Tuesday, August 20, 2013

For new students at Random University

I'm often asked what I do for a living.  I reply that I teach the very young, college freshmen; it's kindergarten with beer.  Well, it's that time of year again, when the local universities and colleges drag the professors away from their summer-time relaxation -- okay, so not everyone thinks doing research is relaxing, but then again, they're not professors -- to instruct yet another crop of fresh faced 18-year-olds.

Recently, on LinkedIn, the person in charge of alumni relations asked the past graduates -- yes, La Professora also attended the university where she is now torturing students -- to give future graduates some advice.  Here was mine:

Never try to cram for more than 20 minutes at a time-- that's as much short term memory the average human has.  Once you hit 20 minutes, get up, stretch, get a snack, do something else for 5 minutes so that your brain can shift the information from short term to long term memory.  Then it's back to the books for another 20 minutes.

Don't use highlighters on your text books, that just changes the color of the page and you'll end up reading the whole thing again before an exam.  Use the margin to write a quick note on the key points of the paragraph.  If you do that, you're more likely to remember the information when reviewing for an exam.

Always get to know your professor -- you'll need letters of recommendation some day and you really don't want one from someone who doesn't really know you.

If you're a transfer student, use Assist.org to know what transferred for which requirement.  The best way to get Admissions and Records to process your transcripts is to apply for graduation, so do that as soon as you've hit 90 units.

Advising can come from your major department, but be sure to ask fellow students which instructor provides the best advising. 

Always get information in writing, especially from the administration.  If someone in A&R or Counseling says X, politely ask them if they could write that down so that you'll be able to remember later that you're to do X.  That way if anyone asks, who told you to do X, you're to do Y, you can whip out your written instructions.  It then becomes their problem, not yours.

Don't pick a major just because someone or some magazine says that's the wave of the future.  No one knows what career will be hot in 10 years, but everyone knows that if you do what makes you happiest, you'll find a way to make money at it.  By the by, studies have shown that so much emphasis on the STEM majors has created a glut of STEM graduates, and those high demand jobs are no longer out there at the levels that had been predicted 10 years ago. 

No one "can't do Math".  Studies on the learning of math skills have found that it depends more on who the instructor is/was than the student.  If you had a crummy instructor in elementary school math, chances are that you think you "can't do Math".  Everyone can, you just need to find an instructor who can teach it -- again, ask fellow students whom they'd recommend, but avoid any instructor who is labelled "easy". 

"Easy" instructors might be good for your GPA in the short term, but if you need the information for other courses, you'll just be hurting your ability to pass courses in the longer run.  On the same lines, don't be afraid of taking courses with instructors whom your fellow students have labelled "Hard, but you'll learn a lot".  In the end, your GPA only counts if you're planning on going to graduate school -- I've never had an employer ask what my GPA in college was, but they did ask for proof that I could do the job well.

Learn to write well.  Use the resources on campus to help you learn how to write well.  This goes for the students in Business and Engineering just as much as the ones in the Humanities.  You might have instructors who only care that you put the correct words / concepts in your essays without regard to grammar or syntax, but in the end, your employability will be enhanced if you can write in a way that makes the words / concepts flow in a comprehensible way.

Enjoy your time at the university -- never again will you have an opportunity to truly explore your interests.  Join clubs, go bowling in the Student Union, meet random people in the cafeteria, take classes that are so completely different from what you're majoring in -- you never know what might lead to that divine spark that changes your perspective / major / life.

Take 2 units of P.E..  Too many students find that they haven't officially gotten their degree after graduation because they didn't take P.E..

Get at least one Study Buddy per course -- they will save your butt at some point.

That was it -- mostly because of the character limit -- but that was plenty.

As for "kindergarten with beer", trust me, the university really is:  First time away from Mommy; not entirely sure how the whole school thing works; would rather have naptime and snacktime than reading; and very little actual studying gets done.  I'm sure that if you really thought about it, you'll find further analogies.

Now I must finish up the syllabi, and prepare the instruments of student torture.  Bwaaaaahahahaa!

Monday, June 10, 2013

Randomly Commencing

Well, it's that time of the year again -- finals, grades, commencement.  While I've gotten the usual amount of post-grade whining, I've also gotten to see another batch of students graduate and head out to their future endeavors.

Our university isn't the type to attract the really big names, the JK Rowling and the Steve Jobs of the world, for its graduations and convocations but it has its share of ambassadors, politicians and entrepreneurs.  The department has had local and state leaders, and some have been actually good speakers.

Like my colleagues, I've always enjoyed the department convocations that featured the students by giving each 30 seconds to thank whomever helped them through their years at the university.  Once in a while, the student committee in charge of organizing convocation chooses a speaker instead.  Some speakers have been good, some have been lackluster, and one or two have been rude.

This year's PoliSci graduates had a speaker, a good one, who spoke to them and their families, rather than the usual "I'm so great, that's why you invited me to speak, and if you're as lucky or well-connected as I am, you too will be so great."  In the decades that I've been involved in academia, I've heard all sorts of keynote, convocation and commencement speeches -- even given one or two myself -- so I should know what makes for a good speech.

What makes for a good commencement speech is straightforward, and the list of Dos and Don'ts is simple.

Don't talk about yourself.  That's already been done by the person who introduced you.  Face it, the event isn't about you, and years from now most won't remember who spoke.  The only reason I remember that the ambassador to India spoke at my undergraduate graduation is my friend Jaime stood up and heckled the guy.  You'll note that I didn't state the name of the ambassador, and that's because I don't remember who he was.  I did remember Jaime because graduation is about family and friends -- not the speaker.

Do make it relevant.  So you're a famous police procedurals mystery writer giving a convocation speech to students who have just completed four or five years of Criminal Justice courses, that doesn't mean you should talk about the writing process, or how you once in their shoes -- see above advice.  You should talk about how they will use the skills and knowledge in their future pursuits.  Just avoid the "You will go out and change the world" platitudes; go instead for the "Small acts have an impact" type of theme.

Don't wing it.  Yes, there are some really good speakers out there who seem to speak extemporaneously, but they are really, really good at what they do, and they never actually show up unprepared.  Even the best of them usually have a small note card with the main points written down.  This year's PoliSci convocation speaker told me that he had written down three words to remind himself of what he wanted to cover.

Do stick to three main points.  This true for both spoken and written work.  This bit of advice I got from a professor when I was in graduate school.  Seems anything less than that provides too little information, and anything more than that would bore the audience silly.  You want what you have to say to be memorable, but not for being boring.

Don't go over the time allotted.  You've been given 10 or 20 minutes, and going over by a minute or two can be forgiven, but anything more than makes you a pompous ass.  Yes, graduations involve pomp and circumstance, but it's the students' day, not yours.  In all likelihood, the parents have made dinner reservations and will be looking at the program to figure out how much longer before the family can celebrate their kid's achievement with food and presents.  Your speech should not interfere with their plans.

Do feel free to give a reality check, but do it in a way that doesn't belittle the audience, but with light humor or profound imagery.  My favorites are David McCullough's "You Are Not Special" commencement speech and David Foster Wallance's 2005 commencement speech, called "This Is Water":

In the end, it's not the speech that matters.  Nor is it the degree that the graduates may or may not have earned.  It's about what they do with what they've heard both in and out of the classroom.  I tell my students that elementary, junior and high schools made them good citizens, that it's my job to make them thinking voters, but in the end it's up to them to be thoughtful.  We must all remember that we are not special, that it's not about us as individuals but about us as society, and that reality, even the banal kind, is about making conscious choices.

You may now commence with your summer vacation, and remember to enjoy the water and to wear sunscreen.

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Adding Codes Randomly

The wonders of modern communications have only grown since the last time La Professora addressed the issue of contacting professors, back in 2007, but student etiquette hasn't improved with them. 

The Spring semester began at the end of January and the economic situation being what it is, courses in public colleges and universities are hard to come by; so students are scrambling to find courses to full out their schedule.  Thus the email have come flying, plentiful and fast.  In the last week alone, I've received enough requests for add codes to fill a whole new course section.

The emails fall into a number of categories.

The first category is of emails sent by students who have spammed all the professors in hopes that one or two will respond with a, "Yeah, there's room in the course, here's an add code", at which point the student decides whether or not the course is interesting enough to be worth enrolling.  To those, I say come to class, see if it's a good fit, and then ask for an add code afterward.  Amazing how many students who "must have" the course never show up.

The second category involves the students who think lying to the instructor will get them what they want.  "I'm graduating this semester, and this is the only class I can take that will complete the ______ requirement."  What the students don't get is all that is verifiable. Yes, when the course is full I will give an add code to a student who's in that situation, but only if the student truly is in that situation.

The third category is made up of emails begging for an add code within 24 hours of the deadline to add.  I sometimes wonder about those students.  In all probability, if they're waiting until the last minute to add the course, they probably will be asking for last minute extensions on their term papers. I'm not saying that in college I did all my essays weeks in advance, but I did know that waiting to the last few hours does nothing for the quality of the work and asking for an extension at the point better come with a darn good reason why.

The fourth category irritates simply because the students assume they are the only one searching for open courses.  This involves variations on "The computer system shows that there's a spot open in your course and I want to take it."  I'm sorry but that slot was taken by the student who came by my office to ask in person for the add code and that student hasn't had a chance to use it yet.  Again, see my rant on why asking in person is better than on the phone or via email.

The fifth category is one that deserves its own hall of shame: the email that just asks for an add code without giving any pertinent information.  The following is the worst example I've seen in ages, in that it falls into the third, fourth and fifth categories:
"Hello, this is (name removed to protect the foolish), it shows that u have open space but was not able to register. can i please get add code? Thank You"
As I teach at both the college and the university in town, and multiple courses at one of them, I have no idea what course add code I should give this person.  Perhaps one for the Counseling office's Time Management course.

Don't even get me started on the text 'speak'.  Last week I had a student ask if she could drop off her homework at "UR" office.  No, I emailed back, as I don't know where the "UR" office is, I'd rather she turn it in to my office.  Of course, I'd really prefer that she show up to class and turn it in then, but I can't have everything.

The point of all this is quite simple:  before you email your professors, make sure that your email (a) does not fall into one of the above categories and (b) is actually intelligible in the proper, grammatically correct English sense.  Consider this a vicarious learning experience; after all, that is what college is supposed to offer.
Image Source: http://lifehacker.com/5930614/one-simple-trick-to-reduce-email-overload-for-everyone

Friday, February 03, 2012

Preaching to the Randomness

Recently, I was asked to fill in on a Sunday that our minister had off -- even ministers get to sleep in on a Sunday now and then. I have since been asked by several members to send them a copy of the sermon. A better idea, thought I, would be to post it here, with the various bits that help make some of the sermon coherent, as it references a portion of the other bits. Keep in mind, if you were there that Sunday, the sermon here is not exactly as given -- I teach for a living and sometimes I ad-lib to highlight a point, or to throw in a bit of humor, to help students grasp what I'm saying.

Thus you have, "Every Little Bit Counts", given January 29, 2012:

Opening Words:
The UU church I grew up in would start each Sunday Service with the reciting of the Covenant. I'd like to share that with you. (#471 in the Hymnal -- Typical for UUs, the reference to God at the end was dropped):

Love is the doctrine of this church, the quest of truth is its sacrament and service is its prayer.
To dwell together in peace,
to seek knowledge in freedom, to serve humanity in fellowship, to the end that all souls shall grow into harmony with the divine,
this do we covenant with one another.

Children's story:
The Native Americans believed that before there was man on the earth, there was just the animals. The Great Spirit had given the animals rules to live by, but after a while they stopped following the rules. The Great Spirit, to punish the animals, took away the sunlight by drawing a veil over the earth.

The animals had a great council to discuss the problem. It was decided to send the strongest, the fiercest of them to talk to the Great Spirit, to apologize in order to get the sunlight back.

The animals turned to the Grizzly Bear, but he said that he was sleepy and was going to take a nap. They turned to the Wolf, but Wolf said she had a hunt to organize. They turned to the Coyote, who was the cleverest of them, but Coyote said, "I kinda like the dark". Next came the Owl, but Owl was happy being able to hunt in the dark. The Eagle was too busy getting ready for his own hunt. Down the list of animals the council went, but each animal didn't want to make the effort. All but the Hummingbird. "You're too small," said the animals, "the Great Spirit would never listen to you."

So the Hummingbird decided to make an effort anyway. So she flew into the heavens, having just enough energy to poke her beak through the veil before falling back to the earth. Over and over the Hummingbird did this. Thousands upon thousands of times she tried to break through the veil to speak with the Great Spirit. Finally, the Great Spirit noticed that there were a bunch of holes in the veil between the earth and sunlight, and a tiny beak poking through over and over.

The Great Spirit pulled back the veil, and scooped up the Hummingbird. "Little Hummingbird, what are you doing?"

"I am trying to break through the veil to see you, to tell you that the animals are sorry for breaking the rules. Please give us back the sunlight."

The Great Spirit saw the tremendous effort the little Hummingbird had made, and decided to give back the sunlight. To remind the animals of that effort, and to not break the rules again, the Great Spirit pulls that veil back over the earth every night, and we can see the holes the Hummingbird made -- they're the pinpoints of light in the night sky.

As a professor, I'm used to speaking to a crowd, I'm just not used to the crowd being really interested in what I have to say. I usually start with a review from last time, but as this is my first time, I'll start with a joke.

A wild fire raged into a town, and embers set the roofs of three houses of worship alight. The religious leaders begged the fire chief to allow them in to retrieve their most sacred items. Granted only a few minutes, each rushed into the burning buildings. The priest grabbed the golden crucifix off the altar; the rabbi grabbed the torah; and the UU minister grabbed .... the coffee pot.

While funny, this joke points to the heart of UUism: Community. We gather in a community to share our joys and sorrows, to feel bound together in something greater than ourselves. Coffee hour is but one way we express this communion.

And yet....

Coffee hour is the reason why I'm giving this sermon. The volunteer coordinator for a previous month was bemoaning the difficulty in getting people to volunteer to make the coffee, to bring the snacks, and to clean up afterward. I pointed out that, like any community with more than 2 people, we suffer from what Political Scientists and Economists call a Free Rider problem and the result is the Tragedy of the Commons.

When I explained what these concepts were, I found myself "volunteered" to give today's sermon.

The Free Rider problem occurs when a person derives what Economists call a "positive externality" from the actions of another person. That positive externality is a benefit from the action to which the first person did not contribute. The problem lies in that it is impossible to exclude those who do not contribute from some common good or action.

National defense is the classic example of a public good with a free rider problem. Everyone benefits from national defense, whether or not (s)he pays taxes.

Aristotle noted that "what is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it"

Thus the free rider problem creates a paradox: If there is no incentive to contribute, there is diminished incentive for others to provide the benefit. It is for this reason that valued public goods are often undersupplied. The logic of collective action then results in a "Let Mikey do it" mentality, in which Mikey represents everybody else in the world.

We all want the maximum good possible, but cannot agree what is good, nor how to go about supplying it. Adam Smith, in Wealth of Nations (1776) discussed the idea of allowing each individual to pursue the good he values most. In his analysis, Smith seems to promote the idea that as each seeks the most personal gain, that person is “led by an invisible hand to promote … the public interest.” The assumption was that each would be driven by rational analysis to reach a decision that would simultaneously benefit the individual and society.

Garrett Hardin, a former professor of Human Ecology at UCSB, wrote on this idea, calling it the Tragedy of the Commons.

Imagine, says Hardin, a pasture open to all. It is to be expected that each herdsman will want to have as large a herd as possible on that pasture, trying to maximize his gain. The rational herdsman reaches the same conclusion as all the others sharing the common pasture: a larger herd is good. Thus, the pasture is then ruined by overgrazing.

A satellite photo in 1974 gave proof to this. Areas of northern Africa showed that land that had been held in common had been overused, and thus devastated. Only in the privately held areas was the land still fertile – there the owners had incentive to protect the productivity of the land.

In Federalist #51, James Madison wrote that “If men were angels, no Government would be necessary.” The reality is that humans are not angelic, and thus each human is guided by self-interest when it comes to the common good, even when individual benefits are the result of societal suffering.

Some have argued that there are solutions to this problem. Theorists believe that education can counteract human’s natural tendency to do the “wrong” thing. As an instructor, I can tell you that education must be re-enforced constantly. As children we were taught to share, but as adults we must be reminded.

The size of the society has an effect on cooperative behavior. A look at the Hutterite religious community demonstrated that an unmanaged commons became more harmed the larger the community became. A study done of this community showed that when the community’s size approached 150, the individual members began to undercontribute abilities and to overestimate needs.

The researchers investigating found that when the community was below 150 members, distribution of benefits was regulated by the use of shaming those who did not engage in a balance of abilities and needs. It is when the group becomes too large, the fear of what others would think no longer works to regulate the behavior of the community.

In the modern, secular society in which we live, there are more than 150 of us. The problem becomes one of the Bystander Effect. This refers to the phenomenon in which the larger the number of people present, the less likely individuals will get involved. Researchers have repeatedly found that people are more likely to get involved in an emergency situation if there are few or no witnesses.

Bibb Latane and John Darley did a series of now classic experiments exploring this phenomenon. In one experiment, college students were sat in a cubicle from which they could hear what they thought were real people. At one point, one of the voices calls out for help and is heard choking. If the students thought they were the only other one there, 85% of the time they rushed to help the “choker”. When they thought there was at least one other person among the cubicles who could help the choker, the response rate dropped to 65%. When they thought there were at least four other people, the rate plummeted to 31%.

In another experiment, participants were sent to a room to fill out a questionnaire. The room then began to fill with smoke. If the participants were alone in the room, they were likely to report the smoke 75% of the time. To test the bystander effect, Latane and Darley placed in the room two confederates who would note the smoke and then ignore it. In those cases, the participant would report the smoke only 10% of the time.

Theorists have come up with two possible explanations for the bystander effect.

First, the presence of others creates the belief in the diffusion of responsibility. Because there are other observers, individuals do not feel the need to take action – the responsibility to take action is shared by all present; there is the “Let Mikey take care of it” mentality. The larger the group, the more the responsibility is diffused.

Second, humans have a need to behave in what is perceived to be the correct and socially accepted manner. We are herd animals and thus do not wish to be seen as being “not herd”. When others fail to act, individuals see this as a social signal that a response is not needed or not appropriate.

Psychologists, addressing these ideas, posit that the solution then is to ask people directly, by name, to do something. Allowing the assumption that someone else will do it will result in it not getting done.

How does this apply to us, as members of a UU community? We pride ourselves in our commitment to others – our Social Action Committee routinely, and wonderfully, guides us to greater commitment to the local community’s needs. But it is the little things that fall through the cracks.

The point of all this is not to ask for money – though if the roof caught on fire, the Building & Grounds committee won’t say no to donations – but to ask of you to be more conscious of your actions. Are you falling victim of the Tragedy of the Commons, do you Ride for Free, are you merely a Bystander in life?

To paraphrase JFK, Ask not what your community can do for you, ask what you can do for your community, whether it be this UU Fellowship, the town you live in, or the wider world as a whole. Let not your decisions be driven solely by self benefit, for Adam Smith was wrong – it will not lead to societal benefits – but instead consider the greater good your actions can create.

Our religious tradition calls on all religious texts to guide us to “grow into harmony with the divine”. So I call on the variety of texts that teach us the same message, that of the Golden Rule:

From Christianity (Matthew 7:12 and Luke 6:31):
“Do to others whatever you would like them to do to you.”

From Hinduism (Mahabharata, Ansusana Parva 113.8):
“One should not behave towards others in a way which is disagreeable to oneself. This is the essence of morality. All other activities are due to selfish desire.”

From Confusianism (Analects 15.23):
“Tsekung asked, "Is there one word that can serve as a principle of conduct for life?" Confucius replied, "It is the word shu--reciprocity: Do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you."

From the Yoruba (Nigeria) tribal proverb:
“One going to take a pointed stick to pinch a baby bird should first try it on himself to feel how it hurts.”

From the Talmud (Shabbat 31a):
"What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor: that is the whole Torah; all the rest of it is commentary; go and learn."

Let us all be the hummingbird of our own community.

Go in Peace, Be at Peace. Blessed Be.

[The Volunteer Coordinator for February tells me that at Coffee Hour, she had lots of members volunteer to make coffee, to bring snacks, and to clean up. Yea!]

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Random Bits of Advice

As a professor, I've gotten used to students coming by the office for advice on a miscellany of issues, from what classes to take to whether parents are being unreasonable for filing divorce papers in the middle of the semester; from what graduate schools to consider to how best to tell the parental units of a non-mainstream sexual orientation; from how to deal with a failing grade to how to deal with a failing relationship. I'm not entirely sure how or why I've become Mother Confessor / Dear Abby, but I do know what the students tell me: that I'm a good listener and that I give great advice. For that, I thank my father.

It's easy to give good advice when in my life I had a father who had given me excellent advice. When I wonder what I should do, the voice I hear is Dad's -- even though he's been gone since 2004. Raised in a house with three older sisters meant that there was a great deal of aggravation for the younger me. I could depend on Dad to be there to advise and to point out the humor of the situation. Years later, I found out that one of his favorite stories was about one of those frustrating times. I was about 7 and deeply exasperated with one of my siblings. He said, with all kindness intended, "You can pick your friends and you can pick your nose, but you can't pick your family." He laughed whenever he recalled the reply of that 7-year-old: "Yeah, but you sure can try to pick them off!" As I got older, and began to understand the undercurrents and complexities of our family dynamics, his bits of advice were better taken.

He was more than my support system in trying times, he was a fount of great wisdom in all aspects of life. I turned to him for guidance on all sorts of things -- from how to change a tire in the rain by myself to how to deal with relationship issues. I will admit, as is the case with most adolescents and young adults, I would on occasion ignore his exemplary advice -- even saying such things as "I need to learn from my own mistakes", which is a mistake in and of itself -- but in the end, I found that his advice was most excellent.

Thus, as I listen to my students' and friends' tales of dissatisfaction with life, I channel my father. Sometimes, people just want to know that they're on the right track. Other times, they need a gentle devil's advocate to ease them back into rationality. Most just need a touchstone to help them on their way through life. Often, that touchstone is found in the advice-seeker's own words, it just needs to be refined into a simple statement. This is where Dad's best quality, which he then taught to me, was of great assistance: listening. Sometimes, listening is all that is needed. I've had a number of students thank me for my great counsel even when I've said nothing at all; they had managed to work it all out on their own just saying what they needed to out loud. Other times, listening allows me to get to the core of the problem, and from there the advice suggests itself.

Recently, a student came to me for dating advice. After listening to her complaints about the imperfect men in her life and their sometimes unreasonable expectations of her, I gave her a rule that has held me in good stead for decades: 'If you truly love someone, you'd be willing to change everything about yourself for that person; if they truly love you, they'd never ask you to.' She stopped for a moment, thought about that, and told me that I was brilliant. No, I told her, my father had given me that bit of wisdom when I was 15 and it took me a while to realize that it was sound advice, but following it led me to my wonderful husband. "Your father must have been a very smart guy" was her response.

Yes, he was.

Soon it will be another Father's Day without him, and I miss him -- and his advice -- dearly, but I have a hoard of his suggestions, opinions, and recommendations to draw upon whenever I'm stuck for what to do or say. For me, the abbreviation is WWDS -- What Would Dad Say?

Got any wisdom from you father you'd like to share? I'm listening.
Image Source: Quotesbuddy.com

Monday, April 25, 2011

Big Random Words

I like big words and I cannot lie.

La Professora is known to use what I call "S.A.T. words" in lecture because the dumbing down of a college education has been more than just an oxymoron. In my classroom, the expectation is that the students will either already have a working college-level vocabulary or will use those bits of technology they lug to class to look up something useful such as the meaning of a word they don't know, rather than finding out that their BFF's latest MyFace status is "functionally drunk".

Likewise, my love for big words encompasses small words with big meanings. If you can easily spot the nuances between "You cannot go" and "You can not go", or between "You like him more than I" and "You like him more than me", then you too must have a love for small words with big meanings. Unfortunately, those who know the difference are becoming rare.

The push to national standards in writing has left this country with students who studied for "The Test" and who have no real skills when it comes to the English language. I've met students in other countries whose vocabulary in English -- a foreign language to them -- puts the OMGing students here to shame. We are left with American students who cannot differentiate between "then" and "than", let alone between "effect" and "affect".

However, it is not just the national standards and the teaching to the test that are to blame. Technology has its own share of the culpability for the limiting of our national lexicon. Once upon a time, the telephone was cursed for ending the skills of letter writing; emails, it was said, would bring that back to the fore. It was not to be. Texting is now the mode of communication favored by the young and some of the not-so-young, and "text-speak" has become the mode of information dissemination -- a form that is bemoaned by instructors around the world, regardless of primary language.

English is such a rich language with a myriad of ways to communicate the hardest of concepts with the simplest of words, or the simplest of notions in the complexest of political double-speak. Yet our students limit themselves to endless rounds of "like" and "y'know?".

This nescience is due, in part, to the lack of any real reading. Students marvel at the fact that La Professora can devour a novel at a rate of between 60 to 90 pages an hour. What could explain the marveling is a poll done in 2007 that found that 1 in 4 Americans -- 25% for those not so mathematically inclined -- did not read a single book within the previous year. The average number of books read by the other 75% was seven. No wonder Borders Bookstore is going out of business.

La Professora's first semester teaching at the alma mater was the first encounter with the limited vocabulary of the students. Off a group of them went to grumble to the chair of the department that the instructor was using "Big Words" in the research methods course. The chair was laughing when he told me that the exemplar the students had given him in their complaint was "parsimonious". This was the beginning of the expectation that students in all my courses will expand their vocabulary.

So it was, during an average day of teaching 2 semesters ago, that a student raised his hand and asked the question: "Where did you learn all those Big Words?!" I modestly responded that "I read". There was a moment of silence, and then the student asked, "What's the name of the book." Before I could recover from the fact that he had assumed that I had read only one book, another student blurted out, "Dude! It's called The Dictionary!"

I like big words, but never realized that "knowledge" had become one of them.

Image Sources:

Monday, March 21, 2011

Random Nature

It has been a while since La Professora has blogged. I could blame the fact that I was teaching and grading for 8 courses until last week, or I could blame the fact that I'm still trying to get a house unpacked and organized after moving in some 9+ months ago, but the truth is La Professora is a lazy being. It takes a lot to get La Professora worked up enough to want to drop all the personal and professional obligations, but the earthquake and resultant tsunami earlier this month was enough to get me to at least share some of the impressive images that came out of Japan since then.

First, a video, well worth the watch, of the waters rushing in on the tsunami wave:

Then there are photos that seem incredible even after having watched the video:
First, a couple of photos of the damage caused by the earthquake,

then the damage caused by the tsunami.

The video and photos say pretty much everything.

Mother Nature is not some kindly old lady who bakes cookies.
She's a terrorist, striking when we least expect it.

Image Sources:
Broken road 1: http://kiwinewsonline.co.nz/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/Cracked-road-from-Japan-quake-as-shown-on-Japanese-TV.jpg
Broken road 2: http://www.cbsnews.com/i/tim/2011/03/11/quake_620x350.jpg
Before and After: http://www.dhyra.com/2011/03/before-after-satellite-images-of-japan.html
Car on building: http://news.bbcimg.co.uk/media/images/51650000/jpg/_51650114_jex_984236_de27-1.jpg
Car on building 2: http://www.gimpchat.com/files/196_car-roof-japan-equake-tsunami.jpg
Car on Nose: http://media.naplesnews.com/media/img/photos/2011/03/13/tsunami_15_t607.jpg
shipping containers: http://www.poynter.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/Japan-Quake-2011-C.jpg
Airplane: http://www.defencetalk.com/pictures/data/4808/medium/F-16-fighter-tsunami-japan-01.JPG

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Atomic Randomness

Over the summer, I had the pleasure of team-teaching a course with a mentor and colleague of mine. As luck would have it, it was the same course he had team-taught with another some 20 years before, and in that classroom was a young, know-it-all La Professora. The course was War and Peace. This summer I used a book titled The Ethics of War and Peace by Paul Christopher, in which was the discussion of whether or not it is ethical to use various types of weapons, including nuclear, to achieve a military and/or political goal.

On August 6th, 1945, the US made a significant step toward securing peace in the war with the Japanese, yet took an even larger leap into making the world a little less secure. That day, at 8:15am local time, the B-29 commonly known as the Enola Gay released "Little Boy". Weighing 9,700 pounds, it had the explosive power of 20,000 tons of TNT.

The choice of city was not random. Four cities were selected as potential targets: Hiroshima, Kokura, Nagasaki, and Niigata. The committee set up to select the target decided that the first bomb must be dropped on a city that was relatively untouched by previous bombing runs on the country. Thus Tokyo, the much bombed capital, was off the list. The reason was simple: if the city was nearly pristine, the impact of the weapon would be more measurable, and thus the importance of the weapon immediately seen by our enemies and the allies alike.

There was another reason for selecting Hiroshima: it was the headquarters for both the Japanese 5th Division and the 2nd Army. The port was also an important communications center. However, it was known that the explosive power of the bomb was too vast to be limited to targeting military bases. Civilians, even those not involved in the war effort, were expected to perish.

Scientists had believed that the civilians would hide in bomb shelters and thus expected the loss of life to be much lower than the 80,000 or more people who died instantly. However, the single B-29 did not cause the people to fear a bombing, so most carried on with their activities. Because the uranium-235 bomb had not been tested, the US decided not to tell the Japanese about the impending bombing, in case it malfunctioned.

As the weather was reported to be clear over the primary choice of Hiroshima, the go-ahead was given to target the T-shaped Aioi Bridget in the middle of the city. Due to crosswind, the bomb detonated 1,900 feet above the Shima Surgical Clinic, some 800 feet from the targeted bridge.

The destruction was massive. The immediate damage caused by the blast wave, felt from 37 miles away, destroyed buildings within a 1 mile radius. Witnesses more than five miles from 'ground zero' reported seeing a fireball 10 times the brightness of the sun. The heat from the blast, which reached a temperature of over 7,000 degrees F, caused anything made of paper or cloth to instantly ignite, and the resulting fires damaged or destroyed buildings within 4.4 miles of the blast, effectively destroying two-thirds of the city. The exact number of dead will never be known as the records of the city were incinerated.

Further damaging the city were the winds caused by the blast. It is believed that, as close as one-third of a mile from the center of the explosion, ground wind speeds were about 620 mph, generating roughly 4,600 pounds of pressure per square foot. By the time the winds reached one mile from the blast, they had decreased to 190 mph, which is still fast enough to generate over a thousand pounds of pressure per square foot. To give a sense of what that must have been like, a Category 5 hurricane has sustainable winds speeds of 155 mph or more. Katrina, which hit New Orleans, was only blowing winds of 125 mph when it made landfall, making it a strong Category 3 hurricane at that point. The winds of Hiroshima were strong enough drive broken glass deep into concrete.

Those who survived the initial blast and the resulting fires and winds but were exposed to the massive gamma rays suffered from radiation poisoning. Due to the location of the target being so close to the city's hospitals, 90 percent of the medical personnel were dead, and the remaining medical facilities lacked the ability to handle such a massive number of victims.

To complicate matters, the vacuum caused by the heat's updraft sucked up massive amounts of radioactive dust which rained down 30 minutes later on parts of the city that had been left relatively untouched by the blast wave. One-fifth of the population died within 5 years due to exposure to radiation. Nearly all of those within a half-mile radius of 'ground zero' who survived the initial blast and the fires died within 30 days due to radiation poisoning. Nearly half of those in Hiroshima who died of leukemia and about 10% who died of cancer had their disease as a result of their exposure to radiation.

The Japanese military and civilian leadership were so shocked by the bombing that they denied that the destruction could have been caused by an atomic bomb. Instead, they claimed it must be some new sort of conventional weapon. Sixteen hours later, President Truman sent Japan the message that if it did not offer its unconditional surrender immediately, the US would be forced to repeat its action on another of Japan's cities. Three days after the bombing of Hiroshima, Nagasaki was targeted. Coming only one day after the Soviets had entered the Pacific theater, it was clear that the US was willing to force the issue quickly.

Overruling the objections of the military, Emperor "Tenno" Hirohito demanded that the country begin the negotiations that would lead to surrender. President Truman suspended all further atomic attacks on the Japanese mainland. That did not, however, end the conventional bombing of Japan. As the military and civilian leadership of Japan dickered over the terms, aerial bombing of Tokyo resumed. To further force the issue, the US dropped leaflets on the population that explained the terms that had been offered. On August 15, the citizens of Japan heard for the first time the voice of their emperor, recorded so that there would be no question as to his "divine" will, as he read the country's acceptance of the terms of surrender. Citing the fact that "the enemy has begun to employ a new and most cruel bomb", he acknowledged that continuing the war was not to Japan's advantage.

The nuclear weapons genie will not return to its bottle. In viewing the destructive power of Little Boy, the co-pilot of the Enola Gay, Captain Robert Lewis, uttered the immortal words, "My God, what have we done?". Some have argued that the death caused by those two bombs are outweighed by those that would have been caused on both sides by a conventional invasion of Japan. The projected US casualties due to an invasion were set at around 500,000. The question posed to the War and Peace students this summer was simple: When is is acceptable to resort to nuclear weapons? There's no clear answer to this question.

What I can say is that I've been to Hiroshima and its Peace Park. I've seen the memorials and read the tales. I've touched the "Shadow of Buddha" statue and felt powerful emotional draw that forced my eyes straight upward, to where the hypocenter had been, some 600 yards above me. There are some places in the world where an event leaves a lasting impression. Hiroshima is one such place.

Perhaps having been to see the Peace Park and its museum is the reason I was sadden by the passing in January of this year at the age of 93 of the man who had survived both the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. His outlook on life is one we all should take to heart:

"I could have died on either of those two days. Everything that follows is a bonus."

Image Sources: Aioi Bridge: http://www.iwu.edu/~rwilson/hiroshima/
Hiroshima Before and After: http://www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/AAF/USSBS/AtomicEffects/AtomicEffects-2.html
Atomic Dome: La Professora's personal travel photos.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Taxing the Random

It is hardly a novel idea, but one that is worthy of at least some discussion: Tax the unhealthy stuff in our food.

Last Thursday night, during my lecture on economic and foreign policies in the American Government course, I proposed the idea of providing health care to everyone in the country -- either by assisting citizens in buying private policies or by providing universal health care, pick your preference -- by taxing food based on the ingredients that are causing the various health complications in this country. This is based on the logic of supply and demand. Currently, in this country, 'junk' food is cheaper than food that is good for our bodies and thus our health.

I'm not suggesting that we only eat tofu for every meal -- I've yet to be convinced that tofu is (a) really food, and (b) entirely good for humans.

What I am suggesting is that if junk food were the same price as or more than the wholesome foods, perhaps the demand for junk food would go down. The supply would never entirely go away, but perhaps it would be naturally curtailed and be considered more of a luxury item rather than a necessity it is currently be perceived as by American society.

How we go about achieving this transformation is through a tax on the harmful ingredients. This has been proposed before, with very little success. The so-called "Twinkie Tax" didn't make it much beyond the press blitz that politicians engage in to make the populace think that something is being done. In 2009, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 67% of Americans were overweight -- half of those, 34% of the total, were obese. An additional 6% were extremely obese, for a total of 73% of Americans having a Body Mass Index of 25 or higher.

It was believed by many, inside and outside of this country, that the reason why Americans are so overweight in comparison to the rest of the world is that we eat too much. Yes, we do -- too much junk food. It is easy to see how the general perception of our overeating was created. Not too long after moving to this country, a friend was treated by La Professora to a dinner at a restaurant. The friend -- I'll call her Miss M -- had been warned by family and friends in France that she should be careful, that living in America would make her fat. So, to prevent this, Miss M ordered a salad. When the salad arrived, her eyes become huge -- to match the size of the plate of greenery. We ate and chatted, and ate some more. It soon become clear that Miss M was no longer enjoying her salad, but was continuing to eat it. I pointed out that if she was full, she could take the rest home in a "doggy bag" -- thus introducing her to yet another Americanism. She wondered at the idea of taking the extra home -- in France, one only orders that which one can eat at the restaurant -- so I explained that Americans like the idea of getting "value" for their money. What that means for the discussion here is that in the mind of American consumers, lots of cheap junk food is better than a little good food at the same price.

Thus the way to get Americans to eat better is to give healthy food more appeal, pocketbook-wise. Even the most liberal of Americans would howl at the idea of more farm subsidies, which totaled $7.5 billion last year -- in 2005, the total was $16.4 billion. If farm subsidies for the producers of healthy food is out, then taxation for the producers of junk food should be considered.

The aforementioned proposed Twinkie Tax was for a 7 to 10 percent tax. The idea was based on the 'sin' tax on cigarettes. Driving up the price, it was believed, would cause people to think twice before purchasing the sugary, fattening food they crave. That low tax might not be enough, but it certainly would be more effective than some sort of subsidy. In a recent edition of Psychological Science, researchers exploring the question of taxation versus subsidy found that women who did the grocery shopping would buy more healthy food, as measure by a calorie-for-nutrient value, when the unhealthy food was taxed at either 12.5% or 25%. On the subsidy side, the researchers found that when the price of the healthy food was lowered and the unhealthy food remained the same, the women would buy some of the healthy food and then 'spurge' on the unhealthy food with the money saved on the healthy -- thus not decreasing the number of overall calories.

The researchers' methodology of measuring the calorie-for-nutrient value seems a bit complicated, but it did show a change in consumer behavior. The proposal I gave my students last week was much more simpler than the CFN calculations: tax by percentage of the Daily Value.

The federal Food and Drug Administration plans to cut down on the amount of salt that the average American consumes by setting limits for the various foods. This is both too complicated and prone to fudging as the various industries lobby to set their own limits. The fact that the trade group representing the soda industry spent $5.4 million in the first three months of this year to keep lawmakers from limiting exposure of sugary drinks to children is evidence that the various food corporations do not have Americans' health in mind.

No, the solution is a tax based on the amount of the Daily Value percentage for sodium, sugar, and fat listed on the Nutrition Fact label on each item. Take the label for a generic bag of barbeque potato chips to the right. The total sodium percentage of the Daily Value is a whopping 62% and the total fat is a mind-blowing 99% -- eating one serving of 7 ounces of these chips means that the rest of the day's food must be truly fat-free and nearly sodium-free. In my proposal, this 99¢ item would be taxed at 161%, raising the price to $2.58, which would give pause to even the most drugged out pothead with the munchies.

Exempt from the tax would be foods that are not processed beyond the necessary sanitation and packaging. Dairy products such as milk, cheese, and yogurt would be exempt; meats that are merely butchered and packaged would be exempt; fruits and vegetables in their natural state, either fresh or frozen, would be exempt.

Now comes the question of how much would such a tax raise to help cover the cost of health care. Colorado is considering ending the 2.9% sales tax-exemption on candy and soda. It is believed that doing so would increase state revenue by $17.9 million next year. That's just for Colorado, imagine how much would be raised across all the states at a much higher rate than a mere 3%. Maybe, once everyone has health coverage, we could start paying down the national debt too.

Of course, when everyone starts to avoid the high priced junk food, there would be less tax revenue for the health care coverage plan. Instead, the increase in better eating would mean that more people would be healthier and thus cutting down on the need for costlier health care coverage. A win-win around the political spectrum.

For those on the right who decry such a taxation policy as an infringement on personal responsibility, I say that this is hardly the case. The government would not be telling people what they can and cannot eat, rather it would be putting a more immediate cost on choosing to eat unhealthily. Further, it would create more jobs. Yes, as demand for the processed food decreases, jobs in the automated food processing plants would go down in number. However, jobs at farmer's markets and industries providing healthier food would increase. Likewise, healthier people are 3 times more productive, taking far fewer sick days, and making significantly fewer errors on the job. More productivity means a better economy, which in turn decreases unemployment.

Everyone wins from a healthier diet. Just don't expect La Professora to eat tofu.

Image credits: http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/hestat/overweight/overweight_05_06_fig2.GIF

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Randomness as Acts of God

La Professora is the last to belittle anyone's personal religious beliefs, but even I have a hard time defending the latest pronouncement by Marion 'Pat' Robertson. For those of you not paying attention to the news -- and shame on you -- his zealotness announced that the earthquake in Haiti is part of the curse that hangs over that country as a result of "a pact to the devil." While his spokesperson pointed out that the earthquake itself was not a sign of "God's wrath" against the country, he did continue Robertson's theme: "History, combined with the horrible state of the country, has led countless scholars and religious figures over the centuries to believe the country is cursed".

The Haitian ambassador was not amused. In an interview with Rachel Maddow on MSNBC, Ambassador Raymond Joseph pointed out that, if Haiti had made a pact with the devil in order to become independent from France in the 1800s, and if the US was able to secure the Louisiana Purchase as a result of the conflict Haiti had with the French, then American benefited from that so-called 'pact with the devil' by gaining enough territory to create 13 states.

The White House made it clear that Pat Robertson does not speak for most Americans, if any. Robert Gibbs, the spokesperson for the Obama Administration, said, "It never ceases to amaze, that in times of amazing human suffering, somebody says something that could be so utterly stupid. But it, like clockwork, happens with some regularity."

And with regularity Pat Robertson does indeed stick his foot in his mouth. Seems that Robertson and his ilk have regularly exploited disasters and attacks for their own ends. What those ends are is anyone's guess, but I'd have to say it's to promote his vision for the proper American way of religious life. What follows is but a small selection of the idiocy produced by the man.

Let us start with the doozyist of them all: The attacks of September 11, 2001 was the fault of the pagans, the abortionists, the feminists, the gays and lesbians, the ACLU, and the People for the American Way. Okay, so it was Jerry Falwell who said, "I point the finger in their face and say 'you helped this happen'", but it was on Robertson's show on Robertson's network, and Robertson "totally concur[red]". Seems that defending the freedom from any religious doctrine that might restrict the rest of their liberties, the above named groups made "God mad" and that's why 19 fundamentalist Muslim terrorists used four planes in an attempt to get America to change its foreign policy toward the Middle East.

After the Katrina tragedy, Robertson had his own theory as to the cause. There are some environmentalists who believe the disaster was the result poor land management. For Robertson, it was clearer than that: the Old Testiment says that those who shed innocent blood will find that the land will vomit them out. His take on the situation was that the abortion of 40 million -- his number -- fetuses made God send a hurricane that killed 1,800 innocent people in the Gulf Coast.

Robertson isn't just in the business in laying blame retro-actively, he also has warned of possible future disasters for failing to live up to his idea of God's standards. For Dover, Pennsylvania, he predicted a vague tragedy as a result of voting out the members of the school board who favored intelligent design over evolution. "I'd like to say to the good citizens of Dover: If there is a disaster in your area, don't turn to God. You just rejected him from your city .... I recommend they call on Charles Darwin."

While there was a rumor that Pat Robertson had said Katrina was the result of God's anger over Ellen Degeneres -- a well-known lesbian -- being selected to host the Emmy Awards that year, a rumor that proved to be false, he did 'predict' in 1998 that the Gay Pride Festival flags that Orlando, Florida, had set up around town would result in a hurricane. Specifically he said, "you're right in the way of some serious hurricanes, and I don't think I'd be waving those flags in God's face if I were you." I'm only guessing, but there are probably more than one member of the gay community that is rather happy Robertson isn't them.

Yet, he is very clearly against people like Ellen Degeneres. In 1992, he wrote in a letter to raise funds to defeat an Equal Rights amendment to the Iowa Constitution, in which he said the feminist movement wasn't really about getting equal rights for all, "it is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians." Not be out done, fifteen years later, he tells the world that yoga is evil.

Fearing that America was being taken over by secularists, Robertson addressed the need to have more religiously conservative justices on the Supreme Court. "Operation Supreme Court Freedom" was a call to the faithful to pray that John Roberts would get a speedy confirmation to the US Supreme Court. On August 2nd of 2005, his prayer was rather specific: "Take control, Lord! We ask for additional vacancies on the court, and we ask for additional fine people like John Roberts."

Calling for the death of a political figure is hardly unique for Robertson. Turning his eye to the international stage, he weighed in on what the United States should do to leaders of other nations: assassination. Not having the slightest clue of either geography or ideology beyond his own, in 2005 Robertson stated that Venezuela was going to be "the launching pad for communist infiltration and Muslim extremism." Thus, he called for the assassination of Hugo Chavez. "We have the ability to take him out, and I think the time has come that we exercise that ability." Being able and being morally and politically justified are two vastly different things.

When it came to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's stroke in 2006, Robertson had an answer for that too. God's retribution for "dividing God's land". The same reason, according to Robertson, explains the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. "...I would say woe unto any prime minister of Israel who takes a similar course to appease the EU, the United Nations or United States of America. God said, 'This land belongs to me, you better leave it alone.'"

On the theme of Islam, Robertson continues to show his ignorance of others. Claiming that there's no such thing as a report of Christian extremists killing, he insists that the Koran clearly dictates that Muslims engage in violence against others. "Islam, at least at its core, teaches violence ... those who believe it sincerely in their hearts are those that think Osama bin Laden is their great hero." Not only is he wrong about Islam, he's also wrong about there being no such thing as Christian terrorism. He conveniently forgets about any number of terrorist organizations that have some form of Christianity at its base, the best known of which is the Irish Republican Army.

Four years later, after the Ft Hood attacks, Robertson compounds this stupidity by calling Islam a political system on the same scale as communism and fascism, and that America should treat adherents to the "political system" the same as we would members of a fascist group.

Likewise, following any other faith, especially a 'new-age religion', leads to a "severe price" as death is the penalty for seeking enlightenment outside the bounds of what Robertson believes to be the one true faith.

While Haiti may not actually be cursed, America certainly seems to be so -- with a bedeviling man named Marion 'Pat' Robertson.

Photo Source: http://newsblaze.com/pix/2010/0113/pix/pat-robertson.230.jpg