June 2014 Posts

“Statistically Noticeable”

io9.com: 10 Scientific Ideas That Scientists Wish You Would Stop Misusing

The following blurb from number seven is what piques my interest1 (emphasis mine):

“Statistically significant” is one of those phrases scientists would love to have a chance to take back and rename. “Significant” suggests importance; but the test of statistical significance, developed by the British statistician R.A. Fisher, doesn’t measure the importance or size of an effect; only whether we are able to distinguish it, using our keenest statistical tools, from zero. “Statistically noticeable” or “Statistically discernible” would be much better.
Jordan Ellenberg, Mathematician

Saving that one for next January.

  1. and also feeds into my opening day spiel that Statistics is really more of a science class than a math class. []

Things that I don’t *technically* NEED to do my job…

While I am fortunate enough to work in an environment where most of our necessities are provided for us, sometimes teachers can dream — especially in the middle of summer break.

Before I start, let me put the word “dream” in context: My “dream” house is a giant 3+ story tall circular complex with a glass elevator in the center of the house… and this glass elevator is completely encompassed inside of a huge aquarium filled with exotic sea creatures including sharks and giant squid.1 Something like the AquaDom in Berlin, but with WAYYY more aquarium:2

So imagine if the aquarium filled this entire lobby.  Yeah.
So imagine if the aquarium filled this entire lobby. Yeah.

In other words: Think back to whenever your parents and/or teachers taught you to “dream big”. Then multiply by a thousand.3

So here are a few things that I wish dream that my profession would provide for us — none of which are even remotely necessary. Just like the dream house with a glass-elevator-inside-sea-world, none of these will ever happen.

A font budget

Font Budget

Hey, some of the nicer fonts in life aren’t free.4 Thankfully, typography has advanced to the point where there are quite the number of free fonts available — especially for educational purposes.

(If you’re thoroughly confused, see: Font Control)

An art department


Give me a group of artists that could scrounge up custom clip-art or comic illustrations on demand. Heck, a single artist would do. Especially when putting together basic tutorial videos, every now and then I’ve thought to myself something like, “Gosh I really wish I had a picture of a kid rolling a pair of pig dice!”

(A multimedia / video production team in a similar vein would be nice too…)

Unlimited supply of nice purple pens tagged with GPS trackers

(To be clear: it’s not the “purple pens” part that makes this one a “dream”.)

Yes, I am aware that not all of the pens in this picture are purple.  I'm not THAT colorblind...
Yes, I am aware that not all of the pens in this picture are purple. I’m not THAT colorblind…

If you’ve been in my class, you’d understand.5 The GPS trackers / theft alarms would be for whenever a kid decides to accidentally walk off with one. My ink of choice for the classroom are the Pilot G2’s, and them things are not cheap.

Multiple 20-foot 4K video walls

1024 by 768 in all of its pixellated glory
1024 by 768 in all of its pixellated glory

Our current LCD projectors are nice. But when I review multiple versions of assignments side-by-side on the same screen, bigger screens and more pixels — for improved readability — wouldn’t hurt. 1024 by 768 is serviceable… but in practice, limited, especially when trying to show a full page of work at one time.6

3D Holographic Projectors

If you’ve seen the TV show “Bones”, that’s what I’m talking about:


While not immediately as useful in Statistics, I’ve always thought we should have something like this for modeling 3-D graphs and figures in geometry and calculus. Heck, even conic sections in Algebra II.7

And finally

Genetic clone(s) of myself

This way, I could literally be in two (or more) places at once. Of course, one would have to deal with what to do with said genetic clone(s) when you don’t need them… but we can cross that bridge if we ever get there.8

Not quite “dreamy” enough

Other items that crossed my mind:

  • The ability to choose our computer / laptop model for work use.9
  • The ability to use Dropbox at work. Grrr.10
  • Free coffee.

(I’ll stop there.)

And it is quite plausible that I add to this list at multiple points in the future.

In a few mere days, I depart for my annual “clear-my-head-before-the-new-season” getaway. Given the way these past couple of weeks have rolled, it couldn’t have come soon enough.

  1. Hey! Seemingly ridiculous dreams give advancements in engineering a raison d’être! []
  2. Yes, big enough for sharks and GIANT squid! []
  3. Another “dream” I had as a kid was that I wanted to be the first Asian player in the NBA. That one didn’t quite pan out… something about me not being tall enough, or athletic enough, or… yeah. []
  4. As you can see, some cost almost as much as a smartphone! []
  5. I use purple pens for students to grade their own work with. Why purple? Because as a color, it is less psychologically menacing than red, and stands out more from pencil than green. []
  6. I gather 1080p would work decently… but that wouldn’t sufficiently put it in “dream” status. And yes, I realize that 4K screens require computers with quite beefy specs. Mac Pros for the classroom?! []
  7. Or is it Precal now? -_- []
  8. The practical fall-back would be one or more competent TA’s. Hmmmmmmm. []
  9. Sorry, Dell. []
  10. Don’t get me started on this one. []

Every font nerd needs to bookmark this subreddit

Subreddit: Identify This Font

Earlier this week, while picking up some breakfast tacos and ice cream1 the following font caught my eye:


I took a picture (obviously) and posted it to my Insta and Facebook, to see if anyone could identify it. Well, it turns out there’s a subreddit2 just for people that have seen fonts in the wild that they need identified.

So I gave it a shot and lo and behold, some kind soul identified the mythical beast within an hour.3 Oh, the wonders of the interwebs.

  1. Yes, they go together. Okay, not really. []
  2. Much thanks to Joseph Kang for pointing it out! []
  3. It turns out that whoever did the signage for the local Whole Foods got a number of their fonts from LostType. Or, perhaps, they designed the fonts and then contributed them to LostType. Probably the latter. I’ll never know. []

What I use to make lesson videos

This summer, I’m starting a large project1 of putting together basic lesson videos for my AP Statistics classes to help out on a number of fronts.

Here’s a quick 30-second sample clip (don’t expect it to blow your hair back, I didn’t say they’d be exciting):

(If you’re wondering about the background music: I only put that in there for this sample. There’s no music in the actual videos — but maybe there should be… hmm.)

For anyone who might be curious as to what tools I specifically use to put things all together, here’s the long rundown.

First, the hardware:

  • Wacom Intuos Pen & Touch (Medium)2

    This is the slate / pen tablet I use to write on-screen.

    Wacom Intuos

    Has a little bit of a learning curve, but I will never teach again without it. Currently using the CTH-680, but I also have a 670 and 480 that I use in class. List price is $199, snagged mine for ~$158 earlier this summer. 3

  • Macbook Pro Retina, 13 inch4

    Of course, almost ANY decent Windows computer will do. I run Windows 7 via Virtual Machine (Parallels) — Windows 8 is giving me too many issues with the pen tablet drivers, among other things.

  • Any smartphone headset with a mic

    This is mainly for recording your voice during the videos. The headphones/mic that come with any iPhone work for this (the headphone jack on a Mac doubles as a mic-input).

    Headset Earpods Earphone with Remote & Mic For iPhone 5 Touch 5 iPad 4 iPad Mini

    Most laptops have an external mic that will pick up your voice as well, but using a plug-in mic can improve audio volume and reduce the “I’m all alone in an empty echo-chamber” effect. And in case you’re wondering: No, I cannot stand the sound of my own voice anymore than the next person.5

The Software:

  • Screen Recording: Quicktime

    Some people set up a video camera and stand in front of the whiteboard.


    While that’s one way to go, you may wish to simply work through examples via Powerpoint (especially if you have a way of writing on the screen like I do).


    Quicktime (comes with the Mac) has a built-in screen recording function, and a 10-minute screen recording typically weights 200-300MB at this point. If you’re on Windows, Camstudio works great.

  • Movie editing: iMovie


    Once you’ve video’d a screen-recording, there’s a large probability that you’ll wish to go back and cut out all of the “oh crap I just messed up” parts. I export in 720p, which gives me a 5-minute clip that weighs around 50MB. If you’re on Windows, I hear Windows Movie Maker is quite functional as well. If you’ve never edited video before, expect a little bit of a learning curve.

  • Optional video cropping / compression: Handbrake

    For some reason, iMovie now only seems to output videos at 16×9. I use Handbrake to crop out black bars on the sides of the screen. Using the default options, I usually end up with a 5-minute video clip that weighs around 10MB — not bad! 6

Some things to consider

I consider myself to be rather tech-savvy… but even for me, it took a full work-day to figure out all of the little kinks and put together a pair of FIVE MINUTE VIDEO CLIPS. Yes, this stuff will take time. Like teaching, it takes some preparation beforehand to make things go even halfway decently.7 I’d like to keep a full day’s lesson to less than 10 minutes of video… and while most times that is doable, sometimes it isn’t.

I spend way more time editing out dead spots and screw-ups in the recorded videos than I do actually recording the videos (both 5 minute video clips that I recorded on the first day started out as 11+ minute clips).

Often times during the recording / editing process, I thought to myself, “Gosh I hope I’m not actually this sloppy in class.”

And if all of this seems daunting, have a look around Google / YouTube. There’s plenty of stuff online already, so don’t re-invent more than absolutely necessary.

  1. which, by the way, we are looking at as a multi-year project. []
  2. although the small will probably do as well []
  3. During actual class, I use this along with the optional wireless kit ($45) to free myself from the front of the classroom during teaching. The software I use to write on the screen is called Interwrite Workspace, which our school had a while back, and I never let go of. []
  4. Late 2012, if you’re curious. []
  5. Honestly though, what narcissistic sicko actually LIKES the sound of their own voice? []
  6. The 34-second sample clip above weighs 1.1MB. []
  7. Of course, once the kinks got ironed out, things began to roll a bit more smoothly. []

FiveThirtyEight: The statistics of names and ages

Great link shared with me today1 from FiveThirtyEight.com.2

FiveThirtyEight: How to Tell Someone’s Age When All You Know Is Her Name

The data for the name “Brian” from the following graphic from that link caught my eye:

Check out the dot for "Brian"!  Wow!
Check out the dot for “Brian”! Wow!
  1. by former colleague Brian Weaver []
  2. Statistician Nate Silver and crew made fame for correctly predicting the voting results of all 50 states in a recent U.S. Presidential election — 538 signifying the total number of electoral votes. Great stuff from them, in general. Kinda scratched my head when ESPN bought them up, though… []

Just throw “technology” at it!

Technology is not the cure for all ills of our education system.1 But the approach that our society seems to have taken in trying to implement technology into our classrooms seems Draconian — at best — and is too often a corollary of the timeless “just throw money at the problem and it will go away” approach.2


The resulting paradigm of “oh you have a problem LET’S JUST THROW TECHNOLOGY AT IT” has given way to a toxic soup of a hot mess of technology tools that are available to educators. Which might sound fantastic, except for the fact that there is wayyyy too much stuff for most teachers to learn to use in the “spare time” that they already don’t have. And even when we have the time, new tools are often NOT the solution.

One example: Do you have people in your workplace that don’t know how to communicate with coworkers? Let’s throw technology at the problem, and purchase a fancy enterprise-grade software solution to tackle that! Unfortunately few will know how to use it, even fewer will want to use it, and at the end of the day, it wouldn’t even solve the root problem: that some people generally lack basic communication skills.

Technology and Liberal Arts

I could rant forever. It’s a classic case of education sans wisdom, or knowledge without character. Steve Jobs would often say that he wanted to be “at the intersection of technology and liberal arts.” But that’s so important, if you think about it: You can give anyone Picasso’s paintbrush — that doesn’t mean they’ll suddenly be able to start painting like Picasso.

I have always believed that if you’re going to throw resources at a problem in search of a solution, that it needs to be done in a thoughtful, well-planned manner.3

Okay, enough. </rant> Let’s shift gears.

This Summer, I plan to set aside some time to pursue a solution to a problem that actually plagues us teachers — in particular with AP Statistics, but surely for other subjects as well.

First, let me do my best to describe the “problem”.

In our district, high schools have four 90-minute class periods a day. In AP Statistics, we’ll use… oh, let’s say anywhere from 30 to 50 of those minutes tackling the lesson at hand — usually a mix of notes, lab activity, brief group discussion, but almost never straight lecture.4 Oh, if you’re wondering about the other 40 minutes or so, that is usually spent on going over homework (usually the first 10-15 minutes or so) and sometimes taking a quiz (12 minutes if it’s short, 25 minutes for a longer affair).5

So what happens when a student has to miss class?

Say, for a college visit?6 Or a golf tournament?7 Or a band trip? Or a ________? Well, on a lucky day I might capable of compressing the lesson down to about 15 minutes, but I could easily be out double or triple that if luck is not on my side.

Practically, this means that if 3 students miss class in a given week8 and ask me to help them get caught up, I’m out about 90 minutes or so of my personal time, and wishing that I could genetically clone myself to be in three places at once.9 (By the way, in spite of the fact that I teach “AP students”,10 telling kids who have to miss class to just “read the textbook” doesn’t usually fly well. Neither does the “this is what you’ll have to do in college” line — sounds good in theory, but if you want to switch places with me for a week to try it out, please ring me up, anytime.)

For a given week, three dedicated half-hour tutorial sessions might take up my entire week’s worth of before-and-after-school tutorial sessions.11 Spending time with students — wonderful students, may I add — precludes us from grading papers and planning lessons and doing other “teacher stuff”. And that precludes us teachers from having a life.12

Allow me to clear this up:

Having students that are willing to come in for tutorials to get caught up is NOT the problem. That is very much a GOOD THING — and it’s a “problem” that more teachers would love to have. The PROBLEM is simply that we don’t have 37 hours13 in a day.1415

"The only way to have “enough” time is to make it, through force of will, because the universe isn’t going to suddenly decide that we need 25-hour days. I know. It sucks."
“The only way to have “enough” time is to make it, through force of will, because the universe isn’t going to suddenly decide that we need 25-hour days. I know. It sucks.”

In my four years of teaching AP Stat — which is by far the toughest “teach yourself” class of all the courses that I have taught16 — what with the large number of extracurricular activities that these “AP students”17 are involved in, this is by far the biggest “bottleneck” of our time.

Which got me and at least one other Stat teacher in the district to thinking… there has to be a better way that we can tackle this problem.18

So we have an idea — one that we begin work on tomorrow.19 Yes, tomorrow would mark exactly one week after the official start of our summer break.

And that’s one issue of coming up with good solutions for our classrooms: Good solutions take time to develop.2021

More summers than not, I have dedicated half of the break22 to working on the “drawing board” for the upcoming year. And while I’m no longer a huge fan of the idea, it’s looking like this will be one of those summers. Blegh! But the goal is for this to make our lives as teachers just a little bit easier moving forward — so hopefully it will be worth it come September.

  1. Don’t even ask me to identify the “ills” of our education system. While we could discuss a myriad of “problems” that some would say need solving with regards to our educational system, that is a rabbit hole I wish NOT to descend into today, if ever. []
  2. The problem with which, of course, is that when you get to the end of the road, you often end up with the same problem and a lot less money []
  3. And not just for some higher-up to be able to put a checkmark in a box []
  4. Even with “AP students”, a straight 45-minute lecture would put ME to sleep, not to mention the 17 year-olds in the room. Which, by the way, brings me to a pet-peeve of mine: the way some people throw around the term “AP students”. Newsflash: they’re still kids! []
  5. It’s summer break so I’m too lazy to do the math but I think that roughly adds up… it usually does in the class and I’m going on that instinct []
  6. I do, in fact, teach mostly seniors []
  7. I actually had a kid last year complain to me that she had to miss class to play 36 holes of golf. Oh, the struggle. -_- []
  8. which is about typical []
  9. And NO, this is NOT the technological solution in question… though I have occasionally wished for this to be possible — usually during the brutal 4th six weeks of each year. []
  10. In this context, “AP students” means that these kids sincerely want to get caught up on what they missed. Translation: you can’t just ignore them. []
  11. On paper, we’re usually available for more than that, but things tend to come up more than us teachers would like. []
  12. We can argue if I’d have a life anyway some other day. []
  13. I just made that number up []
  14. Not having a life is really just a side-effect of not having 37+ hours in a day. Maybe. I suppose creating clones of ourselves might help, but let’s be practical. Not that having 37 hours in a day is practical… []
  15. Well this is a real problem for teachers in general, probably for many other professions as well if I were to ask around, right? []
  16. which, in the high school ranks, really only excludes Calculus []
  17. there’s that lovely phrase again! []
  18. and perhaps deal with other problems that we haven’t even yet considered, while we’re at it. []
  19. But don’t get excited: it’s just a seedling of an idea at this juncture. Quite plausible that nothing comes of it. []
  20. Good exams take time to develop. I may write a post someday about the process of writing a good exam… for me, those things usually go through multiple rough drafts. []
  21. and if you know anything about my personality, I don’t like crappy solutions. []
  22. July 4 weekend is usually the start/end point []