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Learning Curves

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Updated: 2016-09-01T11:37:12.318-04:00


The Best Years of Our Lives


Subtitle: Actually, we all really did mean it when we said, "I hate this place, and I'm never coming back."
Alternate subtitle: Go big or go home.

I graduated from high school in June of 1991, roughly 21 years ago. Last year a few people remembered that it had been 20 years and tried to throw together a picnic reunion at the last minute, and about five people showed up. They vowed to do a real reunion this year.

So this year, some people put together plans for some sort of event at a country club -- sort of like a wedding reception without the wedding: bland catered food, a dj playing bland music, people who you never talk to on purpose. They started selling tickets and talking up the event.

Do you see where this is going?

Due to very, very, very few people expressing interest in this event (even with the bribe of a discount if you buy now), the Niskayuna High School Class of 1991 Reunion has been cancelled. Current plan is for anyone who is around to go to a bar. In Saratoga Springs. Roughly 30 miles away.

No one wants to go back to Niskayuna on purpose.

Now I Have No Reason to Leave My Office


I have a coffeemaker now.

The library will deliver books.

There is a live web-cam of the construction.



  1. My paper was accepted! Yay! Now I need to write the talk.
  2. I have given up on medicating the cat. Did you know that if you squirt an unpleasant-tasting liquid into a cat's mouth that your floor will end up covered with a truly impressive number of very large puddles of cat spit? It is hard to imagine that there is enough liquid inside a cat to produce that much cat spit. But there is. Fortunately, I had the foresight to buy the "dye free" version of the children's benadryl.
  3. Someone was wrong on the internet. About Jacobson rings. So of course I needed to weigh in. A lot of what you see on the Internet is only true of commutative Jacobson ring, but there is a lot of interesting stuff going on in the not-necessarily-commutative case. So of course I had to weigh in. And in the course of doing so, I have discovered that I have misplaced one of my copies of McConnell and Robson. Considering how long it has been since I have done anything with ring theory, I should have sold the math books before I lost them. But then how could I correct mistakes on the Internet? There is more to life than Eisenbud's Theorem 4.19.
  4. Construction on campus gets more interesting. They have changed traffic patterns to create the following intersection.
    I'm sure that no undergraduates will be involved in accidents at this intersection. This intersection seems to be the epitome of local traffic engineering. I like it even better than our three-way stop.
  5. I have bought a $100 Cuisinart coffee-maker, which you might laugh at me about because I can not taste the difference between good coffee and bad coffe. But I care very much about the temperature of the coffee, and this coffee is very, very hot.
  6. My PI has assigned me a high school student as a summer minion. I have been told that the student needs a research project to occupy his time this summer. High school student does not come with an especially impressive array of skills for computational science, as high school student's background in both computing and science is at a, well, high school level. Math without proofs to the rescue! I am giving the high school student a combinatorial problem about HPC scheduling. While queuing is a well-established area of research with many well-known results, there is plenty of work for a high school student to do about how our system with our queueing policies will behave under the range of conditions that we observe.

Losing Battles with the Cat


The cat has an itchy rash.

According to the vet, most times that a cat is itchy, it is because of fleas. Gwen is an indoor-only cat who is on flea preventative, and they found no fleas on her. If it's not fleas, then it's mites. If it's not mites, then it's probably a bacterial infection of the skin. And if it's not bacteria, then it might be ringworm.

Tested for mites and bacteria. Came back negative. Ringworm test is not back yet.

Gwen has been put on two medications: an anti-flea pill because whenever a cat is itchy, it's fleas. Even when it isn't. And a twice-a-day antihistamine. My priority is giving her the antihistamine because that is, in my opinion, more likely to help.

Ways in which I have been unsuccessful in getting a pill into the cat:
  1. Hide pill in pill-hiding cat treat. Cat started to eat the treat, bit it in half, tasted pill, and spit it out.
  2. Hide pill in wet cat food. Rejected entirely.
  3. Hide pill in sushi-grade tuna. Rejected entirely.
  4. Hold cat down and try to pry her mouth open. Cat's jaw is remarkably strong. Unable to open cat's mouth enough to insert pill.
  5. Grind pill up, mix with a bit of unflavored gelatin and smear on fur in hopes she would groom it off. Cat is sleeping, ungroomed, gelatin-side-down on a fabric chair cushion.
I have determined that the cat has decided to be itchy. My goal of avoiding bacteria-filled puncture wounds (such as cat bites) is a higher priority to me than the cat's comfort.

Giving injectable antibiotics to a goldfish was much simpler than giving a pill to a cat. Especially since the goldfish was even dumber than the cat and blind in one eye, which made him easy to sneak up on.

This Would Never Happen in Math


Subtitle: "I don't see what the editor is complaining about, I've only had the paper for a year." -- Mathematician, upon being asked about the status of the paper that he is reviewing

Here's another great thing about switching from math to computer science -- in addition to making double what I used to be making. It is so much faster and easier to get things published.
Get idea for paper. Do research. Write paper.
May 1:
Deadline for submitting paper. Submit paper.
May 22:
Receive reviews. One reviewer had no comments. The other said to make the figure more readable and add more to the conclusion.
May 23:
Fix figure and conclusion. Upload new version.
May 28:
Accept/Reject decisions will be announced.
That's right! Less than two months from thinking of the idea until having a decision about publication!

If someone had told me how much easier computer science is back when I was 19, I totally would have done this instead of math.

It's Not Just Our Organization that Gets Problem Interns


So yesterday Dean Dad posted about non-prepared interns.

Apparently everyone has problems with interns. We pay our interns. We pay them anywhere from $13 to $15 an hour. To put this in context, this is about double minimum wage or about what you might earn from teaching two summer classes.

The reason why we have interns is that we are strongly encouraged to do so. This encouragement comes in the form of money to pay them.

Let me take a moment to say that I have a different metric from assessing interns than some of the commenters on Dean Dad's post. I do not care when the interns arrive nor when they leave, as long as they do not lie on their time sheet about the number of hours that they were at work. They can wear whatever they want; my own outfits are not always unambiguously workplace-appropriate. They don't need to be able to write coherent email or communicate with other people on a regular basis.

We are a computing group and involved in research. Almost everyone on staff has at least a masters degree. Not because we are intellectual snobs but because we do sophisticated scientific work that requires a significant amount of domain-specific knowledge. Add to this that we deal with some pretty quirky stuff, and things get even more complicated.

I realize that there is only so much that you can expect undergraduates to know, but if they are going to be able to work here, they need to know something relevant. Programming in C or Fortran -- and none of the "I'm afraid of pointers" stuff that you sometimes hear from undergraduates. Or database and scripting skills. Or knowing linux well enough to be useful as a minion to a sysadmin. But you need to know something. We can deal with students who have never worked on a really large project, who have never used version control software, and who have never programmed for our particular architecture.

We do not do any photocopying. Everyone makes his own coffee. Our admin staff spend a lot of their time dealing with complicated budget issues that are subject to so many rules that they require training in accounting and frequent consultations with the campus lawyers.

You need a few semesters of specialized training before you are even qualified for our scutwork.

Unfortunately there is no program that will give us money to hire unemployed adjuncts with masters degrees who can't get summer teaching and bring them on for the summer so that they can build their skills and their resumes to the point where they can be competitive candidates for non-academic jobs.

Speaking of My Classmates


So I grew up in Niskayuna, NY, a town that, according to the Wikipedia, is almost 91% white and 6% Asian and with a median household income of $70,800. The town is headquarters of GE Global Research. In my 12th grade science class, only one student did not have at least one parent with a doctoral degree. While we are not talking Greenwich, CT and "the 1%" here, Niskayuna has long been a snobby suburb populated by educated people who make good money.

I'm learning to stop being surprised when classmates who we thought of as "not that bright" are physicians or are working in the business/marketing side of famous, large Silicon Valley companies. But I still find it absolutely mind-boggling the number of my classmates who are updating their Facebook status at this time of year that their children are coming home from college -- not to mention the classmates who are grandmothers.

This Week


  1. New Minion started today. We did HR paperwork, key paperwork, laptop paperwork. Talked about the project. Met with a collaborator. New Minion also did some development work on his own laptop. Got more done today than Intern accomplished last summer.
  2. I have been in a horrible, horrible mood. The only small pleasure is this delightful gin & tonic that I am drinking. I am now out of tonic water. Perhaps I will pick up a bottle of vermouth on my way home from work tomorrow. This is very good gin.
  3. Missing from this summer's travel plans: My 21st high school reunion. I will pay for the $55 ticket (plus the service fee) if you want to go and insist that you are me.
  4. We have two essay questions for you today. Choose at most two to respond to.
    1. AT&T: Malicious or Incompetent? Or, why does the phone company find it so challenging to determine whether or not a two-year contract still applies to a phone that I purchased on August 8, 2009. (I have spent three weeks arguing with them, including 49 minutes on the phone and sending them a fax.)
    2. Age inappropriate short skirts. Pack them up and send to Goodwill? Or continue to wear them? (I have been cleaning out my closet.)
  5. Sometimes it is amazing how little I can get done in a day.

Summer Travel!


Don't tell the cat, but I have finished arranging my summer travel! I'll be away for three weeks. Fortunately, they are not all in a row because otherwise her goldfish-like attention span might lead her to forget who I am.

Currently planned: One week of vacation in Berlin, followed immediately by an almost-one-week business trip to Dublin. Later in the summer is almost-a-week in Chicago.

Anything that I should see? So far the only thing on my list is the Brougham Bridge.

Bad Timing


My boss wants to meet with me.

Tomorrow morning.

On campus.

Do you know what is happening tomorrow on campus? Oh, certainly you do. Thousands of people and their extended families are coming to campus and parking in all the parking spaces.

And I am thinking that this is the perfect use for online technology. Sit around at home in your academic regalia, watch the speech online, and then download a PDF of your diploma while you wait for the real one to arrive in the mail. Or, really, just skip it. I wouldn't mind some budget cuts that entirely eliminated commencement.

I am probably of a minority opinion here. It is only due to much yelling and coercion that my mother got me to attend my own high school and college graduations. I successfully avoided all commencement exercises when I was in graduate school.

OK, this is really classist and elitist of me, but I think of graduation ceremonies as being kind of tacky and mostly for lower class people. Like, for the sort of people where graduating from high school is a big deal. Those are the kinds of people who go to graduations. In my mind, the sort of people who go to the opera would never go to a graduation.

And so, just like I avoid Walmart, I also try very hard to avoid commencement*. I will have to park in the secret parking lot and avoid the south end of campus.

*Long-time readers will probably recall that my dislike of celebrations and events extends far and wide. My mother has had to pay me thousands of dollars to get me to attend various family weddings. I did not go to my grandmother's funeral. Thanksgiving? I went to Europe. I spent Christmas alone, cleaning my house.

Not Quite a Sophomore


So this semester I took an art class (freshman-level class in graphic design), bringing me up to 29 credit hours earned at the university that employs me.

The final project for this class was to put together a book with all of our work from the semester, including influences, works in progress, revisions, changes, and commentary and reflections on our work and our process.

My book ended up being one of the thickest in the class. Probably because I wrote too much. At the end I ran wc (well, first detex then piped through wc) on the text that I wrote. Came out to over 12,000 words.

Apparently you can get an A in a freshman-level art class even if you can't draw, just as long as you can explain your design process.

I still have a 4.0 GPA at my employer. I will say that this university is one of the least challenging that I have attended.

I was going to take statistics in the fall, but I got some inscrutable error* from the online registration system (this system is so unintuitive that I am shocked that freshmen end up in any classes at all), so I decided that next semester I will take biomedical engineering.

*It said that the error was that I was missing a prerequisite. When I wasn't. I was trying to sign up for Stats 3. The prereq for this course is Stats 2, and I have taken Stats 1 and Stats 2 at this very university.

Maybe You Wondered What My Intern Has Been Up To


Intern spent the last school year as a self-described "fourth year" student in computers. Intern did not graduate.

Intern is working 20 hours a week at a national chain pharmacy, despite being in the midst of a difficult pregnancy and ordered by her doctors to take it easy. Intern's boss at chain pharmacy won't let her sit down during her shift. Intern's boss says that she is lucky to be working at all because he was supposed to lay off the three most recent hires (i.e. including Intern) but he has cut back on his own hours to let them keep their jobs. (I do not believe that this is 100% true.)

Intern says she needs to keep the chain pharmacy job because her boyfriend is already supporting two other children, so money is tight.

The baby is due in July. Intern claims that she is going to go back to school in August.

More Tales from the Bus


I'm on my first stop of this summer's "Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach." tour in which I will show people how to do things that I have no business talking about in public.

Since today's journey was only 180 miles from home, I decided to take the bus! And since I am a good person, I will submit my $10.50 bus ticket (round trip!) to the travel reimbursement people instead of pretending that I drove 360 miles (round trip) at our official reimbursement rates.

Fun fact: I was not the only white person on the bus. Almost 10% of the people on the bus were white!

One of the other white people was a college student who was having the most hilarious conversation with his mother about wanting his dad to chip in $1400 towards tuition and $400 a month towards living expenses. College student casually mentioned to his mom that he was on the bus to the State Capital. Mom must have asked where he was going to be staying in the State Capital because he said, "Don't worry, I always find a place to stay. Once I stayed in a ditch. Mom! It was a nice ditch! It was, like, a squatter camp."

The other adventure with the bus is walking from where the bus lets off to where I need to go. On my way from the bus drop-off point to State Capital Private University, I walked past many homeless people, empty industrial buildings, shady porn stores, and plasma donation centers. Don't tell my mom. At least I am avoiding ditches and staying at the Private University Neighborhood Hilton.

Guerilla Advising


Last night I was at a festive location near campus, and I found myself in close proximity to undergraduates, some of which I knew and others of which I did not. Many conversations eventually turned to the students' academic plans.
The Freshman:
She doesn't know what she wants to major in. She wants to be employable after she graduates. My advice: Look at the whole list of the classes that fulfill the gen-ed requirements, not just the go-to short list that the advisors use (like the religious studies class that fulfills three different requirements at once) and pick things that seem interesting. Look at the list of majors and try out something that seems to be both employable and enjoyable. If, in the meantime, you find that your passion is in something that has no real job market, then do that as a minor (or a second major).
The Computer Scientist:
His grades are not so great. He is super-smart, probably one of the brightest undergraduates that I have met at this university. (His grades are fine, in the sense that he is in no danger of being kicked out of school, but no one is going to go, "oh, wow!" about his GPA.) Should he focus his time on getting his GPA up? Or continue to work on coding and developing really cool and innovative side projects that have nothing to do with the assigned work in class. My advice: Work on the cool stuff, if you can have finished product(s) to show future employers/grad schools.
The Business Major:
Should she switch to a STEM field because it's so much easier to get a job? My advice: I reminded her that we have a mutual friend who has a degree in biology and now works two service sector jobs and another friend with a degree in chemistry who is attending trade school and yet another with a degree in math (with honors) who is excited about the possibility of doing IT for $15/hour with no benefits.

Truth Through Repetition


In articles like this one about edX, people say things like:
The edX project will include not only engineering courses, in which computer grading is relatively simple, but also humanities courses, in which essays might be graded through crowd-sourcing, or assessed with natural-language software.
And I'm thinking that this is not really entirely 100% true. Grading both math and humanities seems to be equally hard. Most online systems are pretty good at determining whether a student has acquired a "right answer" to a question that has a right answer. It is just as good at identifying a student's ability to complete a routine exercise as it is at assessing whether a student understands its vs. it's or there, their, and they're or put together a sentence that conforms to the rules of standard written English or whatever. I'm not aware of any online math homework systems that will tell students that they keep making mistakes because they are bad with negative signs or don't know the first thing about the distributive rule. Nor do I know of any that will look at the diagram that the student drew and recognize that the student used the wrong triangle when trying to set up the related rates problem with similar triangles. Grading is only simple when the questions are simple.



Sorry. Life has been confusing. And then they updated Blogger in even more confusing ways.

More Bad Omens


The latest from the lead PI of this ill-fated education project that I am getting sucked into. Currently the plan is to teach teachers with no programming experience how to program in Python. I am pretty sure that he has no clue what Python is; this is backed up by the fact that he has never spelled or pronounced "Python" correctly.

He suggested that a good activity for these teachers with their four hours of Python knowledge would be to design a lesson about graphing.

About the Weather


They better be joking about the snow.

More Ways in Which the University is Awesome


Maybe I can drop an old flash drive off at campus IT so that they can increase my mail quota.

Bad Omens of Communications


Subtitle: Those who can't do, teach.

I'm working on a wacky grant proposal with the College of Education to get money to teach Python to high school teachers. The goal is that we'll teach them Python and then have them develop lessons plans on how they'd use Python in their classes. Behold an email conversation with the lead PI.

me: How much time are we spending in Week 1 teaching Python? I can't plan the Python lessons until I know how much time I'm expected to fill.

PI: We will be teaching Python in Week 1. Can you send me your NSF bio?

me: Here is the .tex file and the PDF.

PI: My computer cannot read this. I am not sure if this is how you saved it or
not but it came with .tex extension.

Diversifying Your Business



Blog is Not Twitter



What Does a Mathematician Look Like?


Love the picture on the BLS web page.

Not Surprised


This just in: Nearly illiterate former student who graduated with a major in a oft-maligned social science was just rejected by a graduate program at Harvard.

The Company We Keep


You might party with nerds if at 3am a biomedical engineer corners you to get you to join his Wednesday-evening bridge group.