In the middle of writing a final project report from my old company, I  read an interesting article by Walter Kirn on multi-tasking. According to the author, who cites actual science as evidence, we are all becoming progressively dumber due to doing two or three things at once. While talking on the cell phone, we become worse drivers and supposedly 2,600 deaths and 330,000 injuries occur due to cell phone use while driving each year. I am not sure how they arrive at these figures since I rather doubt that the highway patrol finds dead people with cell phones through their brains at the scene of accidents. When we get our statistics course on  line next year I intend to talk A LOT about questionable assumptions and sample sizes.

Let’s look at the issue of whether multi-tasking really does make us less efficient at processing information, and, if so, whether that matters. How can it possibly not matter? Well, if we look at one of the findings that concerned Mr. Kirn so much, college students who sorted cards and listened to random tones at the same time did just as well at the sorting  task but had more trouble remembering later on just what it was they were sorting. Who cares? I mean this very seriously. If you were sorting cards for some meaningless task for an experiment, would it matter at all to you the next day or even fifteen seconds later whether you were sorting by color, shapes, Zodiac signs or fruit vs. vegetable? Unless there was some kind of remembering-the-sort-category monetary prize, the answer is clearly,

“No, it would not matter at all that you did not store a certain piece of useless information in your long-term memory.”

I would argue that much of  what we are doing while multi-tasking involves the same sort of useless information. For example, the same article decries the fact that some number of adolescents do their homework while watching TV or listening to music on their iPods. This really is not a new phenomena. My aunts tell me that my grandmother was always yelling at them that they could not do their homework while listening to a radio program.

Truly, if you don’t remember what was on Sex and the City last week, it will not damage your chances of getting into Harvard. What about the homework? One of the reasons we started The Julia Training Institute is we believed that learning must become more interactive, interesting and intellectually challenging. If their homework is like most of what I had in high school, it really doesn’t matter much whether they remember the names of the seven Chinese poets whose work they had to read for some completely unfathomable reason.

The truth is, much of work is like this as well. When I get up in the morning, I usually listen to my voice mail and read my email at the same time, while drinking a cup of coffee. I delete all of the messages offering to sell me Viagara that somehow slipped through my spam filter, take two seconds to respond to the student who asked if I would be willing to serve as a reference (It would be my pleasure.) I also delete the voice mail messages from the carpet cleaner (I don’t need the carpets cleaned), write on my calendar the reminder from the dentist’s office that my appointment is on Thursday, and add it to Yahoo calendar so I will be sent an email and text message that morning.

When I need to focus, I would bet that I do the same as those teenagers when they really do have a challenging assignment. That is, I turn off everything else and focus on the matter at hand.

In my work life, I switch focus, a lot. I will work on a program to calculate statistics to test effectiveness of our training for parents of children in special education. Then I’ll switch to writing web pages for our next course to come on line, Developmental Psychology. After an hour, I might go on to working on a grant proposal, before going back to writing up the report on the statistical output from the program I wrote earlier. If need be, I can put everything aside and focus on one thing for sixteen hours a day, and sometimes that is warranted, but that is not usually how I work.

I am going to take the dissenting view on this one. I think technology has increased my productivity. I cannot imagine getting the amount of work done that I do if I did not have two things going at once for most of my waking hours.  So far, my brain seems to still be intact.

jenn_studies2.jpg…. and I mean poor not in the Biblical sense of poor in spirit but in the Financial Reserve sense of not having money in your checking account.

There are so many kinds of software now that it is hard to choose what you absolutely have to have. First on my list of software the company would fold up without is Dreamweaver. I am currently using version 8. This heavy-duty web development package does so much in the background I just love it. For example, as a test (yes, I know I am weird, don’t bother to email and tell me) I moved a folder that had files in it with links to hundreds of other files. Dreamweaver automatically updated several hundred links. There are dozens of books on Dreamweaver, so I won’t bore you with all the details of what it can do. One feature I do appreciate is that it has a split view where you can drag objects and basically use a point-and-click to build your web page, while at the top it shows the code so you can make changes there if that is easier for you. For someone learning web design it is also a good way to learn HTML and CSS because as you create the web page you can look up and see how that is coded. I know some people take the snobbish attitude of,

“Well, I hand code all my pages in HTML.”

Good for you. Guess what? You’re slow.

Dreamweaver is kind of pricey. Two of my other favorite pieces of software are really a steal. Omni Outliner used for organizing ideas is my second-in-demand. It also allows you to paste in pictures and links but I use it mostly for text. Here’s how -

When I start on a grant, I begin with reviewing the literature. I may read as many as 50 books and articles on the topic, highlighting sections to quote or reference in the grant. By the time I sit down ready to start, I will usually have over 50 pages of notes on the research literature. Usually, I work as part of a team and I will have notes from meetings, conference calls and other discussions, random ideas I jotted down on the plane. My first step in writing a grant is to open up Omni Outliner and create the main categories that go with the required sections, e.g., significance, technical objectives, work plan. Next, I enter under each of those main sections (there is an indent function) the required subheadings, e.g., need for the project, related research. Then, I start cutting and pasting my notes from wherever they are into the outline. By the time I finish, the grant is half-written. I just need to edit each section, paste it into a Word document and I am done. This works way better than the outline feature in Word.

Pads is a notepad function for the Macintosh. Big disclaimer here, it was written for me, literally, when I was complaining to my husband about the old stickies feature that used to come with the Mac. It was a good idea to have stickie notes on your computer desktop but I wanted to be able to search and organize them better. When I had a client call, I wanted to be able to stick their note on the top corner of the screen and talk to them while maybe looking at the document or budget they had called about. I use this program every day. Anyone who, like me, is often working on several different projects, will find the categories very useful. You can have all the various notes you wrote and stuck on the computer on your project together and flip through them to remind you just what it is you promised that client.

Adobe Acrobat Professional is not cheap and doesn’t do a whole lot of things. So, why the heck am I recommending it? Those things it does do, I often need, and it does them very reliably. Here are a few simple examples:

  • Merges pdf files. Increasingly, federal agencies are asking for proposals sent as a single pdf file. If you have letters of support, faxes, a word document and some pdf files, this program can merge all of these together.
  • Makes it easy to copy text from a pdf file into a word or html document, something not every program always lets you do, even if the ad says it will.
  • Usually (not always!) allows you to edit a pdf file.

It’s funny, but Windows, which almost everyone on earth seems to own in the continuing effort of Microsoft to rule the world, is only installed on two of the six computers in our house, and Office, the other black hand of world domination, is on two others which, oddly enough, do not run Windows. This leaves two completely Microsoft-free rebels moo-ha-ha-ha (that is my evil scientist laugh). Windows, of any version, is not on my must-have list. I can get along fine without it.

I do use Word, Excel and PowerPoint all of the time, so those are in my must-have list. The other computers have various free versions such as Open Office or NeoOffice. Those are fine for people who just need to write a letter or balance a checkbook, but I do a lot of heavy duty document production and as much as I want to like the free stuff and empathize with their motives, right now those applications are not fast enough nor compatible enough with all of the other hardware and software I use.

Pretty much any mail program and any browser will do, but one of each is an absolute necessity. I use MAIL, the free program that comes with the Mac OS. For a browser, I use both Safari and Firefox. When doing web design, I always test in both. Once I have a near-final design, I test it in Internet Explorer as well.

I seem to have gotten along fine without Quicken or Quickbooks (tried both, bored me to death) and although I had Access and Filemaker both for years, neither were applications I couldn’t live without.

So, there you have my very idiosyncratic list of things I without which business would run much less efficiently and I would have less money for jellybeans, plane tickets .

images.jpeg In the movie, Hook, there is a very sad part where Tinkerbelle turns herself into human-size because she is in love with Peter Pan, and she says,

“It was the very biggest wish I’ve ever wished and I wished it just for me.”

It is sad because she doesn’t get her wish, because Peter is married and has a couple of kids. What does this have to do with The Julia Group? Well, after twenty years of writing grants for other people, and then writing grants for Spirit Lake Consulting,  soon to be my ex-company, today I mailed out a grant I wrote just for me. Well, I wrote it for The Julia Group, actually.

I am proposing to offer an on-line course for high school Algebra using Web 2.0 technology. If funded, we would develop a prototype, and, if it is successful, develop more courses after that. It was a 20 page proposal, so, obviously, it was a bit more complicated than that.

I’m very excited about  it because I really do believe that a more limited access to knowledge of mathematics and technology is one of those things that is keeping the have-nots not-having and if we can bridge that gap it really will make people’s lives better.

Even if this particular proposal doesn’t get funded, I will revise it and submit a better design. Sooner or later (I hope sooner), I am going to do this project. It is pretty exciting to be working on something that I really believe in with all my heart. Even if I don’t look like Tinkerbelle.

Yes, this is a little known fact, but I discovered quadratic equations, back in the 1970s when I was in high school. Well, no, I was not the first person to discover them, but it happened like this…

My math teacher was a conscientious objector (the Vietnam War was going on) and his alternative service was to teach mathematics at our high school, which gives you some idea of the type of class we were, that his only worse option was to go to foreign country on the other side of the world and get shot at. One day, he walked into class, drew a picture of Mickey Mouse on the board, said:

“Figure out the equations to tell a computer how to draw this. I am going to the teachers’ lounge to have a cup of coffee.”

And he left.

Since we (like you) did not get credit for the course unless we actually finished the work, we were all pretty motivated to get the answer. Plus (don’t you dare laugh) none of us had ever actually gotten to touch a computer. You see, back then, computers were these hugely expensive things that took up an entire room. So, the idea that we could actually write instructions to one was kind of cool.

mickey.jpg

The picture, or something pretty close to it, is reproduced right here. I solved it using probably a lot more quadratic equations than I should have because my picture, or the one the computer printed, actually, did not come out looking so much like this, but it was recognizable as Mickey Mouse.

Sam has already taken a shot at it and published a comment on The Julia Group forum. You can take a look at it, add to what she said, or just start on your own without anyone else’s opinion.

If you are interested, you can find information about quadratic equations mentioned in the Pirates of Penzance and their general history dating back to Egyptian papyrus at Wolfram’s math site.

I tried to find a podcast or video for this lesson but all I found were the same old boring-as-watching-paint-dry things with a person talking in a voice like the teacher from the old Charlie Brown videos and slow Powerpoint presentations with equations against a blue background. The use of color was the only thing that let me know it wasn’t done in the 1920′s. If you find a decent video or mp3 file, please let me know!

julia_smiles.jpg

My daughter, Julia, is named after a French mathematician who discovered the Julia group of fractals. When trying to come up with a name, I had tried everything from the Internet to the Magic Eightball. Still, nothing fit. I was out of town on a business trip – this is how I started most sentences for the past twenty years, one of the reasons for leaving my old company. Talking to me on the phone, my husband turned to our daughter and said jokingly,

“So, do YOU have any ideas on what Mom should name her new company?”

Julia responded immediately,

“She should name it after me!”

In the end, this is quite appropriate since we plan to develop on-line courses in mathematics, physics and computer science as part of our new product line. Don’t panic, we are still doing courses on disability as well. In fact, you can check out our latest course on Autism in Early Childhood.

Today, Julia asked me how my company was going and what we were doing. I explained that I was creating a math course. She wanted to know if it was like some of the math games she had played on the computer. When I told her no, it wasn’t like that, I thought those games missed the point, she wanted to know why I would create something that wasn’t just fun. After all, didn’t everyone want to have fun all of the time.

“It’s like this… Imagine you had an idea for a building. You could get some paper, color it, tape it together and make a sort of building really fast and have fun doing it. Or, you could make a real, amazing skyscraper. That would take you a long time and not all of the parts would be fun. Some would be boring. You would have to calculate how big the base of it had to be so it didn’t tip over. You’d have to measure the bricks exactly and figure out exact measurements so that everything fit together and your building didn’t fall apart. You might have to learn some other stuff, like science, and earthquakes and how to build things to withstand stress so that the first time there was an earthquake, your building doesn’t fall down.

Here’s my point – once you get the building done, it will be amazing and that thing you could  have made with paper, crayons and tape will be like nothing next  to it. On the way to getting there, though, you have to work, and sometimes learn boring stuff, and sometimes it’s hard and sometimes it might even feel like you’ll never understand it all.

Really learning math is like that. You have problems and you try to figure them out. Once you do, it’s really cool and fun. In the beginning, though, it can be hard. You just need to keep in mind that in the end it will be amazing.”

She thought about this for a moment and then asked me why anyone would make a building out of crayons and paper if they could make a skyscraper. I told her that for some people that was the best they thought they could do. Other people didn’t even know where to begin. Some people plain just didn’t want to do the work.

She said,

“Oh, you mean like people that lay around and get drunk, do drugs, don’t go to college , don’t do their homework and get knocked up?”

I asked her where on earth she heard such ideas. She just shrugged and said,

“I know things.” Then she added, “I think it would be great to build a skyscraper.” skyscraper.jpg

julia_yelling.jpgOur first on-line course by the Julia Institute will be offered on January 14. There are so many thousand other details that I would like to add. I would like to do more testing to make sure every little thing works perfectly, that the mp3 files and movie files will work with every computer in the world. Unfortunately, Turtle Mountain Head Start did not have ten million dollars and forever for us to develop the course.

The frustrating part about the Internet is that it is a moving target. There are more possibilities every day. Two years ago, our courses did not include video clips and this one has one every 3o minutes or so. Our only means of corresponding with us was by email. Now we have web forms, a forum and comments on blogs. Already that seems like so dated.

Last week, an expert on marketing to the younger generation gave a speech in Los Angeles. One of her points was that email is for old people. Young people text message or IM. So, today I signed up for my yahoo messenger account. (If you read The Julia Group Forum, you’ll know my ‘special interest’ is Yahoo!)

So, that brings me back to the Autism course. One of the points I don’t feel that I have addressed enough is “special interests”, but you just  can’t put everything about Autism into a one day course.

One of the quotes I like best about education is from the poet, W.B. Yeats, “Education is not the filling of a bucket, but the lighting of a fire.”

You know what, though? The reality is that being a great teacher or having a great course takes time and work. What I need to accept is that the best we can do for Monday is not a perfect course but a good one. The next time will be better, and so will the next time after  that.

The goal isn’t to be perfect. It is to get better every day. I think I am going to have that tattooed on my forehead as a reminder, right under where it says Yahoo!

pres.jpgI admit it. I am having a mid-life crisis. Almost to the half a century mark, it is time to decide what is there that is worth spending the remaining half (or less) of my life doing.

Making life better

That was the vision for the company I co-founded years ago and just left. I still believe in that. The question is, how does one make life better? My answer:

Math.

Okay, I know some of you are already shaking your heads and convinced that I have gone insane. Hear me out. Below are my five reasons why mathematics is the key to equal opportunity, diversity, civil rights, curing the common cold and all the other problems of humanity that I don’t have time to mention.

  1. People who understand math make more money. Those of you who are now sneering that money isn’t everything have never gone without eating, never had a sick child you could not afford to take to the doctor. As Ogdne Nash said, the only kinds of problems rich people have are the problems money can’t cure, which are even more of a problem if you are poor.
  2. Many people are locked out of careers where they might be really good, if they only had the basic math skills. I know some people who could be good doctors or nurses. They are caring, observant, intelligent people. However, you need to pass Algebra and courses that require at least some understanding of mathematics, like statistics. Those course requirements are reasonable. You need to be able to figure out the right proportions for medication, read tables that give a margin of error. Personally, I’d like my physician to understand the probability that I might die from a certain treatment, wouldn’t you?
  3. “We are at risk of becoming a nation divided both economically and racially by knowledge of mathematics.” This statement was made in 1989 by the National Research Council. I just read it in a data presentation by the Education Trust. They noted that, although the No Child Left Behind Act said that by the year 2000 the U.S. would be first in the world in mathematics and science education, we are, in fact, being left very far behind. Of even more concern, while 70% of Asian-American children and 65% of non-Hispanic white children complete Algebra II, less than half of children from other groups do.
  4. Americans as a whole and particularly minorities are not achieving advanced math skills. I could give you the percentages of Asian-Americans, African-Americans, Latinos, etc. who are passing Calculus, but if you are like most Americans, you wouldn’t be able to calculate that Asian-Americans are three times as likely as other minority groups to pass Calculus in high school, Caucasians are twice as likely as other groups (except Asians). Since a lot of science, computer science and other majors leading to jobs that pay money and contribute to our economy require Calculus the result of this equation is we’re rapidly approaching hell in a handbasket.
  5. The unfortunate truth is that much of mathematics education includes idiotic statements like that last one. Our courses focus on basic operations like multiplication and division at the bottom level and some kind of feeling and empathy for mathematics at the upper levels. My children actually got extra credit in high school math for writing biographies about famous mathematicians. I checked out a book on mathematics and civil rights, thinking here is someone who thinks like me. There was no actual math in the book anywhere. I was sad and depressed. The answer to what is the square root of 49 is seven. It really doesn’t matter how you feel about that fact. It’s still seven.

MATH LESSON OF THE DAY

The equation for a straight line is

Y = a + bX

a is a constant and it tells you where the line will intercept the Y axis. Think about this. It makes sense. When X= 0 , that is, you are on the X axis, this equation becomes Y = a .

One reason this equation is cool is that if you want to tell a computer to draw a straight line, you need to give it an equation like this. You probably want to specify a limit, like from X= 0 to X =97. Otherwise, you are going to get a VERY long line.