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The day after November 10, 2016

Posted by mareserinitatis in Politics, societal commentary, teaching.
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I went to bed Tuesday knowing that Trump was president.  I didn’t wake up to a shock, and even when I went to bed, I wasn’t that shocked.  I guess having lived through 8 years of George W Bush made me rather cynical about the way our country deals with problems and adversity.  (That is, usually in the least constructive manner possible.)  Unlike a lot of people, I’m not raging and upset at the outcome: I’m just disappointed and know the next four years are going to be tough.

I pondered how to handle it with my class, though, and decided the best solution was to not bring it up.  As I’ve mentioned before, this is one of my most diverse classes ever.  About 1/3 of them are international students (whom I suspect believe Americans are nuts), 1/4 Latino (whom I suspect are stressed about the election), a couple of black students (who keep their thoughts to themselves), and the last third are from the midwest (and I suspect there’s a few Trump supporters in there).  I figured it had no place in engineering and I didn’t want a fight to ensue on top of that.

After class, a student walked into my office, quite upset, and closed the door.  Then he asked if I’d voted for Trump.  I’ve had encounters with angry students before, so I, to be perfectly honest, was rather scared in that moment.  I simply said, “No, I didn’t.”

At that point, he sunk into a chair and started venting.  This student was very upset because of dealing with some other students who were Trump supporters.  I think he just wanted to be around someone who would understand where he was coming from and as I’m female, he felt there would be a good chance I would agree and possibly validate the frustration and anger he was dealing with.  He did calm down and seemed to be in better spirits when he left.

This has made me ponder if “keep quiet” was the right thing to do, however.  If I could go back, I would probably have said the following:

Some of you are probably pleased with the election.  Others of you probably are not.  Regardless of which side you’re on, I’d appreciate it if you gave everyone some space to deal with their thoughts on this.  It’s important to remember that we all have to live with each other after this, and there’s no reason to be gloating or angry because someone made a different decision than you did.

Not sure if it would help or hurt, but maybe acknowledging how everyone was feeling (and has a right to feel) would’ve helped remind the students how we are supposed to behave as mature adults.  That’s part of what they’re supposed to be learning at college, too.

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A professor by any other name October 26, 2016

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, feminism, societal commentary, teaching.
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I decided that after my previous teaching experiences, creating a sense of distance between myself and my students was prudent.  I never understood this from the student perspective (likely because most of my teachers tended to the formal side so it was seldom an issue), but as a professor, I definitely see an advantage.  I want to help the students and be approachable, but being approachable doesn’t mean I want to be their friend and I also expect them to treat me professionally.  In the past, not all students have been courteous, to say the least.  Even when I started out more formally and then loosened up, it seemed like the loosening up was a bad idea because it was taken as a sign that I’d stopped having boundaries.

When I was in undergrad and later doing my master’s degree, I took several classes from a particular professor.  This professor had this quirky habit of calling all students either Mr. or Ms. LastName.  It was strange, particularly since, as a Quaker, I really shy away from using titles as much as I can.  It grew on me, though, and created this sense that you were being treated like the professional colleague he intended you to become once you graduated.  (I felt bad for him, though, when my last name kept changing because of a divorce and later a remarriage.  At some point, he said, “What am I supposed to call you?!”)

I decided to experiment and, with my former math prof as inspiration, I have been addressing all of my students as Mr. LastName, despite it being somewhat uncomfortable. (I have no female students, but I intend to call any I may have Ms. LastName.)  I also said specifically that I expected to be referred to as Professor LastName or just Professor.

While it has taken a bit of getting used to, I’m starting to get the hang of it.  When discussing students with faculty or administration, though, I have to use both first and last name since others will often refer to them by their first names.  This leaves me confused as I will have no idea about whom they are talking.

On the flip side, I don’t know for sure how the students refer to me when talking amongst themselves.  I have an idea, though, because I received an email from a student addressed to me by my first name.

*deep sigh*

I wasn’t sure what to do about this lapse and I needed to respond to the email promptly, so ignored the address, although I suspect I shouldn’t have and won’t in the future.  I figured I would check with my colleague, who goes by Dr. LastName.

I popped into his office the next day and asked, “How do you deal with students who refer to you by your first name?”

He cocked his head to the side, thought for a moment, and responded, “They never have.”

It truly is amazing to me that in several years of teaching, no one has ever referred to him by his first time, yet I can’t make it three months without it happening.

Answering the sexism in STEM question September 27, 2016

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, engineering, feminism, science, societal commentary.
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I’m not a big fan of career panels for women in science, at least for those in college and above.  However, panels of women in STEM careers for high school students and younger, I think, are important, primarily because they show young women that there are other women who are scientists and mathematicians and engineers, even if they do nothing else.  Being able to identify with a panelist because of sex/gender is going to go a long way to breaking down stereotypes.

I was involved in one such panel over the past weekend.  I was one of three women who has a career using math outside of being a mathematician, and we were talking to high school students about our careers in math-intensive fields.

I feel awkward when the question comes up (and it always does) about whether one encounters sexism as a woman in a STEM field.  I don’t want to say anything discouraging, nor do I want to lie.  I also get nervous, worrying that I may be the only one who has had to deal with it.  I was fortunate this weekend in that all three of us seemed to have a range of experience dealing with this, but we were all able to say that it was not the majority of the time.  Yes, we told them, you’re going to run into it, but it’s primarily a handful of individuals who are that way.  Most of the time, you’ll be treated as respectfully, as a colleague.  And unlike in the past, if you find you’re dealing with more of it than you want to, there are a lot more opportunities to find a career in greener, less sexist pastures.  We all agreed the situation had improved significantly in the past twenty years.

That being said, I would really like to stand in front of a group like that and say, no, it doesn’t matter and you won’t see it.  I suspect I will be waiting a long time, but I keep hoping.

Annoying parenting advice May 16, 2016

Posted by mareserinitatis in personal, societal commentary, younger son.
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A couple days ago, for some odd reason, I came across a LOT of parenting advice online.  The funny thing was, so much of it was contradictory.  Half of it was, “pay attention to your kids and have rules and structure,” and the other half was, “Let your kids make mistakes and learn from them.”

I have to laugh because I think the approach you use as a parent is probably somewhere between these two extremes…or maybe sometimes one extreme is appropriate and, at other times, you want to swing to the other extreme.  There is no ‘one size fits all’ style of parenting: our parenting has to be as unique as our kids and, as the adult, we need to be the ones who adapt to the situation.

Let’s take an example: my younger son was a climber.  Within about a week of learning to walk, he was climbing.  At 13 months, the kid could kick my ass at climbing anything, due in part to the fact that he hadn’t developed a healthy fear of heights, and I have an overdeveloped one.  I’m seriously in awe of his climbing skills, especially now that he’s gotten into a bit of rock climbing.  How much climbing I let him do when he was younger depended on where he was doing it.  If he was climbing on my exercise bike to sit down, I didn’t worry about it.  However, sometimes he liked to stand up and try climbing the handle bars.  In that situation, I would hover so that I could catch him if he fell, and if he got too high and/or unstable, I’d take him off and say he’d gone past his limit.  If he was climbing a very low rock wall at the local shopping mall with big pads underneath to cushion any falls, I’d sit back and do some reading.  If he was climbing the 8-foot wall and the playground surrounded by pea gravel, you better believe I was standing there so that I could catch him if he did lose his grip (which never happened, though there was once a bad incident with a trampoline).

Another thing I learned was to try to mute my own reactions to situations and watch the kids reactions when they got hurt.  I basically would ask if they were okay and then let them tell me how they felt about it.  Sometimes they would get up and dust themselves off while other times they would grab on to me and start sobbing.  If they were crying, I let them cry.  Maybe they weren’t physically hurt, but they will cry if they get very scared as a reaction to something bad happening, just like most adults do.  It’s perfectly okay for a kid to cry and ask a parent for reassurance in that situation: emotional hurts are just as real as physical ones.  Of course, you also need to get them to learn to talk, even if they are upset, and explain what’s wrong.  (If the event was particularly stressful, after things were done, I would need to take break and have a good cry myself just to get it out of my system.  Sometimes parents do it, too.)

I don’t believe in letting kids do things completely independently so that they can “learn from their mistakes.”  Sometimes kids DON’T learn from their mistakes, or the path they choose ends up resulting in just as bad an outcome.  I do think it’s reasonable to let them fail, though, and then let them know that if they’d like some ideas on how to handle it better, you’re always there for advice.  People in general are good at realizing they’ve made a mistake but they’re not always so good at figuring how to do better next time, and I think it’s unrealistic to expect kids to figure it out without a little guidance from people with a bit more life experience.  (Of course, they have to be open to hearing about that experience.)

The gist of this is that you have to do what works for you and your kid and there’s no “right way” to parent.  One tactic that works one time may not work another, and you’ve got to learn how much space to give your kids.  It’s a balancing act that takes practice, and you’re going to make mistakes yourself.  Any article that tells you that they’ve discovered the best way to deal with their kids is taking all the nuance out of parenting.

Sanders’ “sexist” behavior March 7, 2016

Posted by mareserinitatis in feminism, Politics, societal commentary, teaching.
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I almost made a tweetstorm about this topic, but when you have to confine your thoughts to 140-character morsels, it kind of ruins the flow of ideas.

Apparently Bernie Sanders is sexist for asking Clinton to stop interrupting him during last night’s debate.  You won’t believe how hard I laughed at that notion.

Let’s start by looking at the other debates that have been going on.  Part of the reason that the GOP debates have been such a horrible mess is because the candidates constantly interrupt and talk over each other and then someone gets mad and starts shouting.  As many people have noted, these debates haven’t exactly been the high point of civility, and the behavior of interrupting and talking over other candidates is exactly some of the problem.  I am taking the tack, therefore, that interrupting is rude.

Let me restate that.  Interrupting is RUDE.

This is something that, as a woman, has made me absolutely insane.  I have had a couple male colleagues in the past who would not let me finish my sentences.  I don’t think they’re doing it because they’re sexist (although one of them certainly is).  It’s something they often do to men, as well.  I think that interrupting is just a jerk thing to do because you’re telling the other person that you don’t care what they have to say and that whatever is going on in your head is more important than whatever idea the other person is trying to get across.

When dealing with one colleague, I’ve seriously had to bite my tongue.  I had fantasies of offering to bring in the younger son to demonstrate to him how to have a respectful conversation.  Failing that, though, I’ve also fantasized about telling him simply, “Wait your turn! I’m talking!”  I spent a lot of time wondering how to say it so that it wasn’t perceived that I was being rude…despite the fact he was being rude to begin with.

I see a lot of this dynamic when teaching, as well.  I had one individual student who would sit and talk with his friends in the back of the class, often to the point of being loud enough that nearby students couldn’t hear.  As the teacher, though, there was a bit a power dynamic I could use, so the student and his buddies were told to move to the front row of desks in the classroom where they would sit for the rest of the semester.  I told the students that I liked them which is why I moved them to the front of the class instead of just kicking them out altogether.  Was that rude?  Perhaps, but so is disrupting the class and, as the teacher, I need to maintain at least a minimal level of authority and dominance in the classroom.

If you look at interrupting in the big picture, there’s a dynamic in the workplace where men are more likely to interrupt than women are.  This is because men’s communication style tends toward using conversation to express dominance and women tend to use other styles more geared towards making connections.

On stage, Clinton was adopting, very appropriately for politics, a male style of communication where she was attempting to use discussion as a way to maintain dominance.  It’s a way to mow down Sanders’ ideas and make her own dominant.  In politics, like in many professional areas, women have to learn to adopt this communication style in order for their male colleagues to take them seriously.  Sanders did the thing that so many women have a hard time with but need to learn to do.  He essentially said, “Stop talking. Stop interrupting.  I was speaking. Wait your turn.”  It wasn’t sexist: it was a way to prevent himself from being mowed over.

The problem is that, like Sanders, women who assert that they won’t have their ideas mowed over are often seen as rude and pushy.  The consequences for drawing  your conversational line in the sand can be pretty severe, especially if you’re a woman.  If the roles were reversed, Sanders would have been seen as sexist for interrupting and not letting Clinton speak.  Clinton would have been doing the right thing to tell him to stop interrupting.  If it had been two men, it would’ve been shrugged off.

My take away from this is that the conversation dynamic between Clinton and Sanders shows Clinton and Sanders see each other as equals.  Clinton attempted to dominate the conversation (the way many men do) and Sanders wasn’t going to play the subordinate.  If you really want to make something sexist out of this, maybe more women need to learn to follow both of their examples, and more men need to not freak out when it happens.

Scientific Status Quo July 12, 2015

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, family, feminism, research, societal commentary, work.
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A couple days ago, @katiesci posted this opinion piece from Science by Eleftherios Diamandis on getting noticed.  I was rather frustrated with the article because the way to get noticed was apparently to put in a lot of face time (which is probably decent advice) and to publish like crazy (also not bad advice), even if it means you have to work unrealistic schedules and foist all of your childcare duties onto your spouse.

It was this last part that got under my skin because it’s so much a recapitulation of the status quo: you can’t do anything else and be a scientist, forget balance if you want an academic career.

I have to admit I jumped to a pretty lousy conclusion when I read the following:

I worked 16 to 17 hours a day, not just to make progress on the technology but also to publish our results in high-impact journals. How did I manage it? My wife—also a Ph.D. scientist—worked far less than I did; she took on the bulk of the domestic responsibilities. Our children spent many Saturdays and some Sundays playing in the company lobby. We made lunch in the break room microwave.

I can’t presume to know the dynamic between the author and his wife, and it may be that she was perfectly happy with this arrangement.  Academic couples tend to understand better than others how frustrating this career path can be, and I know there were several occasions where either my husband or myself was bringing the other dinner/microwaving in the lobby or lunch room to help ease the stress of deadlines along with an empty stomach.

But what about the people for whom this is not an option?  Most of the people I know get very upset if their spouse is putting in more than 60 hours per week.  Are they just supposed to give up?  What about people who are physically unable to work those types of hours?  Even if you are physically capable, it’s bad for you in the long run and turns out to be rather useless.

If anything, this just reinforced that to make it in science, you don’t have to do good science, you just have to be willing to give up any semblance of a family life and turn into a squeaky wheel.  I’m not sure what the author intended to convey, but reading this piece was rather disheartening.

Instead, I’d rather have heard about how the author’s wife did it: how is it she was able to work less hours than him, raise their kids, and still manage to have an apparently successful career?  At least, that’s the implication at the end of the piece.  To me, it sounds like she was able to handle a very unbalanced load successfully, and unless it’s, “don’t sleep,” I would think she may have some advice worth sharing with the rest of us mere mortals.  If you happen to be from Science magazine, could you please let her know?

 

Wilted STEM June 10, 2015

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, science, societal commentary.
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Earlier this year, I was accepted as a NASA Solar System Ambassador.  In this capacity, I help to promote NASA and the space exploration activities conducted by the agency.

As part of the program, people can contact you and ask you to present on a space-related topic.  I was asked earlier this spring to be a guest speaker at a STEM program for 4th-7th grade girls talking about space exploration.  The activities ranged from engineering to xenobiology, and it’s exactly the kind of thing that I would’ve loved to have gone to as a kid.  Also, it’s exactly the kind of thing I was hoping to do as an SSA.

Unfortunately, it was cancelled.  I’m not sure what the required enrollment was, but there were not enough girls enrolled.  I find it very disappointing that there aren’t enough girls interested in space in a metropolitan area of over 200,000 to fill a program like that.  Obviously, I have my work cut out for me.

(Disclaimer: Opinions stated here are my own and not those of NASA or the SSA program.  Though I hope they are.)

Dear Leonard Nimoy, February 28, 2015

Posted by mareserinitatis in personal, science fiction, societal commentary.
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I don’t write fan mail very often.  (The only other time was when I emailed Wil Wheaton, and he stuck a link to my old blog on his page.  Really.)  This time is a little different, however, and I wanted to make sure I got this one right.

I know you were a very talented and intelligent man in so many areas, and I don’t want to downplay that at all.  The wonderful thing about the internet is that your passing has made me aware of how many other talents you had beside acting as well as your wonderful ethical compass.  That being said, I mostly knew you as Spock, and so that’s what I am going to speak to.

Thank you for being Spock.  I’m sure there are a lot of people who might have opted for that spot, if it had been offered, but I’m very glad it was you.  Spock was what made Star Trek for me, and you were what made Spock who he was.

As a kid, occasionally my dad would flip through the channels and come upon a rerun of Star Trek.  We didn’t often like to watch the same things (he preferred football and action while I preferred comedies), but Star Trek was one of the things we really both enjoyed together.  The reason I enjoyed Star Trek was Spock.  As a kid, I didn’t really enjoy Kirk’s swagger and found McCoy’s temper a little bothersome.  I adored Uhura, but she was, unfortunately, an under-utilized character with whom I didn’t feel I had much in common.  Spock, however, was someone I could identify with.  He didn’t have a temper, just an even manner.  He always explained his reasoning, and he never talked down to anyone (well, except McCoy now and again).  He made sense to me.  Very few people explain things to kids, and I loved that watching Spock made me feel like, maybe somewhere, there would be calm, rational adults in the world…or at least on another one.  Considering most of my teachers talked down and weren’t terribly nice to me, it gave me hope.  I wondered if I would’ve happier growing up on Vulcan.

As I got older, I saw the movies as they came out.  Thank you for directing the fourth movie.  That has always been my favorite for far too many reasons to list.  I can only say it really reinforced many things I felt were important about the world.

Now, as an adult and parent, I have been sharing my love of Star Trek with my kids.  A couple years ago, we began watching the original Star Trek series.  We talk over the plots and stories, the characters, the themes.  My younger son says that Spock is his favorite.  He cried at the end of Wrath of Khan.  He hasn’t seen The Search for Spock yet, but I’m looking forward to watching it with him, even though it is an odd-numbered movie.  It was still a huge relief not to lose Spock after all.

Humans don’t have katras exactly like Vulcans, but a human version is that we can be remembered through the memories of those we care about and our visible works.  While I can’t speak to any personal memories, I can say that Leonard Nimoy’s works are varied and profound.  There is a lot to remember him by.  For me, that work will primarily be about Spock, which is about as good a katra as anyone, human or Vulcan, could hope to have.  I am very grateful that, unlike a katra, I can also share those works with my children.

Thank you, Leonard Nimoy, for giving us Spock, and for being both the best human and Vulcan you could be.  Thank you for acting out a character whose calm rationality and intelligence is something worth aspiring to.  Thank you for being a role model, both in real life and on-screen.  Thank you for giving everyone so much of yourself.

We will remember.

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How to fail as a skeptic December 16, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in religion, science, societal commentary.
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A few months ago, I wrote about my experience attending an atheist meeting.  If you don’t want to read it, I basically spent most of the time dealing with an argumentative jerk.  On the other hand, I expected that going in.

Part of the reason I expected that is because there is a large amount of cross-over between the atheist and skeptic community, and I’m slightly more familiar with the skeptic community.  My husband has been a member of CSI before it was called that, and we regularly get into conversations about articles we read in Skeptical Inquirer.  I also used to follow a lot of skeptical bloggers.  Frankly, the more I read and interact with skeptics, the less impressed I am.

My latest interaction with a skeptic just reinforced much of what I already felt (and commented on at the atheist meeting).  There is a sense among most skeptics that they are well-educated and rational and therefore whatever they happen to believe MUST hold up under scientific scrutiny, whether or not those facts have actually been researched.  If you come across one who has done the research, it’s likely they’ve done it in a way that has fallen victim to massive amounts of confirmation bias: choose the studies you like and discredit the ones you don’t.  Many atheists and skeptics don’t realize that confirmation bias occurs regardless of IQ and therefore they are just as prone to it as the folks they like to condemn as stupid.

If you try to argue the actual studies and data, you get responses like this:

Sounds like you only want to make certain subjects taboo–perhaps for personal reasons. That’s not a scientific attitude. So please take your ideological attitude elsewhere. And your bald opinions carry no credibility.

I am particularly amused when such comments come from non-scientists.

The quote above comes from someone who writes for Skeptical Inquirer, and while it wasn’t aimed at me, it was directed at someone who has better scientific credentials than the person who wrote that comment.  In another conversation with this person, similar comments were directed at me.

The crux of the matter is that this person simply would not hear any interpretations of data other than the one they wanted to.  I’m sorry, but that’s not skepticism.  Questioning data (on both sides) is a useful exercise to help you understand the limitations of such data, and it’s good to understand where data is useful and not.  However, being a skeptic does not mean you can throw it out if you don’t like it.  That means you’re a denier, even if you do have some scientific evidence for your viewpoint.

It’s interesting that CSI recently posted an article complaining about how the media misuses the term skeptic when it really means denier.  (Deniers are not Skeptics)  I agree with the sentiment, it also is a bit ironic because so many of the people I’ve interacted with really are better described as deniers.

One of the hallmarks of scientific thinking is supposed to be comfort with ambiguity.  It’s learning to say that one cannot extrapolate beyond the data one has, and drawing large-scale conclusions based on a handful of studies is really not scientific.  I’m not talking about things like climate science which has been extensively studied for decades and has a wealth of data (and believe me, I get frustrated enough myself dealing with deniers on that topic): I’m talking about a lot of other topics which have not been as extensively studied and suffer from shifting understanding.  Taking studies from even 20 years ago can be problematic in some areas because the basic assumptions and approaches may have shifted as new data comes out.  And in a lot of areas, particularly with those dealing with people, studies may not always have data giving a clear and decisive answer to one view or another.  (Confirmation bias can also mean that people will take ambiguous data as backing their own viewpoint.)

This lack of comfort with ambiguity and the notion that one’s reasoning trumps the data means that having a conversation with these folks is more like a wrestling match: it’s not really a discussion or exchange of ideas but an argument where there is a winner or a loser.  Any one who tries to recognize nuance in the data or discrepancies is said to have lost the argument or not understand science and how it works.  Frankly, I’ve had more fruitful conversations with fundamentalists.

If you want to call yourself a skeptic, that’s fine.  But if you use it as a bludgeon to convince yourself and everyone around you that your view is always right…well, don’t be surprised if I’m a little skeptical.

Biased for science December 10, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in feminism, geophysics, math, physics, science, societal commentary.
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I’ve taken a couple tests at Project Implicit.  The premise is that we have unconscious biases that may unknowingly affect decisions we make about other people.  I remembered this after coming across an article on race from the Washington Post.  I’d taken a test before that said I had a bias against blacks.  I’m owning up to it, but now that I’m aware of it, I try to recognize it’s there when making decisions.

I revisited the site to see if I could retake the test and if my results had changed, but I was distracted by the shiny things.  In particular, I saw there was a test on the subconscious preference to associate science with male and liberal arts with female.  Given the studies about how labs hire women less often and there is a subtle bias in salary, as well, I thought, “this could be interesting.”

And it was.  I was expecting to show a rather strong relationship between men and science.  Not only is that the most common association, but it seems like working in a male-dominated field would make that a no-brainer.

Iat-gender-science

Your data suggest a moderate association of Female with Science and Male with Liberal Arts…

I’m one of the 3% who took the test who has that association.  If what I read in the Washington Post article applies to this study, most of the people taking this test are younger, more liberal, and more female than the average population, so the test may actually mean that the 10% who associate females with science is actually an overestimate.

Why do I have that association, particularly working in the field I do?  (I feel a bullet list coming on.)

Some potential ideas:

  • Being a female scientist is a very strong part of my identity, so I would naturally equate the two.  While at first guess, I would think this would be a no-brainer, the studies I cited above seem to indicate that’s not the case for most women scientists.
  • I have a lot of female friends that are also scientists.  As an undergrad, I was the only female physics major, but I made friends with a lot of female math, engineering, and physics and math education majors.  In my MS program, I spent a lot of time with other women engineering students, the handful I could find.  Going to a grad program (in earth sciences) means I was in a program with near gender-parity among the students.  Through the beauty of the internet, I’ve also made friends with other women scientists.  I think I’m likely to “see” more women in science than the average person…or even the average scientist.  “Women in science” isn’t a token female here or there but an actual sizable demographic in my world.  I think that this sort of exposure has probably had the most profound effect on my biases.
  • I know a lot of men who are interested in liberal arts.  Probably the most strongly influential one is older son, who is very much into drawing and writing.  I spend a lot of time with him, so that also probably affects my perceptions.

I’m curious how others fare on this test as well as their analysis of their own results.

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