Short-Armed and Dangerous

In the morning hours of May 31, a crazy-assed bandicoot slaughtered a nest of baby rabbits. Eyewitnesses described the suspect as "half a dog high and two dogs long". They also reported that the screaming of the rabbits echoed through the neighborhood and for some reason they felt a longing for fava beans and a nice chianti. It was reported that the suspect was eagerly wagging a tail during the killing spree. Rescuers rushed to the scene, but by then it was too late for at least one baby bunny. The suspect was "jailed" and not given any cookies. Until his trial at the Hague, he is incarcerated in Bloomington. Of note, this maniac was also wanted for a similar incident occurring one year ago involving a baby squirrel.

“What does he do, Clarice? What is the first and principal thing he does, what need does he serve by killing? He covets. How do we begin to covet? We begin by coveting what we see every day.”


The Dead Grandmother/Exam Syndrome and the Potential Downfall Of American Society

This was originally published by Mike Adams (Biology Department, Eastern Connecticut State University) in The Connecticut Review, 1990. I feel like it needs to be updated for the newest peril of terrible amounts of the loss of printer ink on days when assignments come due.

It has long been theorized that the week prior to an exam is an extremely dangerous time for the relatives of college students. Ever since I began my teaching career, I heard vague comments, incomplete references and unfinished remarks, all alluding to the 'Dead Grandmother Problem.' Few colleagues would ever be explicit in their description of what they knew, but I quickly discovered that anyone who was involved in teaching at the college level would react to any mention of the concept. In my travels I found that a similar phenomenon is known in other countries. In England it is called the 'Graveyard Grannies' problem, in France the 'Chere Grand'mere,' while in Bulgaria it is inexplicably known as 'The Toadstool Waxing Plan' (I may have had some problems here with the translation. Since the revolution this may have changed anyway.) Although the problem may be international in scope it is here in the USA that it reaches its culmination, so it is only fitting that the first warnings emanate here also.

The basic problem can be stated very simply: A student's grandmother is far more likely to die suddenly just before the student takes an exam, than at any other time of year.

While this idea has long been a matter of conjecture or merely a part of the folklore of college teaching, I can now confirm that the phenomenon is real. For over twenty years I have collected data on this supposed relationship, and have not only confirmed what most faculty had suspected, but also found some additional aspects of this process that are of potential importance to the future of the country. The results presented in this report provide a chilling picture and should waken the profession and the general public to a serious health and sociological problem before it is too late.

As can be seen in Table 1, when no exam is imminent the family death rate per 100 students (FDR) is low and is not related to the student's grade in the class. The effect of an upcoming exam is unambiguous. The mean FDR jumps from 0.054 with no exam, to 0.574 with a mid- term, and to 1.042 with a final, representing increases of 10 fold and 19 fold respectively.

Figure 1 shows that the changes are strongly grade dependent, with correlation coefficients of 0.974 for mid-terms and 0.988 for finals. Overall, a student who is failing a class and has a final coming up is more than 50 times more likely to lose a family member than an A student not facing any exams.

Figure 1. Graph of data in Table 1, showing the relationship between exam, student grade and FDR. The proportion of explained variance is also provided.

Only one conclusion can be drawn from these data. Family members literally worry themselves to death over the outcome of their relatives' performance on each exam. Naturally, the worse the student's record is, and the more important the exam, the more the family worries; and it is the ensuing tension that presumably causes premature death. Since such behavior is most likely to result in high blood pressure, leading to stroke and heart attacks, this would also explain why these deaths seem to occur so suddenly, with no warning and usually immediately prior to the exam. It might also explain the disproportionate number of grandmothers in the victim pool, since they are more likely to be susceptible to strokes. This explanation, however, does not explain why grandfathers are seldom affected, and clearly there are other factors involved that have not been identified. Nonetheless, there is considerable comfort to be had in realizing that these results indicate that the American family is obviously still close-knit and deeply concerned about the welfare of individual members, perhaps too much so. As some colleagues have expressed some degree of skepticism over my interpretation of these data, I have extended the scope of my research into the phenomenon. Using readily available sources (including the National Census Bureau and The National Enquirer ) have examined the relationship between education and family structure. Interestingly, there appears to be no correlation between FDR and the size of the extended family (Table 2). Either large families worry less on a per capita basis than do small families, or there is a single "designated worrier" in each family, who bears the brunt of the danger. The exceptionally high death rate among grandmothers (24 times greater than for grand fathers) suggests the latter explanation is correct. If not, then people from very small families would be well advised to discourage other family members from attending college, since the potential risk becomes excessive with so few members to share the danger.

The problem is clearly far more pervasive than most people realize. For example, if one examines the percentage of the population attending college and the mean divorce rate on a country by country basis, there is a very strong positive correlation between the two. The United States has the highest percentage of its population attending college and also the world's highest divorce rate, while South Yemen is last in both categories. Although this study is still in progress and will form the basis for a future CSU grant proposal, it seems results already are becoming clear. As more people go to college, their families find that, for safety reasons, it is wise to increase the number of grandmothers per family. Since there is currently no biological way of doing so (though another grant proposal in preparation will ask for funds to look into the prospect of cloning grandmothers, using modern genetic engineering techniques), the families must resort to in creasing the pool by divorce and remarriage. Sociologists may wish to use these data to examine the effect of education on family structure from a new perspective.

Figure 2: The mean FDR/100 students for all exams and all grades of students for the years 1968-1990. The best fitting curve shows an exponentially rising curve.

While the general facts of this problem have been known, if not widely discussed, I have recently become aware of a potentially far more dangerous aspect of the whole process. This trend came to light when a student reported two family members dying prior to an exam. Examination of the numbers of deaths over the last two decades clearly showed a "death inflation" When the figures for all students and all exams are pooled for each year, a disturbing outcome is seen (see Figure 2).

The FDR is climbing at an accelerating rate. Extrapolation of this curve suggests that 100 years from now the FDR will stand at 644/100 students/exam. At that rate only the largest families would survive even the first semester of a student's college career. Clearly something will have to be done to reverse this trend before the entire country is depopulated. Three possible solutions come to mind:

  1. Stop giving exams. At first glance, this seems to be the simplest answer to the problem. Like many simplistic solutions, however, it fails to consider the full ramifications of such a course. Without exam results, all medical schools would be forced to close their doors, having no way of distinguishing worthy students. The resultant dearth of physicians in the next generation would throw so many other professionals (tax accountants, malpractice attorneys, golf pros, etc.) out of work that the economy would go into a nosedive. Regretfully, this solution must be abandoned since it is more dangerous than the original problem.
  2. Allow only orphans to enroll at universities. This is an extremely attractive idea, except for the shortage of orphans. More could be created of course, but this would be morally wrong, and in any case would replicate the very problem we are trying to avoid i.e. excessive family deaths.
  3. Have students lie to their families. Students must never let any of their relatives know that they are at university. (Initial field tests show that keeping just the grandmother ignorant is neither feasible nor safe for the rest of the family.) It is not enough merely to lie about exams; if the family doesn't know when the exams are, they may then worry constantly and this may lead to even higher death rates. The only solution is that the family must never be aware that the student is even enrolled at a university. Students must pretend they are in the armed forces, have joined some religious cult, or have been kidnapped by aliens. All of these alternate explanations for their long absences will keep the family ignorant of the true, dangerous, fact. Although it might be argued that such large-scale deceptions could not be maintained for long periods, the success of many politicians suggests otherwise.
It will take time to discover whether any of these solutions are feasible. In the interim, the problem is clearly far too important to be ignored. Following the government's lead on so many similar, potentially catastrophic problems (global warming, the ozone layer, and ocean pollution), I propose that a commission be established to study the problem in more depth. While the state is deciding on the make-up of such a committee and what its charge should be, I would urge all members of the academic community to start keeping their own records. If faculty throughout the country were to send me summaries of their own knowledge about this matter, I could compile a follow-up report for publication in a year or two.

A Guide for Teaching Mathematics

The first time I saw this guide I laughed so hard I choked. I cam across it in about 1993 at http://bearspace.baylor.edu/Alexander_Pruss/www/teachmath.html. It has been my Robert's Rules, my Strunk and White, my HG2G ever since. The initial introduction is as follows:

I found this text stuck on the door when I moved into my office as a graduate student at the University of British Columbia's Mathematics Department. The text consisted of four pages, typewritten, numbered 449–452, of which you can see pictures here. I do not know the source. The heading and the text at the end are scanned in from the yellowing pages of the original, and the text at the end suggests that what I have must have appeared in some publication, but the editors do not know the original author. Actually, my suspicion is that the original text may have ended with the paragraph starting with the words "There is one last point on teaching technique", since that paragraph would be a natural stopping point. The rest of the text starting with "The first section of this guide has dealt with actual teaching" might well, thus, be by another author.

It is the responsibility of the teacher to actively involve his or her students in the learning process. The most important thing he or she should do is to avoid giving clear, concise, organized lectures. If the presentation of a lesson is too easy to follow, most of the class will not need to learn the new material on their own. They will have a certain degree of confidence in their new knowledge, and this will tend to stifle their intellectual pursuits. If, on the other hand, the lecture is vague, rambling and disorganized, the students will leave with their heads full of questions. In fact, they will be so filled with curiosity that they will try to expand their knowledge on their own. There are many ways to present a thought provoking lecture. One of the easiest techniques to use is a foreign accent. If the accent is thick enough, even a well organized lecture will produce expressions of intellectual wonder among the students. Effective accents can be acquired in Alabama, China, India, Latin America, New York City, Germany, or any foreign country.

For natives of Kansas, that is, for individuals who cannot speak anything but perfect Midwestern English, this technique may offer difficulties. There are two possible solutions: (1) One can teach in a foreign country, or at least in New York or Texas; or (2) One can incorporate a new syllable into one's language. Two very effective syllables to use are 'um' and 'uh'. The chosen syllable should be uttered every second or third word. This reduces the possibility that any coherent concept will be given to the class. For example, one can say, "Um, today, um, we will be, um, discussing, um....um, determinants." After a couple of sentences, most of the class will be staring at their watches or out the windows. Very quickly, they will become very anxious to go out and learn the material on their own.

In addition, to being aware of one's own speech patterns, the teacher should also pay close attention to the written word. Effective use of the blackboard should be considered almost a necessity. Illegible handwriting can stimulate a student's interest in new material almost as effectively as Incoherent lectures. Often students will meet outside of class to exchange interpretations of lecture notes. Thus illegible handwriting encourages students to work together and share ideas. Writing illegibly requires a great deal of practice to be effective. If one does not have satisfactory handwriting (that is to say., if one's handwriting is suitable only for formal invitations and eye charts). certain "tricks" can be learned:

  1. Write small. For students in the back rows, this is almost as effective as writing illegibly. The disadvantage is that students in the front rows will probably be able to read the board and may possibly learn something without having to spend hours interpreting their notes. Also, the professor who writes small may find that most of his or her class will try to sit near the front of the room, which may be too close for comfort, especially on hot days during summer sessions.
  2. Write fast. The faster the teacher writes, the faster the students will have to take notes. Often the teacher can move on to a new subject while his or her students are still trying to copy what is on the board . Students will be so busy during class that they will wait until after class to try to understand the lesson. In addition to spurring students to learn on their own, writing fast allows the professor to cover more material in a given class period.
  3. Write something while saying something different. For example, after working out a lengthy problem the instructor tells the class the answer; is x2 + y while writing on the board y2 + x. This forces students to rethink the problem in order to decide which alternative is correct. Students are thus actively involved in problem solving even after the problem is finished.
  4. Erase quickly. This technique practically forces those members of the class who take notes to pay constant attention to the lectures. Those who doze off for a few moments will awaken to find nothing to record in their notes on the topics they missed. This technique is especially effective if one uses both hands to write and erase simultaneously. If all else fails, stand in front of what has just been written. By blocking any clear view of the blackboard, the teacher will help improve students' speculative and psychic abilities. Those instructors who are short or underweight may find this procedure extremely difficult. The above 'tricks' may be used separately or combined. It is a good idea to change them occasionally in order to add some variety to the classroom routine.
It is very important that the professor lecture to the blackboard when using it. This helps demonstrate to students how involved the teacher is with the subject. This enthusiasm will most assuredly rub off on the class. Also, by facing the blackboard, one cannot face the class. It is therefore easier to ignore students' questions which tend to interrupt the presentation of topics and make the class period seem to last forever.
There is one last point on teaching technique. It is important that one does not overprepare for lectures. Generally, one should arrive at class a few minutes early, open the book, and glance at the topic for that particular day. Lectures prepared in this manner have a certain freshness and spontaneity that is often missing from those which are more carefully organized. In addition, students will gain a greater appreciation for a correct proof if they see how much time can be spent on a wrong approach.

The first section of this guide has dealt with actual teaching, concentrating on lecturing 'tricks', techniques, and preparation. The subject of the last part will be general appearances. Students tend to have more confidence in an instructor if they believe he or she has a thorough understanding of his or her field. To show a class that one has a thorough understanding of mathematics, it is necessary to appear 'spaced-out.' Being 'spaced-out' implies one is so involved with abstract mathematics that one has lost touch with the real world. There are several ways to project such an image.
  1. Dress funny. Old suits, baggy pants, narrow ties, and hairy sweaters are all effective and even more so, when worn together.
  2. Don't wash your sweatshirts. Albert Einstein is best remembered for two things—being a genius and wearing dirty sweatshirts. Even if you are not a genius, you can still wear the sweatshirts. In a matter of weeks, you will gain such a reputation that no one will come near enough to challenge it.
  3. Don't comb your hair with anything finer than your left hand.
  4. Walk into the wrong room and begin to lecture to whatever class is in it. (This will help spread your reputation beyond your own students).
  5. Walk into the correct classroom and begin lecturing on whatever happens to be left on the blackboard from the previous class.
  6. Acquire a facial twitch.
  7. Pretend you are deaf if someone asks a question or the bell rings while you are lecturing. Try to keep talking after everyone has left the room.
  8. Follow all the guidelines for teaching given above.
By being properly 'spaced-out', one will gain the confidence and respect of one's students. This will make it easier to help inspire the in their study of mathematics. Being properly 'spaced-out' will also help one to acquire tenure at this or any other reputable college or university.


Lionel Richie Challenge Announced at Data Fest 2012

The UCLA Department of Statistics is hosting Data Fest 2012 Friday, May 4 through Sunday, May 6. Teams of undergraduate students work around-the-clock to explore a complex and rich dataset to mine it for insight and understanding. After which, each team has just 10 minutes (and two slides) to convince the judges to award them valuable prizes. The description of last year's Data Fest

Eight teams and 30 UCLA undergraduate students competed in the first DataFest, held in the Ackerman Conference Rooms on May 6 through May 8. Lieutenant Thomas Zak, Officer-in-Charge of the Los Angeles Police Department Strategic Crime Analysis Section, challenged students to analyze five years of crime report data to determine whether any discovered associations suggest policy changes to increase safety in Los Angeles.

This year Wiley donated two copies of my book, Comparing Groups, as prizes for Data Fest. I think that is pretty cool. Props to Wiley, although I suspect that they are trying to clear out shelf space. Rob asked me what students should have to do to earn them, so I suggested anything he felt, but if it involved Lionel Richie it would just be icing on the cake. This is when he announced to me that whatever it involved, it would be referred to as the Lionel Richie Challenge

Note to Rob: I will come out a judge for you in the future. This is such a great idea! I am going to try and convince the statistics department at Minnesota that they want to be involved in this as well.

Do you remember this?

This was the entire subject line and body of the email message I received a couple days ago from my sister. She had attached the following picture taken over the holidays several years ago. I had sat in a chair to read a book. Apparently not a really good chair as it collapsed and I sprawled to the floor. Sandra immediately snapped a picture and we all had a good laugh.

Check out the yellow/green shag carpet at our parents place!! The adjacent room had orange/red shag! Awesome!!!!