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Friday, November 30, 2007

Math Class

This semester I'm taking Math 290: Elementary Linear Algebra. It started back in August, but somehow I neglected to mention it.

This time I managed to save a lot of money on the textbook. I bought it online at Abe Books. I had been warned to double check that I got the right edition, including number and country. The Chinese editions are dirt cheap, but somewhat different from the U.S. versions. I ended up paying less than $50 for a new book, while the K.U. Bookstore (I'm sure they'll be happy I linked to them) was charging $96 for a used copy.

And on Abe Books, if you go for an edition only 2 or 3 years old, the price drops drastically, on some textbooks down to just a dollar (plus shipping, of course).

There is definitely a problem with textbook pricing at the University level. I have no problem with the authors making money on textbooks that they have written, but too often students are forced to spend hundreds of dollars for books that they only open to get the homework problems. In my summer class, that was definitely the case. On the few occasions that I attempted to learn something from the book, I found that I was better off with my class notes. For this class, I've only looked a couple of times to clarify some word usage. It seems to be a little better written than my last book. At least it didn't leave me dazed and confused. And it has one thing I like: each chapter starts with a brief essay (3-4 paragraphs) about a notable mathematician who has contributed in some way to the material at hand. It's a nice reminder that we haven't always just known this math, and a lot of it is less than 200 years old.

This suggests a goal for math teachers: to find the next Fourier, or Laplace, or Gauss, or Kepler. Someone to seriously stretch the concept of mathematics. Maybe your heart doesn't skip a beat when you hear those names. Mine doesn't, exactly. But when I think about how they pioneered the concepts that I struggle to follow, I can't help but be impressed. As difficult as it is to follow the book or lecture, at least my answers are checked by the grader. Those guys had no one to tell them they were right, though I doubt it was hard to find naysayers.

And while some of these famous mathematicians did nothing but math, many of them were working on applying math to the real world. In other words, science. When men stood on the moon, it was math that took them there. When you turn the key in your car and the engine starts, it is math that designs the parts the move so smoothly and determines how much gasoline to explode with each cycle. When drugs are developed to fight chronic diseases, it is math that tells us how the population as a whole may be effected. And if you are reading this, it was composed on a computer. Scads of math tied up there.

America has been raising its children to automatically think math is hard, boring, and pointless. This will cause serious problems not too far down the line. It is true: people no longer need to crunch numbers by hand. The digital watch we sell at Wal-Mart for $5.87 can do more computations in a day than a human can in a week. The newest computer you buy today is roughly twice as fast, with twice as much memory as the newest computer you could have bought a year ago. To heck with slide rules and abacus... Abacuses. Abaci. Abracadabra. Most people don't need to be able to do math in their heads any more, which is fine.

But without an understanding of what is happening inside your calculator or computer, there is absolutely no way that you can hope to expand on it.

I just finished my third test in Math 290 yesterday. I had to use my calculator on about half of the problems, and I finished in about 30 minutes. The teacher (Jeff Lang) commented that not so long ago, this would have been a two hour test, because of the matrix crunching. And the grading would have been tedious, too, following minor errors to award partial credit.

[Incidentally, Prof. Lang is a Muslim, which I didn't find out until I Googled him for the above link. There's an interesting interview with Jeff Lang on YouTube which gives some feeling for his lecture style. Don't click that link unless you have a good enough internet connection to watch a 10 minute video, and maybe the other three parts as well. There are also links to some fragments of lectures he has given on Islam. He's much more serious about that than he is about matrices. The other big difference is that in class he frequently raises his chalk to his mouth and takes a drag.]

This is good. (The test thing, not the extra bits about my prof.) I can demonstrate a wider range of skills by virtue of being able to complete tasks more quickly. And hopefully I demonstrated them well. If I get an A on this test, I won't have to take the final exam. I'll still go to class and do homework, but I won't have to sweat another test. Good deal. I'll find out Monday.

Getting back to the idea of learning math: I rarely meet a kid who likes math anymore. And I have met many, many adults who say they never liked it. While I know that part of the problem is that they are not "naturally" good at it, I believe that the biggest problem is that they haven't been taught well. They've had homework piled on, they've sat through boring lectures, they've felt nitpicked, and they've seen no connection between math and life. Why bother?

I hope that I can make some of them see that there is a connection. I want them to understand why the details are important, and why it's worth practicing to become better. I want them to come out of class excited, feeling that they have conquered math, and are ready to take on next year's math. I want them to believe that if they can play video games well, they can do math. If they can keep track of who likes who and what couples are together, they can do math. If they can throw, catch and run without falling down all the time, they can do math. Because all of those things have math underneath, whether just below the surface, or so deep that we haven't found it yet.

In short: Love doesn't make the world go round. Math does.

The End.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

A Match Made in...

I had some interesting experiences while working in Wal-Mart a few years ago.  One of them was so bizarre that I simply had to write about it.  Once I was finished,

A Match Made in the S-Mart Parking Lot

The story you are about to read is true. Only the name of the retailer has been changed to protect my ass from getting fired.

At seven minutes after nine p.m. the couple strutted up to the S-Mart jewelry counter. He was middle-aged, as white as they come, getting a little shiny on top, and didn't really strut very well. It was more like he was being dragged in her wake. But she had the strut, no doubt. A walk that said, "I may not own this place, but that's only because I don't want it." She was black and thin, with long, teased-out hair and matching fire-engine red nails and lipstick. His slightly worn sports coat clearly announced, "I'm with The University," as did his patient, diplomatic speaking style. Her baggy sweatshirt, tiny short-shorts and scruffy tennis shoes made a different announcement: "I'm on break right now, honey, but I'll be with you in 10 minutes. As long as you ain't no police officer. You ain't, right? Cause if you is, you gotta tell the truth you know."

"What can I do for you?" offered the jewelry associate, ignoring the announcements made by the clothing of the customers in front of him. Obviously he had taken well to the training he had received at the feet of an ancient, venerable computer in the back room.

"We's gettin' married next week!" she announced with a childlike glee that momentarily overpowered the deep lines on her face.

"And we're looking for wedding rings," he added.

"Thas right," she chirped, clinging to his arm like a decaying vine and pushing her hair back with her free hand. Her focus suddenly jumped to the rings in the display case, dragging the gentleman and the jewelry associate along for the ride. "Lemme see that one," she demanded, her fingertip nailed to the counter as her hand did a shaky little dance around it. When the jewelry associate finally homed in on the correct ring, she pounced on it, and somehow squeezed it over her callused, parched, prodigious knuckle.

"I don' like this one. The diamond's too small." Apparently the fun was over. "Here. Take it off." She held her hand out to the jewelry associate, who reluctantly tried to remove the ring. "Don' worry about hurtin' me, jess pull on it," she instructed him. The associate, who was rarely eager to pull on anyone's finger, even in the best of circumstances, looked at the customer's scrawny hand as she continued talking. "I done give bigger diamonds to my kids." No, scrawny was too generous. This hand could have been used as a prop in a zombie movie. "If I give a ring like this to my kids they cuss me out." Scars, scabs and calluses were the landmarks on this desert map, and the knuckle a rough, rocky outcrop. The light rain of spittle as she talked brought no relief to this land. "You ain't givin' me this ring." The associate considered going to get a set of latex gloves, but couldn't think of a tactful way to do so, and was reluctant to turn his back on a flighty customer with a $150 ring on her finger. "I need a diamond I can see." So he swallowed, held his breath, and grabbed hold of the ring. "Go on now, don' be shy. You ain't gonna hurt me none." He pulled, twisted and wriggled the ring, wondering if there were some trick to removing a ring without touching the hand it was on.

Eventually the ring obtained freedom. The jewelry associate shuddered, and breathed a small sigh of relief as he replaced the ring in the display case.

Her fiance then pointed out another ring in the case and suggested that it might be suitable.

"Don't try it on, don't try it on, don't try it on," was the silent mantra of the jewelry associate.

"Uh-uh. That one small, too," was her criticism. The jewelry associate breathed another sigh of relief, this one perhaps a bit more noticeable.

The man was prepared for her remark: "It only looks small because it's in the case. It will look much bigger on your finger."

She glared at him as though he had just made a puddle on the floor. "It ain't gonna get bigger." She continued, "You cain't water it like no plant." She elucidated, "Diamonds don't grow." And just in case he hadn't quite understood, she added, "It ain't no damn plant you water an it get bigger." She added two or three more variations on this theme, rolling her eyes as though she were dealing with a slow, uncooperative child. In the brief silences between her attacks, he attempted to explain that it was a matter of distance, perspective, and the glass in between, but all he managed to do was supply a fantastic little illustration for the word 'henpecked.' When he finally figured out that the best reply was to stand quietly, she phasered him one last time with her eyes and moved on.

She looked at and handed half a dozen choices from the bridal sets without putting any of them on past her ring-trap knuckle.  The jewelry associate silently lifted a prayer of thanksgiving to Jehovah, Shiva, Allah, the blue genie from "Alladin" and any other deity who happened to be listening in. The customer moved on to the "Right Hand Rings." Apparently, "Right Hand" is S-Mart shorthand for "big and tacky," and these rings called to her like a kegger flagging a passing frat boy. Unfortunately, the jewelry associate had to explain to her, they were single rings, not sets. She had her heart set on a set, though her reasoning was never made clear. Perhaps something to do with two rings being more than one ring.

At this point, the professor makes another suggestion: "I could get you one of those single rings and a simple gold band to go with it. Then it would be a set. Look, there's a gold band here for $20."

This time she turned on him as though he had thrown his own feces at her.

"You ain't buyin' me no $20 ring."

"Well not by itself, no..."

"You ain't tellin' me you buyin' me no $20 ring."

"It would go with the..."

"I ain't hearin' this. Ain't no way you buyin' me no $20 ring."

"Listen, if we get..."

"If you mention some damn $20 ring again I am gonna embarrass you right here in S-Mart."

He could tell that she meant it, or perhaps love overcame reason. Either way, he stopped advocating for the $20 ring.

The jewelry associate, being a fan of irony, thought to himself, "If the avoidance of embarrassment were truly a priority, none of us would be here right now."

They moved back to the bridal set case, but clearly the romance had been liposuction right out of the evening. And she was getting pretty jittery, as though perhaps she needed something. Suddenly, without warning, she turned around and left. He stayed long enough to say that they would be back Monday, and was gone before the jewelry associate could suggest that they come before three o'clock if possible, three o'clock being his starting time the following Monday.

As the jewelry associate was getting paper towels and the glass cleaner, both of which were sorely needed by the glass counter top and his hands at this point, the undercover security agent came over and asked what the couple wanted. "They're getting married next week, and they were shopping for rings."

"That's interesting," he smirked. "Just a couple of weeks ago she was arrested in the parking lot outside for prostitution."

"Well well well. How about that? I guess she has turned over a new leaf, just like Julia Roberts in that 'Pretty Woman' movie."

"Yeah. Whatever." The security guard was clearly unconvinced, but the jewelry associate knew that he had seen something pretty special that night. And even if it turned out to be not all that special, at the very least it would make a good story.

The End.


A Brief Introduction

Roblog is my writing lab. It is my goal to not let seven days pass without a new post. I welcome your criticism, as I cannot improve on my own.

Here is a link to my cung post, which remains the only word which I have ever invented, and which has not, as far as I know, caught on. Yet.