Wednesday, September 29, 2010

religion in society

As I've been encouraged to keep my blog posts a little shorter, or at least less dense, I shall sum up today's thought for a blog in the words:

Oh, the irony.

From Burke's "Reflections" pg. 215:
 "We know, and it is our pride to know, that man is by his constitution a religious animal; that atheism is against, not only our reason, but our instincts; and that it cannot prevail long. But if, in the moment of riot and in a drunken delirium from the hot spirit drawn out of the alembic of hell, which in France is now so furiously boiling, we should uncover our nakedness by throwing off that Christian religion which has hitherto been our boast and comfort, and one great source of civilization among us, and among many other nations, we are apprehensive (being well aware that the mind will not endure a void) that some uncouth, pernicious, and degrading superstition might take place of it.

Emphasis added.

Thoughts? Go.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

September reflection post

In order to make sure I address the issues required by this blog, I will divide up the blog appropriately into blocks.

1. How has your digital literacy assisted your self-directed learning in the subject areas of the course?

As far as the ability to complete self-directed learning, not much has changed by learning the course material. I still search using Google and/or Wikipedia. However, being comfortable with these tools is a greatly beneficial skill. Google especially requires some skill to use - one has to know the appropriate keywords to use and also how to quickly skim through a number of excerpts of URLs and webpages.

In this class to this point, we haven't studied any topics which are difficult to distinguish or find (Google "Adam Smith", for instance, and you get the guy you're probably looking for), but even with this well-known name we also see a hit for a U.S. Congressman and a hit for a university professor with the same name.

I genuinely can't think of another way to describe the connection between my current digital literacy and my learning in this class. Essentially, the difference between this method of learning and a textbook is having the option of free and unlimited searching. I don't have to search through a book, or search for a book, but I have easy access to learning through searching. 

2. How has your creation of blog posts and digital media impacted your learning?

Creating digital media has been useful. I think learning how to use the new tools which are out there, and being alerted to them by discussions in class is great.

I struggle with the number of blogs for this class in two ways. First, people write them so frequently that I find it extraordinarily difficult to find an old post which I've commented on and follow up, and there are too many people for me to feel as though I can keep track of them. On my personal blog, I follow maybe 10 people, most of whom post less than once a month. This for me is comfortable. I feel a bit overwhelmed having to take in so many blogs at once for this class. I also feel guilty if I stop following a class blog.

Secondly, sometimes I don't feel that I have much to share on a particular topic, even if I personally found it intriguing. I'm pretty introverted, and I have lots of thoughts about things, but most things I think about in my head. Some of these things get expressed in in-person conversations with friends and family. I feel way less of an urge to write this stuff down.
I think dynamically - I change my opinions quite readily given feedback, and writing, even blogging, is way too permanent and way too one-sided of a conversation for me to feel like it helps much. I understand that this is an excellent way to communicate with people around the world, but honestly, if I had something I wanted everyone to hear, that I felt was really important, important enough to write, I would hash it out in my mind and with my friends and family for weeks beforehand. So this blogging twice weekly has been a struggle for me. I don't know if there's a way this could be changed, either the requirement or my natural inhibition toward publicly writing so much.

3. How have you connected with other class member and with the general public in these areas?

I really enjoy learning about the various new technologies and options out there. I think an interesting thing to consider, with all the different options out there, is how so many software programs out there which do similar things compete.

For example, I needed to do a presentation in my optics class. (We are asked to present twice during the semester on different historical physicists.) I used Prezi and asked my classmates for feedback (no one in the class had been aware of Prezi before). While there were oohs and ahhs over the new features of Prezi, and I had taught myself how to use the features in less than 20 minutes, when my professor asked the class if any of them would want to use Prezi in their future presentations, nine of the ten other students said they were sticking with PowerPoint. One student expressed that he felt dizzy during the presentation (which I totally understood, because that was how my first experience with Prezi felt as well), and the others just said that Prezi's features were not cool enough to spend the time learning when they already knew how to use PowerPoint effectively. I wonder how software companies take this psychological difficulty into account.

The one student who was excited about Prezi told me that he was planning on using the software at an upcoming research conference. He explained that the best student presentations win monetary prizes, and his secret to winning them (as he's won a few in the past) is to use innovative presentation techniques. He explained that he believed that it was neither his skill as a speaker nor the originality or complexity of his research that earned him the prize, but rather the originality of his presentation style which made his presentation memorable. I found this rather interesting as a possible appeal that software companies address, but this blog is already too long for me to elaborate.

Overall, I feel that I am learning in the class. My understanding of history has increased, and I enjoy drawing parallels between events in the past and how history is developing now. I also appreciate the basic explanation of computer science. (My experience with CS professors is that they typically assume you have a basic familiarity/working knowledge of certain concepts and terms which are brand new to me. So this breakdown is great.) I'm a little concerned about how things are being graded and the lack of direct feedback up to this point, but I think the midterm and the consequent interview tomorrow is a great idea and will help me understand some things about the course requirements. Thanks for the class and I will see you tomorrow!

the looong tail

I read this article from the link on our professors' blog, and I was greatly intrigued by the thought of lowest common denominator vs. the amount of interest needed to make a sale.

I'd actually thought a lot about this myself; for example, most members of my church disapprove of adultery, fornication, drinking, drugs, (excessive) swearing, etc. While most people are agreed that these are inappropriate things to depict on your average children's show, it sometimes seems impossible to find a movie intended for an adult audience which does not depict some of these actions in an idolized way, in a way where these actions represent either the positive culmination of hard work or the way to obtain happiness. It is difficult for me to find a well-done movie or TV show intended for my age which takes my perspective on these moral issues.

As I understand it, the reason it is hard to find films with these non-mainstream values (or at least often unpopular values) is that movies have historically needed to appeal to a wide audience range. At this point in time, it is almost expected that essentially every adult movie will contain non-marital intercourse, or excessive violence, or something else which fires up the imagination, hitting the lowest common denominator for many people. (Why is it that "adult-themed" has become almost synonymous with "immoral", rather than "dealing with issues requiring more emotional maturity than your average teenager"? I would be OK if we changed this back.)

I use this as an example because I feel that most readers of this blog will agree with me on this issue. Based on the stats in this article, it seems as though making movies designed for my special interests will become more economically viable. This is something I look forward to.

That being said, I'm going to keep renting movies from the "Family" section of the store. Pixar and Disney, you are great.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010


I found it very interesting to read this PDF, particularly the bit about European society's view towards increase of knowledge. I was aware that back in the day, the Church was the authority on all knowledge, and progression as a civilization was effectively halted in many ways. As the Renaissance came to be, however, and printing in particular was developed, ideas and knowledge were able to spread far more rapidly among people, and there was an increasing emphasis on personal knowledge and discovery. There also had to be a revolution in the mode of thinking; rather than accept new ideas based on the perceived authority of the person who came up with it (think Aristotle, whom my science teachers heartily disapprove of as far as his science goes - many have gone so far as to say Aristotle was the worst influence on scientific development in the known history of the world), people had to learn to trust experiment, the closest element to non-bias we know of.

I digress. The quote that caught my attention goes as follows: "Till about the year 1649, ... 'twas held a strange presumption for a man to attempt an innovation in learnings; and not to be good manners, to be more knowing than his neighbors and forefathers" (John Aubrey, emphasis added). I pondered about the consequences of this apparently society-wide belief; not only was there a general lack of increase in knowledge, but it was also considered socially unacceptable to learn more than those around you!

I wondered if there were any parallels in today's society. (I also discussed this with a roommate - I'm so glad my roommates are generally willing to put up with my discussions.) Understandably, if someone is eager to show off their learning in normal social situations, this is unacceptable. If someone is trying to beat you in knowledge, or out-argue you, in your average social meeting, this is not widely held to be enjoyable.

I especially found the thought of not knowing more than your parents intriguing. Parents typically dislike raising teenagers in great part because teenagers are convinced they know more than their parents. While it is frequently the teenagers who are in the wrong, I wonder if gaining more academic understanding than your parents, even if you were a respectful and respectable adult, was viewed akin to the same way we see teenagers who are often so foolish and arrogant. Also, these days, I would guess most parents would claim that they would want their children to have even better lives than they themselves did, and in today's society the way to that is often through higher education. I wonder how that paralleled in that older society, particularly when you were expected to take up your parents' trade.

I wonder a lot of things. I would appreciate any thoughts and insights on the subject. Thanks :)

Monday, September 20, 2010

oh, francis bacon

For today's blog, I will draw on a discussion I had with a roommate over a year ago. She is a chemistry major, I am a physics major, and we had several discussions about the nature of science.

During the discussion I'm referring to, we were focusing on the nature of science. Scientific development is happening at an extraordinary rate these days. We (in the sense of a community, both professional and layman) look back at the days of Aristotelian thinking and shake our heads just a little with benign superiority. These days, we know so much. We're so educated. We know better than to trust in authority; we trust the hard, proven experiments.

The problem with the scientific method, as far as discovering new science, however, is that it's simply an algorithm that tests your theories. You have to come up with the theories themselves, and devise the experiments to test the relevant parts of your hypotheses. And all the scientific method can give you is a small sign that you might be on the right track. Really though, your theory could be bonkers; maybe you just haven't done the right experiment yet. Luminiferous ether, anyone?

My roommate and I decided that someday, the scientific theory as we know it will be improved upon somehow, drastically left in the dust by another approach to developing scientific knowledge. We don't know what that might be, but there has to be a better algorithm, something that can take creativity into account.

But for now, all we have to develop science is the scientific method and the flashes of brilliance from naturally analytical minds everywhere. Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes, I believe, really did do us a service in labelling the types of knowledge that men sometimes want to take for granted but which really can't be inherently trusted. Once the label was created, one could identify the problems and realize that empirical evidence was needed to prove scientific knowledge.

I'm here waiting for the improvement on the scientific method. I don't think it's wrong, but like Newton's laws of mechanics were superseded by Einstein's theory of relativity, I think one day the scientific method will serve as an elementary method of discovery with something much superior for advanced science taking its place. It will be interesting to see this progress...

Thursday, September 16, 2010


Part of our reading dealt with the concept of "open government". Wow. I suppose this topic is hardly a recent one - our reading cited debates on this topic clear back in the Enlightenment -but I feel that it takes on a whole new level in the digital age. Back in the day, supposing an open government, relevant information could possibly be available in newspapers, but would not be updated readily and quickly and only so much information could be contained in one paper. Books would contain more information, but would hardly be worth the effort to publish when government and events can change so rapidly. Additionally, foreign newspapers are not readily available most places worldwide. It often takes time to deliver the information, and if there's a problem, things will change possibly before other nations could take advantage of it.

Today, however, the concept of open gov't would be a whole new experience. Information is available almost instantaneously almost everywhere. Rather than limiting one's self to certain issues or documents, it's easy to run a search on any topic one finds particularly interesting. This is the concerning thing for me about Wikileaks. For those who have not heard of this controversial organization, here are some excerpts from their "about us" section:

"We believe that transparency in government activities leads to reduced corruption, better government and stronger democracies. All governments can benefit from increased scrutiny by the world community, as well as their own people."

"We believe that it is not only the people of one country that keep their government honest, but also the people of other countries who are watching that government. That is why the time has come for an anonymous global avenue for disseminating documents the public should see."

This organization publishes leaked documents from the government and keeps the submitter's information secure to protect the individual from government retaliation. I wonder about the integrity of such a site. I can easily imagine a situation where it is very ethical to release classified documents to the general public, but I can also imagine events where it would be vitally important to keep certain information secret. (As an example I believe most readers would agree with, when we develop weapons, we want to keep them secret; if other countries know what we're developing, not only do they have the time to plan a possible counterattack, but now that they know it's possible, they may send their own scientists and engineers to develop the same weaponcraft. I feel a lot safer when my country's on top of "defense" tactics.)

So this is a very delicate balance. Thoughts?

Monday, September 13, 2010

group stuff

So, on Saturday I got to learn about all sorts of jazz.

We discussed presentation tools, which I'd already investigated, but I learned more about SlideShare, such as embedding PDFs and other tools in the midst of a presentation, which isn't something that typically happens in a normal presentation. That's a new feature. Additionally, I'd already realized that animations in the original presentation weren't reflected in SlideShare, but Trevor also showed that music attached to the original presentation wouldn't show up either.

We discussed bookmarking as well. Bookmarks are interesting because I can see how they might be useful in some situations, but now that web browsers have come up with this lovely tool where you can start typing in the title of a web page or part of a URL that you've visited before and a dropdown menu will appear with most commonly visited webpages with that text in their titles or URLs. The main differences between bookmarks and these tools is that 1) bookmarks don't actually require you to type anything, just click; 2) perhaps the site you're looking for is important but not one that you visit often, so it might not show up on this list; and 3) sometimes a page has input such that the URL doesn't save your previous input, but a bookmark might.
Other than these things, however, bookmarks aren't revolutionary in the way they might be without this other feature.

We also discussed social book networking. This is essentially a database of members' inputs of books they have read and their ratings. You can share this on your blog and see what your friends and family have said about different books. This is a bit like a virtual book club, and you can follow up with people you know who have read certain books to discuss the book with them.
Personally, this isn't something that's ever really appealed to me; most of my friends have a very different taste in books than I do, and so seeing a high rating on a book by one of my friends is often an indicator I won't want to read that book myself. Exceptions are Harry Potter, the Ender and Bean series by OSC, but Twilight? Just not my style.
I will, however, add one of these widgets to my own profile so that we can all see what these look like in case we haven't experienced them before. And who knows? Perhaps I'll find another friend who reads Ayn Rand and Henry James and we can rejoice in our shared love of "The Fountainhead" and "Portrait of a Lady". Good stuff, y'all.

Update: OK, here I go. GoodReads only works properly with Wordpress blogs, but it gave me a lovely URL to put into a blog anyhow.



Wednesday, September 8, 2010


Today I learned about SlideShare. It's a pretty neat tool, especially since I'm already familiar with PowerPoint and other presentation methods, and this is just a great way to share these creations.

Note: it appears to be independent of one's OS, and now that I have discovered it I will probably begin to use it in my research presentations. My research group primarily uses Macs, whereas I am a die-hard Windows fan, and so we've already run into some compatibility difficulties when we try to use each other's computers to practice presentations. This tool could avoid that problem.

I'm also a huge fan of free software. I suppose they pay for this stuff through a combination of advertising, people who do want to pay for niftier accounts, and outside funding, but I'm not involved in any of that - I even use (free) AdBlock Plus for the express purpose of blocking ads. It's lovely.

Coming back to SlideShare, here are some facts about SlideShare for those of you who, like me, had never heard of the program prior to this class:

"SlideShare is the world's largest community for sharing presentations.

"SlideShare is a business media site for sharing presentations, documents and pdfs. SlideShare features a vibrant professional community that regularly comments, favorites and downloads content. Content also spreads virally through blogs and social networks such as LinkedIn, Facebook and twitter. Individuals & organizations upload documents to SlideShare to share ideas, connect with others, and generate leads for their businesses. Anyone can view presentations & documents on topics that interest them. The site is growing rapidly with over 25 million monthly visitors."

Another interesting fact: The company has two main offices, one in San Francisco and one in New Delhi. Just goes to show that these Indian engineers really are spreading worldwide.

For kicks and giggles, here is a presentation I made with Microsoft Office PowerPoint 2007 for my optics class earlier this semester and have consequently embedded in this blog using SlideShare:

How to embed: Once you upload your presentation to SlideShare (create an account and click "upload"), html code for embedding is in a small box on the right. Click in the box, press Ctrl+A and then Ctrl+C to select and copy all the code. When you come back to your blog, if you are using a Google blog like this one, click on the "Edit HTML" link and paste the code in the appropriate place.

It's quite exciting to embed html! Ooh! And it even automatically links to other presentations having to do with the same topic! Brilliant. The only concern I have with this software is that I had some animations on the original PowerPoint which do not appear to be showing up in the embedding. Trust me, it's better with the animations.

Have fun with your own presentations! And remember, if you save your presentations on SlideShare, there's really no reason to wonder if you've accidentally left your flash drive at home. Convenient, eh?

Monday, September 6, 2010

Project Gutenberg

OK, so I started reading about Project Gutenberg for this class (and I started with Wikipedia, which is basically where I always start these days) and it made me all happy all over on the inside.

I suspect that the vast majority of people reading this are Honors students (and hopefully the occasional educator will come by, since I've begun to comment on those types of blogs) and so I suspect many of you understand this great growing joy. Like, seriously, look at this graph. More happiness on the inside. Also, in general I like graphs.

Something I've thought about a lot, especially as information becomes increasingly digitized, is studies I've read on how most people retain information better when it's not on a screen. (However, I have not been able to find references for that comment, so if you have any references on that topic, I'd appreciate it.) I wonder, however, if I assume that my premise is correct, why this might be. I guess the question that I'm really concerned with, is this a case merely of students who haven't learned to study by computer screen yet, or is it actually a biological retainment mechanism that works better with paper-based materials rather than computer texts?

I suspect that this varies somewhat depending on the material and depending on the learner's preferred learning style. But if any of you have thoughts on this, I'd appreciate hearing them :)

Coming back to Project Gutenberg... well, if I don't get into graduate school for next year, I guess you know what I'll be doing with my time. (hint: reading all these free books. Marvelous!)

a place for blogs outside the class

This is a compilation of blogs written by people which discuss relevant topics. Although I am compiling this data for my own use, I figure other people can use this as well, and add their own discoveries to this list. I plan to update this post as I discover more.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

ready to wait

When I was 14 years old, I took a practice college entrance exam through the Johns Hopkins program. Johns Hopkins encouraged top scorers to come to the university for some very expensive summer classes, but while I looked at the classes with intrigue and a poor girl's pocket, I did notice that they offered another option which was free: a reading list.

I then and there made a goal to read every book on the list I could find in my county's library system. I read 114 books off that list during a summer. When I started high school the next year, my English teacher gave a prize to whoever had beaten her total of books read over the summer. I won. (Her number was 15.)

People sometimes asked me if I really got anything out of that experience. So much information, so many books, in such a short period of time. How could I retain that? Could I really absorb the ideas present in so many books?

The short answer is, of course, that I didn't. Absorb it all perfectly, that is. Sure, if I'd spread it out over a longer period of time, I would remember more about each book. But... I remember reading "How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents" and wondering why on earth anyone would bother writing such a book. I disliked "The Great Gatsby" and several of the other books which seemed to me to deal with irreconcilable disappointment and mediocrity and a sham of what life could have been. So truthfully, some of these books I only finished to complete my goal; I didn't retain much primarily because I didn't want to retain much. (I am perfectly comfortable with this.) I didn't want my life to be a disappointment. I wanted it to be filled with energy and hopes and dreams. I saw no help for this in these novels.

However, something big, for me, did happen as a result of my challenging goal. As I read all these books and got inside the minds of the great authors and thinkers who had created works deemed worthy of adolescent reading by the Johns Hopkins University, I read one book which has completely changed my life. I remember the gold cover of the first copy I read, as I opened the pages preparing to be duly interested and then move on to the next novel selection. Yet something different happened. As I embarked upon the journey of Stephen Hawking's "A Brief History of Time", I found a fascination swell up inside me. I turned the pages with eagerness, turning back almost as frequently, trying to understand each concept as I read it, reading the next derivation or application, then going back to the first concept to attempt to follow the logic. Hawking described a world where math could discover fantastic things. So much of what he said was just over my head, but I discovered a faith and fulfillment that if one understood math properly, one could use it in physics to make marvelous predictions and lead to the knowledge of the whole world. I remember reading it and thinking, all this can be predicted with math? If we apply physics properly, we can use our logic and our intuition to understand everything?

The book left a burning passion inside of me. I never worried about what to major in. I wanted to study so many subjects, but only in addition to physics. My passion and joy in this subject has never left. The indescribable happiness I feel as I study quantum physics is only trumped by particularly spiritual experiences. So many people ask me why I chose to major in something "hard". Do you know what is "hard"? Avoiding something I could love out of fear that I might not be the best. That seems silly.

If I must relate this post directly back to our lesson, I will cite Leonardo da Vinci's tribute to Mathematics, the most pure and beautiful of all sciences, since the rest of science consists of applications of its essential and practical fundamentals.

This post is entitled "ready to wait" because we all know I will never truly understand physics. Not in this life. There are too many things to know, too many concepts which will surely go over my head. But it's worth it to me. It's worth it to struggle through the classes, to spend night hours on campus earning a headache over problems, giving up all the other things I could be doing to just learn a little more. But it's worth it. And if perfect understanding doesn't come in this life, so be it. I am ready to wait.