Category Archives: Surveys

A Survey for Curmudgeons

I have a simulation happily grinding away in the background, using one core of my spiffy new dual-core system, doing my work for me, so not only do I have a moment to procrastinate, but also I should be happy about new technology. However, the headphones which came with the iPod nano I got for Christmas picked today to fall apart. The earbug doodad is beside itself with the joy it feels at being part of a cultural icon, I suppose. Given that the iPod itself had to be reformatted twice and connected to three different computers before it was able to receive music, that the interface packs more absurdity into its purported simplicity than I would have imagined possible, and that consequently it has relegated itself to the status “device which plays “Mandelbrot Set” on demand,” having the headphones cheap out on me is rather like salting the fields after Steve Jobs has burnt the city.

All this to say that today I’m in a mood for appreciating old things which work.

Geoffrey Pullum wrote, four years ago,

Shall I tell you how The Cambridge Grammar of English was prepared? (I am not changing the subject; trust me.) The book is huge: 1,859 printed pages. The double-spaced manuscript was about 3,500 pages (yes, it actually had to be printed out and written on by a copy editor the old-fashioned way). It took over ten years to write. And it was done using WordPerfect 6 for DOS. Rodney Huddleston chose to upgrade to that around 1989, wrote a couple of hundred complex macros, and stuck with it. I learned the WP DOS macro language in order to collaborate on the project.

WordPerfect was basically in its final, completed form before Clinton first ran for office. It works. The file format is fine for authors, and records everything we need to record. Rodney and I are still using WP6 file format today to write our planned student’s introduction to English grammar. In all the years since the late 1970s, WordPerfect has not altered the file format: all the largely pointless upgrades in the program have been backward compatible. The format really does the job. But things are different with the WordPerfect program itself. The progress has largely been backward.

The things we have noticed about version differences are minor, but they all tell in the same direction: every upgrade is a downgrade.

Forget the Clinton administration: TeX basically solved the problem of representing mathematical equations as text, during Reagan’s first term. The LaTeX macro language, which handles document-scale organization, is almost as old. Perhaps we’re stuck at a local maximum, and with luck and pluck we could find a better way, and on some days, that seems almost mandatory. Still, we’re at a pretty darn good local maximum, as local extrema go.

(Something deep within me finds a resonance with PyTeX, an attempt to have Python sit on top of TeX the way LaTeX does, but the project seems to be moribund.)

The question for today, then, is the following:

What are your favorite Old Things That Work, and which changeless relics really do need a shake-up?

Previous surveys:

Comments on all the above remain open.

Survey: Teachable Controversies

Today, John Timmer posted on the ‘tubes a brief summary of current debates in evolutionary biology, as unfolded at a recent Rockefeller University symposium. Timmer takes the position, and PZ Myers agrees, that these controversies don’t belong in the high-school curriculum. They require too much background knowledge to understand, and if the students haven’t spent time learning the basic principles, they’ll be sunk. On these specific points, I’d tend to agree; however, other debates might provide “teachable moments.” If trying to build lesson plans around the questions currently rocking the symposia is going too far, what about the problems which have been wrapped up in the last ten years or so? For example, in a post-Bullet Cluster world, a high-school physics class could well include some talk of dark matter.
Continue reading Survey: Teachable Controversies

Survey: Favorite Classes

Have you ever eaten carbonated fruit?

My friends found a steel pressure vessel — exactly where, I haven’t dared to inquire — and we’ve started a series of scientific experiments. Various edible items are placed inside the vessel, which is sealed and pumped up to 5 atmospheres of CO2, and then placed in the refrigerator overnight. The results range from the odd (baked potato) to the delicious (navel orange, honeydew, applesauce). And let me tell you, burping for five minutes after eating a grapefruit is a novel experience.

So, while I recover from this experiment and prepare myself for the next one, it’s time for user-generated content! Yes, this is Web 3.11, after all, where you do the work and I luxuriate in advertising profits — and let me tell you, Google Adsense brings a whole new meaning to “micropayment.”

The first time I gave up and invited comments instead of doing work myself, I asked, “If you could fix one thing about the science-blogging experience, what would it be?” We heard requests for a better basic-knowledge infrastructure, something like an open archive of historically significant papers; also, voices were noted clamoring for better math support in blogs, for which Randall had a suggestion. In addition, one person had a single-world answer for what was broken about science blogging: “Nisbet.” Heaven only knows what got into that reader. . . although Australia’s best and brightest have an idea.

After that, I asked about “gateway physics books” — the sort of introductory or intermediate texts you could give a student who has enrolled in or just recently survived AP Physics. We received a couple nods to Halliday, Resnick and Walker, and small surprise, the Feynman Lectures too. For more, and if you have suggestions of your own, check the comments.

Today’s question is, at least in my bubble-addled brain, a logical follow-up to the last one. I expect my Gentle Readers have gone through a good many science classes all together, ranging from elementary school to post-graduate courses. What have been your favorites — and, if ranting is your thing, your least favorites as well?

Gateway Physics Books

John Armstrong raises an interesting question: what books could you give to, say, a bright high-school student seeking an introduction to mathematics? The same question could be asked for physics too, and I’m certainly not above writing a derivative blog post — not to go off on a tangent or anything, but it’s really an integral part of my style.

I’m looking for something a little more focused than John Baez’s list of math and physics books, which covers everything up to general relativity, quantum field theory and string theory. Rather than trying to map out a whole self-study version of an undergraduate degree, I’d like to know what materials might be useful for the student who has enrolled in or just recently survived AP Physics.

Suggestions? Also, for anybody who missed it the first time, my earlier poll, “what’s broken with science blogging?” is still open.

Poll: What’s Broken?

It occurs to me that I need a book I don’t have at hand right now in order to finish the post I had hoped to complete today, so in lieu of something which requires actual work on my part, I’ll pose a question to my Gentle Readers. By reading this now, you’re kind of by definition a “person who reads science blogs,” and most likely you read others besides mine; many of you might have homes of your own on the Interblag. I figure, then, that the people passing through here have perspectives from both sides, producer and consumer (a division we often try our darndest to narrow). So, then:

If you could fix one thing about the science-blogging experience, what would it be?