Monthly Archives: January 2008

First Week of New Term (pt. 1)

About a week and half ago, classes began at Wayland.  I have also started my one day a week position at Texas Tech.  For those who may not know, I took a bit of a sabbatical from teaching, without knowing at the time that it was a sabbatical.  It had been my intention to try my hand at full time research.  A few of things motivated my leave from Wayland last May:

  1. I enjoyed research both as a graduate student and during my two summer post-doc positions so it seemed natural that I would enjoy more research. I was often frustrated during the school year by constantly having to put my “deep thinking” on hold for class, lecture development, one-on-one student tutorials, exam grading, etc.  If I wanted to do “real” research I was going to need a full-time position to commit the necessary time.
  2. I had never had a full-time research position before so I didn’t know if it was something I would truly enjoy.  Having started my full-time position at Wayland just after the completion of my Master’s, I lacked any experience as a researcher other than, again, part time research with the constant interruption of my teaching responsibilities.
  3. The time was now.  If I was going to move my career in the direction of research, I needed to try it now.  Nobody would hire a Ph.D. who hadn’t been doing research for years and who hadn’t taken the opportunity to pursue a post-doc position immediately after graduation.  I didn’t want to look back later, perhaps during a mid-life crisis, and wonder, “What If?”

I took a position as a Bioinformacist at the level of a Post-Doctoral Research Associate in a new lab at Texas Tech University.  The lab was set up by Dr. Thea A. Wilkins who had recently been hired by Tech and who has a pretty significant standing in the world of cotton genetics research.  I took the position expecting to be a part of her lab for two to three years.  At the end of that time, I would evaluate my career options and determine if research was for me, if I ought to return to teaching, or if I should seek a position with a mix of the two. As is now obvious since I am back a Wayland, I learned a few interesting things about research and about myself during the 6 months in this position, things that have rekindled my passion for mathematics education.

  1. Bioinformatics research, particularly data mining and database construction, do not motivate novel research, at least not for me.  I honestly believe that the skills of using statistical analysis for obtaining biological knowledge from the current high-throughput technologies is not an area that will remain as a primary research field for long.  As I have read more than once, this kind of bioinformaticist will soon be relegated to the position of technician, perhaps as a microscopist has become.  It will be a specialized set of skills that fit within the larger context of molecular biology and functional genomics, but not as an active field of research in its own right.
  2. Successful research demands passion complete with a time commitment beyond my capacity as a family man.  I’m sure there are a few select individuals that manage to build successful research programs will maintaining their familial responsibilities but they are indeed an exception.  The stress of publishing, obtaining grants and finding the next big idea commands a mental focus that one cannot honestly say they are putting their family and faith before their career.  Even if one can successfully balance this career with their family, that individual must be strongly motivated in both arenas of life.  I am passionately motivated to be a Christian father and a Christian husband, but cannot say the same thing of bioinformatics research.
  3. I am passionate about teaching.  If a career in education held the same demands as research, I would actually be motivated to balance this career with my family.  Fortunately, while it still requires commitment and an enormous amount of work, undergraduate mathematics education gives me much more freedom to commit time and mental focus to needs of my wife and rearing of my children.  Sitting in front of a computer screen writing code, building spreadsheets, developing databases, writing proposals, at 10+ hours a day, 5-6 days a week, only made me long for the classroom and for my office hours where I could teach, respond to questions, and just interact with people.  In the first week at Wayland, I had in-depth conversations with more people than in 6 months at Tech.
  4. The work environment at this particular lab at Texas Tech is not conducive to productive research.  I’ll not say more than that other than to say that I am not the first or the second person to leave the lab prematurely within the last six months.  At least a part of the reason for this exodus is the management of the lab.  Enough said.

This post was originally intended to discuss my first week at Wayland but it looks like that will be forthcoming.  I’ll draw this post to close and conclude that God let me follow a path of self-discovery.  I would even go so far as to say that He wanted me at Tech.  He also left a place for me at Wayland so I could return. 

I still must confess to doubt myself at times, wondering if I am just make excuses for not wanting to work hard. I remember a bad decision  I made during the summer following my junior year at Wayland.  I was living with my grandparents in Amarillo and completing an English course at Amarillo college.  I was trying my hand as a temp.  I had a job with a firm doing data entry.  I was asked if I wanted to take it as a full time summer position. After my first day, which was tedious and gave me a serious migraine, I convinced myself that I wasn’t cut out for data entry.  I convinced myself that it just not worth the challenge of monotony that it would inevitably provide.  Looking back (hindsight is 20-20) I really think I should have kept the job, saved up my earnings for an upcoming wedding, honeymoon and down payment on a house.  I needed to learn the responsibility of a “real” job outside the world of academia.  There are things that I learned at my first full time, non-teaching job this past 6 months, that I should have learned a long time ago.

Didn’t I say I was drawing this post to a close?  Well, I will, saying this: God is at work in our lives and we can trust his plan to work itself out in us.  We simply must give him the reigns to our life and make Jesus our Lord, master, boss, chair, dean, and all-around head honcho.  (Easier said than done.)

MathTrek: Checking It Twice

Philip Stark, a statistician at UC Berkeley, has been able to provide a more reliable technique for performing recounts of close elections.  As technology has entered into the voting realm, different kinds of errors have crept into the election system.  Based on election results, certain forms of recounts will undoubtedly need to be performed.  Hand counting is not necessarily any more accurate than the electronic count, each recount technique suffers from its own batch of problems.

Statistical methods have been developed to help provide an accurate recount procedure that takes into account the election results to verify that a sampling recount is 99% likely to be the same as a full hand recount.

The story below appeared on MathTrek.

By Julie J. Rehmeyer

Counting is hard. Neither people nor machines seem to be able to do it reliably. And that’s a nightmare for election officials who need an accurate ballot count to decide elections.

Eighteen states require officials to double-check the machine counts by hand for a portion of the ballots. But election officials have had little guidance on what to do with the recount results. If the election is close and the recount finds a few errors, should a registrar call for a larger recount or go ahead and certify the result? Most laws left it to their discretion.

Now Philip Stark, a statistician at the University of California, Berkeley, has developed a recount method that guarantees a 99 percent chance that the result is the same as it would be with a full hand count. Several counties in California plan to try out the method on ballot measures during the presidential primaries this year. If this trial and others go smoothly, California could adopt the method statewide.

MathTrek: Checking It Twice

The math behind traffic

Mathematicians at the University of Exeter in England model traffic jams based on the cascading effect of driver responses to the brake lights in front of them.  Not only does the mathematical model answer questions about why traffic can creep to a stop without any accident or obstruction, but it may also lead to better strategies for traffic management.

The story below appeared on KHOU.com:

The Math Behind Houston’s Traffic.

By Lee McGuire / 11 News

It doesn’t take a genius to know that accidents cause traffic jams. But it did take a genius to figure out why sometimes rush-hour traffic slows to a bewildering stop for no apparent reason at all.

In the last few months, two mathematicians at the University of Exeter in England came up with this equation, which has become something of a validation for engineers urging new approaches to traffic management. It’s changing things in Houston already.

Rice University’s Rolf Ryham explains the man.

He said for the first time, this equation takes driver “reaction time” into account. What’s revealed here could hold the key to solving Houston’s traffic problems.

Basically it’s mathematical proof that on a crowded freeway, when one driver just taps on his brakes, the driver behind him reacts and brakes a little more. The driver behind him brakes even more, and so on until drivers actually stop moving. It’s the kind of jam that happens on 290 every day.

“Slowing traffic down a little bit during peak periods is OK,” Highway 290 Expansion spokesman Stephen Hrncir said. “It’s the near-stop conditions we need to avoid.”

It’s called “cascading.” You can see it by speeding up video of 290 at rush hour. There are waves of congestion moving backward. The ripples start when someone up front does something that causes drivers behind him to brake, starting a cascade of slowing traffic.

The math behind Houston’s traffic | TOP STORIES | Breaking Houston News, Weather, Sports, Traffic, Video from KHOU.com | 11 News

Poem written just for computers

<>!*''#
^"`$$-
!*=@$_
%*<>~4
&[]../
|{,,SYSTEM HALTED
For you somewhat cybernetically challenged, it goes something like this (using the 
proper cyber-names):

Waka waka bang splat tick tick hash,
Caret quote back-tick dollar dollar dash,
Bang splat equal at dollar under-score,
Percent splat waka waka tilde number four,
Ampersand bracket bracket dot dot slash,
Vertical-bar curly-bracket comma comma CRASH

 HT: http://www.cise.ufl.edu/~ddd/poem.htm

The On-Line Encyclopedia of Integer Sequences

So you have a sequence of integers and you want to know more about it.  What’s the next number? Does it have significance in any field of mathematical study? Or just, what’s so special about this list of numbers?  You can go to the On-Line Encyclopedia of Integer Sequence and stick in the first few elements of the sequence and, if it’s in the database, you’ll have a wealth of information that could fulfill your dreams.  If, on that rare occasion, you find an interesting sequence that is not in the database you are invited to submit it with any interesting information you might be able to provide on the sequence.

This is certainly going to be added to my lecture in both College Algebra and Calculus II/III when the topic of sequences arises.

The On-Line Encyclopedia of Integer Sequences

Thumb Thing: The Spoon Sisters – Great Gifts Opening Everywhere

Nifty.

image 

Thumb Thing

If you like to read, here’s “Thumb Thing” you must have! Simply put the Thumb Thing on your thumb and pick up a book; the two wings will hold the pages open more easily than if you just used your hand, making reading more comfortable. Ideal for reading in bed, in the bath or at the beach. Since it allows you to read with one hand, it’s great for commuters, especially if they have to read standing up. When you are finished reading, place the Thumb Thing in the top of the book as a book mark. Comes in (thumb hole) size: small (1/2”), medium (5/8”), large (6/8”) and extra-large (7/8”). Small Thumb Thing should fit fingers with ring sizes of 3 to 6.5, Medium Thumb Thing – ring sizes 7 to 8.5, Large Thumb Thing – ring sizes 9 to 11.5 and Extra-Large Thumb Thing – ring sizes 12 and up. Assorted colors – let us choose the color for you.

Thumb Thing: The Spoon Sisters – Great Gifts Opening Everywhere