Monday, May 28, 2007

RBoC from a Long Weekend

So it is back to school on Tuesday, with the rants of Rate Your Students ringing in my mind. Whatever gave blogspot the idea that I'd be interested in discovering that some teachers (some professors, some not) are more mean spirited than the students are on RMP? Very strange.

As for the random bullets...

Lots of things going on this weekend:

  • Finally got a chance to see West Bank Story, and there is no question that it deserved the Oscar(R) for best live-action short film. It was hysterically funny, even (maybe particularly) when the Kosher Kings built a wall between them and the Hummus Hut. Genius, but not Art.
  • We were immensely entertained by Helmer & Son, out of Denmark (nominated for an Oscar). Enough to make one look forward to moving into a retirement home, but pity the poor son left to run the family business.
  • Sublime: Saw The Danish Poet, the wonderful Oscar(R) winning animated short. The BIG STUDIO films came close to its quality, but its creative story telling put it on top for us. Well, that and the running jokes about Danes and Norwegians (since I am partly one or the other). The theme concerns the long string of preposterous coincidences that are responsible for bringing husband and wife together. The animation is in a norse comicbook style, which is refreshing. Its nice to see a unique style.
  • No cigar: Another contender, The Little Matchgirl, is set in Russia with an ending that reminded us of Grave of the Fireflies (a spectacular film), but it seemed as much about beautiful renderings as it was about a story.
  • Ridiculous: No Time for Nuts (nominated) and Guide Dog (contender but not nominated) were silly fun. Would like to see Guard Dog, to get the rest of that story.
  • Watched the Grand Prix of Monaco.
  • Bought some new (to us, at least) varieties of daylilies, to add to the garden.
  • Watched the Indy 500, before the rain delay.
  • Graded exams for my summer class. Some good, some bad. The usual.
  • Watched the rest of the Indy 500, three hours later. Psychically, I managed to turn it on just in time to see the restart.
  • Got Bored with the NASCAR race. What else is new?
  • Put out the flag for Memorial Day, even though the real holiday (Decoration Day, memorializing the men who died fighting for the Union) is not until the 30th.
  • Mowed the lawn.
  • Got to the Enormous Theater to see Shrek 3. Wonderfully awful, but great fun. Enough adults in the audience that a half dozen people, including my wife, chorused "Birkies" when a shot included a closeup of Merlin's feet. We loved the rip of old Disney movies, right down to Cinderella singing in that old-fashioned 30's tart singer voice and the rather menacing dwarf ogre-sitter. Also gotta love the choice of 70's rock for other parts of the sound track. Keep the parents happy!
  • Periodically read Dr. Crazy's VPW2007 posts. LOL funny.

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Sunday, May 20, 2007

First rate spam subject

I have to scan the Junk Mail folder periodically because our spam filter sometimes catches student e-mail from off-campus accounts, particularly when they put their name in the subject line. [Why the heck do students do that, anyway? Don't they realize their name is on the e-mail and the course number is what matters to us?]

I love the ones that seem to be produced by a 'bot from a dictionary of technical and common terms. Got a classic this weekend ...

"And ferromagnetism do baptism"

  • I could almost see a spin lattice aligned at the font.

Last week the winner was "He jacobian of obtrusion"
  • There would be some strange transformation behind that one.

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Saturday, May 19, 2007

Movie Reminder

Turner Classic Movies is showing "The Best Years of Our Lives" tonight (actually Sunday morning) at 2:45 AM. If you have never seen this Best Picture winner, I highly recommend it.

It might be unique in the post-war genre (it was released in 1946) in that it does not have any war film, not even a flashback, in the story. It also sends the strongest "Support our veterans" message I've ever seen.

Spoilers and commentary below the fold.

Veterans needed a lot of support in 1946. Demobilizing a 4 million man army dumped millions into an economy that had not really recovered from the Depression. The money that would drive consumption, earned during the war, had all been borrowed from the people who earned it. It was still tied up in War Bonds, to be paid off over the next decade. Production lines were still set up to build tanks and planes, and those jobs were already filled.

This movie, rich with irony, follows three men who return to their hometown on the same plane ... but who never knew each other before or during the war. They come from very different social circles, and one of the messages is that the WW II draft brought America together in a very real way that other wars (including the Vietnam draft) did not.

The first to be dropped off is a Navy enlisted man who lost both hands in combat. No "Forest Gump" special effects here. The actor, in his first and only role, lost his hands in a training accident during the war. He comes from a middle class neighborhood. His reunion includes some amazing acting. Watch his mother's transition from joy to fear as she embraces him. That scene resonates today.

The greatest irony in the movie is that this man, despite his injuries, is the best adjusted of all three returning veterans. He helps center the other two.

The second to be dropped off is an Army sergeant. He is a banker, returning to the fanciest apartment building in town. Is he out of place. The doorman isn't sure about letting a sergeant in, and his family sees a different person than the one who left for three years of combat (in the Pacific, IIRC). His job at the bank is waiting for him, but he is not comfortable there. He now drinks heavily, mostly to forget, like he did after combat. And he is much more tolerant of loan requests from veterans with little collateral but lots of guts.

The last is an Army Air Force officer. He is from the wrong side of the tracks, literally. His parents are dirt poor. His wife, well, I won't spoil the whole story. He has no job. His only skills are dropping bombs and making milkshakes (while in school). He is unemployed, unemployable, and not college material. When he shows up at his old job, the guys who did not go to war are worried about losing jobs to all of those returning vets.

Happy ending for all? Sort of. Lets just say it ends on a positive note, looking ahead to the future and not back to the past.

Side note:
Hoagy Carmichael (a singer / songwriter / piano player whose big hit, Stardust, has a casino named after it) plays a significant sidekick/ sounding board role in this movie as he does in "To Have and Have Not". No surprise that he is a piano player in a bar in both movies, but his scene in this movie rehearsing a group of kids is priceless.

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Thursday, May 17, 2007

Gift from "Vermont"

The cell phone message I picked up after class said there would be a surprise in the freezer when I got home.

That was all. It is not unusual for The Wife to bring home lunch leftovers when she and her cow-orkers go out (most lunches today will provide dinner for two longshoremen), but that usually goes in the "fridge", and she usually says what it is.

Maybe leftover desert? Unlikely, but time will tell ...

... that it is Stephen Colbert's AmeriCone Dream!

Excellent! And yummy!

We've been looking for it for ages, but all that our store seems to have is Cherry Garcia. She stopped at a store in another part of town, the part where Suburban SUV Moms and Commuter Lawyers live, and hit the jackpot. Some combination of demographics (our store is mostly college students and middle income families) and timing (middle of the day in the middle of the week) did the trick.

Should have called this a "Gift from the 802". You can find lots of snow and get a really fine maple cutting board from "the 906", but "the 802" can't be beat for ice cream!

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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Special Delivery

It is one thing when you get a box delivered to your house for Christmas or your birthday. It is quite another when the box looks like this one:

Woo Hoo! Even the delivery man was smiling.

But the box is never the best part, ...

... the best part is always what is inside!

Cool! The M&Ms are Green and White (school colors). But wait, there is also something custom printed on them:

I laughed out loud. Now that is one very clever, very creative gift from the world's most wonderful wife.

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Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Gravity Research?

A YouTube video of a guy skiing down a 300 foot long escalator got a lot of publicity back in late March. If you have not seen it, check it out:

Now, what does this have to do with Gravity Research?

Simple. Searching for the YouTube video of this bit of off-piste skiing (that I had seen on a TV news program) quickly led me to the useful fact that the skier involved had made some movies. Several of those were for a company known as Teton Gravity Research, located in Jackson Hole, WY (in the Grand Teton mountains). Given my skiing experience there (awesome) and the skiing I had seen there (insane), I checked out their site and asked for a particular video for my birthday.

Being sensible Norwegians, my parents watched the DVD before shipping it to me. Yeah, my dad said, they don't have any of that Warren Miller filler in the movie, all they do is keep checking if gravity is still working. This screen grab from a TGR trailer should give you an idea of what Dad meant.

That blob is a snowboarder (I think it is one of the women in the film) standing upright on the least steep part of a very steep pitch before heading down the next section. Yep, gravity is still working ... and that is some serious terrain.

You can see more at Peter Olenick's Teton Gravity Research profile, which includes this bit from an interview:

TGR Inteviewer: Whats the scariest thing that has happened to you while riding?
Answer: Well I almost died one time, over shooting a hundred foot table by 80 feet and getting knocked out for five minutes, but I don’t really remember it.

Once you realize that he is a freeskier and not a stuntman, and see where he skis for fun and money, the claim that his actions were "incredibly reckless" (London Underground spokesman, reported by The Register) have to be taken with a grain of salt. He was risking his own life (as he often does), but there was nothing particularly incredible about that run compared to others he has made. They might look reckless to a British bureaucrat, but the video itself shows it was carefully planned and executed by a guy who understands risk to remove any risk to others. You can see his partner protecting the bottom of the escalator.

It was also excellent publicity, since it brought those films to my attention!

Other links for information and videos include Broadband Sports and Team Obermeyer pages about Peter Olenick.

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Friday, May 11, 2007

Updated Pacing

[Finally pulled from the drafts folder ...
... update with graph added on Saturday, 19 May.]

My usual practice when teaching is to preview the next major topic as a way to warm up the kids brains and point to key topics in the next day's readings. On the first day of the gen-ed class I am teaching, I always make the point that we are going to work at connecting the principles of physical science to events from daily life. As a preview, I asked how many of my students had seen the Kentucky Derby, or news coverage of it. The answer was none.

None !! So much for being digitally connected to news and current events. (I didn't ask if they knew the Queen of England had visited the U.S., or why.)

Heads up to newbies (and oldies): Assume nothing! I learned that I had to change my plans for Thursday to include showing them the real-world context of the example.

Fortunately, the massive copyright violations available on YouTube made it easy to show them the entire two-minute race:

The eventual winner, Street Sense, is the horse that disappears from the screen at the 0:22 mark, reappears at the 0:28 mark (he is the last horse on the rail through the 0:38 mark). He vanishes from the coverage until the 0:54 mark (again on the rail, in 19th place). The last two horses seen at the 1:09 mark end up finishing 1st and 4th, from 19th and 20th.

The "come from behind" starts at the 1:22 mark with Street Sense at the very bottom of the frame, still on the rail. But Street Sense does not speed up; the other horses slow down. He stays on the rail until the 1:41 mark when he has to move outside to take second, and then first.

[Graph added Saturday, 19 May ...]

The distance vs time graph that I used in class (cleaned up a lot for public viewing) provides a mathematical version of what you see in the video. [A functional representation of it, if Jennifer O is looking in.] The blog-display version is just barely legible; you need to click on it to see some of the detail, such as the green line showing a constant pace. The graph clearly shows that Street Sense ran close to a constant pace, and that Hard Spun fell back after a much too-fast start.

The second place horse, Hard Spun, shown with a blue line, started out fast. His highest speed (marked with an asterisk) is for the first quarter mile. He (along with the other horses in the lead group) is slowing down the rest of the way. A slight increase in speed at the end enabled him to hold on to 2nd place after leading from the start. His slowest speed was when running the final curve, not unlike a runner hitting the "wall" at an uphill finish.

The red line shows the performance of Street Sense, the winner. He starts slowly, slower than any of his other segment times. As slow, in fact, as the second place horse is going at the finish! His fastest segment is the 2nd quarter, but even his highest speed is less than what Hard Spun did over the first half mile. He is saving energy for the rest of the race. That increase, sustained over the 3rd quarter, was just enough to get him close to the ideal pace (54.0 ft/s, shown with the green line) for the race. He ran the last half mile right on that constant pace.

Technical detail for any physicists who might read this and want to use in when introducing motion diagrams and graphs: You can barely see the negative curvature of the graph for Hard Spun. I used a yellow shading between the constant speed line in green and the blue curve to highlight this, but it would have to be pointed out that the numbers are a better measure of the acceleration than your eye is.

The procedures used to get the "data" plotted here are described
in the previous post. The minor flaws in that analysis don't affect the qualitative conclusions discussed here. Anyone want to hand-time the video?

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Tuesday, May 8, 2007


Is it a marathon or a sprint? Whether it is the advice her mentor gave profgrrrl about research and publication after - as well as before - getting tenure, the results of the Kentucky Derby this weekend, or planning/updating the way a college course is presented, the same question arises. Can a steady pace win the race?

Today I am writing about the strong finish by Street Sense in the derby, and how it resulted from good pacing. (I am also thinking about new examples I can use this week and in the fall, involving average velocity in a "come from behind" victory.) Lets compare the split times for the two horses at the quarter mile points in the race. (Apology for the crude table.)

  • time in s (split) - Hard Spun - Street Sense
  •   22.96 (22.96)   -   23.0   -   25.6 *
  •   46.26 (23.30)   -   23.3   -   23.6 *
  •   71.13 (24.87)   -   24.9   -   23.8 *
  •   97.04 (25.91)   -   25.9   -   24.5 *
  • 122.17 (25.13)   -   25.5 * -   24.6 *
The * indicate an estimate (quite crude in some cases) of the split time based on the published gaps between horses and about 0.15 s per length. [*] For example, Hard Spun finished second, 2 1/4 lengths behind, suggesting a time of 25.5 s for the final quarter mile, finishing about 0.34 s after Street Sense. Street Sense was 3 1/2 lengths behind at 1 mile, so he probably ran the final quarter in 24.6 after making up about 0.53 s at the mile pole.

For reference, Street Sense's winning time corresponds to an average of 24.43 s per quarter mile (which is 36.8 mph). He ran the last quarter at close to his average speed for the entire race. He pulled away because the other horses slowed down, not because he was speeding up.

Profgrrrrl might notice the similarity between the way the winning horse ran this race and the philosophy behind the training program she is using to get ready for the San Diego marathon. A repeated emphasis is on training at "race pace", so you can learn to avoid the fast-start no-finish syndrome of road racing. Now back to thinking about the pacing for my class that starts this week, and how to get the students to run it as a marathon ... doing some homework every day. The example above might help with that.

The length of a thoroughbred horse is not easy to find via Google. Estimates were based on 8.25 ft length (the length of a full size statue of a horse being sold on the web), divided by 54 ft/s. That adds 0.152 seconds for each length. Another estimate on the web equates a length with 0.2 seconds for handicapping purposes, but that is not for top 3 year olds. In any case, the largest error is due to the accumulated round-off errors made when I added up the gaps that someone estimated for the distance between the horses at each point on the track. I'm impressed with how consistent these estimates seem to be. Must be the usual effect of random errors tending to cancel out.

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Monday, May 7, 2007

A thought for the summer semester

Rick Majeris, speaking about Bobby Knight in a tribute to Knight's 880th career win on 1 January 2007:

[Players] don't care how much you know until they know how much you care.

An interesting thought to transfer to teaching.

Most faculty probably approached a class with the assumption that the teacher had something important that we wanted to know. That might not be quite so true of our students. After all, if a top college coach can say that about young men who basically went to college with the sole purpose of learning from him and moving on to the NBA, what of the random kid in our classes?

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Sunday, May 6, 2007

College is a Full-Time Job

I remember well hearing a student of mine tell a friend that she figured out that her calculus and physics classes took about 30 hours a week (between class and homework), making them almost a full time job! [I used that conversation as a teachable moment to tell her and her friend that most engineers say that it only gets harder and more expensive in the later years of that major.] She got it. And she got her degree in Chemical Engineering (easily one of the hardest majors out there) last year.

Simple math, really. Five hours in my physics class (including lab) and five hours in calculus, plus 10 hours each for homework. That adds up to 30 hours, as just the minimum expectation for those classes. But that is certainly not what most students think when they see the schedule of classes and think it means they only have to put in two hours per day on school.

That is basically what two recent articles, a Reality Check from RightWing Prof and College is Hard from Joanne were saying. They are right on the money. Sadly, the old CHE article cited by RWP (and something similar I read over on IHE in early April) shows that not everyone on either side of the HS / College divide get this. Several seem to buy into lowered expectations, although I might sympathize with the "public university science professor", since he is probably at a place where they don't intercept students into college preparatory classes. If he is, then he just has to make sure that those classes raise the students from wherever they are intellectually when they leave HS to where they need to be to go to college.

I even know that one of the faculty at my own college is in the same state of Denial as ones quoted in that article. He has lower expectations for his summer calc class because of the time constraints. I say, tell them the first day that when the class meets for 90 minutes a day (in a compressed summer schedule), that means they need to do 3 hours of HW every night. They better not be taking 3 other classes.

Unlike RWP, I endorse the mentor concept. I'm not so cynical as to believe that the problems are solely the domain of educlation colleges, although that is part of the problem. After all, I have a PhD, years of research and teaching experience, but zippo knowledge of what goes on in a 3rd year engineering classroom. Or, I should say, I didn't until I talked to my CC alumni and some engineering faculty. I learned some things that have tweaked my teaching and, more importantly, my testing and homework. It would not hurt for some HS teachers to hear what college writing and math teachers have to say about fluency in those skills.

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Technology, for Better or Worse

Dug out of the draft files from back in April, when Dean Dad's Brother posted this title as a good one for a job talk.

Could not resist. Now it is time to fill it in.

My first thought was not about laptops and SmartBoards, topics that dominated the recent discussions that brought this back to the top of my list. My first thought was about graphing calculators. I banned them years ago from my physics exams because of cheating, but I'll admit that three factors had an equal weight:

  • A student using "study cards" downloaded from TI themselves to cheat on an exam
  • Learning that professional engineering exams ban them because they can also be used to communicate between students as well as cheat
  • Seeing a student solve a linear equation by graphing it and tracing to the zero while proctoring from the back of the room
The kid can't solve 3x+17.5 = 9.76 using algebra? [Certainly explained the ones who got points taken off for not showing their work.] What would happen when (not if) he gets a problem where the values are given symbolically rather than as numbers? How can you do a "u substitution" integral if you can't solve a linear equation? Short answer: you can't. That student should never have passed his pre-calculus algebra classes without taking some tests where he had to show his work without ever using a calculator.

So the NYTimes (May 4, 2007) article "Seeing No Progress, Some Schools Drop Laptops" cited in several places plus a group of articles over the weekend by the kitchen table math folks from the K-12 wilderness about budgets eaten alive by SmartBoards got my attention. And not just because I cannot imagine how a SmartBoard would replace a book or a smart teacher in my 3rd grade experience.

I like the SmartBoard when it is in its place -- which is not in the middle of the room. I like it next to a blackboard, where the real process of problem solving can play out. I love it as a tool for annotating and correcting what is in the textbook. I love it as a tool for displaying a problem, and sometimes for animating a sequence of events. But entire lectures on it? No way. Entire classes structured as a dog-and-pony show? Where all they do is watch, entertained? TV on, minds off, I say. I can even see the evidence on tests. A problem that was worked entirely on the SmartBoard is always harder than one that was worked out on the board, because they watched the first one and put pencil to paper on the second one.

But my conclusion would be "for Better and Worse". I am far more effective having certain tools available. My students learn better now that they get problems with realistic numbers rather than the few that could be memorized or looked up in tables, and then manipulated on a slide rule. My use of a computerized homework system has demonstrably helped learning, but only because it is fully integrated into my teaching style. Yet my students also have to work harder to learn that 10^7 meters is not the likely answer to a projectile motion problem, and I don't let the availability of a certain technical tool dictate what I am going to do in the classroom.

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Saturday, May 5, 2007


An article in the April 30th New Yorker about Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor of the L.A. Philharmonic) mentions an adage from his homeland:

A Finnish introvert looks at his own shoes, while a Finnish extrovert looks at other people's shoes.

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Thursday, May 3, 2007

Who lost the Republican debate?


You put up a half dozen candidates whose total name recognition hovers under 1% and you don't put names under their faces? What a joke, and what a ripoff for those poor guys. It was bad enough in the Democratic debate (where 3, maybe 4, of the 8 are well known), but this was surreal at times.

Who the heck was saying what? Guy in dark suit and red tie with a modest $200 Republican hairstyle says something stupid and Guy in darker suit and different red tie and nice haircut says something interesting, but who was he? I mean, I follow national news and politics a lot, but I don't recognize most of the minor candidates on sight. (I'll bet some of them wouldn't be recognized outside of their own congressional district, if there.) You had to be taking notes when each question was introduced to have any idea who was talking.

And who raised their hand to say that they were Creationists? Why ask if we can't identify who answered? It looked like an SNL parody of a debate.

[Update: It appears they were Brownback, Huckabee, and Tancredo. I was pretty sure of one, because he was on the near end in the shot, but the others come from a variety of web news sources. I continue to give NBC and MSNBC low marks because I heard Chris Matthews mention the creationist head count and again fail to give the names. Was he even watching as he moderated the debate?]

I was unimpressed with how many of them have would fight for the right to life of a brain-dead woman but would rather see a conscious woman die than perform an first trimester abortion on her. Logical consistency was not a strong point once you got past that guy Dr. Paul. I must hand it to him for saying he opposed federal funding of stem cell research because he opposed all federal funding of anything so he could get rid of the income tax.

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Vouchers for untested schools?

Statements like "“Promise Scholarships” would average $4,000 and allow students whose public schools have failed to make adequate yearly progress for five years in a row to attend private school." from a Hoover Institution report contain a hidden premise: that a private school must be a quality school. There is no such guarantee. The only thing a private school guarantees is to keep its customers happy, and anyone who teaches knows that there are a lot of customers who are much more interested in the credential or the grade than in any of the learning that is supposed to be behind it.

In my role as a faculty member, I help advise incoming students. I see plenty of examples of students from small private schools who join the products of our (justifiably) failing public schools by placing into the 5th grade arithmetic "prep" class.

As the Chronicle reports, the NCAA, having banned any HS credits from at least 15 prep schools, has now acted to limit student athletes to only one course from "prep" schools. Clearly they see a problem with the competition between profit and quality.

If a public school must meet specific content, testing, and progress benchmarks to keep its funding, why shouldn't a private school meet those same requirements to get that same public funding? What are they afraid of? Two guesses and the first does not count.

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Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Clean up on Aisle Four!

Another year, another disaster area to deal with. And this doesn't even show the semi-organized piles on the left where each class has its own stack of books and notes ready to be grabbed for class. Most of what you see is the detritus of committees, books being reviewed for adoption next year, and campus junk mail from the last few weeks of the semester ... and one for the first week of Fall!

Yeah, you read that right. Our Provost sent out a memo detailing the schedule for our first week back in August. Time to get my Fall syllabus ready!

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What graduation rates don't tell you

The student speaker at Ishkabibble Community College took 5 years to earn her 2-year associates degree. Legislators and education bureaucrats are upset about people like her, because they impose some fixed costs on the college and take up space that will be needed as demand continues to grow for seats in our classes. Why would we choose a slacker like that to speak at graduation?

Maybe its because she represents all that we stand for as a CC.

Our speaker is in her 40s, and is president of our returning adult students club. She is working full time, which limits the number of classes she can take. But even that does not begin to tell her story.

She dropped out of high school at 16. She was a drug addict for 20 years after that. She lived long enough to start fighting her way out of that life, and apparently became something like a peer counselor. That led to her getting hired into a job that brought her to Our Town, but she was pretty sure her boss did not know she had only a 9th grade education.

She came to us in 2000 to get her GED. She graduated two years of night classes later, and started college. Now she is off to Wannabe Flagship to get a BA and MA in counseling, maybe in time to start that career when she turns 50.

When (not if) she does, we will continue to be proud of what she made of herself. We can all hope that the strong voice we heard at graduation will be heard by younger versions of herself, saving them the pain of two decades in the wilderness.

Oh, and one other thing. She has re-married the father of her 3 children, putting back together the family that drugs tore apart.

No set of statistics, not even the longitudinal data that probably show an odd outlier in the time-to-AA data for some high school 9th grader, can capture that.

Read this commentary from IHE.

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