Archive for June, 2009

What the hell is up with fake blue eyes in commercials?  Some lousy Father’s Day commercial came on today and I was immediately struck by the little boy with spice addiction.  His eyes were glowing blue and when I paused it to get a closer look, it turns out he has no pupils.  This crappy photoshopping is ridiculous.  Do blue eyes really test so well you have to erase a child’s real eyes and replace them with electric blue ones? WTF people!

Young boy with spice addiction.

Young boy with spice addiction.


Wolfram|Alpha is making kids dumber?

Posted: 16 June 2009 in Uncategorized
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While that statement is a bit premature, I guarantee you will hear a chorus of teachers belching that from their 1970’s era podiums in the coming months.  One of the coolest features of Wolfram|Alpha, being able to do annoying calculus problems at the drop of a hat, is going to mean cheating galore.  This point occurred to me immediately upon using W|A, and I tweeted that its usefulness would be much greater for high school students, but this was just brought to my attention again by an article in the Washington Examiner.  Computational physics teacher John Dell makes the following point:

“It no longer makes a lot of sense to spend lots of time teaching students to perform calculations that machines can do better.”

If you ask me, it never has made much sense.  Physics tests where I couldn’t use my graphing calculator were the dumbest things to me.  I imagine very few physicists these days do any serious calculations without the aid of a computer.  Why spend three hours chugging through something that a computer can give an answer to in 3 seconds.  It’s just dumb.

On the other hand, learning calculus is more than just coming up with an answer.  It’s easy to do simple calculus, any kid with pre-algebra knowledge can do it as long as they know what variables, fractions, and exponents are.  But that will only get you so far.

At the very simplest level, you might say the point of learning something is being able to apply it to a future problem.  Calculus does you no good if you never learn what sort of problems you can apply it to.  Stuff that you learn that has no application is trivia, and while that may be useful for winning Jeopardy, it’s not much help in real life outside of cocktail parties.  Most kids feel that the math they learn after ‘rithmetic is trivia.

What if instead of a class of children who give up learning higher math because of brain bending pages of complex equations, you had a class of children who grew up knowing how to ask the right questions of software to solve real world problems?  I think we need to step back and ask ourselves if what we’re teaching children we’re teaching them just because it’s somebody’s notion of “what kids ought to know” or if it is applicable to real problems.  Teaching trivia has a non-trivial effect.

Alternative Grad School

Posted: 9 June 2009 in Uncategorized
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Image representing Seth Godin as depicted in C...
Image via CrunchBase

Seth Godin suggests that all these unemployed college grads put themselves to good purpose this year and spend some time really enriching themselves (ht to @johndcook for the link).  The laundry list of to-do items includes:

  • Spend twenty hours a week running a project for a non-profit.
  • Teach yourself Java, HTML, Flash, PHP and SQL.
  • Volunteer to coach or assistant coach a kids sports team.
  • Start, run and grow an online community.

And some other stuff you should visit his site to read for yourselves.  I like his picture.  It makes me think of posthumans.  John’s tweet about Seth’s post inspired the following exchange (reverse chronological order):

Twitter exchange between <a href=

Twitter exchange between @johndcook and @gappy3000.

Regardless of whether Seth Godin can be taken seriously in this case, though I see nothing wrong with the spirit of his post, John made a very good point in reply and reminded me of what good music means to me.  When I find a song I really like, I listen to it again and again until I can no longer hear the words.  Instead the music makes me daydream and I find a lot of inspiration there.  Good times.

Having just come out of grad school, I encourage recent grads to consider Seth’s suggestion, assuming you have someone who can float you for a year.  Those student loans start nagging you around the six month marker, too.

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To slay the sun

Posted: 8 June 2009 in Uncategorized
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Sunset photo by <a href=

Sunsets are so beautiful.  But their beauty is transient.  I sit in front of my window and feel the peace of the moment.  I rarely feel peace anymore, so even a moment is a treasure.  But it is a peace haunted by the knowledge that soon the gold and peach streaks will flee from the sky, replaced by the sickly orange reflection of city lights off smog.  Oh, that I could slay the sun and stake its corpse forever to the sky.  Even then, the beauty would fade like the light from a squashed lightning bug.  Nothing lasts forever.

Image by Per Ola Wiberg.

This week has given me two new toys to play with, and you could probably say both were bought at the dollar store.  The first was Microsoft‘s release of Rebranded Live, aka Bing.  Bing’s search results have been poor (for me), but not much poorer than Google‘s.  Just enough poorer for me to see no reason to really switch, which is very bad for Microsoft.  There are neat little features, like pop up feed links for blog posts and previews.  I like it, but it’s not much.  Where they shine is in image search, which incorporates similar image search already (Google still has theirs in Labs).  Google Similar Images knocked my socks off at first, but then it just seemed like it should be renamed Google Identical Images.  Not much diversity.  Bing got this part right.  The images are similar, not identical.  There is a diverse collection and the navigation is great.  Kudos, Live Labs, for that one.  Is it perfect?  Nope, but it’s better than what I was using.

The next toy was Google Squared, which inspired this tweet right after I tried it:

Google Squared.  You had me at hello.

Google Squared. You had me at hello.

Further playing around with it convinced me that this would have been a nice tool to have when I was doing ridiculous term papers in high school.  Term papers about crap I didn’t care about.  Basically random stuff.  G^2 is great for that, but really not very helpful otherwise.  It was pretty awesome finding out the number of victims of 30 different serial killers all at once, though.  As quality improves (assuming it does), this could be pretty useful.  Quality has to get there though.  90% of time using it is trial and error trying to find something that works.  I was able to add some sorting algorithms to a square, but couldn’t find a single column to add that actually had something in it (that wasn’t absurd).  Wolfram|Alpha is still the winner in the knowledge engine department, methinks.

Some Google Squared Results

Some Google Squared Results

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New Image for Computing (NIC) is a project put together by WGBH and the ACM to spice up the image of computing professions amongst teens, especially among girls and minorities.  They released a study showing that at least among boys, the mission has pretty much been achieved for minorities.  Black and hispanic male teens have a more favorable image of computing as a profession than white males do.  Girls, on the other hand, think it really sucks.  45% of teen males think computing would make a very good profession, whereas only 10% of girls think so.  35% of girls think it’s a bad choice, as opposed to 10% of males.  Ouch!

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