Sopoforic Agents in Childhood

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Udacity

Posted by Tracy Poff on April 18, 2012

For the past few weeks, I’ve been taking online classes from Udacity. They offered an introductory CS class and a class on programming a robotic car beginning in February, and these two have recently ended. Four new classes have begun, and I decided to take them all.

So far, I’ve completed this week’s unit for CS262, “Programming Languages”, taught by Westley Weimer. It’s a fantastic class, so far, and I heartily recommend it to everyone with an interest in computer science.

I’ve still a few classes to finish by the end of the week, but I anticipate the others being great fun as well.

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Why I Read Books Aimed at Children

Posted by Tracy Poff on July 31, 2011

Because they’re amazing. The Golden Book of Facts and Figures by Bertha Morris Parker, in a section on money, has a heading for “Pacific Islands (New Britain, San Cristobel)”. The table below, describing items used as money and their relative value, reads (emphasis mine):

10 coconuts = 1 string white whales’ teeth.

10 strings of white teeth = 1 string of red whales’ teeth or 1 dog’s tooth.

10 strings of red teeth = 50 porpoise teeth.

500 porpoise teeth = 1 wife of good quality.

1 “marble” (shell) ring = 1 good pig.

Stunning. Also, I like that the order implies that “1 good pig” is more valuable than “1 wife of good quality.”

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General Chemisty by H. G. Deming

Posted by Tracy Poff on July 7, 2011

As I was looking through my library, searching for a reference on chemistry, I came across this book: General Chemistry, 5th ed., by Horace G. Deming. The first edition was copyrighted in 1923, and this edition is copyrighted 1944 (though this particular book is from the fifth printing–October 1945). I skimmed through it a bit, and it seems like a really excellent book–better, anyway, than the chemistry books I had in school.

I’ve since read the first chapter, and I’m reminded why I like old books so well–the language used in modern books is so boring by comparison. For instance, Deming defines’ metallurgy as “the art or science of winning metals from their ores.” Of course, much of the ‘interesting’ word choice is due to simple shifts in language, and wouldn’t have been especially unusual at the time, but even so, older books often had some character not present in modern books; authors often wrote rather poetically, compared to the much simpler prose of modern books, devoid of ‘needless’ complexity of language. And, I find that language aside, there are many times interesting comments from the authors. For example, at the end of the first chapter (of fifty), “What Chemistry Is About”, Deming writes:

Thus, for those of us who make only a brief study of chemistry, the benefits to be expected are of an indirect nature. Increased capacity for enjoyment, a livelier interest in the world in which we live, a more intelligent attitude toward the great questions of the day–these are the by-products of a well-balanced education, including chemistry in its proper relation to other studies.

I would not expect such an aside in any modern chemistry textbook. Perhaps, for most students, it would not be a useful thing to say, but I would hope that some would have their fires of interest stoked by this comment. It’s a very optimistic view of the value of education, but I do not think optimism is a vice. And, of course, if I did not agree with the sentiment, I certainly wouldn’t have begun such an ambitious project as I have, to read many of the more important works of the Western canon. Naturally, ensuring I have a solid grounding in the sciences goes hand in hand with that.

So, I’ve set out a plan to read this within the next few months. Even reading quite slowly, at should finish the book in at most 90 days, and I don’t expect to actually take that long–the book is not quite 700 pages, counting the appendix. Of course, I shan’t be reading at quite the pace I might read some random novel, so I don’t expect to finish in a day or two, either; I must take care to read the book thoroughly, and not merely let the words pass from the pages to my eyes without continuing on to my brain.

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On Morality and Atheism

Posted by Tracy Poff on June 29, 2011

A post on Daylight Atheism regarding a religion reporter who had deconverted brought atheism to my mind, once again. I have thought, in the past, on what would be necessary for people to feel comfortable identifying as atheists, and not to feel that they are missing out by rejecting the false claims of religion. For, I fear, there are those who would rather profess to believe a lie than to accept a truth they find uncomfortable.

Lately, as I have written elsewhere, I have been reading Plato, as part of my project to read a good portion of the western canon, and so to be ‘well-read’. I have said it before, though not here, but I feel that reading, be the literature fiction or non-fiction, and of really any sort, confers moral benefits on the reader. For, if the literature be fiction, the situations and the themes expressed by the work should communicate some moral knowledge to the reader, either directly, as of a fable with a moral, or indirectly, as the reader considers (even if only briefly and in no great depth!) what he has read. The same applies, I would say, to narrative nonfiction–biography, history, or such–for I do not conceive of any essential difference between the fictional and true, from the perspective of the reader. As for the non-fictional, non-narrative works, such as science textbooks, or indeed repair manuals or any other thing, where these books instruct truly, the reader is enriched by learning more of the world, and where falsely, the reader is given the opportunity to discover the falsehood. Learning more of the world is of necessity beneficial, in my opinion–for all moral decisions are made in the context of the world, and particularly of the moral agent’s knowledge of the world. The opportunity to discover falsehood is beneficial insofar as men are likely to encounter falsehood at many points in life, and to be better able to recognize falsehood is to be better able to recognize truth.

The preceding is, perhaps, a very optimistic view of reading. I feel that /some/ benefit is conferred upon the reader, however small, but I do not claim that the benefit will be larger than might be obtained by otherwise employing one’s time. In some cases, I think it will, but in other cases almost certainly it will not. So: I say that reading is a beneficial activity, and that, furthermore, the degree of benefit depends on how wisely chosen are the books read.

So my project of reading the western canon is not merely a project to satisfy my ego, that I may pridefully boast of being well-read. Rather, it is a project of self-improvement, both moral and of my knowledge and other wisdom. How, then, precisely, does this relate to my earlier statements regarding atheism and religion? For though the link between morality and these matters is not hidden, there must certainly be more to it for me to discourse at such length on the subject. And so there is.

I thought, earlier today, that one benefit (or, one perceived benefit, for I do not accept without question that it is truly beneficial) that religion has over atheism is that a religion tends to provide a body of moral teachings that can be readily referred to. I do not claim (nor do I agree!) that these moral teachings are consistent, or even in all cases good, but they do nonetheless exist. If a Christian parent wishes to instruct his child not to steal, he may say, “do not steal, for the bible commands we do not.” If he wishes to instruct his child not to lie, he may say, “do not lie, for the bible commands we not bear false witness.” If he wishes to obtain obedience from his child, he may say, “do as I say, for the bible commands you honor your father and mother.” Whether these teachings are good moral teachings is in some ways immaterial–they are convenient. The Christian can refer to the bible or other teachings of the church for, if not guidance on any question, at least rhetorical support of his words.

Of course, I do not hold that atheists are without morals, nor that Christians are especially moral. But, atheists have no single, unifying body of moral teachings that they may refer to. For, an atheist is merely not a Christian, and also not a Muslim, nor a Buddhist, nor a believer in any gods–no other creed joins atheists together, generally.

Naturally, sources of moral guidance (or merely rhetorical support) do exists for atheists. An atheist may even refer to religious texts, accepting those teachings he agrees with and calling upon the authority of the text with those who believe in those teachings. And otherwise, there have been millennia of philosophical writings on all manner of moral questions. Even Plato wrote of such questions, over 2400 years ago, and he was surely not the first.

What work or works should atheists all look to, though, as unifying them and guiding them morally? If one were in the occident, and willing to read a great deal, one might indeed point to such a list of books as I have made of the western canon, and say that these, taken together, form a basis for moral understanding, representing the thoughts of thousands of years of wise men. But this is too much to ask. Even if I read quite quickly indeed, I am some years from completing even the list I have compiled, and I cannot expect others to read as much or as quickly as I do. A moral guide which is read and understood by no one is not useful.

I am conscious of the fact that books have been written, particularly to set out an atheist moral philosophy. I have never read one of these, so I do not know if perhaps one of them is a worthy work that all may benefit from and that may serve the purpose I have described. But, even if such a work may exist, no one work has in fact come to fill that place as a moral reference that the bible serves for Christians.

What then do I propose? Nothing. I have no answer to give. I know of no one who could be said to be qualified to write a moral guide to serve the whole world and every atheist or theist in it adequately, nor am I arrogant enough to believe that I may fill that role–nor that I may ever be wise enough to do so. It may not be possible. But, even if that one, excellent work does not now exist, nor may ever come to exist, still I think it could be beneficial to our cause–to promoting truth and thereby ending religion–if some approximation of such a book were written or chosen, and agreed upon broadly, if not (for I suppose it may be impossible) universally, so that when asked on what, then, we base our morality, we may say at least “though our beliefs are many and varied, here you may find much of that which many of us believe, in common with one another.” And I guess that such a work would in many particulars also agree with the moral sensibilities of religious people, and perhaps, if they do not use it to instruct themselves how better to make moral decisions, at least they may say (if my Latin is not too offensively incorrect) “do not lie, my child, for the Summa Ethica indicates that it is immoral.”

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750 Words to org-mode converter

Posted by Tracy Poff on June 18, 2011

The past few days, I’ve been using a site called 750 Words. The concept is simple: each day (preferably in the morning), write at least 750 words (preferably all at once). It’s just a simple writing exercise, but it’s really a nice way to start the day–750 words is enough to force you to think of some things to write; you can’t just write 750 words about your morning coffee, at least not without working at it. Coming up with and writing down some ideas at a burst in the morning helps to get you started making progress on your mental tasks, and helps you get your thoughts organized, too.

Now, writing my 750 words on the site is nice and all, and I appreciate the push to actually do it that the site provides, but I like to have all my writings kept locally, too. I usually use emacs org-mode to keep track of… basically, everything. I’m a big fan of it. So, I wrote a little python script to take the exported files containing a month’s writing that you can get from 750 Words and convert them into a simple structured org-mode file. It creates files that look like this:

* 2011
** 2011-06 June
*** 2011-06-14 Tuesday
:PROPERTIES:
:WORD_COUNT: 771
:MINUTES: 13.3774
:END:
Today I've been looking...
*** 2011-06-15 Wednesday
:PROPERTIES:
...

It currently just appends whatever entries are in the file ‘750’ to the file ‘750.org’, so you’ll want to process the export files in order. It’ll create the year heading if it’s processing a January dump, or if the file ‘750.org’ doesn’t yet exist. Otherwise, it just makes a new month heading and populates it with the entries in the file, with one entry per day.  I have only tested it against my own exports, of course, so I can’t guarantee it’ll work in all cases. In particular, if 750 Words sticks metadata lines at the top of entries like it does with the word count and time, then my script won’t insert those into the properties drawer like it does with the other two. It will probably just ignore them and proceed as though they didn’t exist, though. I’ll have to try using some metadata in an entry and see how (and if) it affects the export file, but for now, caveat emptor.

If this sounds useful to you, you can get it from the bitbucket repository. I’d be happy to hear any comments, suggestions, or bug reports.

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Japanese: Week 19

Posted by Tracy Poff on April 11, 2011

1693 suspended cards to go. Yeah, that’s an decrease of only about a hundred. I once again got distracted from enabling the cards by other projects. Oops.

On a more positive note, I acquired a collection of 8555 sentences in a shared deck for Anki, so I should be able to find sentences for a lot more words, now. The English translations that came with them seem a little suspect, unfortunately. I’ll have to try not to rely on them too much.

Also positive: I’m not having much trouble with the cards that I am enabling, and I’m blowing right through my daily reviews. Which, actually, is kind of bad since it means I haven’t been adding as many as I could have. Well, I knew that already.

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Japanese: Week 18

Posted by Tracy Poff on April 4, 2011

Just a little to write today. 1804 suspended cards remain. I’ve been a little too conservative re-enabling them, but I was afraid of causing a repeat of my previous failure. I’ll try enabling them at a quicker rate in the coming week.

One tangential note: some time ago I bought a fountain pen, in large part to use during my Japanese practice. I’d previously been using some cheap gel pens, but a few quick estimates indicated that a fountain pen would be cheaper over time, and (I hoped) more comfortable to boot. I’ve been using it ever since, but tonight it ran out in the middle of a review session, so I grabbed a gel pen. The difference was amazing–the fountain pen was so much smoother and easier to write with. I’d quite forgotten how poorly other pens wrote since I’ve been using my fountain pen exclusively. So, a couple of dollars for a cheap fountain pen and eight dollars or so for a bottle of ink were a great investment, I think.

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Mushroom Season

Posted by Tracy Poff on April 3, 2011

It’s early in April, which means tasty mushrooms are making an appearance.

We’ve found the first mushrooms of the year today; may we find many more.

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Mid-Week State of the Studies Post

Posted by Tracy Poff on March 31, 2011

On Sunday, I made a post discussing briefly what had gone wrong with my Japanese studies and what I was currently doing to fix these problems. Today is a good day I think to discuss what’s gone right over the past few months–what I’ve learned and how I’ve improved.

I mentioned that I learned very little, but I guess that’s only partly true. I learned very few new kanji or words, but I did get much more familiar with the ones I already knew and saw often. As a result, I’ve found that I’m now able to understand quite a few of the definitions given by goo, and so I’m trying to use Japanese definitions now instead of English ones, wherever possible. It does take me quite a bit longer to decode (‘read’ would be too strong a word, in most cases) the Japanese definitions, but it’s good practice and I learn a fair bit doing it.

Which brings me to a related point: the EDICT, excellent and valuable resource though it is, is in fact somewhat incomplete. Of course, I knew it wasn’t complete, but I imagined that its incompleteness lay in missing words entirely. In the brief time I’ve been using goo’s dictionary, I’ve revised that opinion. Actually, even those words that are present in the EDICT are often lacking senses given by goo (and, I guess, other Japanese dictionaries). I have read very little Japanese, so I can’t say how commonly used the missing senses are, but it’s a little troubling. For example, I was adding a flashcard for “話し手” to my deck the other day. The EDICT lists (or listed, rather, since I’ve submitted a correction) the definition as simply “speaker” (as in, one who speaks). However, goo includes an additional sense of “one who is skilled at speaking”.

In addition to becoming more familiar with what I already knew, I collected lots of words and kanji to learn. This is perhaps more of a neutral thing, but I’m still happy to have a list of words I’ve actually seen to learn. Sometimes when I’m just looking at vocabulary lists full of words I’ve never encountered, I feel like I’ll never come across something like “共産” in reality–how often am I discussing communism? Of course I do need to learn it, and now doubt I’ll see it more often than I think, but it’s more fun and more obviously useful to learn words I’ve actually encountered. So, I’ve got a nice big stack of words queued up to be turned into flashcards at my leisure.

Briefly, on current status: I continue to re-enable the cards I suspended while clearing my backlog, and I’ve been enabling new sentences and creating kakitori cards from them. I’ve also been adding a few vocabulary cards from the aforementioned queue. Progress continues apace.

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Japanese, briefly: kunoichi

Posted by Tracy Poff on March 28, 2011

くノ一 (kunoichi) is a Japanese word meaning “female ninja” or “woman”, written as a combination of hiragana, katakana, and kanji. Why is it written this way? According to goo, the answer is simple: have a look at 女 (onna, “woman”). If you decompose its three strokes, you get く, ノ, and 一. I hear that the 広辞苑 also supports this theory. The Japanese Wikipedia isn’t so sure, though. I don’t know, either, but I’ll accept goo’s explanation, and consider it one of the little quirks that makes Japanese fun to learn.

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