Sunday, May 24, 2009

How a college prof. is using his Kindle 2

I'm not a gadgeteer, but the Kindle 2 has been practical for me.

One of the things professors do is read--a lot of stuff, and regularly. So anytime somebody presumes to offer a new means of reading, it seems reasonable to make a quick assessment of whether that new means would be helpful. When the Kindle 1 first came out, I was fortunate enough to have a friendly, fellow prof. show me his model, and do so right before he took a big over-seas trip. Since he didn't want to pack lots of books, and then later be forced to lug them around the world, buying a Kindle 1 made good sense. (He's eventually sold the unit, however, after the trip, even though he got good use out of it.) I played with the Kindle 1 for all of about five minutes, found it intriguing, but at that time decided it too costly for the hundreds of dollars investment.

Then, of course, the next version, the Kindle 2, came out. It was thinner, and when compared with the earlier model, their keyboards and their navigation buttons are markedly different, in a good way according to my tapping intuitions. My friend's Kindle 1 used a scroll wheel and a weird selector column located above that scroll wheel, but the Kindle 2 did away with that and used a five-way navigation joystick instead, which sat nice and close to the 'menu' and 'back' buttons. Turns out that the joystick makes my thumb a little sore after a while, but it's been working great for me overall.

The Kindle 2 rests in the hands pretty easily also, and I used to get (what I called) "scholar's cramp" from holding a book or journal open too long with one hand while in my standard reading stance. In some ways, though, that problem was a major motivator for me to try the Kindle. I got tired of juggling journal articles, anyway, and many of the academic journals are now formatted to .PDF files, which our library offers in spades through its many scholarly databases. But in using the whole .PDF angle is wherein I really found that the Kindle was helpful.

As any owner knows, the Kindle allows for easy highlighting and annotating of text, thus one can excerpt all the annotations and notes one makes as s/he goes along in the article. (They're all saved to a text file.) I had students search around in the academic databases for articles they wanted to read, and then submit those articles to me by email or by some other link-to method we could all use. Then, we would all download the articles; they would print them, but I would stick them on my Kindle. (After all, it was a new device, so I was anxious to use it when possible.)

I quickly found that it was basically effortless to make fill-in-the-blank handouts for students to use while working through the reading of the articles. Sometimes I'd get the students together in small groups of 3-5, and they'd fill out these handouts, thus assuring me that they've at least surveyed the article. Or, at other times, I could give a hand-out to them before they read the article, and they could fill it out and hand it back the next day as a low-stress way of showing me they'd worked through the essential issues in the essay.

Naturally, all the straightforward advantages of reading books, news media, and other standard fare are still great, but the ability to manufacture hand-outs in such an easy manner was something I'd not anticipated. I also found that since the Kindle 2 is so easily transported from place to place, I was actually almost two weeks ahead in my homework reading load, since I'd grab 15 minutes here and there of reading on the Kindle (and, of course, marking the text along the way.)

I have not tried to use it from the lectern as a way of moving through my lecture material, since I'd gotten in the habit of not using notes a while back. (I tended to read them, which is hardly interesting for me, much less to students.). But I did find it handy to use my highlighted text as a way of reminding me of the things I wanted to talk about when they arose in journal articles. And, too, the ability to quickly search for an exact text phrase in an article came in handy more than once.

Again, the real time advantage seems to lie in the mark-as-you go method of reading the assigned articles. The only downside is that the keyboard, while adequate, is not comfortable to use for typing anything over just a dozen words or so. But I think that's been good, overall; since, I don't get bogged-down commenting, but instead spend the bulk of time actually reading. If students have as good experiences with usage as have I, then some academic version for them will probably be fairly successful in short order.


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Saturday, May 16, 2009

Coal Plants and U.S. Electricity

You may wish they'd go away, but it won't be anytime soon.

There are a lot of worries about coal-fired power plants, since they pollute the air and are a significant cause of greenhouse-gas emissions. However, I did not realize just how powerful these plants are. In fact, The Energy Information Administration "reports that more than 600 coal-fired plants still produce about half of America’s power and will still produce 47% of it in 2030."[1] A full HALF of our energy is produced from but 600 or so coal plants! So they are not going anywhere soon.

It turns out that nine coal plants were canceled this year alone in the U.S. These plants "would have provided about 6,650mw of power, or enough to heat almost 5 mil. homes."[1] It appears that coal-plant technology is very efficient, and I can see the attraction of energy planners wanting to use them.

A typical coal power plant yields 500 megawatts, and produces 3.5 billion kilowatts over the course of a year, taking 1.43 million tons of coal to maintain this amount of electricity. It's difficult to imagine what these quantities mean, but here's something easier to wrap your mind around: 1 light bulb.

If you left your 100 watt front-porch light on 24 hrs a day, all year long, then you'd need to burn 714 pounds of coal to provide its energy. And, or course, there's the side effects of 5 lbs. of Sulfur Dioxide, and 5.1 lbs. of Nitrogen Oxide, both of which are the main causes of smog and acid rain. Also Carbon Dioxide is a cause of global warming, and your bulb would place 1,852 lbs. of that into the air as well.[2] Even if you just turned it on, or had it on an automatic timer for an eight-hour night that's still 238 pounds of coal over the year. Electricity is renewable, but the light bulb scenario shows that the by-products of electricity by means of coal usage are not something one wants to renew.

Many people worry about what I believe is the best solution to the energy crisis, nuclear power, thinking that it is somewhat more dangerous to the environment, but such is not the case: "a coal-burning power plant emits more radiation than a (properly functioning) nuclear power plant."[2] This is because a coal plant produces small amounts "of just about every other chemical element on the periodic table."[2] Therefore, the cumulative effect of those radioactive elements is one more problem for coal plants and one more advantage for nuclear plants.

click map to expand



[image] "Utah Coal Plant" All American Patriots Website (Accessed 5/16/09)

[image] "Map of Coal-fired Power Plants in the United States" Power Magazine Oct. 15, 2008(Accessed 5/16/09)

[1] "Coal-fired power plants: the writing on the wall" The Economist (May 7, 2009)

[2] "How much coal is required to run a 100-watt light bulb 24 hours a day for a year?" HowStuffWorks (Accessed 5/9/09)

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Thursday, May 07, 2009

Google Trends: Religion, Physics, and Philosophy

The clear correlation among these terms makes one wonder how these concepts are related in the public's mind. It certainly appears they are conceptually linked to one another.



[image] Google Trends

[ * ] In case you're wondering, "Google Trends shows how often a particular search term is entered relative the total search volume across various regions of the world, and in various languages. The horizontal axis of the main graph represents time (starting from some time in 2004), and the vertical is how often a term is searched for relative to the total number of searches, globally." [from wikipedia]

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Saturday, May 02, 2009

U.S. and gun control: wise or foolish?

0. An old friend of mine recently wrote on his blog the following:
[The second amendment] has widely been interpreted (erroneously, I believe) to give every American the right to own any kind of gun they please. I believe the Fathers would have worded the amendment more carefully if they could have foreseen how many innocent people were being slaughtered daily in one of the most advanced countries in the world.
He goes on to cite sobering statistics concerning the various groups which die of gun deaths in the U.S. He closed by accusing the N.R.A. and other lobbyists of being responsible for keeping Americans asleep on this issue. I have, on and off through the years, owned guns, and have more than once considered joining the N.R.A., so in many ways my friend brought the issue to a point in my mind.

Admittedly, gun ownership in the U.S. is a very tricky issue. I will grant that many undesirable deaths are indeed caused by the prevalence of guns in America. However, I believe there are other matters regarding gun ownership that are worth considering.

1. First, Many of the deaths in the U.S., about 81 per day in 2004, are by suicides, particularly by white males over 40. So if one adjusts for those deaths, 25 of the 39 deaths per day in that age bracket are for people who are choosing to end their own life. This hardly counts against gun use, since people use autos and other technology to end their lives too.[1]

2. Second, although guns cause lots of undesirable deaths in the U.S., which is a bad thing, they also save lots of lives and injury by preventing many crimes. In fact, an academic study on this advantage showed a clear preventative use of guns which far outweighs the damage done by them:
"The most comprehensive study of defensive gun use, by award-winning criminologist Gary Kleck and Marc Gertz (1993), found that handguns were used for defense nearly two million times per year, amounting to two-thirds of defensive gun uses. Kleck separately studied National Crime Victimization Surveys and found that people who use guns to defend themselves are less likely to be attacked or injured than people who use other means, or no means, of protection. Kleck has concluded that guns are used to defend against crime 3-4 times more often than to commit it. Forty states have Right-to-Carry laws allowing people to carry concealed handguns for protection away from home, and such states have lower violent crime rates, on average, compared to the rest of the country. Since 1991, the number of states that have Right-to-Carry laws has risen from 17 to 40 (an all-time high) and violent crime has dropped 38 percent."[2]
3. I conclude, then, that the gun, like the automobile, does result in many injuries and deaths, but the benefits that autos and guns offer actually outweigh their liabilities.

4. Finally, I like the idea of there being a registration database for handguns, since these types of guns are most likely to be used in a crime. Also, it is enlightening to consider that virtually no gun crimes are committed by people who are N.R.A. members, so perhaps the key is some sort of certification program in addition to a registration program--at least for handgun ownership.



[image] "What is 'gun control'" (Accessed 5/2/2009)

[1] "An accounting of daily gun deaths" New York Times

[2] "Handguns:Summary" NRA Website

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