About Anything

The personal blog of Al Stevens. Focus is overrated.

Archive for March, 2009

Academic Earth — Lectures from the Best

without comments

Academic Earth says they are “an organization founded with the goal of giving everyone on earth access to a world class education.”

They’ve launched a site with a few hundred lectures from top professors at top universities. Top rated lectures include:  The Civil War and Reconstruction Era, 1845-1877 Yale / History by David W. Blight, Linear Algebra MIT / Mathematics by Gilbert Strang, Game Theory Yale / Economics by Benjamin Polak, Computational Science and Engineering I MIT / Mathematics by Gilbert Strang and Computer Science II: Programming Abstraction Stanford / Engineering and Julie Zelenski.

I’m watching “The Civil War and Reconstruction Era.” …and I love the “dim the lights” feature on the web page, which tunes out all of the page surround.

I hope they succeed. I’d also be happy to see them just keep adding lectures.

Their site is at: www.academicearth.org

Written by Al Stevens

March 25th, 2009 at 10:40 am

Deepest Sender

without comments

I’ve just come across Deepest Sender, which installs in Firefox as a plugin and connects directly to your blog. It’s a simple install, followed by a wizard to set up the first account.

Once installed, it opens with a pop-up editor window that includes normal, source and preview modes for the post. Categories are available as a dropdown. Posts can be saved as drafts. Tags don’t seem to be an option.

Trying it out now on this post.

It’s available at deepestsender.mozdev.org

Written by Al Stevens

March 23rd, 2009 at 3:33 pm

Posted in Technical Things

Tagged with ,

Technology in the Classroom — another study finds no value

without comments

I was disappointed to see the results of this study, but not surprised.

The study, Effectiveness of Reading and Mathematics Software Products Findings From Two Student Cohorts, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education, reports on student test scores of a second year of use of selected software programs aimed at 1st grade reading, 4th grade reading, 6th grade math, and algebra I. They looked at 10 software products and found that only one had a statistically significant effect. Given that there were 10 chances, that one should also be considered suspect.

Until we really understand the details of human learning we will not be able to build or evaluate effective teaching technology. These broad brushed studies provide such a coarse look at the overall process that we can conclude very little. The study itself ends with a list of caveats that include: “the study preclude direct comparisons of product effects”;  “Because districts and schools volunteered to implement particular products, their characteristics differ and these differences may relate to effectiveness”; “The study design does not rule out the possibility that a product the study finds to be ineffective could be effective if implemented by other districts or schools”.

So why did the Department of Education bother to do it?

It would be much better to spend resources on understanding the learning process with enough rigor to construct educational environments that improve it.

Written by Al Stevens

March 13th, 2009 at 4:53 pm

If it’s too big to fail, isn’t it too big to exist?

without comments

I’ve heard a lot of recent talk about companies being too big too fail, sometimes euphemised as “systemically critical”.

It now seems blindingly obvious that if a company is “too big to fail”, it needs special treatment. Unfortunately, this discovery seems to have been made only because several of these systemically critical organizations were about to take the “system” down with them. When the system in question is the economy of the entire world, there’s not much choice left except for the governement to step in and spend whatever it takes to avoid catastrophe.

Bernie Sanders raised this issue in September, 2008. See his speech posted on YouTube: Any company that is too big to fail is too big to exist!

Robert Reich asked the question in October on his blog: “Pardon me for asking, but if a company is too big to fail, maybe – just maybe – it’s too big, period.”

A more entertaining essay is on The New York Crank: “Too big to fail” is too big, period!

The most analytical comments I’ve found so far are by Duncan Watts, a professor of sociology at Columbia University and a principal research scientist at Yahoo Research. In the post  Too Big to Fail? How About Too Big to Exist? on the Harvard Business Publishing Blog writes “Having studied the dynamics of cascades in complex systems, I suspect that the most damaging ones are impossible to anticipate with any confidence. The solution may therefore be to make the system less complex to start with, in part by limiting how big companies are allowed to become.”

It’s clear to me that we need our governments to get a lot smarter about how they regulate private companies. We inspect and regulate power plants, dams, bridges, airports, ships, trucks, factories, food, drugs and all sorts of other things. It’s time to develop a coherent policy that identifies systemically critical companies and regulates them so that they don’t damage the “system” we all depend on.

Written by Al Stevens

March 6th, 2009 at 1:11 pm

Drawing with Dia

without comments

Looking for an alternative to Visio? I was. I needed a simple drawing program that was up to the task of doing network diagrams. I found Dia and, even though it’s not yet up to version 1, (I’m using the 0.97 pre-release version) and it’s so far working out fine.

The developers point out that “Dia is roughly inspired by the commercial Windows program ‘Visio’, though more geared towards informal diagrams for casual use. ”

That sums it up well.Libraries include networks, UML, flowcharts, chemical engineering, a small set of isometric map objects and a few others — enough for casual use.

Export formats include JPG, EPS, SVG, XFIG, WMF and PNG.

Dia runs under Unix, Linux and Windows. I’m running the Windows version, which was an easy install, since it came as a binary package bundled in a windows installer. It would be a bit more convenient if it remembered file paths and window configurations from one session to the next.

It’s available for download on the Dia home page: http://live.gnome.org/Dia

Additional shape libraries are available at:  http://dia-installer.de/shapes.html

Written by Al Stevens

March 5th, 2009 at 2:23 pm

Apologize to Rush

without comments

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has posted the Republican’s “Secret Apology Machine“, an online form that makes it easy to apologize to Rush.

It’s funny as it is, but the apologies are a little boring — the Republicans seem to be suffering from a serious lack of creativity these days.  I’d like to see the DCCC run a contest to help the the opposition party out. They could let site visitors select a republican politician, predict the slight and then construct an appropriately grovelling apology. Republicans’ problems are crying out for community-created help. Let’s start here.

A few of my favorite posts on the apologies so far: Top Republican’s Groveling Apology to Rush Limbaugh Is a Media Disaster on Alternet, Steele to Rush: I’m sorry on Politico, What happens when you don’t apologize to Rush? an open question on Yahoo Answers.

Written by Al Stevens

March 4th, 2009 at 10:26 am