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2015 May 21

Limited Edition Kinetics have arrived!

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 22:55
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I received my order of Limited Edition Kinetic lights from Futuristic Lights today! I suspect that others who ordered Limited Edition sets will be getting theirs in the mail very soon also (the company started shipping on Tuesday—I got mine fast because I’m in the same county as they shipped from).

Here is what comes in the set: 2 gloves, 10 lights with cases, diffusers, and batteries, a folded instruction card, and a black drawstring bag with the company logo printed subtly on it.

Here is what comes in the set: 2 gloves, 10 lights with cases, diffusers, and batteries, a folded instruction card, and a black drawstring bag with the company logo printed subtly on it.

Note that there are 64 items that need to be assembled for each set: 2 gloves, 10 Kinetic boards, 10 cases, 10 diffusers, 20 batteries, 10 battery tabs, a drawstring bag, and an instruction card.  Even working very efficiently, it is probably going to take them a couple of weeks to get all the preorders shipped.  There’s no way that they could have afforded a standard “fulfillment” service for doing the shipping, as those generally set their prices based in large part on how many items need to be assembled for each order.

Component sourcing, manufacturing, packaging, and shipping have all been much more difficult than they anticipated, and they are shipping at the end of their estimated delivery time (even though they thought that they had allowed lots and lots of extra time—I thought that they would be able to ship in March, which shows how little help I was in anticipating what might go wrong for them). As it is, they are shipping without the boxes they had ordered, because the box printer was taking far longer to print the boxes than they had allowed for (and they hadn’t put a penalty clause in the order for late delivery). I suspect that they won’t be ordering from that box manufacturer again.

The amount that the founders of Futuristic Lights have learned from their first commercial product is amazing (way more than most engineering and business students get in four years of college), and they haven’t lost their enthusiasm for the process—they have already started work on the next 2 or 3 products. For those products, they’ll apply the lessons they learned on the Kinetics—they’ll have more realistic manufacturing lead times and will (probably) be able to reduce the manufacturing costs through better part procurement and different manufacturing partners.

Perhaps even more amazingly, my son has managed to maintain his part in the manufacturing and engineering effort while excelling on a full load of computer science and math courses at UCSB (in Winter quarter he had 24 units, instead of the standard 16, but he decided that the load was too much on top of all the engineering work he was doing for Futuristic Lights and dropped back to a saner load for Spring quarter). So far, most of his courses have been extensions of stuff he has learned partially on his own, and not all-new material. I suspect that courses may be a little more difficult next year as he tackles parts of computer science that he hasn’t already nearly mastered.

For this summer, he’ll be working on new products for Futuristic Lights, except for two weeks of summer Shakespeare with WEST Performing Arts, one week of which will be watching plays at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, the other week of which will be a conservatory with WEST and Santa Cruz Shakespeare.  He’s done both before, and is looking forward to it again this summer.

2015 May 13

Checking on my pedagogy

Filed under: Circuits course,Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 08:40
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Mark Guzdial just posted some of his pedagogical advice for teaching beginning programmers in How to Teach Computer Science with Media Computation | Computing Education Blog.  I decided to check how much of this I follow in my applied electronics course, which is aimed at a similar level of student (college students with no previous exposure to the content, and perhaps a belief that the material is not relevant or over their heads).

Over the last 10 years, we have learned some of the approaches that work best for teaching Media Computation.

  • Let the students be creative. The most successful Media Computation classes use open-ended assignments that let the students choose what media they use. For example, a collage assignment might specify the use of particular filters and compositions, but allow for the student to choose exactly what pictures are used. These assignments often lead to the students putting in a lot more time to get just the look that they wanted, and that extra time can lead to improved learning.

I’ve not allowed students much room for creativity in the course.  Of the 20 3-hour lab sessions, only one is a “tinkering” lab that allows students to explore several different things.  It may be the most fun of the quarter, and I should look into more ways to let students play with electronics design.

  • Let the students share what they produce. Students can produce some beautiful pictures, sounds, and movies using Media Computation. Those products are more motivating for the students when they get to share them with others. Some schools provide online spaces where students can post and share their products. Other schools have even printed student work and held an art gallery.

I’ve not had the students share their work.  This is difficult to do with the small electronics projects they do—unlike media computation, there isn’t an art by-product of the design process.  The electronics, being hardware and often on breadboards, is much harder to share than software, and the output is generally not easy for average students to appreciate. (EKG traces, though interesting, are not really art-gallery material.)

  • Code live in front of the class. The best part of the teacher actually typing in code in front of the class is that nobody can code for long in front of an audience and not make a mistake. When the teacher makes a mistake and fixes it, the students see (a) that errors are expected and (b) there is a process for fixing them. Coding live when you are producing images and sounds is fun, and can lead to unexpected results and the opportunity to explore, “How did that happen?”

I have always coded live in my classes.  All my lectures are extemporaneous improv performances with audience participation.  I certainly show debugging when doing gnuplot scripting live!  For the electronics design, it is a little harder to show debugging, as most of the problems that occur are difficult to debug at the lectern (I don’t usually carry oscilloscopes and voltmeters around with me, though I have taken out my Swiss Army knife to reseat a loose wire in a screw terminal).  Design errors are also hard to show how to debug—introducing fake errors in a design just confuses students, rather than clarifying the debugging process.  Real errors don’t get caught until the circuits are actually built, which takes more time than is available in a 70-minute lecture.

  • Pair programming leads to better learning and retention. The research results on pair programming are tremendous. Classes that use pair programming have better retention results, and the students learn more.

I have students work in pairs for every lab, and I force them to change partners every week.  This frequent partner changing prevents the common problem of one student carrying another through the course, and allows me to deconvolve performance into individual grades (which I have to issue at the end of the quarter). I do see evidence that students working in pairs do a better job on doing the designs than students working alone, though a big part of that may be just that max(a,b) is better than average(a,b)—that is, that the pair does as well as the better of the two students.

  • Peer instruction is great. Not only does peer instruction lead to better learning and retention outcomes, but it also gives the teacher better feedback on what the students are learning and what they are struggling with. We strongly encourage the use of peer instruction in computing classes.

The students do help each other learn in lab—particularly in the afternoon section.  As long as I’m around enough that they check confusing points with me, rather than propagating wrong ideas, the peer instruction works well.  I think that the afternoon lab section has been better about checking with me when they are confused.  A lot of the morning section still seems caught in “answer-getting”, asking their friends for the “answer” rather than for help with the method—that sort of sharing interferes with learning, rather than aiding in learning.

  • Worked examples help with learning creativity. Most computer science classes do not provide anywhere near enough worked-out examples for students to learn from. Students like to learn from examples. One of the benefits of Media Computation is that we provide a lot of examples (we’ve never tried to count the number of for and if statements in the book!), and it’s easy to produce more of them. In class, we do an activity where we hand out example programs, then show a particular effect. We ask pairs or groups of students to figure out which program generated that effect. The students talk about code, and study a bunch of examples.

I’ve not developed a good set of worked examples. Part of the problem is that I have trouble coming up with good design exercises, and I’ve ended up using almost all I’ve come with as assignments, leaving very little for use as worked examples.  I see this as the biggest hole in my book and in my course, and I hope to try to fill it in a bit over the summer.

Another problem with worked examples is that I’m using this course to try to “descaffold” the students, who have been getting far too much fill-in-the-blank sort of labs and homework.  I’m trying to get them from having their hands held for everything to being able to solve many-step design problems in only 10 weeks, which is probably an impossible task. I just wish that other teachers would do less scaffolding, so that the students were used to doing some problem solving and not just rote procedure following.

So I need to come up with worked examples that give students an idea how to solve multi-step problems (subdividing a system into parts, calculating sensitivity of sensors, working out needed gain by working from input and output constraints, … ) without solving the specific problems that they will address for them.

 

2015 May 2

Fourth weight-loss progress report

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 08:52
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In 2015 New Year’s resolution , I said that I want to lose 10–15 pounds by June 2015. In Weight-loss progress report, Second weight-loss progress report, and Third weight-loss progress report I provided monthly updates.

April was keeping to the same diet as the previous three months: only raw fruits and vegetables for lunch on weekdays, and slightly reducing how much I ate in the evenings.  We probably had more meat this month than usual, and I did have some snack foods and desserts that I haven’t been eating in previous months, but the weight loss continued at about the same pace as before, perhaps even slightly faster:

In my target range finally!

In my target range finally!

The exponential fits to my weight loss that I tried in March turned out to have no predictive value—the straight line predictions of my weight were consistently more accurate, despite having fewer parameters to fit to the preceding data.  Daily updates to the exponential fit made it closer and closer to the straight line, so I gave up on doing them—my weight loss was not behaving like an exponential decay.

I have now lost the 20 lbs that was my most ambitious goal, and I’ll need to switch my control algorithm to try to maintain a constant weight, rather than lose a pound a week.  I don’t want to have  huge rebound in weight from ending the reducing diet, nor do I want to keep getting skinnier—I’m back in the weight range I was about 20 years ago when I was 40, and I’d like to stay there.

In coming up with a control algorithm, I need to take into consideration how much fluctuation there is in my weight (I don’t want to be changing plans all the time because of noise) as well as how fast my weight can change as a result of deliberate actions.  It looks to me like my weight fluctuates about ±2 lbs around the trend line, so a target range that is 5lbs wide is probably going to be as tight as I can control my weight.

I’m thinking of using a two-state control algorithm with hysteresis and time delay:

  • Normal diet: If my weight is ≤ 156 lbs for 2 days in a row, I’ll eat lunches with a fair number of calories (from the taco truck or sandwiches).
  • Reducing diet: If my weight is ≥ 158 lbs for 2 days in a row, I’ll use my current reducing diet (only raw fruit or vegetable for lunch).

I may add a couple more transition points at the edges of the range (extra desserts if I fall below 155 pounds, more attention to eating less in the evening if I go over 160lbs), but I’m hopeful that the control algorithm won’t hit those boundaries very often. If I see a periodic fluctuation in my weight, I may switch to faster control (not weight for two days above the high threshold or below the low threshold).

Right now I’m still on the reducing diet, but I may hit the first transition point in the next week and start eating lunches with more calories again.

 

 

2015 April 29

UC messes with 403B plans

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 21:21
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This week I got a letter from the University of California Retirement Savings Program saying

If you take no action: After 1 p.m., Pacific Time, on Thursday, July 2, 2015, your existing balances in any affected funds, and any future contributions currently set to be directed to any of the affected funds, will be directed to the UC Pathway Fund 2015.

What they are saying is that unless I stop them, they will take all the money that I carefully allocated in my 403B fund and dump into an untested new fund that they are creating.  The alternatives provided are to transfer the money to other UC funds, or to start paying Fidelity for a BrokerageLink account.

Why?  Well, they claim

UC is streamlining the fund menu to help RSP participants make better investment choices by reducing overlap between options and simplifying the fund-selection process. For those participants who desire more choice, the BrokerageLink® option will still be available.

Also the smaller menu allows for more efficient monitoring so that we can continue to offer high-quality funds in a range of asset classes, with expenses that are generally lower than many similar publicly traded investment options.

Quite frankly, I don’t believe them.  Not that many people are currently using the wide range of options that are available, and those of us who are chose to do so despite hassles in setting up the accounts this way.  Only those who already believed that they could make better choices than the UC managers are affected by the changes.  So it isn’t to help us make better choices—it is to take choices away from us.  So why?

  • One possibility is that the current deal they have with Fidelity to manage funds and provide access to many non-Fidelity funds was not being lucrative enough for Fidelity, and Fidelity wanted to start charging brokerage fees. That is plausible (though not very), but if this were just a matter of charging fees, then the University would have informed people with the accounts that were affected that Fidelity was about to start charging fees, but people could avoid those fees by transferring the money to UC-managed funds, rather than sweeping up the money if they weren’t stopped.  In fact, BrokerageLink® isn’t going to charge fees for Fidelity funds (beyond the management fees built into the funds), so this isn’t a bid by Fidelity to get more fees (though it is possible for them to collect rather large fees if people choose funds unwisely and it may cost me more to keep the Calvert accounts if I do it through BrokerageLink®).
  • Another possibility is that the University wanted to terminate the Fidelity deal and keep as much money in UC funds as possible.  But Fidelity is still in the loop so they aren’t terminating a Fidelity deal (though perhaps the terms have changed—neither UCOP nor Fidelity talks about the details of the arrangements they make with each other).
  • What seems most likely is that UC has recently hired a new manager for the retirement program, and randomly changing policies with no thought to the consequences is what new managers do. Sort of like dogs pissing on fire hydrants—it isn’t for the benefit of the hydrant.

Because of the botched way that they implemented this reduction in investment options (from hundreds of plans to 15 UC-managed plans) with this stop-us-if-you-can fund snatch, I’ve lost all faith in the UC Office of the Chief Investment Officer of the Regents (the official title they claim in the letter).  I no longer believe that they are investing retirement funds on my behalf, but are only interested in playing games with my money.

I suppose I should call up Fidelity Retirement Services and find out how much it would cost me (in time and in fees) to “do nothing”—that is, to set up a BrokerageLink® account with my funds in exactly the same allocation as currently and with future 403(b) contributions allocated exactly as now.  That is what UC should have done as their default option, not sweeping all funds not on their short list into one of the UC Pathway funds.

Luckily, I’m over 59.5 years old, so I can roll all my 403(b) money into traditional IRAs, and that is currently what I plan to do—not only with the plans that they are trying to shut me out of, but all the 403(b) money, including that in UC-managed funds. But I don’t know what I can do about the “defined contribution” plan (401(a))—I believe that can also be rolled over into a traditional IRA.

Switching to an IRA means that I’ll have to find some mutual funds that I trust to move the money to.  I’ll be looking for socially responsible investment funds (two of the funds they are shutting out are Calvert funds that I’d chosen years ago for socially responsible investing), for a more general stock fund (I have some money in Fidelity Magellan), and for corporate bonds (taking my money out UC bonds, because of my lack of trust in UC’s new fund manager). For socially responsible investing, I’ll probably start by looking at http://charts.ussif.org/mfpc/?, which provides statistics from Bloomberg on various socially responsible funds—then digging a bit into what the funds claim their principles are.

I don’t really have time to deal with all this hassle this quarter—I’m sure they counted on most faculty and staff not having time to think about the investment and just follow the manager’s default choice.  I wish they had made the “change nothing” choice the default, even if it meant that some of us would have been charged some fees.

2015 April 19

How to clone a mammoth

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 21:42
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One of my most popular blog posts was a tongue-in-cheek one, Bring back the mammoth!, which has had almost 3000 views since I wrote it. Now a UCSC assistant professor has written a serious book on the subject:

Biologist Beth Shapiro explains the science of ‘de-extinction’ in new book

A leading expert on ancient DNA, Shapiro aims to separate science from science fiction in her new book ‘How to Clone a Mammoth’

April 13, 2015

By Tim Stephens

Tired of answering questions about cloning mammoths, Beth Shapiro, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at UC Santa Cruz, wrote a book called How to Clone a Mammoth. (Spoiler Alert: You can’t actually clone a mammoth.)

See Biologist Beth Shapiro explains the science of ‘de-extinction’ in new book for the rest of the press release.

Maybe this summer I’ll have time to read the book.

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