Sunday, November 27, 2011

When you shouldn't trust the GPS

That's the San Francisco-Oakland Bay bridge looming above us and shown in red on the Garmin's screen. That's fine, but the unit appears to be telling us to drive right into the water. (Click to see bigger and in more detail.)

Since we didn't have a boat/car combo, we decided to use the on-ramp from Fremont via Folsom.

Monday, November 14, 2011

When the proxy becomes more important than reality

I am experiencing technical difficulties posting the podcast. While I sort that out, I am going to beat a dead horse shed light on another improper use of statistics.

Here's another quote from Why Science Majors Change Their Minds (It’s Just So Darn Hard):
The latest research also suggests that there could be more subtle problems at work, like the proliferation of grade inflation in the humanities and social sciences, which provides another incentive for students to leave STEM majors. It is no surprise that grades are lower in math and science, where the answers are clear-cut and there are no bonus points for flair.
[Aside: That's a totally unfair and ignorant comment about flair. Flair matters a lot in STEM. I've gotten some pretty nice approbation from professors (and peers) because of the atypical way I solved some homework and exam questions. Some even offered to write letters of recommendation for grad school, despite my mediocre overall grades.

In STEM, flair means solving problems with elegant and/or unconventional, but correct approaches. Remember the emails in climategate with praise like "slick trick"? That's praise for good work, not evidence of a cover-up.]

What is the point of giving grades? Is it to spur students to work harder? To distinguish the stronger students from the rest? To measure the amount learning or mastery of a subject? A progress report?

Did we really mean to turn GPA into a Hogwarts-like sorting hat?

Why do we fetishsize absolute GPAs? Why do employers give hard floors on GPAs when selecting students for interviews, regardless of differences in median GPAs and difficulty of fields of study? Why do scholarships--even the largest need-based scholarship at my alma mater--require a minimum GPA of 3.5 (higher than the average GPA of science majors at the school)?

In the article above, many possible solutions were suggested such as raising the average grades in science classes to match the easy grading in humanities, social sciences and business. However, the simplest thing to do is to just not attach such extreme importance to absolute GPA.

Science departments aren't wrong to grade toughly. Why should a department compress the dynamic range of grades? (If you don't know what a dynamic range is, then you weren't a STEM major.)

I found these two great visualizations from It is well worthwhile to visit the site and read their research and methodology in full. I will wait.

There is about a 0.3 point difference in GPA between natural science and humanities. If you were a STEM major receiving a Berkeley Undergraduate Scholarship, the largest UCB program for need-based financial aid, and you were in the top 1/3 of your class, your GPA would still be too low to receive need-based financial aid.

Why punish the poor students for choosing hard majors? Don't we want all majors to be open to rich and poor students alike?
Read also, the 5 hardest and easiest college majors by GPA.
5 Lowest Grade Point Averages
  1. Chemistry 2.78 GPA
  2. Math 2.90 GPA
  3. Economics 2.95 GPA
  4. Psychology 2.98 GPA
  5. Biology 3.02 GPA
5 Highest Grade Point Averages
  1. Education 3.36 GPA
  2. Language 3.34 GPA
  3. English 3.33 GPA
  4. Music 3.30 GPA
  5. Religion 3.22 GPA
Is the average Chemistry major that much dumber than the average Education major?

Ironically, I was a Regents' and Chancellor's scholar while at CAL. It's the most selective academic scholarship for undergraduates:
The Regents’ and Chancellor’s Scholarship carries the highest honor awarded by the University of California, Berkeley to entering undergraduates.
Yet, the minimum GPA required is 3.0, lower than the need-based Berkeley Undergraduate Scholarship. I don't mean to pick on BUS, the California Alumni Association's leadership scholarship has an identical 3.5 GPA cutoff. I guess they think that STEM students lack leadership potential. (IMHO, I would like to see fewer elected officials who are trained as lawyers and more trained in STEM.)

While I was at Cal, I asked an administrator for the RCS program why their academic scholarship would have a lower GPA cutoff than the nonacademic ones. She replied, "Our students choose harder majors and we don't think they should be penalized for that." How refreshing!

Another way that the hard floors on GPA reinforce the gap between rich and poor is that you can buy a higher GPA simply by attending a private school.

Yup, you can buy a 0.4 point boost to your GPA, helping you land that job over the plebes at State U.

What can you do to help?
I called UC Berkeley to complain, but the nice folks at the University Relations office are all humanities majors and had no idea that STEM departments grade so much harder. They thought that a GPA of 3.5 should be a cakewalk.

I was getting nowhere with them so I decided to start a need-based financial aid program for STEM majors with no minimum GPA cutoff. Students need only be making adequate progress, and their academic departments get to decide what is adequate, based on the rigor of the department and how hard the student is working.

Thus, the bootstrap fund was born. It is not an endowment. Whatever money comes in is awarded that year to STEM majors at UC Berkeley that demonstrate financial need. In case you want to join me in this crusade, just send a check with a letter that looks something like this.

Your Name

City, State Zip


The Board of Trustees

The Regents of the University of California

c/o UC Berkeley, University Relations

2080 Addison St, #4200

Berkeley, CA 94720-4200

Dear Ladies and Gentlemen:

To help the University of California, Berkeley uphold its commitment to excellence and opportunity, and in consideration of the generosity of other alumni and friends of the campus, I wish to support the University in the following manner.

I hereby give to the University of California, Berkeley the sum of X Thousand Dollars ($X,000). Payment will be in the form of cash, marketable securities, or other property acceptable to the Regents.

Please use my gift to create a fund to be known as The Bootstrap Fund. The Bootstrap Fund shall be used at the discretion of Financial Aid to support students pursuing STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) fields of study and who are in good academic standing and demonstrate financial need.

I understand that under campus policy the University will assess a one-time administrative fee of not more than 2 ½%.

Please indicate your acceptance of this gift by signing and returning to me a copy of this letter.


Your Name

Related posts:
Bad Dad and I have been accused of having a competitive marriage. I beg to differ. When I pointed out that his alma mater, MIT, beats Cal in grade inflation (see the links by specific schools at the bottom of the page), he protested.

It's notable that the growth in Cal student population, like the national trend, has been nearly entirely in fields with high GPAs and easier coursework. So, if you compare just the science departments against each other, the grade inflation might be even greater. But he insists that couldn't be the case.

Some men just can't win graciously.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

STEM is hard, but the headlines are wrong .again.

Don't miss Why Science Majors Change Their Minds (It’s Just So Darn Hard).

It makes some good points, but it also misses some, too. Journalism on a deadline will never capture the complete picture, so this blogger who has graduated with two STEM degrees from Berkeley will fill in some gaps.
Professor Chang says that rather than losing mainly students from disadvantaged backgrounds or with lackluster records, the attrition rate can be higher at the most selective schools, where he believes the competition overwhelms even well-qualified students.

“You’d like to think that since these institutions are getting the best students, the students who go there would have the best chances to succeed,” he says. “But if you take two students who have the same high school grade-point average and SAT scores, and you put one in a highly selective school like Berkeley and the other in a school with lower average scores like Cal State, that Berkeley student is at least 13 percent less likely than the one at Cal State to finish a STEM degree.”
You can't compare apples to oranges. For instance the mathematics curriculum for majors is at Cal State prepares graduates to teach mathematics at the K-12 level. Berkeley does not train math teachers, they train math researchers. It's not due to elitism; the California master plan for higher education defined the roles of the two campus systems. Cal State (CSU) educates for practical professions like teaching and nursing, and the UC system educates more broadly.

The STEM classes at Berkeley and Cal State are taught at a different level and with different texts. We routinely used the graduate texts in mathematics (GTM) series in undergraduate classes. We were taught the theoretical underpinnings to help us perform research, not to go out and teach math right away. To do that, we'd need to attend a Cal State for a teaching credential.

Berkeley math and science majors can complete the core required curricula in just three years and then spend their fourth year on individual studies. Math majors can select from clusters of classes with emphases in different math specialties or interdisciplinary studies in physics, biology, statistics and economics. (I chose mathematical physics.)

Berkeley chemistry majors can also select from specialties and interdisciplinary studies. (I chose physical chemistry and spectroscopy.) Many of my classes counted toward both majors so I could easily complete both majors in four years.

Had I not come from a strong suburban school, I could still have completed a STEM major (though not necessarily two) within four years. I had a friend who was a class valedictorian at an inner city school. She was not as well prepared as I was, but she took advantage of the resources available to her. She took remedial STEM classes her first year and really worked hard. She went to office hours and the professors and teaching assistants helped her. Her grades went from very low to very respectable. She took a semester or two longer to graduate than I did, but she graduated. The last time I talked to her, she was headed for med school.

By the end of our second year, we are told to start looking around for our undergraduate research topics. Some people start on research in their junior year; others wait until their senior year. I started one as a junior, found it was a bad fit, and started on a different project in a different lab the summer between my junior and senior years.

One of my chemistry professors told me that 1/3 of the college of chemistry undergraduates went to med school, 1/3 went to PhD programs in chemistry, and the rest were roughly evenly split between industry and graduate programs in related fields such as epidemiology and public health/public policy.

The undergraduate programs at Berkeley have to be harder than the ones at CSU because they are preparing students for different futures. While one can obtain a Bachelor of Science degree at either university system, the experiences will be very different. Telling a poor kid that they should attend CSU over Berkeley because they are more likely to graduate is selling that student short. Ask them about their goals. If they are unsure, encourage them to aim high, but have a back up plan.

I also want to point out .again. that Berkeley leads the nation in producing female students that go on to earn PhDs in STEM--in absolute numbers and per capita. It's hard, but you are not alone. And, if you manage to survive, you'll belong to an elite sorority that will help you for life.

UC Berkeley also differs from other state flagship universities such as Michigan and Illinois. Those schools offer mathematics tracks for future K-12 math teachers as well as tracks for students heading for PhD programs in math and related fields. You can't compare graduation rates without looking more deeply in the curriculum of the different schools and programs.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Improvisational Quilt

Is this the "right side"?
Or is this the "right side"?
I had intended the orderly one as the right side and improvisationally-pieced side as the backing, but I think that I like the "wrong" side better.

It all started when the Santa Monica and South Bay Quilters' guilds got together last Spring to sell everyone's bits and bobs as a joint fundraiser. I walked away with three shopping bags full of fabric, yarn, patterns and oddities that I thought I might have a use for. Bad Dad thought the point was for me to unload my own surplus. Silly man.

Anyway, I saw the two skull fabrics and thought that my girly goth girl might want a quilt made out of these scraps. She didn't like them.
Plan B had me making a "Read me a quilt" to accompany the book, Treasure Island. I challenged myself to use only what I already had in my collection, which meant that I had to piece some fabrics like the reds below.
For the backing, I sewed scraps into blocks and then sewed the blocks together. (I promised in Zero Waste Goal to show an example of scraps sewn into fabric and here it is.) I added a black and white striped shirt from Goodwill. I call it the "Big Kahuna" shirt because it measured 70" in circumference. I harvested the buttons for a future shirt and cut up the body for the backing. Notice the triangular patches in the holes left by the armscythe of the shirt.
There were other triangles, too. I had barely enough fabric to pull this off.
The solid red is a Kona cotton leftover from another quilt. The red/white and yellow/white prints are pre-consumer waste from SAS. The black/white geometric is a remnant from Joann's premium cotton section.

[ I was surprised that the selvage says 2005 and they are selling it as current fabric. But, if you look closely, their premium fabrics are often old stock that the independent fabric stores cleared out years ago. I guess that's how they can mark it up to $10/yard and then mark it down to $5/yard and still turn a profit.]

The red/white pindot is a fabric second. The dye is spread unevenly where it became jammed in the machinery. I like the visual texture that the mistake provides.
I pieced this before I read Gwen Marston's Liberated Quiltmaking I and II. The seams were so crooked, I was thinking more Gees Bend than Liberated.

Anyway, Read me a quilt was started by a SBQG member 10 years ago. Working with Court Appointed Special Advocates (for children in foster care), CASA, we try to provide each child with a book and a quilt that goes with the book. If your quilt group would like to join our effort, drop me a line. You need not be a member of SBQG, or any guild, to help out.

I chose Treasure Island to go with the pirate theme. I couldn't decide between the unabridged one with beautiful illustrations, but archaic language, or the modernized and simplified version. I decided to buy both. I figure the child can read the simple one on his/her own, and an adult can read and explain the unabridged one to him/her. This quilt is about 55"x67"; there should be plenty of room for two under this quilt.

Iris was sorting out her unused toys and we thought this pirate bear should go in the care package. Aargh!
We found this puppy (squeeze it and it barks!) and Jack London's The Call of the Wild in her giveaway pile. I already know what next year's quilt will look like. I think I just might have the fabric I need already in my collection.
The South Bay Quilters' Guild takes the philanthropy aspect of our 503c nonprofit status very seriously. We provide hundreds of quilts each year (nearly a thousand) for local charities and college scholarships to students studying for the garment trades. Our community services chair takes fabric donations. She says that we use 160 yards per month from the donation stash for our charity quilts. Yet, the stash never seems to get smaller. I wonder how many sewists can relate. ;-)

See my 2010 Read me a quilt, another improvisational piece.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Divergent Thinking

Iris and I recorded a podcast last night and we will post it shortly. But, it will make more sense if you knew what we meant by divergent thinking. So, in preparation for our first podcast, I am embedding this RSA Animate video in which Ken Robinson explains it (very well).

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Zero Waste Goal

The October 23, 2011 LA Times business section ran one of their occasional "Made in California" series--this time, about jeans maker Adriano Goldschmied. Don't miss Premium denim maker AG Adriano Goldschmied has a leg up on rivals. One of the things that struck me about this operation is the quote:
With carefully designed cuts, all but 3% to 5% of the fabric is used.
Look at how little is left after they cut the jeans parts! But is that really 3-5% waste? I like to think that I use efficient layout. What is my waste percentage? That weekend, I was making baby sweats from 1 yard of pre-consumer waste navy fleece. (You can see it, and other examples in Preconsumer waste fashion.) It was too late to weigh the total piece, but I weighed the cut pieces and the scraps leftover:
  • 301 g used for the sweatshirt and two pairs of pants
  • 158 g scraps
  • This doesn't count the scrap of gray rayon/lycra at the neck, leftover from another project.
This means my frugal cutting still generates 10 times as much waste as the AG factory. Additionally, at the factory, they can bag up all their scraps and send it to a textile recycler to be turned into household insulation, upholstery and such. I just toss mine in the trash.

I do toss my larger scraps into a large bin in the sewing room. Iris makes art projects and I sometimes piece together scraps to create larger pieces of fabric and make stuff from that. I will show examples in a later post. Improvisational quilt is an example.

I'd used scraps from the same fabric for one of my tops, too.

Do read the article and see the slide show. I found the photos of how they lay the fabric out on a long table under tension and then suck the fabric down to the table with a vacuum fascinating. That explains the little short ends of premium denim that I can buy for $1.50/pound a few miles from their factory. I don't know which jean factory they came from, but they are very good quality--not the stuff you see offered at Joann.

The NY Times also recently ran a story, Stone-Washed Blue Jeans (Minus the Washed). Note that lasers are used to "distress" jeans in both stories. Lasers can use quite a lot of energy, too. This is also done under an industrial-sized fume hood because the fabric outgasses quite a bit of nasty stuff.
Why are lasers and fume hoods eco? Because the alternative, sandblasting, can give the workers silicosis. In this case, workers' deaths could be directly attributed. I suspect that many more are sickened until they are too weak to work. Their deaths may be attributed to malnutrition or tuberculosis at a later time. But they were weakened by producing our jeans.

Do you remember a time when we saved up, bought one pair of jeans a year (stiff as a board) and spent the summer weathering them ourselves until they were ready for the first day of school? Wasn't that fun? Did it kill us like the workers in the factories today?

Zero waste applies to not just fabric, but to people as well.