Irritating Software Upgrades and the Spirit of ‘Gaman’

Jim ShimabukuroBy Jim Shimabukuro
Editor

With technology, experimentation and improvement go hand-in-hand, so we expect to pay a price. In some cases, such as drugs and cars, the cost can be horrendous. In others, such as software applications and operating systems, the cost isn’t as dramatic, but it can be irritating.

The most irritating in my current experience involves WordPress.com. The problem is they’re making changes piecemeal, and after many months, they’re still not done. In the interim, we, the users, are on our own. This means we’re forced to switch between the old and the new interfaces to complete tasks that were once simple and routine. The result is confusion and dozens of additional time-gobbling, mind-boggling steps.

For example, in the new composing interface, I can no longer insert links in text mode. I have to switch back to visual mode to do so. Compounding the problem is that WordPress sometimes seems to hang frozen for a while before switching between the two modes. A similar problem involves categories. In the old interface, I can no longer set categories. To do so, I have to switch to the new.

Very annoying is the photo insertion process. Photos posted via the new interface are no longer clickable for enlarged views. To make them clickable, I need to re-enter the same post via the old. And this is where irritation climbs to a whole new level. There’s no clear or simple way to switch back to the old.  Continue reading

What’s With Our Educators and Police?

Harry Keller 80By Harry Keller
Former ETCJ Science Editor and Frequent Contributor

All right, they aren’t the only ones who might have made this error, but they are in the spotlight since they freaked out over a homemade electronic clock. Yes, that’s the one Ahmed Mohamed brought to school. Somehow one or more teachers and some police thought it looked like a bomb.

Now, what’s the most essential part of any bomb? Is it a clock? Nope. How about a circuit board? Not that either. What about a bunch of colored wires? Those are traditional fodder in TV shows. Not a chance. You can make a bomb with just a fuse, a blasting cap, and some dynamite, plastic explosive, or some mixture of oil and fertilizer.

The essential ingredient here is, you guessed it, explosives.

Without something explosive, no bomb. A circuit board hardly qualifies no matter how much electronics are on it. It only takes a moment to look and see the lack of explosives inside of the satchel that Ahmed carried his clock in, I assume to protect it.

What’s really going on here? I see two important issues. The first is the racial profiling that is obvious despite protests from school and law enforcement. The extreme reaction, including handcuffs, would not have happened to a blond kid. His satchel may have been inspected. He may have been questioned. But, it all would have been handled with much more restraint.

Then, there’s the damper that these incidents place on student creativity. Sure, we don’t like students experimenting with anything truly dangerous, especially in schools. This is a case where there was absolutely no danger — no chemicals, no high voltages, nothing explosive, nothing even sharp. The clock was completely benign.

Within reasonable guidelines, students should be encouraged to explore and be creative. Having two grandchildren in elementary school right now, I am very concerned about the future of education. The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS, sort of a science Common Core) tell us to add more inquiry to our curricula. This reaction is exactly opposite to that spirit.

Our teachers and school administrators are acting as though they fear their own shadows. In this atmosphere, how can creative talent develop, let alone thrive? Must enlightened parents have ongoing battles with schools merely to ensure that their children have the opportunity to realize their potentials?

Now, imagine if Ahmed were taking an online course in engineering instead of the one in his physical high school. He might video his clock functioning and show its various parts through Instagram or YouTube. He could share his step-by-step construction experience, including mistakes, though Twitter and Facebook. The class could gather on Skype to share in real time. There would be no ignorant administrator or teacher to call the cops and no clueless police to terrorize this young student.

I have always believed that physical schools play an important role in helping our children to develop. Now, I’m not so certain.

The End of Dark Energy

picture of Harry KellerBy Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education

Dr. Peter A. Milne and his associates have found an unexpected and, to the cosmological community, startling result from their surveys of supernovae. This result illustrates both the consistent and varying nature of science at the same time.

Dr. Peter Milne

Dr. Peter Milne

We know from a great many astronomical observations that the universe has been expanding for a little short of 14 billion years and continues to expand. Because of gravity, everyone expected that this expansion was slowing over time with theories and measurements suggesting that this expansion would eventually coast to a very dilute universe drifting apart at ever slower speeds.

In the 1990s, some astronomers separately discovered that the universe is expanding ever more rapidly instead of the expected opposite slowing of expansion using measurements of he brightness of very distant supernovae. They received the Nobel Prize in physics for this work in 2011.

Stars can explode. One common explosion is called a nova. A much more cataclysmic and extremely brighter explosion is a supernova. Supernovae shine with a brightness that can exceed that of all of the hundred billion or so stars in its galaxy. For this reason, we can see them in distant galaxies that are barely visible in our best telescopes. A supernova is a rare event occurring about three times a century in a galaxy the size of our Milky Way. With hundreds of billions of galaxies, however, it’s not too hard to find hundreds each year using modern astronomical equipment.

A special sort of supernova created when the two stars in a binary star system go through a specific series of interactions is known as a type 1a supernova. Because of the steps required to reach supernova status, the brightness of these type 1a supernovae has been considered to be a constant that can be used to estimate distances to very distant galaxies. Brightness declines with distance in a very precise manner.

There remains the possibility that acceleration of very distant bodies in our universe away from each other is a basic property of our space-time structure not detectable at smaller distances of only millions or even tens of millions of light-years, that “dark energy” is just an attempt to recast a phenomenon into understandable terms, just as the caloric theory of heat was long ago. -HK

The measurements of these supernovae were the reason to believe that the expansion of the universe was accelerating. We are seeing these very distant supernovae with light that started its journey over ten billion years ago when the universe was very young. Dr. Milne has discovered that type 1a supernovae are not all the same but fall into two categories of different brightness. Furthermore, the supernovae from the early universe are, on average, less bright than those in the more recent universe.

The lower brightness of the distant supernovae may well be due to less inherent brightness instead of greater distance. This finding destroys a fair piece of that Nobel Prize discovery. Dr. Milne still attests that the universe’s expansion is accelerating, just not so fast, but the vast number of recalculations being done to account for this new discovery will take some time.  Continue reading

Robots in Movies

picture of Harry KellerBy Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education

Artificial intelligence has appeared in a great many movies over the years, often as robots. The latest is Chappie, a movie that has been panned by a majority of critics but apparently enjoyed by quite a few movie goers.

Robots (or AI) have been good and bad. The first that I recall was Robby in the first science fiction (SF) movie to adhere to scientific ideas (of the time), Forbidden Planet. This 1956 movie starred Leslie Nielsen when he was still doing romantic leading roles. The character of Robby created quite a stir at the time. He was definitely a benevolent robot who was unable to harm humans. An immense computer system, the hidden evil element of the movie, served as a foil.

robots 03
Most people remember HAL, the AI embedded in the spaceship of 2001, a Space Odyssey. This movie debuted twelve years later and showed how AI could be a force of evil. Few who saw it will forget the creepy voice of HAL (notably one letter apiece short of IBM alphabetically).

I probably will not see Chappie for several reasons based on the reviews and my viewing of the trailers. The concept of artificial intelligence rising to the level of human consciousness bothers me, not for religious but for scientific reasons. However, many students probably will see it if only because of its themes involving street gangs and defiance of authority.  Continue reading

MOOC Sightings 007: The Battushig Factor in College Admissions

MOOC Sightings2

The difference between SAT scores of students from the lowest (<$20K) and highest (>$200K) income brackets is approximately 400 points. This point difference is mirrored in comparisons between the lowest (<high school) and highest (graduate degree) parental education levels.1

Battushig Myanganbayar

Battushig Myanganbayar

This correlation seems immutable. Parental education and income levels impact SAT scores and determine who gets into the most selective colleges. Then along came Battushig — Battushig Myanganbayar of Mongolia, that is, “The Boy Genius of Ulan Bator” — who, in June 2012, at 15, “became one of 340 students out of 150,000 to earn a perfect score in Circuits and Electronics, a sophomore-level class at M.I.T. and the first Massive Open Online Course, or MOOC.”2 His accomplishment didn’t go unnoticed, and he is now a research student at the MIT Media Lab.

Battushig is, of course, a rare exception, but his success adds to the already enormous potential of MOOCs and raises the possibility that they could become a factor in college admissions. In an editorial yesterday, Pitt News broaches this very idea: “Universities sometimes directly accept a student that excels in one of their MOOCs…. If not, the student may still choose to list the MOOC on his or her resumé under skills or relevant education. A completed MOOC is a valuable asset, comparable to a week-long leadership conference.”3

The message for parents and students is clear: MOOCs are poised to clear their current wildcard status and earn credibility as a key factor in college admissions.
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1 Zachary A. Goldfarb, “These Four Charts Show How the SAT Favors Rich, Educated Families,” Washington Post, 5 Mar. 2014. Also see Josh Zumbrun, “SAT Scores and Income Inequality: How Wealthier Kids Rank Higher,” WSJ, 7 Oct. 2014.

2 Laura Pappano, “The Boy Genius of Ulan Bator,” NY Times, 13 Sep. 2013. Also see her “How Colleges Are Finding Tomorrow’s Prodigies,” Christian Science Monitor, 23 Feb. 2014.

3Massive Open Online Courses Better Depict Student Potential,” op-ed, Pitt News, 23 Mar. 2015.

MOOC Sightings 006: Universities Are ‘Middle-men Selling a Product That Is Past Its Sell-by Date’

MOOC Sightings2

MOOC numbers from Seb Murray1 that are hard to ignore:

“About 50% [of] Coursera’s 12 million users are utilizing its courses to advance their careers, says Julia [Stiglitz, head of business development at Coursera]. ‘Helping people accelerate their career[s] by learning new skills is a major way that we hope to impact the lives of our learners.’”

“A recent survey of 400 US employers by Duke University and research group RTI International found that 57% said they could see their organization using Moocs for recruitment. And three-quarters said job applicants taking relevant Moocs would be perceived positively in hiring decisions.”

“In a poll of 1,000 UK employers last year by distance learning specialist the Open University[,] nearly half said additional education is the number-one reason they would offer salary increase or promotion – and gaining education with free online courses was the third most common thing the employers looked for.”

“Recent research by the Career Advisory Board found that 87% of 500 US hiring managers are likely to consider non-traditional ‘micro-credentials’, or specialized certificates awarded by reputable educational institutions, as proof of skill mastery.”

“Close to 95% of edX courses offer a verified certificate, [Nancy Moss, director of communications at edX] says, with many of its users looking for new jobs. ”

“While universities have faced the ignominy of budget cuts, tech groups have harvested massive war chests to expand. EdX last year had been funded with $90 million; Coursera has raised a total of $85 million; Udacity has raised $58 million.”

“Alison’s [Mike Feerick, CEO and founder of the Ireland-based Mooc provider,] offered a view that is widely shared in the education community: ‘…[Universities] are the necessary middle-men selling a product that is past its sell-by date.’”

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1Mooc Makers Disrupt Business Education With Careers Focus,” BusinessBecause, 22 Mar. 2015.

Mars One Fizzles?

picture of Harry KellerBy Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education

One of the craziest schemes to garner worldwide publicity and lots of contributions is having some new problems. Mars One has lost one of its final hundred to misgivings about the process by which he was chosen. Will more come out with similar stories? Is this the beginning of the end for Mars One?

The Mars One stray is Joseph Roche, an assistant professor at Trinity College Dublin with a PhD in, wait for it, physics and astrophysics. With this education and background, he’s not just a scientist well equipped with Carl Sagan’s famous “baloney detection kit,” he’s also a specialist in getting around the universe.

Mars One is a reach too far. Until I see plenty of funding and until I see that water mission and then see the first supply mission land successfully, I will remain cautiously skeptical. -H.K.

I have written plenty about Mars One and its challenges. In the end, I stated that its biggest challenge is not radiation or water or air or food but money. It’s not just the money to send that first expedition to Mars but also the money to keep sending more until the colony is self-sufficient. The first expedition requires several preparatory flights to deliver lots of habitat modules, freeze-dried food, solar panels, machinery, rovers, and more. Each of those unmanned preparatory flights will cost very large sums of money, likely a billion or more dollars apiece.  Continue reading