Letters of Recommendation...

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Although I love almost all aspects of my job, there are a few things that I don’t necessarily look forward to doing.  One such thing is writing letters of recommendation.  Around this time of year, many of our undergraduate seniors are preparing for graduate school – and part of that preparation requires them to secure X numbers of letters of recommendation. 

Don’t get me wrong, I love (most) of our seniors – and I definitely want to write them great letters.  I truly believe that they will do well in whatever program they choose, none of that is the issue at hand here.  No, the issue is all on me.  I’m a harsh critic of myself, and while you probably can’t tell based on the drivel that I put on this blog (among the two blogs that I maintain), I do care.

A lot. 

Letters of recommendation are one of those things that can be super easy to write for a select student or two each year, but for the rest of the students…  Oh boy.  They can be exceedingly difficult, especially for students who I only had for a class or two or perhaps for a student who didn't get the best grades and/or perhaps didn't stand out in some other spectacular way.

For those of you who write letters for your students (or anyone for that matter), how do you do it?  How do you make the letters unique (or don’t you worry about that)?  Personally, I think a truly personalized letter is better – but then again, I've never served on an admissions committee.  I can’t say that I know for sure what they look for – and if I did, well, I’d guess my own letter writing skills would be a bit better!

The Price is Right LIVE: A Review

Monday, October 15, 2012

As I mentioned a few days ago, I took my Mathematics of Games and Gambling class to see a showing of The Price is Right LIVE at our local community arts center.  The show was last night and while I haven't seen my class yet to get their impressions of the show, here is my personal review of the Price is Right traveling show.

In a word:  Semi-lame.

Ok, that's not even a real word, but it's how I feel.

The good:

Many of people's favorite games are present.  Punch-a-Bunch, Plinko, Cliffhangers, Any Number, and Hole in One were all played.  The had one group of three people spin the big wheel.  Two people got the chance to play for the Showcase (only one showcase - both players bid at the same time).

The bad:

The show started late and ended early (or so it seemed).  Extremely short amount of time spent actually playing any games.  They showed a bunch of video clips from old shows - but nothing that you can't find on YouTube (for free).  The prizes were borderline good for most of the show...certainly not great (even with lowered expectations).  There was a refrigerator as a prize and a billiard table used as big prizes (neither were actually given away).  The small (initial bid) prizes included a 4 handheld phone system for a house (seriously, who uses those any more?), a pair of diamond earrings, a popcorn machine, and a vacuum.

The terrible:

The final showcase consisted of:
A new car (Nissan Versa I believe?)
A 3-day cruise to the Bahamas
An iPod touch
A 50 inch flat screen tv

The first contestant bid $19,000 and change.  The second contestant bid $20,000 and change.

For the traveling show, the person who is closest to the actual price (without going over) wins ONE of the items in the showcase - in this case, the 3-day cruise.  In order to win ALL of the items, you had to be within $100 of the actual price (i.e. not going to happen)!

Actual retail price (according to the show)?  $14,000 and change.

The show ended on that note.  A seemingly bogus final showcase, a pair of losing contestants, and a bunch of audience members feeling like the contestants were cheating.  The best line I overheard while leaving the theater:  "If a new car really cost $14,000, then everyone would have a new car."

Never mind all the other stuff in the showcase...

Since I was curious, here's a few numbers that I found via internet research*:
*note, all prices are guesses, I have no idea what the brands/companies were for some of the prizes
Price of 2012 Nissan Versa starting at:  $10,999 (from Nissan's website)
3-day Cruise:  $299
50 inch TV:  LG ($699.00)  one of the cheapest options
iPod touch:  $179.00
Total:  $12,176

So is the game rigged?  Well, I say yes but only because they make you think the showcase prizes are great when in reality they aren't nearly so good.  I also found it weird that in Punch-a-Bunch, the host knew exactly where the one $2500 prize was hiding...and it appeared to be printed on a larger card.  Makes me wonder if that particular hole had two cards residing in it, a $50 or similar prize if the contestant happened to select it and the big prize otherwise (the host showed the big prize to "prove" the fairness of the game).  I say when you have to "prove" that you are on the up-and-up, you probably aren't really on the up-and-up.

My suggestion to anyone who might see one of the live shows in their area - bid $1 and nothing more on the final showcase.  Chances are, your opponent will over bid and you then you win the cruise.  Don't bother trying to get too close, it won't work!

What I don't understand is why the producers of the show don't want to have one person win the cruise.  If the price is really only $300, that's paid for in a matter of 10 balcony tickets...a mere drop in the bucket.  Why have people leave angry (even if the pricing seems fair now that I looked up all the costs)?  If one of the two people had won the cruise, I think the entire audience mood at the end of the show would have been much better.

I also question the length of the show.  In a typical TV episode (granted, I'm sure footage is cut in order to fit it in 60 minutes - with commercials), there are six games played, the big wheel is spun by two groups of three people, and there are two final showcases.

In the travel show, there were only five games played, the big wheel was spun by ONE trio of contestants, and there was only one final showcase.  The entire show lasted just over an hour - and much of that time was "wasted" by showing the aforementioned video footage of old shows and for people making their way to the stage.

In the end, I'm interested to hear my students' take on the show, but for me, I can't in good conscience recommend anyone go to the show.  You'll have more fun watching old clips on your computer - save the price of the ticket.

The Price Really Is Right!

Thursday, October 11, 2012

I've spent a fair bit of time discussing the happenings (and future plans) for my course that I am both developing and teaching this semester.  Today, I figured I would discuss our recent activity mostly to serve as another diary type entry for myself next semester.

My school's fall break is this week which means we get Friday off.  Yeah, a one day break isn't overly impressive (but we do get the Wednesday before Thanksgiving off as well which I appreciate).  Anyhow, it's often tough to cover much material in a short week for a distribution class since the students have all of Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday to forget.  However, thanks to our local community arts center, I got lucky.

You see, the traveling game show The Price is Right LIVE is coming to our town on Sunday.  When I learned about the show, I instantly arranged for tickets (free for the entire class) and rearranged my course schedule to accommodate the game show.  That meant both Monday and Wednesday were used to discuss Price is Right games and strategies.
Image source: http://content.clearchannel.com/cc-common/mlib/2036/01/2036_1264503009.jpg

We spent one and a half days discussing the mathematics behind the game of Plinko!  It ended up being a great way to review choice trees (using a small version of the Plinko! board).  It also natural evolved into a way to discuss using a small problem to help us solve a larger version...and it perfectly illustrated the need for a formula or shortcut when trying to analyze the "real" board.  In our case, the short cut is of course Pascal's triangle...which in itself is an excellent lead in to the next segment of the course where we will discuss the Binomial Theorem (and the MLB World Series).

After spending the better part of two classes on Plinko!, I used the remaining class time to give a crash course on some other games that might be played during the live show (I emailed the producers of the program but they wouldn't divulge which games would be played).

We looked at when to spin and when to "hold" during the Showcase Showdown.

We talked about bidding strategies.

We talked about basic strategies for a few of the games...and we ended yesterday's class with a video of what not to do which drew the expected laughs.

Overall, the students seemed quite excited for the opportunity to attend the show.  The math wasn't easy for the Plinko! board but most students seemed to intently study the various problems and explanations.  I had plenty of great questions about it during the lessons which convinced me that the students were truly engaging the material.  I believe the allure of winning a car (supposedly they play a game where someone could win a car even in the traveling show) was a great motivator!

Now that the lessons are over, I can only sit back and hope at least one of my students get the opportunity to go the stage.  It'd be a lot of fun to say that students can take my class and possibly win a vacation to Bermuda or something!

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