Saturday, August 30, 2008

Continuing the List - #3 Program

UPDATE: As a reminder, #1 (Wake Forest) and #2 (Virginia Tech) were discussed before.

#3 Claremont Graduate University, MA Applied Social Psychology & Evaluation:

Applied psychology degrees (as in many other fields, such as econ) tend to be regarded as inferior to "pure" theoretical degrees by (generally "pure") psychology faculty. It appears that the majority of graduates go into industry rather than academia (especially at the masters degree level). But in my situation, an applied degree is in some ways more useful than a general psychology degree because consumer behavior is an applied discipline. Really, the main areas of study that I am currently interested in all have strong applied aspects - I am particularly interested in using social psychology theory in the context of consumer psychology, health psychology, social marketing, and/or educational psychology.


- school has excellent reputation; their applied psychology program is probably the best in the country (though to be fair, there aren't that many competing programs)

- would be a good terminal masters if I didn't want to get a PhD because it leads naturally to many areas of employment in government and the private sector - not as good as a masters in marketing research (e.g. Virginia Tech) but better than another general psychology degree (e.g. Wake Forest), which I at least half-suspect I would need to top off in some way (e.g. graduate statistics certificate) if I want to re-enter the research job market at a higher level

- the curriculum is excellent: half is social psychology and related fields and half is stat and evaluation coursework; it will not require taking classes like developmental or physiological psychology that are part of a general-experimental masters degree plan and that I am not very interested in and that will be of limited relevance to my future goals (academic or otherwise)

- can apply eagerly as a person ultimately interested in an applied discipline like marketing with less concern that a professor on the admission committee will disapprove (compared to general psychology programs; obviously not marketing or consumer behavior programs)

- good location for Robert: the Los Angeles area (and takes me conveniently located to west coast, where my parents can visit my sister and me easily with one trip, my dad has pointed out)

- if I fall in love with the school and program, Claremont has a PhD in applied social psychology, to which my masters degree credits would transfer; their business school only has a PhD in management (not marketing) and would not work for me, however


- need/want information on success in placing students into PhD programs since most graduates go to work directly after finishing the program

- no thesis! (of course, this could also be seen as a bonus to the extent that thesis-based masters have a way of sometimes dragging on past the two year mark; not doing a thesis would also be much less stressful if less useful as preparation for a doctoral program and dissertation requirement)

- it will cost me money because full tuition remissions are not given to masters students from what I can tell

- not a natural bridge to a (non-applied) psychology PhD program and may indeed shut me out of a "pure" social psychology PhD program

- isn't Los Angeles another place with an unpleasantly warm climate? it would be nice to move somewhere with cooler weather; also, when I visited the sister campus of Pomona College when selecting an undergrad university, it seemed pretty hazy around there

In some ways, I almost like this program better than the Wake Forest and Virginia Tech ones. Each program has serious strengths the others lack, so choosing between them is difficult. If I am accepted to all three of them, funding may be the ultimate determinant of which program I attend...that and the general financial situation as impacted by Robert's ability to get a good job nearby.

My guess, though it's limited by the paucity of available data, is that Wake Forest is the program most likely to come through with strong funding, since its masters students are the food-chain equivalent of PhD students elsewhere. V-Tech and Claremont will have actual PhD students to take resources (funding, research opportunity, etc).

Thursday, August 28, 2008

In the Public Eye

I had written a blog post with the final list of masters programs at which I plan to apply, with explanation of their perceived benefits and disadvantages, but then got hesitant. What if adcoms (or students they involve) look people up on the Internet? My use of my first name has never intended to be fully anonymous.

To test how paranoid this was, I did a google search on my most preferred psychology program and my first name, and a previous post of mine was #5. I did another search of the program name and the word "blog" and that same post was #15. Eek. If somebody did want to look me up this way, they easily could. (It's eerie that EQ would show up like that, but the ways of google are a mystery.)

So I need to consider how I want to proceed. I mean, the probability of this happening is small (I assume), but it would be pretty uncool for some program to read what I think of them.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Gender & the GRE

In looking up the percentile for a 750 Q score (about 84th percentile, which means 84% of GRE takers scored lower than I did), I saw something a bit surprising:

Between July 2003 and July 2006, over 1.2 million people took the GRE. The gender breakdown of these test-takers is 56% women and 40% men. (I assume the other 4% did not report a gender and are not actually androgynous or hermaphroditic.)

I had seen data showing that there were more women than men earning undergraduate college degrees. But I wasn't aware that graduate school hopefuls skewed female also.

A quick web search indicated that in 2005-2006, women comprised 49% of LSAT (law school admission test) takers and in 2005, women comprised 54% of MCAT (medical college admission test) takers. According to the website, "roughly 40%" of the GMAT (graduate management admission test) takers are female.

But then when you look at the people taking the GRE Subject Tests in the mathy disciplines, you see a dearth of women. Here's the percent women in these tests:

Psychology - 77%
Biology - 65%
Literature in English - 65%
Biochemistry - 53%
Chemistry - 43%
Mathematics - 27%
Physics - 23%
Computer Science - 14%

Granted that not everyone who applies to grad school in the subject will take the GRE Subject test, depending on the requirements of specific schools, it's still a pretty glaring disparity in math, physics, and computer science. (Well, and psychology for that matter. But I happen to know that the subject test is very commonly used for clinical or counseling psychology programs - one website says it's about 90% of these programs. I think it is much less common for experimental programs to require it.)

On an unrelated note, it's interesting to see how people from different parts of the world describe this testing process: taking the test (e.g. US), sitting the test (e.g. NZ), writing the test (e.g. Canada, India, Singapore), and so on. In my experience, "surviving" or "enduring" the test may be the more apt description.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Obama's Very Foreign Connections

Although it is usually The National Enquirer and its lot who first break the news regarding presidential candidates and their connections to alien governments, this time CNN's blog provides photo evidence that Obama is being backed by the Centauri.

Note the hair of Obama's supporter here; it's done in the swept back, tufted up style that is definitively associated with the Centauri. However, his hair is not long enough to support the full peacock-fan. Does this signify that he is of relatively low status in Centauri politics? Hmm.

He's thinking about his losses last night playing null-pool

Perhaps he is one of Emperor Cartagia's minions.

Caligula + Nero = Cartagia

In any event, the fact that the Centauri support Obama has some frightening implications. Does it presage to a return to slavery, albeit based on social rather than ethnic discrimination? This would be consistent with Obama's desire to be a president who transcends race. The Centauri also have a pretty bad environmental record (e.g. turning the Narn homeworld from a place of primordial jungle and forest into a barren wasteland).

(Thanks, Robert, for alerting me to this photograph.)

Friday, August 22, 2008

Confusion Reigns

My GRE-taking experience today was bizarre and at times surreal. There were moments in which I felt I might actually be hallucinating.

Let me backtrack.

Despite imagining all manner of various obstacles and disasters, it had not occurred to me that I would get basically no sleep the night before. This is stupid because I get insomnia very easily from any kind of marginally unusual experience or expectation; in the last month I have had under-slept nights from such goofy things as getting an email from an old friend, thinking about the ancient Mayan culture, and having a (hopefully) fictional character (ostensibly) of my own devising acting up in my head. Somehow, though, I was not prepared for last night's sleeplessness. I did get about an hour of sleep between 4:00 and 5:00 a.m. (during which I had a dream about Robert and me taking a long boat to a Wisconsian colony in Africa, where Robert had obtained a high-paying job from I believe a listing in The Economist). Otherwise, not much going.

Fortunately, my exam was at 8:00 and adrenalin got me through it. I basically rocked the two essay sections. I was feeling good physically, alert and not nervous, and if I did not get a 5.5 or 6 on this section, it will be because the graders are idiots. Seriously, I am that confident. My favorite moment of the Issue Essay was being inspired by some episodes of the British TV show Yes, Minister to invoke and criticize the idea of "open government." My argument essay - heh, the argument allowed me to find fault with someone's medical research and economic/business arguments. This is good stuff.

The verbal section felt qualitatively different from the practice tests I had been taking. It was both harder and easier - like the vocabulary was less esoteric but the relationships between words was subtler - but it went pretty painlessly. My recently developed Reading Comprehension strategy seemed to pay off, but it's sometimes hard to judge how well you are doing with the verbal section; I couldn't definitively tell whether I was answering smarter or just getting easier questions or flat giving the wrong answers without knowing it. Oddly, my favorite RC passage required me to understand the convoluted relationships among about half a dozen different indicators in a physical sciences setting.

The quantitative....well. I am disappointed in both the ETS and Kaplan materials because they did not prepare me for a certain type of question that appeared no less than three times on my exam. It was a terrible kind of question - the kind that you don't know how to do, even though there is probably an easy formula or standard approach you aren't familiar with, but you know that you could figure out, if only you had the time, but you don't actually have the time, so you waste a bunch of time and then sort of end up guessing anyway. And the first of these three terrors was question #2. Ack. I felt okay about the other questions, but I ran out of time and only finished 25 of the 28 questions in the section.

At this point I was hoping that this quantitative section was the experimental section (and I was buoyed in this hope by the recognition of the unexpected questions) and that I was going to get another shot at the real thing. But a confusing thing happened. I got a section that was, I believe, labeled a "research" section that had all new verbal question types. Once I got started, I almost immediately became confused about what the hell I was doing because nothing in my prep materials had prepared me for this possibility. Does this section count? Am I going to get an experimental section after this? Did that say "research" or did I just imagine it? The help screen gave me nothing. Fortunately, the questions seemed easier than the verbal section I had already completed so I got through it, but man, I was really starting to lose it (my sanity, my ability to focus and take in any kind of information) by the end. When I got to the screen with the "Press Whatever to Proceed to the Next Section" label, I felt roughly like I had by hit in the back of the head with a club as a sleep-deprivation headache came on full strength.

And my foggy-headedness only got worse when the next "section" was the question, do you want to report or cancel your scores? Report. Are you sure? Yes. And then it showed me some scores. I looked at these numbers as though from a great distance and without much comprehension. It gave me the option to move on to the next screen. I moved on. And then realized, fuck, what did those numbers say? I tried to go back, but as in so many aspects of life, there is no going back.

So what am I saying? I am making excuses about why I was such a dingbat that I am not confident that I either perceived the scores correctly originally or remembered them scant moments later. This is a new level of idiocy. I would not quite believe this in a book, yet I experienced it myself.

I somehow stumbled through picking four universities to send my scores to, a task made all the more challenging because I couldn't really remember their names very well at this point and because you had to look them up by the state they are located in.

Then I was done. I went to the bathroom and thought I might throw up from the pain in my head and in my abdomen. I called Robert to pick me up and poured myself some water into a little paper cup. As I raised the cup to my mouth, my hand was shaking like crazy. I drank about 8 little cups of water in quick succession. I vaguely noticed that I was not the weirdest-seeming person in the room despite my whole body vibrating oddly. (A guy was pacing and talking to himself in a semi-berating manner.) I was glad that we live only 10 minutes away from the test center and that I didn't have to try to drive myself home.

I have felt basically horrible physically all afternoon and evening. I desperately wanted to take a nap, but couldn't stop myself from conjuring up various, contradictory images of that damn score report page. I watched an episode of Rome and found myself on the verge of tears from the loss of two good men. So basically, I've been pretty much mentally and physically fucked up in general.

I feel fairly sure that I got a 750 Q. This stands out pretty clearly in my mind and was something I sort of noticed at the time, thinking yeah, screwing up that second question and others like it, not finishing the last few questions, but doing pretty well on the rest - this seems about right. But I didn't have a good sense of my verbal score and have a sort of ambiguous feeling about what I saw or imagined that I saw. I will await the score reports to be sure, which is two to three weeks from now. Jesus. I was supposed to have closure on this damn test by now!

So, the saga continues. Stay tuned.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

More Wildlife Around Here

Animal encounters on last night's 30 minute walk around our apartment complex:

(1) An armadillo rooting for insects on the lawn about 10 feet away from us. It took a long time for him to notice us and run off; the wind must have changed so he caught our scent. When we came past the spot the second time, he was back. How often do you see a live armadillo? This is the best view of an armadillo I have had in Texas. (The armadillo is the "state small mammal of Texas.")

(2) An opossum running through the bushes about 10 yard away, looking sneaky, but he can't help that.

(3) A cute puppy escaped his apartment and "attacked" us in the most friendly possible way. His human found him a few minutes later and walked him away, but he got loose and ran back at us again.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Gender & Self-Handicapping

In college, among all the annoying things my fellow students got up to, there were a couple of behaviors that inspired contempt in me.

1) Guys (and they were always guys) sitting around in the dorm lobby trying to one-up each other on what kind of grades they were capable of getting with no effort. "I got an 81 on the exam without studying." "Well, I got an 83 on this other exam and I got drunk the night before." The obvious implication was supposed to be that of course, if they had studied and behaved responsibly, they would have gotten even better grades. My reaction to this was to think: You guys are complete losers.

2) A, well, let's say friend to avoid outing the guilty party had his GRE exam the next morning and rather than going to bed, stays up late playing cards with his some of his cronies (the same losers mentioned in scenario 1 above). He later acts aggrieved that he did not receive a perfect 800 on the Quantitative section.

The term for this kind of bullshit is, in psychological parlance, self-handicapping. By doing something that can explain away poor performance (drinking, staying up late, not studying), the person has a ready-made excuse, either for himself or for others, for why he did not excel. Failure can be attributed to lack of effort rather than lack of intelligence or competence; success demonstrates that the person really is superior because they could perform so well despite (self-created) obstacles. Self-handicapping can also be feigned, of course; it is quite possible that the same people who brag about "not studying" actually did study on the sly, but want to maintain an excuse for lower than desired performance.

I always found it odd that, at Rice at least, this appeared to be such a man's game. (I admit that I did not consistently prepare for exams as I should have, but I did not risk sabotaging important tests or later brag about my lack of effort. When I didn't study enough it was because I was screwing up.) Today I read a 2003 journal article that explicitly explored the relationship between self-handicapping and gender among college students.

In a series of three studies, college student subjects read a scenario about a student named Chris who had an exam the next day. The researchers manipulated variables such as whether Chris had prepared some or none; asked a friend to see a movie the night before instead of studying, was asked by a friend to see a movie, or stayed home to study; and the grade Chris received. They found that overall, subjects did think Chris had more ability when he went to the movie and got a D versus studied and got a D. But they also rated Chris lower on many interpersonal dimensions, such as his likeability, how sympathetic the subject felt toward him, etc. So while self-handicapping did "protect" beliefs in Chris's ability, it came at a cost.

Interestingly, when the researchers varied Chris's gender, this did not impact people's perceptions of him/her. So self-handicapping looked to be as viable a strategy for women as for men.

Here are some of the results from the analysis of male versus female subjects:

"Our results indicate that men were far more lenient in their attributions of self-handicapping targets than were women. Women routinely made more negative evaluations of the self-handicapping targets relative to the control (non-self-handicapping) targets, particularly on interpersonal and characterological dimensions. Women were less willing than men to excuse self-handicapping even when alternative explanations for effort withdrawal (e.g., peer pressure) were viable. This pattern emerged consistently across all three studies, indicating that perceiver sex plays an important role in determining observer reactions to self-handicapping."

"Although both men and women acknowledged that the self-handicappers had the potential to do well in the future, it seems from the ratings of ability and motivation that women did not expect this future potential to be realized."

"In Study 3, women were more likely to attribute lack of preparation to dispositional causes such as laziness or lack of self-control or to ulterior self-handicapping motives….Moreover, on both open-ended and rating scale measures, women alone seem to acknowledge the potential ulterior motive of self-handicapping for effort withdrawal."

"The present results suggest that men are less likely to ascribe negative motivations to individuals who engage in self-handicapping behavior, whereas women have little respect for individuals who lack motivation and fail to put forth effort in important performance settings. This presents us with an interesting paradox: Those individuals most inclined to engage in behavioral self-handicapping (men) are less likely to attribute that motive to others."

I think that last statement goes too far; it isn't clear that the same "individuals" who engage in self-handicapping are less likely to attribute the motive to others. The findings pertain to men as a group. But it is still an interesting point.

I guess the "news you can use" take away from this is that your male friends, boss, professor, spouse (etc.) may be more likely to go for your real or feigned self-handicapping excuse for lower performance than your female ones are.

Source: Hirt, E. R., McCrea, S. M., & Boris, H. I. (2003). "I know you self-handicapped last exam": Gender differences in reactions to self-handicapping. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 177-193.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

I Would Be Well-Pleased

...if my performance on Friday's real GRE matched this morning's practice exam (computer-adaptive) using the Kaplan CD:

790 Q (95th percentile)
680 V (93rd percentile)

I also thought my response to the "Argument Essay" about the effects of building a small hotel on a little piece of the Youngtown Wildlife Preserve was a lot better than their top-scoring example response. (I know a thing or two or five hundred about this topic.) My "Issue Essay" on whether increasing violence in the media has led to increasing violence in society was solid enough. I would expect to get a 5 or 5.5 (out of 6) average for the writing section. I hope that the real essay topics are this friendly.

On Sunday, I did my first CAT and got 780 Q and 620 V. The verbal was low because I screwed up the first reading comprehension (partly from working way too quickly) and never got to see hard enough problems to bring the score up.

We'll see.

My two CAT average is 785 Q and 650 V for a combined 1435. This is a high enough score that even at the pyschology PhD admissions level, a higher score would not substantially improve my candidacy (as I understand how these things work). (It might, however, help with securing fellowship funding.) The average GRE score for all students admitted to psychology PhD programs is about 1200 (613 Q, 593 V).

My score would also meet/exceed the average scores of accepted students at each of the social psychology PhD programs I had been interested in:

Quantitative: average 684; range 633 - 740
Verbal: average 609; range 540 - 680
Combined: average 1285; range 1178 - 1420

Most marketing PhD programs require the GMAT, so I will be taking that later. But it's interesting to see the average GRE scores at some programs that do accept the GRE and that I'm right in there:

Univ. of So. California: 786 Q, 626 V = 1412 combined

Univ. of Colorado: 1404 combined

Ohio State: 763 Q, 587 V = 1350 combined

Univ. of Florida: 1410 combined

Univ. of California - Berkeley: 800 Q, 660 V = 1460 combined

Texas A&M: 730 Q, 596 V = 1326 combined

Univ. of Minnesota: "recommends" 1380+ combined

Univ. of California - Irvine: 1300+ combined "for competitive application"

Univ. of California - Los Angeles: 790 Q, 650 V = 1440 combined

Univ. of Iowa: 793 Q, 670 V = 1463 combined

Marketing programs appear to be like economics programs in that they want to see very high Q scores and care rather less about the V score. (The average GRE scores at the top 6 US economics PhD programs are 785 Q and 575 V. I meet the Q score and exceed the V.)

This being said, I wouldn't mind getting a terrifically high score. But I'm getting comfortable with the idea that a score around 1400 - 1450 would be perfectly acceptable. That's where my scores appear to be falling (n = 3).

Fortunately I am not counting on a mega-high GRE score to compensate for other weaknesses in my profile.

Oh, by the way, masters programs typically accept people with average GRE scores around 1000, so I have no immediate worries. I just want to get a score that is both not embarrassing and that I could report to PhD programs later. (The score for not embarrassing = score for marketing PhD programs > score for psych PhD programs, probably.)

The good news for you, my readers, is that after Friday's exam, when I give my test a post-mordem, you will not have to read about GRE scores for a while (unless I bomb it so bad I have to retake it, and barring medical emergency, this seems unlikely). I know that I will enjoy not having to think about this damned test.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Good Lines: Les Miserables

Some of the sections I flagged when I read the book a year or so ago:

"Granted the supposition that in every man there is contained a species of the animal kingdom, we may at once place Inspector Javert. The Asturian peasants believe that in every wolf-litter there is a dog-whelp which the mother kills, because otherwise when it grows larger it will devour the rest of her young. Endow this dog with a human face, and you have Javert."

"An old woman who lived in the house taught her the art of living in penury. There are two stages - living on little, and living on nothing. They are like two rooms, the first dark, the second pitch-black."

"The 'chief tenant' had died since the days of Jean Valjean, and had been replaced by another exactly like her. As some philosopher has remarked, there is never any shortage of old women. The replacement was a Madame Bourgon and there was nothing remarkable about her except the dynasty of three parrots who in succession had ruled over her heart."

"Later, when he was in bed and on the verge of sleep, in that hazy moment when thought, like the fabulous bird that changes into a fish in order to cross the sea, takes on the form of dreaming in order to cross into slumber, this notion returned to him and he murmured confusedly: 'After all, it was very like what La Rubaudiere tells us about goblins. Was it a goblin, perhaps?'"

"'My poor boy, sheer laziness has started you on the most arduous of careers. You call yourself a loafer, but you will have to work harder than most men. Have you ever seen a treadmill? It is a thing to beware of, a cunning and diabolical device; if it catches you by the coat-tails it swallows you up. Another name for it is idleness. You should change your ways while there is still time. Otherwise you're done for; in a very little while you will be caught in the machinery, and then there's no more hope. No rest for the idler; nothing but the iron grip of incessant struggle. You don't want to earn your living honestly, do a job, fulfill a duty; the thought of being like other men bores you. But the end is the same. Work is the law of life, and to reject it as boredom is to submit to it as torment...'"

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

A Surprise Encounter

Yesterday's cold front finally made it bearable to get out to our local park in the evening for a four or five mile walk. In a spot not far from where Robert and I saw the chuck-will's-widow a couple of months ago, there was a bird at the top of a tree and singing like crazy. We don't generally bring binoculars, so we were limited in the visual cues we could take from it, but it was colored like and acting like a flycatcher of some sort (the tail wagging was a big behavioral clue).

When we got home, after spending a lot of time listening to various recordings of a bunch of different birds, we finally found a good match in one of the empidonax flycatchers. The empids are famously similar to the eye and are among the most challenging birds to identify. Sibley, National Geographic, and other popular, well-respected field guides often say that you should not even try to distinguish some of the empids if you didn't hear it sing or call. (Hence a good number of one's birding lists will have a long list of specific birds and then that frustrating record "Empidonax species".) If we had not heard the bird, we would not even have attempted to ID it.

But after much comparison and consideration, we finally decided that we had been hearing the alder flycatcher (which you can hear at that site for yourself). We had heard both the song and the call (the "pit" notes) from our guy. We checked some resources and found that the alder flycatcher does migrate through the Austin area at this time of year, which was reassuring.

This painting by Louis Agassiz Fuertes (circa 1908) shows two wood peewees at the top and then four different empid species below. Our bird was like the second bird on the left, who appears to be preparing to peck out the eyes of a troubled least flycatcher.

The peewee at the top is telling his offspring how glad he should be to not be a lowly, squabbling empid

The best part is that neither of had seen the species before. So: thus was ABA Life Bird #447 Alder Flycatcher added to my list.

Of course, we could be wrong. Perhaps it was another of the empids and we did a poor job comparing the songs. This is why I am so reassured when I see and identify a bird species for the second time.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Women in Science and Math: Recent Study

Many of you may have read about the recent study, "Gender Similarities Characterize Math Performance," which was published in the July 25 edition of Science; the results were fairly well publicized in the popular media. (I'm sorry I can't link the Science article, but I have not found an ungated version of it.) The research attempts to determine if there gender differences in math performance that could help explain the relative lack of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) careers.

In the study, standardized math test scores in 10 states, covering students in grades 2 - 11, were examined for gender differences. The primary finding reported in the media was that there was no significant difference in the mean math scores of boys and girls.

The researchers also compared male and female performance on hard problems requiring a higher level of complex problem-solving found only a slight difference, with boys scoring a bit higher than girls at grade 12 (d = 0.08). However, they had to use a different data set because the other tests did not include any difficult problems. Even the second data set only had problems with difficulty of 3 on a scale of 1 - 4. So it's arguable that there is no evidence here for how well students would do with the most challenging kinds of problems.

One big finding that was either not reported at all, or misleadingly reported, in the popular media accounts that I read concerns the variability in math performance. In this study (as in others I have read about before - the Science article says this hypothesis has been around for over 100 years), they found that despite having equal average scores, there was a greater amount of variability in boys' scores than in girls'. This means that boys will be over-represented among both high and low scoring students. Looking at the scores of white students, at the 95th percentile, there are 1.45 times as many boys as girls, and at the 99th percentile, there are 2.06 times as many boys as girls. The researchers say: "If a particular specialty required mathematical skills at the 99th percentile, and the gender ratio is 2.0, we would expect 67% men in the occupation and 33% women."

I think there is a disconnect between the views of the general population and academics on this issue. The idea that girls are worse at math than boys, on average, is a belief that endures among the masses, and I'm certainly in favor of the press refuting the "girls as math morons" stereotype with the latest scientific findings.

However, academics and their fellow-travelers (those with knowledge of the literature in this field) have, for the most part, been convinced of this already. The academic argument has long since moved on to the variability issue. And when you are discussing the very high level of math performance required to succeed in STEM PhD programs, 99th percentile is not necessarily high enough, in my opinion. If math ability is normally distributed, then the farther you get into the tail of this distribution, the more boys will be advantaged.

Of course, there is another disconnect between those who are primarily concerned with scientific research of this kind and those who are motivated by a strong desire to see more women succeeding in all levels of STEM occuptions. It is not mere paranoia for the latter group to be concerned that any discovery that boys are more likely to have superior math ability will be latched upon as a justification of the lack of women in STEM positions, regardless of what other evidence exists. (If you look at the comments section of this blog post, for example, you will see a some triumphant dick-waving among the male commentariat.)

All the same, I have been unimpressed with the pressure brought to bear on people like Larry Summers to pretend that ability differences, preferences, and other non-discrimination-oriented factors cannot possibly be partial causes. Have any of you actually read the transcript of the infamous speech that he gave on this subject? If not, you might be enlightened by at least scanning it. For something that has been portrayed as one step more subtle than him thumping his chest and yelling "Man, Smarter Than Woman, Ugh!", it's actually pretty nuanced. It is almost unbelievable to me that a woman with her shit together enough to herself be a professor in a STEM field would be brought to hysterical, angry sobbing upon hearing these words, though that was reported by the media. (Note: I am using the term "hysterical" advisedly.) Maybe people weren't listening when he said, "The other prefatory comment that I would make is that I am going to, until most of the way through, attempt to adopt an entirely positive, rather than normative approach, and just try to think about and offer some hypotheses as to why we observe what we observe without seeing this through the kind of judgmental tendency that inevitably is connected with all our common goals of equality."

As for me, I don't have any ready made answers to this problem. I think all of the things Summers mentioned, including outright sex discrimination, are factors that influence the under-representation of women in the STEM professions. Even if we had an overwhelming amount of evidence that women are less represented amongst the elite math brains, math ability is only one necessity for becoming an engineering professor at MIT. And I think it is our responsibility both to continue rigorous scientific inquiry into the causes (including the free dissemination and debate of this research) and to encourage girls/women to enter these fields and fight discrimination wherever it is found. It's okay to treat the issue as both an empirical and a moral question.

Mashed Up Comic

This is what happens when a Google Maps print-out is crossed with an incomplete walkthrough of an Infocom game.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Recovery Reading

Perhaps the only upside to being sick for the last week was that, in between desperate naps, I had the opportunity to read a lot of books.

One thing I re-read was a set of three Josephine Tey mysteries. My favorite lines came from Brat Farrar, which is set on an estate that keeps horses:

"Charles was devoted to his old home and to his family, but was fond of declaring himself a throw-back to a more virile age when a horse was simply a means of transport, capable of carrying a respectable weight, and it was not necessary for a man to develop bones that would disgrace a chicken so that brittle thoroughbreds should be induced to surmount unnecessary and unwarrantable obstacles.

A half-starved cat could out-jump any horse anyhow; and no one had to teach it to, either."

Monday, August 4, 2008

Probability for Kiddos and Would-Be Grad Students

I've just now been reading about the new question types on the GRE, including the "numeric entry" problems in which you actually type in the answer to a math question rather than selecting from the multiple choice list.

This was one of the example questions:

Of the 20 lightbulbs in a box, 2 are defective. An inspector will select 2 lightbulbs simultaneously and at random from the box. What is the probability that neither of the lightbulbs selected will be one that is defective?

Give your answer as a fraction.

I know how to do this pretty easily using the hypergeometric distribution because I just took a probability course. It feels a bit tough for someone who hasn't, though.

Of course, I was surprised when working on that pre-algebra curriculum that questions just like this one appear in the book. (In an example I did not write myself, "Sally" was pulling single socks out of a drawer with replacement and another girl was drawing them with replacement.) Middle school students these days are expected to know quite a lot about probability (not just by this curriculum either - it's part of the "essential skills and knowledge" for Texas students), much more than I ever knew before college. I think this is a good thing.

However, less of a good thing is the fact that standard textbooks do not teach geometry using proofs. I was astounded by this, but apparently this shift happened about 8 years after I took geometry in 9th grade.

***While writing this blog post, a lens fell out of my glasses and I had to take it across the street to be fixed. It only took 15 minutes to get there, get the glasses fixed, and get back home, but the experience gave me this rush of renewed GRE paranoia -- great, there is yet another thing that could go wrong during the test. I have been mentally preparing for any number of disasters, but sudden blindness was not among them.

Friday, August 1, 2008


The pre-algebra book shipped to the publisher this afternoon at 4:30 and we are done. Well, I am done. My co-worker V still has to compile the teachers edition to be printed up separately in binders, but this will only take her about a day and was not on the do-or-die August 1 deadline.

Props to RB, my InDesign ace-in-the-hole, who came through with fantastically straightforward directions for putting together an index after the company that was supposed to do it flaked out on us and left V on the verge of a heart attack. Only a couple of days before, when he asked me what I was doing at my job these days, I said, "Are you familiar with Adobe InDesign?" and rather than laughing himself utterly to death, he was like, yeah, it's what I do. So when this index situation came up, I knew who to go to.

V's response to the instructional email was: "OK, this is what the InDesign book says, only much more clearly and in about one-fifth as many words. I'm printing this out." (It's always good to know that your friend who writes technical manuals as a major element of his job does better than the people who Adobe hired to explain it.) She was also particularly fond of the line that read: "InDesign's index functions are as lame as its table of contents functions are wonderful." One day I came in to work to find a post-it note on my desk that said "I could kiss your friend. The index is going to work." Etc. Etc.

Top (of Mind) Ten Victories from my Job:

1. My name did not appear as Sally Field in the acknowledgement pages, despite Max referring to me as such for the last few weeks.

2. When I called Robert to check the explanation of demand functions that I wrote for the book, he had no corrections for me. I cleaned up an entire section about revenue and cost functions. I have not totally lost my command of the most basic level of microeconomic theory. Nobody will need to revoke half of my undergraduate degree.

3. I rewrote a question so that the chemical solution that resulted from the combination of two other solutions was not referred to as "the final solution."

4. I did not kill a person who once said something that was (inadvertently, I believe) patronizing. I even got over it. Almost entirely.

5. I fixed so many bad answers to problems you would not believe. (Or maybe you would.) I only once made a disparaging remark about someone not being able to answer their own problems, and I don't think he heard me (but I felt like, oh shit).

6. I wrote problems that I was (to my knowledge) able to answer correctly, including one that made a co-worker laugh out loud when she saw it. I will share this one later because I am particularly pleased by it.

7. V pronounced me "scarily fast" and "eerily efficient" at various times. These things are true.

8. I did not miss a day of work in two months, despite migraines, cramps, fevers, and other (minor) problems.

9. I always had salad in the (free, all you can eat) cafeteria for lunch, and I never had dessert. I had ice cream on our ice cream social day and enjoyed dark chocolate chips on vanilla ice cream very much indeed.

10. Despite Max's insistence that I was going to keep working for him this fall, I stuck to my research writing plan hard enough that today I overheard him admit to someone else that I have "other plans" for the coming year but that he hopes to have me back next summer. I have been genial and non-commital on this point. Taking my cue from my dad's mother, I have taken the "that would be great" line, emphasis on would.

Since I sort of accidentally wrote ten things, I will number them in a Late Night-esque style and leave it at that (for now).

I am totally taking the weekend off, sleeping in on Monday (which in effect means sleeping until 7:00 or 7:30 instead of 6:00, but god what a difference it will make), and then getting back into this other stuff that I have let go for the past week or two as we made deadline on this book. (We did not, however, make book on this deadline.)