Old-school programming not so relevant

28 06 2011

I have been watching session videos from WWDC 2011. For me, they bring up the subject of teaching old programming languages and techniques in an academic environment when the outside world rarely uses them. The stuff that Apple was showing off and people were discussing there was bleeding-edge stuff. However, it will not be bleeding-edge for much longer because developers are going to start adopting all the new developer technologies that they saw there.

I fully realize that it is important to learn the fundamentals of programming before moving on to the more shiny, advanced stuff like what Apple was showing. However, we never moved on. The instructors will probably not move on for some time, still.

An example might be compilers. If you are in the Computer Science program at Purdue, you may end up taking a class where you learn about compilers and actually have to make your own. Last year, Apple announced that they are moving on from the traditional GCC to the brand-new LLVM (Low-Level Virtual Machine). In fact, Xcode 4.2 does not support GCC anymore. It’s gone. History. However, GCC will likely linger for some time in academia because the instructors will not teach anything else. LLVM may be where things are headed, but it is new and unfamiliar. While most new software engineers will not have to understand how LLVM works, it is still a modern programming technology likely to become more and more popular as time marches on.

Maybe we should spend time during the 100- and 200-level computer science courses teaching students the basics of how software works. Things like C, Java, and basic compiler architecture could be covered then. The 300- and 400-level courses could focus more on modern programming techniques and technologies. Many universities have iPhone development courses. This is a step in the right direction. However, there are many other web frameworks out there, like Android, Sproutcore, and Rails that could do with more attention in academia as well. I could be all wrong about this, but this is where I stand on the subject.





Teach doubt in school

18 02 2011

I enjoyed my time in high school. I still value that experience a great deal. It helped me start to figure out who I am and where I want to go. In particular, the science programs had a big impact on me. From the Saturday Science program there that I participated in as a 3rd, 4th, and 5th-grader, to the four years of science that I took there, to the scholarship I won from the North Central Science Department at graduation, it was a great place to learn. Looking back, however, there was something missing, a lesson in reason and skepticism.

I did not really get into skepticism – real skepticism – until my junior year in college. Basically all that happens in high school science classes is learning the specific subject in question, be it physics, chemistry, biology, zoology, or some other subject. The scientific method is only briefly glossed over in the first class each year.

I think that in order for science classes to really teach science, they must teach the philosophy behind it, as well as the actual means. This can take a couple of forms. It could be a dedicated course, within the schools’ science curriculum. This course would  give students a firm grounding in rationality, skepticism, and inquiry. It would teach them how to question and test claims. The alternative to this solution would be to include a more in-depth lesson in the scientific method and scientific inquiry that might last a week (5 class sessions) or so.

I would make the argument that while we improve our education system across the country, we should look at where our science curricula might be lacking. We certainly could do with more rational analysis and thought in this country.





About to do something reckless and stupid

2 02 2011

The smart thing and the right thing are sometimes not the same thing. Should you do something simply because you can? I can do my job. It challenges me. I have learned a great deal from my job over the past seven months. Unfortunately, I do not get much satisfaction out of my work.

Stay hungry. Stay foolish.

I graduated from college about nine months ago and this is my first full-time, salaried job. I work as a web developer. I graduated with a degree in Informatics, which is an IT-related major. Before that, I was an Astronomy/Astrophysics major. Before that, a Geology major. Because my academic performance as an Astronomy major was not great, I decided I just wanted to graduate, so I found the easiest degree program I could, one that mildly interested me. I blasted right through, graduated, and got a job I could do but did not really care about.

This lack of interest or enthusiasm is no one’s fault but my own. I can get through each day, pushing sites out the door, but there is no fun in it for me. I like the people I work with. They are smart, nice, and knowledgable.

I did the smart thing. I got a steady job with good coworkers in a familiar city that is somewhat easy for me to execute. The question is did I do the right thing? I am considering doing something drastic and stupid but it might be the right thing for me to do. Let’s see if it acutally happens.





Astronomy Course Schedule, Mark I

31 01 2011

If you have been reading my blog, you know that I have been toying around with the idea of going back to school for my Astronomy Bachelor’s degree. I may even continue on to a Master’s degree. I am not certain if I have it in me to the full PhD/postdoc route. But grad school is a decision to be made a year before graduation.

I talked with an Astronomy/Astrophysics academic advisor at Indiana University back in December. Here is the rough course schedule we came up with.

  • Summer 2011
    • MATH-M211 Calculus I (4 credit hours)
  • Fall 2011
    • MATH-M212 Calculus II (4 credit hours)
    • PHYS-P221 Physics I (5 credit hours)
    • AST-A221 General Astronomy I (4 credit hours)
  • Spring 2012
    • MATH-M311 Calculus III (4 credit hours)
    • PHYS-P222 Physics II (5 credit hours)
    • AST-A221 General Astronomy II (4 credit hours)
  • Summer 2012
    • MATH-M343 Intro to Differential Equations with Applications I (3 credit hours)
    • MATH-M303 Linear Algebra for Undergraduates (3 credit hours)
  • Fall 2012
    • MATH-M312 Calculus IV (4 credit hours)
    • PHYS-P331 Theory of Electricity and Magnetism I (3 credit hours)
    • PHYS-P441 General Astronomy II (4 credit hours)
  • Spring 2013
    • PHYS-P332 Theory of Electricity and Magnetism II (3 credit hours)
    • PHYS-P453 Intro to Quantum Mechanics (3 credit hours)
    • AST-A451 Stellar Astrophysics (3 credit hours)
  • Fall 2013
    • AST-A305 Modern Observational Techniques (4 credit hours)
  • Spring 2014
    • AST-A452 Extragalactic Astrophysics (3 credit hours)

Nearly all of my liberal arts and non-degree credits are done and were taken recently enough that I can count them toward this degree. I will also need to take an intensive writing course at some point in this degree program. Given all that math and physics, it would be a welcome break.

I am making a pretty big assumption with this course schedule. That assumption is that I quit my steady, well-paid, job with health benefits and go back to school full time for another three years. That is a decision I am still wrestling with and I am far from making a decision. This is really just a thought exercise for me to see how long it would take me to complete this degree that I have been eying since  2007.





Driving school

26 01 2011

In my last post, I went over the fact concerning trend that powerboat racing has taken in recent years. The American Power Boat Association’s membership numbers have been dwindling for the last 20 years, especially in the Mod Outboard, Stock Outboard, and Professional Racing Outboard categories. These smaller outboard categories give people something fun to do on summer weekends, bring friends and families together, and may even launch drivers into OPC, Offshore, Inboard, and Unlimited classes. Powerboat racing is a part of the American racing landscape and has been a huge part of my life since I was six years old. That is why I was really happy to hear that APBA’s Driver School had been created.

Waiting for the green flagHere is the basic premise of Driver School. People who have never been in a race boat show up to the event. They pay a one-time entry fee. This fee can vary. At one event in 2010, the club charged APBA’s standard $35 one-event membership fee plus $25 for the club’s expenses. In exchange for that, they get to try out equipment from a variety of classes that has lended by racers for the day. They learn how to drive, how to start, what the flags mean, and the other basics of boat racing.

Typically, these Driver Schools are on the Friday before a boat racing weekend. They could also be offered on the Saturday or Sunday morning before a race starts. A first-time driver who has gone through a Driver School may even choose to run their first race on that same weekend, if they can find someone willing to lend them the boat, motor, and safety gear.

These Driver Schools are a great opportunity to get fresh blood into racing. Driver School is not the only way for a new driver to get into racing. I got a boat ride during a private testing session and I’ve just been learning as I go, with some help and advice from my fellow drivers.





Damn it, Texas!

14 12 2010

I always thought that school boards are made up of dull, but sane and reasonable people who make good decisions about education. Then I heard about the Texas Board of Education. They have been debating for several months about the curriculum of public schools throughout the entire state. The debate is mainly between extreme conservatives on the board and the remainder which consists of moderates and liberals. The conservatives on the board feel that current textbooks, having been written by “academics,” have an unfair liberal bias and that by making certain amendments, they will restore balance to the classroom.

Specific examples of the Texas school curriculum that will be changed are, “stressing the superiority of American capitalism, questioning the Founding Fathers’ commitment to a purely secular government and presenting Republican political philosophies in a more positive light.” Doctor Don McLeroy, a board member, insists that, through these changes, they are restoring balance and that, “academia is skewed too far to the left.” Dr. McLeroy has degrees in electrical engineering and dental science, which leads me to question what makes him think he is qualified to say there is a liberal bias in history, economics, or biology. Dr. McLeroy even attempted to give Republicans credit for the civil rights movement, which he claims some Republicans supported. While this may be true, social conservatives in the United States consistently fought that movement.

Another board member, David Bradley, is quoted as offering $1,000 for a charity of one’s choice if that person can present evidence of a constitutionally mandated separation between church and state. It’s been over four years since high school, so I could be wrong, but…

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”
U.S. Constitution – First Amendment

and

“…no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”
U.S. Constitution – Article 6, Section 3

I learned this at my public high school. I’m not normally one to rub a legal document in someone’s face, but Mr. Bradley’s comment begged it. I do it without apology.

There are many other aspects of the new curriculum that are not right. There is the virtual exclusion of Latino historical figures. There is an amendment to require the teaching that the Venona papers confirmed the presence of Soviet spies in the United States, somehow justifying Senator Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunt in the 1950s. Because of Thomas Jefferson’s opinions on the separation of church and state, his role in inspiring revolutions in the 18th and 19th centuries was cut from Texas’ curriculum.

There are too many things to mention all of them here. I value the education I received in public school. All of my teachers were very fair about how they handled historical events, evolution, public opinion, etc. They did not sway far to the left or to the right, nor did the textbooks. I feel sorry for Texan students and I fear for the future of education across the United States. Texas is a large purchaser of textbooks and textbook companies will be more inclined to produce one set of textbooks for the entire country. This does not necessarily mean that those companies will be compelled to print books that conform to Texas’ new curriculum. It just means that they will feel some pressure to put some conservative spin into a vital teaching tool.

Thank you for reading this wall of text. It upset me enough that I had to get all the way through this.





There are only 40 hours in the week

5 10 2010

For anyone who has gone to school while working full time, this post will be old news to you. For those who have not yet and are considering it, then listen up.

I recently attempted to work full time as a web developer while going to grad school full time for my master’s degree in Human-Computer Interaction. It ended badly. I was forced to drop of my classes so that I can actually do my job. By trying to do both work and school at the same time and full-time, I attempted too much at once. Clearly, it is important to limit what you attempt in one semester.

Many students, especially undergrads, work a part-time job. I did when I was an undergrad. I have a new theory about how to decide how much work and school you can handle. I think that it is pretty simple. Take the maximum number of hours you would be willing to work at a full-time job and take this as the maximum number of combined hours you would spend on work, school, and other things at the same time.

For example, I’m willing to work 40 hours per week at a full-time job, which is exactly what I am doing right now. Working 40 hours per week really takes all of my energy, so that is the safe maximum for me to attempt. When I try to mix work and school in the future, I will take into account my credit hours and the number of weekly hours required by my job. If I am taking 15 credit hours, then I shouldn’t try to work more than 25 hours per week. I need to work 30 hours per week, then I should not sign up for any more than 10 credit hours.

Learn from my failure. For most people, it is simply impossible to do both work and school full-time. Some people can handle it. I cannot.