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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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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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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
:MINUTES: 13.3774
Today I've been looking...
*** 2011-06-15 Wednesday

It currently just appends whatever entries are in the file ‘750’ to the file ‘’, 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 ‘’ 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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Academics vs. Wikipedia, again

Posted by Tracy Poff on April 14, 2008

I’ve just come across a fairly annoying little article about the use of Wikipedia by students, written by Rodney Gedda and focusing on criticism of Wikipedia by Sharman Lichtenstein, associate professor of information systems at Deakin University.

If you are faced with the prospect of having brain surgery who would you rather it be performed by – a surgeon trained at medical school or someone who has read Wikipedia?

That’s the view of Deakin University associate professor of information systems Sharman Lichtenstein, who believes the popular free encyclopedia that anyone can edit is fostering a climate of blind trust among people seeking information.

Dr. Lichtenstein has some fairly odd ideas, though, in my opinion. For example, she is said, in the article, to be leading a team of researchers looking at how Wikipedia operates, but she is then quoted:

“People have invested a lot in becoming an expert and they are trying to earn a living and you can’t expect experts to contribute without pay.”

I wonder how she and her team of researchers missed the large number of experts that we do have contributing–without pay, even. Perhaps she blindly trusted some critics of Wikipedia, rather than checking it out for herself.

The article refers to Wikipedia as a “‘web of trust’ network”, which betrays a misunderstanding of either Wikipedia or the meaning of ‘web of trust’. Fortunately, we have an article to help them out.

Too, she seems to believe that Google is going to put articles from Knol at the top of searches:

“Google Knol is supposed to be a competitor to Wikipedia that will involve experts, and because it’s Google, search results will appear above Wikipedia entries which are quite often the first result,” she said.

I do not know in what world she lives that it could be considered a good thing for Google to give preference to its own products in search results, but fortunately it is not the same world that I live in.

She also seems to think that Wikipedia editors are some sort of elite group, and that our notability policy promotes discrimination and elitism. Well, the whole point of the notability policy is to discriminate among possible topics for those which ought to have articles, and as for elitism…

There are quite a few other odd bits in the article, but I’ll leave finding them as an exercise to the reader. It shouldn’t be too difficult.

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On citations and plagiarism

Posted by Tracy Poff on April 1, 2008

A class today brought to my attention the fact that most college students don’t appear to have a very clear idea of what plagiarism is, or why citations are needed in scholarly work. This is unsurprising, given that studies show that high school English teachers, who are meant to be instructing them on just this topic, seem to have a fairly shaky idea of what constitutes plagiarism, too.

First, it is my observation that students seem to equate plagiarism with copyright violation. While it’s true that some cases of plagiarism involve copyright violation, the relationship isn’t so simple.

A copyright violation is an act which violates a specific legal code–in particular, USC Title 17 in the United States, though the particular infringing acts are likely to be infringing in most countries due to international treaties. Plagiarism, on the other hand, is a violation of moral principles–a crime against academic integrity. It’s more like trademark law, really, than copyright law. Plagiarism occurs (broadly speaking) when one misrepresents another’s work as one’s own. While this could be done by simply copying parts of others’ work verbatim, even paraphrased work, which would not violate the copyright of the original author, ought to be cited properly–paraphrasing work does not make it your own, after all.

Today I heard students suggest that using a figure (e.g. XYZ Movie grossed USD 50 million in three months) without citation was plagiarism. Not so. Failing to cite a fact like that is sloppy work, but not plagiarism. The key element is that this fact does not involve any sort of creative work or any significant original research to discover. It’s like listing a person’s (well-known) date of birth; nobody would think that you were the one who originally discovered this fact, so by failing to cite it you do not mislead anyone into believing that it is your own work.

This isn’t really a topic I can get terribly worked up about, though. I shall, perhaps, in the next few days, write a post describing my opinion of students’ knowledge of copyright law, which should be more interesting.

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The end of print

Posted by Tracy Poff on March 16, 2008

The New York Times has an article titled “Start Writing the Eulogies for Print Encyclopedias” by Noam Cohen. “It has never been easier to read up on a favorite topic, whether it’s an obscure philosophy, a tiny insect or an overexposed pop star,” it says. “Just don’t count on being able to thumb through the printed pages of an encyclopedia to do it.” The article discusses some of the troubles print encyclopedias have had over the last fifteen years or so, and mentions some of the more popular electronic encyclopedias, including the new Encyclopedia of Life, Wikipedia, and the comparably ancient Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

It’s the sort of article we’ve seen before. In February, Brockhaus announced that it would no longer be publishing print editions of its encyclopedia, and earlier this month Gyldendal announced the same thing.

I am somewhat annoyed by the article’s presentation of Wikipedia, though. When it discusses the Encyclopedia of Life, it mentions what a great and ambitious project it is, with a suitably optimistic quotation from Dr. Edward O. Wilson, the project’s chairman. When it discusses the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, it mentions that the SEP is written and verified by experts, again with a suitable quotation from Dr. Edward N. Zalta about how quickly the Encyclopedia is updated to account for recent events.

When the article discusses Wikipedia, it does mention that Wikipedia is large–it calls it a behemoth, actually, which doesn’t seem quite the most complimentary word that could be used. Then, rather than mention our quality initiatives, or our very excellent coverage of recent events, it spends a paragraph discussing… wiki-groaning. Honestly, I don’t ask that Wikipedia’s faults be glossed over, but is it really necessary to mention wiki-groaning in every article that is even marginally related to Wikipedia?

But that’s beside the point, I suppose. It is sad to see print encyclopedias go. I’ve got a dozen or more sets of encyclopedias at home, taking up more than one whole bookcase: specialized encyclopedias of science and nature; a collection of handyman’s encyclopedias which describe how things around the house work, and how to repair them; small, six or seven volume sets of more condensed encyclopedias; and then the larger sets of World Book, and Funk & Wagnalls (which became Encarta), and the Encyclopedia Americana. I’ve certainly enjoyed reading them, each set, each article unique and interesting.

My sadness over seeing them go, though, is outweighed by my joy at what is replacing them. Many of these encyclopedias’ online versions are to be freely accessible, and ad-supported. It’s not the same as being freely licensed, but this is still a huge amount of knowledge that anyone with an internet connection will be able to access for free. Even if Wikipedia were to fail tomorrow and the database be lost forever, the fact that these encyclopedias are now available online and for free means that our project has been a success. I look forward to far greater successes in the future.

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Bridget Jones’s Diary

Posted by Tracy Poff on February 17, 2008

A few days ago, I read Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding, published 1998 by Picador, ISBN 0-330-33277-5. 320 pages.

This one was moderately enjoyable, although I liked it less than Pride and Prejudice, to be honest. Despite that Bridget Jones was a fairly sympathetic character, I didn’t feel like she was very likeable. From the start, Bridget is placed in some rather unenviable situations: paraded before a strange man by her friends and family, having various difficulties with Daniel, thwarted by chance (and a hair dryer) from having her first date with Mark Darcy. Unfortunately, her responses to these situations are somewhat less that admirable; regularly, she reacts by getting blind drunk and insulting the male half of the species, usually while eating and smoking quite a lot more than she ought to, given her goals of losing weight and stopping smoking. I do not mean to say that her reactions are not understandable, but they don’t tend to lead me to like her very much.

Bridget is set up in a role meant to be analogous to Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, but where Elizabeth is funny, confident, and sometimes unfortunately powerless, Bridget seems merely acerbic, irresolute, and fairly useless. Even in the moments that she is meant to seem admirable, it feels forced. Take, for example, a situation near the end of the book. It is necessary to convince Bridget’s mother to come downstairs, and Bridget attempts to do this:

‘OK. Leave it to me,’ I said, and walked to the bottom of the stairs.
‘Mum!’ I yelled. ‘I can’t find any savory doilies.’
Everyone held their breath. There was no response.
‘Try again,’ whispered Mark, looking at me admiringly.

Granted, this book is written as Bridget’s diary, so it is she who is interpreting his look as admiring rather than, conceivably, exasperated, irritated, or annoyed, but it is not Bridget’s interpretation that concerns me. Rather, it is Fielding’s writing, for it is her responsibility to convince us to suspend our disbelief, to cause us to come to like her heroine, to cause us to feel worried for Bridget’s sake; in my opinion, Fielding fails at these tasks quite prodigiously.

I have considered that perhaps Bridget Jones was not meant to be a likeable character; perhaps she was intended as an anti-hero of sorts. Wikipedia tells me that “Fielding often lampooned society’s obsession with women’s magazines such as Cosmopolitan and criticised wider societal trends in Britain at the time.” If Bridget was not intended to be likeable, then certainly Fielding may be forgiven for not making her so, but that would still leave me in the situation of having read 320 pages about the trials and tribulations of a woman I don’t much like, whose problems do not much interest me. As an adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, Bridget Jones’s Diary was worth reading, but I think I would not have read it otherwise, and I do not foresee myself reading it again for pleasure.

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ChemRacer 2713: The Legend of Kid Chem

Posted by Tracy Poff on December 28, 2007

I’ve recently added ChemRacer 2713: The Legend of Kid Chem, an edutainment title by Ohio Distinctive Software, to MobyGames. Having searched for reviews of the game, or indeed any mention of it whatsoever, I begin to wonder whether anyone has ever purchased it. I certainly don’t remember doing so, although I have a copy, so I must have acquired it through some means. Perhaps a gift from some well-intentioned but misinformed person.

A Google search for ‘chemracer’ yields only 187 results, which includes the pages from MobyGames that I’ve just added. I would like to say that this an obscure gem, but sadly that would be a lie. The game was made in 1999, and really shows its age. It looks just like countless other games made around the same time with various game construction kits (ChemRacer was made with Macromedia Director)–the car follows the mouse slowly; some other cars move randomly; a chemical thing appears and disappears at intervals, and you can cause your car to move over it to collect it, or something; crashing into another car opens a multiple-choice trivia screen with a countdown timer; and that is the whole of the game.

The movement is sluggish; the main ‘racing’ element is far from fun or interesting; the trivia section is annoying and has such enlightening clues as ‘this element is a solid at room temperature’ when the options are four solids–forcing you to reduce your score by taking another hint and removing any particular reward for knowing anything about the elements, even satisfaction.

ODS has made several other software titles, and claims to have served 1.5 million customers. I strongly suspect that all but a few hundreds of these customers were purchasing third-party titles from ODS, for I cannot imagine that many people could be tricked into buying their internally-produced software.

ChemRacer is a piece of history, indeed; a piece to learn from and never to repeat.

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Final Fantasy VII: Voices of the Lifestream

Posted by Tracy Poff on October 19, 2007

A new OverClocked ReMix album, Final Fantasy VII: Voices of the Lifestream, has been released recently. I’m downloading it now, so I haven’t heard all of the songs yet, but the streaming music playing on the website sounds very good indeed.

I may write a summary of my feelings once I’ve listened to the whole thing, but all of the music from OC ReMix is so good that I have little doubt that I’ll be very pleased by what I find.

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