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Online Classes 4 Life, My Experiences With Coursera, Udacity, EDx

Over the past year or so I’ve participated in a number of massive open online classes, or MOOCs as they’re coming to be known.  The experiences have varied, but overall have been very positive and quite educational.

 

Introduction to Artificial Intelligence (pre-Udacity)

First I took the initial Artificial Intelligence class from Norvig and Thrun, which was the start of the current stage of online learning.  This was my first class of any sort in many years, so it took a bit of getting used to as far as homework and .quizzes.  I have a degree in Computer Science and casually studied AI back in the 80s and 90s, but I’ve never done anything significant with it beyond that.  My college senior project had been to get radio controlled cars to cooperate to push a ball towards a goal.  My project partner worked on the vision system and I worked on planning.  So I had some practical experience in getting an AI system to actually work. But that was the last  time I’d done anything AI-ish.   Because of that, I went into the class thinking of it as a fresh start.  As it turned out, it mostly was.   The subject, at least as taught by Novig and Thrun, has moved to a much more statistical foundation over the years, which was different from the more logic-based approach I’d learned way back when.  The class turned out to be a good overview of  the basics of the current state of the field from two of the leading practitioners of the art..   The presentation was rough around the edges, the videos often crude and rudimentary.  Sometimes it would be a closeup of a hand scribbling on paper.   The quizzes, homeworks,  and tests had minor issues here and there (primarily not considering all possible lines of thought), but the class itself did a good job of communicating the material.  It was a pilot course and it showed it, but the quality of the material made up for the presentation.

 

Circuits And Electronics  (MITx)

Next I enrolled for MIT’s 6.002x class, an introductory circuit analysis course.  This course had much better presentation (They had the benefit of having seen the AI course, which had to have helped.)  and was considerably more demanding than the AI course.  The course was very heavy on mathematics, with a lot of emphasis on deriving proper equations for circuits and circuit elements. Very challenging approach to the material,  but it paid off with a stronger understanding in the end.  Working things out for yourself is a much more effective method of learning than just memorizing equations and approaches.  I’ve struggled with understanding electromagnetism and electronics in the past, I’ve just had some sort of mental block on the material.  It was quite satisfying to have to work hard at this class and achieve understanding as a result.  Easily the hardest I’ve worked at something that was initially so frustrating in many years.  From that viewpoint,  it’s not at all an exaggeration to say this was a life-changing course.  The instructor and the class brought out the desire to excel at difficult tasks that’s been missing in my life.  So worth every hour of frustration along the path.  Extremely happy with this course and the results.

 

Cryptography (Coursera)

I also took Coursera’s Introduction To Crypto course.  Again, a subject where I had some self-taught familiarity but no formal instruction.  Ultimately not too difficult as programmer comfortable with manipulating bits and bytes.  The lectures were quite dense and fast-paced, to the point that several times I would have to rewind because my attention had wandered for 30 seconds and I know longer knew what he was talking about.  Personally I see that as a plus- the course covered a lot of material in its short timespan.  Not material I’ll have much cause to use in the end, as the course says repeatedly, you probably shouldn’t be implementing crypto systems yourself.  The risk is high that you’ll make an error that won’t be apparent to you but provides an attack vector for those well-versed in the field.  But the programming homework was good as a push to learn some basic python.  And it certainly doesn’t hurt to have a  medium-level understanding of crypto, how it works, and what some of the issues are.

 

Algorithms: Design And Analysis  (Coursera)

Next was the Coursera Algorithms course, which I intended as a refresher.   It worked well at that level, reminding me of material I’d seen in the past, along with some new concepts I only had vague ideas about.  The instructor was excellent, with a real passion for the subject and an ability to explain the material succinctly and in a way that made ready sense.  The course would be good for anyone with a CS background looking for a refresher. The programming assignments were relatively straight forward for basic solutions, but they also prompted me to consider how to make them more efficient in time and space.  Worth the effort expended.

 

Listening To World Music (Coursera)

Next I started Coursera’s World Music class.  I approached this class with some enthusiasm since world music has been an interest of mine since my days in record stores and college radio back in the 80s.  Also, I was curious to see how they would manage the essay portion of the class.  Every week required a few paragraphs on one of the topics that have been covered that week.   The essays were judged by a peer-grading system, with each student expected to provide scoring on at least 3 submissions from other students.  The essays were to be judged on the ideas presented as well as the mechanics of the writing. I had been concerned about how this would work in practice, but I felt my scores were fair for the most part, and reflected where my essays were flawed or were strong.  I didn’t really enjoy grading other people’s essays, however.   I didn’t mind providing feedback on the ideas presented, but judging the mechanics was often difficult, particularly when the author was clearly not native to English.  In the end, I felt this aspect of the course required more energy than it paid back.

I’m not sure how that problem could be solved.  I see the need for that sort of feedback, I just didn’t enjoy it personally and did not find it rewarding.  The course itself seemed quite disorganized and in the end I lost interest and drifted away from the course.  This was the first course I started but did not finish, which was an unpleasant feeling.  I’m not completely sure why my interested faded as much as it did, nor if it was me or the course.

 

Current classes 

I have just started the Coursera Introduction To Financial Engineering class.  This is a topic I’ve long been curious about, but I have next to no knowledge beyond general economics.  The class has pre-reqs of calculus and statistics, as well as some basic programming knowledge, which is more than most online classes have required thus far.  If nothing else, I should gain some experience using R.   This could be a challenging class, we’ll see.

I also started the Udacity Differential Equations course as a refresher.  It’s based on using simple Python code to solve and understand differential equations using numerical methods.  The first 2 units are based on a simple version of calculating a rescue plan for an Apollo 13 like incident, so it’s pretty fun so far.  The videos are *very* slick and the course is by far the most polished of any I’ve seen so far.  The videos are a whole different level from anything I’ve seen in a MOOC. The class is also completely self-paced, which I think I will also enjoy.

 

Future Courses

Signed up for some future courses.  Modern American Poetry at Coursera.  That one might have the same essay issues as the World Music course, but the intro video from the instructor made me think he was quite comfortable with the format.  I know little about the subject, so it should be interesting.  Also signed up for  Solid State Chemistry at EDx.  This one looked like the most promising of the fall offerings, though none of them were the math or physics courses I really wanted.  I’m not quite sure I can handle the course, but I’ll give it a try.  Also added number of Astronomy courses at Coursera starting in the winter.

Astronomy/physics is my main area of interest interest for MOOCs.  A lot of the other classes are marking time until more of those become available.  I’ll take all the classes in those subjects that I can manage.  EDx, at this moment, is my preferred home.  If they have courses I want, all else being equal I’ll go with them. I very much like their philosophy of keeping the classes at a challenge level similar to the top universities.  There’s a place for the Udacity philosophy of accessibility, and I can see making use of their classes for quick and easy coverage.  And there’s a place for the somewhat simplified Coursera courses.  But what I really want is the genuine challenge that the 6.002x pilot provided, and I hope EDx can live up to that with future classes.

 

What I’ve been watching

This year I’ve watched fewer movies than usual. I’m in the low 70s in terms of count, which is well off the normal pace.  But I’ve been watching a great deal of television.  Caught up on Breaking Bad and Mad Men.  Finished Battlestar Galactica. Halfway through the Buffy/Angel oeuvre.  Some of season 1 of Star Trek The Next Generation.  Most of Stargate Universe.  Firefly.  The usual suspects, in other words.

Going to get back to films for a while.

Checking in on the Kickstarter mega-projects

Checking in to see how the $1,000,000+ Kickstarter projects are faring.

1. Elevation Lab’s “Elevation Dock”. http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/hop/elevation-dock-the-best-dock-for-iphone/

Custom dock for the iPhone. Currently shipping, 500 per day through the end of the month. Some complainers about shipping times. Some complaints about quality control. 18 updates, customers want more communication. Updates once per month seem inadequate. Facebook page has a lot of photos of the process.
https://www.facebook.com/ElevationLab

2. Amanda Palmer record and tour http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/amandapalmer/amanda-palmer-the-new-record-art-book-and-tour/

Fans seem happy. Tour is underway. Giant updates with lots of writing from Amanda and tons of pictures. Well done.

3. Order Of The Stick http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/599092525/the-order-of-the-stick-reprint-drive/

Shipping. Regular updates. “Work-O-Meter”. Fans happy.

4. Shadowrun Returns http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1613260297/shadowrun-returns/

Due date Jan 2013. Very regular communications. People seem happy.

5. Wasteland 2 http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/inxile/wasteland-2/

Ships Oct 2013. Regular communications, sharing design work. People happy.

6. Pebble http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/597507018/pebble-e-paper-watch-for-iphone-and-android/

Ships Sept 2012. Regular communications, involvement via “color voting”. Commuications seem a little corporate. Could be more detailed.

7. Double-Fine Adventure http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/doublefine/double-fine-adventure

Ships Oct 2012. Updates are donor-only. Donor only updates seem like a missed opportunity to further your cause. Even when the product is done, you’re still going to be looking for more fans. I get wanting to balance between perks and updating the public, but it does need to be a balance. Save the special stuff for donors, sure, but you also want to promote to everyone else.

Filmmaker Michael Gilvary is raising funds on Kickstarter for his new short film project:

Media Diary: March 2011

3/3
THE ITALIAN JOB –  NETFLIX INSTANT

3/4
THE SOCIAL NETWORK  - DVD

3/5
RANGO – BURBANK AMC
THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU- BURBANK AMC

3/6
KINGS OF PASTRY-  NETFLIX INSTANT

3/8
HOPSCOTCH – NETFLIX INSTANT

3/11
11 HARROWHOUSE – NETFLIX INSTANT

3/12
BATTLE LOS ANGELES – BURBANK AMC
TAKE ME HOME TONIGHT -BURBANK AMC
UNFAITHFULLY YOURS – NETFLIX INSTANT
EXIT THROUGH  THE GIFTSHOP – NETFLIX INSTANT

3/17
METROPOLITAN – NETFLIX INSTANT

3/19
LIMITLESS – BURBANK AMC
LINCOLN LAWYER – BURBANK AMC
THE VIRGIN SUICIDES – NETFLIX INSTANT
THE AGE OF INNOCENCE – NETFLIX INSTANT

3/20
JANE EYRE –  ARCLIGHT SHERMAN OAKS

3/23
KISS ME STUPID – NETFLIX INSTANT

3/25
SUCKER PUNCH – ARCLIGHT PASADENA

3/26
PAUL – AMC BURBANK

Media Diary: February 2011

Throughout the month-  ”LOST”,  Seasons 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

2/5
SANCTUM – AMC BURBANK
VALHALLA RISING – NETFLIX INSTANT
THE ANDERSON PLATOON – NETFLIX INSTANT

2/11
SPRING FEVER – NETFLIX INSTANT

2/12
THE EAGLE- AMC BURBANK
GNOMEO & JULIET – AMC BURBANK
CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF – NETFLIX INSTANT
BEDAZZLED – NETFLIX INSTANT

2/16
CHARLEY VARRICK – NETFLIX INSTANT

2/17
UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING – NETFLIX INSTANT

2/18
THE WHITE RIBBON – NETFLIX INSTANT

2/19
I AM NUMBER FOUR – AMC BURBANK
CEDAR RAPIDS – AMC BURBANK
HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING –  NETFLIX INSTANT

2/20
UNKNOWN – AMC BURBANK

2/22
THE GREAT NORTHFIELD MINNESOTA RAID – NETFLIX INSTANT

2/26
DRIVE ANGRY – AMC BURBANK
FISH TANK – NETFLIX INSTANT

Media Diary: January 2011

12/30
THE GODFATHER – AMERICAN CINEMATHEQUE

12/31
THE KING’S SPEECH – BURBANK
THE TOURIST- BURBANK
SERPICO- NETFLIX INSTANT

1/1
EVEREST: BEYOND THE LIMIT, SEASON 2-  NETFLIX INSTANT

1/2
BLUE VALENTINE – ARCLIGHT HOLLYWOOD

1/3
DER SCHLOSS – NETFLIX INSTANT

1/8
FROZEN – NETFLIX INSTANT
EXAM – NETFLIX INSTANT

1/14
LAST OF SHEILA – NETFLIX INSTANT

1/15
THE KILLER INSIDE ME – DVD
NINE – DVD
CONFIDENCE – DVD

1/17
SEASON OF THE WITCH – BURBANK
GREEN HORNET – BURBANK
FROST/NIXON – DVD

1/22
THE WAY BACK – BURBANK

Pieces Of The Puzzle – Digital Distribution And The Viewer Experience

I finally got an iPod at Christmas, and it’s been the massive distraction I always suspected it would be. I used to obsessively collect music in the early half of the CD era.  My tastes were eclectic- classical, jazz, alternative rock, electronica, international music. The usual music geek stuff. I kept away from digital music players intentionally, knowing that they would facilitate my addiction.

And the iPod has done just that. Allowed me to buy movie soundtracks, collections of sea shanties, jazz from people I’ve never heard of.  Not so much through the iTunes store, which I find frustrating in its taxonomy (or lack thereof).  But via Amazon, which does a much better job of organizing its music and seems to be slightly cheaper to boot.

Yes, I’ve actually been paying for my MP3s, because the online stores have made it easy to do. It’s about as close to frictionless as a transaction can get. They’ve finally gotten that part right. So I buy the music- I’d rather the artists make some money if at all possible.

I’m very late to the iPod game, but it’s easy for me to see that the MP3 player technology really needed a broad, deep-inventory storefront to truly create a marketplace for the software. There were plenty ways to buy digital music prior to iTunes, but there needed to be a large central repository to make the concept really take off.  Once the marketplace accepted iTunes,  it became possible for others to follow.  Amazon has at least some choices in nearly every category I’ve looked for. It’s much more convenient to buy through one general location than a dozen specialized ones. The market itself has been made viable by the existence of a particular retailer.

Something similar is happening now in e-publishing. For years there have been individuals, publishers, and retailers offering digital books. But it’s taken Amazon’s Kindle to start to really raise awareness and excitement for the market. By providing a good reading experience, the Kindle has gotten more and more people to consider ebooks as a legitimate option for their reading material. The Amazon ebook storefront also provides an easy one-stop-shop for a very wide range of titles. It’s not a mature market yet, there are many details to work out. But it’s becoming safe to say the market exists.

With both music and books, it’s taken a combination of a slick device and a unified storefront to give the users the experience they want and to get the market going. Will the same be true for movies?

The marketplace for the  digital distribution and sale of video entertainment is highly fragmented. Movies and shows are available on a number of websites, but they’re often restricted in how and where they can be viewed. There is no one-stop-shop. There’s also not a dedicated device that’s caught on. Roku seemed like it was a step in the right direction, but it has yet to engage widespread attention. It’s possible something like the XBox network could be the delivery device. Or the rapidly spreading netbook computer could provide the platform. Netflix could provide the central content hub. Or Amazon, or Apple. But none have thus far. It’s an opportunity that has yet to be seized.

It’s not enough that the technology allows movies to be delivered and watched anywhere at any time, the technology has to also make the experience enjoyable. As free of friction and confusion as possible. The marketplace is ready for movies on the go, we should see someone take advantage of the latent demand in the next year or two.

Once the digital marketplace for film is established, we’ll start seeing a lot more independent working getting made- and being rewarded.  The creation of the market benefits everyone.  And once this key piece is in place, it will viable to build a profitable transmedia work completely as an independent.  The distribution and sales channels will all be in place.

Augmented Reality: The Dragon Of San Fernando Valley

Here’s a rough example of an idea from an earlier post on why augmented reality excites me.

You could have communal art projects,  or art projects for the community. They could be dense and obscure  (hey, it’s art, nothing wrong with that!) or they could be simple and direct.  

You could have abstract projects,  such as a Mondrian-like grid in the sky that reflected traffic flow on the ground below.  Or a series of accumulations of small polygons that merely traveled about to in pleasing, ever-changing configurations like refugees from a Radiohead album cover.

Or you could go with more dramatic works.  A dragon that lives on the mountaintop and circles the valley from time to time,  guarding or perhaps merely observing the people below.   The dragon could still be a method of information-communication.   His flight pattern or disposition could indicate the state of the population he protects.  Or he could simply be an icon of his locale, a mascot or a symbol of community pride. 

You could also have more communal works.  Say a steampunkish zeppelin that allowed other individual works to orbit it.  Members of the community (which of course do not have to be geographically proximate) could devise the elements of the entourage and determine the way they interact, either on the basis of aesthetics or utility, or perhaps both.  The work would then represent a coming together of the locals, both literally and figuratively.

Another alternative- works that span the entire community area, but represent alterations to IRL that indicate group membership or presence.  Imagine small objects that individually simply add color or texture to a location, but when taken as an area-wide they whole comprise a symbol of a certain group. Think of each local “pixel” being part of a national flag when viewed from overhead, for example.

Which brings up the final point- viewpoints in AR do not necessarily have to be physical location of the viewer.  Since the Augmentations exist as digital data on a server, it’s possible to move the viewpoint and allow a variety of perspectives on the work. 

And the works can either coexist or only be visible on exclusive layers.  Any eventual common AR infrastructure will have to allow for layering, and the activation or deactivation of each layer.  If each work exists on its own layer, viewer can choose which they wish to experience. 

The idea of all this is to pull the experience of AR away from individuals perceiving Augmentations in isolation, and instead use AR to foster a sense of community, whatever sort of community that may be.

Expand the definition to include communities that follow various narratives (tv shows, novel series, films, etc), and it’s easy to see the next step of integrating augmented characters into a community.  Lestat roams your streets at night, that kind of thing.  Or characters from your own Canon In CC.

Many worlds can coexist with AR, it’s an interesting opportunity.

Augmented Reality Alternate Interface – House Elf

Most interfaces to current augmented reality prototypes are pretty basic. Floating tags and other similar elements. They’re a lot like current desktop interfaces. Following the limitations of more or less static 2D environments.

But they don’t have to. Not on the platforms with more sophisticated graphics capabilities. Since there are real, live 3D environments to work with, why can’t the interfaces be 3D animated? And if you’re going that far, why not animated characters?

Imagine a “house elf” AR app (with apologies to Ms. Rowling). Once it properly learned your home, it could serve as an assistant in locating items or managing devices. It could remember where your car keys were, if you remember to tell it (or locate them via rfid someday). Find DVDs on your shelf, monitor energy usage, provide reminders.

Oh sure, traditional handeld apps could do much of that, and basic AR interfaces could do more. But wouldn’t it all be a lot more fun (and thus appealing) if a character were attached to it? It’s easy to see licensed characters in the role.

Imagine a Rowling house elf padding around your home on your AR screen, directing you to a particular item. Or a vocal reminder the lawn sprinklers are about to activate. Or just providing entertainment via idle loops.

Better yet, imagine Clippy asking “It looks like you are trying to replace a live electrical fuse, would you like some help?” Ok, maybe not that one.

In any case, AR offers an opportunity to put personality into interfaces. It’s not hard to imagine expanding the concept to other arenas- city tour guides, car elves than monitor an auto’s systems, etc. Theme parks are ideal breeding grounds for this sort of thing. And eventually generic template characters could be developed for mass-marketing to small business such as shops or bars.

Some of this could happen today, some in a few years. It’s worth looking at now to see how the AR interface can be moved beyond the desktop idioms.