It has been some time since my last article on either Algo-Stats or its companion activist site Scire Populum et Potentiam. Since leaving Microsoft last August, I’ve relocated to Tucson, Arizona to reduce the proximity to family and to return to graduate school, hopefully for the last time this century. I’ve been extraordinarily busy with teaching and coursework, along with qualifying exams, so much so that I’ve neglected a few book reviews I’ve intended, as well as a more critical analysis of the Democratic primaries, debates, and caucuses. I would, however, highly recommend Democracy Now, David Swanson’s continued exceptional critical work, and the ongoing articles and tweets from Dean Baker on the Center for Economic Policy.
Democratic Races : Burying the Hatchet… Deeply in Bernie’s Back
I very much would like to comment more on the coalescing of Democratic candidates to defeat Bernie Sanders, despite the fact that Pete Buttigieg was performing decently leading up to Super Tuesday, only to resign the night before, joining Beto O’Rourke in an astonishing about-face, both candidates celebrated for following Bernie’s campaign strategy in accepting no PAC nor corporate donations. My best friend back from my hometown, like many Beto supporters, was heartbroken, scraping bumper stickers off of his and his wife’s vehicles. Buttigieg made a decision, the likes of which analysts such as Michael Moore quoted in Newsweek, decry as fear-mongering and unheard of in primary politics. As Bernie has repeated, he has won the ideological debate, yet two now unemployed young Democratic politics, Mayor Pete and Congressman Beto seem to have betrayed the grassroots movements propelling them into their positions. What did the DNC say to coerce Buttigieg, who claimed on NBC how he loved Bernie before “it was cool“, to about-face claim that Bernie wanted to “burn down the system.” Salon labels the logical fallacy we can associate with Buttigieg’s absurd claims, the straw man argument. The majority of Americans have a desire for a return to New Deal government (anti-socialists need take note that democratic socialism is nowhere near the cartoonish totalitarianism advertised in circa 1950s McCarthy brochures.) But Democrats voting in the primaries fear Biden is the better candidate–yes, a misleading sounding sentence. If you’re interested in misleading coverage, search for Bernie on Google, and all so-called “liberal” media, excepting a few genuinely progressive journals, all are dripping with “get the hell out of the way of the big man on campus”,
- Yahoo’s “Bye Bye Bernie“,
- CNN’s “Bernie Angry Swear“,
- NBC’s “Bernie Should Support Biden to Defeat Trump“,
- NYT’s “Well-Played Bernie“,
and so on and on and on. When the reverse was true, and Bernie seemed like he could form a coalition, the best we could get was constant attacks (and attacks) on Medicare for All by CNN, with very little attention to where we could find endless money, namely, runaway military spending and endless war, described in a piece by Common Dreams. The Physicians for a National Health Plan have long described all the relevant numbers one consider, and if we had such a plan in place now, we could expect a smaller death toll from COVID, a topic to which we’ll return. The paucity of pro-Bernie articles such as Columbia Journalism Review’s “Coverage of Bernie Suffers from a Lack of Imagination require some internet digging. Speaking of Common Dreams, they appear to be the only journal I’ve found so far which asserts a simple argument that CNN and NYT, for all their fantasy liberalism, seem utterly incapable of speaking this central truth: Bernie performs much better with independents and progressive-independents. And as a strong and long-time supporter of Bernie’s, I receive a good deal of communication from the campaign arm, and as of a week ago, Bernie began asking for contributions NOT for his campaign, but for COVID relief. That’s class. Bernie’s fireside chats and speeches of late channel Franklin Delano Roosevelt, easily most important president in American history, with the obvious neck-in-neck Abraham Lincoln; we need Bernie’s socialism (or just New Deal policies) now more than ever. I could go on and on about Bernie’s monumental role in reshaping the Democratic platform (Biden suddenly seems to be embracing everything Bernie embraces, but with the wink and nod that he’ll fold unnecessarily to “scorch-the-earth” Republicans (even Paul Krugman agrees) once he steps back into the White House.) Don’t get me wrong–a Biden administration, or an administration of any suit-wearing primate one might choose perhaps, would be better than the nest of oozing, craven, ignorant, festering, collusive cronies. (And no, I’m actually holding back on my words here.)
Trump : He Knew He Was Right In Being Wrong, or Something Like That…
We can slacken blame on Herbert Hoover for policy ineptitude–he was a brilliant engineer, but a without a wonkish grasp of economics, say after the brands of John Maynard Keynes and Harry Dexter White, he was only minimally able to mitigate the crisis of the Great Depression, his . Trump, by contrast, loathes studies and knowledge. He believes he knows everything, and that his actions have created the stock market gains since he assumed office. And in the space of a few weeks, this one metric is I saw in a gone. Peter Wehner, a Republican who served in the administrations of Reagan and both Bushes, wrote in The Atlantic that “the Trump presidency is officially over“, as COVID leaves him badly unprepared after a gutted several agencies specifically in place to manage disaster and needed relief. But never fear, I noticed a ticker on CNN last week or so that Jared Kushner, magical expert in all policy things, was “advising President Trump,” a president who wanted the world to know that coronavirus is the fault of the Chinese, not of the Americans. Phew–for a moment there I was worried what we ought place on our headstones. Trump, along with his enablers in Congress and the disgraceful far right organizations masquerading as media, has consistently downplayed the coronavirus outbreak, with references numbering too far to recite here. A decent rundown appears in Rolling Stone, leading to his recent claim that he always knew it was a “pandemic.” If the consequences weren’t so dire, I’d insist on laughter at Republican lawmaker Matt Gaetz mocking the outbreak by wearing a military gas mask during the relevant House votes, only to contract the virus a few days later. These corrupt government officials ought be in jail. How about global warming is a Chinese hoax? Scientists are evil, per terminally ill hatemonger medal of freedom recipient Rush Limbaugh. I read a copy of his book The Way Things Ought to Be several years ago, and his siding with the infinitesimal minority of scientists in denial was a retread of his debate with Al Gore that atmospheric chlorine released in a volcanic eruption dwarfed all possible chlorine since the industrial revolution. Of course, the whole book read like talking points, mostly false. I doubt he surrenders that he dodged the Vietnam War draft with an in-grown hair on his wide rear-end. He never corrected that volcanic chlorine is water soluble, yet chlorine released through factory processes is not. Rain won’t help us, it would appear, as weather is now much more extreme thanks to catastrophic climate change, but at least he’ll get out early. I daresay when he passes, I’ll feel the urge to channel Gore Vidal, or maybe with more gentility, Noam Chomsky on the passing of William F. Buckley.
University of Arizona : The Home of Noam
Speaking of Noam, I’ve had the unique and special privilege of sitting in two of his courses at the University of Arizona, and, for reasons too inexplicably wonderful to imagine, I had my first sitdown discussion with him on a research aim near to his heart. I won’t offer any details now, as he and I don’t want the let the cat out of the bag yet, but it’s a dream I couldn’t have ever envisioned. Unfortunately, due to the outbreak, he is rightly quarantined, as the nonagenarian is robust, but nonetheless a nonagenarian. I’ll have more to offer in the days ahead, depending on how the work goes. One can note the large image of Bertrand Russell, a leading antiwar and progressive intellectual and activist in the United Kingdom, jailed for his iron opposition to the so-called “Great War,” later renamed, much like Star Wars IV: A New Hope, to World War I. Speaking of Star Wars, I recall Yoda admonishing Luke that “wars don’t make one great.” In any case, I’m seated next to the man in whose very large image I’ll have in my office, academic or otherwise, in the future. A half-century of life experience sits between us, and I’m honored beyond words.
I certainly have lost clarity around faith over the past several years, not, strictly speaking, because the evangelical tradition in which I was raised obviously would ostracize or mutilate me for my homosexuality, but rather because I simply could not reconcile a good-willed deity who would permit the ghastly, overwhelming third world suffering most of us in the western, or first, world will never know. The story of Job offers nothing but confusion, as God and Satan bet on Job’s faithfulness, the story resolving with Job beckoning and thus foretelling the coming of the Intercessor, or Christ. My aunt and uncle are (sort-of post)-evangelists who traveled about the world for many years. I accompanied them on many spiritual meetings, and I’ll confess I’ve seen many, many things leading me to conclude that there’s much more to the human mind than we can imagine. I’m in the process of helping them prepare a semi-exhaustive list of what you might think of as miracles, mind-reading, and the like, which I can promise you very well could be an extension of what little we understand about the warm goop between our ears. John Cleese, a steadfast agnostic such as myself, discussed a series of studies during his fascinating interview at Google which demonstrate that the brain has predictive power over certain randomized experiments as conducted by Dean Rabin at the Institute of Noetic Sciences and other researchers at Cornell. Whatever the case is to extrasensory perception, my aunt and uncle are the honest kind of ministers–they have only the long list of friendships they’ve cultivated, but no golden toilets or other Robert Tilton-styled frivolity (though sometime I’ll tell an interesting story involving their past interactions with him.) I say all of this to point out that moving to Arizona to improve health conditions, return to school, volunteer music work with and be supportive of my aunt and uncle, be closer to my husband’s family in Scottsdale, and actually have this opportunity to work with Noam is incredible. And in light of COVID, this is exactly where we should be. But university work isn’t without its share of pitfalls, a topic to which we’ll return below.
Back Home for Tragedy
It’s rare I would delve into so much personal material in this venue, as I would rather keep to the title, the power and the people, but this is a time of personal challenge for us all, and the stories are common. I returned home to north Texas following the passing of my Uncle Allan, a successful businessman in Boston, Chicago, and Texas. I brought my Uncle Charles along to surprise his sister Dowleen, Allan’s now widow, as I figured she would need some emotional support. It was a grueling and terrible month of waiting and watching after Allan underwent emergency surgery to repair an aortic aneurysm, an operation from which he didn’t recover. It gave me the opportunity to see my mother, her husband Tony Shotwell (a red town Democratic council member so beloved they named a center in his honor), sister, and my best friend Robin, his wife Molly, and my godchild Samantha. Below from right counter-clockwise: sweetest of sweet little red-headed Sam (grinning with new teeth!), Molly, me, Uncle Charles, my sister Lindsey, Tony, my mother Tisha, her sister my aunt Dowleen, and Robin.)
Further, I had the blessed opportunity to see some of my favorite schoolteachers, my calculus teacher from high school E. Clyde Yeatts, and my college US history professor Pat Ledbetter. Sadly, my other notable teachers from that region are retired and relocated (Candy, I’m thinking of you) or have passed on. See below for our reunion picture–I reminded my former professors that they are the good guys, and we need to stick together through this mess of political recklessness. Both Clyde and Pat are amazing folks, so generous with their time and stewardship, and Pat is still teaching at North Central Texas College, where she helped to utterly transform my world-view. Clyde has fully retired after an incredible career of teaching high school and college courses.
Teaching Again : The Migration Online, Shock and Reshock with Neither Awe Nor Aww
I had planned originally to do a more in-depth post on my return to the teaching clique after a five year mission to tech in the northwest, but other issues came up. It seems like a good time to bring it up now, as the COVID pandemic leaves university leaders scrambling to relocate academia into cyberspace. My teaching philosophy is actually relevant here, though I haven’t posted it before. Before considering the current mess, I should pause to comment on my initial impressions in returning to teaching last semester.
To give a little context, I’ve worked in mathematics instruction either as a tutor, a teaching assistant, a teacher, a supervisor, or mentor since 1994. I tutored my mother when she took elementary statistics from Clyde in the photograph above back in 1995. I’ve very much enjoyed most of my teaching and mentoring experience, and coworkers know I’m happy to explain, perhaps in excruciating detail, artifacts of some oddball mathematical model. And it’s something I do well. A student of mine from Georgia Tech told me I was the best teaching assistant he’d known in all his four years of undergraduate study. It was very, very touching to hear that.
Bear with me, as I should point out that most of what I’ll say here is pretty negative. But if you’ve already read my political commentary earlier, this might not even surprise you. And I probably wouldn’t have bothered to post about it had it not impacted me personally; I was, I suppose, expecting something of a song and a dance, as it was an opportunity for them to have a teacher return from the “real world” of industry to impart wisdom. Ha. What a narcissist I’m becoming. On the contrary, I’ve come away feeling quite dissatisfied with the monolithic bureaucratization in the twenty-first century.
But it is worth mentioning a couple upgrades since I last dabbled in instruction. On the side of light, the powers that be (or one single power, it would seem) here in the University of Arizona Department of Mathematics have (has) evolved the more basic classes into mostly participatory labs. Students discuss problems and try to reach solutions. It’s a cool idea with much promise, but it slows progress a bit. One might think an extra credit hour is needed. There also is an online tool the students must use something called ALEKS, though this part of the grading occurs outside of instructor or teaching assistant oversight. Now on to what isn’t working.
It is apparent now that one person largely controls all teaching assignments, and chairs of the sub-departments aren’t willing, at least not to me, to asking for exceptions. This is a conscious decision on the part of academic faculty to cede power to non-academic administration. I don’t believe I’ve ever experienced this, nor did I know it was a thing. I do recall when I was a graduate student at the University of Texas at Arlington that professors were quite unhappy with departmental proceedings on uniformity across classes. And in those cases, it was faculty and some academic oversight. I find this new norm to be curious, as I was permitted, as a TA, to teach my own classes any way I saw fit, including managing graders and crafting homework, lesson plans, and exams. It’s the extreme opposite here–despite years of experience, one must do as one is told, and that includes other faculty who have much more on-hands teaching experience than myself–literally, when I asked to teach my own class, the explanation I was given was that, “you need to learn about our student population.” I still don’t know what that means. Perhaps I should have asked for clarification. Instead, I accepted the beginning role, expecting things to change after they observed my work with my students. What happened instead I won’t say explicitly here, but human resources is now involved. It’s hard not to think that expressing my opinions, generally in a nicer version than you’ll see them here, is the culprit behind any difficulties I have with administration.
Returning to my rant, coordinators are very insistent about grading policies, requiring 2000 (!) fall students to take tests at exactly the same time on exactly the same day, with a logistical nightmare to assign rooms, proctors, and an essential guarantee of a late evening exam time. And why? They’re certain the students will cheat. Smart phones and email and yada yada make it so easy to cheat on a twenty question multiple choice test.
Now I just listened to Carl Sagan mention in Cosmos that the human genome perhaps could express more individuated humans than can ever live in the history of our civilization. But we can’t randomly permute questions on a multiple choice test so that answers don’t line up, nor are they the same on corresponding questions? With twenty questions and four answer choices each, even if you had exactly the same questions, there aresimply too lazy (they admitted this to me themselves) to generate different tests, or, heaven forbid, take the extra step of trusting students not to cheat, or for that matter trust instructors to run and grade their own classes the way they see fit. These tests are unavailable to the instructor of record, as though even he/she is considered untrustworthy. Hmm, we’ll return to that word later. And the histrionics around student dishonesty is quite ingrained–the coordinators require a sitdown meeting preceding every midterm to repeat the same drivel about correct proctoring. It seems like more thinking goes into preventing cheating than into nurturing learning.
From a game theoretic perspective, there are easy answers that don’t require factory solutions : I read an interesting experiment in which students were permitted to take tests unsupervised, and of course it’s immediately obvious which students cheated. A similar strategy could work here. Or perhaps simply have several versions, maybe individualized to each student but with essentially the same concepts. Again, we can randomly generate these tests. If they cheat with outside help, does it really matter? The onus on extremely large classes to catch cheaters seems unfair, as it’s much easier to notice in smaller classes.
Further, they require the students stay in the room until half-way through the exam, and when I queried whether they understood that we probably couldn’t legally require they remain, I was told that these students are used to doing what they’re told, so threatening them was fine. Other policies are shockingly broken–we were advised during teaching training that if a student expresses suicidality, we ought more-or-less personally take them into custody ourselves to take them to student health services. I put my foot down in the orientation, explaining my opinion the very real danger in coercing kids, mostly 22-26 years-old with no psychiatric or counseling training, to assess the risk in attempting something so stupid. I insisted that you call the police, period. My husband is a psychiatrist, and that is his strong warning. On the altruistic front, you don’t permit this suicidal student the opportunity to harm oneself or others, and purely from the perspective of protecting the university, you let professionals immediately take over the situation. The half-hearted response was that students’ records could be tarnished if you require a police escort, so the risk is worth it. Sigh.
Moving on, technologically, they’re required to buy a TI-83 calculator, evidently because anything with symbolic manipulation is a bridge too far, while graphing and performing mild-to-moderate calculations are too hard but symbolic manipulation isn’t. I’ve reminded them that I have worked extensively in math and science since buying my TI-89 some years ago, and I never used it after school. Because of path dependency, they compel the students to use the same technology I used a quarter century ago in high school algebra, trigonometry, and calculus. Wow, am I really that old? In any case, this would have been akin to my having to use a slide rule while in those courses, as one could argue that button mashing somehow left more to the machine than to the man.
Perhaps it’s better to ask what the goal is in requiring all the students to learn college algebra, when they’ll forget the material in the months to follow? A class in logic would be far more useful for many if not most of the students required to take this class, as it is the last math signpost in the road. Fact is I couldn’t even get a straight answer from what the coordinators believe the students should be learning and retaining.
I suppose the reader can sense me baring my own frustrated narcissism, but I can report that the lecturers to which I’ve been assigned very much have appreciated my jumping in to help them teach. Yet the powers that be don’t bother to observe this interaction. And I’ve received praise from my students for teaching them concepts in a uniquely clarifying style. Can you imagine my frustration when someone young enough to have been in grade school when I managed these very classes myself telling me that I was not trustworthy to the department? Furthermore, to my knowledge, no one has taken complaints I’ve flagged seriously. My cynicism tells me that my offering advice on how to run the ship better was very poorly received. I get that–it’s human nature, as is my reviling against unfair criticism.
My sincere hope is that if anything positive comes out of COVID, it forces most business and classwork to more easily migrate online; this is the future. Rich corporate executives might think otherwise, but work-from-home is a very good idea, and admits less stress. We’re very much unprepared for this scenario, so it’s no time like the present to invest resources centrally into solving all of these problems across the board. And it seems that may be happening. I’m discovering that the powers that be are having to adopt suggestions I made during orientation, as students may or may not have access to printers or their TI machines. So we migrate to a paperless, online experience with exams proctored through the Zoom tool. (Incidentally, Zoom stock has ballooned at the time of this writing. Another missed opportunity to get rich, I suppose.) And I’m helping students edit PDFs using online opensource tools since the department has no obvious solution, and their expectation in the past was that students would print out worksheets, write in their answers, then scan them into PDFs. This, of course, was another component for which I had suggested we provide an end-to-end digital solution. Can you imagine, even before this crisis, how badly that had gone with every assignment? Badly.
So what’s the lowdown on all of this? Is it that I feel insulted and not heard? Or is it the overall risk to and effects on my students? And they are my students, are they not? Education is less and less what I recognize. A university course is a sacred trust, a bond between the teacher and the taught, the scholar and the students. You and your teacher work together to succeed. I think the answer is both and all. I feel insulted, and I don’t mind commenting publicly when the effects are deleterious to my students.
It is a deep shame, and many other educators, current and retired, have shared similar stories with me. Junior college and university level instruction, to say nothing of that of secondary and below, seems to be fraying, and though I’ve always cared about teaching a great deal, as my teaching_philosophy clearly indicates, hope is waning, as we have many, many other battles to win in the days ahead. So let’s now turn to the rest of the good news about returning to school.
Research Opportunities Everywhere
I’ve joined the department at a good time, certainly. In the department of statistics, we confront the immense growth and demand for statistics. My chair Joseph Watkins recently netted the university an immense grant for a data science foundation, an operation which will transcend the many research departments across the campus, including astronomy, biology, epidemiology, genomics, optical sciences, engineering, computer science, applied mathematics, and so on and on. It’s an incredible grant he, Helen Zhang, and many others had quite a hand in creating. I’m very honored to have the rare opportunity to offer a little bit of input here and there, and I plan to put my industry experience to good use. I’ve noted how data science, statistics, and machine learning finds application across logistics, operations research, technological performance, market and ads testing, and community operations. This is indeed exciting.
And another incredibly important piller here is the newly-appointed chair of applied mathematics, one Dr. Misha Chertkov, a faculty member from Los Alamos with an impressively varied research pedigree and an inslakable thirst for ground in the most fertile and forward reaches of applied mathematics, statistics, computer science, engineering, machine learning, and the like. I think it’s safe to say I may have discovered my advisor. Other interesting possibilities include astrophysics research, and of course, the project I mentioned earlier with Noam.
So I would argue, obviously, that returning to school was the correct decision for me. And I’m incredibly blessed to be here. So I’ll end on some more inspirational themes.
“Look for the Helpers”
As the late great Mr. Rogers said, “look for the helpers”, and you’ll know there is hope. There are many good people out there doing good work to help each other. This is a time through which we can demonstrate our resolve, both as Americans and as a species. We can join together with countless others to look for the new political narrative, perhaps one like that described by George Monbiot, to ease our passage through this critical junction in our history. COVID demonstrates how much alike we all really are, and, like the more ominous catastrophic climate change, how little discrimination and division makes any sense in today’s world. Looking for something gentle to watch last night, we returned to the original Cosmos series, and I was actually quite surprised at how moved I found myself in listening to Carl Sagan’s gentle words in the opening and closing pieces of the episode. In closing to said series, he offered the following inspiration, and I’d invite you to listen. I genuinely believe our species is worth saving, and maybe this is our opportunity to move forward. With that, please, please be safe. Here’s a beautiful sunset in Tucson right outside my door–enjoy.