Sunday, February 27, 2011

Math is Hell

I tried to chew through three chapters of Statistics this weekend. Two were due last night-I finished 1.5 of them over the course of 8 hours. The third is due next Saturday, but I've got to be at a conference in Cambridge next Saturday, so I thought I'd do the homework today. Alas no.

Statistics can't be that hard to learn (I tell myself) Biology majors Psychology majors and Business majors have to learn it. My Dad used to teach it and he is not particularly mathematically savvy. He knows Stats because he's a retired psychologist but the only math I've ever seen him use is trigonometry when he was building something.

My last stats post was me whining about them not making us do the math. This post is about them presenting the math, without explanation.

The first chapter I had to chew through was about probability, but it was really about logic. X and Y or X or Y. Given X how many Y? That was easy for me. I've spent the past several years screwing around with Excel, Access and SQL and writing reports that would tell my employer how many of his clients were lawyers with cats.

The second chapter was on binomial sequences. I still don't get that. The third chapter is on math in normal distributions. And they've been messing with my already defined Greek letters.

Sigma to me, always means "Sum" (that--according to my high school calculus teacher--is why the integral sign looks like an S that has been in Mr. Wonka's taffy puller.) But lower cased sigma, apparently means standard distribution. I can live with that--I've had a few glasses of Six Sigma coolaid. But then, mu doesn't mean "micro" (it means mean) and pi doesn't mean 3.14159 it means probability. Oh, sorry--it means 3.14159 in one equasion but not all the time. And they threw e in there-just for fun. And they threw a lambda in.

I get the concept of choosing a Greek letter to mean something--think of it as mapping a logical drive and setting a login script that maps all the drives the same for all the PCs in the environment. Everybody knows that Pi= 3.14159. Everybody (and every computer) knows that your Q drive is where they should store Morningstar reports (or or timesheets or pictures of their cats.) That's the point of defining something-so that everyone knows what to do with it.

By redefining the Greek letters that already had definitions in my brain my Statistics text has made it even harder to learn whatever they're trying to teach me. I'm sure the Powers that be (for Statistics) had a very good reason for redefining my already mapped Greek letters but what next? Does Delta no longer mean change? Are they going to tell me that F<>=MA?

I look at the equtions and even the work-through of the equations and I feel like a dyslexic person must feel when asked to deal with Anna Karenina. I can handle math-but not without a human instructor or some helpful narritive to explain it all.

Or, in Math I am like some kid from a villiage in midieval europe who learned a few precepts about religion from the villiage priest. I hold fast to the few things I know and they do not jibe well with what I am expected to learn.

I am afraid. And no,it doesn't help that it snowed more today.

Saturday, February 26, 2011


And now for something completely different. This will be a rather girlie post in which I attempt to explain my fascination/obsession with shoes.

“Hi, my name is Cantabridgienne and I have a shoe problem.” The problem is that there are all these sets of shoes out there and I can’t possibly own them all. I was surprised to discover I had a lust for shoes. I mean, I am not unacquainted with obsessions, and there are many things I covet—but I don’t covet them the way I covet shoes (all the shoes!) For example, of course I want a new Mac, but I only need one Mac (and maybe an iPad.) I don’t need an Air and a MacBook Pro and something from Dell to run Windows 7 on and a server to try out Windows new server environment….well actually now that I mention it.. Anyways, the point is whatever I would want in terms of hardware I wouldn’t need a Mac, a Dell, an Acer and something from HP. That’s not how it works with shoes.

I realize that many women have similar problems with shoes. However, I am not like other women in this. My obsession with shoes is a bit like a fairy curse—I love items that are expensive, but of no practical use for me.

I’m tall and clumsy and so high heels are entirely out of the question. Furthermore, although I love beautiful ballet flats (green leather! leopard print! shiny buckles!) but I don’t really have much use for them. My work dress tends to vary between plain and frumpy. Ballet flats with glitter on the toes look ridiculous when paired with khakis and a polo shirt. My social life is conducted entirely in jeans, so the sparkly-toed thingies would not be much use to me there. Also, I don’t have a car and so I need to be able to run for the T or walk a mile or two on occasion.

As a practical matter looking at the shoes I can actually wear on occasion the scope is pretty narrow. By the time you’ve ruled out shoes that don’t look weird with business casual attire and shoes that are no good for walking, you’re left with “sensible shoes” most of which are not particularly attractive. The matter is not yet entirely hopeless—Keen makes a lot of shoes that are pretty enough to wear for a business school presentation and practical enough to allow one to run for the Red Line after class (even if it is snowing) but one cannot just wear Keens. Keen doesn’t make shiny tortoise shell flats.

In addition to all these complications, I really don’t like wearing shoes. My feet prefer Birkenstock sandals. By the time it’s warm enough to wear most of what is on offer for women’s footgear outside of the house it’s also warm enough to wear sandals or flip flops (if you don’t mind a few funny looks).

So where does this leave me? Well better than the usual person afflicted with a fairy joke—at least I am not a queen in love with a weaver with the head of a donkey. I started thinking about this post—an explanation of my love of shoes—while out and about today. My statistics professor afflicted us with two chapters to read and do problems in this week and so I’d been doing Stats all day. I was bitching to myself that the “study break treat” I had to offer myself this afternoon was an opportunity to go pick up my dry cleaning. But to get to the dry cleaners I had to pass Mint, which has a lovely selection of shoes. To cheer myself up I went in and looked at the variety of beautiful, impractical footwear on offer. Yes they still had the lovely lime green ballet flats with the gold buckle. No, I still wasn’t going to buy them because they’re impractical and cost $110 (used!) Ooh! Brown suede driving moccasins. Beautiful, but I’ve already got the brown-hued-shoes thing covered in both the casual and the fancy areas. I didn’t buy anything, but it did cheer me up.

As I mentioned above I was surprised to discover that I had shoe-lust. This sort of thing usually afflicts fashionable females and I don’t even wear makeup. This is either a profound success of some marketing department or some kind of deeply rooted expression of femininity*.

I incline to the latter point of view. My best friend (who is much more butch than I am) has a handbag problem, but understands my love of shoes in the same way I understand her handbag problem. She likes looking at shoes, but is fixated on handbags. I like looking at handbags, but am fixated by shoes. My sister has admitted that she gets her sparkly shoe fix out of buying shoes for her three year old daughter (my niece has a pair of blue glitter mary janes that I covet.) My mother (who is admittedly much more fashionable than either of her daughters) has a lovely collection of shoes. One of the butchest girls I know showed up at a party with a lovely pair of distressed ox blood Frye boots. “Yeah, I was feeling bummed because my girlfriend was out of town, so I indulged in some retail therapy.”

I’m writing this up because I don’t actually mind admitting that I have a shoe problem. I didn’t acknowledge my love of shoes for a long time because that was so…feminine. Ick! Gross! To be feminine is to be weak! I won’t try to explain this point of view in its entirety, but suffice to say that it is embarrassing to discover that I have the same weakness (shoes!) as the young ladies who work in my office who read gossip mags for fun. I have a very thin skin, so admitting any weakness and leaving myself open for ridicule is hard for me to do** But my although friends laugh and suggest that I might need a corrective shoe collar, I don’t retreat to my basement apartment and refuse to talk to anybody for a week. I laugh as well, and then suggest we check out the Birkenstocks at that place in Gloucester (don’t you need a new pair, Herr Baron?)

I suppose, that once MBA school turns me into a ruthless capitalist I could get the kind of well-paying job that will allow me to no longer live in a one-room basement apartment. Then I can have room devoted to shoes. It will be full of beautiful confections that I’ll never actually wear. When I’m feeling low I can just stare at my collection of fanciful footgear and sigh.

*now there’s a word I hate.

** In my Cambridge life I live with my (now ex) boyfriend and a friend of ours who was an artist. The boy and I were going to see my favorite band Bishop Allen at the Middle East. They were opening for somebody else. When the roommate asked if we were staying for the next show my boy apparently responded something like “Eh. I don’t care and I don’t think she would want to see anyone follow Bishop Allen unless the Kinks showed up.” I got home from a bad day at work to discover that my roommate had drawn a cartoon of me in Hannibal Lector restraints wearing a Bishop Allen T shirt and a beer hat. I was so mortified I spent the next half hour on the porch feeling ashamed of my exuberance over the band I liked.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Strange Days Have Found Us

When one of my facebook friends first mentioned the protests in Wisconsin, I thought she was making a joke. "Protests? in Wisconsin? in the Winter? Did they run out of cheese curds? Are they up in arms over their right to call a water fountain a bubbler?" Although I have not spent much time in Wisconsin (48 hours tops) I went to school in Minnesota. Surely the good people of Madison are happy go lucky mid-westerners like those I went to school with--what could they possibly have to protest about--especially when it's Fuck You degrees out?

Then I found out what was happening. Yup, that's worth standing out in the cold to protest about. Wear smartwool socks and a down parka. I'm not going to go on at length about this but although I realize that there are problems with unions*, I am pro-union. I wish there was one for white collar support staff (administrative assistants, receptionists, and yes, tech support personnel.) However I accept that there isn't one, and I'm not going to be the firebrand that tries to start one.

I have been distressed at watching unions concede privileges throughout the latest financial crisis, and further distressed by the narrative I see about unions and pensions at work in my job at a Wealth Management company and at school in my classes. "GM failed because they offered pensions." Um, no, GM failed because they didn't *account for their pensions properly.* Also, maybe because they made cars that no one wanted to buy.

But I'm straying from my point. There were protests in Egypt and there are protests in other middle eastern countries. Several nut bags in the mid-west of the US have taken it into their heads to try a spot of union bashing. And instead of rolling over and saying "thank you sir may I have another?" people are actually *objecting* vocally to what's going on.

That is what I find surprising. People are actually protesting instead of just rolling over. We Americans are soft (I count myself in this--I haven't made it to any solidarity protests nor am I likely to make it to any) or we have Other Things To Do (like getting an MBA or playing Wii).

I don't know if it will make any difference in the long run--all these protests. After all, we got up off of our couches in vast numbers in 2003 to protest the invasion of Iraq and that made no difference. We even re-elected W afterwords.

In addition to all that fun, Barack Obama has suddenly decided that the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional. And the Republicans in the House of Representatives are trying to shut down the federal government again. *Sigh*

All of this is going on while I do my Statistics homework, process Gain Loss reports for my employers, argue with my boss about software, call my nephew to wish him a happy birthday and have the occasional dinner with my friends. I feel bad for not participating, somehow. But my time taken up by other things, so I watch and hope for the best.

*Yes, people get corrupted by power and occasionally abscond with other people's money and some people are just plain lazy and only do the minimum amount of work required by the union. Lucky for me I work in financial services, where no one would ever think of doing that.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Statistics For the Mathematically Challenged

When I applied to U Mass Boston's MBA program I didn't expect to get any waivers on any courses. At the informational seminar that I attended the Dean said that they only gave waivers for courses taken in the past ten years. I graduated from college in 1997 with a BA in French Literature, so I didn't expect to have anything waived. To my surprise, they decided to waive two classes. I didn't have to take the class on How to Use a Computer (well, that wasn't really a surprise--I did send them my CV) but I also got out of the basic Math class. Huh? They didn't waive the Macro Econ class, but they waived the Math class? I took Econ in my fall term Freshman year and got a B- (and I got a 5 on the AP test in Micro.) I took Calc 2-my last Math class ever-the next term and got a C+. Also, I scored a 47th percentile in Math on the GMAT (The test is adaptive, and you can tell how you're doing by whether the questions get easier or harder. By the end of the Math section I could hear the computer thinking "I can't *make* them any easier--did someone send their dog in to take the GMAT?")

Maybe the powers that be thought "Well let's not make her take a straight-up Math class because then she'll drop out. Let's collect tuition fees from her for a few terms and see how it goes."

And now I'm taking Statistics. I haven't spent any time on Statistics since my Freshman year of high school and I did not love it then. Taking this class was one of the thought-barriers I had to get over before applying to MBA school. But I have given myself room--I'm only taking this one class this term and I one of my friends knows a girl who tutors statistics.

My Dad has taught Statistics. He is not particularly mathematically inclined, but then again he's a psychologist. Stats are necessary to his profession. Just before this term he told me about how he felt in his first Statistics class as an undergrad "There were all these Math people and me and a Biology major. I was scared." Evidently he got over it.

I understand the usefulness of Statistics. If you have a hypothesis, you must test it. And after you have tested it Statistics are a tool to help you understand your results. I understand the concept of "statistically significant." If you send out a questionnaire to 500 people, but only 10 return it than no matter what your results are, they are not statistically significant because they come from a very small sample of your population.The only thing that you have learned is that of your population of 500 only 10-2% are the sort of people who answer questionnaires.

This weeks lesson was about mean, median, mode, variance and standard deviation. Mean, median and mode are 7th grade math. Variance I still don't get, but I work in financial services so I am familiar with the concept of Standard Deviation (it means Risk and Return.)

When I opened the textbook last Sunday to get a head start on this weeks homework, I saw some awful formula in sum notation and I quailed and put the book away for a few days. When I started reading the chapter, it became apparent that the formula that had scared me was just the mathematical notation for mean-average. Add everything up and divide by the number of things you had, can in fact be expressed as a sum series--but why would you want to do that?

That, however was not the interesting part of this week's homework. The textbook gave the formula for Variance and Standard Deviation (the square root of Variance-I never knew that.) But because this is a course in Statistics in Excel, I still haven't absorbed what the formulas are or how they relate to the data. Why? Well, I wouldn't really want to do the math--even with a calculator but as painful and error-prone as that is, it actually teaches you how to relate the variables to each other in a way that selecting a column of numbers and choosing "STDEV" from the Excel function menu fails to do.

Is knowing how to do the Math important? YES-even though I'm bad at it. I'm the sort of person who does not put shortcuts on her desktop to network resources because it's important that I remember where they are. When I crunch numbers in Excel I make all the numbers, the sub totals and any side calculations I made visible because I want to make it clear how I got from A to B.

I find myself quoting/paraphrasing the Russian movie Nightwatch. "What is more important--what goes into the potion or the effect?" The answer is "The effect." But I actually care about "what goes into the potion" and why. Perhaps it's just me being a bit OCD. Perhaps it's because Math is so foreign to me that I want to see all steps to make sure I understand them.

"Do the Math" is kind of like "RTFM*" Anybody possessed with a modicum of intelligence should be able to do either. I am uncomfortable about the way that this course does not help me Do The Math.

*Read The Fucking Manual