All posts by Philip Regan

The Atlantic: The Case Against High School Sports

As states and districts continue to slash education budgets, as more kids play on traveling teams outside of school, and as the globalized economy demands that children learn higher-order skills so they can compete down the line, it’s worth reevaluating the American sporting tradition. If sports were not central to the mission of American high schools, then what would be?
The Atlantic: The Case Against High School Sports

That should be neither a rhetorical question nor one difficult to answer for anyone even with only half a brain.

The Atlantic: Did I Really Go to Harvard if I Got My Degree Taking Online Classes?

Here’s the article so you read the answer to this non-starter of a question yourself: Did I Really Go to Harvard if I Got My Degree Taking Online Classes? – Theodore R. Johnson – The Atlantic

But, in case of TL;DR: Yes.

I hate these kinds of articles. I am undeniably proud of my work at Harvard, and am looking forward to completing my education. The author, in the end, is proud of his work as well, but also puts all this other needless burden on top the degree, as if somehow he not only has to qualify the degree to himself as well as others. The headline and opening headline are little more than link bait and some of the author’s own reactions speak to a conflict not shared by any of my schoolmates, both of which are in direct contrast to his evidence and summary. Let’s dissect…

About two years ago, my classmates and I gathered in Harvard Yard to receive our graduate degrees alongside more than 7,000 of the university’s newest alumni. As the procession made its way to our designated seating area, an onlooker eyed our banner with a puzzled look and asked the guy in front of me, “What in the world is the Extension School?”

My classmate’s reply: “It’s the back door into Harvard.” Ouch. . .

Bait. How can anyone associated with Harvard or critical of online curriculum not bite? Even so, so what? The author notes that schools like HES were established to “to engage the local community, further the education of university staff and their family members, and provide new skills to working adults.” Yep, that sounds like a back door to me, that Harvard wanted to make accessible quality education to as many people as are able and willing to attend, for the betterment of themselves and those around them in the real chance that some good will come of their work creating a virtuous circle perpetuated by a social service bestowed by an organization that wants to teach. The classmate’s attitude to their education is a problem only because it is typically punctuated by a short-sighted and wrong “Ouch” by the author. Was there not a smack to the back of the head and a “shut the fuck up” that followed his response if only because he didn’t get it?

At HES, of the 13,000 students, only about 2,000 are admitted degree candidates, and the school confers about 600 bachelor’s and master’s degree every year. Shinagel notes that of all the students that have taken courses at HES since its inception, less than one fifth of 1 percent have graduated with degrees. As it turns out, Harvard is hard. . .

At least the author has established one of the more little-known facts on campus that speaks to the fact that while admissions may be easier than, say, the College, Harvard is clearly not for everyone and is reflected by the dropout rate. But did he really have to take more than halfway through the article to get there?

That said, people drop out for a lot of reasons—the life of a working adult, especially with kids, is not easy—and while making someone drop out is likely a challenge, the chances increase dramatically when real life gets involved. Not that I am one for data-less speculation, but I have to wonder, perhaps idly, what the dropout rate would be if such issues were not in play in people’s lives.

. . . unfortunately, sometimes its students walk in with guilty consciences, especially when, like me, they probably would not have gained admission in the more traditional way.

Why is there guilt in taking something that is publicly, and soon freely, offered? If Harvard had a problem with the HES degree programs, they would shut them down. But they have not and the student body is growing in other ways that makes it even easier to take Harvard classes: see edX. Guilt has only to do with an individual’s attitude and has nothing to do with Harvard. Stop projecting and get on with it.

All who apply themselves can walk proudly out of the gates with a prestigious diploma in hand. This is exactly what Harvard allowed me to do. The school even provided a few stalks of wheat to carry during the procession as a reminder of HES’s founding mission and as confirmation that I did indeed belong.
Did I Really Go to Harvard if I Got My Degree Taking Online Classes? – Theodore R. Johnson – The Atlantic

Thank heavens for small miracles coming to that conclusion. I never thought this was going to end. This is the same kind of weird self-pity found over at Extensionstudent.com, and I have rarely ever see any questioning like this outside of the Extension student body. Maybe all this mucking around is self-doubt really does come from having left-over guilt of not having “done the right thing” and gone to college right outside high school. But one’s character is derived by one reaction to a situation, not necessarily the situation itself. By going to school, we are each righting some personal wrong, fulfilling a leftover, unkept promise. Here matters only the fact the work is being done, not a preconceived notion of temporal requirements predisposed by a non-answerable-to society.

In the end, either you are proud of your degree or you are not. You pays your money, you makes your choices. Live with it. While I am not going to kid myself even for one second that Harvard Extension is anything like Harvard College, but you won’t see me perpetuating this crap that a Harvard Extension degree is somehow inferior to any others just because some courses are also online. Casting around that kind of self-doubt undermines defenses that the HES degree is better than the online-only for-profit schools, despite the elevated levels of coursework. In the end, the HES degrees say “Harvard University” across the top just like all the others, and I highly doubt Harvard would be putting its name on those degrees if they felt the work was not worthy. Maybe I’m naive, but I am not worried about my school or my degree, if only because I am not doing this for anyone else but me. On this issue, I really don’t care what anyone else thinks. The author should consider the same.

Go Crimson.

Slant.com: What are the best programming fonts?

Slant.com: What are the best programming fonts?. (via Hacker News)

The actual voting is likely not very scientific, but this is a really great collection. I’m a bit surprised to see that (a) Source Code Pro is at the top (by a thin margin) and (b) there is no italic form of the font. That latter point is a glaring and non-starter omission for me as I change all my comments to italics to help with reading context, and doubly so since this an Adobe font, a world leader in font development.

I had forgotten about Anonymous Pro, which I liked for a while, but I thought the glyphs were too wide.

I am currently using Menlo and really like it, particularly at 11 pt. Most of my editors default to Monaco, which I never liked. Monaco always just seemed a bit too clunky for my taste.

The Atlantic: Getting Drunk in North Korea

The Taedonggang, named after Pyongyang’s river, is one of the city’s most notable nightlife stops, producing seven types of beer. Although these are named with typical Soviet flair — Beer Number 1, Beer Number 2, Beer Number 3 and so forth — the equipment used in their brewing actually comes from a well-regarded, though now defunct, British brewery. “When I was visiting North Korea, I was pleasantly surprised at the quality of their Taedonggang beer, of which we drank quite a lot,” recalls Alistair Humphrey – or “Humph” – whose father was chief brewer for the British ale makers Usher’s of Trowbridge, before he died and the brewery was sold. “When we got back to Beijing, I went out with Nick [Bonner] and Simon [Cockerell] of Koryo to the Great Leap Brewery, and the subject of Usher’s came up. They asked if I knew what happened to the brewery, exchanging conspiratorial looks. ‘It folded. I think it’s now a supermarket,’ I said. ‘No!’ said Nick, gleefully. ‘It was sold to the North Koreans – they’ve been using it to brew the beer you were drinking last week!’ So the equipment my father bought to brew English ales lives on in Pyongyang.”
The Atlantic: Getting Drunk in North Korea

Just take down the ExtraCare system already, CVS

CVS receipts are notoriously (stupidly) long and finally action is being taken based on an article this morning in the Globe. This sentence in the article particularly caught my eye:

Early next year, shoppers will be given the option of electronically sending all coupons and rewards directly to their [ExtraCare] cards.
Boston Globe: Long CVS receipts spark social media sensation (subscription likely required)

I can’t stand these shopper cards, regardless of their purported usefulness. The only reason why I have one is to take advantage of the sale price when it exists. That’s it. I do not manage my ExtraCare account. Hell, I barely find the time to make my lunch the night before work the next day. As soon as I walk out of the CVS, I forget about both the receipt and the account. But now, if card holders will be given the option of sending all the savings directly to the card, then just get rid of the card. If the sole point of the card will then be to track purchases, then the card is now rendered a pointless burden on the customer because purchase tracking is entirely CVS’s problem and not the customer’s. Just give the lower prices to everyone and remove the entire card system entirely. What would be the ROI on removing these systems entirely now that purchasing and tracking systems are much more sophisticated?

Nintendo and iOS

John Gruber over at Daring Fireball makes a logical proposition for Nintendo to start releasing games for iOS:

…their next best bet is to expand to making iOS games. I’m not saying drop the DS line and jump to iOS in one fell swoop. But a couple of $9.99 iPhone/iPad games to test the water wouldn’t hurt.
Daring Fireball: Nintendo 2DS

There is little doubt that if Nintendo re-released Any of the original NES, Super NES, GameBoy games like Super Mario and Legend of Zelda, they would make a mint. Arguably better than Sega is doing with Sonic the Hedgehog, but still flash in the pan. I don’t think John’s statement of testing the water is dismissive of the effort required to do so. But I also don’t think doing what is necessary to test the waters, much less maintain long-term health, is going to be as easy as it sounds for Nintendo.

When moving games from the older 8-bit and 16-bit machines, porting appears to be difficult from a textural perspective. I liked Sonic the Hedgehog on iOS, gameplay looks and sounds exactly the same, but playing it didn’t feel right and I put it down fairly quickly. I swear the character has either moved in a random direction or there is a delay in a jump, if not a complete misfire. I have to wonder whether this has something to do with the change in thinking that comes with moving from hardware controls to on-screen (software) controls. As the console companies had proven long before Apple, there are advantages to owning the software and the hardware. Unless they are porting a game like an RPG where timing of button mashing isn’t required, then it appears control responsiveness is a deep technical issue that needs to be addressed. Whether the issue is cultural or technical is impossible to say, but even Doom feels fine on iOS and that once required a physical keyboard to play and had no ties to a single platform, so I argue that something is afoot.

Then there is the issue of what to do with the later consoles like the Nintendo 64 and later, where the controls are more numerous than what will fit on an iPhone screen. Rockstar Games solved this in Grand Theft Auto III by sacrificing some arguably superfluous functions, but then graphics begin to suffer because the scope of the visible area are vast and complex. Seeing Super Mario 64 and Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time on iOS would be instant wins for the company, but they rely on pretty much all of the nine (9) button in addition to the D-pad for some aspects of deeply integrated game play. Nintendo still equates to top quality games when it comes to their own assets, but limiting these games to just the iPad to accommodate all those buttons might represent too much of a compromise in potential sales. I can only see games designed for the Wii and Wii U where motion control is a core game mechanic simply never making it to iOS or any other software-only platform.

Going back to the older, original games, I think there is a real question of how successful they would be from a market sophistication perspective. Super Mario Bros. is an inarguable classic but it could (and just might) suffer from hype backlash. Platform games have long since moved on; Super Mario 64 made Super Mario Bros. immediately boring for me. Players tastes—both in my generation that witnessed the NES release and those kids playing games for the first time—have become vastly more sophisticated. My “go to” games are Minecraft PE and flight simulators like X-Plane and Infinite Flight. Sonic on iOS was neat for a couple hours and then went away. Ridiculous Fishing was neat for a lot longer, if only because there is real mystery mixed into the game play, but I still went back to my “go to” games because they provide a deeper, intellectual satisfaction I rarely find elsewhere. Even my six-year-old nephew is hooked in Minecraft PE. He plays the button-mashing platform games, but really only when he cannot, or is not allowed to for being punished, use the iPad.

Maybe that’s the way the whole market is now, but will that be satisfactory for Nintendo? I doubt it. We spent hours in front of the NES. The N64 was my favorite console ever, and the Wii U could be just as awesome for me, but the iPhone is infinitely more convenient and a hell of a lot cheaper than a console. I don’t care how good the console games are. If anything, I would be buying the game for my kids when they are old enough, so if I wanted to I could just fire up the tube TV and original NES I have in the basement and save myself a few bucks seeing as how I think they would play Super Mario Bros. for about an hour.

All of this means we are back to the fundamental change that Gruber and others have pointed out many times of developing new games for iOS. For Sega, I imagine this wasn’t a hard cultural change since they are smaller and already used to licensing their core assets to other systems having given up on hardware a long time ago (and rightly so, it would seem). Given Nintendo’s recent past release of the Wii U and 2DS, it appears only catastrophic failure of the company will be required to compel Nintendo to seek shelter elsewhere as opposed to relying on its own ingenuity. I don’t think Mario and Link will ever go away completely. I just hope Nintendo figures what they are going to do to keep them in the market in time for my own kids to start playing video games in a few years, as I have the act of introducing them to Super Mario Bros. on the same height pedestal as introducing them to Star Wars. I really need for you to get over this, Nintendo.

“…the overt and discrete habits of mind necessary for autonomous, self-directed learning.”

The TI-83 Plus had helped me cultivate many of the overt and discrete habits of mind necessary for autonomous, self-directed learning. And even more, it did this without resorting to grades, rewards, or other extrinsic motivators that schools often use to coerce student engagement.
The Atlantic: Go Ahead, Mess With Texas Instruments

Articles like this make me wish I had glommed onto programming much earlier than I did.