Monday, August 31, 2009

Power Ballad September

September is Power Ballad Month here at m-factor. According to wikipedia (epic lame reference), a power ballad can be defined as:

A power ballad is a type of song typically characterized by having a slow tempo, long voiced notes, electric and/or acoustic guitars, and deemphasized percussion and bass. Some sections of the song may include strong percussion and bass that are more typical of the hard rock and heavy metal genres for increased emotional effect, and often the electric guitar comes back in the song's climax. Common power ballad themes include (but are not limited to) emotional pain, need, love and loss.

In other words, power ballads are where otherwise hard rockin' bands get to show their emotional side. A less charitable view might be that power ballads enabled hard rock and metal acts to change the demographic of their audience. As for me, I've always had a soft spot for power ballads. I don't associate them with their heyday, as I hadn't discovered half of the songs to be featured back then. Rather, I'm enthralled by the minor keys and sentimental lyrics. I'm of the opinion that even as a musician in a heavy metal band you can't be angry all the time, so the power ballad is an opportunity to play a bit softer. My recent re-aquaintance with the genre came courtesy of my son. Two weeks ago, I had my first extended alone-time with him, and at some point there was no comforting him - the li'l dude was melting down alll over. In an act of sheer desperation, I tried singing to him, and it actually worked. The catch is that I don't know any children's songs whatsoever. The closest I get is power ballads, of which I apparently knew a boatload.

So; every day in September I'll post a power ballad video according to the following guidelines:

  1. Only one song per band. Otherwise known as the "Poison clause"
  2. The song should be from a period when the term "power ballad" was marketable, which means up until the very early 90's.
  3. The song should have a video or live performance available on YouTube, but..
  4. ..said YouTube-clip should be from when the band or artist was still relevant within the context of that song. Also known as the "no hand-held video from the Malls of North Dakota tour of Warrant 2006 clause"
  5. The song must be from heavy metal or hard rock band. If not for this condition, Cutting Crew with "I Just Died In Your Arms Tonight" would've been a kick-ass power ballad.
This might not be Anders' cup of tea, but I'll get a kick out of it for sure.

School politics according to me - part 2

Here's the second part of my current views on school politics. They are not permanent in any way, as I am susceptible to persuasion by facts and logic.

Teacher competence
There's no denying that a depressingly high fraction of teachers are not competent. While providing schools with training budgets for their staff can remedy part of this problem, the basic issue is that the shortage of teachers a while back led to schools accepting teacher students who'd failed basic high school math and other subjects. Worse still, some of the students who'd failed math now teach that very same subject despite being unqualified. Something which ought to be painfully obvious, is that you need to have mastered the subject you teach, at the level you're teaching. No wonder children perceive math as difficult and non-intuitive.

In my limited understanding of how this came to be, it started as a shortage of teachers, during which period the teacher academies accepted pretty much any applicants, irrespective of whether or not they were qualified. Following this, the situation was that a shortage of teachers still existed, but that the schools did not have the necessary budget to hire permanent staff. Hence, many schools depended heavily on temps (not part of the permanent budget), which isn't exactly ideal from the students' point of view, in that there is no stable situation. It ain't exactly the kind of situation which favors optimal quality of teaching either, as temps - knowing full and well that the odds of being hired permanently are abysmally low - had no incentive for going above and beyond and laying down maximum effort.

So what to do about this? One obvious step is to implement minimum criteria for being accepted into teaching academies. Another step is to lose the temps (if that's still relevant) and go for hiring of permanent staffers. A training budget for further education of teachers is also a must, something a lot of politicians appear to be talking about these days. For me, increasing teacher salary beyond its current level doesn't really make sense. Last time I checked those numbers, high school teachers can make more money that Associate Professors, while working less. There are probably teachers out there who claim to be underpaid and overworked, all of whom I'd be happy to compare workloads with. Also, in my experience, there's a very high percentage of local politicians who are also teachers, compared to other professions, which doesn't seem to go with the claim of having a much higher workload than said other professions.

Funding structure
Should schools be funded via national or local budgets? There are some very persuasive arguments to be made for school budgets being run across municipal budgets, most of which deal with flexibility and a closer proximity between decisionmakers and the issues to be dealt with. On papyrus it's a great idea to let the municipalities distribute the budgets as they please.

On the other hand, there's a saying that a small town with lots of money is like a donkey with a wristwatch. Nobody knows how it got it, and damn if it knows how to use it. Every argument that can be made in favor of increased local budget control can be countered with three little words: "The Terra Municipalities" Come to think of it, Trondheim is another example of why increased local control is a really bad idea: Trondheim sold it's power plant to private enterprises with a hyooge profit, which was not distributed or invested locally to stimulate the Trondheim area, but - wait for it - invested in all kinds of stocks and bonds in order to maximize profit fast. Enter the global financial crisis, and Trondheim went from a wealthy municipality/city to being three taxpayers away from having to sell Nidarosdomen to a Saudi Arabian amusement park.

Ironically, the brilliant architects behind this sale were the usually fiscally responsible conservatives in Høyre. Kudos on a job well done, and for demonstrating that municipalities from what I've seen either don't have robust eough economies or don't have the know-how to manage their finances. Clearly, municipalities cannot be trusted to distribute their funding according to what's best for common goods like education. Thus I am in favor of having school funding regulated by the national government.

Another wall of text. More to come.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Finally... a time with little good news from the music industry, this little piece of news made my day a little brighter!

Friday, August 28, 2009

TGIF - Demetri Martin

Because it's some of the best out there...

Demetri Martin - Large Pad - Watch more Funny Videos

Important Things with Demetri Martin
Games - Greater Than or Equal To
Joke of the DayStand-Up ComedyFree Online Games

School politics according to me - part 1

Some time this Spring I predicted that school politics would become really important in the upcoming election. Or rather, that it would be important enough to warrant debates on the topic beyond the usual glossing over and subsequent backhanded dismissal like what's typically done with topics like science and research: everyone agrees that it's important, but none can seem to substantiate any plan whatsoever beyond cheap catchphrases often including words like "change".

I'm lookin' like freakin' Nostradamus up in here Far be it from me to gloat, but it appears that I have been moderately successful in my predictions this time.

There are several reasons why I think education is important not just in and of itself, but also with respect to what political party gets my vote. Some of the reasons are tied in with parenthood and the fact that I want Viktor to get a good education within our school system. I don't want him to feel bored or left behind in a school system which at times appears to be little more than a storage facility for children and adolescents. Another reason is that being an academic staff member at a university, the level at which we can teach and thus the threshold level of knowledge we can impart on the students is limited by the baggage they bring with them from high school and earlier. We only have so much time with the students, and there is a definite limit to how steep the learning curve can get. Students entering universities with severe deficiencies in math, for example, is a serious problem. Moreover, if universities and university colleges are to adjust their levels according to lower levels of education, it's a brutal case of the tail wagging the dog. After all, degrees earned at our institutions of higher learning must comply with or ideally exceed international standards. Thus, it makes sense that the academic branches of the educational system work to prepare students for universities and university colleges. The converse does not make any sense.

However, this does not in any way, shape or form mean that I'm considering the worth of the educational system based on its ability to prepare students for university studies. Far from it. If anything, the current system puts too much emphasis on academics, which is manifested in the way trade school students are being forced to take a number of courses with the sole purpose of qualifying them for university acceptance - a low-budget version of the GED. Not only are trade school students forced to take the "academic route" courses, but their studies are also prolonged because of them. And lo and behold, trade school students are much more likely to drop out of school than their academic counterparts. Might that be because the system pulled a bait-and-switch on them? Maybe they don't see the relevance of adding such subjects as poetry analysis to their curriculum, and don't appreciate that these courses extend the duration of their education by 50% without them learning anymore of their desired trade.

Unless there's a huge influx of carpenters wanting to take a Master's degree in Nordic languages that I haven't heard anything about, I think it would be prudent to stop treating trade school and equivalents as the red-headed stepchild of the educational system. The country needs a whole lot more carpenters and electricians than it needs professors, and that's not an elitist way of thinking at all. Not all people are good at or interested in purely academic subjects, much like not everybody are practically oriented. For sure I'd be fried if I had to do anything with the electrical system myself. If our car breaks down on the highway, popping the hood would be a perfunctory exercise in which I'd only be looking for a giant switch that's dropped to the "off" position. I don't look down on any profession - except for lawyers, car salesweasels, real estate agents and "glamour models" - and I don't see how it's anything but condescending for the department of education to tell trade schools that "yeah; you teaching carpentry, electronics and other things requiring manual labor is all good and well, but in order for your school to qualify as part of the educational system, you need to add some proper subjects, like religion history and the ever-so-useful art of analysing poetry".

Wall of text - more to come.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The many dangers of Facebook

...from Failblog via Anders:

Friday, August 21, 2009

Powerballad blueprint

This summer, I've had the main fixin's of a generic 80's summer power ballad in the vein of Mr Big's "Just Take My Heart" running through my head. So here it is -a very basic demo of the intro, verse, prechorus, chorus, bridge and solo of a power ballad. For once, there are no overdubs, just a rhytm and a lead track, with levels semi-equalized throughout. I'm actually very happy with the solo on this one, as it contains a melodic beginning, no excessive technique and a reiteration of themes, as well as the mandatory octave climb towards the end.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Book review: Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds

Since reading Anders' review of this book last month, I was sufficiently interested to actually purchase it myself. I'm always on the lookout for ways to improve my presentations, talks and lectures, and the information available on Amazon reinforced the massive kudos Anders laid down. Like Anders said, this ain't a "how-to" book about making presentations, but rather a holistic approach to delivering the message as efficiently as possible without any visual clutter. In short, it's all about avoiding "death by PowerPoint".

Truth be told, I almost gave up on the book early on, due to a side-bar by some Moby-looking wannabe-guru by the name of Seth Godin. While the beginning of the book outlines how presentation zen does not provide any strict guidelines for how to present material, this no doubt Mac-using loser laid down the law with absolutes like "No more than six words per slide - ever." I also have to admit that I was kind of turned off by the fact that Reynolds kept giving written blowjobs to Steve Jobs and Apple in general all throughout the book. Sure - it's his book and all, but he could've kept this particular bromance on the DL as it does nothing to promote the content of the book. In my opinion, that is.

I also share Anders' opinion that this minimalist approach is probably easier to implement in marketing/business or for speaking to crowds that are not specialists. The example cited about using this approach to teach aromatic chemistry appears somewhat suspect to me. In my experience of teaching hard science as well as communicating scientific data to peers, it is absolutely necessary to use a bilingual approach - math and English. Consequently, while much of the material in English can be presented orally, the symbols and relationships need to be defined - and need to be easily accessible throughout the presentation. If you use some 15 different symbols and relations - some of which are universal and some of which are unique for this study - you are quite the optimist if you expect the audience to remember a definition from 12 slides back.

One thing I really took to heart from this book was the assertion that PowerPoint slides should not be used as handouts, because they're not meant as stand-alone documents, and consequently any middle-of-the-road approach to add written content for meaningful post-presentation retrieval is doomed to fail. Rather, Reynolds says, one should provide more detailed documents as handouts, which also adds degrees of feedom to what's on the slides. This hit quite close to home for me, because at the institution where I teach, the students expect that the slides are available on the course web page. Consequently, I try to add enough information on the slides to make them useful (hopefully) without my narrative. After reading this book, I'm even more unsure than before as to whether I'm doing the students a favor or a disservice by perpetuating this behavior. Reynolds' logic cannot be disputed; if the slides are meaningful without my narrative, then I'm superfluous. And if I only design the slides to complement my narrative, then they would be quite useless as handouts. Moreover, the written documentation for the material presented in the slides already exists - the textbook(s). So does my making slides available mean that some students won't read the curriculum? 'Cause my slides are not meant to be a substitute for reading the textbook - they're merely a supplement. I'd be fiercely interested in any input on this - especially as I'm about to revamp my slides for this semester's teaching as well as make new ones for the Spring semester.

Another topic that I found interesting and potentially liberating is the - also quite compelling - argument Reynolds makes in favor of deep-sixing templates where the logo of the company - or in my case lab - is featured on every page. Rather, Reynolds says, the logo should be present on the first and last page of the presentation, which helps to free up some much-needed real-estate on the slides. This makes sense to me, as even though I've tried to minimalize the logo in the template, it still poses some restrictions on the slides - both geometric and with respect to colors I can use. So maybe I'll try to deep-six the logo - save for the first and last slides - and see how it turns out. imagine my surprise when Reynolds some pages later pretty much reintroduced the need for logos via the principle of repetition, wherein a red thread throughout the presentation is established via a common theme on the slides. Which pretty much is a strong advocacy for using small, rather unintrucive company logos, no?

Overall, I really liked the book. It provides some good approaches to the creative process, as well as some general principles and useful examples.

Buy the book, dammit.

The upcoming election

Since the election is closing in, I've been looking around on some of the coverage in the media. Especially the "party selection tests" and the statistics offered.

First of, the so-called "party selection tests". Nearly all of the tests force the user to make an opninion about the statement presented, but some have the possibility of grading the importance of each statement, or chose one or several issues close to your heart. My experience is that I seem to get the same party as my top and bottom score on the different tests, but with a large variation of the parties in-between. But then, if you are average interested in news and politics, it's pretty easy to manipulate the test.

However, what I find interesting, is that some of these tests show statistics for all the users who participated. Pretty thin statistics, but still, here are a couple of examples:

First, here's NrKs test. It basically gives you a precentage how how much you agree with each party. Thus, the one with the highets percentage is your (obvious?) choice. They also publish the average score of everybody that has taken this test. The %-score is how much on average the user agrees with the party:

I liked the test, because you were able to rate your answers. But the average of all people who participated, shows some interessting results. I don't know about the varians here, but it seems to me that there are two likely scenarios coming from this graph:
1. Politics in Norway are so similar, that there is little difference between the parties. Hence, everybody agrees with approx. 1/3 or more of any party.
2. The test desgin is faulty, so it doesn't really differentiat between the parties.
VG has a different take on it. The result from this test just give the party best matched with your answers. No percentage or anything about how you match up with the rest. VG has also published results from all participants:

Interesting, it rates FrP at 35%. Though it is possible, I don't think FrP will get 35% of the votes this election. But what's more unlikely, is Ap to get a mere 16.5%. Which is interesting. So either the people who take this test is bias and/or the design of the test is faulty. If not, people don't know what the parties they vote for actually stand for. However, I'm leaning towards a faulty design theory. This test is one of the simplest I've seen for this election.

Aftenposten has the best test I've seen so far, but they will not publish their average results untill after the election.

I didn't find any tests on Dagbladet, but they do have some interessting statistics. They have plottet averages of several surveys since May:

This is interesting. Because unlike surveys with "going up 0.004% from last week", this shows the overall trends. And most notable, is a significant increase for FrP, mostly from May to July. And Ap is pretty stable.

Dagbladet also include data from several surveys performed in May. So, for fun, I decieded to calculate averages and uncertainty (at 2SD) and plot. I know this isn't correct, but it's the best I can do with the limited data available.

Now, here are some interesting observations. Ap as very little uncertainty, indicating two things: High precision on the measured data and a loyal group of voters. This is coherent with the time plot from Dagbladet. FrP has a lot of variation. This can be explained with the fact that they are increasing in numbers, as shown in the time plot. Also worth noting, is that we can't say for certain taht Høyre is large then SV.... Though I'd be really surprised if they were equal in size after the election. For Rødt and "Andre", the uncertainty is greater then the measured number. Anyway, the graph is just for fun and the numbers shouldn't be taken too serious.

Have a nice election, and don't forget to vote. Unless you vote for the wrong party, then feel free to stay home.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

A Tale That Wasn't Right

Not only a great song from the first of Helloween's trilogy of "Keeper.." albums, but also somewhat descriptive of my writing this entry. To quote Dante Hicks, I'm not even supposed to be here today. I was supposed to be in Sweden, pressing the flesh of some people I have tons of respect for, giving my award acceptance speech and concomitantly giving a 45 minute lecture on my research. I was also going to be given a plaque and a substantial amount of money. The speech was ready, as was the talk. I've even got a new suit, new shoes and - my new haircut.

Then yesterday after lunch, I got a high fever and a wicked pounding in my sinus cavities, plus an assortment of other, flu-related symptoms. A short conversation with my GP later, I was instructed not to go anywhere, and I had to make a very difficult phone call to the award committee, telling them that I was gonna be a no-show. Luckily there is one more awardee, but still. I'll still get the award and the money, and I might even get to go to Gothenburg to give my acceptance speech and subsequent talk, but it won't be the same.

On the plus side, I won't have to be away from my wife and newborn son for an extended trip.

There is something bery Alanis-like about me being knocked out by a viral infection, considering that a substantial amount of my talk was going to be on the use of viral transport peptides for targeting of diseased cells in nanomedicine. Hemagglutinin sure kicked my ass this time.

What am I thinking - of course I'm talking about tiny robots with small laser guns who cruise around in the bloodstream fighting viral infections in between changing the color of my threads to reflect my mood and enhancing the muscle tone in my biceps.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Reeking with awesomeness

It's been way too long, and this one never gets old. STILL the best thing on the interweb:

...and "reeking with awesomeness" is a way underused phrase.

Filesharing - Trine Skei Grande edition

This week's edition of Morgenbladet includes a letter from Venstre's second-in-command Trine Skei Grande (if that doesn't give you pause to think about Venstre's future when Sponheim retires I don't know what does) about the party's position on filesharing. Basically, they don't want to allocate any resources for battling illegal filesharing, and they certainly don't want to take any steps to limit monitoring of internet traffic. Fair enough - at least she outlines their position. However, she goes on to detail Venstre's "solution" to the problem:

"Venstres alternativ er å utvikle en modell som sørger for at rettighetshaverne får ordentlig betalt, samtidig som fildeling gjøres lovlig og kulturen fortsetter å blomstre. Med andre ord vil vi både utvikle et nytt opphavsrettssystem og alternative kompensasjonssystemer. Gjennom en slik modell kanaliserer vi dagens illegale fildeling inn i legale former, noe som alle vil tjene på. ... (English translation: Venstre's alternative is to develop a model which ensures that the copyright holders are properly paid, while simultaneously legalizing filesharing and making sure that culture will keep fluorishing. In other words we want to develop new copyright legislation and alternative compensation systems. In other words Through this model, we will channel the present illegal filesharing into legal revenue streams, something everyone will benefit from."

What a pile of steaming horseshit.

Or rather; it wouldn't reek of sucktitude if she'd presented an outline for such a model. This is a declaration of vague intentions and nothing less. Unless they can specify or at least outline some of the steps between intention and reality, this is nothing but a pipe dream.

Venstre has zero credibility in this matter until they present something tangible, at which point I'll be absolutely thrilled.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Lesson of the day

Don't answer the office phone until you know who's calling. You might find yourself "volunteering" for administrative tasks, for giving talks to visiting dignitaries who could care less about what you do, or end up on Newton.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Are you civilized?

There are more than 100 people with world-wide acclaim. You can consider yourself to be a civilized person if you can name at least 25 of them. Good luck.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

....but WHY?

Along with the University in Stavanger, NTNU is the first Norwegian university to put lectures on iTunes.

Why in the name of E. Harrison Leslie and his thousand (horrible) gimmicks would NTNU and UiS want to spearhead this? Really - I'd like to know.

According to the piece, NTNU has put out some 90 videos with lectureson a wide range of topics. The NTNU representative, Julie Feilberg, explains that phase one is to communicate science to the general public. This makes sense to me, and is kind of cool.

The long-term plan is to incorporate this iTunes channel into regular teaching at NTNU. Feilberg refers to the fact that universities like Stanford, MIT and Yale were among the first ones to jump on the iTunes U bandwagon.

Lemme' get this straight; when trying to improve, it's always a good idea to get inspiration from those who are massively successful, and there's no denying that Yale, Stanford and MIT absolutely rock academically. And putting lectures on iTunes U isn't within a million light years of being the reason why these institutions are excellent. I can probably come up with a short list of some 50 reasons why the good US universities kick butt, and I can also come up with a laundry list of reasons why I think this would undermine teaching at Norwegian universities.

Can anyone think of a slew of good reasons why NTNU and UiS incorporating video'd lectures would improve teaching and learning?

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Morgenbladet vs. VG and Aftenposten

I like Morgenbladet enough to be a subscriber. Usually I think their stuff is really good, except that it's skewed towards the liberal arts side of academia, and that they screw up fiercely when they try to report something on hard science, like nanotechnology. This week, however, Frank Rossavik must've been on vacation or something when they concocted the cover story.

This week's cover story blew chunks Exorcist style.

The cover story is a rebuttal against VG's and Aftenposten's ongoing barrage of reports on how beggars from eastern Europe are often organized and tied in with - well - organized crime. Now; I haven't read any of the stories in either VG or Aftenposten, but if Simen Sætre from Morgenbladet says so, I'm prone to believe it. The angle of the cover story is that the aforementioned major newspapers have broken with journalism ethics (that's an oxymoron for ya right there) in that they have more or less constantly accused a population segment of criminal activity without giving said segment the opportunity to voice their side of the story. So; Simen Sætre brought along some photographer and - get this - mosied on down to Karl Johan to ask some five "street musicians/beggars". In order to really get to the bottom of this, Sætre channeled the combined spirits of Inspector Morse, Poirot, Miss Marple, Vick Mackey and Sherlock Holmes by asking the interviewees (who agreed to be interviewed if they were paid 200 NOK, but accepted the counteroffer of a kebab a piece - wonder where Simen Sætre has learned his negotiation skillz. Harvard MBA? I think not) whether they were part of criminal organizations or whether they knew anything about beggars and street performers being tied in with organized crime.

Exactly how this act would elucidate anything is beyond me. Did Simen Sætre expect that they would break down if indeed they were guilty? That no criminal could stand up to the intense scrutiny of his Lo-Rent Scooby Doo and Mystery Machine approach?

Simen Sætre: Iz U up to no good?
Bad guy: Yes - I confess. I was planning to steal the jewelry from the haunted mansion. And I would've gotten away with it too, if it wasn't for you meddling kids.

Here's a free tip: If the question you ask is doomed to elicit the same answer whether the person you ask is the ghost of Mother Theresa, a random guy on the street or Charles Manson, the question was probably poorly designed, and hence the amount of information you can extract is non-existent.

But sure; the piece could've been a nice counterweight type story featuring some innocent people who have wrongly been typecast as villains. Still not a decent cover story, but a human interest dealie. However, there are two problems with pegging east-European mobs as figments of VG's and Aftenposten's imagination: 1) I've never read any of these stories, but I've seen plenty of TV news coverage featuring either police officers or councilman Erling Lae outlining the existence and problems associated with exactly what Simen Sætre claims are false accusations from VG's and Aftenposten's reporters. 2) Some of the comments from the interviewees - especially those from a quartet of street musicians - were less than credible. For one thing, they denied doing anything illegal (natch), but they also plead innocent to knowing of any connection between beggars and organized crime whatsoever. Right. That's as credible as Castro claiming that no prostitution exists on Cuba. The other thing was that they claimed to live off of their earnings as street musicians, and claimed that their total daily earnings amounted to 150 NOK which was split four ways. For those of you doing the math at home, that's a claim that you can live off of 37.50 NOK per day in Oslo. So; how does that mesh with their claim of coming to Norway to make money?

It is my sincere hope that I'll get to see less of Simen Sætre and his Bambi-esque naivete in future editions of Morgenbladet.