Patrick Truchon's Web Portal

Goodbye WordPress

Posted by Patrick on June 28, 2014

In my continued effort to migrate my online data to my own personal server, I’m currently in the process of moving my blog… Because I’ll have to move every post one at a time, I’ll most likely end up deleting a bunch of them. I’ll also lose all your comments. :-(

It’s fun to re-read this old stuff though. I’ll try to migrate one or two posts a day starting with the oldest ones, and add a brief comment to update a few things that have changed since then.  Head over and enjoy a blast from the past.

 

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Skeptical of Free Energy

Posted by Patrick on April 8, 2014

Having studied physics, I’m sometimes asked about the idea of ‘free energy’.  Recently, I came across the movie Thrive.  Leaving aside all the stuff about aliens, here’s the most charitable outline of the movie’s argument:

  1. It paints a picture of how wonderful the world would be if we had free, unlimited energy.
  2. It gives some pseudo-sciency reasons as to why such energy is possible.  To help make this credible, it distorts real science discoveries (by real scientists like Einstein), and uses fancy video editing.
  3. It denounces those who would stand to loose from such discoveries.  Obviously: big oil and car companies are to blame for the suppression of these disruptive technologies.
  4. It lists people with PhD’s after their names who have supposedly disappeared or got killed because they discovered sources of this energy.

Tada!  Free energy exist but big corporations have been suppressing its adoption.

Here’s why I’m highly skeptical:

  1. Sure it would be wonderful to have free energy, but not all science fiction becomes real science.  Even if one day, we find a source of free energy, we’ll still need to address the issue of population explosion. Free energy would not give us the ability to continue growing exponentially.
  2. Unfortunately, the presence of a powerful magnetic field is not enough to produce electricity.  The field must be changing (or moving).  That’s why a dynamo must spin to produce electricity.  Just having magnets is not enough.  But even if that wasn’t the case, the Earth’s magnetic field is actually very weak: it can barely move a compass needle, and that needle is easily influenced by other artificial magnets around.  The fact is: the Earth’s magnetic field is about 20 times weaker than a fridge magnet, and it’s not changing nearly fast enough to produce electricity.
  3. It’s true that such a discovery would be disruptive and big companies would probably try to suppress it.  But we already have potentially disruptive technologies that await mass adoption: solar, wind, geothermal, electric vehicles.  Those are probably being “fought” against by big oil companies, but they are not secrets.  People can go and outfit their houses with solar panels and live off the grid.  It’s just expensive.
  4. A list of people and footage of high tech stuff on the internet doesn’t by itself mean anything.  It reminds me of this funny video.

I happen to understand enough physics to seriously doubt the idea of free energy (as it is presented in this video).  I  know that many real discoveries made today were inconceivable a hundred years ago, and that in a hundred years, we’ll probably have technologies that would look like magic today.  But it doesn’t mean that anything is possible: the technology that makes the internet possible, for example, obeys rules of physics that were discovered about 100 years ago.  Whatever new technologies we invent, it can’t break current physics laws (unless they turn out to be wrong).

But even without a science background, the logic of the argument is very weak:

  1. Free energy would not solve all our problems: exponential growth is not tenable.
  2. The science of free energy from the Earth’s magnetic field doesn’t make sense.
  3. Many disruptive technologies have made it.  If free energy technologies worked, they would leaked to the general public.
  4. Appeal to authority, strawman arguments, and fancy video editing doesn’t add anything to the argument.

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Long Time no Post

Posted by Patrick on January 21, 2014

I can’t believe it’s been more than a year since I last posted something here.

Partly, I think that when I stopped teaching (a year and a half ago), my need to process and reflect on new ideas decreased somewhat.  It’s a bit sad, but teaching was one of the most intellectually challenging things I’ve ever done, and I feel that I’m becoming a little dumber now that I’m not teaching anymore.

My shrinking brain is not the only reason for moving away from this site though.  For years, I’ve been trying to use more decentralized services that I directly control.  It’s hard to stop using cloud services like this site or Google Apps, but I’ve made good progress.  So far, my setup consists of:

  • An old Macbook that I set up as an always-on server (which we also use as our TV) on which I installed:
  • Pagekite, an open source reverse proxy tool that gives my Macbook an address: https://ptruchon.pagekite.me
  • DokuWiki, a simple to use  Open Source wiki platform: https://ptruchon.pagekite.me/wiki
    (Although it’s a wiki, I use it more as a public platform that I alone can edit.  I also installed a LaTeX plugin that allows me to type math very easily.)
  • Owncloud, a “private” Google Apps replacement:  https://ptruchon.pagekite.me/owncloud
    • I use this to store and share files on the “cloud” (that’s physically sitting in my living room),
    • To sync my contacts between my computer and my Android devices, and
    • To sync and share my calendars between my computer, my Android devices, and Justine’s calendars

I haven’t figured out a better way of blogging yet, but I still post “playful” explorations on my wiki from time to time.  For example, here’s one exploring what the Moon would look like if it were as close to the Earth as the International Space Station is.

I don’t know what I’ll end up doing with this site.  It’ll probably die when I find a blogging platform that I can host on the Macbook.  In the mean time, there’s a few ideas that I want to explore.

Stay tuned…

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Synthetic Biology

Posted by Patrick on November 30, 2012

Last week, Quirks and Quarks had a segment about synthetic biology [1]: a new branch of science whose goal is to design and construct new biological functions and systems not found in nature. [2]

The explicit assumption of this branch of science is that DNA is a kind of computing code.  Indeed, Canadian researcher Andrew Hessel says that DNA is a “tremendous medium for encoding information: it’s far more robust and compact than even electronic data storage, and it’s really the code of life.  So we’re looking at it through the lens of computing […], which I think is a remarkable shift. [1, 2:17]  Seen through this lens, these researchers want to reprogram living organisms to make them do new and useful things.  Imagine, for example, “bacteria that breath CO2 and pee straight diesel fuel” [1, 2:58].  These researchers believe that this technology could save the world.

Whether or not you get excited by the possibilities that we may finally live in harmony with nature (by controlling it even more drastically), two things concern me.  The first is implicitly outlined in one of Hessel’s comments:

“I think this is the most powerful technology we’ve ever made.  The only thing that I think compares to it is electronic computing.  And really, we’ve seen how electronic computing has revolutionized and continues to revolutionize the world.  I think this is even more powerful because now we’re talking about programming not electronic processors, but living processors.”  [1, 3:48]

This technology is the most powerful we’ve ever made… Are we wise enough to foresee all the consequences of reprogrammed organisms?  At one level, DNA works like computer code and new (and better programs) can be written, but biological organisms also interact with one another and evolve.  Do we seriously think we’re smart enough to understand all these interactions?  Taken as a whole, this new field would be orders of magnitudes more complex than the entire Internet, which is by no means simple.  This time though, programming “bugs” may be more dangerous than simple computer glitches.

Maybe you think that spreading FUD is not the most compelling line of reasoning.  After all, the same has been said about other fields of science before.  Nuclear physics was supposed to lead to global planetary destruction, and we’re still here.  Fair enough.  Maybe we are (or will become) smart enough…

My second concern is not so much about the technology itself but the legal infrastructure surrounding it: we live in a world where companies like Apple Inc. patent things like “rectangle with rounded corners”. [3]  Patents on software are just as ridiculous and detrimental for innovation since:

[They] block individuals from taking part in […] development and distribution […]  This may not seem relevant to most people but it’s the same as the freedom to write a book. Most people will never write a book, but some people will and society as a whole benefits from what is made by the few […]  [4]

If the evolution of synthetic biology is inevitable, I hope it doesn’t follow the insane route that commercial software and electronic devices have taken.  Exploring such a powerful science requires openness, collaboration, and governmental oversight, not secrecy and commercial control.  If we are going to engage in geo-engineering and massive biological reprogramming, the legal model of the Free Software Foundation [5] is probably the best place to start, if not the only one that will be safe and sustainable.

Links:

  1. Quirks and Quarks: Using DNA to Save the World,
    <http://www.cbc.ca/quirks/episode/2012/11/24/november-24-2012/#4>
  2. Wikipedia: Synthetic Biology,
    <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Synthetic_biology>
  3. The Verge: Apple finally gets its patent on a rectangle with rounded corners,
    <http://www.theverge.com/2012/11/7/3614506/apple-patents-rectangle-with-rounded-corners>
  4. End Software Patents,
    <http://endsoftpatents.org/>
  5. Patrick Truchon, Free Software,
    <http://ptruchon.pagekite.me/wiki/doku.php?id=freesoftware>

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Math Games: Simulators and Instruments

Posted by Patrick on September 6, 2012

I’m in the process of changing my mind about a topic I don’t know much about: the gamification of learning, in particular, the gamification of mathematics learning.

Here’s my preconceived idea about math games: it’s sugar coating.  There’s something you have to practice; it’s hard, and you’re not very interested. So to make it less painful, we’ll add points you can earn for each correct answer (or better yet, monsters you can defeat by factoring polynomials, with cool graphics and stuff).  Hopefully, you’ll want to sit in front of your computer 10 minutes longer than with your textbook to practice your math.  In my opinion:

  • The math in these games has nothing to do with the context of the game (which is often true of textbook questions too mind you [2]).
  • These games do nothing to foster internal motivation and appreciation of mathematics.
  • They focus on skills, not mathematical and conceptual thinking.
  • They are really just fancy worksheets with blinking lights and noise to keep you awake.

I’m realizing now that that idea is a bit of a Straw Man.  In a Webinar [1] he presented back in January, Keith Devlin (@profkeithdevlin) clarifies what math games have been, are, and can be.  He uses the analogy of a flight simulator, or a music instrument to convince us that well designed math games could be invaluable tools to help students investigate abstract ideas in a world that makes them more concrete.  He doesn’t want math games to replace instructions, instead he wants them to be a complimentary tool of discovery, where students can think mathematically without having to worry about the notation.

In one of his previous books, Devlin argues that what makes math hard is its level of abstraction.  The logic is often simpler than that of a soap opera. [3] Now to extrapolate a little bit from Devlin’s presentation, it seems to me that a good  way to teach mathematics would be to:

  1. Use well designed games to explore mathematical thinking and logic in a context that is intuitive and non-symbolic.
  2. Slowly introduce symbols and layers of abstraction.
  3. Practice on synthesizing these two aspects.
  4. Repeat with new concepts…

There’s a catch though, which Devlin mentions briefly: It makes no sense to test students on the second part if they are still on the first part.  Can you imagine if part of the assessment process was to have students play a game so we could see what they struggle with?

Links

  1. Keith Devlin, Game-Based Learning Webinar Recording
    <http://www.instantpresenter.com/WebConference/RecordingDefault.aspx?c_psrid=E955DD80854D>
  2. Dan Meyer, [PS] Critical Thinking,
    <http://blog.mrmeyer.com/?p=12582>
  3. Keith Devlin, The Math Gene,
    <http://www.amazon.com/The-Math-Gene-Mathematical-Thinking/dp/0465016197>

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Gender Trap

Posted by Patrick on May 26, 2012

I just finished listening to the second part of CBC’s Ideas: The Gender Trap (Part [1], Part [2])  This series explores the sources of the gender differences we observe.  Are they innate or cultural (or both)?  It’s the old “nature vs nurture” question.

Part 2, however, focuses on a “Toronto family [who] decided not to reveal the sex of their newborn baby. Only nine people in the world know whether baby Storm is a boy or a girl. The parents believe that, like stereotypes about race and class, gender stereotypes constrict individual identity” [2]

Listening to that part, I couldn’t help thinking that these parents were on the right track, but 100 years too early (sadly).  It made me think about this excellent science fiction novella by William Shunn called Inclination. [3]  It tells the story of a youngster who is exposed to a drastically different culture where gender (and much more) is fluid.  It’s a story about self-identity and acceptance.

Links,

  1. CBC Ideas: The Gender Trap Part 1, <http://www.cbc.ca/ideas/episodes/2012/04/25/the-gender-trap-part-1>
  2. CBC Ideas: The Gender Trap Part 2, <http://www.cbc.ca/ideas/episodes/2012/04/26/the-gender-trap-part-2>
  3. William Shunn, Inclination, <http://www.shunn.net/inclination>

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Digital locks picking

Posted by Patrick on March 22, 2012

<source>

This week on Search Engine, Jesse Brown interviewed Financial Post editor Terence Corcoran, who believes that the Canadian Copyright Bill C11 (now in its 3rd reading) is a step in the right direction. [1] Jesse tried to explain that one of the big points of contention about this bill is that it would make it illegal to break a digital, lock even for lawful purposes.

I’m no lawyer, so please correct me if I’m wrong, but here’s where I think I found this in the bill:

  • Section 41.1 says that it would be illegal to break a digital lock. [2]
  • Section 29.22 says that it would be legal to make copies of the work you own for your own use, provided that doing so doesn’t require to break a digital lock.  [3]

So there you have it.  One one hand, the bill gives reasonable bounds on what is legal or illegal copying based on intent: personal use is legal, distribution to others isn’t.  But then, it allows media corporations to collapse this distinction through the use of digital locks: no matter what the intent, you can not break a digital lock.

It means that (according to sec. 29.22) if I buy a CD, I can copy it to my computer or my phone, but I can’t give the files to my friends.  But (according to sec. 41.1), if I buy an audiobook encrypted with DRM that will only play on iTunes (as I unfortunately did once), I can’t remove the DRM to listen to it on my phone.  Same intent, different legal consequence.

Jesse tried to explain that distinction to his guest.  As it is often the case with computer-related technologies, they used a “real-world” analogy (a painting) to help their discussion.  I’m not sure how effective that particular analogy was, but I think I might have another one to offer:

My front door has a lock on it.  It is illegal for others to break and enter into my apartment without my consent, but it is not illegal to pick locks (as a hobby for example).  If I lose my keys, it would be legal for me to pick the lock of my own door (if I have the skills).  In fact:

“In Canada, possession of lock picking tools, with the exception of key duplication tools, is legal. Lock pick tools fit in the same category as crowbars or hammers, meaning they are legal to possess and use unless they are used to commit a crime or if it is shown there was “intention to commit a crime” in which case “Possession of tools with the intention of committing a crime” applies […] Some provinces require a license to carry lockpicks.  [4]

It should be the same with digital locks.  The legality of breaking them should be based on intent: personal use versus distribution.  Notice that this is completely separate from the issue of whether file sharing should be legal or not.  All we’re talking about here is the legality of picking locks, not the legality of sharing files.

There is one huge difference between a door lock and a digital lock however:  A door lock is meant to keep others out, unless I invite them in.  I can open my door for them, even lend them a copy of my keys.  A digital lock, on the other hand,  is meant to keep others out–always–since “inviting them in” (distribution) is illegal.  So the technical problem is this: how can I have a key that allows me to copy my own audiobooks to any of my devices, but not to my friends’ devices?  It’s like asking: could we design a door that only lets me in and no-one else, whether I want them in or not?

Maybe I’m not smart enough to figure that one out, but so far, it seems that no one else has either.  That’s why we’re not given the keys to our own digital locks: because who knows what we might do with them.  Instead, the key is given to particular media players (yes, the box has the key) in the hope that we won’t be able to find it.  But as Cory Doctorow explained in 2007, that scheme is intrinsically flawed.  Not only that, but it kind of blows back up in the face of the those who put the lock there: If I can’t listen to the audiobooks I legally buy on the devices I own because of digital locks, I might as well just torrent an illegal copy that I’ll be able to use on any device. [5]

And so, now we have locks that can be picked by those with enough know-how, but we legislate against picking them (regardless of intent).  The logical conclusion, of course, is that digital locks are the wrong tool for the job, and maybe no other systematic modes of control exist. It is an interesting technological puzzle to solve, but the law, as it is currently being proposed, is flawed: the legality of picking locks–digital or not–should be based on intent so that lawful use should be permitted.

Links:

  1. Search Engine, Digitally Locked,
    <http://searchengine.tvo.org/blog/search-engine-blog/audio-podcast-129-digitally-locked>
  2. Parliament of Canada, Bill C-11 Section 41,
    <http://www.parl.gc.ca/HousePublications/Publication.aspx?Docid=5144516&File=72#16>
  3. Parliament of Canada, Bill C-11 Section 29.22,
    <http://www.parl.gc.ca/HousePublications/Publication.aspx?Docid=5144516&File=48#8>
  4. Wikipedia, Lock Picking,
    <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lock_picking#Canada>
  5. Cory Doctorow, Pushing the impossible,
    <http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2007/sep/04/lightspeed>
  6. Brent Matthew Lillard, Lock Picking,
    <https://secure.flickr.com/photos/brentmatthewlillard/4538332759> under CC By-Nc-Sa license.

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Wiki Notes on Free Software

Posted by Patrick on March 3, 2012

Almost four years ago wrote a series of blog posts about free software.  About a week ago, I found myself returning to them with the urge to update them with some of the latest development.  Instead of editing the posts directly, I decided to combine them all into one wiki page that I’ll be able to keep current more easily as I make more connections regarding this huge and important topic.

The topics are:

  • What is free software?
  • Why is it important (specially to education)?
  • How to go about switching to free software?

I’ve also installed a basic comment plugin to the wiki so feel free to comment there (instead of here).

Links:

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Driving Me Nuts

Posted by Patrick on February 16, 2012

Yesterday, Peter (@polarisdotca) asked this question:

Why does tying knot in strip of paper form a regular pentagon? Why not 6, 7,…? Why regular? Anyone have intuitive explanation? #wcydwt [1]

Being a rock climber, I like knots; I DEPEND on knots!  Being a math and physics teacher, I like puzzles; I DEPEND on puzzles.  So naturally, this one peaked my interest.  Here’s what I’ve got so far:

The first step was to recreate the experiment, so I started by making a regular knot (actually called the “Overhand knot” [2]) with a strip of paper:

Then, I tried to flatten it as tightly as possible without breaking it:

It’s a little loose at the “exit points”, but we can easily imagine that the “ideal case” would indeed be a regular pentagon (regular because all sides are the same lengths; pentagon because it has five sides).  So now: why is that?

Intuitively, I think there can only be five sides because there are three folds and two exit points, for a total of five.  That’s how the knot is made, by folding the rope three times onto itself:

Here’s what it looks like when unfolded:

Three of the sides are from folding, and two of the sides are just the edge of the strip of paper, which correspond to the exit points.

Why does it have to be regular though?  Is it because that’s the most compact configuration?  Is this shape the solution to some optimization problem (like greatest ratio of SurfaceArea-to-Perimeter, which minimizes some energy function or something…)

My next question was: how would a Figure-Eight knot [3] behave?  I was not only interested in this knot because I probably use it more often than the overhand knot, but because my trick to make it is to start it like an overhand knot, then finish it an extra half turn later (ie. that would add an extra fold in the strip of paper!)  Could this lead to a 6-sided figure?
Here it is loose:

And flattened:

Yeap: four folds and two exit points.  Here’s the weird thing though: one of those exit point is not even “connected” to the other sides:

Why is that?!  Also if I could make it perfectly, would it also be a regular polygon? or is it intrinsically elongated?  Thanks Peter!  This puzzle is driving me nuts!

Links:

  1. Peter Newbury’s Tweet:
    <https://twitter.com/#!/polarisdotca/status/169583691893444608>
  2. Animated Knots, Overhand Knot,
    <http://www.animatedknots.com/overhand/index.php>
  3. Animated Knots, Figure 8 Bend,
    <http://www.animatedknots.com/fig8join/index.php>

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Can iBooks do … ?

Posted by Patrick on January 28, 2012

Since the iBooks app [1] came out a few days ago, it’s been hard not to read about it. One thing is for sure, there’s a lot of varied opinions about it, particularly, about the impact (or lack-there-of) that it could have on education if used to its full potential. Personally, I didn’t get a chance to see it first hand until yesterday when one of my colleagues showed me a physics textbook she had bought, and a book she started writing to experiment with it. I have to admit, I thought it was pretty cool. The idea that students could finally ditch bulky textbooks and carry gigabytes of information with them in their tablet, or that teachers could customize and make media rich textbooks for their students, is very exciting. In some geeky way, at least for me, it taps into the utopian ideals of the treky universe: “Computer, what is …?” Now, I know that in the end, books are just books; they don’t (in themselves) revolutionize education (at least, that’s my opinion). I have a few questions, though, about the iBooks app that I think are important (for education).

Looking at the book my colleague is writing, the first string of questions that popped to my mind was : can this be exported as a website? Can students read this on their laptop or their phone? Can I read it on my Android tablet? Or is this just for iPads. In other words : is the format platform agnostic or does it bind us (or worse: our students) into a “vendor lock-in” [2] relationship with Apple? There are different degrees to this question.

At one extreme, programs like Apple’s iWork office suite (Keynote, Pages, etc), produce files that are completely incompatible with other office suites. Documents can be exported as PDFs or other more open file formats, but at the cost of loss of functionality or formatting. In the middle, programs like Apple’s iWeb produce work files that can only be edited with iWeb, but the “publishable” output they produce can be viewed by any web browser on any computer or mobile device. Finally, at the other end of the spectrum are Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) like LibreOffice [3] or NeoOffice [4], which use open file formats [5] that any program (no matter the operating system) can fully support.

In the past, I have argued that as educational institutions, we have an ethical responsibility to use the latter kind of software [6] with our students. For computers, this isn’t so hard anymore since there’s a lot of very good (and arguably better) FOSS out there. For tablet, though, the selection is a little slimmer, which is why I think we should at least regect apps that use closed file formats in favour of those that use open file formats that are platform agnostic. My question about the iBooks app is: where does it fall on this continuum?

I am not a software developer, so please correct me if I’m wrong here, but it seems that something like the iBooks app could easily produce a “book” that any web browser (or modern e-Book app) could read without loss of formatting. Maybe it already does (I don’t know). But I guess to me, the whole point of producing a book is that anyone can read it, no matter what kind of device they use.

The second string of questions that later came up in my mind was: Could iBooks be used by students to produce work collaboratively? At the most basic level, could students easily share their files with each other (like an office document for example)? But to take it one step further, what would it take for a group of students to work on the same project at the same time a la Wikipedia or Google Doc? How difficult would it be to have a wiki-like editor that would allow groups of people to write a book collectively?

But maybe that’s not what iBooks is about in the first place. Maybe it’s about the publishing industry clumbsily trying to survive in the new landscape of digital media. Or maybe, it’s another step closer to the big brother state [7]. Maybe, it’s not about openness and education.

Links

  1. Apple, iBooks,
    <http://www.apple.com/ipad/built-in-apps/ibooks.html>
  2. Wikipedia: Vendor Lock-in,
    <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vendor_lock-in>
  3. LibreOffice,
    <http://www.libreoffice.org>
  4. NeoOffice,
    <http://www.neooffice.org>
  5. Wikipedia: Open File Format,
    <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_format>
  6. Patrick Truchon, Free Software (Part 2: In schools),
    <https://ptruchon.wordpress.com/2008/05/24/free-software-part-2-in-schools>
  7. Copyfight, Stallman on E-book Evils and Privacy,
    <http://copyfight.corante.com/archives/2012/01/19/stallman_on_ebook_evils_privacy.php>

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