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Math is useless July 5, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in math, physics, Uncategorized, younger son.
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A lot of kids later become adults who think that math is a useless field of study.  Why would I need to know that?!  I’ve come across a lot of math books that are trying really hard to express how one can use math in order to motivate the learner by connecting it to an application as well as make it more interesting.  Connect math to the ‘real world’ is not something that comes easily to most people.

Independence Day motivated a lot of discussion with the younger son about fireworks.  While driving to our pyrotechnic fix last night, the younger son started asking what he would need to study in order to make fireworks.  Mike and I both said, “Chemistry.”  We both were assuming you need to know a lot about which chemicals to add to make particular colors.  I guess it didn’t help that I’d seen this image earlier in the day:


We were both surprised when the younger boy said, “And I’d need to know math, too!”  We agreed.  And then he continued:

You can calculate how much of each chemical you need, how high it will go (a bigger explosion should be farther away), how fast it will go, how long it will take to before the explosion happens, how hot it will get…

He elaborated on each point and ended up spending somewhere between five and ten minutes telling us all the ways one could use math in making fireworks.  I was completely stunned.  There is this huge difficulty in getting a lot of people to understand that you can quantify and predict (through physics) so many things we take for granted.  Yet, here is a kid who hasn’t even reached an age in the double digits who seems to understand that all of these things can have some sort of number associated with them and that they behave in ways that can be predicted by mathematical equations.  Mike and I both sat there with our mouths hanging open, shocked at what we were hearing.

However, as soon as the fireworks came out of the box, the little kid in all of us came out and just wanted to go blow things up.

I only wear goggles when swimming May 21, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, engineering, physics, research, science, societal commentary, Uncategorized.
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I was recently chatting with an acquaintance when they mentioned they had seen me in the local paper a while back.

You were wearing goggles, right?


Well, you did have a lab coat…

No, I was actually wearing a sweater.

I have had articles on my work run in the paper a couple times in the past few months. However, only one had a picture, and I cringe every time I think about it. I learned the hard way that it is important to wear solid colors on such occasions.

The picture involved me standing in front of several racks of computers wearing a rather ugly ombré sweater. I find it interesting that this acquaintance knows I’m a scientist and equates that with the goggles and lab coat schtick so heavily that they remember me wearing one even when I was not.

I remember reading about a project where kids drew pictures of scientists, visited some at Fermilab, and then drew pictures after their visit. The contrast was striking.

Having talked with this person on and off during the years, never once while wearing a lab coat (probably because I haven’t worn a lab coat since freshman chem and certainly wouldn’t out in public), I’m very surprised that they still imagine me that way. I guess it goes to show how powerful those stereotypes are.

I think I need to have a “Visit Cherish At Work” day where people can watch me sit at my computer, lab coat free.

Thank you, I think I will February 22, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in photography, Uncategorized.
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Only in North Dakota… January 29, 2013

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Heard the most amusing water cooler chit-chat today:

We somehow wandered onto the topic of rodent infestations, when the Minion began talking about a story he’d heard.  Someone was burning down a grain bin which had a mouse infestation.  Unfortunately, one of the mice, once on fire, was feeling rather vindictive.  It ran into the barn, where there was a bunch of hay, and the whole barn ended up burning down.

I was wondering what you’d tell your insurance agent in a case like this: are flaming rodents covered under most policies?

Merry Christmas, everyone! December 24, 2012

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I may have shared this last year, but it doesn’t matter.  It still makes me giggle like a five-year-old.  Merry Christmas!

I will never attend another bake sale August 7, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in personal, Uncategorized.
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It’s been an exciting couple of weeks for me.

I have had a lot of medical problems…well, most of my life.  It got really bad when I went to college, however, and a year and a half after starting, I found out I had fibromyalgia.  I was 19 at that point…the youngest FMS patient most of my doctors had ever seen.  In an effort to get a hold of my health, I started a restricted carb diet about 3 years after my diagnosis.  Low and behold, I went into remission…something else most doctors had never seen.

About 3 years after that, however, I started having GI issues.  First doctor I went to said I was just constipated and needed to drink more water.  Second doctor thought I had GERD and abdominal tendonitis.  Third doctor told me to take beano when I ate.  As time went on, however, the symptoms got worse, leaving some doctors scratching their heads.  I’ve had tests and ultrasounds on my gall bladder about 4 times, at least 3 cat scans, a multitude of blood panels drawn, 3 or 4 trips to the ER, etc.  The one that really pissed me off was the diagnosis of “anxiety producing IBS”.  The problem with both IBS and fibromyalgia is that there are a lot of doctors who think that this is all in your head.  Problem is, the meds make you feel stupid and careless but don’t do a thing for your GI symptoms.

So I was relieved when I was finally sent to a GI specialist in 2009, about 8 years after my GI symptoms had started.  He did another blood draw and did a breath test, and I was diagnosed with small intestinal bacterial overgrowth.  Like all my other diagnoses, I was better for about a month after beginning the new medication, in this case a super-duper expensive antibiotic.  He also sent me to a pain clinic to load me up with cortizone shots.  They helped…for a while.

After moving back to Fargo, I spent a year and a half trying to get into a GI specialist here.  My regular doc was convinced I just had GERD.  After an abnormal catscan resulted from an ER trip, I finally got in to see him.

This doctor, for a change, has been approaching my issues like a scientist.  Rather than saying, “You’re symptoms are consistent with xxx diagnosis,” he’s actually been going in and *looking* to see what’s inside me.  He’s trying to rule out everything he possibly can.  While I admit I really haven’t been enjoying all the fun dietary gymnastics for these procedures, I finally have an answer.

I probably have celiacs disease.  There’s a good chance this has been my problem all along, maybe even being the cause of my FMS.  (This is apparently a pretty common misdiagnosis.)

The most frustrating part, however, is not that it’s taken this long to figure out what’s going on.  I can understand when so many diseases present so many similar problems that it would be hard to tease out the root of the problem, especially when I didn’t start with GI symptoms.  However, the first GI specialist I saw gave me the blood test for Celiacs, and it showed up negative.  The information on the test specifically states, however:

A negative result (absence of circulating IgA-endomysial antibodies) does not exclude the diagnosis of dermatitis herpetiformis or celiac disease. Patients with mild gluten-sensitive enteropathy may have a negative result.

I am very disappointed that the first GI didn’t follow up further.  Although this has probably been going on for half my life (or more), three less years of problems would’ve been nice.  Also, this led me on years of a wild-goose chase to figure out exactly what the issue was.  I always excluded wheat as a possible factor because I was told the test was negative, leading me to omit from my diet a lot of foods that I probably could and should have been eating.

In the meantime, I have one final test to confirm the diagnosis and then can start on a gluten-free diet.  I honestly don’t anticipate this will be as huge a problem for me as some other people given I’d already spent years watching my carb intake and really enjoy eating veggies.  (I just never thought to cut out gluten entirely.)  However, I do like a treat now and again, so I’ll be on the hunt for some good gluten-free donut recipes…

Reserve(d) Bitch June 4, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in pets, Uncategorized.
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Yes, I know I’m gorgeous.  Now put away the camera and let me eat my kibble in peace.

(As an aside, bitch does, in fact, refer to a female dog in the context of this post.  After spending the weekend using the word repeatedly, I think I’m significantly less sensitive to the other common meaning.)

Showing Gigadog this weekend was…interesting.  I actually have videos of our participation, but I’m not going to put them online in fear of people using them as primers on what not to do when showing.

First, I was worried I’d be overdressed in my most formal business dress suit.  Turns out that I blended in fairly well.  So definitely dress up for these things and don’t worry about how formal you look.  Yes, there will be people in tshirts there.  However, very few of them will be in the ring…they’re mostly spectators.

Second, it was really awesome to have someone there to help.  A friend drove from the middle of the state and was a huge help during the whole process.  When you’re sitting there, spazzing about the fact that your dog has rolled in dirt and is drooling, it’s nice to have someone who has the clarity of mind to hand you a drool rag and brush.  The second day, Mike also helped by spending about a half hour doing a thorough brushing before we left.  She looked much better.

I really had no idea what I was doing this time around, and it was obvious.  As my friend put it, Gigadog did her best impression of a bloodhound.  Given the dogs are supposed to keep their heads up and give the impression of effortless movement with their legs, we were a long way off.  The first day, I could barely get her to pay attention.  However, I’m considering it a win because she was the only one in the ring for her class, and she didn’t just plop her butt down and stare at the judge.  So…100% improvement.

The second day, I ran into someone I used to hang out with regularly.  I had no idea she was into showing dogs, and so we got to chatting.  I explained some of the problems I was having, and she attempted to give it a go.  She wasn’t having much more success, and she disappeared for a while.  She showed up a short time later with the couple who had bred her dog, and they gave me a ton of useful information and ideas.  The second day in the ring was much better as she *kind of* kept her head up.  But I also have an idea of what we need to work on in the future.

There was actually a third day, but I decided not to go.  There were supposed to be six newfs at the show, and only two of us showed.  If she at least had been able to compete against a puppy, it might have been worthwhile, but otherwise, we were just too exhausted.  She did get some ribbons.  On both days, she was the only one in her class, so she got first place for class each time.  She also got a ribbon for reserve bitch (that is, the second place female dog of all classes).  It would have been a bit more exciting if she’d gotten it with more than two dogs in the ring.

The one other thing I learned is that Gigadog, like myself, is very used to the quiet we have at home.  Spending a good chunk of the day in a noisy, busy environment was kind of tough on both of us, and I was physically exhausted from trying to keep her corralled.  She has this unfortunate habit of just running up to other dogs, not realizing that her size and dark color are very intimidating to most other dogs.  She just wants to play, but the smaller the dog, the less they see it that way.

Overall, we’re off to a pretty terrible start, but given we did a lot better the next day, I’d say we’re on the right track.  Like everything, we’ll get better with practice.

Fed up with standardized tests May 19, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, gifted, teaching, Uncategorized.
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When I was a kid, I remember taking Iowa Basics tests every couple years.  I remember this because I was both stunned and disappointed.  I was usually impressed because my grade equivalencies placed me at least three grades ahead of then current placement with the gap widening as time went on.  The disappointment was because nothing ever came of it.  I sort of assumed that everyone I was going to school with must have similar scores because I was kept with the same people, in the same grade, without even so much an acknowledgement.

Well, okay, there was an acknowledgement – there were usually comments about how my math computation scores were so much lower than everything else.  (This is what led me to believe, for many years, that I was bad at math.)

My kids haven’t used Iowa Basics, and I find this very disappointing.  In a move that I can only assume is a result of No Child Left Behind (or, as I affectionately like to refer to it, the “Lake Wobegon Law” because everyone must be above average), there has been a shift away from tests like Stanford Achievement or Iowa Basics to NWEA Map testing.

The only way I can describe this is useless info that’s providing a moving target.  The test provides percentiles and approximate ranges for competencies in various subfields.  It is frequently renormed.  In many respects, it’s the same as any other standardized test.

My beef is that, as far as I can tell, the only purpose of the test is to see how your student(s) compare with the rest of your district or nationally.  On the other hand, I will say that it’s not the only one that does this.  However, it seems like there are a lot of schools moving this way, and I see it as a huge detriment.  The reason is that I don’t think you can make decisions about a child based strictly on their performance compared to a norm.  However, that’s exactly what teachers want to do.  They see an area of relative weakness in a child and want to hold them to that level for all of their abilities.  I am left to ponder why it is they never want the child to be working at the level where they are capable and make an attempt to bring the weak areas up to par with the strong areas.  Of course, if you have nothing to determine where they’re actually achieving, it’s hard to implement that type of education.

This leads me to wonder: how does a child working at age level help them to develop skills above age level?  If you’re teaching a child stuff s/he already knows, aren’t you just holding them back?

The complaints I received about my ‘lousy’ math computation scores are one example of this.  I have several tests showing this problem which constantly elicited comments from teachers about how I was poor at math.  I get the impression that they looked for personal weaknesses but never really made the connection that my average was different than most of the other kids.  Their solution, therefore, was to have me work on more computation at grade level.

Scores that only consist of a percentage relative to norms tell you is that one’s performance relative to everyone else may be an area of weakness.  It doesn’t tell you, however, where you’re really achieving.  It’s a bit different if you have a grade equivalency sitting next to the norms.  It turns out that my ‘lousy’ math computation scores implied that my computation was equivalent to the average child two grades ahead of me.  And it should be fairly obvious that if they wanted to me to be achieving more strongly in computation, they would have been giving me more computation at 2-3 years ahead of grade level.  Unfortunately, that’s not what happened, and most often, it’s still not.  It’s a lot harder to dismiss a child’s achievements when you have a solid basis of comparison (a kid two or three years older) than some vague percentile.  Those percentiles don’t give teachers a true picture of achievement; how many teachers have frequency tables for a normal distribution sitting nearby? My impression is that it leaves them only feeling that when a child is at a very high level, the child is learning and thriving in their current environment.  They have the mistaken impression that the child is having their needs met, when in reality, the child could be seriously underperforming relative to their potential.  Likewise, they may get the impression that a child is struggling but fail to realize that it’s because they lack basics from prior years.

I therefore would like tests to go back to giving grade equivalencies.  I think this illuminates the level of child achievement and gives teachers a better idea of what they are actually dealing with.  There is a good amount of research showing that teachers are actually some of the worst identifiers of children’s intellectual gifts, and taking away the frame of reference that grade equivalencies provide is going to make it worse for the child and parents or other advocates.

Incomplete instructions May 10, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in papers, research, Uncategorized.
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I know I’ve been talking a lot about reviewing papers, but I figured one more post on the topic couldn’t hurt.

I was very lucky that my MS advisor started us reviewing papers as soon as we took a class from him.  In all of his grad level classes, we were usually required to select 2-3 potential published papers for review and then to write up a critical analysis about 4-6 pages in length on one of them.  It was a good experience, but I don’t think I would’ve made a very good reviewer my first year or two into grad school.

My real critiquing skills came when I started getting into some of my MS projects and I had to reproduce some of the work already done in papers.  The first three I came across, it became very clear that the reviewers hadn’t done the best job: all three were missing critical details that required me to write the authors and ask how they had done certain things.  In other words, there wasn’t enough information to replicate the work.  That, therefore, became one of the first things that I look at with a paper.  It would be nice if, when reviewing, one actually had time to sit down and try to replicate the experiment.  Unfortunately, that’s not realistic…although I’ve also had papers with blatant errors that I’ve been trying to reproduce.  I hope it’s just an oops that is the result of last minute writing, but I am beginning to think there are a lot of careless authors out there.

I’m not sure why this is the case, other than the fact that maybe people get too far into their experiment and fail to realize that there are many things they do automatically that one cannot take for granted.  Even though most of the work I do is in simulations, there are a lot of things that appear superficially minor but can really change your results.

While there are other things one should look at it, I think the quality of most papers I’ve read follows along with the detail presented in laying out the process.  If the process is not clearly spelled out, then chances are the other aspects of the paper are going to need some work, too.

So, for those who review papers, do you have things that you really look for in a paper and, if so, why?

Wordless Wednesday: Microcat becomes aware of the turbulence around her February 29, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in pets, photography, Uncategorized.
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