Wikipedia in the Classroom — No, Not like That

Posted in astronomy, personal, science, wikipedia at 11:22 pm by danvk

wikipedia.jpegArs Technica has the write up of an experiment performed by two University professors. Instead of assigning an ordinary term paper, they had their students create a new Wikipedia article on some topic pertaining to the course. To summarize the summary, it was a rewarding experience for the students but had some issues. In particular, several of the articles were immediately deleted or merged into other articles. The original PowerPoint is worth skimming if you’re interested.

My take: this should absolutely be encouraged. How many term papers ever see the light of day after they’re graded? The paper benefits the student, maybe the professor, but rarely anyone else. Can you imagine how many papers college students have written about Rimbaud’s Drunken Boat? Wikipedia needs you!

I’ve thought about the merits of Wikipedia assignments ever since I started editing back in college. The issue of public exposure wasn’t so important. I’ve had that since I was little. It was mostly the idea of not letting all the research I’d done for a course go to waste. I was so enamored with the idea that I gave it a trial run myself. After writing a term paper on two ancient Greek astronomers in the Fall of 2005, I created articles about their works. It was a good but surprisingly time-consuming experience for me. Putting my work on display for all the world to see forced me to double-check everything I’d written, clarify my reasoning, and introduce explanatory figures and tables. But the finished product was great. Those two articles I wrote are undoubtedly the best online source for their two topics. And they’re unexpectedly deep content for Wikipedia, which is not necessarily known for its coverage of original materials or ancient history.

The main problem with this approach is that Wikipedia may not accept these changes with open arms. The professors made some good points about this in their slides. The Wikipedia way is to start small and rough, and edit your way to a finished product. I did this for my two articles. This is the way papers are written as well, it’s just that the process is less visible. What’s more, it helps to be familiar with Wikipedia culture before making major edits. For the students whose articles were deleted or merged, I’m sure they could have asked whether there articles were appropriate on some talk page or another. For contributors not familiar with Wikipedia’s style, their contributions will be a heaping mass of words in need of copyediting. This would be even more important if the students had been assigned to edit an article, rather than write one from scratch.

All in all, if done well, this use of Wikipedia can be great for both the students and the community. Here’s the money quote from one of the students:

This assignment felt so Real! I had not thought that anything I wrote was worth others reading before, but now I think what I contributed was useful, and I’m glad other people can gain from my research.


NS-Tower in a Canvas Tag

Posted in programming, web at 2:49 pm by danvk

nsticonw.gif I recently noticed that Rice has unceremoniously purged my Owlnet site, so I’ll be moving some of its content over here. First up: my JavaScript implementation of Nagi-P Software’s NS-Tower.

This is one of the few games I’ve ever seen with only one control: jump. Your character bounces off the walls and you have to power him up for jumps. My record is 282 floors on Hard. Can you beat it? No fair using the JavaScript version, though. More details below (warning: it takes a hard right turn for the nerdy)…
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Only Six Men Are Islands

Posted in Uncategorized at 9:24 pm by danvk

A conversation at lunch today reminded me of one of my favorite trivia questions: what’s the most isolated any man has been in history? By “most isolated”, I mean that his/her instantaneous distance from the nearest other person is maximized.

Think about it for a minute or two, the answer’s below the fold.
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Living with probability 1-ln(2)

Posted in math at 8:35 pm by danvk

I learned a great brainteaser while hiking in Yosemite with many a Googler this weekend. It’s from a collection called “Seven Puzzles You Think You Must Not Have Heard Correctly” (PDF), and that title is particularly apt for this one.

Here’s the question:

The names of 100 prisoners are placed in 100 wooden boxes, one name to a box, and the boxes are lined up on a table in a room. One by one, the prisoners are led into the room; each may look in at most 50 boxes, but must leave the room exactly as he found it and is permitted no further communication with the others.

The prisoners have a chance to plot their strategy in advance, and they are going to need it, because unless every single prisoner finds his own name all will subsequently be executed.

Find a strategy for them which which has probability of success exceeding 30%.

Since each prisoner has a 50/50 shot at finding his own number, you’d expect their chances of survival to be (1/2)^100, which is tiny! But that’s not quite true. Here’s the reason it’s not impossible: the number of prisoners you expect to find their own number will always be 50 no matter what your strategy. But your strategy can skew the distribution. For example, if everyone looks at the same fifty lockers, you’ll always have exactly 50 prisoners find their own numbers. The problem is to find a strategy that skews the distribution towards the extremes: either it succeeds spectacularly or fails miserably.

There’s a solution in that link above, and I’ll post my own in a few days. Give it a shot!


A Java Surprise

Posted in boggle, programming at 11:44 pm by danvk

I’ve always been a Java and Eclipse naysayer, but I’m afraid new experiences are forcing me to reevaluate my skepticism. The last time I used Java was JDK 1.3 on a Sparc workstation back in early 2004. Eclipse was hella slow on that hardware, and somehow my workspace wound up in a temporary directory. This was a very bad thing, because as soon as I logged out, my project was gone forever. So I had good reason to swear off Eclipse.

More generally, Java left off a mighty stink back in 2004. Any GUI that I ran on the Mac would look out of place and felt clunky. Performance was poor. But in retrospect, I suspect much of the rank Java smell was really coming from the design patterns gibberish I was being force-fed at the same time. Why use a simple array when you could use an AbstractListFactory that does the same thing with 10x code bloat?

Regular readers only get one guess what program I wrote to get in the swing of things.
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