Sunday, January 26, 2014

Fuzzy Logic

For many months one of the mathematics professors has been trying to find statistics on the numbers of community college students diagnosed as needing math remediation actually finished the recommended courses.  He came to me for help.  I searched the academic databases, Statistical Abstracts of the United States[1], and the U.S. Department of Education web site ( without finding any help for the professor.

This was a fuzzy search because we didn’t know the author, title, subject or even the best key words to search.  I tried searching terms such as “community college developmental math” and got more than 10,000 hits.  None of which were helpful.  Limiting the search to academic journals gave 3 hits, but none were even close to what was needed.  After many searches spread out over four days, I gave up; I had no more ideas.  The professor turned to his colleagues and one gave him a list of three articles that I was able to find for the professor.[2]

How does one find something when they are not sure of what they are looking for?  Our information seeking training does not offer great guidance. There is an express, “you can’t nail jelly to a tree” used for problems that are impossible solve.  What is interesting is source for this expression is Theodore Roosevelt, but many people think it is a myth.

May 23, 1912 Theodore Roosevelt had a long campaign day in Northern New Jersey.  At about 10:30 pm he got up to the podium at Dickenson High School in Jersey City, New Jersey to give a 30 minute speech.  He is a transcription of part of that speech.

When I became President I found the negotiations for the proceeding with great decorum as they had proceeded for years The Spaniards had discovered the Isthmus four and they had at once said that it would be very nice to have across it and there had been four centuries of conversation and I thought it was just as well that the conversation into action I did my level best to get Colombia to agreement. We were more than just we were more than generous Colombia. Finally I had lo make up my mind that to hold up Uncle Sam. I didn’t intend that Uncle Sam up and Colombia intended to blackmail a French company then have had France on the Isthmus. I was finally forced that to endeavor to negotiate with Colombia was about to nail currant jelly to the wall. You can t do it. It isn’t of the nail it's the fault of the jelly. [3]

I found this speech using several kinds of Google searches until I found a book that Google had digitized.  The academic databases yielded no results.

The problem with Roosevelt was that he was using conventional logic when he coined the expression.  Computer programmers and librarians know how to find solutions using unconventional searches and fuzzy logic.  There are solutions to this problem. One could freeze the jelly, one could put the jelly in a container and nail the container to the tree, or one could hammer a big nail into the tree and spread the jelly it.  Several people have said that “nailing jelly to a tree,” was one of Roosevelt’s favorite expressions, but I can’t verify this.  

How does one do fuzzy searches?  If you went to a store and didn’t know exactly what you needed, you could search the aisles in hopes that the product you need would be obvious.  Many times I don’t know the name of what I want; I just know what it is supposed to do.  One could go the grocery wanting food for dinner, but not know what to buy.  This is a retailer’s dream because the merchandizing display, special deals, and layout are all there to convince the consumer to buy something they had no idea they needed before entering the store.

The world of information seeking is a bit harder; there are no stores merchandizing information. There are no special information “sales.” One could browse the library shelves in search of a book and hopefully find something appropriate, but this process may be a matter of serendipity or blind luck.  One could read journals or other periodicals  and hopefully remember enough to find the article the next time you needed something similar, but few people have that kind of memory.  Unfortunately I have no great answers on how to find what you need with a fuzzy search.  One consults with an expert and gets guidance toward the correct path.  Librarians, subject specialists and colleagues are good sources for this type of guidance, but this kind of search depends on if you can find the expert and the time you need him or her. 

From the cataloger perspective I have wondered how the catalog record can be made friendlier to fuzzy search logic.  If the title is not very indicative of the subject and the subject headings are not what a searcher would guess, the search is hard.  We sometimes add tables of contents that are searchable with keyword searching, but this has its limits because the authors and/or publishers create these chapter titles.

Sorry, I have no answers that will work all the time.  Fuzzy logic and successful fuzzy searching depend on prior knowledge and wisdom that only comes with experience or access to those with the experience you seek.

[1] I looked in the print version of The Statistical Abstract of the United States first to get an idea of what was available then went to the U.S. Census Bureau web site that has the most current information.

[2] One of the articles is from Community College Research Center, Teachers College, Columbia University.  “Referral, Enrollment, and Completion in Developmental Sequences in Community Colleges” by Thomas Bailey, Dong Wook Jeong, Sung-Woo Cho was right on topic.  The prepublication paper may be downloaded from: The findings were presented on October 14, 2010.

The author supplied keywords are: Developmental education, Community college.  Searching on these keywords would give too many hits to be useful for the kind of information the math professor wanted.

[3] This is quoted in the book:  Theodore Roosevelt : one day of his life : reconstructed from contemporaneous accounts of his political campaign of 1912 …  / by William H Richardson. Jersey City : Jersey City Printing Company,  1921 page 34.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

New President Interview -- Part 26 Becoming Human part 2

Q: I would like to continue the discussion of the book:  Man is not alone by Abraham Joshua Heschel.[1]  He talks about a kind of discontent and being in a state of endless yearning.  People need to search for spiritual needs rather than achievements and find what a person is not what he has. [2] How does a college course teach this?

A:   A course in history may cover the events of the past or how the pursuit of achievements.  A course in sociology or psychology may investigate what makes a person human.  These two streams of investigation may seem contradictory until one investigates the motives to achieve.  If one was to cloister himself in a closed environment and only pray and learn all day, they will be spiritual, but never achieve anything worthwhile.  If someone acts without cognizance of the others in society and awareness of something beyond the self and society, they will never be able to accomplish peace and real happiness.

Animals are satiated when they have their needs of food and shelter met.  Because people are in always in a state of dissatisfaction, moral and scientific progress can be made.  We teach the each new generation about the past and the principles of science so that they get a type of dissatisfaction and can have a fresh view of the world.  Maturity is learning to balance the experience of our masters with the path toward the new and better ways of dealing with the world.  Classes are designed to save students from the trial and error of investigating everything on their own.  The teachers give the basis, background, and history and then guide the students to find their own answers.  Liberal education does not have all the answers but hopefully guides students to the right path to seek the mature way of appreciating the world. 

Q: How do we open the student potentialities?  How do we teach student to value success?

A: According to Heschel, values are attained when we learn to anticipate, seek, and crave for them.  Values, like goals are based on the understanding of the past and the nature of law and community.  One can not have a goal without understanding the self and the role of the self within society.  A package of cement does not strive to become a building, but the imaginations and plans of people can turn the cement as the glue to become the concrete used for a sidewalk or building.  People learn to create, based knowledge of the world, how materials work, and a yearning for something better.
Our job as educators is to show the light of knowledge to our students. Hopefully the knowledge turns into wisdom.

Q: Thank you very much.

Part twenty-six of imaginary interviews with the president of the College. After 20 interviews the president is no longer “new,” but since we are all works in progress I am continuing the series as if s/he were a “new president.” Please feel free to suggest new ideas for interviews and presidential comments. This article is for your information, amusement, and edification. Any connection to a real college or president is strictly coincidental.

[1] Heschel, Abraham Joshua.  Man is not alone : a philosophy of religion.  New York : Harper & Row, 1966 ©1951.

[2] Ibid. page 257.

Monday, January 6, 2014

New President Interview -- Part 25 -- Becoming Human

New President Interview -- Part 25 
Becoming Human

Q: In October 2013 you talked about the role of experience in education.  I just read the book, Man is not alone by Abraham Joshua Heschel.[1]  He talks about becoming human.  That is rising above the animal needs and instincts and discovering the world around us. What is role of the College is helping students to become human?  Or perhaps how the does the College help the student mature into an adult?

A:  As I said before, knowledge comes from experience and education is the understanding of the    Heschel writes, “The child becomes  human, not by discovering the environment which includes things and other selves, but by becoming sensitive to interests of the other selves.”[2]   Mature human beings are concerned about others in society.  Diversity in educational curriculum teaches about people who are not like us.  They are different because of the belief, culture, gender, geography, temperament, and any other factor that could be part of their psychology.  No communal or corporate effort can succeed without understanding and working with diverse people.
results of experience.

The peace of solitude is not because the person is alone or ignoring civilization, but it is the time to recharge the brain and become better at coping with the stresses and opportunities civilization offers.  A vital part of educations is teaching how to become part of multiple societies.  While elementary school may teach the care of the self, basic values, and getting along with people, the College and its academic curriculum are guiding the students to fluency in a wider range of thought covering many times, places, and thoughts. From the humanities, sciences, technology, and arts, and to the clinical and experimental, we are teaching the students to care and regard others with respect. The price of civilization and society is that one gives up a part of the self for a greater reward.   A mature person understands and respects the self, other people and the dimension of what is outside the individual. Over and above the individual is ethics (or religion), the law, the holy, and society.

Educators need to challenge students and themselves to venture outside of their comfort zones.  Research is part of this quest to search outside of a previous comfort zone.

Q: Professor Aaron Pallas of Teachers College said, “The voices of parents, business leaders, and other taxpayers have not been heard in shaping a vision for what students should know and be able to do when they leave school.” [3]  While Professor Pallas is talking about K-12 students, how do his thoughts apply to the College?

A: He is also concerned with an educational system that recognizes that schools are agents of society. Society wants members who know the ways of the past and present and are able to set a course for the future that is better than today. A person who thinks he is always right will never be a fully functional member of society any more than someone who can never get anything right.   Making mistakes on the way to learning and mastering a task or such is part of education.  Failure is the inability or unwillingness to learn from mistakes and take appropriate remedial action.  The College needs to build on what the student learns in high school.  Pallas says that new administrations have the opportunity to create a new social compact with the stakeholders because they can make a new beginning.  In the two years I have been president, I have tried to work with student, faculty and the community to educate students who are ready for the workplace.

Q; I see commercials for mayors, governors, and others running for political office saying they the “education candidate.”   What do you say about that attitude?

A: The movie 2010, Waiting for Superman, includes the story of Michelle Rhee, is brought in to the Washington, DC school system to change it.  She has business background and was advocate for students and change.  Geoffrey Canada was educated as educator.  If they would have been able to start a system from scratch, they would have devised a truly great system, but they ran into the inertia of several hundred years of public education.  They fought against an administrative system, a faculty and community that they never were able to find the lines for communication and cooperation.  In a perfect world, they would have been right, but in the mixed up world where everyone is out to prove they are “right” Rhee and Canada were disillusioned. Rhee lasted only two school years in the chancellor’s job.

These politicians may have great ideas, but they will never succeed if they don’t find a way to get the stakeholders on the same page.  They should not promise reform until they have consulted and found ways for all parties to cooperate.  Better test scores are one goal; better citizens who are life-long learner is a better goal. A better political promise will tell us how they will work with the community, faculty, and students to figure out how to best prepare children for a mature role in society.  To paraphrase Heschel, people become holy when they rise above self and the interests of others become a vital concern. Our job as educators is to help everyone find the inner holiness.

Q: Thank you very much.

Part twenty-five of imaginary interviews with the president of the College. After 20 interviews the president is no longer “new,” but since we are all works in progress I am continuing the series as if s/he were a “new president.” Please feel free to suggest new ideas for interviews and presidential comments. This article is for your information, amusement, and edification. Any connection to a real college or president is strictly coincidental.

[1] Heschel, Abraham Joshua.  Man is not alone : a philosophy of religion.  New York : Harper & Row, 1966 ©1951.

[2] Ibid.  pages 137-8.

[3] Pallas, Aaron. “Cost-Conscious Tips to Improve NYC Schools : A Professor Offers Advice to Incoming Chancellor”  From web site: School Book.   New York: New York Public Radio, © 2014. Retrieved from :  .  Aaron Pallas is the Arthur I. Gates Professor of Sociology and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University in the City of New York.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Signage and Mr. Google

This continues  the quest to poke fun at ambiguity.  In every library orientation we warn students that Google is great tool, but it is not without its limitations.  Google uses algorithms to match the search request.  Google maps is no better.  Last Friday on a trip to St. Louis we wanted to visit Forest Park.  My daughter wanted to go to the ice skating rink.  Since Forest Park streets are very curvy and require lots of signs to navigate, I turned to Google for directions.

Google told me to go east on Forest Park Expressway, exit Kingshighway and turn right on Hospital drive. The ice skating rink is indicated on the map by the little red oval at the end of Jefferson Drive.

Going south on Kingshighway the directions said to turn right on Hospital Drive.  The only problem is that we could see the street sign marked “Hospital Drive.” (We were not using the GPS because we didn’t have one.)  The sign in huge 18 inch letters said, Barnes-Jewish Hospital Plaza.  When I knew we went to far we tried the first street that we could turn right.  It took a long time to get in to Forest Park because we couldn’t just turn around.  When we entered the park we followed the signs to the ice skating rink.  Soon we saw signs indicating street parking for the rink, but we couldn’t see the rink.  I saw a sign the indicated a parking lot, but did not say enter her for the skating rink.  The sign indicated that there was a dead end.  I thought entering would be a mistake.  We found ourselves back on Kingshighway and entering the hospital grounds.  I turned around and crossed Kingshighway and then saw the tiny “Hospital Drive” sign.  We went down the dead end street and finally found the parking lot and at the end of the parking lot was the ice skating rink. 

Google was absolutely right in the directions, but the directions combined with the confusing signage wasted more than 20 minutes of our time.  Next time we’ll know the way. 

I love to make fun of signs when they are not helpful.  People who make signs should test them the verbiage on neophytes, people who have no prior knowledge on the place.  On the highway on another day there was a sign that indicated the left lane was closed ahead.  It was really the right lane that was limited.  Another sign told me I need to exit on 38b, but neglected to tell us the exit was on the left.  I was in the right lane.  If traffic would not have been light, I would have missed my exit and ended up on the bridge to Illinois.

If you make a sign, make sure to test it or the signage patrol will poke fun at it and people will not get the message.