Small Groups

No, hey… It isn’t all small groups I hate. Just the school ones. I like when you and I are together with a couple of other people we like. I like when other people are in small groups nearby. The classroom small groups are what I hate. I always repress how much I hate these things. When I remember, I usually try to talk myself down from that particular ledge. I say things like, “It’s probably not at all like you remember.  These people are all close to my age and will have mellowed.” or “You’ve gotten older and more confident, it will be fine” or better yet, “Even as bad as you remember it, what’s the worst episode you’ve really experienced? what’s the worst you can realistically imagine happening? You’ll get through this fine.”

Well the worst thing I can usually conjure up is some sort of unmitigated stress and interpersonal conflict, the ensuing inability to function as a group and resulting bad grade. My group mates were all over 30, so that was a plus. I breathed a little easier. The topic was one I knew something about, having studied it before. The due date was towards the end of the semester, so we had time and were able to watch the examples of other groups.It probably would be fine.

We had our first meeting Jessica’s parents’ house. It was conveniently located just blocks from my own home, on Summit Avenue. The house was a mansion, beautifully appointed. We retired to the kitchen to work. My spirit sagged when Jessica didn’t turn off the e local pop station’s morning show while we discussed the  project. She confided in us, “This is one of my few guilty pleasures. I love this morning show.” I think many people wouldn’t get the sense of doom I got upon hearing this. I happen to be miserably incompetent paying attention to the correct auditory stimulus when there are competing options. I get dumber and crabbier the longer I’m in this type of environment. I rallied my self and looked hard at my notes while Dave and the Morning Crew yucked it up about some off-color or culturally insensitive skit.

The second sense of impending disaster was when Jessica opened up her computer and started to talk fast, “I’m just learing how to do this new format for presentations. It’s really cool. I spent hours with it yesterday after work. I input a bunch of the information you sent me. Let’s just take a look at it, Ok?It’s called Prezi. You’re going to love it. It is so cool. I’ll do all the input and arrangement, if you just send me information.”  Ann and I looked at each other and shrugged. I asked, “How will we help do the presentation if we don’t know how to use this program?”  Well, it was really cool! Jessica would handle putting our info in. We just had to give her the data! Plus, she had already entered all the data we had sent her, and some of her own. She was calling up the presentation she had so far.

Prezi is kind of cool. If you like slide presentations. And you’re not prone to motion sickness. And you like flashy presentations and special effects. She showed us what she had so far. The slides zoomed in and out from one to the other, spun into a spiral, faded in and out, twirled and wobbled. I started to feel sick when the first slides started to spin and disappear as if the information was going down a drain. The next few zoomed up and away, in and out. It was surely flashy.

Ann and I decided (this was possibly a mistake) to let Jessica handle the Prezi aspect of the project. What could go wrong? By the time we left her house, we had divided up the subject and went off on our way to analyze our parts and send them off to Jessica to be swirled and popped into the powerpoint deal. She explained that she worked a lot and so might not get stuff done until late at night.

We had a week and one more meeting before our presentation was due. We fired stuff off to Jessica, looked at each other’s data on  google-docs.  Every email from Jessica had at least one reference to her having to be at work, come home from work, leave for work or get up early before she worked. We discussed contradictory or repeated data and sympathized with Jessica about her work schedule. About 9 pm before our last meeting at the library Jessica sent  an email with an attachment linking to what she had entered into Prezi so far.  The next morning we all met at the library, laptops and notes at the ready. Jessica asked if I had gone through the presentation  yet. I hadn’t. I said no, but I was looking forward to going through it at this meeting.  We sat in a small meeting room in the library and started to talk through the planned presentation.

There was a sticking point regarding a video clip. Two video clips, actually. Together they were about 15 minutes of our 30 minute limit. Ann and I thought we should try to pare down the video clips to about 5 minutes. Jessica stiffened a little, but kept smiling. “I don’t really care, but I think it covers really important stuff.” We agreed that it did, but that our actual slides and narration covered the same data. We went though a few more things where Ann and I needed to correct something or point out where data was duplicated. We shuffled stuff around and came back to the video clips.

Jessica kept saying she didn’t care about how we did it in the end, but she wasn’t actually making any changes. She looked at the screen, then pursed her lips. “I don’t want to be rewd, but I think it kind of sucks that neither one of you watched the presentation last night. I worked really hard on it and it hurts my feelings that you didn’t even look at it.”  Ann apologized immediately. “I’m sorry. I had no idea. I thought that was what we were meeting to do this morning.”

I explained that I thought the same thing. Ann said, “But as long as we’re clearing the air. I’m pretty bothered that you didn’t even include the 4 graphics I made. I worked hard on those and they aren’t even in the presentation. I don’t really care, but I sent them to you for a reason.”

Ahh, yes, the armpit tingle and facial flush. Nobody cares, but everyone is upset. We were supposed to present the following day. We Had To Work Together. Jessica was on the verge of angry tears, Ann had her arms crossed. We pulled ourself together and got our game plan set up. Jessica had to leave early so she could get back to work. She assured us she’d work on it after she got home from work at ten that night and before she had to work at 7 the next morning. The following day we were going to present to the class.

Class started at 430. We were the main event.

The Ill Fated Stats Tutor

Mike was a nice guy. In the way that left-handed math geniuses are nice guys. He’s smart and he knows he’s smart. He really wants to help. Let me restate that. He really wants to get paid to do his job. When I called his employer (a nanny and tutor renting operation) they weren’t sure they had anyone who could really do tutoring for a graduate school student. Mike volunteered.

You should sympathize with Mike.  He teaches Chemistry and Calculus.  He’d just have to brush up a little, right? Right. He had no idea what he was in for. To be fair, neither did I. The questions I have about Statistics are very basic.  Without going too far into it, I’ll try to explain.

We were dealing with bell curves when I arrived. Bell curves and hypothesis testing. Zscores, Tscores, and rejection regions.  One of the questions I had was what’s under the line of the curve. Is that all people? is it answers? Is it  confidence? When I’m doing means testing and I come up with an answer, (1.684 for example) where is that answer on the curve? Is it on the line? or in the hump of the curve.

Mike would get confused about my questions. Sometimes when he got confused he’d smile and shake his head. Sometimes he’d pinch the bridge of his nose. Sometimes he’d say, “What do you mean?” Seemed pretty basic to me. Sometimes he’d answer and his answer would be wrong. Mike didn’t admit being wrong. Even when he made me miss two questions on my midterm with his wrong-ass answers.

He got confused when I asked what a certain kind of equation or theory told us about the real world. There’s this thing you can do with graphs and taking the means of a group of means.Sampling distribution of the sample means, it’s called, I think. You can do a little example of it if you want here.  If you do it enough, even a very bizarrely irregular dataset will become regularized.  I wanted to know why it was useful to take something so unusual and make it look regular. You could have a really unusual distribution, little peaks and valleys or two big peaks, whatever. If you run it through this process of equations, it would become a normal curve which you could then use to learn stuff.

How does that not use manipulation of data to tell a lie? Well, if I was describing it right, it sounded like my stats professor was maybe wrong. He couldn’t say he didn’t know. Especially when he didn’t know. He spent about 25% of my/his time/money flipping through my stats book. Shit, I can look up stuff in the book for free myself.

I gave him an example (one that jumped to mind) of a therapeutic intervention that you wanted to test. Say you have a therapy that you think will reduce the number of some hand-flapping tic in the kids in your special ed classroom. You want to test your therapy against a control group. In the control group you do nothing and measure the number of hand flaps one day and the next day. In your experimental group, let’s say you cut off all the hands of the children.  You count the hand flaps one day, cut the hands off and then count the hand flaps the day after that. Your results should be pretty drastic. It won’t look like any kind of a curve.  It will be a kind of block showing all the kids with total absence of flapping behavior. If you run that block shaped graph through this special process enough times, the block (in theory), will become normalized to look like a bell curve.  Then you can analyze the curve in all sorts of useful ways.

For whatever reason, Mike got stuck on the amputation of the hands on the kids in my experimental group and he was at a loss to explain to me the theoretical explanation. I really needed someone who knew enough about the subject that they wouldn’t get distracted by my weird examples. Mike wasn’t the guy. “Can we make it something else? like we tied their hands down?” Sure we could, but I still wanted to know how the new curve could really be useful to analyze anything in the real world. Isn’t that what statistics is supposed to do?

His fate was sealed when I changed the answer to a question because of what he told me, and got it back marked incorrect. The right answer was the one I had first. I didn’t go back, but I think I passed the class anyway.