Tuesday, January 26, 2010

An Electrifying Teacher

The front page of the Dallas Morning News has a very nice article about a physics teacher, Christopher Bruhn, from Dallas' School of Science and Engineering. He won the AP Teacher Award, a $30,000 prize for excellence in teaching AP courses.

I love the way this guy teaches. For instance, when teaching about electricity, he asks students to come up and receive an electrical shock from a Van de Graaff generator. He tells them, "This will not kill you. Come to think of it, I have not killed a student yet."

Last year, 24 of his students took the AP Physics exam. He told them that if they all passed they could shave his head with the school's letters on it. And they did all pass it, and the shaving can be seen on YouTube.

This teacher exemplifies what I have believed for many years now; that the joy of learning is one of the most important components of teaching and learning. If I were to evaluate teachers, evaluating whether or not the teacher contributed to the students joy of learning would be near the top of the list.

It is as simple as this: students who enjoy learning will learn more, retain more of what they learned, and are more likely to continue their education than students who don’t.

Every subject, every topic can be taught in such a manner that at least most of the students enjoy it. It may not be easy to do, but that is what the best teachers do.

So let us applaud them, and, when training new teachers, emphasize that their students’ joy of learning should be of paramount importance.  You'll be hard pressed to find a student who doesn't agree.


Tim Farage is a Senior Lecturer in the Computer Science Department at The University of Texas at Dallas. You are welcome to comment upon this blog entry and/or to contact him at tfarage@hotmail.com.


Friday, January 22, 2010

The Supreme Court Overturns McCain-Feingold Campaign Funding Laws


Congress passed the “Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002” commonly known as the McCain-Feingold Act. In part, it prohibited national political parties from raising or spending funds that violate federal spending limits, even for state and local races or issue discussion.

It also prohibited broadcast ads that name a federal candidate within 30 days of a primary or caucus or 60 days of a general election, and prohibited any such ad paid for by a corporation, including non-profit corporations.

And Now…

On January 20, 2010, in a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down large portions of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, especially those aspects of the law that imposed restrictions on corporate spending on political issues. Essentially the Supreme Court said that, “the Government may not suppress political speech on the basis of the speaker’s corporate identity.”

Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority, wrote, "Because speech is an essential mechanism of democracy—it is the means to hold officials accountable to the people—political speech must prevail against laws that would suppress it by design or inadvertence."

He also wrote that, “If the First Amendment has any force, it prohibits Congress from fining or jailing citizens, or associations of citizens, for simply engaging in political speech.”

So What?

This decision means that the United States has taken a small step back to actually obeying the Constitution. The First Amendment of the Constitution protects free-speech rights, and the McCain-Feingold law blatantly violated it. It shocked me at the time that it even passed Congress and that President Bush “reluctantly” signed it into law. After all, the President and everyone in Congress take an oath to uphold the Constitution.

But Didn’t the Law Prevent all those Evil Corporations from Influencing Elections?

That was certainly the intention, and I presume McCain and Feingold and Bush and the members of Congress who voted for it were sincere in their beliefs. Sincere or not, their oath prohibits them from violating the Constitution.

Corporations consist of individuals and those individuals separately or together have free-speech rights that are constitutionally protected. And that should be the end of the argument.

There are a few Subtleties Here

Setting aside the constitutional arguments for a moment, let’s look at the thinking behind such a law. There are two parts to this thinking. The first is that Congress can violate peaceful free speech for the good of the people. How kind of them. They violate our freedoms to protect us, but the main purpose of government is to protect our freedoms. Anyone see a contradiction here?

The second subtlety is a hidden assumption that we citizens are to be treated as children, and thus prevented from being exposed to what corporations have to say about candidates or issues. This is called paternalism. Do you want Congress to be your Daddy? And this is from politicians who are legally allowed to listen to thousands of lobbyists. So politicians can be lobbied but we unenlightened citizens cannot.

The Bottom Line

Adults are responsible for their own lives and decisions, and it is not up to Congress to protect us from what others have to say. Our politicians are not God, and it is time that they stopped treating us as their children.

The only sad part of this is that there were four Justices who wanted to uphold this law. Maybe they were reading a different Constitution than the one I carry around.

Tim Farage is a Senior Lecturer in the Computer Science Department at The University of Texas at Dallas. You are welcome to comment upon this blog entry and/or to contact him at tfarage@hotmail.com.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Do You Need Math to get into Heaven?

Clearly, nothing is more important than math. The cartoon above is all the proof of this statement that is needed.

(In case you can't read the caption, St. Peter is asking the potential Heaven candidate, "Now the last thing you have to do to get into Heaven is to answer this question: Two trains left Chicago traveling 40 mph in opposite directions and ...").

So, yes, a reasonable knowledge of mathematics is needed to get into Heaven. So as a courtesy to my beloved readers, I have decided to show you how to do such math, so that you will not have to go to “that other place” just because you forgot your Algebra II.

NOTE: don’t stop reading now! This article is written for math-phobics, and anyone else who has not used Algebra since the last century.

So let’s get to it. Here’s the math problem we’re going to solve. Even I didn’t like these kinds of problems when I first studied Algebra. This should encourage you to continue reading.

“Boston and New York City are about 200 miles apart. A train leaves Boston for New York at a speed of 40 mph. Another train leaves New York for Boston at a speed of 60 mph. How long will it take for them to meet?”

(If they are on the same track, they’ll do a bit more than “meet”, but we are a peaceful people, so let’s leave it at that.)

Of course, you can whip out your calculator and keep guessing until you get the answer. Actually, mathematicians and scientists do a lot of guessing, so there is nothing wrong with this. But here we want to use Algebra, because it is such a nice word. In case you didn’t know, Algebra comes from an Arabic word meaning Unknown.

So where to start on this problem? I’d draw a simple picture, just to postpone actually having to solve the problem.

             -------> 40 mph                 60 mph <-------

Boston o-----------------------------------------------------o New York

                                     200 miles

Leonardo da Vinci could not have drawn a better picture.

There is one big secret to solving algebraic equations: let a variable (usually a letter of the alphabet) represent the unknown value you are trying to find. In this case, it is the time it takes for them to meet. Let’s write this down.

Let T = the time it takes for the two trains to meet.

And another realization is that the time each train travels before they meet is the same, so we only need this one variable for time.

One other piece of knowledge needed is one you all know, D = RT, which stands for Distance = Rate x Time. Yes, you know this and use it all the time. If I said a car was traveling at 50 mph for 3 hours, and asked how far it went, you’d multiply these numbers (the rate or speed of the car and the time it traveled) to get 150 miles.

Here’s the most fun part, and the hardest as well. Both trains travel at different rates, so we need to apply this equation for each train.  So:

Let DB = the distance the train from Boston travels before it meets the New York Train.

Let DN = the distance the train from New York travels before it meets the Boston Train.

Applying the D = RT formula to both trains, we get:

DB = 40T (Note that since T is the same for both trains, we don’t need to indicate its origination point.)  And we get:

DN = 60T

Now what?  We'll if you look back at the problem, you'll notice that we didn't use one of hte facts given there, namely that the distance from Boston to New York is 200 miles. Writing this algebraically:

DB + DN = 200

Now we replace each of these distances with the right hand side of the two equations above:

40T + 60T = 200

Alright, you’ll have to remember a little Algebra to simplify this equation. Since I’m hungry, I’ll use a food analogy. If you had 40 apples and 60 apples, you’d have 100 apples. (If you hungry now and need to go eat, please do so but come back.  And don't forget your New Year's resolution to lose weight this year.)

Therefore, 40T + 60T = 100T. So we put this on the left side of the above equation to get:

100T = 200

My more intelligent readers will immediately realize that T = 2 hours, and there you have it!

Of course, we must check our work. We would never think about not checking our work!

If the train leaving Boston traveled for 2 hours at 40 mph, it would travel 80 miles. If the train leaving New York traveled for 2 hours at 60 mph, it would travel for 120 miles. Since 80 miles + 120 miles = 200 miles, which is the distance between the cities, our answer checks.

So now, gentle reader, there are no math obstacles for you getting into Heaven. St. Peter will be quite proud of you.

By the way, here’s one last equation for you:

Math = Heaven

Trust me on this.


Tim Farage is a Senior Lecturer in the Computer Science Department at The University of Texas at Dallas. You are welcome to comment upon this blog entry and/or to contact him at tfarage@hotmail.com.