Wednesday, December 05, 2012

What works in education - round up at Smithsonian

The Smithsonian has a series of articles on Finnish education. It starts by comparing Finnish education to 9/11. Really, it came without any apparent warning. I don't see much additional connection.

The meat of the series talks about why Finnish schools work despite costing 30% less than schools in the US. There are lots of reasons. No standardized tests means more time teaching students how to think. Did anyone think that teaching students how to take tests is a useful life skill? But there are surprises in the article. Some can also be read here at Business Insider, of all places.

Do (did) you like homework? I did. I work better when it's quiet. I can learn by reading a book. It's not harder for me than having someone else teach. So i got more done, more thoroughly and quicker at home. I expect that my experience is not the norm. My son's 4th grade teacher sent out math problems that most adults couldn't solve. Things like, "What is the sum of the integers from one thorugh one hundred?" Hey, i know that one: (100 * 101) / 2 = 5,050. Don't need a calculator, since 100 / 2 = 50, and 50 * 101 is easy. But WTF? Most adults can't do this without adding 99 numbers. Is homework good? Maybe - in moderation. Here's what the Smithsonian had to say.

My son went to a Montessori school from preschool through grade 5. But unlike this article, he managed to learn a technique for addition that resulted in the wrong answer 2 out of 3 times. You may have used a similar technique. To add 4 + 5..., you start with one number, say 4, on your fingers, and you add 5 fingers to it. Instead of correcting the mistake, i decided to make a complete break from it, and taught him addition and subtraction on an abacus. His math improved dramatically in a couple months. Regular readers of this blog will know that i'm not shy about using fingers for math. But it wasn't the school who taught it, despite the Montessori roots. I believe that's because the school didn't carry the method long enough. It wasn't a private school, but rather a charter school. That means that they got students pulled away from the public schools. These are students who have at least one parent who could fill out a 17 page application, and who actually did it. This is a big advantage for these students. The school doesn't have anywhere near the issues that public schools have. And yet, i also pushed my kid through to reading for enjoyment. I'm not against the Montessori method. But i don't like the way it's getting used here in the states very much. You can't talk about education seriously without Montessori.

My first thought was that all this guy wants to do is scientifically document stuff that good teachers already know. I mean, if you've got kids in front of you, then it's obvious. But he also wants more, and he gets what the serious issues are. He's got more to say here.

And yet, there is good stuff happening right here in the US. Salman Khan is doing good work, for example.

And, you've got to know what the Flynn effect is. My grandfather was an engineer. He'd have scored ridiculously good on modern IQ tests.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Bowling a Perfect Game

The gang at work did a team build thing. We went to a local bowling alley to shoot the breeze, eat pizza, and bowl a few games. I'd sprained my right wrist earlier in the month, and it was still a bit sore. I've bowled left handed in the past, but it's pretty dismal. Still, this is team building, not a real competition. My strategy was to try it right handed, and if it got too painful, i'd switch hands. The expectation was that each game would get worse. The sprain is by the pinky. The result was that i have no aim. It was sort of random, like Brownian pool. However, my scores were 85, 95, and 124.

The high point of the first game was that in frame six, i was tied for last place. That was the only time during the game that i wasn't alone in last place. In the ninth frame of the second game, i'd achieved 75. To equal my first game, i'd need to score 10. The only way to achieve that would be to bowl a spare and a gutter ball. See if you can figure out how i managed twenty in the tenth frame. That last game wasn't really better than the first two, except for three spares in a row, followed by a strike. I plugged the game scores into a spread sheet, and added a quadratic curve fitting trend line. The line goes right through the actual scores. It shows that by game six, i'm bowling 300 - a perfect game. Clearly, i should have played three more games. The math doesn't lie!

Curiously, the wrist felt much, much better (not worse) the next day. Who'd have guessed that?

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Worst cars...

Bumped into this post at LA Times. Click on the box labeled 6 to get to the page "5. 2003 Saturn Ion". Now, i don't have an Ion, or anything as new as a 2003. But my 2000 Saturn SL has plastic fenders. And i love them. I have no idea what the LA times is talking about. Five years ago, the car was the recipient of a hit and run while parked. The left rear fender has, if you look real hard, a scuff mark, and a bit of green paint from the offending vehicle. There's no dent, because the plastic fender just bounced back. There's also no rust. Plastic doesn't do that. I've only recently discovered that the plastic isn't white all the way through. The plastic is, in fact, dark gray. It's painted, like any other car. But it's taken a very long time for enough of that paint to come off anywhere. And did i mention that it doesn't rust?

I love my Saturn. I kept careful track of gas mileage for several years. It was getting 43.7 MPG, overall. One 1,100 mile trip, the car got 49.5 MPG. Nothing special, a 1.9 liter 4 banger, with a 5 speed manual. Small engines rock on the highway. It has low mileage: only 307,000 miles. I see lots of younger cars with fewer miles blowing blue clouds out the back, but not my Saturn.

Maintenance has been low. I went through a series of brake rotors. But i bit the bullet and bought some good rotors, and the issue vanished. I also put some quality time and parts into the front end. So my front end alignment has held up on Michigan's crappy roads.

Click on the box labeled 8 to get to "3. 1987 Yugo". I had the '78 Dodge Omni. Four door hatchback. Small on the outside made it easy to park in downtown Boston. The hatchback made it huge on the inside. I wished the rear seats folded down flat, but it didn't matter much. I really wished it had a five speed manual, instead of a four speed. Or failing that, at least a highway gear. Lifetime fuel economy was a dismal 28 MPG. But i installed a cruise control, and it got 40 MPG on trips - at 50 MPH. Well, the national speed limit was 55. One of the very cool safety features was that in a level parking lot, i could push it backwards with one foot, and then pop start it in reverse. The engine always started. It got me where i needed to go. It was also oddly fun to drive. It was reliable right up to the end. At year eleven, everything broke except the engine. Door locks, the hatch latch, the hood latch, the electric fan for the radiator, the alternator, and so on. I gave it to a dealership. But the cost of ownership per year was low, and has only been improved on by my Saturn. I bet the Yugo had cost of ownership advantages over most vehicles.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Venus Transit 2012

I mentioned the Transit of Venus just before the event. That's where the planet Venus crosses in front of the Sun. Never seen at night. The lines to view the transit were continuous in every scope at the top of the Physics building at Wayne State University, in downtown Detroit. Both the primary and secondary had white light solar filters. The ten inch scope doesn't track the sky, so it has to be moved every minute or so. I used the finder to adjust the view, so that visitors would have more time to get a look through the primary.

When the Sun set on a building, I moved the scope to the top of a big metal box - part of the building. This extended viewing for maybe ten more minutes. I bring a kitchen stool so kids have something to hang onto other than the eyepiece. But with the scope raised, I'm standing on the upper step. I took the opportunity to get a picture with a cheap point and shoot camera held at the eyepiece. You can see clouds behind me, and they show up in the image.

It's pretty easy to spot a Transit of Venus once you've seen one. It's the round dot next to the word "Venus". A Transit doesn't look much like a Sun spot. Can't wait for the next Transit, in 2117.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Sales call

We've been getting sales calls at work. They want me to change my employer's long distance carrier. I have zero interest in it. I don't know what carrier is used, have no responsibility or authority over the long distance carrier. I figure that either these guys are paid on commission or by the hour. If' it's by the hour, well, i can kinda see it. But if there's any commission, then there are tens of thousands of numbers to call at my employer alone where the chance of success is absolute zero. Now that's a cold call.

One of my coworkers speculated on how long these people would stay on the line if put on hold. I wouldn't expect them to stay on hold for long. If you want to keep them on the line, you have to talk to them.

One time years ago, i got home from work, and got a magazine salesman. I told him that i had just let my last two magazine subscriptions lapse. He asked what kinds they were, and i talked to him for 45 minutes. At that point, i mentioned that, "well i just remembered, but i actually subscribe to over 50 monthly magazines". He was outraged, "How did you forget that you subscribe to over 50 magazines?" - I answered, "Oh, I collect comic books." He hung up on me.

That was total victory for me.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Old browsers

gmail (and other products) started complaining about my 10 month old version of Firefox at home. I have to dismiss the complaint every time I read mail. There is absolutely nothing wrong with my browser.  And though the newer version of Firefox has a Javascript engine that is 4 times faster, there are user interface issues that are simply unacceptable. I'm never going to upgrade until that's fixed.  Complaining that one year old browsers are holding back the internet is absurd.  End user load for upgrading software should be a consideration.  Should I also upgrade my video card every year to support epilepsy inducing eye candy? My primary home desktop is over ten years old. The video card can't be upgraded. And what about smart phones (and various tablets)... They run on batteries. They'll never be as fast. And their hardware can be upgraded by... oh right, they can be upgraded by outright replacement.
We should not have two internets - one for six month old high end desktops, and one for everything else. At work, I have no admin access to my computer. I can't install or update software. I get what I get. It currently has IE8. I don't have to like it. But if your site doesn't support my browser, i'm not going to use your site. The whole industry needs to get a grip.
In my opinion, we should all be using an open source browser that has zero corporate financial support. I'm not aware of one.  The browser experience should be entirely end user oriented - not advertiser oriented. One used to be able to stop all animations by pressing the escape key. These days, I kill the browser, and generally tell it to forget about any sessions when i bring it back up. Great user interface, guys.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

A Dangerous Method

The Philosopher's Zone on Australian Radio had a discussion about the movie A Dangerous Method. The show generally has an interview between the host an another philosopher. And this show wasn't really different from that. They used a couple short audio clips from the movie. They attempted to go into some depth about what the characters were talking about. I came away from this show thinking that this is pretty much how i'd like movie reviews to be done. I'd rather not hear about the plot, if that can be helped. I'd rather not hear about how good the photography was, or how good the sets were, or what the special effects, if any, were. I don't even want to hear if the reviewer(s) liked it. What i'm interested in is if it's a movie i'd want to see. This review did that for me.

And it turns out that it was available at the local video store. The kids were away, so we rented it and saw it. I was quite pleased. But mind you, i'm not talking about the movie. I'm talking about the radio show as a review, and the movie as a combined experience.

My favorite movie of all time is still Brazil. It's a pretty odd movie. The review i followed was one of my friends who said, "We're going to a movie. Want to come?". This was an excellent review, since it said nothing about the movie, except suggesting that i might like it. The title doesn't give anything away. Later, i read the book, which includes the screenplay. I still haven't the foggiest idea how the movie name corresponds to the movie.

Friday, June 01, 2012

Eclipse and Transit

Every so often, a cool event gets upstaged.  This Monday, June 4th, at 6 am EST, there's a partial eclipse of the Moon.  The Moon will get partly covered by the shadow of the Earth.  It happens fairly frequently.  But it's pretty cool.  And, to the ancients, it was a way to state that the Earth is a sphere.  That's because the Earth's shadow on the Moon is always round, more or less.  If the Earth was flat, then even if it was a disk, the shadow would sometimes be a thin oval.

Check out Astronomy magazine's eclipse coverage.

The big event happens on Tuesday the 6th.  Here in Michigan, it starts around 6pm EST. Sky & Telescope magazine  says this. And the reason that it's such a big deal (though the effect is way smaller than the lunar eclipse) is that, if you miss it, your next opportunity might be in 2117.  I'd guess that kids born next year won't see one. Few live that long.

But it's not an either-or proposition.  Why not see both? Here in Michigan, there are lots of events set up for the transit:

Transit Events

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Scylia and Charybdis

Bumped into this dinosaur comic. It reminded me that, every now and then, i hear a song that really rocks. It's evidence that someone has strapped themselves to the mast while sailing by the islands Scylia and Charybdis (that's how i'd heard it - not having read the book myself. Who knew that Scylia and Charybdis aren't the names of two islands that crash together if you attempt to go between them, but rather a six headed monster and a whirlpool? The book's on my reading list now.). Anyway, the Sirens really knew how to write and perform a tune. It'd be worth a little madness to hear something that good, right? The Sirens are still there, i hope.

Friday, April 27, 2012


Forget The Sorcer's Stone where Dumbledore gives Neville Longbottom points for standing up to his friends. Forget The Deathly Hallows where Neville chops off the snake's head. In the movie version of the Goblet of Fire, Neville steals something from Professor Snape. That takes courage. That's why he's in Gryffindor. Or was he smart enough to choose it?

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Good news

A friend was recently in the hospital with a blocked artery and had angioplasty. This is not as absurd as open heart surgery. The later, though effective and highly successful, has been described as "overhauling an engine while it's running". However, even short hospital stays are not cheap.

The thing is, he recently changed jobs. And as of a few years ago, employers have started delaying health insurance for a month or three while you start the new contract. This is pretty evil. Getting health insurance on your own is ridiculously expensive. And if there's any kind of employment gap, it's ridiculously expensive when you have essentially zero income. So when this has happened to me, i've skipped health insurance for a month here and there. I take no medications, and rarely have anything serious happen, so it seems like a good bet. I've been lucky so far. When my gall bladder exploded, i was covered. It would have been something like $6k.

Anyway, the good news is that my friend's new insurance did indeed take effect before his hospitalization.

We seriously need to decouple health insurance from employment in the USA. Employers have way too much power over employees. And, employers have been shown time and again to make use of their power in unethical ways. For example, i know people who were threatened with termination who, once terminated, must then leave the country. That's because these people were invited to work here on a work visa. It's a major hassle to sell everything you have and fly home.

The thing is, companies, especially large companies that run a cyclical business, like to hire people on "at-will" contracts so that they can dump them when business slows. In the old days, they paid these people a bonus. Not so much anymore. There are some good reasons to be a contractor. First, you have a spouse with insurance, and you go with contracts so you can opt out of it. Second, you want absurd breadth of industry experience. Third, as an "at-will" contractor, you have the option of quitting without notice or explanation when you discover that your new boss is an asshole. The sword cuts both ways. But when jobs are scarce, you tend to take what's available. And that's when it becomes clear that this whole system sucks. We need an affordable national health plan.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012


Today, i ran into a snippet of COBOL with a bug. It was of the form


but it should have been


because AND has higher precedence than OR. So what the first example does is, uhm, what the heck? Oh. COBOL has implied subjects and implied operators. If omitted, it uses the previous subject and/or operator. The first example expands to this:


so the compiler directs the computer to compute


Which is not at all what the author wanted.

When I was a good deal younger, the incredible verbosity that is COBOL was explained away like this. The language is designed so that business managers could read it. It's hard to imagine what business manager audience COBOL was aimed at. None that i've ever met could have told the difference between COBOL that does what it looks like and obfuscated COBOL.

IMO, a large fraction of computer bugs are actively encouraged by languages that think programmers don't know how to type. Computer languages also have absurdly complex precedence tables. Who could get that right every time? Only the guys who look it up every time, or use parenthesis every time. Why not just go with left to right everywhere? 1 + 2 * 3 = 9, instead of 7 (because you need to * before +).

Now, i suppose programmers don't, by and large, know how to type. I could type 22 words per minute by the end of high school. I could type 22 words per minute by the end of college (plenty of practice, but no additional instruction). Over the next 20 years, at a keyboard for 2000+ hours a year (40,000 hours), my typing speed doubled to about 40 words per minute. But about ten years ago, i got addicted to a typing game for a couple months, and my typing speed shot up to over 70 words per minute. What a wasted 20 years. With a little instruction, i could have save huge amounts of time typing.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Happy Pi Day

Go ahead, have a slice of pie. It's pi (π) day (3.14 or March 14th).

Wait a minute. I get '3' as the third month. But 0.14 of a month like March (31 days) is 4. So, shouldn't π Day be March 4th?

Or, if it's just the decimal representation, and you use the digits, what about other bases. Computer people use octal. The number pi, in octal, is 3.11. So two decimal digits of π is 14/100 (100 = 10 * 10). In octal, you're looking for a number that in decimal is x/64 (64 = 8 * 8). x = 64 * (14 / 100) = 8.96, or roughly 9. But 9 (decimal) in octal is 11, which is 8 * 1 + 1. All that to say, computer nerds can claim the 11th of March as pi day too.

Why stop there? Computer people also use hexadecimal. In hexadecimal, π is 3.24 or March 24th. This is particularly handy if you missed March 14th.

And, in Europe, dates are reversed from the USA. I have no idea if anyone really celebrates π day on the 22nd of July, which is 22/7.

If that's not enough, you can at least think about Tau day. Tau (τ) is π * 2 or 6.28 or June 28th. I don't know what you'd eat, maybe 2 pies? But you can show off as a real math geek.

There you go. You are eligible to eat your π on March 4, March 11, March 14, March 24, July 22 and June 28th. That should fill your pie hole.

If all else fails, March 14th is Einstein's birthday. And he doesn't look a day over 133. If you're not into π, you could have Einstein cake. You can have your cake and eat pi two (π * 2 = τ).

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Opposition to Mars

Mars opposition this year was March 3rd. That's when Mars, the Earth and the Sun are lined up. It's when Mars is closest to the Earth for another year and a couple months. It's not a magic date where, if you miss Mars on that day, you missed it. It's just that Mars gets closer to the Earth up to that date, then farther. It happened to be cloudy on the 3rd for me. But on March 5th, i happened to have a 60 mm (2.4 inch) diameter refracting telescope out, and though there were some hazy clouds, and got to see the orange blob at 78x magnification.

It wasn't very impressive. However, i have ready access to a 254 mm (ten inch) diameter reflecting telescope. Since this is four and a quarter times the diameter, i should be able to see details four and a quarter times smaller. But also, it collects over thirteen times more light. That means the image should be brighter, and can stand more magnification before becoming grainy. Good enough to see some surface features at a glance, such as a polar ice cap. About once every five minutes, the atmosphere is still for a split second, and lots of surface details become clear. So the views are great for the patient.

The 2003 Mars opposition was the closest Mars would be to the Earth in something like 70,000 years. That's because it took place in late August. That's the time of year when the ellipse that is the Mars orbit is closest to the Sun. Six Earth months from late August is late February. So this very early March opposition can be described as nearly the farthest Mars opposition for quite some time.

It will be worth a look. Through my astronomy clubs, i have access to larger telescopes. And so do you. One club offers a public Open House every month, and another operates an observatory that seems to be open essentially every clear night. It's highly likely that you live near such a club.

Friday, February 17, 2012


I haven't played in a movie, so i don't have a Bacon number. But in 1997, i was in the Mendelssohm Club, a chorus in Philadelphia. The Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra hired the chorus and also hired John de Lancie (you might know him as "Q" in Star Trek, among many other roles) as a narrator in a performance of Honegger’s King David. So, i performed on stage with John de Lancie. This is a fact which, i'm sure, he does not recall. There were over 80 of us in the chorus, and i never talked to him in any kind of one on one way. Well, i looked it up, and John has a Bacon number of 2. So, if my performance counts (no reason it should), then i have a Bacon number of 3.

I did have a curious concern. When i was a kid, i had all sorts of fantasies. Most of them were a bit stupid. And, almost all of them had come true. In fact, when some of the more outrageous fantasies actually happened, i started getting worried. One of the stupider fantasies had not yet happened. And it was sort of a recurring thing. I call it "Getting Stuck On An Elevator With A Celebrity". Since it recurred, i could sort of get an idea by what was meant by a celebrity. That's because it seemed to be a different celebrity each time. I avoided the elevator.

These days, i define celebrity as someone who has admirers that they've never met. And, since i volunteered, i now help produce a monthly TV show, Astronomy for Everyone. I'm in almost all the episodes. A few months after the show started, i was at Astronomy At The Beach, a really big public event that the Great Lakes Association of Astronomy Clubs sponsors. This is an organization that is made up of about eight area astronomy clubs. They bring somewhere between 70 and 100 telescopes to a park, and between 3,000 and 13,000 people show up over two nights. Anyway, at the event, one of my friends said that a member of the public admitted to knowing my name. It shouldn't have been a big surprise. My estimate is that about 10,000 people watch the show. I meet my definition of celebrity.

The really stupid bit about this "Getting Stuck On An Elevator With A Celebrity" fantasy is that it involves getting stuck on an elevator. At best, this is a nuisance. And now, i've actually gotten stuck on an elevator. It's not an at best experience. So, does this count? Or do i have to get stuck again, only with someone else? I take the stairs alot. If you think you might be a celebrity, try not to get on an elevator with me.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Windows Media Player v on XP review

I mostly listen to music, audio books and podcasts on an mp3 player. But sometimes when i'm at work, the battery is low. My mp3 player can be recharged by plugging it into a computer USB port. Unfortunately, i can't then use it to listen to whatever. It can only either operate or be charged, not both. However, if i plug it into a computer, the computer can mount the device. However, the computer doesn't know where the device was last in a track. And, when i want to use the device again, the device doesn't know where the computer was. I handle this mostly by listening to whole tracks on the computer, and different tracks than i used last on the device.

The sound quality for my computer at work is comparable to the sound quality on the device. In both cases, i'm using the same headphones, which appears to be the primary limit for quality.

I thought Media Player on Windows XP could play any mp3 track. However, in one case, Windows Explorer identified a track as mp3 that Media Player wouldn't play. It turned out to be 192 Kbps variable rate encoded. My mp3 device played it without complaint.

Media Player can be excused from not being able to play Ogg Vorbis files. This Media Player was released in 2002, which is also the first year that Ogg reference software was released. It took forever for portable audio devices to support it. I used to convert all tracks to mp3 format. But now that i own a device that can play Ogg files, i prefer it. I can't update Media Player to some newer version. I can't install real software. I don't own the computer, and my employer does not allow me to install anything on it.

Another glitch in Media Player is that it doesn't smoothly go from track to track. There's always a short pause. Every now and then, music is split into tracks, but the audio was originally played continuously. It can be an annoyance. It's not a performance issue. It's just buffering. Windows Media Player didn't bother to get the software right.

Sometimes, if you select a bunch of tracks at once in an Explorer window, and tell it to play, Windows Media Player plays them in some apparently random order. They appear sorted in the Explorer listing, but appear shuffled in Media Player. It looked like Media Player was playing in directory order, but the mp3 player actually plays in directory order by default. I put the files on the device so that directory order is sorted order. The play order can be changed on Media Player one at a time. I thought there was no sort function, because there isn't such an option in the menus. However, there's a playlist button, and a sort option appears there. Mostly, i play one track at a time on Media Player. Both Media Player and my mp3 player device have shuffle modes.

Media player can do a few things that my mp3 player can't. It can play from CD, stream from the Internet, play certain DRM material (not an issue for me), and it offers various distracting visualizations. Fortunately, there is a "no visualization" option. In short, there are no unique features here that i value.

What does the device offer that Media Player does not? It plays a variety of sound file types. It offers more information on how a file is encoded. It smoothly plays from one track to the next. It offers playback equalization. It shows file encoding information. It can play back either 20% fast or 20% slow. It remembers where it was when last playing every track. It plays adjacent tracks without a gap. In short, most of these features are valuable.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Internet Blackout

Tomorrow, Wednesday, January 18th, there will be no blog post here on Predelusional. This is to protest big entertainment companies, the Chamber of Commerce, and their lobbyists attempt to get their way by ramming Internet censorship legislation through the US Senate.

On Thursday, January 19th, there probably won't be any new content either, but you never know.