimes

The Calc Ninja

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Late Homework

Let's get two things straight:

1. Homework is stoopid.

2. There is no late homework.

I hate having homework for a number of reasons. It's a phenomenal amount of extra work. Take 240 students at 10 problems per week. 1 minute per problem is 40 hours. You spent several hours preparing homework; do you think 10 minutes is enough to evaluate your work? Worse, assigning homework for a grade is such an insult to you. Surely you are, by now, mature enough that if I were to hand out a list of exercises for each topic, you would do them so that you would learn the material, so that you would do well on the exams, so that you would do well in the next course, so that you would do well in life. Right? Right?

I don't want to insult you, but I'm afraid that if I don't assign some small number of points to the homework, many students won't do it and then they will fail. Does it help to assign points? I don't know. There are a number of students who just copy someone else's work to get the points. (Of course it's cheating, but, heck, go for it. There's a certain schadenfreude watching you shoot yourself in the foot in the attempt to lie to me.)

So it's stoopid. I shouldn't have to club you over the head with "points" to get you to educate yourself and you shouldn't have to put up with being clubbed.

So on to the second point: The syllabus says "No late homework." What this means is: There is no late homework. I.e., if you try to hand in your homework after the due date/time, then it will not be accepted. In other words, homework must be handed in on time for any credit. Are we clear yet? Do you see anything in the above that says "unless you have 12 doctors' notes" or "unless grandma dies" or "unless you leave it in your room by mistake?" Me either. There is no concentration of multiple disasters that will convince me that I and the TA and the grader ought to spend a couple hours passing your homework around and having it specially graded. It's not worth it for the fraction of a point that the assignment is worth.

Most of you will find this hard to believe, but there are always a couple non-students in every class that can't do anything right. They are late for class EVERY day and (if I accepted it) they would turn in homework late EVERY time. They make an error on EVERY problem on EVERY exam. (And they expect partial credit, as if someone should earn a C or B having never worked a problem correctly.) And they're always sick or have to work or can't find parking or...or...or....

I sure seems to me that if you can get to class every day at 10:15, then you can get to class every day at 10:00. And if you always have your homework ready by Friday night, then you can always have your homework ready by Friday morning. So I don't understand the problem. Perhaps these non-students are addicted to excuse-making? Yes, things happen, and occasionally everyone screws up. But there's a huge difference between someone who screws up and someone who is a screw up.

If you are not one of them, then it's no big deal if you miss a homework or two. Your grade will never notice. If you are one of them, then welcome to the world of no excuses. It is my sincere wish that my strict homework policy helps you overcome your screwupishness. Now go buy a stapler.

The Calc Ninja

How not to e-mail your prof

The relationship between you and your prof has its beginning and end in your education. It is, therefore, unwise to send him an e-mail which demonstrates that he is failing. Several things:

1. E-mail is great. You don't have to slog across campus at a pre-defined time in order to wait in line outside my office, then exchange niceties, then ask for whatever it is you want, then have me say "no", then stomp off across campus again. What a time saver!
I welcome e-mail, however:

2. My name is not Dude or u. And while I'm clever enough to decipher sludge like "wut hw tmrw do", I won't. My attitude doesn't arise from my inherent professorial arrogance, but from the fact that you've just insulted me. Keeping up with the latest fads and slang is something for the insecure young. I'm not young nor insecure. I don't feel the slightest urge to impress anyone with how groovy I can talk. Your suggestion that I do or ought to rubs my fur the wrong way. Please do me the courtesy of speaking to me like an adult.

3. Normally, I have two hundred and some students every semester. If you e-mail me saying, "Do we have homework Friday?" I can't answer if I don't know your name and which section you're in. So first, note that I can not deduce your name from your e-mail address Please tell me your name. Second, even with your name, I have to open up all my spreadsheets (there may be as many as 7) and hunt through them to find the information you've requested. It takes me 15 minutes to answer a short question, when it should have taken 1 minute. Please supply which course you're in and which discussion section. Do the math: If I have 240 students and they each take up 15 minutes of my time per week, that's 60 hours. That doesn't leave much time for preparation, lecturing and grading.

4. This is not a big deal, but while we're here: Plain text is best. You can send me decorated messages if you like, full of colors, italics and boldness, but you should realize that there's a good chance that it will look like "I A^bfreallybf &need& NNaNN usCn," by the time it passes through all the machines between yours and mine.

The summary is: please be considerate of my feelings and my time. The extra 10 seconds you spend typing your name and section saves me 10 minutes.

The Calc Ninja