Friday, July 15, 2005

Stubborness or Perseverence?

This morning I had a good session for Learning calculus. I failed to make any progress on calculus but I would still rate it as a good session.

One of the tangential pre-calculus tasks for the Larson text require that one use a computer or calculator to perform a regression analysis for various data sets. I have three software packages that are candidates for doing this: SPSS, Mathematica and Scientific Notebook.

I am quite familiar with the topic of regression analysis and know how to use SPSS to conduct such an analysis. However I have no idea of how to use either Mathematica or Scientific Notebook to do such an analysis. The goal for today was to see if I could figure out how to use Mathematica for this task. In addition to the Help menu for the software, I have one book on the general use of Mathematica: "Mathematica Navigator. Second edition" (2004) by Heikki Ruskeepaa.

After a short time I realized that this was going to be more difficult than I first thought. One of the pre-requisites is a familiarity with Lists and Tables and how they are handled by Mathematica. Although I could follow some of the examples in the Ruskeepaa book, I could not see how to transfer this knowledge to the situation of inputting my own data.

I decided to see if I could find additional information on the Web using Google. Although I found a number of web sites, none of them proved useful. I did find information of a couple of online courses offered by Mathematica that specifically dealt with statistics and linear regression. It was very tempting to opt for this and have someone explain everything to me but that would mean waiting a month or so until the course was next offered. I decided to see if I couldn't figure it out on my own.

With numerous attempts, numerous error messages, and the occasional inappropriate display, I finally figured it out. The overall time from start to finish was 3 hours. However the feeling of satisfaction when I finally had it under control made the time spent feel worthwhile.

The judgement calls of when to try what are a critical feature of all Learning, particularly when the activity is Self-Directed. There is no guarantee that a specific approach or strategy will actually work, and trying hard does not always lead to success. In the words of Kenny Rogers, "you have to know when to hold them and you have to know when to fold". Such knowledge is not algorithmic, but highly intuitive, based on one's entire life history.

It would be easy to be discouraged about an effort that took 3 hours and which would have only taken about 15 minutes if I had known the actual steps to be followed. Some tools are more complex and more difficult to master than others, and what is difficult for one person may be either easier or impossible for another.

Tomorrow I plan to carry out a number of analyses and expect that my attention will be able to focus on the mathematics of the situation rather than on Learning to use the tool. But the important accomplishment today was to Learn to use the tool, in this case, Mathematica, to perform a regression analysis. And I feel good about this.

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