Archive for November, 2007

Abducted Hell

Just plumb tuckered after working for about 4 days (no kidding) on a programming assignment. There have been five in this semester and each, naturally, got more difficult as we mastered (?) more skills. Each took more time, too. Most worked by the due date, but a few didn’t.

This last job called for us to write a program that grabbed some text (like a sonnet by Shakespeare, or a novel for the more aggressive), cleaned it up by removing all punctuation and such to make all the words uniform, and then abduct the n most frequently used words in the text(n being a random number used by our professor). Lastly, create a new body of text, without the removed words, and send it out of the program. Tired yet? Bet not as much as me……

The thing is, programming isn’t too hard once you get a few things. The biggest get is the logic of the program you want to create. If you can draw a relatively simple diagram, you can generally find the code to turn the back of the napkin into a finely tuned homework assignment cum elegant code. The process is strangely exciting and pleasing, once the code works. It’s the getting of that logical diagram that turns would-be computer science majors into accountants.

Let me just stipulate, for the record, that the vast majority of my waking life has not been organized with the principles of logic. For years, I flourished as a passionate, mercurial idealist in the world of management. I could sell you into doing my way. No logic necessary. You might say that my life’s experiences have not, in every way, prepared me for this assignment. You might also say that an old dog cannot be taught twice. All I have is determination.

I think it’s enough.

Short-Term and Long-Term

See this…..?

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That’s the short term view of my life.

See this…?

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That’s the long term view.

The arrival of Thanksgiving means that final exams are just around the corner.

Aaaach  Pffftt…….

Too Heavy and Too Expensive

No, Dog, I ain’t talking about your girlfriend, car or chain necklace. I’m talking about my pet peeve, the outrageous cost of college textbooks. I’ve elucidated on the topic before; things haven’t changed much in the last few months, but now I’ve stumbled upon a solution that might set all of us college students free. It’s the textbook reader. Who knew?

Here’s an excerpt:

DRM and electronic books could help lower college educational expenses while at the same time improving the health of students.

Here’s why: the economics of textbook publishing are broken. There’s a reason that an introductory biology textbook costs $125 new, and it’s not because it’s printed on high-quality paper using a special 12-color press. It’s because when the student is done with the book, he or she sells it back to the campus bookstore, or to another student. The publisher is thus deprived of recurring revenue on the title. So it raises book prices, heaping the revenue it would get from multiple students over multiple years onto one unlucky soul. But the more expensive books get, the more likely students are to recycle them. It’s a death spiral of cost. (Emphasis mine)

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And, as a “more mature” student, I particularly appreciate this point:

And the health benefits? It’s a lot better for your back if you’re just carrying one 3-pound e-book instead of a half-dozen 8-pound printed texts.

I don’t even want to start on some other issues related to textbooks, like the idea that books are lumped into the final number of your student loan, so their cost is simply not important to the end-user. I’ll just note that if text-books were NOT covered by loans we would most likely hear a lot more squalling. Put another way, I think the text-book crisis is akin to the health insurance problem: until consumers start realizing the true cost (and bearing more of it) there won’t be any pressure on providers to control pricing.

The New World

This is a story of the information revolution and the power of connectedness. Enjoy it for what it is.

I met a person today online. We met because he gives some of his time and expertise to a community of bloggers that I am occasionally a member of. He’s a PhD candidate in Bio-Informatics, is part of a small team of programmers that put out neat stuff, and so I dug around his company web-site (being a curious fellow and all). Following the links to the CVs of his partners, I came across an amazing story.

In a discussion about learning, the partner wrote this:

Google, now has taken us to the next level and made the internet-memory available to the non-specialist. The replacement of my biological memory with the Internet memory has not been easy. Unlearing old habits seems harder than learning new habits. It has taken me several years to exchange my habit of asking a question to a colleague or friend for asking the question to Google. My young learners at MUSC, the IT Lab, taught me this new skill. Now I am finding that asking the question via the image option of Google is often more useful then a text search.

Said another way, Google and the Internet resources that it indexes are now part of my memory. Having studied use-dependent sodium channel blockade in the laboratory with Gus Grant for 20 years, I fully understand the role of repetition in both learning and forgetting. However when I ask my colleagues about the forgetting curve they are certain that I have lost it. I smile becaue I know that they have lost it. What did they lose? They lost all the information memorized and learned during their university days that was never recalled – thereby refreshing the remembering of that material. With Google and the Internet as my Internet-memory, I have stopped trying to remember things rarely used, but rather, simply key in an appropriate group of words and ask Google to search for me.

So if Gene and I get it – why has our educational establishment been so slow in adapting to an Internet-centric problem-driven learning paradigm? This paradigm is characterized by problem based learning within a framework of scaffolding (core concepts) and the Internet memory. Global connectivity and commodity computing provides us with a new tool permitting us to re-target remembering energy to thinking. There are several excuses for the slow progress toward this new paradigm but no real reasons.

There is more, much more, here.

And, follow the link for the ‘forgetting curve’.

The point here is that, 30 years after my first trip through academe, what I am studying has, for the most part, changed dramatically. How I study has not. The challenge has been to re-acquire the learning skills as much as it is mastering the material. My years in the work place taught me to learn in a non-academic way, much like the problem based learning that Frank is writing about. As he says:

I learn best when I have a core set of main ideas (concepts) about the problem area that I’m working in. These core or main ideas providing scaffolding from which I can add details as I need them. In my experience, most textbooks do not articulate the main ideas in the introductory chapter, but rather present all the material in a way that challenges our memorizing skills while leaving us cold about what is really going on. Problem-based learning addresses this issue.

Can I shout hallelujah from the top of the Computer Science building?

Here I am, trying to earn a degree in a major that attempts to meld the worlds of computers, statistics, and information, in a way that provides the power of the information revolution to the rest of our economy. Living in the 21st Century, learning with early 20th Century methods.

Is the world of academe losing pace with the real world? Which leads to the larger question of whether or not academe, with its traditions, can evolve quickly enough to meet the challenges and opportunities of the 21st Century.

Good stuff, this.

Note: The quotes and links come courtesy of Frank Starmer via his Creative Commons license.

Disrespect in the Classroom

Today, I saw something in a class that I hope I never see again.

My statistics class has a foreign born professor, who is young, organized, energetic, and clearly committed to teaching her students. Sure, her pronunciation of words is sometimes a touch unusual, but her intelligence shines throught whatever syntactical mists may ocassionally appear.

Stats is a fairly difficult subject, and some in our class really “get it” and some really “don’t get it”. The professor will meet with anyone, anytime, outside of class to help.

Today, while she was lecturing, one of the “don’t get its” decided that her use of material from the text for an example was something to ridicule, so he engaged in a mocking whisper campaign with another student……just loud enough for the entire class to hear. Laughs, smirks, and a few disrespectful words signalled his “perspective” on her effort to make a teaching point.

She heard him, of course, and when she completed her lecture she levelled a blast at the class for not being respectful. And then she broke down in tears.

I hope you’re pleased with yourself, big boy. Thanks for showing another foreign national that we American students are pigs.  Thanks for destroying the community of students in that classroom. Thanks for your part in damaging the psyche of a committed educator.

What an asshole.

The Aging Mind

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Here’s a bit of good news, courtesy of US News & World Report.

Know also that there’s more to the aging mind than its decline. Some cognitive functions—like vocabulary and arithmetic abilities—tend to hold steady. So does well-practiced expertise like playing chess or the piano. In two areas, elders are distinctly better than younger people. With age, temperament mellows and emotions even out. Older folk generally pay more attention to their own and others’ emotional well-being. Perhaps that’s because wisdom grows with age and experience. Yes. When it comes to wisdom, seniors excel, consistently scoring higher than younger adults on tests of life choices, handling conflict and ambiguity, and setting priorities.

In contrast, wisdom is not a strong suit of younger people. As Francis Bacon observed, they take on more than they can manage, “stir more than they can quiet,” and are better at invention and execution than at judgment or advice. The Baconian answer calls for using the mental qualities of both young and old, allowing the strength of one to compensate for the other’s weakness. That’s good counsel and good practice, if we reckon our parents today will shortly be ourselves. (Emphasis mine).

So, the old pocket watch still has a few turns left, and I know how to make better use of the time. Still feel like a three legged nag at the Kentucky Derby…….


“Life’s hard, son. It’s harder when you’re stupid.” — The Duke.

Education is a companion which no misfortune can depress, no crime can destroy, no enemy can alienate,no despotism can enslave. At home, a friend, abroad, an introduction, in solitude a solace and in society an ornament.It chastens vice, it guides virtue, it gives at once grace and government to genius. Without it, what is man? A splendid slave, a reasoning savage. - Joseph Addison
The term informavore (also spelled informivore) characterizes an organism that consumes information. It is meant to be a description of human behavior in modern information society, in comparison to omnivore, as a description of humans consuming food. George A. Miller [1] coined the term in 1983 as an analogy to how organisms survive by consuming negative entropy (as suggested by Erwin Schrödinger [2]). Miller states, "Just as the body survives by ingesting negative entropy, so the mind survives by ingesting information. In a very general sense, all higher organisms are informavores." - Wikipedia

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