I have been fortunate enough to have enjoyed a closeup view of the evolution of what we now call “blogging”, pretty much from the beginning. In 1994 my son, then age 10, put up a web site (they weren’t called blogs back then) aimed at pressuring Marvel to bring back a Spiderman character that they had killed off, and had 40 or so subscribers from places as far away as Eastern Europe (Marvel, sadly, was not swayed). I’ve had my own web site pretty much continuously since 1997, which was the year I started teaching programming (including web stuff) in a community college. Back then I thought of it mainly as a way to make a personal connection with students and prospective students, especially in the online classes that we were in the early stages of developing.

As online media evolved, blogging gradually went mainstream, and became a viable way to make a living for a few talented writers. But, in the process, it also became big business, as giant media outlets correctly perceived that bringing popular bloggers under their corporate umbrella was a good way to get well written-content, complete with a following of readers, for far less than the cost of paying salaried journalists. That has led to an inevitable change in emphasis and thrust, shifting away from bloggers writing because they have something to say, toward bloggers writing whatever will draw readers and build a following, which isn’t the same thing. My friend Tom recently sent me a link to a lament by Kevin Drum in Mother Jones entitled “Blogging Isn’t Dead. But Old-School Blogging Is Definitely Dying.” On reflection, I don’t think I agree — I think old school blogging is on about the same trajectory as always, it’s just less visible amid all the commercial media platforms, Twitter, Facebook, and other sources of noise. Old school blogs may not have many readers, but that’s okay, I think. It just depends on one’s reasons for doing it. More »

Back when I was teaching Java programming, I wrote a demo program that involved balls moving around and colliding with each other in a box. It was designed as a game, inspired by “Maxwell’s demon“; the box was divided into two parts by a barrier, and the barrier had a gate that the player could open or close, the objective being to try to get all the balls into one compartment. The balls would bounce around, and the idea was to operate the gate so as to let balls through in one direction but block them from getting back out. Needless to say, it did not turn out to be the next Angry Birds. It was written as a Java applet, and, as I have grumbled about elsewhere, the fine folks at Oracle have essentially killed applets dead, breaking zillions of web apps in the process, so I can’t post  a working version, at least not in that form. However, I have coded up a modified version, converted to javascript and running in a web page, here. This version is not a game, it’s a simulation of particles of gas in a box, for the purpose of trying to get a feel for some basic principles of thermodynamics.

The motivation for this simulation (apart from a continuing effort to get more comfortable writing javascript apps) relates to another “hobby” of mine, which is trying to fill some gaps in my grasp of basic physics. Meaning, in this case, the Maxwell-Boltzmann distribution, which (to oversimplify a bit) gives the breakdown of speeds of individual particles in a gas. To understand how this works, suppose you measured the speed of each of 1000 cars on the freeway. Then you could count how many are going between 45 and 50 kph, how many between 50 and 55 kph, and so on, and you could plot the results as a histogram. That’s what a Maxwell-Boltzmann distribution gives you — it’s for molecules of gas bouncing around in a box instead of cars on the freeway, but it’s exactly the same idea.

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I have become somewhat addicted lately to Go problems. There are apps for Android phones and tablets (and also for iPhone, I’m sure) that display Go problems and let you try various combinations of moves to solve them. Two that I use and like are ElyGo and Tsumego Pro. A more comprehensive list is here.This post is mostly about those apps and a feature that I wish they would add.

Go is a game often described as the Asian equivalent of chess. I won’t try to explain how it is played since there are many web sites that do that far better than I could (I recommend this one) — except to say that it’s played on a 19 x 19 grid of criss-crossing lines on which the players take turns placing a white or black stone. Go is actually similar to chess only in the sense that both belong to the category that game theory calls “partisan combinatorial games” and both have capture moves. 

In terms of strategy and “feel”, I find them completely different, in a way that more or less corresponds to what I perceive as differences between Asian and American or European cultures. More »