Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Time for a National Bully Registry?

As the parent of a middle schooler, and someone who was severely bullied in middle school, I read A Girl’s Nude Photo, and Altered Lives with alarm.
One day last winter Margarite posed naked before her bathroom mirror, held up her cellphone and took a picture. Then she sent the full-length frontal photo to Isaiah, her new boyfriend.

Both were in eighth grade.

They broke up soon after. A few weeks later, Isaiah forwarded the photo to another eighth-grade girl, once a friend of Margarite’s. Around 11 o’clock at night, that girl slapped a text message on it.

“Ho Alert!” she typed. “If you think this girl is a whore, then text this to all your friends.” Then she clicked open the long list of contacts on her phone and pressed “send.”

Margarite is a very troubled and vulnerable teen. Her ex-boyfriend sounds like a real dunce.
He told the police that the other girl had pressured him into sending her Margarite’s photo, vowing she just wanted to look at it. He said he had not known that their friendship had disintegrated.
If he really wanted to show her the photo, then he should have showed her the photo on his phone. Why did he text it to her phone? A real dunce. Or a liar.

Even before this incident, the former friend had bullied Margarite to the point that she had to eat lunch alone. Then she manipulated the ex-boyfriend to send her the photo to her phone. This was a pre-meditated act of annihilation of another human being. She knew exactly what she was doing and planned for the photo to go viral.

Rick Peters, the prosecuting attorney, never intended for the Chinook Middle School students to receive draconian sentences. But he wanted to send a scared-straight message to them, as well as to the community.

Yet when the local news media storm cascaded, the outcry was not about the severe penalties for a felony sexting conviction. It was about why Mr. Peters had not also arrested Margarite.

“She’s a victim,” Mr. Peters said. “She made an ill-advised decision to share that picture with her boyfriend. As far as she knew, that was as far as it would go.

He decided against charging Margarite. But he did charge three students with dissemination of child pornography, a Class C felony, because they had set off the viral outbreak.

After school had been let out that day in late January, the police read Isaiah his rights, cuffed his hands behind his back and led him and Margarite’s former friend out of the building. The eighth graders would have to spend the night in the county juvenile detention center.

And that's the thing that really bothers me. The outcry from the community was about making Isaiah and the former friend do the perp walk and not charging Margarite.

Read some of the comments from the article. So many people think that the DA overreacted by charging the three teens.

I think Isaiah and the 13 year old got what they deserved for their stupidity. But the instigator of the mayhem got off too lightly. Community service for destroying a girl's life? That's a slap on the wrist. Consider her subsequent behavior.
One spring evening, the three students who had been disciplined met for a mediation session with Margarite and two facilitators from Community Youth Services.
The former friend who had forwarded the photo, creating the uproar, was accompanied by her mortified father, an older sister and a translator. She came across as terse and somewhat perfunctory, recalled several people who were there.
Those three students would have to create public service material about the hazards of sexting, attend a session with Margarite to talk about what happened and otherwise have no contact with her.

After Margarite and her mother approved the conditions, Mr. Peters signed off, pleased.

Throughout last spring, on Monday afternoons after school, Eric Fredericks, Isaiah’s math teacher, met with the three students to help them develop their material.

Margarite’s former friend made a PowerPoint presentation, with slides copied from the Internet.

Not only is she an unrepentent bully of royal proportions, but she is a plagiarist, too. She has obviously not learned a lesson. She got away with it. She will do it again and again.

Why did the NY Times use Margarite and Isaiah's first names and not name the former friend?

If you were in a position to hire her or admit her to your school, wouldn't you want to know her behavior history? I wouldn't want to have that sociopath anywhere near me or accept liability for anything she might do on the premises. Would you want a unrepentent bully and plagiarist at your campus?

I gave my daughter Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls by Rachel Simmons and we discussed some of the mean girls at her school. I've also spoken to the principal about a minor incident. But bullying, with and without technological tools, scares the crap out of me.

Simmons wrote in Odd Girl Out that girl-on-girl aggression is most extreme in white girls from rich and upper middle class backgrounds. My daughter attends a very diverse school that gets lower mean standardized test scores.

We live right next to one of the wealthiest zip codes in the US, and their middle school gets higher mean standardized test scores. They have way more money for extras, too. It's even closer to our house than the "home district" school that she attends.

But I would not dream of asking for an inter-district transfer because of their bullying problem. I heard about a girl in that school who was bullied so badly, she had to transfer to a school in an extremely high-poverty area to get away from her tormentors. Actually, there are several girls at my daughter's economically diverse school that are refugees from the richer school. But, right now, her school is full up. No new inter-district transfers were accepted this year.

Do you think it is time for a national registry for bullies? (And plagiarists, too.) Why is it always the bullied kids that have to change schools?

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Happy (belated) Pi-Day

Over a year ago, I promised Diana of MyGurumi a post about how to use pi or π to knit a circle in any stitch pattern and any gauge. I would also show how to estimate the length of yarn you need to finish a row based on pi. I thought that pi day, March 14, would be a good day to time the post.

This pi day found me in bed with a 100F fever and simultaneous viral, fungal and bacterial infections. Immune deficiency sucks. If there is one thing I can not stress enough to young people, it is the importance of selecting your grandparents very carefully.

Well, it's a bit late and I have a burning need to write about pi in the context of circle skirts instead of knitting. Fortunately, Diana lives in Europe and they celebrate pi day on July 22. (Leave a comment if you know why!) So check back on July 22 if you are a knitter.

Fellow Cal grad Shams wrote a Pie Day post mentioning that she used to bake special pies for her kids' lunchboxes on pi day, and Iris asked me why I didn't bake her pies for pi day. Um, is it because you turned down all the pies I have baked to date with, "I am not a pie person. I am more of a brownie person...and a cake person." ???

What really set me off was Gertie's March 14 post, Are you a Right Brained or Left Brained? Normally, I enjoy her blog very much. But this post was so irritating I wanted to scream.

Let's just dispel the myth right now. Humans use our whole brains, if we are fortunate enough to have an intact brain.

Because of research with stroke and accident patients, we know that, for most people (but not all), language processing happens mainly on the left side of the brain and spatial processing happens mainly on the right side.

We also know that the dominant hand tends to be opposite the dominant side of the brain.

Math is strongly spatial. Although less than 10% of the population is left-handed, a significantly higher percentage of mathematicians are left-handed.

I recall noticing in an honors math class (Complex Analysis) at Cal that the professor and 5 of the 7 students were left-handed. I am a crypto-left-hander because teachers in Taiwan use corporal punishment to ensure that all the kids write with their right hand*. So really, there was only one right-hander in the room; the rest were left-hand dominant and, likely, right brain dominant.

So Gertie had the right-left math brain thing exactly backwards.

Furthermore, does she mean to imply that math and science do not require creativity?

The part that most made me cringe was when she flashed her "I'm worse at math than you" credentials. She couldn't master third grade arithmetic! Please tell me that is an exaggeration. Please. It brings back bad memories of Barbie math.

Ironically, she chose March 14th, pi day, to write:
I've been writing instructions for drafting a full circle, half circle, and 3/4 circle skirt to go in my book. Readers, this involves math. And not just any math: this is algebra and stuff.
Indeed, sewing always involves some sort of math. It can be simple, like adding 2" to a skirt to make it knee length. Or it can be pretty involved, like figuring out the radius of a 3/4 circle skirt.
Actually, the math is not very difficult if you understand the concept of pi.

Pi is simply the ratio of the circumference of a circle divided by the diameter. That's it.

It's a constant.

Use your sewing measuring tape and measure the circumferences and diameters of a bunch of round objects. Calculate the ratio for each object. They should be all just about (but not exactly) pi, because of small measurement errors and manufacturing flaws. Then average the ratios. You should get pretty close to pi.

My fifth grade teacher made it extra interesting. She had us calculate the ratio for each object individually and average them. Then we summed all the circumferences and divided by the sum of all the diameters. The two calculations agreed--a lesson in number theory. By calculating the ratios individually, we had another lesson in statistics. One object, a trash can with a dent in one side, was an outlier; it's ratio was less than the others.

Now that the kids are getting older younger, my daughter learned about pi in fourth grade. So drafting a circle skirt should be child's play, or about fourth grade level.

I drew out how to calculate the inside diameter of a full circle skirt using your waist measurement.
diameter = waist/pi = waist/3.14

It's a little more complicated for a fraction of a full circle, but not by much. Say you want a 3/4 circle skirt, your fraction, f = 3/4.
diameter = waist/(pi*f)
An easy way to check is to note that, the smaller a fraction of a full circle you use for your skirt, the larger the diameter has to be to go around your waist. In math speak, it's an inverse relationship. The diameter of a half circle skirt is double the diameter for a full circle skirt (given the same waist measurement).

It's pretty easy.

It's even easier if you have the right tools. I use a yardstick compass attachment on a metal yardstick (actually, it's a full meter).

I bought them from a sewing catalog years ago, but you can get them at Dick Blick for less. Use the links above to find them.

I'm going to show a gratuitous shot of my 2/3 circle skirt. If you are sewing with a stripe or plaid, it may look nicer if you don't make a perfect circle at the waist. The sides should be about 1/2 inch longer than the center front/back so dip out your circle at the center front/back. This will make your circumference slightly bigger (more room for dessert!), and then you will ease that back into the waistband. Easy peasy. Barely any algebra. And pink!

* I am totally not bitter about it. I love being ambidextrous and able to solve problems with a larger than average toolkit. Additionally, I can type like the wind and switch hit in volleyball. And volleyball is a very important part of growing up in California.

Read the pi-day series.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Why bother educating girls?

My first PhD research adviser dumped me as a student when I told him I had became engaged (to my current and only husband). He said that I showed a lack of commitment to science by deciding to get married. At the time, he was married but in the middle of a nasty divorce.

Instead of asking him to clarify his position on the commitment of men who marry, I set out to find a better thesis adviser.

Years later, I took my daughter to an educational psychologist/consultant.

"What do families in our situation usually do?" I asked her.

She replied that one parent, usually the mother, quits work immediately to manage the complex educational needs of the child.

That's not going to happen. I am not going to give any more ammunition to guys like that. I owe it to my daughter, and all the women who come after me, not to give up. I also owe it to society for their considerable investment in my education.

I read about 15 years ago that our nation invested over $1M in each military pilot and roughly $0.5M in each physics PhD. It is no coincidence that, during the dot-com boom era, the Air Force stop-loss policy applied mainly to pilots and meteorologists. It takes a long time and a barrel of money to train both.

This is a long introduction to the implications of marriage between two scientists, what physicists call the two-body problem. (The results of the McNeil and Sher survey quoted below were collected in 1998 and were likely skewed by the type of people who chose to respond. I am among the respondents. This is mandatory reading if you want to understand the problem.)
The difficulty of finding two scientific jobs in one place extends beyond physics, of course, and over 68% of married female physicists are married to scientists (compared to only 17% of male physicists). Women constitute only 6% of U.S. physicists overall, but 35% of all female physicists 31 years old or younger, and women represent 14% of that age group. 44% of these women are married (vs. 36% of the men)[1]. This means that, although the number of women who are (or are about to be) at the point of seeking a permanent career position is increasing, almost one third of them will do so with the complication of a spouse who is also seeking scientific employment. Though statistics on this point are difficult to obtain, anecdotal evidence (including the results of our survey) indicate that dual-career employment difficulties lead in many cases to women leaving physics altogether because they cannot find satisfactory employment. This means that institutions' lack of attention to dual-career employment issues contributes to the "leaky pipeline" of women in physics, and thus to the loss of the talents of a large pool of scientists.
How do we can get the most value from our investment in every physicist?

For starters, stop using the tired analogy of the "leaky pipeline". (What am I, crude oil?)

The small number of jobs for physicists makes the job search very stressful, even without the complications of the two-body problem. I am sorry to report that the scenarios described in the "Captive spouses and insulting offers" section is still true today. The scenario that I described in Who's your city? recurred in almost the same way to a friend only a couple of years ago.

In the absence of Sylvia's "love cop", who breaks up incompatible couples, we can learn some lessons from other fields. Medical students can tie their residency applications to another's application on match day. Couples will only be "matched" if both parties are accepted in programs in the same city. Moreover there are also over 660,000 working physicians in this country versus 17,000 physicists. Thus, physicians are more able to select their home cities.

The military also aims (but does not guarantee) to relocate married couples together. The military will offer retraining, if necessary, to keep families intact. Why can't academia and industry show the same concern for families?

Think of ways to connect smart people with positions that need smart people in the same locales as their spouses. With a year or so of retraining, many former physicists are working (and making contributions to) other fields. I am a beneficiary of such a program.

(I was once nearly rejected by an employer for a computer modeling job because my degree was not in engineering. Only after lobbying by a fellow math major contributing to the project was I considered for an internship.)

Physicists move to their jobs rather than select a city and then find a job. Most physicists will end up living far from their family support network. That makes the transition to motherhood particularly perilous.

Even if families do live nearby, they are more likely than average to lack anyone out of the paid labor force who can help. Delayed childbearing means that the health of grandparents may be too frail for the demands of taking care of a newborn.

Women in medicine have a significant advantage as noted in the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook for physicians and surgeons.
Earnings of physicians and surgeons are among the highest of any occupation. According to the Medical Group Management Association's Physician Compensation and Production Survey, median total compensation for physicians varied by their type of practice. In 2008, physicians practicing primary care had total median annual compensation of $186,044, and physicians practicing in medical specialties earned total median annual compensation of $339,738.
Compare and contrast that with the outlook for physicists and astronomers.
Median annual wages of physicists were $102,890 in May 2008. The middle 50 percent earned between $80,040 and $130,980. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $57,160, and the highest 10 percent earned more than 159,400. Median annual wages of astronomers were $101,300 in May 2008. The middle 50 percent earned between $63,610 and $133,630, the lowest 10 percent less than $45,330, and the highest 10 percent more than $156,720.
People working as physicists and astronomers need to have a PhD and, usually, 1-3 postdocs under their belt. Their level of training makes them comparable to a medical specialist earning three times as much. (In the 1960s, when AIP first began salary surveys of physicists, the ratio of MD to physics PhD salaries was 1.1.) Even taking into account higher student loan balances of physicians, the wage differential buys a lot of "back stage support".

So what should I tell my daughter?

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

The Big Stink

Last night, our city was beset by millions of visitors that mysteriously turned belly up and died. Was it something we said?
Read the story in the LAT (source of the above photo).

The explanation is that the fish tried to take shelter from the high winds last night in the harbor. There were so many fish that the ones that they ran out of oxygen. First the ones pushed to the shallow waters asphyxiated. There was simply no way out for them. Then the decomposing fish fed a bacterial bloom, further depleting oxygen, and the wave of death moved outwards into the middle of the marina.

I can believe it. The winds were ferocious last night.

Here's the jet-stream analysis visualization courtesy of CRWS, California Regional Weather Server. CRWS gets the data from NCEP, the National Center for Environmental Prediction.

Last November, Iris and I visited the nearby tidepools of Abalone Cove. A small school of small fish were caught in the shallows. I enjoyed watching their schooling behavior. When I tried to record it, the kids became very interested and started stomping around, drastically altering the fish behavior. Imagine if they are this frightened of kids, how they would react to the large waves we had last night.

Anyway, these are the kind of small fish that live offshore. Their abundance was the reason a pod of 50-80 blue whales tarried for nearly a month off our coast last September.

In the video, that's my kid screaming, "the sea anemone is going to eat the fish!" One fish had already been so severely weakened, that it was too weak to escape the tentacles of a sea anemone. She tried to save the little fish with a flick, but sent the fish into the grasp of a sea urchin instead. She was crushed, but I told her that it was too late for the fish, no matter what she did.

Then she started singing a song about the cycle of life. Or was it the circle of life? As they say in Tanzania, hakuna matata.

There are lots more pictures and stories in the tidepooling series.

The BBC video and story about this recent fish die-off shows the magnitude of the clean-up effort.

I am glad that the fish will be turned into fertilizer. It sounds like they were taken to the same place as the contents of our green (waste) bins. Our city parks are going to be very sufficiently fertilized this year. Unfortunately, tax receipts from the marina will be down as long as the smell persists, right at the time we have to pay for the cleanup. So come by and spend some money this summer, OK?

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Welcome Fallows' Readers

I hadn't realized how much traffic would be generated by guest blogging for James Fallows. If you are new to this site, then this background may be useful.
  • My basic bio is here.
  • My spouse used to blog at Bad Dad, but no longer does due to lack of time.
  • The Eric that sporadically posts here is a friend from grad school and not my spouse. He and his spouse and kids wrote a very interesting blog about their Bangalore Sabbatical.
  • My job is not blog fodder; I can only write about it in a general way if it helps me make a point about STEM (Science/Technology/Engineering/Mathematics). There is a national shortage of STEM workers and volunteers; my employer encourages us to do things that promote STEM education in general and has a policy of giving us flex-time so that we can perform STEM volunteer work with students.
  • Certain aspects of my home life are also not blog fodder. There is a reason why mommy bloggers do not discuss their older children. What she wants to share, she posts.
  • I am keenly interested in the culture of making. Because I can't discuss the stuff I make at work, I discuss the stuff I make at home. Some readers skim over it; but there are many tidbits about engineering, design and science in the making posts.
  • There are many commercial messages about how to consume with your kids in a way that benefits advertisers. To counter those messages, I write about fun and educational things to do with your kids in Los Angeles that cost little or no money in LA Kids. They also include science tidbits and I am happy to explain/clarify the posts or answer science questions.
  • Sometimes I get cranky and want to vent about Bullshit, which often coincides with the misinterpretation of Statistics.

Friday, March 04, 2011

The bullshit never ends

My bullshit detector went full tilt when I read Navy seeks to discharge sailor found asleep in bed with another male sailor in the WaPost today. We're fighting two wars. The middle east is aflame. Do you think our military has better things to do than to criminalize the consensual sleeping arrangements of our soldiers?
"The subterfuge is, they believe this kid is a homosexual, but they have no proof of it," said Gary Myers, Jones's civilian attorney. "So what they've done here is to trump this thing up as a crime. This is not a crime."
I read about this case and wondered why there wasn't similarly zealous prosecution for the sexual assaults on female officers at Tailhook. Out of 1,500 participants and witnesses, only 140 sailors were charged and only 80 were fined or moderately disciplined. Not one sailor was court-martialed or severely disciplined--unless you count the whistleblower. See the excerpt on page 256 of Managing Business Ethics.

Navy is reliving the ‘Tailhook’ scandal describes another case of harassment of homosexuals in the Navy.