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2013 December 31

2013 in review

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 11:19
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The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog, as they do each year. Click here to see the complete report.

My total views were up less than 3% from last year—I’ve probably reached a steady state with people giving up on reading my blog at about the same rate that new readers come in. My number of readers may have gone up a bit more more than 3%, as I think that I’ve not been posting as much in 2013: only 289 new posts (but today’s posts were not included, so it is probably 291).

Most popular is still my home page (29,814 views out of 112,064), but that is under 27% of views. Only 4 of my top 10 most-viewed posts this year were written this year:

post year views in 2013
2011 AP Exam Score Distribution 2011 6,996
Installing gnuplot—a nightmare 2012 4,203
How many AP courses are too many? 2012 3,305
West Point Bridge Designer 2011 2011 1,806
Difficulties with the new Common Application 2013 1,775
Why no digital oscilloscope for Macbooks and iPads? 2010 1,759
2013 AP Exam Score Distribution 2013 1,595
Instrumentation amp lab 2012 1,592
MOOC roundup 2013 1,228
Essay prompts for college applications 2013 1,154
Making WAV files from C programs 2011 1,104

None of those are particularly good posts, but they have good links to other information sources, so come up high in search engine algorithms. Some of my most popular posts from this year are obsolete—I should probably add links in them to newer posts, especially the 2011 AP exam score distribution and West Point Bridge Designer posts.  The instrumentation amp lab post is a strange one of the 202 posts on the Applied Circuits course to be the most popular—this is probably Google’s fault.

I should probably thank Google for keeping old posts alive—57,090 views or about 51% of my total came from search engines, and 54,104 or 48% of my views were referrals by Google.  Bing contributed only 1,120, Yahoo only 1,413, and all other search engine referrals were under 100 each.

Social media contributed more than I expected, since I don’t use Twitter or Facebook.  Twitter referrals were 574, Facebook 470.  Email lists probably contributed more, but they are harder to count, as only yahoo mail referrals are counted (564, plus 198 from the homeschool to college list).  I wonder why doesn’t count gmail referrals—I’m sure that gmail tracks the links. My being part of the Santa Cruz Sentinel Media Lab helped a little (405 referrals).

Commenting on other people’s blogs got me a number of referrals also.  I think that many of my regular readers have come to my blog from some other blog or from e-mail lists, rather than from search-engine referrals, but I have no way of knowing that for sure.  Some of the largest referral counts from blogs are from comments that I’d forgotten about making, and that are niche blogs for which only a few of my posts are relevant. Having another blogger point to my blog in a post is more valuable than just comments,

One piece of  advice I’ve heard for maximizing readership is to focus narrowly on one niche, so that everyone who comes to the blog knows what to expect after seeing one or two posts.  That works for some bloggers, but I have eclectic interests and can’t really limit myself in that way—I don’t want to start dozens of blogs on different topics.  So for the next year, I’ll continue posting whatever I feel like writing about.

I expect that there will be a number of posts about my new freshman design seminar, because new courses always occupy a lot of my mental space.  Home school and college application stuff will probably disappear after this spring, as my son will be graduating from high school in June.  I may revive one of my old hobbies over the summer, in which case I’ll blog about it.  The question is—what old hobby should I bring back, or what new one should I pick up?  Probably it should either involve exercise (which I need more of) or making something (I feel attached to the Maker movement, but I’ve not really made much beyond stuff for the Applied Circuits or freshman design courses in the past year).


2013 June 1

Blogoversary 3

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 19:59
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I got a notification from today that my blog is now three years old.  In that time, I’ve posted 1070 posts and gotten 235,600 views and almost 3000 comments (about 40% of which are mine, though, so only about 1800 comments from readers). My comment-to-post ratio is 2.80, nearly the same as previous years, and Bonnie and Mylène are still the top two commenters.  I offered them a prize last year of a suggesting a blog topic, but I don’t remember either of them claiming the prize—the offer is still good.

For my other blogoversaries, I did some analysis of which posts were the most popular (1 year, 2 year), so I suppose I should do that again. Here are the posts with 1000 or more views:

Home page / Archives 63,539
2011 AP Exam Score Distribution 17,482
West Point Bridge Designer 2011 5,480
Installing gnuplot—a nightmare 5,118
Why no digital oscilloscope for Macbooks and iPads? 3,542
How many AP courses are too many? 3,408
Bring back the mammoth! 2,769
West Point Bridge Design Contest 2012 2,010
Computer languages for kids 1,993
2012 AP Exam Score Distribution 1,937
Instrumentation amp lab 1,707
County Fair with Pictures 1,614
Why Discrete Math Is Important and The Calculus Trap 1,613
Resources for bioinformatics in AP Bio 1,356
Google Scholar vs. Scopus and SciFinder 1,330
Waterproofing cameras for underwater ROVs 1,294
Soda-bottle rockets 1,273
Adding bioinformatics to AP Bio 1,237
A use for an Ion Torrent 1,108
Teaching voice projection 1,106
Should high schools and colleges teach sentence diagramming? 1,098
Underwater ROV contest 1,049
What is giftedness? 1,037

No single post gets more hits than the home page, which is viewed by those people who read the blog on a regular basis, but overall I get over 41%  of my views from people referred by search engines.  People are reading my stuff for the content, not because the posts are by me.  I’m not sure whether that is good or bad.

Some of the popular posts are artifacts of search engines: like the mammoth post, the pointers to AP score distributions, or the pictures from the County Fair. Some are from middle-school students trying to cheat on homework (the West Point Bridge Designer posts), and some are just weird choices (why the instrumentation amp lab post out of the 173 posts for the circuits course?). A lot of the posts are coming up because of useful content, though (like how to install gnuplot, bioinformatics resources, or soda-bottle rockets).

Only two of those most-popular hits are from the last year, so perhaps I should list the posts with over 300 views that were written in the last year:

2012 AP Exam Score Distribution 1,937
Instrumentation amp lab 1,707
Soda-bottle rocket simulation: take 2 750
EMG and EKG works 732
Physics posts in forward order 714
College tours around LA 670
Coursera Course Catalog 648
Circuits course: Table of Contents 562
Better electrode placement for EKG blinky 519
Medical Instrumentation, Chapter 6 510
UC Berkeley college tour 448
EKG blinky parts list and assembly instructions 421
Temperature lab, part 3: voltage divider 401
Where you get your BS in CS matters 397
Homemade super pulley 372
Weird problem in Coursera course 366
FET threshold tests with Bitscope 361
A critique of CS textbooks 347
Capacitive sensing 323
NSF “clarifies” Broader Impacts 314
Possible textbook, Horowitz and Hill 313

Of these, only the 2012 AP score distribution is embarrassing (it is just a pointer to a post where someone else collected the stats from a third person’s tweets, so it is really 3rd-hand info). Interestingly, the pages that serve as tables of contents for the home school physics and the circuits course have both been fairly popular. I would not have pulled out the instrumentation lab post nor the Chapter 6 summary out of the circuits-course posts as being particularly valuable, though.

I’ve not been pushing my posts on mailing lists much this year—of the new posts, probably only the two tables of contents and the two college-visit posts have been boosted by my telling people on mailing lists about them.

I’ve been averaging about 10,000 views a month lately (though the stupid AP score posts cause a spike in May each year, and December, August, and June were slow months—a lot of my readers are students or academics, so vacation times result in lower numbers of viewers).

2013 March 23

Post 1024

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 19:58
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I’ve finally gotten to more posts than I can count on my fingers (10000000000 in binary, 2000 in octal, 400 in hexadecimal, or 1024 in decimal).

Since this is a milestone on my blog, I should probably report a few statistics:

1,023 Posts, 20 Categories, 1,305 Tags

211,322 Views, 2,878 Comments, but about 40% of those comments are from me (either adding notes to a post or responding to another commenter, so I’m really getting only about 8 comments for every 1000 views.

The big categories are

Circuits course 164
 home school 127
 Robotics  46
 data acquisition 36
 printed circuit boards 34
 science fair 27

Because still does not support displaying posts in chronological order (only reverse chronological), and the theme I use does not include next/previous links (the one major complaint I have with the theme), I’ve had to create and manually maintain a couple of table of contents pages:

Circuits course

Homeschool Physics

The major tags are

education 297
circuits 158
teaching 127
high school 109
physics 105
home school 96
course design 95
bioengineering 86
Arduino 75
higher education 67
computer science 56
bioinformatics 49
science education 44
math 41
programming 40
Matter and Interactions 37
AP physics 37
engineering 36
science fair 35

There are probably a number of posts that should have the “home school” tag but don’t.

The major referrers are

Search Engines  (almost all Google) 84,867
Various Yahoo mail servers 1,879
Google Reader 1,468 1,401
Facebook 915 762 486 470 443
Twitter 432 359 283 283 208

Since I have neither Facebook nor Twitter accounts, the number of referrals from those social media sites are surprisingly large, but searches and e-mail referrals are clearly a far more common way to get to my blog. The coming loss of Google Reader may end up hurting my readership numbers, though I suppose that most Google Reader users will switch over to a different RSS reader. I’ll have to choose one soon myself (I’m thinking of The Old Reader, NewsBlur, or NetVibes, though I understand that NewsBlur has stopped giving out free accounts for now, because they got too many new users with the demise of Google Reader).

Here are some of my all-time most popular posts (some of them are definitely not among my favorite posts):

Title Views Comment
Home page / Archives 57,462 I show a few recent posts on the home page for the blog, so many of my readers just view posts there.
2011 AP Exam Score Distribution 13,937 Just a pointer to data on someone else’s web page, with minimal commentary
West Point Bridge Designer 2011 5,189 middle-school students trying to cheat on their homework
Installing gnuplot—a nightmare 4,233 The comments on this post have proven to be useful—the instructions for installing gnuplot in the comments are better than the post or the official gnuplot installation instructions.
Why no digital oscilloscope for Macbooks and iPads? 3,244 Obsolete now, as the BitScope USB oscilloscope does work with a MacBook.
Bring back the mammoth! 2,734 A throw-away comment that got a lot of views from Russia, for reasons I still don’t understand.
How many AP courses are too many? 2,526 thoughts on the tradeoffs between challenge and overwork
Computer languages for kids 1,922 The post I point people to when they ask about how to teach kids to program. Because my son has been an excellent programmer for a while, I get asked this a lot. I don’t recommend teaching (most) kids the way my son learned, but I have given some thought to how I think programming should be taught to youngsters.
West Point Bridge Design Contest 2012 1,847 Middle-schoolers cheating on their homework, but using a more recent version of bridge designer. Interestingly, this year’s post for the 2013 contest has not had many hits—probably because it is not part of the positive feedback loop that causes posts on the first page of Google hits to become more commonly reported by Google.
2012 AP Exam Score Distribution 1,697 Yet another pointer to someone else’s web page with minimal commentary
County Fair with Pictures 1,513 I’ve never understood why this post gets so many hits. There must be 1000s of better collections of County Fair pictures.
Why Discrete Math Is Important and The Calculus Trap 1,468 A pointer to some good articles on the Art of Problem Solving web site, along with some commentary.
Instrumentation amp lab 1,297 Another post in the Google positive feedback cycle. I have better posts than this one about instrumentation amps and labs using them, but this one is the one that gets clicked on.
Resources for bioinformatics in AP Bio 1,225 This post has a number of pointers that I collected that are useful for AP bio teachers and students. The teachers now have a resource repository on the College Board website that is probably more useful to them. I’ve not checked whether everything I’ve listed here has been put into the College Board repository, and probably never will have the time or energy to do that.
Adding bioinformatics to AP Bio 1,194 I think that this post was about the need for adding bioinformatics to high school biology, rather than resources for doing so. Some grad students and I have done some volunteer teaching and lesson development since then (see bioinformatics in AP Bio lessons)
Google Scholar vs. Scopus and SciFinder 1,190 A somewhat dated look at different scholarly indexing services, using searches for my work as one measure of coverage and false positives.
Waterproofing cameras for underwater ROVs 1,187 A record (with pictures) of the workshop taught to high school students for the MATE Rover underwater vehicle contest. It is a surprisingly cheap and simple way to create waterproof video cameras.
A use for an Ion Torrent 1,088 A throwaway idea for a market niche for a fairly low-cost sequencing platform. From what I’ve heard, Ion Torrent is still trying to get their error rates down to reasonable numbers, and they were badly hurt by sleazy moves by their marketing people (suppressing papers from early adopters, for example).
Soda-bottle rockets 1,066 Soda-bottle rockets are a great topic, and I have some other posts under the rocket tag, but I probably get more hits on a much older pair of PDF files for one-page handouts on how to make a simple soda-bottle launcher (English and Spanish).
Should high schools and colleges teach sentence diagramming? 1,042 Sentence diagramming seems to have gone through a nostalgia phase about a year ago. I’m not convinced that it helps students much, but it is probably better than ignoring grammar entirely or just teaching parts of speech.
What is giftedness? 1,035 I nearly always get a wave of views when I e-mail a link to post to one of the larger parent-of-gifted-kid email lists, but I try to minimize how often I do that, and only point to posts that are highly relevant to the conversation in progress on the list, so as not to be viewed as one of those obnoxious people who are just on the mailing list to shill for their books, courses, or blogs. I try to limit my mentions of my blogs to about one out of ten of my comments on the e-mail list or less.

I seem to have 20 posts with over 1000 views. I wonder what the blogging equivalent of the h-index is. Probably something like the largest h such that there are h posts with ≥50h views.

2013 March 21

Student writing

Filed under: Circuits course — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 08:59
Tags: , , , , , , ,

In How does blogging about science benefit students?, Sandra Porter recommends that students (specifically biotech students at Portland COmmunity College) keep a blog :

My hypothesis is that a science blog for a science student can serve the same purpose that a portfolio serves for an artist or a set of articles serves for a writer.  Your blog can be your record of accomplishments.

Not only can your blog document your work, your blog can show that you can write, that you can spell (not a skill to take for granted), and can give you a chance to describe what you’ve done.

She describes her first job interview and what she is doing to avoid similar embarrassment for her students.  She has students in one class keep a professional lab notebook and bring it to interviews—showing that they can keep a proper lab notebook and providing documentation to support their assertion of knowing various protocols.

Student blogging is another approach she is experimenting with.  She encourages the students to use blogs as an on-line notebook (much like I’ve been doing on this blog for the circuits course), and to include the URL for the blog in resumes and cover letters for jobs.  If interviewers are interested, they can check out a few posts on the blog to see if the student can write coherently (a very important skill that can not be automatically assumed of college graduates) and, if there are search boxes and appropriate tags on the posts, whether the students know the protocols and equipment that the job requires.

In a subsequent post, The ten commandments of student science blogging, she talks about the guidelines she gives students for their blogs, to keep them from accidentally doing unprofessional things that would hurt, rather than, help their chances of getting a job.

The biggest problem I see with her recommendations is that the only audience she has identified for the student is a mysterious “job interviewer” whom the students have never met.  Writing for an unknown, difficult-to-imagine audience is hard. Writing for an imagined expert (an interviewer or professor) almost always brings out the worst writing, with inflated diction, misused jargon, and awkward ungrammatical sentences.  When writing to show that they know something to someone who knows it better, students stumble over nearly every sentence—leaving out important concepts and tossing in irrelevant minor points in a vain attempt to impress.

I think it might benefit the students to be given a more specific audience—one that they can picture writing to directly and actually informing of something new.  For an online lab notebook, it could be students at other schools (“look at the cool stuff we get to do here!”) or future students in the same lab (“never use the pink labels in the freezer—the glue on them cracks in the cold and the labels fall off”), both of whom are imaginable audiences.

The advice I gave in my circuits course is the standard advice I give to students: Write to students taking the course next year.  Assume they know what you knew coming into the course, but explain to them anything that you didn’t already know.  Make the report detailed enough that a student reading it could duplicate your work without having access to the original assignment—though they might have to looks a few things up on the web or in text books. (Provide pointers to appropriate readings, when possible.)  Explain not just what you did, but why, and provide warnings to help your reader avoid mistakes that you made.

Most of the students in the circuits course got this idea, and the reports were mostly coherent and directed at the right audience, though they were a little light on pointers to appropriate reading.

One thing that Sandra Porter doesn’t mention in her “ten commandments”, but which I had to really rant about in my course: “Get the details right!”  Sandra mentions spelling and punctuation, which are markers for attention to details, but the accuracy of the content is far more important. I can forgive an occasional typo (though failure to run text through a spell checker indicates a level of sloppiness that would disturb me as a job interviewer), but the main engineering content needs to be checked and double-checked, both for consistency with the lab notebook notes and for general sanity (recompute the corner frequency from the RC values in the schematic—is that what was intended?).

If you are giving a circuit schematic, every wire must be correctly connected, every component must have the correct value, and pin numbers should be correct.  The students  in the circuits course had incredible difficulty with checking their own and each other’s work for accuracy, and obvious errors (like power-ground shorts) occurred on most of the assignment first drafts.  For a biotech student, the equivalent would be getting the wrong reagent in a protocol, putting ice in autoclave, or replacing µg with mg.

The rate of errors in schematics did not drop much over the quarter, though I felt it should have.  Other writing problems (like poor audience assessment, overuse of passive, or misuse of “would”) were generally fixed after being pointed out, but the sloppiness in the circuit diagrams continued to be a problem all quarter.  By “sloppiness” I don’t mean poor drawing skills, as most of the students used CircuitLab to draw neat schematics, but semantic errors that changed the meaning of the circuits.

If anyone has ideas for improving student attention to details in schematics, I’d appreciate hearing them.

2013 January 1

In the top 40

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 10:59
Tags: , ,

One of my blog posts made it into Santa Cruz Sentinel‘s list of the top 40 blog posts for 2012 for their Media Lab bloggers: Are AP classes worthwhile?  Unfortunately it was  25th, and so the first post displayed after the “READ NEXT PAGE” button is pressed.  I suspect that means that few people will find the post from the Sentinel article.  Still, with 170 local bloggers in their Media Lab, it is nice to make it into the top 40, and Angus’s post about my blog (Media Lab Profile: Kevin Karplus – ‘Grateful Dead on the outside, Stephen Hawking on the inside’) also made it into the top 40, so I may get some traffic that way.

It’s always nice to make it onto a top-40 list, even if it is just being a big fish in a small pond.

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