I am beginning to get the sense that online education is about to turn the corner. I base this observation on a simple heuristic, which I won’t try to justify, but I suspect that it works here: when an established product is challenged by a newcomer, the “knee” of the adoption curve occurs when someone comes up with a version of the challenging product that clearly surpasses the established product in quality. Note that the relevant comparison isn’t with the whole challenging product space, it’s only the best of the challenging offerings that matter. That the online education endeavor as a whole still seems (to put it tactfully) “not ready for prime time” is irrelevant, because as soon as one challenger figures out the right formula, others will adopt it and improve it. Before the iPad, there were many not-quite-right attempts at tablets and touch screens; once the iPad existed, none of them mattered.

There are signs that this transition is at long last happening with online courses. As Exhibit A I will cite (later, below) an online class that I’m currently taking on Coursera. No moment too soon, given that the main traditional purveyor of education — the university system — is already far along in its evolution into a kind of expensive Club Med for adolescents (and rich sinecure for administrators).

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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 »

Further regarding my previous post about the Swiss move to de-peg the Swiss franc from the Euro — In John Mauldin’s Thoughts From The Frontline letter this week, he notes:

Early Thursday morning the Swiss abandoned that policy. Much of the press coverage in the (largish) wake of their surprise move has focused on the costs to banks and hedge funds around the world, but you have to realize that serious pain is being felt in Switzerland itself. Every bank and business that held non-Swiss-franc debt or investments took an immediate 15–20%+ haircut on its holdings. Swiss investors lost at least 10% on investments in their own stock market and more on shares they held in other stock markets. Forty percent of Swiss exports go to the Eurozone, and the Swiss franc is now over 30% higher than it was five years ago – with almost half that movement coming in one day. Those exporters just got hammered.

And this was not a painless policy decision for the SNB. Citibank estimates the SNB’s losses to be close to 60 billion Swiss francs.

Those are a lot of gored oxen. But keeping in mind that currency trading is at root a zero-sum game, what I want to know is — who were the big winners? For sure, there’s a chess game going on behind the scenes here. Some players knew this was coming and profited mightily from this scam. More »

In a conversation with an economics PhD friend of mine last Thursday, I was indulging in my usual bloviation about the insanity of the notion that a weak currency is good for the economy. As I have ranted here previously, it may be good for debtors, who can pay back their obligations in inflated currencty, and it may be a short term benefit for some exporters, but it certainly isn’t good for the economy. As my friend pointed out, it may also be good for politicians, since the resulting inflation may cause a nominal increase in the income subject to taxation, with the net effect of pushing it into higher tax brackets.

In the course of our conversation (and in my previous post), I cited Switzerland as a country that clearly should be able to get the benefits of both a strong currency and strong exports, simply by adjusting prices instead of trashing the currency.

The very next day, the SNB announced that they were dropping the CHF1.20 ceiling vs. the Euro, causing a great deal of wailing and gnashing of teeth in the financial world, and no doubt laughing all the way to the bank. What a sucker play! More »

I have always been a big fan of iconoclasts and dissenters. Partly, this has to do with the smugness of the defenders of the accepted wisdom, whatever it is — there’s something about the phrase “every reputable scientist / economist / historian / etc agrees” that sets my teeth on edge. It isn’t so much that whatever it is that they’re agreeing on is necessarily wrong — it’s that it’s boring. I can think of very few breakthroughs in science or technology that didn’t start out as off-the-wall ideas that were objectively crazy according to the accepted wisdom at the time. That doesn’t mean that the iconoclasts are always right or even frequently right — obviously, they’re usually wrong, because they’re making what amount to risky bets, and by definition, risky bets usually lose. But the clever ones nearly always have something to say that’s worth listening to, and their writings are often a great source of creative stimulation. They may be wrong a lot, but they’re almost always colorful and interesting. More »

A year or so ago, while we were still living in the Phoenix area, I decided to build a patio roof over the concrete slab outside the back door of our house.  Visiting the Building Safety Department of our suburban city, I learned that, yes, this would absolutely require a building permit. The application fee would be more than $500, and I would need plans, signed off by an architect.  In other words, it would cost more to get the permit than I was planning to spend building the patio cover.

That was the end of that project.  Just as well, given the subsequent trajectory of Phoenix area real estate.

Now I live in the southern Philippines. Neighborhoods here tend to operate on a principle that may seem strange in modern America: it’s your property, you can do whatever you want. More »

(My friend Tom, certainly among the most analytical and intellectually capable people of my acquaintance, posted two long and thoughtful comments to my post of a few weeks ago about computational models in general and climate models in particular. I thought that Tom’s comments deserved better billing so with his permission I have converted them to a guest post, which follows, with some slight editing for flow. Tom raises some valid and interesting points, which I will probably revisit in a future post. Also, I highly recommend the Guardian podcast linked in Tom’s post below, in which I can find very little to take issue with other than the implicit assumption that anthropogenic climate change is a proven fact, forever settled, and about which no reasonable disagreement is possible.)

Here’s Tom:

Jack, I won’t pretend to any ability to state properly the scientific case in favor of the many nonpolitical and serious climate scientists who are presently convinced that dangerous anthropological global warming exists and is increasing. I do, however, think that your posting gives too much weight, like the litigation lawyers we both know who want to win for their clients by fair means or foul, to the possible or, as you put it, inevitable computer modeling hocus pocus and political jabberwockiness that exist in the science dispute. I personally believe, and feel it’s OK to use this, since your posting also contains a fair amount of opinion, that existential evidence of global warming caused by increasing CO2, apart from intricate computer models and hypocritical politicians, is gathering apace. Can anyone rational turn a blind eye to that? More »

Some time ago, I wrote about what I regard as the lunacy of deliberately cheapening one’s own currency, and how I cannot fathom how increasing the (in real terms) price one pays for everything one buys (imports) and simultaneously reducing the amount one gets paid for everything one sells (exports) could conceivably be regarded as beneficial to one’s economy.

As further proof that I just don’t “get” economic policy, here is another bit of accepted wisdom that seems nuts to me. The following quote is from the most recent (and last) issue of the always entertaining and incisive newsletter “Things that make you go hmmm”, by Grant Williams, but you can find similar opinions expressed by many other economic commentators:

“[T]he fact that Japan’s population is now declining by roughly 20,000 people every month has seemingly crept up on the world and taken everybody by surprise. . . .

“The only answer to Japan’s demographic problem is mass immigration. Simple.”

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