23 Mar 2010

Distance learning for the over-educated

I’m definitely a “lifelong learner” type, always craving new courses, books, or ideas. I even love reading long computer game manuals for complicated games like Europa Universalis 3. It’s pretty easy to learn the beginning of a new field, because there are usually some audiobooks, Teaching Company courses, or online materials to introduce you to the main concepts. But what if you already know a lot about something, and you want to learn even more?

What if you are already educated in a field, and you want to learn about a sub-field, or a more advanced version of what you already know? Here, your options are more limited. If you are lucky enough to live near a college or university, and that university teaches in your field, and offers a course in the sub-field you want to explore, and you have time to audit a course, and the professor permits you to audit, and you manage to attend twice a week while holding down a job, then goody for you! I am almost in that boat, since I live in Pittsburgh, which has several colleges and universities, including two major universities that have several departments covering the areas I love. In browsing the Fall 2010 class schedules, I see a few courses I’d like to take. Some are more related to work, some are more related to my past life as a mathematician. If I convince myself I should take time during the work day to take a class, then I might be in luck. But what if I specifically wanted to take a graduate-level class in, say, algebraic geometry, and none was on offer in the Fall? Are there online algebraic geometry courses?

No. Believe me, I looked everywhere. MSRI has lots of lectures posted online, and they are usually long workshops that might constitute a good introduction to a subject, but their videos are all broken and have been since I first went to the site, and are still broken three weeks after I wrote to inform them they were broken. I looked at everything in iTunes U, and those cover mainly undergraduate topics, and the few exceptions were not interesting to me. I looked at MIT OpenCourseware, but everything with video lectures is on iTunes U, which I already know doesn’t cover what I want. Lecture notes don’t help any more than books.

So what about books? I have lots of books. I have one next to me called “Heat Kernels and Dirac Operators” which is beautiful and fun to read. But I don’t have the discipline to work through it all alone. I need the structure of a class, or a seminar.

An informal seminar would be fantastic. If I knew someone in Pittsburgh who wanted to work through “Heat Kernels” with me, that would probably be the best possible outcome. But the odds that there is such a person and that I will meet them during my limited time outside of work is zilch.

Which brings me to my dual proposal for the world. First, please record video of all your graduate courses and sell them on iTunes, or offer them free through iTunes U, or offer them to distance learning students at a reasonable rate, and make the course easy to find. I mean, my own alma mater, Columbia University, should offer me, an alumnus, video of all the math department courses. I’d love them for it. Yes I took some of those courses, but now, years later, I’d take different ones, and different ones would be offered than were offered during my years there anyway, and it would be great.

Part two of my proposal is for the Web 2.0 entrepreneurs. Let me meet, non-awkwardly, on a web site, people like myself, and form an ad-hoc videoconferencing seminar. We would agree on the reading material, and take turns presenting chapters or sections of the material, like in a regular seminar. Video skype, plus screen sharing or web conferencing, plus whiteboards, it could totally work! The technology all exists, we just need a way to find each other, and to have a web site with enough features to support it. Should I create it? Would anybody show up? Maybe I’ll post to mathoverflow.com and see if anyone agrees.

08 Dec 2009

Giving digital items is hard

Here’s a list of a few things I like: books, audiobooks, music, movies, video games, iPhone apps. I consume these items on a variety of devices: Kindle, iPhone, PC, Mac, Xbox, PS3, Wii. Most of those platforms have a digital download mechanism in place for the software, e.g. you can download music or audiobooks from the iTunes store, Amazon or Audible. You can download movies from iTunes, Amazon, Xbox, or PS3. You download iPhone apps from iTunes. You can download Kindle books from Amazon. You can download many PC games from Steam. Some games are ONLY available for download. The consoles have their own built-in stores that use points or a credit card.

Of all the permutations and combinations, only a handful permit gift-giving. You can “gift” (as we say now) iTunes music, movies, or audiobooks from one account to another. You can do the same with Steam to give someone a PC game. You can purchase an Xbox downloadable game code from Amazon and give it to somebody. That’s it, that’s the full subset of the above available for giving as a gift. You cannot give iPhone apps, Amazon music or movies, Kindle books, or PS3 or Wii downloadable games. The best gift-giving experience is still to give someone a physical item, but as time goes on that’s just not what I want to receive, with the notable exception of movies. I am not yet comfortable owning a purely digital version of a movie. I want to have the disc, preferably blu-ray since the quality is the highest possible.

26 Jul 2009

Mac Moments: Not using paths

On my Mac, I had a movie in my Movies folder called “Sesame Street Season 1 part 1.m4v”. I dragged it to iTunes so I could play it there (for my daughter), and all was well. One day I wanted to move those old Sesame Streets into a folder called “old”, so I made the “old” folder and dragged that movie in, no big deal.

iTunes still had a record of that movie file of course, but what happens when I ask iTunes to play it? What do you think ought to happen? What do you wish would happen? What do you think computers are capable of enabling to happen?

I’ll tell you what happens on a Mac: it plays the movie, and on Windows and all other operating systems, it does not. This is not about iTunes. The distinction holds for any piece of software at all that maintains pointers to files, whether it’s a media organizer, or a Recent Documents feature in a word processor. This is because on Windows, there is no other system-provided mechanism for storing file locations besides paths. Paths include the name of all enclosing folders, plus the filename, plus of course the drive letter on Windows, e.g. “C:\Documents and Settings\Greg\My Movies\Sesame Street Season 1 part 1.m4v”. If I change the path to include “old” partway along the chain, which is what moving the file into “old” amounts to, then the path has changed and the original path is invalid, it points to nothing.

I will not describe the technical details of the mechanism the Mac uses instead, because frankly it doesn’t matter, that’s the whole point. It’s a smart piece of technology that hides from the user, but enables the user to work in a more intuitive way. It permits all software not to be sensitive to changes the user makes to the locations of files or folders.

This mechanism has existed since the early days of the Mac. It’s not some fancy modern cpu-intensive disk-intensive feature that indexes your hard drive or anything. It’s just a better way of storing file locations in software, since users like to move stuff around.

This is one of those differences that I usually have trouble articulating, but subconsciously affects all my decisions, just like the fragility of paths affects many of my decisions when I’m using Windows.

19 Jul 2009

Lord of the Rings in 100 48 pages

I am a huge fan of Peter Jackson’s movie versions of The Lord of the Rings novels. A HUGE fan. But I am also a fan of the books, which I have read several times, and which I have also done supplementary reading on.

This post is for anyone who enjoyed watching the movies, is willing to re-watch the extended editions, and has a desire to read the books but hesitates to invest the full time required to read 3 novels.

What I have done is go through the books and find the paragraphs where the story differs from the story told in the movies. This serves two purposes. Firstly, for me, there are a few things I felt were especially disappointing or overlooked in the movies, including elements that I consider thematically crucial, and I want others to share in that opinion without having to read every word. Secondly, for you, it will allow you to use the movies to substitute for most of the content of the novels, which when added to the material I am listing here, will give you the entire story as presented in the book. It will also give you good exposure to Tolkien’s writing style and the tone of the books.

I have tried to make it easy for you to follow along no matter what edition of the novels you have. I have provided page numbers for the 3-paperback version published by Ballantine in 1993, and the red single-volume collector’s edition. But in addition I provide the chapter number and the snippet of text that begins and ends the excerpt, plus the approximate number of pages the excerpt runs in my paperback edition, just to give you a sense of the size of the excerpt. If you own the Kindle or another electronic edition, you can probably type in my snippets to find the beginning. I have also annotated each excerpt, to indicate why I am including it.

Note that each novel has two sets of chapters numbered from 1, since it’s actually a 6 ‘book’ story the way Tolkien divided it up. So “TTT 2.5” means The Two Towers, book 2, chapter 5.

The table is available as a Google spreadsheet document.

17 May 2009

My interpretation of 42% pro-choice

I’m going way out on a limb here, so bear with me.

42% of Americans are pro-choice, according to a new Gallup poll, and 51% are pro-life. My response to this is: since so many Americans disagree with the pro-life stance, then we should stick with the neutral road, which is the policy to keep abortions legal.

Those who are against abortion may avoid having them, and convince those around them not to have them, either. That is also neutral. What is not neutral is to project one’s morality onto others and require adherence without sharing the morality. Not when there is so much disagreement. There is no clear morality here if 42% disagree. Morality is not democracy, I’m sure you’ll agree, but when did it become OK to require conformance to one view in the presence of many others? Maybe in Afghanistan, but not here.

If John is pro-life and Mary has an abortion, she does not commit any sin against John. John is NOT INVOLVED unless he actively and aggressively meddles. Any view that reaches out and forms an opinion about the actions of others is suspect. I question the motives of that person, because I suspect they are overcome by their will to dominate others.

Oh, and by the way, I’d like to see the poll numbers broken down by response to the question “are you anti-abortion?”

23 Feb 2009


I’m reading an interesting book about economics, public policy, and psychology. It’s called Nudge. They make many interesting points that were completely new to me about the way people do not behave in the rational manner modeled by the previous generation of economists. In fact, there are systematic biases in our decision-making that can be quantified and worked around by enacting sensible policies. The cover issues ranging from the Medicare prescription drug plan to 401k plans, to organ donation, to the environment. The ideas are presented clearly with lots of examples. Highly recommended.

11 Jan 2009

Vista = Ick

I’m so tired of living with Windows Vista. Especially when it comes to USB. Whenever I plug in a USB device that I’ve used a million times before, but I plug it into a different USB port, Vista goes into overdrive. “Searching for driver!” it exclaims in a balloon. The hard drive churns and churns for about two minutes. You can’t do anything else disk-intensive during this time, so basically you’re just waiting at this point. If you click the little tray icon that appears, it says “Searching for driver in installed locations” or something. Finally it’s done and it says “Canon digital camera.” No kidding, the one I plugged in yesterday? Congratulations. Maybe I should plug it into each port in my hub so that I can go through this once and then know that I’m safe.

08 Oct 2008


I love the feeling I get after I tweak what songs are on my iPhone. I added a composer (Mahler) and a Teaching Company course (about Mahler) because I finished listening to another course (about US relations with the Middle East). I added some Beatles album art and the latest Ben Folds album. It’s all freshened up and ready for new listening!