It’s weird to be back in my hometown. This is home; it feels like home, but it was more than half my life ago that it was home. And it’s changed, not that I remember clearly what it was like before! The streets feel right and the houses look right (so pretty, so pretty), and there are sidewalks everywhere. I’d hardly need my car if I was close to work. At least not at this time of the year.

I miss it, and it isn’t mine any more. Hasn’t been for a long time. Deja-new? Something like that.

I visited Dad in the nursing home four days straight; today I took off to be a tourist. I went to downtown Chicago for an architecture tour and a visit to the Art Institute. Dad would have enjoyed the architecture tour. If only the logistics of dealing with someone who is infirm and so very low on energy weren’t so overwhelming.

This was Dad's favorite place to eat downtown.  I wished that he could join me on the Architecture tour today.

This was Dad’s favorite place to eat downtown. I wished that he could join me on the Architecture tour today.

A bat hanging out on the Rookery buidling.

A bat hanging out on the Rookery buidling.

Street name detail on the Rookery building.

Street name detail on the Rookery building.

The Green line train rolls into the station.

The Green line train rolls into the station.

Mother’s Day

My Grandmother died right before Mother’s Day. I had planned a trip out so I could see her for the holiday. I was busy. I didn’t call to let her know. And the next thing I knew, she died. She lived a long life, over 100 years. I made two trips out on two consecutive weekends. One for the funeral. One for the trip I’d planned, though I didn’t get to visit her.

My mother is a more complicated story. If you have or had a good relationship with your Mom, please don’t take me or mine as any sort of commentary your experiences.

My story is different. It was hard to love my mother. I didn’t know she was an alcoholic until I was in my mid-to-late teens. I just knew she was difficult, prone to rages, generally unhappy. That weird things would happen and that we wouldn’t talk about them. That I, somehow, was often the crux of her discontent. After I left, it was my father. It wasn’t until we both left that my younger brother, the golden child, got a larger fraction of the experience; Dad claimed my younger brother hadn’t seen Mom in several years when she died. I know I hadn’t.

I think she needed a needy child, and I just wasn’t. Not that I think my Mom would have been good with a needy child. Not that, in all honesty, looking back, that she was much good for anyone during the time I remember. I wonder if she ever was a good friend, or a good employee, or a good teacher … because none of that is what I remember.

The good things: she could cook, and I enjoyed eating her food, but I also remember the unholy wars that would be fought over dinner time. She took us to all the different parks in the area. The Lion Park. The Turtle Park. They all had names, we’d go to one maybe once a week. Maybe more, when you are that little, it all blends together. I remember her taking us out to family swim at the pool every weekday morning, and meeting my cousins there. Yes, in writing this, I feel she is damned by faint praise; it is all I’ve got.

I never understood all the poison in her, the near-complete inability to function in a healthy manner. It was years and a gigantic anxiety problem later that I wondered what her demons were like. I’ve seen her ugliness in myself a few times, some recently. I hope I learn from her mistakes, so that as I battle my own demons, that they don’t suck the good out of me, like they did to her.

I realize every once in a while how much those early years mold you. You spend years trying to understand, trying to get it, and on some level you do. But there are boundaries with people that you just don’t know how to set. After a while, they are more internal than external; detachment is difficult. You realize how much that early parenting affects your whole life.

I have no “Happy Mother’s Day” to offer. Mostly bitter memories with a little bit of sweet, and a backpack full of hard-won wisdom.

Final Portfolios

My final portfolio assignment (this semester; fourth revision, fourth time I’ve taught the course) for the mathematical modeling course is to

  1. Identify and include an excellent piece of mathematical writing you did this semester; alternatively select a piece of writing that posed a substantial challenge to you this semester. The writing sample should be between one and two pages long (not including figures).
  2. Select some Matlab code you feel represents one of your best e fforts at
    using Matlab in one of our modeling projects OR select one to three graphs that you feel represent your best eff orts at demonstrating the behavior of a mathematical model.
  3. Letter to Dr.Jinx: Write a 1000-1500 word (2-3 page) letter to me
    discussing what you learned in this course. You should include thoughts on
    your writing sample and on the code or graph sample you are including in this
  4. Letter to a friend taking the course next semester: Suppose a friend
    of yours is taking this course next semester. What advice would you give your
    friend to insure his/her success with this course? What study habits, writing
    habits, programming habits helped you the most? Make your advice as specifi c
    as possible, and give examples from your experience this semester. Your letter
    should be at least 400 words long (1 page).

I am giving myself a solid A in final portfolio assignments. I did it right this time. It helps that I managed the class well; I really concentrated on making a good learning environment (and trusting that if I did that, gave meaningful assignments, and sufficient assistance, that learning would occur).

I have loved reading the letters. I’ve teared up a few times. There many excerpts and quotes that I want to share. Note: these are excerpted and lightly edited (spelling, grammar) unless otherwise indicated. I am only taking excerpts that show deep learning in some aspect of the course.

  • “I knew what I wanted from the course: to be able to use the programming skills I learned as a computer science major in a mathematical setting. To this end, I cannot say that I was disappointed. But when I reflect on what I learned this semester, programming is not one of the things that comes to mind. … The primary thing I believe I learned from this course is the process of mathematical modeling as a whole. … I was fascinated by the entire process … I learned that, at the heart of it, math modeling had very little to do with specific areas of mathematics or programming; it is about representing the real world with the tools you have.”
  • ” … In every other math class I had taken, the answers were solid and concrete. … But in modeling, the process of arriving at the results was more important than the results themselves.”
  • “In terms of the actual mathematical model involved, the first project was my favorite. I really liked how the concept of chaos applied to weather. … This project helped me understand why it is actually impossible to predict the weather. As we were working on this project, I wondered if chaos theory could be applied to small scale wind patterns that are extremely important for competitive sailing. I found all of the same sailing strategy articles I have already seen and studied. As a side note, I watched the original Jurassic Park in 3D when it was re-released and was very amused when Dr. Ian Malcolm constantly rambled about chaos theory. When I fi rst watched the movie some years ago I had no idea what he was talking about.”
  • “I am most proud of learning to use Matlab during your class. As a freshmen taking Calculus II, I struggled to finish the Matlab exercises and by the end of the class I hated Matlab. I had taken no programming classes before coming to Texas A&M, so I just did not have the programming mindset. After three and a half years of classes, I have done some programming and learned the basic elements of coding. Taking Linear Algebra also helped a lot. When you said that Matlab actually stood for `matrix’ laboratory instead of mathematics laboratory as I had assumed, I immediately understood better why I struggled so much as a freshmen. Through your class I came to enjoy using Matlab and appreciate its usefulness in many applications.”
  • “With that said, I would like to talk about what I learned about writing during this semester. While I am an English major and consider myself to be a very good writer, this class did pose a challenge to me. I am so accustomed to
    writing papers over literary works, such as Shakespeare, that I have developed a method for analyzing something and then determining what it is I want to say and how I should say it. However, mathematics is a long way from Shakespeare and I had to reformulate my analytic approach to my writing. I certainly took more time to understand what was going on in any given situation and took a much longer time in developing my thoughts before ever putting them down on paper. This class helped me develop this di fferent approach and I feel that I am a much better writer than I was before. Discussing mathematics is not a very simple task and I feel that this class has better prepared me to do so in the future.”
  • “In my final project, it was gratifying to be able to take what I had learned so far and use it to understand an entirely new and much more complicated mathematical model than I had ever worked with before. I was excited to be able to read and understand a fairily dense scientific paper and make connections with many of the topics and models we had discussed throughout the earlier part of the semester. Wrestling with understanding the bifurcation diagram in the Kirschner and Panetta [1998] paper was also a great learning experience. It forced me to more carefully scrutinize the authors’ explanations of the model and graphs they produced, which in turn really helped me with deciding what needed to go into my report. The understanding I gained through this process is reflected in the writing sample I chose to include in this portfolio.”
  • “The final project is where everything got interesting. The idea of providing the prices of a set of stocks as input and getting back an optimal portfolio seemed really attractive compared to the rest of the projects. While programming the Efficient Portfolio Frontier on Matlab, I started getting frustrated by the constraints of only having five different companies and the need of typing each price if I wanted another one. I decided to automate the process and use Python since I am familiar with it. … Other than math modeling, this course taught me valuable lessons. One was that I don’t need to be an expert on a topic to do good work on a topic; you only need dedication and perseverance. I really enjoyed working on the EPF. I even worked on it for two extra-curricular events: a one-night Hackathon and I presented it on 3 Day Startup as a business idea. It was really interesting to hear people’s suggestions, there were even some that approached me saying that I should keep working on it.” (Note from Dr. Jinx: Holy crap! I am impressed.)

That is nowhere close to all of them, although it is some of the best of them.

Look at all the deep learning expressed here. I got to help with that. I love my job!

Hard Words

There’s a corner where we stop and take a short break on the bike ride. Leashed up in a yard nearby was a cute little dog. His leash got caught up in something, and he couldn’t move much. A woman came out of the house and over to the dog. He wagged his tail all eager to see her, and she scolded him harshly for getting tangled up and this and that, and he just kept wagging that tail.

And that completely bothered me, so badly that I almost started crying on the ride as we pedaled away.

Because I can remember being that woman, all harsh and scolding, to my (now ex-) significant other one day when he was happy to see me, and I was unhappy to come home to find the trash can still out at the curb and goodness knows what else.

Sometimes life provides you with a mirror, and you see some things in yourself that you really don’t want to see.

I am so sorry, so sorry for that moment.

What did I say to my students last week? it is the hard words that you will regret. So say the kind ones, whenever you can. Damn it.

Little slips of paper

I wrote earlier about my plan for the final presentations. I handed small pieces of scratch paper out to my students, and I tasked them with writing down the things the presenter did well, and any questions they had. I was already pleased with the results.

How could I not be pleased when they had questions to ask at the end of presentations? They had plenty of nice things to say to the presenters. It was easy to get the conversation started.

This is what one student wrote in his a final portfolio letter to me about what he learned in the class:

My favorite moment from the semester came after my Final Project presentation. … After my presentation, I was really down on myself. I got very nervous while presenting, missed points that I wanted to make, failed to answer questions that I knew the answer to, and on top of this I had gotten very little sleep the night before. When I got back to my seat, the little slips of paper were sitting there. Reading them absolutely turned my day around. While I cannot pinpoint an exact lesson I learned here, I can tell you that I really appreciate all of the effort you took to make this class a positive and enjoyable environment for everyone. I learned that a professor that really cares about creating a welcoming environment can make all the difference.

Am I ever glad I ran that experiment.


All good things must come to an end.

My life has been full of endings lately. I’ve told some friends privately about the wrap-up to my disastrous interview, but not everyone. If you are a friend reading this here, and I didn’t contact you, please forgive me. It hasn’t been easy to talk about, and this was not appropriate fodder for an emotional Facebook post. May I even make a request? If you are a personal friend and you want to say something to me about this that alludes to the actual real-life people involved as opposed to a general wisdom or insight on the situation as I’ve written about it here, please make it a private message, rather than a comment.

Here are the background links on the situation:

  1. What’s an Excellent Teacher (non-tenure track) worth?
  2. Survived
  3. Rebuttal

Thank you to all who took the time to comment, and, in several cases, discuss the situation and how it might be handled with me in depth. The wrap-up was that the relationship with my significant other has been difficult for a while now. Perhaps that was the main reason he was reluctant to go to bat for me or to even negotiate even a delay of his start date with this university. That ended the relationship. In some ways this has been very hard. In some ways it has been very easy. I am angry with him for not even giving a token protest over the way I was treated, when he was the reason that I was in that situation in the first place. That is absolutely unconscionable in my mind. That speaks, too, to the difficulties in the relationship predating these events.

Endings are always hard for me. This is no exception, but thus far, I think this time I’m earning an A in breaking up. There is no turning back. There is no fixing this. Nothing to do but face what is and move forward. I’ve been taking very good care of myself. Exercise. Good food. I like having nuts in the house and on my salads again. I’ve reconnected with friends that I haven’t seen in a while. I’ve tried some new things. I’ve asked for help, and I’ve gotten help. I’ve had some bad days, but I’ve also been surprised to have quite a few good days. It is nice when someone else’s mess moves out of your house, and the only ones you have to deal with are your own. And, my gosh, it is nice to realize that so many people care about me.

* * *

Second, the semester comes to an end. I am glad to get done with the grading, but I am also sad to realize I won’t see most of my students again. Our final class meeting was last Friday for the final exam, which, for my class, is the remainder of the project presentations and pizza. And then a wrap-up.

I was pleased that one of my faculty colleagues came and stayed for the entire class period, even participating in writing out the good points of the presentation on the slips of paper for my students. Another came as long as she could.

The presentations were all good this semester. One or two wobbles here and there, but that’s to be expected. The students all gave competent professional presentations geared toward an audience of non-experts.

I asked the students what they learned. A lot of LaTeX and Matlab, which is always to be expected. A student even said something like, “I never would have believed this at the beginning of the semester, but I will use LaTeX in the future. It is a good tool.” Time management and how to approach projects. I think someone even mentioned the steps in mathematical modeling, in particular, making assumptions and simplifying when approaching a problem.

I teared up trying to do my wrap-up. I told them that having many students from prior semester taking the course is always an honor, especially since this is a purely elective class. Waking up a student with the line “Now we are going to talk about sex.” Working with students on LaTeX and Matlab. Listening to students do peer review and thinking, “This is really going all right.” The excitement of seeing the final projects come together.

Last, I gave them a few things that I wanted them to take from the course that don’t have all that much to do with mathematical modeling.

First, from the Efficient Portfolio Frontier, pay yourself first. Once you are out of school and start working, take money out of your paycheck before it hits your checking account and put it away for savings and investment. Pay yourself before you pay anyone else. Save for a rainy day. I told them how having savings saved me from worry when I needed to quit my software job without having figured out what I was going to do next.

Second, writing is a skill. Practice and you will improve. You can do it.

Third, you will be a different person at 40 than you were at 20. Your life will have high points, but it will also have some real defeats. Keep your honor, grace, integrity through it, and you will get through it.

I should have told them something that always comforts me when things go really wrong. Your worst moments will always end up being your best stories. Once they stop hurting so much.

Last, if you have the opportunity to do a kindness, take it. You will regret hard words you said to someone else. The kindnesses you will be able to hold close to your heart when things go wrong. You will regret the times you passed up an opportunity to do or to say something kind. So don’t pass them up. When you see them, take the opportunity.

This certainly relates to my thinking on the first item discussed in this post and my regrets.

My students did take the opportunity to say kind things in those final portfolios. About me and about each other. I am looking forward to sharing some highlights with you.


The beginning of finals week is always a period of great unhappiness and stress.

Students look at their grades, seemingly for the first time, and ask instructors to magically save them from the consequences of prior inaction.

Instructors are trying to juggle getting exams prepared with answering last minute questions from students.

Instructors pay for every little delay they’ve made in preparing their grade book.

Departmental administration and college-level administration have to deal with the onslaught of complaints from students about their unfair instructors who are not magically saving them from the consequences of prior inaction. Scheduling stress too, as projections for the fall entering class come in. Sometimes that stress trickles down in, say, my direction.

Not that I should complain too much. I am relatively well-off this end-of-the-semester. I don’t give a final. My students hand in a final portfolio, so yes, I will have some writing to grade, but the portfolio description has been prepared since the beginning of the semester; I didn’t have to write that this week. It isn’t like my students need a lot of help in preparing a final portfolio. I only had four visitors today, and I answered questions on our discussion board.

Mostly for the past two days, I’ve been working on things for our REU (Research Experiences for Undergraduates) program which starts on June 1, and catching up with some students and colleagues that I haven’t had time for in a while.

Tomorrow during my “final exam” I will finish out the class’s project presentations. We will have pizza, since the exam period is from 12:30 to 2:30 pm, which will be paid by the bursary I earned by doing the first-year seminar class in the fall. Some presentations will be good. Some presentations will be slightly less awesome. The pizza should be delicious.

I hope a few instructor-friends will show up for some pizza and to watch a few presentations. I am looking forward to the end of this semester. My classes were good; my careful attention on keeping it positive made a difference. Aside from that, it was a very difficult semester.

Public Service Announcement


Dear Students,

If you are going to come complain to me about your grades, please do the following first.

  1. Read the syllabus for the course so that you know how you are actually being graded.
  2. Remember that if you don’t like the policies in the syllabus that you could have dropped my course during the first week. Now you are going to have to live with them.
  3. This applies, in particular, to the late work policy … and any other policy you may not like very much right now.
  4. Look at the comments I made on your paper that explain the reasons for your grade before you start arguing with me about why it should be higher.
  5. Remember that if I made a mistake, I will always be happy to fix it.
  6. Remember that I get a lot of complaints about grades at this time of the semester, and this gets really old really fast.
  7. Remember that being a pain in my ass is not going to improve your score.
  8. Last, keep in mind, I don’t give grades. I report what happened. You earn what you get; no freebies.

To those of you who accept your grades with grace and dignity, even though the outcome may not have been what you were hoping for, thank you. I hope you know I may not have wanted to record that grade any more than you wanted to earn it, and I am grateful to not have to argue with you about it too.


Dr. Jinx