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The Weekly Blab

Volume 7, Issue 3—August 29, 2012


August is Almost Over…

…and the term is in full swing.  Still, you have to relax a bit sometime, and last weekend it was veg-out time to watch some movies and some soccer. 

My old HDTV finally bit the dust two weeks ago, which gave me the excuse to buy a new 3D HDTV.   I’ve been buying 3D DVD’s ever since, and this weekend it was time to watch the movie Tintin in 3D.  While most American’s aren’t familiar with him, just about anyone from Europe will tell you that Tintin is about as popular there as Mickey Mouse is here, and his creator, Hergé is almost as well known as Walt Disney.  Tintin is a newspaper reporter who always gets sucked into various mysteries and adventures, and this was a good one—exciting in parts, funny in parts, and always interesting and fast-paced.  The animation and 3D effects were great too.  Since I now have the 3D DVD, I don’t need the regular blu-ray any longer, so that’s the prize for this week’s trivia contest. 

Wife Jill and I also watched the movie Baaria, which is about 100 years in the history of Sicily told through the lives of the director’s (Giuseppe Tornatore, who also directed Cinema Paradiso) grandfather, father, and the director as a child.  The whole thing is a sort of valentine to Tornatore’s hometown of Bagheria, known in Sicilian slang as Baaria.  The town starts off as a dusty village at the beginning of the film, but by the end has become quite modern.  So, while the modern scenes are filmed in Baaria itself, to find a village that looked like Baaria did in the past, the older scenes had to be shot in Tunisia.  It’s a beautiful (if somewhat disjointed) movie that’s well worth a look.

Finally, in truly important news, while the Boston Red Sox are a total washout this season struggling to avoid last place, all is not lost.  Beloved Chelsea, the world’s greatest soccer team (except for SPSU’s, of course) is in first place in the Premier League, having won its first three games.   Against all the odds, after a pretty poor start last year, Chelsea pulled out winning both the FA Cup (in which all teams at all levels in England compete) and the UEFA Cup (in which the top teams across Europe compete).   This year, the push is on for a treble, which would mean repeating both of last year’s victories and winning the Premier League championship as well.  It’s not likely, but we’ll see.


The Future is Now… (Please note the embedded links to the articles)

Everyone says that there’s a paradigm shift coming in higher education and elsewhere due to online technology, changing the way that teaching, business, and everything else will happen.  Some put that shift a few years in the future and others put it a little bit later, but guess what?  It’s actually here now.  Want proof?  You got it.

ITEM:  I got an email the other day from two biochemists at Oregon State University, Kevin Ahern and his wife, Indira Rajagopal.  They have written a new biochemistry book called "Biochemistry Free and Easy" that they self-published, and are giving away for free to anyone who wants it.  The book is electronic and formatted for an iPad or PC.  They say that the reason is that they’re concerned about the high cost of textbooks, and aren’t going to make a penny on the book—they just wanted my help getting it in the hands of students who might benefit.  The website does, however, invite you to make a donation to support the biochemistry program at OSU.  Not only is it a not-bad biochemistry text, but it’s chock full of biochemistry songs and limericks, many with lyrics by the authors—what more could you ask?  Here’s an example:                

                        It surely cannot get much tougher

                        Than exceeding the range of your buffer.

                        All those excess H-plusses

                        Will raise a big ruckus

                        As the falling pH makes you suffer.

OK—it’s not great poetry, but it’s fun. 

Would I use this as a class text?  Good question.  The text part is 210 pages long (which would be very short for a typical biochem text), and it covers a number of topics in a somewhat superficial (“free and easy”) way.  I’d absolutely use it as a course supplement to help students understand key points and decipher the material.   Would I require my students to buy a $200 textbook to go along with this if I were teaching this course?  Hmm… Not sure.  I’ll have to give that one some more thought.

The book ends with 200 additional pages of class notes, key points, practice exams (with answers), and problems, so I’m guessing that there aren’t a lot of students who are failing biochem at OSU.  This is just an example of the huge number of high quality learning objects that are readily available, for free, on the web.  It’s proof that textbook publisher need to be looking at their business models.

ITEM:  There’s an app for everything.  Obviously a paradigm shift implies a time shift, and the Atlantic Monthly has an article in this month’s issue about telling time on Mars.  While our own President Rossbacher no doubt already knows this, I had never given much thought to the nuances of telling time on another planet.  It seems that there’s a convention (on Earth, at least) that even on other planets, there are 24 hours in a day (called a Sol when referring to Mars) and 60 minutes in an hour.  Since one revolution of Mars on its axis actually takes 24 hours and 39 minutes, this means that a Martian minute is 2.7% longer than an Earth minute.  The article goes on to explain:  “For scientists who work on the Mars missions, this can mean that the schedule of their work shifts by 39 minutes every day…From home, during the mission practice tests, it was very difficult to constantly translate Earth time to Mars time.  So the team turned to master watchmaker Garo Anserlian to craft special Martian-time watches…He spent two months designing and building his Martian clock, attaching tiny lead weights to slow the wheels and hands. His first effort was only off by 10 seconds, and from there, he fine-tuned it to get it exactly right. Once he had his working model, he could replicate it pretty easily for anyone on the rover team who wanted one.

Of course, online technology (courtesy of NASA) has made the watch somewhat obsolete  though it’s still pretty cool (though the website that was selling these watches for $250-500 is now gone).  They’ve developed a java app, Mars24, that gives the time of day, both on Earth and on Mars for where the different rovers and other Martian landmarks are, as well as a map that shows where it’s currently day and night on Mars (available in both PC and Mac versions, naturally).  Mars apparently has a prime meridian (similar to the one going through Greenwich, England) that goes through the center of the crater Airy-0, and the times for each Mars rover are calculated from the time there, known as Airy Mean Time (AMT).  The rover “Opportunity” is a little west of Airy-0, so it’s earlier there, while “Curiosity” is quite a bit east of Airy-0, so it’s later.  It’s a bit disconcerting to watch the seconds tick by at different rates, but that’s how it is—you can actually see the 2.7% difference if you watch for a little while.


ITEM:  The ultimate proof of the paradigm shift to online being everywhere comes in an item from the New York Daily News (and lots of other places).  Hold tight now.  Ready?

There’s this place called Kfar Kedem park, a tourist attraction in northern Israel, in which one can dress as the ancient Galileans did, ride a donkey, and enjoy a Bible-style living experience.  To complete the fun, the park has now outfitted five of their donkeys with wi-fi routers.  As one of the founders of the park put it: “You take some pictures, you want to change your picture on Facebook—you can do it.”  Donations of $2 per 15 minutes are requested for this service, a bargain if I ever heard one.

If you have a problem with this idea and think it constitutes animal cruelty, you do have other choices of places to visit.  You may want to consider instead the South by Southwest Arts and Tech Festival in Austin, Texas, where homeless people were used as 4G wireless stations.  


ITEM:  Finally, just to prove that even in a time where everything is changing, some things stay the same:  The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that dozens of students taking free (though non-credit) courses offered by an online startup company called Coursera were caught cheating.  A professor, Eric Rabkin (who teaches at University of Michigan as well as on Coursera), leading a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) entitled “Fantasy and Science Fiction”, wrote an e-plea to his 39,000 students to stop plagiarizing.  How do 39,000 students get graded in the first place?  Easy—one’s fellow students do the grading.  It’s called peer-grading.  It seems that some of the peer graders detected the plagiarism in various humanities courses, including essays lifted from Wikipedia.  The article reports: “[Mr. Rabkin] sees the plagiarism incidents as a "teachable moment." He said one student wrote him soon after he posted his letter and confessed to submitting a plagiarized essay, but the student said he had not realized that copying and pasting from other sources was wrong. The student asked that his essay be withdrawn and that he be disqualified from receiving a certificate, but Mr. Rabkin said he wrote to Coursera officials saying the student should be given a second chance.”  Coursera will now investigate possibly buying plagiarism-detection software.  It’s good to know that some things can always be counted on.


Last Week’s Trivia Contest

Last week’s questions focused on the old TV show, “The Addams Family”.  While it took some prodding to get people to try this one, after an email reminder the dam burst and we had lots of entries.  Our winner is Marka Ormsby, a technology specialist with our UTeach program, who got a fabulous five correct.  A jazz CD is on its way.  The answers were:

  1. The butler’s name.  Lurch
  2. The two children’s names on the TV show.  Pugsley and Wednesday
  3. What Gomez does when Morticia calls him “Bubeleh”.  He kisses her up and down her arm.
  4. Name of the Addams Family’s two pet piranha, also an opera by Wagner.  Tristan and Isolde
  5. The connection between the Addams Family and Lassie.  Ken Weatherwax, who played Pugsley, is the brother of the kid who played “Porky” (Jeff’s best friend) on the first several seasons of Lassie.  Also, his uncle Rudd was Lassie’s owner and trainer.



This Week’s Trivia Challenge

In honor of one of the Mars mission, our quiz this week focuses on Mars.  First with the most gets the Tintin blu-ray DVD.  No looking things up on the web, now!

  1. What Mars is named after.
  2. Best selling book about male-female relationships
  3. Radio show about an invasion from Mars, narrated by Orson Welles
  4. 2011 movie starring Seth Green.
  5. Name of the first song to premier on Mars—it’s by will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas.