Towing Exchange

Fellow blogger Daniel Hamermesh recently explained the virtues of exchange as a painter helped him break into his Berlin apartment. My exchange example is not as glamorous. Shopping at the local co-op in Cambridge, I heard over the public-address system, "If you are the owner of a gray Subaru Outback, you are being towed!" I leaped over a low chain and made a break for the parking lot, as a mother nearby offered to watch my daughters (ages 1 and 4). The Subaru was hooked up and about to be hoisted onto the tow truck. In view of my timely arrival, the tow-truck operator offered two options: Pick up the car later that day in Somerville for $200, or pay $50 (cash) and he'd unhook the car now. An offer I couldn't refuse. Everybody gained, yet I am still furious!

Dump Algebra

Being a good teacher, I like to think, requires a curious and freethinking mind. A supporting example is Andrew Hacker, described by a former Cornell colleague as "the most gifted classroom lecturer in my entire experience of 50 years of teaching." His book Higher Education?: How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids---and What We Can Do About It, co-authored with Claudia Dreifusconvinced me that tenure is harmful. His latest broadside, "Is Algebra Necessary?", in last Sunday's New York Times, is as provocative.

He argues that we should stop requiring algebra in schools. Despite the vitriol in several hundred comments ("We read them so you don't have to."), he is right.

Ending the Math Wars in a Treaty of QAMA

As a country, we are often at war. If it's not against Germany, England, terrorism, or Grenada, it's the war on poverty (that's gone so well), the war on cancer (ditto), and, of particular interest to me, the Math Wars, which have been raging for decades. On one side, the traditionalists insist on drilling and back to basics, "on behalf of sanity and quality in math education." On the other side, the reformers insist on conceptual understanding using computers and calculators, to "promot[e] the rational reform of mathematics education."

Both are half-right and half-crazy. As the reformers say, students need to understand what the mathematics means. Students whose word problem for "6 x 3 = 18" is of the form "There were 6 ducks, and 3 more showed up, so 6 times 3 is 18," understand little. (See "Children Learning Multiplication, Part 1," in the articles by Professor Thomas C. O'Brien.) As the traditionalists say, using computers for everything leads to needing a calculator to compute what 6.5 x 10 is.

However, there's a tool to combine the merits of both sides: the Quick, Approximate, Mental Arithmetic (QAMA) calculator.

Remembering Chinatown

Learning that Los Angeles's Chinatown is fighting a Walmart store, including with a lawsuit against the city, reminded me of what I learned in that Chinatown years ago.

One midnight, fed up from revising our dissertations all day, a friend and I drove the 10 minutes from Caltech into Chinatown to dine at Full House Seafood, open until 2 AM. (My Ph.D. adviser once asked why graduate students all seem to live on Guam time.) The restaurant was lively and crowded but not packed, and we quickly got a table. While waiting to give our order, I noticed an African-American man sitting on the chairs near the front counter. Even though several tables were free, the waiters did not offer him a table. Other customers came in, and were seated. As our dumplings arrived and got eaten, and then the spicy tofu, the man still sat on the small chairs.

Solving Problems in the Real World

I owe my favorite local bookstore, the Harvard Bookstore, for making another day for me. Wandering the tall, packed shelves on a warm and breezy evening, I ran across Schaum's Outline of Principles of Economics. One subtitle on the cover: "964 fully solved problems." The problems include, for example (from page 50): "True of false: As used in economics, the word demand is synonymous with need," or "True or false: A surplus exists when the market price is above the equilibrium price."

I didn't long much for either answer.

Instead, as the U.S. mortgage market has, as James Kunstler predicted on October 10, 2005, imploded "like a death star" and dragged "every tradable instrument known to man into the quantum vacuum of finance that it create[d]," as euros flee from Greece, and as bank loans dry up in Spain, I wished that the 964 fully solved problems included one or two of the real problems.

The Retirement Robbery

Since putting email back in its corral, I've turned some recovered time to reading actual books in print --- the latest being Retirement Heist: How Companies Plunder and Profit from the Nest Eggs of American Workers by Ellen E. Schultz. If a nation of sheep shall beget a government of wolves, then the lesson from Retirement Heist is that today the shears are sharpened with numbers.

Retirement Heist is, as one blurb describes, a "meticulously researched and gripping as a crime thriller." Each chapter explains, with detailed research data and outrage-generating examples, yet another method corporations use to steal retirement benefits and mask the theft behind accounting shenanigans. It is one of the few books (since Cadillac Desert) to describe outrageous behavior so well that I threw it across the room.

Surviving "the Tyranny of E-mail"

Like a plague of locusts, they give us no rest. They gobble our irreplaceable asset: our time. The faster we swat them away, the faster they arrive. Our modern locust plague is email.

Fortunately, I found The Tyranny of E-mail: The Four-Thousand-Year Journey to Your Inbox by John Freeman a week ago at the Harvard Bookstore, one of the few surviving independent bookstores in Cambridge, MA. Alas, the book was discounted to $5.99 -- which probably means that it is on remainder. That is a shame, for it is a rich and thoughtful book, mixing history, analysis, outrage, and remedy.

The beginning of wisdom, it was said, is to call things by their right names. By that venerable standard, this is a wise book.

Classrooms With 500,000 Students

I am fascinated by the Stanford online courses in machine learning and artificial intelligence. My first inkling of them came when quite a few of my students started taking the artificial-intelligence class. Olin is very small, only about 400 students, so I realized that these online courses must be large. But I almost fell over when I saw that enrollment varied from 66,000, at the low-end, to 160,000.

Sebastian Thrun, who co-taught the artificial-intelligence course to 160,000 students, is now leaving Stanford teaching in order to teach courses to 500,000 students for free. What an inspiring goal!

Seal Training or Learning?

Yesterday I got a short and sweet insight into learning, courtesy of the New England Aquarium, where I took our daughters for our weekly visit. One of our favorite exhibits is the training session for the sea lions and fur seals. In the audience this time were about 100 school children with parents and teachers. To introduce the session, the lead trainer conducted the following discussion:

How many of you do chores? (Many hands go up.)

How many of you get an allowance for doing chores? (Most hands remain in the air.)

How many of do homework?

  • How many you have to finish your homework before you can go outside to play? (Lots of hands still in the air.)

    I see lots of hands! It makes homework not so bad because you get a reward at the end.

  • Listen Carefully as Our Menu Options Have Recently Changed

    Moving houses has always been like having three teeth removed without anesthetic. These days the pain is accentuated by having to wait on the phone hearing, "Please listen carefully as our menu options have recently changed." That’s corporate-speak for, "Don’t even bother pressing zero hoping to speak to a human. That’ll just put you back at the beginning."

    My latest such adventure started with an email from the phone company (Verizon). I was told that a technician would come to hook up our new service during the time "window" of 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. If a window is an opening in a wall, then 8 am to 5 p.m. is more like the whole wall. Trying to shrink the window, I spent more than an hour on hold for one person after another who could only forward me to someone else equally unhelpful. The circular chain of authority finally snapped when the last person claimed (all this discussion is at 10 a.m. on the day itself) "We have absolutely no way to reach the technician." And then asked "Have I provided excellent service today?"