A very late ‘preview’ of my term 1

A very late 'preview' of my term
JISHOU, HUNAN — In September, I had planned to write about my new term. Now it’s almost December, and I’m finally getting around to it. Yeah, I was busy. I’ll go with that excuse. This term I have 20 classes a week (that’s 10 100-minute sessions), plus every other week I meet with five Ph.D. students for another session of oral English practice. This is a big change from the last few years, when I was loafing around with only 12 or 16 classes each week and scads of free time. Plus, we’ve switched to new textbooks. While much better than the previous ones, teachers reading this will already know that a new textbook means new class preps. So, I can’t rely on the lessons I had in the bag, so to speak, from the last four years of Listening Comprehension and Oral English. They’ve either been modified or tossed out completely. In addition, we’ve decided to combine the separate courses of Listening Comprehension and Oral English into one course. Effectively, there’s not much change, though. For each section of students, we meet two classes in the language lab (for listening) and two classes in the newly furnished seminar room ...

Scientists (or is it Brits?) and their love of understatement

JISHOU — The BBC has a story about a robot “cheetah” that can run up to 18 mph. It’s part of a defense project to develop a military war-bot for use in the field. Noel Sharkey, professor of artificial intelligence and robotics at the University of Sheffield said the latest achievement was very impressive. “With faster than human speed, this is a step in the development of a high speed killer that could negotiate a battlefield quickly to hunt and kill,” he said. “The biggest concern about this is that no artificial intelligence system can distinguish between civilians and enemy combatants, and so if this was operating on its own it would fall foul of the laws of war.” But if we had Skynet, everything would be just fine. Right?

Meanwhile, techno-frustrations abound 2

JISHOU, HUNAN — What do cell phones, washing machines, the Internet and electrical supplies all have in common? Aside from the obvious, electricity, they all added to my frustrations — or shall I say challenges — this week. The cell phone issue was the biggest. I had bought my Treo 600 off eBay ages ago with the understanding that it was unlocked, meaning that I could use it with any carrier as soon as I inserted the appropriate SIM chip into it. Wrong. Sure, the Treo could find China Mobile and China Unicom signals, but without international roaming enabled (not that I could afford it), I could not use those signals. So, senior English students Christopher, Ava and Sophia took me to the China Mobile tents set up for returning students, where they helped me get a China Mobile account and SIM card. Of course, it did not work. Believing my phone to be the all-powerful, unlocked, works-anywhere-in-the-world SuperTreo, I was of course mighty perplexed. The kids took me to the China Mobile store in downtown Jishou, where I got another SIM card that worked the same as the previous one. “SIM card not allowed,” my SuperTreo informed me. “Your ...

Adios, CompUSA …

The wires are buzzing with news that CompUSA, one of the few brick-and-mortar computer retailers left, will be no more. Its assets will be sold off following the holiday rush piecemeal by an asset-management firm. It was inevitable, and a little sad, but times change. Back in late 1997, I decided I needed a second job. I walked into Louisville’s only Computer City store, filled out an application, and within short order was working the floor as a commissioned computer sales associate. That was back in the days when computers still cost more than $1,000 and margins were high, so a salesperson could actually make a commission and the store could actually turn a profit. I was (to my mind) surprisingly successful in sales, and was able to make almost half my teaching salary working part-time at Computer City. (That’s a sad comment on teaching salaries, by the way.) It was hard work, but fun in many ways. At the time, Computer City was a subsidiary of Tandy Corp., which also owned Radio Shack. It was not making Tandy all that much money. So when CompUSA, formerly known as SoftWarehouse, offered to buy the entire Computer City chain in 1999, ...

Meet a scientist, virtually

The video conference came off well, despite some minor technical glitches and the seeming inability of some teenagers to avoid talking altogether. We were using iChat on an eMac, with a webcam I brought from home. The video quality was pretty bad, largely because of the equipment on our end. I suspect NASA/JPL has somewhat more sophisticated video equipment. Still, you could tell there were people on the screen, despite the pixellation and slow response time. Audio was a different issue. The audio through the network was garbled, like those early webcasts using RealPlayer. I gave up on the iChat video finally, and just connected my desk phone to their teleconference line and put it on speakerphone. Then at least we could understand what they were saying. So, we had blocky video from iChat and somewhat clear audio from the telephone. Not ideal, but it worked. The format was straightforward. We introduced ourselves (not individually, by schools) and the four Cassini scientists introduced themselves. Then they opened the floor to questions from the students. Each school took a turn, until the hour was up. From what I could gather, at least two of the conferees entered the contest individually. The ...

Talking with real scientists today 3

My students will participate in a video conference with real space scientists at 2 this afternoon. It’s a first for me, for them and as far as I know, for the school. The Cassini imaging team at the Jet Propulsion Lab sponsors a contest each year, which challenges students to write short essays relevant to the Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn and Titan. This year, the challenge was to argue why the team should choose one of four possible targets for a 91-minute imaging sequence. The essays could be no longer than 500 words, and students could work in teams of not more than four members. Among the 188 essays accepted for judging were our 13 submissions. On Friday, I received two identical emails telling me that one of our essays had made to the final judging round, and inviting our students to an hour-long teleconference/video conference with the Cassini scientists this week. I was excited enough to photocopy the message and hand it to my 34 students as they took a scheduled chapter test. Some admitted to being excited; others were outwardly more blasé, but apparently intrigued at least. Having never organized a video conference before, I had to take ...

It’s the simple things that get you 2

My otherwise trustworthy Geo Metro has been sidelined for a month, because I suspected terribly expensive repairs were needed. Instead the problem was something very simple, and I feel damned foolish. We were driving the short distance to the local Jay C supermarket one day when the Geo just quit running less than a mile from our house. It had done this before, and would usually start right up again after sitting for a while. So we got a lift to the market and back home, and let the Geo sit alongside the road to cool off. After waiting a reasonable length of time, we walked back to the car, started it up and drove it home. The next day, it refused to start. With a shot of starter fluid, the motor would run a bit, then die. OK, I said to myself, it’s gotta be something in the fuel injection system: bad pump, bad injector, bad electrical relay. The next chance I got, I checked the car for the obvious, John-can-fix-it items in the fuel system. The pump was not the problem. I could hear it whine when I turned the ignition on. There was fuel pressure in the ...

Gone phishin’ — against my will

Within a day of my announcing to the world that I was back in business, my host suspended my site. Since that suspension also took down my site’s email, I received no explanation for their pulling the plug until I sent them an anxious message on Monday. I had assumed that some glitch had delayed my monthly payment, but the explanation was much worse and more embarrassing. Hackers had entered my web server space and inserted files that were sending out those misleading messages from “PayPal” about your account being suspended or canceled. Youch! So, my hosts caught on, since their server was no doubt spending a lot of time sending out emails through their SMTP service. To protect themselves, they suspended my account and my site until we could correct the problem. This blogsite lives alongside another, nearly dormant site of mine oriented toward computers. For several years now, I have been a reasonably happy and competent user of php-nuke, an open source content management system (CMS). Nuke has a well deserved rep for being a security nightmare, but with care and skillful coding by technically adept users, it can be made into a safe, reliable CMS. Almost. Several ...

Site’s back up

My webhost’s server was hacked day before yesterday, so my site’s been down while they rebuilt the server. Their last good backup was from May 19 and mine from the 24th, so my posts since the 19th were lost. Thank Google! I was able to recover all but one of the lost posts by copying and pasting Google’s cached pages. The missing one I recovered from my own computer. Then I changed the posting dates by editing the database. Nice to be back in business!

If Wikipedia is bad, then Conservapedia is the utter pits. 2

We teachers have a bias against Wikipedia as reference material for students. While many entries are well written and accurate, there are many that are plain junk. It might be hard for a student to tell the good from the bad, so we typically advise either avoiding Wikipedia for formal research papers or supplementing it with more traditional sources.Enter Conservapedia, a so-called “trustworthy,” wiki-based encyclopedia. Founded by conservatives who believe Wikipedia has a liberal bias, Conservapedia endeavors to provide a more palatable online source to students, scholars and the idly curious. Some of the science blogs I read have been dumping on Conservapedia lately, so I thought I would take a peek. I started with something I know pretty well, physics. Now, Conservapedia is still being developed, so I was not expecting as an elaborate entry on physics as Wikipedia has. I was mortified, however, to read this entry, which I will reproduce here in its entirety to save you a click. Physics is the study of nature, and is the science of studying the laws of God’s universe. Galileo was the first to discover and propose some of the fundamental laws of physics that we still realize today. He ...

Curse you and your time zone tools, Microsoft!

Spoiled as I am by Linux and Mac OS X, I figured that updating Windows and associated Microsoft products would be as easy as running a script or downloading an update. As if. The problem, of course, is that M$ provided such easy solutions for the most current versions of Exchange Server, Windows Server, Office and the desktop OS (aka XP and Vista). At my workplace, we are still using Exchange Server and Windows Server 2000, and most of the client machines run Office XP and Windows 2000 Pro. Silly of me as the tech guy not to spend craploads of money to get the latest versions of all. So the update solution for those of us stuck in the Stone Age is to download a set of “tools” provided by M$. The process is, to say the least, not intuitively obvious. After some false starts, I managed to get it right, with the help of a very useful (third-party) step-by-step guide here and liberal applications of Google searches. The complexity results from needing to update the time zone details on the network domain controllers (DCs), the mail server, and the client machines, and then updating the Exchange database on ...

The physics of the turntable

Textbooks rarely discuss the physics of the phonograph anymore, since the CD and other digital formats have largely replaced the older format. To make up for that loss, here’s a very brief explanation of how sound comes out of a vinyl plastic disk. The reader is invited to look elsewhere for additional details. First, the basics. Sound is a vibration in a medium such as air. These vibrations can make objects, like your eardrum, vibrate in sympathy. Thomas Edison in 1878 perfected a machine that could take the vibrations from someone talking VERY LOUDLY into a horn-shaped receiver, translate them to a vibrating needle, and finally onto a wax or tinfoil covered cylinder. The wiggles of the needle imitated the vibrations of the air. Playback used the same equipment. The vibrating needle would excite the airhorn, and sound could be heard coming from the horn. The process — captured by the classic corporate logo of the RCA Victor company (right) — was entirely mechanical. [You can recreate the process today with a sewing needle taped to a homemade paper cone. Choose an album that won’t break your heart if it gets scratched, place it on a turntable and start the ...
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