Friday, August 12, 2011

A million actual engineers?

This article about the cause of the many deaths and much disruption caused by a high-speed rail crash in China contained the unsurprising conclusion that there was a design flaw in the system.

This is a reminder that it is one thing to produce a million engineers every year, as we are told they are doing in China and India, and quite another to produce highly competent licensed Professional Engineers with the guts to stand up to management. I wonder how many of those graduates in China are "engineers" in name only.

Of course, incidents like the Challenger explosion remind us that even our system can fail when the engineer can't stop management, particularly politically astute management, from doing something not based on sound science.

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Reflections on 30 years of the PC

Today is the 30th anniversary of the release announcement for the IBM PC. At the time, this was a key breakthrough in standardization of software for individuals and companies, as the platform allowed clones with the same Intel 8080 processor to have the same functionality at much lower cost.

Making the computer into a commodity changed the world, although it almost stifled innovation because money could be made on software without any vision at all. We are incredibly lucky that Apple survived the Lisa to produce the Mac with a mouse and a full GUI interface or we might still be waiting for devices like the iPad.

A long flashback digression. Although I had been programming and using computers for more than a decade at that time (my first access had been to a Honeywell system while in HS, where a teacher ran decks for us when it wasn't being used by the school system), they weren't suitable for writing. Good word processing systems that could handle special characters and equations were extremely expensive and limited to the business world. Our department got a home built using 8" floppy disks running the CP/M system with WordStar. WordStar could handle bold, italics, and greek letters along with superscripts and subscripts, which was like a dream come true when Word was still a dream and WordPerfect was not yet on the market. It still amazes me how many features of WordStar exist in HTML and the hot keys that somehow also appear in Word. (Learning basic HTML was trivial to someone who had used WordStar, since it was essentially a markup language for documents.) Later we bought a PC clone for home use, but the real revolution was when our department got a Mac and Adobe Illustrator as well as Photoshop. This was so far beyond the PC world as to boggle the mind. It is often forgotten how important the Apple consumer world was to the adoption of Adobe products like Pagemaker when PC users were still taping pictures into empty rectangles on a printout. Since our work machines ran one of the flavors of UNIX windows systems and I could use a Mac for fancier graphics, I was never as beholden to the M$ version as some. Now that I have an iPad it irritates me no end that I can't click on a link by touching the screen of a PC or laptop. For me, the iPad's only limitation is that I haven't adapted to either the glass keyboard or the nice portable keyboard for rapid touch typing. Hence the remark below. End of unnecessary digression.

As I commented over at Dean Dad's today, hand-held devices are changing the way we look at computers and what they do for us and how they hold us back.

IMHO, the most important choice today is your keyboard.

For example, M$ bloatware means even really fast hardware takes forever to boot compared to a MacBook, not to mention an iPad. This is a big deal in a classroom, where just booting up the computer can take a substantial part of the between-class time if you find it locked or off. [All of our classroom machines go into a single-user locked mode if left unattended, for security reasons. The only way out is a power-button reboot that takes several minutes.] It is truly remarkable how slow the Vista operating system is, almost as remarkable as how M$ has never admitted it was an utter failure. (I love that if you go to a Windows Vista page, it says you should buy Windows 7.)

A big change from the early days, mostly because of the internet and World Wide Web standardized interfaces, many computers are used only to "consume" information. Examples are the web sites Dean Dad was asking about, or e-mail, or various enterprise systems like our CMS, internal grading or advising systems, and college databases. Most of these involve minimal typing so they work great with a tablet like the iPad. I definitely see this as the future.

But sometimes you need a portable keyboard as nice as the one I am typing on now.

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Tuesday, August 9, 2011

CCPhysicist channels Dean Dad

I never post or comment over on College Misery, but it makes a fun read once in a while to see what a wide spectrum of faculty and adjuncts are thinking. Last week there was a real eye opener that reminded me of what a nightmare it must be to be Dean Dad or my Dean dealing with spineless snowflake faculty.

I'm talking about Candy from Casa Grande on Plagiarism. Sigh. Talk about a failure to think before you write.

When you've put your policy against plagiarism in your syllabus (namely, plagiarism = FAIL), ... (much snipped) ...
WHAT DO YOU DO...When a student STILL decides to plagiarize?
What is your process for dealing with plagiarism?

What do you do? You do what you said you were going to do!

The time to ask this question is before you put it in your syllabus. Did you seriously think that no one would ever cheat in your class? That you would never have to confront a student in something other than a passive-agressive way with just a warning about cheating?

Can you imagine that nightmare that is your Dean's life when students show up complaining that you didn't enforce your policy, or treated two students differently at different times, or violated college policy on plagiarism? Trust me, the cheaters know the rules. Many have been caught more than once and know the system inside and out. You should also.

I'm not really channeling Dean Dad. I'm channeling my own Dean. He always reminds the new adjuncts and the old faculty of the importance of having uniform grading policies in your syllabus that are uniformly enforced, ideally with a clear rubric that is built into how you grade but need not be in your syllabus in our science classes. What goes in your syllabus is what you are going to do.

If plagiarism is an important part of your grading system, you need to decide what you are going to do -- consistent with college policy -- and then put what you will do in your syllabus. Then just do it.

There was a lot of good advice and some bad advice (to me) in the comments. Some of the bad advice (to me) might simply reflect the different policies in place at a different college. For example, I don't think an F for the entire course would be enforceable at my college for plagiarizing an essay that makes up no more than 10% of the grade, but I'm not in that business so I don't pay attention to that detail. YMMV.

I rather like our system, where the first instance of cheating gets penalized however you think appropriate (pick up exam if they answer a cell phone, for example) and is final unless they appeal the penalty. In my experience, no one ever does. Second offense gets the full treatment, but my experience is that they can't pass any later test if you are standing next to them. But that is our college's system, not mine, so I won't offer it as advice.

Did I mention that you have the right to seat a student anywhere in the classroom when they are taking a test? One Silverback Snowflake at my college once complained that two cheaters sat in the back row and appeared to have swapped exams. On every test. Uh, try saving a seat for them in the front row on opposite sides of the room on the second test, if you can't catch them in the act the first time.

Oh, and before I close, don't ever hand back the actual assignment that they cheated on. Turn back a photocopy and keep the original in your records.

And if you don't know the trick of turning back a photocopy of their Scantron sheets and keeping the originals, you've never heard about one of the most common schemes for cheating. (Those who like paperwork turn back the originals and keep a copy, preferring to punish those who claim their exam was mis-graded by the machine.) I don't use those infernal things, but I still take precautions to catch anyone who changes or adds a free-response answer after the exam is returned. I can't claim to catch everything, but I think I catch most of them.

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