Vito Prosciutto: Teaching community college math on the road to a PhD.

Sunday, July 31, 2005

Once every three years 

my favorite reading in the lectionary comes up: "What can separate us from the love of God? etc." from Romans. I remember hearing it for the first time at mass in 1990 and the presiding priest talked about how when he was down, he would drive to the top of the nearby mountain and shout the reading at the top of his lungs (something that I've since done on more than one occasion). He then had the congregation read it again, out loud, substituting "me" for "us" where it appeared in the readings.

In 1993, my grandfather died and this was one of the readings at his funeral. Come summer, I was lector at mass the week that it came up and I read it again. Then it was a reading at a friend's wedding (perhaps it was coming on the heels of my grandfather's funeral, but it doesn't really seem a good wedding reading).

I have no particular memories of it in 1996 other than being quite certain that I was lector again (I made a point of being scheduled to lector on this particular Sunday).

In 1999, I was living in the city of my birth and playing in the church music group for their young adult mass. On that Sunday we performed a song that I had written which incorporated the readings from this Sunday. I think that I also managed to lector that particular Sunday at a different parish.

In 2002, I was returned to being a mere parishioner (I was singing in a choir at that point, but the choir didn't perform in the summertime). I had just met my now-wife, though, and I treasure the thought of hearing this reading with her for the first time.

And now today.

I joked as we pulled into the church that maybe sometimes they have mass outside (my wife had asked for her sunblock just perviously). Then we noticed the big tent in the parking lot. It turns out that there was an arson fire at this parish the week before.

Which left me thinking quite a bit.

Because there's a part of me that's not all that satisfied with the church at the moment.

I'm not talking about the usual stuff. I really don't have a problem with the church's stance on abortion. If you allow for the possibility that the fetus is a human being, then an anti-abortion stance comes naturally. I'm not happy about the fact that there are people whose motivation for being anti-abortion is to be anti-woman, but then there are people who vote democratic for bigoted reasons and that's not going to make me a republican. Same with birth control, celibate priests, a male-only priesthood (partly because I think that right now the holy spirit is busy trying to get Catholics to not be so damned dependent on the priesthood and for the laity to start taking a bit more responsibility for the church themselves).

No, what bothers me is the tendency towards absolute certainty in the church. There's none of the humbleness with which I've always approached faith (which humbleness, lead me to not belong to any particular church for the first 22 years of my life). The problem is that certainty leads to things like Mohammad Atta or George Bush. Why bother caring about what's actually happening in the world if you're certain that you're right.

And I'm thinking that the fact that a Catholic church was burnt last week is somehow connected with all of this. Because this tendency towards absolute certainty is not a uniquely Catholic trait. And I suspect that if they catch the perpetrator, it will be motivated by a certainty that trying to burn down a Catholic church was absolutely the right thing to do.

Friday, July 29, 2005

This year, for once, I [thought I] remembered 

It's my blog's birthday. This will be post #530 since I started this thing 2 years ago today yesterday.

Damn, I didn't remember.

But as a long-time Cubs fan, I know Wait 'til next year!

Thursday, July 28, 2005

No more classes no more books 

It's finally over. Grades are done, my bag no longer has two heavy math texts and piles of ungraded papers. For the next 23 days I intend to wear shorts every damn day. And T-shirts.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Rescuing what's left of summer 

I've got 25 days left according to me count-down timer at the right. Whoa, scary. Time to focus. I'm going to mix cleaning/packing with study/planning/research.

I've set the following schedule on studying:

Monday: Algebra
Tuesday: Complex Analysis
Wednesday: Elliptical Curves
Thursday: Stack of Books
Friday: Mac Programming
Saturday: Topology
Sunday: Real Analysis
"Stack of books" refers to the big stack of math books on my desk which are currently only partially read (generally from previous classes where we got to chapter n of m and gave up the ghost. I need to look and see what I'm closest to finishing and make that my top priority and work through them with that plan.

My fall teaching schedule 

Is finalized. Here's what it looks like
7.30-9.30 Liberal Arts MathLiberal Arts Math
12-2 Liberal Arts MathLiberal Arts Math

Mondays and Wednesdays look to be pretty solidly packed days. I get about an hour on either side of my 12-2 class to get from Mid-Tier U to Working Class CC.

I've got an office and a mailbox at Mid-Tier U already and my name's even on the door of the office. Fancy.

It looks like Tuesdays and Thursdays are going to be my primary grad school work days. I'm hoping to get as much planning done in advance that I can get most of what I need to do done on Friday afternoons. Seeing everything on paper scares me a little as I can see that there's going to be a lot of work ahead of me.

Another book meme 

1. How do you organize your collection
At the moment, not at all, really. Actually, that's not quite true: I've got a few broad divisions: Books I've not yet read, books I've already read, my wife's books, music books and (at my wife's insistence) a high shelf with all the Bibles.

But once upon a time (and at some time in the future it will return to this), I had everything shelved by Library of Congress. It might seem absurd at first glance, but even with my roughly 1000 volume collection, it works out quite nicely. Books are grouped by subject matter, authors are arranged chronologically (roughly) with biographies and criticism about an author shelved with works by the author. Sure, there are areas which I don't have a lot of books shelved in, but for the clusters that I have (math, literature, psychology, theology), it's really a nice way to organize the library.

CDs are sorted alphabetically by artist (by title for soundtracks and compilations).

2. What books or records do you keep separate from your collection for easy access?
Pretty much just the reference books: Dictionaries, thesaurus and The Reader's Encyclopedia. Plus whatever books I'm teaching from.

3. When you take down a book for reference, how long after you finish with it does it take you to reshelve it?
When I'm done with a book, I usually shelve it right away. The exception is if I finish a book while in bed. My wife gets mad at me if I get out of bed to do things like this (especially since it usually will also mean a trip to the shelves with the books to read so I can get another book).

4. What resource do you keep separate from your collection because you don't want anyone to know you have it?
Nothing. It all gets shelved. Heck even joke books have library of congress card catalog numbers. I am in the process of selling/discarding some excess books (mostly computer books which are out of date or no longer of interest to me).

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Weird traffic spike 

I had a huge, monstrous spike in traffic last Friday. No idea why. Any thoughts?

2 pre-algebra classes and 1 algebra class left and I'm done with summer school.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Teaching challenge: Negatives in fractions 

I think that I'm going to make this a recurring feature of the blog as I encounter these little challenges in getting student understanding in place. I'm sure we all have students with these sorts of problems, but discovery of the problem is haphazard at best.

So the first challenge, I discovered today that students were a bit suspicious of the idea that -(1/3), (-1)/3 and 1/(-3) are the same number. Now I can (and have) told them this, but it would be even better for them to get a feel for it. Any thoughts on ways to convey this? Preferably visual ideas...

Monday, July 18, 2005

You're spending too much time at Border's when 

you start to recognize the other patrons. There's old-guy-who-kinda-needs-a-bath-but-at-least-doesn't-smell-bad. And there's pregnant-asian-woman-who-reads-lots-of-manga. And middle-aged-lady-who-moves-her-mouth-when-she-reads. I'm about 5 chapters into the new Harry Potter. Pretty good so far. In fact, if it keeps up like this, I'll lilkely consider it best yet. Of course it's been a while since I had my summer of Harry Potter and I've forgotten some of the trivia: Can anyone refresh me on Fleur, whichever Weasley is engaged to her, Tonks and what the penalties for breaking an unbreakable vow are? (I tried googling that last and realized that I was going into spoiler land, so maybe it hasn't been previously introduced?) Gotta say that the first chapter is brilliant.

This morning's interview 

Assuming sufficient enrollment, I'll be teaching Algebra at mid-level U. The interesting part is that I've been informed that the thing about Mid-level U is that I'll be dealing with students who've think that they're better than algebra. Because they've taken Precalc and often Calculus. But they can't add fractions. Or do basic algebra. And yet somehow have a 3.7 or a 4.25. Where have I heard this before? (you'll have to dig up the stories from the archives yourselves. It ought to be fun. I was in two minds about this. On the one hand, with the summer school teaching, if I tought 4 adjunct classes I'd get a pay raise in the spring (I get to move to row 2 of the salary schedule). The mid-level U counts as a TAship rather than adjunct so doesn't move me to row 2. (That would have to wait until next fall instead, although I should have enough classes at that point to also move to column 2). But, by taking this, I'll get an office at mid-level U. You hear that? An office (granted it will be shared with 60 other grad students and there will be a constant flow of undergrads coming in for homework help, but it's an office. I kind of miss that.)

Synchronicity in the comics 

Bizarro today:

Piled Higher and Deeper today:

Friday, July 15, 2005


... is there an ad titled "Sexy girls and sexy guys" showing up to the side? And will my commenting on it cause even more to show up?

Oh, maybe it was because of the porn surfing student.


So I decided to give Sudoku a try. It turns out to be pretty addictive.

There does seem to be some debate about just how many sudoku are possible. I found a link to one site which used a brute force approach to counting up the sudoku, but that's not really satisfying.

It seems like a pretty fun discrete math problem, so maybe I'll tackle it down the line. Perhaps during the next meeting that I have to sit through.

Teaching on a Friday 

For Profit U has a bizarre schedule that included making up the missed Monday class from the 4th of July Weekend by having Monday classes meet again today. My Monday Algebra class which is normally pretty well-behaved and quick was a bit out of sorts today. That we have class in rooms filled with computers doesn't really help.

Class did finish a bit early and the kids are on the computers surfing the web while I do some grading. I look up at one of the screens and see "Megalopolis Girls" on the screen. Oh dear, I hope that's not what it sounds like. I watch as he scrolls down and, well, it is: There's a naked woman on the screen.

Being at a loss for what to say, I decide to pretend that I wasn't paying attention and I go back to grading.

The blogroll has returned 

Smaller than ever. I'm not likely to add much to it before the fall semester has begun since it's hard to tell who's inactive for the summer and who's been scared off blogging by Ivan Tribble. Whilst digging through the homepage links in my comments archive I discovered that Edward Carter's blog no longer exists. Since he was blogging under his own name, I suspect he might be in the second category. 7 Algebra classes left. 9 Pre-algebra classes left. I had a couple compliments from two of my students in the algebra class last night which really helped boost my mood. The Tuesday class really gets me down (they would be hell number one, in case you're wondering.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Counting down to the end of summer 

Only 9 more prealgebra classes and 8 algebra classes to go. The blogroll will return in August, by the way. I'm just trying to figure out what it should contain. I'm leaning towards focusing on academic life and mathematics in my new blogroll (the old one was K-12 educators, which seeing that I'm no longer one, makes less sense to identify with that community, although I do miss some of the old gang on occasion).

Monday, July 11, 2005

Things change in bunches 

My wife and I decided today that we're going to go ahead and move to the far side of the megalopolis sooner rather than later. We had originally planned on staying in our current apartment for 6 more months, but now we're going to move at the end of August instead. Much packing to do. Plus finding a new apartment. And this changes where I want to look for adjunct work.

A reduction in work 

I got a voice mail today: The tutoring sessions, which were apparently on the edge of being able to run, are not running. I get my afternoons back! And they're paying me for 4 weeks instead of just the 2 that I've worked. Even better, I have August back.

It is decided 

After ruminating about this post for a while, I've decided that it's time to stop waiting: I am going to pursue treatment for my depression. I don't write about it much here, but there are times when I find it rather crippling and lately it's been moreso than usual. And I'm realizing that I don't want to continue like this. And the lazy american in me is ready to take Prozac or something else in the hopes that a simple pill will just change everything and make it all better. But I also tend to be skeptical. I tried St John's Wort once for about two weeks and didn't have any detectable difference in mood. So either it's a placebo or my depression stems from a different neurochemical imbalance than what St John's Wort treats.

Friday, July 08, 2005

Differentiated instruction 

I have two students in the SAT math class. I gave them a sample test to see what they know. Student A got a 690. Student B got a 230. This will be an interesting class to plan.

Just what I was looking for 

Looking at PhD requirements at my potential schools in the megalopolis, I find that my first choice school requires 1 foreign language, my second choice requires none and my third choice requires 3. Unfortunately for me, the language choices don't include any of the many that I've studied (I can read Spanish pretty well and having a passing acquaintance with Latin and Hebrew, and an almost imperceptible knowledge of Greek). The menu of languages is generally French, German, Russian, Chinese.

Well, somehow (probably from the Spanish and Latin), I can kind of sort of read French, so that's gotta be one of my choices, and the usual form for the exam is to translate a math article from language X, so I'm thinking that my best plan of attack is to find some French math journals and attempt to read those. Heck, I might even learn some math if the subject matter isn't too abstruse. But where to find some French math journals? I guess I can go to the library when my current teaching hell is over at the end of the month.

And then I find at Ars Mathematics a link to the NUMDAM project which is digitizing French math journals. Brilliant. Some of the journals go back quite some distance, and I figure that if I start with some of the 19th century articles, I have a pretty good chance of being able to follow the math as well. Plus I'll be familiar with odd little back channels of mathematics that other people will have little or no idea about.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

I made a mistake 

I've taken on too much teaching assignment this summer. The For Profit U assignment was too much to begin with (Monday, Tuesday and Thursday each involve 5 1/2 hours straight of teaching. Wednesday is a mere 90 minute day).

But then I took on some classes at the tutoring center as well. So now here's my schedule:

M: 12.30-6 at FPU
T/R: 1.30-3.30 at tutoring center, 4.30-10 at FPU that hour in between is spent driving
W: 1-30-3.30 at tutoring center, 4.30-6 at FPU
F: 1-30-5.30 at tutoring center

This is all my fault. I could have had a 2-class load at the community college had I gotten a damned form returned a little sooner and made just as much money for half as much time teaching. And had time to grade and plan without being stressed.

Next summer I will maybe teach one summer school class at a community college. Or perhaps not even that. I will do research next summer. Math research and I think also some research into surfing and tanning and beaches and that sort of thing.

Of course the good thing (from my wife's perspective) about being stressed is that I procrastinate and when I procrastinate I clean (well clean and watch movies).

Choose your hell 

Option 1: Students don't do work, then complain about how hard the class is.

Option 2: Students don't do work, then respond with blank stares when you ask if they have questions.

In both cases, assume that the vast majority of students will fail.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Gotta love the way the numbers work out 

So for one part time application, they ask me to compute my upper division math GPA. I pull out my unofficial transcript which as the courses arranged in a convenient order for this and set to work. After doing all the calculations (and wincing over the C in what would now be called Math Analysis and the D in logic), my math GPA (rounded to the nearest hundredth) is 3.14.

Some math content 

While I was thinking about the post below, I set myself the problem of finding a quick way of calculating the earnings on a savings account where a regular amount is invested each month. The interesting part here is less the answer than the process to see how we can solve a harder than typical math problem.

Consider the case where we're investing $100/month at 6% annually (which is 0.5% monthly, thus my choice of a 6% rate). So at the end of the first month there's the $100 investment, plus its interest (I=prt) of $.50. At the end of the second month, we've added $100 and we're going to pay interest on $200.50. And the process repeats. That's not terribly helpful. Let's look at the abstract case.

Let the a be the monthly investment amount and x be the monthly interest rate. Now we have the following amounts at the end of each month:
Month 1: ax
Month 2: (ax+a)x=ax2+ax
Month 3: (ax2+ax+a)x=ax3+ax2+ax

Now we see a pattern. We can factor out the a and see that we're left with
[sum from i=1 to n] xi

We just need a formula to express this more succinctly. Trying some concrete numbers to see what happens helps when I pick x=10. Then we're talking about (letting the lower limit be 0 rather than 1) a number which is all 1's. It occurs to me that this can be described by taking xn+1-1 and dividing by x-1. I double check this with some polynomial long division to make sure that it is in fact the expected xn+...+x+1 and now I know that I can find the total saved after n months by taking
P=a[((1+(r/12))n+1-1)/(r/12)-1] where r is the annual savings rate. We add 1 because x will be 1 plus the monthly savings rate. The minus 1 at the end is to take care of the fact that our expression is actually for the sum from 0 to n but we don't want to include that 0 term (which reflects another contribution to the pot at the end of the savings term which hasn't had interest applied to it).

Next I'll have to tackle the installment loan payment amount formula. How hard can it be?

Logical fallacy of the day 

This post from Marginal Revolution bugs me a bit.
If Zambia had converted all the aid it received since 1960 to investment and all of that investment to growth, it would have had a per capita GDP of about $20,000 by the early 1990s.
Yes, and if I had taken all the money that I spent on food for the last 20 years and invested it at just 4% above the inflation rate, that money would be earning me $19,000 per year now.

In short, the statement which Tyler finds so charming ignores the fact that even without mismanagement, the aid money could not just be invested: There were immediate needs to be addressed. Yes, aid money can be better directed, but it's not some pot of money that can just be invested without consideration for anything else. I'm sure a lot of the aid that Zambia received went towards lining the pockets of corrupt government officials, but I have a hard time believing that all of it did. Or that the donors of the aid would have continued to donate if it were invested as proposed rather than at least nominally being put towards relieving immediate human needs.

Monday, July 04, 2005


Well today I seem to have broken the vacuum cleaner. It's not my fault. Or even my cats. But my wife who seems to shed more than both cats put together, so there are long brown hairs all over the carpet. These proceed to tangle up the roller in the vacuum cleaner and causes the vacuum cleaner to self-destruct on a regular basis. Broken bands are one thing, but the roller cracked today. We're thinking of getting one of those fancy Dyson vacuum cleaners, although I'm not entirely convinced that it will solve the problem of the roller getting tangled up with her long hairs. I suppose I'll have to flip the vacuum cleaner over on a regular basis and cut all the tangled hairs away.

What I really want, I think, is to get an apartment with hardwood floors and then the problem will go away forever because it will be all sweeping and no vacuuming.


Since I can host pictures I now have my own dots on-site. I'm hoping that this will work long-term, but if not, I've changed the progress bars to use a little javascript to handle the display so that if I have to change the URLs of the dots again, I only need to do some small editing and not edit every bar. This also makes it easier for me to keep the bars up-to-date.

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