Gas station without pumps

2014 December 31

2015 New Year’s resolution

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 13:51
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I’m not a great believer in New Year’s resolutions (they generally last no more than a week), so I gave up making them years ago. This year, though, I do want to make one—one that is related to my health and fitness.  I want to lose 10–15 pounds by June 2015.

Here’s what prompted that resolution:

    My "body mass index" has been creeping up for the past 21 months. I'm in danger of passing the BME≥25 threshold to "overweight" in about 19 months if the recent trend continues.

My “body mass index” has been creeping up for the past 21 months. I’m in danger of passing the BME≥25 threshold to “overweight” in about 19 months if the recent trend continues.

I think I felt healthiest when my BMI was about 21.6, but I’d be happy to get my BMI back in the range 22.5–23, which is where it was around 6–10 years ago. Most of the weight I’ve put on since then is around my waist, which is not a healthy place to be adding weight—I wouldn’t have minded adding muscle mass, but the gain has clearly been in flab, not muscle.

Of course, it isn’t enough just to decide to lose weight—I’m going to have to change some of my habits to achieve my goal. But which ones?

Exercise and diet are the two main contributors to weight gain or loss. So do I increase my exercise, limit my diet, or both?

I get adequate aerobic exercise (about 26.8 miles/week of bicycling—see the bike log below), and I’ve never been able to maintain an increased exercise program for more than a few weeks.  So I don’t think that exercise will be a major part of my weight-loss program. I may try doing “core” exercises again to trim my waist a bit through increased muscle tone, but that won’t affect my weight significantly.

Because I use my bicycle for transportation, my exercise is roughly constant. (Academic year 2011–12 was lower, because I was on sabbatical, so biked up the hill to campus less often.)

Because I use my bicycle for transportation, my exercise is roughly constant. (Academic year 2011–12 was lower, because I was on sabbatical, so biked up the hill to campus less often.)

Given that I’m unlikely to sustain an increased exercise regime for long enough to lose much weight, it seems like my best bet will be to try to regulate my diet. I can ask my wife to help by not offering me fattening foods, but most of the effort will have to come from me controlling portion sizes and not eating snacks from the vending machine at work. Skipping lunch or bringing low-calorie lunches from home might help, but I often skip lunch already, so I don’t know how much having better lunch discipline will help. I think that the big changes will have to come in my evening meal.

I’ll try to cut back on some of the high-calorie foods (like cheese and ice cream) and increase my intake of bulky low-calorie foods (like vegetables).  Changing habits that I developed when I was a skinny person is going to be hard, but I’m hopeful that I can reset the weight homeostasis back to what it was a decade ago, and that within six months new dietary habits will be sufficiently established to be able to maintain the weight without struggle.

2014 in review

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 09:15
Tags: , prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog—missing, of course, the last 3 days of 2014.  I prepared my own report today, with somewhat more up-to-date statistics.

I had about 116,000 views in 2014, up slightly (about 3.6%) from 112,251 in 2013. My blog seems to have reached a nearly steady state of readership, with only 3.5% growth a year for the past 2 years. The standard advice for making popular blogs (creating a narrowly focused, single-topic blog and pushing it a lot on social media) does not appeal to me, so I’ll continue making an eclectic mix of things that interest me, and be content with having relatively few readers.

I still don’t get many comments though, with the total number of comments about 0.97% of the total number of views, and about 39% of the comments are mine (either automatically generated links to newer posts or replies to other commenters), so the outside comments per view is more like 0.6%. These numbers are approximate, because WordPress doesn’t provide a time-based analysis of comments. My top commenters are thoughtful people, and I appreciate the comments they provide.

My readers are from around the world, though the US dominates (not surprising, since much of my content is about education in the US):

Country Views
United States FlagUnited States 76,890
United Kingdom FlagUnited Kingdom 4,064
Canada FlagCanada 3,216
India FlagIndia 2,608
Germany FlagGermany 2,207
Australia FlagAustralia 2,000
France FlagFrance 1,885
Korea, Republic of FlagRepublic of Korea 1,357
Italy FlagItaly 1,192

The most popular entry point this past year has been home page (which is what subscribers go to, or people looking specifically for my blog), but the home page accounts for only about 30% of the views—the rest come from direct links to the blog or search-engine hits.  The most popular posts this past year are an eclectic mix—some are technical help (like installing gnuplot or making WAV files from C programs), some are educational musings (how many AP courses or Carol Dweck’s Mindset), some are looked for by students cheating on homework (the various bridge design contest posts), and some are just pointers to other sites (like the AP exam score distributions). Of the posts with ≥500 views, only 4 were written in 2014, 4 in 2013, 8 in 2012, 7 in 2011, and 1 way back in 2010.  My stuff seems to get more popular with age (or I was a better writer 2–3 years ago).

Home page / Archives 34,570
How many AP courses are too many? 4,602
Engineering Encounters Bridge Design Contest 2014 2,603
Installing gnuplot—a nightmare 2,537
Carol Dweck’s Mindset 2,333
Making WAV files from C programs 2,133
Why no digital oscilloscope for Macbooks and iPads? 1,831
West Point Bridge Designer 2011 1,675
Why Discrete Math Is Important and The Calculus Trap 1,544
2014 AP Exam Score Distributions 1,422
2011 AP Exam Score Distribution 1,345
CS commenters need to learn statistics 1,161
Essay prompts for college applications 1,161
Homeschooling chemistry this year? 1,008
Journals for high school researchers 937
Summer project 937
Difficulties with the new Common Application 853
FET threshold tests with Bitscope 790
labhacks — The $25 scrunchable scientific poster 662
EKG blinky parts list and assembly instructions 654
Teaching voice projection 605
Physics posts in forward order 577
EMG and EKG works 562
Soda-bottle rockets 532
Making Ag/AgCl electrodes 530
West Point Bridge Design Contest 2012 523
Getting text from Amazon’s “Look Inside” 509

The WordPress annual report referrer list is misleading, as the search engines and social media outstrip the web pages that they list, with search engines being the main way that people find posts on this blog. The Facebook and Twitter links are interesting, since I don’t use either service. I do comment a lot on computinged and xykademiqz, and the writers of those blogs are also frequent commenters on my blog, so the views from those more popular blogs are welcome.

Referrer Views
Search Engines 61,171 549 492
Facebook 484
Twitter 369 272 211


2014 December 28

Desk lamp

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 18:47
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Side view of the desk lamp, showing the pair of pipes tilted down, to keep light from shining in my eyes.

Side view of the desk lamp, showing the pair of pipes tilted down, to keep light from shining in my eyes.

In Summer Project and Summer Project 2, I introduced the project I’ve been working on all summer: a “kit” for making dimmable LED lamps, and I showed the custom desk lamp I made for my son and the table lamp I made for my sister. I’ve finally gotten around to making a desk lamp for myself (I’ve spent most of my “free time” this quarter grading or doing administrative paperwork). The desk lamp is similar in spirit to the one I made for my son, but a bit larger and sturdier.  Instead of using 10-gauge wire to support the LED boards, I used ¼” copper pipe, squeezed flat and drilled where contacts are needed.

I’ve currently populated it with 5 LED boards, but there are holes drilled for 6. I had planned to populate all 6, but I damaged two of the LED boards in assembling the lamp, scraping off a diode from one board, and both a diode and a resistor from the other. Clearly, if I plan to make the LED boards a hobbyist tool, they’ll have to be a bit sturdier. I may need to look into how difficult it would be to pot the component side in an epoxy resin.

Looking at the light from below, you can see the five populated spaces and the one empty one.

Looking at the light from below, you can see the five populated spaces and the one empty one.

Based on the measurements and calculations from the data sheets I did in LED board I-vs-V curve, I should be able to get up to 75 lumens per board, for a maximum output of 375 lumens (450 lumens if fully populated).  The lowest setting on the dimmer should be around 9–10 lumens.

From above, the heat sinks are clearly visible. At the low light setting I expect to use most (around 20 lumens per board), the heat sinks aren't needed, but at full intensity they might get warm.

From above, the heat sinks are clearly visible. At the low light setting I expect to use most (around 20 lumens per board), the heat sinks aren’t needed, but at full intensity they might get warm.

I set them on full for a few minutes and measured the temperature of the heatsinks with an infrared thermometer. This is not a very reliable measurement, since the heatsinks are a tiny target, but I got a peak measurement of around 57°C. At those temperatures, it is clear that the heatsinks are needed, as the case temperature of the MP3030 LEDs is limited to 80°C.

Inside the box is just the dimmer board, a barrel jack, and the nuts for the screws holding the copper pipes to the box.  These cheap wooden craft boxes (intended for découpage) make good project boxes for electronics—they look better than plastic boxes and don't cost any more.

Inside the box is just the dimmer board, a barrel jack, and the nuts for the screws holding the copper pipes to the box. These cheap wooden craft boxes (intended for découpage) make good project boxes for electronics—they look better than plastic boxes and don’t cost any more.

The photos were all taken in my breakfast room, since my desk is far too messy to clear in a reasonable amount of time.

My next lamp project will be a hanging light fixture for the breakfast room. That is somewhat more ambitious project as it means rewiring part of the house—I don’t want to run the 9V DC in the same conduits or junction boxes as the 110V AC. Unfortunately, the junction box in the attic above where I want the dimmer to be is a nexus from which several AC runs fan out. I’ll have to reroute a lot of that wiring to a new junction box, which means pulling some new wires (the wire in the conduits in 65-year-old solid copper with cloth insulation).

Public univerisities as mass quality

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 12:55
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Chris Newfield, in Trends we can work with: Higher Ed in 2015 ~ Remaking the University, wrote

I never tire of pointing out that the only reason for the existence of public universities is mass quality—mass access to top-quality teaching and cutting-edge research—that puts regular folks on the level where they can genuinely match elites. It’s not too soon for faculty to join students in putting the quality back in mass quality, while creating new kinds of quality to reflect on current conditions. The success students had this year in holding off major politicians like Jerry Brown—and in getting cited in revenue arguments by governing boards—signaled to at least some faculty that it’s time to step up.

Chris Newfield, like me, teaches at the University of California (though he is on a different campus). I think we both see the University of California as having a combined mission: teaching and research at a very high level of quality and at a low price to the students. Unfortunately, high quality does not come at low cost, so the only way to achieve a low price is through subsidies. Because the public universities do not have the massive endowments and enormous philanthropic contributions that schools like Stanford get, the subsidies have to come from the state.

Unfortunately, our state politicians have been fooled into thinking that the University of California can be simultaneously controlled by the legislature and paid for by the students—thanks in large part to Regents who sincerely believe that unregulated markets are the best way to achieve everything.  As a result, the University of California has become much more expensive for students while having a lot less money for instructional purposes.  It’s been a slow process, played out over the past 20 years, but the UC educational experience has gradually been cheapened while becoming pricier.

The problem is not inefficiency on the part of the University or spiraling costs (see Cost of college remarkably stable), but simple cost shifting from public funding to student loans.  The legislature and the governors have given up education as a public good and decided to slowly privatize higher education in California. This is not a popular position with the people of California, so they disguise the moves and find ways to make the University look like the bad guys in raising tuition.

The University administration has been aiding and abetting this political movement to privatize the University, by raising tuition every opportunity they get and by paying their top executives ridiculously large salaries, while simultaneously treating the faculty and unionized workers worse and worse (health benefits are much worse now than when I joined UC 28 years ago; salaries are about the same, after correcting for inflation; and workloads are higher).  I think the UCOP (University of California Office of the President) made a particularly bad mis-step this year in the way that they raised tuition right after giving top executives pay raises—it made it look like they were just interested in lining their own pockets.  It would have been better to come out with a plan for lowering tuition while raising state contributions—then the legislature would be properly seen as the ones causing the problem, rather than offering the legislature an opportunity to look virtuous while cutting funding for the University.

Quite frankly, I’m not convinced that the UCOP executives have any interest in the University as a university—they certainly seem to pay much more attention to ways that they can extract money from it (like using the retirement funds for speculation on UC venture capital projects) than on education or research.  Neither UCOP nor the Regents listen to the faculty or the students, and I think that they have no idea what damage their self-centered decisions have already done to the University, much less what damage their most recent decisions will do.

2014 December 27

We create a problem when we pass the incompetent

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 22:55
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I finished my grading earlier this week, and I was little distressed at how many students did not pass my graduate bioinformatics class (19% of the students in the class did not pass this fall, about equally divided between the seniors and the first-year grads—note that “passing” for a grad student is B– or better, while for an undergrad is C or better). Some students were simply unprepared for the level of computer programming the course requires and were not able to get up to speed quickly enough.  They made substantial improvement during the quarter and should do fine next time around, particularly if they continue to practice their programming skills. Others have a history of failing courses and may or may not make the effort needed to develop their programming skills before their next attempt.

I don’t like to have students fail my courses (particularly not repeatedly, as some have done), but I can’t bring myself to pass students who have not come close to doing the required work. When I pass a student in a course, it means that I’m certifying that they are at least marginally competent in the skills that the course covers (most of my courses are about developing skills, not learning information).  I’ll give the students all the help and feedback I can to develop those skills, but I grade them on what they achieve, not on how much work they put in, what excuses they have, nor how many times they’ve attempted the course.

I often feel alone in holding the line on quality—I’m afraid that there are not enough faculty willing to fail students who don’t meet the requirements of the courses they are teaching.  Those teachers are just kicking the problem of inadequately prepared students on to the next teacher, or to the employer of the student who graduates without the skills a college graduate should have.

In The Academe Blog,  in the click-bait-named post Nude Adult Models, William Bennett, Common Core, Rotten Teachers, Apples, Robert Frost, Ulf Kirchdorfer wrote

The reality is that many teachers, whether prompted by supervisors or of their own volition, continue to pass students so that we have many that reach college with the most basic of literacy skills, in English, math, science, the foreign languages.

Tired of listening to some of my colleagues complain of college students being unable to write, I went to look at learning outcomes designed for students in secondary education, and sure enough, as I had suspected, even a junior high, or middle-school, student should be able to write a formulaic, basic five-paragraph theme.

Guess what. Many college students, even graduating ones, are unable to do so.

While I don’t often agree with Ulf (who often takes extreme positions just for the fun of argument), I have to agree with him that many of my students are not writing at what I would consider a college level for senior thesis proposals, even though they have had three prerequisite writing courses (including a tech writing course) as prerequisites to the senior thesis.  And it isn’t just writing coherent papers in English that is a problem, as evidenced by the failure rate in my bioinformatics course due to inadequate programming skills (despite several prerequisite programming courses).

In an article about Linda B. Nelson’s “spec” grading system, which attempts to fix some of the problems with current grading practices, she is quoted:

“Most students (today) have never failed at anything,” Nilson noted, since their generation grew up receiving inflated grades and trophies for mere participation in sports. “If they don’t fail now, they’re going to have a really hard life.”

It doesn’t do anyone any favors to pass students who do not meet the minimum competency expected—the students are deluded into thinking they are much more competent than they are (so that they don’t take the necessary actions to remediate their problems); future teachers are forced to either reteach what the students should already have learned (which means that the students who had the prerequisites get shortchanged) or lose a big chunk of the class; the university degree loses its value as a marker of competence; and employers ratchet up credentials needed for employment (as the degrees mean less, higher degrees are asked for).

There is pressure on faculty to raise pass rates and pass students who don’t have adequate preparation.  The University administration wants to increase the 4-year graduation rate while taking in more students from much weaker high schools. I worry that the administration is pushing for higher graduation rates without considering the problems caused by pressuring faculty to pass students who are not competent. The reputation of the university is based on the competence of its alumni—pumping out unqualified students would fairly quickly dissipate the university’s good name.

Four-year graduation is not very common in engineering fields—even good students who start with every advantage (like several AP courses in high school with good AP scores) have a hard time packing everything into 4 years. Minor changes to course schedules can throw off even the best-laid plans, so an extra quarter or two are completely routine occurrences. And that’s for the top students.  Students coming in with weak math preparation find it almost impossible to finish in 4 years, because they have to redo high school math (precalculus), causing delays in their starting physics and engineering classes. If they ever fail a course, they may end up a full year behind, because the tightening of instructional funding has resulted in many courses only being offered once a year.  There is a lot of pressure on faculty to pass kids who clearly are not meeting standards, so that their graduation is not delayed—as if the diploma was all that mattered, not the education it is supposed to represent.

There are things that administrators can do to reduce the pressure on faculty.  For example, they could stop pushing 4-year graduation rates, and pay more attention to the 5-year rates. The extra time would allow students with a weaker high school background to catch up.  (But our governor wants to reduce college to 3 years, which can only work if we either fail a lot of students or lower standards enormously—guess which he wants. Hint: he favors online education.) Students who need remedial work should be given extra support and extra time to get up to the level needed for college, not passed through college with only high school education.

Or they could stop admitting students to engineering programs who haven’t mastered high school math and high school English.  This could be difficult to do, as high school grades are so inflated that “A” really does mean “Average” now, and the standardized tests only cover the first two years of high school math and that superficially (my son, as a sixth grader, with no education in high school math, got a 720 on the SAT math section).  It is hard for admissions officers to tell whether a student is capable of college-level writing or college-level math if all the information they get is only checking 8th-grade-level performance.

Or administrators could encourage more transfer students from community colleges, where they may have taken several years to recover from inadequate high school education and get to the point where they can handle the proper expectations of college courses.  (That would help with the attrition due to freshman partying also.)

Or administrators could pay for enough tenured faculty to teach courses with high standards, without the pressure that untenured and contingent faculty feel to keep a high pass rate in order to get “good” teaching evaluations and retain their jobs.

Realistically, I don’t expect administrators to do any of those reasonable things, so it is up to the faculty to hold onto academic standards, despite pressure from administrators to raise the 4-year graduation rate.

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