A short note. It's been while since I posted to this blog, and it's possible that I won't anymore. Just too busy to do so, and perhaps I no longer need the psychological therapy of writing this stuff. In any event, there is a surfeit of good academic blogs out there. So, I've cleaned all of the junk out of this blog, left stuff related to my profession in place, and there you have it.
Tuesday, November 17, 2009
Tuesday, March 10, 2009
It has been quite some time since I've blogged; I'll get into why in a later post.
In these tough economic times, the last thing you might want to do is to make a major purchase. On the other hand, sometimes you have no choice, or at least are headed that way, and you may feel relatively secure in your employment (after all, the unemployment rate is under 50% -- how's that for looking on the bright side?). And if you are thinking of such a purchase, such as buying a car, it is possible to get a better deal now than in more prosperous times. So, with that preface, join me as I recount a recent adventure my family had.
Until recently, we owned a 9.5 year old Dodge Grand Caravan with around 125,000 miles on it. I had taken to recording maintenance and mileage information in a spreadsheet and was watching as cost of ownership per mile started to climb. The minivan was also giving signs of potential major expenses to come. So, we were faced with a choice: pay whatever it takes to keep the minivan in working order, waiting for plug-in hybrids (like the Chevy Volt) to come out in about two years, or take advantage of the various special offers from manufacturers to buy a car now and figure on buying a second-generation plug in (figuring that there will be long waiting lists for the first-generation ones, with people paying more than sticker price for them). Anyway, it wouldn't hurt to look.
Compared with 9.5 years ago, car buyers have a wealth of information available. Of course, there are the manufacturer web sites. In addition, dealers often have their inventory on-line, which at least gives you an idea of what type of equipment they order for cars they will have in stock (which is what you'll get the best deals on). Here are some of the most useful sites we found:
- This is the "canonical" web site for determining both sticker and approximate invoice prices for cars, including options. It also has reviews, comparisons, etc. Dealer invoice is an important first step towards figuring out what a reasonable purchase price is.
- Real Car Tips
- There are a lot of tips on this site. One of its nicest features is a user-entered database of recent car deals people were able to negotiate. This can help you get an idea of what is reasonable to expect. They've also got a process for attempting to solicit bids from dealers via email, get them to bid against each other, etc. I tried this approach (it's similar to a fax version I tried 9.5 years ago); I can't say I was very successful. For the most part, even the internet salespeople refused to bid. I was able to cut down a bit on driving, by finding out what models dealers had in stock and get some idea of how resistant they were to coming down in price.
- Car Buying Tips.com
- This site also has a lot of advice, links, and a consumer price database. But the best part of the site was a spreadsheet that allows you to organize the MSRP, invoice price, incentives, holdbacks, etc. It also calculates a fair profit for the dealer, and gives a final price. It was very useful to go into a dealership, put down the spreadsheet, show them the invoice price, show the incentives, etc. subtracted from that, your allowance for a reasonable profit, and then the bottom line price. Of course, then the salesperson would argue the invoice price was wrong, that there weren't any holdbacks, and so on. But it was a start, and it gives you additional information to help you determine if your price goal is unreasonable.
Almost all factors favor the salespeople in the process. They have the advantage of information (you can get most of this on the web, but they will still try to discredit what you find, obfuscate things, and generally do whatever to restore the imbalance in their favor), experience, controlling the type of product available (for example, by only stocking fully-loaded cars, requiring you to special order less expensive ones which you won't get as good a deal on, thus reducing the cost advantage), and sheer experience. Plus the various games they'll play during negotiations. Your advantage is that you have the money, and they need to money more than you need the car. You need to work on your frame of mind to take maximum advantage of this, since the only way to use this is to be willing to walk out of the dealership.
Our approach to this was similar to what you might do when looking for a college: a safety car. Pick a late model used car that you'd be satisfied with, that you can get a deal on that won't leave you feeling too cheated, and that won't give you any trouble. We went in with the idea that, if we couldn't get what we considered a good deal on the cars we were looking for, we'd get a used Camry. If nothing else, it would be reliable, and there wasn't as much room in its price for us to get screwed (at least, not as badly as a more expensive car). So, armed with that idea, we proceeded to visit car dealerships.
We first spent some time telling dealers we were collecting information and not ready to talk deal yet, taking test drives, collecting business cards, drinking some free coffee from the various automatic espresso machines they had. I think this was useful for a variety of reasons, making us more comfortable in the dealerships, of course giving us first-hand experience with the cars. We also were able to get list of the actual cars that the dealers had in stock, including exactly what their options were. This is critical, because it's not possible to prepare yourself well for negotiations without doing your homework and pricing the particular car you'll be talking about, using the spreadsheet mentioned above.
We brought our spreadsheet to the dealer with our top-choice car and told them we were ready to buy. We showed the salesman our bottom-line price, with all of the steps towards figuring it out. At one point, we pulled out a credit card and said that if he could close the gap between his price and ours, we'd make the deposit then and there (this was on a weekend, and we would have to go to the bank to arrange for full payment). In our case, we got a verbal agreement and then, when we asked the salesman to print it all up, he came back out from the back office saying that the sales manager misunderstood something and that the price was no good; he only would agree to a higher price (this was after several trips back to speak to the manager during the negotiations, as if the salesman didn't have the authority to negotiate deals). So, we said we needed to pick up our daughters at their cello lesson, gave the salesman our cell phone number, and told him to call if he could clear up the misunderstanding.
This is an important principle: you must be ready and willing to walk away, or be prepared to pay extra. We felt we were being jerked around and so we left. We were ready to either go to the dealer with our next choice, or go for the safety car and feel satisfied with a reliable car and less expense. In this case, the salesman called back in about a half hour, and we got our new car for not much more than what we paid for our minivan 9.5 years ago.
Friday, January 30, 2009
I've been crazy busy with a new position here at work, so I haven't been able to indulge myself in the luxury of ranting and raving on the internet (except for 140 characters at a time, on twitter). But the article linked from the title above caught my eye, and then the following quote from that article made me laugh out loud:
Faculty members will take furloughs on days they don’t teach class...I wonder if this means that faculty can refrain from grading on those days and hand things back late. Seriously, about the only thing this frees faculty from, I suppose, is going to meetings. And, considering that meetings are scheduled in the cracks between the various members' classes, that's probably not even true.
Wednesday, October 29, 2008
Monday, September 29, 2008
Every time a colleague asks the question, "What the hell happened to computer science enrollment?" I answer, "These things are cyclical. CS enrollment will come back, and some other field's enrollment will drop." And, indeed, as the dot-com bust has faded in new student memories, enrollment has increased again (new enrollment was up last fall in my department and is up again (over 30%, year over year) this fall.
The title above links to a Computerworld article speculating that the current banking crisis will mean further increases in CS enrollment. That many or may not be true; I'd prefer the steady growth associated with students following their interests than the sudden boom of students chasing the latest fad. The article does at least have some entertainment value, with Carly Fiorina (of HP and now McCain/Palin campaign fame) showing her lack of insight that American workers are also HP (or any company's) customers -- no jobs for Americans mean no customers.
Then again, I understand this, but I'm not getting $42 million for any of my failed efforts.
Monday, September 22, 2008
I've taught calculus at the college level and, now that my daughter is taking algebra in middle school, I see why students have so much trouble with college math: they aren't taught math in middle school. Let me clarify this statement by first illustrating what I mean when I say that too many students have trouble with calculus and why you should care about that. Calculus is generally considered to be the first college math course. It's nice if students have taken calculus already, and it's even possible that their high school calculus class was good enough to allow them to skip the first quarter of college calculus, but it's not absolutely necessary. Students generally take calculus from the beginning in college, they get credit for it, and degree curricula are designed with the assumption that they'll take calculus. On the other hand, few pre-calculus or earlier classes count for college credit -- they are offered on a supportive basis to make up for background that students should have already had.
Moreover, calculus has become a gatekeeper course for many degrees in the sciences, engineering, and even business. For many degrees, calculus is an absolute prerequisite for later core classes. In other degree programs, calculus may only be a prerequisite for certain electives, but the faculty have made the decision that they don't want students moving through the program who are unable to take these electives. So, a student unable to succeed in calculus (notice I didn't write "pass"; students need to become facile enough with the subject matter to apply it naturally and without effort in classes that build upon calculus) will not become a science, engineering, or business major. I cannot emphasize this point enough: if a student has not been prepared to succeed in calculus by high school graduation time, it is much less likely that he or she will be able to have some of the most rewarding careers.
So, why are students having trouble in calculus? While there are many reasons, the biggest is a lack of facility with algebra, and by this I mean the ability to solve algebraic equations by symbolic manipulation. A simple example of this might be to solve the equation 3x + 12 = 45. A symbolic approach would be:
3x = 33 (subtract 12 from both sides) x = 11 (divide both sides by 3)I'll explain why this is so important for calculus in a moment; let me first describe what children are taught instead.
Basically, they're taught something more like math appreciation than math. Let's use as an example my daughter's textbook, which is Contemporary Mathematics in Context: A Unified Approach, part of the "core-plus mathematics project" from McGraw-Hill. First off, much of this book is statistics, rather than algebra, even though this is supposed to be an algebra I (eighth grade honors, or ninth grade regular) class. The kids spend enormous amounts of time in groups, measuring each other's fingers, counting which thumb is on top, etc., so that they can gather some of their own data. They spend even more time writing paragraphs describing histograms. Then they move on to linear equations, motivated by linear fits to data -- linear regression -- rather than just algebra. Part of the reason for this is that they have yet to see an equation in the book!
Finally, they get to linear equations, though first through a little detour in which the words "NOW" and "NEXT" are used, instead of letters, for variables. Why they do this is mystifying, since all of these kids have seen problems in elementary school in which shapes were used instead of variables. Along the way, they learn about slopes, even of slopes of nonlinear functions, which is a calculus problem. Of course, they don't need to actually do any math in that last case (thought they're given the quadratic equation involved), just write about what the slope of a curved graph might mean, how rate of change relates to slope, etc. By this point, they've note seen more than three equations on any page of the book, and most pages have none at all. No techniques have been presented for solving linear problems; students are asked to solve such problems by inspection of graphs or tables of (x, y) pairs. Finally (precisely 2/3 of the way through the book), a symbolic approach is mentioned (in a chapter entitled "Quick Solutions"). Here's what the book says:
...it is often possible to solve problems that involve linear equations without the use of tables and graphs.This is absolutely untrue! It is always possible to solve such problems this way (i.e., symbolically). In fact, the fraction of problems that can be solved with tables or graphs -- the only method used so far in the book -- is vanishingly small.
Let me disabuse you of the idea that the book will now introduce methods such as adding/multiplying both sides of the equation by the same value. Instead, what the book does is say that different people might reason about solving such equations different ways. A couple examples are given, and student groups are asked to try to figure out what the reasoning process is in each case. Then, kids are invited to solve equations in whatever way makes sense to them. That's it!
So, to sum up, symbolic manipulation is erroneously introduced as a specialized shortcut that can work in some cases: a sort of mental trick with no fixed methods that you just have to figure out for yourself. This is in a five-page section, after more than 200 pages that are taught with graphs, tables, and calculators in the context of statistics.
So, why is this a problem? Because calculus requires facility with the symbol manipulation approach. Unlike simple algebraic problems, which can (again, in simple cases with integer solutions or the like) be approached graphically, calculus is the mathematics of change. Graphical aids in calculus involve computer programs in which you interactively move things around and watch how solutions change. While solutions are numbers in algebra, they are equations in calculus. If the symbol manipulations of algebra aren't as easy as breathing for a student, he or she will have a tough time in calculus. I cannot see how a student who has used the Core-Plus curriculum can pass calculus, unless his or her math education has been supplemented outside of school. Thus, in Washington state we are preventing most of our children from getting the degrees that lead to the highest-paying, fastest growing career paths that exist: science, technology, and business.
And who is to blame for this mess? Why, the Superintendent of Public Instruction, Terry Bergeson. She's the one who has pressed this kind of instruction for a decade now. She's the one who has instituted a special test for Washington state that prevents our children's performance from being compared to children in other states and countries -- a test that costs much more than commonly-used alternatives.
That's why I'm advocating in this post for Randy Dorn for Superintendent of Public Instruction. If you're a Washington state voter, click on the title of this post to go to his web site. Read about him. Compare what he plans to do to the current abysmal state of education. It's time for a change in this Washington, too.
Monday, September 15, 2008
I recently received an email for fundraising from a friend's child's school. It includes a link to a web site that's selling magazines. The usual deal is that the school gets some cut of the subscription price and the kids get crappy "prizes" from Oriental Trading. So, I clicked on the "Children" section link and was almost immediately struck by two magazines offered:
Monday, August 25, 2008
I finished the novel Empire, by Orson Scott Card, a couple months ago and had been meaning to write a review of it, or at least a commentary on it, since then. At this point, enough time has passed by that I'll not be including very much in the way of specific details from the book, though there will be some spoilers.
I think the title above succinctly sums up the book in a variety of ways. Let's start with what would typically be a minor point, since I doubt Card approved it. On the other hand, I generally look to the blurbs to give me some idea of a book's content, and thus a false and misleading blurb is something that will lead me to be less likely to buy other books from the same publisher. In a perverse way, the blurb is representative of the book -- not in terms of factual information, but in terms of being thinly masked propaganda.
So, what does the blurb say? Here it is:
The American Empire is growing too fast, and the fault lines at home are stressed to the breaking point. The war of words between Right and Left has collapsed into a shooting war, though most people just want to be left alone.
The battle rages between the high-technology weapons on one side and militia foot soldiers on the other, devastating the cities and overrunning the countryside. But the vast majority, who only wan tht killing to stop and the nation to return to more peaceful days, have technology, weapons, and strategic geniuses of their own.
When the American dream shatters into violence, who can hold the people and the government together? And which side will you be on?
So, I (naturally, I think) expected a cautionary tale set in the near future, with an imperial America, a civil war between extremists, and presumably a protagonist representing a large middle. Instead, what the reader gets is a political polemic in which all liberals (which, true to ultra-right-wing usage, is equated with extremism) are evil. Even the right wing "side" of the war ends up being (spoilers start here) a head fake by liberals. There's a token "good Democrat"; you know she's good because she sides with the Republicans.
What are we left with? A grand conspiracy to take over the government financed by a thinly-disguised George Soros character. A Bond-like secret headquarters underneath an island in a lake. The liberal conspirators have all sorts of neat, futuristic weapons, but their soldiers are all effete and unskilled (and sneaky backstabbers), eventually bested by virile, right-thinking true Americans (in fact, for some reason I either remember or misremember the liberal soldiers as being foreigners). Card making fun of Armand Hammer's name. A smattering of decent dialog and action. Some mild criticism of Fox News.
And then, to top off my disappointment, there's an angry diatribe written by the author at the end. Apparently, he's pissed off at criticism of his views. He rails against people seeking to rob him of his livelihood, though it's unclear to me that his income has in any major way been affected: he only makes the case for being excluded from SF conventions and the like. He doesn't mention his support for intelligent design as science, which I mention not as a religious comment but as a rather embarrassing lack, in a hard science fiction writer, of basic understanding of what science is.
What is apparent in his essay is that Card is one of those people who for some reason feel that their lives are affected, somewhat like action-at-a-distance, but the unrelated actions of others. Actually, not just their actions, but even their ability to act. In particular, he somehow thinks that the ability for people to marry others of the same sex affects the quality of his own marriage. His protestations aside, I fail to see the difference between this and opposition to interracial marriages. Some people just can't seem to let others live their own lives in peace, if they disagree with them.
And so, Card's closing essay at once clarifies the polemical nature of this "novel" and identifies him as an extremist, like the antagonists in his writing, who seeks control over other Americans' private lives.
Thursday, August 21, 2008
Posted by Michael Stiber | 8/21/2008 09:59:00 PM |
Wednesday, August 20, 2008
Two days after the iPhone 2.0 software and the iTunes app store were released, I went on a family trip to Europe. So of course, in the days prior to my trip, I frantically installed, then reinstalled, the 2.0 software. This would make my phone much more useful during my trip, I reasoned. Well, it turns out I was right, and the main reason for that was the truphone application.
Truphone is a VOIP application, with one version running on Nokia phones and one iPhone version. The iPhone version appears as a separate application on the iPhone, providing buttons at the bottom of the display that provide access to your contacts, a keypad, a truphone web page for buying account credit, a list of recent calls, and a list of favorites (which, unfortunately, are specific to truphone and not copied from the Phone app). The application is exceedingly simple in operation:
- Sign up for an account and buy credit (when I signed up, they gave $8 credit for free; now they give $1 credit).
- Be someplace that has wifi that you can access.
- Make a call to one of your contacts, or dial on the keypad. These are calls to regular phones (landlines or mobiles), not to other other iPhones running truphone -- it's like SkypeOut.
- Pay $0.06/minute (now they've got packages that provide $0.015/minute to the US and Canada).
Perhaps paradoxically, this simplicity has caused some confusion among the commenters on the iTunes store. Part of this is truphone's fault, as they don't distinguish well in their online documentation between the Nokia and iPhone features. The Nokia app includes free truphone-to-truphone calling, SMS, etc. -- much more like a full Skype implementation. It also appears to integrate into the Nokia calling software, so that the phone automatically switches from regular cell to VOIP, depending on circumstances. The iPhone application is simpler, only including calls to regular phones and requiring you to consciously select wifi calling (by running the truphone app, rather than the Phone app).
I actually prefer the iPhone implementation. At this point, truphone doesn't have much market penetration, and besides I don't know that many people I might call who have iPhones or Nokia N95s. So being able to call other truphone users wouldn't have been useful during my trip (with one small exception: you know who you are). More importantly, I wanted to be 100% certain that I was making a VOIP call, and not a $2 or more per minute cell call. I didn't want my phone switching to regular cell calling because of a software glitch or because of some problem connecting to a hotel's wifi network. The fact that I was running the truphone application, not the Phone application, and that truphone only works with wifi, was very reassuring.
I spent at least a couple hours calling various phones here in the Seattle area, Philadelphia, south Florida, and China, from hotels in Prague, Venice, and Rome. Generally, call quality was quite good, equal to the best we've experienced using Skype, with the only issues being a weak signal in one hotel that required me to sit in a particular chair in the lobby that happened to be in a good spot. Also, I tried at one point to add credit to my account using my MacBook, but the truphone web site was abysmally slow; I connected to the mobile version of their add credit page and the transaction went off without a hitch. And it was great to be able to call relatives to let them know we arrived safely and keep them updated on our wanderings without having to deal with phone cards or similar unfamiliar contact methods.
So, is truphone useful for calls within the US? Probably not, unless you've somehow gotten yourself a plan with very few minutes and very high costs for additional minute usage. But, if you need to travel internationally, then calls using truphone are approximately 1/30 the cost of AT&T calls. You could easily pay for the purchase cost of an iPhone 3G with the savings from one international trip.
Friday, July 11, 2008
For those of you (like me) who followed the information I reference in a previous blog post, note that that unofficial iPhone 2.0 software was for the new iPhone hardware. If you (like me) have the original iPhone hardware, you need to follow the directions at MacRumors linked from the title to get the correct software for your hardware.
Thursday, July 10, 2008
Here are some of my initial observations about the iPhone 2.0 software:
Settings: Has a "Fetch New Data" item that lets you turn push updates on or off, set data fetch interval (includes the email check intervals for non-push email). Has a new "Mail, Contacts, Calendars" item, which consolidates various items (I think, I don't remember the details of this from the old OS) and includes under calendar "New Invitation Alerts", "Time Zone Support", and "Default Calendar" settings. The latter corresponds to the Calendar app UI now showing the multiple calendars synced from iCal. Played with simplified Chinese international keyboard a bit; neat to be able to draw characters by hand.
Contacts: The iPhone 2.0 software adds a "Contacts" app, which appears to just be a shortcut to the "Contacts" tab in the "Phone" app. We now have search, but it appears to be strangely limited, in that it doesn't search all fields. From playing with it a bit, it appears to search names and company, but not address or notes, for example. At least, this is my tentative conclusion. The on-screen keyboard has a "Search" button, but results update as you type; the "Search" button doesn't seem to do anything.
Calendar: Updated UI includes multiple-calendar awareness.
Maps: UI spiffed up. Circular cross-hairs vibrate as it progressively refines your location.
App Store: It works; looks just like the "iTunes" app.
And some third party apps: BA Flights: Mostly, thought perhaps not entirely, lame. Only lets you search for departures/arrivals within the current month. About what you'd expect: a three-button web app front end.
Talking Italian Phrasebook: Not sure that all of the phrases are correct, but pretty good for free.
Currency: Nothing fancy, just like the Stock app. A nice, simple app.
Exposure: Interface like iPod app. No Flickr upload capability. Not sure I'd pay $3 for Mobile Flickr. Need to compare this to MoPhoTo (which also doesn't seem to support upload).
NearPics: Very slow, and I'm testing via wifi.
Twitterific: Seems fine. Allows "attaching" photos to twitter updates, but I'm not sure this is something I'd like to do often; I think I'd be more likely to photoblog here on Blogger.
So, what do I want?
- Skype! There is an app/service called TruPhone that seems Skype-like. Seems to include the equivalent of SkypeIn for no extra charge. It's in beta, but maybe I'll try it (if it won't insist on calling pay via wifi within the US, given that I have thousands of rollover minutes). I'll report after/during my upcoming trip on my experiences.
- A good photoblogging interface that doesn't force me to switch to another blog platform. In other words, Blogger app.
Neat looking apps that I don't have an immediate need for:
- SignalScope, a spectrum analyzer.
- StageHand, a presentation remote that also displays your talk notes, allows you to highlight/point parts of your slides, etc.
- OmniTuner, which seems, despite the emphasis on guitar, to be a chromatic tuner app. Orfeo is definitely a chromatic tuner, though with less impressive graphics and at twice the price.
And, finally, exactly how many payware tip calculators does the iPhone need? Do people really have trouble calculating tips using a regular calculator (such as the one built into to OS distribution)? Or just ballparking tips in their heads (how difficult it it to figure 10%, then either add in half of that again or double that)?
Since I'm in the process of writing my part of a grant proposal before heading off on a trip, I figured, "Hey, why don't I update my iPhone to the 2.0 software?" The software is unofficially available; see this iLounge article for a good summary of how to get it. Here's how things went:
11:55AM: Option-clicked "Check for Update", selected .ipsw file, iTunes extracted update.
11:56AM: iTunes started "Preparing iPhone for software update..."
12:02PM: iTunes started "Updating iPhone software..."
12:04PM: iTunes started "Verifying updated software..."
12:06PM: iTunes started "Updating iPhone firmware..."
12:09PM: iPhone restarting, iTunes sees it, offers to set it up anew or restore from backup. I restored from backup.
12:11PM: iPhone restarting
12:12PM: iPhone reappears in iTunes list. Arrangement of icons same as it was before update. Only immediately apparent differences are "Contacts" and "App Store" icons. Set up synchronization in iTunes to sync all applications. Synced iPhone. 12:30PM: All done, now to see if it works...
Some more-or-less random observations about the available iPhone apps (based purely on their app store descriptions and icons):
- There's a lot of $0.99 apps; I'm not really sure what the rationale is (on the part of the software developer) for not just releasing such apps for free.
- There are many free apps that appear to do the same thing as pay apps. Why would anyone pay for an app that simply produces a white screen to improve the iPhone's ability to act like a weak flashlight?
- Here's my initial list of (free) apps: "BA Flights", "Currency", "Exposure", "Jott for iPhone", "NearPics", "Remote", "Talking Italian Phrasebook". Yes, we're going on a trip.
- Disappointments: no Skype, no official Flickr app (the free version of Exposure is adware).
- A fair number of cute ideas in some of these apps, but I don't think many really take advantage of the synergies available in the full range of iPhone capabilities.
Wooo! The iTunes App Store is up! Just use Software Update to download iTunes 7.7, enable "show apps" in iTunes preferences, click on the "Applications" icon, and select "Get More Applications..." (similar interface to podcasts). Can't load the apps yet on the iPhone, since the iPhone 2.0 software hasn't been released, but you can at least browse and make a list (which I will be doing shortly).
Update: You can "purchase" applications and they'll download. This doesn't appear to use the shopping cart, but I've only tried free apps.