Wednesday, 7 September 2016

the DNA journey

Yesterday, I came across this short film, as usual, looking for something completely different at Film English.

“This should be compulsory”, says one of its protagonists, talking about the DNA test. I am not sure about that. Danish scientists questioned the logic behind these tests (as any scientist would do). In absence of national reference datasets (what is “100% Icelandic”, for example?), the results of comparison do not seem to make much sense.

Still, I think it’s a great, if scientifically flawed, short. I did show it today to my students (all in their early 20s) and saw tears in their eyes. They might have not understood half of the language used in the film but they’ve got the message. Watch it.

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

the romance of science

From Uncle Tungsten by Oliver Sacks:

Scheele was one of Uncle Dave’s great heroes. Not only had he discovered tungstic acid and molybdic acid (from which the new element molybdenum was made), but hydrofluoric acid, hydrogen sulfide, arsine, and prussic acid, and a dozen organic acids, too. All this, Uncle Dave said, he did by himself, with no assistants, no funds, no university position or salary, but working alone, trying to make ends meet as an apothecary in a small provincial Swedish town. He had discovered oxygen, not by a fluke, but by making it in several different ways; he had discovered chlorine; and he had pointed the way to the discovery of manganese, of barium, of a dozen other things.

Scheele, Uncle Dave would say, was wholly dedicated to his work, caring nothing for fame or money and sharing his knowledge, whatever he had, with anyone and everyone. I was impressed by Scheele’s generosity, no less than his resourcefulness, by the way in which (in effect) he gave the actual discovery of elements to his students and friends – the discovery of manganese to Johan Gahn, the discovery of molybdenum to Peter Hjelm, and the discovery of tungsten itself to the d’Elhuyar brothers.

Scheele, it was said, never forgot anything if it had to do with chemistry. He never forgot the look, the feel, the smell of a substance, or the way it was transformed in chemical reactions, never forgot anything he read, or was told, about the phenomena of chemistry. He seemed indifferent, or inattentive, to most things else, being wholly dedicated to his single passion, chemistry. It was this pure and passionate absorption in phenomena – noticing everything, forgetting nothing – that constituted Scheele’s special strength.

Scheele epitomized for me the romance of science. There seemed to me an integrity, an essential goodness, about a life in science, a lifelong love affair. I had never given much thought to what I might be when I was “grown up” – growing up was hardly imaginable – but now I knew: I wanted to be a chemist. A chemist like Scheele, an eighteenth-century chemist coming fresh to the field, looking at the whole undiscovered world of natural substances and minerals, analyzing them, plumbing their secrets, finding the wonder of unknown and new metals.

Monday, 20 June 2016

collectively known as cells

There are few things as demotivating as discovering that in the end, in spite of (or maybe thanks to) all your efforts, your students learned absolutely nothing. Some of mine, apparently horrified by the exam study guide I presented them with, sent me a list of their own questions. That surprised me a bit but hey, sure, why not. And so, I have incorporated some of these questions into the exam, in a hope that this class at least would know some of the correct answers. Naturally, I was wrong.

Here’s an illustration.

The following three questions refer to the figure below.
  1. Identify the cells A, B and D. What is the name of the process C? (4 points)
  2. If the cell A has n chromosomes, the cell B has      chromosomes and the cell D has      chromosomes (2 points).
  3. Both cells A and B are collectively known as                    .
Easy peasy, even for those who were absent or asleep 90% of the time. Right?

And here are some unexpected answers, from three different students.

  1. Identify the cells A, B and D. What is the name of the process C? (4 points) *
    1.              Luan Zi             
    2.                Jing Zi             
    3.              Shou Jing             
    * I'm gonna to write chinese, because I don't how to write in English, you can search internet
Althought it is not in my job description, I did that search and should say that the (Mandarin) Chinese terms are correct. Except the symbol is not even Chinese (it’s just this student’s doodle of cell D), so it doesn’t count.
  1. If the cell A has n chromosomes, the cell B has   r   chromosomes and the cell D has   m   chromosomes (2 points).
I can’t say it is wrong. Just a bit too generic for my liking. Ditto this:
  1. Both cells A and B are collectively known as        cells        .
Here’s another one. I lifted this question from the textbook, but you don’t really need to know anything to solve the problem. Or so I thought.
  1. It takes just 1 minute for a bacterium to add 30 000 nucleotides to one DNA strand undergoing replication. The rate of replication in this bacterium is   5 000   nucleotides per second.
  2. * I don't have a calculator to determine this.

Friday, 18 March 2016

evolve or perish

In my first two-and-a-bit months working as a science teacher, there were only a few things that actually worked. And when I say “worked”, I mean made those incredibly lazy and bored pupils of mine to pay any attention for more than a minute. In case of Evolve or Perish, it worked for a good half an hour with Grade 7. They even might have learned something about geologic periods.

The preparation is minimal: you just have to print out the two pages of the game. Then tell the students to trim and glue them together to make a “board”. That’ll keep them busy for additional ten—fifteen minutes. If you have even more time to spare, you can print out the black-and-white version and then ask them to colour it. Then you’ll need dice and counters. I bought a box of four dice and I don’t know how many counters in a Chinese shop for €1. Three-four players per board work the best.

I didn’t expect that the Grade 11 students, better behaved but even more bored, to enjoy it as much if not more than Grade 7. But here they were, suddenly wide awake, rolling their dice and shouting “¡Ñoss!” when landing on “blast to the past”. What’s more, when they finished, they started from the beginning. One team played two games, another three games. All without me telling them what to do. Marvellous.

Saturday, 12 March 2016

are you organised?

I spent all Thursday evening marking their work. Friday morning, in school, I discover, to my horror, that I can’t find this pile of papers. Next thing I know, a girl (one of my best students) is coming to my class and asks, “Mister, did you correct our work?”


“Yes I did, but it seems that I forgot to bring them in.”
“Don’t worry, you did well.”
“How much did I get?”

It’s my turn now to say “Oh” (silently). Think, teacher, think.

“You did everything correct apart from one question.”
“Which one?”
“The one nobody answered correctly, by some reason.”
“Which one was that?”
“I’m trying to remember. I’ll let you know when we have a class.” (We have a class with them today. the last period.)

Later, a boy is coming to my class when I am about to go. Another of my best pupils. After his grade, no doubt.

“Mister, mister, did you have time to check my work?”

I’ve been teaching here for two months and they still don’t know my name. We have a conversation very much like above.

“Sorry, I have to go now. See you in the afternoon.”

In the afternoon, I finally remember the one question nobody had right. I tell kids what was the correct answer. Also, that I bring their papers on Monday.

“Mister... are you organised?” the clever boy asks.

I want to tell him that no, not really. But my inner teacher doesn’t want to give him such a simple answer.

“Of course I am organised. Look at me. All depends on the adverb that you place before ‘organised’. A person can be well organised or poorly organised. Still ‘organised’. You guys are well organised.”
“I am not very well organised”, says another student.
“Yes you are. You always bring your homework in.”
“You have to see my room. It’s a mess.”

I recall our university lecturer in physical chemistry, some 30 years ago. Once he told us that instead of saying “mess” it is more polite to say “high entropy”. For example, “you have high entropy in your department”. I tell the kids that the bedroom mess is a consequence of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. You simply can’t organise your homework without increasing entropy around you. They don’t understand the entropy bit but seem to like the idea.

“Bye, mister.”
“Good bye. See you Monday.”

At home, no sign of the papers. I check my bag again. Of course, they were there all along. I am so organised, I don’t need any adverbs.

Wednesday, 30 December 2015

some groups of people don’t use their language properly

From Mapping Applied Linguistics: A Guide for Students and Practitioners by Christopher J. Hall, Patrick H. Smith, and Rachel Wicaksono:

You can substitute several adjectives here for variations on the same myth. Among the most common: some ways of using your language are more beautiful, more complex, more pleasant, more efficient, more logical, more civilized... Many such beliefs arise naturally because of mistrust of ‘the Other’, but in large part language judgements follow from the notion of a ‘standard’ form of the language against which all other varieties can be measured — and found wanting. But in what sense do standard languages exist? They certainly seem to exist in forms of discourse such as newspaper editorials, national language policies and school textbooks. Standard forms of language are appealed to, often when people feel that their national or regional identities or interests are being threatened. Despite the social power of the belief, standard languages don’t exist in the minds of individual speakers; rather, groups of speakers share different degrees of awareness of a set of conventions about what is acceptable, prestigious and desirable. Written language has played perhaps the most important role in ‘fixing’ these conventions as the basis for how others should write and speak.
An extension of this dead end is the belief that some languages are better than others, for example that some are harder or easier to learn, some are closer to God(s), some are more beautiful, more complex, more pleasant, more efficient, more logical, more civilized, etc. Descriptive linguistics and sociolinguistics are useful here to expose the patent nonsense of such beliefs, by comparing the same linguistic unit in different languages or dialects. This allows us to see how the same or a similar element of phonology, for example, can have different linguistic value in different languages, without requiring or entailing any measurement of efficiency, complexity, logic or aesthetics. The /l/ and /r/ sounds of English and many other languages are not differentiated by Chinese speakers, for example, just as the tonal features of Chinese can seem indistinguishable to speakers of atonal languages, such as English. And the ‘illogical’ double negative of many English dialects (‘I ain’t got none’) is part of the ‘standard’ versions of French and Spanish.

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

lol my thesis

What, lol my thesis blog wasn’t updated for a month? That sucks. According to its creator, Angela Frankel,

Initially intended as a means of procrastination from my own thesis, this blog has documented some of the stress, hilarity, and chaos associated with undergraduate (and some post-graduate) theses.
In fact it serves to illustrate that most of the theses out there are simply not worth the paper they are printed on, or maybe even the disk space they occupy. They would be totally disposable if not for lol my thesis. Just think about that before adding “M.Sc.” or “Ph.D.” to your name. (What if I modify my CV by replacing “Ph.D.” with “Ph.D.LOL”? I don’t think anybody would notice.) Could it be that it’s not updated any longer because at long last people have realised that? I seriously doubt it.

Here are some of my favourites.

Friday, 25 September 2015

academia is a weird thing

This is one of the best writings on research academia I’ve ever read.

This week, I resigned from my position at Duke University with no intent to solicit employment in state-funded academic research positions in any foreseeable future. Many reasons have motivated this choice, starting with personal ones: I will soon be a father and want to be spending time with my son at home.

Other reasons have to do with research academia itself. Throughout the years, I have been discovering more and more of the inner workings of academia and how modern scientific research is done and I have acquired a certain degree of discouragement in face of what appears to be an abandonment by my research community of the search for knowledge. I found scientists to be more preoccupied by their own survival in a very competitive research environment than by the development of a true understanding of the world.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

zàijiàn, MX101x

After finishing the Spanish MOOCs, I thought I may try starting another language course at edX. I was in for a disappointment here. No languages apart from English and Spanish! Then — hey, what’s that? Starting, wait a minute, yesterday?

I have to say that learning basic Mandarin was not on my wish list, let alone to-do list. On the other hand, why not.

Now I’m sure you’ve came across many misguided opinions that rank Chinese among the hardest languages to learn. Take orthography. For instance, in Finnish, each phoneme (sound) corresponds to exactly one grapheme (letter), and each grapheme represents exactly one phoneme. On the opposite side of the spectrum, we find Chinese with no correspondence between graphemes and phonemes whatsoever. English and French fall somewhere in between. From this, one may conclude that Finnish must be easier language to master, compared to Chinese. Now let’s see, how many native speakers of Finnish versus Chinese are there? That’s right, 5.5 million vs 1.2 billion. Granted, one more Chinese speaker won’t make much difference, but why don’t give it a shot?

MX101x is a six-week course with estimated effort of 4 hours/week. Each of the six lessons contains the following sections:

  • Introduction
  • Vocabulary
  • Supplementary Vocabulary
  • Grammar and Sentence Patterns
  • Dialogue
  • Quiz (Homework)
  • Dictation & Cultural Notes
Each section, apart from the quiz, contains one or two videos. In addition, there is Workbook (four or five pages of exercises for each week; you are supposed to print it out) and Textbook (which is basically a transcript of the video lessons on Vocabulary, Supplementary Vocabulary, Grammar and Dialogues). Both Workbook and Textbook is available in both traditional and simplified Chinese. Well I don’t have a printer and to print out all of this elsewhere is too much a bother. Instead, for the first time in any edX course I did so far, I was taking notes. Which, I think, was useful because I’ve got to practice writing down the Han characters. On top of that (or shall I say on bottom of that?) there is Before You Start... section which explains tones, Pinyin, numbers, and traditional and simplified characters.

MX101x Chinese Language: Learn Basic Mandarin

  • Overview / syllabus
  • Before you start: tones, Hanyu Pinyin, Chinese numbers, traditional and simplified Han characters
  • Lesson 1: greetings; introducing yourself; countries and continents
  • Lesson 2: arrival to Taiwan
  • Lesson 3: checking in a hotel; things that can go wrong in a hotel and how to deal with them
  • Lesson 4: talking about food
  • Lesson 5: getting around; transportation
  • Lesson 6: intonation and tone; small talk; making friends; joking
  • Final exam

As you can see, the topics range from mundane/boring (how to say “the air conditioner in my room does not work”) to exciting and perhaps too subtle for this basic course (small talk). Vocab, grammar points and cultural notes are presented by a “talking head” of the course’s charming instructor, Estella Y. M. Chen. Most of the dialogues feature the very same Estella and an American tourist called Calwin. So if you expect some visuals of China, Taiwan and other places where they speak Mandarin, you’d better look elsewhere.

Some of the dialogues used the words which were not given in the vocab sections. This is all right, you don’t have to know all of them. But, while I was trying to figure out the meaning of those extra words, I made an important discovery. Google Translate works much better translating Chinese to English than, say, Russian or Spanish. Also, there is a number of ways of entering Chinese, including Pinyin and handwriting. Could it be that there are more Chinese-speaking programmers employed by Google?

Grading is working like this: each weekly quiz is worth 10% of the final score and the final exam is worth 40%. You need to get at least 80% to pass and earn a certificate.

100 = 10 × 6 quizzes + 40 for final exam

I found the quizzes far too easy. You have 10 (ten!) attempts for each multiple-choice question. You can pass all of them just by brute force. In the final exam, you are only given two attempts: that’s more like it.

“But can you speak any Mandarin now?”, you may ask. Alas, the answer is “no”. My vocabulary is still restricted to a few polite expressions and those Chinese words that everybody knows. One has to practise daily, which I find impossible without looming deadlines. However I started to understand how the language works, and as such the mission of MX101x is accomplished. I am looking forward to further instalments of MandarinX series.

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

dos MOOCs en Español

For a long while, there was no Spanish-language course of interest to me available at edX. Then, suddenly, there were two, both starting in February 2015: La España de El Quijote (Quijote501x) offered by Universidad Autónoma de Madrid and Advanced Spanish Language and Culture (ASLCx) by St. Margaret’s Episcopal School. My past experience taught me that it’s a bad idea to take two (or more) MOOCs at the same time. But which one to choose?

In the end, greediness won and I enrolled for both courses. However, given that I had to go to work, and even actually work, I had to make some sacrifices. Like (o horror!) skipping homeworks.

Advanced Spanish Language and Culture

Of course it’s cool to put something “advanced” on your CV but for me ASLCx, a ten-week course presented by Marta E. Moore-Austin, felt more like intermediate than advanced. To pass the course, one has to score at least 70% of the grade. Grades were assigned as follows:

  • 12 quizzes (readings, videos, grammar) — 40% of the grade
  • 17 homeworks (readings, recordings, discussion forums and two emails) — 20% of the grade
  • Final exam — 40% of the grade
From this it was blindingly obvious to me that I should concentrate on quizzes and don’t waste my time on homeworks (each worth only 1 point). Especially I couldn’t bother with recording myself.

The topics of this course included:

  1. La identidad personal y pública
  2. Las familias y las comunidades
  3. La vida contemporánea
  4. La belleza y la estética
  5. La ciencia y la tecnología
  6. Los desafíos mundiales
The grammar points such as future, conditional and subjunctive, were presented rather formally and without much connection to the rest of the material. There were pleasant discoveries too, such as Ella o yo, or Nosotros, no, a short sci-fi story by José Bernardo Adolph.

To pass the final exam, one has to read five articles and answer multiple-choice questions. Easy, I thought, I had more than a week until a deadline, I can do one article a day or something. I started with a paper about Salvador Dalí, answered the multiple-choice questions and was about to go to bed (it was past midnight already) when by some reason I scrolled the page back to the top and read the following passage:

Contesta las siguientes preguntas de comprensión de lectura. Hay cinco selecciones. Debes terminar el examen dentro el tiempo en límite, 55 minutos, como el examen AP de College Board. ¡Buena suerte!
What?! I have only 55 minutes for all? Did the timer start when I opened the document about Dalí, or when I submitted my first response? In any case, I decided to carry on and, believe it or not, finished the remaining four tasks on time.

La España de El Quijote

I have to say straight away that this course, created and taught by Pedro García Martín, is not about Don Quixote, but rather about Siglo de Oro, Spanish Golden Age. I found it fascinating and challenging. The estimated effort (5—7 hours per week) sounds about correct... if you are a quick reader. In Spanish. I am not, and I some of the texts (all by Pedro García Martín) turned out to be rather demanding reading. On the other hand, I had no problems understanding the video lectures. And I did enjoy the Telenoticias. However, watching the videos is not enough to answer all the questions in the weekly exams. So you’d better do the readings.

Here’s the full program of the course.

Semana 1. Introducción: tiempo y espacio
  1. Tiempo.
  2. Espacio.
  3. El tiempo y el espacio en El Quijote.
Semana 2. La vida cotidiana
  1. La vida privada.
  2. La vida pública.
  3. La vida cotidiana en El Quijote.
Semana 3. Economía y sociedad
  1. Economía.
  2. Sociedad.
  3. Sociedad en El Quijote.
Semana 4. Política, religión e Inquisición
  1. Política.
  2. Religión.
  3. Inquisición.
  4. Política en El Quijote.
Semana 5. Literatura
  1. Escritores.
  2. Teatro.
  3. Literatura en El Quijote.
Semana 6. Las bellas artes
  1. Arquitectura.
  2. Pintura.
  3. Música.
  4. Las bellas artes en El Quijote.
Semana 7. La iconografía de El Quijote
  1. Iconografía de El Quijote.
  2. Adaptaciones nacionales.
  3. Cervantes, El Quijote y el Siglo de Oro en el cine.
Week 1. Introduction: time and space
  1. Time.
  2. Space.
  3. Time and space in Don Quixote.
Week 2. Daily life
  1. Private life.
  2. Public life.
  3. Daily life in Don Quixote.
Week 3. Economy and Society
  1. Economy.
  2. Society.
  3. Society in Don Quixote.
Week 4. Politics, religion and the Inquisition
  1. Politics.
  2. Religion.
  3. The Inquisition.
  4. Politics in Don Quixote.
Week 5. Literature
  1. Writers.
  2. Theatre.
  3. Literature in Don Quixote.
Week 6. The fine arts
  1. Architecture.
  2. Painting.
  3. Music.
  4. The fine arts in Don Quixote.
Semana 7. The iconography of Don Quixote
  1. Iconography of Don Quixote.
  2. National adaptations.
  3. Cervantes, Don Quixote and Spanish Golden Age in cinema.

Although the course started on 24 February, one could wait with weekly exams till April. The schedule as shown below could be fatal for procrastinators like me:

    Weeks 1 through 3: exams due 3 April 2015
    Week 4: exam due 10 April
    Week 5: exam due 17 April
    Weeks 6 and 7: exams due 20 April
As a result, I managed to miss a deadline for Week 1. Mind you, the task was not quite trivial: to adapt an excerpt from Quixote (there was a choice of three original fragments) by placing it in modern setting. I guess I could have done it by the end of the course. Oh well.