Sometimes while listening to talks (usually attended by computer scientists and physicists), my mind starts to wander, and… [snip, snip, snip]:
Of course I totally respect individuals’ hairstyle preferences and trust that they are better than mine and don’t mean to imply anyone should do anything with their hair (except that if your fro measures more than 2′ in diameter you probably shouldn’t sit in the front row unless it’s amphitheater seating).
But the reason I bring this up is that recently at the most excellent German-American Frontiers of Engineering meeting:
There was simply nothing to be done.
The story about the boy who did not want an owie
There once was a boy who tripped and fell. Just as he was about to get an owie on his knee he said
- I don’t want an owie on my knee.
- What? – said the owie – if you put your hand out, I can go on your hand instead.
- But how will I ride my bike if I can’t hold the handlebar? – said the boy.
- Then I’ll land on your behind – said the owie.
- But I need it to sit on! – said the boy.
- Hmmm, how about your nose? Tip forward and I’ll land on your nose.
- My nose is too small, you won’t fit.
- Then how about your shoe?
- OK – said the boy.
The owie jumped on the boy’s shoe and the boy didn’t feel a thing. The owie stayed on the shoe, and eventually was given away with the shoes once the boy’s feet outgrew them.
The story about the girl who loved chocolate milk
There once was a girl who loved to drink chocolate milk. She asked for it at breakfast, snack time, lunch, dinner, and of course at chocolate time. She drank so much chocolate milk, that pretty soon you could hear a ‘slosh-slosh’ from her tummy whenever she moved. The neighborhood kids made fun of her for it, and she was sad.
Then one day as she was slosh-sloshing down the street to the laughter of the other kids, a music talent scout noticed her.
That, my dear girl – said the talent scout - is music to my ears! With a little practice you could be a great performer.
The girl became a renowned musician with a unique (slosh-sloshing) sound and traveled across the country to give concerts. And instead of a tour bus, she rode on a milk truck, a chocolate milk truck.
The story about the boy who wanted to go poop but the poop would not come out
There once was a boy who wanted to go poop. He sat and sat on the potty but the poop would not come out. Finally he pleaded with the poop:
- Poop, won’t you come out?
- No way – answered the poop – it’s nice and warm and cozy in here.
The boy thought for a moment, then he said:
- Listen. Whenever I go poop, I get 5 M&Ms. If you come out, I’ll give you two M&Ms.
PLOP! went the poop and then demanded:
- Now I want my two M&Ms.
The boy quickly flushed the poop down the toilet, washed his hands, and ate all 5 M&Ms by himself.
The story about the boy who did not want an owie and went flying instead
There once was a boy who visited his great grandfather’s grave at Punchbowl cemetery in Hawaii. As he was leaving he tripped and found himself flying through the air. He knew that if he landed he would get a big owie on his knee. So he decided to keep flying. He flew higher and higher, and pretty soon he could see the entire Punchbowl crater below him, and then he flew even higher, and he saw the ocean and the mountains. He then turned and flew toward Waikiki’s highrises. There he saw a little old lady on one of the lanais (balconies). It was his grandma. He flew right into her arms and she set him down carefully. The boy never got the owie.
The story about the girl who loved lollipops
There once was a girl who loved lollipops. As soon as she entered the Great America amusement park, she made a beeline for the sweets shop and bought the biggest lollipop they had. Her friends ran to the different amusement rides and asked her to go with them, but she was too busy licking the lollipop: slurp, slllurp. Then they asked her to come to the water park.
- No thanks – said the little girl – my lollipop would dissolve in the water. [Slurp. Slurp].
After the water park, the kids ran to the playground and started playing in the sand pit.
- Will you play with us in the sand? – asked her friends.
- No thanks – said the little girl – I don’t want sand to get on my lollipop [Slurp. Slurp].
Eventually it was time to go home, and as the little girl and her friends piled into the car, her friends felt sorry that she didn’t get to go on any of the rides, or play in the water or in the sand. The girl didn’t mind, she just licked her lollipop: slurp, slurp. The car had driven hardly a mile when it hit a huge traffic jam. The light was out at the intersection and there was no policeman to direct traffic. The girl hopped out of the car, held out her big red lollipop and used it like a stop sign to direct traffic, first letting one direction go through, then the other. Pretty soon the whole traffic jam was cleared up. The girl took a bow with her big lollipop as her friends clapped. Then they all drove home together.
As the indignities of air travel pile on, I had come to view the little ‘personal entertainment device’ embedded in the seat in front of me as a welcome, optional, escape. But on a recent Delta SFO->JFK trip and back, that friendly device had been turned on me. As we were strapped in and the plane was gaining altitude, the little screen turned on by itself and started playing ads while the messages blared over the loudspeakers: ‘Buy a car. Choose a luxury hotel…’. In vain I tried to turn the screen off by pushing the nominal power button. The function had been disabled. My headphones were not isolating enough to block out the sound of the speakers. It felt vaguely like::
There are far more education-educated minds than mine contemplating this question, and doing so scientifically. While we’re waiting for their results, I’m just jotting down a few thoughts here based on my experiences as a student, as a professor, and as a Coursera instructor.
The only thing that is more exciting than teaching on Coursera, is taking classes on Coursera. It’s been over a decade since I took my last class. I did vaguely plan to sit in on classes at U. Michigan, with world-class faculty teaching so many subjects of interest. But I never found the time. With Coursera, at least there is the possibility that I could take such classes at any time. I think this is going to be for sure one of the main target audiences for Coursera: folks like me who have gone through lots of schooling, but there are a lot of new developments in their profession that are worth learning, or they found new subject areas of interest that they didn’t think to study back when they were at school.
For example, as an undergrad I wrote a dorky, inexcusable letter to the administration at Caltech to protest the proposed reduction in required physics coursework in favor of introducing a biology requirement. I cringe when I think I may have written something to the effect of ‘Everything can be derived from physics, so why bother with other subjects’. Though I did eventually dive into many subjects beyond physics with gusto, I never did take a biology class, not since 9th grade. What Coursera course am I signed up for now? Genetics. How wonderful to be able to go back and catch up.
I have been thinking about how my Coursera course stacks up against its offline version. I didn’t skimp on much material in the Coursera version, even though it is several weeks shorter. With no one to have a discussion with but the camera, the pace is quicker. If anything, I developed more interactive online demos and data sets to be able to better convey concepts to my invisible audience. These from my perspective worked especially well with the in-video quizzes. The lecture would pause, a quiz question would pop up, and students could play with a demo to derive the answer (technical browser glitches aside). Assignments presented challenges to me. It was difficult to transform them into a multiple choice or programmatically graded format. I couldn’t ask students to stick to the rule: “Don’t just put a number down, interpret it”. Online, a number had to be sufficient. Or the interpretation had to be one of a set of pre-prepared choices. But I did it. It may have worked. I’m not sure.
Then there was the course project. In the offline version this is a multi-step affair afforded by the longer semester format. The students propose the project, I give them feedback. They turn in a mid-project report, I give them feedback. They turn in the final report, I give them feedback and for some I give advice on how to turn it into a publication. On Coursera, the students just did the project, and then graded each others’ work. The grading rubric I constructed for the peer-evaluation was very detailed and left little room for elaborate feedback. At the same time I encouraged students to post their work to the forum. The feedback there was very, very useful. Sure, my feedback is more informed by the literature, and years of my own experience and experience seeing students do such projects. But the students’ feedback had many useful tips and rather creative suggestions. It wasn’t that much worse than what I could have provided. This peer-evaluation thing just might work!
There were other interesting advantages. Since all I needed for class was my laptop, I could take it with me to visit with various researchers in industry and record sessions about the use of course material in practice. Sure, you can have invited speakers in your regular classroom, and that beats a streamed video, but… this was quite practical. The Coursera course also very kindly received technical support and instructional guidance from the creators of the software packages I was using — something that likely would have happened for my small offline course, but where I think the size of the class didn’t hurt either.
The biggest difference between the Coursera and offline versions is in how tailored the course is to the participants. In the offline version I’ll introduce material or discuss in-class applications that the students ask about. And they ask a lot. We go through the same material much more slowly, and that’s because it’s not just me talking. It’s a conversation, about the readings, concepts, knowns and unknowns. There was a lot of interesting conversation in the Coursera forum, but the lectures were pre-recorded, inflexible, and besides, I felt that if I had gone off on a tangent that one student was asking about, it wouldn’t be fair to the other several thousand. In a class of 20-30 I wouldn’t think twice about going on a tangent. One could probably interpolate between the two with Google Hangouts that could accommodate a few select detours.
As I was teaching the Coursera course I regularly received email from students about specific projects they were working on, asking for my advice. I don’t think I answered a single one. I was overwhelmed by work. But I also felt that any one of those emails would take 15-20+ minutes of my time, while I looked up the relevant literature, reviewed it, and composed my thoughts. And I hate to say it, but my thinking was: this is free course, the students are not entitled to this much of my time individually. In contrast, at UofM students are always welcome to come talk to me during office hours and I would usually answer by email as well. It’s my job, a part of my job I usually enjoy.
Another rather big difference is in the attrition rate. I may have lost up to 1/3 of the registered students in the first week of my offline class, but it was stable thereafter. On Coursera, only 40% watched the first video, I lost many more from there on out. If I had “attended” Coursera instead of Caltech, would I have stuck with it, made it through, or would I have signed up for courses full of good intentions only to abandon them?
In many ways my college-self would have been a suitable student for Coursera. I never spoke up in class (to my students: do as I say, not as I did!). I got a pair of glasses just so that I could have better than 20/20 vision and sit in the very back of the lecture hall. I didn’t understand much of the lectures either (which were usually derivations written on the blackboard). I couldn’t write notes and listen carefully enough at the same time. I learned outside of class, by re-reading the notes and reading the textbook. I especially learned by doing the assignments. I took advantage of office hours and research opportunities. But in short, if the lectures had been recorded rather than live, it wouldn’t have made much difference to me.
But I don’t think I could have graduated without a campus. I’m a procrastinator. I took 6 classes every quarter (except the last one, when I dropped 3D photography in favor of working on my ditch-day stack). Because I knew that I wouldn’t start assignments early, I made sure I had 1 assignment to work on per night (often late into the night). It kept me busy and it kept me happy, and if I got totally stuck, I’d walk down the hall to compare notes with others working on the same assignment. Any flexibility, however, and I would unhappily procrastinate. The summer after freshman year I decided to work on the hundreds (?) of math problems needed to pass out of Math 2B (which would allow me to take Applied Math 95 sophomore year, and ultimately Kip Thorne’s general relativity senior year, which in the end I didn’t do, but anyway…). That was a miserable summer. When I wasn’t working on Math 2B I was miserable because I felt guilty, when I was working on Math 2B I was miserable and lonely. By comparison Ama95 was entertaining and I enjoyed the camaraderie of going through it with fellow students. Perhaps I would have found the same camaraderie if I had taken Math 2B through Coursera and participated on the forum, or joined a Facebook group. I don’t know. In any case, I loved my time at Caltech. Some people left it embittered. Not me though, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
But back to Coursera. It’s really promising. It needs some work (my SNA course most of all!), but it’s mind-boggling to be able to learn about anything! Anything! What a wonderful time to be human. Now I better get back to my Duolingo Spanish lessons .
It made me realize that Edwin Teng, Yuru Lin and I have some leftover plots that may be Thanksgiving appropriate. If you don’t have quite the right ingredients handy while cooking Thanksgiving dinner, here is a network of common substitutions as found in reviewers’ comments on a large recipe site (click to see a larger view):
The favorite Thanksgiving ingredients are often recommended as substitutes. e.g. cranberries end up substituting for other kinds of fruits and even somehow for chocolate. In the fat category, olive oil and butter seem to be recommended as substitutes for things such as margarine. Yams are often recommended as a substitute for sweet potatoes (more so than the other way around), etc.
Recently, from my Coursera class, I created region specific networks using data shared by YY Ahn & co. in their flavor network paper. This isn’t a complete set of all regions, but see if you can guess which region is visualized in each of these (mouse over for the answer, your choices are Northern European, Southern European, North American, Latin American, Middle Eastern, South Asian, African, Southeast Asian, East Asian):
Lastly, and most deliciously, here is the network of complementary ingredients for Thanksgiving, created by my collaborator Edwin Teng:
My past relationships predate social media of the Friendster and later type. So being friended or circled or followed by an ex on social media can’t be a case of ‘Oops, forgot to unfriend/uncircle/unfollow’. But these connections do pique my interest, not because there’s anything much to say, but because there might be interesting news & quirky thoughts to follow. After all, if I can be curious about gossip regarding celebrities from shows I don’t even watch, this is bound to be more interesting. Did I just admit to reading a gossip blog? (BTW, if you’d be interested in creating a Gossipedia, please let me know. If anything needs to be compiled and sources identified, then its gossip.).
Connections that ended almost as soon as they started are both odd and well-suited candidates for something as light and feathery as Twitter.
Tristan and Isolde was director Kevin Reynolds’ last movie to see theatrical release. Screenwriter Dean Georgaris never had another screenplay turned into a feature film. Producer Ridley Scott seemed to have distanced himself from it even as it was being filmed. It was the last film Franchise Pictures distributed before going bankrupt. James Franco, the male lead, regretted it so much, he bothered to write it up as his favorite mistake, 7 years later.
I saw it by chance (chance engineered by Amazon.com). I had wanted to re-watch ‘Elizabeth’ in the earlier days of Netflix and Amazon Video, when neither had it. But Amazon resourcefully recommended Tristan and Isolde. I watched it. I thought ‘huh’. But then a few months later I watched it again, and thought it brilliant. Unfortunately, any friends I have managed to get to see it share only my initial reaction of ‘huh’.
After becoming a bit obsessed with T&I, I bought the DVD, not so much because I needed the physical DVD, but because I was hoping to express gratitude and in a miniscule way boost global sales. I was also hoping that the extra features would show that the cast and crew appreciated the brilliance of the movie even if the film critics had failed to do so (it was 32% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes). But all the interviews contained were repeated complaints about an extremely tight budget, frigid water, and gnats.
My last hope was Georgaris, the screenwriter. After all, even though to my untrained eyes and ears the film looked and sounded great, it was the intricately woven plot and the sparing and intriguing dialogue that surely made the movie. Alas, all Georgaris had to say was that he was originally thinking of setting it in space, and that an earlier draft was deemed too cheesy by a friend.
It’s not my favorite realistic romance (that goes to Before Sunrise + Before Sunset), but it’s my favorite unrealistic romance. Not that I know all that much about the genre (for example, I’ve never seen Titanic and can count on 1 hand the number of romance novels — all horrible — I’ve attempted to read). The weird early-teen magic-potion suicide mix-up of Romeo and Juliet never much made sense to me, and neither did Wuthering Heights (even the house-remodel in the Notebook seemed a bit strange).
I won’t spoil the movie by giving away to much, just in case you are looking for that ‘huh’ experience. What separates this movie from others (besides the awesome screenplay) is having a male romantic lead who is brawny, brainy, and loyal to a cause/person (and gets to show this off during the movie). But unlike other hero-focused movies where the romance subplot is intended as another opportunity for the hero to overcome a challenge (e.g. by rescuing the girl), Tristan doesn’t rescue Isolde (at least not intentionally), but instead she saves his life. Maybe I read too much Prince Valiant as a kid, but what other movie has a valiant knight in an interesting romantic entanglement? You’d think there would be scores of these, but… And so I join scores of Amazon and imdb users in adoring a movie that is unloved by its makers and critics.