Monthly Archives: April 2013

Boston Marathon Bombing

This hits home – it is very bad. Boston is our family’s second home town, where our youngest was born and the other two had formative years (as did we all.) Boylston street certainly is familiar and so is every Boston reference and place name now being repeated on CNN.

I am impressed by the police and various spectators and marathon officials – they immediately run to help the wounded, acting very sensibly, quickly coordinating to gain access to the bomb site and get to the wounded.

Let’s hope the aftermath of this event is characterized by the same calmness, relevance and restraint. The bombings in Oslo and shootings at Utøya two years ago gave rise to very solemn reactions and a surprisingly thorough and measured debate about immigration, extremism and the role of religion in Norway – as well as a thorough examination of security routines and the response of the police (which, unfortunately, was not as quick and coordinated as in Boston.

Let’s hope this can be an event to learn from, whoever the perpetrators may be. The Boston Marathon is very much an outdoor celebration – people happily cheering the runners along the route and everyone having a great time. It would just be too sad to have it changed and locked down by the insanities of people who think violence will gain them anything at all.

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MOOC and me: Reflections on a Coursera course

On April 10, I signed up for a course on network theory and analysis with professor Matthew Jackson of Stanford University. That was about one week into the course, which started April 1, so I will have to hurry to finish some of the assignments. The course is both a test in online coursing for me – not that I think I am at a stage where I should create on, but it could be interesting to try – and I chose this particular one because it is a field in which I have brushing knowledge (I have read Burt’s Structural Holes: The Social Structure of Competition, for instance) but never have systematically undertaken any training or done any math.

Signing up was very easy: Name, email address and a password, no cost, off we go. The web site is very simple, well, here we go. Estimated work 3-6 hours per week. Will see if I can make that, especially if I am blogging on the side…

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The course (at least the intro) is delivered with a set of slides and the instructor superimposed over them, using on-screen drawing (using a tablet pen, it looks like) drawing lines around or between concepts. The ability to speed up the presentation is useful – I can still follow it at 1.5x normal speed, and used that to rush through some of the examples I had heard before and some of the more self-explanatory slides. There are some problems with the transmission – occasionally, the screen will be garbled (especially when there is movement on the screen, such as the instructor drawing on the slides, which means that I will have to print out the slides for the next week’s lectures, when the formulas become more complicated. i will also have to start taking notes by hand, since my typed comments can’t keep up with the presentation when it comes to creating formulas and drawing diagrams.

The course uses open-source network software (Pajek) and the first homework assignment dealt with basic network attributes such as diameter, density, and average paths. Not too hard so far, but i have a graduate education from an English-speaking university and some intuitive understanding of the topic (plus experience in fiddling with software until it works, including screwing up the Pajek configuration and fixing it by simply erasing the config file and starting over.)

On the positive side, I might be just in the right market segment: Someone who is interested in the topic but does not have the time to sign up for a course in it. Wonder how many other academics there are out there who see MOOCs as a great way to update themselves on a related field…

I’ll be back with more observations in a few weeks, assuming I haven’t dropped out – which many students tend to do in these courses.

Newsblur–an alternative to Google Reader

The best way to find new tools and work tips is to see what other people are doing – which is why I spend time writing up experiences with various tools. It is even better when you can read the experiences and work tips of someone you admire – such as this Lifehacker interview with the frighteningly articulate and productive Cory Doctorow.

From this interview I noted that Cory, like many of us, has to leave Google Reader – as he says, probably for Newsblur. I promptly went there, plonked down $20 for a year’s subscription, choose “import Google Reader subscriptions”, and wondered why I hadn’t heard of this gem before. In addition to RSS feeds, Doubt if I will ever open Google Reader again…. Newsblur seems more elegant, gives me the option of reading the blog in original format, and has a great interface for adding and deleting blogs. And it is trainable – i.e., it observes what you read and asks your opinion – though I haven’t used it long enough to see how this works.

Highly recommended – and the fact that a) this is fee-supported, hence not subject to arbitrary facing-out decisions that leave a loyal following with no tools, and b) recommended by Cory and now – gasp – me, should make this a very viable tool in the future. The creator, Samuel Clay, is a bit overwhelmed with demand right now (hence no free test subscriptions), but that will change as the site firms up its infrastructure and gets more optimized, I am sure.

Highly recommended!