Songs of the Semesters

Part of my second attempt at a PhD involved music. As I returned to test taking, I returned to pre-test music playlists. The mix varied from term to term, based on the highlights of courses and life. (Originally in summer 2013) As I refocus, aiming towards oral comprehensive exams, the next hoop to leap, I thought I’d review some of the past and answer the people who ask what I play. I’ll include Youtube song video links.

Pretest mixes last 30-35 minutes, with some songs varied by term. For instance, spring 2012 included the New Zealand haka because I was taking class with another rugby watcher. Fall 2012 included the song with over 2 billion views, which I saw in the first week of release after visiting Gangnam about a month before. Perhaps I could do the dance at one point … .

Test mixes now always include two songs. The first is my personal theme song, Scars of Time, the opening theme from Chrono Cross. There’s a lot of backstory behind that choice.

I’ve used Chrono Cross since playing the game in Chicago. The closing song for test soundtracks has been around longer, since undergraduate days in Cambridge, Mass. Thanks to my roommate’s purchasing tastes, I introduced LL Cool J and Mama Said Knock You Out to the tape. Yes, we had cassette tape back then. Don’t call it a comeback.

Each semester at Georgia has had a theme song. If you consider the choices pessimistic, you are not totally wrong. While I greatly appreciate my second chance at gaining the academic union card, I haven’t enjoyed much of the process. Also, I’ve noticed that I take tests better when dissatisfied, perhaps a little angry. Relaxation and joy come after the struggle.

Fall 2011: Because the papers we read in EMAT 8020 had such bleakness, repeating lack of systemic knowledge or transformation, it felt like things could never improve. Thus, I chose a song about a hopeless place, We Found Love by Rihanna. I’m linking to the audio version, because I didn’t like the self-destructive video. I would imagine a video about desperate questing, more like what I felt, trying to reach what I want after the fall.

For a much more hopeful interpretation, Lindsey Stirling and Alisha Popat make some modifications in Kenya. This also lets me thank Ms. Stirling for much of the soundtrack in July 2013 as I wrote written qualifiers.

Spring 2012: Algebra 2 had Sylow groups, while I had to grind through lots of crazy algebraic geometry I didn’t enjoy. Searching for voice, I turned to Atlanta native Sylow [Cee Lo] Green. Here’s the sanitized version of F*** You.

Summer 2012: I traveled to interesting places in Asia, did some wonderful projects, and was pleased to meet many people. The song of the summer was bangapseumnida, pleased to meet you from Pyongyang.

Fall 2012: Grinding through two math courses and a not particularly good third course, I looked for something cold and brutal. There was no woman, just the lonely workload at 3 AM, behind Kanye West’s Heartless. I’ll offer you the lyric version.

Spring 2013: Continuing with two math offerings, plus a terribly taught third course, I realized that the way I do things is a little strange. To avoid the Beast of Academic graduate school, I realized the university mechanism wasn’t going to care about me, you know. After some thought, I remembered Boomkat, with Taryn Manning providing instructions on how to ride a wrecking ball. Taking tests would be The Wreckoning.

Summer 2013: Writing comprehensive exams, I was looking for something to show my level of dedication chasing dreams. Sailing, dogsled, camel, whatever – as Ryan Lewis and Professor Macklemore state, you can’t stop me, and you can’t hold us. Let the night come.

Fall 2013: I passed my written and oral comprehensive exams, moving to a quiet time. I lost the intensity for a while. I also got to travel to the San Diego area twice for work filming classrooms. San Diego is the notional opposite of the University of Chicago. Chicago has the rule of Jadis, the land of perpetual winter, while San Diego is the land of perpetual summer. Nevertheless, one can find happiness in Chicago and sadness in San Diego. Looking over beach cliffs, I recalled a dance remix, Summertime Sadness by Lana Del Rey, though I have absolutely no desire to reenact the video.

Spring 2014: Administrative troubles preparing for the dissertation … hmm, Not Ready to Make Nice by the Dixie Chicks? That’s not true, as I did make nice and get things settled. If I had any illusions remaining about academic life, they dissipated like mid-morning fog. “Consider this, the hint of the century. Consider this, the slip that brought me to my knees.” The PhD process always has bad times, and pretty much everyone thinks about dropping out at some point. Occasionally college dropouts become famous stars, like the four dropouts of the University of Georgia who formed R.E.M. and recorded Losing My Religion.

Summer 2014: I work in a world facing the future, but I feel more personally comfortable with screwball comedies. Thinking 2020, acting like 1940. Who transforms my songs? Scott Bradlee and Postmodern Jukebox, an alternative universe of pop music. There’s jazz and Broadway mostly, with plenty of surprises – Yiddish klesmer rap, a giant clown, tambourine, Motown, flaming instruments, barn dances. It’s really hard to pick one song, since I listen to so many. Perhaps Gentleman by Psy illustrates everything, but if you’re not sure, try a few and enjoy.

Fall 2014: My advisor called this my rogue semester, as I tried to bolster my CV for mathematics education jobs. In the end, I got a statistics job so my angle-shooting wasn’t necessary. The process wasn’t exactly what Ms. Swift described in Blank Space, but placing the singer as the PhD calling to me isn’t a bad analogy. Plus, this song was released during the fall. “It’ll leave you breathless, or with a nasty scar.” Yeah. “Boys only want love if it’s torture; don’t say I didn’t warn you.” Yeah, I knew what was coming. If only I could be one-tenth as attractive as Sean O’Pry!

Spring 2015: Academia is about managing failure. I applied to 17 jobs. I’m considered a great success because I only failed 15 times. In four of those cases, I’ve never even heard about my status. Change one very key reaction, and the song of this semester would have been New York, New York. Instead, I swapped my ringtone to the theme song from Rogers and Hammerstein’s musical, and planned a move to a place with plenty o’ room to swing a rope.

Summer 2015: In the rush to finish writing the dissertation, I turned away from anger and towards uplifting music. For once. Well, not entirely positive – Christina Perri made the playlist often. Nonetheless, based on a friend’s suggestion, my theme song became one of fighting, a Fight Song from Rachel Platten. If you look carefully, there’s even a reference in my dissertation defense slides (although there are many, many other subtle references so don’t fear if you missed it.) I completed my work, and I’ve still got a lot of fight left in me.

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On Being 40

There’s a countdown going on right now. 1 minute, 12 seconds. Unless something extreme occurs, screwier than a screwball comedy, I’ll be a 40 year old virgin. 25 seconds now. There’s no fancy ball drop. No Taylor Swift or Ryan Seacrest. No fancy glasses. Just defeat and humiliation. “Crying makes you weak,” I was recently informed. And I cry, for I am weak.

Ten years ago, I wrote some Musings on my 30th Birthday. Now, on my 40th birthday, how have I done? When I was 20, I listed five life goals: PhD, marriage, tenure, solid spiritual life, happy death. At 30, I had zero, but I had some hope. I held a birthday party and while not at the pictured party, that day might have included my birthday suit.

Now, well, I still have zero. And much less hope. I weigh a couple pounds less than I did 10 years ago. Though I did lose 20 pounds in the first half of 2005, that’s not bad. When people guess my age, the median guess is around 32 and I got told 26 a couple months ago. Thus, I still have the appearance of more time. Nevertheless, I hold little of the self-confidence built during 2005 and 2006. Public appearance even shirtless? Not since May 2012. Instead of swimming in briefs, I consider long sleeve swim shirts.

Why? I’m not chemistry marriage material. When I ask someone out, I’m told I’m a 2. Instead of expressions of desire, I receive “Ultimately it felt more like having a good college or med school friend”. My kisses are on the cheek from 7 year olds. In Ladder Theory, I stand very high on friends ladders. I get to be the cuddle bitch, “getting to provide all the intimacy that a girl is missing when she’s off [dating] guys who basically don’t care about her like outlaw bikers and band members. So he gets to be the proxy father/confessor/friend/teddy bear for her, depending on what she is missing at the time.” Not often a father am I, but the others are very true.

Back in November, Ms. N said the most prescient thing I heard this past year. Her former best friend now had a serious boyfriend, and the distance had grown. She realized friendships were transient; only your partner would stay for life. Thus, she wanted to prepare herself for that partner. When talking, she sounded so forlorn that I worry about her. Yet she’s correct. Particularly in academia, people turn over. I told her the story of 2003 and 2004. Back before cell phones, I kept a person list near my landline. One September, I saw nine people beyond my family, numbers I had wanted to recall easily. Due to departures and life shifts, only two made the next list. Family stays. Partners stay. Others leave.

Therefore, that’s the primary problem. As for other goals – I should receivees the PhD this year, or something went really wrong. I’ve realized tenure really meant professional security, which might happen in a bit. The problems with academia, and why I don’t desire tenure, are a much longer story. I just hope I can find another generally honorable institution like Bellarmine – not flawless, including my own conduct, but not shameful. Long time friends tell me that I sounded happy there. I thought so. But work’s not enough, nowhere near enough.

An article got a lot of attention this January, Modern Love, where Mandy Len Catron expounded on 36 questions from Arthur and Elaine Aron and others. It’s a great article, which you should read if you haven’t yet, and perhaps read again if you have. Some of her other musings at The Love Story Project are worth reading too. For now I want to conclude this lament with her summary quote. If I want to be worthy of love, to have someone to stay in my story, I must become stronger to be able to choose more strongly.

“Love didn’t happen to us. We’re in love because we each made the choice to be.”

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2015: Sticks and Buckets

Having published an overwhelming three posts in 2014, it’s time for a summary, right? As I watch Ryan Seacrest hand his coat to Taylor Swift, and wait for the ball drop, I’ll use the same basic categories as 2012 and 2013.

  • UN Member States Traveled: 1. I didn’t leave the United States of America.
  • Flight Miles: 11,027 over 17 segments. Comparing this to 2010 or 2011, let alone 2013, is an order of magnitude. On the upside, US Airways silver status yielded 10 upgrades on US Airways from 8 eligible flights, including 2 for my major professor. I won’t have any statuses in 2015, so I’ll have miles or coach.
  • CV Improvements: Three conference presentations, one session organizer, 1 instance of journal reviewing.
  • Class Grades: A in my final actual class, with a surprisingly frustrating 99.5, and S’s to maintain my 4.0 at Georgia.
  • Facebook Friends: 198, 10 less than one year ago. I added about 20 new people, but culls and individual removals lowered my count.
  • Kisses: 0.

The TV just showed several more kisses than I had in 2014, or this decade for that matter. As in 2013, I had more than zero dates. Again, more than one potential woman was involved, but nobody aligned in the trifecta of shared values, chemistry, and location. Because I should be moving in August, the window for potential marriage relationships has likely closed for a while.

Looking back, how did I perform on my three goals for 2014?

  • Strive at work to go to the moon: I knew it would be a tough year when I saw my office door on the first day of the semester. In late 2013, the College of Education had a “rebranding”, spending money to get a new logo. Whee. Each door got a new label. My department decided to label my office, along with others, a “Graduate Assistant Office”. Yes, it costs a small amount to reprint signs each year, but every other department considered students worthy of names. Mathematics and Science Education does not. I’d like to say this highly symbolic decision was the worst work action of the year. That would be a lie. Some problems were my fault; others, not so much. As work demands increase, my view has shifted, which I’ll mention in future goals.
  • Cultivate more attractive desirable qualities for women: I didn’t lose weight or gain muscle, though I believe I’ll weigh less on my 40th birthday than my 30th. Better eating habits – mostly avoiding candy – have cut down on acne outbreaks. One side effect of my root canals was a reduction in tooth discoloring, though really I still need a front tooth crown once I find the cash. As for non-physical qualities, I received some positive feedback about my gentlemanly actions and emotional support, but those are secondary. As I was reminded on December 31, without “chemistry” (sexual attraction) dating doesn’t occur.
  • Praise others to accept the gift of life: This went pretty well, the best of the three goals. Brightness begets brightness. I supported a lot of people, even defending students to other instructors. Portrayals focused on strong aspects of people. I didn’t appreciate people who gave negative descriptions and avoided them a little. At the same time, I maintained my reputation as someone who pulls no punches at work. Work is work, not life, something people don’t always understand. Kind is not the same as nice; I can critique and still appreciate the positive actions of a coworker or acquaintance.

Completing the PhD is my primary responsibility in the first half of 2015. Thus, I view life in terms of that journey. It’s not pretty. In the fall, I read a great figurative description, which I adapted a bit.

Some people call the PhD process a marathon. Perhaps, but running marathons have aid stations and people cheering for the runners. The PhD has no pre-constructed aid stations; you have to find or build them yourself. Instead of cheering, people watching try to trip you with sticks and throw buckets of crap on you. If you finish, you get three prizes: a fancy paper, a stick, and a bucket.

Right now I see lots of sticks and buckets, but no aid stations. I hope to receive the gift of support. We shall see.

What can I control? What are my two goals?

  1. Get the Paper. As I’ve told other folks, the point of the dissertation is to complete the requirements and get the PhD. Not much else. Yes, I know I’m disenchanted. Academia holds little mystique. I’ve seen too much. People don’t become professors because they’re good at management. I intend to remain an academic because I want to teach and do projects. I was very fortunate at Bellarmine – and I sent a thank you card to my old workplace. Here in Georgia, I just need to run.
  2. Be a Good Man. Despite what some people claim, faculty have lots of power. Grades have power on students’ lives. Whispered comments about reputations, or written comments in recommendations, can have more. In a few months, assuming I have success on an interview (well, assuming I have an interview, but let’s be a little optimistic), I’ll become part of the faculty. I’ll be The Man. How I handle my responsibility, what I do with my power, that defines my honor. (Honour, if you’re from a Commonwealth land.) Over the past year, I’ve realized that in my self-worth, honor matters quite a lot.

JRR Tolkien, a great man, gave Gandalf a wise phrase, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.” Maybe tomorrow will be my last day; maybe I’ll live until 90 through a generous gift. I have to continue to decide, for now, in the land of sticks and buckets.

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TV: Carrie and Lorelai

Over the month of April, I’ve had a tooth issue. There was pain – not so much that I’d take a painkiller, but enough to influence my life. I couldn’t put any pressure on the back left side of my mouth. The UGA dental clinic told me that my #18 molar had literally fallen apart. Under an old filling, it had broken into two pieces. Since we can’t stitch bone back together, it had to come out. I scheduled the removal for 1 PM on Good Friday, sharing the pain. It wasn’t that bad, actually; not much worse than a filling. I was told not to do anything the rest of Friday, so I sat at home and watched TV. Here on Sunday April 20, most of the pain has gone, but I’m not supposed to eat crunchy foods or exercise. My body needs time to heal, to let blood and tissue fill the hole.

The analogy writes itself, I’m also trying to fill holes in my soul. I’ve had TV to keep me company, though I have no expectation of salvation in HD. My tastes over these past two months have tended towards lighter, more comedic fare. It’s been more challenging to find than I thought. The simple comedies of my life have been replaced by less expensive documentaries and “reality” shows. Dramas get higher ratings in general, it seems. The top comedy is The Big Bang Theory. On that show, none of the male scientists are attractive or desirable. It’s brilliantly designed to get the audience to laugh AT smart academics like me. Someone succinctly wrote: “I am proud of knowing a lot about those things. I am proud of being enthusiastic about the things I love and The Big Bang Theory wants to tell me not to be. It wants me to be like Penny, intellectually inferior but far more socially acceptable.” Why would I want to watch my culture reviled? “The Big Bang Theory is the worst kind of bully – the one that pretends to be your friend and then takes the piss out of you behind your back.”

I turned to other shows, current and classic. Friends and Frazier appear from time to time. My preference has reversed from ten years ago, as I find the New Yorker youngsters more pleasant than Seattle upscale older folk. That surprised me. It’s also interesting to compare their attitudes about sexuality with 2014 shows. I’m amazed by the crassness of Baby Daddy, supposedly on a family-oriented network. It’s not family TV. Then again, this list of Family TV to watch together includes Dancing with the Stars, the sexiest show on TV, including those with exposed boobies. What do I know?

I don’t need cruel cynical shows. For instance, I tried watching Veep on HBO, because critics online seem to like it. But none of the characters were appealing or likable. Why would I want to watch nastiness? The show Girls felt like the writers hated women and men. Don’t get me started on Game of Thrones, where the books were so disheartening and brutal that I stopped reading. I’d rather watch Mixology on ABC, and I have seen every episode. The characters there aren’t role models, but they’re at least trying to enjoy their experiences and break free from cynicism. Complicated is fine, but I’d like to be able to find possibility. If I want to see hopelessness, there’s the rest of my life. Or news from Ukraine or the Central African Republic.

Sometimes shows show hope to some, but not others. Thanks to E!, I’ve watched many episodes of Sex and the City, plus the movies. It’s complicated, as noted by The New Yorker. Is it even a comedy? The serialization, as characters change, feels more like a drama. I can find more humor in essays about the show like Race, Gender, and Class: A Hegemonic Analysis and Postfeminist Representation Politics. I can’t find a dream girl on the show – Charlotte’s too libertine for me – but can I find hope?

3 May

No. I’m too much of a romantic. Looking at the lead females, Samantha had too much trouble with intimacy. Miranda settles. Charlotte eventually gets a good pairing and a baby, after a failed marriage, with a moderately attractive Jew instead of a handsome Protestant. Then we reach the protagonist, Carrie Bradshaw. The turn in opinion on her character is interesting, from celebrated at show’s end in 2004 to unsympathetic ten years later. Neither is fair. Carrie is a strong woman, an attractive quality, but I don’t find Carrie appealing because she is scared of romance. As the New Yorker writes, “true love turned her into a fake.” She runs away from her decent relationships, pining for the powerful emotionally unavailable man and hoping he will change for her. Then, at 38, she panicked and took to Paris with The Russian. In the end, Mr. Big comes and saves her. Yet they have no children, and she kisses another man in movie 2. I appreciate the growth and change during the show’s six seasons plus movies. It’s got depth and a journey, more than I first imagined. As I look at the parting message, it’s strikingly conservative. The most traditional, Charlotte, has an easily solved marriage problem in her wonderful marriage with two kids. Miranda, with one child, neglects her husband, almost loses him, and then has to live exiled in Brooklyn. Carrie struggles nervously through marriage and gets no offspring. Samantha gets a fling, but where could she be at 70? Looking at relative outcomes, you could think the writers were given money by Focus on the Family.

I turn to a show that did get money from a family-friendly development fund, Gilmore Girls. There are fewer sex partners in Stars Hollow, the setting of Gilmore Girls, but interestingly more divorces. Both Lorelai and Luke rush impulsively into matrimony, not to each other. In the end, at 39, she manages to make her way back to Luke. We don’t get the movie to see their future, so I can imagine them with a son along with their daughters from other people.
Lorelai and Carrie begin their series at the same age, 32, women I can consider. In contrast to Carrie, Lorelai is a TV crush – no Clarisse McClellan but very appealing. Beyond outward qualities that Lauren Graham is prettier and Lorelai doesn’t smoke, Lorelai possesses most of the qualities that draw me: Sociability, wonder, laughter, intelligence. She’s not always courteous, but four of five is not so bad. Carrie has at most two. And Lorelai lives in a happier universe, where one doesn’t fake for love. The bullies aren’t around every corner. One can try to embrace happiness. I’d rather be there, at least at 11 AM Monday through Friday.

The funny part is that now that I can start fantasizing about jobs again, I can see myself moving to New York but not small town Connecticut. Strange, eh?

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Thank You, Mid-Majority.

It always ends in a loss. Humans all die. Websites die too. Unless something unusual happens in the next nine minutes of basketball time, Dayton will lose to Florida, all remaining squads will come from power conferences, and The Mid-Majority of Kyle Whelliston will close Monday evening after ten years and a final epilogue, the obituary. [Later edit: The usual occurred. Dayton lost to somebody of no importance. And why did the Dayton coach have to do his interview in front of a picture of a federal prison uniform?]

I hadn’t thought much about the Mid-Majority over the past couple years, because I don’t follow college basketball anymore. Before I quit bigtime college sports due to the shame, I read the site often. Now, I know the NCAA is a corrupt organization that exploits young men, like just this month’s 2:15 AM redeye to El Paso after a defeat and the athletic director’s $18,447.94 bonus for an individual wrestling title, $18,447.94 more than the actual winner.

I could argue more, but it does no good to go negative tonight. Unlike a funeral, our thanks might be read by the giver. My legal name appeared once on the website, in a mid-majority list of donors, although I contributed twice. The second donation, with listed thanks, occurred in 2011. I heard the second half of Butler’s loss to – who was it, [looking up] Connecticut – on the radio, driving on a stormy night from Atlanta to Dahlonega. I had called my dad at halftime, to check in while leaving the airport, when Butler held the lead. I got to hear the melancholy of miss after miss alongside lightning strikes.

On the note I sent with the donation, I said something about not being eight pixels away. Eight pixels was the distance Gordon Heyward’s hand needed to move to make the basket and beat Duke. I was there, just like Kyle. Right afterwards I wrote about rare, special hope in
Thank you, Butler. I recall reading Kyle’s problems with a saturated cellphone connection. Up in the cheap seats, I had good cellphone coverage and managed to post a photo to Facebook.
Butler Game

The week before, Kyle had offered a special collectible to raise money, the FYNNAL FOR BALLZ. I happened to be reading at the right time, sent in the form, and bought one of seven. I never spoke about it, because I didn’t know what to say. Butler versus Duke was my last Division 1 basketball game. My life moved on. I kept the Bally stuffed basketball and the mint from the Crowne Plaza Indianapolis Airport. Tonight I brought them out. I even learned how to make a tweet to someone else.

“I am glad you are here with me. Here at the end of all things.”

Why the thanks? Why the LotR quote? Why the money? It was the story. In his first post, Kyle wrote “Enjoy the atmosphere, learn the chants, eat a nacho plate. If you’d like, write to me all about your experience afterwards. Trust me, it’ll be fun.” (I’d add links but they’ll fail on Monday night, so why bother?) I remember his stories. Over the past two days, I reread some tales. Many were exciting and fun, but that’s not why the Mid-Majority got my money. For seven seasons, the site was the story of Kyle, his life, and his trials. He had a great adventure, but lots of bad things happened. Kyle slept in cars, lost a lot of hearing, watched his hero die from afar, divorced his wife. Things hurt. A lot. From the prologue to season 6:

“I was damaged, hurt and breaking down, but I wasn’t afraid. All I knew was that wherever I ended up, it had to be better than where I was. Maybe there would be a cure for pain there. My body and heart wouldn’t hurt anymore, and I wouldn’t have to deal with sudden, unexplained and temporary debilitation.”

He came back to the Mid-Majority because he loved college basketball most. “The Mid-Majority is a love story, about basketball.” The site carried him when little else did. Through seasons 6 and 7, things got brighter. Kyle gained hope. All of us, each of us. His efforts meant the NCAA gave him a press credential, and now other online sites. By the end of Season 7, he didn’t need basketball so much, with new love and a new place. He moved on. At the end of Season 9, Kyle wanted to abandon the loss for the love, the love of basketball he re-discovered in Bucharest. “My life is better now. I’m not sick anymore. I have an awesome creative job where I make digital stuff, I get to travel a lot, and I live in America’s greatest city.” Good for him.

Kyle came back this week for the end. CBS and the NCAA even let Kyle and Bally on TV, on the right.

Kyle and Bally

Tonight, I cried over some of what Kyle wrote, the tougher parts of the tale. Then again, I’ve got almost no sadness filter right now; I might find tears over a sitcom death. What I will take away is nothing about basketball. It’s part of a story of love.

“Love for self can be difficult and frustrating; each of us is trapped in a machine that keeps breaking down, one that is guaranteed to stop working altogether someday. Love for another requires transcending selfish desire.”

And we keep going to find that love. Thank you, Kyle, for the story.

“We choose to do, because we choose to love.”

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Missed Chances over Mozzarella Sticks

The past six weeks have comprised my worst time at Georgia. We all have factors that make us happier. For me, I can identify five: sunny weather, agency (resources and power to do interesting work), community, love, and honor. In the happiest months of my life, I had all five. During my good times, I’ve almost always had at least three. In the worst times, I’ve held myself together with integrity. Through high school, that kept me alive. I could tell myself I was the least beautiful boy in the world and worthless, but honorable men don’t kill themselves. I place very high value on laws and rules to maintain that concept, that feeling.

Now, well, one out of five might be a stretch. Things aren’t good, though I can’t describe all reasons publicly. I’ve been heading down into depression. It’s affecting my work; I’m making minor mistakes in a field that does not tolerate procedural error. I have to find a way to work more. I managed to cut off self-hatred by counting my hours. During the worst weeks, I still managed to complete 30 to 35 hours of actual work. In a corporate job, that would generally suffice, tossing in meetings and chit-chat. As a graduate student I really need at least 15 more and would prefer to crank out 60s. Spring break week ends tomorrow; I will have about 25 hours of work from Monday to Sunday, and I believe I should have ground out more.
The lack of positive aspects affects my mood. This year, like once before, the major psychological manifestation is fear of death. I’m frequently afraid to fall asleep. Maybe five times this calendar year I’ve gotten 7 consecutive hours. Over the past three weeks, most days have had tears. At least there are no end thoughts.

I had another point to this quick note. I have a story. Thursday night, driving back from the airport, I was sad and hungry. I had visited the Miami area for a couple days, then flew to NYC for a wonderful Wednesday in the city. If you want to peruse a few pictures, Facebook holds them. But then, like all vacations, the return arrived. After an airplane delay, I was hungry, so I pulled into Arby’s about 9:15 PM. I was making Thursday an abstinence-from-meat day. Yes, I know it’s Fridays in Lent. For the past five years, I’ve extended meat abstinence to all Fridays, except as a guest. For the past couple years, I’ve added a second day to develop discipline and better health. When traveling, abstinence often means pizza, which I had for lunch. For small evening meals, Arby’s offers fries and mozzarella sticks. Since I don’t like drive thru windows, I walked in and placed an order and gave my name.

While I waited, an old man entered. He dressed more formally than my jeans and long sleeve Henley. His long sleeve green dress shirt was tucked into khakis, and he wore a gold watch. He slowly walked up and ordered a small combo. The monitors listed his name as Dave. We both stood and waited quietly, me near the registers and Dave farther back. I wondered about Dave’s story, because old men are rarely guests at 9:15 PM. Was he a widower? Had he been always alone? Was he afraid of his last day? Did he have advice for me?

Dave got his meal first, and sat on one side. I wondered if I could go sit by him, and ask my questions, and maybe get help. Maybe he wanted to talk to someone and I would help him. But … I couldn’t go through with the plan. I instead sat on the other side of the seating area. And I cried in my mozzarella sticks. Maybe next time, if I’m blessed with another day.

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2014: Strive, Cultivate, Praise

I don’t write many posts, nor have I had many readers – never 100 views in any day. This blog has never been about mass popular communication. As I hear fireworks (or perhaps gunshots) ending 2013, I’m writing a summary for myself, beginning with the same basic categories as 2012.

  • UN Member States Traveled: 5. In order of visit, USA, Netherlands (through Aruba), Canada, China (through Macau and Hong Kong), South Korea. I don’t include a transit in Frankfurt, Germany, because I did not leave the transfer area of Airworld.
  • Flight Miles: 49,924 over 36 segments, 9,692 less than 2012. I sat in coach on only 13 flights. Unfortunately, I will lose another level of status and be endowed with more uncomfortable seats.
  • CV Improvements: One peer-reviewed journal article, one conference presentation, one session chair, 3 instances of journal reviewing. (And I just remembered to update my CV!)
  • Class Grades: A’s and S’s, maintaining my 4.0 at Georgia.
  • Facebook Friends: 208, 40 less than one year ago. For the first time, I decided to cull my list. Relationships begin and end.
  • Kisses: 0.

I did my work, and enjoyed my travel, yet on the most important goal, I did not succeed. Unlike 2012, I had more than zero dates. I was more vigorous, but I clearly did not do enough. Unfortunately, a transitional deadline quickly approaches. Unless something very bad happens with work, I will be moving in about 18 months. Anyone I date would need to be able to move with me, or already reside in a place I could reach. While I’ll keep working and searching, I may have to become even more patient. I want to find someone, want to share love, and would like to have a family with children. I hope it’s achievable. I very much hope. Notwithstanding, I know I must continue to improve my attractiveness.

Life offers finite time. I don’t want to die, and yet I know in some future I will sleep and not wake. Unlike past occasions, when I thought of another day closer to the end with detachment and even anticipation, I now really enjoy living. I’m occasionally scared of sleep, of triggering another draw from death’s geometric distribution. Even though my current situation has almost no status, a second class citizen graduate student among second class citizens (all academics at Georgia Football Center), I get to work on projects of my choosing in a physically painless way. Though I wish I didn’t live with cinderblock walls and nasty carpet, I have the funds for a great car and great trips. What luxury! I call my current position the penalty box, because it’s not a desirable professorship in an appealing location. It’s a forced detour. Aspiration drives me forward, but I also realize that I am very, very blessed. My time is filled with opportunity. Unlike Buffy, life is my gift.

Thinking about how to structure time, I came across a well spoken challenge from Time’s Man of the Year. Pope Francis asked yesterday, “How did we live the time (God) gave us? Did we use it above all for ourselves, for our interests, or did we know how to spend it for others as well?”

Hearing that challenge, my work tries to aid others. Another way to assist others is to become more positive. When I see tributes to the dead, like those for Nelson Mandela, I wonder why we wait. Funerals matter for the living. We pass chances to praise and support, to be more positive, to spread the gifts of this world. The corporate “people” have tried to monetize things, of course. I don’t need to spend $32 for a long sleeved T-shirt to know life is good.

Thus, I present my goals three: Strive at work to go to the moon; Cultivate more attractive desirable qualities for women; Praise others to accept the gift of life. Strive, Cultivate, Praise: action verbs for what I would like to be an active year, as long as I get to enjoy.

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How Children Succeed

The third book on my spring 2013 reading plan, How Children Succeed by Paul Tough. I added it right after its release in September 2012, because I had read a NYT Magazine article that discussed character and KIPP, the subject of my last review. I wondered if the KIPP program could become sustainable, providing positive effect for all. Mr. Tough calls KIPP a “reliable, replicable model for inner-city-school success.” Would this book clearly answer my question?


Oh well.

While Mr. Tough’s book includes some description of KIPP character building, it doesn’t focus on the group. More pages describe poor Brooklyn school Intermediate School 318 and its chess team. I linked to the obligatory feel-good documentary about poor inner-city schools triumphing over rich schools, like the Mighty Ducks with pawns. I don’t mind the story, but it has only tangential meaning for mathematics education. I took only one note during chapter 3.
The other chapters had more appeal. KIPP makes an appearance in chapter 2, on school development of character. The NYT magazine article provides most of those details, so I didn’t write more on that. I highly recommend reading the article, by the way. Rich Riverdale decided to focus more on moral character, dealing with others. Poor KIPP Infinity chose to focus on personal character, aspects of one’s self. KIPP character strengths number seven: zest, grit, self-control, optimism, gratitude, social intelligence, and curiosity. We don’t know the long term effects of this orientation, since KIPP started less than 20 years ago.
Chapter 2 concludes with a section on followup, KIPP through college. Chapter 4 spends more time on a remarkable college prep program, OneGoal in Chicago. OneGoal combines ACT tutoring during Grade 11, college counseling and college skill development during Grade 12, and first year college support to try to reduce the graduation gap. Part of the support comes from Crossing the Finish Line, a quantitative study about college completion. Two results startled me. First, high school GPA had higher correlation with college completion than SAT/ACT scores. I was surprised because when I taught at Bellarmine, I found high school GPA of little use when predicting mathematics performance. Mr. Tough argues that high school GPA comes from character traits, not intelligence. He might be right. Many anecdotes nowadays state that high schools grade primarily on effort, which is related to character traits like grit and self-control. I don’t know enough to contest this assumption. Neither do I know the data behind surprising result 2, that undermatching hurts students. Undermatching refers to when a student attends a college where the average student has lower grades and scores. One might think that standing at the top of the table makes success more likely. Apparently, that’s not true, as the opposite occurs. A potentially higher achieving student gets dragged down to a lower level. That opens a very interesting discussion about peer effects, also part of KIPP, for some other time.

This time, I need to move to Chapter 1 about early childhood development, the most fascinating part of the book. Late in the book, on page 193, Mr. Tough states that “No one has found a reliable way to help deeply disadvantage children, in fact.” This surprised me, because Chapter 1 contained evidence to the contrary. Young children need secure attachment to at least one parent, preferably two. High quality mothering (and fathering) provides a buffer against stressors that affect youth. Stressors in childhood, summarized in the ACE Study from Kaiser Permanente, have a massive effect on adult health and well-being, even things like blood pressure. A child with lots of allostatic stress-reaction load will carry those high reactions into adulthood. I scored 2 out of 10, worse than the median. (33% of people scored 0, 26% 1, 15% 2, 10% 3, 6% 4, and 10% 5 or more.) There is substantial evidence that promoting stress reduction during childhood, while also teaching techniques that improve parental attachment, can help young children develop. This chapter changed my thinking, an impressive feat. I don’t have children, I’m not married, I don’t even have a girlfriend, and every day that passes increases the chance that I’ll never need to consider this evidence. Nevertheless, if I am so fortunate, I will reconsider attachment and stress.

Overall, this book earns a mixed review, getting weaker as it progresses. The first two chapters on early stress development and character building are outstanding, full of useful quantitative research. The chess chapter brings that to a halt, instead substituting a feel-good tale. Chapter 4 on college completion contains some tangible research, but again relies heavily on anecdote. I like the stories, including Kewauna and her belief in business power. From page 166, “I always wanted to be one of those business ladies walking downtown with my briefcase, everybody saying, ‘Hi, Miss Lerna!'” And the ending … well, it gets very postmodern, all about Paul, his life as a college dropout, and his family. Despite trying to act as a objectivist, in the end the subjectivists triumph. Though after two chapters this book had a 4 rating, overall this book earns a 2, for average, out of 5. For someone interested in the subject, I would recommend examining the ACE study, reading the NYT magazine article, and reading about OneGoal.

Even though I’m giving the book an average rating, I want to commend Mr. Tough for cracking the window open to politically neutral policy. Near the end, he noted that his conclusions frustrate both American conservatives and liberals. Conservatives often repeat that internal character matters, and it does. Liberals often repeat that society can assist in development, and it can. As one relatively negative review wrote, Mr. Tough has to walk a perilous tightrope, because pushing too far would lead to backlash from either pundit group. For instance, he dares to cite from The Bell Curve by Herrnstein and Murray, even though he makes sure to state that he considers the conclusion flawed before saying the positive point. Perhaps this book couldn’t be more than what it is, and I’m just wishing for more. That might be true. While I’m at it, maybe I should wish for funding for my dissertation project. And a girlfriend. And a unicorn.

Yes, I still need to write about KIPP sustainability. And I’d also like to consider OneGoal and other programs in Chicago, as part of the definition of social justice to tie in the fall books. I’ll try to write that after finals in May, though my reading list deadline might push things to June.

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Work Hard, Be Nice

The second book on my spring 2013 reading plan, Work Hard, Be Nice, is a biography of the founding of KIPP, Knowledge is Power Program. KIPP is one of the most successful charter school programs, earning an Economist piece. KIPP does not require tuition. Schools have open enrollment, though they do require substantial commitments from students and parents. As the home page states, the KIPP network is “dedicated to preparing students in underserved communities for success in college and in life.” And they get generally positive results. KIPP contracted with Mathematica policy research, who published a recent report. From the executive summary:

The average impact of KIPP on student achievement is positive, statistically significant, and educationally substantial. KIPP impact estimates are consistently positive across the four academic subjects examined, in each of the first four years after enrollment in a KIPP school, and for all measurable student subgroups. A large majority of the individual KIPP schools in the study show positive impacts on student achievement as measured by scores on state-mandated assessments. KIPP produces similar positive impacts on the norm-referenced test, which includes items assessing higher-order thinking. Estimated impacts on measures of student attitudes and behavior are less frequently positive, but we found evidence that KIPP leads students to spend significantly more time on homework, and that KIPP increases levels of student and parent satisfaction with school. On the negative side, the findings suggest that enrollment in a KIPP school leads to an increase in the likelihood that students report engaging in undesirable behavior such as lying to or arguing with parents.

On page 19, the report further states that on average, over 3 academic years in middle school, KIPP students gain about 4 grade levels in math and science and about 3.5 grade levels in reading. This is commendable. Unfortunately, the average achievement gap between black and white students is about one standard deviation, roughly 2.5 grade levels. KIPP closes approximately 30% – 40% of that gap in math and science and 25% in reading. As more balanced commentators have said, this is not a miracle. At the same time, something in the system works for participating students.

Work Hard, Be Nice is a tale about the founding of the KIPP system. It’s written by Jay Matthews, a well known writer about education for the Washington Post. I don’t like Mr. Matthews as an advocate, particularly his AP Challenge Index. He ranks schools based on number of Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate tests TAKEN per student. It’s a poor metric, because the more logical measure of achievement is tests PASSED, not tests taken. It also compares achievement at the top of a school’s distribution, not throughout. Basically, it makes the people that pay his salary, upper middle class suburbanites in Georgetown Fairfax and Silver Spring, happy about their children’s school systems.

Similarly, this book will make readers happy about Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin, the two founders of KIPP, and other notable names such as Harriett Ball and Rafe Esquith. Mr. Mathews spends a lot of pages on their dating lives, marriages, and social calendars, a detraction from the things I care about. Maybe that sells more books, as I read such notes frequently in education tales. I don’t like biographies in general, anyway. I read for policies; if I want fantasy, I’ll pick up quality science fiction. For general interests, I won’t recommend this book. It earns a 1 (Below Average) out of 5.

What about my interests? Is KIPP sustainable, as I asked in my last review Relentless Pursuit? Before that question, I want to summarize two themes of the book, Order and Mentorship. First, in the schools where Feinberg and Levin began teaching, classrooms lacked order, like at Locke High School in Los Angeles. The middle schools have oral sex and rape and pregnancy, teachers who casually step out for 15 minutes (p. 57), and other problems. That’s a level I don’t know, and it further supports my disdain of Constructivism.

What do I mean by the last sentence? As people know, I’m not a mathematics education Constructivist, using capital letters like other religions. There are two major reasons. First, I believe in a universal reality, a universal population, as a Catholic statistician. I research for generalizability, something absent from Radical Constructivism or Critical Theory. Second, more relevant to this discussion, I don’t believe students are intrinsically motivated. When I teach general education statistics, like most courses at Bellarmine, a majority of students don’t want to be there. They attend and participate because it’s a requirement to get the paper degree and do things they actually want to do. (One major problem with many Education Professors in Academia is that they only teach advanced students who want to be there, and have lost other perspective.) Giving control to students requires that they have motivation and enthusiasm to take up the charge. I don’t see that. Since, as I wrote in Teach Like a Champion, I have a societal responsibility for my students, I need to design a system around extrinsic motivation and usefulness. That’s what I try to do.

When I talk about another level, I mean students who are actively destructive towards the learning community. I teach university undergraduates, who will tune out and read Facebook, but rarely disrupt the class. They’re adults and don’t generally want that. Besides, I can send them away, or they can skip class. Minors can’t do that; they’re legally stuck. Furthermore, younger tweens and teens tend to have less emotional control. This causes outbreaks which can ruin days easily, even poisoning an entire class. For example, on page 26 Mr. Levin had to silence Quincy, and then the whole class improved. The KIPP system has a heavy focus on order and discipline, like Mr. Lemov in Uncommon Schools. Uncommon Schools even has a post on school bathrooms! Order establishment is not enough, but without it there can be no victory.

There are other necessary, but not sufficient, conditions for school building. It’s not enough for two young idealistic white men to have an idea about schools, like the protagonists’ drive to Houston. They needed support and mentoring. Seemingly every 20 pages, I found a reference to an ally, and I marked a little boxed M in my notes. Harriet Ball and Rafe Esquith have the two largest supporting roles, with many others: Mattress Mack, Sy Fleigel, Randall, Myers, Winston, Shawn Hurwitz, Scott Hamilton, Don Fisher, and likely more. No idea expands without support. We might debate whether that reinforcement comes from local communities, the “conservative” ideal, or government, the “liberal” ideal. I’m not sure I care. For individual ideas to become generalizable, my hypothesized universal population, structures must develop. Many other people are required, as this book demonstrates.

From its founding around 1994, KIPP has become about 125 schools across America. Though Feinberg and Levin originally had four factors (time, quality teaching, parents, administration, p. 125), by page 265 KIPP shifted into five pillars: High Expectations, Choice & Commitment, More Time, Power to Lead, and Focus on Results. I find the differences more like the original factors. Which ones matter? And while the expansion has been notable, is KIPP sustainable? I have some ideas, but well, I’m close to 1200 words and have another KIPP book to examine. We’ll see.

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I Choose to Go to the Moon

To become a better speaker, I study great speeches and speakers. Though I do read some, most come from the 20th century, because we don’t have earlier audiovisual records. In case you’re wondering, my choice for best speech of the 20th century is Robert Kennedy’s remarks from the back of a truck in Indianapolis, after the murder of Dr. King. Quoting Aeschylus from memory and using notes prepared in less than an hour earns more credit. “Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.” The speech is five minutes. It helped prevent a riot. It merited a documentary.

My focus today, nevertheless, is on Robert Kennedy’s brother. John F. Kennedy, the first Catholic president, wound up on the walls of Catholic households, or perhaps in a photo in an office. On the American Rhetoric 20th Century Top 100, JFK appears six times. (RFK’s Indianapolis speech ranked 17th. Almost all the speeches above are wonderful, by the way, but prepared.) My speech choice is not one of JFK’s six on the list, and not even his most famous in Houston, but it encapsulates a key thought. Delivered at “technical institution” Rice University on 12 September 1962, it talks about science and space exploration. A NASA site has the full transcript if you prefer reading. The entire speech contains multiple interesting parts, including the first few minutes, compressing human history into fifty years. Today’s key quote begins about 8:30.

But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

Perhaps the most important part of my coursework at the University of Georgia has been the illumination of social axioms. (It’s certainly not the math.) Schooling in the United States has major problems. Why does the public fund schools? Because the vast majority of earners consider intellectual development of society’s children an important task. Though many grumble about cost, few question the task. What intellectual development should the schools provide? After that, argument begins, where individual axioms constrain choices. Tonight, I don’t want to debate standards, tests, topics, textbooks, and the rest. JFK mentioned none of them. Instead, he mentioned products, like the Saturn C-1 booster rocket, the Mariner spacecraft, the Tiros weather satellites. Beyond practical and impractical things, space was there, with a new hope for knowledge and peace. Thus, he asked for “God’s blessing on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.”

Currently, we live in a world with much labeled extreme. Or should I corrupt spelling and use X-Treme? There’e extreme sports and extreme boot camp fitness and extreme makeovers and even extreme couponing. Watch out for flying tomato sauce cans! Wikipedia mentions a few characteristics of these extreme sport activities. Most have individual, not team competition, and most have subjective aesthetic judging criteria. Many begin with a anti-traditional mindset. Achievements belong to the individual or small group, not society.

In comparison, JFK’s speech repeatedly mentions the larger group, a “great national effort of the United States of America.” He knew it was adventure, “in some measure an act of faith and vision, for we do not now know what benefits await us.” Yet the moon task progresses beyond extreme, to a fresh notion of challenge. Challenge involves a group and has clearly defined goals. Going to the moon was a challenge, not just extreme. Challenges, like serving as small town mayor, attempt to yield good.

When I examine my recent experiences, are they challenges or merely extreme? Most of my travel, like around the world in 8.0 days, was merely extreme. Solo travel accomplished little. I acknowledge this fact. After my Statistics PhD failure, I took travel for transition, to help with the shift. The days of haphazard travel have diminished. My summer 2012 journey to Asia, while highly unusual, was about challenge and a societal goal. In my work, I pursued this PhD partially for myself, since I like academia and thinking about numbers, but my primary purpose is to improve people’s numeracy skills. Yes, education academics, skills. Statistics has always been about tools. Intellectually capable adults, most people, should have training to handle straightforward tasks: to read and comment about polls, compute expected utility, and compare the risk of medical treatments.

Those are not simple tasks, and my goal stands like a nearly impossible challenge. It is. It’s harder than going to the moon, because I’m defining success involving a large proportion of society. What did JFK, with help from his writers, say?

… that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

Thanks to the Common Core Standards, most US states have decided to no longer postpone statistical literacy, my desired task. I am willing to not merely be extreme, but accept the challenge. There will need to be much organization, energy, and skill. And yes, I intend to win.

I choose to go to the moon. Not because it is easy, but because it is hard.

While I want to find a helpmeet, I travel nevertheless. And I hope to not be found wanting.

I choose to go to the moon.

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