Monthly Archives: February 2011

The Decision I Make Every Time I Come Home

This is the sign for the exit for Madaba, which is where the school is and where I live – a good 20 minutes south of Amman. Whenever I forget that I am living very far away from home, which is often because life is so normal for me here now, this sign is a nice reminder. If I accidentally took a wrong turn trying to get home from Amman – and then continued on my way without realizing it for like 100 km – I could make it to Saudi Arabia or Iraq. I challenge you to find a place in the US where it lists “Mexican Border” and “Canadian Border” on the same sign.

We’re even closer to the Israeli border, but for political reasons, I have never seen the words “Israeli Border” written on a sign. Instead, it always just says “King Hussein Bridge” which is one of the bridges that crosses into Palestine/Israel. Everyone knows what it is anyway, so not writing the words is a nice way of avoiding any sort of political conflict, especially given that more than half of the residents of Amman consider themselves Palestinian by origin. This is an issue of the sort that those of us who live close to the Canadian border would never have to consider.

Best Birthday Candles This Side of the Mississippi

Another exciting year has past in my life, and I recently celebrated with another birthday. This was my first birthday under my new astrological sign, Capricorn. I have been an Aquarius, a water bearer, my whole life and now some observatory in Minnesota says I am a sea-goat. I would love it if they could explain to me why it was time to change, and what exactly a sea-goat is. I celebrated by going out with a few friends in Amman, but besides good food and friends, the highlight of all birthdays here in Jordan are these ridiculously cool birthday candles that I have only seen over here. They flame up to like 12 feet high. Here is a two second video from February 11 to show what I’m talking about…

Preeeetttty cool, we just make sure we have all birthday parties in rooms with high ceilings. Ignore any related videos that pop up, I guess titling the video “Birthday Dance” was dangerous.

Student Guinea Pigs

“A monk weighing 170 lbs begins a fast to protest a war. His weight after t days is given by W = 170e^(-0.008t). When the war ends 20 days later, how much does the monk weigh? At what rate is the monk losing weight 20 after days (before any food is consumed)?” <– That’s an actual problem from our Calculus book, which I find very amusing. I really can’t imagine that this is a viable situation for which you would need to model an exponential equation and use it to make predictions. There are so many word problems that force “real-life” situations into the convenient framework of whatever math topic is being presented in that section. I guess these are supposed to demonstrate to students how useful and relevant math is, but I know that students just find them to be tricky and unyielding disguises to math that they generally know how to do.

There was one word problem that fit an exponential decay model to someone forgetting information, so I decided that instead of just doing the word problem, we would test the model by recreating the experiment. The day after we had a midterm exam, instead of handing back their corrected test, I put them in groups and gave them the following list of 50 three letter syllables that I generated with a random number generator:


I gave them 15 minutes to memorize as many as they could and then tested them by having them write down all that they remembered. Then, I handed out the midterms and we started going over them. About 5 minutes later, I had them write down as many of the syllables as they could again. Then, we went over a few problems on the midterm… then another memory test…. then more midterm… then another memory test. They had absolutely no idea why we were doing this, so each time they groaned and complained. And they groaned even more when I opened class the next day with another trial. And then again two days after that… And then a last time a week and a half later. All without studying the list after the original 15 minutes.

Finally, I revealed the purpose of the whole experiment. We collected data and used a graphing program to fit various models to their data. There were four different mathematical models to choose from that I found from various psychological studies. Each student picked the one that they thought fit their data best (a function to calculate how many words they would remember over time), used it to calculate their “forgetting function” (a function that tells them how fast they are forgetting words at any given time), and then used both to calculate how many words they will remember in a few weeks and how fast they will be forgetting them at the point.

We graphed all of their functions on the same axes (y-axis = number of words remembered, x-axis = time in hours) to analyze which model was best and analyze how their memories compared to their classmates. The results:



Overall, an extremely successful class experiment. Not only did we do some cool, real, authentic math that was individually tailored to each student, we ended up having a really great conversation on how best to memorize things, which then led to a great discussion about how to learn and study best (especially how you should go about studying math). And it was actually pretty fun. I was amazed at just how many of those syllables the students remembered – the winner impressively remembered 29 a week and a half later. But whenever we were doing the tests and the students were begrudgingly writing down everything they remembered, all I could think was “Oh the power I have. It’s amazing what my little friends will do for me when I have them by the stranglehold of their grades.”

Fortunately, Jordan Isn’t Egypt

The past week has been a really interesting time to be living in the Middle East. It’s not every day that an authoritarian head of state that has been in power for almost 30 years is thrust aside by a popular revolution, and it’s not for a lack of those types of guys around here. And add that this has happened not only once, but twice in the past couple of weeks. The news has been on non-stop in everyone’s apartments and even has even been blaring on the lonely television in our science department, which I don’t think I have ever seen turned on before.

All this commotion is why the timing of King Abdullah II sacking the prime minister and dissolving the government was a bit unfortunate, as it got swept into the turmoil of Egypt and Tunisia by the worldwide media. Sure there were some protests here, and yes there has been a bit of a government change, but there are many huge differences between what just happened here and what has happened to our neighbors in North Africa that probably aren’t apparent to the average American media patron. Here are just a few:

  1. SCALE: Egyptians gathered earlier this week for a “march of million” in Cairo, where the protests in Jordan have barely topped 3,000. That’s about 0.3% the size. It would be pretty tough for our country of less than 7 million to rouse up a full million for protests.
  2. PROTEST INTENTIONS: In Egypt and Tunisia, they were looking to overthrow a long lasting ruling regime. Here, people wanted a government change, not a regime change. Everybody is pretty much just as pumped about our beloved Abdullah as they have been in the past – me included! They just wanted the prime minister replaced.
  3. FREQUENCY OF THE EVENT: Mubarak has only been overthrown (or almost overthrown I guess) one time in the past 30 years, whereas the government here is dissolved a bit more often. In fact, this is the second time since I’ve been here that this has happened – the Prime Minister that just stepped down took office in December of 2009 to much excitement at the school as he is the father of one of the seniors who graduated last year. It happens so often that the country has had 60 Prime Ministers since 1946. The new Prime Minister has actually already run the government, about six years ago, which is also a fairly common occurrence (one guy held the office six different times over the course of 20 years). Though a new Prime Minister is certainly a change, it wouldn’t have been a CNN alert and NY Times article had Egypt and Tunisia not set the stage.

Bottom line is, while I greatly appreciate the concern from everyone in the states, I’m more concerned that I can’t find my Wednesday socks than I am about my safety here… by a lot (seriously – it’s confusing). Add to that the fact that my plants need watering, I need to buy balloons for Physics class, the knuckleheads in the hall refuse to keep their voices down when they’re roaming the hall at one am, and my DVD remote is missing so I have to watch DVDs all the way through and hope they don’t somehow get messed up halfway through. So while life is interesting following the news, it is the same old daily grind here in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. And insha’allah it will stay that way.